It’s easy to wonder if God will achieve his purposes.
In the second half of last year, we worked our way through 1 Corinthians. Chapter 15 was just magnificent! Amazing views of the future God has promised all who follow the Lord Jesus. A future when our bodies are renewed, transformed to be glorious like Jesus, perfect for enjoying the renewed world God will give us to live in.
All of that seems so far away from the daily life we know and live through. It’s easy to wonder if that glorious future will ever happen. Will God achieve his purposes? There’s so much that could stop him.
The book of Ezra is set in a time when God’s purposes for his people looked far away.
Let me briefly set the scene. There’s a timeline at the back of your service sheet.
The great king David ruled about 1000 BC. God promised him that he would always have a descendant to rule on his throne. The people were well led, and lived in a good land. His son Solomon came next, but Solomon was not faithful to the Lord his God. He worshipped other gods. So when he died, the kingdom split in two. His son inherited just two of the 12 tribes of Israel; the other 10 were a separate kingdom in the north.
Both kingdoms continued the downward slide that Solomon had begun. The people worshipped other gods, and God warned it would end in disaster. Sure enough, in 722 BC, the superpower of Assyria attacked and destroyed the northern kingdom. And then around about 600 BC the same thing happened to the kingdom of Judah in the south. First in the year 606, Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon attacked the city of Jerusalem and carted off some of the nobility, people like Daniel.
And then in 586, he came back and finished the job. The city was burnt to the ground, the temple utterly destroyed. A small remnant was carried off to Babylonian exile. The poorer people were left to work the land.
God’s purposes seemed far off. King David, the city of Jerusalem, the temple of Solomon – were all distant memories. They’re all gone. Will God ever achieve his purposes? Or has he abandoned his people forever?
We’ll discover that God hasn’t walked away at all. Ezra chapter 1 opens with these words: “In the first year of Cyrus king of Persia, in order to fulfil the word of the Lord spoken by Jeremiah, the Lord moved the heart of Cyrus king of Persia…”
The mover here is God. “The Lord moved the heart…”. God is going to act to fulfil the words he spoke by Jeremiah long ago. God has not gone away. And neither has his purposes.
And the emphasis in chapter 1 is on the God who is in control. Who never loses. Who always accomplishes what he intends. Who achieves his purposes.
I’ll take us through this opening chapter, and show us three ways in which it looked very unlikely that God would achieve his purposes, and yet God came through in spite of them.
I hope we’ll be encouraged to see this picture of a God who really is in control, a God who always comes through, in spite of appearances. I hope this portrait of God at work will encourage us to keep trusting him in our own day, that he will achieve everything he’s planned.
So, then, three headings. God achieves his purposes in spite of…:
… a pagan king
Number 1: A pagan king. A pagan king. Verses 1 to 4.
In the first year of Cyrus king of Persia, in order to fulfil 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 also to put it in writing: ‘This is what Cyrus king of Persia says: ‘“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. Any of his people among you may go up to Jerusalem in Judah and build the temple of the Lord, the God of Israel, the God who is in Jerusalem, and may their God be with them. And in any locality where survivors may now be living, the people are to provide them with silver and gold, with goods and livestock, and with freewill offerings for the temple of God in Jerusalem.”’
This just seems utterly implausible.
When the Babylonians conquered another nation, their policy was to take the people back to Babylon. They ran a tight ship. Conquered nations would remain loyal because they were educated in Babylonian ways, assimilated in Babylonian culture.
But in the year 539, Cyrus of Persia conquered the kingdom of Babylon. His approach is totally different.
So different, that it would have been hard to believe. So different, that for years scholars thought this could never have happened. Until the writing was deciphered on a clay cylinder uncovered in what is now Iraq in the year 1879. There’s a picture of the Cyrus Cylinder at the back of the service sheet.
The cylinder doesn’t mention Judah or Jerusalem. It would be too good to be true if Ezra 1, verses 2-4, was actually there. But lots of other nations get a mention, and we discover that Persian policy was the opposite of Babylonian policy. They secured their empire by allowing conquered nations to live in their own lands. A happy people is a loyal people. And the Cylinder records Cyrus ordering various conquered people to return from Babylon to their own homes.
What seemed impossible, God did. He brought a new empire to the fore, with different policies.
Ezra 1 is quite clear that Cyrus commanded the people to return because the Lord moved his heart. Cyrus had his approach. Maybe he was taught by Daniel in the royal court. But behind all this was God. He’s the one who moved the heart of this pagan king to restore the people of Israel to their homeland.
There is more here that is extraordinary. Cyrus doesn’t only order them to return. He actually orders them to rebuild the temple. Again, this is the last thing you’d expect a pagan king to do. The Cyrus Cylinder sheds some light on this, too. It wasn’t that he’d become a Jew and worshipped the God of Israel. Cyrus was a pluralist. If every nation in the Persian empire prayed for him and his kingdom, things had to work out. But whatever his motives, the people return to the land, and they rebuild the temple.
And God is not only achieving his purposes. He’s not only in control. He also provides for them. Verse 4: “The people are to provide them with silver and gold, with goods and livestock, and with freewill offerings.” We don’t only see God’s power and control here. We see his generosity.
Israel was no longer an independent nation. A foreign power ruled them, and they were subject to the whims and fancies of a pagan king. In that climate, the last thing you’d expect is for God’s purposes to be achieve, for the people to return to the land to rebuild the temple.
And yet, in spite of pagan and potentially unsympathetic rulers, God does it. God is the one in charge, not the secular governments. With the long-term view, nobody stands in the way of what God wants.
God achieves his purposes, number 1: in spite of a pagan king.
… the inertia of our hearts
Number 2: in spite of the inertia of our hearts. The inertia of our hearts. That’s verses 5 and 6.
The king’s heart wasn’t the only thing that the Lord moved to action. Verse 5: “Then the family heads of Judah and Benjamin, and the priests and Levites – everyone whose heart God had moved – prepared to go up and build the house of the Lord in Jerusalem.”
Remember that the people had been taken to Babylon in the year 586 or earlier. It’s now 539, 47 years later. That means we’re a whole generation or two later.
Let’s try and get a picture of this in our own day. Go back 47 years, you hit 1972. So we need to picture people who arrived in Britain from other countries in the years 1952 to 1972 as adults. That’s pretty much the period that covers the Windrush generation. They arrived for all sorts of reasons, more to do with seeking employment than because of specific problems back home. So we have to imagine people arriving in Britain at that time, who have fled here because their homes have been destroyed. The city they lived in flattened. Deported here as slaves.
And then, 50 to 70 years later, their grandchildren are given the chance to return. They’ve never even been to the country from which they came. They’re not being invited to return to a city that’s been built to welcome them. They’re being given the political opportunity to return to the ruins their grandparents had to flee, to set about a programme of rebuilding.
You can see why many would have chosen to stay in Babylon. Why not? We know from other Bible books that exile was not the same as slavery. The Jewish community in Babylon had settled down to make a home of it. They’d married, had children, bought lands, built houses, established careers. They’d been at this for over 50 years. This was home now. Why would you leave your comfortable life to travel a great distance and rebuild the ruined city your grandparents came from?
I’ll tell you why. These were the people whose heart God had moved.
If it was just down to them, the king would have given his decree, and nobody would have moved. But God didn’t only get to work to move the king’s heart; he moved the heart of his people as well.
Why would anyone today follow Jesus. Life is really tough for some of us, but many of us have lives we’re comfortable with. We don’t have everything we want, but we have most of what we need. We have our friends, our homes, our routines. Life is good.
So why disrupt things by bringing Jesus into the mix. More to the point, why would anyone give anything up for the Lord Jesus, make a sacrifice, take decisions that cost them in real terms?
For the same reason. God moves our hearts. He convinces us, deep down, that this life is not all there is, that the good things we enjoy here are not our true home. He makes our hearts restless to get to know the God who made us, to find our identity and our significance in him.
And so God’s purposes are achieved, in spite of the inertia of our hearts. Because God reigns.
… apparent defeat
God achieves his purposes in spite of a pagan king (number 1), in spite of the inertia of our hearts (number 2). Number 3: In spite of: apparent defeat. Apparent defeat. Verses 7 to 11. Let me read 7 and 8 again:
“Moreover, King Cyrus brought out the articles belonging to the temple of the Lord, which Nebuchadnezzar had carried away from Jerusalem and had placed in the temple of his god. Cyrus king of Persia had them brought by Mithredath the treasurer, who counted them out to Sheshbazzar the prince of Judah.”
A little over a year ago we looked at the book of Daniel. Daniel chapter 1 describes what is described here: Nebuchadnezzar plundered the Jerusalem temple for its gold and silver items, and he placed them in the temple of his own god.
The symbolism was clear. Nebuchadnezzar has just been able to raid the temple of God in Jerusalem. That means his god is more powerful than the God of Israel. And so the vessels from the Jerusalem temple go into his temple in Babylon. Those gold and silver vessels represent God himself; they were set apart for his use. And now the God of Israel is being put on display in the temple of a Babylonian god. Effectively, there’s a caption underneath God: Conquered. 586 BC.
In Kemsing school there is a trophy cabinet just before you go into the main hall. In there are trophies from the various competitions the children have one, celebrating their victories. Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon had a trophy cabinet as well, and in there goes the God of Israel. “Here’s one that I won”, he thinks.
It looks like God is beaten. It looks like game over. God was powerful. Powerful enough to get his people out of Egypt at the time of the Exodus. But not the most powerful. With Nebuchadnezzar he met his match. Nobody stays top of the Wimbledon seed list, top of the football league, whatever it is, forever. No empire stays top of the world pecking order forever. God had had his day. Now Babylon is top dog.
Apparent defeat, except this is not the last word. When Cyrus sends the people back, he also sends those same gold and silver vessels. Meticulously counted out to make sure they all go back. Carefully returned to Jerusalem to be placed where they belong when the temple is rebuilt.
God’s purposes are achieve in spite of apparent defeat.
This is the same God we have.
Just over 500 years later, Jesus would be born in Bethlehem in Judea. Wonderfully, God would achieve his purposes, to save the world through him.
To the outside eye it looked like things would never come off. God had not spoken a word for over 400 years. Had he forgotten his plans, his people? The Messiah ended up being sentenced to death, a conspiracy between the Jewish religious leaders and the Roman governor, pagan rulers trying to secure their own hold on power. As Jesus took his last breath on the cross, it looked like God’s final plan to save the world had also been defeated. There was no plan B, it was game over for the plan God had been developing for centuries.
But Jesus’ death did not have the last word. What looked like total defeat was reversed just 3 days later. It turns out that Pontius Pilate and the chief priests were actually being used by God to bring about his plan to save the world, even at the moment when they thought they were squashing it.
And the miracle does not stop there. Against all probability, people around the world have been turning to follow this Jesus. The earliest examples are recorded in the book of Acts but it doesn’t stop there. People willing to take up their cross, leave behind their comfortable existence and place all in the hands of the Jesus who had no place to lay his own head. They’ve been doing this for 2 millennia, and people like you and me are among them.
The Lord moved. Moved the king’s heart. Moved people to respond. Moved to turn apparent defeat into victory.
Who does not feel awed to see God who in control in such a wonderful way? And as we read about this God, do you not find your own heart stirred to respond to him yourself, to trust everything to him, knowing that he’ll never let us down as we do just that?