Wednesday Evening Prayer Meeting
March 3, 2010
The Reverend Mr. Billy Joseph
If you have your Bible turn with me to the book of, oh come on, y’all know what book we're going to — come on! Ezra, good. Somebody's been paying attention over here. Go to Ezra chapter 9 and go to verse 6. Let's pray before we begin.
Father, we come to Your Word now and we ask that Your Spirit would teach us. We acknowledge our need of You. We acknowledge our sin, that left to ourselves we would only serve ourselves and our pleasure and our own will. So as we come to this book tonight Father, we pray that You would remind us again of Your great mercy and grace. And we pray this in Jesus' name. Amen.
Begin reading at verse 6. This is Ezra praying after he's found out that after the Israelites have gone back on the first wave of folks returning from Babylon have been intermarrying with unbelievers.
“O my God, I am ashamed and blush to lift my face to You, my God, for our iniquities have risen higher than our heads, and our guilt has mounted up to the heavens. From the days of our fathers to this day we have been in great guilt. And for our iniquities, our kinds, and our priests have been given into the hands of the kings of the lands, to the sword, to captivity, to plundering, and to utter shame, as it is today. But now for a brief moment favor has been shown by the Lord our God, to leave us a remnant and to give us a secure hold within His holy place, that our God may brighten our eyes and grant us a little reviving in our slavery. For we are slaves. Yet our God has not forsaken us in our slavery, but has extended to us His steadfast love before the kings of Persia, to grant us some reviving to set up the house of our God, to repair its ruins, and to give us protection in Judea and Jerusalem.
And now, O our God, what shall we say after this? For we have forsaken Your commandments, which You commanded by Your servants the prophets, saying, ‘The land that you are entering, to take possession of it, is a land impure with the impurity of the peoples of the lands, with their abominations that have filled it from end to end with their uncleanness. Therefore do not give your daughters to their sons, neither take their daughters for your sons, and never seek their peace or prosperity, that you may be strong and eat the good of the land and leave it for an inheritance to your children forever.’ And after all that has come upon us for our evil deeds and for our great guilt, seeing that You, our God, have punished us less than our iniquities deserved and have given us such a remnant as this, shall we break Your commandments again and intermarry with the peoples who practice these abominations? Would You not be angry with us until you consumed us, so that there should be no remnant, nor any to escape? O Lord, the God of Israel, You are just, for we are left a remnant that has escaped, as it is today. Behold, we are before You in our guilt, for none can stand before You because of this.”
Imagine with me for a moment that you are a bride. Okay guys, I know this is tough, okay. Guys you’re a groom and you’re in a totally white tuxedo, okay? And ladies you’re in — this is easier for the ladies — and you’re in the pure white as well. And suddenly someone has crept up behind you and hit you over the head and you black out. When you come to, you cannot see a thing, not a thing. It's cold, it's kind of damp, you’re laying on a rock floor, but it's not really a floor. As you feel around, as you search in the dark, you realize that you’re in a cave, and you’re not just in a cave, you’re in the belly of a cave. There is no light anywhere and you begin to struggle and you begin to strain and you begin to find and creep and suddenly off in some imaginable distance is a pinprick of light. And you begin to crawl and you begin to stand and try to walk and you stumble and fall and you run into, okay, I don't know — stalagmites or ‘tites, I never can remember which is on the bottom, but anyway — you run into all kinds of formations and as you get closer and closer to that light, that little light gradually gets a little bigger. And as you are crawling along, straining and struggling, you realize you are still in your white garment. And you continue to strain and you continue to struggle and the light gets bigger and bigger until suddenly you can see it's the mouth of the cave and you stumble out and you realize you have been in a coal mine and that white tuxedo, that white wedding dress, is not white, it is now black as soot.
The book of Ezra fits at the end of 1 and 2 Kings. The rise and fall, as Ligon led us a couple of weeks ago to remember. The fall of God's people; the sin of God's people. Ezra is about renewal. Ezra is about God's people being brought back. As you look at the first chapter you see — go back to the first chapter of Ezra — and you’ll see “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.” What is Cyrus saying? Israel can return back to the land that God had promised her, but it's in accordance with the Word of God. It's in accordance with Jeremiah. Listen to Jeremiah chapter 29 and you’ll see exactly how it applies. “For thus says the Lord, ‘When seventy years are completed for Babylon, I will visit you. I will fulfill to you My promise and bring you back to this place. For I know the plans I have for you’ declares the Lord, ‘plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope. Then you will call upon Me and come and pray to Me and I will hear you. You will seek Me and find Me when you seek Me with all your heart. I will be found by you,’ declares the Lord, ‘I will restore your fortunes and gather you from all the nations and all the places where I have driven you,’ declares the Lord, ‘and I will bring you back to the place from which I sent you into exile.’”
Now that's the Jeremiah that is referred to. That after seventy years Israel is going to be returned. Israel is going to go back to the Promised Land. And the book of Ezra is about that movement. Now originally the book of Ezra was connected with the book of Nehemiah, but I'm going to let someone else deal with Nehemiah, okay? But we're going to look at Ezra because in it we have three of the three groups that went back from Babylon. This is about two of those groups, the first and the second groups that returned to Babylon. And in it we see, as we look at this, we see the return of God's people. For a brief summary, kind of look with me, or just listen I guess. In this first one you see in chapter 1 verses 2 through 4 you see Cyrus’ letter and his declaration of why he's sending them back. And it's a fulfillment of Isaiah 44 where Isaiah prophesied, “Who says of Cyrus, ‘He is my shepherd. He shall fulfill all My purpose, saying of Jerusalem, ‘She shall be built,’ and of the temple, ‘Your foundation shall be laid.’’” Here's God's Word being fulfilled. God's Word being fulfilled historically that He promised His people would return, that He promised Cyrus would be the one who enabled them to return. And so in this first chapter you see Cyrus’ letter and it's a quotation from His letter to it gives you historical posts to hold on to. This isn't made up. This is grounded in history. It's grounded in something that really happened.
You ever had anybody tell you that something didn't happen to you? It's kind of crazy isn't it because you know what you've been through? Here's Israel, grounding in what they know happened, because here is a historical document that is quoted. As a matter of fact, in this book there are several historical documents that are quoted and all of them are by the kings, except one is by the enemies of God. And so you get this, that it's founded and grounded in history. But also notice that in 5 through 10 what God does. They have the letter, the letter's saying that they can return, and then God stirs up the hearts. There in verse 5 — “Then rose up the heads of the father's house 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.” In other words, God begins to work in His people. They had sat by the river. They had mourned for Babylon. They had mourned for being in Babylon. They wanted to be back and see the temple in Jerusalem and now they’re going back, they’re going back because God is sending them back. God is at work in their lives. Even in the midst of their captivity, God is working in their lives and so they are returning. And as they are returning the first wave is the group that returns. One through 64 describes who they are — gives their names — a total of forty-two thousand three hundred and sixty people plus or take a couple of servants and singers and folks like that. They are returning. They are returning. Even their names are given, and they’re not even returning empty handed. They are returning as the king makes sure that they receive sixty one thousand drachmas of gold, five thousand minas of silver, and a hundred priestly garments and treasures from the temple that were taken. They are returning not as captives, but as freed captives, freed by Cyrus to return.
And then in chapter 3 we see what happens when they return. What happens when God's Word is fulfilled that they would return, that they come and they are back again in Jerusalem, that place where God dwelt with them. And what is the first thing that they do? Look at verse 2. In verse 2 you see — chapter 2 verse 2 — “Now these were the people of the province who came up out of captivity” — wait a minute. Excuse me. Three verse 2. Sorry. There was a two in there it was just the wrong two. They come to the city. “Then arose Jeshua the son of Jozadak, with his fellow priests, and Zerubbabel the son of Shealtiel with his kinsmen, and they built the altar of the God of Israel to offer burnt offering on it, as it is written in the Law of Moses the man of God.” In other words, they come back and the first concern they have is the offering of sacrifices. The first concern they have is to worship God. Isn't that true when you have realized your sin and you've realized God's deliverance, that the first thing out of your mouth is “Thank you Lord.” A sacrifice of thanksgiving. That your first thought is to give worship to God, to give praise to God, when you realize the forgiveness that is yours in Jesus Christ. Here they are, back in the land of Israel, and their first thing to do is to worship.
And notice it's not normal worship at First Presbyterian Church. It's normal in that it's according to God's Word, okay? That's like First Pres. but there is a lot of weeping and there's a lot of shouting. Those who grew up not knowing or remembering the temple, they’re the ones who go back with loud shouting, with trumpets and cymbals. But those who remember the temple, who remember what it was like, they go back with weeping, weeping with loud voice remembering those former days. And so you have worship that is full of shouting and weeping and could be heard far away.
But even as God's people begin to rebuild the temple, having built that altar first, there is opposition. They run into opposition almost immediately. Now in chapter 4 we're introduced to all these different kings of Persia. Now what I thought I'd do is just kind of relieve your tension. I can't tell you exactly — let's see — there's Cyrus the Great and there's Cyrus I. Cyrus I is first but Cyrus the Great is second. They’re interspersed by Chambyses. What a name. Don't you like that name? Somebody that works on ice along with — oh anyway. But how many Darius’ are there? There's Darius I, there's Darius II, and there's Darius III, and they cover about two hundred years. So which Darius are they talking about? And then to top it all off you've got, and I never can say his name — now I never can say it — A-h-er. Never mind. I'm not even going to try. But his name is there and yet he's probably Xerxes. I like Xerxes better. I can say it. But then there's also Artaxerxes, but guess what? In the history of Persia there were two Artaxerxes — three Artaxerxes — and two Xerxes. So don't worry so much about trying to get it together, just remember that God is at work even in history even if we can't remember exactly who's who. Okay? But He is at work in these men and He is using them.
The enemies that arise, they appeal to Ahasuerus — I think I said it right — pretty close — or Xerxes I. They appeal to him. They send a letter because the Israelites won't let them help them build. They come to the Israelites, look in chapter 4 verse 2. They say, “Let us build with you for we worship your God as you do and we have been sacrificing to Him ever since the days of Esarhaddon king of Assyria who brought us here.” Now these folks have assimilated the worship of God with the worship of pagan gods and the Israelites know that. I'm reminded of the New Testament passage in Romans where it says, “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” The Israelites fell because they entertained other gods. They left God and that's why they went into captivity. And here in 4 verse 3, Zerubbabel, Jeshua, and the rest of the heads of the father's houses in Israel said to them, “You have nothing to do with us in building a house to our God, but we alone will build to the Lord, the God of Israel, as King Cyrus king of Persia has commanded us.” And they began to give them a hard time. They began to trouble them. They began to trouble them. They began, even to the point in chapter 11, to send a letter to Artaxerxes I in opposition to the building of Jerusalem.
Now this first letter to Artaxerxes is very interesting because in this letter they don't go into the detail about Cyrus and so Artaxerxes studies the matter and what matter does he study? The matter they’re accusing them of and that is how they lived before captivity, before they were captive. And so that letter that they send to Artaxerxes talks about that they didn't pay tribute and they promoted their God. And so Artaxerxes stops the building of the temple. His orders come in verses 17 to 24. He sends a letter back that they are to cease work. But God sends prophets to His people, sends Haggai and Zachariah back to get the people to work again, to begin to build again on the temple. And of course they continued to receive opposition. And so then a second letter is sent.
This letter is sent to Darius. Now Darius follows Artaxerxes and so this letter comes to Darius. And in the letter to Darius they talk about Cyrus. The enemies of God talk about Cyrus and his declaration so when Darius commands that the records be studied, he finds out that no only, yes, they were rebellious people and didn't pay their tribute and those things, but Cyrus had sent them back and had provided for them even as they went back. And so Darius reasserts and reestablishes and look at verses 1 through 12 of chapter 6. Flip over to 6 and you’ll see what Darius said. The king issued a decree. “In the first year of Cyrus the king, Cyrus the king issued a decree: Concerning the house of God in Jerusalem, let the house be rebuilt, the place where sacrifices were offered, and let its foundations be retained. Its height shall be sixty cubits and its breadth sixty cubits” and they go on. But he says to them, “You shall put them in the house of God” talking about the silver bowls and the things that have been taken from the temple. And so Darius knows and commands that the building be allowed and so the temple is completed. They complete the temple. Now it's not the same as the former temple, but notice again — what do they do? They worship.
It's interesting. I would say that worship is one of the things that comes across in their responses to God's blessings every time. They return and build the altar — they worship. They finally get the temple built, having had to go through two kings and enemies. They get it built and they worship. Not only do they worship but they also celebrate Passover for the first time.
In chapter 7 we come to Ezra and the concentration goes to Ezra and his character. And you’ll see there in verse 6 of chapter 7 this description of Ezra — “He was a scribe skilled in the Law of Moses that the Lord, the God of Israel, had given, and the king granted him all that he asked, for the hand of the Lord his God was on him.” And then in verse 10 it says this of Ezra — “For Ezra had set his heart to study the Law of the Lord, and to do it and to teach His statues and rules in Israel.” Here we have not just the children of Israel coming back to the land, but here we have them being reminded of the importance of God's Word. And Ezra begins to work with them. Look in verses — he's called to return. I'm sorry I'm loosing it, but that's okay, I've done it before.
In chapter 7 verse 11, Artaxerxes sends a letter concerning Ezra as Ezra is going to lead the second wave back to Jerusalem. This is about twenty years later and so Ezra is leading another group back. And as he leads this group he goes back with the letter from Artaxerxes. And in the letter from Artaxerxes you find that the protection, the blessing of Artaxerxes is on Ezra as he returns. And so Ezra returns. This is what the letter ends with, the letter from Artaxerxes in verse 26 of chapter 7 says — “Whoever will not obey the law of your God and the law of the king, let judgment be strictly executed on him, whether for death or for the banishment or for the confiscation of his goods or for imprisonment.” In other words, Artaxerxes opens the door for Ezra to be the governor of that area and to operate as a governor. And he sends a great amount of wealth back with Ezra as well. As Ezra prepares to go back though, Ezra gets a little nervous. He's bragged about God's blessing and how God will protect them and he's turned down from Artaxerxes the help of Artaxerxes, so what does he do? He gets the people together, the leader, and he fasts and he prays.
You really, interestingly enough, as you work through Ezra you begin to see God's people using the means of grace. There's worship continually as we work through it. There's attendance on God's Word over and over. You hear, “According to the word of David” or “According to Moses.” You also see them praying. So you see God's people as they've been renewed and as they’re being sent back you see them attending to the means that God has given them to grow in their love for Him and their relationship with Him. And you begin to see it.
The second wave begins to travel back in chapter 8. As they’re traveling back they’re protected by God, He watches over them, they fast and they even give a strict accounting. They have to carry so much money back, so much wealth back, that they give it to the Levites. They have to go out and find Levites to go back. Some of the Levites didn't want to go back. Well they find a tribe, a family of the Levites, and Ezra convinces them to come back, they come back, and he then counts out the wealth, the money, to them. And when they return, when they get back to Jerusalem, they have the exact amount when they return. Maybe that's where — maybe they were Presbyterians keeping strict accounts here. So they return, but when they return, when they return to Jerusalem, Ezra — we come to chapter 9 where Ezra finds the sin of the people and you see Ezra's prayer and you see his prayer of repentance. You see him grieving for the sin of the people and you see him confessing. And then in chapter 10 we see the very same things. We see the people grieving over their sin because they see Ezra grieving over their sin, and then the people begin to confess, they begin to repent, and there's even a list of those who repented. They put their wives, their ungodly wives, out. They separated themselves from those who did not love Christ, who did not love God. And that is Ezra.
But the important thing is for us to see that Ezra is a picture of what God's people look like when they've been renewed, when they have been saved, when they've been brought out of darkness. Notice the desire for worship. They wanted to return and rebuild the temple. They wanted to worship when they returned to the temple. They wanted to worship when the temple was complete. And even in their repentance there is worship. Then you also see that their worship is according to God's Word. Look at Ezra 3 verse 10 — “When the builders laid the foundation of the temple of the Lord, the priests in their vestments came forward with trumpets, and the Levites, the sons of Asaph, with cymbals, to praise the Lord, according to the directions of David the king of Israel.” They were still in God's Word. They knew what God's Word was saying about their worship, about building the temple, about everything. They were concerned to do that.
But notice also there was an importance of the Word. And we see that particularly in Ezra. Ezra is one who is devoted to the Word. He has set his heart, devoted his heart, to study the Law of God and to do it, not just to know it, but to do it and then to teach it. It's interesting that his relationship with Artaxerxes, you read Artaxerxes’ letter and you do see the influence of Ezra on him. But Ezra points to the importance of God's Word and then you see the people resisting the resistance, fighting the world around them as it tries to squeeze them into its mold.
But the thing that I would like for us to look at is, even in their renewal, even after the blessings of seeing a new temple built, even after building that temple according to what God's Word says, even after prayer and fasting, all the means of grace, you still come to chapter 9 and the presence of sin in God's people. Have you ever felt like that your sin sometimes is overwhelming you? Do you feel like you fight it and you fight it and you fight it and you feel just like Ezra as he confessed the guilt? Look at the phrases that he uses. I'm in verse 8 where he says, “Behold, we are before You in our guilt for none can stand before You because of this.” Here they are, blessed by God, brought back into favor with God, and sin is right there at their elbow as Romans says. Sin is right there with them. They can't get rid of it. Even being in Jerusalem, even being in the temple, even being with God's people they still sin. As Ezra confesses, you get a sense of the overwhelming nature of the sin he sees, how ugly it is. Here God's people have returned to the land. They ought to know, they ought to remember the sin that took them into captivity, and yet here they are back in it again. It's like the rise and fall again, the decline and fall again. It's like going through 1 and 2 Kings again. It's sin. What do we do? Where is our hope? Where is our hope? Absolutely.
The one thing that occurs over and over is a very interesting phrase. Over and over we hear these words — “The Lord stirred up the spirit of Cyrus king of Persia.” Everyone whose spirit God has stirred up to go and rebuild the house of the Lord that is in Jerusalem for the Lord had made them joyful. The hand of the Lord — his God was on him. The good hand of his God was on him. “The good hand of the Lord my God was on me. The good hand of God was on me. The hand of our God was on us and He delivered us from the hand of the enemy and from the ambush on the way.” Their hope was not based on the fact that they had suddenly learned in Babylon how to be godly and good. Their hope wasn't based on the fact that they knew what God's Word said. Their hope wasn't based on anything in and of themselves. As they stood before God, they only stood their in their own guilt. Their only hope was that God had promised that He would be their God and a God to their children after them. That for His name's sake, they were His people, that for His glory, they were His people, and that He would save them. They didn't know how, other than what the Word of God told them, but it was that God would save them in Jesus Christ. They had to come back to the fact that it was God who was at work, God who had saved them. Just like you and I, every time we are faced again with the reality of our sin we must run back to the fact that Christ took our penalty, our punishment upon Himself, and gave us His righteousness. Even in a book about renewal it ends with the repentance of God's people acknowledging that apart from God Himself they cannot save themselves.
Is that true of us? As many times as our sin beats us up, runs over us, drags us down, do we remember that Christ is our righteousness? Because that is what the book of Ezra is pointing us to — that God is the God of our salvation, that the Gospel is, not that we're able or can do anything, but our God is a God who saves. Let's pray.
Father, we thank You for Your Word. We ask, we plead, that You would indeed cause us when sin rears its ugly head, when it tries to claim us back, when it attacks us over and over and over again, that You would be faithful. You are our only hope as we deal with our sin. Oh, we’ll go and we’ll marry ourselves to the things of the world very quickly. Even if You've rescued us this afternoon, by tonight we're back in it again. Forgive us for the sake of Christ our Savior. Thank You Lord Jesus that You took our death upon Yourself. Thank You that You gave to us Your righteousness. May we repent and turn back to You and follow after You Lord Jesus. We ask in the name of our Savior. Amen.
Let's stand for the benediction. And now may grace, mercy, and peace from God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit, be and abide with you all both now and forever. Amen.
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