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  1. 1. Friday Night Genesis, Friday, May 3, 2013. – Ezra Tonight we are looking at the book of Ezra, and we are continuing right where we left off in 2 Chronicles. If you recall, 2 Chronicles ended with both Israel and Judah taken into captivity. Nebuchadnezzar came against Jerusalem 3 times and the final time, in 586 BC, he destroyed the city and just left it to sit in ruins. There were a handful of peasants left to work the surrounding land, but the majority of the population were carried off into captivity and dispersed throughout the Babylonian kingdom. Some of you may remember a hit song from the 70’s called “By the Rivers of Babylon”. What you may or may not realize is that the words of this song were taken from the Bible and come from this period of time. “By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept when we remembered Zion. There on the poplars we hung our harps, for there our captors asked us for songs, our tormentors demanded songs of joy; they said, “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!” How can we sing the songs of the LORD while in a foreign land?” (Psalm 137:1-4) Originally people were thinking that this was temporary, give it a year or two and they will return. Jeremiah the prophet came along and told them to get comfortable, because it will be 70 years before they returned. As the years rolled on and the reality of their situation sank in, the Jews started to cling to the words of prophet Jeremiah. After so many years during which they were in exile and became part of the social landscape of the Babylonian empire, it became difficult to see how it was ever going to be possible for them to return to their land and once again organize as a nation. Unfortunately, God sometimes has to get us to a wall, where there is no apparent way out in order to get our attention. Sometimes it is only when things are hopeless and we cannot see a way through that we will remember and turn to God – the higher power. And for the Jews, this is where God steps in. They may have been considered God’s people, but the Israelites were not the only ones with whom God was working. We saw this time and again throughout the books of the Bible we have read thus far. In Isaiah 45:13 God says: “I will raise up Cyrus in my righteousness: I will make all his ways straight. He will rebuild my city and set my exiles free, but not for a price or reward, says the LORD Almighty.” And so we come to Ezra, which begins with these words: “In the first year of Cyrus king of Persia, in order to fulfill the word of the LORD spoken by Jeremiah, the LORD moved the heart of Cyrus king of Persia to make a proclamation throughout his realm and also to put it in writing: “This is what Cyrus king of Persia says: “‘The LORD, the God of heaven, has given me all the kingdoms of the earth and he has appointed me to build a temple for him at Jerusalem in Judah. Any of his people among
  2. 2. you may go up to Jerusalem in Judah and build the temple of the LORD, the God of Israel, the God who is in Jerusalem, and may their God be with them. And in any locality where survivors may now be living, the people are to provide them with silver and gold, with goods and livestock, and with freewill offerings for the temple of God in Jerusalem.’” Moreover, King Cyrus brought out the articles belonging to the temple of the LORD, which Nebuchadnezzar had carried away from Jerusalem and had placed in the temple of his god.” (Ezra 1:1-4, 7) Here is a “heathen” king, responding to God’s leading and showing such extraordinary insight to say: “The LORD, the God of heaven, has given me all the kingdoms of the earth and he has appointed me to build a temple for him at Jerusalem in Judah.” There is no way that the Jews would have been able to effect such favorable treatment themselves. But God was working with and through Cyrus to restore His people to their homeland and in doing so to restore their relationship. This decree came around 538/537 BC. Zerubbabel and Joshua the high priest then led the people back to Jerusalem reaching it in 536BC. You may imagine that a great mass of people migrated from throughout the Medo-Persian empire back to Jerusalem. You may recall that in the census just before they entered the Promised Land some centuries ago, the Israelites counted over 600,000 of just men over 20 years of age. But Ezra records that barely 50,000 people came back – and this figure includes over 7,000 menservants and maidservants. Just as a comparison – the city of Battle Creek has about 55,000 residents. Out of that whole big nation, those who cared enough to come back and begin the restoration were so few they couldn’t even fully populate the city of Battle Creek. At first things moved fairly quickly. They rebuilt the altar and re-established the daily sacrifices. They then laid the foundation for the new temple. But as the people around them got wind of what was going on, they set out to stop the work. They fought them and intimidated them at every turn. With such a small number of people, it was easy for the Jews to get discouraged and afraid. And so the work on the temple dragged on at a snails pace and eventually ground to a halt. But this was a time of restoration. Yes, it was a time for physical restoration of the nation and their real estate, but it was also a time of restoration in the relations between them and their God. And while God moved the heart of the king to release them to return to Jerusalem, the opposition from local government and peoples overwhelmed them. These 50,000 who cared enough to come back did not know God very well, they were just getting reacquainted, maybe willing to give it another try and see what the stories of old were all about. And so around 520 BC God takes the initiative and sends two prophets to encourage the people to resume the work. These were Haggai and Zechariah, and we’ll get to read some of what they said later on when we get to go through the “minor prophets”. It seems that this was a time when God needed different strokes for different folks, and so He seems to provide leadership in pairs – two people who were completely opposite in the way they approached things. In this instance, Haggai’s message was more of a kick in the back side, chastising the people for getting their own homes squared away
  3. 3. nicely, while the work on the temple had stopped. Zechariah was the one bringing the message of hope, of a bright future for Jerusalem, like the one that we read in our scripture reading. Grandma and grandpa sitting under the shade of a tree in their own yard, watching boys and girls safely playing in the streets. For a Jew family is very important, and so Zechariah paints this heartwarming idyllic picture of the family generations enjoying peace together in Jerusalem. Zechariah also includes messages like these: “Therefore tell the people: This is what the LORD Almighty says: ‘Return to me,’ declares the LORD Almighty, ‘and I will return to you,’” (Zechariah 1:3) and this one “So he said to me, “This is the word of the LORD to Zerubbabel: ‘Not by might nor by power, but by my Spirit,’ says the LORD Almighty. “What are you, mighty mountain? Before Zerubbabel you will become level ground. Then he will bring out the capstone to shouts of ‘God bless it! God bless it!’” Then the word of the LORD came to me: “The hands of Zerubbabel have laid the foundation of this temple; his hands will also complete it. Then you will know that the LORD Almighty has sent me to you.” (Zechariah 4:6-9). God was taking the initiative and encouraging the people to stick with Him, to trust Him and carry on the project to completion. If there was ever going to be anything between the Jews and God again, there had to be mutual trust. And trust can never be demanded, it is only earned. So God sets out to earn the trust of this small remnant in a very tangible way. Thanks to the encouragement of Haggai and Zechariah the work on the temple is resumed, and the surrounding nations and local government once again seek to make trouble. But buoyed by Haggai and Zechariah’s message, instead of cowering, the people of Jerusalem stand up to the challenge. King Cyrus ordered us to build this temple and we will carry on that order until specifically told otherwise. And so while the letters go back and forth and the wheels of bureaucracy turn the work is carrying on. This is where rubber meets the road. God has encouraged them to carry on building, there has been a challenge, they have decided to trust God and stand up to the challenge, and now they are waiting to see what happens. Will God come through for them and work things out or will their trust in God prove to have been misplaced? Will their boldness in carrying on the work cost them everything? Today we may refer to US Mail as “snail mail”. But this was back in the day not just before email, but before anything even resembling today’s mail service. So when the regional governor and his officials came to investigate what they were doing in Jerusalem and sent a letter to the king, they didn’t get a response by the end of the working week. It was a long period of anxiety and anticipation. Of course the king didn’t have a searchable database of documents either. They had to hunt for the necessary documents the old fashioned way. So this is what happened: “King Darius then issued an order, and they searched in the archives stored in the treasury at Babylon. A scroll was found in the citadel of Ecbatana in the province of Media, and this was written on it: Memorandum: In the first year of King Cyrus, the king issued a decree concerning the temple of God in Jerusalem:
  4. 4. Let the temple be rebuilt as a place to present sacrifices, and let its foundations be laid. It is to be sixty cubits high and sixty cubits wide, with three courses of large stones and one of timbers. The costs are to be paid by the royal treasury. Also, the gold and silver articles of the house of God, which Nebuchadnezzar took from the temple in Jerusalem and brought to Babylon, are to be returned to their places in the temple in Jerusalem; they are to be deposited in the house of God. Now then, Tattenai, governor of Trans-Euphrates, and Shethar-Bozenai and you other officials of that province, stay away from there. Do not interfere with the work on this temple of God. Let the governor of the Jews and the Jewish elders rebuild this house of God on its site. Moreover, I hereby decree what you are to do for these elders of the Jews in the construction of this house of God: Their expenses are to be fully paid out of the royal treasury, from the revenues of Trans- Euphrates, so that the work will not stop. Whatever is needed—young bulls, rams, male lambs for burnt offerings to the God of heaven, and wheat, salt, wine and olive oil, as requested by the priests in Jerusalem—must be given them daily without fail, so that they may offer sacrifices pleasing to the God of heaven and pray for the well-being of the king and his sons.” (Ezra 6:1-10) King Darius then goes on to give some teeth to his decree in order to encourage compliance and exhort the governor and his officials to carry out the order with diligence. God had come through for the Jews. He encouraged them to resume building and to carry on building when the challenge arose and now they not only had the permission to build but had all the finance and materiel supplied for them by the kings treasury! What the Jews probably didn’t know was that their God was no stranger to either king Cyrus or king Darius. You may or may not remember Cyrus so much, but I’m sure you remember Darius from your Sabbath School or Sunday School classes. Apart from David and Goliath, what is the best known Bible story? It’s Daniel in the lion’s den, isn’t it? And who put Daniel into the lions den? It was this same king Darius. So Darius was well acquainted with God, and had a personal interest in seeing God honored by having His temple completed in Jerusalem. Darius issued his decree in 520BC and work then carried on until 515 BC when the temple was completed and dedicated. Jews thought they were restoring a building. But in encouraging them and helping them to restore something tangible God was restoring something intangible and far more important. He was restoring their trust in Him and thereby also restoring His relationship with them. Now that they had figured out that things go well when they listen to what God has said, the foundation was laid for another leadership pair with very different approaches: Ezra the priest and Nehemiah the administrator. We shall look at that time period next month when we examine the book of Nehemiah, because the leadership of those two represents a major turning point in Jewish history. What we can take away from the time period that we have looked at tonight is this: God seeks to rebuild and restore what was lost or ruined. God will make the first move,
  5. 5. opening doors and encouraging us to have the courage to step through them and take advantage of the opportunities before us. God will then earn our trust by following through on His promises, overcoming even seemingly insurmountable obstacles to do so. What may surprise us about God the most, are the people whom He may use to make His promises a reality.
  6. 6. opening doors and encouraging us to have the courage to step through them and take advantage of the opportunities before us. God will then earn our trust by following through on His promises, overcoming even seemingly insurmountable obstacles to do so. What may surprise us about God the most, are the people whom He may use to make His promises a reality.