Hand of God

I have some good news for me this week; I’m done traveling for a while, I hope. There’s no place like home, there’s no place like home. I had some difficulty on this trip; there were last minute changes to the agenda by the client who scheduled me for 8:00am meetings that he couldn’t make, and at the last moment he tried to send me two days early. I came into the office early to take care of some last minute items and a queue formed at my door for brand new issues. When I finally escaped to have lunch with my wife on the way out of town, all packed and dressed to go, I spilled some oriental sauce down the front of my shirt. I went home to change, and good thing I did because I had forgotten to put on a belt earlier and didn’t even know it. When I got to the airport lounge, they didn’t have an internet connection so I couldn’t take my email to go. And then my watch stopped.

Travel can be difficult. I don’t know how many times as a kid I’d hear, “We can turn this car around right now!” Today we’re going to study someone who traveled but with more planning and a whole lot more protection. Let’s turn to Ezra chapter 7, where Ezra finally makes his appearance in the book named after him.

We’re going to cover 4 chapters of Ezra today so we won’t be able to study them verse by verse and get out of class before lunch or even Christmas, so we’re going to study just some key verses. Fred did a terrific job last week summarizing the history and putting the book of Ezra in perspective; this is the second journey from Babylon to Jerusalem which Ezra will lead. It wasn’t as large as the first group but it was a fine selection of leaders and priests. Let’s meet Ezra; the first 5 verses introduce the lineage of Ezra, and if you’ll remember from our study of Hebrews before Jesus became our priest in the order of Melchizadek, priests were required by Mosaic law to be descended from Aaron the Levite, so if you’ll look at the last name of verse 5, whose name is listed there? Aaron. Ezra was a Levitical priest, and if we continue to verse 10 we also see that Ezra also devoted himself to the study, the practice, and the teaching of the Mosaic laws. Dr. Ezra Young, maybe.

Ezra uses the phrase “the hand of God” several times as he describes his journey, and it summarized the faith that Ezra placed in the Lord. Ezra used the phrase frequently to show that Ezra was following God and any credit for success would also go to God. What sort of person was Ezra that the hand of God should be upon him? The answers are in a very short verse:

Ezra 7:10
For Ezra had devoted himself to the study and observance of the Law of the LORD, and to teaching its decrees and laws in Israel.

Let’s pick this verse apart like the last pieces of white meat off that Thanksgiving turkey.

“For Ezra had devoted himself.” Ezra had a cause for the Lord that drove his life. Ezra was committed to serving the Lord and had made a decision that drove all other decisions; any decision or action in the future had to be in line with Ezra’s devotion and dedication.

“to the study.” Ezra wanted to know what God says and devoted himself to the study of the scriptures. Acts 17:11 says,

Now the Berean Jews were of more noble character than those in Thessalonica, for they received the message with great eagerness and examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true.

Studying the law with great eagerness and examining the scriptures to find the truth. If you want to know what the Lord wants for you, you have to study.

“and observance of the Law of the LORD” Luke 6:46, Jesus says, “Why do you call me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ and do not do what I say?” It is not enough to study the Word, but you must obey. Otherwise, is Jesus really the Lord in your life?

“and to teaching its decrees and laws in Israel.” Notice that Ezra devoted himself, studied for himself, and applied the law to himself first. The next step is to share it with others. Ezra taught the law, he was putting into practice the spiritual gift the Lord had provided. What is your gift? Mercy? Hospitality? Giving? Praying? Evangelism? Your gift is not for you alone, but for you to share with others.

When you are knowledgeable about God’s will, devoted to study, practice, and sharing God’s word as Ezra was, then the Hand of God will be upon you.

Verse 11 through 26 of Ezra 7 is a letter from King Artaxerxes not only giving Ezra permission to travel from Babylon to Jerusalem, but offering Ezra assistance and authority. The king gives Ezra silver and gold for Ezra to use for sacrifices and for whatever other purpose Ezra so desires, and if Ezra needs anything else, he may help himself from the royal treasury. And if that’s not enough, when Ezra arrives in Jerusalem, the local treasurers are supposed to provide him even more stuff – silver, wheat, wine, olive oil, and salt without limit. Ezra was not only a very learned man, but very trusted by the king. Why did the king do this? Let’s look at the second half of

Ezra 7:6
“The king had granted him everything he asked, for the hand of the LORD his God was on him.”

From this one sentence, “The king had granted him everything he asked, for the hand of the LORD his God was on him,” what does the Hand of God provide? (Giving, blessings, everything you need).

This phrase shows up again 4 verses later in Ezra 7:9 when Ezra’s journey is completed successfully.

Ezra 7:9
He had begun his journey from Babylon on the first day of the first month, and he arrived in Jerusalem on the first day of the fifth month, for the gracious hand of his God was on him.

Besides the blessings from the hand of God, when you are in the hand of God, God is … gracious. God granted Ezra a successful journey, and God receives the glory.

Let’s go to the end of the king’s letter, to Ezra 7:25. The king charges Ezra to keep the law of God and king.

Ezra 7:25-26
And you, Ezra, in accordance with the wisdom of your God, which you possess, appoint magistrates and judges to administer justice to all the people of Trans-Euphrates—all who know the laws of your God. And you are to teach any who do not know them. Whoever does not obey the law of your God and the law of the king must surely be punished by death, banishment, confiscation of property, or imprisonment.

Ezra was charged to uphold the laws of God and to teach those who did not know the law. Punishment could be severe for those who would not obey.

At this point in the book of Ezra, he switches to first person.

Ezra 7:27-28
Praise be to the LORD, the God of our fathers, who has put it into the king’s heart to bring honor to the house of the LORD in Jerusalem in this way and who has extended his good favor to me before the king and his advisers and all the king’s powerful officials. Because the hand of the LORD my God was on me, I took courage and gathered leading men from Israel to go up with me.

Ezra recognized that the Lord was in charge and Dr. Ezra Young was fully learned in what God will was. Ezra was doing the Lord’s will, and so he knew the Lord’s hand was upon him. What did the hand of the Lord provide Ezra? Ok, that was a gimme. Courage. What makes a king out of a slave? Courage. What makes the flag on the mast to wave? Courage. What makes the elephant charge his tusk in the misty mist, or the dusky dusk? What makes the muskrat guard his musk? Courage.

Let’s have the courage, then, to move forward. In Chapter 8, Ezra tells us details about his journey, who the family members were, and then in verse 15, Ezra discovers there are no Levites among the travelers. Levites were necessary because the Mosaic law said that only Levites could carry temple items used in worship, and they had all these temple items. They needed some Levites to accompany them, so they sent word that they needed help.

Ezra 8:18
Since the gracious hand of our God was on us, they sent us a man named Sherebiah, along with eighteen of his sons and brothers. He was a very astute man and a descendant of Mahli, who was a descendant of Levi son of Israel.

We can’t use “gracious” since we already did that, so let’s focus on what God provided. He provided an astute man, a man of insight; some versions use “capable.” What did the gracious hand of God provide? (Wisdom, guidance, … ) and then in verse 21,

Ezra 8:21-23
There, by the Ahava Canal, I proclaimed a fast, so that we might humble ourselves before our God and ask him for a safe journey for us and our children, with all our possessions. I was ashamed to ask the king for soldiers and horsemen to protect us from enemies on the road, because we had told the king, “The gracious hand of our God is on everyone who looks to him, but his great anger is against all who forsake him.” So we fasted and petitioned our God about this, and he answered our prayer.

The gracious hand of God provided … protection. Ezra was quite concerned about the success of this journey, it was roughly 800 miles and they would be carrying a significant amount of gold and silver and relics. And they had already boasted to the king how great God is. Ezra was ashamed to ask for protection. I’m not so sure this was the wisest move – God certainly expects us to depend on each other, and Ezra had already accepted help from the king in a financial way, but no doubt Ezra as a Levitical priest who studied and taught every day and has a book in the bible named after him might have a better understanding of God than I do. So the hand of Lord on Ezra brought him safely to Jerusalem with all the temple articles intact.

When they arrived at Jerusalem, they counted and weighed all the silver and gold and found it was all present and accounted for, so they sacrificed burnt offerings to the Lord, and everybody lived happily ever after. Well, at least until Book 9.

In Book 9 of Ezra, Ezra discovers the people of Israel had been unfaithful to the Lord. Before I cover this part of Ezra, remember what Dr. Young – Ed Young, not Ezra Young – taught this past autumn about claiming God’s promises? When you study the Word of God, you must be careful to see if the Word applies to you, to a particular person, to a particular time. Sometimes the bible teaches us about God through scripture that applies to a specific place and time. When God told Moses to use his staff to part the waters of the Red Sea and then lead Israel does not mean that you should get a staff and part the waters of Lake Conroe and then the greater Houston area will follow you. The scripture applied to a particular place and time. We can learn from such scripture – in the case of Moses, we can learn about obedience, faith, fear, and so on, but not necessarily about flood control.

In Book 9, Ezra is approached by the leaders of Jerusalem with bad news.

Ezra 9:1-2
After these things had been done, the leaders came to me and said, “The people of Israel, including the priests and the Levites, have not kept themselves separate from the neighboring peoples with their detestable practices, like those of the Canaanites, Hittites, Perizzites, Jebusites, Ammonites, Moabites, Egyptians and Amorites. They have taken some of their daughters as wives for themselves and their sons, and have mingled the holy race with the peoples around them. And the leaders and officials have led the way in this unfaithfulness.”

Israel is special to the Lord. Israel is the Lord’s holy people. And the accusation here is very specific – the men and priests and Levites had not separated themselves and kept their nation holy as God had commanded. The problem here is not one of marriage – while Exodus 34:11-16 and Deuteronomy 7:1-4 prohibited foreign marriages, Joseph and Moses married foreign wives and God did not condemn them. Rahab and Ruth were not only foreign wives that God praised, they’re also listed in the genealogy of Jesus. Clearly it is not the fact that the women were foreign.

No, the problem here is who they married. There are eight neighboring people listed here that had what? Detestable practices. The Hebrew word for doing these “detestable practices” is “tow’ebah” (to-ay-baw’) which means a disgusting, wicked ritual abomination. The Lord God was thoroughly repulsed that His chosen people were marrying pagan women, and the husbands were casually accepting and tolerating the worship of false Gods in their homes. When God says “Thou shalt have no other God before me,” it’s not a polite request, it’s a commandment.

What’s worse, it wasn’t just the men of Israel marrying women who were religiously unclean, but it was the priests and Levites marrying them, too. These were the men responsible for maintaining the holiness of Israel, and instead they were leading the abominations. Instead of remaining holy, Israel was becoming indistinguishable from its pagan neighbors.

The word holy means “set apart”. The church sanctuary is holy; it is set apart for the use of God. My car, even though I drive it to church, is not holy since I drive it to work and the movies and so forth. Marriage is holy matrimony; the relationship we have with our spouses are unique. I have a relationship with Diane that is blessed by God; it is unique and set apart.

Paul says in Ephesians 5:22

“Wives, submit yourselves to your own husbands as you do to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Savior.”

Wives, think about just the last week. How did you treat your husband? What words have you said to him? Did you treat your husband the way the Lord should be treated? Your marriage is holy. Do you seek the Lord’s will daily through study and prayer and treat your husband the way the Lord requires? Let’s pause just a moment to think about that.

Husbands, your turn. Paul says in Ephesians 5:25-27,

Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless.

Husbands, do you give yourself up for your wife? Christ loved the church so much He died on the cross for us. What do you give up for your wife? Do you have selfish needs or habits that annoy your wife? Or do you cleanse her with the word of God? Do you forgive her daily the way Christ forgives you? When you look at her, is she without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish? Do you see her as holy and blameless? Let’s pause for a moment to think about that, but not as long because we husbands don’t have that sort of attention span.

Holy things are set apart for the glory of God. Israel as God’s chosen people were to remain holy, yet they participated in acts abhorrent to God. If you thought of something about your holy marriage that abhorred you, you can understand Ezra’s response. The first thing Ezra did in verse 9:3 was to tear his clothes and pull out the hair from his head and beard and sit down appalled. Convicted of sin. Devastated. The Hebrew word is “shamem” (shaw-mame’) which is the same word used after a locust plague devours a field. Ezra had spent his life in devotion, study, and application of God’s word, only to find that God’s holy people had defiled themselves.

Ezra was a true man of God, though, and even in his desolation, he continued to do God’s will. Ezra was convicted of his sin. The fact that it was his people sinning and not him specifically didn’t matter; Ezra included himself in the conviction of sin. Verse 4 says “everyone who trembled at the words of the God of Israel gathered around me because of this unfaithfulness.” It was a sudden realization of their sin, a realization that they had been living a lie. Telling themselves that their little sin was ok, but it grew into a big societal sin that permeated even the religious leaders. As a society, we have tolerated a little sin in each other that has grown into a much larger sin that permeates even the religious leaders of some churches, have we not? I sometimes wonder if we’ve truly learned God’s lessons 2500 years after Ezra.

Not everybody gathered around Ezra; only those that trembled at God’s word. Ungodly people do not tremble at God’s word; ungodly people do not become convicted of their sin and gather around religious leaders. They may have trembled also because if you remember, the king told Ezra that Ezra was to teach and uphold the law and execute his people that didn’t.

That evening, still with torn clothes and hair, Ezra fell on his knees and prayed. The word used implies falling not just once but repeatedly. This was the second thing Ezra did after his conviction. I wish we had time to read Ezra’s prayer slowly and dissect it. It begins with confession, “I am too ashamed and disgraced, my God, to lift up my face to you, because our sins are higher than our heads and our guilt has reached to the heavens.” Consider this your homework this week to read Ezra’s prayer in chapter 9 to see how a godly man with the hand of God upon him prays to his maker. First the confession, then praise and thanks, calling the Lord “gracious” for the relief from bondage and for giving them another chance to build a temple to worship Him. Ezra acknowledge specifically their sin; the command from the Lord in Deuteronomy, Isaiah, and Ezekial were to enter the promised land, not to even seek a friendship with their detestable neighbors, and instead they married their daughters. Then Ezra acknowledges God’s sovereignty and wisdom, that God has every right to destroy them all and not even leave a remnant this time, but also acknowledging that God’s grace has punished them less than they deserved. The third thing Ezra did was to repent of the sin.

The fourth thing that Ezra did after his conviction was to correct the error. After conviction of sin and then praying, action must follow or it is not true repentance. If the people of Israel are to be holy and set apart, then all impurities must be eliminated. This is true in your marriage, too. If your marriage is to be holy and set apart, then any impurities must be removed. In Ezra 10, the holy people of Israel realized that to be pure in God’s sight, they must send the foreign women away. They interpreted Deuteronomy 24:1-4 that a husband was to write a “divorce certificate” and place it in her hand if the there was “something improper about her.”

Now the word “divorce” is very rare in the Old Testament and it’s not used here in Ezra; the word is that the foreign wives were “sent away” with custody of their children. Now here is where we say this does not apply specifically to us. Even if your wife is pagan and worshipping idols, you don’t send her away. You are not the people of Israel and part of God’s chosen people and to be kept apart and holy. You are a Christian spouse. There was plenty of confusion about Deuteronomy’s rules; “something improper” could mean she snores too loud. In the 10th book of Mark, Jesus says it was because of Israel’s hard hearts that Moses wrote that law, but under the new covenant the rules were clarified. Paul clarified it some more in 1 Corinthians 10:16-17; the unbelieving wife or husband is sanctified through his or her spouse. So if your husband leaves the socks on the floor yet again, sending him back to Egypt is not an option, ok? Just want to be clear on that.

Ezra 10:12 says the whole assembly responded in a loud voice, “You are right, but not now, it’s raining!” They realized that unraveling the sin was going to take both time and accountability, so they spent several days appointing leaders for accountability and to investigate all the marriages in Jerusalem and to make proper arrangements to send the foreign women back to their pagan societies. And all of those guilty had their names written down here in Ezra 10:18 for us to see 2500 years later. Each of the men listed repented of their sin and offered sacrifices for their guilt. OK, now they all lived happily ever after, at least until we turn to the book of Nehemiah next month.

So let’s summarize what we’ve learned today. This is the type of person that God will put his hand on:

• One who is devoted to the Lord;
• One who studies the Word;
• One who obeys the Word;
• One who applies the Word in service to others.

This is what the hand of the Lord provides;
• Blessings
• Grace
• Success
• Courage
• Wisdom, guidance
• Protection

When sin is in our lives, we
• Are convicted
• Repent
• Pray
• Act

Seizing New Opportunities

I have some good news and some bad news. The good news is that we completed our study of the book of Hebrews and we’ll be moving on to new scripture to study. The bad news is that we completed our study of the book of Hebrews. There was a lot of good information in there, wasn’t there? I learned a lot about angels, Jesus, and good solid Christian character. I’m going to miss Hebrews.

For the next month we’ll be studying Ezra, then in January we’ll move on to Nehemiah, then by February we’ll be in the book of Esther. There will be a brief intermission around Christmas when we study Psalm 139.

God works in mysterious ways, doesn’t he? As some of you know, I got called away on business this week. I’ve added it up; I was home 9 days in November, and I was supposed to be home this last week and was sent out of town again. I prayed to God; His promise is that if you are doing His work, He will provide all you need, but I was wondering where I was going to find the time to study and prepare. I left Sunday evening with all my study materials, and the plan was to return Thursday and prepare for this lesson on Saturday. Then, after I got there, I found out I had to stay longer than expected; I’d be arriving Saturday evening, last night. I continued to pray; my faith is that the Lord God’s will is always done. I boarded the plane only 20% finished with preparation and a plane flight that was too short to finish preparing.

Be careful what you pray for, God will answer you in ways you do not expect. I’m sitting on the plane, waiting for takeoff. And waiting and waiting… and it dawned on me that I’m wondering where I’m going to find the time to finish preparing, and here the plane is delayed, giving me even more time. I whipped out the laptop and got to work. I’m still not sure I’m 100% ready today, but God gave me ample time. All the credit goes to God, all the rambling incoherency goes to me. And if I start to ramble too bad, I’m going to fake some sort of jet lag induced seizure to distract you.

And have you ever prayed for patience? What happens, how does God answer a prayer like that? That’s right, he tries you with so many activities and events and crisis at once. How are you going to learn patience unless you have emergencies going on all simultaneously?

About a year ago, Diane & I were considering going on a mission trip to Kenya. God had moved her heart to go, and eventually my stubborn heart got out of the way and God moved mine, too. Diane tells the story so much better than me, so I’m going to ask Diane to tell you all about it. No, I’m just kidding, I’ve been traveling so much, I haven’t had much chance to tease my sweetheart. We prayed for the funds to go, and for a while we weren’t sure we were going. I think Diane gave up for a while. We kept praying, and eventually we relied on faith. We just planned on going as though God had already provided. And then all at once, just before we were to leave, God provided everything we needed.

I know some of you have been Christians for a lot longer than me; in fact, before I started studying the last few weeks, I wasn’t sure who Ezra was. Some jazz singer, maybe. It’s only been 8 years since I’ve given my life to Christ, but God has answered so many prayers in the last 8 years. The most amazing is when God repaired our marriage; that was an absolute miracle and completely unexpected that He could repair a marriage that had broken and divorced. Your marriage is a miracle, too, don’t ever take it for granted. Before you were married, did you expect your spouse would be like he or she is? Of course not, God answers prayers in expected ways. Sometimes really unexpected.

I just realized this week another miracle – before I gave my life to Christ, I used to get depressed at Christmas. I even knew why – nostalgia for happy Christmases past, the whole family under the tree opening presents. Then I grew up, and my parents divorce and then my own shattered Christmas for me, and I knew it was never going to be the same. What I realized this last week is that since I gave my life to Christ, I have not been down at Christmas. In fact, this year I’m almost downright giddy. I realized that getting down was my selfish state of mind, it’s all about me sort of thing. It never was about me. It’s all about Him. He is the reason to celebrate.

Yes, God answers prayers and fulfills His promises, and that’s what we’re going to study. So today we’re going to study the book of Ezra, so let’s turn to the book of Jeremiah. Bear with me, we have to get the history.

Jeremiah 29:10

During the time of Jeremiah, the Israelites were in rebellion to the Lord. For centuries, the Lord’s people refused to live up to the terms of the covenant with the Lord. First God unleashed the destruction of the Northern Kingdom Israel, and still the southern people of Judah continued their defiance. God then unleashed the Babylonians against them. Nebuchadnezzar led the Babylonians (modern day Iraq) against Jerusalem and the soldiers destroyed the city, slaughtered many of the Jews, and looted the temple. The survivors either fled to Egypt or were hauled off to Babylon as slaves.

The prophet Jeremiah told the Jews that this period of captivity will last 70 years, and during this 70 years the Jews formed unhappy communities there and put down their roots. They were very bitter about their slavery, even though Jeremiah had warned them this captivity was due to their disobedience. They had no temple and they were unable to offer the sacrifices in the law of Moses.

So what happened after the seventy years? Now we have to back up to the prophet Isaiah to see the Lord’s prophecy fulfilled.

Isaiah 44:24-28 (shortened), “This is what the Lord says – your redeemer, who formed you in the womb. I am the Lord, who has made all things, who alone stretched out the heavens, who spread out the earth by myself, … who says to Jerusalem, “It shall be inhabited’, of the towns of Judah, “They shall be rebuilt,” and of their ruins, “I will restore them,” … who 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.”

And the people were like, “Cyrus? Who is Cyrus? Billie Ray Cyrus? Don’t Break My Heart, Achy Breaky Heart Cyrus?” And they continued to wonder this until the 70 years of captivity were up

Meanwhile, in a land far, far away, the king of Anshan was getting ambitious. He built a mighty army and attacked his grandfather in Persia which is now modern day Iran. The king then conquered Sardis in Lydia (which is now Turkey), and then turned his attention to Babylonia. In 539 B.C., Babylonia fell to the king of Ashan and became the new ruler of the captive Jews living there. This king’s name was… that’s right, Cyrus. Amazing. Coincidence? I think not.

*Now* we can begin the book of Ezra.

Ezra 1:1
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 Jews were not free; instead of the Babylonians, the king was now Cyrus. But while the Babylonians ruled by intimidation and fear, Cyrus chose a different method. Give the people what they want, and the people will be loyal to you. Sort of like the Democrats.

Ezra 1:2-4
“This is what Cyrus king of Persia says:
” ‘The LORD, the God of heaven, has given me all the kingdoms of the earth and he has appointed me to build a temple for him at Jerusalem in Judah. 3 Anyone of his people among you—may his God be with him, and let him go up to Jerusalem in Judah and build the temple of the LORD, the God of Israel, the God who is in Jerusalem. 4 And the people of any place where survivors may now be living are to provide him with silver and gold, with goods and livestock, and with freewill offerings for the temple of God in Jerusalem.’ “

Was King Cyrus a believer in the Lord God of heaven? Nope, he’s just lying through his teeth and I’m not going to draw any more parallels to any particular political party. Cyrus created a new policy to honor the customs and religion of the people he governed. An historical clay cylinder called the Cyprus Cylinder contains a letter to the local Babylonians where Cyrus also claims to be an instrument of the Babylonian god Marduk and asking for their blessings. You know, just giving the people what they want and pretending to be one of them. Dang politicians.

So how is it that the Lord God put this in Cyrus heart? Romans 13:1 says, “Everyone must submit himself to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God.” Yes, God in in charge of all authority on earth, whether that authority knows it or not. God is in charge. And Proverbs 21:1 says, “The king’s heart is in the hand of the Lord; he directs it like a watercourse wherever he pleases.” The Lord’s will be done, whether you’re a believer or not. As a politician, Cyrus ends up doing the will of the Lord, for the Lord God can use anybody and anything He wishes. Cyrus thinks he’s building his own kingdom, but God is using Cyrus for a far greater purpose.

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. 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.

Notice that the proclamation provided a choice. The people did not have to go back to Jerusalem. The younger men who were physically able to reconstruct the temple had been born sometime during the last 70 years in Babylon. They had never been to Jerusalem, never seen a sacrifice offered, never offered one of their own. Now they were being given a chance to leave a place they had known all their lives and go to a place they had only heard about. They would be giving up comfort of their old home they had grown up in to go to someplace unknown. Would they be sent unprepared? Cyrus’ proclamation instructed their the neighbors to help support them financially and materially with their venture in Jerusalem. God takes care of everything! A freewill offering means the neighbors were not forced to give, but asked out of the goodness of their hearts. Something similar happene when God told Moses to lead the Israelites out of Egypt and the Egyptians provided them with gifts of gold and silver and clothing. When God leads, He also provides.

Only a small number of Jews returned to Judah. It says “everyone whose heart God had moved”. Were the ones who stayed behind outside of God’s will? I don’t know. What we do know, however, comes later on in the book of Esther – those that stayed behind were the Jews that Hayman almost had exterminated until Esther spoke up. Anybody see One Night with the King? Beautiful movie of the story of the life of Esther and what happened to these Jews. We also know that there were no ill feelings between those Jews that returned to Jerusalem and those that stayed in Babylonia because of the amount of gifts provided.

I think back to the mission trip Diane and I went on. Not everybody is called to be a foreign missionary; that takes a very special spiritual gift to spread the word of God that way. I don’t think I was effective; I served cheerfully to the best of my ability; providing medical care and services and monetary help was very rewarding, but door to door evangelism to people that don’t speak the same language as me isn’t my calling. I guess I’m saying I probably identified more with the Jews that stayed behind.

Just because God doesn’t call us to be a missionary doesn’t mean He doesn’t call us to help. If our means allows, we should support those in the field, and back them up with prayers and encouragement. For every missionary out in the field, it can take ten or more people supporting them with money, food, clothing, medical care, bibles.

Verse 7 of Ezra also says “Moreover, King Cyrus brought out the articles belonging to the temple of the LORD, which Nebuchadnezzar had carried away from Jerusalem and had placed in the temple of his god.”

Where did Cyrus get these vessels of the Lord’s house? In the book of Daniel, he records what happened that night Cyrus appeared in Babylon. The Babylon ruler Belshazzar was having a drunken feast: “Belshazzar, while he tasted the wine, commanded to bring the golden and silver vessels which his father Nebuchadnezzar had taken out of the temple which was in Jerusalem; and the king, and his princes, and his wives and his concubines drank in them. They drank wine and praised the god of gold and of silver, of brass, of iron, of wood and stone. That very night the city of Babylon was captured.

When we get to verse 9, we see what Cyrus returned to Jerusalem:

This was the inventory:
gold dishes 30
silver dishes 1,000
silver pans [b] 29
gold bowls 30
matching silver bowls 410
other articles 1,000
In all, there were 5,400 articles of gold and of silver.

Ezra Chapter 2 gives us a list of people with unpronounceable names returning to Jerusalem. Would somebody like to volunteer to read them all? I thought not. I want to look at a couple of the names on the list though – verse 2 shows a Nehemiah, but this is not the same Nehemiah we’ll be studying next month. There’s also a Mordecai listed, but this also isn’t the Mordecai from the book of Esther.

Verse 7 is Elam. Verse 31 is… the other Elam. How would you like to be known through history as “the other Elam?” Hi, I’m Elam, but not *that* Elam. I’m the other Elam. Nice to meet you, I’m the other Nehemiah. And I’m the other Mordecai.

Look down at v23, there were 128 men of Anathoth. When Jeremiah made that prophecy that God would restore Judah after 70 years of captivity, God also had Jeremiah in Jeremiah 32 to buy a piece of land as a sign that Judah would be restored. Jeremiah’s act was one of faith. God promised He would return them to their land and He did. There’s a little town called Anathoth to this day where Jeremiah purchased the land. When the men of Anathoth returned, they had a lawful claim to the land Jeremiah had purchased.

I find all the people listed in Ezra 2 intriguing – just like the body of Christ has many parts – a hand, a foot, I’m a big toe – we see here that God uses the Jews in many roles. Some to rebuild the temple, some to give out the Word of God, some going as missionaries and others supporting the missionaries. Someday, we will receive rewards in heaven for the work we do; all of our work will be inspected and judged and the worthless work will be burned away by fire and only the precious work of the Lord remains. 2 Corinthians 5:10 says “For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ; that every one may receive the things done in his body, according to that he hath done, whether it be good or bad.” The work we do is what God calls us to do, and each part of the body needs each other part.

When the seventh month came and the Israelites had settled in their towns, the people assembled as one man in Jerusalem. Then Jeshua son of Jozadak and his fellow priests and Zerubbabel son of Shealtiel and his associates began to build the altar of the God of Israel to sacrifice burnt offerings on it, in accordance with what is written in the Law of Moses the man of God. Despite their fear of the peoples around them, they built the altar on its foundation and sacrificed burnt offerings on it to the LORD, both the morning and evening sacrifices.

About 50,000 Israelites had returned and settled in and around Jerusalem with the money and materials that were brought to begin the work on the temple. The first priority was the rebuilding of the altar, which of course the rebellious people didn’t do right away. We find out elsewhere in the book of Haggai the first thing they did was build homes and Haggai had to rebuke them for putting their selfish needs before the Lord.

So after a good rebuking, they got down to work building the temple. Under the law of Moses, Jews had a sacrificial system of atonement we studied in Hebrews. The phrase ‘the people assembled as one man in Jerusalem’ showed their solidarity and unity of purpose. The two men who lead the rebuilding were Jeshua, a priest and descendant of Aaron and Zarubbabel, a descendant of David. Both the priestly and royal branches of Jews worked together to reestablish the Mosaic covenant. Then is ways they built the alter despite their fear and in accordance with the Law of Moses. It sounds like such a simple formula – read the scriptures and work together as one without fear. Now there’s a goal for a church.

I think fear is still common – I think about the Christians that may be working at Best Buy or Home Depot or Kroger where they are discouraged from saying “Merry Christmas” and told to say “Happy Holidays” instead. I tell people that I don’t celebrate “Winter Holiday” because it’s pagan. I celebrate Christmas!

Working together as one has a more positive example just this week. I got a few emails this week telling me about Angels of Light I missed this week – that is such a wonderful service and it is so rewarding to see so many people working together as one.

When the builders laid the foundation of the temple of the LORD, the priests in their vestments and with trumpets, and the Levites (the sons of Asaph) with cymbals, took their places to praise the LORD, as prescribed by David king of Israel. With praise and thanksgiving they sang to the LORD :
“He is good;
his love to Israel endures forever.”
And all the people gave a great shout of praise to the LORD, because the foundation of the house of the LORD was laid.

The foundation for the alter was finally complete, and the Jews couldn’t wait to celebrate. The Mosaic covenant was being followed exactly as described by Moses. This same order was followed when David brought the ark of the covenant to Jerusalem in 1 Chronicles 16:5-6, and when the ark was brought to the temple in 2 Chronicles 5:12-13. The priests wore their ceremonial robes, the descendants of Asaph and the priest performing sacrifices and others playing cymbals, harps, lyres and trumpets. The Jews knew this time the Lord was making this temple possible and wanted to give praise and thanksgiving to the Lord for His love for them. The temple worship has been restored after 70 years, just as prophesied.

When we receive gifts, most of us remember to say thank you. Sometimes we forget what gifts we have, though, and don’t thank our Lord for them. The privilege of worshiping Him is a gift that the Jews didn’t have, and we’re losing, too, in part of the world and in this country, too. Fifty years ago it was unthinkable, but now our government compels children to attend purely secular public schools where the pagan “Winter Holiday” is celebrated instead of Christmas, and instead of being taught that sex is a gift reserved for married couples, the children are taught sexual activities with cucumbers. We’re losing monuments and crosses that reflect the Judeo-Christian ideals this country was founded on, and “Merry Christmas” is considered unwelcome. Let’s give thanks we’re not yet like the Jews in Babylonia and can worship our maker freely. Count every blessing, name them one by one and Praise God for all that He hath done. When the Jews realized what they had lost during captivity, they praised God for His sovereignty, faithfulness, forgiveness and restoration. Let’s not take that for granted.

But many of the older priests and Levites and family heads, who had seen the former temple, wept aloud when they saw the foundation of this temple being laid, while many others shouted for joy. No one could distinguish the sound of the shouts of joy from the sound of weeping, because the people made so much noise. And the sound was heard far away.

There were two types of people present during the dedication of the temple. On one hand were the younger generation that had never seen the original temple built by Solomon. To these younger people, this was a wonderful time. A new temple, new opportunities to worship and serve the Lord. The other group were the old-timers who remembered the old temple and were making comparisons. “Why this old temple is nothing compared to the one in my day. Why, our temple would eat this temple for lunch. It was worth making the journey, and we didn’t mind all the walking to get here. We’d walk uphill to get here. Both ways. We gave everything we had, even the shoes off our feet. The walk back was uphill, too, but now we were barefoot. And on cold, icy days, we’d have to strap barb-wire to our feet to keep from slipping.”

The old group wasn’t exactly encouraging to the younger group, were they? Being critical of something is really easy; being encouraging is much harder. I was recently reminded of this while I was out of town yet again, griping about… well, let’s just say I thought this trip was much ado about nothing, mountains made from molehills. Reading some scripture in the middle of the week about encouraging one another as long as it is called Today cut me to the heart about my disobedience. I had developed some old person “the old way is the right way to do this” philosophy. Younger hearts are what we all need.

As we close the first three chapters of Ezra, let’s remember that God’s will be done. He can use the unbelievers for his will in order to faithfully fulfill His promise and He sometimes answer prayers in unexpected ways. Let’s remember that sometimes God calls us to take action, and sometimes God calls us to be the supporting people. Let’s remember that when we are in accordance with the scripture, we become like one body in unity in purpose. And let’s remember to give thanks and praise for our almighty Father in Heaven from whom all blessings flow.