July 15, 2010 David Balzer

Ezra 1-6: Rebuilding God’s House

When it comes to DOING HOMEWORK, it’s normally ME teaching THE KIDS something.  But when Lachlan was back in about Year 2, he had something to teach US. Because that’s when Caron and I were introduced to the concept of A NARRATIVE.  Not a STORY, mind you. Don’t ever call a narrative a STORY.

But Lachlan would come home and say he had to write a NARRATIVE. Which threw us. Because when I was at school, you wrote A CREATIVE STORY.

But what we eventually worked out was that a NARRATIVE was a TECHNICAL description for a certain TYPE of LITERATURE.

It turns out that most good stories – whether nursery rhymes, movies, fables, novels, movies, classical epics, country and western songs, even limericks – can be classified as a NARRATIVE.

At its simplest, a narrative has THREE PARTS. An ORIENTATION. A COMPLICATION. And a RESOLUTION.

Let me explain what I mean.

An ORIENTATION sets the scene. Introduces you to the characters and the setting. It puts you into the story.

“Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall”

Then there’s the COMPLICATION. That’s WHAT HAPPENS in the story. The complication presents A PROBLEM TO BE FIXED, or A PUZZLE TO BE SOLVED. A SITUATION THAT NEEDS PUTTING RIGHT.

“Humpty Dumpty had a great fall”

Finally, the RESOLUTION. This outlines how the problem is solved. And so the story ends.

“All the king’s horses and all the kings men couldn’t put humpty together again”.

In THIS case, it’s not much of a resolution, because Humpty is still stuck at the bottom of the wall – a sticky, broken mess. But it’s the end of the story. And there’s resolution. Which we LOVE.

A good story has to have a resolution. We all hate those movies which end without a resolution. Amy Moore says that when she went to see the first episode of Lord of the Rings. She didn’t know it was only the first episode. And she left the cinema really FRUSTRATED that there was no real resolution.

We all LOVE resolution.

And as we skim through these first six chapters of Ezra, we can see the same classic structure of a narrative. At least on the surface. Orientation, complication, and resolution.

Follow it through with me. THE ORIENTATION is that God’s people are stuck in Babylon. And then Cyrus says they can return to rebuild the temple. They make their way back there, and start to build. Chapters 1-3.

But then there’s A COMPLICATION. Ch 4. Enemies of the Jews make enough noise for the work to be stopped. For TEN YEARS. Which is a LONG TIME! Will it ever get finished? What about God’s promises? How will things turn out?

But then comes the RESOLUTION. Ch 5. GOD COMES THROUGH. His prophets give the people a kick-start. Work begins again.

And so Ch 6 finishes with the temple completed. And the people CELEBRATING. In the words of the Tooheys New ad – IT’S ALL GOOD!

Or is it? Because we’re only half-way through the book of Ezra. And all we’ve really got is a TEMPLE. No walls. No city. No king. No real NATION.

Perhaps it’s ACTUALLY more like the first movie in the Lord of the Rings trilogy. A resolution OF SORTS. But much more to the story.

If we peek ahead to the next chapters, we’ll see that this section might SEEM like a complete narrative, but it’s really only a STEP ALONG THE WAY. It’s only ONE PART of a much GREATER narrative.

And that’s really the perspective that comes from reading this part of the OT with CHRISTIAN eyes. Through the lens of THE CROSS.

Because THIS fulfilment of God’s promises was ALWAYS destined to fail. Because God had something MUCH GREATER in store. Something which would take another 500 years to begin.

So with all of that in mind, let’s turn to narrative itself. And look at it in a bit more detail.

Orientation

First, the orientation.

And the “WHEN” question gets answered in the very first phrase of Ch 1 v1. “In the first year of Cyrus king of Persia”

And IMMEDIATELY you stop and think, “Hang on a minute. What’s going on here? This is supposed to be ISRAEL’S history. And yet it’s PERSIA’S king who gets his name at the top of the calendar. Have we opened the wrong book by mistake?”

But as we read on, it all falls into place. Because Israel HAS no king. In fact, there IS no ISRAEL. They’ve been taken into captivity. First it was Babylon. Then Persia conquered THEM.

And they’re stuck in a strange land. With SOME FOREIGNER deciding their fate.

Or so it seems. The reality is God’s still working. He HASN’T forgotten them. And you can see THAT TOO from the first verse.

Ezra 1:1: 1:1 In the first year of Cyrus king of Persia, IN ORDER TO FULFILL THE WORD OF THE LORD SPOKEN BY JEREMIAH, the LORD MOVED THE HEART of Cyrus king of Persia to make a proclamation

Two distinct actions. It was THE LORD who MADE A PROMISE. And it was THE LORD who FULFILLED that promise by working in Cyrus.

Listen to what he PROMISED his people through Jeremiah years earlier. Jer Ch 29. They’d been stuck in Babylon for years. And they were getting impatient. Discontent. Wondering what God was up to. And he’s what God had to say.

Jer 29:1-2: This is the text of the letter that the prophet Jeremiah sent from Jerusalem to the surviving elders among the exiles and to the priests, the prophets and all the other people Nebuchadnezzar had carried into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon.  NIV

4 This is what the LORD Almighty, the God of Israel, says to all those I carried into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: 5 “Build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce. 6 Marry and have sons and daughters; find wives for your sons and give your daughters in marriage, so that they too may have sons and daughters. Increase in number there; do not decrease. 7 Also, seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the LORD for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper.” NIV

10 This is what the LORD says: “When seventy years are completed for Babylon, I will come to you and fulfill my gracious promise to bring you back to this place. 11 For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the LORD, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future. 12 Then you will call upon me and come and pray to me, and I will listen to you. 13 You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart. 14 I will be found by you,” declares the LORD, “and will bring you back from captivity. I will gather you from all the nations and places where I have banished you,” declares the LORD, “and will bring you back to the place from which I carried you into exile.”  NIV

Be content. Be patient. That’s the message.

God PROMISED it. And NOW, at the end of the seventy years, God’s begun to DELIVER on the promise.

He works in the heart of Cyrus. Who decrees that any of the Jews who WANT TO, can return home and re-build the temple. And what’s more, he’ll PAY FOR the whole process!

AND throw in the temple vessels that Nebuchadnezar had pinched.

AND tells all the Babylonian neighbours to chip in and give the Jews generous going-away presents!

It’s a miracle! A foreign king. We’re not told that he was a believer. But God still used him for his purposes. It’s probably most likely that he was covering all his bases. Like pantheists tend to do. Making sure that all the gods of all the nations he’d conquered were satisfied. Just to make sure!

God PROMISED IT. And his promises ALWAYS come true. Even if they seem like a long time coming.

And when God delivers, nothing can stand in his way. If God can soften the heart of Cyrus, then NO-ONE is too tough for God.

So keep trusting God’s promises. And trusting God’s power.

And so God works in the hearts of his people, and many of them return to Jerusalem to rebuild the temple. Within a few months, they’re back, and they start work.

Into Ch 3. They begin with the altar. No sooner have they built it, than they offer sacrifices.

And then they start on the TEMPLE ITSELF. Ch 3 v7. And by the end of ch 3, they’ve finished the foundations. And they stop for a huge celebration.

Notice the priorities? They’re starting from the inside out. The altar, then the temple, then the city walls.

Normally you’d go the other way. Walls, temple and then altar.

But it’s GOD who’s central. And so, things have to be right with HIM FIRST. And the REST will follow.

Complication

Or so the theory goes. Because in Ch 4 we come to THE COMPLICATION. No more smooth sailing.

Because Palestine wasn’t EMPTY when the Jews arrived back. The people of the land were already living there. And they obviously didn’t take too kindly to a whole bunch of people arriving back. And taking up where they’d left off.

Perhaps if they got REALLY organised the Jews would get an army together. And drive everyone else OUT.

And so the enemies try every trick in the book. They’re SNEAKY. Offer to help, so they can sabotage things. Throw a spanner in the works. But the elders see right through that!

Then they try outright SCARE TACTICS (v4)

Then they bring in the professionals. They hire wise men, or prophets, who were paid to convince the Jews to stop.

And this went on for the ENTIRE REIGN of Cyrus, and then his successor, Darius. In fact, v6-23 describe the same sort of pressure that goes on for the NEXT HUNDRED YEARS!

And it wasn’t long before the constant pressure had an effect. Flip over to v24.

24 Thus the work on the house of God in Jerusalem came to a standstill until the second year of the reign of Darius king of Persia.

And that’s the end of part TWO of our narrative. The COMPLICATION. Would that be the end? What would come of God’s plans? Or God’s promises?

Resolution

Next comes THE RESOLUTION. And once again, it’s up to God to set the agenda. Which he does through HIS PROPHETS. Ch 5 v1

Ezra 5:1-2: 5:1 Now Haggai the prophet and Zechariah the prophet, a descendant of Iddo, prophesied to the Jews in Judah and Jerusalem in the name of the God of Israel, who was over them. 2 Then Zerubbabel son of Shealtiel and Jeshua son of Jozadak set to work to rebuild the house of God in Jerusalem. And the prophets of God were with them, helping them.  NIV

And that’s what the books of Haggai and Zechariah are. God’s “kick-up-the-pants” to his people. Listen, for example, to what Haggai has to say.

1:1 In the second year of King Darius, on the first day of the sixth month, the word of the LORD came through the prophet Haggai to Zerubbabel son of Shealtiel, governor of Judah, and to Joshua son of Jehozadak, the high priest: 2 This is what the LORD Almighty says: “These people say, ‘The time has not yet come for the LORD’s house to be built.'” 3 Then the word of the LORD came through the prophet Haggai: 4 “Is it a time for you yourselves to be living in your paneled houses, while this house remains a ruin?”  :”Give careful thought to your ways. 8 Go up into the mountains and bring down timber and build the house, so that I may take pleasure in it and be honored,” says the LORD.

And God’s Word had its usual powerful effect. The people start work on the temple. Again. DESPITE the opposition. Which was still there.

And when the Persian governor and his off-siders hear about it, they come around asking questions. Ch 5 v3.

Ezra 5:3-5: “Who authorized you to rebuild this temple and restore this structure?”

Potentially, this could be a HUGE spanner in the works. The Council’s wants to slap a STOP WORK order on the construction. But look at why it ISN’T. V5.

Ezra 5:5: 5 But the eye of their God was watching over the elders of the Jews, and they were not stopped until a report could go to Darius and his written reply be received.  NIV

God’s working all the time. And then we get a copy of the actual letter that went to Darius.

And, over into Ch 6, we get a copy of Darius’ reply. He checks the records. And finds what Cyrus had decreed. And look at what his conclusion is. Down in v6.

6 Now then, Tattenai, governor of Trans-Euphrates, and Shethar-Bozenai and you, their fellow officials of that province, STAY AWAY FROM THERE. 7 DO NOT INTERFERE with the work on this temple of God. Let the governor of the Jews and the Jewish elders rebuild this house of God on its site.  NIV

And if that had been ALL that had happened. It would have been a great victory. But wait, there’s more! V8

8 MOREOVER, I hereby decree what you are to do for these elders of the Jews in the construction of this house of God: : The expenses of these men are to be fully paid out of the royal treasury, from the revenues of Trans-Euphrates, so that the work will not stop. 9 Whatever is needed-young bulls, rams, male lambs for burnt offerings to the God of heaven, and wheat, salt, wine and oil, as requested by the priests in Jerusalem-must be given them daily without fail, 10 so that they may offer sacrifices pleasing to the God of heaven and pray for the well-being of the king and his sons.  NIV

Not only is the governor to STAY OUT OF THE WAY. But he’s to PAY for the whole thing to be built. AND to provide all the sacrifices to go WITH IT.

When God brings about a resolution. He sure does a good job.

And so, before long, the temple’s finished. And from v13, there’s a description of the tremendous CELEBRATION that follows. A Passover party.

And the narrative finishes with this summary. V22.

Ezra 6:22: 22 For seven days they celebrated with joy the Feast of Unleavened Bread, because the LORD had filled them with joy by changing the attitude of the king of Assyria, so that he assisted them in the work on the house of God, the God of Israel.  NIV

A classic narrative – or is it?

It’s a classic narrative. A great story. You can imagine Jewish families sitting around the table telling that story for generations to come.

Or IS it a classic narrative? What sort of resolution is it REALLY? Will it all be “happily ever after”?

Built into the narrative itself are hints that we’re to look for something more. To reserve judgment on the happy ending.

For a start, we’re only half-way through the story of Ezra. Let alone what the book of Nehemiah adds to the picture.

And if we step back from the happy scene of Ch 6, it’s not quite as rosy as it seems at first.

Because they’re still only A REMNANT. Plenty of Jews are back in Babylon. Or scattered among the nations.

And it’s only a TEMPLE. ONE BUILDING. There’s no city. No walls.

And it’s not much of a temple at that! Hardly compares to the FIRST temple. In Ch 3 v12 we read that

many of the older priests and Levites and family heads, who had seen the former temple, wept aloud when they saw the foundation of this temple being laid, NIV

And there’s no army and no king. And they’re still under Persian rule.

And if you know anything at all about the Israelites, you’ll know that no matter how good things are, it doesn’t take long before they mess things up. They SIN. Follow false idols, or grumble, or turn away from God and ignore his laws.

Which is the problem we’ll see surfacing in the chapters that follow.

But perhaps the greatest shadow isn’t ANY of these things. The greatest question mark to the happy ending. To this being a classic narrative with a nice, comforting resolution. Is the SHEER EXTRAVAGANCE of God’s promises.

God has promised SO MUCH. And this …well… it JUST DOESN’T COMPARE. Like, for example, what God promised through Haggai. Turn over to Hag 2 (p 663)

Hag 2:2-9: 2 “Speak to Zerubbabel son of Shealtiel, governor of Judah, to Joshua son of Jehozadak, the high priest, and to the remnant of the people. Ask them, 3’Who of you is left who saw this house in its former glory? How does it look to you now? DOES IT NOT SEEM TO YOU LIKE NOTHING? 4 But now be strong, O Zerubbabel,’ declares the LORD. ‘Be strong, O Joshua son of Jehozadak, the high priest. Be strong, all you people of the land,’ declares the LORD, ‘and work. For I am with you,’ declares the LORD Almighty. 5’This is what I covenanted with you when you came out of Egypt. And my Spirit remains among you. Do not fear.’  : 6 “This is what the LORD Almighty says: ‘IN A LITTLE WHILE I WILL ONCE MORE SHAKE THE HEAVENS AND THE EARTH, THE SEA AND THE DRY LAND. 7 I WILL SHAKE ALL NATIONS, AND THE DESIRED OF ALL NATIONS WILL COME, AND I WILL FILL THIS HOUSE WITH GLORY,’ says the LORD Almighty. 8’The silver is mine and the gold is mine,’ declares the LORD Almighty.   9’THE GLORY OF THIS PRESENT HOUSE WILL BE GREATER THAN THE GLORY OF THE FORMER HOUSE,’ says the LORD Almighty. ‘And in this place I will grant peace,’ declares the LORD Almighty.”  NIV

A glorious picture of a temple even GREATER than Solomon’s. A temple which all nations will flock to. A place of PEACE. And RICHES.

And this little shed, now that it’s actually finished, hardly seems to compare. There HAS to be something more.

And it’s this sense of longing. Of expectation. Which continues for another 400 years. Until God sends Jesus. The one who will be the TRUE temple. The true presence and glory of God dwelling among his people. The true hope of the nations. The true riches and wisdom of God.

This narrative is a wonderful tale of God’s PROMISES and God’s POWER. We can TRUST them. He WILL bring his plans to pass.

And as we take a step back from these chapters. We get the same message. As we look at the Bible AS A WHOLE. Because God PROMISED so much more than this puny temple. And, in his time he DELIVERED on those promise.

We can trust God’s PROMISES and God’s POWER. He WILL bring his plans to pass.

And we need that reassurance as we look at the little insignificant group of people WE are HERE. And start to doubt. To wonder whether God knows what he’s doing.

Do we have enough PEOPLE or MONEY or LEADERS or TEACHERS or MUSICIANS to survive? Will we see people growing in maturity? Will we see people coming to know Jesus?

And we need that reassurance as we look at the state of the Christian church in Australia. At how congregations are shrinking. Failing to be outward looking. At how secularism is growing. How Christianity is being squeezed out of the public life of Australia.

And we need that reassurance as we look forward to God’s HEAVENLY Jerusalem. Which THIS TEMPLE and CITY were only a shadow. A copy. An entrée. A prototype that was always destined to fail.

GOD’S WORD AND GOD’S POWER ARE AS RELIABLE AND CERTAIN AS EVER. HE STILL HAS PLANS WHICH HE’S WORKING OUT IN HIS TIME. WILL WE TRUST HIM, AND KEEP OUR EYES FIXED ON HIM. WILL WE PRAY THAT HE WILL BE ACTIVE AND POWERFUL IN HIS CHURCH?

And even though God spoke these words to a group of people many times removed from us, they’re just as relevant today as they were then. Listen to what God says to YOU from Jer 29 v11.

Jer 29:11-12: 11 For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the LORD, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.  NIV

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