Spiritual schizophrenia is rampant in the church today. Its basic symptom is stated in this fashion: 'I believe in God, but I'll never risk my academic standing or my sexual intimacy or my money to give my life to Him. I'd rather have Babylon.' In this powerful message, Stephen gives us a road map out of Babylon and back to God. So fasten your seatbelt and enjoy the ride!
Other messages in this series are available here: Ezra
"I'd Rather Have Babylon"
Last Lord's day a gentlemen in our congregation came and told me a story related to the Holocaust and the incarceration and killing of Jews in the concentration camp in Auschwitz. I told him that the story he related to me was incredible - could he possibly verify it.
This last Monday, I received a copy of that verification, which by the way, was sent by a Rabbi in Jerusalem.
The true story took place in Auschwitz towards the end of the war. As in all the camps, there was no lack of great Jewish scholars at Auschwitz; and one night ten of the greatest scholars there made a Jewish Court of Law and put God on trial.
How was it possible that God, who is Totally Good, could create such a living hell as Auschwitz? The debate raged backwards and forwards all night, until finally the court returned a verdict of guilty. God was guilty of failing His people. However, on finishing the court, the entire barrack got up and began to pray the Morning Prayers. Even after finding God guilty, they prayed to Him.
The Rabbi went on to say a few more words and then closed his e-mail to my friend here at Colonial, Best regards from Jerusalem, Rabbi Reuven Lauffer
What an incredible statement of faith it was for these Jews to continue praying to God, even while the torture and systematic killing continued. Yet, I thought how tragic to think that they were now praying to a God they believed had left them all alone.
If you have ever come to the conclusion that God somehow disappeared and left you on your own, all you have to do is crack open the Old Testament Book of Ezra, and you are struck by the fact that God was there all the time.
In our last discussion, we observed some of the mystery of ancient prophecy - fulfilled - the mystery solved! I've given you several prophecies that God had given that are fulfilled in Ezra chapter 1.
Nearly 200 years before the birth of Cyrus, Isaiah prophesied in chapter 44:28 "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."
Josephus tells us that, when Cyrus saw this prophecy in Isaiah that included his very name, he was seized with an earnest desire to carry out the word of the Lord.
God knew Cyrus' name before he was born - you know what's great about that? He knew your name too! He knew where you'd be born, where you'd live, and for how long. Question is, are you willing to obey the word of the Lord too?
Another prophecy, given by Jeremiah, recorded in chapter 25 reads: 12. "Then it will be when 70 years are completed I will punish the king of Babylon and that nation, declares the Lord, for their iniqui9ty . . . and I will bring upon that land all My words which I have pronounced against it."
The principle is simple: God may seem to wink at evil, but He ultimately judges sin.
Then Jeremiah 29:10: "For thus says the Lord, 'When 70 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,' declares the Lord, 'plans for welfare and nor for calamity to give you a future and a hope.'"
God's plans for His people often involve or even require difficulty, but God ultimately desires our development.
He prophesied through Jeremiah to the Israelite captives in Babylon: I have a plan for you.
Then finally, in Daniel chapter 5, we discover that God had planted Daniel deep within the Babylonian kingdom so that, among other things, Daniel could deliver the message of God's judgment to Belshazzar the very night Cyrus' troops rushed into the capital city and overthrew Babylon.
The principle at work: God has His people at the right place at the right time to represent His purposes.
God knows who you are, where you are and why!
As a new believer recently asked me, "Why am I here?" Answer - God knows! He knew your beginning, and He knows your future. In fact He has already been to your future, and He has returned so that He can shepherd you through it.
That phrase "the ancient of days" is reserved for God alone, and it places particular emphasis upon the pre-existence of our great God.
He is the ancient of days - He preceded any day before there was the first day - He is older than time - for He created time.
The prophecy of Daniel 7 says that God is the ancient of days. The same phrase appears in the earlier church hymnody in the classic theological treatise put to music whose first stanza reads:
Immortal, invisible, God only wise,
In light inaccessible hid from our eyes,
Most blessed, most glorious, the Ancient of Days,
Almighty, victorious, Thy great name we praise.
Smith, Walter Chalmers/Roberts, John C Public Domain CCLI License No. 48748
When God starts something, He finishes it; what's even greater security than that is that He knows how it finishes. He is the ancient of days.
God has not left you alone - He is faithful to His word - and His plans are not overthrown - either by Babylon or Auschwitz.
What God began in you He will perform it until the day of Jesus Christ. Philippians 1:6.
Now, let's re-read the proclamation of Cyrus, the Persian ruler over Babylon and all its former empire.
Ezra 1:3 "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."
This is nothing less than the supremacy of God revealed.
One author wrote - "Talk about the sovereignty of God! Here's a pagan king who just inherited somewhere around two to three million Jewish captives from his predecessor. By now they have bought homes, opened businesses, and blended into society. These Hebrews represent a lot of labor and tax income for Persia. Yet Cyrus says, "Go home; rebuild."
Swindoll, Chuck: God's Masterwork: A Concerto in Sixty-Six Movements, Insight for Living. p. 6
Cyrus isn't in charge - God is.
Oh and by the way - He not only stirred up the heart of Cyrus, God was at work in some other hearts as well.
Notice verse 5. "Then the heads of fathers' household 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. 6. And all 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 free will offering."
You can almost feel the excitement among the people.
In fact, even Cyrus makes a donation - look at verse 7. "Also 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; 8. and 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. 9 Now this was their number: 30 gold dishes, 1,000 silver dishes, 29 duplicates; 10 30 gold bowls, 410 silver bowls of a second kind, and 1,000 other articles. 11 All the articles of gold and silver numbered 5,400. Sheshbazzar brought them all up with the exiles who went up from Babylon to Jerusalem."
Why would Cyrus give away this enormous wealth?
Because, verse 1 said that God stirred up his heart! "The heart of the King is like channels of water in the hand of the Lord, and He turns it whichever direction He chooses."
Here's a pagan King giving away gold and silver to his subjects.
That would be akin to the Internal Revenue Service sending me a fat check with a note that said, "You've been giving to us for so many years, we think it's time we gave back to you."
That too would be miraculous.
Whether the Israelite believed or not, God was going to keep His word.
God is not guilty of jumping ship - He has not left His people alone.
In an extremely poor analogy, God is kind of like that boy who's "It" in a game of hide and seek. After counting to 100 skipping over everything from around 20 to number 99, he finally says so that everyone can hear him in the neighborhood, "Ready or not, here I come."
God has counted to 70 years.
You can calculate that 70 years one of two ways: 1) between the first captivity in 605 until the altar was rebuilt in 535; 2) or from the time the temple was destroyed in 586 to the time it was rebuilt in 516 B.C.
Either way, you have exactly 70 years. Ready or not, here I come.
And this is the part of this story, that, though still exciting, fulfilling, and adventuresome, has a hollow ring to it and an overcast gray sky above it.
You have to look carefully through the details of chapter 2 to find it - but eventually, after enduring an exercise of pronunciation, you get to the end of verse 67 and discover than less than 50,000 Jews wanted to go back.
The announcement had been made to nearly 3 million Jews - you can return home! You are free to go back to Jerusalem - free to rebuild your national life and theocentric worship in the temple. You can go home!
Out of 3 million Jews, 50,000 say, "We want to go home." And the rest of them said, in effect, "We'd rather have Babylon."
The Book of Ezra doesn't record it, but I can guarantee you that an incredible amount of turmoil was created that day - emotions ran high - sides were taken, fingers were pointed as the majority of the nation made its decision to stay.
Let me interject here that I truly believe so much of the turmoil in Christianity today; so much of the pressure and emotional stress, and so much of the topsy-turvy upheavals believers experience is upheaval, stress and emotional problems directly rooted in the promise of scripture - "A double minded man is unstable in all of his ways." James 1:8
Spiritual schizophrenia is rampant in the church today. Its basic symptom is stated in this fashion:
- "I believe in God, but I'd rather have Babylon."
I believe in God, but I'll never risk my academic standing by saying
I believe in God, but I'll lie whenever necessary lest I lose that
I believe in God, but I'll never pursue Him because I'll not be able to
keep all my money for myself or my family.
I believe in God, but I allow sexual intimacy with my boyfriend, lest I
- I believe in God, but I'll keep quiet about my Christianity, lest I lose my friends.
- I believe in God, but I'd really rather have Babylon!
How could an entire generation come to this decision? A generation who had been born during captivity, who were now in their 30's and 40's and 50's.
Well, during this period of captivity, while the Jews have been away from their homeland, they failed in two critical areas.
1) They had communicated to the next generation, their family descent but had forgotten the dynamic of worship.
You see, the significance of verse 5 and all of chapter 2 is more than the fact that they kept records. It was more than the fact that everybody knew who their grandfathers were and who their fathers were and the tribe to which they belonged.
You see, they kept those records as a statement of their national unity and belief that one day they would indeed return to their homeland - you need priests to offer sacrifices - make sure we know who the priests are - every tribe has certain lands belonging to them - make sure we know where exactly we will live in the land.
Oh yes, we all know what tribe we belong to - we know all about Jerusalem - we know the stories of God's work in the Holy City - yes, one day we're going back - just wait and see, one day we'll go back to the Fatherland.
Wait a second - you want us to go now?!
How many of you will live for Jesus Christ?!! I will! How many of you will live for Him now! In the corporate world - on the campus - in the repair shop - out in the marketplace - how many of you will serve Him now?!
While the Jewish people had diligently kept their identity, they had lost their purpose.
You see, their tribal history meant nothing in Babylon - it was designed for the centrality of Jerusalem and their representation at the Temple.
Ah, but you see, there was an entire generation of Jews that had never seen Jerusalem - they had never worshipped in the temple, that now lay in ruins - they had never worshipped God in the holy city.
And their parents had grown accustomed to Babylon. Persian records during this time reveal that the Jewish captives were allowed freedom to generate business and profit from their own pursuits; and many of them, according to the Persian records had actually accumulated great wealth.
There isn't anything inherently wrong with wealth - we are all, in global standards, very wealthy people. But now they were given the option - stay where it's comfortable or travel back over a thousand miles to a 50 year old pile of rubble and ruin and start all over again.
And so they chose the comforts of captivity . . . and their grown children followed their example.
We cannot impart to your children something we do not have.
Why should they have a vision for worshipping God in Jerusalem when we are satisfied with Babylon?
So, first of all, they had communicated to their children their family lineage but had failed to communicate the dynamic of worship.
2) They had disconnected what they believed, with how they lived.
I can imagine interviewing the average Israelite on the streets of Babylon this day;
"Do you believe in the God of Israel?"
"Do you believe that Israel is the land God designed for His people to
"Do you believe that God would like to have His temple rebuilt and worship
"Oh, there's no doubt about it - sure He would."
"Well, would you be willing to return and see that His desires are
"Oh, oh, not me."
A Gallup poll surveyed mainline denominations a few years ago and discovered this same alarming disconnection: only 32 percent believed their faith had anything to do with how they lived their lives.
In other words, 68 percent of professing believers had somehow come to the conclusion that what they believed had nothing to do with how they lived.
Are you infected by this?
Let me read you some statements I received recently in the mail:
- Funny how long it takes to serve God for an hour, but how quickly a team plays 60 minutes of basketball.
- Funny how long a couple of hours spent at church seems, but how short it seems when watching a movie.
- Funny how a 20 dollar bill seems so big when you put it in the offering plate, but how small it seems when you take it to the mall.
- Funny, how hard it is to read a chapter in the Bible, but how easy it is to read a novel.
- Funny how we believe what we hear on the news or learn in the secular classroom, but question what the Bible says.
- Funny how we need 2 weeks advance notice to fit a church event into our schedule, but can adjust our schedule for social events at the last minute.
- Funny how we can't think of anything to say when we pray, but can talk for an hour to a friend.
A believer is someone who not only believes the truth, but who is willing to live the truth.
And so, the joy of Ezra chapter one is slightly overshadowed by the choice of so many Jews to remain in Babylon.
To their grandfathers, Jerusalem had been a way of life - to them it was just a pile of rubble in need of repair.
Well, the key phrase here again is in verse 1 and 5 - "everyone whose spirit God had stirred to go up and rebuild the house of the Lord."
You say, God didn't stir up everyone's heart to go back. You're right - God is the initiator here - He is the motivator - yet don't overlook the responsibility of the believer.
Read enough of your Bible and you'll discover the mystery of divine initiation and human cooperation. And what's more, God holds every believer responsible for what he refused to do.
"To him who knows to do good and does it not, to him it is sin!" James 4:17
What are you choosing today, my friend?
I remember hearing the story years ago of two young men who were both talented singers. One, a tenor and the other a deep baritone. Both were believers and were working on a radio show together, singing Christian music. It wasn't long before their talents were discovered by the secular world and both young men were offered lucrative contracts. One man said yes and turned his back on the investment of his talent for the glory of God, and the other young man said no - he wanted to use his voice to sing about his Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. The man who chose Babylon - I've never even heard of . . . but the man who chose to sing for Christ has sung before millions of people, the world over. His name is George Beverly Shea, the now elderly singer who has traveled some 60 years with Billy Graham.
It's not ironic that George Beverly Shea wrote the music to a hymn that became just as famous. It's entitled I'd Rather Have Jesus; and I guess you could say it epitomized his decision many years ago.
The words are . . .
I'd rather have Jesus than silver or gold;
I'd rather be His than have riches untold;
I'd rather have Jesus than houses or lands.
I'd rather be led by His nail-pierced hand.
I'd rather have Jesus than men's applause;
I'd rather be faithful to His dear cause;
I'd rather have Jesus than world-wide fame,
I'd rather be true to His holy name.
Than to be the king of a vast domain,
or be held in sin's dread sway;
I'd rather have Jesus than anything, this world affords today.
Miller, Rhea F./Shea, George Beverly, 1922, 1950 CCLI License No. 48748
These Jews in effect had been singing for decades I'd rather have God - but when it came time to act, they changed their song to I'd really rather have Babylon.
I don't know about you, but as one author said, "I want to know where God is going, and go with Him, right."
And think of this final thought - what God chose to record for us throughout the rest of this little book is the story of those who followed Him.
Those whose music clearly rang out, "I'm leaving old Babylon, I'd rather follow God."