Starting Over By Faith

Posted: February 24, 2011 in Ezra

Ezra 1-3, “Starting Over by Faith” The 1st wave of return

When we were kids, we often asked for “do-overs…”  What do you do when an entire nation needs a “do-over”?  That’s basically where the nation of Judah found itself.  The books of the Chronicles showed the rise of a unified Jewish nation (after a split with the Northern kingdom of Israel) – the Davidic kings & dynasty – and the high point of the nation: the temple of God.  God had chosen for Himself a place for His name to be worshipped, and it was in no other city than Jerusalem, on the mount that King David had seen the visible manifestation of God the Son (the Angel of the Lord) in His holy glory & judgment.  The nation had come together in a monumental effort under King Solomon & built a temple to God that was 2nd to none in the world.  The gold that was used in the temple construction valued beyond the ability to count, and even that was but a pale reflection of the true glory of God in heaven.

Of course along the way, the nation rebelled against God.  Not only had the northern kingdom of Israel rejected God, the southern kingdom of Judah did the same thing.  Sure, they had their brief moments of revival, but all-in-all they were a rebellious nation that followed evil kings & the false gods of the nations around them & God was forced to act in His righteousness.  As the author of Chronicles reminded us: 2 Chronicles 36:16 (16) But they mocked the messengers of God, despised His words, and scoffed at His prophets, until the wrath of the Lord arose against His people, till there was no remedy. []  As a result of their disobedience, God brought the Babylonians upon the nation, destroyed His own temple & had His own people taken into captivity in 3 different waves until no one was left.  For 70 years the land lay desolate as the people of God were placed in a national “time-out.”

Why 70 years?  Partly because in 490 years, the nation had never once obeyed the law of the Sabbath concerning the use of the land, and God gave the land the rest He had originally intended for it (2 Chr 36:21).  Yet the 70 years was also enough time to mete out God’s judgment upon the nation.  Think about it: when Israel had refused to originally enter the promised land, God sentenced the nation to wander in the desert for 40 years while an entire generation died out (save 2 people: Joshua & Caleb).  The rest of the people then learned their lesson & entered the promised land walking by faith.  This time, 70 years pass…almost TWO generations.  Those that would eventually return to the land were only small children when they were 1st taken, and they would have returned as aged men & women.  The challenge that would face this new generation was if THEY would learn the lessons their forefathers had not.

Keep in mind that some things would never be the same.  No longer would there be a Jewish king on the throne in Jerusalem.  They would be ruled by foreign kings that ranged from Persian to Greek to Roman, until they were finally dispersed again for another 2000 years.  The next Jewish king to sit on the throne of Jerusalem will be none other than the Lord Jesus Christ!  Although the people wouldn’t fully understand this, they did know to look towards the promise of God’s Chosen Messiah – the Son of David yet to come.  Thus the people would need to hold to the promises of God by faith until that day.  By faith, they needed to trust that God was still their God & they were still His people.  By faith, they needed to walk in obedience to Him, no matter what the cost.  By faith, they needed to rebuild the temple in order to worship God as He had commanded them.

There will be difficulties along the way & there will be disappointments.  But even given their circumstances & coming off 7 decades of divine discipline, would the Jewish people walk in faith? 

Ezra 1 (NKJV)
1 Now in the first year of Cyrus king of Persia, that the word of the Lord by the mouth of Jeremiah might be fulfilled, the Lord stirred up the spirit of Cyrus king of Persia, so that he made a proclamation throughout all his kingdom, and also put it in writing, saying,

  1. Date = 538BC.  Cyrus & Persia had just conquered Babylon a year earlier (during the reign of Belshazzar).  It didn’t take long for Cyrus to be moved by the Lord.
  2. These 1st couple of verses are nearly mentioned word-for-word from the end of 2 Chronicles.  Originally, Ezra-Nehemiah were all compiled as one book, but it’s a natural follow-up with the Chronicles and it makes sense to repeat a bit (even if a scribe had added it at some point).
  3. Note 1st and foremost that this is all the work of God.  It was prophesied by God & the actions of the king of Persia were stirred up by God.  IOW, it wasn’t because Cyrus was such a good & benevolent king that he returned the Jews back to their homeland, it was because Almighty God had inspired him to do so.  The Jews might be rightfully grateful to Cyrus for his actions & obedience, but ultimately they were to be most grateful to God for His mercy & grace!  God had originally brought them into the land – God in His righteous discipline took them out of the land – and God in His great mercy & faithfulness to His promise brought them back into the land as well.  This was absolutely crucial for the people to remember: their lives were in the hand of Almighty God & HE was the one they needed to trust.  Not their own manipulations – not the false gods of the nations around them – they had seen the work & hand of the One True God & they needed to trust HIM.
    1. All of this had been proclaimed by God through the prophets – specifically Jeremiah.  Jeremiah 29:10-14 (10) For thus says the Lord: After seventy years are completed at Babylon, I will visit you and perform My good word toward you, and cause you to return to this place. (11) For I know the thoughts that I think toward you, says the Lord, thoughts of peace and not of evil, to give you a future and a hope. (12) Then you will call upon Me and go and pray to Me, and I will listen to you. (13) And you will seek Me and find Me, when you search for Me with all your heart. (14) I will be found by you, says the Lord, and I will bring you back from your captivity; I will gather you from all the nations and from all the places where I have driven you, says the Lord, and I will bring you to the place from which I cause you to be carried away captive. []
    2. Long before the captivity ever took place, God had told them what to expect.  All the people needed to do was trust God & walk by faith!  How much more with us?  God has told us many things to expect: trials & tribulations (Jn 16:33), the promise of the presence of the Holy Spirit (Jn 14:27), the soon return of the Lord Jesus (Jn 14:2) & much more.  What do we do in the meantime?  Trust God & walk by faith!
  4. BTW – can God use a pagan gentile king for His own purposes?  Absolutely!  God showed that He would use the pagans for His discipline (Babylon) AND that He would use them for His mercy (Persia).  If God did it then, we need to trust that God still does it today.  There are kings & rulers in the world that absolutely hate God & His people, but ultimately the Lord Jesus can still use those kings however He sees fit for His own glory.

2 Thus says Cyrus king of Persia: All the kingdoms of the earth the Lord God of heaven has given me. And He has commanded me to build Him a house at Jerusalem which is in Judah. 3 Who is among you of all His people? May his God be with him, and let him go up to Jerusalem which is in Judah, and build the house of the Lord God of Israel (He is God), which is in Jerusalem. 4 And whoever is left in any place where he dwells, let the men of his place help him with silver and gold, with goods and livestock, besides the freewill offerings for the house of God which is in Jerusalem.

  1. The proclamation of Cyrus recognizes several things:
    1. He recognizes the gift of God: Cyrus hadn’t received the empire because of his skill; it was the gift of God that entrusted him with the nations of the world.  God had specifically spoken of Cyrus around 150 years earlier through the prophet Isaiah (Isa 44:28); it’s quite possible he learned this directly from Daniel as Daniel may have read the Scripture to him after the fall of Babylon.
    2. He recognizes the word & command of God: However he learned of the command of God (either by revelation, or through Daniel’s instruction in the Scriptures), he recognized it for what it was & submitted himself to it.  God commanded Cyrus to build the temple, so he was going to see it built.
    3. He recognizes the people of God: If there was a temple to be built, there needed to be a people who worshipped God in that temple.  Cyrus does not (like the Babylonians) attempt to force people to worship false gods they do not recognize; nor did he (like the Assyrians) attempt to dilute the people through interbreeding.  Instead he understands that the Jewish people belong to the Lord & they needed to worship Him.
    4. He recognizes that God IS God: Obviously Cyrus may not have been a worshipper of God (history indicates he was not), but at the very least he recognized that the God of Israel IS the true God of the Universe.
    5. All of this from a Gentile king!  Amazing!  Would that more Christians recognize the hand & gifting of God, the word of God, the people of God, and the sovereignty of God…
  2. In all of this, there are three basic commands: (1) Go up – (2) build the temple again – (3) provide for the work through finances.  Cyrus basically releases the people to the work, but he doesn’t do the work for them.  Instead, he takes the obstacles out of their way in order that they would do what God had commanded them.  (That’s really the most we can ask of our government – that they would simply not interfere with our worship in order that we can lead quiet lives of faith. 1 Tim 2:2)

5 Then the heads of the fathers’ houses of Judah and Benjamin, and the priests and the Levites, with all whose spirits God had moved, arose to go up and build the house of the Lord which is in Jerusalem. 6 And all those who were around them encouraged them with articles of silver and gold, with goods and livestock, and with precious things, besides all that was willingly offered.

  1. They were told to do it & they followed through.  Obviously not everyone who was of the nation of Israel left; just those whom God had specifically “moved” to do so.  Others would return when it was their time; not everyone would be equipped to work in such a ground-breaking stage as the nation would be in.
    1. Work in your gifting…that’s part of why God made us a “Body…”
  2. Those who weren’t able to build were able to give, and they did so generously.  (It’s not accidental that this is reminiscent of the Egyptian exodus.  The waves of return from captivity could be viewed as a 2nd Exodus.)

7 King Cyrus also brought out the articles of the house of the Lord, which Nebuchadnezzar had taken from Jerusalem and put in the temple of his gods; 8 and Cyrus king of Persia brought them out by the hand of Mithredath the treasurer, and counted them out to Sheshbazzar the prince of Judah.

  1. Cyrus not only returned the people of God back to the land, but he returned the things of God.  Remember that the temple had been plundered through the years – especially the temple treasuries that Hezekiah had originally showed to the ambassadors of Babylon (generations prior to the captivity).  Now Cyrus sends it all back. 

9 This is the number of them: thirty gold platters, one thousand silver platters, twenty-nine knives, 10 thirty gold basins, four hundred and ten silver basins of a similar kind, and one thousand other articles. 11 All the articles of gold and silver were five thousand four hundred. All these Sheshbazzar took with the captives who were brought from Babylon to Jerusalem.

  1. A careful inventory of the items.
  2. Question: why does God care about plates, knives, basins, etc?  What would be the reason for listing it here?  Scripture doesn’t tell us specifically, but perhaps it’s because all these items were sanctified for use in worship.  Once something was set aside as holy to the Lord, it was only supposed to be used for the Lord.  [Remember the censers that were brought by those who were jealous of Aaron…  God commanded that the censers be used in worship because they were holy – even if the people who originally had offered them were not.]  Specifically with the temple items, they had been used by one of the kings of Babylon in defiled use… (Belshazzar – Dan 5)
  3. More to the point, if God pays this much attention to “things” that have been sanctified for His use, how much more does God pay attention to His people who have been sanctified by the work of Jesus Christ?

Ezra 2 (NKJV)
1 Now these are the people of the province who came back from the captivity, of those who had been carried away, whom Nebuchadnezzar the king of Babylon had carried away to Babylon, and who returned to Jerusalem and Judah, everyone to his own city.

  1. Again, we need to emphasize that although Nebuchadnezzar was the king God used in all of this, it was God who brought all of this to pass.  Scripture makes it absolutely clear that God brought the king of the Chaldeans (Babylonians) against Judah (2 Chr 36:17).  Yes, the Babylonian empire was cruel & encompassed the entire MidEast, but Judah would not have been taken if God had not specifically allowed it.

2 Those who came with Zerubbabel were Jeshua, Nehemiah, Seraiah, Reelaiah, Mordecai, Bilshan, Mispar, Bigvai, Rehum, and Baanah. The number of the men of the people of Israel:
[vss 3-58: names of various families]

  1. Simply a ton of families are listed here!  Why all the specifics?  There are several possible reasons.
    1. Every person is valuable to God.  Every time we see a listing of names we cannot pronounce, we ought to be reminded how valuable individual people are to the Lord.  These may be names we’ve never heard of, but their families knew them – and most importantly, GOD knows them.  (Which ought to give us much encouragement!  We may not have huge international ministries, but God knows our name…)
    2. Family trees show God’s faithfulness to the Abrahamic covenant.  God had promised to make Abraham, Isaac, and Israel a great nation.  God had been absolutely faithful to His promise, and thus we saw the kingdom.  Yet God’s promise did not change or go void when the people went into captivity.  They may have been captives for 70 years, but the nation endured, and God’s promise was kept.
    3. Family trees show God’s faithfulness to the Levitical priesthood.  If the people were to worship God correctly, they needed to be able to do so according to His commands.  This would have been impossible if all the genealogical records were destroyed.  How would people know which families could serve as Levites or in the priesthood?  By keeping the records alive, God made a way for His people to worship Him.
    4. Family trees show God’s faithfulness to the Davidic covenant.  By far, this was most important!  By continuing the family trees, God continued the Davidic line on to Messiah. 
  2. Even though we are primarily comprised of Gentiles, we can still take much joy in the lists of the various Jewish families. Spiritually speaking, WE are part of this same family!  By faith, we are children of Abraham (Gal 3:7).  We are grafted into these same promises (Rom 11:17).  We have been given the spirit of adoption by our Heavenly Father (Rom 8:15).  When we see the faithfulness of God to His people Israel, we can rejoice that this is OUR Heavenly Father and WE are His special people, called by His name!

 

59 And these were the ones who came up from Tel Melah, Tel Harsha, Cherub, Addan, and Immer; but they could not identify their father’s house or their genealogy, whether they were of Israel: [vss. 60-61 list the families…] 62 These sought their listing among those who were registered by genealogy, but they were not found; therefore they were excluded from the priesthood as defiled.

  1. Again, we see the importance of genealogies here.  There were some who would serve as priests, but had no way of proving it – thus they were excluded from service.  Harsh?  Perhaps – but that just goes to underscore the utmost seriousness of it.  Only a very select few in the nation of Israel could serve as priests.  First, they had to be of the tribe of Levi (as opposed to the other 11 tribes).  Secondly, they had to be of the line of Aaron (as opposed to Moses or Kohath or anyone else).  This was a very specific calling by God & could not be taken lightly.  King Uzziah learned this the hard way! [2 Chr 26:16]
  2. Keep in mind that WE are a made a royal priesthood of God through Christ (1 Pet 2:9).  This is not something we can obtain for ourselves; we have to be brought into this priesthood.  More than that, we need to be born into the priesthood.  Thereby we have a new birth of the Holy Spirit (Jn 3:8)…  By receiving Christ as Lord, we have been given the right to become the children of God as we’re born of God (Jn 1:12-13).  HE then makes us His priests by His work & blood.

63 And the governor said to them that they should not eat of the most holy things till a priest could consult with the Urim and Thummim.

  1. Praise God for His grace!  There may not have been any genealogical records for some of the priestly families, but God still made a provision for them to verify their right to serve as priests.  We don’t know exactly how the Urim & Thummim worked (and it’s amazing that they survived the captivity!), but it was seen as God’s supernatural decision on any given matters.  This would be seen as the voice of God determining someone’s ability to serve as priest.

64 The whole assembly together was forty-two thousand three hundred and sixty, 65 besides their male and female servants, of whom there were seven thousand three hundred and thirty-seven; and they had two hundred men and women singers. 66 Their horses were seven hundred and thirty-six, their mules two hundred and forty-five, 67 their camels four hundred and thirty-five, and their donkeys six thousand seven hundred and twenty.

  1. Bottom line, nearly 50K people returned in the 1st wave.  They were counted so precisely, even the number of donkeys was recorded!

68 Some of the heads of the fathers’ houses, when they came to the house of the Lord which is in Jerusalem, offered freely for the house of God, to erect it in its place: 69 According to their ability, they gave to the treasury for the work sixty-one thousand gold drachmas, five thousand minas of silver, and one hundred priestly garments.

  1. More financial giving is recorded.  People were generous for the work of the Lord!  We can see the influence of the exile just in the monetary currency.  No longer are “shekels” used as the standard, but the Persian “drachma & minas.”  Basically, 1100 pounds of gold & 3 tons of silver are represented.

70 So the priests and the Levites, some of the people, the singers, the gatekeepers, and the Nethinim, dwelt in their cities, and all Israel in their cities.

  1. Although much of our focus is going to be on Jerusalem, note that it’s not just Jerusalem that is repopulated.  All the land of Israel is being given back to God’s people. 

Ezra 3 (NKJV)
1 And when the seventh month had come, and the children of Israel were in the cities, the people gathered together as one man to Jerusalem.

  1. Was 7 months too long for a national assembly?  Not really.  Keep in mind this was long before planes, trains, and automobiles.  It took time for people to get back in the land & get settled.  7 months seems to actually be very quick – coming together for worship was a top priority for them.

2 Then Jeshua the son of Jozadak and his brethren the priests, and Zerubbabel the son of Shealtiel and his brethren, arose and built the altar of the God of Israel, to offer burnt offerings on it, as it is written in the Law of Moses the man of God. 3 Though fear had come upon them because of the people of those countries, they set the altar on its bases; and they offered burnt offerings on it to the Lord, both the morning and evening burnt offerings.

  1. Typically the days of building altars for worship were long gone; the law specified that they were to only offer sacrifices at the place of God’s choosing (Dt 12:13-14).  Technically they were still doing that in Jerusalem; it’s just that the temple didn’t exist any longer.  If they were going to offer sacrifices at all, it had to be on a newly constructed altar.
  2. That’s not to say that their act of sacrifice didn’t come with its own problems.  By erecting an altar in Israel, they were officially declaring to the nations around them that the Jewish people were back – and that had the potential to invite all sorts of conflict from their neighbors who had long been at war with them.  Jerusalem was still in rubble all around them (it won’t be until Nehemiah that the protective wall is rebuilt); the people would be vulnerable to all sorts of attack.  Yet, they persist in worshipping God despite their fear of persecution.
    1. Christians all over the world make this same decision every day!

4 They also kept the Feast of Tabernacles, as it is written, and offered the daily burnt offerings in the number required by ordinance for each day. 5 Afterwards they offered the regular burnt offering, and those for New Moons and for all the appointed feasts of the Lord that were consecrated, and those of everyone who willingly offered a freewill offering to the Lord.

  1. Every possible act of worship that could be restored at this time was restored.  (1) The appointed feasts… (2) The daily offerings for the nation… (3) The freewill offerings from the people…

6 From the first day of the seventh month they began to offer burnt offerings to the Lord, although the foundation of the temple of the Lord had not been laid.

  1. Obviously not everything regarding worship could be restored.  Apparently the people no longer had access to the old Tabernacle built by Moses & of course the temple was still in ruins, without even a foundation for the building.  Thus the priests could not bring incense, attend to the showbread, care for the lampstand, etc.  All they could do was offer offerings on their hastily built altar outside.  The foundation for the temple needed to be re-laid if any other worship according to God’s command would be done.
  2. Today, we don’t have that kind of temple.  As the Church, WE are the temple of the Holy Spirit (1 Cor 3:16).  Beyond that, we have our foundation in Jesus Christ & no other foundation can be laid!  1 Corinthians 3:10-11 (10) According to the grace of God which was given to me, as a wise master builder I have laid the foundation, and another builds on it. But let each one take heed how he builds on it. (11) For no other foundation can anyone lay than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ. []

7 They also gave money to the masons and the carpenters, and food, drink, and oil to the people of Sidon and Tyre to bring cedar logs from Lebanon to the sea, to Joppa, according to the permission which they had from Cyrus king of Persia.

  1. More attention to financial giving – but it makes sense here.  If the temple was to be rebuilt & the foundation re-formed, then building materials needed to be purchased.  All of this would take money & a bit of time.

8 Now in the second month of the second year of their coming to the house of God at Jerusalem, Zerubbabel the son of Shealtiel, Jeshua the son of Jozadak, and the rest of their brethren the priests and the Levites, and all those who had come out of the captivity to Jerusalem, began work and appointed the Levites from twenty years old and above to oversee the work of the house of the Lord. 9 Then Jeshua with his sons and brothers, Kadmiel with his sons, and the sons of Judah, arose as one to oversee those working on the house of God: the sons of Henadad with their sons and their brethren the Levites.

  1. A few months later, the building materials had arrived & construction could begin.  The work was organized & done in an orderly fashion.
  2. Note the unity that was displayed here.  All the appointed families “arose as one to oversee those working on the house of God.” They had a unity of purpose & mind as they set to do the work.  We see the same principle reflected in the NT church whenever the apostles & the others were found of “one accord.” (Acts 2:1,30,46 – before & after Pentecost)  Similarly, this is the Lord Jesus’ prayer for His Church today.  His desire is that Christians would be unified just like Jesus is one with the Father.  We’re to have a unity of purpose – unity of love – unity of focus – unity of doctrine & more.  When the Church is united as one, the world can’t help but take notice! John 17:20-21 (20) “I do not pray for these alone, but also for those who will believe in Me through their word; (21) that they all may be one, as You, Father, are in Me, and I in You; that they also may be one in Us, that the world may believe that You sent Me. []

10 When the builders laid the foundation of the temple of the Lord, the priests stood in their apparel with trumpets, and the Levites, the sons of Asaph, with cymbals, to praise the Lord, according to the ordinance of David king of Israel. 11 And they sang responsively, praising and giving thanks to the Lord: “For He is good, For His mercy endures forever toward Israel.” Then all the people shouted with a great shout, when they praised the Lord, because the foundation of the house of the Lord was laid.

  1. The completion of the foundation was worth giving God praise!  Why?  It was the 1st step in seeing the completion of the temple.  It was symbolic of the fact that God had truly brought His people back into the land and that God was always faithful to His promises.
  2. Do we have any similar milestones with which to see the faithfulness of God?  Of course – the most obvious is the cross & empty tomb!

12 But many of the priests and Levites and heads of the fathers’ houses, old men who had seen the first temple, wept with a loud voice when the foundation of this temple was laid before their eyes. Yet many shouted aloud for joy, 13 so that the people could not discern the noise of the shout of joy from the noise of the weeping of the people, for the people shouted with a loud shout, and the sound was heard afar off.

  1. Although many rejoiced at the sight of the new foundation, others were grieved.  Apparently the new structure simply didn’t compare to the glories of the 1st temple.  Those who were now old, but young enough to remember the original temple (from over 70 years before) wept aloud at the contrast.
  2. Question: were the people right to grieve?  After all, seeing the foundation built again was a major accomplishment & spoke of the faithfulness of God.  Why not simply rejoice at what God had done?  Although we have no idea what they were thinking, it’s quite possible that it’s not so much that they were not grateful to God, but rather more overwhelmed with grief at the thought of what they had originally lost. (Including the presence of the Shekinah glory of God!)
    1. We have forgiveness in Christ, but sometimes we also have consequences to our sin that last the rest of our lives.
    2. Yet don’t let the consequences steer you away from rejoicing in the goodness & grace of God!  Better to be a doorkeeper in the house of God than to dwell in the tents of wickedness (Ps 84:10).  Even the very least we have from God is FAR better than anything we could find in the world.

Conclusion:

God shows that He is faithful!  He brought the people out of captivity (every single family known by name! – He brought them back into the land of promise – He equipped them to rebuild the temple.  He is a merciful & faithful God!  We can rejoice in every opportunity He gives us…

What do we do with those God-given opportunities?  Will we step forward in faith – even if our circumstances are uncertain?

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