Warren Wiersbe writes in his Introduction to the Book of Ezra: ‘“Thank God He gives us difficult things to do!” said Oswald Chambers in My Utmost for His Highest. The first time I read that statement, I shook my head in disagreement, but I was young and inexperienced then, and it seemed smarter to do the easy things that made me look successful. However, I’ve lived long enough to understand the wisdom of Chambers’ statement. I’ve learned that when God tells us to do difficult things, it’s because He wants us to grow. Unlike modern-day press agents and spin doctors, God doesn’t manufacture synthetic heroes; He grows the real thing. “The hero was a big man,” wrote Daniel Boorstin; “the celebrity is a big name.” In God’s Hall of Heroes are the names of nearly 50,000 Jews who in 538 BC left captivity in Babylon for responsibility in Jerusalem. God had called them back home to do a difficult job: to rebuild the temple and the city and restore the Jewish community in their own land. This noble venture involved a four months’ journey plus a great deal of faith, courage, and sacrifice; and even after they arrived in the Holy City, life didn’t get any easier. But as you read the inspired record, you can see the providential leading of the Lord from start to finish; and “if God be for us, who can be against us?” (Rom. 8:31)’”.
Not much has changed in 2500 years - what was true for Jewish believers in Ezra’s time, is still true for believers today. God is calling us to exhibit the same kind of faith, trust and courage the returning exiles had. When we look at the state of our country and our church, we are tempted to say, ‘this virus has locked us down, stopped our ministry, ended our fellowship as believers, because we cannot meet together.’ We may feel like we are in exile, with no light at the end of the tunnel and no hope in sight. However, the book of Ezra reminds us not to give up hope. Even in their darkest time as exiles, God was still faithful to his people. His purposes and plans, His preparation and provision, is much greater than we could ever imagine. As we embark on our new series “Rebuilding God’s Community”, we see how God’s Providence and Provision are already in place for those who are faithful. For very soon, our lockdown exile will end and we will come together to worship God in the same space.
1. God’s Providence vs. 1-4
God’s purposes and plans can never been distorted, diverted, or derailed by sin, Satan, or what world governments do. God’s Word tells us, God both knows and makes everything work according to His specific design. This is called God’s Providence, which is His foreknowledge and control over the events of nature, history, and humanity, to fulfil His desired objective. Nowhere in the Bible is this more evident than in God’s treatment of Israel, before, during and after the exile. God’s people have been in captivity in Babylon since the destruction of the city of Jerusalem and God’s temple by King Nebuchadnezzar almost 70 years before. They have been desperately waiting for God’s Word to be fulfilled. Ezra tells us this happened: “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 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.’”
The book of Ezra is one of the most stunning and powerful examples of God’s Word through prophecy, being converted into history. God’s people are in Babylon, because of their stubborn, sinful and rebellious hearts. Both Isaiah and Jeremiah the prophet, had declared this would take place, because the people had rejected God. However, they also proclaimed that in the midst of despair, God would still come and comfort his people and bring them home. Isaiah said this would happen through a pagan king, named Cyrus; Jeremiah declared the people would be in exile for 70 years. So as Cyrus came to power, God’s word spoken through the prophet Jeremiah was fulfilled “when seventy years are completed for Babylon, I will come to you and for fall my good promise to bring you back to this place 29:10.” The most important lessons we learn in these opening verses of Ezra, is that God’s Word can be trusted, His promises will be fulfilled, He does not and will not forget His people. Their long night of exile is over and the bright dawn of freedom is about to begin.
Nothing can stop God’s faithfulness, nothing can stop His purposes, and nothing can overturn His plans. Through Cyrus’s proclamation, we see God fulfilling His purposes and plans, the restoration of His people to the land. We see that He is the God of history, bringing all things together, perfectly, and according to His timetable. He is the God of creation, He made this world and everything in it, and so He cares what happens to it. Lastly, He is the God of humanity. He decides when nations will rise and fall, He overrules and directs all the events of the world, according to His plan and the purpose of His will. For it is God alone who has the last word in all things; neither princes, kings, governments nor any human power can stop His providential purposes from being achieved.
2. God’s Provision vs. 5-8
God’s grace will not call us, where his presence will not sustain us and his power not provide for us. God’s providence opened the heart of King Cyrus to let the exiles return home. Yet our Lord does not leave his people empty-handed, God’s preparation and provision makes it possible that His people do not return home empty-handed, they will not only survive, but they will thrive. Ezra says once Cyrus’s proclamation had gone out across his empire: “Then the family heads of Judah and Benjamin, and the priests and Levites—everyone whose heart God had moved—prepared to go up and build the house of the Lord in Jerusalem. All their neighbours assisted them with articles of silver and gold, with goods and livestock, and with valuable gifts, in addition to all the freewill offerings. 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. Cyrus king of Persia had them brought by Mithredath the treasurer, who counted them out to Sheshbazzar the prince of Judah (vs. 5-8). God’s Spirit not only stirred the heart of Cyrus to let God’s people go, but this very same Spirit stirred the hearts of the Jewish remnant to want to return home. What this tells us is God must first prepare our hearts, through His Spirit, before He can provide for our hands.
What we notice is that even though their exile had ended only a faithful remnant, who had received God’s spirit, and responded to God’s call willing to return home. Only those people “whose heart God had moved were prepared to go.” What this tells us is, in the work of God’s kingdom, it is always God himself who takes the initiative in moving our hearts and our lives in the direction of His plans. Those Jews, who responded positively, did so in spite of great obstacles, for they knew there would be sacrifice and hardship involved when they were obedient to God’s call on their life. This was no Sunday stroll or holiday walk, this was a 1500 km journey, through dangerous territory, and at the end were ruined towns, a devastated city and demolished temple. But because God had moved their hearts, his people were willing to go. Warren Wiersbe says, “the same God who ordains the end (the rebuilding of the temple) also ordains the means to the end, in this case, are people willing to go to Judah and work.”
Once God has prepared our hearts to do His work, He can now prepare our hands to receive His provision. For God had not only delivered His people from Babylon, but He made provision for their return. He made sure all the costs for the journey were covered, so that when they settled in Jerusalem, they would not only survive but thrive. This mirrors God’s provision during the exodus: “The Israelites did as Moses instructed and asked the Egyptians for articles of silver and gold and for clothing. The Lord had made the Egyptians favorably disposed toward the people, and they gave them what they asked for; so they plundered the Egyptians 12:35-36”. God not only provided physical provision, but spiritual as well. God had given them provision, now He gave them objects of praise, and a prince. For Cyrus released all the objects of worship, which have been taken by his predecessor Nebuchadnezzar, 70 years earlier. So that God’s people, when they returned to the land, could reinstate their worship according to His design in a rebuilt temple. But God has one more thing to give his people: “Sheshbazzar the prince of Judah,” is the Persian name of Zerubbalel the governor of Judah. God kept his word for Zerubbalel; was the grandson of King Jehoiakim a direct descendant of David, which leads us to Christ our true king. God, had prepared his people’s hearts, provided for them, spiritually, physically and politically. There exile had ended, the time of restoration for God’s people seem to be at hand.
It might seem odd to be turning to an Old Testament book for our new series. What comfort is there for us in today’s text?
Well, firstly, we learn about God’s faithfulness. When we go through our own personal times of exile, when we feel lost and alone and uncertain about what the future holds, it is easy to allow doubts to creep into our hearts. In these times Satan is especially active. He whispers in our ears that we have been forgotten and he tempts us to look to our circumstances and not to God. Yet, as in the time of Ezra, we can trust God to be faithful to his promises and not to forget his people. God is rebuilding his churches, even in this time of isolation, quarantine and COVID-19. When it feels like everything else has failed, we can be comforted by the integrity and power of God and His Word.
Secondly, God’s sovereignty over history. In the opening verses of Ezra, we might be surprised to find a pagan king, like Cyrus, issuing a proclamation which would set the wheels in motion to rebuild God’s community. Cyrus himself need not have known that it was God stirring his spirit and his thoughts. God was directing events. This teaches us to see history and current events from a divine perspective. We might look at the world around us and feel abandoned, yet God is working out his judgements and purposes in all things.
Thirdly, God’s provision can be seen in how he cares for his people. God delivered his people from Babylon, provided all the costs for the journey and the settlement in Jerusalem as well. One of God’s names in the Bible is Jehovah Jireh – the God who provides. How is this truth relevant to our lives today? Here are three ways:
God’s providential care for the world he created. As Christians, we believe God created the world and he keeps it going. Through all the processes and complex structures of nature, God provides all that is needed for life.
DL Moody said that “God does not call the equipped, he equips the called.” When God calls us to a special task or purpose, he provides what is necessary to complete the work. Be it tools, materials or man-power. We can look at how God provides helpers or workers for various church events, for example the Holiday Club or the Fete.
Lastly, God provided a Saviour in the gift of his own Son, the Lord Jesus Christ. When we follow Christ, we are provided with life, instead of eternal damnation. We are given grace, peace, hope for each day. We are given power to overcome temptation, strength to overcome our weakness and the true knowledge of living faith.