Every Man a King?

Scripture Focus: Esther 1.22
He sent dispatches to all parts of the kingdom, to each province in its own script and to each people in their own language, proclaiming that every man should be ruler over his own household.

Reflection: Every Man a King?
By John Tillman

It is quite fitting that a book titled for it’s heroine, Esther, begins with a tale of fragile male ego. In what amounts to not answering her husband’s Facebook event invite, Vashti commits what, to the assembled, powerful men of the land was a grievous wrong. She says, “no.”

What follows is what typically follows after a bruised male ego—overreaction leading eventually to violence. In any era, including our own, powerful men being snubbed at a party can set off a chain of events that threatens an entire population, but in the ancient world of monarchs it was inevitable.

Xerxes, who on the outside seems the most powerful person in the story, is shown in many ways to be the weakest. He is ruler of half the known land mass of the world, but spends the entire narrative beset by and tied up in, reactionary (and irreversible) laws. Some of them of his own making.

Xerxes is obsessed with what happens to himself. His ego can’t tolerate being disobeyed in even the slightest way. When snubbed, he looks to legislation rather than to relationships as both punishment and final solution.

The idea of “every man a king” does not come exclusively from this verse, but it is an early iteration of the concept and a desperate attempt by men to maintain ungodly power over women who are, together with men, bearers of the image of God.

The legislation that ends Chapter one is the desperate shutting of the door on an already empty barn. It is descriptive—telling us of the foolish actions of men. It is not prescriptive—telling us how men should deal with women. The authors of the “every man a king” law are the bumbling fools of the story, not the heroine.

And the next step taken, to replace Vashti, is the first step in bringing to power a woman who will do something more unusual than refuse the king’s presence. Esther will command Xerxes attention instead. She will condemn to death men close to him. She will issue commands to the leaders of his people and change the course of history.

Divine Hours Prayer: The Refrain for the Morning Lessons
Righteousness shall go before him, and peace shall be a pathway for his feet. — Psalm 85.13

– From The Divine Hours: Prayers for Autumn and Wintertime by Phyllis Tickle.

Today’s Readings
Esther 1 (Listen -4:14)
Acts 24 (Listen -4:11)

This Weekend’s Readings
Esther 2 (Listen -4:31), Acts 25 (Listen -4:40)
Esther 3 (Listen -3:12), Acts 26 (Listen -5:17)

Read more about Faith Requires Humility
One reason faith is so difficult for today’s culture is that we devalue humility. And faith cannot exist without humility.

Read more about Humble, Welcoming Servants :: A Guided Prayer
We confess to you, Lord…Just like the twelve…we are concerned about being number one. We argue and attempt to dominate one another.

Tobiahs and Little Foxes

Scripture Focus: Nehemiah 13.26-27
Was it not because of marriages like these that Solomon king of Israel sinned? Among the many nations there was no king like him. He was loved by his God, and God made him king over all Israel, but even he was led into sin by foreign women. Must we hear now that you too are doing all this terrible wickedness and are being unfaithful to our God by marrying foreign women?”* 

*When reading condemnations of relationships with “foreigners,” such as Nehemiah’s, it is easy to be confused or shocked. Verses like these have been misused to defend White supremacist principles against mixed marriages and to support anti-miscegenation laws. 

However, Nehemiah is concerned, not with racial purity, but with purity of worship and being fully committed to God, forsaking all others, clinging only to him. Other passages in the scriptures help us to understand this truth by showing us God’s compassion for all people, including the “foreign women” in the genealogy of Christ. The point here is that the people were being unfaithful to God, not being unfaithful to their race or country.


Reflection: Tobiahs and Little Foxes
By John Tillman

Nehemiah, after a whirlwind campaign to successfully rebuild the wall in only 52 days, returns to his post with the king, but the story isn’t over. When Nehemiah comes back to Jerusalem later, he has to clean house. In a pre-visualization of Christ’s cleansing of the Temple, Nehemiah has to literally throw out the old baggage of the past (Tobiah and his belongings, Nehemiah 13.4-9) that had somehow crept back into the city and the very walls of the Temple itself.

Many times we stop reading Nehemiah’s story once we see the joyous celebrations of the newly dedicated Temple and the dedication of the wall. It is a great place to stop the story and be happy about the near miraculous pace of reconstruction. We like happy endings. Nehemiah doesn’t quite have one.

Nehemiah leaves us with a note of doubt that the people can ever be faithful. It shows us that after the echoes of the emotional celebrations and worship services faded, many of the people went right back to living the same compromised, religiously ambiguous lives they had been living.

Tobiah had teased Nehemiah and the Israelites that their wall would be toppled by a fox running on top of it. (Nehemiah 4.3) He may have been wrong about the literal wall, but he was right about the emotional commitments the people made. Those crumbled under the “little foxes” of life. (Song of Songs 2.15

That should feel very familiar to us. How many times have we been swept up emotionally in a religious experience on Sunday, or at a camp or a retreat, but then when Monday rolls around we can’t find the will to live up to the change we longed for. Normality crushes out of us the new-life that Christ wants to build in us. Our wall crumbles when the foxes jump up on it.

The ending of Nehemiah shows us the limits of human moralism and the law. We need the indwelling of the Holy Spirit to truly rebuild on a firm foundation of Christ.

When we celebrate emotionally, may we then respond practically and tangibly with action.

May we not allow Tobiahs, who opposed our repentance, to move into our lives to places of influence and comfort.

May we throw out the old baggage, and maintain our walls so that the little foxes do not wreck the spiritual life we cultivate before God.

Divine Hours Prayer: The Call to Prayer
Sing to the Lord and bless his Name; proclaim the good news of his salvation from day to day.
Declare his glory among the nations and his wonders among all peoples.
For great is the Lord and greatly to be praised; he is more to be feared than all gods. — Psalm 96.2-4

– From The Divine Hours: Prayers for Autumn and Wintertime by Phyllis Tickle.


Today’s Readings
Nehemiah 13 (Listen -5:57)
Acts 23 (Listen -5:15)

Read more about Repair What Is At Your Door
May God’s church—men, women, youth, children, leaders, laborers, the wealthy, and the poor—join in the work of God that he is calling you to in your community.

Read more about Moving Into the City
Jerusalem wasn’t a glittering capital, even with its restored Temple and rebuilt wall. Being chosen to move there was more like being drafted into military service.

Orchestrating Our Prayers

Scripture Focus: Nehemiah 12.31, 38, 40, 42-43
I had the leaders of Judah go up on top of the wall. I also assigned two large choirs to give thanks. One was to proceed on top of the wall to the right, toward the Dung Gate….the second choir proceeded in the opposite direction…The two choirs that gave thanks then took their places in the house of God…the choirs sang under the direction of Jezrahiah. And on that day they offered great sacrifices, rejoicing because God had given them great joy. The women and children also rejoiced. The sound of rejoicing in Jerusalem could be heard far away.

Reflection: Orchestrating Our Prayers
By John Tillman

Imagine John Williams walking in to conduct Star Wars or the Jurassic Park score or one of his other masterpieces and there being one banjo and a kazoo… 

Ezra and Nehemiah were rebuilding not just the physical structures of the wall and the Temple, but the logistics and schedules of the workers and musical performers who made worship happen. And as the text emphasizes, this took a considerable investment (Nehemiah 12.47) from the community. 

Music, like little else, has the power to move us, touching us on an emotional and spiritual level. For many reasons (often involving finances) church music in many, many places has retreated from the large orchestras and choirs of the past to pragmatic, small combos of musicians. 

Expansive worship can be expensive. Especially if you are, as Nehemiah and Ezra were, following the precise directions and orchestrations dictated a few centuries ago by a master musician (David) composing in his golden age and having his music performed and arranged by the virtuosic voice of Asaph. Virtuosos don’t skimp on instrumentation.

As much as I personally enjoy a variety of instrumentation and both modern and ancient musical styles, there is something powerful about hearing the full range of sound that orchestral composers imagine. 

Hans Zimmer, for the score of the mind-bending film, Inception, assembled the largest brass section that had ever been recorded. For his lofty, dreamlike score for the film, Interstellar, Zimmer employed the unique sounds of the 1926 four-manual Harrison & Harrison organ, currently housed at the 12th-century Temple Church in London and played in the movie by its director of music, Roger Sayer.

We worship in spirit and truth, not according to musical styles and yet, at times, I long for the thick, layered instrumentation that stories in movie houses get, but are rarely supplied to the story of the gospel. Sometimes I miss the inclusive sound of a choir that carries my voice with theirs.

In our hearts, however, we are the new temple of God to replace the one Nehemiah built. No matter what echoes around our ears, in our hearts, we can antiphonally sing scripture back and forth with the Holy Spirit in perfect harmony.

May we become virtuosos of prayer, playing every note in a harmonious crescendo.
May the prayers of our hearts be louder than a thousand brass instruments, and the sighs of our spirit be more vibrant than the air thrumming through a thousand pipe organs.
May the music of praise spill forth from our hearts, as the music of Ezra’s Temple, spilled over Nehemiah’s walls.

Divine Hours Prayer: The Greeting
I will offer you the sacrifice of thanksgiving and call upon the Name of the Lord. — Psalm 116.15

– From The Divine Hours: Prayers for Autumn and Wintertime by Phyllis Tickle.

Today’s Readings
Nehemiah 12 (Listen -6:30)
Acts 22 (Listen -4:26)

Read more about Praying as Music
If music is a universal language, prayer can be similarly described.

Read more about Praying Through Ancient Hymns :: Worldwide Prayer
All creatures of our God and King, lift up your voice with us sing…Alleluia…

Moving Into the City

Scripture Focus: Nehemiah 11.1-2
Now the leaders of the people settled in Jerusalem. The rest of the people cast lots to bring one out of every ten of them to live in Jerusalem, the holy city, while the remaining nine were to stay in their own towns. The people commended all who volunteered to live in Jerusalem.

Reflection: Moving Into the City
By John Tillman

In our urban-slanted view of culture, it is hard for us to imagine why the population of Jerusalem needed to be propped up by a lottery, choosing one-in-ten men to move into the city. “Who wouldn’t want to live in the city?”, we might think to ourselves.

But when we drill down, we find that in this situation, the city was literally being rebuilt from the ground up and there were armed forces threatening attack. Jerusalem wasn’t a glittering capital, even with its restored Temple and rebuilt wall. Being chosen to move there was more like being drafted into military service than getting to move to a midtown condo.

Cities of the world today need God’s people in them, just like Jerusalem did. Cities simultaneously hold some of the greatest potential for our planet and the greatest evils. 

The urban population, 34% in 1960, has continued to grow over the past 60 years. Today 55% of the world’s population live in urban areas. By 2050, it may be 68%.

The growth isn’t happening primarily in Western mega-cities. Urban population growth is concentrated in less developed regions of the world where for the first time a majority of people are living in urban areas. 

But this is not a situation in which people are trading horrible conditions and deprivation in the country for blissful, glittering, city-of-tomorrow dwellings that futurists expected humanity to be living in a fifth of the way through the 21st century. In fact, 40% of global urban population growth is happening in slums which exacerbates health risks and introduces new hazards.

Cities also produce 80% of the world’s GDP but this statistic is misleading. All the financial productivity of the cities is literally fed by the rural areas surrounding them. Also, very little of the financial benefits earned by cities ever manages to make its way to helping the workers who live in the slums or the rural residents who support the city’s elite.

As we wait for the day we will live in the New Jerusalem, let us not abandon the “Jerusalems” in our own nations.
May we, the church, pray earnestly for cities and ask the Holy Spirit to prompt us what we can do to help the most helpless, and confront the most powerful.
May we make our light shine through good deeds, showing God’s mercy and his grace to us, and turning slums and suburbs into cities on a hill.

*Statistics from World Health Organization.

Divine Hours Prayer: The Request for Presence
Early in the morning I cry out to you, for in your word is my trust. — Psalm 119.147

– From The Divine Hours: Prayers for Autumn and Wintertime by Phyllis Tickle.

Today’s Readings
Nehemiah 11 (Listen -5:05)
Acts 21 (Listen -5:55)

Read more about Christ: Temple, River, and City
Christ is our city. He is our refuge and rest—our strong tower and protected place—our park of peace in the midst of a frantic and fracturing world

Read more about Christ, the True Hero
It is Christ, not us, who is the hero of our cities and our world.

A Recurring Nightmare

Scripture Focus: Nehemiah 10.39
We will not neglect the house of our God.

Acts 20.20-21
You know that I have not hesitated to preach anything that would be helpful to you but have taught you publicly and from house to house. I have declared to both Jews and Greeks that they must turn to God in repentance and have faith in our Lord Jesus. 

From John:

Again this year, on Martin Luther King Jr. Day in the United States, we look back to a sermon from Dr. King

Like Dr. King, Paul was interested in actions which spring from the full implications of the gospel. Though racism and slavery took centuries to fall, it was Paul’s theology that struck the killing blow in the 1st century. Dr. King drew from Paul’s teaching, which demolished the cultural and theological foundations of racism and made actions of racial bias and inequity indefensible. (Though some will still try to defend them…)

The gospel is the only theology or philosophy which poisons racism at its root.

When we speak of spreading the gospel, may it be with the purpose of eradicating the scourge of racism, rather than apathetically denying its existence or mitigating our responsibility to oppose it.

Reflection: A Recurring Nightmare

By Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (1929-1968)

In 1963, on a sweltering August afternoon, we stood in Washington, D.C. and talked to the nation about many things. Toward the end of that afternoon, I tried to talk to the nation about a dream that I had had—and I must confess to you today that not long after talking about that dream I started seeing it turn into a nightmare.

I remember the first time I saw that dream turn into a nightmare, just a few weeks after I had talked about it. It was when four beautiful, unoffending, innocent Negro girls were murdered in a church in Birmingham, Alabama. I watched that dream turn into a nightmare as I moved through the ghettos of the nation and saw my black brothers and sisters perishing on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity, and saw the nation doing nothing to grapple with the Negroes’ problem of poverty.

I saw that dream turn into a nightmare as I watched my black brothers and sisters in the midst of anger and understandable outrage, in the midst of their hurt, in the midst of their disappointment, turn to misguided riots to try to solve that problem. I saw that dream turn into a nightmare as I watched the war in Vietnam escalating, and as I saw so-called military advisors, sixteen thousand strong, turn into fighting soldiers until today over five hundred thousand American boys are fighting on Asian soil.

Yes, I am personally the victim of deferred dreams, of blasted hopes, but in spite of that I close today by saying I still have a dream, because, you know, you can’t give up in life. If you lose hope, somehow you lose that vitality that keeps life moving, you lose that courage to be, that quality that helps you go on in spite of all. And so today I still have a dream.…

I still have a dream today that one day every valley shall be exalted and every mountain and hill will be made low, the rough places will be made smooth and the crooked places straight, and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together. I still have a dream that with this faith we will be able to adjourn the councils of despair and bring new light into the dark chambers of pessimism.

With this faith we will be able to speed up the day when there will be peace on earth and good will toward men. It will be a glorious day, the morning stars will sing together, and the sons of God will shout for joy.

*Abridged from A Christmas Sermon by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. — audio on YouTube (29:52)

Divine Hours Prayer: The Refrain for the Morning Lessons

Then shall all the trees of the wood shout for joy before the Lord when he comes, when he comes to judge the earth. — Psalm 96.12

– From The Divine Hours: Prayers for Autumn and Wintertime by Phyllis Tickle.


Today’s Readings
Nehemiah 10 (Listen -4:41)
Acts 20 (Listen -5:22)

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