It had been a long journey for the people of Jerusalem to the strange land of Babylon. The long, three-month, 1,000 mile journey seemed like forever. Now, many years later, everything was about to change. Nebuchadnezzar the king of Babylon who gave the orders for the most useful and promising citizens of Jerusalem to be ripped away from their homes and taken to Babylon, was now long gone. Nebuchadnezzar, the greatest king in the history of the Babylonian Empire, died in 562 B.C. just 24 years after the last wave of Jews arrived in Babylon in 586 B.C. The four kings who followed him were ineffective, two of them were murdered by those who wanted to take their throne, and then in 539 B.C. Cyrus the Great, King of Persia conquered Babylon. Those who had sat by the rivers of Babylon and wept didn’t know it, but a new day was about to dawn for the people of God, many of whom were born in Babylon and had never stepped foot in Jerusalem, the Holy City of God.
The books of Ezra-Nehemiah, that we have just begun studying, chronicles the movement of God’s people from Babylon back to Jerusalem. These two little books that would take you less than two hours to read gives us the history of God’s people that spans almost 100 years.
I mentioned to you last week that there were three deportations of God’s people from Jerusalem to Babylon under Nebuchadnezzar. We’ll learn in Ezra-Nehemiah that there were also three waves of exiles who made their way back to Jerusalem from Babylon. Like a well-scripted play, in each of the three movements we’ll learn about the focus, the theme, and the key players who made their journey back to Jerusalem. In the first movement, under Sheshbazzar and Zerubbabel, the theme is the rebuilding of the temple. In the second movement under Ezra’s leadership, we’ll learn about the rebuilding of the community upon the foundation of the Torah, the Word of God. In the final movement under Nehemiah’s leadership, we’ll learn about the rebuilding of the wall around the city of Jerusalem. What we’ll also discover is that within each movement there is an antagonist or antagonists who want nothing more than to stop God’s people from accomplishing their goal. Yet, behind all of the movements, rising above the figures of Cyrus, Sheshbazzar, Zerubbabel, Ezra, and Nehemiah is the hand of God that is moving upon the hearts of all of those involved. Let’s read our Scripture for this morning found in Ezra 1.
1 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 to put it in writing: 2 “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. 3 Anyone of his people among you– may his God be with him, and let him go up to Jerusalem in Judah and build the temple of the LORD, the God of Israel, the God who is in Jerusalem. 4 And the people of any place where survivors may now be living are to provide him with silver and gold, with goods and livestock, and with freewill offerings for the temple of God in Jerusalem.'” 5 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. 6 All their neighbors assisted them with articles of silver and gold, with goods and livestock, and with valuable gifts, in addition to all the freewill offerings. 7 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. 8 Cyrus king of Persia had them brought by Mithredath the treasurer, who counted them out to Sheshbazzar the prince of Judah. 9 This was the inventory: gold dishes 30 silver dishes 1,000 silver pans 29 10 gold bowls 30 matching silver bowls 410 other articles 1,000 11 In all, there were 5,400 articles of gold and of silver. Sheshbazzar brought all these along when the exiles came up from Babylon to Jerusalem. (Ezra 1:1-11 NIVO)
We learn in verse 1 that it was the first year of king Cyrus, that would be 539 B.C., that the LORD moved the heart of Cyrus to fulfill the word of the LORD spoken by Jeremiah. Someone is probably doing the math in their head right now. You are thinking: “I thought you said God told His people they would be in exile for 70 years? If Jerusalem fell in 586 B.C., Cyrus took over in 539 B.C., and he allowed them to go back in the first year of his reign then that would be less than 70 years.” You are right. Even if you go back to Nebuchadnezzar’s first invasion of Jerusalem in 605 B.C. you still have less than 70 years right? Derek Kidner in his commentary on Ezra writes,
…but even the longest of these spans fell short of the allotted seventy years. It was not the last time that God’s mercy would shorten the days of trial. (Kidner, Derek. Ezra and Nehemiah. 1979. pg. 35).
Where would we be if it were not for the wondrous grace of our God? We read about it in God’s Word, we’ve experienced it in our own lives, and we should marvel at the truth shared by the Psalmist is Psalm 103: “He does not treat us as our sins deserve…”
Back to the question I was asking earlier. What was it that Jeremiah had said about God’s people and the exile? Ezra tells us that God moved the heart of Cyrus to fulfill the word of the LORD spoken by Jeremiah. What did Jeremiah speak? If you will turn with me to Jeremiah 29:10.
10 This is what the LORD says: “When seventy years are completed for Babylon, I will come to you and fulfill my gracious promise to bring you back to this place. (Jeremiah 29:10 NIVO)
God “moved the heart” of king Cyrus so that God’s people would be moved back to their homeland. The Hebrew word for “moved” means to “awaken, to stir up, or to incite.” The same Hebrew word appears in Ezra 1:5 where we read that God moved the hearts of those who chose to leave Babylon and make the journey back to Jerusalem. They were the family heads of Judah and Benjamin, the priests, and Levites as well.
If we look at other places in the Hebrew Bible where this word appears we can learn that God stirred up the Babylonians to move against His people in Jerusalem (Jeremiah 6:22). Isaiah 13:17 tells us that God stirred up the Medes against the Babylonians. The prophet Haggai tells us the Lord stirred up the spirit of Zerubbabel, Joshua the high priest, and the remnant that had traveled back to Jerusalem to rebuild the temple but had lost their drive once opposition came against them (Haggai 1:14).
This is an interesting story that we will get into more when we come to Ezra 4, but for the sake of understanding the powerful hand of God that moves upon the hearts of His people, let’s talk for a moment. The exiles who went back to Jerusalem in the first wave were committed to rebuilding the temple. Once they were back in Jerusalem they rebuilt the altar and laid the foundation for the temple, but then opposition threatened them. King Artaxerxes ordered the building to stop. Not another hammer would be raised for about 16 years. What was it that sparked a renewed interest in rebuilding the temple in Jerusalem? It was the prophet Haggai. Haggai had made the long journey from Babylon back to Jerusalem with Zerubbabel. He had witnessed the enthusiasm of those who began to rebuild the altar and lay the foundation. He had also seen the opposition and was disturbed that the Jews would so quickly give up when opposition arose. God moved upon the heart of Haggai and gave him a message to deliver to the Jews in Jerusalem in 520 B.C. Turn with me to the first chapter of Haggai and let’s read together.
1 In the second year of King Darius, on the first day of the sixth month, the word of the LORD came through the prophet Haggai to Zerubbabel son of Shealtiel, governor of Judah, and to Joshua son of Jehozadak, the high priest: 2 This is what the LORD Almighty says: “These people say, ‘The time has not yet come for the LORD’s house to be built.'” 3 Then the word of the LORD came through the prophet Haggai: 4 “Is it a time for you yourselves to be living in your paneled houses, while this house remains a ruin?” 5 Now this is what the LORD Almighty says: “Give careful thought to your ways. 6 You have planted much, but have harvested little. You eat, but never have enough. You drink, but never have your fill. You put on clothes, but are not warm. You earn wages, only to put them in a purse with holes in it.” 7 This is what the LORD Almighty says: “Give careful thought to your ways. (Haggai 1:1-7 NIVO)
God wanted His people to think about what they were doing. While they were building their own lives, God’s house still lay in ruins. Yet, everything they were doing for themselves was falling short; they were planting, but not harvesting much, they didn’t have enough to eat or drink, and they were always running short of money. It’s as if the prophet was saying, “Hmmmm…could any of this be related to your neglect of doing what God had sent you back to Jerusalem to do?” Just seven verses later we read,
14 So the LORD stirred up the spirit of Zerubbabel son of Shealtiel, governor of Judah, and the spirit of Joshua son of Jehozadak, the high priest, and the spirit of the whole remnant of the people. They came and began to work on the house of the LORD Almighty, their God, 15 on the twenty-fourth day of the sixth month in the second year of King Darius. (Haggai 1:14-15 NIVO)
Did you hear our word? “So the LORD stirred up the spirit of Zerubbabel…Joshua…and the whole remnant of the people. They came and began to work on the house of the LORD Almighty…”
If you will go back to the opening verses of Ezra 1 with me. We see that in the first year of Cyrus’ reign he made a proclamation. I want to take a look at Cyrus’ proclamation once again. Read along with me.
2 “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. 3 Anyone of his people among you– may his God be with him, and let him go up to Jerusalem in Judah and build the temple of the LORD, the God of Israel, the God who is in Jerusalem. 4 And the people of any place where survivors may now be living are to provide him with silver and gold, with goods and livestock, and with freewill offerings for the temple of God in Jerusalem.'” (Ezra 1:2-4 NIVO)
God is the God of history, all history. There have been some Bible teachers in the past who once believed Cyrus was a worshipper of YHWH. If you read the Scripture we’ve just read you can easily come to that conclusion. Sounds just like something king David might have written doesn’t it? I’ve said many times that archaeology is the greatest friend of those who believe the Bible is true. Let me give you an example.
In 1879 archaeologists made a remarkable discovery in Babylon that is known today as the Cyrus Cylinder. The cylinder is inscribed in Babylonian cuneiform. It praises Cyrus’ god, Marduk, for making him the ruler of the world and it details Cyrus’ conquest of Babylon in 539 B.C. Today you can find it in the British Museum in London. What’s really interesting about the cylinder is that makes it very clear that worshiping God never entered Cyrus’ mind. It also highlights Cyrus’ policy of returning a variety of captured people, not just Jews, but all captured people groups back to their homelands and his desire to help them restore their places of worship. Let me read to you part of the Cyrus Cylinder.
I returned to (these) sacred cities on the other side of the Tigris, the sanctuaries of which have been ruins for a long time, the images which (used) to live therein and established for them permanent sanctuaries. I (also) gathered all their (former) inhabitants and returned (to them) their habitations. Furthermore, I resettled upon the command Marduk, the great lord, all the gods of Sumer and Akkad whom Nabonidus has brought into Babylon to the anger of the lord of the gods, unharmed, in their (former) chapels, the places which make them happy. (Cyrus Cylinder)
In the Cyrus Cylinder we also read that Cyrus hoped the gods he resettled would pray for him daily to the gods of Babylon: Bel, Nebo, and most importantly, Marduk. Cyrus was a politician. Cyrus didn’t worship YHWH. Moving the Jews back to Jerusalem to rebuild their sanctuary was part of his policy for all of those who had been taken from their homelands. Don’t let this lead you to believe that God wasn’t involved in Cyrus’ decision. Dr. Derek Thomas has written about the relationship of the discovery of the Cyrus Cylinder and what’s written in Ezra. He writes,
It’s a wonderful, marvelous corroboration of the veracity and truthfulness of this period of history. Cyrus actually said this. He actually wrote it down. God in His providence has kept the evidence for us, outside of the evidence of Scripture itself. God did this. Yes, man did this; Cyrus did this. He wrote it down. This was an accurate representation of Cyrus’ will. But it was God’s will. Man did it, but God did it. That’s what theologians call the theology of concurrence. They happen together. Man does this, but God does this. God stirred up His heart… God is in control of history, of nations, of empires. The mighty empire of Persia—one of the great, great empires of the world—and God was in charge. (Thomas, Derek. Freedom. February 2, 2008)
There is a great lesson here for us my friends. We can view the events that take place on a global scale or in our own lives as the product of people’s decisions or we can see the hand of God at work. Cyrus set his policies, but God was the invisible hand moving his heart.
Before we end our study this morning I want to show you one more thing from our Scripture that has overwhelmed me this past week. It is found in Ezra 1:7-11, after Cyrus told the Jews they could go back to Jerusalem. Read it with me.
7 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. 8 Cyrus king of Persia had them brought by Mithredath the treasurer, who counted them out to Sheshbazzar the prince of Judah. 9 This was the inventory: gold dishes 30 silver dishes 1,000 silver pans 29 10 gold bowls 30 matching silver bowls 410 other articles 1,000 11 In all, there were 5,400 articles of gold and of silver. Sheshbazzar brought all these along when the exiles came up from Babylon to Jerusalem. (Ezra 1:7-11 NIVO)
Nebuchadnezzar had pillaged the temple of God and taken back all of the items used for worship to Babylon where he placed them in the temple of his god (Daniel 1:1-2). In Daniel 5 we read about king Belshazzar, the grandson of Nebuchadnezzar. King Belshazzar was throwing a huge party one night when he came up with what he thought was a great idea. Read along with me from Daniel 5:1-4.
1 King Belshazzar gave a great banquet for a thousand of his nobles and drank wine with them. 2 While Belshazzar was drinking his wine, he gave orders to bring in the gold and silver goblets that Nebuchadnezzar his father had taken from the temple in Jerusalem, so that the king and his nobles, his wives and his concubines might drink from them. 3 So they brought in the gold goblets that had been taken from the temple of God in Jerusalem, and the king and his nobles, his wives and his concubines drank from them. 4 As they drank the wine, they praised the gods of gold and silver, of bronze, iron, wood and stone. (Daniel 5:1-4 NIVO)
How could you use the holy things of God for such debauchery? How could you treat what was revered by the Jews with such irreverence? For almost fifty years now the holy things of God which had once filled the temple in Jerusalem, used by the priests and people to worship the One True and Living God, had been in the hands of those who saw no value in them, those who made a mockery of them. Yet, God had made a promise through Jeremiah that those things would be returned one day to fill God’s house once again. Jeremiah spoke,
21 yes, this is what the LORD Almighty, the God of Israel, says about the things that are left in the house of the LORD and in the palace of the king of Judah and in Jerusalem: 22 ‘They will be taken to Babylon and there they will remain until the day I come for them,’ declares the LORD. ‘Then I will bring them back and restore them to this place.'” (Jeremiah 27:21-22 NIVO)
Let me ask you a question this morning. If God can take such good care of pots and pans, can He not take care of you? If God can keep watch over the items used for worship, which could have easily been replaced, through the waywardness of the likes of Nebuchadnezzar and Belshazzar, can He not keep watch over your life as you journey through this life full of troubles and trials? Do you not remember Jesus’ words?
26 Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? (Matthew 6:26 NIVO)
Can you imagine the encouragement it must have been to those Jews who chose to make that long journey back to Jerusalem when they saw the basins, censers, goblets, and other items pulled out and given to them to take back home? I’m sure more than one thought, “If God has taken care of these He will most certainly take care of us!” And as we study Ezra-Nehemiah we will learn that He did. Not only will we learn that He did, but we will learn that He still does. He still takes care of His people. He will provide for you. He will provide for me. He is true to His promises my friend. Will you trust Him today?
Britton Christian Church
922 NW 91st
OKC, OK. 73114
September 15, 2019