Ezra 1, 2

Ezra 1, 2

SERIES: The Providence of God

The God Who Moves Hearts

Introduction: We embark upon a new series this morning that will take us, Lord willing, through the end of the summer.  We have just finished a heavily theological book from the NT (Colossians), and we are moving to an historical narrative portion of the OT (Ezra and Nehemiah).  In 2 Timothy 3:16 we are told that “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting, and training in righteousness.”  I trust that will become evident as we work our way through this fascinating story of the rebuilding of the temple and the city of Jerusalem after the Babylonian exile.

I believe it is important to understand the general setting of these books in the context of the entire OT, so I would like to take a few moments to offer a brief survey of the history of the human race from Adam to Ezra.  The book of Genesis contains the account of four great events and four great people.  The events are Creation, the Fall, the flood, and the Tower of Babel. The people are Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Joseph.  Abraham is the first clearly datable person in the OT, as he lived in the 21st century B.C., Isaac in the 20th, Jacob in the 19th, and Joseph in the 18th.  Joseph, you will recall, was sold into slavery in Egypt by his brothers, and several decades later his father and brothers ended up there too because of a famine that ravished Palestine.

What started out as a friendly relationship between the Israelites, as Jacob’s descendants were called, and the Egyptian authorities turned sour when “a Pharaoh who knew not Joseph” came to power and forced the Israelites into slavery.  After 400 years of increasingly miserable conditions, God raised up a leader named Moses to deliver them from Egypt.  They crossed the Red Sea, spent nearly a year at Mt. Sinai receiving the Ten Commandments and the Mosaic Law, and then, after wandering in the desert for nearly 40 years, finally crossed the Jordan River into the Promised Land.  The conquering of the land took a generation, and then for almost 300 years Israel was ruled by a series of judges—an attempt at theocracy which failed miserably because, by and large, “everyone did what was right in his own eyes.” 

Eventually God acceded to Israel’s stubborn request for a monarchy, and Saul was chosen as the first king. After 40 years under Saul’s ungodly leadership, 40 years under David’s relatively godly leadership, and 40 years under Solomon’s inconsistent leadership, civil war broke out and the nation was divided in two nations—the northern kingdom of Israel and the southern kingdom of Judah. The northern kingdom never had a single godly king, surviving only a little over 200 years until 722 B.C., when the Assyrians destroyed its capitol and took the people into slavery. 

Judah, on the other hand, had a few godly kings and thus outlasted the northern kingdom by more than a century until Nebuchadnezzar attacked Jerusalem, utterly destroyed it (including the great Temple of Solomon), and took all its healthy inhabitants into captivity to Babylon.  A young man named Daniel was one of the first prisoners taken to Babylon.  He lived through the entire 70 years Babylon was a world empire. 

As an old man in his eighties Daniel was called upon by Belshazzar, the last Babylonian king, to come to a great banquet in the throne room of the palace. Listen as I read from Daniel 5:

“King Belshazzar gave a great banquet for a thousand of his nobles and drank wine with them. While Belshazzar was drinking his wine, he gave orders to bring in the gold and silver goblets that Nebuchadnezzar his ancestor had taken from the temple in Jerusalem, so that the king and his nobles, his wives and his concubines might drink from them. 

So they brought in the gold goblets that had been taken from the temple of God in Jerusalem, and the king and his nobles, his wives and his concubines drank from them. As they drank the wine, they praised the gods of gold and silver, of bronze, iron, wood and stone. Suddenly the fingers of a human hand appeared and wrote on the plaster of the wall, near the lampstand in the royal palace. The king watched the hand as it wrote. His face turned pale and he was so frightened that his knees knocked together and his legs gave way.” 

As the story goes on, Daniel was the only one able to read and interpret the handwriting.  He gave to Belshazzar the message that because he had not humbled himself before the God of heaven, God was bringing his kingdom to an end and giving it to the Medes and Persians.  The chapter ends with the observation that that very night Belshazzar, king of the Babylonians, was slain, and Darius the Mede took over the kingdom, at the age of 62.”  

This Darius was probably a regional ruler appointed by Cyrus, the king of the Medo-Persian Empire, for the last verse of Daniel 6 indicates that “Daniel prospered during the reign of Darius and the reign of Cyrus the Persian.”  Belshazzar was killed and Babylon fell that night in October of 539 B.C., and the book of Ezra opens up a few months later during the first year of Cyrus king of Persia. This was, of course, only his first year as king over Babylon; he had been king of Persia for over 20 years.

The books of Ezra and Nehemiah tell the story of God’s unfailing providence in bringing His people back to their land after the Babylonian captivity.  He not only enabled them to rebuild the temple and later the walls of Jerusalem, but, more importantly, He brought spiritual and moral revival to the nation.  If the overall theme of the book of Ezra is the Providence of God, the theme of this first chapter seems to be that “God’s providence moves the hearts of people to fulfill His Word.”  Interestingly, He moves not only the hearts of His own people, but even the hearts of unbelievers.

God Moves the Hearts of Unbelievers. (1:1-4)

The book of Ezra opens up with these words:  “In the first year of Cyrus King of Persia, in order to fulfill the word of the Lord spoken by Jeremiah, the Lord moved the heart of Cyrus king of Persia to make a proclamation throughout his realm and to put it in writing.”  The first lesson I see here is:

What God promises, He fulfills. (1) Jeremiah was a faithful prophet who ministered primarily to the Jews who had been left behind when Nebuchadnezzar destroyed Jerusalem and took most of its inhabitants to Babylon.  In chapter 29 of the book that bears his name he writes a letter to the Jewish exiles in Babylon: 

“This is what the Lord says: ‘When seventy years are completed for Babylon, I will come to you and fulfill my gracious promise to bring you back to this place. For I know the plans I have for you,’ declares the Lord, ‘plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future. 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 seek me with all your heart.’”

The Jewish exiles weren’t told how God would fulfill this promise, but only that He would.  More remarkably, the prophet Isaiah had predicted 150 years before Cyrus was born that he would restore the fortunes of the Jewish people.  He called Cyrus by name, centuries before he was even born, as we read in Isaiah 44:28: “This is what the Lord says of Cyrus, ‘He is my shepherd and will accomplish all that I please; he will say of Jerusalem, “Let it be rebuilt,” and of the temple, “Let its foundations be laid.”‘”

Josephus, a Jewish historian, wrote that Cyrus was shown the prophecy about himself in Isaiah and was determined to fulfill it.[i]  Whether that is true or not, the principle that “what God promises, He fulfills” is still as good as gold. It doesn’t matter whether we’re talking about the promise of the Second Coming, or the promise that He will never leave us or forsake us, or the promise that His grace is sufficient for each and every trial—if God said it, you can count on it.

What He determines, His providence produces. (2-3) In fulfillment of His promise, God determines to bring Israel back to the land.  To that end He moves the heart of Cyrus to issue a proclamation to the effect that any Jews who desire to return to Jerusalem may do so to rebuild the temple.  At first glance this appears to be a first-class miracle.  After all, here’s a pagan, polytheistic emperor declaring his faith in almighty God and ordering that God’s will be done in fulfillment of prophecy.  But there’s more here than meets the eye.

Cyrus the Persian was a very different king from Nebuchadnezzar the Babylonian.  Nebuchadnezzar generally practiced a scorched earth policy in his military expansion.  He would conquer a country, destroy it completely, seize its gods, and take its people into captivity.  But Cyrus had a radically different philosophy (which probably accounts for the fact that the Persian Empire lasted a lot longer than the Babylonian).  We know from extra-biblical sources that Cyrus followed the much more enlightened practice of encouraging conquered people to retain their land, keep their gods, practice their religion, and maintain their culture.  So long as they paid appropriate taxes and didn’t rebel, they were allowed a considerable amount of self-government.  In fact, what Cyrus did for the Jews here in Ezra 1, he also did for many other captive peoples whom he inherited from the Babylonians. 

The point is that Cyrus is probably not bearing witness to any genuine faith in the God of Israel here in verse 2; rather he is simply using diplomatic language to reflect what the Jews believed about their God.  He is, first of all, currying favor with them in the hope that by treating them with dignity he will earn their respect, which in turn will permit him to have peace in that crucial part of his empire without stationing a great many troops in the region.  He is, secondly, currying favor with the gods.  Cyrus himself wrote on a monument called the Cyrus Cylinder, “May all the gods whom I have resettled in their sacred cities daily ask Bel and Nebo (his own gods) for a long life for me.” [ii]

There is, thirdly, also an international political issue involved.  Egypt was always a rebellious province.  Since Palestine lay right between Egypt and Persia, a strong and loyal province in Palestine would be a great asset in protecting Persia from any attacks from Egypt. 

Now what am I saying through all this?  Am I minimizing the fact that God’s providence is at work?  Not at all.  But while sometimes God’s providence brings about His will in a miraculous way (as for example, through the handwriting on the wall the night Babylon fell), more often He brings about His will through the ordinary course of events, through secondary means rather than primary.  

A modern example may be helpful.  A great revival is sweeping eastern Europe and other parts of the Soviet Union today as a result of the fall of Communism.  Did God bring that about?  Certainly.  Did He do it through first-class miracles, as when He brought the plagues on Egypt?  No, at least I haven’t heard of any; rather He has used the ordinary circumstances and events of history.  He sets up rulers and takes them down, He moves and shakes the kingdoms of men, and the result is that His sovereign will is accomplished. 

We sang a hymn earlier today which speaks of this truth:

God moves in a mysterious way His wonders to perform;

He plants His footsteps in the sea and rides upon the storm.

Judge not the Lord by feeble sense, but trust Him for His grace;

Behind a frowning providence He hides a smiling face. 

His purposes will ripen fast, unfolding every hour;

The bud may have a bitter taste, but sweet will be the flower.

There is one more point I would like to make regarding the providence of God producing that which He determines.  Sometimes it happens miraculously, more often through the ordinary course of events, but always in response to prayer.  Prayer moves the hand of God.  I want you to turn to the book of Daniel, chapter 9, where the first verse informs us that the setting is the short interval between the fall of Babylon and the proclamation of Cyrus which we have read about in Ezra 1.  

“In the first year of Darius son of Xerxes (a Mede by descent), who was made ruler over the Babylonian kingdom— in the first year of his reign, I, Daniel, understood from the Scriptures, according to the word of the Lord given to Jeremiah the prophet, that the desolation of Jerusalem would last seventy years. So I turned to the Lord God and pleaded with him in prayer and petition, in fasting, and in sackcloth and ashes.” (Daniel 9:1-3)

Friends, do you realize that within no more than a few months, very possibly within days of this prayer, Cyrus, king of Persia, signed his decree that the Jewish people could return to Jerusalem to rebuild their temple.  What God determines, His providence produces, but not irrespective of His people’s prayers. 

We have seen that God moves the hearts of unbelievers.  In fact, we have learned that all the might of the ancient world was subject to God and placed at the disposal of His people for their deliverance.  But of course, He also moves the hearts of His Children.  Verse 5 reads, “Then the family heads of Judah and Benjamin, and the priests and Levites—everyone whose heart God had moved—prepared to go up and build the house of the Lord in Jerusalem.”

God moves the hearts of His children.  (1:5-11)

Whomever God moves, He motivates. (5)  Verse 5 indicates that everyone whose heart God had moved prepared to go up and build.” The proclamation allowing the exiles to return went out to all of them, but only about 50,000 responded—those whose hearts God had moved.  The rest remained in Babylon, perhaps because they were comfortable there or had established businesses or just preferred the lifestyle to which they had become accustomed.  But those whose hearts God moved were motivated to go up and build. 

We must be careful here, for the wrong lesson could be learned.  I am not suggesting that if you aren’t motivated to serve God, it’s a sure sign that God hasn’t called you.  The fact is sometimes we lack motivation simply because we aren’t listening to God or we’re lazy or there’s sin in our lives.  But I am suggesting that when God moves among His people, He motivates them and gives them an excitement about serving Him.  He helps them do it with joy and He blesses their socks off in the process. 

When He motivates, He provides. (6)  Cyrus had ordered that the Jewish exiles who chose not to return to the land should support those who did.  And that’s exactly what happened.  In verse 6 it says, “All their neighbors assisted them with articles of silver and gold, with goods and livestock, and with valuable gifts, in addition to all the freewill offerings.” This is reminiscent of the Exodus from Egypt when God had the Egyptians aid the Israelites with gifts of silver, gold, and clothing.  God was now producing a new “exodus,” once again bringing His people who had been in bondage back into the land of promise.  

But that’s not all.  There was an accompanying proclamation by Cyrus, which we learn about in chapter 6, which dealt specifically with the temple. Look at it in Ezra 6:3: 

“In the first year of King Cyrus, the king issued a decree concerning the temple of God in Jerusalem: ‘Let the temple be rebuilt as a place to present sacrifices, and let its foundations be laid. It is to be ninety feet high and ninety feet wide, with three courses of large stones and one of timbers. The costs are to be paid by the royal treasury.”

The lesson I see in this is that what God does, He does thoroughly. He doesn’t give us direction and then refuse the resources we need to go in that direction.  Oh, He may test us for a while, I don’t deny that, but God’s work done in God’s way will never lack God’s supply, even if He has to use the treasury of a godless government to do it.  Eph. 3:20 tells what the believer can expect from the providence of God, as it describes Him as one “who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us.”

What He removes, He restores. (7) In Ezra 1:7 we find that King Cyrus brought out all the gold and silver dishes, pans, bowls, and articles that Nebuchadnezzar had stolen from the temple, and ordered them returned for the purpose of restoring worship in Jerusalem. These are the same articles, by the way, that Belshazzar had desecrated on the last night of his life. 

Think for a moment about how the devout Israelites in Jerusalem must have felt when Nebuchadnezzar’s armies ransacked the temple decades earlier and carted out the sacred utensils.  Some of these articles had been crafted by Bezaleel and Oholiob in the days of Moses; others had been David’s and Solomon’s personal gifts to the temple.  As the pagans packed up the dishes and the censors and the candlesticks to haul them off to Babylon, and then as the soldiers began to tear down the beautifully quarried stones and the cedars from Lebanon with which Solomon’s temple had been constructed, the priests and temple servants must have felt spiritually ravaged. Why would God allow such wanton destruction and the removal of the sacred symbols of their faith to the palace of a wicked and violent pagan like Nebuchadnezzar?

The answer, of course, is Israel’s sin.  The captivity was a result of their rebellion against God, and so was the removal of the sacred articles of the temple.  But, what God removes, He restores.  In His time and in His way He restores His people and He even restores the sacred utensils.  There’s a promise in the book of Joel that speaks to this principle of restoration:

“I will restore the years the locusts have eaten…. You will have plenty to eat, until you are full, and you will praise the name of the Lord your God, who has worked wonders for you; never again will my people be shamed. Then you will know that I am in Israel, that I am the Lord your God, and that there is no other; never again will my people be shamed.”  (Joel 2:25-26)

Do you have periods of your life that could be described as “years the locusts have eaten?” Have you lost a job?  Have you seen a significant relationship disintegrate?  Has some kind of sinful addiction wreaked havoc on your life?  If so, don’t overlook the truth that what God removes, He is willing to restore, if you’ll let Him.  In His time, of course. 

Well, so far this morning we have seen that God moves the hearts of unbelievers.  He also moves the hearts of His children. 

When God moves hearts, people serve willingly.  (2:1-70)

The second chapter of Ezra is one of those you really have to dig through if you want to find some diamonds.  My Student Bible says here, “Lists of names, whether in the Bible or the telephone book, make dull reading.”  So dull, in fact, that I’m not going to read the chapter.  But I do want to point out a few truths found here among the list of Jewish families who returned from Babylon to Jerusalem with Sheshbazzar. 

Purity is required. (59, 62-63).  And it is required of both laity and clergy.  Look at verse 59: “The following came up from the towns of Tel Melah, Tel Harsha, Kerub, Addon and Immer, but they could not show that their families were descended from Israel.”  Then look at verse 61 and 62, which speaks of some of the priests:  “These searched for their family records, but they could not find them and so were excluded from the priesthood as unclean. The governor ordered them not to eat any of the most sacred food until there was a priest ministering with the Urim and Thummim.”

Now here’s what’s going on. Some of the people had lost track of their genealogical records during the two generations they had been in Babylon. The problem was that if they couldn’t prove their heritage, it is possible there had been intermarriage in their families, and if there had been intermarriage they may have inculcated some syncretistic religious ideas. 

These laity and priests weren’t permanently excluded from serving God, but they had to wait until the Urim and Thummim could be used.  These were two strange and, to us obscure, objects attached to the breastplate of the High Priest, used to decipher God’s will.  I would assume most of these people were allowed to serve once the priest had made a determination.  But the point is that God doesn’t allow just anyone to serve Him, irrespective of his spiritual qualifications.  While interracial marriage is not an issue in the NT church, as it was in OT Israel, the principle is still applicable that God expects purity of those who serve Him.  He expects moral purity, doctrinal purity, integrity, honesty, and a total absence of hypocrisy. 

When God moves hearts and people serve,…

Generosity is practiced. (68-69). “When they arrived at the house of the Lord in Jerusalem (or rather, arrived at the spot where it once stood), some of the heads of the families gave freewill offerings toward the rebuilding of the house of God on its site.  According to their ability they gave to the treasury for this work 61,000 drachmas of gold, 5,000 minas of silver and 100 priestly garments.”  Any church financial secretary will tell you that generally speaking “those who serve the most give the most.”  Why is that?  It is because the two go hand in hand.  Jesus said, “Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also,” and the reverse is true as well: “Where your heart is, there will your treasure be.”  

Finally, I note the truth that…

God keeps records. (1-61) We saw this also in our message on the last chapter of Colossians a month ago. In fact, that Sunday we talked about the fact that God has a book that contains only names—the names of all those who have been born again by faith in Jesus Christ.  But here we learn that He also keeps record of those who serve Him faithfully.  That includes men, women, priests, Levites, singers, gatekeepers, temple servants, and others.  They’re all listed as equals.  The priests are not given more attention than the gatekeepers, because to God they are not more important. What is required of servants is simply faithfulness.

Conclusion:  Today we are having our Annual Ministry Fair. Out in the hall and in the cafeteria are a number of tables where the various ministries of the church will be represented by individuals who will be delighted to share with you how you might serve as a nursery worker, an SCL teacher, a Greeter, an usher, or a prayer warrior. The question each of us should be asking is simply this, “Is God moving in my heart to minister to His people? Am I listening? Am I willing?”

DATE: April 26, 1992


History of Israel




[i] Derek Kidner, Ezra & Nehemiah, 33. 

[ii] Kidner, 18.