Are you good at waiting? Is sitting in traffic or standing in line like a hammer to your thumb, making you want to scream? Historically, humans haven't been known for their ability to wait patiently, but our society treats this virtue as an infectious virus—something to be vaccinated against and eradicated.
If you have to wait three seconds for a webpage to load, do you file a complaint with your service provider? A buffering YouTube video has become an arch-villain deserving the Arkham Asylum. This problem of lack of patience, this obsession with immediacy, is not only a modern issue. It was also a struggle for those Judean exiles fresh home from Babylon.
Before the exile, one of the weeds growing in Israel's field of sins was their refusal to accept the prophets' warnings of the coming judgment. They reasoned, "Isaiah, Hosea, Amos, and Jeremiah have been preaching fire and brimstone for centuries. If it hasn't happened yet, it's never going to happen." The delay in the judgment seemed to stimulate their disbelief. After the fall of Jerusalem, however, the exiles could not so easily dismiss the preaching of the prophets. What God's Word announced hundreds of years previously had come to pass in their judgment and exile. This reality invigorated the people's trust in the words of the prophets, especially since judgment was not the only sermon they preached.
The prophets declared the certainty of desolation and exile, but they also painted with grandiose colors the coming restoration after the exile. Jeremiah said the exile would last seventy years, but then the Lord would gather his lost sheep back to the Promised Land. And what a gathering this would be! Isaiah sings that the rough places shall become a plain, the glory of the Lord will be revealed, and he will lead his people on level paths. The Lord's servant Cyrus will free the exiles and rebuild the city and house of God. Jeremiah foretold the new and everlasting covenant of forgiveness and peace. The Lord would make all of Jerusalem holy to the Lord, and it would never be uprooted or overthrown again (Jer. 31:40). Ezekiel sculpted King David as the one shepherd over God's people forever and God's sanctuary would be in the presence of his people forevermore (Ezek. 37:24-28).
Could you imagine living in Babylon with these promises? It would be like a gift set on the mantle in July that you have to wait until Christmas to open. Children would be asking their dads, "Are we there yet?" Parents would dutifully mark off the calendar the days of those seventy years. The excited expectation would fill their dreams with images of a new and greater exodus. This hope would keep them hydrated in the dry years of exile.
And then the day came! A king named Cyrus came to power, Babylon fell, and Cyrus issued the proclamation for the Judean exiles to go home. He filled their pockets with temple treasures and gave them a permit to rebuild the temple (Ezra 1:1-4). The day of the Lord's promises had arrived.
The Judean exiles got to go home, to live in their own land again. Stone upon stone, the temple was rebuilt. The altar was consecrated. The people could again worship the Lord in his house. Swelling with joy, the people celebrated Passover. Ezra returned with treasures to beautify the temple. Nehemiah rebuilt the wall and with a priestly parade consecrated it as holy. The verse they memorized in exile proved true: "It is good that one should wait quietly for the salvation of the Lord."
And yet, as we read the books of Ezra and Nehemiah, something seems askew. The prophetic promises have lost all their glitter. The color of Isaiah is drawn out in shades of gray. Under Cyrus, the exiles do return, but there are no glorious manifestations of the Lord, no springs welling up in the desert. At the dedication of the temple's foundations, weeping at its smallness interrupts the joyful songs. Intermarriage with the pagan neighbors spoils the optimism of Ezra. Nehemiah's wall stands consecrated, but the people still cannot keep the Sabbath, nor can they keep their hands off of the foreign beauties.
And to top it off, this was all painfully slow. The first exiles who laid the temple foundation returned in 538 BC; the temple was finished in 516 BC; Ezra came in 458 BC, and Nehemiah in 445 BC. Nearly a hundred years were expended to accomplish what appeared momentary in the prophets. Then the ultimate fly in the ointment, there was no king! Where was the Davidic king? The exiles had the land, Jerusalem, the priesthood, and the temple, but no king. In fact, the Levitical prayer in Nehemiah 9 closes on this bitter note by saying, "We are still slaves." They were still paying taxes to Persia. What kind of fulfillment was this?
The Judeans could not deny the Lord was watching over them; after all, they were back in the land with the temple. Yet the experienced fulfillment was glaringly lacking in glory, which pointed the Judeans' faith and hope further into the future. They were back to the waiting game. In fact, Nehemiah showed himself to be a good steward in this regard. With the wall built, a new covenant made, the priesthood put in order, and the wall consecrated as holy, Nehemiah had the city of David all ready for the King to come. Nehemiah knew he was not the King, but he was preparing Jerusalem for the King. Like a teenager who has the house spick and span before his parents return, so Nehemiah had Jerusalem polished in expectation. He reminded the people that it is good to wait upon the Lord and his salvation.
Well, Nehemiah did not see the King in his day, but his faith was not in vain. Centuries later, a few days before Passover, the true King rode into Jerusalem on that donkey spoken of by Zechariah and was welcomed by the crowds: "Hosanna to the Son of David!" The King, Jesus Christ, in whom all God's promises are yes and amen came to accomplish our salvation. Therefore, being heirs to such a great salvation in Christ, we are reminded that it is good to wait upon the Lord as we look forward to our blessed hope the resurrection of the body and life everlasting in the light of the Lamb's face.
Adapted from Zach Keele, "Waiting on the Lord," Modern Reformation September/October 2013. Used with permission.
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