God is the God of history. He shapes events and moves people to achieve His glorious purposes. Yet this does not mean we are mere bystanders. These first two chapters of Ezra teach us to act in faithful obedience to what He initiates and reveals in His Word.
As we begin our Wisdom Journey through the book of Ezra, we find in the opening verse a rather surprising statement: “The Lord stirred up the spirit of Cyrus king of Persia.” Now, you might remember in our last study that Jerusalem had fallen to the Babylonians. The kingdom of Judah had come to an end, and most of the Jewish people had been deported to Babylon, where they would remain until the promised seventy-year exile was completed.
Now, suddenly, in these opening verses of Ezra, it’s a Persian king, not a Babylonian, who appears on the scene. You see, the book of Ezra takes us to the end of the captivity. The Babylonian Empire has fallen to the Medes and Persians. Chapter 5 in the book of Daniel gives us the details.
Well, this Persian king by the name of Cyrus now reigns over a vast empire that includes the land of Judah.
The Lord is evidently at work. Solomon wrote, “The king’s heart is a stream of water in the hand of the Lord; he turns it wherever he will” (Proverbs 21:1). Well, the Lord’s been stirring the heart of King Cyrus to make a rather stunning proclamation here in verses 2-3:
“Thus says Cyrus king of Persia: The Lord, the God of heaven, has given me all the kingdoms of the earth, and he has charged me to build him a house at Jerusalem, which is in Judah. Whoever is among you of all his people, may his God be with him, and 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.”
God has sovereignly turned the heart of King Cyrus to let God’s chosen people return to their homeland. Not only this, but the king actually commands the returning Jewish people to rebuild the temple in Jerusalem.
Now you might think Cyrus has become a follower of God. It sure sounds like it here. Ancient inscriptions affirm, however, that Cyrus was a polytheist—that is, he believed in many gods. In fact, you will notice that he says here the Lord “is the God who is in Jerusalem.” In other words, the God of Abraham is the God over in Judah; He’s the God who belongs in Jerusalem—that’s His territory.
And that makes this proclamation all the more miraculous. God is moving the heart of a pagan ruler to accomplish His purpose. Let me tell you something else that’s miraculous. Over 150 years earlier, before Cyrus was even born, the prophet Isaiah delivered the following prophecy in Isaiah 44:28:
“[The Lord] says of Cyrus, ‘He is my shepherd, and he shall fulfill all my purpose’; saying of Jerusalem, ‘She shall be built,’ and of the temple, ‘Your foundation shall be laid.’”
Isaiah prophesies the return to Jerusalem, and he even gives the name of the king who will set it in motion.
Let me tell you, beloved, history is His-story; it’s God’s story. History is the outworking of God’s eternal plan and purpose.
We do not always see it, of course. We might think the hearts of the rulers of our day are beyond the control of God, that God might be letting things slip by. Oh no. God is unseen, but He has not been unseated. He is actively at work; and as here, He even uses ungodly people to achieve His goals.
But notice also that God is stirring up the hearts of His own people as well. Look at verse 5:
Then rose up the heads of the fathers’ houses of Judah and Benjamin, and the priests and the Levites, everyone whose spirit God had stirred to go up to rebuild the house of the Lord that is in Jerusalem.
God has been working to change their hearts. Just as the prodigal son came to his senses only after he landed in the pigpen, so these Jewish people have come to their senses while in the pigpen of Babylonian captivity. I don’t doubt for a moment that they remembered the prophecies of Jeremiah and Isaiah and saw God at work through King Cyrus.
Many people are now stirred up and ready to go back to Jerusalem—the land of promise, the land of their forefathers. Those who stay behind in Persia pull out their wallets and their pocketbooks and give donations to pay the expenses. Even Cyrus gives back the treasures that had been taken from the temple in Jerusalem.
In verse 8 we are introduced to an official named Sheshbazzar. That’s a Babylonian name, but he is identified here as “the prince of Judah.” Bible scholars believe this is another name for Zerubbabel, the man who leads the people back to the land of Israel. Zerubbabel was a royal descendant of David and is mentioned in the genealogy of Jesus in Matthew 1:12-13.
Now in chapter 2, we find a long list of those who return to Jerusalem. The leaders are listed first, beginning with Zerubbabel in verse 2. Then there is a listing of various groups of people. Ordinary citizens are listed by clan in verses 3-20 and also by ancestral homes in verses 21-35. Not much is revealed about these people, but they are the carpenters, the sheepherders, the farmers, and the stonecutters. They are faithful people who have been stirred by God to pioneer this return to the land.
Then there is a listing of priests, Levites, and temple servants. Verse 59 adds that some of these willing people “could not prove their fathers’ houses or their descent, whether they belonged to Israel.” In our day that would be like losing your birth certificate or your driver’s license. For those returning to Judah, ancestry was critical because only the descendants of Aaron could serve in the temple.
All these people return to Jerusalem and Judah, and verse 68 says they present “freewill offerings for the house of God, to erect it on its site.” This is a great day—a day that was prophesied years earlier. You can just imagine the thrill in the hearts of these people as they trust God and go back to rebuild their temple and their nation.
Now the sad note here is that if you do the math, you find that only around fifty thousand people are returning to Judah. That is a small fraction of the nation in exile. We know that others will return later on, but there is no doubt the majority of the people have become comfortable in Babylon and would rather have Babylon than the promised land. Let me tell you that to this day, many people would rather have Babylon than God. They are way too comfortable in the world to ever choose the life of faith.
But I want to focus on the positive side here. God is reminding us, through the example of those who return to their homeland, to do what we know is the right thing to do. And He is not handicapped when only a few people show up to serve Him. History teaches us that God’s work never has required a lot of people, just the right people—those who are ready to follow Him and obey Him. Let’s be that kind of people today!