26. Heart Cries

Expectations & Hopes Meditations: 26. Heart Cries

Neh 1:3,4  They said to me, “Those who survived the exile and are back in the province are in great trouble and disgrace. The wall of Jerusalem is broken down, and its gates have been burned with fire.” When I heard these things, I sat down and wept. For some days I mourned and fasted and prayed before the God of heaven

In the previous study we noted that it is probable that Ezra was written c. 440 B.C. and then Nehemiah c. 430, and we briefly noted that Ezra starts off with God prompting king Cyrus to allow the Jews to return to the land to rebuild the Temple, in accordance with the word He had spoken through Isaiah a century before, and more recently through Jeremiah. Dates are significant in all this, so please try and cope with them all.

The start of Ezra identifies the time as “the first year of Cyrus king of Persia,” (Ezra 1:1) which was 538BC. The temple rebuilding appears to have started in the Spring of 536BC (Ezra 3:8) and was completed in 516BC (Ezra 6:15) The traditional view of dating has Ezra arriving in Jerusalem in 458BC and Nehemiah arriving in 445BC.

The start of Nehemiah indicates a date of 446BC when Nehemiah first heard about the state of Jerusalem. So, looking at the big picture, Cyrus starts the temple rebuilding rolling in 538, but Nehemiah doesn’t get the city rebuilding under way until 446 which is roughly a ninety-year gap.

Now the interesting thing about Jeremiah’s word, which was, “This is what the LORD says: “When seventy years are completed for Babylon, I will come to you and fulfill my gracious promise to bring you back to this place.” (Jer 29:10), is that that seventy years was not tied to specific events. I have already suggested that between the destruction of the temple and the completion of its rebuilding, was exactly seventy years, but the words here “for Babylon” may indicate that the time frame is more to do with Babylon itself. Now Nebuchadnezzar first invaded in 605BC and started the deportation of the Jews then, and the first returning Jews seem to have come somewhere about 536/537 but such dates have a certain measure of leeway and so it is possible that the seventy years refers to the start of the deportation to the start of the return which again appears to be just about seventy years.

Varied Expectations: Now here is the point. These studies are all about ‘expectations’ and we saw in the previous study the possible absence of any expectations in respect of Jerusalem after the Exile in those who hadn’t heard Jeremiah’s ‘seventy years’ word, and the possible long-term expectation of those who had heard it and believed it.  So the initial return was accompanied by plans to rebuild the temple – and that happened. Then comes standstill and what we haven’t noted yet is the state of the city itself. This is where we come to the start of Nehemiah.

Nehemiah Moved: Nehemiah was in Susa, which was the major city of Elam (Neh 1:1) where King Artaxerxes (Neh 2:1) reigned, possibly the winter retreat city of the Persian kings. When some of the men return from Jerusalem he questions them on the state of Jerusalem (v.2) and is told, “Those who survived the exile and are back in the province are in great trouble and disgrace. The wall of Jerusalem is broken down, and its gates have been burned with fire.” (v.3) From his descriptions in chapter 2 the city is still in ruins. Yes, the Temple has been rebuilt but it is a single restored building in the midst of a demolition site. This is the city of God and it has remained like this for almost ninety years. Nehemiah is devastated and “he sat down and wept” and for some days he “mourned and fasted and prayed before the God of heaven.” (v.5) It is only then that he composes himself enough to pray (see 1:5-11) and only after he has prayed does he risk speaking to the king (see 2:3-5).

One Different Man: So, back to our expectations. Everyone else for the past ninety years had focused on the wonder of the Temple being rebuilt – and it was wonderful! – but the fact was that the city of God, Jerusalem, was still a landscape of rubble, and was clearly going to stay like that. Now what is intriguing about all this is that we are told that the Lord prompted Cyrus to start the Temple rebuilding, but the city rebuilding was left until one man heard and was moved to tears by the state of the city. Everyone else seemed content to live with the fact of a devastated city; Nehemiah was the one person moved to bring change. How many times, I wonder, does history pivot on the moving of one person?

Gap Fillers: As I said, what is intriguing is that the Lord didn’t command the rebuilding of the city. It was almost as if He was watching and waiting for someone to catch His heart and do something about it.  Years before, Ezekiel had prophesied, “I looked for a man among them who would build up the wall and stand before me in the gap on behalf of the land so I would not have to destroy it, but I found none.” (Ezek 22:30) Previously he had prophesied, “Woe to the foolish prophets who follow their own spirit and have seen nothing! Your prophets, O Israel, are like jackals among ruins. You have not gone up to the breaks in the wall to repair it for the house of Israel so that it will stand firm in the battle on the day of the LORD.” (Ezek 13:3-5) Psa 106 describes how Moses had been a ‘gap-filler’: “So he said he would destroy them– had not Moses, his chosen one, stood in the breach before him to keep his wrath from destroying them.” (Psa 106:23) Moses had stood before the Lord to intercede for His people. The prophets of Jeremiah’s day were supposed to fulfil that same function, but they failed to do that.

And Us? Here is the point. The Lord looks for those who will look with His eyes on His people and intercede on their behalf before Him. Nehemiah saw the city in his mind’s eye when told about it, and wept before the Lord for it. How do we feel about the declining state of the Church in the West? As I have asked before, do we see a living body that is empowered by the Holy Spirit who testifies in power with revelation, wisdom, prophecy and insight and who back it with works of healing? Is the ‘body’ full of grace and truth? Does it so reveal its Lord that people glorify Him (Mt 5:16)? If not, are our hearts moved in anguish to pray?

Years before Haggai had prophesied to the people who had paused up on rebuilding the Temple and challenged them, “Is it a time for you yourselves to be living in your paneled houses, while this house remains a ruin?” (Hag 1:4) i.e. why are you more concerned for your materialistic lives than for God’s house – which in our case is the ‘church’? Are we happy with the state of the church that we see in our land? Really? Is it impacting the world and seeing the world being purified by its presence? Sadly the state of the western world is a downward spiral and the Lord looks for men and women who will stand in the gap, men and women who are not afraid to stand out as holy, utterly different, filled with goodness and love, people of faith who will cry out to the Lord for His people and this world, people who will make themselves available to Him to go and take part in the ‘rebuilding’.  May He find that in you and me.

25. But God

Expectations & Hopes Meditations: 25. But God

Ezra 1:1   In the first year of Cyrus king of Persia, in order to fulfill 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 to put it in writing.

In the previous study we considered Jeremiah’s faithfulness in a time when the Lord’s judgment came on Jerusalem and the Exile took place. The city and the temple are destroyed but seventy years later the temple is rebuilt and re-established.  Wow! How such a simple sentence whisks over such significant happenings. How easy it is to do that! It is probable that Ezra was written c. 440 B.C. and then Nehemiah c. 430. So, let’s look at Ezra first and then Nehemiah tomorrow.

Listeners? There are, essentially, two sorts of people in this world: those who listen to God and those who don’t. Which sort are you and me? The first I hope. Those who don’t, end up listening to the skeptics, the doubters, the agnostics and the atheists – and are depressed! Now yesterday we saw how a small remnant in Jerusalem ended up in Egypt, but the majority of the Israelites were now in Babylonia. Their world had come to an end.

False Expectations: This is all about expectations, remember. Their expectations had been positive. They had thought they were invincible and they thought their world would go on and on and on – because they were ‘the people of God’. Jeremiah had challenged this mentality with a word from the Lord: “Do not trust in deceptive words and say, “This is the temple of the LORD, the temple of the LORD, the temple of the LORD!” (Jer 7:4) This was God’s temple and surely He would look after it and it would always be there? That had been there expectations for the future. Jeremiah and Ezekiel both warned otherwise but the people ignored them.

Nebuchadnezzar had come in 605BC and Daniel and his friends had been taken. Just the top people; fine! Then he came again in 597BC and Ezekiel and some ten thousand Jews were taken to Babylon, but the poorer, more ordinary people, were left. Yes, we can handle this; it will be all right, the Temple is here and so God will look after us. But then Nebuchadnezzar came again and in 587BC Jerusalem AND the Temple were utterly destroyed, and the vast majority of the remaining people also taken to Babylon.  The bottom had fallen out of their world! It was the end of Israel. Now their expectations for the future were zero.

Listeners and Believers? But this is where we come back to my original comments about people who listen to God and those who don’t. Perhaps we should add a rider: those who listen to God and believe what He says, and those who listen but cannot accept what they hear. The fact is that Jeremiah had brought a word of hope that we briefly noted two studies back: This is what the LORD says: “When seventy years are completed for Babylon, I will come to you and fulfill my gracious promise to bring you back to this place. For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the LORD, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future. Then you will call upon me and come and pray to me, and I will listen to you. You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart. I will be found by you,” declares the LORD, “and will bring you back from captivity. I will gather you from all the nations and places where I have banished you,” declares the LORD, “and will bring you back to the place from which I carried you into exile.” (Jer 29:10-14)

From the year of the destruction of the Temple to the year the rebuilding was completed, was exactly seventy years. The people had started returning earlier but God’s yardstick for measurement was the presence of the Temple, His dwelling place in the midst of His people. So anyone who had heard of Jeremiah’s ‘seventy years’ word could be living in hope – but seventy years is still seventy years and for many that would have been beyond their lifetime. Their expectancy of seeing the new Temple would have been small – yet it still did bring a hope for the future of Israel.

But then we come to the matter of belief. You have just witnessed the utter destruction of Jerusalem and of the Temple and you have been herded like cattle out of the Land up to Babylonia where you have been settled. You have little hope of any change – but God has said…..

Will you believe? How can such a thing take place? These Babylonians have had enough of Israel and so have deported us and put foreign peoples into our land. How can this ever change? How can we ever get back to the Land? How can the Temple ever be rebuilt? Surely, in the light of all that has just been happening, that is impossible. This must be at the heart of all these studies on expectations. Will we base our expectations on what God says, not what we can see around us?   Faith is about believing God and living in the light of what He has said. You may not be able to work out how His word can be fulfilled; the only important thing is that HE has said it and if He says it, it WILL be!

But however….. the LORD moved the heart of Cyrus king of Persia”.  The Lord may have spoken about your future, about your partner, about your childlessness, about your unsaved children, about your job or about your ministry and humanly speaking you just can’t see how it can possibly be. Your expectations are zero – except God has spoken. If you were a Jew in exile you couldn’t have guessed in a million years how it could all change – but it did.

God moved Cyrus: We don’t know the exact detail, but it did happen. Did Cyrus come across the Hebrew scrolls from many years before, the scrolls of the prophet Isaiah who had written decades either side of about 690BC, a little over a hundred years before the time we are considering: “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.” (Isa 44:28) and “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.” (Isa 45:13) Somehow or other the Lord spoke into Cyrus’s heart and he decreed, “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. Anyone of his people among you–may the LORD his God be with him, and let him go up.” (2 Chron 36:23) And that was it, and it was done!

Well, we’ve said it already, but let’s reiterate it: will your expectations be based upon what God says? When you hear it, will you believe it, regardless of the circumstances? THIS is what provides a stable foundation in an uncertain period of history.

23. Ezra

Meditations of Old Testament Highlights: 23.  Ezra

Ezra 1:1   In the first year of Cyrus king of Persia, in order to fulfill 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 to put it in writing:

I find the book of Ezra is like a firework display, not one of these amazing modern displays you see at New Year in capitals of the world, but the more amateurish ones with a rocket going up, darkness, a blaze of light and colour, darkness, more startling colour and light, darkness, and so on.  Our starting verse is the reason for all that follows. It is the launch firework and it brings a continuation, being a repeat of the closing verses of 2 Chron, the amazing move of God on king Cyrus that released Israel to return to their land to rebuild the Temple (that is what Ezra is all about) and then rebuild the city and its walls (that is what Nehemiah that follows on is all about). After the darkness of forty years silence while Israel remain in exile, suddenly these two rockets, Ezra and Nehemiah blaze out and then after the accompaniment of some of the minor prophets, darkness falls again for over four hundred years until John the Baptist appears on the scene.

So Cyrus makes provision for people to return, with wealth to help them (Ch.1), and lists are provided of those who returned (Ch.2) some 50,000 people all together. And so the work of restoration begins (Ch.3) and the next amazing firework bursts upwards: With praise and thanksgiving they sang to the LORD: “He is good; his love to Israel endures forever.” And all the people gave a great shout of praise to the LORD, because the foundation of the house of the LORD was laid. But many of the older priests and Levites and family heads, who had seen the former temple, wept aloud when they saw the foundation of this temple being laid, while many others shouted for joy. No one could distinguish the sound of the shouts of joy from the sound of weeping, because the people made so much noise. And the sound was heard far away.” (3:11-13) A time of immense celebration that evokes different responses according to generation. Understandable.

But then darkness falls. The enemies of Israel come (4:1) and offer to help build, but they are aliens who were imported into the Land long back, and Israel decline their offer. But the darkness continues: “Then the peoples around them set out to discourage the people of Judah and make them afraid to go on building.” (4:4) And so it continued: “At the beginning of the reign of Xerxes, they lodged an accusation against the people of Judah and Jerusalem…and .. wrote a letter to Artaxerxes,” (4:6,7) and the king replied, “Now issue an order to these men to stop work, so that this city will not be rebuilt until I so order,” (4:21) and so, “Thus the work on the house of God in Jerusalem came to a standstill until the second year of the reign of Darius king of Persia.” (4:24) Thus chapter 4 is a chapter of darkness as far as the rebuilding is concerned.

But then up goes a rocket which bursts into great light: “Now Haggai the prophet and Zechariah the prophet, a descendant of Iddo, prophesied to the Jews in Judah and Jerusalem in the name of the God of Israel, who was over them,” (5:1) and the light that came with the word of God, released faith so that, “Then Zerubbabel son of Shealtiel and Jeshua son of Jozadak set to work to rebuild the house of God in Jerusalem. And the prophets of God were with them, helping them.” (5:2)

But then comes a moment of darkness: “At that time Tattenai, governor of Trans-Euphrates, and Shethar-Bozenai and their associates went to them and asked, “Who authorized you to rebuild this temple and restore this structure?” (5:3) and they send a letter, a very honest and complete letter (see 5:6-17),  to king Darius asking that this be checked out. Meanwhile a Catherine Wheel of light continues to splay out light: “But the eye of their God was watching over the elders of the Jews, and they were not stopped until a report could go to Darius and his written reply be received.” (5:5)

Eventually the king investigates and confirms that the word had been authorized by Cyrus. Suddenly another great display bursts into the darkness that had been hanging there: “Do not interfere with the work on this temple of God. Let the governor of the Jews and the Jewish elders rebuild this house of God on its site. Moreover, I hereby decree what you are to do for these elders of the Jews in the construction of this house of God: The expenses of these men are to be fully paid out of the royal treasury, from the revenues of Trans-Euphrates, so that the work will not stop.” (6:1-8) and further reinforces this initial order with instructions that severe punishment will be meted out on anyone who disregards it. (see 6:9-12) It is awesome!

There is a moment’s pause and then one very bright rocket bursts upwards: “The temple was completed on the third day of the month Adar, in the sixth year of the reign of King Darius.” (6:15) It is almost exactly seventy years since the Temple was destroyed and it has taken three and a half years to rebuild. There then follows an enormous and varied display as there are great celebrations at the dedication of the Temple (6:16-18) and they then celebrate the Passover (6:19-22).

After a pause a new firework bursts into the sky. It is the arrival of Ezra, a great, great, great etc. grandson of Aaron. (7:1-6) It is quite amazing that throughout the period of their exile, people like Ezra had managed to keep to their priestly role and learn the Law so they could pass it on to future generations. There are more bursts of light: “He was a teacher well versed in the Law of Moses, which the LORD, the God of Israel, had given. The king had granted him everything he asked, for the hand of the LORD his God was on him… Ezra had devoted himself to the study and observance of the Law of the LORD, and to teaching its decrees and laws in Israel.” (v.6,10)

But then sky is filled with light as the present king, Artaxerxes, sends a letter of commission which is truly amazing. (Read it in 7:11-22) and the chapter finishes with a peon of praise from Ezra himself for what the Lord has done (7:27,28). The remaining chapters, if we may conclude our picture language is one long burst of light as we observe Ezra’s administration and then his reforms that bring a great public affirmation that they are indeed still the Lord’s people!

What is the big lesson from this book? It is that although the Lord may provide great vision and release great faith for us to achieve His purposes, the enemy will seek to rise up again and again but, as the ministries of the (now) body of Christ operate and the word and faith are released, the obstacles and hindrances and attacks will be overcome. This calls for us to hold to the vision of the kingdom of God and the body of Christ, and to remain faithful to Him, to seek Him and listen to Him, be empowered and directed by Him, and as we are obedient to His leading, triumph!  Hallelujah! (PS. Sorry, the one verse highlight turned into a book highlight!)