Ezra 8: Time for an Attitude Adjustment

[This is the part where you read Ezra 8.  Go ahead, I’ll wait.  …Okay, did you read it?  No??  Come on, you’ll just be wasting your time here if you don’t.  I’ll give you another chance.  …Ready now?  Great.  Let’s talk.]

A little while ago we spent some time together in Deuteronomy 34, when Moses had just delivered God’s people from slavery in Egypt to the doorstep of the land of promise.  We now pick up with Ezra, who is seeking to return God’s people from exile in Babylon to the land of promise.  (Apparently the people were just as bad at staying there as they had been at getting there.)  Though Ezra may not be quite the one-man-show / prophetic dynamo that Moses was, the parallels in their situations should not be overlooked.  Particularly, the people’s absence from the promised land is a problem of covenantal proportions.  Moses worked for the fulfillment of a promise made by a smoking firepot and later catalyzed by a burning bush; Ezra works for the fulfillment of a promise made by God’s prophets and finally actuated by an imperial decree, when “the LORD moved the heart of Cyrus king of Persia [which must have been considerably softer than Pharoah’s] to make a proclamation…” (Ezra 1:1).  In both cases, the promise is essentially the same—namely, to restore the people to their land—and in both cases, the resolve of the people’s God to fulfill his promise is readily apparent to their respective leaders.  It is almost surprising, then, that with all the pieces set and all the preparations complete, Ezra proclaims a fast to seek the Lord’s blessing over their attempt to do exactly what he has led them to do.

The precise nature and circumstances of the fast deserve further attention, as its purpose does not neatly match up with the purposes for which we (or at least I) most frequently employ fasting today.  First, it is worthwhile to note that Ezra consistently refers every good turn of events throughout his book to the direct providential work of God, from the king’s initial proclamation to the successes of his various preparations.  With this unbroken record of success, it is clear that Ezra is already confident that his plans in chapter eight accord with the Lord’s will.  This fact seems to fly in the face of contemporary Protestant practices of fasting, wherein our goal consists mainly in discerning the will of God.  Whether we are looking to determine the right course of action from among a number of possibilities or asking for a particular outcome to a situation, our fasting and supplication are often laden with a marked uncertainty concerning what God desires.  Now, granted, we are not involved in the propulsion of God’s redemptive plan in history in the same way as Ezra, so his will may never appear in such an obvious prophecy-fulfilling fashion in our circumstances.  All the same, does it ever occur to us to fast over an action that we have already discerned to be God’s will?  Can our modern conception explain why Ezra would bother to starve himself over a guaranteed slam-dunk success?

Another interesting facet of Ezra’s fasting is his request that God validate the claims Ezra has made about him to the king.  Such instances of Old Testament figures asking God to demonstrate his power and providence to the watching world (and in so doing to make said figures not look stupid for making grandiose claims about their God) is not uncommon; indeed, here we find yet another parallel between Ezra and Moses.  Again we are drawn to the issue of Ezra’s confidence: He unreservedly claims God’s protection over their endeavor before he asks God for protection.  From a human perspective, this may seem an awful lot like manipulation—like putting God on the spot.  “If I tell everyone God’s going to do something awesome, then he has to do it, or else he will look stupid / uncaring / insufficiently powerful, which I bet he would rather not do.”  However, two facts should be clear—first, that Ezra is not trying to “pull a fast one” on God by “talking him into a corner”; and second, that such attempts at clever maneuvering are actually grounded in a lack of confidence in the rightness of a given course and usually result in tail-tucking embarrassment.  At this point, though, our question remains unanswered: Why does Ezra instruct the people to fast for the purpose of requesting a protection they are already certain to receive?  What is Ezra really after?

“I proclaimed a fast, so that we might humble ourselves before our God and ask him for a safe journey…” (Ezra 8:21).  Here, I believe, lies the center of Ezra’s reasoning: ‘God is going to grant us safety and success.  We know this.  However, we must not let our assurance foster in us a lack of due gratitude to the source of our deliverance, and we must never let ourselves believe that we have achieved any of these things by our own strength.’  Ezra recognizes an inward danger that often accompanies external security, and he instructs the people to humble themselves in acknowledgement of God’s hand in providing every blessing they receive.  Ezra knows that being safely delivered to Jerusalem will ultimately be fruitless unless the people maintain a constant focus on their God who graciously delivers them.  Indeed, the very act of asking implies both that God is the source of the blessing and that he does not need to bless them so; it will come to pass only by his freely choosing.

Many contemporary Protestant reflections on fasting dwell greatly on the subject of attitude or motivation.  “Were it not wrong of me to fast without a proper motivation?” we ask.  In contrast, we see Ezra commanding a fast intended to produce a proper attitude and motivation for the work God has prepared for them.  One can see in 8:31 that this attitude adjustment was effective for Nehemiah and the returning exiles; might God wish us to try fasting to this end?  Are we seriously considering the importance of our hearts in our acts of obedience, and how fleshly deprivation can turn us aright?

[For those who are wondering about what happened to our discussion of Lamentations, well… life happened.  Immediately upon finishing my study of the book, the Lord decided to test my understanding of it by sending some new hardships my way, which consequently interrupted my blogging schedule for a time.  I may return to Lamentations soon, or I may not.  But if prematurely concluding our discussion would cause you to lament, then that would certainly be reason enough for me to pick it up again.  Simply let me know in the comments.]

On Systematic Sorrowful Supplications

The Bible was not written in chapter and verse.  That is to say, Christians added the convention of dividing the books into sections at a later date in order to standardize scriptural references throughout the expanding Church and provide a shorthand method for citing passages without having to quote them at length.  In many parts of the Bible, especially those written in prose, the precise dividing points between verses are somewhat arbitrary, since such passages constitute progressive narratives or cohesive discourses meant to be taken by the whole, and you’ve probably run across a couple spots in the Bible where the verse divisions seem particularly weird and random.  The big exception to all this is, of course, the poetry of the Old Testament, which was written in definite lines that can easily be numbered in a way that faithfully conveys the original structure of the text.

In the case of Lamentations, I’m not sure the writer would have numbered it any differently himself.  Lamentations is one large poem composed of five smaller poems, and thus five chapters.  As any translation worth its ink will tell you in the footnotes, each of the first four chapters is an acrostic poem.  In chapters one and two, each verse is three lines, but the first line of verse one begins with an aleph, verse two with a beth, verse three with a gimmel etc.  Chapter four is similarly patterned, though each verse is only two lines instead of three.  Chapter three is unique in that every line gets the acrostic treatment, making the pattern AAA BBB CCC etc.; the later scholars decided to make each line its own verse but also to denote the line triplets via stanza breaks.

The fifth and final poem/chapter is also unusual–not just because it breaks from the acrostic format, but because it is significantly shorter than the other poems.  Instead of twenty-two sets of lines, it is simply twenty-two lines.  Reading straight through from the earlier parts of the book (as the author intended) makes this last poem feel markedly fast-paced.

I’m gonna go ahead and stop you right there, Jordan.  That’s really nice and all, but what does the poetic structure of Lamentations have to do with the content?  Why not just start talking about what the author says instead of spending so much time talking about how he says it?  Have patience, O italicized one, and I will explain.  See, form and content are perpetual bedfellows; simply put, how you say something is part of what you’re saying.  For instance, you’ll never hear a death metal cover of “Here Comes the Sun” on the radio (I hope), because the very premise is self-defeating; death metal as a musical style is designed for messages of anger and malcontent, and any uplifting lyric would be negated by the overwhelming influence of the medium in which it was expressed.  You’d think the singer was being ironic or cynical rather than sincere.  Similarly, a love letter written in the style of a press release will probably fail to convey its full meaning, and the Declaration of Independence would have been received quite differently if presented to King George via a flamboyant Broadway musical number.  (Happy Fourth of July, everyone!)  In addition to the style of a whole work, the progression of its parts is also significant to its meaning; a reader or listener’s expectations may be affirmed or purposely thwarted, and various devices can be employed to emphasize certain points of a transmission.  The Pauline Epistles are excellent examples of this, as are many songs by the legendary rock group Queen.  [Now there’s a sentence I never expected to write.]

And so we have two questions to consider:

1.)  Why is Lamentations a poem?
2.)  What specific poetic devices are employed, and what is their significance?

That first question is worth considering, even if we don’t exactly have something solid to point to for a definite answer.  If life is SO bad for the author and his people, why express the agony through a poem?  Poetry itself is a very versatile medium which can lend itself to all kinds of messages, styles, and tones, but what sets poetry apart from prose–what makes it poetry–is that it has a deliberate, premeditated structure.  (Even the appearance of lacking structure can be a purposeful structure, as evidenced by much contemporary poetry.)  Furthermore, in the case of Lamentations, the poetic structure is especially meticulous and organized.  This demonstrates, at the very least, that Lamentations is not an outburst or a knee-jerk reaction or an emotional spasm.  It is thoughtful and deliberate, tightly written and carefully constructed–and instead of diminishing the effect of the lament, this amplifies it.  The emotion is palpable because the poem is brilliantly composed.

Now consider that Lamentations is a prayer of petition to the Lord.  The author repeatedly implores God to see his people’s destitution, end their suffering, punish their enemies, and restore them to Himself.  Instead of gushing out  prayer like an emotional Krakatoa, the author builds his case with great care, using the full extent of his intellectual and creative capabilities to compose something beautiful and moving.  Does God value thoughtfulness, creativity, and beauty in our prayers to Him?  I should think so.  Of course, God doesn’t play favorites by intellect or writing skill.  But since the author of Lamentations has taken the time to reflect and consider, he is able even amid his pain and sorrow to remember and declare with confidence that “though He brings grief, He will show compassion, so great is His unfailing love.”  The author has done his homework on the character of God, that his petition might be informed by the truths that are often easy to forget and difficult to feel.  A supplicant who is not mindful of such truths surely would lack the patience and thoughtfulness necessary to compose this work.

Even if you and I do not plan to start writing prayer poems to God, perhaps we should be thoughtful enough in our responses to life’s turbulence and in our prayers such that we could if we wanted to.  At the very least, let us commit to faithfulness in recalling to ourselves the often intangible yet supremely real truth of God’s love, lest in our emotional upheavals we pray foolishly.

……Oh, you want to talk about question two too?  Next time, dear reader.  Next time.