Today we will start a sermon series on the Book of Ezra, which tells the mission of the first group of Israelites returning from Babylon to Jerusalem, numbering 42360 people, including Zerubbabel the governor and Joshua, the high priest.
But before we begin with today’s passage, because there are many people who are not familiar with this Old Testament book, let us first has a better understanding of the historical background of Ezra. After Babylonians have besieged Jerusalem and captured the remnants of Israel in Exile, in the year 539 B.C., less than a century after its founding, the Persian king Cyrus the Great conquered Babylon. And amongst the captives of Israelites in Babylon, were now having a new ruler, God moved the new king of the Persian Empire and commissioned them to return to their homeland.
The Book of Ezra was written between 440 and 400 B.C., probably a few decades after exiles’ return under Ezra, the priest. It covers events from 538 B.C. to 438 B.C. during the reigns of four Persian kings, Cyrus the Great, Darius I, Xerxes I, and Artaxerxes I. Originally, the books of Ezra and Nehemiah are one book, Ezra-Nehemiah, because the Hebrew Bible records both successive stories together portraying the events of the return of Babylonian captivity. But it was until the 9th century the Latin bibles are found to separate the two books. The English Bible that we have today follows the tradition of Latin Bible arrangement and divides Ezra and Nehemiah into two books in the Old Testament.
The Book of Ezra is separated into two sections, the first section is from chapter 1 to 6, and the second section is from chapter 7 to 10. The first section tells the story about God moves the heart of the Persian king Cyrus the Great and commission Zerubbabel to rebuild the temple, with the 40,000 exiles return to Jerusalem led by Zerubbabel and Joshua, the high priest. And the second section records about 60 years later. God moves king Artaxerxes, one of the successor kings after Cyrus, to commission Ezra, the priest and scribe, to return to Jerusalem and teach God’s law to anyone who does not know them. So Ezra leads another large group of exiles back to Jerusalem, teaches them God’s law and purifies the community.
1) God is sovereign
The Book of Ezra opens by echoing the concluding words of 2 Chronicles and it acts as a sequel to 2 Chronicles to record the events after Judah, the Southern Kingdom of God’s people, is destroyed by the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar. In chapter 1 verse 1 it says: “In the first year of Cyrus king of Persia, in order to fulfil 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 also to put it in writing: 2 “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.” (Ezra 1:1-2)
You see, Cyrus is a Gentile and pagan king, yet, in the first year of his reign, after he conquered the Babylonian Empire, he called out God’s name Yahweh, “The LORD”, or Adonai in Hebrew. He called him God of heaven, and he acknowledges that everything he has on earth, including the entire Persian Empire, is given from the LORD. The LORD is not only the God of Israel or Judah but of the whole world; it is he who inspired the decree of Cyrus. And it is our God, the LORD, who has appointed Cyrus to rebuild the temple in Jerusalem. That means king Cyrus was just an introduction. The true king is God who establishes his glory and redeems his people through his Word delivered by the prophets like Jeremiah, and his power demonstrated in the heart of the pagan king. Cyrus, his kingdom, and his role in releasing the Jews from Babylonian captivity were long predicted before he was born. A long time ago, the prophet Isaiah had spoken, “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.” (Isaiah 44:28) Again, Isaiah proclaimed, “I will raise up Cyrus in my righteousness: I will make all his ways straight. He will rebuild my city and set my exiles free, but not for a price or reward, says the LORD Almighty.” (Isaiah 45:13) King Cyrus’s conquests of Babylon and administrative policies originated not only in the Persian government but without him knowing it, it was also in God’s will under God’s plan for his people.
In the beginning verse, the mentioning of the prophet Jeremiah helps the original readers, the returnee of the exile, understand that the exile and God’s punishment to their forefather’s unfaithfulness is over. It is time to return to the Promised Land in Palestine, to re-establish the community of faith. As prophet Jeremiah has spoken, “This is what the LORD says: “When seventy years are completed for Babylon, I will come to you and fulfil my good promise to bring you back to this place.” (Jeremiah 29:10) It is time for the Israelites to go home, and God moved the heart of Cyrus, the king of Persia, to bring it about. The decision of King Cyrus was under divine intervention of the Lord who works in behind human activities on earth.
The Persians came from the location of modern-day nation Iran. When I researched the Persian Empire’s state religion, I found out something very interesting. According to Ancient History Encyclopaedia, Cyrus I founded the Achaemenid Persian Empire, which conquered most of the Ancient Near East, and he has adopted Zoroastrianism as its state religion. This religion holds that there is one supreme deity, Ahura Mazda, which means Lord of Wisdom, the Creator and sustainer of all things. According to the encyclopaedia, the creation story of Zoroastrianism is like this, it states, “The first (human) couple created by Ahura Mazda – Mashya and Mashynag – had lived in peace and harmony with all things in the paradise Ahura Mazda had created for them until they listened to the whisperings of Angra Mainyu who convinced them that he was their Creator and Ahura Mazda was their enemy and a deceiver. For doubting their true lord and listening to lies, they were expelled from paradise and condemned to a world of difficulty and strife. However, their descendants could still live meaningful and fulfilling lives by remaining loyal to Ahura Mazda.”
Does this Creation story sound familiar with the Book of Genesis in the Bible? Similar but not the same, the state religion of Persia under Cyrus is monotheism, which means, only one deity that they worship rather than many other gods. Perhaps, this could be a reason that prompted King Cyrus to mistaken Yahweh, the God of Israel, to be the same deity of his pagan God Ahura Mazda, and hence he wanted to re-establish the Jerusalem Temple and Worship of the Jews in Judah under his kingdom.
Or maybe because of Cyrus’ policy of reinstating local gods and local worship, he had gained support from many people. Cyrus’ Persian kingdom retained strength not through suppression like Babylon but through the support of each people’s beliefs. In this way, people from difficult cultures and the populations remain content, and their identifies are preserved, as they were incorporated into the greater Persian Empire. And with this political motivation in mind, King Cyrus claimed that God of Israel had appointed him to build a temple for him at Jerusalem in Judah in order to secure the support of the Jewish people. And more than that, Cyrus’s decree requires non-Jews, the people of any place where survivors may now be living, the Jewish people’s neighbours, to help those who had returned to Jerusalem. These Gentiles contributed silver and gold, goods and livestock, and freewill offerings to the temple in Jerusalem would be rebuilt, and worship would be restored there. And all these events are under God’s will, in God’s sovereignty who rule over the heart of the Gentile king.
2) God works through people, both Jews and Gentiles
Besides moving King Cyrus’ heart, God’s also works through all people, both Jews and Gentiles. In verse 5, we read, “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.” (Ezra 1:5) The hearts of the Jews have been moved by God, from King David’s tribe of Judah to Aaron’s tribe of Levi the priests; they are all ready to return to Jerusalem, then the Gentiles’ hearts are moved as well, “All their neighbours assisted them with articles of silver and gold, with goods and livestock, and with valuable gifts, in addition to all the freewill offerings.” (Ezra 1:6) Just like the days of Moses in Exodus, the Egyptians gave to the departing Jews gold, silver, and clothing to assist their return to the Promised Land; now God moved the hearts of all neighbours of the Jews in former Babylon to assist them with silver and gold, goods and lives stocks, and gifts and offerings for their return to Jerusalem. God provides for his people in ways unexpected, and he moves the heart of the Babylonian neighbours to be generous to his people.
In addition, King Cyrus threw his support behind the project by bringing out the articles belonging to the temple of the Lord, which Nebuchadnezzar had carried away. Every article of gold and silver that was looted by the Babylonians from Solomon’s temple is now returned to Jerusalem under the direct order of Cyrus’ decree, with the Persian treasurer to count them out from the royal treasury to the Prince of Judah, Zerubabbel, who will bring them back to rebuild the temple. Verse 11 expressed that there were 5,400 articles of gold and silver brought back to Jerusalem. This event tells us that God’s sovereignty and humanity’s capacity for choice exist together. When God moves people’s hearts, he will make all types of people to work for his purposes. Every article of gold and silver was a witness to God’s protection and care. Although many years had passed, God delivered these Temple articles back to his people. Similarly, we may be discouraged by events in life, but we must never give up our hope in God’s promises to us. The turning point may be just ahead.
When God brought the Jews out of captivity and directed them to return to Jerusalem, he did it in order to establish worship. The reestablishment of the community of faith to the one true God and the rebuilding of the temple represented the proper ordering of life—that God’s people should acknowledge and live within God’s majesty, his goodness, and his authority. He desires the same to us today because true worship is not a means to an end but an expression of reality. From start to finish, it is all about God. And God uses all types of people, Christians or non-Christians alike, to establish His will so that His will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. God will move the hearts of people for his glory and praise. And that is precisely what he was doing to bring his people from Babylon captivity to return to their home in Judea. The course of human history is determined by God, who has sovereignty over all the earth.
3) God’s chosen leaders from the office of the king and high priest
In Ezra chapter 2, the author listed the leaders of the returning exile. Verse 1, “Now these are the people of the province who came up from the captivity of the exiles, whom Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon had taken captive to Babylon (they returned to Jerusalem and Judah, each to their own town, 2 in company with Zerubbabel, Joshua, Nehemiah, Seraiah, Reelaiah, Mordecai, Bilshan, Mispar, Bigvai, Rehum and Baanah):”
The first person mentioned in this list of Jewish leaders from captivity, Zerubbabel, was a governor of the Persian Empire’s province Yehud Medinata, where Israel and Judah are located. He was also the grandson of Jeconiah, the second last king of Judah. By his name suggested, Zerubbabel means “the seed of Babel” or “born in Babel.” Interestingly, Zerubbabel was a successor to David’s kingship line during the post-exile period. He is listed as Jesus’ genealogy in Matthew 1:13, as one of the ancestors of Jesus Christ and a son of David. God has preserved David’s line throughout the Babylonian captivity and promoted king Jeconiah’s grandson as a governor in the Persian Empire to bring back the Jews in exile to return to Jerusalem. And Joshua, who is also translated as “Jeshua” in Ezra 3:2, is the son of Jozadak, the high priest. That means the high priest’s family is also preserved from the Babylonian captivity, and it has been passed down to Joshua.
Prophet Haggai called out and prophesied about them, “Yet now be strong, O Zerubbabel, declares the LORD. Be strong, O Joshua, son of Jehozadak, the high priest. Be strong, all you people of the land, declares the LORD. Work, for I am with you, declares the LORD of hosts,” (Haggai 2:4)
According to Ezra 2:64, Under their leadership, God had preserved 42,360 people who are decedents of people who served in the temple or served King Solomon, besides their 7337 male and female slaves and 200 male and female singers. All ready to serve the Lord and rebuild his temple in Jerusalem.
With a son of David exercising political authority and a descendant of a high priest assuming religious authority, the people’s messianic expectations were high in and around Jerusalem at that time, especially in context with the prophetic messages delivered by prophets Haggai and Zechariah, mentioning both Zerubbabel and Jehozadak. These two offices of Kingship as the son of David and Priesthood of the high priest’s family symbolises the messianic role of Jesus Christ, who will one day come from the family line these returned Jews, and Jesus will join the two offices together as both the King and High Priest of Israel. The list of the leaders’ names in Ezra chapter 2 is pointing toward Jesus Christ. At the same time, the resettling and renewal of the LORD worship in Jerusalem demonstrates God’s faithfulness to his people, fulfilling his promises to Abraham. God’s promises were extended to the heirs of Abraham. More specifically, his blessing rested on the descendants of Jacob. From out of Jacob came the priestly line of Levi and Aaron and the political line of David. Our God is faithful to his people, and certainly, God is faithful to all of us. It is a blessing through Jesus Christ, our true King and High priest today.
God’s faithfulness assures us that you are never alone, nor are you ever abandoned. Despite the experiences of hardship or confusion, let us all rest in God’s presence and faithfulness. God will never forsake you. He will never abandon you, no matter what type of hardship or difficulties you might be experiencing; let us remember that God is always with us. God with us, Immanuel, and you will be well looked after, no matter the situation lying ahead.
So let us all give thanks and worship Him as our Creator and sustainer.
In summary, today, we learnt from Ezra that:
- God is sovereign and has authority over all creation, visible and invisible.
- God determines the course of human history.
- Worship acknowledges the reality of God’s authority and wonder.
Our worship is all about expressing the reality of God’s sovereignty and goodness, so let us worship Him now and respond to his Word with thanksgiving for his grace to us.
1. Discuss pluralism. Is it a positive force within society? Are there ways in which pluralism can be destructive?
2. Knowing that God is sovereign, what difference does that make in your daily life?
3. If God is in control, why does the world seem so out of control?