There are verses, stories, and books of the Bible that are very familiar to the followers of Jesus. As a child you may have attended Vacation Bible School or Sunday School and heard John 3:16: “For God so loved the world that He gave His one and only Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life.” For many of you, when you first became a follower of Jesus, someone, probably the person who led you to faith in Jesus, told you to read the Gospel of John. Somewhere along the way you discovered the Psalms and they captured your heart. You heard stories about Jesus feeding the 5000, dying on the cross and rising from the dead on the third day. You heard stories about Abraham and Sarah, Moses, David and Goliath, Jonah and the big fish, Zacchaeus the “wee little man” who climbed up in a sycamore tree, the Apostle Paul, and others, but for most of you, you are not familiar with the stories of Ezra and Nehemiah.

When Connie and I arrived at Britton Christian Church in June of 1990, the very first study we did in morning worship was Nehemiah. The reason I chose Nehemiah was quite simple, Jerusalem was in bad shape, it looked like her best days were behind her, but Nehemiah went to Jerusalem to rebuild the walls and rejuvenate the people. I had heard similar stories from the people of Britton Christian Church. They told me stories of what the church had been like years earlier. They also told me stories of how the church had been in a long decline, such a long decline that the denomination had approached the leaders about selling the building to another congregation. The atmosphere back in those days was bleak and somber to put a positive spin on it.

Well, I had heard sermons from Nehemiah about building projects, improvement projects, getting-the-church-back-on-track projects, etc. so I thought Nehemiah would be a great place for us to start. The Cliff Notes version of the sermon series went like this: “Everybody grab a brick and a trowel! Let’s go to work and watch God rebuild Britton Christian Church!” Not a bad idea considering the state of the church at that time right? Let’s all get involved, use the gifts He has given us, and watch God work.

I’m now twice as old as I was when I first taught through Nehemiah here at Britton Christian Church. I’ve done a lot of living since 1990. I’ve experienced things I never thought I would experience back in 1990. The Lord has brought changes, some welcomed and others I would have given anything to avoid, and could have never anticipated, back in 1990. There is a constant that has never wavered, never failed, and has sustained me through it all and that is the Word of God. I’m not talking about a verse from “here or there” or a casual Sunday morning reading of Scripture on the screen. I’m talking about digging deep into the Word of God and trusting what God has had to teach me through it all. What I’ve learned is that the more I read God’s Word, studying God’s Word, God shows me new insights into old familiar passages on each and every page. This has been so true as I’ve been studying Ezra and Nehemiah these past several weeks.

Now, I’m certain that we have some folks here with us this morning who are “New Testament believers” and you may be wondering, “Why are we going to spend time studying the Old Testament?” For those of you who are unfamiliar with the phrase, “New Testament believer,” let me explain. Many followers of Jesus never find themselves in the Hebrew Bible or what you call the Old Testament. One very popular mega-church pastor has even called the modern-day church to “unhitch” itself from the Old Testament. That would certainly not be Jesus’ recommendation for you and me. Let me give you evidence for why I would say this. If you will turn to Luke 24:44-48 and I’ll set the scene for you. After Jesus’ resurrection He was walking on the road to Emmaus when He joined two of His followers, Cleopas and his friend. They were so discouraged, they didn’t recognize Jesus and thought He was still dead. Then Jesus spoke to them these words,

44 He said to them, “This is what I told you while I was still with you: Everything must be fulfilled that is written about me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms.” 45 Then he opened their minds so they could understand the Scriptures. 46 He told them, “This is what is written: The Christ will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day, 47 and repentance and forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem. 48 You are witnesses of these things. (Luke 24:44-48 NIVO)

Jesus told His followers: “Everything must be fulfilled that is written about me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms.” Jesus didn’t pull out a few of His favorite Bible books, these are the three divisions of the Hebrew Bible in Jesus’ day. The Law of Moses or the Torah, the Prophets, and the Writings, which include Psalms. Jesus made it clear that what was written in the Hebrew Bible long before He was ever born was about Him.

I need to clarify something for us. Jesus didn’t mean that His name appeared on every page of the Hebrew Bible, but He did mean that there were things written about Him before He was born that would be fulfilled in His lifetime.

Just one more example why Jesus would not have you and me “unhitch” ourselves from the Old Testament. We know the 27 books of the New Testament to be part of God’s Word, but for those who wrote the 27 books of the New Testament, their Bible was the 39 books of the Hebrew Bible. In writing the New Testament books, the authors relied upon the Hebrew Bible. For example, in Romans 15:4, Paul told the people in Rome,

4 For everything that was written in the past was written to teach us, so that through endurance and the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope. (Romans 15:4 NIVO)

What was it that was “written in the past?” It was the Hebrew Bible. It is important for us to study the whole counsel of God, the entirety of God’s Word. When we come to Ezra-Nehemiah we come to the last historical account of the Chosen People of God in the Hebrew Bible. It had been a long history, a remarkable history. God chose a man named Abram, changed his name to Abraham, and told him he would be the father of a nation that would bless all the nations on the face of the earth. Abraham’s grandson Jacob had twelve sons who became the twelve tribes of Israel. Jacob’s descendants ended up in slavery for 400 years in Egypt, but God raised up a deliverer named Moses. Moses led them out of Egypt where they wandered in the wilderness for 40 year before arriving at the border of the Promised Land. Joshua took over for Moses and the Hebrew slaves moved into the Promised Land. God raised up a king named David who ruled the nation of Israel for 40 years and it seemed like the Israelites would ride the crest of the wave forever. Solomon followed his father, David, and division followed Solomon. The United Kingdom of Israel was divided in two with Israel in the north and Judah in the south.

God had been sending His messengers to His people for the longest time, encouraging them to turn back to Him, to rely upon Him, to put away their idols, but the people just wouldn’t listen. God had called His people to be holy, to be set apart, not like the rest of the people with their self-centered ways, but the people just wouldn’t listen. The prophets told the people that it wasn’t too late to turn back to God, but they wouldn’t listen. Then, the wave came crashing down. What once seemed like heaven on earth appeared to end in the worst possible way as the Northern Kingdom of Israel was invaded and conquered by the Assyrians in 721 B.C. and then, almost 150 years later, the Babylonians conquered and destroyed Jerusalem, the Holy City of God, in 586 B.C.

The unthinkable had come true and yet the people of God shouldn’t have been surprised. God had told His people that if they didn’t repent, if they didn’t turn back to God, judgment was coming. The problem was there were other prophets, not messengers sent from God, but false prophets who shared a message everyone wanted to hear. The people listened to the false prophets and tuned out God’s prophets. Let me give you one example from the prophet Jeremiah.

26 “Among my people are wicked men who lie in wait like men who snare birds and like those who set traps to catch men. 27 Like cages full of birds, their houses are full of deceit; they have become rich and powerful 28 and have grown fat and sleek. Their evil deeds have no limit; they do not plead the case of the fatherless to win it, they do not defend the rights of the poor. 29 Should I not punish them for this?” declares the LORD. “Should I not avenge myself on such a nation as this? 30 “A horrible and shocking thing has happened in the land: 31 The prophets prophesy lies, the priests rule by their own authority, and my people love it this way. But what will you do in the end? (Jeremiah 5:26-31 NIVO)

“The prophets prophesy lies, the priests rule by their own authority, and my people love it this way. But what will you do in the end?” After so patiently waiting for His people to come back to their senses and turn back to Him, God raised up an adversary to come into Jerusalem and carry out the promise God had made to discipline His people.

Nebuchadnezzar, the king of Babylon, first came into Jerusalem in 605 B.C. during Jehoikim’s reign. Nebuchadnezzar made Judah a vassal state and took thousands of the brightest and most promising citizens from Jerusalem back to Babylon, including Daniel, who would later become one of the greatest prophets of Israel. Nebuchadnezzar made two more attacks on Jerusalem. In 597 B.C., just eight years after his first attack, Nebuchadnezzar’s men raided the Temple and the Royal Palace, stripping them of everything valuable. He forced thousands of the most promising and prominent citizens of Jerusalem, including the young prophet Ezekiel, back to Babylon. Nebuchadnezzar made Zedekiah a puppet king over Jerusalem, but when Zedekiah rebelled, Nebuchadnezzar’s army made one final trip to Jerusalem and destroyed the temple and the city in 586 B.C. The end had come just as Jeremiah and other prophets had said it would if the people did not repent of their ways and turn back to God.

I’ve thought so much about what that experience must have been like for the people during these many weeks since I’ve been reading and studying Ezra and Nehemiah. Imagine with me for a minute. Imagine you and I are living in a day with no electricity, no television, no internet, no cell phones, no cars, no airplanes, none of the modern-day conveniences we take for granted. It’s hard to imagine isn’t it? An enemy army, the most powerful army in the known world, has been harassing us for 20 years. You and I are living under the constant threat of another invasion when all of a sudden they enter Oklahoma City with a force we’ve never witnessed before. They destroy our city, round many of us up, and march us, not drive or fly us, but march us 1000 miles to a place we’ve never been before. That’s a long walk!

When we arrive the people and culture are so unfamiliar to what we’ve been accustomed to back in Oklahoma City. The people are just so different. Their ways are so unfamiliar. And their “faith?” There’s no Britton Christian Church, the equivalent of the Jews Temple in Jerusalem, but there are pagan temples everywhere. You and I know there is One True and Living God, but the people of this strange land serve many gods. We would feel so far from home, so lost, and so full of questions.

The days turned into weeks. Months passed. Years went by. Decades came and went. It would seem like we would never see home again. I want you to think about what it would be like, just how strange and unfamiliar it all would be to you and me to experience being uprooted from everything we know and love and to be taken to a strange land with strange customs. It would be overwhelming would it not? And it was devastating to the Jews in Jerusalem who had been taken to Babylon. We don’t know who wrote Psalm 137, but he had to have been one of the exiles. He was in Babylon, sitting by the Tigris or Euphrates rivers, when he penned these words.

1 By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept when we remembered Zion. 2 There on the poplars we hung our harps, 3 for there our captors asked us for songs, our tormentors demanded songs of joy; they said, “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!” 4 How can we sing the songs of the LORD while in a foreign land? (Psalm 137:1-4 NIVO)

“…We sat and wept when we remembered Zion.” You don’t have to work too hard to picture that scene in your mind do you? Yet, this should not have been surprising to any of the Jews of Jerusalem who experienced the actual devastation of their city and temple before being uprooted and taken to Babylon. Jeremiah had foretold this event before it ever happened. He wrote,

8 Yes, this is what the LORD Almighty, the God of Israel, says: “Do not let the prophets and diviners among you deceive you. Do not listen to the dreams you encourage them to have. 9 They are prophesying lies to you in my name. I have not sent them,” declares the LORD. 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 29:8-10 NIVO)

Seventy-years. It would be seventy-years before those who had been taken to Babylon would be ushered back home by God Himself. God said, “I will come to you and fulfill my gracious promise to bring you back to this place.”

What were the Jews to do during those seventy years in Babylon? Just continue to sit and weep? Were they to spend all of their time yearning to go back home, trying to figure out a way to get out of Babylon? Hop a train? Hitchhike cross country? Call up an Uber? That wasn’t God’s plan for His people. He gave them clear instructions as to what they were to do in their new home in Babylon. Turn with me to Jeremiah 29 and let’s find out what God had to say to His people, beginning in verse 4.

4 This is what the LORD Almighty, the God of Israel, says to all those I carried into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: 5 “Build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce. 6 Marry and have sons and daughters; find wives for your sons and give your daughters in marriage, so that they too may have sons and daughters. Increase in number there; do not decrease. 7 Also, seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the LORD for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper.” (Jeremiah 29:4-7 NIVO)

Embrace your new normal. Build houses. Plant gardens. Start a family. I love the next part of the instruction God gave His people: “Seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the LORD for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper.” God told His people to be the very best citizens in all of Babylon. And many of them did just what the Lord had told them to do.

Daniel was taken from Jerusalem to Babylon. He was chosen to receive special training in the King’s Academy in Babylon, the best education in the world at the time. The purpose of the academy was to train young men for leadership roles in Nebuchadnezzar’s administration. Quite an honor for a young jewish boy. Daniel became a close confidant of the king when he was able to interpret Nebuchadnezzar’s dreams.

The Persians conquered Babylon in October of 539 B.C., almost 50 years after Nebuchadnezzar had pillaged Jerusalem. Cyrus was the king of the Persians and we’ll talk more about him next week. Ezra and Nehemiah both served under the Persian King Artaxerxes, the fifth Persian king after King Cyrus. You may not know the name Artaxerxes, but you may have heard the name Esther. Esther was the young jewish girl who married Artaxerxes’ father, Xerxes. Both Ezra and Nehemiah served under Artaxerxes. Ezra was a scribe. Nehemiah was a cupbearer to King Artaxerxes. The cupbearer was one of the king’s most trusted servants, his first line of defense against those who would try to poison him. So there were some Jews who did just what God had told them to, they were the best of citizens.

Just as there were three deportations of Jews to Babylon, we’ll read about three different journeys of the Jews from Babylon back to Jerusalem. Ezra and Nehemiah led the 2nd and 3rd wave on their 1000 mile journey. I’m so thrilled we have this opportunity to spend the next several weeks learning from Ezra-Nehemiah. What will we learn? I’m so glad you asked.

We’re going to learn about the faithfulness of God. After almost seventy years in Babylon I’m certain the vast majority of those who had been uprooted had given up any hope of ever going back to Jerusalem, but God had not forgotten His promise. God had held true to His promise to discipline His people if they didn’t turn back to Him and we will see that He held true to His promise to bring them back home when their time in exile was over. God is so faithful. Never forget that my friend–God is so faithful!

We’re also going to learn that sin and disobedience comes with a price. Ravi Zacharias once said, “Sin will take you farther than you want to go, keep you longer than you want to stay, and cost you more than you want to pay.” The story of the Babylonian exile is such a powerful example of this. God’s people just knew in their hearts that God loved them, afterall, they were the Chosen People. Somehow, some way they began to believe they could do anything they wanted and get away with it. Was it their neglect of the Word of God, their unwillingness to listen to the prophets God sent their way, their fascination with the false prophets who deceived and lied to them? It was all of the above. Sin and disobedience comes with a heavy price and that is still true today.

There are so many more lessons we’ll learn along the way, but there’s one I have to shine a spotlight on this morning and you can bet I’ll come back to it again and again. It doesn’t matter who is on the throne of the kingdoms of this world, our God is the King of kings! As we study Ezra and Nehemiah we’ll see God working through pagan kings who had no desire to worship and serve God, yet they did serve Him. Proverbs 21:1 tells us,

1 The king’s heart is in the hand of the LORD; he directs it like a watercourse wherever he pleases. (Proverbs 21:1 NIVO)

Next week, when we open the very first verse of Ezra we’ll see an example of this truth. Ezra writes, “…the LORD moved the heart of Cyrus king of Persia…” (Ezra 1:1 NIVO) It was just a little over a week ago when the world leaders met together in France for the 45th G7 Summit. Did God cease moving the hearts of the world’s most powerful leaders in Ezra 1? I don’t believe that at all. God is moving the hearts of those who humble themselves before Him and those who refuse to even acknowledge His existence. I pray today for the Lord to move the heart of our President, Donald Trump. I pray today for the Lord to move the heart of Prime Minister Boris Johnson of the United Kingdom. I pray today for the Lord to move the heart of President Emmanuel Macron of France. I pray today for the Lord to move the heart of South African President Cyril Ramaphosa. I pray for the Lord to move the heart of Iraqi President Barham Salih. Oh God, move the hearts of all of those in power that they might serve your purposes and not their own. Is that your prayer this morning?

It should not only be the prayer we pray for those over us in the governments of this world, but it should be our prayer for ourselves: “Oh God move my heart so that I might live for Your glory and honor. Oh God move my heart so that I would yearn to know you more and more. Oh God move my heart so that I might live like Ezra and Nehemiah, faithful to you in this strange land of the United States so that others might desire to know you as well.” Is that your prayer this morning?

I want to encourage you, if that is your prayer, to turn to Him this very morning. Confess your need, confess your desire, confess your sin if He brings it to mind, and rededicate your heart and soul to serving Him each and every day. If you’ve never received Jesus as Lord and Savior of your life then I would encourage you to do that this morning. Come forward and let me know of your desire to know Jesus as Lord and Master. We will help you begin to grow in your relationship with Him.

 

Mike Hays

Britton Christian Church

922 NW 91st

OKC, OK. 73114

September 8, 2019

 

Introduction to Ezra-Nehemiah
“The Return”
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