Living Prayer

Where is your heart?

Please read and memorise Matthew 6:1-21

Yeshua had begun his sermon on this mountain with the beatitudes, urging His listeners to recognise their spiritual poverty, that we are utterly destitute when it comes to the righteousness required for the kingdom of heaven, and need to yield totally, hungering and thirsting for that righteousness. The answer to all our struggling and striving to be good enough is to give up trying to accomplish what only God can do, and instead cultivate our hunger and thirst for the beautiful purity of His righteousness. For then, Yeshua promises, we shall be filled.

Throughout the rest of His sermon, Yeshua is focused on stirring within us that hunger and thirst. No one who thinks themselves full, hungers and thirsts – but only those who recognise how empty they are. Thus Yeshua goes through the different aspects of our heart attitudes, revealing how lacking we are, so that we can be stirred to desire to be filled. Now He shifts the focus from wrongdoings to be avoided, to righteous doings requiring pure motives.

Tzedakah (Hebrew: צדקה) is a Hebrew word meaning “justice” or “righteousness“. It is the Jewish social justice religious obligation to do what is good and just in providing for the poor. In Jewish thought, giving to people in need is not something extra; it’s just the correct, honest thing to do in obeying Torah. Hence, some English versions render it: “Be careful not to practice your righteousness in front of others” (NIV); and others: “Take heed that you do not do your charitable deeds before men” (NKJV). For these Jews, charitable deeds (giving to meet the needs of the poor) was one of the most fundamental and essential forms of righteousness.

The Jewish ‘mitzvah of tzedakah‘ is considered to be one of the most important of their 613 commandments derived from the TorahTzedakah is so hardwired into the Jewish faith that the Talmud in Tractate Baba Bathra 9a says: “Charity is equal in importance to all other commandments combined.” This critical social responsibility cannot be done to someone – rather, it must be done with someone.  In Hebrew, the word meaning “to give” is Natan. In Hebrew and in English, the word can be read forward and backward, showing that in Jewish philanthropy the idea of “to give” it is also about “to receive.” As the poor receive money or other material assistance, the donor receives the merit of sharing the Almighty’s work and in so doing ensures that God will hear his prayers. This has significance for what Yeshua has to say here, that giving in order to be able to be seen by men negates any reward you might have been expecting from heaven. God doesn’t wait for an audience before He gives to us, and bestows so much good on each of us without any announcement that if any one of us were to start counting all that God has blessed us with we would be humbled and amazed.

Be careful not to parade your acts of tzedakah in front of people in order to be seen by them! If you do, you have no reward from your Father in heaven. So, when you do tzedakah, don’t announce it with trumpets to win people’s praise, like the hypocrites in the synagogues and on the streets. Yes! I tell you, they have their reward already! But you, when you do tzedakah, don’t even let your left hand know what your right hand is doing. Then your tzedakah will be in secret; and your Father, who sees what you do in secret, will reward you.” Matthew 6:1-4 CJB

Other Jewish rabbis would also develop teachings against publicly announcing your giving. The Talmud, in Hagiga 5a, tells the story of Rabbi Yanai, who once saw a man give money to a poor man publicly. He said, “It would have been better for you not to have given him anything rather than giving to him as you did, causing him embarrassment.” Yeshua’s focus, however, was on the effects on our relationship with God, and need for heart righteousness fit for the kingdom of heaven.

Since, to the Jewish mind, tzedakah and having God hear and answer your prayers were closely linked, Yeshua’s progression to instruction on prayer would have made perfect sense to his audience.

Yeshua began with the same contrast between doing good out of our relationship with God, and putting on a performance of ‘good’ to gain the approval or respect of man. Too many of the religious leaders prayed to men rather than to God; whatever was the form of their prayer, the scope of it was to beg the applause of men, and capture man’s honour and respect. The kingdom of heaven is not about outward appearances but about heart attitudes, about the secret things that only God knows and sees. In all personal prayer we should strive to be alone with God, to enter into that place of intimacy with the Almighty where secrets are shared and hearts laid bare.

“When you pray, don’t be like the hypocrites, who love to pray standing in the synagogues and on street corners, so that people can see them. Yes! I tell you, they have their reward already! But you, when you pray, go into your room, close the door, and pray to your Father in secret. Your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.” Matthew 6:5-6 CJB

This was not a rebuke of public prayer where people gather together to seek God in unity, but of displaying our private prayer in public in order to win the respect and adulation of others.

From there, Yeshua went on to instruct us how to pray. His focus here was on making things simple and real. We don’t have to use a lot of words when we pray, or keep saying the same thing over and over again. God is not deaf, He hears us the first time. He knows what we’re going to say even before we open our mouth.

And when you pray, don’t babble on and on like the pagans, who think God will hear them better if they talk a lot.  Don’t be like them, because your Father knows what you need before you ask him.   Matthew 6:7-8 CJB

Yeshua was not here forbidding either a long prayer, or the use of the same words in a prayer, when the heart sincerely prompts the utterance. He himself prayed at great length, even continuing in prayer all night (Luke 6:12), and in the garden he thrice repeated the same words. What He is counselling against is making lengthy prayers to try to gain esteem among men, or trying to badger and nag God into doing things through continuous repetition: “do not use vain repetitions as the heathen do” (NKJV). Our faith is to be in God, our Father in heaven, not in our supposed ability to manipulate Him and get Him to answer our prayers through repetitions or religious formulas. The purpose of our prayers is to connect with the heart of our heavenly Father, not to gain esteem from men.

Next, Yeshua gave them an example of what to pray. Peacemakers, those called sons of God, can come boldly to the throne of grace and cry out “Our Father“. Start with the focus on God, our Father, on His nature, His kingdom and His will. This is the basis for everything else we pray.

You, therefore, pray like this:
‘Our Father in heaven!
     May Your Name be kept holy.
May Your Kingdom come,
     Your will be done on earth as in heaven.
Give us the food we need today.
Forgive us what we have done wrong,
     as we too have forgiven those who have wronged us.
And do not lead us into hard testing,
     but keep us safe from the Evil One.
For kingship, power and glory are Yours forever. Amen.

Matthew 6:9-13 CJB

Once we’ve got our focus and priorities right we can petition God for our needs to be met, confident in His love and power to provide for us. Our basic physical needs, like enough food for today. Our spiritual needs, for forgiveness and protection from the attacks of the evil one. Just mentioning each need once is sufficient, our prayers don’t have to be long and flowery for God to hear and respond to them. He knows our needs even before we bring them to Him in prayer. Praying about our needs is not to inform God of our need, but to remind ourselves of our dependence on Him for the meeting of that need, and to put our confidence in His goodness.

After we’ve brought our needs to God, Yeshua encourages us to bring our focus back to where it belongs, on God whose kingship, power and glory are eternal. Our faith is in the very nature of God, not in our own religious endeavours. God gives because of who He is, not because of how we ask. He is the loving sovereign Lord over all. Nothing is too difficult for Him, no matter how impossible it looks to us. His is the kingship, power and glory forever.

One of our basic needs is that of forgiveness. Both the gift of forgiveness to be able to bestow on those who have wronged us, and the forgiveness of our wrongs.

Again, Yeshua brought everything back to our relationships with one another, and the need for these to be governed by holy love. There is no relationship with God that is independent of how we treat others. We are not to seek to impress them, for that is just lying to them about whom we really are. Our relationships with others are to be open, honest and loving, seeking always the good of the other, even at personal cost. One of those sitting listening to Yeshua this day would later pen these words:

If anyone says, “I love God,” but hates his brother, he is a liar. For anyone who does not love his brother, whom he has seen, cannot love God, whom he has not seen. 1 John 4:20 BSB

People mess up and hurt one another over and over again, just as we have messed up and dishonoured the Father over and over again. God stands always ready to forgive. He keeps calling us back to repentance so we can receive the full benefits of His forgiveness. How can we accept such forgiveness and refuse to offer it to others?

For if you forgive others their offenses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you;  but if you do not forgive others their offenses, your heavenly Father will not forgive yours. Matthew 6:14-15 CJB

What wrongs have others done to us? As hurtful as those things are, the debt they owe us for this wrong is still small compared with the debt we owe God for our wrong against Him. If we find ourselves lacking in forgiveness for others we bring this need to our Father as well, for they have wronged Him even more than they have wronged us and He has enough forgiveness to cover both their sin against Him and that against us. If we are willing and hungry, God will give us the forgiveness we need for each one who has done wrong to us.

Our giving is to be in secret, our prayer is to be in secret, and our fasting is to be in secret. None of these are for the purpose of looking good to others or earning the admiration of others. Notice how aptly Yeshua exposes the subtle ways we use to try to get others to notice and admire our “spirituality”. Without even a word we try to make others see what sacrifices we are making for the kingdom. God is not impressed. Citizens of the kingdom are to be motivated by our relationship with God, all our good works, prayers and sacrifice simply an outworking of that relationship. Our relationship with God is that which is expressed in the secret place, where no one else sees or knows. Pride demands that others know of our good deeds and give us the recognition that we feel we deserve, humility is content for God to be the only witness. “The fear of man lays a snare, but whoever trusts in the Lord is safe.” Proverbs 29:25. Are we more concerned about what man thinks of us or about what God thinks of us? Where are we laying up our treasure?

Yeshua continued teaching in His easy to relate to, easy to memorise way. The subject was deep and confronting, but the teaching used common things that everyone could relate to – moths, rust and thieves.

The things of this earth are ravenous, corrosive and untrustworthy, so easily destroying what we try to establish on this earth. All our efforts to become rich in the things of this world, whether material things or social standing or political power, are subject to the destructive forces of this world. It is not only ungodly to focus on building up wealth and stature for ourselves in this world, it’s stupid. All our efforts can so easily be laid to waste. But when our focus is on the kingdom of God, when we are seeking first His kingdom and righteousness, when our treasure is our right standing before God, when we joy in His delight, nothing and no one can take that from us. Only then are we truly prosperous, wealthy and secure.

Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal;  but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal.  For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” Matthew 6:19-21 NKJV

REFERENCES

1. My Jewish Learning. Tzedakah 101. My Jewish Learning. [Online] [Cited: May 31st, 2020.] https://www.myjewishlearning.com/article/tzedakah-101/.
2. DeGroot, Jacquelyn. Jewish Philanthropy: The Concept of Tzedakah. Learning to Give. [Online] [Cited: May 31, 2020.] https://www.learningtogive.org/resources/jewish-philanthropy-concept-tzedakah.
3. Posner, Menachem. 15 Facts About Tzedakah Every Jew Should Know. Chabad.org. [Online] [Cited: May 31, 2020.] https://www.chabad.org/library/article_cdo/aid/4203668/jewish/15-Facts-About-Tzedakah-Every-Jew-Should-Know.htm.
4. Friedlander, Marty. Tzedakah, the Jewish Concept of Charity . Haaretz. [Online] August 16th, 2015. https://www.haaretz.com/jewish/tzedakah-the-jewish-concept-of-charity-1.5387488.
5. Pendleton, J. W. McGarvey and Philip Y. Matthew 6 Bible Commentary – McGarvey and Pendleton. Christianity.com. [Online] [Cited: June 1st, 2020.] https://www.christianity.com/bible/commentary.php?com=four&b=40&c=6.
6. Gill, John. Matthew 6 Bible Commentary – John Gill’s Exposition of the Bible. Christianity.com. [Online] [Cited: June 1st, 2020.] https://www.christianity.com/bible/commentary.php?com=gill&b=40&c=6.

In the comments section below share your thoughts on what you have read and answer some of the following questions…

* In what ways did Jesus make his teaching easy to memorise and easy for the common people to relate to?
* What insights have your congregation shared with you as they’ve memorised and meditated on Jesus’ words in this section of His sermon?
* What is Jesus stirring us to hunger and thirst for in this section of His teaching?
* Why is it important to keep from trying to earn prestige through our giving, prayer or fasting?
* Is there a time when God enabled you to forgive something that had impacted you or your family really badly?
* What importance does your culture place on meeting the needs of the poor?
* How do you give in a way that honours and enables the person receiving, and doesn’t foster dependence?

Rebuilding the Walls of Jerusalem (486 – 430 B.C.)

Read Esther; Ezra 7-10; Nehemiah 1-7; Daniel 9
& Malachi

God protected His people, and the fulfilment of His word, through an orphaned young Jewish woman…

One of Darius’ sons, Xerxes, succeeded him in 486 BCE. He had little talent for economics and revelled too much in court pleasures and in lavish building projects. His treatment of subjugated peoples was also brutal, contrary to the habits of his predecessors (1).  In 483 BCE. Xerxes held a one hundred and eighty day feast for his officials, followed immediately by a seven day feast for all the people in the citadel of Susa (fortified part of the capitol city of Persia where his palace was located), at the end of which Queen Vashti refused to obey his command to come so he could show off her beauty. Her punishment was to be banished forever from Xerxes’ presence and stripped of her royal position (Esther 1).  

Xerxes then went to quell rebellions in Egypt and Greece, initially accomplishing great exploits but suffered a humiliating naval defeat against the Greeks in 480 BCE.  So he returned to his magnificent feasts and desired once again to have a queen.  All the most beautiful virgins in the empire were brought together for six months of beauty treatments and preparations and from these Esther was chosen (Esther 2).  She kept her Jewish identity secret and they were married at the end of 479 BCE.  

Four decades after the temple was built the work of rebuilding Jerusalem hadn’t progressed much further than that and now all was under threat with Haman’s murderous plot to have all the Jews in all the provinces of Persia killed, destroyed and annihilated.  This time their salvation came not from a mighty warrior or a foreign army, but from a young Jewish woman whom God had placed as queen for such a time as this. 

Awareness of the plot, and fasting and prayers of the Jewish people to avert it, took place not in the temple in Jerusalem but in the Persian city of Susa (2).  The Jewish diaspora was now large not only in Babylon but throughout the Persian empire, and particularly in the main centres of power like Susa. The Jewish people were saved and empowered to destroy their enemies (Esther 9:1-19).  Mordecai then wrote letters to all the Jews in all the provinces of Persia to establish a new yearly celebration feast, Purim, commemorating their sorrow being turned to joy. This innovation did not come from the religious establishment in Jerusalem, but it was accepted and adopted throughout Judaism.   Purim continues to be the most joyous Jewish celebration. 

Each new generation needs to be led back to God…

Xerxes was assassinated in 465 BC, and after the lead assassin was killed Artaxerxes succeeded to the Persian throne in 464 BC.  In the seventh year of his reign, 457 BC, Artaxerxes permitted the Jewish scribe and priest, Ezra, to lead an expedition of about 5,000 Jews back to Jerusalem to settle there, teach the people the Law of Moses (Torah) and present offerings to God from Artaxerxes, and gifts for the temple (Ezra 7-8).   What Ezra found when he arrived was that the initial fervour of the returned captives had faded, the work of rebuilding the city of Jerusalem had seen little progress since the temple was rebuilt, 60 years before, and this next generation, from the priests and leaders down, had forsaken much of the Torah

The lessons of the Babylonian captivity appeared to have been so quickly lost, and Haman’s threat of annihilation the decade before left no positive effect in the Promised Land.  While the Jews in Babylon had continued working hard to maintain their distinct identity as the people of God through observance of Torah and customs, the next generation of those who had returned to the land of Judah quickly became complacent with their identity secured in their land and temple.

Money so easily corrupts, and when that happens in the spiritual leaders…

The high priest, Eliashib, had himself become compromised so the priesthood was corrupted and the reading of the Torah to the people ceased.  Eliashib was allied with Tobiah the Ammonite who, along with Sanballat the Horonite, sought to keep the children of Israel weak and the city of Jerusalem without a wall.  Eliashib’s wealth suggests that it may have been some form of business partnership. 

Without guidance from the Torah, many had taken foreign wives and started participating in the abominations of the Canaanites, Hittites, Perizzites, Jebusites, Ammonites, Moabites, Egyptians and Amorites.      To Ezra’s horror, even some of the priests had taken foreign wives who continued living and raising their children as pagans with all the practises that God abhorred.  

True Leadership Vs Self-Interested Leaders who Hinder God’s work…

Ezra wept bitterly in identificational repentance before the house of God until the men, women and children of Israel gradually joined him in weeping and repentance prayer.   What Haman’s attempt at annihilation failed to do, the priest’s tears accomplished – God’s people in Jerusalem repented and returned to Him (Ezra 10:1-6).  

Ezra weeping over the sins of his people
Ezra praying, by Gustave Doré (colour added later)

Ezra gathered some of the heads of households and together they questioned all the men who had taken pagan wives until each one promised they would put away those wives and bring a trespass offering to Yahweh (Ezra 10:16-44).  However, this was only half the problem and the rebuilding of Jerusalem remained stalled because key leaders of the community such as Shechaniah, who had married his daughter to Tobiah, and Meshullam, who had married his daughter to Tobiah’s son, remained allied to their enemies even as the high priest was.  One of the high priest’s grandsons had married the daughter of Sanballat.

Godly Leadership Needed in both Church and State…

Ezra exemplified the Torah and prophets’ ideal of priest. He is credited with being the “Father of Judaism” and founder of the modern Jewish religion (3).  Yet there was only so much he could accomplish with both the civic and religious leaders of the land aligned to their enemies.  Ezra’s purity of life and teaching of the people appeared to have little impact on their leaders.  But God heard his prayers.  Thirteen years after Ezra’s arrival, in 444 BCE, Artaxerxes gave his Jewish cupbearer, Nehemiah, letters of authority to return to Jerusalem and rebuild the city.  Under Nehemiah the walls of Jerusalem, which had remained desolate for the last 93 years of Jewish habitation, were repaired in just 52 days (Nehemiah 6:15). 

Nehemiah directing the building of the walls of Jerusalem

Countdown to Messiah begins…

Here Daniel’s fourth vision’s countdown of sevens to Messiah begins:

“Know and understand this: From the time the word goes out to restore and rebuild Jerusalem until the Anointed One, the ruler, comes, there will be seven ‘sevens,’ and sixty-two ‘sevens.’ It will be rebuilt with streets and a trench, but in times of trouble. After the sixty-two ‘sevens,’ the Anointed One will be put to death and will have nothing.”   Daniel 9:25-26 NIV

Daniel was clearly told when the 69 sevens would begin their countdown until the Anointed One / Messiah would come, and be put to death. The first seven sevens would begin with a decree involving the rebuilding of the city of Jerusalem.  So there was to be another ‘seven sevens’ (49 years) and then ‘sixty-two sevens’ (434 years) before the Anointed One was to come, and would be put to death, a total of 483 years – time for more kingdoms to rise and fall.

What it takes to Repair Spiritual Walls…

As the physical walls of the city were repaired, so were the spiritual walls. Nehemiah gathered all the people together for Ezra to read the Scroll of the Law of Moses (Torah) to them.  They listened intently and followed God’s directions for the Feast of Tabernacles with great joy.  All the people came together again in response to the reading of the Law, this time with fasting confessing their sins and the iniquities of their fathers then uniting in a great prayer of worship, repentance and covenant commitment to walk in God’s law and obey everything in the Torah (Nehemiah 9&10).  This has become known as “The Covenant of Faith”. (4)  What Ezra had begun 13 years before was now coming to fulfilment. 

Ezra reading the Torah scroll to the people

Godly Leaders Care for the Poor…

Nehemiah was a very rare and exceptional leader who walked in the fear of God, unlike the governors before or after him.  He served as governor in the land of Judah for 12 years at his own expense because of his concern that the ordinary people were already too poor and heavily burdened even though there was a very wealthy upper class in Judea.  He called a great assembly of the people to shame the wealthy into ceasing their unbiblical practises of charging their brothers interest, selling them and their families as slaves, and selling their land as repayment for debts (Nehemiah 5).  He demonstrated a much greater commitment to both the Torah and the temple worship than the High Priest Eliashib, who served only his own interests.

When Nehemiah returned from his promised time back with the king of Persia he found this corruption had manifest itself again and took decisive action to set things back in order both in the temple and in the people’s obedience to Torah, removing Tobiah the Ammonite from his residence in the temple storeroom, re-instituting the Levitical worship and cleansing them of everything pagan (Neh. 13).

To the end of the OT Prophets…

Malachi was also written during the first period of seven ‘sevens’ (49 years since the decree to rebuild the walls and city of Jerusalem).  Like Ezra and Nehemiah, he rebukes corruption in the priesthood and the infidelity of the people, calling for repentance. Like Daniel, he elicits Messianic expectations:

“Behold, I am going to send My messenger, and he will clear the way before Me. And the Lord, whom you seek, will suddenly come to His temple; and the messenger of the covenant, in whom you delight, behold, He is coming,” says the LORD of hosts”  Malachi 3:1

References

1. Stevenson, John T. Israel After The Exile. John Stevenson Bible Study Page. [Online] 2000. [Cited: 24th Aug 2016.] http://www.angelfire.com/nt/theology/14ezra.html.
2. Goldberg, G. J. Esther: Her Point of View Josephus’ Version with Commentary. Thematic Concerdance of the Works of Josephus. [Online] [Cited: 26th Aug 2016.] http://josephus.org/Esther.htm.
3. Carlson, Thomas. Exile to Babylon and Diaspora. Department of Religious Studies, University of California, Santa Barbara. [Online] [Cited: 27th Aug 2016.] http://www.religion.ucsb.edu/faculty/thomas/classes/rgst116b/JewishHistory.html.
4. Astor, Berel Wein adapted by Yaakov. Ezra and Nehemiah. Jewish History.org. [Online] [Cited: 28th Aug. 2016.] http://www.jewishhistory.org/ezra-and-nehemiah/.

In the comments section below share your thoughts on some of the following questions…

* What are some of the things we can learn from Esther’s story?
* How had the Jews in Israel, who could attend the Temple and participate in sacrifice and worship there, become less faithful to God than the Jews in the Persian cities?
* How can you help your people keep fervently focused on God and not backslide like the Jews in Israel had done?
* How are you reaching the next generation?
* What were the sins of the Jewish leaders and how can we avoid being seduced by such sins?
* What qualities did Ezra and Nehemiah have that made them good leaders?
* What have you seen happen in your nation when gifted leaders lack godly character?