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Ezra
Sunday, 13 March 2016

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The people of God need the Word of God. That was the title to the first sermon that I preached here as your pastor over ten years ago. And I still believe it today. Godís people need His Word. They have always needed it. The first thing that God did after He saved His people from slavery in Egypt was give them the Law. The Israelites needed to know how to live as Yahwehís people and God graciously told them. Unfortunately, keeping the Law was not something that Israel did well. Generation after generation they inched away from faithfulness to Godís commandments until God sent His prophets to warn them that if they did not repent and return to the Word He would send them into exile. The people did not listen and God raised up the Assyrians and Babylonians to bring judgement on Israel by returning them to slavery. They ignored the Word and the warnings and paid for it with years in exile.

But the Lord was not through with His people. He told the prophets Isaiah and Jeremiah that He would restore Israel, particularly the city of Jerusalem, which was destroyed by the Babylonians. He told Jeremiah that after seventy years of exile, the people would return and rebuild. The books of Ezra and Nehemiah are the fulfillment of those prophecies. In these books we see God keeping His promise to restore Israel and we see the people laboring to return to His Word. We need to hear this message today. Why is it so important that we hold fast to the Bible? What happens when Godís people return to His Word? These books, written in part by Ezra and Nehemiah themselves, will give us answers to these questions from those who lived through it. This morning I want us to look at how God keeps His promise to the prophets in Ezra 1-2. What do we see the Lord doing in these chapters?

He stirs up the spirit of Cyrus

The book of Ezra begins with a proclamation from Cyrus. Before we look at the proclamation itself, notice how the author describes how this came to happen. Look at verse 1. We need to answer a few questions about this verse. First, who was Cyrus? Cyrus was the king of Persia, the people who overthrew the Babylonians. God had foretold that this would happen through the prophet Isaiah, even specifically naming Cyrus years before it happened (see Isaiah 44:28-45:13). He was a pagan king of a foreign nation who conquered the nation that held Israel in captivity, and according to Isaiah, he did not know the Lord (45:5). Second, what happened to him? God stirred up his spirit to make a proclamation concerning the people of Israel and the city of Jerusalem. We will look at the particulars in a moment. Finally, why did this happen? God stirred up the spirit of Cyrus that the word of the Lord by the mouth of Jeremiah might be fulfilled. God had a plan for His people that He had revealed to the prophets. Now He is using a pagan king who did not even know the Lord to fulfill those plans. Although Cyrus was doing this for his own good (to try to gain favor with Israelís God and to have some protection against Egypt), it is clear that God is bringing about His sovereign purposes through the king. The Lord is using him to keep His promises to Israel.

So what did God stir the spirit of Cyrus to do? First, He stirred him to restore the temple in Jerusalem. Look at verse 2. This is in fulfillment of Isaiah 44:28, where the Lord says of Cyrus: ďHe is my shepherd, and he shall fulfill all my purpose; saying of Jerusalem, ĎShe shall be built,í and of the temple, ĎYour foundation shall be laid.íĒ Cyrus was known to let other conquered peoples return to their land, but he is doing this with Israel to fulfill the Lordís purpose for His people and His city. Second, the Lord stirs up Cyrus to let some of the people return. Look at verse 3. In order for the house to be rebuilt, Cyrus allows the Israelites to go back to Jerusalem. Some of them had been in captivity for over fifty years. Yet now, the Lord is using a pagan king to get them home. Finally, we see that God stirs up Cyrus to provide for the building of the temple. Look at verse 4. It is not clear if this means that the Persians gave them resources or if other Israelites did that, but Cyrus encouraged it. If the Persians were the ones giving then this exodus from Babylon is similar to the one from Egypt. The first tabernacle was built with the plunder of the Egyptians and perhaps now the temple is being rebuilt with resources from the Persians. Not only that, but Cyrus also returns the vessels that the Babylonians took from the temple. Look at verses 7-11. Only the Lord could use a pagan king to accomplish all of this. Only He could stir a heart like that.

He stirs up the people to rebuild

The king is obviously not going to rebuild the temple himself, but the Lord has a plan for that as well. Look at verse 5. Notice again Godís involvement in what is happening. He stirs up those who will return to rebuild the temple in Jerusalem. The same language that was used concerning Cyrus is now used here. God stirred the heart of the Persian king and now He is stirring hearts of the people of Israel. Chapter two is spent primarily telling us who these people were. It begins with the leaders (2:1-2), then moves on to the common people (2:3-35). Then we are told of the priests, Levites, temple servants, the sons of Solomonís servants, and even those whose lineage could not be traced (2:36-63). We are given the total in verse 64: 42,360. God stirred in the hearts of all of these people to return to Jerusalem and rebuild the temple. I am sure that many had various motivations for returning, but the Lord was going to use them to keep His promise.

The Lord also stirs them to help provide for the temple as well. We have already noted that 1:4 could be a reference to the Persians or the Israelites. The same can be said of 1:6. Look at that verse with me. Perhaps the Persians were being plundered or perhaps the Israelites were giving to support the project, or maybe both, we do not know for certain. But we do know that once the people arrived, they began to give to support the rebuilding effort. Look at 2:68-69. The Lord stirred in the hearts of the people to help provide for the building of the temple in Jerusalem. He caused them to return and He caused them to provide.

Conclusion
As with many of the more unfamiliar Old Testament stories, it is easy for us to dismiss them as irrelevant for us. Why does it matter today that God used a Persian king to release His people from slavery to return to Jerusalem to rebuild the temple? What can we learn from this?

First, we learn that God is sovereign over all. Who stirred the heart of the pagan king? God did. Who caused the one who did not even know Him to accomplish His purposes? God did. Cyrus was just doing what he thought was best for him. He was trying to reach his own goals, but he was a shepherd in Godís hand, guiding the Lordís flock back to the fold. And who stirred the people to return and rebuild? God did. Who made sure that they had what they needed to complete the project? God did. He never lost control of the situation. Even when Godís people were taken into exile, the Lord was working out His purposes. He raised up Nebuchadnezzar to capture His people and He raised up Cyrus to release them. They were both unknowingly fulfilling His promises. Such truth should encourage us in an election year. One of my commentatorís writes: ďAre you worried about recent political developments? About what your government is doing? Do you believe Proverbs 21:1 (which says ĎA kingís heart is like streams of water in the Lordís hand: He directs it wherever He choosesí)? This world is Godís stage? The bad guys have their strongholds, but they remain Godís characters. This is Godís cosmic drama. He will have His way.Ē The Lord is sovereign over all.

Second, we learn that God always keeps His promises, even in ways we might not expect. Nobody expects a pagan king to release Godís people to rebuild the temple, but this was Godís plan all along. In the same way, no one expect the Creator to put on flesh and spend His first night in a manger. Even in that story, God uses another pagan king to get Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem for Jesus to be born in fulfillment of His Word. And who would have expected for the King of kings and Lord of lords to pay for His peopleís sins by dying for them on a cross. And how did He end up there? Judas betrayed Him in fulfillment of Godís Word (see Acts 1:16) and the rulers in Jerusalem who crucified Him acted according to Godís plan (see Acts 4:27-28). In all of this, God is keeping His promise to send us a Savior who will redeem us from our sins. Jesus paid for our salvation at the cross so that we could repent and believe in Him and be saved. And what has God promised to those who follow after Christ? He has promised to sanctify us and conform us to the image of Christ (see Romans 8) and He has promised to glorify us by taking us to dwell with Him forever.

When you put all of this together, you are confronted with some amazing truths. Our God is sovereign over everything. He is using all things and all peoples to accomplish His purposes. And what are His purposes? To redeem a people through His Son, conform them to His image, and bring them home to glory. If all that is true, then every single day is under His control. Every single tear has a purpose. Every single struggle is for that good end. Be encouraged Godís people: He who stirs the heart is working all things together for your good! You can trust Him every step of the way! Amen.

1 James M. Hamilton, Christ-Centered Exposition: Exalting Jesus in Ezra and Nehemiah (Nashville: B&H Publishing, 2014), p. 7.

~ William Marshall ~

Last Updated ( Friday, 25 March 2016 )

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