Finish the Race

I have recently been working my way through the book of Ezra. What an exciting follow-up to the books of prophets like Jeremiah, who preached during the days of the fall of Jerusalem and the exile of God’s people! The book of Ezra picks up seventy years after the fall of Jerusalem, and records how God kept His promise, made during Jerusalem’s darkest days, to eventually restore His people. According to Ezra, King Cyrus of Persia sent the people to Jerusalem with instructions to rebuild God’s temple, and provided all the resources needed for the job. So those whom God called to the task went. And they gathered in Jerusalem to celebrate festivals and to offer sacrifices to God. And they laid the foundation of the temple. But then trouble started. Their enemies preferred that they not rebuild Jerusalem, so they began to bother the builders. Ezra 4:4 tells us, “Then the people of the land discouraged the people of Judah and made them afraid to build.” And just like that, the work on the temple stopped…for the next fifteen years! My first reaction was to feel sorry for God’s people, who had to bear the reproach and persecution of their neighbors. Discouragement is very real for anyone whose aspirations to serve God have been shut down by the negativity and opposition of others, or by difficult circumstances. And the persecution against the people of Israel must have been intense—after all, it took them fifteen years to regroup!

But upon a deeper search of scripture, I learned there is more to this story than was initially apparent. For the prophet Haggai began his work during this time, and his book highlights the true problem going on in Israel. God’s message through Haggai was, “…These people say the time has not yet come to rebuild the house of the Lord…Is it a time for you yourselves to dwell in your paneled houses, while this house lies in ruins (Haggai 1:2, 4)?” The people may have initially stopped work on the temple because of the opposition of surrounding nations. But then they let God’s house lie in ruins while they turned their focus to establishing their own homes, planting their fields, living their busy lives. And they failed for many years to complete the primary task that God had laid before them.

I must admit that I cringed a little over this added dimension to Ezra’s account. I can feel sorry for myself over discouragement, or, better yet, blame it on someone else. But prioritizing my life in a way that pleases God comes down to my own daily choices. Do I shave time from daily Bible study to follow other pursuits (social media, for instance)? Do I put sufficient time and effort into those activities to which I know God has called me, or do I get caught up in the mundane and run like a hamster in its wheel? Do I gravitate toward pursuits that ensure my comfort instead of toward God’s work, which is rarely easy or comfortable? Or am I relentless in my pursuit of God’s call?

Oh, Lord, “…teach us to number our days that we may get a heart of wisdom (Psalm 90:12).” I pray to focus daily on Your priorities for my life, and not to get distracted by lesser pursuits, nor to simply get caught up in the whirlwind of everyday activities. May I live by Your promise: “But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you (Matthew 6:33).” And at the end of it all, may I be able to say with Paul, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith (2 Timothy 4:7).”

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