Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Virtues Part 2: Compassion

I can't believe it's only been 22 days since I switched from the King James Bible to the New International Version. Not to dwell on sheer numbers, but I've been reading at a staggering pace ever since. In the month leading up the switch, I read the book of Genesis, approximately 50 pages, which I understandably crawled through. The first chapter of that book presents some very grandiose truths, and I balanced those studies with other books that I read concurrently and completed quite aggressively. I had previously struggled with many of those concepts as a scientifically-inclined student, and I've no doubt that my acceptance of Creation was probably a bigger revelation for me than any of the historical data contained in the books I've read since: Exodus through Ezra (approx. 350 pages). In three weeks. Strangely, I took most of last week off from scripture; last week was brutal on my spirit.

That notwithstanding, it's quite clear that a modern English version has enabled me to bypass some of the Middle English hurdles that were stunting my progress, but there are advantages to both editions. For one thing, reading the Bible at a slower pace enables more time to reflect on individual passages, which I surely did for the book of Genesis. The problem was, of course, that I was spending just as much time on the language itself as I was on the message, and there are some words that are so easily misinterpreted. I guess I've gotten rusty since I left university, as my Milton and Shakespeare days are long behind me in practice. Conversely, the NIV is easily understood, which enables me to read much faster, and I might second guess just how conscientiously I'm considering the subtler points. Either way, here's something that struck me about a day after I first read it:

Ezra 1: 1-4
1 In the first year of Cyrus king of Persia, in order to fulfill the word of the LORD spoken by Jeremiah, the LORD moved the heart of Cyrus king of Persia to make a proclamation throughout his realm and to put it in writing:

2 "This is what Cyrus king of Persia says:
" 'The LORD, the God of heaven, has given me all the kingdoms of the earth and he has appointed me to build a temple for him at Jerusalem in Judah. 3 Anyone of his people among you—may his God be with him, and let him go up to Jerusalem in Judah and build the temple of the LORD, the God of Israel, the God who is in Jerusalem. 4 And the people of any place where survivors may now be living are to provide him with silver and gold, with goods and livestock, and with freewill offerings for the temple of God in Jerusalem.' "

I've read so much so quickly that the significance of these lines might have almost been lost to me. Another thing is that I've become so accepting of the gospel that I seldom wrestle with it anymore, and that has always been my biggest motivator in terms of posting here. As I sat down to read a few moments ago, God poked me on the shoulder and stopped me. So here I am, and these verses are quite special indeed. But let's get you non-believers caught up on the goings on in Israel.

Remember how I said my heart had been softened to God's judgment in the Old Testament? How I used to only focus on how God unleashed wrath onto those who sinned gratuitously and figuratively spat in His face? Well, it happened for many generations in Israel, following the death of King Solomon. (Incidentally, he too turned away from the LORD and worshipped some of the pagan gods of his wives.) It reached a point where the Hebrews had committed so many atrocious crimes against God that He delivered them into the hands of the Babylonians. They were held captive away from their promised land for several decades, and that's why they needed to be emancipated. Now then, what's so important about that stuff? Well, before I get to that, let's first consider the atheistic or agnostic argument.

Suppose for a moment you don't believe in any of the miracles described in Genesis, Exodus, or any other book of the Bible. Suppose also you don't believe in the God that performed them through chosen people. I trust that you do believe that our world has a history and that the kingdoms of Israel and Babylon did exist in antiquity, just as you would pick up last week's newspaper and believe that there were snow storms in parts of the country you don't inhabit. Fair statement? I thought so.

So then, why does history record any king of any nation that suddenly decides to release his slaves, the people who till his fields and perform any number of duties, so that they might return to their promised land and build a temple in the name of the God of heaven? Why would he also be compelled to fund this expedition, including the cost of reconstruction? What logic is there in that? Absolutely none, my friend. None at all. Actually, sound judgment was well represented by the governors of Judah, those who served the king in the respective province of Israel to which the Israelites were returning.

Ezra 4: 8-16
8 Rehum the commanding officer and Shimshai the secretary wrote a letter against Jerusalem to Artaxerxes the king as follows:

9 Rehum the commanding officer and Shimshai the secretary, together with the rest of their associates—the judges and officials over the men from Tripolis, Persia, [e] Erech and Babylon, the Elamites of Susa, 10 and the other people whom the great and honorable Ashurbanipal [f] deported and settled in the city of Samaria and elsewhere in Trans-Euphrates.

11 (This is a copy of the letter they sent him.)
To King Artaxerxes,
From your servants, the men of Trans-Euphrates:

12 The king should know that the Jews who came up to us from you have gone to Jerusalem and are rebuilding that rebellious and wicked city. They are restoring the walls and repairing the foundations.

13 Furthermore, the king should know that if this city is built and its walls are restored, no more taxes, tribute or duty will be paid, and the royal revenues will suffer. 14 Now since we are under obligation to the palace and it is not proper for us to see the king dishonored, we are sending this message to inform the king, 15 so that a search may be made in the archives of your predecessors. In these records you will find that this city is a rebellious city, troublesome to kings and provinces, a place of rebellion from ancient times. That is why this city was destroyed. 16 We inform the king that if this city is built and its walls are restored, you will be left with nothing in Trans-Euphrates.

Now, as you know, I'm not one to refute God's will, but I can't dispute the logic presented in that letter. Neither could that king, in fact. Cyrus had passed away, and King Artaxerxes replied in accordance with their advice. He halted production of the temple, and it wasn't until Darius became king of Babylon that the Israelites resumed work on the temple. Again the governors of that region protested, but there was nothing they could do until they had heard a response from the king. But this time, instead of merely consulting his advisers, the king found a scroll in the archives of Babylon that recorded Cyrus's earlier decree. The Israelites were permitted to finish work on the Temple of the LORD.

So, aside from God's grace, why would the Babylonians show compassion to the Israelites when Babylon stood only to lose commodities, taxes, and slaves? In terms of sheer logic, this is a much more significant statement than when Israelites heed God's will; they were raised in the belief that God delivered them from slavery in the first place. They were freed from Egypt, as history also records, and survived in awful conditions for 40 years, which is in itself miraculous. Not to dwell so much on the mystical side, but how else could any of these events be described?

As I further my studies on this subject, I discover just how quickly and dramatically the evidence piles up to support the authenticity of the Christian faith. Of course, the transformation inside me and my personal experiences are what compel me the most, but how silly would you have to be to contend none of this is true? Why, you'd need to refute, if not entirely shatter, world history, logic, etc. And, honestly, if you're out to destroy logic, why should I listen to you in the first place? (Hint: Because of God's compassion, once again. Just don't misconstrue it as doubt.)


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