Read Ezra 1
Does King Cyrus not strike you as crazy? The Israelites are his slaves. He owes them nothing and they are in a position where they owe him everything. What does he do with them? He frees them! Even if that was all he did, it would be above and beyond what anyone would expect. He is giving up over 50,000 slaves! What a guy!
But that’s not all. He doesn’t just free them. He gives them permission to go home and rebuild their lost Temple and city. And out of his "extreme generosity", he decides to fund the whole project! He gives back all of the gold, silver, and bronze the Babylonians stole from the Temple. And then he asks his own people to give generous gifts to the former slaves as they return home!
Why on Earth Would He Do That!?
This is far from normal. The Babylonians were brutal. Remember how they treated Zedekiah by murdering his sons in front of him before blinding him and tossing him in prison? Remember how King Nebuchadnezzar tossed men into a blazing furnace for not worshiping him? Why would a king of this people be so uncharacteristically kind?
Ezra 1:1 tells us. We read that it was the Lord (Yahweh) who stirred up the spirit of King Cyrus to do this. This was not King Cyrus’ idea. He didn’t free the Israelites out of the goodness of his heart. God Himself put the idea in Cyrus and led him to free His people.
You may have also noticed that God did this to fulfill the prophecy spoken by Jeremiah. What might that prophecy be? For thus says the Lord: When seventy years are completed for Babylon, I will visit you, and I will fulfill to you my promise and bring you back to this place. (Jeremiah 29:10) God promised the Jews before the exile that they would spend seventy years in Babylon and then He would return to them and bring them home. God keeps His promises, but we’ll get to that in week four.
The Return home
Take a look at verse 5. God wasn’t just behind the declaration of Cyrus. It was God who stirred up His own people as well to return home! Why did the Israelites need to be stirred by God? Well, if all I had known all of my life was slavery in Babylon, then traveling many miles to a ruined city in order to start from scratch and rebuild everything might not be an easy task to get excited about. It probably seemed like a daunting task to many of them. But God Himself works in the spirits of the people to stir them to step forward in faith and courage on this mission.
The Long List of Names
Read Ezra 2
Did you notice the problem that comes up in the midst of the long list? In Ezra 2:59-63, we find a group of people who returned to Israel, but they don’t exactly have their papers in order. The leaders of the returnees couldn’t be sure if these people were actually Israelites or not. They might have been Babylonians who came along for the trip. Even worse, there were some who were claiming to be priests without proof.
So what was done? It’s better to be safe than sorry. So, in order to maintain the purity and holiness of the priestly line in obedience to God’s Word, these people were excluded from the priesthood until proof could be found. This is the first of many occurrences of the theme of holiness in the book of Ezra. Tuck this away in your mind. We’ll be getting to this in the coming weeks as well.
What We Learn about God
God is sovereign over men’s hearts. What does sovereign mean? The Concise Oxford English Dictionary defines sovereignty as “supreme power or authority”. In Ezra 1, we see God exercising that sovereignty. God wants King Cyrus to release the Israelites and God gets what He wants. He so works in Cyrus’ spirit that the mightiest king does His will. And then, God works in the spirits of His own people. He so works in them that those who have every reason to be terrified of the prospect of traveling unknown paths to rebuild a ruined city are stirred up to return home.
Now that’s power! God is so powerful that He can sway the hearts of the common man and even the hearts of world leaders! No king, ruler, leader, or person is outside of God’s sovereign rule. At God’s command, the greatest enemy and oppressor of God’s people has become their greatest ally. What an incredible turnaround!
Is there hope for God’s people? Clearly no man, power, or nation can stand in their way if God is on their side. With a God like that, there is hope indeed.
I’ll spare you the details, but I grew up in a broken home. From the age of twelve to eighteen, I didn’t see my father. For a long time, I thought I would never see him again and I thought our relationship was beyond fixing. For many reasons, I was angry at him and missed him at the same time.
It was during that time that I became a Christian. My pastor encouraged me to forgive my father and I remember thinking it was impossible. So, we both began praying that God would change my heart and help me to forgive my father. Though it was difficult, God melted away years of anger in me and helped me to forgive my father and desire good for him.
Then, I started praying that God would change my father’s heart. I prayed that God would make him a Christian and help him to forgive me and help us to have a healthy relationship some day. Guess what? Today, my father is a believer, I had the privilege of baptizing him, he loves spending time with my daughter, and the biggest tension between us is that he wants me to call him more often!
God is able to work in the hearts of men! My relationship with my father seemed absolutely hopeless. I could not bring myself to forgive him on my own. I couldn’t see how my father and I could ever resolve our past and move forward. Was there any hope? Yes! God is sovereign even over our hearts. We can have hope when it seems impossible for people’s hearts to change because God is sovereign even over our hearts.
Part of being sovereign means that God gets to call the shots. He doesn’t have to do something just because we ask Him, but He does love to hear our prayers and works everything for our good. What areas of your life seem hopeless? What problems are you facing that only a change of heart in you or someone else could fix? Is it a boss, co-worker, parole officer, judge, spouse, parent, child, neighbor, or someone else? Will you surrender this issue to God and ask Him to change the hearts of those involved (including your own) to line up with what He wants to happen?
· Think of one area of conflict, one problem, or one area of hopelessness you are facing. Pray every day this week that God would change your heart and the hearts of those involved to obey Him and honor Him in attitude, thoughts, words, and deeds in this situation.
· Read Ezra 3:1-6:12 before next Tuesday
o What two men rise up as leaders among the people?
o What do the people begin doing under their leadership?
o How far do the people get in their project? What do they accomplish?
o In chapter 4, some people offer to help build the temple. Who are they and why do you think the Israelites don’t let them help?
o Who writes the letter in 4:7-16, who do they send it to, and what do they want done?
o Who writes the letter in 4:17-22, who do they send it to, and what do they want done?
o Why do the Israelites resume building?
o How does God help?
o Who writes the letter in 5:17, who do they send it to, and what do they want done?
o Who writes the letter in 6:1-12, who do they send it to, and what do they want done?
· Drop a line in the comments to discuss what you’ve learned in Ezra this week.