Monday’s Column: Neal At The Cross
The book of Ezra begins by referring to God’s Word by Jeremiah’s mouth. That fulfillment was so important to the Jewish people. The Jews clung to the hope offered by Jeremiah, who foretold, “When seventy years have been completed for Babylon, I will visit you and fulfill My good word to you, to bring you back to this place. ‘For I know the plans that I have for you,’ declares the Lord, ‘plans for welfare and not for calamity to give you a future and a hope.‘Then you will call upon Me and come and pray to Me, and I will listen to you. ‘You will seek Me and find Me when you search for Me with all your heart. ‘I will be found by you,’ declares the Lord, ‘and I will restore your fortunes and will gather you from all the nations and from all the places where I have driven you,’ declares the Lord, ‘and I will bring you back to the place from where I sent you into exile'” (Jer. 29:10-14). God planned to bring them back, and the fellowship and relationship would be restored. Daniel confidently rested his hope in this promise near the end of his long, fruitful career as a prophet, reading in Jeremiah’s writings the hope and promises once the 70 years was accomplished (Dan. 9:2).
Ezra’s writings chronicles the fulfillment of Jeremiah’s promise, and the start of the Restoration Movement that commenced near the end of the 6th-Century B.C. The Persian emperor, Cyrus, comes to power in 539 B.C. and, acknowledging Jehovah’s power and authority, issues a proclamation to the Jews allowing all who were willing to return Jerusalem and Judah to rebuild the temple (1:2). The door to return was now open! According to Ezra 1, what did it take for the people to begin this massive rebuilding project?
Favorable Government (1-4, 7-11). Babylonian rulers were not going to allow this to happen. But Daniel (Dan. 5) chronicles the overthrow of Babylon by the Persians (also read the book of Nahum for the prophecy of this). Cyrus the Great forms the first Persian Empire, also known as the Achaemenid Empire, in 550 B.C. An extremely significant archaeological find, “The Cyrus Cylinder,” is a clay document issued by Cyrus The Great confirming the truth of the biblical account we read here in Ezra chapter one. He permits the return and the rebuilding of the temple, and he encourages Jews everywhere who are not returning to financially support this exodus and the cost of rebuilding. No doubt, the Jews could appreciate this unprecedented granting of human rights by that world empire. They had not had such freedom for decades.
Willing Builders (5). We will read more about the pioneering pilgrims of the Post-Exilic project in chapter two, but the text here says that heads of households of Judah and Benjamin and the priests and the Levites arose. They were passionate about rebuilding, as God desired, and they were willing to leave Persia and go back home. Many of the Jews deported to Babylon and living in exile had established roots in their new nation, having children and grandchildren, homes and businesses they did not wish to leave. But others had been longing and praying for the opportunity to return.
Support From Brethren (6). The Jews who did not return sponsored and facilitated those who wanted to go back. They “encouraged” them with silver and gold, goods, cattle, and valuables in addition to their freewill offerings. That, with Cyrus’ release of the temple furnishings (8-11), equipped the returnees with the financial ability to do the work of rebuilding.
Divine Providence. Something Cyrus acknowledges (3) reinforces that God was always in control, working through time and events to accomplish His overarching purpose. This post-exilic movement was part of His grander plan. Daniel writes about it in Daniel 2. God was working toward establishing that “kingdom which shall never be destroyed” (2:44) in the context of human history. The Persian Empire was a link in that omnipotent chain. It required the Jews to go back home and rebuild the temple and resettle in the land until ultimately the Messiah would be born.
While these events happened in history over 2,500 years ago, there is so much application for us today. We still live in a time and place where government has given us the religious freedom to build for God. We’re not primarily interested in literal edifices and buildings. We’re charged with growing that spiritual kingdom Daniel foresaw, the church. That requires children of God who will roll up their sleeves, hungry to do the work of restoration. It requires children of God lending financial support of that work. It also requires us to be alert to God’s providence, to “work together for good” (Rom. 8:28) in accomplishing His will through our building efforts. How long will that window of freedom be open? It may become much harder to fulfill the Great Commission if and when those freedoms are ever revoked. Perhaps we should appreciate anew Jesus’ admonition, “Do you not say, ‘There are yet four months, and then comes the harvest’? Behold, I say to you, lift up your eyes and look on the fields, that they are white for harvest” (John 4:35)!