(Today’s post by Wayne Bunting)
Today we venture into the book of Ezra. Ezra is a book that is written to detail the account of the Jews returning to Israel. Being captive in Babylon for 70 years, God’s people were allowed to be taken here because of their disobedience and worship of other gods. Now that the 70 years were up they were allowed to go home. Babylon had been conquered by Persia (prompting the release of the Jews), and in verses 1:2-3 Cyrus king of Persia says “The Lord, the God of heaven, has given me all the kingdoms of the earth, and he has charged me to build him a house at Jerusalem, which is in Judah. Whoever is among you of all his people, may his God be with him, and let him go up to Jerusalem, which is in Judah, and rebuild the house of the Lord, the God of Israel—he is the God who is in Jerusalem.” Wow, really? This is the king of the most powerful empire on earth at the time. These empires were known for their strong devotion to pagan gods which they identified themselves with (like the Assyrian gods which Israel constantly chose to worship, leading to their exile into the land of the people who worshipped them, Babylon). But now we see a pagan king recognizing and giving credit to the Lord. These kings are otherwise seen opposing Israel and trying to conquer her. So what happened that led Cyrus to say this?
The book of Ezra and the book of Nehemiah are very similar. Both contain various lists of the details of that which came back from exile, including the fathers of households, priests, livestock, and the sons of each family. The first two chapters of Ezra talk about the details of the circumstances revolving around the Jews’ return to Israel. It almost seems like a legal record that kept track of the details. In fact, both the book of Ezra and the book of Nehemiah probably used legal records in each of their writings, which is why there is such an emphasis on keeping track of the numbers. Notice how in parts of Ezra it gives record of what certain kings say. Most of the Old Testament is written in Hebrew, but 4:8-6:18; 7:12-26 in Ezra is written in Aramaic, a common trade language that was used by Babylon and Persia, much like English is the trade language used by much of the world today. This is because these sections were official Aramaic documents written to and from Persia. So naturally it would make sense that the Jewish composition of Ezra, being written by a people who just spent seven decades under a nation that spoke Aramaic would keep these writings in Aramaic. The Jewish people were very familiar with Babylonian ways, having been educated and assimilated into its culture. Ezra is a book written for a people who were coming out of this foreign land of Babylon and returning back to the land which God originally gave to them. The people’s appreciation of this return is reflected in chapter three.
Verse 3:3 stands out to me: “They set the altar in its place, for fear was on them because of the peoples of the lands, and they offered burnt offerings on it to the Lord, burnt offerings morning and evening.” Because of their fear of being attacked and conquered by the other people around them they turned to the Lord for help and protection. They feared the Lord. Now contrast this with the attitude that the Jews had before they went into exile. They relied on making accords with godless nations for protection and stability instead of relying on the Lord who promised to protect and take care of them. Now, helpless in the middle of enemies, despite it being easier to strike up an alliance with a nearby nation or people for protection, God’s people decide to rely solely on the Lord.
The first thing that God’s people do is to set up an altar that they can bring God a sacrifice on. Notice that they sacrificed to the Lord only, whereas before their exile God’s people sacrificed and worshipped both the Lord as well as other pagan gods simultaneously (which led to their exile). It is mentioned throughout this section that they did these things according to the Law of Moses. It is important to note that the following of the Law was meant to be done as an expression of one’s devotion to the Lord. God’s people followed much of the Law during the time leading up to their exile, but their heart was not devoted to the Lord. They had forgotten about Him, and had not obeyed the opening line of the 10 commandments: “I am the LORD your God…You shall have no other gods before me.” The significance here of the people’s following of the Law of Moses and their passion to sacrifice to the Lord came out of their sole devotion to Him. They had come out of exile with a singular devotion to the Lord of their covenant, and it was evidenced by their desire to follow the Law.
In fact their desire to follow the Lord was so strong that they began to worship Him when they finally began to lay the foundation of the new temple. Imagine what that was like, seeing all of those people worshiping God together. Verse 11-13 says that “all the people shouted with a great shout when they praised the Lord, because the foundation of the house of the Lord was laid. But many of the priests and Levites and heads of fathers’ houses, old men who had seen the first house, wept with a loud voice when they saw the foundation of this house being laid, though many shouted aloud for joy, so that the people could not distinguish the sound of the joyful shout from the sound of the people’s weeping, for the people shouted with a great shout, and the sound was heard far away.” This is incredible. They were thankful to the Lord for this, and they worshipped Him in response.
Ultimately God was the one who caused King Cyrus to let the Jews go home (1:2). God was also the one who caused the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar to take them into exile in the first place. No matter what may seem to be happening around us we can be certain that ultimately it is the Lord who is in control. We can choose to be a part of that and be on God’s side of history (3:3), or we can choose to be rebellious and seek our own way. But we can be certain that our own way will always end in destruction. God told Israel that He would be their God as long as they chose to follow Him. The covenant that God made with His people afforded them the covering and protection of God. In the history of Israel, whenever they chose to rely on God whenever disaster or invasion, or any other bad thing would happen, God always saw them through. But like clockwork whenever they would seek their own way and rely on their own wisdom and abilities to see them through it always ended in disaster.
Sometimes we want to synchronize God with the ways of the world. We have such a strong desire at times to do this. But the fact of the matter is that the Lord demands our singular devotion to Him. We have been bought by the blood of a king, and because of this we owe our allegiance to Him and Him only. Even so we want to include other things in with what should be our singular devotion to Him. When this happens, just as with what happened with Israel, our lives are no longer guided by the Lord, and the inevitable result will be the ways of darkness – and our lives being evidenced by that darkness instead of the life of the Lord. We cannot be listening to the Holy Spirit and the world at the same time. The end result will be the descent our hearts into the ways of the world. We must be devoted to Him and shun the ways of the world.
So many problems in the church today in the Western world stem from its desire to synchronize God with the world. So many Christians seek to relegate the church to being just a part of society’s standards. Much of this is done in the name of being “relevant” to the world. But the truth is that it is more about postmodernism masked as a false good. This is killing the church, and if unchallenged it will dumb down Christ’s presence in the church, resulting in the church being impotent and looking more like the world than like Christ. This must not be this way. The church is meant to stand out and be separate from the world, because its ways are not the ways of the world. It is meant to show the world Christ, not to be like the world. In the ever increasing darkness that is rising up in the world around us it is very important for us to be devoted to Christ alone and to pierce that darkness in the world around us.
So I challenge everyone who is reading this that knows God: purge your lives and hearts of anything that is not of God. Do this and seek the Lord with all of your heart and He will show Himself to you and open you up to His ways. He will carve out His depths in you if you let Him. When you meet with Him at church in worship surrender to what He wants. This does not mean that there will not be struggles and temptations, but the point is that you are seeking God through those struggles. A life singularly devoted in passion to the Lord is one that will be full of Life, and that life will be evidenced by a desire to serve Him. I pray this for myself and for you.