I think it may be profitable to call the attention of the saints of God to two feasts, both kept with joy, but from widely different reasons; and to the cities, far apart from each other, in which they were kept. These histories are among the things that were written aforetime for our learning, that we, through patience and comfort of the scriptures, might have hope; and may the Spirit of God guide our thoughts, and bless our meditations on them.
The two cities are Jerusalem and Shushan, and by turning to Ezra 6:15-22 and to Esther 8:15-17, we shall get an account of these two feasts held almost at the same time.
Let us turn first to the book of Ezra. Chap. 9:8, 9 describes the situation: God's people for their iniquities are bondmen to the king of Persia, but grace is showed from the Lord their God to leave a remnant to escape; and, through mercy, a reviving is given in the bondage to set up the house of God. In chapter 1, Cyrus, the king of Persia, makes a proclamation throughout his kingdom, declaring that God had charged him to build Him a house at Jerusalem, and calling upon His people to go up to Jerusalem and do it. The chief of the fathers, with priests and Levites, respond to the call and go up to build the house of the Lord, and Cyrus commits to them the vessels of the house of God taken captive by Nebuchadnezzar. Chapter 2 gives us the number and the names of the company that went up, and such importance does the Spirit of God attach to this company that their names are recorded a second time in the book of Nehemiah. Chapter 3 records their first act - they build the altar of the God of Israel to offer burnt offerings thereon, as it is written in the law of Moses, and they keep all the set feasts of the Lord even before the foundation of the Temple was laid. Later on with praises and shouting the foundation is laid. Some regarding rather the present mercy, the reviving in the bondage, and hoping that brighter days have dawned, shout aloud for joy; while many, the ancient men, who had seen the first house, weep with a loud voice; they think of the ruin, the shame, the sin, and the present is in their eyes as nothing in comparison with the past (Haggai 2:3).
In chapter 4 the work is stopped, but resumed in chapter 5 through the stirring words of Haggai, the prophet; he rebukes them for attending to their own houses while God's house lies waste, and calls on them again to build it, with the Lord's promise that He will take pleasure in it, that He will be glorified. The feeble remnant, no longer afraid of their enemies, obey the voice of the Lord, fear Him, and come and work in the house of the Lord of hosts, their God. A fresh message cheers them - "I am with you"; and again, in Haggai 2 what gracious words of encouragement we have - "Be strong . . . and work," "I am with you," "Fear ye not." What an assurance, that feeble as the work appeared, the glory of the latter house should be greater than that of the former; and what a promise of their own blessing - "From this day will I bless you." How God delights to bless! but obedience must precede this blessing.
Now to turn back to the account in Ezra. In chapter 6:15 the house is finished. The eye of God had been on them frustrating the purposes of their enemies, and the word of God had sustained them; they prospered through the prophesying of Haggai, the prophet; thus they builded, and finished. Then comes the dedication - an hundred bullocks, two hundred rams, four hundred lambs as the burnt offering, and for a sin-offering for all Israel twelve he-goats. The priests and the Levites are there in their courses, as it is written in the book of Moses, and purified together, they kill the passover for all the children of the captivity, and for themselves. And here notice how this remnant cleaves to the written word: the city is in ruins, the wall unbuilt, enemies all around, and the bulk of the people of Israel not with them, but still scattered through the vast dominions of the king of Persia. (Esther 3:8.) Yet they offer the sin-offering for all Israel, and kill the Passover for all the children of the captivity, who are absent - not with them, but still remembered and interceded for.
Now comes the feast, kept by two classes: 1st, the children of Israel, who were come again out of captivity; 2nd, all such as had separated themselves unto them from the filthiness of the land. Notice, these returned ones, the first class, have been a blessing to the second class, and together they eat, and keep, the feast of unleavened bread with joy, for the Lord had made them joyful. It is divine joy - they are back at the divine centre, Jerusalem, where God had put His Name; and they are keeping God's Feast, as in days of old.
Now let us consider the other city and the other feast.
1st, The city, Shushan, the city of a great king truly, but a heathen king; can it be compared with Jerusalem, the city of the Great King?
2nd, The feast; who keep it; and what are the circumstances?
Those who keep it are of the same race and people as those who built the Lord's house; yea, they are those for whom the sin-offering was offered, and the passover was killed. Why had they not returned to God's land, and city, and centre, as their brethren had done? We can hardly answer this question: but remark this, they do not cease to be the people of God through lack of faith, or energy, to go back to their true place; but what losers they are! Read the book of Esther; it is a book in which, while the providence and care of God for His people are in exercise, the name of God is not mentioned - God is hidden: and His people have lost their right name all through and are called Jews; no fresh word in season - no "Fear not" or "I am with you" - is spoken to them. They are scattered and dispersed (chapter 3:8) through all the provinces of the king's dominions, and are all doomed to death (chapter 3:13); could they have been worse off if they had returned to their own land? I gladly notice that this doom comes on them through the faithfulness of Mordecai, and that they themselves are spoken of as having laws diverse from all people (God's laws), and thus, obnoxious to the people around them, answering to the position of the saints now (John 15:19); but the fact remains, they are not in their true place, they have come short of their calling.
In Esther 4:3 there is great mourning, fasting, weeping, and wailing; but how different to the weeping of the ancient men in Ezra 3. Ezra gives us a proclamation from the king to go up and build God's house at Jerusalem, and those who neglect it and remain where they are, are found under another proclamation dooming them to death. The ancient men weep at the dishonour done to God, at the ruin of His house; the others weep at their own condition and danger. I would notice again they are truly the people of God, and in their deep trouble turn to Him, they fast before Him, and Mordecai, who had dared to disobey the king's command about Haman, now speaks bold words of faith and confidence (chap. 4:14): "Then shall there enlargement and deliverance arise to the Jews from another place." It must be so, or God's word would be broken; he counts on God, trusts Him, and urges the queen to go in to the king, and request the lives of her people. She does so after prayer and fasting, and she finds favour, for "the king's heart is in the hand of the Lord, as the rivers of water; He turneth it whithersoever He will." (Proverbs 21:1.) The king makes a new decree, not revoking the other - that could not be - but granting the Jews life out of death, and making known his special favour towards them. The posts that carry the letters bearing the king's commandment are hastened and pressed on, and Mordecai himself is taken into the king's favour, receives the king's ring, and is clad in royal apparel. Then the Jews had light and gladness, and joy and honour - a feast and a good day. This was because of the king's second decree, and later on, when the deliverance was fully accomplished, they have another time of feasting and gladness. But I ask, Can this feast compare with the one at Jerusalem?
But now to apply all this to our own circumstances. Surely the Church of God has failed, even as Israel of old; the fine gold has become dim! the glory has departed! "the stones of the sanctuary are poured out in the top of every street." (Lam. 4:1.) Almost every blessed truth of God's word was obscured, if not entirely lost, in the darkness of the middle ages. But has there not been a reviving? Has not a remnant been led back to the divine centre, to gather, not now to any spot on earth where God records His name, but to Christ Himself, in the midst of the two or three gathered to His name? And are not multitudes of the dear children of God still in captivity, scattered, divided, and occupied with their experiences, needs, dangers, and deliverances? Through grace and mercy they do sometimes have a feast and a good day; they do have answers to their prayers, special marks of God's favour, and striking interpositions on their behalf; they may also be much used in leading others to turn to God, as we read, "Many of the people of the land became Jews"; but I press it, they are still short of their true, full blessing; they cannot worship aright if away from the place where God has put His name; they cannot keep a "feast of the Lord," save in the appointed place. (See Deut. 12:11-14.) They cannot have the peculiar "I am with you" of Haggai 1:13, or of Matthew 18:20, till they are in the position of the remnant, who are stirred up to attend to the claims and interests of the Lord's house.
Beloved saint of God, where are you? What feast are you keeping? Are the Lord's interests, or your own, paramount? Your name may be in the Lamb's Book of Life, every redeemed sinner's name is there, all grace and mercy for Christ's sake alone, but has your name also a place in what answers to Ezra 2? J. E. D.