This lesson begins a study of two of the history books of
the Old Testament: Ezra and Nehemiah. For most Christians this would seem to be
a waste of time. Of all the histories in the Old Testament these two are
probably the dullest. Both books are amply supplied with genealogies and in
addition have a number of accounting lists. Other than a cure for insomnia,
there would seem to be no reason to study these books. But all Scripture is
profitable, as we shall see.
Relevance to America
It is both regrettable and undeniable: America no longer
follows the word of God. Indeed, it can be argued quite successfully that in
many things the church no longer follow God in America. Unless God graciously
gives us a spirit of revival this will mean only one thing: the destruction of
the America we know. I hate to sound so pessimistic, but if you know the flood
is coming, build an Ark. We will need to know how to get back to what God wants
us to do. Ezra and Nehemiah are a study of Israel returning to God, and there
are some significant lessons they’re in.
Israel a Picture of the Christian
Often in the Scripture the nation of Israel can be seen as a
picture of the Christian to come. There are moral lessons to be learned from the
conduct of Israel and the results of that conduct. In particular we shall see
in these two books certain characteristics:
First, there is the virtue of a humble attitude. This is the
second time the Israelites have returned to the land of Palestine; the first
being under Moses. Humility was not particularly a strong point for the nation
of Israel as they came out of Egypt. We shall see that the attitude is
different as they come out of Babylon.
Next, there is the virtue of taking small steps. Sometimes we
believe that only the gigantic leap of God will prevail — and if we don’t see
that leap in view, we sit back and do nothing. In this study we shall see that
the Israelites took things in small steps but accomplished great things.
Finally, we shall see that their actions were fortified by
prophecy. Their courage, strength and attitude were reinforced by the fact that
there were prophets among them. A parallel may be drawn for us today; the
Scripture should play an equal role in this for us.
Now admit it: you haven’t the foggiest notion of what Ezra
and Nehemiah did or when they did it. Welcome to the pack. So let’s take a
little tour of the background.
This process of returning to the land is bathed in prophecy.
Isaiah, writing at about 710 BC, prophesied the name of the king
who would let the people return to the land of Palestine. He declared his name
to be Cyrus.
Jeremiah, writing about twenty years before the beginning of the
exile, prophesied that there would be seventy years of exile.
Daniel interpreted the handwriting on the wall for Belteshazzar;
Daniel also is the key to prophecy. He knew Jeremiah’s prophecy; he therefore
prayed that God would live up to his word.
The result of this — and as we shall see other prophecies
which concern Nehemiah — was that the Jews took prophecy quite seriously. If
God said they would return to the land in seventy years, return they would.
It helps to have some idea of when each of these little
events happens. So here’s a brief list of important times:
723 BC — the northern kingdom, composed of the ten tribes, is
deported to Assyria. These tribes become the famous “ten lost Tribes.”
586 BC — the southern kingdom is destroyed; the temple burn down
and ruined and the people deported to Babylon.
539 BC — Babylon falls to the Persian King, Cyrus.
536 BC — 516 BC: the temple is rebuilt in Jerusalem.
Linked below are a couple of timelines provided with the
Bible study software known as E-sword.
The Role of Daniel
We have already mentioned the fact that Daniel went to his
knees in prayer, confessing the sins of the nation of Judah, and referencing
the prophecy of Jeremiah. Daniel spent most of his adult life in the court of
Babylon, followed by Persia. His last service to the Babylonians was to point
out the Belteshazzar that he had been weighed in the balance and found wanting.
It is entirely possible that this story reached the ears of Cyrus, and thus
created a friendship between Cyrus and Daniel.
More than that, Daniel is the central key to prophecy in the
Old Testament. It is Daniel who lays out the seventy weeks which tell us of the
coming of the Messiah. We do not necessarily have written record of all the
prophecy and revelation Daniel was given. But given how closely Daniel receives
prophecy, it is likely that Cyrus kept him on as an advisor.
Temple and State
The reader must understand that the Jews are rebuilding the
temple while they are under the control of the Persian Empire. A glance at the
map will give you an idea of how big this empire was:
The most obvious fact in this account which concerns the God
of Moses, the God in whom all of these Jews believed, is the complete absence
of any miraculous evidence. The God of Moses is absent. In that respect these
Jews are dealing with the same kind of performance from God that we are dealing
with today. It can be very frustrating to a Christian to know that Moses
performed miracles at God’s behest on a frequent basis. Most of us would settle
for seeing one or two miracles — and we see none. Yet this is an event which is
described in prophecy; it is an event which is very much parallel to the return
of the ancient Israelites from Egypt to Palestine; and as we shall see there is
certainly sufficient opposition that would make the miraculous seem
appropriate. It’s just not there.
So the question of course is why? The answer seems to be
that there is such a thing as divine economy. If you will recall, the
Israelites who came out of Egypt were not particularly noted for their faith.
In fact, most of them had trouble maintaining what faith they had from day to
day, despite all the miracles. These are not the same people. To be specific,
these people are a remnant. God has a habit of filtering out most of the people
and dealing with those few who have the faith he requires. This band of Jews is
demonstrated that. After all, they left a fairly comfortable life in Babylonia
where they had settled down. They now take and approximately five-month journey
(on foot) to get to a city that they know is in ruins. When they get there they
build an altar for sacrifices, then they start about the twenty year process of
building the temple again.
In this regard they are much more similar to us than they
are to the ancient Israelites. This action is taken by the prompting of the
Holy Spirit, which is the most common method by which God communicates to
individual Christians. God, in the form of the Holy Spirit, is much more
familiar to us than the God of Moses dispensing miracles. These people are very
much like us, and their interface with God is very much like ours. Most of us
do not actually want the ability to do miracles; we want the ability to do
magic. We don’t want to display God’s power; we want to display our own. This
group of ancient Jews is well aware of the sins of their nation, and it seemed
sufficient to them to be allowed to return to their homeland.
It may be the most surprising thing about Cyrus: one of the
first things he does is released the Jews to return to their homeland — and
sends with them all the loot that Nebuchadnezzar collected when he sacked the
city. Josephus gives us a little help here. Writing several hundred years after
the event he tells us that Cyrus was influenced by Daniel, the prophet. In
particular Josephus tells us that Daniel showed Cyrus the prophecy in Isaiah
which mentions Cyrus by name. As Isaiah wrote more than 200 years before Cyrus
came this may indeed have been fairly impressive. The story of the handwriting
on the wall might have been impressive too.
Whatever the reason, Cyrus parts with a fairly large
quantity of loot. He adds to that instructions that the Jews are to get all the
help they need from their fellow Jews. What’s impressive here is that the loot
in question is carefully measured out, recorded and put down a formal
accounting which has survived into the Scriptures today. It’s obvious Cyrus
does not wish to part with this part of his empire, but considers the building
of the temple to be part of the ordinary course of affairs of state.
The really interesting part is this: Cyrus says that God
told him to build the temple. That’s right, Cyrus is the guy who is to build
the temple. This may be just a case of the king taking credit for something; it
may be just a case that it happens under his direction and therefore it’s his
problem; or maybe this just as the Imperial style. It’s likely that Cyrus
considered God to be a local God, the God of Jerusalem. But in this time a
monarch was well advised to placate each and every God which resided in his
territory — and just in case additional help was needed, the ones in the
territory outside his own. Cyrus is being prudent.
We are not certain whether or not Sheshbazzar is the same
person as Zerubbabel. But whoever he was, we know that he is a careful person.
He is careful about the accounting for the gold and silver dishes; he is also
careful about genealogies of people. The man would’ve made a good project
manager; he’s highly detail oriented.
One thing he is not, however, is poetic. In his section of
this text there is no lamentation for the national sins of Israel. This section
reads like somebody’s status report. His inclination for things spiritual seems
to extend only to the genealogy of the priesthood (see Ezra 2:62). Everything else
is rather civilian.
This is characteristic of the remnant of God. If you had to
pick an attitude which describes the remnant, it would be “matter of fact.”
They’re the kind of people who just go out and get things done. There is,
behind the scenes, the presumption that the Providence of God will work in such
a way as to favor them. As we shall see, their first resort is to God — not to
their own strength. It’s the kind of faith that goes through day by day without
the exaltation (or simple emotional high) considered so necessary today. If I
had to pick a word to describe these people it would be “craftsman.”
Altar and Temple
Most of us, if asked what we were going to do at the end of
a long journey, would answer that we were going to unpack. But there is always
a question in the mind when you take on a new assignment: what’s the first
thing I should be doing? What is step one?
Remembering that these people have seen no miracles
whatsoever you might think that they would place their first reliance in their
own strength. They do not. They know that they got into this mess by being
disobedient to God; they have a sense of national guilt which is entirely
absent from us today. We think that the evil in America is someone else’s
problem. They were not such fools.
Therefore, their first step was to build an altar on which
they might offer sacrifices to God. Having established communication with the
Almighty, their second act was to celebrate. In particular they celebrated in
accordance with the Law of Moses. It’s significant to note that they did not
start on building the temple immediately; rather, they started with the common
obedience of the devout Jew of the time.
There is a parallel here for the modern Christian. Often
enough we hear someone explain that the reason they can’t come to church is
that they don’t have their act together yet. They need to clean up their life
before they would be good enough to be accepted in the church. We try to tell
people like that our motto is, “come as you are.” But it’s hard to believe
that. Here’s an example of the “come as you are” principle in action. These
people are sinners; they know their sinners; their first action is obedience.
There is no sense of dramatic purification; no sense of national mourning;
really, there seems to be no display of repentance. But consider what
repentance means: it means to turn around. If you’re going the wrong way on the
freeway you get off at the next off ramp and find the on ramp to the opposite
direction. You don’t need a big show to do that. You need a steering wheel.
Remember these people the next time someone tells you he isn’t good enough to
come to church.
If you will, note that these people are afraid of the
population living around them. They have good reason to be. They are in a city
which has no defensive walls. In that place and time a defensive wall around
the city was considered absolutely necessary. Explosives had yet to be invented
and overcoming a city wall was a process that would take several months of
siege. A wall, in effect, multiplied your military forces, giving you the
advantage of choosing whether or not to attack your opponent. If you had enough
food water stored — Machiavelli says that a year’s supply is usually sufficient
— the fellow surrounding you would run out of food and find himself starving in
front of your gates. He would therefore go home. The balance of power in
military affairs had swung to the defensive.
So if you are performing this expedition in the world’s way
of doing things, your order of priority would be something like this:
First, build a good set of walls around the city.
Second, build your temple.
Third, now that everything was in order, you could start
The world’s way is exactly backwards from what they did. In
the world’s way, God is the last resort. These folks knew better; they were
afraid of the people around them so they built an altar and began to offer
sacrifices to God. God is their first resort.
Have you ever noticed that people like to celebrate good
beginnings? That’s what they’re doing here. When they lay the foundation of the
temple — no small amount of work — they hold a great celebration. We do the
same in our lives; we celebrate the birth of children, the start of marriage in
such things as moving to a new house.
One thing that is clear from this account is that they held
to the idea that only the Jews could build the temple. The work belongs
exclusively to the people of God. In that, there is a delicate problem which
faces us yet today. In the conduct of matters of the church, how much activity
can be performed by those who are not members of the church? Somehow we must
balance out the work between the members of the nonmembers. You’ll notice, for
example, that the ordered cedar logs from Tyre and Sidon. Sometimes we get so
puritanical about things that we figure we have to grow the cedar ourselves and
wait for forty years before we can harvest the trees. Other times we call in a
contractor and say, “I want you to build me a temple.” The question is not
The Scriptures put it clearly to us: we are to be “in the
world, but not of the world.” That often seems to be confusing guidance. It
would be completely confusing if we had no idea of the Providence of God. It is
the mark of the Christian that he acts as if God will provide, because he knows
that God will. That knowledge covers the area that the Christian himself must
do; the rest can be subcontracted to the outside world.
There is one last thing I would have you notice. In the
midst of all the celebration there are some men who are crying; old men. They
are the ones who saw the original temple in their youth, and they know that
nothing they can do now would match its magnificence. They are doing the old
men do: shedding tears for what might have been. We cannot go back and repair
sin; we can only go forward in repentance.