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THE DECREE OF ARTAXERXES
Ezra 7:23. Whatsoever is commanded by the God of heaven, let it be diligently done for the house of the God of heaven.
WE are accustomed in divine ordinances to sit at the feet of Prophets and Apostles, and to learn of them: but this day we will take for our preceptor a heathen monarch; in following whose directions we shall not fail to approve ourselves faithful servants to our God. It was no less than fifty-nine years since the temple at Jerusalem had been rebuilt: but still the people, who had returned thither, were at a very low ebb, both in morality and religion. Ezra, who was yet remaining in Babylon, in the service of Artaxerxes, greatly lamented the want of piety amongst his own countrymen; and made request to the king, that he might go to Jerusalem for the purpose of inquiring into their state, and rectifying the abuses which obtained amongst them. In answer to his requests, Artaxerxes issued a decree, authorizing him to go thither with as many of his countrymen as chose to accompany him, and encouraging all his subjects in the province of Babylon to assist him in his pious enterprise. The words before us breathe a spirit which we should scarcely have expected to find in a heathen prince: but it is remarkable that some of the richest effusions of piety in the whole Scriptures proceeded from heathen monarchs [Note: Darius and Nebuchadnezzar.].
To make a due improvement of the words before us, we shall consider them,
In reference to the Jewish Church—
The state of the Jewish Church at this time is not unlike to that in which it was in the days of Ezra—
[Though the temple worship was restored, it was carried on by the Jews without any zeal for God’s honour, or any of that spirituality of mind which is the very essence of all acceptable worship. Nor was the Law of God regarded amongst them with any just measure of submission: for, in direct opposition to its most authoritative dictates, they formed connexions with the heathen round about them, and thus defiled and dishonoured the holy seed which were separated for the service of Almighty God [Note: Ezra 9:1-15.9.9.]. So at this time the Jewish people are at a very low ebb, both in respect of morals and religion. They are indeed, by the providence of God, placed in a situation in which no other people upon earth stand: for they alone, of all people upon the face of the globe, are incapable of serving their God according to the directions of their own Law, and the dictates of their own conscience. But, at the same time, they shew no sense of privation on this account, nor any desire to honour God in the services which they do render: for there is universally among them, in all their synagogues, a degree of irreverence, which we should scarcely expect to find amongst heathens in the worship of their idols. It is impossible to behold them in their religious services, and not see how thick a veil is yet upon their hearts. Nor do they manifest any respect for their own Law, especially in its sublimer precepts. Of some superstitious rites they are observant with pertinacity and zeal; but of real holiness of heart and life they are ignorant in the extreme: and beyond the gains and pleasures of this present world, the great mass of their nation appear scarcely to entertain a thought.]
But to us is given, no less than to Ezra, a command to advance their welfare—
[Ezra received a commission from Artaxerxes to go and rectify the abuses which obtained at Jerusalem, and to place the worship of God on a footing more consonant with his Law, and more worthy of his divine majesty. And have we no command to seek the welfare of that degraded people? Are we not told what God’s purpose is respecting them; namely, to “raise up the tabernacle of David which is fallen down, and to close the breaches thereof; to raise up its ruins, and to build it as in the days of old [Note: Amos 9:11.]?” Are we not told, also, who the builders are to be, and how strictly God enjoins us to execute his work? This is God’s express command to us, even to us, strangers of the Gentiles: “The sons of strangers shall build up thy walls, and their kings shall minister unto thee: for in my wrath I smote thee, but in my favour have I had mercy on thee. And the nation and kingdom that will not serve thee shall perish; yea, those nations shall be utterly wasted [Note: Isaiah 60:10; Isaiah 60:12.].” With their material temple we have indeed nothing to do: but for the erection of God’s spiritual temple amongst them we are bound to labour; removing all the obstacles to their salvation [Note: Isaiah 62:10.], and proclaiming to them the advent of their Messiah, saying, “Behold your salvation! behold, his reward is with him, and his work before him [Note: Isaiah 62:11.]!” Yes, “to all the cities of Judah we should cry, Behold your God [Note: Isaiah 40:9.]!”]
In this work we should engage with all diligence—
[It is not to be effected by good wishes merely, but by great and laborious exertions. It was not without great exertions on the part of men that the Gentiles were converted to the faith of Christ: and the same kind of efforts which the Apostles made for the conversion of the Gentiles we are to make for the restoration of the Jews to the favour of their God. We must feel compassion towards them; and go forth in dependence upon God to search them out in the cloudy and dark day, and to bring them home to the fold of the great and good Shepherd. In this work all should engage, according to their power. As “the Jews, when scattered abroad upon the persecution of Stephen, went everywhere preaching the word [Note: Acts 11:19.],” so should we avail ourselves of the opportunity afforded by the dispersion of the Jews, to draw their attention to the sacred oracles which testify of Christ, and to make known to them the Messiah whom their fathers crucified. I hesitate not to say, that this is our duty. It is not merely enjoined in that general commission to “go and preach the Gospel to all nations,” but it is devolved upon us as an office which it is at the peril of our souls to neglect. God has told us, that he has made us the depositaries of his Gospel, not for our benefit merely, but for the benefit of his outcast people: “As ye in times past have not believed God, but have now obtained mercy through their unbelief, even so have these also now not believed, that through your mercy they also may obtain mercy [Note: Romans 11:30-45.11.31.].” It is, therefore, not only a duty to rebuild the desolated Church of Zion, but our duty, even the duty of every one who has himself obtained mercy of the Lord: and it is a work in which we should engage, no less from a sense of our own obligations to God than from compassion for the necessities of our Jewish brethren.]
But, as the Jewish Church was typical of that which exists under the Christian dispensation, it will be proper to consider the words of our text,
In reference to the Church which is amongst us—
The edifying of the Christian Church should be an object near to all our hearts: and it is remarkable that St. Peter applies to this subject the forecited expressions of the Prophet Amos, respecting the tabernacle of David; which, if not so interpreted, we should have been led to confine to the Jewish Church. And, beyond all doubt, it is our duty to labour in this field, and to exert ourselves both among nominal Christians and the heathen world, for the enlargement and establishment of Christ’s kingdom upon earth.
But I propose rather to limit my observations at this time to individuals amongst ourselves.
Ye, Brethren, need to have God’s work advanced in the midst of you—
[“Ye are God’s house,” as God has said [Note: Hebrews 3:6.]: ye also are expressly called the temples of God, in which he lives and dwells [Note: 2 Corinthians 6:16.]. But in whom is God honoured as he ought to be? In whom are found sacrifices so pure, so spiritual, so abundant, as God calls for at our hands? Truly there is much amiss in all of us; much evil to be rectified, and much defective to be supplied. Who has not reason for self-condemnation, when he reflects on this injunction which is given by a heathen? Instead of being alive to “every thing that is commanded by the God of heaven,” there are many of the divine precepts which we are apt to overlook: and, instead of doing every thing “diligently” as unto “the God of heaven,” how listless are we, and heartless in the greater part of our services! and, instead of living only for the Lord, to how great an extent do we live rather to ourselves! Truly the temple of our God needs to be purged again and again of the corruptions that prevail within it; and a more entire devotion of all that we have and are unto the Lord may justly be required at our hands.]
I call you, then, to engage in the Lord’s work with your whole hearts—
[We will suppose that you are built upon the Lord Jesus Christ, as the foundation which God has laid in Zion [Note: Isaiah 28:16. 1 Corinthians 3:11.]. But there is much to be done by every one amongst you. No man is contented with having laid a foundation: he proceeds to build upon it; and never considers his work as finished, till he has brought forth the top-stone. So it must be in this spiritual building which is begun within us: we must “grow in grace, and in the knowledge of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ:” or, to keep to the figure which is more appropriate to our subject, we must come to Christ daily “as lively stones, that we may be built up a spiritual house, an holy priesthood, to offer up spiritual sacrifices, acceptable to God by Jesus Christ [Note: 1 Peter 2:4-60.2.6.].” Our profiting ought to appear, so that every one who sees us may acknowledge that God is with us of a truth. To this, then, would I call you: and this duty would I impress upon your minds, if ever you would honour God, or walk worthy of your high calling. And remember, I pray you, whose command this is: it is the command of the God of heaven. Remember, too, whose work it is: it is the work of the God of heaven. O! learn of a heathen to venerate the divine authority, and to exert yourselves to the uttermost to promote the divine glory.]
And now let me call you to obey this imperial mandate,
In a way of personal reformation—
[At the time of the passover, the Jews swept every corner of their houses, in order to purge out from them every particle of leaven which might have escaped their more general and superficial search. And this is what we also are called to do. Alas! there are many evil dispositions which lurk within us, and which a superficial survey will not enable us to detect. Pride, envy, discontent, uncharitableness, sloth, are deeply implanted in our nature, and, with many other corrupt propensities, spring up from time to time. O be diligent in “purging out this old leaven, that ye may be a new lump;” since by profession “ye are,” and in reality ye ought to be, “unleavened!” And let spiritual sacrifices abound within you, even the “sacrifices of righteousness which are by Jesus Christ to the glory and praise of God.”]
In a way of ministerial exertion—
[Here I come to that which the occasion peculiarly calls for, and which is more immediately referred to in my text—the efforts which are to be made for the restoring of God’s worship and service in the Jewish Church. Surely this is the duty of all; and it should be performed by us with all diligence.
In this, persons of rank and influence ought to take the lead. Who can see a heathen monarch, the most powerful monarch that day upon the face if the earth, thus interesting himself for his Jewish subjects, and not wish, that all monarchs, with “their counsellors” (for all the counsellors of Artaxerxes concurred with him in this act) were embarked in this holy cause, and exerted all their influence for the promotion of it?— — —
In this the clergy, also, should be most distinguished. Ezra was what, in modern language, would be called a great divine: and he was in a post of honour at the court of Artaxerxes: but he satisfied not himself with the luxury of strenuous idleness and learned ease: he sought to improve his talents and influence, for the honour of God, and the welfare of his people. Gladly, therefore, did he avail himself of the liberty accorded to him of going to Jerusalem for the purpose of remedying the evils which obtained there, and of establishing, on a more becoming scale, the ordinances of divine worship. It was an office of great labour; yet he willingly undertook it. And does not this shew, how those who are distinguished for rank and learning amongst the clergy should employ their talents and influence for the Lord? Surely they could not render unto God a more acceptable service, or perform one more honourable to themselves, than by labouring, according to their respective abilities, for the advancement of God’s worship among the Jews. The very first work of Ezra, too, may furnish them with a profitable hint: for he immediately sent forth persons to find “ministers,” and “men of understanding,” who should co-operate with him in this labour of love [Note: Ezra 8:16-15.8.18.]. And, truly, such instruments are wanting at this time; and, till such are found, we cannot hope for any great success in our undertakings. Let us “pray, then, to the Lord of the harvest, that he would send forth labourers into his harvest;” for “the harvest truly is great; but the labourers are few.”
The readiness with which all the people of Babylon concurred in this good work shews how all classes of the community amongst ourselves should unite in the work that is now proposed to us. They contributed no less than eighty thousand pounds in silver, and one hundred and fifty thousand pounds in gold, besides a vast abundance of wheat, and wine, and oil, and salt, for the purpose of honouring God in his temple at Jerusalem. This was done, I say, by heathens, to honour the God of the Jews. What, then, should not be done by us Christians, who profess to serve the God of the Jews, and to feel our obligations to him for all the wonders of redeeming love? Should not we, according to our power, be alike liberal? Should not all ranks and orders amongst us concur in this good work? And should not “our merchandise and our hire (whether in ‘wheat, or wine, or oil, or salt,’ or any other article,) be holiness to the Lord [Note: Isaiah 23:18.]?” Surely I shall not call upon you in vain. You will not suffer the recommendations of an earthly monarch to be of more avail with his subjects than the edict of Almighty God with you. Ezra was authorized to “accept all the silver and the gold which he could find in all the province of Babylon” for this great object, and to “lay it out” to the best of his judgment “for the honour of his God [Note: ver. 16–18.].” And whatever the liberality of the Christian public shall commit to the disposal of those who have the direction of this great concern will be expended, I trust, with economy and wisdom, in such a way as most to advance the glory of God, in the restoration and salvation of his outcast people.]
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Simeon, Charles. "Commentary on Ezra 7". Simeon's Horae Homileticae. https://www.studylight.org/
the Second Week after Epiphany