After seventy years of captivity, God is about to restore His own people to their homeland by turning the heart of a Pagan King. In this message Stephen reminds us that if God has princes and kingdoms in His hand, He surely has us in His hands as well.
Other messages in this series are available here: Ezra
The Rumblings of Renewal
For baseball fans, this past year was a jackpot that continued to pour out one exciting moment after another. Just about everybody in my family kept pace with the homerun race between Sammy Sosa and Mark McGwire - two men who, by the way, exemplified terrific sportsmanship. Both men surpassed Babe Ruth's record of 60 home runs, and then they both raced past Roger Maris' record of 61. With an unbelievable finale, McGwire pulled away with a total of 70 homeruns. Even to people who don't care too much about baseball, the name Mark McGwire is forever legendary.
But have you ever heard the name Josh Gibson? I hadn't, until Joe Stowell introduced him to me through a Moody Monthly article.
It seems that Josh Gibson has once again been ignored. Gibson is considered by many to be the greatest home run hitter of all time. He played from 1930 to 1946. In his second season at bat, at the age of 19, he hit 75 home runs. Ignored because he played mostly in what was then known as the Negro League, he hit 75 homers when blacks and whites didn't play in the same league. Now for those who think the Negro League was an easier league to hit like that, you might want to know that the Negro league played against the white teams hundreds of times; and in the process compiled a 3 to 1 winning average against them.
Enough people rallied to Gibson's cause a number of years ago; and he was inducted posthumously into the National Baseball Hall of Fame.
I wouldn't have known of Josh Gibson if Stowell hadn't written about him - and he wouldn't have known about him except for a friend of his who sent him an e-mail that started out by saying, "Please share with your children . . . the home run record has not been broken!"
Then he went on to set the record straight!
As I prepared to begin our new series in the Book of Ezra and restart our study through the entire Bible, it struck me that we were beginning a study of men and women, whose records have been all but forgotten. Heroes of the faith, whose achievements are largely ignored by the Christian community.
The Old Testament has become for most Christians a dusty relic from time past - unless of course you want a quick Psalm or Proverb for the day.
We have forgotten that Paul wrote to Timothy and told him, under inspiration, that the Old Testament was capable of equipping him for every good work.
In spite of that, the average Christian can spend his life in church and hear the record of Noah and recount David's grand slam against Goliath a thousand times but never once hear the name of Ezra and certainly never hear the name Zerubbabel.
Not that Noah and David don't deserve careful attention; but my belief is that some of God's richest and deepest truths have been communicated through the lives of forgotten heroes in passages that long ago began to gather dust.
Well, as we return to our study of the Old Testament, I am excited to be able to blow off the dust and dig through the archives and re-discover the hall of fame achievements of Ezra, Nehemiah and Esther.
Now this morning, as we will soon begin to hear the rumblings of a nation's renewal, I want to go back into 2 Kings and re-read what we studied a few years ago when we finished our series in Kings and Chronicles. It will set the stage for the heroic achievements of Zerubbabel and Ezra.
Turn please to 2 Kings chapter 25 and let's re-read the tragic events of Jerusalem's destruction and the beginning days of the Babylonian captivity.
25:1 NOW it came about in the ninth year of his reign, on the tenth day of the tenth month, that Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon came, he and all his army, against Jerusalem, camped against it, and built a siege wall all around it. 2. So the city was under siege until the eleventh year of King Zedekiah. 3 On the ninth day of the fourth month the famine was so severe in the city that there was no food for the people of the land. 4 Then the city was broken into, and all the men of war fled by night by way of the gate between the two walls beside the king's garden, though the Chaldeans were all around the city. And they went by way of the Arabah. 5 But the army of the Chaldeans pursued the king and overtook him in the plains of Jericho and all his army was scattered from him. 6 Then they captured the king and brought him to the king of Babylon at Riblah, and he passed sentence on him. 7 And they slaughtered the sons of Zedekiah before his eyes, then put out the eyes of Zedekiah and bound him with bronze fetters and brought him to Babylon. 8 Now on the seventh day of the fifth month, which was the nineteenth year of King Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon, ebuzaradan the captain of the guard, a servant of the king of Babylon, came to Jerusalem. 9 And he burned the house of the LORD, the king's house, and all the houses of Jerusalem; even every great house he burned with fire. 10 So all the army of the Chaldeans who were with the captain of the guard broke down the walls around Jerusalem. 11 Then the rest of the people who were left in the city and the deserters who had deserted to the king of Babylon and the rest of the multitude, Nebuzaradan the captain of the guard carried away into exile. 12 But the captain of the guard left some of the poorest of the land to be vinedressers and plowmen. (Skip to verse 18.) Then the captain of the guard took Seraiah the chief priest and Zephaniah the second priest, with the three officers of the temple. 19 And from the city he took one official who was overseer of the men of war, and five of the king's advisers who were found in the city; and the scribe of the captain of the army, who mustered the people of the land; and sixty men of the people of the land who were found in the city. 20 And Nebuzaradan the captain of the guard took them and brought them to the king of Babylon at Riblah. 21 Then the king of Babylon struck them down and put them to death at Riblah in the land of Hamath. So Judah was led away into exile from its land.
Read these words and you can almost feel the despair - you can almost see the horror and the tragedy of captivity. Why had it come to this? Because the people of God had stubbornly refused to follow God.
Even though God had sent them the prophets Jeremiah and Isaiah who warned them of coming judgment, they still with one voice shouted down the prophets. They even called Jeremiah insane.
But now they were captives; their beloved nation scattered; their capital city and holy temple were destroyed.
Thus began the 70 years of captivity that God had promised through the prophet Jeremiah.
You could skip down in your notes to the very first significant principle for every culture and every generation and it is this:
1) Whenever you disobey God, you have begun playing a game you will never win.
You play the game of sexual relations before marriage, and you are going to lose.
You play the game of pornography on the internet or in the media, and you are going to lose.
You play the corporate game of ladder climbing and abandon your family along the way, and you are going to lose.
The people of Israel thought they could ignore Jeremiah; they could ignore Isaiah. What do they know . . . we can live like we want!!
Then the horror of judgment came, and they realized through tears of despair in their captivity the need for revival and renewal and restoration.
Now between this passage and the Book of Ezra is 70 years. For those who were keeping their calendars, they could almost hear the rumblings of renewal.
Then chariots pulled up outside Babylon - and a General who would later be given the royal name of Darius by the King of the Medo-Persian Empire who was named Cyrus. The King of Babylon laughed at Darius, and behind the safety of his Babylonian walls planned a feast-a feast served to them by their Jewish slaves-a feast during which they drank their wine from sacred Jewish vessels and scoffed at Persia's army. Who could besiege mighty Babylon? Why, we have the mighty Euphrates flowing through our city; we can outlive any army.
But it was during that feast suddenly a hand appeared and began writing a message on the wall. People shrieked in terror. All festivities vanished. The wise man Daniel was called, and he interpreted the message for this proud Babylonian king named Belshazzar. "You have been weighed in the balances and found wanting . . . your kingdom will be given to the Persians." (Daniel 5:25-28)
And so it was - for that very night the Persians completed their strategy of diverting the Euphrates River, and they were able to march under the city wall on an empty riverbed.
And so, in October, 2,460 years ago, the Babylonian Empire was crushed by the Persian Empire, and Cyrus the King was sovereign over it all.
Now as for the Jewish slaves, their need for renewal was discovered in captivity. Just as the prodigal son came to his senses only after he landed in the pig pen, so the nation Israel, came to its senses, so to speak, while in Babylonian captivity.
But you need more than an awareness of the need for renewal. That leads me to the second introductory comment: The essence of renewal is worship.
Now if you’ll notice in the Book of Ezra and if you look at the heart of Cyrus' declaration in chapter 1:3, you’ll discover God's primary intention with the people of Israel.
“Whoever 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."
After 70 years of chastening, God now moves to restore and renew His people Did you notice that His first objective is not to restore their economy? That would come later. He did not move to restore their political establishment. We would do well as to learn from this, by the way, as the American church continues to pour time and effort in hopes of somehow cleaning up Washington. The restoration of a political system is not the cause of revival, it is the result of revival.
Erwin Lutzer wrote:
“When Great Britain was spiraling downward in moral and spiritual decline, when the British Parliament sometimes had to disband at midday because the members were too drunk to continue deliberations; when children worked in factories, rejected and exploited - God raised up John Wesley to preach the forgotten gospel, and the revival of the 18th century transformed society." [Why the Cross Can Do What Politics Can't Moody Press p. 7]
When God wanted the Israelites to turn back to Himself, He did not reform their housing or transportation; He did not make Persians love righteousness; He did not require Cyrus to decree that the Ten Commandments were binding on all of Persia. No, God began the renewal by refocusing the time and energy of His own people on rebuilding His temple and reviving Biblical worship.
It is when God's people are captivated and enthralled by the King of heaven that they impact the kingdoms of earth the most.
C. S. Lewis wrote that Christians have largely ceased to think of the next world and as a result have become ineffective in this world.
If you've forgotten the point that kingdoms come and kingdoms go but God's kingdom is everlasting, you are driven back to that point in Ezra chapter 1.
Let's read the first verse - it is a stunning verse. 1:1 NOW 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. . .
Did you catch whose idea this proclamation was?? Cyrus'? Not on your life - it was God's.
The word translated "stirred up" in verse 1 is the Hebrew word that means to awaken, to arouse to action, to open one's eyes. It was used in Deuteronomy 32:11 for an eagle stirring up its nest. It's used in Psalm 108:2 for a musical instrument being tuned up or warmed up for playing.
God is about to restore His own people. He promised He'd do so after 70 years - and now, He is sovereignly tuning up the heart of Cyrus for His own divine melody. This is a direct fulfillment of Solomon's proverb that the heart of the King is like channels of water in the hand of the Lord - He turns it wherever He wishes. God is merely turning the heart of Cyrus to let God's people go home.
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. 3 'Whoever 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. 4 'And every 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.'"
Now some would say that Cyrus evidently became a believer in Yahweh. Look at the language - the Lord . . . the God of heaven (v. 2) . . . the God of Israel (v. 3).
However, inscriptions written by Cyrus tell another story.
In one inscription, written to the defeated Babylonians, Cyrus wanted them to believe that their chief god, Marduk, had also appointed him to conquer Babylon:
“Marduk scanned all the countries, searching for a righteous ruler . . . then he pronounced the name of Cyrus . . . Marduk, the great lord, a protector of his people, beheld with pleasure Cyrus's good deeds and therefore ordered him to march against his city Babylon. All the inhabitants of Babylon as well as of the entire country bowed to Cyrus and kissed his feet . .. and with shining faces . . . they worshiped his very name. I am Cyrus, king of the world, great king, king of Babylon . . . king of the four rims of the earth. . .”
Obviously, from this inscription, Cyrus was a polytheist - he believed in the existence of many gods - in fact, in another inscription he writes these revealing words, "May all the gods whom I have resettled in their sacred cities ask for a long life for me"
It is possible to say all the right things about God and still not know God personally. It's possible for a person to use all the right terms without ever experiencing redemption.
And I say to you that this not only happened to Cyrus in the land of Persia but it is also happening in the land of America by the millions--people who know all the religious terms - people who carry their Bibles and walk into some church auditorium on Sunday, people who sound religious, but who have never been redeemed.
They've never bent their knee to the Lord of Heaven - setting aside all their good deeds, as Cyrus boasted of, and said, "I am a sinner, I place my faith in you alone."
Now Cyrus also made the mistake of believing something wrong about Israel's God - look again at the last part of verse 3 - Cyrus said, "He is the God who is in Jerusalem." Cyrus thought the God of Israel was limited to the land of Israel. He didn't know that God is not bound by geography.
And this, by the way, is the theology of the religious unbeliever. "God is somebody who lives in that church over there - people go in there once a week to keep Him company. He's somebody who belongs in a prayer book - He doesn't live Monday through Saturday - He doesn't have any control over my business or my personal life - He belongs in Jerusalem."
No, my friend. If you truly know this one and only true God you will know that He is the God who is above and over all creation, and He has the right to every corner and closet of your life - if you truly know Him then you know He is truly Lord.
By the way - just how was Cyrus introduced to the God of Israel? In such a way that he would believe this god was as much alive as all the other gods.
Josephus, the Jewish historian of the first century informs us that Cyrus was actually shown a prophecy by a Jewish prophet that was predicted some 150 years before the birth of Cyrus - and the amazing thing was, it actually named Cyrus.
Let me show you that prophecy in Isaiah 44:28.
God is speaking through the prophet Isaiah:
28 "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.'"
45:1 THUS says the LORD to Cyrus His anointed, Whom I have taken by the right hand, To subdue nations before him, And to loose the loins of kings; To open doors before him so that gates will not be shut: 2 "I will go before you and make the rough places smooth; I will shatter the doors of bronze, and cut through their iron bars. 3 "And I will give you the treasures of darkness, And hidden wealth of secret places, In order that you may know that it is I, The LORD, the God of Israel, who calls you by your name. 4 "For the sake of Jacob My servant,
And Israel My chosen one, I have also called you by your name; I have given you a title of honor Though you have not known Me. 5 "I am the LORD, and there is no other; Besides Me there is no God. I will gird you, though you have not known Me; 6 That men may know from the rising to the setting of the sun That there is no one besides Me. I am the LORD, and there is no other.
Josephus wrote that when Cyrus saw this amazing prediction - written some 150 years before his own birth, he was seized with an earnest desire and ambition to fulfill what was so written."
This prophecy in Isaiah leads me to the second significant principle for every culture:
2) God's faithfulness to His word doesn't depend on us understanding it.
Imagine prophesying a liberator named Cyrus would come! These words wouldn't make sense for several hundred years. A king named Cyrus was going to do something significant - who's Cyrus?! Cyrus will not be born for another 150 years.
Imagine God saying something to His people that won't really make sense, or come together until over a 100 years have passed.
You say, well the Israelites should have been patient - you know, they should have believed that God is faithful even when He doesn't make sense!
I agree! Now apply that to your life. Would you give God 150 years to clear things up for your family? Are you kidding? We won't give Him 1 year - in fact we will hardly give Him one week - He must make sense of things in my life now!
How wonderful that our sovereign God is not handicapped by our lack of understanding - and He is faithful to His word, even when we don't even understand what His word means.
One final principle:
3) The supremacy of God prevails over the power of mankind.
You can't help but discover in Ezra chapter one, that the One in control is God.
God who was introduced to the most powerful king on earth - God who moved the heart of the king to act on His behalf.
One more thing - actually it's a question. Just who was it that introduced King Cyrus to the prophecy of Isaiah. Who showed him the writing of scripture?
The Bible doesn't say - but I believe, like many other Bible teachers and students of God's redemptive history that it could be only one man.
Only one man had access to the King - only one man within the kingdom of Persia had this knowledge of scripture and the courage to share it - it was the man whom Cyrus named prime minister - the man named Daniel.
Think of it - Daniel, in effect was waiting for Cyrus to come. God was at work long before Cyrus ever showed up - and God has been at work ever since.
Oh, nations have changed their borders and their kings many times over since Cyrus - but God is still in total control - His wonders to perform.
There are actually several players in this Divine drama - we'll discover them as we study these final 3 books of Biblical history.
- The hidden influence of Daniel.
- The timely influence of Esther
- The unheralded role of Zerubbabel
- The faithful ministry of Ezra
- The unbending courage of Nehemiah
Let's set the record straight - God is in complete control. History is merely His-story, played out on the stage of world affairs.
It's His story - God alone is sovereign.