Today we’re beginning a new series of sermons on the books of Ezra and Nehemiah. The book of Ezra tells us how the Israelites returned from exile and rebuilt first the altar and then the temple in Jerusalem which had both been destroyed whenever Jerusalem had fallen to the Babylonians years before. The book of Nehemiah tells the subsequent story of how the returned exiles under the leadership of Nehemiah rebuilt the walls of Jerusalem which had been destroyed by the Babylonians.
Since both of these books are about building — building the altar, building the temple, and building the walls — I’ve often heard ministers preach from these two books whenever their church is undergoing some kind of building project. You know, there’s a plan to rebuild the church building or to add an extension to the church halls; and so, the minister will preach on these books to motivate the people to get behind the building project and support it as best they can. On the other hand, since Ezra and especially Nehemiah are considered to be great leaders, I’ve also heard ministers preach on these books in order to instruct their people about what it takes to be a leader in the church. And so, they mine these books for tips about being an effective leader like Nehemiah was.
However, to use the books of Ezra and Nehemiah to motivate congregations to support a building project or to learn to be a leader is to forget why God has given us his word. God has given us his word to reveal to us what he has done to deliver his people from their sin and misery by his Son, so that they might live with him forever and ever in glory. That’s what the Bible is about from beginning to end. It’s not about motivating God’s people to support a building project. It’s not about learning how to be a leader. It’s about what God has done to redeem his people and to give them eternal life in his presence. And so, as we turn to study these two books — the books of Ezra and Nehemiah — that should be our focus. What does this tell us about Jesus Christ, God’s Son, our Redeemer? And what does this tell us about the great hope of the gospel which is everlasting life in God’s presence?
Before we turn to chapter 1 of Ezra, let me fill you in on the historical background. And the historical background to the book of Ezra begins as everything else does in the Garden of Eden. God placed his people — Adam and Eve — in the Garden of Eden, which was the place he had prepared for them. And while they were in the Garden of Eden — which was really a kind of temple — they enjoyed the presence of God, because God would come and meet with them in the temple-garden. The Tree of Life in the centre of the temple-garden held out to them the promise of everlasting life in God’s presence. However, Adam disobeyed the Lord; and he and his wife were sent out of the Garden; and the Lord himself withdrew to heaven. From time to time, the Lord would appear to certain people; and in due course, he revealed himself to Abraham and made clear that he has chosen Abraham and his descendants to be his special people in the world and to give them a land to live in where they would enjoy his presence. And sure enough, in the days of Moses, when God’s chosen people were slaves in Egypt, the Lord God came to their rescue and he led them our of the land of their captivity, and he brought them through the wilderness and into the Promised Land of Canaan, a land flowing with milk and honey, a land like the Garden of Eden where they had all that they needed and where they were able to enjoy the presence of the Lord, because the Lord promised to dwell among them in the temple in Jerusalem.
The Lord had chosen them; and he had saved them from captivity; and he had brought them to the Promised Land. He gave his people prophets to declare to them the will of the Lord; he gave them priests to offer up sacrifices to atone for their sins; and he gave them kings to lead and protect them; and he filled their lives with good things.
But over the years, despite the Lord’s loving-kindness and faithfulness, the people turned away from the Lord. Instead of loving, trusting and worshipping him above all other things, they bowed down to idols. Instead of walking in his ways and doing his will, they broke his laws and commandments. They disobeyed him again and again and again; and though the Lord sent them prophets to warn them and to call on them to repent, the people refused to listen. And so, eventually the Lord did to them what he had warned he would do: he let their enemies invade the land and defeat them in battle so that they were taken away into exile. Just as Adam and Eve were sent out of the temple-garden of Eden, so the Israelites were sent out of the Eden-like Promised Land. You can read in the books of 1 and 2 Kings about their sin and rebellion and how they were taken captive. Jerusalem fell to the Babylonians and many of the people — including Daniel and his three friends — were taken away to Babylon between the years of 604 to 562 BC when Nebuchadnezzar was King of Babylon. The city of Jerusalem, including the temple within it, was destroyed, and many of the holy objects which were kept in the temple and which had been used to worship the Lord were taken away and stored in the treasury in Babylon.
That’s the background to the books of Ezra and Nehemiah. God’s people were meant to dwell in the place God has prepared for them where they could enjoy his presence with them. But because of their sin and rebellion, God’s people were taken away from the place God has prepared for them and they no longer enjoyed his presence with them. But in chapter 1 of Ezra, we discover that though the people had been unfaithful to the Lord, he remained faithful to them. Though he had sent them out of the land and away from his presence, he had not abandoned them forever; and it was always his intention to deliver his people from exile and to bring them back to the Promised Land. Just as God had once rescued his people from captivity in Egypt, and brought them to the Promised Land, so he was going to rescue his people from exile in Babylon, and bring them back to the Promised Land. And all of this foretold how God would one day send his Son into the world to rescue his people from this present, evil age so that we might live with him for ever and ever in the glory to come. The way God rescued his people from exile points forward to the way God rescues his people from our sin and misery in this fallen world to give us eternal life in his presence. And so, we ought to trust in Jesus Christ, our Great Redeemer, who suffered in the place of sinners when he died on the cross, in order to bring us to God.
Verses 1 to 5
Having said all that by way of introduction, let’s turn to Ezra 1 which can be divided into two parts. In verses 1 to 5 we read how the Lord stirred up the heart of Cyrus, King of Persia, as well as the hearts of the people. And then in verses 6 to 11 we read how the exiles returned to the Promised Land with great riches.
And so, we read in verse 1 that in the first year of Cyrus, king of Persia, the Lord moved Cyrus’s heart to make a proclamation throughout his realm concerning the people of Israel and how he was allowing them to return to their own country.
Cyrus was the king of Persia, and he led his army in victory over the Babylonians. If you’re familiar with the book of Daniel, we read about the fall of Babylon in Daniel 5 and how Cyrus — who was also known as Darius the Mede — took over the Babylonian Empire. Darius the Mede — also known as Cyrus — was the king who threw Daniel into the den of lions.
And we’re told here that the Lord moved Cyrus’s heart in order to make this declaration. This is a reminder to us of what we read in Proverbs 21:1 that the king’s heart is in the hand of the Lord; and he directs it wherever he pleases. Or as our Shorter Catechism teaches us: God controls his creatures and all their actions. Now, think about that for a moment. When someone relies on how things seem to them, it seems to them that we’re the ones who are in control. You know, we have an idea to do something; we make our plans; and we carry them out. Today I decided to do this, and I did it. The day before I decided to do something else, and I did it. Whenever we rely on how things seem to us, that’s the way the world seems to work. However, when we rely on God’s word and on what he has revealed to us about the way the world really works, we discover that in fact he’s in control of us and our actions; and while we make our plans and carry them out, and while we’re responsible for our sins, nevertheless in some mysterious way that is beyond our understanding, God is standing behind us and he’s able to direct us and control us and move us according to his own plans and purposes.
And so, here’s this great and mighty king, King Cyrus, who is the king of the great Persian Empire. And he had in mind to issue this proclamation about the Israelites. If you were there and asked him about it, he would have said it was his idea and it was all part of his plan. In fact, the historians tell us that he not only allowed the Israelites to return to their homeland, but he did the same for other nations who had been captured by the Babylonians. It was one the new policies which he introduced to send home those who had been taken captive by the Babylonians. And if you asked him about it, and if you asked him whether he felt constrained to do this, or whether someone had forced him to do it, he would have said:
No, of course not. I’m a great and mighty king and no one forces me to do anything.
And yet, God’s word makes clear that the reason Cyrus issued this proclamation was because the Lord moved his heart. Standing behind the great King Cyrus there was an even greater King: the Lord God Almighty who controls his creatures and all their actions.
And so, when we worry about what this ruler will do and what that ruler will do, when we worry about what kings and queens and presidents and prime ministers will do, we should remember and believe that the Lord God Almighty is in control of all things; and he’s working out his plans and purposes through them. Whatever happens here on earth, we need to remember that our God is on his throne in heaven and he rules over all.
Ezra also mentions the prophet Jeremiah. Do you see that in verse 1? And the reason he mentions Jeremiah is because in Jeremiah 25 God had foretold that his people would remain in exile for 70 years, but then the Lord will punish the Babylonians. So, the Lord announced in advance through the prophet Jeremiah that after 70 years in exile the people would return. And while there’s some uncertainty now as to when the 70 years began and when it ended, here in Ezra 1 we’re reminded that Cyrus’s proclamation was the fulfilment of God’s promise through Jeremiah. Just as he said would happen, the Babylonians were destroyed and the people were able to return home.
In fact, years before any of these things happened, years before Cyrus was even born, the Lord foretold through the prophet Isaiah that a king called Cyrus would come who would rebuild Jerusalem and its temple. You can read that prophecy in Isaiah 44. And it really is remarkable, because before Cyrus was born, before the Israelites were taken into exile even, the Lord foretold that the ruined city would be rebuilt by a king called Cyrus. The Lord is the everlasting God who knows all things including what the future holds, because he’s the one who controls his creatures and all their actions according to his own plans and purposes.
Back in Ezra 1, the Lord moved Cyrus’s heart to issue this proclamation. And in the proclamation, he acknowledged that the Lord, the God of heaven, had given him all the kingdoms of the earth. Now, there’s no evidence that Cyrus was a believer. As I’ve said before, this proclamation was part of his policy to send home all those who had been taken captive by the Babylonians. And as part of this new policy, the Persians allowed each nation to worship whichever god or gods they liked. The Persians had their own gods which Cyrus worshipped; but apparently it made political sense to Cyrus to respect other religions.
But he goes on in his proclamation to say that the Lord appointed him to build a temple for him in Jerusalem. Well, whether he really believed this or not, nevertheless it was true, because the Lord God Almighty chose him to be the one to rebuild the temple in Jerusalem.
And then, in his proclamation Cyrus invited any of the Israelites to go up to Jerusalem to build the temple. Furthermore, those Israelites who were not willing to go or were not able to go should provide those who go with silver and gold and goods and livestock and with other freewill offerings to support the work.
And so, we read in verse 5 how the family heads of Judah and Benjamin and the priests and Levites — everyone whose heart God had moved — prepared to go up and to build the house of the Lord in Jerusalem. Not all of them wanted to go: some were perhaps too old to leave Babylon; others perhaps had settled into their life in Babylon and were quite content to remain there; and after all, some of them had never been to Jerusalem, but were born in exile. So, not everyone wanted to go. Nevertheless, just as the Lord moved Cyrus’s heart to issue the proclamation, so the Lord worked in the hearts of some of the people so that they were prepared to leave Babylon and return to the Promised Land.
And, of course, if we think of the gospel now, the invitation to turn from our old life of sin and rebellion and to turn with faith to the Saviour for eternal life is made to all. God promises eternal life to all who will believe in his Son. But so many of those who hear the invitation and all of God’s promises are not willing to take up the offer and to repent and believe. They’re satisfied with their life the way it is; and they have no desire to leave their old life and to become a member of Christ’s kingdom. In fact, we’re all like that, because all of us — by nature — are dead in our trespasses and sins; and we’re unable to respond to the gospel invitation. We’re spiritually dead and we’re unable to believe by ourselves. But God is gracious to us; and he sends his Spirit to change the hearts of his people and to move them so that they’re able to respond to the gospel invitation and to repent of their sins and to trust in the Saviour. And so, if you’re a believer, if you’re trusting in Christ for forgiveness and eternal life, then you owe it all to God, because not only did he send his Son to die for you, but he sent his Spirit into your heart to enable you to repent and believe. And so, you should humble yourself before him, and give thanks to God for his kindness towards you.
Verses 6 to 11
In the following verses we read how the exiles returned with great riches. And so, we read in verse 6 that all their neighbours assisted them with articles of silver and gold and with goods and livestock and other freewill offerings. That obviously refers back to Cyrus’s decree in verse 4 and shows how it was fulfilled. And then in verse 7 we read that Cyrus brought out the holy objects which Nebuchadnezzar had taken from the temple in Jerusalem and returned them to this man, Sheshbazzar, who is called the prince of Judah. According to chapter 5, Cyrus appointed this man to be governor over Israel.
If you’re good at mental arithmetic, you’ll notice that the numbers listed in verses 9 and 10 don’t add up to the total figure in verse 11. We believe, of course, that when God inspired men to write his word, his word was true and free from error. However, it’s possible that some small discrepancy was introduced when the original text was being translated or copied. The main point, though, is that the Lord’s holy objects were being returned to the temple. And so, when the exiles left Babylon, they did not return empty-handed, but they were laden with gold and silver from their neighbours and with the Lord’s holy objects.
This recalls what happened when the Lord rescued his people from captivity in Egypt. Though they were slaves in Egypt, they did not leave empty-handed, because the Lord said in Exodus 11 that when they leave Egypt, they were to ask their neighbours for articles of silver and gold. And then, in Exodus 12, we read how the Lord made the Egyptians look with favour on the Israelites so that they gave them whatever they asked for. And so, just as the Israelites left Egypt, laden with silver and gold, so the Israelites left Babylon laden with silver and gold. This helps us to see that the exile from Babylon was like a second exodus, for the Lord had once again come to rescue his people from their misery in order to lead them to the Promised Land.
And just as the Lord rescued the Israelites from Egypt and from Babylon, so he rescues his people in every generation from our sin and misery in this fallen world. He rescued his people from Egypt by the hand of Moses, his servant. He recused his people from Babylon by the hand of Cyrus the King. And he rescues sinners in every generation from our sin and misery by Christ who is God’s Anointed King and who gave himself for our sins when he died on the cross; and whoever believes in him as the only Saviour of the world is delivered from the present evil age. And just as the exiles looked forward to returning to the Promised Land, which was their true home, so we’re looking forward to coming into the new heaven and earth which is our true home, where we will be with the Lord for ever and for ever in glory.
But whoever does not repent and believe in the Saviour, will one day by sent away from the presence of the Lord forever. The Lord Jesus Christ will come again in glory and with power to judge all people everywhere. And whoever believes in him in this life will be pardoned by God and invited to go in to enjoy everlasting life in the presence of the Lord. But all those who refused to repent and believe in him will be condemned by God and sent away from the presence of the Lord to be punished forever. And so, you need to repent and believe in the only Saviour of the world, because he suffered in the place of sinners in order to bring us to God; and through faith in him, we receive the assurance of sins forgiven and the hope of everlasting life in his presence.
And as a foretaste of that day, when we will come into God’s presence in glory to be with him forever, we gather around the Lord’s Table today, to remember how Christ died for us; and to look forward to the day when he comes again to bring us to God and to the new heaven and earth which is our Promised Land.