Tuesday, May 05, 2020

Beyond the River

The book of Ezra is written in Hebrew, but one of its most frequently-used expressions is not Hebrew but Aramaic.

The words `abar nÄ•har are translated “beyond the river” or “this side of the river” in most of our Bibles. They occur in the sections of Ezra that contain letters written by the enemies of the returning Jewish exiles in Jerusalem to kings of the Medo-Persian empire, and by the functionaries of these kings in response, since Aramaic was the language in which royal edicts were issued. The expression also occurs, probably for the sake of consistency, in the Hebrew narrative portions of Ezra which have to do with the contents of the letters.

Basically, “beyond the river” means the biblical land of Israel and any of the surrounding nations over which Israel, at the height of its powers, had influence.

So what, you say? Well, maybe there’s a little something in that rather unusual expression worth thinking about.

A Nasty Bit of Fiction

In one of these earlier letters preserved for us in Ezra, for example, the enemies of God’s people write this:
“We make known to the king that if this city is rebuilt and its walls finished, you will then have no possession in the province beyond the river.”
This dire prophecy was a nasty bit of fiction designed to provoke action from the king of Persia, who ruled from Babylon. It was based on nothing of substance. It referred to the tendency of the more powerful kings of Judah and Israel to want to operate independently of the great world empires of history — which up to that time had consisted of the Assyrians, Babylonians, and occasionally an ascendant Egypt — and to push back hard against all efforts to tax them, invade their lands, resettle other nations there, or exile their people. These resistance efforts are well documented in the books of Kings and Chronicles. Some were more successful than others, very much depending on the relationship of the Israelite and Judean kings to their God.

But in Ezra’s day, the newly-resettled exiles from Babylon were a comparatively small and powerless group operating legitimately and obediently under the authority of an edict from King Cyrus to rebuild the temple in Jerusalem. They were not looking to start a rebellion or take on the Medo-Persian empire. Any accusation against them was both false and speculative. In fact, the men who wrote it had asked to be part of the temple-rebuilding project, and had been turned down flat. In their jealousy and spite, they were attempting to derail a project they had been unable to co-opt.

Getting It Precisely Backwards

It is in this (and only in this) historical context that the expression occurs. It’s a fascinating bit of language, and it got me thinking: it gets things precisely backwards.

Geographically speaking, our Bibles are set primarily within the borders of the nations of Judah and Israel. In biblical parlance, it is not New York or Los Angeles or London that is the most important city on earth. It is not Brussels or Berlin or Rome or even Babylon from which Messiah will one day rule. It is always and only Jerusalem where the God of heaven and earth has chosen to place his name. If we are to pick one city around which the most important events in history consistently revolve ... well, it would have to be Zion, the city of David.

And yet, to the Medo-Persian bureaucrats, Babylon was the center of the universe and all other nations of the day orbited around it. The specific nature, history and destiny of Babylon’s national satellites (like Israel) were so irrelevant as to not merit mention in the circles of the powerful and those who pretended to be.

Who had it right? Well, here is a small sample of the things God’s word says about the city of Jerusalem and his relationship to her:

The Virgin Daughter of Zion

First, to the king of Assyria, through Isaiah:
“She despises you, she scorns you — the virgin daughter of Zion; she wags her head behind you — the daughter of Jerusalem. Whom have you mocked and reviled? Against whom have you raised your voice and lifted your eyes to the heights? Against the Holy One of Israel!”
In short, an attack on an obedient Jerusalem was an attack on God himself. Sennacherib went home with his tail between his legs and was murdered by his own sons while worshiping his idols.

From the Psalms:
“Sing praises to the Lord, who sits enthroned in Zion! Tell among the peoples his deeds!”

“Beautiful in elevation, is the joy of all the earth, Mount Zion, in the far north, the city of the great King.”

“Out of Zion, the perfection of beauty, God shines forth.”
Here we see an idealized, spiritual Zionism, in which the kingdom of God on earth is realized in a chosen city in the midst of a chosen nation. Its people never quite lived up to their billing, and much of the psalms about Zion are aspirational, looking forward to the millennial rule of Christ.

From the Prophets:
“[The people of Judah] shall ask the way to Zion, with faces turned toward it, saying, ‘Come, let us join ourselves to the Lord in an everlasting covenant that will never be forgotten.’ ”

The Lord roars from Zion, and utters his voice from Jerusalem, and the heavens and the earth quake.”

“The lame I will make the remnant, and those who were cast off, a strong nation; and the Lord will reign over them in Mount Zion from this time forth and forevermore.”
And finally, from the gospels and from the mouth of Jesus Christ himself:
O Jerusalem, Jerusalem ... you will not see me again, until you say, ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.’ ”
Restoring Jerusalem and the nation it symbolized was the stated mission of the Lord Jesus. He was not initially sent to us, but to them. Thankfully they failed to recognize their Messiah, and we are the spiritual beneficiaries of their blindness.

A Defining Spiritual Concept

Anyway, as you can see, not everything that is said about Zion and Jerusalem is favorable, but what is very evident from the whole scope of scripture is that God’s dealings with this earth are Zion-centric. Jerusalem is where our Savior lived and died, and Jerusalem is where all nations will one day gather to worship. Babylon? Rome? What are they in comparison? Moscow or Peking or Brussels? Gentile pretenders. New York, Los Angeles, Chicago or London? Mere Johnny-come-latelies on the world scene, destined to grow, impress people for a few decades or centuries, then moulder, decay and disappear into history.

Jerusalem is much more than a city. It is a multifaceted spiritual concept to be fully realized on earth only when the New Jerusalem comes down out of heaven from God, and in which the “dwelling place of God is with man”. Not just Jews. Not just Israelites. The whole redeemed human race. Everything said about her is moving toward that final and glorious destination, and you and I look forward to our part in it, and in the Lamb, who will be its lamp.

But to the world empires of the day, what is the microscopic city of Jerusalem and what is the tiny land of Judah? You’d have to squint to find them on a globe today. Even back at the time Ezra was written, Judah was no more than one among many provinces of the sprawling, visibly impressive Medo-Persian empire. It didn’t even rate being mentioned by name. It was merely an occasional royal irritation on “this side of the river” or “that side of the river”, depending on who was writing about it.

Two Jerusalems and Two Churches

So then, in the days of Ezra there were two Jerusalems. One was a broken down remnant of a city with no proper walls and no temple, which the great nations of the day referred to merely as “beyond the river”. In their swollen-headed occupation with the grandeur of their fleeting empire, which was soon to be thoroughly eclipsed by the Greeks and then again by the Romans, Jerusalem and Judah were so insignificant their names didn’t merit mention.

The other Jerusalem was the Zion of God, around which the greatest movements of history endlessly pivoted and continue to pivot today. But from the perspective of Babylon, that Jerusalem was quite invisible.

Today, there are two churches. One, like a mere province of the Medo-Persian empire in Ezra’s day, is subject to the laws of the various states, nations and empires in which it exists. It is institutional and spiritually incidental, even though it has often been financially well-off. This church is full of pretenders, businessmen, paid hirelings, profiteers, wolves in sheep’s clothing and confused religious people who do not understand quite why they are there. When the secular world uses the word “church”, it is this entity it means. To the powers that be, it is an inconvenience or an asset, depending on how easily they are able to co-opt and use its influence over their citizens to political advantage. It is a relic of man’s superstitious past which will one day go the way of the dinosaurs when science and ideology disprove its foolish notions once and for all. It is just another province in man’s kingdom, “beyond the river”, out of sight, out of mind, out of step, and not worthy of serious consideration.

Invisible, But Not Insignificant

But there is another church: the one Jesus Christ is building. It is a spiritual reality of immense grandeur, spanning the ages from Pentecost into eternity, and taking in all who know and love the name of Christ. Almost every institutional or local religious body that calls itself Christian across the globe harbors members — sometimes unnoticed — of this one, true, real assembly of the firstborn which our Savior has been patiently and resolutely erecting over the course of human history. Building this church is God’s primary purpose in this present age, and yet this church is absolutely invisible to the eyes of the powers that be, just as the real nature of Judah and Jerusalem were invisible to Artaxerxes and his functionaries.

This true church is never invisible to those who love Christ, his people, and his calling. We may be insignificant to the world. We are not insignificant to our Lord, and we should not be to one another.

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