January 28, 2024: Message: Hope Renewed | Scripture: Ezra 1 | Speaker: Pastor Stephen Choy
Worship Songs: Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing | Jesus, Thank You | My Hope Is Built (The Solid Rock)
If able, please stand for the reading of God’s Word. TWoL: 1 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 it in writing: 2 “Thus says Cyrus king of Persia: 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. 3 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. 4 And let each survivor, in whatever place he sojourns, be assisted by the men of his place with silver and gold, with goods and with beasts, besides freewill offerings for the house of God that is in Jerusalem.” 5 Then rose up the heads of the fathers’ houses of Judah and Benjamin, and the priests and the Levites, everyone whose spirit God had stirred to go up to rebuild the house of the LORD that is in Jerusalem. 6 And all who were about them aided them with vessels of silver, with gold, with goods, with beasts, and with costly wares, besides all that was freely offered. 7 Cyrus the king also brought out the vessels of the house of the LORD that Nebuchadnezzar had carried away from Jerusalem and placed in the house of his gods. 8 Cyrus, king of Persia, brought these out in the charge of Mithredath the treasurer, who counted them out to Sheshbazzar the prince of Judah. 9 And this was the number of them: 30 basins of gold, 1,000 basins of silver, 29 censers, 10 30 bowls of gold, 410 bowls of silver, and 1,000 other vessels; 11 all the vessels of gold and of silver were 5,400. All these did Sheshbazzar bring up, when the exiles were brought up from Babylonia to Jerusalem.
One of the things I want you to know, church, is that I’m a weak man. When I was in my first year of university, I entered into a relationship with a girl who was not Christian and, when you’re in college, dating a non-Christian, you find yourself in a world of temptation that you didn’t know existed, and it was a world I embraced. To this day, I’m still ashamed of the choices I made in that part of my life—choices I can never take back.
And yet, that summer, God led me away from this girl and brought me to Hong Kong—a city that I hardly knew—where the gospel and the fellowship of God were exposed to me in a way that I’d never understood before. He surrounded me with other Christians who desired to pray for and over me. He brought me to a Christian aunt who I’d never had a previous conversation with, yet she willingly supplied me with a full-time summer job in her company so that I might see the work God was doing in Asia.
I had all but given up on the Christian faith so that I could live my life the way I wanted to live it, but this is the radical truth of the gospel isn’t it? God wouldn’t let me. It’s not that I came back to him kicking and screaming, as if he was forcing me against my will. In fact, I came back to him weeping—weeping that I’d let myself be so stupid—weeping over the fact that, even for all my stupidity, God might still love me.
And I realized that the only thing that he required me to do, as he pulled me back in, as he ministered the gospel to me through people I hardly knew—all I had to do was let him. All I had to do was to submit as he saved, directed, and preserved me. I had failed him, but in my failure, he would prove the invincibility of his grace.
If we are Christian, this is the grace we know, and it is the grace that Israel was meant to know—that despite their stupidity—their idolatry—their sinful history—God’s invincible plan for them would not and could not be thwarted. And all it took for that plan to manifest in their lives, like it does in our own lives, was for them to let him do the work that they couldn’t do—to submit to him, let him guide them, let him bring them home. That’s what God, in Ezra 1, means to teach us today—that when He comes into your life, all you need to do is to submit—to let him make you and mold you into what he desires you to be.
He wants to show us his sovereignty this morning—when all we’d choose to do is to lead ourselves away, he does the unthinkable and impossible just to bring us back and keep us safe. Why? Well, first, he does it because …
1) History Requires It
Theology, the study and knowledge of who God is, how he operates as Creator over all, and how he reveals himself to us—good theology is born out of understanding history. For most people, the better your history, the better your theology, and this is going to be particularly true for us as we study the events in Ezra-Nehemiah.
Something that you should know as we enter into these books is that these two works, Ezra and Nehemiah, really are one book. Some argue that they’re written by two distinct authors, which, initially, may have been the case, but they’ve been worked together in such a way by an editor to create one, overlapping account. And it’s very likely that the editor of Ezra-Nehemiah is the same editor of the one book that we often call 1st and 2nd Chronicles.
This is why I preached on 2 Chron 36 last week. The events discussed there have every relevance to what’s happening here. King Josiah, who, I’ll remind you, was generally a good king, dies in 609 B.C. to the hand of the Egyptian Pharaoh after Josiah attempts to prevent Egypt and Assyria’s alliance in their war against Babylon.
And in its victory, Egypt and its Pharaoh essentially desecrate and vandalize Judah’s throne. They appoint the wrong people to rule Judah, and they name those kings with names that are not given by God. All of it is blasphemy.
Yet, the reason why it’s taking place isn’t because Pharaoh is more powerful than God. Rather, it’s because the judgment of God has come upon his people. The death of Josiah and the placement of a puppet-king on Judah’s throne signal the start of their captivity in 609 B.C. They’re exiles in their own homes, which leads to their eventual and actual exile in 597 B.C. followed by a second exile and the destruction of the temple in 586 B.C.
But God’s not done with his people because important to the story is that Egypt and Assyria aren’t the ones to carry out the exile. Babylon does that. And Babylon does it because in 605 B.C., God uses Babylon to destroy Egypt and Assyria as judgment for their role in harming Judah and its throne (Isaiah 10).
And still, just because Babylon judges Egypt and Assyria, they’re not innocent in all of this, as we’ll find out, because as turmoil breaks out in Babylon from 562-539 B.C., a young leader named Cyrus—king over a mighty army combined of both Persians and Medes (located in common-day Iran)—rises up. And in 539 B.C., God uses Cyrus to wipe out and assume control over all Babylon because of Babylon’s role in destroying God’s temple (Jer 51:1, 11). Israel may be sinful and in need of discipline, but that didn’t mean God stopped loving, protecting, and coming to her defence, just like a Father would of his child.
Now, just in case the point remains unclear, how long has it been since Egypt placed Judah under its captivity in 609 B.C.? How many years have passed between Josiah’s death and Cyrus’ conquering of Babylon in 539 B.C.? 70 years. And did we not read last week that Jeremiah prophesied (25:11-12 and 29:10) that the destruction of Babylon and the coming release of God’s people from exile would take place after 70 years of captivity?
This is the point: Israel and its kings would fail to be what they were supposed to be, but God does not fail to be who he says he’ll be both as God over all and God over Israel. He destroys those who profane his throne. He wipes out empires that desecrate his temple. And he stirs up the heart and spirit a man—raised as a leader and prince in another nation, who is a murderer, who has no intention of doing his will, and who is a fervent unbeliever after the things of God—to save his people. God directs the events of the world, just like God directs the events of his own Israelites.
And I need to mention, do these things happening in the world and in the life of Israel not sound like something else that’s taken place in history? Does Cyrus not sound like another man that we know—one who was called to bring Israel out of their exile and slavery into the place that God had prepared for them? One who was raised as a leader and prince by another nation? One who was a murderer? One who had no intention of doing God’s will? Is he not like the one called Moses in Scripture? Do these events not sound like the Exodus of the Jews out of Egyptian slavery into the promised land? And we’re to know, church, that these reflections in history, they are there on purpose.
God ordered it this way. He sovereignly purposed Judah’s experience—their sin, slavery, and salvation—to be a replay of Exodus-like events to show his people that just like he was the God of history who led them out of Egypt, he is still that same God today. And he is still worthy of their submission.
Just consider the words of Ezra 1:1: why does God raise up Cyrus? What is God’s ultimate purpose of using this Persian king to destroy Babylon and to issue an edict to send Jews back to Judah and rebuild the temple? It’s not merely to save them, although he does that. It’s not merely to prove to them that his presence remains with them, despite the temple being destroyed and their feeling that he is distant from them. No, it’s not about them because if it was, then he wouldn’t be worthy of their submission because then they’d be god, and God would be a slave. If he was obligated to save them, then he is no God.
No, the ultimate purpose of doing things this way wasn’t to emphasize their importance. It was to emphasize his. He does it this way because he determined history to be this way. He does it this way because he is always trustworthy. He obligates himself to his own plans.
Why does God raise up Cyrus to save Judah? It is, as Ezra 1:1 says, so that the word of the Lord might be fulfilled. It is so that God might be recognized, once again, for who he is. It is so that we might know that he is invincibly faithful to himself—that he is always in control of that which will bring him the most glory—that the Word of his promise is true because it is his Word and not because he needs us.
Cyrus didn’t know he was being used by God. He thought he was keeping his subjects happy. He sends out an edict not only to the Jews but to all who are in exile thinking this will keep his vast earthly kingdom intact. But, lo and behold, God is orchestrating this man’s vanity and insecurity as the very means to accomplish what he’s always intended from the beginning.
All of history is meant to show us that it’s his story and not ours. All of history is meant to show us that it’s God’s salvation and not ours. He orchestrates it all, and he judges all, so that we might know the depth of his sovereignty—so that we might know and rejoice in the fact that we, lowly as we are—that we might be recipients of his love and grace. In our weakness, he displays his strength though that doesn’t mean that he necessarily makes us strong. In most cases, he uses our very weakness as the very thing that signals our deliverance—we see it in Christ: in his weakness upon a cross, in our likeness, to save all who believe in him.
Perhaps right now you feel he is distant from you—like he ignores you in your longing and pleading—some of you have lost a job or a loved one—some of you feel like you lack direction or motivation—some of you feel like no one cares for you, listens to you, or that you’ve been forgotten. And God gives us this passage to tell us that he has not forgotten you, that he contends for you, that he loves you, that his hope is sufficient for you, that he is still directing your path towards his perfect end.
You may be suffering, but this passage is telling you that your sorrow, your joblessness, your loneliness, your pain, and your trials are things that he’s working out in history for your good. And how do we know this? Because he’s not for you—he’s not a servant for you, and he’s not bound by your sinful desires and whims. No, he’s for himself in his perfect, sovereign knowledge, doing what is good—what he has promised for those who belong to him.
This is history, brothers and sisters, and, though it may sometimes be difficult, all you’re required to do is submit yourself to the one who authors it—to let him make your weakness his weakness, and then to let him make his strength your strength. History requires your submission because it is God who stands above it all. Yet, far more than history requiring it, an even better reason to submit yourself to what God desires for you to be is because his Spirit enables you to be it.
2) His Unction Enables It
Looking at verse 5, let me answer three questions for us. Who? What? And How? I’ve already answered the why—why does God save us and call us to submit ourselves to him, even when we were unworthy of him? He does it to prove that he is and has always been faithful to his own Word.
But who is it that he’s calling to submit to him? Well, verse 5 tells us, it is those who belong to the houses of Judah and Benjamin—the remnant of Israel—along with their priests and Levites. Okay, but who are these people? They’re Israelites! And lest we forget, they’re people who we find over and over again to be historically insolent and stupid—impotent in their ability to do anything for anyone other than themselves.
And what I find simultaneously shocking and unsurprising, is that even after all of these events—even after God’s judgment, their exile, the destruction of the temple—they’re still insolent, and they’re still stupid. One needs only turn to the pages of Daniel. And while Daniel and his associates are faithful, they’re an exception to the rule because we see the rest of Israel give themselves over to Babylonian culture and customs. Most of them, save a few men, worship the Babylonian kings and idols forgetting all that they’re supposed to be!
In other words, who are the beneficiaries of God’s sovereign purposes? Who is it that he calls to submit to him as he shapes history? It’s sinners. It’s the insolent. It’s traitors to his name.
And what is the purpose of calling these sinners and insolent traitors into his kingdom? He calls them to rebuild the house of the Lord, says verse 5. Let’s pause for a moment and consider the implications of this. We get a little of what this demand means when we turn back to 2 Chronicles 2. You don’t have to turn there, but if you did, this is what you’d find: Solomon is preparing to build the temple.
This is when the kingdom of Israel is at its peak. They are a grand people. They are a resolved, confident, and zealous people. They’re in their homeland. They’re about to build a house for their God who has been gracious and merciful to them, and in their anticipation, this is what we read in verse 2, “And Solomon assigned 70,000 men to bear burdens and 80,000 to quarry in the hill country, and 3,600 to oversee them.”
That’s not only 153,600 men. That’s 153,600 resolved men, brimming with confidence and zeal. That’s 153,600 men who know their place. That’s 153,600 men who know their king—the wisest man to have lived at that point in history, the son of David. That’s 153,600 men who are happily aligned with their God who is adding to their abundance day-after-day.
And yet, here, in Babylon, as the Persian King, Cyrus, issues an edict for these Israelites to go back to Judah and build a temple, the people who are called to do so aren’t like the 153,600 who preceded them, they’re the exiles—they’re rebels. Not to mention that it’s very likely that those going back aren’t the most prosperous Jews in Babylon. No, we have proof that the rich successful Jews stayed in Babylon.
These returnees—these who are supposed to build the temple and be the new kingdom of God, they’re the rejects, the dregs—the lowest, poorest, least important—of Judah. Put another way, what God is asking of these people is to do something they’re severely unequipped to do. What God is asking them to do is to accomplish the impossible.
Who does he call back to his fold? Sinners and losers. What does he ask them to do? The impossible. It seems like quite a bleak and stark image, doesn’t it? Yet, right in the middle of verse 5 comes the crux of it all. He may be sending back sinners, and he may be asking them to do the impossible, but why is it that these sinners have the confidence to attempt the impossible? It’s because God stirs them up to go.
And this verb, to stir up sounds like the thing we do to motivate ourselves at the beginning of the year to workout only to find that by the end of the first week, we’re too tired to follow through. But this isn’t what Ezra means with the use of the verb “to stir up.” In the Bible, its meaning is so much more than that.
Let’s just consider some of the times this verb is used in the context of what’s going on here with Judah. I’ve already referenced Jeremiah 51:1, 11: “See, I will stir up the spirit of a destroyer against Babylon… The Lord has stirred up the king of the Medes, because his purpose is to destroy Babylon. Isaiah 13:17: See, I will stir up against Babylon the Medes. Isaiah 41:2-3: Who has stirred up one from the east, calling him in righteousness to his service? He hands nations over to him and subdues kings before him. Isaiah 41:25: I have stirred up one from the north, and he comes. He treads on rulers as if they were mortar, as if he were a potter treading the clay. Isaiah 45:13: I will stir him [Cyrus] up in my righteousness: I will make all his ways straight. He will rebuild my city and set my exiles free.
And knowing what these prophets have said—how they have used this verb, “to stir up,” in the context of Cyrus—how he has already accomplished these things, Ezra now uses the same verb in the context of these sinners facing an impossible task.
How can sinners do the impossible? Because it is God who stirs them up! The puritans had a word for this. They called it the unction of the Holy Spirit—the anointing—the calling. It’s not the kind of ineffective stirring that deflates moments later, but the kind of stirring—the unction—that makes the impossible possible—the kind of stirring that causes foreign powers to unknowingly, yet willingly bend and serve divine purposes—the kind of stirring that melts hearts of stone and makes them hearts of flesh—the kind of stirring that enables sinners, like you and me, to bring glory to a most holy and glorious God.
And it ought to dawn on us—we who live on this side of the cross—that God did this for a people who did not have the Holy Spirit. How much more, then, should our unction—our zeal—our intentionality for the Lord be to build up this house in its holiness—to minister to those who do not yet know Christ as their Lord and Saviour—to put to death that ever-present sin—to spend that time with husband or wife, brother or sister in concerted, regular prayer—to encourage one another towards love and good deeds?
On our own we are nothing, and we can do nothing. But in Christ, we’ve been given a Spirit of power, truth, and conviction, and it’s a conviction that drives not hinders. It’s an unction that enables not stifles. It’s a holy desire that submits not rebels.
3) His Generosity Preserves It
But perhaps there’s a lingering issue. Perhaps, you’re physically unable to accomplish the things you know he would want you to do. Maybe you don’t have enough money. Maybe you don’t have the innate ability. Maybe you have your own needs that must be dealt with before you can move outward, and Ezra 1:6-11 tell us this: if God desires you to do something—to be something—to accomplish his will in the world, then he won’t only enable you to do it, but he will provide you with everything you need in order to persevere as you do it.
These Jews going back to Judah were poor, yet God, through this foreign king, Cyrus, fills their coffers. He gives them exactly what they need. In fact, if you look back at verse 4, Cyrus doesn’t just provide them with what they need to build the temple again, but he gives them enough so that when the temple is built, and it comes time to offer their necessary sacrifice for sin and atonement—who provides the goods and beasts for that sacrifice? We’re told that it is God through Cyrus who provides the sacrifice.
In the same way, has God not provided the greater sacrifice for you through Christ. In Jesus, we’ve been given more than what we need to be the people he desires us to be. In his cross, in his death, and in his resurrection, we can persevere in our submission to God—in walking with God—in enjoying God—because the sin that stopped us from submitting, walking, and enjoying, and the wrath that prevented us from delighting—all of it has been dealt with forever in him who was once a foreigner to us, alien in his righteousness, but is now our King, our promise, our hope of glory.
God moves history to save us and bring us in faithfulness to himself. He anoints us with the unction of his Spirit so that we might joyfully do what pleases him. And he provides for every one of our needs along the way in Jesus so that we might persevere in our doing it.
God’s sovereign control is as complete over all things as he is in himself as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and this is every reason for us to rejoice. It’s every reason for us to hope with an undying hope. Because we don’t only have evidence of his faithfulness in the destruction of Assyria, Egypt, and Babylon. And we don’t only have the offerings of a foreign, atheistic, disinterested king, like Cyrus. No, we have more than that because we have Jesus—our Saviour from sin and our eternally loving King. He is more than reason enough to submit ourselves to whatever God wants us to be, and we can do it, knowing that whatever he wants from us and wherever he leads us, it will always be for our good and for his glory.