“Sovereign in the mountain air. Sovereign on the ocean floor. With me in the calm, with me in the storm. Sovereign in my greatest joy. Sovereign in my deepest cry. With me in the dark, with me at the dawn. In your everlasting arms, all the pieces of my life. From beginning to the end, I can trust you. In your never-failing love, you work everything for good. God whatever comes my way, I will trust you. All my hopes, all I need held in your hands. All my life, all of me held in your hands. All my fears, all my dreams held in your hands. All my hopes, all I need Held in your hands. In your everlasting arms all the pieces of my life. From beginning to the end…God whatever comes our way we will trust you.”
We can trust God no matter what comes our way. As Chris Tomlin sings, we can trust our lives into God’s almighty hands. The last time we saw the inside of Trinity, the virus was on our doorstep, now slowly, things are returning to a new normal. I say new normal, because we, like God people in exile, are returning to a very different world. Nevertheless, God is still sovereign. He held the Exiles in his hands, and he holds us in those same almighty hands. The PowerPoint shows us God’s sovereignty over history, not just of Israel, but of the whole world. The Prophets proclaimed the Exile would end. In 538 BC Cyrus king of Persia fulfilled God’s Word, the Jews returned home, laid the foundation of the temple, so the restoration of worship could begin anew. Sadly, all was not well, opposition began to swell, and God’s people gave up. But all hope was not lost! God raised up Darius King of Persia, and the prophets Haggai and Zechariah to protect the people, provide the power needed to finish the temple in 516 BC. God’s care is constant - even though 57 years have elapsed since the Godly dedication of the temple. Our passage opens with the Lord still at work. He raises up King Artaxerxes 1 and Ezra, the scribe, to fulfil his Word, reform worship, reinstate his law and call the people back to covenant faithfulness in 458 BC. As we come today to our next sermon in our series “Rebuilding God’s Community”, Ezra prepares to depart with the second group of exiles. We see that everything is in God’s good hands, according to his good plan, through His Deliverance and His Diligence towards all believers.
His Deliverance vs 13-16,19
“In the Lord’s hand the king’s heart is a stream of water that he channels toward all who please him 21:1” these words written by King Solomon in Proverbs centuries earlier teach us God is always in constant control of the affairs of men and nations. Nowhere is this more evident than in God dealing with the Jewish Exiles. God first uses King Cyrus, then Darius, and now Artaxerxes 1 to accomplish his purposes. During the Exodus, God hardened Pharaoh’s heart, but here, during the Exile, God softened the heart of king Artaxerxes 1 to allow Ezra and his people to return home. For the King says: “I decree that any of the Israelites in my kingdom, including priests and Levites, who volunteer to go to Jerusalem with you, may go. You are sent by the king and his seven advisers to inquire about Judah and Jerusalem with regard to the Law of your God, which is in your hand. Moreover, you are to take with you the silver and gold that the king and his advisers have freely given to the God of Israel, whose dwelling is in Jerusalem, together with all the silver and gold you may obtain from the province of Babylon, as well as the freewill offerings of the people and priests for the temple of their God in Jerusalem… Deliver to the God of Jerusalem all the articles entrusted to you for worship in the temple of your God vs.13-16,19”.
So once again through this royal edict, God provides his deliverance for his people. God’s deliverance may take various forms and different shapes over the centuries, but one truth remains the same - He is always the God who saves those who believe. In this official letter, Artaxerxes gave the Jews the privilege and the permission to leave Babylon, and to return with Ezra to Jerusalem to join the remnant in rebuilding the city walls. It was the rebuilding of the city’s walls, and not the temple, which caused the original opposition and trials, which the first group of Jewish exiles faced. This was the reason that work was halted on the temple and the spiritual restoration of God’s people slowed. We remember that in 537 BC, after the first wave of Jewish refugees about 50,000 of them returned to Jerusalem under Zerubbabel’s leadership to rebuild the temple. Now in 458 BC, a second group of exiles returns. Approximately 1500 men, including women and children, come with Ezra, the new governor of Judah and Jerusalem, with the purpose of restoring the walls and gates, and bringing spiritual renewal to the people.
There is a tendency in the church today, when we want to embark on new ministries, to ask where are we going to get the funds to do this work. But a wise minister once said, if we worry about the money, Ministry will never happen, but if we focus on the ministry, God will always provide the money. All of this reminds us, as the Prophet Haggai wrote, ‘“the silver is mine and the gold is mine”, declares the Lord Almighty’. If God is in it, he will provide for it. This is what he was teaching Ezra and the people by the opening of the royal treasury and providing money to buy the sacrifices needed to be offered at the temple in Jerusalem. The King instructed all these things be delivered to the temple. Sometimes God’s deliverance is physical, sometimes it is spiritual, and sometimes, both work together for his glory and worship.
His Diligence vs. 20-28
Many believers tend to have the view of God that once he’s accomplished the big things, the particulars are our responsibility. This is not how God works. He is involved, in both the big and the small parts of history. Not only does God deliver Ezra and his people, but he also provides diligently for all their needs along the way in order to accomplish his purpose and plan. God’s diligence towards not only Israel, but all believers, is seen in his attention to detail, his directive and ultimately this shows the power of his divinity.
First, his attention to detail. King Artaxerxes instructed both Ezra and his officials throughout the Babylonian Empire: “And anything else needed for the temple of your God that you are responsible to supply, you may provide from the royal treasury. Now I, King Artaxerxes, decree that all the treasurers of Trans-Euphrates are to provide with diligence whatever Ezra the priest, the teacher of the Law of the God of heaven, may ask of you…Whatever the God of heaven has prescribed, let it be done with diligence for the temple of the God of heaven. Why should his wrath fall on the realm of the king and of his sons vs 20-21,23?”. God provides in abundance, more than we could ever need. Not only does he send everything for worship with Ezra and the people, he also provides for the journey along the way, and for sustenance when they arrive in Jerusalem. So, the work of national and spiritual restoration can begin immediately. God is a God of the details, he cares intimately for our lives, and for everything that we will need.
Second his directive. The King instructs and authorises Ezra to do everything “In accordance with the wisdom of your God, which you possess, appoint magistrates and judges to administer justice to all the people of Trans-Euphrates—all who know the laws of your God. And you are to teach any who do not know them. Whoever does not obey the law of your God and the law of the king must surely be punished by death, banishment, confiscation of property, or imprisonment vs 25-26.” Ezra is not only made governor of Judah, leader of the Exiles, but the King is so impressed with this priest scribe, that he is given civil authority over the region of the trans-Euphrates. He even gives them the right to inflict capital punishment. Because Ezra was devoted to God’s word and the law as the centre of his life and ministry, God made the King favourably disposed to Ezra. God’s word is powerful indeed! God’s law the truest form of justice, the reference to it being in Ezra’s hand may refer to the high regard which the king viewed God’s word, even if he did not believe all of it. Do we have the same regard, for God’s Word, do we realise that it will always accomplish his will, that his directives are true? What God says, God always does, because He works all things for our good.
Last his divinity. Ezra boldly proclaims “Praise be to the Lord, the God of our ancestors, who has put it into the king’s heart to bring honor to the house of the Lord in Jerusalem in this way and who has extended his good favour to me before the king and his advisers and all the king’s powerful officials. Because the hand of the Lord my God was on me, I took courage and gathered leaders from Israel to go up with me vs 27-28”. What other response can there be to all God has done throughout history, but to praise and worship his mighty name? This is the first occurrence of the first-person narrative in the book of Ezra. Now we see the scribe speaking in his own words. He praises the Lord for his sovereign moving of the king’s heart to cooperate with God’s plans. Ezra sees in these events the proof of God’s mercy and his covenant of love towards all believers. Ezra took no credit for these magnificent accomplishments - it is all the result of the good hand of God. It is because our lives as believers are in God’s good hands, that we can trust him no matter what. When he calls, we answer; when he tells us to go, we move; when asked to stay, we wait. Ezra, in obedience to God, doesn’t waste a single moment but assembles the chief men of the tribes, gathers the people who felt moved to travel to Jerusalem, and they set out at once. Trusting God to protect them along the way, provide for their needs, so that when they arrive in Jerusalem, there praise will be powerful evidence of God’s divine control over everything.
I have heard many people say that they either don’t read the Old Testament or that they don’t understand it. One of the main obstacles seems to be a difficulty in understanding how the ancient history of the Old Testament translates into messages and meaning for today. Here there are three points to encourage us from our passage.
Firstly, let’s take a moment to get to know Ezra. From Jewish tradition and the Bible, we see that Ezra was devoted to God, to the study of God’s Word and to turn what was written into action. Ezra prepared his heart; he obeyed the Word and he applied the teachings to his daily life. He also desired to teach the scriptures and studied God’s Word so that he could share it with others. What an example for us to follow!
Secondly, although we can appreciate the remarkable pagan piety shown by the King, we should also wonder what prompted it. The devoted Jewish Exiles must have lived such godly lives, that it had a powerful influence on the Persian kings. Many of the Exiles held positions in the Persian court and Ezra was given wide-ranging powers in the king’s edict. Christians today still have a role to play in public and political life. Christians are called to respect the claims of the state, to engage in public and political life when called to do so, to pray for those in leadership positions and in government.
Thirdly, in the king’s letter, he refers to the “God of Heaven” four times. As a pagan king, we might have expected him to refer to the God of the Jews, yet it seems like he has some notion of God’s power and control over the course of history. God’s power over history and our destinies is still in place. God created each of us with a spiritual dimension. We see so many souls searching for meaning in the modern world, trying to find fulfilment in relationships, wealth, addictions or personal achievements. Others try to find meaning in horoscopes, vague concepts of ‘the universe’ or fortune-telling, always seeking some assurance of their spiritual destiny. The Christian has complete assurance. We can look back to the Old Testament through to the New Testament and to our lives today and see God’s hand at work throughout history. Our experience of God through Jesus Christ isn’t some vague notion or feeling, it is a true, living relationship. We can follow God’s purpose through the Bible, we can trust the Holy Spirit to lead us, we can find comfort and encouragement in prayer. As Christians, we know where our eternal home is and what our spiritual destiny leads to.
Michael P. Green tells the story of a museum guide who would take his tour group to a darkened room, shine a light on a mass of string, color, and apparent chaos and ask the group, “What do you think this is?” “I don’t know,” was the inevitable reply. He would then say, “Stand over there and watch.” As the group moved over to the other side of the room, he would turn on a spotlight. It was instantly apparent that the mass of jumbled colored string seen just a moment earlier was in fact an enormous tapestry—from the back side. The real work had to be seen from a different perspective to understand what the artist was creating. So, it is with God and his ways. We often look at them and ask questions such as “Why?” and “How?” not because there is no purpose in what God is doing, but because we are on the wrong side of eternity to be able to have the perspective that would enable us to see the order and pattern to God’s work.