Ezra Chapters 1 and 2
C. E. Hocking, Cardiff
THE narrative opens where 2 Chronicles had ended. In 2 Chronicles the pledge of restoration is given, whilst Ezra records the history of restoration. The sovereign purposes of God relative to the return of His people from the land of their captivity had been written beforehand in Isaiah and Jeremiah. The duration of their captivity had been recorded in Jeremiah (25. 12; 29. 10) and this was borne home with all its significance to Daniel whilst studying its text. Realizing it was very near to the time predicted, this man beloved of God sought the face of God in prayer and supplication (see Daniel, ch. 9). We see quite clearly in this that incentive to prayer and intelligence in prayer which is the fruit of poring over God's precious Word. God's purposes in His sovereignty revealed in the Scripture became the plea of this saint. In Isaiah (chs. 44, 45), written in the 8th century B.C., we find Cyrus named by God, a king who should prove a Deliverer to His people, " His anointed, His shepherd". This Persian king was to be His instrument for securing the return of His people and the rebuilding of His house at Jerusalem. God stirred the heart of this monarch in answer to the inwrought prayer of Daniel and thus the fulfilment of Jeremiah's prophecy came to pass ! In these portions of God's Word we find (1) the fact of the captivity, (2) the promised return after 70 years, and (3) the Gentile king who should prove to be their Deliverer. May we learn our privileges in this : (1) the need for seeking the exceeding great and precious promises of His Word, (2) the responsibility that rests upon us to plead these in prayer in the presence of God, and (3) the power of inwrought prayer of the righteous man, for it does avail much. The order of the narrative is outlined below:
1. MY SHEPHERD—CYRUS—Ch. 1. 1-4 "Thus saith ..."
2. MY SHEEP—ISRAEL—Ch. 1.5-11 " Then rose ..."
3. His SHEEP KNOWN BY NAME—A book of remem¬brance—Ch. 2. 1-70 " These are . . ."
1. MY SHEPHERD, ch. 1. 1-4. CYRUS.
The Scriptures pass over in silence the fact that Cyrus was now possibly in his 20th year as a Persian monarch. " The first year of Cyrus " relates to his conquest of Baby¬lon, and thus in his first year as an agent in affairs that particularly relate to the Jews. God at this time caused a work of grace in the heart of this righteous man, interposing in the affairs of this world for the fulfilling of another phase of His sovereign purpose. He does of a truth " turn the heart of the king whithersoever he will." The desire and the will of this king were found in line with the mind of God. The word was heralded throughout his vast domain and recorded and kept in the archives with other official documents (see 6. 1-5). No command is found, no pressure brought to bear upon the Jews ; all is of God's grace, and legalism is outlawed from the commencement.
In the verses that follow (2-4), it is to be noted that Cyrus (a) honours God, (b) humbles self and, then, (c) blesses and favours Israel. His vast empire and earthly sway are owned as given by "the Lord (the) God of heaven," a title which with slight variations is found over and over again in the books of this period. He had not inherited the kingdom and neither was it won by the sword—all is derived from heaven's authority. God sometimes gives the kingdoms to the basest of men and in all earth's affairs those placed in authority as His ministers are brought to recognize and own that " the heavens do rule." In giving expression to his subservient position he honours God and humbles himself. The attitude of piety revealed here finds its contrast in Daniel, ch. 4, where Nebuchadnezzar boasts of the Babylon that he has built and is forcibly humbled by God. Throughout this long period of " the times of the Gentiles " there have been many of God's earthly ministers who would have profited by considering the careers of these two kings of old. Cyrus then encourages the ascension of the Jews. " Who is there (or whosoever there is) among you of all his people ? his God be with him " (v. 3). If God had charged him to build Him an house (v. 2), he urges the people of God not only to return to the land but also to rebuild the house of God (v. 3). It is interesting in this connection to observe the change in titles. He is " the Lord (the) God of heaven " in connection with the kingdom of Cyrus but He is " the Lord, the God of Israel " in connection with the house. Then he stresses participation in this return in saying " whosoever remaineth (or is left) in any place," i.e. all Jewish survivors of the captivity (compare Hag. 1. 14 ; Neh. 1. 2). It was never in the mind of God or His minister Cyrus, that a selected few should return. The way was opened so that all exercised to " go up " should be free to go. There was little or nothing to appeal to the people of God from the mere human standpoint. Jerusalem was in a state of ruin, yet the Jews are viewed as exiles, " sojourners," away from their national home, and those who were exercised in the light of this would be quick to respond to the offer of the king. The saint of God who invokes His name now, is called upon to pass the time of his sojourning here in fear. We do well to remember that we are strangers down here, away from home, and join ourselves to the caravan of the saints as pilgrims on the way home (see 1 Pet. 1. 17 ; 2. 11). Practical help is then suggested, whether it take the form of money or means of transport. Through all this we see God standing " within the shadows, keeping watch above His own."
2. MY SHEEP, ch. 1. 5-11. ISRAEL.
The proclamation of Cyrus is followed by a paragraph indicating the response of the people. " Then rose up (a) the chief of the fathers, (6) priests, (c) Levites, (d) even all (R.V.) whose spirit God had raised." In these verses we find the people (i) stirred of God, (ii) strengthened by their neighbours, and (iii) become stewards of the vessels. Not only is the inauguration of the movement by the king attributed to God (v. 1), but also the response of the people who availed themselves of the privilege (v. 5). God's grace had found good soil and brought forth fruit in its own season. Their hearts were drawn out to the Lord and their affections were set on things above (Col. 3). The vast majority of the people of God were happy to stay in the place of temporal prosperity and religious confusion. How sad it is to see such a poor grasp of their noble calling ! The call of God to separation from the unholy and profane fell on deaf ears. It may well be that these salved their conscience by joining the Gentiles in " strengthening the hands " of those that did return. God expects more than " laying hold on those returning with a view to helping them," paying a mere patronage to His work (v. 6). It is here that the distinction is seen between this return of the people from Babylon and the exodus from Egypt. In connection with Redemption not a soul is left behind in bondage to sin; sin no longer had dominion over them through God's power. In connection with separation from Babylon only a remnant of the people was drawn out in affection to God and returned to the land. God's work is complete in the deliverance of the saints from Egypt's tyrannies. The saints' response to God's grace in separation to Himself from Babylon's confusion is partial only. The humble and difficult path was the one of God's choosing and brought joy to His heart and glory to His name.
The vessels were then numbered into the hands of Sheshbazzar (1.8, see also 2. 2 ; 5. 17). This was a name bestowed on Zerubbabel in Persia. The notices of him (3. 2 and 8 ; 4. 3 ; 5. 2 ; Hag. 1.1; Zech. 4. 6-10) show that he was the head of the general administration and associated closely with Joshua the High Priest. The title " governor of Judah " indicates his subservient place in the Persian kingdom (Hag. 1. 1, 2; 2. 21 ; Ezra 5. 14), whilst his title " prince of Judah " here, stresses his relation to his own people (1. 8). He was of the legal line of Jehoiachin though he no longer held the sceptre belonging to David. All was then and still is now under the sway of Gentile kings. The vessels delivered to him belonged to the house of God in Jerusalem. These had been brought to Babylon by Nebuchadnezzar and desecrated there by Belshazzar (Dan., chs. 1 and 5). The saints under the authority of Sheshbazzar returning to the land become stewards of these precious things belonging to the house of God. This is another of the distinctions to be observed between the remnant and those saints who dwelt in that place where they should have sojourned- These vessels were intended for priestly and Levitic worship and service in the House of God, and the responsibility of protecting them with a view to their proper use reminds us of our responsibility to preserve the truths and privileges entrusted to us.
a HIS SHEEP KNOWN BY NAME, ch. 2. 1-70.
If in section 1, the key-phrase is " Thus saith Cyrus ..." and in section 2, it is " Then rose . . ." (see 1. 5), here we have " these are the names..." (v. 1) of those that returned. All are taken into account in this long list. The Leaders (vv. 1, 2), the People after their families and places of residence (vv. 3-35), the Priests of which four courses only were represented (vv. 36-39), the Levites (v. 40), the Singers and the Porters (vv. 41, 42), the Nethinim and Solomon's Servants (vv. 43-58), and those of uncertain genealogy among the people and priests (vv. 59-63). At the conclusion of the list the totals are recorded of (a) the people (v. 64), (6) servants and maids (v. 65), (c) horses and mules to ride (v. 66), and camels and asses which were the beasts of burden (v. 67). Surely in all this we see that faithfulness and spiritual exercise in response to the grace of God are recorded on high. A book of remembrance is written by God as He notes the efforts of His people toward a closer walk with Him (compare Mai. 3. 16). Then again, God is proven to be no respecter of persons, for the leaders and the servants are all taken into account. This fact should cause us to avoid noting secular and social distinctions among the saints. The poor glories in his elevation in Christ, whilst the rich rejoices in his being made low. We should be careful to observe the royal law and love our neighbour as ourselves (see James 2). At this time there were those whose genealogies were uncertain. Their zeal was not a final proof that they were His, neither was their energy in God's things. Today, with much lip profession it is assuring to know that " the foundation of God standeth sure, having this seal. The Lord knoweth them that are his." The practical test is however seen in this, that he " that nameth the name of Christ " departs from iniquity (2 Tim. 2. 19).
In Nehemiah's day the Levites had resorted to work on the land in order to support themselves. They had no portion in Israel. The Lord alone was their security, meeting their needs through His people. In times of spiritual dearth these were the first to feel the lack of exercise among the saints. It is to be noted that there were very few Levites returned here and even more diffi¬culty in finding some to return later with Ezra (ch. 8). How heart-breaking it is to find those who had been given to the Lord to serve Him among the saints so neglected by them that their faith in God's support was weakened. Babylon, no doubt, offered security for those gifted as God's servants which was not equalled in Israel. The parallel today is easy to see! The people of God, daily loaded with His benefits, are stewards in connection with these temporal things. Therefore God records their material resources and requires of them a profitable use of them to His glory in the light of eternity. Let us redeem our resources and use them in the furtherance of His interests. It is sweet to read of the generosity of the " chief of the fathers " here. These " gave after their ability " (v. 69), reminding us of the words of Paul in 1 Cor. 16. 2, " upon the first day of the week let every one of you lay by him in store, as God hath prospered him." They also gave " willingly " or freely. In that day as in this, such exercise touches the heart of God who " loveth a cheerful giver " (2 Cor. 9. 7).
PART THREE—[" Putting God first "—ch. 3) will appear in the next issue.