WHAT IS A DECREE?
A decree is a command which is only as powerful as the speaker’s intention, authority and power to enforce. Mere man can only plan and declare what he plans to do; but he is under the sovereignty of God. James:4:13-16 So he is in no position to make decrees, apart from God’s will.
Ultimately, only God, according to Proverbs 8:14-16 and Psalm 115:1-3 has the power to make a decree and cause it to be accomplished, since He alone is all wise and almighty.
There have been four and only four world empires. Babylon, Persia, Greece and Rome. There will be one more yet to come, the revived Roman Empire. So, understand as we continue our study of Ezra, that as the book opens the Babylonian empire has just fallen to Persia and now Persia is the world empire.
In the book of Ezra we learn of decrees by Babylonian and Persian emperors. The decrees ordained by God were fulfilled. All other decrees came to naught. Old Testament books related with Ezra include: Daniel, Esther, Haggai and Zechariah.
The events of Ezra take place at the end of the Babylonian Empire and their captivity of Judah and the beginning of the Persian reign of Cyrus. In this and the following studies we will be looking at the history of Judah under the following emperors.
Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon 606-561 BC
Belshazzar, the last king of Babylon 536 BC
Cyrus, the first emperor of Persia 538- 529 BC He ordered the return of the Jews to their homeland to rebuild their temple in Jerusalem.
Cambyses of Persia 529-522 BC
Darius I of Persia 521-485 BC the King who dealt with Daniel.
Xerxes (Ahasuerus) 485-465 BC (he took Esther as his wife) and
Artaxerxes 465-425 He is the Persian king who gave permission to Nehemiah to return to his homeland and rebuild the city walls of Jerusalem.
In the books of Daniel and Esther we learn about Jews who lived in Babylon before and after it was conquered by Cyrus of Persia.
In the books of Ezra and Nehemiah we learn of the Jews who chose to return to Jerusalem after the Babylonian Captivity and help rebuild their temple.
In earlier studies in our Ezra series, we had learned of the decree of Cyrus, the first Persian emperor. Prophesied by Isaiah in Isaiah 44:28, 200 years before his birth, even to his name; Cyrus understood his God-given role in history. He was to free the Children of Judah from seventy years of Babylonian captivity and encourage them to return to Judah and rebuild their temple which had been destroyed by Nebuchadnezzar.
Some Jews, such as Daniel, chose, or were led by God to stay in Babylon. beginning under the rule of Nebuchadnezzar and continuing through to the reign of Darius, Emperor of Persia.
Other Jews, freed from Babylonian captivity by Cyrus, chose to return to their land of Judah and to Jerusalem to rebuild their temple and re-establish their lives as free men under the Persian rulers. Their story is told in the Books of Ezra and Nehemiah.
HOW A HEATHEN EMPEROR BECAME A GODLY MAN
The book of Daniel is thrilling reading! In this book we are introduced to four young Hebrew men: Daniel, Shadrach, Meschach, and Abednego, who loved God with all their hearts. Learn how God protected them and used them for His glory.
According to Daniel 1:3-8, these four young Hebrew men were brought to Babylon as Jewish captives when they were probably teenagers. Because of their character, intelligence and appearance, Nebuchadnezzar chose to bring them into his court and give them special attention and privileges the rest of the Jews did not enjoy. He believed them to be men who could be a great help to him in ruling the captive Jews. He even gave them Babylonian names, hoping to indoctrinate them into the ways of Babylon and change them. Instead of Nebuchadnezzar influencing them, they ended up influencing him to know and worship the God of Israel.
The story of Nebuchadnezzar’s journey to God begins with his dream recorded in Daniel 2, which Nebuchadnezzar and his sorcerers could not interpret. Then he called in Daniel who was able to interpret the dream. It was about a great image of which Nebuchadnezzar was the head of gold.
Nebuchadnezzar was so taken with his glory as the head that he missed hearing or understanding that the image was about to be destroyed with a great Stone, representing Christ’s Kingdom.
THE FIERY FURNACE
In his arrogance, he ordered a great image to be made of of himself and ordered everyone in the kingdom to bow down and worship it whenever special music was played in honor of it. Anyone who refused to bow down would be thrown into a fiery furnace and burned alive.
The three godly Hebrews, Shadrach, Meschach and Abednego, in honor to God, refused to bow down to any image. Listen to their answer to Nebuchadnezzar in Daniel 3:16-18. “O Nebuchadnezzar, we are not careful to answer thee in this matter. If it be so, our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the burning fiery furnace. And He will deliver us out of thy hand, O King. But if not, be it known unto thee, O King, that we will not serve thy gods, nor worship the golden image which thou hast set up.”
With the answer, Nebuchadnezzar became furious with the three men and ordered the furnace to be stoked and heated seven times hotter. Then he commanded his soldiers to tie them and pick them up and cast them into the furnace, fully clothed. The furnace was so hot that when the furnace door was opened to throw them in, the soldiers were burned to death, even as they threw them into the furnace.
As Nebuchadnezzar watched the proceedings, suddenly he was aware of a fourth man in the furnace. This fourth man along with the three Hebrew men were still alive walking about within the furnace. They were not burned nor were their clothes. Only the ropes that bound them were burned off their wrists and they walked about freely, unscathed by the heat.
That fourth man in the furnace was none other but Jesus appearing with the three Hebrew heroes in His pre-incarnate state. I take great comfort as a Christian in persecution we may be called to endure, in God’s promise to His own in Isaiah 43:1-3 “Fear not: for I have redeemed thee, I have called thee by thy name; thou art mine. When thou passeth through the waters, I will be with thee; and through the rivers, they shall not overflow thee; when thou walkest through the fire, thou shalt not be burned; neither shall the flame kindle upon thee, for I am the Lord thy God, the Holy One of Israel, thy Saviour.”
GOD WORKING IN THE LIFE OF NEBUCHADNEZZAR
As Nebuchadnezzar watched in utter astonishment, he said, “Lo, I see four men loose, walking in the midst of the fire, and they are not hurt and the form of the fourth is like the Son of God.”
Nebuchadnezzar then addressed them as “servants of the Most High God” and invited them to walk out of the furnace. As they stepped forth, he noted that the fire had not hurt them. In fact, it had not even singed their hair, nor burned their clothing. They did not even smell burned.
Now listen to the amazing statement by this heathen king. “Blessed be the
God of Shadrach, Meschach and Abednego, who has sent His angel and delivered His servants that trusted in Him… that they might not serve nor worship any god but their own God.”
Then Nebuchadnezzar made a new decree. ” Therefore I make a decree that every people, nation and language that speak anything amiss against the God of Shadrach, Meschach and Abednego shall be cut in pieces and their houses shall be made a dung hill; because there is no other God that can deliver after this sort. Then the king promoted these three men in the province of Babylon.
Was God through with Nebuchadnezzar yet? No, God had more to humble and teach Nebuchadnezzar. We’ll look at that in our next study of Nebuchadnezzar.
If your church is like ours, there’s a lot of well-doing going on every day throughout your congregation. With the well-doing comes discouragement. I have my times of discouragement with physical and emotional exhaustion as you do. That’s why we all need encouragement.
The best encouragement comes from God’s Word, the Bible. That’s why Biblical preaching is central in our church. Psalm 107:20 says, “He sent His Word and healed them and delivered them from their destructions.” That’s why it’s important to be in church, especially when we’re discouraged. Hebrews 10:25, 12:12-13.
But what does the typical Christian do when discouraged? He falls right into Satan’s trap. He quits going to church or he vainly attempts to seek another church where there is no discouragement.
We’re presently studying the Book of Ezra, the fifth chapter. The Jews who had their temple and city of Jerusalem destroyed in 606 BC and had been in Babylonian Captivity for seventy years; were now under Persian rule. King Cyrus, under the sovereignty of God, had freed them from that captivity and given them permission to return to their homeland and rebuild.
DISCOURAGEMENT POPS UP ITS UGLY HEAD
No sooner had they begun to rebuild when they faced fierce opposition from local enemies of God. This opposition went on for about 100 years, bringing on stress and discouragement.
Read about it in Ezra 4:5-7 There you see the opposition started in the time of Cyrus 538-529 BC and it continued through the time of King Darius and finally during the time of King Artaxerxes who reigned 465-425 BC
They soon stopped their work on the Temple and turned all their attention to building their own houses. It’s not wrong to build our own houses and take care of our own needs; but it is wrong to neglect the House of God.
As I reminded you earlier, God heals us by sending us His Word. That’s exactly what God did for His discouraged Children of Judah. He sent two prophets: Haggai and Zechariah. You can read their messages in the books by their names towards the end of the Old Testament. I encourage you to read Haggai 1:1-14 and Zechariah 4:6 and 10. These messages stimulated them to take courage and get back to work.
FACING OPPOSITION AND DISCOURAGMENT
If you never face this, you evidently are doing nothing for God; but simply living for yourself and your own interests. The more faithful you are to God, the fiercer the opposition. Faithful Christians daily fight discouragement.
Read in Romans 7:18-25, 8:1-18 and Galatians 5:16-17 of this ongoing fight with sin and discouragement in the life of every faithful Christian. Thank God for the possibility of victory as we trust Christ for His strength in our weakness.
JUDAH’S RESPONSE TO THE PROPHET’S CHALLENGE
Zerubbabel, the governor of Judah, and Jeshua, the High Priest, led the people by their own example in rebuilding the temple. Spiritual leadership is not an ivory tower position; rather it involves being an example by getting our hands dirty working with the people.
Their enemies did not ease the pressure against them; but the people refused to be discouraged and stop working on the temple. As long as we are on this earth doing God’s work, we are going to be attacked by Satan and those who belong to him.
Every church member is either a helper and an encourager or else a hinderer and discourager. No one is neutral in the work of God. That choice is made clear in Joshua 24:14-15 and again in Matthew 6:24. The temple was finally completed in the sixth year of King Darius of Persia, according the Ezra 6:15.
I’ve got some exciting information to give you concerning Cyrus and Darius in our next message in this series.
A CRUCIAL CONCERN
In our study in Ezra we’ve been tracing Judah’s journey from Babylonian Captivity back to the freedom of living in their homeland of Israel under the wise reign of Persia’s King Cyrus and later, King Artaxerxes. Both understood that the subjects of their Persian Empire were happier and easier to manage in the freedom of their homeland than as slaves in a foreign land, as King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon had forced them.
From the last two chapters of Ezra, chapters 9 and 10, we are made aware of Judah’s need for repentance and restoration back to God. The priests and leaders had slipped into major disobedience to God by marrying heathen wives whose influence had turned their hearts away from God.
Assuming responsibility for their sin as their leader; grief-stricken Ezra repented as he poured out his confession to God in Ezra 9:5-15.
Let’s consider, in the light of God’s Word, the matter of repentance in general and what it has to do with salvation. Then we will focus in on the repentance in Ezra’s day.
WHAT DOES THE BIBLE SAY ABOUT REPENTANCE?
Jesus repeats twice in Luke 13:3 and 5 “Except we repent we will perish.”
“God commands all men everywhere to repent.” Acts 17:30
Peter commanded in Acts 3:19 “Repent and be converted that your sins may be blotted out.”
In Romans 2 we are given two motivations to repent.
1. Judgment is inescapable. Romans 2:1-3
2. God’s goodness, patience and longsuffering leads us to repentance
Luke 24:46-49 records that when Jesus met with His disciples in the Upper Room after His resurrection, in His great commission, He included the need to preach repentance as well as the Gospel to all nations, beginning with the Jews
So if salvation is by faith in Christ alone, where does repentance come in?
We’re not saved by anything we do, including repenting and being sorry for our sins. We’re saved by admitting we are lost sinners, unable to do anything to save ourselves. We’re saved by trusting in the blood of Christ which was shed on the cross in full payment for all our sins. Salvation is totally a gift of God; not of works, lest any man should boast. Ephesians 2:8-10, Titus 3:5-6
Though we’re not saved by repentance, but by faith in Christ alone; we’re not going to see our need of Christ, nor desire salvation until we have seen our gross sinfulness and repented, crying out in our hearts for God’s mercy.
Sorrow over sin and repentance and turning away from sin is largely ignored today by many claiming to be Christians. Instead, people ignore the warnings of repentance and continue in their sins with the attitude that since we are justified by faith and since “no one is perfect”, we are to just ignore sin in our midst and preach a positive message of our standing in Christ.
People are flocking to churches where they are never made to feel guilty because the preacher never deals with sin. When people sin and it is open and obvious for all to see, instead of confessing and repenting of their sins, they are directed to counseling for the problems caused by their sins.
Many Christian counselors ignore sin by giving psychological reasons or excuses for the action of their patients and give psychological methods of dealing with sin-caused problems. Life continues as usual, sin is ignored and nothing changes. At the same time, sin and its sad consequences continue to spread and contaminate everyone it touches.
EXAMPLES OF FALSE REPENTANCE
When Pharaoh of Egypt was confronted by Moses and faced the plagues God sent to Egypt, as recorded in the early chapters of Exodus, Pharaoh “repented” of his sins repeatedly; but it was not a true heart-felt repentance, only a temporary, superficial method of trying to get God off his back and off his land of Egypt.
When Esau repented in Genesis 28, it was not over sorrow of sin, but sorrow because he had forfeited God’s blessing on himself by his carnality. In Hebrews 12:16-17 the writer describes Esau’s repentance as a superficial, emotional sorrow. He had despised his spiritual heritage and actually found no heart repentance whatsoever.
Judas, the disciple who betrayed Jesus to his enemies, had a heart of stone with no feelings of sorrow whatsoever. Instead of repenting over his sins, he went out and hung himself.
EZRA’S PRAYER OF TRUE REPENTANCE
In Ezra 9:5-15 we read of Ezra’s repentance as a leader of Judah, God’s favored people, who had turned from God to marry heathen spouses. I commented on this in the previous study in this series. Ezra cried out in brokenness and sorrow, “O, My God” as he confessed the sins of his people. Usually revival and turning back to God begins with the leaders. When Ezra repented, the people followed him in repentance towards God. Even the children joined their elders in repenting and turning from their sins.
THE NEED FOR REPENTANCE
First, sins, such as fornication and addiction to pornography, affect our own physical, mental and emotional health. I Corinthians 6:18
Sin is not just our business. Our sins adversely affect our families for generations to come. It also affects our church family.
But most seriously, our sins offend our holy God and cut our fellowship with Him as Psalm 51:4 and Ezra 10:2 teach us.
True repentance causes us to become specific in identifying our sins. In the case of Judah in Ezra’s day, they became specific in confessing their sins of intermarriage with the heathen. To make matters worse, this was going on among those who had the spiritual oversight of the people. To the people’s credit, they sought a Biblical solution to their problems.
We read in chapter ten that they shivered as they stood outside in the cold winter rain and they also trembled at the Word of God, Oh, that we might see that in our churches. Oh, to see people trembling at God’s Word and crying out for God’s mercy. It happened in early America under the preaching of Jonathan Edwards.
Ezra explained to the people that all their marital problems were not going to be solved in one hour standing out in the cold winter rain; so he instructed the leaders to set up appointments with each family and work out the details as they sought God’s will for each family.
SIN COMPLICATES OUR LIVES
Intermarriage with the unsaved, clearly forbidden in God’s Word, can complicate our lives, even though we confess our sins. I Corinthians 7 teaches Christians married to unsaved spouses are to remain married to them, if the unsaved spouse is willing. Though such relationships can tangle up family life, God can work things out for His glory, if Christians are earnestly seeking His will, in spite of the unequal yoke.
So the people in Ezra’s day vowed to obey whatever God’s Word said, regardless of the difficulties in that marital relationship.
THE KEY TO NATIONAL REVIVAL
II Chronicles 7:14 shows us how the repentance of God’s people can lead to a national spiritual awakening. Such revival and blessing begins when God’s people are humbled and broken-hearted over their own sins. Oh, that God would send revival to our nation and to our world! It all starts with you and me as Christians. Are we broken and humbled by our own sins?
LESSONS FROM OUR STUDY OF EZRA
And so we’ve come to the end of our study of the Book of Ezra. What have we learned?
1. God is sovereign in our lives
2. He guides, provides and protects us as His children.
3. His Word must be central to all we do; including our worship and service for Him.
4. True worship is more than an emotional high. True worship leads us to lives of obedience to His Word and separation from evil.
Under the sovereignty of God, Cyrus, emperor of Persia, gave permission for Judah to return to their homeland from seventy years of Babylonian captivity and rebuild the temple in Jerusalem.
No sooner did they begin working on the temple by laying the foundations, when Satan, the chief adversary of God and His children, struck again by hindering the work of progress on God’s temple. We know they were adversaries for Ezra 4:1 identifies them as adversaries.
HOW DID SATAN OPPOSE GOD’S WORK?
The adversaries opposed God’s work by appearing as friends of God’s people by offering to help them with the building project. The temptation to accept their help was strong, for there was much to do and they needed all the help they could get.
ZERUBBABEL’S RESPONSE TO THEIR OFFER
Zerubbabel, with spiritual discernment, replied to them, “You have nothing to do with us to build a house unto our God, but we together will build unto the Lord God of Israel.” Most Christians today would judge a modern Ezra as being harsh, negative, judgmental and unnecessarily divisive for rejecting such help for a Christian cause. They would think, “Doesn’t he realize how unloving he was for rejecting their help? That if he had permitted the enemy to help with the work, that he would have greater opportunity to eventually lead them to Christ?”
Whenever God blesses His people, Satan is always there to oppose and destroy. Whenever there are choices to be made, Satan is right there to influence us to make the wrong choice. Peter warns in I Peter 5:8 “Be sober, be vigilant. Because your adversary the devil prowls about like a roaring lion seeking whom he may devour.”
THE ULTIMATE TEST FOR RECOGNIZING SATAN
II John 7-11 gives the ultimate test for recognizing false teachers. One who is wrong on the doctrine of Christ, cannot be trusted in any other doctrinal area. What is the doctrine of Christ? It includes Jesus’ coming to this earth as a human baby, born of a virgin, His sacrificial blood atonement for our sins as He died on the cross and His bodily resurrection. The summary of the doctrine of Christ is that Jesus is God! He is the second person of the Godhead. He is the Jehovah, the I AM of the Old Testament. He is the Angel of the LORD throughour the Old Testament. For example, He is the angel who wrestled with Jacob at the brook Jabbok. He is the creative Word of God of John 1:1-12 who in the beginning, created the Heavens and the earth. The same passage tells us that this Creator God came to us in human flesh as Jesus of Nazereth who died for our sins and rose again the third day, proving He was God.
One can be wrong about other matters and still be a Christian; however, one who is wrong on the deity of Jesus is not a Christian.
Note that II John 10-11 teaches us that if we yoke together with them in Christian causes, including evangelistic efforts, or encourage them in their religious causes, that we are partakers with them of their sin.
The story of the prophet Balaam is found in Numbers 22-23 and 31:16. Basically, Balaam preached the truth; however, he used his influence to lead Israel into fellowship and intermarriage with the heathen. We also learn that his goal was popularity and “success” in the eyes of the world and more money. In the New Testament we learn of the WAY of Balaam in II Peter 2:15. In Jude 11 we learn that the way of Balaam eventually became known as the ERROR of Balaam. Then in Revelation 2:13-14 we learn that Balaam’s error has become the DOCTRINE of Balaam. Christ clearly announces here that he hates the doctrine of Balaam. That doctrine is compromising the Truth for popularity and financial success.
CHRISTENDOM TODAY IS A DANGEROUS MINEFIELD
Paul warned in II Timothy 3:1-8 that in the last days before Christ’s return that perilous, dangerous days would come as the truth was adulterated and confused. One of the best books I have found dealing with the dangers in churches today is John MacArthur’s 2010 edition of his book Ashamed of the Gospel. Christians need to be aware in choosing a church. Young people headed for college need to be aware of the college they choose. Not all colleges that call themselves Christian are faithful to God’s Word.
I encourage you to go to my series on SEPARATION on this HIDDEN TREASURES web site. Follow through that series as I explain the terms, Liberalism, Fundamentalism, Neo Orthodoxy and New Evangelicalism, which is simply Liberalized Evangelicalism. Check out the following web site by Dr. Jay Grimstead for clarification of issues regarding Neo Orthodoxy vs the Biblical position.
THE RESULT OF JUDAH‘S REJECTION OF THE ENEMIES’ HELP
Returning to Ezra 4 we learn that when Zerubbabel refused help from the enemies of God, they changed their tactics and began actively opposing the work with legal tactics and continual harassing That opposition wore on year after year for about 100 years from the time of Cyrus in 538- 529 BC to the time of Darius 423- 405 BC. Imagine! All these years of opposition simply because they stood uncompromisingly for the Truth!
Where do you stand? I challenge you to study these issues. Your future success in the eyes of God rests on it.