God Stirs up the Builders' Hearts
We are studying the period of Biblical history that describes the return of a small portion of the Jewish population that had been held in exile for 70 years.
721 – 587 B.C. – During this period the ten northern tribes were scattered and relocated throughout the Assyrian Empire and were eventually assimilated by the new lands and cultures where they settled. This was Assyria's way of dealing with their conquered people in order to crush any type of future threat from old enemies.
The Babylonians who defeated the southern kingdom had a different approach to conquered nations. They would train the best and brightest of the defeated nation in order to supply the kingdom with a diversified pool of advisors, this explains Daniel and friends' treatment. The account of the Jewish return from exile begins with Ezra.
The Text – Ezra 1-2
1Now in the first year of Cyrus king of Persia, in order to fulfill the word of the Lord by the mouth of Jeremiah, the Lord stirred up the spirit of Cyrus king of Persia, so that he sent a proclamation throughout all his kingdom, and also put it in writing, saying:
2"Thus says Cyrus king of Persia, 'The Lord, the God of heaven, has given me all the kingdoms of the earth and He has appointed me to build Him a house in Jerusalem, which is in Judah. 3Whoever there is among you of all His people, may his God be with him! Let him go up to Jerusalem which is in Judah and rebuild the house of the Lord, the God of Israel; He is the God who is in Jerusalem. 4Every survivor, at whatever place he may live, let the men of that place support him with silver and gold, with goods and cattle, together with a freewill offering for the house of God which is in Jerusalem.'"
5Then the heads of fathers' households of Judah and Benjamin and the priests and the Levites arose, even everyone whose spirit God had stirred to go up and rebuild the house of the Lord which is in Jerusalem. 6All those about them encouraged them with articles of silver, with gold, with goods, with cattle and with valuables, aside from all that was given as a freewill offering. 7Also King Cyrus brought out the articles of the house of the Lord, which Nebuchadnezzar had carried away from Jerusalem and put in the house of his gods; 8and Cyrus, king of Persia, had them brought out by the hand of Mithredath the treasurer, and he counted them out to Sheshbazzar, the prince of Judah. 9Now this was their number: 30 gold dishes, 1,000 silver dishes, 29 duplicates; 1030 gold bowls, 410 silver bowls of a second kind and 1,000 other articles. 11All the articles of gold and silver numbered 5,400. Sheshbazzar brought them all up with the exiles who went up from Babylon to Jerusalem.
- Ezra 1:1-11
Ezra goes back in time to describe the first effort to encourage people to return to Jerusalem and the surrounding area. Cyrus was the king who defeated the Babylonians and one of his first acts as king was to return all exiles to their former nations and help them rebuild or renovate their temples (not just the Jews). This decree, known as the Cyrus Cylinder, was especially favorable to the Jewish nation and their God. (The Cylinder exists today and is on display at the British museum in London.)
Cyrus may have practiced "Henotheism," which is the belief in many gods, but the worship of only one. We see hints of this in the way he refers to God as the God of heaven who gives kingdoms to kings, but who belongs only to the Jews, and dwells only in Jerusalem - vs. 2.
Whatever the depth or quality of his faith, it is evident that God has worked in his heart because the decree is quite generous in its terms:
- He permits all who wish to return to go without any conditions (no taxes, etc.).
- He encourages those who were Jewish, and remaining, by providing funds for their journey and the work of rebuilding.
- He himself donates the gold and sliver articles in his treasury that were originally taken by the Babylonians when they captured Jerusalem.
1Now these are the people of the province who came up out of the captivity of the exiles whom Nebuchadnezzar the king of Babylon had carried away to Babylon, and returned to Jerusalem and Judah, each to his city. 2These came with Zerubbabel, Jeshua, Nehemiah, Seraiah, Reelaiah, Mordecai, Bilshan, Mispar, Bigvai, Rehum and Baanah.
The number of the men of the people of Israel:
- Ezra 2:1-2
In chapter two, Ezra will pronounce a long list of names and households of those who chose to return to Jerusalem. These include families, priests, Levites, slaves, along with animals – everything was numbered!
One of the reasons for the history of families was to establish genealogical lineage:
- They were returning as the people of God to their "promised land"; their genealogical records proved them to be true Jews.
- Ezra's record also establishes that his account described real people, dealing with an historical event which was momentous for them and important historically for future generations.
- The record also established in "real time" the actual beginning of Jeremiah's prophecy to return the captives after 70 years.
10"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. 11For 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. 12Then you will call upon Me and come and pray to Me, and I will listen to you. 13You will seek Me and find Me when you search for Me with all your heart. 14I 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.'
- Jeremiah 29:10-14
In addition to this, Ezra's record gives historical fulfillment to Isaiah's prophecy concerning a foreign king who would eventually serve as a savior for the Jewish nation, spoken some two and a half centuries before.
"It is I who says of Cyrus,
'He is My shepherd! And he will perform all My desire.'
And he declares of Jerusalem, 'She will be built,'
And of the temple, 'Your foundation will be laid.'"
- Isaiah 44:28
Now, a couple of things to note about the long passage of names and numbers.
Vs. 2 – Note that the names Mordechai and Nehemiah are mentioned here but are not necessarily the people of Esther and Nehemiah's book. These were fairly common names for the time.
Vs. 36-39 – Note that there remained only four families of priests left among the people who could legitimately claim their descendants from Aaron.
Vs. 55 – Sons of Solomon's servants – why are these mentioned here? The idea was to restore as best they could the worship of the temple carried out by those who were most familiar with it.
- Original plates, cups, instruments.
- Legitimate priests, garments.
- Levites, even the descendants of Solomon's original servants – continuity with the priests.
All of this done to restore as closely as possible to the temple worship as it was in its purest form in Solomon's original temple.
61Of the sons of the priests: the sons of Habaiah, the sons of Hakkoz, the sons of Barzillai, who took a wife from the daughters of Barzillai the Gileadite, and he was called by their name. 62These searched among their ancestral registration, but they could not be located; therefore they were considered unclean and excluded from the priesthood. 63The governor said to them that they should not eat from the most holy things until a priest stood up with Urim and Thummim.
- Ezra 2:61-63
Vs. 61-63 – A great effort was made to authenticate the priesthood so that, if no written record existed to support a claim that one belonged to a priestly family, they were not permitted to serve at the temple. One of the interesting things about the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD by the Roman army had to do with the genealogical records. The Romans not only destroyed the temple building and killed thousands of people – they also destroyed their genealogical records.
Therefore, even if the temple could be rebuilt today, there would be no way to determine who could legitimately serve as priest. This was the true blow to the Jewish nation in 70 AD, not only the destruction of their place of worship and nation (things that could be replaced in time) but the destruction of the the record of priestly succession which could never be replaced.
In the case of priests in Ezra's time who could not confirm their legitimacy with the records, the Urim and Thummim were used to decide the matter.
- These were sacred lots used by the priests to find out the will of God (Deuteronomy 33:8; I Samuel 14:41).
- They were used like dice and provided a yes or no answer to a question. The Jews believed that God directed the results to reveal His will.
68Some of the heads of fathers' households, when they arrived at the house of the Lord which is in Jerusalem, offered willingly for the house of God to restore it on its foundation. 69According to their ability they gave to the treasury for the work 61,000 gold drachmas and 5,000 silver minas and 100 priestly garments.
- Ezra 2:68-69
Vs. 68-69 – Finally, Ezra "counts the collection" and records exactly how much was given towards their mission.
- 61,000 Drachmas/Daics of gold (Persian WT.)
- 5,000 Minas of silver (Jewish WT. 1=20 oz.)
- 100 sets of priestly garments
The people are counted, supplies collected and the return from the exile begins.
We have much more text to look at in both Ezra and Nehemiah as well as in Haggai and Zechariah, but before we go on there are some important lessons to note from just this preliminary background introduction and review:
1. God Can Stir Anyone's Heart
Note that both King Cyrus and later, King Artaxerxes, were moved to be generous and kind toward the people of God for their good. They were not "soft men," or individuals who had a social conscience. They were kings who came to power, fought for power, and ruled with absolute power. The penalty for speaking to Artaxerxes without having been invited to do so was death!
Oh, I know that God stirred the Jewish people, and called Ezra, Nehemiah, and Zerubbabel to do this work, but they were already his servants!
- They were seeking His will.
- They knew the word and what it promised in regards to the return of the people.
- They were open to God, knew His voice, and wanted to hear from Him.
However, these kings were ignorant of the prophets and their words, they listened only to their own voice of reason or perhaps to the visionaries or astrologers in the royal court, but not the God and Laws of the Jews.
And, yet the Bible says that God stirred them up somehow. It could have been a dream, an insight, a thought or a compulsion of some kind. It's not really important how, what's important is that God knows how to stir every soul into His service.
It doesn't matter if it's a king or a cupbearer or a zoning inspector, or landlord, or contractor, or banker, or the council member of the city you live in.
When it comes to His people and their welfare or their ministry, God knows how to stir the hearts of those He needs for His own purpose.
2. God Doesn't Force Us to Respond to Him
The new king gave everyone a chance to freely return home after years of exile. He provided all the resources to restore the national religion which was the center of their previous lives in Jerusalem. The people collected a fortune to start rebuilding the Temple in order to resume their practice of worship. Thousands of people from every walk of life were gathered and committed to return to their homeland. Their action was the actual fulfillment of the known prophecy spoken by Jeremiah 70 years before!
Not everybody chose to go back!
- Some simply stayed behind in Babylon with their business interests, their land interests, their homes, and their newly established status quo.
- Some were content to make a donation to the cause, but not get involved because reestablishing the Temple and worship to God, living in the Promised Land, waiting for the Messiah was not important to them. The synagogues in Babylon, the temples of the new homeland were good enough – why bother going back?
- And some didn't go because Babylon was their true love. Their parents did not teach them the Law, neglected to train them in the ways of the Lord, and the ways of the past.
Therefore, when the call to return finally came, they wouldn't understand that it was for them! God comes for us in various ways. Oh yes, there are more dramatic ways,
- When He comes for us in death
- Or when He will come for all of us with the return of Jesus.
But He comes for us in other, more subtle ways also:
- Sometimes it's a stirring of our life or heart to lead us in a new direction of greater service, purity, or commitment.
- Sometimes it's a vision of what should be or needs to be done to glorify Him or expand His kingdom.
- Sometimes it's a thorn that leads one into a deeper, more dependent relationship with Him.
What is certain is that He does come for us many times in our lives, and we can respond in different ways.
- Some, like the people who stayed behind, ignore their call, and miss the blessings attached.
- Others, like the kings, respond in part but not with a complete faith and trust in God. They unwittingly serve God's purpose but refuse to exchange their earthly kingdoms for the heavenly one.
- And then there are those who give full acceptance to the movement of God in their lives and become His Temple.
3. God Can Bless His People Anywhere
Note that in Ezra 2:64, he establishes the number of people returning to Jerusalem at 49,897. That doesn't count the people who decided to stay in Babylon. In Jeremiah 52:30 Jeremiah says that 4,600 people were carried off into captivity. That's a tenfold increase while in exile, while being enslaved in a foreign land! And according to the money and livestock that they had when they came back, it seems that they prospered while in exile. How does that work?
A broken people, ripped from their homeland in a brutal war, forced to live in a strange country with no rights, no natural wealth, no leadership. These people multiply their population over ten times as well as their wealth? This is how it works. God is not limited as to where, when, and how He will bless you.
The bottom line is not where you live, it's how you live. Not where you worship, but who you worship. Not how rich and powerful you are, but how rich and powerful God is. God can stir you, bless you, multiply you, defend you, equip you, and commune with you wherever you are because wherever His faithful children gather, He is pleased to be there with them.
Keep in mind the words of the angel to Zechariah:
"This is the word of the Lord to Zerubbabel saying, 'Not by might nor by power, but by my Spirit says, the Lord of hosts.'"
- Zechariah 4:6
Those who would rise up and build anything from a new life to a new church need to remember that if you respond to God in faith and obedience, He will build you and through you to His glory forever. Amen.