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Ezra & Nehemiah

Where Is the God of Moses?

Ezra 1-3

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Rationale

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.

History

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.

Prophecy

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.[1]

·         Jeremiah, writing about twenty years before the beginning of the exile, prophesied that there would be seventy years of exile. [2]

·         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.

Time Points

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.

Timeline 1

Timeline #2

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:

Map of Persian Empire
The God of Moses

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.

Cyrus

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.

Sheshbazzar

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?

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.

World’s Order

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 worshiping God.

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.

Celebration

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 particularly trivial.

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.



[1] Isaiah 45:1-6

[2] Jeremiah 25:11-12

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