I recently heard about a painting by German Realist Adolph Menzel that really caught my attention. It hangs, unfinished, in Germany’s National Gallery in Berlin. Isn’t that intriguing? A famous painting, hung in a prestigious location, and it has bare canvas showing. In fact, Menzel even had certain details scratched out in order to be completed later on.
The title of the painting is Frederick the Great and his Marshals before the Battle of Leuthen. Menzel created it between the years of 1859 and 1861 and, ironically, left out the king himself! This work became one of the most famous paintings that exist of King Frederick and he was completely absent!
As Menzel created the image, he worked (generally) from the outside towards the center. He was filling out the details of the many officers with plans to paint King Frederick last (the blank space just right of center, with his generals’ eyes on him while he addressed the group), but that never happened. He planned to create the painting with no heroics. It would be very straightforward and humble. However, King Wilhelm I, Frederick’s descendent, wanted a more regal look and created a list of demands on the many details to change. Menzel disagreed and abandoned the project.
Fascinating. Sometimes, our priorities can be a bit of a mess, can’t they? At any given moment, a priority out of place can really disrupt things! At times, we can give our attention to lesser details in life and leave out the highest priorities to be “dealt with” later on. Many times, though, those higher priorities never surface to their rightful place in our lives.
I thought of this story while reading the book of Ezra. While spending time in chapter seven, a detail careened off the page and wedged itself in my brain. In verse twelve, we read about Artaxerxes, the ‘king of kings’, who reigned over Persia and controlled the area of God’s people in the aftermath of their exile in Babylon. Does his title stand out to you? It was not uncommon for the likes of Caesars, pharaohs, and kings throughout history to compete to prove they are the most powerful of the world’s elite. And it’s a title that many Christians are familiar with when applied to Jesus Christ, our very own King of all kings. What was more interesting was what followed after verse twelve, though.
Throughout the rest of the chapter, we read from the text of a letter that King Artaxerxes wrote to Ezra, the priest and scribe of Israel on a mission to rebuild the community among God’s chosen people. In that letter, this self-appointed “king of kings” dedicates his resources to serve God’s people. He gives his permission for them all to go home (v. 13) and to possess and follow the law of their God (14). He provides them with silver and gold that was given by various kings, counselors, and others from within Babylon’s previous borders, and from their own people and priests to reinvest back into their temple, sacrifices, and offerings in Jerusalem (15-17). He gives them freedom to “do whatever seems best to [them]” with what is left over and allows them to take with them the various articles that were for service in the house of God (18-19).
He then tells all the others living in Persian territory West of the Euphrates that they should provide whatever silver and food that the Israelites ask on behalf of God and warns that they have no authority over the Israelites (21-24)! Artaxerxes goes so far as to give Ezra power to govern people outside of even his own community and to teach God’s Law to those who do not know it, even to the extent of putting to death those who would not follow (25-26).
I find this so fascinating because even a self-proclaimed king of kings among humans must answer to Someone greater, and Artaxerxes understood that. For whatever his motivation might have been, he cannot help but to appeal to the Israelite people and seek their interests because their God is more powerful than he can understand. Indeed, Artaxerxes may very well have been the most powerful human being in his day, but that fleshly power will never be able to touch the power of the true King of kings, the One who reigns over all creation and throughout eternity. And that is precisely why we read this long letter from a king who gives preferential treatment to a people who belongs to another King.
You see, in Menzel’s painting, he found himself completing, first, characters in the scene who were literally, and figuratively, on the periphery. They were not the center of attention and the king whom the entire painting was named after remained faceless.
As for Ezra, he lived during a time where peripheral characters were always fighting to be the center of the global stage. Lesser kings were seeking to create kingdoms that would last the test of time, only to be destroyed by the next great and powerful nation. This cycle continues throughout history. However, the one and only King of all remains seated on the throne. He, in His power and His love and grace, cannot be ignored.
Each of us are creating our own “paintings” as well. They represent our best understanding of what truly matters in the world and what will be lasting. They ignore the words we use and dig deep into our hearts to find who or what we believe to be greatest. May we not follow in the footsteps of Menzel who gave all his attention to the fleeting details in the background, but may we choose, instead, to make the King our focus. May He draw our greatest attention and focus to what He is doing in the world and in our lives. Once all is said and done, may our “paintings” reflect the beauty of Jesus Christ and elevate the title, His name, as we give Him glory and reflect His goodness to the world around us.
Love you all,
Young Adult Minister – Evan McNeff