05.10.2019 EZRA AND ZERUBBABEL: MAKING SENSE OF HISTORY
“Thus says Cyrus king of Persia: All the kingdoms of the earth the LORD God of heaven has given me. And He has commanded me to build Him a house at Jerusalem which is in Judah” Ezra 1:2
The books of Ezra and Nehemiah (and Esther) are historical books which confirm to us the faithfulness of our God; the covenant-keeping God.
“Therefore know that the Lord your God, He is God, the faithful God who keeps covenant and mercy for a thousand generations with those who love Him and keep His commandments.” Deuteronomy 7:9
A covenant is different from a promise; a promise can be either fulfilled or not fulfilled (though God always keeps His promises) and is not legally binding. In contrast, a covenant has a legal framework. If I covenant to do something for you, I am bound by law to do it and you can take me to court if I do not do what I covenanted to do.
A covenant can be conditional (both parties involved make a legally binding promise) or unconditional (one party – God Himself – legally binds Himself to provide for the other party).
Our God is the God of promises. But more wonderfully, He is the God of covenants. Throughout the Bible, we find His unconditional covenants – examples are the covenants with Noah, Abraham and David. But the most wonderful covenant is the Everlasting Covenant, the covenant of grace, by which the omnipotent God binds Himself legally to us, to remove our sin and restore righteousness within us. He has sworn by Himself to do this (Hebrews 6:18).
Historical setting of the books of Ezra and Nehemiah:
When the children of Israel were unfaithful to God, they broke their commitment to a conditional covenant found in Deuteronomy chapters 27-29…’If you will diligently obey my voice…the Lord God will set you high above the earth (28:1)…’If you do not obey the voice of the Lord…the Lord will bring and the king whom you set over you to a nation which neither you nor your fathers have known and there you shall serve other gods of wood and stone (28:15, 36).
In Deuteronomy 30:1-9 we see the love and grace of God. He promises to restore His people if they return to Him and obey His voice (30:2, 3). All God’s covenants have their basis in God’s unconditional love.
‘If you return to the Lord your God and obey His voice, according to all that I command you today, you and your children, with all your heart and with all your soul, that the Lord your God will bring you back from captivity, and have compassion on you, and gather you again from all the nations where the Lord your God has scattered you.’ Deuteronomy 30:2, 3
Judah became unfaithful to God and Jerusalem was destroyed by the Babylonians and many of their people taken captive to Babylon (Jeremiah 39:1-9). Daniel and his three friends are those we know who were in the Babylonian captivity.
But God promised Jeremiah in a vision that after 70 years of captivity, God would restore His people (Jeremiah 25:11; 29:10))
For thus says the Lord: After seventy years are completed at Babylon, I will visit you and perform My good word toward you, and cause you to return to this place. Jeremiah 29:10
God promised that Cyrus the Persian, destroyer of Babylon would command the restoration of Jerusalem.
Who says of Cyrus, ‘He is My shepherd, and he shall perform all My pleasure, saying to Jerusalem, “You shall be built,” and to the temple, “Your foundation shall be laid.” ’ Isaiah 44:28
Towards the end of the 70 years of captivity, Daniel intercedes for his people with God – Daniel 9:1, 2.
Thus says Cyrus king of Persia: All the kingdoms of the earth the Lord God of heaven has given me. And He has commanded me to build Him a [a]house at Jerusalem which is in Judah. Who is among you of all His people? May his God be with him, and let him go up to Jerusalem which is in Judah, and build the house of the Lord God of Israel (He is God), which is in Jerusalem. And whoever is left in any place where he dwells, let the men of his place help him with silver and gold, with goods and livestock, besides the freewill offerings for the house of God which is in Jerusalem. Ezra 1:2-4
The first return of the Jews to Jerusalem was during the reign of Cyrus about a year after he subdued the Babylonian kingdom in 539 BC. About 50,000 of the tribes of Judah and Benjamin along with priests and Levites under the leadership of Zerubbabel (a direct descendant of King David) and Jeshua (Ezra chapters 1-3). They set about rebuilding the temple but abandoned it after the foundations were laid due to opposition from the local people.
Sixteen years later, God raised up Haggai and Zechariah (Haggai chapter 1 and Zechariah chapter 1) who challenged the people that they were neglecting the things of God, particularly His temple. This time the people responded and the temple was completed about 20 years after the first return of the exiles.
Sixty years passed and then a further group of Jewish exiles returned to Jerusalem under the leadership of Ezra in 457 BC. Ezra was a priest and descendant of Aaron. He set about restoring the moral and spiritual life of his people in Jerusalem (Ezra chapter 7-10). There was discouragement on every hand but Ezra persevered.
Nearly ninety years after the first return of the exiles, the walls of Jerusalem were still not built and desolate.
“The survivors who are left from the captivity in the province are there in great distress and reproach. The wall of Jerusalem is also broken down, and its gates are burned with fire.” Nehemiah 1:3
At this time God raised up Nehemiah who had a prominent position in the court of the Persian king – he was the king’s cupbearer. Fourteen years after Ezra’s return, Nehemiah waits upon God with weeping and mourning. The Lord gave him opportunity to speak to the king, who not only gave him permission to go to Jerusalem, but provided him with resources for building the walls and gates of Jerusalem (Nehemiah 2:1-9).
The Time of Ezra and Nehemiah
538 – 515 BC
483 – 473 BC
444 – 425 BC
First return of exiles from Babylon
Second return of exiles
Third return of exiles
Ezra 1 – 6
Book of Esther
Ezra 7 – 10
Book of Nehemiah
559 – 530 BC – first return
530 – 522
521 – 486
486 – 464 – Esther
464 – 423 – second and third return
423 – 404
Spiritual Application – the Gospel in the books of Ezra and Nehemiah
The book of Ezra typifies Christ’s work of forgiveness and restoration. The book of Nehemiah also portrays Christ in His ministry of restoration. Like Nehemiah, Christ gives up a high position in order to identify with the plight of His people; He comes with a specific mission and fulfils it and His life is characterized by prayerful dependence upon God.
By the end of the book of Nehemiah, everything is restored except the King. The temple is rebuilt, the walls of Jerusalem reconstructed, the covenant is renewed and the people are reformed.
How is it with us, God’s people, spiritual Israel, today?
We say we are waiting for the King to return. Have we fulfilled the conditions?
- Where do our interests lie? In the world or in God’s kingdom? Are we concerned that God’s kingdom on earth, the church, is a witness to His Name? Ezra and Nehemiah and Zerubbabel were keenly interested in the restoration of God’s kingdom.
- Have we recognised the spiritual ruins in our own lives and in the church? Have we wept and mourned like Nehemiah over the problems we see in ourselves and in the church? Have we ‘sighed and cried’ (Ezekiel 9:4) over the sins of spiritual Jerusalem? No restoration or rebuilding can occur in our individual lives or the life of the church until we recognise our spiritual condition and repent.
In Revelation 3, the church of the last days is called to repent for just such a reason… “Because you say, ‘I am rich, have become wealthy, and have need of nothing’—and do not know that you are wretched, miserable, poor, blind, and naked…be zealous (eager) and repent.” Revelation 3:17,19
- Once we recognise the need for spiritual revival and re-building in our hearts, we must begin it in our homes and the places in close proximity to us(read Nehemiah 3).
- Ezra and Nehemiah were great intercessors. Do we pray and intercede for ourselves, our people and the world church which is God’s chosen instrument to be His witness to all the nations?
- Have we renewed our covenant with God? God has made a covenant with us; He has sworn by Himself (Hebrews 6:13-18) to forgive, restore, renew and cleanse us of all unrighteousness. Do we live in a faith relationship with God, knowing that what God has covenanted to do, He will perform.
- Is the message of the sanctuary – the message of the true gospel – being restored by us?
- Are the walls of salvation – the walls of praise, witness and testimony erected in our church?
- We are the temple of the living God. Have we repented of our unfaithfulness and are we allowing the Holy Spirit to cleanse our lives of sin and selfishness daily?
- Have we set our hearts on true reformation? To live (like Ezra and Jesus) do God’s will in everything – and with that goal to ‘live by every word that proceeds out of the mouth of God’ – both the written Word (the Bible) and the Living Word – Christ who reveals His will to us through the Holy Spirit.
For Ezra had prepared his heart to seek (study) the Law of the Lord, and to do it, and to teach statutes and ordinances in Israel. Ezra 7:10
He (Christ) said, “Behold, I have come to do Your will, O God.” Hebrews 10:9
- Whenever the people of God say, “Let us arise and build,” Satan says, “Let us arise and oppose.” Are we prepared for spiritual warfare? Do we know how to be strong in the Lord and in the power of His might, taking the whole armour of God (which is Christ) and stand against the Devil and powers of darkness (Ephesians 6:10-18).
As in the days of Nehemiah, our final victory is certain when we allow God to do the work.
So the wall was finished on the twenty-fifth day of Elul, in fifty-two days. And it happened, when all our enemies heard of it, and all the nations around us saw these things, that they were very disheartened in their own eyes; for they perceived that this work was done by our God. Nehemiah 6:15, 16
For He will finish the work and cut it short in righteousness. Romans 9:28
- When King David had gained the victory over his foes, he sent a message to his brethren in Judah, “Speak to the elders of Judah, saying, ‘Why are you the last to bring the king back to his house, since the words of all Israel have come to the king, to his very house? You are my brethren, you are my bone and my flesh. Why then are you the last to bring back the king?’ 2 Samuel 19:11, 12.
Today, David’s greater Son, Christ Jesus has won the ultimate victory over Satan, His ultimate foe. He has destroyed the works of the devil; sin and death (1 John 3:8, 1 Corinthians 15:55-57). We are ‘of His bone and of His flesh’ (Ephesians 5:30).
Let us hear the voice of our King and Saviour asking us today, “Why are you the last to bring back the King? The world has overflowed its cup of wickedness; why are you not allowing Me to make you a godly and holy people, a witness to the world of My love?”
Let us respond in repentance and devotion and full consecration to the will of God so that we will restore the pure gospel in our church; the good news that Christ Jesus provides forgiveness and righteousness and makes us a true witness to a world that is perishing. Let us be ‘the restorers of the breach’, the proclaimers of the true gospel, the gospel of the Kingdom and let us be a living witness and testimony of the power of the gospel (Revelation 14:6, Matthew 24:14). When we arise and build the walls of spiritual Zion, through the power of the Holy Spirit, the King will return to claim His own.
Those from among you shall build the old waste places; you shall raise up the foundations of many generations; and you shall be called the Repairer of the Breach, the Restorer of Paths to dwell In. Isaiah 58:12
In that day this song will be sung in the land of Judah: “We have a strong city; God will appoint salvation for walls and bulwarks. Open the gates that the righteous nation which keeps the truth may enter in.
You will keep him in perfect peace, whose mind is stayed on You, because he trusts in You. Trust in the Lord forever, for in Jehovah, the Lord, is everlasting strength. Isaiah 26:1-4
For Zion’s sake I will not hold My peace, and for Jerusalem’s sake I will not rest, until her righteousness goes forth as brightness, and her salvation as a lamp that burns…I have posted watchmen on your walls, Jerusalem; they will never be silent day or night. You who call on the Lord, give yourselves no rest, and give Him no rest till He establishes Jerusalem and makes her the praise of the earth. Isaiah 62:1, 6-7