The Book of Ezra is easily divided into two parts.
Chapters 1-6 records the return of the first fifty thousand Jews from Babylonian Captivity back to Jerusalem in response to the decree of Cyrus. This first return took place in 538 BC during the first year of the reign of Cyrus and was under the leadership of Zerubbabel.
No sooner had they arrived in Jerusalem and started building the temple when opposition arose, but you can read about all of this in the earlier messages in this series. In spite of the opposition, the temple was finally completed, as recorded in Ezra 6:15.
Chapters 7-10 record the second return about eighty years later of about eight hundred Jewish men, as well as their wives and children (which could increase the total number from 5,000 to about 10,000) as they journeyed to Jerusalem, led by Ezra the priest and scribe during the reign of Artaxerxes of Persia. Possibly there were about ten thousand in this group and possibly many of them were related to the first group who returned to Jerusalem.
EZRA THE MAN
I mentioned earlier that Ezra was a ready scribe and a priest. His mind and heart were saturated with the Word of God, a very important qualification for a spiritual leader. As a priest, he had direct access to God. The New Testament teaches in I Peter 2:5 and Revelation 1:5-6 that every Christian is a priest before God. Christian men and women are a kingdom of priests to carry out God’s work. We too are blessed as we are saturated with the Word of God and allow it to influence our thoughts, actions and attitudes.
Artaxerxes’ decree, as well as Cyrus’ decree eighty years earlier, were kind and generous and thoughtful; not forceful nor threatening; but giving permission to those Jews who wished to return to Jerusalem to do so. Those who returned did so of their own free will.
THE JOURNEY ITSELF
Artaxerxes reigned from 465-425 BC. The Jews left Babylon in the seventh year of his reign which would be 458 BC. They left on the first day of the first month of that year (which would be about our April) and they arrived in Jerusalem four months later ( which would be our August.) A four month’s journey of about 1000 miles would be about eight miles per day.
It was a dangerous journey, filled with thieves and wild animals along the way; but God brought them safely to their destination with no loss of people, animals or material wealth.
Their journey from Babylon to Jerusalem is a picture of the journey we all take as Christians from the Babylonian system of “Mystery Babylon” of this wicked world system (spoken of in Revelation 17 and 18) to the New Jerusalem of Heaven. Along the way, they enjoyed the fellowship of God’s people. We all need that regular fellowship to strengthen us each week, as we meet together to worship God and hear the preaching of His Word. Read about this need of fellowship in Psalm 119:63, I John 1:7 and Acts 2:42-47.
A third return would follow thirteen years later under Nehemiah whose calling was to start rebuilding the walls of Jerusalem.
THE MINISTRY OF EZRA
Ezra was not just an academic scribe like the cold, spiritually dead scribes and Pharisees Jesus faced in His ministry five hundred years later. Ezra 7:10 says that Ezra had prepared his heart; not just his mind.
There are lots of Christians today whose only concern is for an academic, objective understanding of the Bible They like to fill their notebooks with the objective notes from the sermon; but they don’t want the Scriptures applied it to them personally.
It’s one thing to understand theory in our heads. It’s another thing to seek to understand Bible doctrine in our hearts and desire to know how to live to please God. It’s that kind of preaching that strengthens us spiritually and produces beautiful lives that bless others and attract others to join us in the Lord’s work, as Ezra 7:27-28 teaches.
As Jesus’ ministry was a combination of what He did and what He taught, according to Acts 1:1, so our ministry must be a combination of how we live as well as what we teach. That was Paul’s instruction to young Timothy in I Timothy 3:1-16, II Timothy 2:15 and 3:16-17.
THE SECRET OF EZRA’S SUCCESS
Ezra 7:6,9 and 29 teach us that “The hand of the Lord was upon him. That means success for anyone who lives and preaches the Gospel. It was the same for Joshua in Joshua 1:6-9.
What a privilege to know the hand of God on our lives. Read the entire 139th Psalm and see the importance of His hand on us.
What did God’s hand on Ezra mean for him?
1. God blessed him and those who accompanied him on the long journey from Babylon to Jerusalem.
2. God granted him all his requests Ezra 7:6
3. Ezra possibly wrote the decree for Artaxerxes, for Artaxerxes would not have known all that Jewish information in the decree. Ezra probably wrote it and Artaxerxes simply affixed his seal or his signature to it.
THE CONCLUDING DOXOLOGY Ezra 7:27-28
Ezra praises God for molding the king’s heart and for God’s mercy shown to him and for God’s strength given to him and for all the encouragement.
He sensed the hand of the Lord upon him: not just to build, but beautify the house of God. So it has been the desire of my heart as a preacher to not simply build a church, but to beautify the Body of Christ. Only then can we worship Him in the beauty of holiness. I Chronicles 16:29, Psalm 29:2. 96:9.
Beauty attracts others. Ugliness repulses. God help us as we seek to work together to not only beautify our House of Worship; but more importantly, may He beautify our lives so that others are attracted to Christ.
If you want to be excited about going to Heaven, I recommend Randy Alcorn’s 500 page book on Heaven. Follow along with your open Bible You will be shocked and amazed and excited about going. It’s not at all like the cartoon I saw of a man sitting alone on a cloud with his harp who said, “I wish I had brought some magazines to read.”
The books of Ezra and Nehemiah tell the story of the Jews at the time of their restoration from Babylonian captivity. When Persia conquered Babylon; Cyrus, the Persian’s, first order of business was to release the captive Jews from 70 years of Babylonian Captivity.
Under Cyrus’ magnanimous decree, some Jews chose to return to their homeland of Judea to rebuild their temple and later the walls of Jerusalem. Others chose to remain in Babylon.
The Books of Daniel and Esther record life for the Jews who chose to remain in Babylon and Persia. The books of Ezra and Nehemiah are a record of the Jews who returned to Jerusalem to rebuild their temple and later the walls of their city. Daniel, Ezekiel, Haggai and Zechariah are the prophets to the Jews during this period of time.
The decrees of the Babylonian emperors were different from the decrees of the Persian emperors. The Babylonians were arrogant, threatening, demanding and forceful and their decrees came from hearts of defiance towards God. The Persian decrees were more kind, gracious and non-threatening, giving the Jews the privilege of returning to their homeland voluntarily or remaining in Babylon.
Whether Cyrus, the first Persian Emperor, had ever read God’s Word or not; it is certain that he had been influenced by what the Prophet Isaiah had written about him 200 years before Cyrus was born; even calling him by his name and foretelling his calling in life, that of delivering Judah from 70 years of Babylonian captivity. That interesting information is given in Isaiah 44:24-28 and 45:1-13.
The first wave of Jews to make the long 1000 mile journey back to Jerusalem was led by Zerubbabel and is recorded in Ezra 1-5.
The second wave of Jews to return was led by Ezra during the time of the Persian Emperor Darius. This is recorded in Ezra 6-10
In this message, I want to focus on Darius and Daniel. Though Darius was not a godly emperor at the beginning of his reign, he had been influenced by the well known history of the kindness and gentleness of Cyrus towards the Jews.
Daniel had been taken as a young man with promise into Babylon by King Nebuchadnezzar. He continued in the royal courts long after Persia had conquered Babylon. Now, perhaps in his 80’s or 90’s, he found himself in the Persian courts of King Darius, loved and well-respected by the king, and second in command directly under Darius. Under Daniel were three presidents and under the three presidents, were 120 princes who helped rule the Persian Empire.
From the time he was a teenager under Nebuchadnezzar, he had a strong relationship with God and had purposed then never to defile himself with sin, nor with the king’s lavish life style. For all those years he had been faithful to God throughout his life, walking and talking (praying) with God.
The three presidents under his leadership had a strong aversion and jealousy and hatred of him because of his godly lifestyle.
It was well known that when Persian Kings made decrees, they were absolutely irrevocable. So they conspired to trick King Darius into making a decree which would remove Daniel from his superior position over them and have him thrown into a den of lions to be killed. Aware that Daniel prayed regularly and publicly to the God of Heaven, they went over Daniel’s head directly to Darius and encouraged him to make a decree that for 30 days, no one should pray to anyone but Darius himself, or else they would be thrown to the lions. That appealed to Darius’ pride and so without thinking he made a most serious mistake. He signed a decree stating that for thirty days no one could pray to anyone but himself.
Opening his window facing Jerusalem, Daniel continued praying to God, as had been his practice throughout his life. Immediately the three presidents reported him to King Darius. Darius was sick at heart for he loved and highly respected Daniel, Nevertheless, he had signed the decree and he knew he was trapped. Nothing could be done about it.
DANIEL THROWN TO THE LIONS
As Daniel was being led to the lion’s den by the guards, King Darius spoke privately to him, He said to Daniel, “Thy God whom thou servest continually, He will deliver thee.” Then Darius went back to his palace to spend a sleepless night tossing and turning on his bed, sick about the horrible decision he had made.
That night Daniel slept well, no doubt resting his head on the mane of one of the lions. God had shut the lion’s mouth and they had no desire to hurt him.
Very early in the morning, I expect about 3 or 4 o’clock, Darius made his way to the lion’s den and cried with a lamentable voice, “O Daniel, servant of the living God, is thy God whom though servest continually able to deliver thee from the lions?”
Daniel answered him, “O King, live forever. My God has sent His angels and hath shut the lion’s mouths, that they have not hurt me: forasmuch as before God, innocency was found in me; and also before thee, O King, have I done no hurt.”
Then was the king exceeding glad for him and commanded that they should take Daniel up out of the den. So Daniel was taken up out of the den and they found him totally untouched by the lions because he believed in his God.
Then the king demanded that they bring those three presidents who had accused Daniel, and they cast them into the den of lions with their wives and children and they were instantly killed by the lions.
King Darius immediately wrote a new decree to supersede the one he had written earlier. You can read it from Daniel 6:25-27. “I make a decree that in every dominion of my kingdom men tremble and fear before the God of Daniel: for He is the living God, and steadfast forever. And His kingdom is that which shall not be destroyed, and His kingdom shall be even unto the end. He delivers and rescues and He works signs and wonders in Heaven and in earth, who has delivered Daniel from the power of the lions.” It is my personal opinion that because Darius now honored the God of Heaven, that we will one day have the privilege of meeting him in Heaven, along with Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon.
So Daniel prospered under Darius as well as under Cyrus for about ninety years.
A CHALLENGE TO CHILDREN AND TEENS
There’s a promise to young men and women in Proverbs 22:29 that you can count on if you wish to have the success in life which Daniel enjoyed. Let me paraphrase it. “Watch the young men and women who love God and live diligently to please Him and fulfill their responsibilities without compromise. As they grow up, they are going to be successful in life and be greatly used of God.”
Young people, I challenge you in the words of a song that has greatly influenced me and that I have sung since childhood,
“Dare to Be a Daniel” by Philip B. Bliss
Standing by a purpose true,
Heeding God’s command.
Honor them the faithful few!
All hail to Daniel’s band!
Dare to be a Daniel,
Dare to stand alone!
Dare to have a purpose firm!
Dare to make it known.
Many mighty men are lost,
Daring not to stand,
Who for God had been a host
By joining Daniel’s band!
Many giants great and tall,
Stalking through the land,
Headlong to the earth would fall,
If met by Daniel’s band!
Hold the Gospel banner high!
On to victory grand!
Satan and his hosts defy,
And shout for Daniel’s band.
God help you to determine now, to stand faithfully for Christ and serve Him with all your heart throughout your life.
GOD HATES ARROGANCE
If there is one word that described Babylonian Emperor Nebuchadnezzar, it was ARROGANT. God had to crush his pride, just as he has to crush the pride of every sinner before He can be saved and be fit to have fellowship with God and dwell in His presence. In the last message we saw God making progress in the heart of King Nebuchadnezzar.
After casting Shadrack, Meschach and Abednego who refused to bow down and worship his golden image, into the fiery furnace and seeing them walking alive with the Son of God in the midst of the fiery raging furnace, it’s an understatement to say he was impressed with their God.
The King went to the door of the furnace and invited them to come forth. They stepped forth unharmed, without even the smell of smoke on them, into the presence of Nebuchadnezzar with all his high officials witnessing the miracle. Then he spoke, “Blessed be the God of Shadrack, Meschach and Abednego, who hath sent His angel and delivered His servants that trusted in Him, and have changed the king’s word, and yielded their bodies that they might not serve nor worship any god, except their own God. Therefore I make a decree that every people and nation and language which speaks anything amiss against the God of Shadrack, Meschach and Abednego, shall be cut in pieces, and their houses shall be made a dunghill: because there is no other God who can deliver after this sort. Then the king promoted Shadrach, Meschach and Abednego in the province of Babylon.”
Nebuchadnezzar is coming along in his understanding of God, but he still needs to be humbled. In chapter four of Daniel, we read of his troubling dream. Daniel reveals to him that he will be driven from his palace to the fields to eat grass as an ox.
In Daniel 4:30 we see King Nebuchadnezzar walking through his glorious palace. The king said to himself, ” Is not this great Babylon which I have built for the house of the kingdom by the might of MY power and for the honor of MY majesty?” That was enough!
While he yet spoke of his glory, there came a voice from Heaven to him saying, “O King Nebuchadnezzar, to thee it is spoken, The Kingdom is departed from thee!” God continued, announcing that he would be driven into the fields to live as cow or a donkey, eating grass.”
Even as God was speaking to him, his officials forcibly drove him from his palace into the fields and for the next seven years, he lived and acted as an animal, eating grass as an ox.
Let the proud beware. Many powerful men, or insignificant men who think they are powerful have made fools of themselves acting as asses, or shall I say more politely, acting as donkeys.
At the end of seven times, (seasons or years) Nebuchadnezzar lifted up his eyes to God in Heaven and his understanding as a man returned to him. Listen carefully to what he said in Daniel 4:34-35 ” I blessed the Most High and I praised and honored Him who liveth forever, whose dominion is an everlasting dominion, and His kingdom is from generation to generation: and all the inhabitants of the earth are reputed as nothing: and He doeth according to His will in the army of Heaven, and among the inhabitants of the earth: and none can stay His hand, or say unto Him what doest Thou?
WHAT A TESTIMONY from the mouth and heart of the once proudest of kings!! What did God do for Nebuchadnezzar? Because he had shown absolute humility and recognition of God, God restored him to his former office as Emperor of Babylon.
Listen now to Nebuchadnezzar’s testimony in the last verse of Daniel chapter 4.
“Now I Nebuchadnezzar praise and extol and honor the King of Heaven, all whose works are truth, and His ways judgment: and those who walk in pride He is able to abase!”
In that testimony I hear the voice of a man who had totally been humbled by God and recognized Him as Lord and Saviour. I personally expect to meet Nebuchadnezzar in Heaven, as a regenerated, contrite sinner who has put His trust in the God of Heaven. I look forward to spending time with him in Heaven and learning more about the grace of God in his life.
How about you? Are you broken before God? “A broken and a contrite heart God will not despise.” Psalm 51:17