Ezra & Nehemiah: Walking in God’s Words, Peter Adam (Aquila, 2014) ISBN 9781925041187
Why read Ezra & Nehemiah? Why read whole books of the Bible as they have come to us through history and tradition and the sovereign guiding hand of God? Why (as the Prayer Book enjoins us to do) read, mark, learn and inwardly digest all of the Scriptures – and not just our favourite selections?
This new book by Peter Adam gives us the answer. This book gives great help and encouragement. It does so all the way through the book, but it also starts as it intends to continue. In the six short pages of chapter one, Peter offers us brief but pointed, theologically-insightful and pastorally-helpful reasons for keeping on reading whole books of the Bible – like Ezra-Nehemiah. It’s a chapter well worth presenting again and again to maturing disciples as we encourage them to love - to read, mark, and learn - whole books of the Bible.
But perhaps we don't need all that much encouragement to get into Ezra & Nehemiah. Anyone who has been part of a church with a building programme has probably sat through a sermon series in these books – I know I have! The narrative is so rich in detail and interesting!:- benevolent Cyrus, returning exiles, the prayerful administratively-able leader, turning hearts and hands back to God, willing followers and co-workers, opposition and defensive tactics, the organised building plan. Its richness leads to the common temptation to preach these books as a kind of ‘how to’ manual and model. ‘How to successfully execute a church building programme’, or, ‘How to build a church wall – especially around the pesky youth group’.
What Peter does in this book is to examine all that rich detail, but within its richer historical and theological context. He thus drives our reflection, our appreciation and our ultimate application deeper in and further on. He does this consistently in every chapter, but let me highlight two in particular.
When I go shopping for a commentary one of the things I do is zero in on the troublesome passages. That’s often a litmus test for the quality of the rest of the commentary. How does this commentator deal with the difficult bits like the warning passages in Hebrews, the man of lawlessness in 2 Thessalonians 2, anything in Revelation after chapter three? How does this book deal with the putting away of the Gentiles wives in Ezra 9-10?
Peter’s pastoral gifts come to the fore here. The relevant chapter of the book is entitled, ‘First Sins’, and there he highlights the significance of ‘first sins’ in the Bible, and, by implication, in us. Peter rightly calls the reader to develop our cross-cultural sensitivities. He notes that today we are particularly attuned against racism and towards individual choice in marriage. So to read Ezra & Nehemiah in our context means we need to work hard to understand their 6th century BC culture: in particular, the place of marriage in relation to corporate worship, religious syncretism and the corporate leadership of the people of God. Or, if you’re married today: what does your marriage have to do with church worship, with wholehearted devoted faith in Christ, and with your church’s leadership?
The Israelites put away their Gentile wives. How can that be right? What about the kids? Who paid their monthly maintenance? Peter’s handling of this tricky issue is considered, pastoral, biblically-informed, makes God the rightful hero of the narrative, set in the context of a deep concern for the honouring of both God’s Word and God’s people then and now, and gives the reader eminently helpful advice about marriage and holiness for today. All that packed succinctly into one chapter.
A second highlight revolves around a second tricky issue. How does Peter deal with Nehemiah’s repeated refrain at the end of the book for the Lord to remember him, and his deeds? Will Peter agree or disagree with Don Carson’s assessment that this marks Nehemiah – great and prayerful leader as he was – as ultimately still a person who didn’t get grace, and hence is another Old Testament pointer towards our need for the greatest leader and rescuer of all, the Lord Jesus?
What Peter does here is typical of him and his long ministry among us but sadly atypical among many Christians today. Peter reflects theologically and pastorally, within a robust biblical framework, on the repeated prayer. He draws our attention to additional evidence in Ezra & Nehemiah, in the minor prophets, indeed in the whole body of Scripture, Old and New Testaments. And then he drives it all home by applying his findings to our prayers and our relating to God today. This is very helpful stuff: for understanding the chapter, and for understanding how to work through difficult Bible passages.
The great achievement in this book, and indeed of the series itself, is that it condenses so much in so little. It does not aim to be a rigorously academic commentary, but this does not mean it lacks intellectual or theological clout. There’s a clear overview of the text, right attention to particular parts that need more detailed explanation, a firm focus on context and overall theme and purpose, informed and engaging theological reflection, and pastorally-helpful and challenging application.
It is not a simple thing to include so much value in such a small package. We should be grateful for this particular fruit of Peter’s labour – and take full advantage of it. It’s a valuable resource for when your church comes to this preaching series, full of solid food for preachers, every small group leader and every keen Bible reader.
Wei-Han Kuan is the State Director of CMS Victoria