This morning we continue our series “Rebuilding the Church”. We are talking about the years following the Babylonian exile, when the people of God returned from their captivity to Jerusalem and Judah. They worked to reconstruct their temple, to renew its worship, and to revive their city. By studying their experience, I believe that our congregation can learn truths that will help us to most effectively rebuild our church here in Seymour.
Last week we began our series in Daniel 5, and discussed that infamous night at Belshazzar’s palace when God wrote on the wall. Before the sun came up, the king had been killed, the city seized, and the empire fallen. Now the Medo-Persian alliance was in power, Cyrus was the king, and their empire would endure beyond the close of the Old Testament.
The prophet/scribe Ezra recorded this time period of Biblical history. He wrote the books of Ezra and Nehemiah, which were originally one book. As a scribe, he was meticulous in his literary style including many lists, duplications of manuscripts, and other details in his writings. He incorporated some of Nehemiah’s memoirs with his own as he compiled the books. Ezra also wrote 1st and 2nd Chronicles, and is regarded in Jewish history as one of the men who was instrumental in establishing the books of the Old Testament canon.
Ezra describes 3 separate returns of exiles to Jerusalem - the first led by Zerubbabel (538 BC), the second led by Ezra himself (458 BC - 80 years later), and the third led by Nehemiah (445 BC - 13 years after that). These 3 returns “undo” the 3 deportations of the Jews by Nebuchadnezzar in 605 BC, 597 BC, and 586 BC. They foreshadow the three-fold denials and restoration of Peter found in the Gospels.
This morning we will look at Ezra 1 & 2, as we consider Zerubbabel’s return to rebuild the Temple of God. We will discover in these 2 chapters a proclamation, a preparation, a precession, and a purification.
The year is 538 BC. Babylon has fallen and Cyrus the Great of Persia is the new king. Unlike the many rulers that preceded him, Cyrus was a diplomat and a statesman. He treated the nations that he conquered with a greater level of respect and dignity than did most. He did not utterly destroy them, nor did he try to eradicate their identity - rather he simply demanded their allegiance. In keeping with his more tolerant approach, Cyrus allowed exiles from many previously enslaved cultures to return to their homelands, including the Jews. They were free to practice their customs and religion, so long as they maintained servitude to Persia.
I. THE PROCLAMATION - Ezra 1:1-4
Stirred by God, King Cyrus issued a proclamation that the Jewish exiles were free to return to Judah. This was quite amazing, and was foretold by the prophet Isaiah (see focal verse) approximately 150 years prior to its happening! Cyrus was not a Jew, nor was he a believer in Jehovah God. Yet, the LORD used him to liberate His people. This is an excellent example of how God can use anyone, even those who don’t accept Him, to bring about His purposes. God is sovereign.
Not only did he release the Jewish exiles, but Cyrus further expressed a desire to rebuild the Temple in Jerusalem. He did not intend to do it himself. Instead, he commissioned the returning people to do it, under the leadership of Zerubbabel. This is similar to King David’s original desire to build God a house, which was actually accomplished by his son Solomon. Both show a progression - the first expresses his will, while the second does it. In other words, we are called to do what the King asks...
II. THE PREPARATION - Ezra 1:5-11
The first step to seeing the temple rebuilt was to gather a group of people who were committed to the task at hand. Those who volunteered to return with Zerubbabel left behind the life they'd known in Babylon. It was not an easy decision, but they sensed the call of God and stepped out in faith.
The group was encouraged and supported financially by others who chose not to make the journey. They made their planned return known and openly received the assistance needed to get started. God will bless his people through the kindness and generosity of others. People want to help, and are eager to do so if asked. Thus, God’s work should not be done it secret or in isolation.
Even Cyrus returned many of the articles that had been taken from Solomon's Temple by the Babylonians. By returning many of the original articles, the new temple would preserve some of its heritage. The new temple would stand as a testament to the previous one.
III. THE PRECESSION - Ezra 2:1-60; 64-70
Ezra carefully lists - by name - all of the families, priests, and Levites who returned to take on this monumental task. What they were about to do was significant, and their faith was worth remembering. Isn't it amazing? God knows your name. He knows who His workers are, and He will reward them for their efforts.
The total number of people who returned was a mere fraction of those who were in exile. Many of the Jews had become quite comfortable and even wealthy in Babylon. When the decree came to rebuild, many choose to ignore it preferring instead to stay right where they were at.
IV. THE PURIFICATION - Ezra 2:61-63
Some of the men's names who claimed to be priests were not found in the official registry. A few generations before, their ancestors had married the daughters of Barzillai and changed their names. Consequently, their Hebrew names and tribe affiliation was lost. Because they were not documented, these priests were disqualified from the work of rebuilding God’s house. Only those who were undoubtedly God’s people would do it.
The suspended priests could be restored only if the urim and thummin allowed. In various places throughout the Old Testament, urim and thummim were used by the priests to determine God’s will. Whatever they said, whether yes or no, was considered to be God's answer. The point being made here is that only God can bring about restoration...
For decades the people of God had lost their voice, their influence, and their standing. But a new era was beginning, and God was opening the door for them to rebuild, renew, and revive. This would ultimately unfold in 3 stages, as the people returned to Jerusalem and Judah in waves. The first one, led by Zerubbabel, set out specifically to rebuild them temple.
As I consider this story in light of ours here at Calvary, I am certain that God is calling us to rebuild this church. The first thing we must do as a congregation is hear His calling. Then we must commit ourselves to it. In addition, we must prepare financially and otherwise to complete the task before us. But most importantly, we all need to be priests - ie, born again believers. Only Christians can build a church. God will not use unsaved people to do it. So I ask... is your name written in the book, namely the Lamb's Book of Life?