The Lord's Day Evening
February 3, 2008
Dr. Derek W. H. Thomas
Now turn with me if you would to the book of Ezra, the first chapter of the book of Ezra. You’ll find it in your pew Bibles on page 389.
We begin tonight a new series of sermons on the books of Ezra and Nehemiah. In the Hebrew Bible these two books belong together, and they certainly relate the same period of history. This is a series that will take us probably through most of this year, with only a break somewhere over the summer.
We’re going to go back to the sixth century B.C., over two and a half thousand years ago, and to perhaps the lowest point in all of Israel's history. This was their darkest hour.
Now before we read the passage together, let's look to God in prayer.
Father, we thank You again for the Scriptures. We thank You that holy men of old wrote as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit. We thank You especially for these passages in the Old Testament that remind us of Your covenant ways and covenant faithfulness. And again now as we turn to the word, grant that we might read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest, and all for Jesus’ sake. Amen.
This is God's word:
“In the first year of Cyrus king of Persia, that the word of the Lord by the mouth of Jeremiah might be fulfilled, the Lord stirred up the spirit of Cyrus king of Persia, so that he made a proclamation throughout all his kingdom and also put it in writing:
‘Thus says Cyrus king of Persia: the Lord, the God of heaven, has given me all the kingdoms of the earth, and He has charged me to build Him a house at Jerusalem, which is in Judah. Whoever is among you of all His people, may his God be with him, and let him go up to Jerusalem, which is in Judah, and rebuild the house of the Lord, the God of Israel–He is the God who is in Jerusalem. And let each survivor, in whatever place he sojourns, be assisted by the men of his place with silver and gold, with goods and with beasts, besides freewill offerings for the house of God that is in Jerusalem.’
“Then rose up the heads of the fathers’ houses of Judah and Benjamin, and the priests and the Levites, everyone whose spirit God had stirred to go up to rebuild the house of the Lord that is in Jerusalem. And all who were about them aided them with vessels of silver, with gold, with goods, with beasts, and with costly wares, besides all that was freely offered. Cyrus the king also 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. Cyrus king of Persia brought these out in the charge of Mithredath the treasurer, who counted them out to Sheshbazzar the prince of Judah. And this was the number of them: 30 basins of gold, 1,000 basins of silver, 29 censers, 30 bowls of gold, 410 bowls of silver, and 1,000 other vessels; all the vessels of gold and of silver were 5,400. All these did Sheshbazzar bring up, when the exiles were brought up from Babylonia to Jerusalem.”
Amen. May God bless to us that reading of His holy and inerrant word.
A thousand-year history–from the time of Jacob and his troubled family in Egypt, all the way down to this point here in the first verse of chapter 1 of Ezra–a thousand years of Israel's history is over. It has ended in catastrophe. Israel is no more. That great city, the city of God, the city which David made into the capital of what would become the Southern Kingdom of Judah, Jerusalem with all of its importance religiously, with its temple and levitical structures, as a social center, as a political center for Judah, had been more or less destroyed. The temple in all of its grandeur and beauty and significance had been razed to the ground — burnt. Whatever was combustible in the temple had been burnt by the Babylonians.
The Babylonians had come seventy years in the past — 68, to be precise — in 605 B.C. They had first made some predatory incursions upon Judah and upon Jerusalem. Ten thousand of its elite young men of talents and abilities had been taken into captivity into Babylon. And then in 587, after a siege of Jerusalem, the last king of Judah, Zedekiah, had escaped the night before Jerusalem collapsed and had been captured somewhere outside of Jericho…he and his two sons. He watched his two sons murdered in front of him, and then his eyes were put out and he was marched, blind and bleeding, a thousand miles away, in chains, to Babylon. We never hear of him again.
All the hopes, all the dreams, all the aspirations…. Israel, the Northern Kingdom with its capital in Samaria, had long since fallen to another empire, the Assyrians, 150 years in the past in 722 BC. Judah had continued for 150 years. It was a history mainly of failure and increasing compromise and increasing idolatry. And despite all of the warnings and threats of the prophets (the great prophets Jeremiah, Isaiah), Judah had fallen. And Jerusalem had fallen. All the dreams, all the hopes, all the aspirations had all crumbled.
And as Judah collapsed in 587 and began its exile, perhaps hundreds of thousands — we're not sure of the exact number that were taken into captivity — suddenly all of the men of significance and importance in Jerusalem would have been taken away, marched summarily off into Babylon under the rule of one of the great tyrants of history, Nebuchadnezzar. As a nation, Israel was no more.
The book of Ezra begins at the end of the exile. You want a date? 538 B.C. We can be as accurate as that. When the exile is over, when it happened just as Scripture said it would happen, when the mighty kingdom of Babylon collapsed to the growing kingdom of Persia, Cyrus (not this Cyrus, but another Cyrus) had been the leader of a small little province, the province of Ashan in western Persia. But it had grown, and under the rule of this Cyrus had managed to conquer the great Babylonian kingdom. This Cyrus would take the venture eastwards and would be killed in the process. His son, Cambyses, would conquer the mighty nation of Egypt in eight years. His kingdom eventually would last for two centuries. It would stretch from what we would call Eastern Europe all the way to India — one of the great and mysterious kingdoms, the kingdom of the Persians. It too would fall to one of the great conquerors of history, Alexander the Great. (But we're ahead of ourselves!)
We go back to 538 BC, the dawn of the end of the seventy years of exile that God had punished Judah with. Ezra (the man, as opposed to the book, Ezra the man doesn't appear until chapter 7. We’re going to be a month and a half in this book before we come across Ezra the man, the reformer, the social reformer and preacher to boot.
The book begins with a story of those who returned. It will be eighty years before Ezra appears on the stage of history, so we're going to have to cover the first eighty years, two generations and more, of what they did when they came back to Jerusalem. It's not a pretty story. It's a story of hope and dream and aspiration again, but it's also a story of failure and compromise.
Three words summarize the first chapter: Providence; Promise; and, Pilgrimage.
We begin with Providence. Why do things happen the way that they happen?
“In the first year of Cyrus king of Persia, that the word of the Lord by the mouth of Jeremiah might be fulfilled, the Lord stirred up the spirit of Cyrus king of Persia….”
God is at work. Whatever else is going on in this chapter…and there's a whole lot going on in this chapter, and the history is, well, fascinating…we can never lose sight of the fact that there's another vantage point, another way of looking at this, and it's from the perspective of God. “God stirred up the spirit of Cyrus.” We see it again at the end of verse 5, but this time it's not Cyrus, but it's the men and women who return to build the house…whose spirit God had stirred to go to rebuild the house of the Lord that is in Jerusalem. God is at work.
Well, man is at work, too; Cyrus, in particular is at work. It's a fascinating piece of history. It must have been difficult in exile, especially for the faithful. Some managed to survive in exile, as happens in times of war. Some acclimate to the conditions they find themselves…some even prosper in those conditions, and it is certainly true that some of the Jews who went to Babylon never came back. They made their livelihood there. They established homes and businesses there. They never wanted to come back. But for the faithful, for those who knew the significance of Jerusalem, for those who knew the significance of the purposes of God, it must have been a difficult time. You get a glimpse of it every now and then. Psalm 137…do you remember?
“By the rivers of Babylon, we sat down and wept,
When we remembered Zion.
How can we sing the Lord's song
In a strange land?”
Doesn't that move you a little? You get a glimpse here of the faithful, and they've been evicted. They've been exiled. They've been taken away from their homes and their families — families that in all likelihood they may never see again. After seventy years many of the families had died. How could they sing the Lord's song in a strange land? And not just strange, but a foreign land with a different language and different customs and different foods. And the Jews had notions and laws about food!
And God stirs up this Persian prince, this Persian king Cyrus. He's not a believer, you understand. He talks about the God of Israel and it sounds as though he's a man of faith. But of course he's not a man of faith, he's a politician! He's a better politician than the Babylonians were. He knows that the way to maintain an empire is at least to keep their religious and social structures intact, and have them working for you and not against you. So he allows them to go back — the Jews back to Jerusalem, and others back to their places. And they can take their idols and symbols of their deities along with them. And he issues this decree.
We could go tonight on a trip to London, to the National Museum in London, and we could ask to see the Cyrus cylinder. It's a phenomenal thing, if you've ever seen it. It's written in Babylonian cuneiform. It was discovered in the nineteenth century. And on this cylinder are written many, many things, but it also includes this decree that's in the Bible. 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.
Oh! I have a book at home on the history of the Persians — the biblical history of the Persians. It's full of more detail that I could ever assimilate. We know a whole lot about Cyrus, but from the biblical perspective, from the perspective of the book of Ezra, the only important thing to know is God did this. God is at work here. Amos had said it about the collapse of the Northern Kingdom of Israel and its capital in Samaria. Amos had said, “Doth disaster come to a city unless the Lord has done it?” Even terrible things, even disastrous things, even the exile was the Lord's doing. God was at work in history. God was moving the hearts and the minds and the aspirations of pagan dictators and leaders. God is in control.
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 stirred up the hearts of the people so that they had the desire to return to Jerusalem. 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.
Do you think if He was in charge of the aspirations of this pagan Persian monarch and leader that He's not in charge of the details of your own life and family? And all those little things that you’re worried about and concerned about this evening, and brought to the house of God with you as we gather together for worship? God is in control. God is in absolute and total control of every event and every detail, and every facet that happens. Providence: it's a kind of biblical historiography. God is in charge here. You want to know why these things happen? God did it. God moved his heart.
II. The second word is Promise.
And again, it's the idea that's given to us in the very opening verse. God did this, but He did it in order to fulfill a promise; in particular, a promise written by Jeremiah, one of His prophets; a promise that the exile would last seventy years. You remember how significant that was for Daniel? You remember the ninth chapter of Daniel. Daniel 9 is that marvelous chapter that contains the prayer of Daniel. And the prayer of Daniel follows the discovery by Daniel of this very promise that is being referred to here in the book of Jeremiah, that the exile would be seventy years. And they’d already been in exile for 68 years when Daniel discovers the promise in the book of Jeremiah. You understand, Daniel didn't have a copy of the Old Testament in his pocket — you understand! So discovering this promise of Jeremiah, especially in as far away place as Babylon, where he had been taken as a young boy…. And Ezekiel had been taken there as a thirty-year-old man, we think. He discovers the promise of God. What is happening here is in fulfillment of a covenant word of promise: that God's word, God's promise never fails.
It was a difficult time. It was a difficult time in exile. And you have to ask yourself, what were they returning to? What was there in Jerusalem for them to go back to? They had been away from the place. Most of them had been away maybe fifty years; from about 587, most of them had been taken there. Fifty years is a long time to be away from your home. If I went back to my home tonight, it doesn't belong to me anymore. Somebody else lives there. I made a visit a couple of years ago to my home, and I was standing just a couple of feet onto the driveway and I was summarily told to get off by the owner of the property. And I wanted to say, “But I grew up here! This is my home!” But it wasn't my home anymore, and I was told so. [I wanted to tell him what I really thought, but I didn't!]
On September 1, 1939, Germany invaded Poland. From East Prussia and Germany in the north to Silesia and Slovakia in the south, the German forces surrounded the country of Poland — marched towards Warsaw. Within three weeks, Poland had collapsed. Warsaw was taken. It was the beginning of the displacement of more Jews from their home. People have lived through events like that — the horrors of invasion, the loss of hope, the loss of property, the death, the injury, the separation of families. It was a terrible thing to experience, and that's what these people were experiencing. And you see what they have been told. There was a promise here. Yes, they certainly were experiencing the rod of God's anger. The exile was God's punishment, that's true. But God had made a promise, you see, and God is going to keep His promise.
What would they go back to? Well, who knows what they would go back to? Were their families even alive? Where would they live when they went back? It would take them perhaps weeks, maybe months, to get back. Would their families from fifty years ago now take them in? And their children? And their extended families? Perhaps; perhaps not. Did they have jobs? Did they have promise of support and income? No. They had nothing. Absolutely nothing. All they had was the promise of God. The promise alluded to here about seventy years is a reflection, an indication of the God who makes promises; the God who makes covenant; the God who says and keeps His word. This is a story about providence, but it's a story about promises, because that's the kind of God we have. He makes promises. He says, “I will never leave you nor forsake you. I will never leave you nor forsake you.” That's the kind of God we have. It's about providence, and it's about promises.
III. But it's also about Pilgrimage.
After the decree, there follows this strange, curious piece. It's not as curious as chapter 2, but here in this particular section of chapter 1, what is all this? Pots and pans, basins of gold and basins of silver, and bowls of gold and silver, and other vessels — 5,400 of them in all. I mean, is that what it's all about? Pots and pans? You know, on Super Bowl Sunday — and I'm competing with Super Bowl Sunday — and it's pots and pans! I mean, is that what it boils down to? Yes. Let me try and explain why.
There's this wonderfully moving scene. If it was a movie by Stephen Spielberg, there would just be the most extraordinary music playing in the background, stirring your emotions now, as these pots and pans that belonged, you understand, to the temple; holy vessels used in the administration of the temple, taken — confiscated — by Nebuchadnezzar. And they’re handed back now. And other articles of the temple…not all of them, to be sure, but other articles of the temple that Nebuchadnezzar had taken are now being given back. I think it's meant to be saying, among other things, this little lesson.
You know, as you are standing there and you've got Mithredath and Sheshbazzar, the treasurer and prince of Judah, and they’re receiving these pots and pans. And you can hear them clinking…you know, when they’re putting them on the ground, and another one is put on the ground, and you've got them. If God cares for pots and pans that belonged in Jerusalem…if God has kept pots and pans in exile, how much more does He care for you? The God who cares for sparrows who fall to the ground, how much more does He care for you? He's the God of small things. He's the God of little things. He's the God of little details. Pots and pans may mean nothing to you; it's like an inventory from somebody's kitchen.
What in the world has this got to do with religion? Well, it's got a whole lot to do with religion. It says that my God cares about little things. He cares about details. And I don't know about you, but I have little things in my life and they’re just details, and I care about them. And sometimes I worry about them. And this passage is telling me God not only cares, but He looks after and He protects and He provides.
Not everything went back to Jerusalem. You know, whatever happened to the ark of the covenant? Forget the movie now, but whatever happened to the ark of the covenant? It was taken, of course, by Nebuchadnezzar. The ark that contained the two tablets of stone and Aaron's rod that budded, and those mysterious things called the Urim and Thummin that helped the people of God in their infancy to know the will of God, they were never seen again. They weren't taken back to Jerusalem. It's a little signal; do you understand? They’re going back to rebuild the temple–at least, that's what they’re supposed to be doing. That's their motivation, first of all, for going back, to build the temple that has been destroyed; to build that footstool that we were thinking of this morning, the symbol of God's presence amongst His people. That's what they were supposed to do. But you understand even as they went back, they would realize that it would never be quite the same again.
You know, the Israel that returned was never quite the Israel that left. It looked different now. There would be a temple, but it wouldn't be the same as Solomon's temple. It was a little signal, I think, that what went back looked more like a church than a nation. God is preparing them for even greater changes that will come at Pentecost, that will come in A.D. 70 when even the second temple, the Herod's Temple, will be once again destroyed and never rebuilt. God's purposes with Israel is God's purpose ultimately with the church, and even now as they make their way back to Jerusalem, there's a little hint of that, I think; a little signal.
You notice the very last words in chapter 1? Here's the scene. And imagine this as a movie: and there's a road somewhere in Babylon, in Iraq, and it's heading west and maybe slightly south, and it's heading somewhere in the direction of Jerusalem. I don't know what time of year it was, but let's imagine it's hot and dusty. And you've got these people — maybe a few thousand, maybe more — and they’re making their way, carrying these pots and pans and freewill offerings. But those who remained (probably unbelievers now)…are left in Babylon. This group of Jews, they’re carrying this money, this treasure, and they have this hope, and they have this dream, and they have this faith. And you see how the biblical writer puts it. It is so beautiful. “From Babylon to Jerusalem;” from Babylon to Jerusalem…
Now if bells don't ring in your minds as you read those words “from Babylonia to Jerusalem…from Babylon to Jerusalem…” How does the Bible end?
In the eighteenth chapter of the book of Revelation:
“Fallen, fallen is Babylon the great!”
Babylon becomes a symbol, you see, for the earthly city, the city of this world, the aspirations of men without God. And these are making their way from the earthly city of Babylon to the heavenly city of Jerusalem.
You know, when the Visigoths attacked Rome and Rome fell, Christians had been far too comfortable in the end with Rome and the empire. And when the Visigoths attacked Rome, some Christians were absolutely devastated — they wondered what the future of Christianity would be. And Augustine wrote one of the great, great books of all time, De civitate Dei, “The City of God.” The church doesn't depend, you see, on the earthly city. Rome, Babylon. It's a city that God builds, a city which the book of Hebrews says has foundations whose builder and maker is God.
Oh, you can lift this phrase, I think; and the Bible writer intends you to do that, because in a sense it's precisely what we are doing. We are making a pilgrimage, you and I, from Babylon to Jerusalem. We’re on a journey from the city of the world that offers in the end nothing, to the city of God which promises everything.
We’ll follow these folk as they come back to this fallen city of Jerusalem, but for now let's ask ourselves that question: Are we on that journey to the new Jerusalem, the certainty of which can only be answered by faith alone in Jesus Christ alone?
Let's pray together.
Father, we thank You for Your word and for this passage of Scripture. We thank You, O Lord, for the grace of the gospel that has brought us into the living hope that promises to us a city which has foundations, whose builder and maker is God. Now grant Your blessing, we pray for Jesus’ sake. Amen.
Please stand and receive the Lord's benediction.
Grace, mercy, and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ be with you all. Amen.
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This transcribed message has been lightly edited and formatted for the Web site. No attempt has been made, however, to alter the basic extemporaneous delivery style, or to produce a grammatically accurate, publication-ready manuscript conforming to an established style template.
Should there be questions regarding grammar or theological content, the reader should presume any website error to be with the webmaster/transcriber/editor rather than with the original speaker. For full copyright, reproduction and permission information, please visit the First Presbyterian Church Copyright, Reproduction & Permission statement.