Charles Misner, commenting on Albert Einstein’s disdain for the church wrote, “The design of the universe … is very magnificent and shouldn’t be taken for granted. In fact, I believe that is why Einstein had so little use for organized religion, although he strikes me as a basically very religious man. He must have looked at what the preachers said about God and felt that they were blaspheming. He had seen much more majesty than they had every imagined, and they were just not talking about the real thing.”1
I wonder if the same kind of statement might be made as an attack against us as one looks at the God we speak of and proclaim and the truths we believe he has made clear in Scripture and compares that to the way that we live. For, do not be deceived, saying we believe something is weak until it is lived out in our lives. Such is the reason James says that faith without works is dead. So, is it that we really don’t believe the things that we profess, that we forget the reality of them in life, or something else? Whatever the case may be, I want to use this morning to remind us of some truths of our God, what he is about doing among us, and what truths he has made clear to us in his word, so that we might recover a lifestyle fitting of the God we proclaim – which is indeed worship.
And in order to do this, I want us to look at the first six chapter of Ezra. For in these chapters, we are able to see some very foundational aspects of God’s character, his ways, and what is reality in this world where we often seek our happiness and contentment based upon lies.
The setting of Ezra is one of hope. Israel had been in exile ever since they were conquered by the Babylonians in 586 BC. However, in 538 BC as Persia is now in power, we are told, according to the first chapter, that Cyrus issues a decree in which he tells the Jews can return to their land from exile. And in chapter 2 we read of a list of those who return. Then, in chapters 3-6, we read of the rebuilding of the temple which would be completed in 516 BC, a little over twenty years later.
So these first six chapters are composed of the people returning to the land and rebuilding the temple. And yes, it is about events that occurred in their lives over 2,500 years ago, but there is clear communication from our God through this story to his people in all generations that I want us to see this morning and examine our lives to see if our practice falls in line with these truths – or, we might say, to see if we really believe what we profess.
The first truth that we see at the very beginning of the book is that …
God will fulfill his promises
This book doesn’t just start with a line like, “These are the events that happened to occur” or “In this year the following happened.” Rather, it begins, “In the first year of Cyrus king of Persia, that the word of the LORD by the mouth of Jeremiah might be fulfilled, the Lord stirred up the spirit of Cyrus king of Persia, so that he made a proclamation throughout all his kingdom and also put in writing: “Thus says Cyrus king of Persia: The LORD, the God of heaven, has give me all the kingdoms of the earth, and he has charged me to build him a house at Jerusalem which is in Judah” (1:1-2, emphasis added).
Thus, Ezra does not tell of some events that happened by chance. It tells of events that occurred because God had promised that the events would occur, and he always fulfills his promises.
For he had proclaimed through Jeremiah in Jeremiah 29:10-14, “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. For I know the plans I have for you, declares the LORD, plans for wholeness and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope. Then you will call upon me and come and pray to me, and I will hear 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 I will restore your fortunes and gather you from all the nations and all the places where I have driven you, declares the LORD, and I will bring you back to the place from which I sent you into exile.’” Therefore, these events in Ezra are simply the fulfillment of God’s promises to his people.
But is this true in the New Covenant? Of course, for Paul begins his letter to Titus writing, “Paul, a servant of God and an apostle of Jesus Christ, for the sake of the faith of God’s elect and their knowledge of the truth, which accords with godliness, in hope of eternal life, which God, who never lies, promised before the ages began.” God cannot lie, and so if he promises, then he must fulfill those promises.
Therefore, this is a comforting reality if you are a child of God. For he who promises numerous times that he will be with us and will not leave us will indeed fulfill his promise. He who tells us he will meet our needs as we seek first his kingdom will indeed do that. The one who tells us that we will be blessed for leaving father and mother to follow him will indeed ensure that is the case. And the one who has begun a good work in you will definitely complete it in the end. He who justifies you will glorify you.
So, do you see the comfort of this reality? Why then are we filled with anxiety and fretting in this midst of situations where we have sure promises from God? It must be that our hearts truly do not believe this truth, and that is one reason why we are being reminded of them this morning. And yet we can add even more detail to this truth.
God’s hand can stir men’s hearts to accomplish his purposes
We see this throughout the book. In the first verse, it is because God “stirred up the spirit of Cyrus” that he decreed for the temple to be rebuilt (1:1). Also, those who return from exile to rebuild the temple are those “whose spirit God had stirred to go up to rebuild the house of the Lord that is in Jerusalem” (1:5).
Thus, our picture of God must not be one where he is far removed and not involved in the plans and the thoughts and the actions of man, for indeed he is near and intricately involved. The book of Ezra does not contain even one miracle that you might witness from the outside, but it contains the miracle of God moving men’s hearts to accomplish his purposes throughout.
And again, God has proclaimed that he would do this in Isaiah 45:1-13. In verse 13 of Isaiah 45, God says of Cyrus, “I have stirred him up in righteousness, and I will make all his ways level; he shall build my city and set my exiles free, not for price or reward, says the Lord of hosts.” And Cyrus wasn’t even God’s child, as he declares in verses 4-5 of that chapter, saying, “For the sake of my servant Jacob, and Israel my chosen, I call you by your name, I name you, though you do not know me. I am the LORD, and there is no other, besides me there is no God; I equip you, though you do not know me.”
God is able to move men’s hearts to accomplish his purposes. His invisible hand of providence is indeed continually busy, working things after his will. This is true even of the cross as the disciples pray, “For truly in this city there were gathered together against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, along with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel, to do whatever your hand and your plan had predestined to take place” (Acts 4:27-28 – emphasis added). The cross was not an accident or an afterthought. It was a work of the sovereign hand of God.
This reality should make us a people of prayer. For do we or do we not believe that God is capable of moving and changing men’s hearts so as to accomplish his purpose? If you don’t then you should not pray; it is useless. But if you do – and you must, according to the word – then we should pray more earnestly and consistently than most of us do. Our God is indeed a God who can stir men’s hearts to accomplish his purposes and to fulfill his promises.
However, this reality that God will fulfill his promises and that his hand can stir men’s hearts to accomplish his purposes does not mean that everything will turn out rosy in our lives. First, he hasn’t promised that, and in fact, has promised just the opposite at times. Second, we don’t always understand what is best. This then brings us to a third truth this morning.
Doing what is right doesn’t mean the road on which we travel will be easy, peaceful, or popular
The entire fourth chapter of Ezra tells us how men came against the rebuilding of the temple and eventually they have to stop their labors for about 15 years. This is definitely not what they had in mind when they returned from exile to watch God fulfill his promises. But it was reality.
People will simply oppose the things of God; you can be sure of it. So, beware if everyone is approving what you are doing and you are being patted on the back by those who do not know our Lord. For we have been promised that it is through many tribulations that we will enter the kingdom.
And I think we would all say that we know and agree that this is true. However, it is easy to get discouraged when things don’t run the course we think they should in the time we think they should, isn’t it?
Thus, even in the membership class that we had Tuesday night, I thought, we’re trying so hard to conduct church life according to the Scripture, we’re trying hard to teach according to the Scripture, and we’re trying to worship overall according to the Scripture, so why don’t we have double the people? Why don’t we have more money to do some things that could really build up the kingdom? These are the kind of questions that we might be tempted to ask and get discouraged. However, we do not see if we are doing what’s right based on response from the population, do we? We do what is right based on the Scripture, and we trust that God will take care of results. So, may we not be discouraged but determined and hopeful this morning, remembering again that he has not only assured us of smooth sailing, but has promised the road will be difficult, with many times which will tempt us to struggle with despair.
And though we might think we know what’s best, God, in allowing these trying times might simply be constructing a platform from which he will display his great glory. For that is how this story ends. Not only is the rebuilding of the temple allowed to go on in chapter 5, but the king even issues that the gold and silver that Nebuchadnezzar had taken out of the temple be brought back and that the cost of its reconstruction be paid for from the royal treasury (6:4-5).
The opposition indeed provided a platform for God to show his great glory. So why then do we doubt and despair with such a God? And why does God do all of this? The answer brings us to our last truth this morning.
God shows himself great among his people so that others might worship him
Clearly the rebuilding of the temple was linked to physical descent in light of chapter 2 and the whole of the old covenant. However, look at the result of all of the first six chapters in verses 19-22 of chapter 6.
They worshipped as they celebrated the Passover feast and “everyone who had joined them and separated himself from the uncleanness of the peoples of the land to worship the LORD, the God of Israel” joined them worshiping for he “had turned the heart of the king of Assyria to them, so that he aided them in the work of the house of God, the God of Israel” (6:21-22).
The end result of God showing himself great among his people is that worshippers were produced from outside of them. This is the goal of evangelism – the production of worshipers. And so, we should make our prayer that of Psalm 67, “May God be gracious to us and bless us and make his face to shine upon us, that your way may be known on earth, your saving power among all nations. Let the peoples praise you, O God; let all the peoples praise you!” (1-3).
So as we leave this morning, let me ask you four questions to examine yourself to see if your practice matches these truths.
1. Does anxiety grip your heart because you doubt God’s promises.
If so, let me challenge you to memorize promises that aid you against doubt. Memorize Matthew 6:25-34 and meditate on all of God’s promises there that are given to banish our anxiety. In fact, there is rarely (if ever) a time that God tells us not to fear without then telling us why we are able not to fear. Memorize those reasons and promises, for God will indeed fulfill his promises.
2. Are you ready to give up in pressing through difficult times because it seems as if God is not working on your behalf for the good of his church and the sake of his name?
We’re so conditioned to think that life should be easy if we’re doing what’s right that suffering for doing what is God seems almost too difficult for American Christians (such as ourselves) to understand, doesn’t it? But, believe God that he is working all things together for good for his church and his glory, and persevere in doing good in your trying and difficult time.
3. Do you judge success merely by what you see?
If you do, then you do not realize that God’s plans for carrying out his glory to the utmost do not always occur the way we think they should. It may be that he is postponing construction of the temple because he wants it to be built with the treasury of the king – or whatever the parallel is in your life. Trust him for what you cannot see.
4. Are you someone who may be described as one who prays earnestly and often?
If not, then I wonder if you simply fail to believe the picture of God we find in these first six chapters of Ezra. He is one who is might to move men’s hearts to fulfill his promises as he works all things after his own glory.
May we indeed be found, by his grace, to be men and women whose lives show we truly believe what we proclaim and thus do not blaspheme God by our unfaithful living. Amen.