7 Apr 2013


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            This morning we embark on a new sermon series, on an Old Testament book named Ezra.  Why Ezra?  Well, two basic reasons.  First, and foremost, I was asked to preach on it.  Someone in the congregation had read an article about "The Cyrus Cylinder" and it's link to the book of Ezra, which I will say more about later, and asked if I might preach a message or two on the book.  Well, it turned into a ten message series, so be careful for what you ask.  The second reason we are studying Ezra is that I like to take turns preaching sermon series between the Old Testament and the New Testament.  It's been awhile since we tackled anything from the Old Testament, so here we are.  Kindly take out your bible and turn with me to the first chapter of the book of Ezra, and we'll begin working our way through this book.  We'll take a chapter a week, and today we will explore the lessons to be learned from the first chapter.  Oh, and as a quick aside, Ezra does not show up until the seventh chapter which is odd, given the book is named for him, but he doesn't, and our the main character in this first chapter is not even an Israelite.  Instead, the main character in this first chapter, in addition to God of course, is a non-Israelite, King Cyrus of Persia.  Ready?  Here we go.  Ezra 1:1,


            In the first year of King Cyrus of Persia, in order that the word of The Lord by the mouth of Jeremiah might be accomplished, The Lord stirred up the spirit of King Cyrus of Persia so that he sent a herald throughout all his kingdom, and also in a written edict declared:

            "Thus says King Cyrus of Persia: The Lord, the God of heaven, has given me all the kingdoms of the earth, and he has charged me to build a house at Jerusalem in Judah.  Any of those among you who are of his people - may their God be with them! - are now permitted to go up to Jerusalem in Judah, and rebuild the house of The Lord, the God of Israel - he is the God who is in Jerusalem; and let all survivors, in whatever place they reside, be assisted by the people of their place with silver and gold, with goods and with animals, besides freewill offerings for the house of God in Jerusalem."


            Note, something new has just happened in the history of Israel.  In the past God had frequently made use of foreign nations, but prior to this God's purpose had always been to chastise Israel, using other nations, surrounding Israel, as instruments of divine wrath.  In fact, turn one page back in your pew bible to II Chronicles 36:17.  Listen to what the Chronicler had to say about God's use of Babylon. 


            Therefore he (that is God) brought up against them the king of the Chaldeans (that's another name for the Babylonians), who killed their youths with the sword in the house of their sanctuary, and had no compassion on young man or young woman, the aged or the feeble; he gave them all into his (that is the king of the Chaldeans) hand.


            Previously God had used other nations to chastise Israel, but here when God stirred up the spirit of King Cyrus of Persia, it was with the positive intention of having Israel return to the land from which it had been exiled.  God's use of a foreign nation here was for a new purpose: not for chastisement, but for liberation.

            And before we continue reading let me briefly point out three additional things.  First, the liberation decree was not just for Israel, but for all exiles held in Babylon, Israeli exiles and non-Israeli exiles.  We know that because of "The Cyrus Cylinder."   The Cyrus Cylinder is an ancient clay cylinder, now broken into several fragments, on which is written a declaration in Akkadian script in the name of the Achaemenid, also known as King Cyrus the Great.  It dates from the 6th century B.C. and was found in the ruins of Babylon of Mesopotamia (now modern Iraq) in 1879.  Next time you go to the British Museum you can check it out for yourself.  Bottom line, the Cylinder's text provides corroborative evidence of Cyrus policy of the repatriation of the Jewish people following their Babylonian captivity.

            Second, note how the author of Ezra has a high view of God's sovereignty claiming that Cyrus did this in response to God's stirring his spirit, but if God did this, stirred Cyrus spirit to allow the Jews and other nations' exiles to go home, God used Cyrus political nature to do it.  That is to say, Cyrus did not likely do this out of "the goodness of his heart."  Cyrus' motivation was purely political.  Whereas the Babylonians had attempted to quash rebellion and thereby solidify their position by deporting potential threats to their security, Cyrus and the Persians felt that as a matter of policy it was preferable to provide the subject peoples of the empire with a measure of self-determination and religious autonomy in the hope that this enlightened approach would instill feelings of loyalty and goodwill toward the Persians. 

            Thirdly, and finally, this all took place to fulfill what God had previously promised.  Note verse one: God stirred the spirit of Cyrus so "that the word of The Lord by the mouth of Jeremiah might be accomplished," and listen to that specific prophecy.  It comes from Jeremiah 29:10.  You don't have to turn there, I will simply read it.


            For thus says The Lord: Only when Babylon's seventy years are completed will I visit you, and I will fulfill to you my promise and bring you back to this place.


            Bottom line:  given the seventy years, we can more precisely set the date of all the proclamation and the date of the return.  The Temple fell to the Babylonians in 587 B.C. so we are talking about all this taking place in 517 B.C., a little over five-hundred years prior to Jesus' birth.  Let's read through the rest of the chapter.  Verse 5,


            The heads of the families of Judah and Benjamin, and the priests and the Levites - everyone whose spirit God had stirred - got ready to go up and rebuild the house of The Lord in Jerusalem.


            Just as God had stirred the heart of King Cyrus, God stirred the hearts of returnees, but note the wording, "everyone whose spirit God had stirred" meaning that some Israelite hearts were not stirred.  They remained behind.  One who initially stayed behind was the namesake of this book, Ezra.  He was not a part of the first wave of Israelites to head back home.  Apparently, many Israelites had learned to cope and even thrive in the environs of Babylon and were unwilling to pull up stakes and return to the impoverished conditions of Palestine.  Verse 6,


            All their neighbors aided them with silver vessels, with gold, with goods, with animals, and with valuable gifts, besides all that was freely offered.  (Ezra could have been among the neighbors who contributed material possessions, but we don't know).  King Cyrus himself brought out the vessels of the house of The Lord that Nebuchadnezzar had carried away from Jerusalem and placed in the house of his gods.  King Cyrus of Persian had them released into the charge of Mithredath the treasurer (that is Cyrus' treasurer), who counted them out to Sheshbazzar the prince of Judah. 


            Now, that's an odd title - "the prince of Judah."  Who could that be?  It only could be one who was in the line of David, the only one who could rightfully become king of Israel, had God allowed it.  Sheshbazzar is the name the Babylonians gave him, but his Hebrew name was Zerubbabel.   We'll say more about him next week as he leads the first wave of exiles back home.  Hes called the Prince of Judah, rather than the King of Judah because Cyrus was the king of Persia.  Judah was still a territory of Persia so it would be considered sedition if he were called a king.


            And this was the inventory: gold basins, thirty; silver basins, one thousand; knives, twenty-nine; gold bowls, thirty; other silver bowls, four hundred ten; other vessels, one thousand; the total of the gold and silver vessels was five thousand four hundred.  All these Sheshbazzar brought up, when the exiles were brought up from Babylon to Jerusalem.


            Let's not miss the main point of all this.  Despite all they had done, God had not given up on them.  Yes, their time-out, their sitting in the corner, had been long.  Seventy years long, and of course, they deserved the time out in Babylon.  God had given them the Law, and they had ignored it and disobeyed it.  God had given them the land, and they had abused it and were disobedient in it.  God had given them the temple, and they had decided to worship idols instead.  So God sent them into exile.  He gave them a time-out to ponder, to reflect on their poor behavior. 

            We saw some of this last week.  Our Alabama kids came with their two sons, an almost four-year-old and a twenty-month old, and while they were with us over Easter weekend we witnessed a number of time outs.  The kids would exhibit poor behavior and our son or daughter-in-law would put them in a time out.  They would isolate them in a chair, and tell them to stay in that chair and think about what they had done.  Then, at an appropriate time, either our son or daughter-in-law would go over to them, ask them if they were sorry, and the entire scene would end in hugs, and "I love you's" from mom or dad. 

            Our chapter for today is a big hug, a big "I love you" from God to the people of Israel.  The return of all these temple vessels would powerfully symbolize both the restoration of worship and the continuity of the past that the exiled community of Israel needed to see.  Any doubts they had about God's love for them or God's intentions for them could now be swept away.  They were going back home and God still loved them. 

            And imagine what it must have felt like for Sheshbazzar, aka Zerubbabel, to receive these temple items from Cyrus' treasurer.  If you were to transfer the contents of an art gallery from an accountant to an artist, how would it sound?  Heres how it would sound to the accountant.  Monet - $500,000.  Van Gogh - $250,000.  Picasso - $175,000.  Paintingamount, paintingamount.  No attachment, no feeling.  But once they passed from the accountants hands into the artists hands, how would it sound?  Heres how the artist would receive them.  He would carefully and passionately examine every contour and texture and brushstroke.  He would receive them with emotion and attachment and passion.  They would mean so much more to him than simply a list of dollar amounts.  As a matter of fact, they would be priceless to him. 

            I imagine thats how Zerubbabel felt as he received the precious vessels of God. It wasnt just a collection of bowls and knives and vessels.  It was the restoration of the resources with which to worship God.  When Zerubbabel saw those items, he saw the promise of the future temple.  He saw that God was still working in them.  As those items transferred from Mithredath to Zerubbabels hands they went from being just items on an accountants spreadsheet to items of hope.

            Let me close with this.  An atheist said, "If there is a God, may he prove himself by striking me dead right now."  Nothing happened.

            "You see, there is no God," said athiest. 

            The person of faith standing next to him responded, "You've only proved that God is a gracious God."

            If the people in exile ever had doubts about the grace of God, that ended the day they headed back to Israel.  And if you ever had doubts about the grace of God, I hope that ends on your way back home as well.