It is easy—far too easy—to settle into a comfortable, routine Christianity. I have been a committed Christian for about 36 years and a pastor for 25 years, and it’s easy for me to drift into a safe, comfortable routine, where my heart is not panting after God like the thirsty deer after the water brook (Ps. 42:1). At such times, I am not, as David put it, thirsting and yearning for God “in a dry and weary land where there is no water” (Ps. 63:1). My heart grows dull and my vision for God is gradually blurred. What I need at such times—what we all need repeatedly—is for God’s Spirit to blow upon us in spiritual renewal.
The books of Ezra and Nehemiah are about God’s renewing His errant people. They are put together as one book in the Hebrew Bible, although the fact that the lists in Ezra 2 and Nehemiah 7 are virtually the same argues that originally they were separate. Ezra is about the return of the exiles from Babylon, the rebuilding of the Temple, and the restoration of God’s people spiritually. Nehemiah is about the rebuilding of the walls of Jerusalem, as well as the spiritual renewal of God’s people.
The Book of Ezra falls into two sections: Chapters 1-6 deal with the initial return of a remnant from Babylon under the leadership of Zerubbabel in 538 B.C., with the aim of restoring the Temple. The project began in 536 B.C., but opposition quickly arose, leading to the abandonment of the project for 16 years. Through the ministries of the prophets Haggai and Zechariah (5:1-2), the construction was renewed, coming to completion in 515 B.C.
Between chapters 6 and 7, there is a 58-year gap during which the events of the Book of Esther took place. At the beginning of chapter 7, in 457 B.C. (81 years after the first return), Ezra the priest led another smaller group to return to the land and bring renewal to the people, who were already drifting into assimilation with the surrounding people.
So the theme of the book is God’s restoring His people to the land according to His gracious promise and restoring His people spiritually to proper worship and godly living. A brief outline is:
1. Restoration of the Temple (1-6); return under Zerubbabel (538-515 B.C.)
A. The decree of Cyrus (1)
B. The census of the people (2)
C. The commencement of the project (3)
D. The opposition to the project (4)
E. The construction renewed amid opposition (5:1-6:12)
F. The construction completed (6:13-22)
(58 year gap—the Book of Esther)
2. Reformation of the People (7-10); return under Ezra (457 B.C.)
A. The leadership of the reformation commissioned (7)
B. The leader and his people return (8)
C. The reformation commenced (9-10)
(1) The condition of the people revealed (9:1-4)
(2) The confession of Ezra in prayer (9:5-15)
(3) The covenant (10:1-8) and cleansing (10:9-44) of the people
With that as a brief introduction, I want to focus the rest of our time on chapter 1. The lesson there is:
Spiritual renewal requires God’s great power working according to His gracious promises for His glorious purpose.
As you know from the history of Israel, for four centuries the Lord warned His disobedient people, calling them back to Himself through His prophets. Finally, they had persisted in their idolatry for too long, and God fulfilled His warning by scattering them among the nations (Deut. 28:64). As God prophesied through Moses almost 1,000 years before, “And among those nations you shall find no rest, and there shall be no resting place for the sole of your foot; but there the Lord will give you a trembling heart, failing of eyes, and despair of soul. So your life shall hang in doubt before you; and you shall be in dread night and day, and shall have no assurance of your life” (Deut. 28:65-66).
Why would God give His people a trembling heart, failing eyes, despair of soul, and no assurance of life? Hebrews 12 gives us the answer: “For those whom the Lord loves He disciplines, and He scourges every son whom He receives…. He disciplines us for our good, that we may share His holiness” (Heb. 12:6, 10). By nature, we’re all so wed to this world and the things of this world that the Lord has to bring us to the place where we find no rest in Babylon. We have to recognize that all that this world offers will leave us with a trembling heart, failing eyes, and despair of soul. The dry times spiritually should make us thirst after the living God, who alone can satisfy.
There were many Jews in Babylon who were comfortable there. Many of them had been born in captivity and Babylon was all that they knew. They heard stories from the old-timers about the glories of Zion and the beauty of the Temple. But they just shrugged, “Why go back there when we have a good life here?”
Besides, it was both inconvenient and risky to go back to Jerusalem. It meant saying good-bye to the comfortable and familiar surroundings and friends and venturing across 1,000 miles of hostile desert terrain to a land that had been decimated by war. There weren’t cities with beautiful empty homes awaiting them. There were piles of rubble and some hostile people who had moved into the empty land after the Babylonians had dragged off the surviving Jews 50 years earlier. So why go back?
But there were other Jews in Babylon who were not comfortable there. They remembered Zion and said, “How can we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land” (Ps. 137:4). They exalted Jerusalem, where God’s people worshiped Him in His temple, as their chief joy (Ps. 137:6). So when they heard the unbelievable news that Cyrus, the pagan king, had issued a call to the Jews to return to Jerusalem and rebuild the Lord’s temple, they were like those who dream. Their mouths were filled with laughter and their tongues with joyful shouting. “Then they said among the nations, ‘The Lord has done great things for them.’ The Lord has done great things for us; we are glad” (Ps. 126:2-3).
Cold water tastes so good when you are dry to the bone. God’s river of living water tastes so good when you have gone through a dry time and you’re aware that all of Babylon’s pleasures only leave you with despair of soul. But the key is this: When you are in a dry time, don’t get satisfied with Babylon. Remember Jerusalem, and cry out for God’s Spirit to take you back there. But, how does it happen?
Ezra 1:1-3a is identical to 2 Chronicles 36:22-23. They are astounding verses. In Jeremiah 29:10-14, the Lord had sent word through His prophet to those who were already in exile in Babylon:
For thus says the LORD, “When seventy years have been completed for Babylon, I will visit you and fulfill My good word to you, to bring you back to this place. For I know the plans that I have for you,” declares the LORD, “plans for welfare and not for calamity to give you a future and a hope. Then you will call upon Me and come and pray to Me, and I will listen to you. You will seek Me and find Me when you search for Me with all your heart. I will be found by you,” declares the LORD, “and I will restore your fortunes and will gather you from all the nations and from all the places where I have driven you,” declares the LORD, “and I will bring you back to the place from where I sent you into exile.”
The Lord had wounded; now He would heal. The Lord had killed; now He was giving life (Deut. 32:39). The seventy-year captivity began in 605 B.C. Jerusalem fell in 587 B.C. The decree of Cyrus was in 538, the first year of his reign over Babylon, 67 years after the first deportation, but scarcely 50 years since the destruction of the city. By the time the people returned and built the altar in 536, the 70 years were almost expired. Derek Kidner observes, “It was not the last time that God’s mercy would shorten the days of trial (Matt. 24:22)” (Ezra & Nehemiah, Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries [IVP], p. 32).
But the remarkable and significant thing is that it was God who stirred up Cyrus to make this dramatic proclamation. About 150 years before, Isaiah had predicted this event (Isa. 44:28-45:7). The fact that he named Cyrus has led critics to say that Isaiah could not have written this, and thus to attribute it to a later scribe. But only a bias against God’s supernatural knowledge would lead us to reject Isaiah’s prophecy.
Why would Cyrus, a pagan king, issue a decree for the Jews to return to Israel and rebuild their Temple? In the 19th century, the Cyrus Cylinder was discovered. It reveals that he had a policy of restoring people to their native lands and religions, asking them to pray to their gods on his behalf. A portion of it reads, “May all the gods whom I have resettled in their sacred cities ask daily Bel and Nebo for a long life for me” (cited by Kidner, p. 18).
So on a human level, you have a polytheistic king following his program of religious tolerance, superstitiously asking the subject people to pray to their gods for his well being. He even provided for funds to be raised to support the restoration, and he donated the temple objects that Nebuchadnezzar had taken years before.
But as our text shows, behind it all was the sovereign God turning this king’s heart as channels of water to fulfill His purpose (Prov. 21:1). Cyrus was ignorant of God’s ways. From his perspective, he was building his empire by employing wise policies that would insure his long reign. But behind Cyrus’ incredible decree, God was working to fulfill His Word through His prophet (1:1). Just as in the exodus, the Lord put it in the hearts of the Egyptians to give gold and silver to the Jews, so here He worked through Cyrus so that the Babylonian residents gave those returning silver and gold, goods and cattle (Ezra 1:4, 6). There is simply no human explanation for this. God was the only reason for it.
There are human schemes and methods for bringing spiritual renewal. But for it to be genuine, God must work according to His mighty power. Anything less will be a cheap, superficial substitute. But, then, do we just sit around and wait for God to work, or is there something that we can do?
Everything in the spiritual realm depends on God’s grace as promised in His Word. If God had not promised restoration, no amount of human effort could have brought it about. But since God had promised, and since He works through means that He ordains, there are some things that we can do:
The prophet Daniel’s meditation on Jeremiah’s prophecy and his prayers for God to forgive and restore His captive people were behind these dramatic changes in history (Daniel 9). Daniel didn’t read Jeremiah’s prophecy, realize that the 70 years were almost up, and say, “Cool! Let’s sit back and see what happens!” Rather, he humbled himself with fasting and he confessed his people’s and his own sins.
If we want spiritual renewal, whether personally or for God’s church, we must humble ourselves before God and entreat Him for it. If we’re content in Babylon, with no longing for worship in God’s temple in Jerusalem, we won’t cry out to Him for anything different. But if we realize that God promises more than we’re experiencing, we will give ourselves to prayer until He grants it.
The renewal under Ezra was a renewal of God’s Word. The fulfillment of Jeremiah’s and Isaiah’s prophecies showed God’s people that His Word is true and can be trusted, no matter how impossible the situation. Ezra 7:6 tells us that Ezra was a scribe skilled in the law of Moses. Ezra 7:10 says, “Ezra had set his heart to study the law of the Lord, and to practice it, and to teach His statutes and ordinances in Israel.” In Nehemiah 8:8, we find that under Ezra’s leadership, in front of all the people, well-trained scribes “read from the book, from the law of God, translating to give the sense so that they understood the reading.” Many scholars think that Ezra is the author of Psalm 119, which extols God’s Word for 176 verses. Clearly, Ezra was a man who believed in the transforming power of God’s Word.
Every true spiritual renewal is founded on and sustained by God’s Word. The Reformation was a renewal of the Word. Luther, Calvin, and the other Reformers began systematically teaching and applying God’s Word in ways that had been grossly neglected by the Roman Catholic Church. The Puritan movement also was centered on God’s Word, as pastors would explain and apply the great doctrines of Scripture, usually in hour-long sermons (J. I. Packer, A Quest for Godliness [Crossway Books], p. 280). In the preface of his wonderful book, Calvin’s Preaching (Westminster/John Knox Press, p. x), British scholar T. H. L. Parker indicts the modern church that has abandoned Calvin’s method of careful exposition of Scripture. He says, “What wonder that a Church which picks and chooses what it wants out of the Bible should become confused in its theology, flabby in its morals, and with little to state but the worldly obvious—the day after worldly liberals have stated it more convincingly?” If we want renewal, we must put a renewed emphasis on God’s Word of truth.
God had promised to restore His people after the 70 years, but it was a humanly impossible task. After 70 years in Babylon, with the city of Jerusalem and the Temple in ruins, how could things ever be restored? The Jews didn’t have the resources to do it, even if a royal edict permitted them to return to the land.
But what man could not do, God did. He had Cyrus put it into the royal edict that the people should contribute to those returning. And, Cyrus himself brought out the vessels from the Temple that Nebuchadnezzar had put into his own temple. The 2,499 in 1:9-10 probably refers to the bigger and more valuable items, whereas the 5,400 in 1:11 is the total of all the items (John A. Martin, The Bible Knowledge Commentary [Victor Books], 1:655). Also, while there is debate as to the exact identity of Sheshbazzar (1:8, 10), probably it is the Babylonian name of Zerubbabel (cf. 5:16 with Zech. 4:9), who was the godly grandson of the godless Jewish King Jeconiah (1 Chron. 3:17-19; The Ryrie Study Bible [Moody Press], note on Ezra 1:8).
Derek Kidner (p. 35) points out that every piece of these temple items was “a witness to God’s sovereign care and the continuance of the covenant.” Here’s the application for us: Christ has promised to build His church and that some from every tribe, tongue, people, and nation will one day be gathered before His throne (Matt. 16:18; Rev. 5:9). But the task seems humanly impossible! Where do we get the resources to see these promises become a reality? The answer is here: When God promises, He also supplies the demands to meet those promises as His people wait on Him in prayer. As Hudson Taylor used to say, “God’s work done in God’s way will not lack God’s means of support.”
Thus, spiritual renewal requires God’s great power according to His gracious promises. Finally,
The Temple at Jerusalem had been the place where God’s glory was displayed. That place had been destroyed because of the sins of His people. He now is referred to as “the God of heaven.” That title is used 9 times in Ezra, more than in any other book of the Bible. It is used 10 times in other post-exilic books (2 Chronicles, Nehemiah, and Daniel), and elsewhere in the Old Testament only 4 times (Martin, p. 655). It shows God to be the sovereign over all. But it also may hint at the fact that His glory was not now being revealed on earth, since the Temple had been destroyed.
Thus God’s purpose was to manifest His glory through a rebuilt Temple where His restored people could worship Him in spirit and truth. His glory was supremely revealed in the rebuilt Temple when Jesus the Messiah appeared there as “God’s salvation, which [He] prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light of revelation to the Gentiles, and the glory of Your people Israel” (Luke 2:32).
God’s purpose today is the same: He wants to reveal His glory through a renewed people, who by their holy lives and witness reveal His Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, to all peoples. In other words, spiritual renewal is not for us, so that we can lead happy, fulfilled lives to the neglect of the world. Spiritual renewal is for God’s purpose, that His glory would be revealed to the nations.
How can this happen? I can only be brief and limited here.
First, ask God to give you a vision of what a renewed, holy, worshiping, evangelizing community of His people would look like. Then, devote yourself to being a part of making that happen here. It has to begin on an individual level before it can move to a corporate level. In other words, ask God to renew you! If your heart is stirred for renewal, that stirring came from God (1:5). And yet each of us is responsible to seek the Lord and “search for [Him] with all your heart” (Jer. 29:13).
Men, especially, need to take the leadership in this process. It was “the heads of fathers’ households of Judah and Benjamin” that arose to the challenge to return to Jerusalem (1:5). While God greatly uses godly women, He has ordained for men to take the spiritual lead in the home and in the church. God won’t bring renewal while men are spiritually passive.
Finally, be willing to be inconvenienced to see spiritual renewal happen, both personally and corporately. To return to Jerusalem was a major hassle and inconvenience for everyone who responded to the call. But if God is going to renew your life, you’ve got to get out of your rut and make some changes. You’ve got to be willing to give up the comfortable life in Babylon and embrace the hardships of seeing His Temple rebuilt in Jerusalem. It may be as simple as turning off the tube and picking up your Bible on a consistent basis to spend time with the Lord. It may mean scheduling regular extended times for seeking the Lord. It may mean setting some spiritual goals and asking God for the grace and wisdom to achieve them. But it certainly means doing some things differently than the current status quo!
Do you sense the need personally for spiritual renewal? If your honest answer is, “No, I’m fine, thanks,” you’ll stay in Babylon. It’s a comfortable place to live. You’ll enjoy a good life there. But you’ll miss what God wants to do with you personally and with you as a part of His church corporately.
If you sense the need for renewal, get alone with God as soon as you can and begin asking Him by His great power according to His gracious promises to work for His glorious purpose in you and in this church. It won’t be an easy, comfortable road to travel. There are many hardships and obstacles along the way. But, as Derek Kidner points out (p. 35), the closing words of chapter one, “from Babylon to Jerusalem,” mark one of the turning points of history. God calls you to join that group returning to the place of His blessing.
Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2002, All Rights Reserved.
Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation