Psalm 137 has the writer lamenting about the state of Jerusalem. He is sitting by the water, weeping as he remembers the former glory of the city before it was destroyed and the people dispersed. The instruments were hung up as the joy had been lost. But “our captors required of us songs”. The captors did not understand the motivation for the songs in days gone by, and how it was not possible to just return to those songs under the current condition.
The author asks “how shall we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land”? The request to sing to God was overwhelming because the days of old are gone. The writer says “I forget you, O Jerusalem”. Life is very different now, and the only thing to do is trust and wait on God. God is at work, and will soon recall the remnant back to Jerusalem. The writer wants to remember and “set Jerusalem above my highest joy”. Lots of space between those two feelings. Isn’t it amazing how we can quickly shift from one to the other?
There is some desire for retaliation for the treatment that Babylon has made against Jerusalem. The writer calls on God to make Babylon “doomed to be destroyed”. There is some pent up anger here. He goes on to write “blessed be he who repays you with what you have done to us”. God wants to hear our hearts. We don’t have to pretend like He doesn’t already know where we are. The truth of the matter is that being transparent with God isn’t for His sake, it is for our own. We need to be real, and not bottle up things inside pretending God doesn’t see or know.
The writer is clearly just letting it all out here. Frustrated with the past and the fact that enemies have destroyed his city and the temple. And now, in the middle of that anguish, he lets it out. “Blessed shall he be who takes your little ones and dashes them against the rock”. Not the politically correct response. Take your kids and throw them against the rocks. Let’s kill all of you. There is no love loss between the people of Israel and their enemies that surround their city and land. And now, they are returning to rebuild.
So the showdown between the elders of the Jews and the local leaders around Jerusalem reaches King Darius who receives the letter from Tattenai disputing whether Jerusalem should be rebuilt or not. Darius sets his folks searching the royal archives in the house where the documents were stored. And just as God knew, along with His prophets, there was indeed a record written on a scroll from Cyrus some years earlier. Cyrus had issued this: “the king issued a decree: Concerning the house of God at Jerusalem, let the house be rebuilt, the place where sacrifices were offered, and let its foundations be retained”.
The enemies of Jerusalem had managed to halt building for a time, but now a new king is on the throne and work has begun and will now continue. But the ruling was far more than the enemies had bargained for. Darius also said “Let the cost be paid from the royal treasury”. Not only did he approve the rebuilding, but he is going to pay for it too. That had to be a real slap in the face of the enemies. But wait, there’s more. Darius goes further and says “keep away….Let the work on this house of God alone”. He forbids these naysayers from interfering with the rebuilding as well.
But it gets worse for the enemies of God. Darius takes the payment to a whole different level. It is not only that the royal treasury would cover the costs, but that the people under Tattenai, Shethar-bozenai, and their associates were going to intimately be involved in paying and making the rebuilding possible. Darius says “whatever is needed…let that be given to them day by day without fail”. These enemies of the Jews were not only to leave them alone as they rebuilt the temple and Jerusalem, they also were to give them whatever was needed.
Talk about turning the table. The amazing thing is that they listend and “did with all diligence what Darius the king had ordered”. They accepted defeat and left the people alone. God was victorious. It again reminds us that God plus anyone is a majority, and that God will provide the victory when we walk with Him. We are also reminded that “the elders of the Jews built and prospered”. God does not expect us to just skate by. Scripture tells us that Jesus came to give us an abundant life. That is what we see here as the people walk in obedience with God.
Ezra 5 has two prophets, Haggai and Zechariah, speaking truth to the remnant that has returned to Jerusalem. Both of these prophets have books in scripture where their prophecy will be uncovered more in depth as we study it. But these men of God encouraged the people to get on with the task of building the temple. Both challenged the excuses of the day, and pressed the leaders and people to keep on task. Zerubbabel “arose and began to rebuild the house of God”. He got going.
But beyond just speaking God’s truth, scripture tells us that “the prophets of God were with them, supporting them”. Haggai and Zechariah didn’t just speak God’s truth, they were among the people and the leaders encouraging and supporting them. That is a sign of good leadership, when those who are at the front are also in the trenches to be part of the effort. But it wasn’t without resistance. Tattenai, who was a governor of an area nearby, challenges the people again about building the temple.
He asks these questions:
- “Who gave you a decree to build this house and to finish this structure?
- What are the names of the men who are building this building?”
There is fear from those in the area that the city will be rebuilt and the Jews would once again become a strong nation, after many years in exile after the utter destruction of their city. The leadership in Jerusalem “did not stop” and kept on task. But the opposition send an official letter to the new king, Darius, filled with lies and accusations.
The opposition claims that the effort here is unauthorized and should be stopped. So an official letter of request is sent to Darius to see if the story the leaders of Jerusalem were giving were true. They asked Darius to “let search be made in the royal archives” to see what the historical authorization was for the work being done. But the work continues, and progress on the temple is being made. The opposition was hoping that the decree of Cyrus would not be found, and that once again, the work would be stopped.
Ezra 4 has a power struggle going on. The “adversaries of Judah and Benjamin heard that the returned exiles were building a temple to the Lord”. The locals were not happy at all that the remnant has come back and is building the city back. So they come to town in an effort to change things. They start with an offer to help. “Let us build with you” they said, with a motivation of infiltrating the workforce and causing it to shut down from the inside out. But the leaders led by Zerubbabel and Jeshua don’t fall for it. They see right through this scheme.
They say “You have nothing to do with us in building a house to our God; but we alone will build to the Lord” and keep them off the work crew and stay focused on the orders of King Cyrus to rebuild the city. That doesn’t stop these local folks from trying to shut down the work. They:
– “discouraged the people
– made them afraid
– bribed counselors against them
– wrote an accusation”
The enemies took very direct and invasive action to try and get the people off track and stopped.
Their final act was writing to the king and setting them up for failure. Artaxerxes is the king now, and he gets this letter that “They are rebuilding that rebellious and wicked city….if this city is rebuilt and the walls finished, they will not pay tribute, custom, or toll, and the royal revenue will be impaired”. They play the money card and tell the king that if the city is allowed to be rebuilt, it will then cut itself off from the king and the flow of taxes and other money will cease. That was not the plan at all, but they twist the facts and turn the king against the project.
So the suggestion is made and the king decrees that “these men be made to cease, and that this city be not rebuilt, until a decree is made by me”. It was time to shut down the building because the king was unsure of what the outcome of allowing the city to be built would be. The enemies had planted doubt in the king’s mind of their motivation, and “by force and power made them cease”. So work is stopped and it ceased until the second year of Darius the king. There are always enemies who try to derail us from obedience. And at times, it can even seem like they are winning, unless we stay forcused on God and walking with Him as He leads.
Ezra 3 has the story in the seventh month after people had come back to Jerusalem. We see an encouraging sign of obedience as “the people gathered as one man”. There was a lack of resources and a lot of work to be done, but everyone was unified and together for the task at hand. There was beginning to be a shared vision and nation once again as people came together to do the work God had called them back for. The two main leaders of the rebuilding project – Jeshua and Zerubbabel – began work “and they built the altar of God”.
It was important to get the altar rebuilt, and it was put back on the same ground it had originally been built. They began with the altar because of the spiritual significance. It allowed them to offer burnt offerings and follow the law which was their guide for obedience of God in that day. There were beginning a new start with God, and the foundation was getting back to obedience. This really announces their intention to rebuild the temple, as the altar was the beginning of their work.
As they begin to get their lives unified and back in obedience to God, “they gave money” and begin to fund the work of rebuilding. Cyrus had sent some money for them, but they would need much more to get the task done. There were masons and carpenters to pay, food and drink to keep the workers cared for, and supplies to be gathered in order to begin the task at hand. “In the second year” they start the actual work on the temple. “They appointed the Levites, from twenty years old and upward, to supervise the work of the house of the Lord”. Crews are assembled, leaders established, and the work begins.
When the builders laid the foundation for the temple, praise began for the Lord. “They sang responsively, praising and giving thanks to the Lord, ‘for he is good, for his steadfast love endures forever toward Israel’”. There was celebration, but also weeping as “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”. There was a mix of praise and weeping. The old men remembered the glory of the first temple, and knew there was no way the new could be rebuilt to the glory of Solomon’s temple. They also remember the terrible end of the first temple so there is mixed joy among those who had history. Often in life there is a mixture of joy and sorrow, as new things happen but the days of old are remembered.
Ezra 2 begins with a list of “the people of the province who came up out of the captivity of those exiles whom Nebuchadnezzar the king of Babylon had carried captive to Babylonia”. Cyrus had called people to come back to Jerusalem to help build the city and temple which had been destroyed. There is a list similar to this in Nehemiah with one small difference, but eleven of the twelve names are the same. The list contains the heads of household names, and interestingly they are all listed separately rather than just a lump number.
God cares about us as people. He could have easily had a verse like what comes late in the chapter which summarizes the first 60 verses: “The whole assembly together was 42,360”. That would save a whole lot of typing and copying. But God is a personal God and he gives us a list of the number of men, or heads of households by family or tribe. Add to this number the women and children and you have a lot of folks heading back to Jerusalem to be part of the rebuilding.
There was one family, sons of the priests who had some issues. “These sought their registration among those enrolled in the genealogies, but they were not found there, and so they were excluded from the priesthood as unclean”. This family came but they were not listed in the priestly lineage, so God’s law was respected and they were set aside until they could have their situation addressed. This really gives a little insight into what Jesus tells us about heaven, when some will come believing they have entry but will find they do not because they have never known Him. We must be sure our name is written in the Book of Life which happens when we have a personal relationship with Christ Himself as Savior and Lord.
We also learn that “Some of the heads of families, when they came to the house of the Lord that is in Jerusalem, made freewill offerings for the house of God, to erect it on its site”. These folks returned not only to help in the work of rebuilding, but also brought along their money and property. This was not a visit to Jerusalem, but a return to build a new home and life together again after being exiled. They gave “according to their ability” and the amount was significant. We all need to evaluate what our ability to give is, and give generously as He leads us to His work today, just as they did here. The offering was large and God will use it to rebuild.
Ezra 1 has Cyrus in his first year as ruler as king of Persia. He has a sense of urgency to fulfill the prophecy of the prophet Jeremiah. “The Lord stirred up the spirit of Cyrus king of Persia”. God can move to stir us up and get us focused on what matters to him. We have to be willing to allow that to happen by listening for his voice and having enough down time so we could actually be stirred. Sometimes we are going so fast and doing so much that our schedule wouldn’t allow us to stop and serve God even if He was trying to stir us from within. We need some margin.
Daniel may well have been an instrument that God used to stir up the king. He likely showed the king some of the prophecies of Jeremiah, and would have shown him the prophecy from Isaiah 44-45 which mentions him by name some 150 years before he was born. That would get his attention for certain. Cyrus makes it clear that God “has charged me to build him a house at Jerusalem”. He is connected to God and is on a mission to do what he feels called to. A calling is a powerful thing. God calls each of us, we just need to listen for and then heed His call.
So Cyrus makes a decree and says “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”. Not a lot of interpretation needed to what Cyrus asks. If you are one of God’s people, go to Jerusalem and help us build the temple. God has given Cyrus “all the kingdoms of the earth”. He isn’t lacking resources, but he wants people with purpose to come home and help build God’s house.
Unfortunately only a small number return, which aligns with what God had said, that only a remnant would return from exile. But “everyone whose spirit God had stirred to go up to rebuild the house of the Lord” took off and headed for Jerusalem. This wasn’t a simple decision, as the journey for most was long and dangerous, and they were heading back to a total disaster as the city had been destroyed and the walls knocked down. Cyrus has the spoils of Nebuchadnezzar brought out and carried back to Jerusalem. There was much work to do, but the project is begun.