“A Place for God’s Name” Ezra 1
Do we really ever have to worry about anyone competing against God? Is it possible that someone can ever supplant His name? There is an awful lot of competition out there today clamoring for the name of God. Should we be fearful that God and His name could be replaced? Not if we are talking about the God of the Bible. One of the revealed attributes of our God is His sovereignty—He is the ultimate authority and in complete control of the entire universe. This is the testimony of the Bible. The very first section of Ezra highlights God’s sovereign activity securing a name for Himself amongst His people. We are going to learn that the sovereign hand of God is active behind the events of history to secure His name and honor. This is still true today in and through your life and mine.
For 70 years the southern Kingdom (Judah and Benjamin) were exiled to Babylon. 2 Chronicles 36:21 says this was done “…to fulfill the Word of the Lord by the mouth of Jeremiah until the land had enjoyed its Sabbaths. All the days of its desolation it kept Sabbath until the 70 years were complete” (Jer 29:10). In Lev 25 and Deut 15 the law said the every 7th year was to be a Sabbath year—meaning that there was to be no sowing, planting, reaping, winnowing, or grinding into flour, that is, no work. The entire land was to become one huge common for all to glean. Unfortunately, there is little evidence that Israel ever kept the Sabbath year and no evidence they kept the Year of Jubliee—every 7th Sabbath year—every 49 years—in which all debts were to be cancelled, all lands acquired were to be restored to original owners, all burdens lifted form the backs of people and all people set free (people often sold their property of themselves into service to pay off debts). Every 49 years the whole system was to be set back for a fresh start in the land. It gave the people hope. They apparently refused to do it—it cost them too much. The prophets constantly rebuked the nation for this self-indulgent and oppressive way. So God ran them out of the land and sent them into exile 70 years so the land could enjoy the missed Sabbath years. Because the people chose to live this way, God did not allow any of them to keep what they had taken. It was taken form them.
Now nearly 67 years later, the call to return begins. We know that they returned in three stages, here with Zerubbabel to rebuild the Temple 538; with Ezra 70 years later re-establishing the Law 458: with Nehemiah 12 years later to rebuild the walls 444. Here in Ezra 1 is God at work to initiate this return.
GOD’S ACTIVITY ASSURES HIS WILL IS DONE 1-4
1. God Stirs Cyrus’s Proclamation 1
With his very first words Ezra rivets the narrative toward a timeline. The first two chapters cover about the first 7 months of Cyrus reign as the King of Persia over Babylon (though he had already been King over extensive territory for more than 20 years)—stated 3 times in the 1st two verses. The Persian Empire is truly a world empire stretching from the western border of India across the Middle East up into Turkey to the north and down into Egypt in the south.
The purpose of this time frame is to introduce the work of God behind the scenes. It was to fulfill the word of God given to Jeremiah (29:10). But it is also a fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy about Cyrus (44:28; 45:1-4). God had promised the Jewish remnant that He would raise up Cyrus as His servant to restore the fortunes of His people. This was prophesied 150 years earlier! In doing so Cyrus was serving as God’s shepherd. He also avenged Gods’ wrath on the nations. We know something of Cyrus motivation from the discovery of the Cyrus cylinder, which records his capture of Babylon and repatriating his subjects asking for prayer for him to his gods Bel and Nebo. Though used of God he was no believer in god.
God stirs Cyrus and he makes a decree in his entire kingdom in writing. Later we will see that God stirs the hearts of the people to go to Jerusalem and rebuild (vs 5). All of this is to emphasis the sovereign hand of God working behind these events to secure a name for him.
2. The Proclamation assures God’s will is done 2-4
Vs 2 Cyrus calls God ‘The God of heaven’. Again, we have emphasis on God’s sovereignty. (1) He is the One who made heaven. (2) He is the One who is in heaven. (3) He is the One who reigns from His throne in heaven. But Cyrus also admits that as monarch over an extensive territory, that this God’s rule is far greater from heaven! God’s sovereignty is testified by Cyrus statement “God has given me” and “has appointed me”. Cyrus probably knew of Isaiah’s prophecy of him. The outcome of the proclamation is ‘to build God a house in Jerusalem’ repeated 7 times in this chapter. This is where the narrative is heading.
Vs 3 Here is the essence of the decree. It is to rebuild the Temple that was destroyed by Nebuchadnezzar 70 years earlier. Without a temple there is no sacrificial system central to the life of the people of Israel. This system was the lifeblood in its relationship to God—the house of the Lord; the God of Israel; He is the God who is in Jerusalem. Notice what Cyrus is claiming about God. (1) This God is worthy of the worship of His people. (2) The God is heaven is identified, as the God is Israel—not Persia. (3) That place is in Jerusalem.
Vs 4 Neighbors of all of the returnees are instructed to give money, goods and an offering for the Temple construction. Like the Exodus from Egypt where God miraculously delivered Israel form bondage in Egypt and had Egyptians aid them with money and clothing—so we have a second exodus. Once more God would orchestrate His plan on behalf of the survival of His people.
God is working in your life circumstances to accomplish His plan. We can be confident of that since He does it here in Ezra 1. He is moving things and stirring people in ways that are consistent with His plan for you and your life. All of God’s activity in your life is to assure that His will is accomplished. The difficulty for us is that we cannot know what that activity is until after the fact. We can look back and see it worked out but not in the midst of it. We respond and manage our life situations as best we can in concert with what we already know to be the will of God. But often our understanding of that will and purpose comes afterward. We can move and decide with confidence that God is in control and at work even though we are unaware of the outcome.
So take an inventory of your life situation right now. Do you believe God those situations are part of Gods plan for you and that He is working out that plan through them? He is and you can.
GOD’S PEOPLE RESPOND TO FULFILL GOD’S WILL 5-11
1. God Initiates Preparation 5-6
Vs 5 This return from exile is spearheaded by the religious leaders—the priests and Levites. Both of these groups are necessary for worship in the rebuilt temple if Jerusalem. The priority is not just the building but what takes place in it—the worship and praise and sacrifices of the people. These religious leaders will take care of that. The heads of the households of the 2 southern tribes are also in this group. So there is full cooperation from the religious and civil leadership. All of whom have been stirred in their spirit by God to go. God will not be without a name in the nation and in Jerusalem.
Vs 6 Here the neighbors of these exiles in Babylon who are ready to return to Jerusalem obey the decree of Cyrus by contributing to the effort. God sees to it that His people are fully equipped and funded by the very ones they use to be in bondage to. These gifts were used to ‘encourage’ the Israelites in their preparation for the journey. These gifts were also valuable and useful.
2. The people respond faithfully 7-11
Vs 7-8 Even King Cyrus, in fulfillment of the prophecies, contributes to the return in a handful of ways. He places his authority upon the edict to return. (1) He gives back the articles belonging to the Temple of the Lord. Articles, which Nebuchadnezzar had carried way in the exile 70 year ago. He had actually placed them in the temple of Babylon’s gods. (2) He had each of them accounted for by counting them and recording them. Sheshbazzar, the prince of Judah is possibly the Persian name of Zerubbabel or a relative.
Vs 9-11 Ezra first counts the bigger and more valuable items in vs 9-10. These included gold and silver dishes, pans, bowls and other miscellaneous pieces. Each of them meticulously counted and catalogued for the upcoming trip. This would ensure that these pieces all arrived so that none were missing. In vs 11 the smaller and less significant pieces are included in the count with a total of 5400 pieces. The chapter concludes with the preparation complete and the exiles about to embark on their journey fully provisioned both form the Babylonians and form the King of Persia himself. We learn from chapter two that 49,897 (2:64-65) Jews made the return to Jerusalem. This would be a 700 mile plus journey of week sand months.
Our circumstances become the laboratory for responding consistent with what we believe is wise. If the will of God is clear then we respond faithfully in that direction. If not, then we pursue a path we believe is most consistent with the heart of God. God will see that you have provision and it may come form the most unusual places. The fact is that God takes care of every detail along the way so we can find our way and fulfill His plan. Even now God is marking your path through life situations.