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1. THE FIRST RETURN FROM THE CAPTIVITY
THE DECREE OF CYRUS (Ezra 1:1-4). The origin of the return is found in an exertion of Divine influence on the mind of a heathen king, who was moved thereby to put forth a proclamation or decree, addressed to all the people of the Lord God of Israel dwelling in any part of his dominions, granting them free permission to return to their own land, and at the same time recommending his other subjects to expedite their departure by giving them out of their abundance gold, silver, goods, and cattle, so that none should be hindered by poverty from taking advantage of the king's kindness. Many things are remarkable in this decree:—
1. Its promulgation by a heathen king, spontaneously as it would seem;
2. Its recognition of a single supreme God, "the Lord God of heaven;"
3. Its declaration that the supreme God had "charged" the king to rebuild the temple at Jerusalem; and
4. Its actual origination in a "stir" of the king's spirit by God himself.
The secret government of the world by Jehovah is, in part, opened to us, and we see how great political events, anteriorly improbable, are brought about by his action on men's hearts; we see that he does not leave, has never left, the heathen wholly to themselves, but condescends to put thoughts into their minds, and bend their wills, and so bring about his purposes. We see, moreover, that the heathen were not universally without some knowledge of the true God; and especially we perceive that in Persia at this date there was a distinct recognition of a single supreme Deity, and an identification of this Deity with Jehovah, the God of the Jews. This fact throws light on the whole history of the Jews under the Persians—on the friendly tone of the decrees of Darius (Ezra 6:6-12) and Artaxerxes (Ezra 7:12-26), on the amicable relations between the latter king and Nehemiah (Nehemiah 2:2-8), on the position occupied by Mordecai under Ahasuerus (Esther 10:2, Esther 10:3), on the quiet submission of the entire people to the Persian yoke for above two centuries, and on their faithful adherence to the cause of the last Persian king when he was attacked by Alexander (Joseph. 'Ant. Jud.,' Nehemiah 11:8, Nehemiah 11:3). A religious sympathy, it is clear, united the two nations. We must not, however, carry this notion too far, or regard the Persian religion with too favourable an eye. The native literature shows that the Persians worshipped more gods than one, although one was supreme, and that their religion was moreover dualistic, involving a belief in a principle of evil, co-eternal and almost co-equal with the principle of good.
In the first year of Cyrus. The context shows that it is the first year of Cyrus at Babylon which is intended. Cyrus the Great became King of Persia by his final defeat and capture of Astyages, in b.c. 559 probably. His conquest of Babylon was, comparatively speaking, late in his reign (Herod; Xenoph.), and is fixed by the Canon of Ptolemy to b.c. 538. He took the city on the night of Belshazzar's feast (Daniel 5:30), when Daniel had just been appointed to the third place in the kingdom (ibid. verse 29), and was practically at the head of affairs. Thus the great king and the great prophet of the time were brought into contact, and naturally conferred together, as may be gathered from Josephus ('Ant. Jud.,' 11.1). That the word of the Lord by the mouth of Jeremiah might be fulfilled. The reference is to Jeremiah 25:11, Jeremiah 25:12, and Jeremiah 29:10. Jeremiah had prophesied not only the fact, but the date of the return, by assigning to the captivity a duration of "seventy years." There might be some doubt when exactly this term would run out, since the year of 360 was in prophetic use no less than the year of 365 days ('Dict. of the Bible,' s.v. YEAR), and, moreover, the exact date of the commencement of the captivity admitted of question; but Daniel appears to have calculated in b.c. 538 that the term was approaching its termination (see Daniel 9:2-19). If the captivity were regarded as commencing in the third year of Jehoiakim (Daniel 1:1, Daniel 1:2), which was b.c. 606-605, and if years of 360 days were regarded as intended, this would clearly be so, since 360 x 70 = 25,200, and 365 × 68 = 24,820, so that in b.c. 538 only another year was wanting. For the prophecy to be fulfilled, it was requisite that the first steps towards bringing about the return and the cessation of desolation should not be delayed beyond the close of b.c. 538. The Lord, accordingly, in this year stirred up the spirit of Cyrus, king of Persia. As God in earlier times had worked on the minds of Abimelech (Genesis 20:3) and Balaam (Numbers 23:5, Numbers 23:16), and more recently of Nebuchadnezzar (Daniel 2:28), so now, it would seem, he directly influenced the heart and will of Cyrus. This is the less surprising, as Cyrus was, in the Divine counsels, fore-ordained to do this work, and had been raised to his high station for the purpose (Isaiah 44:28; Isaiah 45:1-4). Cyrus was thus induced to make a proclamation (literally, "to make to pass a voice") throughout the whole kingdom, which reached from the AEgean Sea to the borders of India, and from the Caucasus to the Persian Gulf, and even to put it in writing, b' miktab, that so it might be sure to become generally known. Writing was probably of recent introduction into Persia; but there is positive evidence in the native remains of its use by Cyrus. His proclamation was probably issued in at least two languages, Persian and Chaldee.
Thus saith Cyrus. Persian inscriptions do not ordinarily commence in this way; but the formula "says Darius the king," "says Xerxes the king" is frequent in them. King of Persia. So the Behistun inscription: "I am Darius, the great king, the king of kings, the king of Persia." The Lord God of heaven, Yehovah Elohey hashshamayim. "God of heaven" seems to have been a usual title of the Supreme Being among the Persians (see below, Ezra 6:9, Ezra 6:10; Ezra 7:12, Ezra 7:23), and perhaps designated Ormuzd in contradistinction to Ahriman, who was lord of the infernal regions. The use of the term "Jehovah," instead of Ormuzd, is remarkable, and was probably limited to the Hebrew transcript of the proclamation. Hath given me all the kingdoms of the earth. An acknowledgment that they have .received and hold their royal power from Ormuzd is universal on the part of all the Persian kings who have left inscriptions of any length; but they do not often indulge in such a hyperbole as this of Cyrus. Artaxerxes Ochus, however, calls himself "king of this world". The mention of the "kingdoms of the earth" is appropriate, since Cyrus had not inherited his empire, but built it up by the conquest of a vast number of independent states ('Herod.' 1. passim). His earn feeling that God had in all cases given him the victory harmonizes with the statement of Isaiah in Isaiah 45:1. He hath charged me to build him a house at Jerusalem. The he is emphatic, and is expressed by αὐτὸς in the Septuagint and ipse in the Vulgate. He himself, Jehovah-Elohim, has given it me in charge to build him a house. Most critics rightly explain by referring to Isaiah 44:28, and accepting the statement of Josephus ('Ant. Jud.,' Isaiah 11:1) that the passage was shown to Cyrus shortly after his capture of Babylon. He understood the prophecy as a command, and proceeded to obey it. Which is in Judah. The addition of this clause marks strongly the oblivion into which the ruined city had fallen. Apparently, it was necessary, to recall its situation to men's minds by an express mention of the province whereof it had been the capital. Note the repetition of the clause in the next verse.
Who (is there) among you of all his people? Cyrus does not limit his address to the Jews, or even to Judah and Benjamin, but extends it to the whole people of Jehovah, i.e. to all the tribes equally. Gozan and Media, to which the ten tribes had been transported by the Assyrian monarchs, were within his dominions no less than Babylonia. That many non-Jewish Israelites did return appears from 1 Chronicles 9:3. His God be with him. A pious wish, almost a blessing, indicative of the deep religious feeling and great goodness of heart which characterized Cyrus alone of Persian monarchs. Among the Greeks, AEschylus, who first speaks of him, calls him kindly" or "gracious" (εὔφραιν); Herodotus says he ruled his subjects like a father; Xenophon makes him a model prince; Plutarch observes that "in wisdom and virtue and greatness of soul he excelled all other kings;" Diodorus ascribes to him a remarkable power of self-command, together with good feeling and gentleness. The Latin writers, Cicero and others, add their meed of praise; and altogether it may be said that, so far as the evidence reaches, no nobler character appears in ancient history. The Scriptural notices, whether in this book or in Isaiah, are in remarkable accord. Let him go up. Jerusalem was on a much higher level than Babylon, and the travellers would consequently have to ascend considerably. And build the house. The "charge" to Cyrus did not require him to take a personal share in the building. He was simply to "say to Jerusalem, Thou shalt be built; and to the temple, Thy foundation shall be laid" (Isaiah 44:28). He is therefore content to assign the actual work to others. He is the God. The Septuagint and the Vulgate attach the last clause of the verse to these words, and render "He is the God who is in Jerusalem," which greatly weakens the force of the expression. According to this punctuation, Cyrus makes Jehovah a mere local Deity; according to the far preferable arrangement of the A. V; he declares emphatically that Jehovah is the one true God, beside whom there is no other. Compare the very similar confession of Nebuchadnezzar (Daniel 6:26).
Whosoever remaineth in any place where he sojourneth. Literally correct; but the meaning is, "And with regard to all those who remain (of the captive people) in any part of the country where they have their temporary abode, let the men of his district help him with silver," etc. Cyrus finishes his decree by calling upon his heathen subjects to come to the aid of the poorer Israelites, and assist them with money, cattle, and other commodities, in order that none may be hindered by poverty, or by the want of beasts of burthen, from joining the band of emigrants, and setting out on their return to Jerusalem. Again, the kindliness of his disposition is apparent. Beside the freewill offering. So the Septuagint; but the Vulgate has, "Except the freewill offering," etc. The Septuagint and the A. V. are right. Cyrus means that money, cattle, and goods are to be made over to the poorer Israelites, in addition to any offering that might be intrusted to them for conveyance to Jerusalem, either by himself or by his subjects. Individually, he was about to send "a freewill offering," consisting of a number of gold and silver vessels for the service of the temple. His words suggest that his subjects might follow this good example.
The very first word of this book (literally "and," Keil, Wordsworth, etc.) has its importance. It shows the book to be an additional and continuous portion of that most important of all histories, the history of the Jews. How large is the place of that history in the Bible, beginning at Genesis 12:1-20. and hardly passing again to that of the Gentiles at Acts 10:1-48. How interesting a story in itself! No people so favoured (Amos 3:2; Romans 3:1; Romans 11:28). No people so exalted (Exodus 4:22; Jeremiah 31:9; John 1:47). How important a story to us! So instructive (1 Corinthians 10:11, etc; etc.). So vital (Genesis 12:1-3; Numbers 24:9, etc.). We are all the better or the worse for the lessons of the story of the Jewish people. This opening verse of Ezra introduces us to this singular people at a very important juncture, and relates, in connection with their history, a very momentous event.
I. THE IMPORTANCE OF THE JUNCTURE. We find the people, e.g; in very great tribulation. They are under the rule of a stranger, counting the years of their history by the years of a "king of Persia." This not so in former days (see 2 Chronicles 34:8; 2 Chronicles 35:19; and, as perhaps an instance of transition in this respect, Jeremiah 52:12). We are thus pointed backward to the invasions of Judah by Nebuchadnezzar, and to those three successive waves of desolation which came over the land under him. See 2 Chronicles 36:6, 2 Chronicles 36:7; Daniel 1:1, Daniel 1:2, for the first invasion, in the days of Jehoiakim or Eliakim, about 607 b.c. For the second, in the days of Jeconiah or Jehoiachin, about 599 b.c; see 2Ki 24:13; 2 Chronicles 36:9, 2 Chronicles 36:10. For the third, in the reign of Zedekiah, b.c. 588, see 2 Kings 25:14; Jeremiah 52:8. Some idea of the desolation thus caused in the land itself may be inferred from what is said in 2 Kings 24:14, of only "the poorest sort of the people" remaining after the second incursion; and from what is said in Jeremiah 42:2, after the third; as also from what we are told respecting the "few" mentioned there in Jeremiah 43:5-7 No wonder we read the prophet lamenting, as in Lamentations 1:1; Lamentations 5:18. Awful indeed was that gray and silent Sabbath which had fallen on Judah's cities and fields! As to the people thence carried away, equally desolate were their hearts. How grievous their reproach and "confusion of face" (Daniel 9:7, Daniel 9:8). How bitter their recollections (Lamentations 1:10; Lamentations 4:10, Lamentations 4:20, etc.). How inconsolable their anguish (Psalms 137:4). Could any sorrow be worse (Lamentations 1:12; Daniel 9:12)? At the precise moment, however, when our story begins there was a little light in this darkness. Some of the people evidently were in expectation of some change for the better. The name of the king mentioned seems to show this to begin. Also the fact of its being the "first year" of his reign. Now that he had come to the throne, what would he do? See, for evidence of the great interest elsewhere attached to this date, Daniel 1:21, as compared with Daniel 6:28 and Daniel 10:1. How exceedingly natural is this interest if we believe Isaiah 41:25; Isaiah 44:28, etc; according to the best commentators, to be prophecies of this Cyrus by name! What a great turning-point in the history of the exile, his capture of Babylon, and subsequent coming to the throne. Another ground of great expectation at this juncture is also hinted at in the text. The prophecies of Jeremiah, a prophet whom many of the exiles may have heard for themselves, had foretold seventy years of sorrowful "rest" to the land (see Jeremiah 25:12; Jeremiah 29:10, compared with 2 Chronicles 36:21, and Leviticus 26:34, Leviticus 26:35, Leviticus 26:43). The end of those seventy years coincided with this first year of King Cyrus. There was one at least amongst the exiles who knew this "by books" (Daniel 9:2). This same man had been the tried friend and chief adviser of the immediate predecessor of Cyrus (Daniel 6:3, Daniel 6:14, Daniel 6:26), and had a deep thought and constant love for his people and land (Daniel 6:10). From a man of such a character, and with such influence and knowledge, what might not be hoped for at such a time? And how exceedingly welcome, in such a condition of misery, would be any such hope!
II. The EVENT RELATED was quite in accordance with these natural expectations. While the people were thus anxiously listening, there came a sound on their ears. This new ruler had spoken; he had issued a proclamation—no unimportant thing in itself. We do not expect kings to speak unless they have something to say. It was also, as they would soon learn (a more important point still), a proclamation about themselves. Further yet, it was made in two ways, each worthy of note. On the one hand, to make it public, it was made orally, by word of mouth, throughout all his kingdom, for the information of all who could hear (comp. Daniel 3:4). On the other, to make it sure, it was "put in writing," as a thing meant to abide (comp. Daniel 6:8, Daniel 6:10). How momentous, therefore, even thus far, the thing which had happened. It was a loud knocking at the door of their prison-house, whatever it meant. Observe, in conclusion—
1. The fulness of God's word. How much here (apparently) beneath the surface; viz; the prophecies of Isaiah; the influence of Daniel; also in the reference to the Sabbatical years, the legislation of Moses; and, finally, in the appearance of Cyrus as a predicted restorer and deliverer, the promise of Christ himself.
2. The consistency of God's word. How many, how various, and from what widely-distant parts of it are the stones, as it were, thus brought together. Yet how admirably they fit together, and what a whole they compose.
3. The promptness of God's mercy. Many centuries passed before God visited his people for their neglect of the Sabbatical years; but as soon as the seventy years of enforced compensatory rest are concluded, that moment his mercy shines forth. See this characteristic illustrated in the case of Israel (Genesis 15:16; Exodus 12:41). In the case of the world (Galatians 4:4).
When the proclamation, which captive Israel had heard of with such interest and expectation, came to be examined, what was it found to contain? Besides a proper preamble, showing in whose name and by whose authority it was issued, three principal things; viz.,
1. a remarkable confession;
2. a satisfactory permission; and
3. a considerate command.
I. A REMARKABLE CONFESSION. A confession or acknowledgment—
1. Of Jehovah's existence. Cyrus, brought up as a worshipper of Ormuzd, begins his proclamation here by mentioning Jehovah by name.
2. Of Jehovah's greatness. Jehovah the "God of heaven"—so he goes on to describe him—i.e. according to Persian usage (see Keil in loc.), the supreme God, the Most High. This the more remarkable because neither Nebuchadnezzar nor Darius before, nor Artaxerxes afterwards, when much impressed with the power of Jehovah the God of the Jews, speak of him in this way (comp. Daniel 2:47; Daniel 3:29; Daniel 6:26; Ezra 7:15; also Ezra 6:12).
3. Of Jehovah's goodness. "He has given me all the kingdoms of the earth." How great a possession! how true a gift! This language very significant from the lips of a Persian king (comp. "By the grace of Ormuzd I am king," as quoted in Lange on this passage).
4. Of Jehovah's authority. "He hath charged me." With all this authority laid upon me, I am under his authority still (comp. Matthew 8:9). Cyrus speaks here of himself just as God had spoken before of Nebuchadnezzar (see Jeremiah 25:9; Jeremiah 27:6). And
5. Of Jehovah's will. "He hath charged me to build him an house." This is the special thing which he desires me to accomplish. Also a significant acknowledgment, if we suppose (and there is really no other supposition before us) that Cyrus understood the declarations of Isaiah respecting him (see above) to imply a charge of this kind. At the same time, with all that we know from other sources of the singular integrity of his character, and with all that we can infer from the Bible of his probable intimacy with and respect for Daniel, only a natural thing in his case. Who so likely as his prime minister Daniel to draw up this "king's speech;" and if he drew it up, to commence it in this way? Certain it is that no beginning, taking it for all in all, could have been more full of hope and promise to the Jews.
II. A SATISFACTORY PERMISSION (verse 3).
1. Satisfactory as to its object. The great thing that Israel needed for their true restoration and deliverance from captivity was the restoration of Jehovah's House. On the one hand, there could be no restoration of Israel without that of Jerusalem (see Psalms 137:1, Psalms 137:5, Psalms 137:6; Daniel 6:10; Daniel 9:16), and no true restoration of Jerusalem without that of the Temple (see Psalms 122:4, Psalms 122:9, etc.). On the other hand, with Jerusalem and its Temple restored, and all Israel going up to its feasts, the whole people, even if in part dispersed, would still be one nation, one Church (comp. Acts 26:7). This seems to have been the exact ideal of the post-captivity Church. Israel before the captivity was national, local, and centralized; identified with one race, one land, one house. The true Israel since Christ has been none of the three (Matthew 28:19, Matthew 28:20; Joh 4:21; 1 Corinthians 1:2; Galatians 4:26). Israel in the intermediate centuries was in a kind of intermediate condition, still national and still centralized, but only local in part—in part, on the contrary, becoming almost as much dispersed as the "Catholic" Church is itself (Acts 2:5-11). In these intermediate centuries, therefore, the importance of the" house," as a central bond by which to prevent the dispersion from ending in total obliteration, was almost greater than ever. Accordingly this whole book of Ezra has to do in the main with this question, and may be called, not inaptly, the Book of the Restoration of the House. Also the prophecies of Zechariah are greatly concerned with the same subject, and the prophecy of Haggai in particular does not speak of much else. This also is the great object of this permission of Cyrus: "Let him go up and build the house;" the great topic, in fact, of the whole proclamation—being mentioned in some way in each verse. See, finally, how it is all summed up on a subsequent page: "Let the house be builded" (Ezra 6:3). In other words, "Let that be done which is needed the most." So Cyrus speaks in this place.
2. The manner of the permission was equally satisfactory. It was very definite, being addressed, it seems, to all Israel, and yet to Israel alone, as was right (see beginning of verse 3). Contrast the Samaritans afterwards, who offered to help in building God's house, though none of his people. It was very cordial. "Jehovah" (see 2 Chronicles 36:23) "his God be with him, and let him go up." Cyrus would not only have them go up, but go up with a blessing, such a blessing as he himself had already received. Compare the words of Jacob (Genesis 48:16). It was very complete. Cyrus would have them "go," or leave where they were (Isaiah 51:14); he would have them go up, or reach the place they desired (Psalms 122:2); he would have them "go up and build," i.e. do the very thing that was needed. What could he do more to show his goodwill?
III. The CONSIDERATE COMMAND which we have in verse 4 seems to answer this question. Besides saying "Be ye warmed and filled" (James 2:16), he "gave" to the Israelites in various ways what was "needed" in their case. He did so, partly, so we understand the words, by a tax. There were various places in his dominions where some of the "remnant" of Israel ("whosoever remaineth": comp. Nehemiah 1:2, etc.; Haggai 2:3, etc.) were "sojourning" as strangers. In any such "place," if any Israelites wished to go up, the men of that place were hereby commanded (the request of such a sovereign would be a special command) to assist them by their gifts. But this was not all. The king helped the Israelites also in their great undertaking by his personal gifts. So we understand those gifts distinguished as "freewill offerings,'' and mentioned at the end of verse 4 (and again at end of verse 6) as being "beside." Not improbably we find these afterwards partly specified in Ezra 6:3,
4. At any rate, we learn from that passage that the king did give of "his own." Both by his people, therefore, and by himself he did what he could. So far as a mere proclamation could do such a thing, he not only permitted, he enabled them to go up. In this proclamation, as thus understood, may we not see a picture of that great declaration of liberty to the captives (Luke 4:18), the gospel of Christ Jesus? How many the points of resemblance. How "definite" its language. "Whosoever will, let him come" (Revelation 22:17). How "cordial" its invitations. "I will in no wise cast out" (John 6:37). How "complete" its provisions (John 4:14; Colossians 2:10, etc; etc.). How ample and "considerate" its gifts, God Almighty both, as it were, taxing the whole world for the benefit of his true servants (Romans 8:28; 1 Corinthians 3:21, 1 Corinthians 3:22), and also being pleased to give them indeed of" his own" (John 3:16; Romans 8:32).
NOTE.—It is interesting to observe how the intermediate condition of Israel or the Church in the "fourteen generations" between Salathiel and Christ (Matthew 1:17), as above noted, by leading to the establishment of synagogues throughout the Roman world, prepared for the subsequent founding of the New Testament Church or Israel. See, inter alia, how the synagogues are mentioned in Acts 9:2, Acts 9:20; Acts 13:5, Acts 13:14, etc.; Acts 14:1; Acts 16:13 (the Proseucha); Acts 17:1, Acts 17:2 (as his manner was), 10, 17; Acts 18:4; Acts 19:8, etc; etc. The effect also of so many thousand Jews coming up to Jerusalem at the time of Christ's death (the Passover) and at the descent of the Spirit (the Pentecost) should be considered in this connection.
HOMILIES BY J.A. MACDONALD
The sovereignty of God.
Dualities are everywhere seen. Amongst these are things passive and active; things ruled over and things ruling. The mechanical heavens are active and rule the passive earth. In animated nature rulers and subjects are individualized; most remarkably so in the kingdom of men. Passing into the spiritual world, we still find order and rule; "principalities and powers in the heavenlies"—amongst angels of light, also amongst angels of darkness. But behind all these sovereignties and over them is the glorious sovereignty of God.
I. THE PROVIDENCE OF GOD IS ALL-CONTROLLING.
1. "The Lord stirred up the spirit of Cyrus."
(1) This he did by means. Josephus says that Cyrus was shown the places in Isaiah where he was mentioned by name and his exploits indicated about a century before he was born (see Isaiah 44:28; Isaiah 45:1-5). Possibly Daniel, who was in Babylon when Cyrus entered it, and the fame of whose wisdom was far-reaching, may have pointed them out to him.
(2) By his Spirit God made the means he employed effective. "The Lord stirred up the spirit of Cyrus." "He can turn the hearts of princes as the rivers of the south." Means are ineffectual without his blessing. That blessing should be sought upon all our undertakings.
2. By means of Cyrus God moved the Persian empire.
(1) The royal edict was issued.
(2) It was vocally proclaimed. Hebrews, caused a voice to pass, etc. This form of proclamation is for the multitude. For the multitude God causes his gospel to be preached.
(3) It was also written. This was for the magistrates. Also for reference. The word of the truth of the gospel is also written. This fixes its certainty.
3. The sequel shows how cordial was the response. As the exodus from Egypt was a figure of the emancipation of the believer in Christ from the bondage of sin, so was the return from the captivity of Babylon.
II. THE PROVIDENCE OF GOD IS ALL-PERVADING.
1. He rules the world according to a grand plan.
(1) This fact is seen in the Scriptures of prophecy. Broad outlines of future history of the world drawn (see for example Genesis 9:25-27). Here consider "the word of the Lord by the mouth of Jeremiah" (see Jeremiah 25:12; Jeremiah 29:10).
(2) Further seen in the conversion of prophecy into history. Examples abound. Example before us in the restoration of Judah from the captivity of Babylon. The time was "in the first year of Cyrus." This was b.c. 536. Add to this the seventy years of Jeremiah's prophecy, and we have the year b.c. 606, the very year in which "Nebuchadnezzar carried Jehoiakim and the vessels of the house of the Lord to Babylon (see 2 Chronicles 36:6, 2 Chronicles 36:7).
2. The plan of Providence includes the means to be employed for the accomplishment of his purposes.
(1) Stirs up the spirits of men to study his word (see Daniel 9:2). Stirred up the spirit of Cyrus also. Daniel was stirred up to pray; Cyrus, to act. It is God's order that his people should pray for their blessings (see Ezekiel 36:37). There is often a connection between the prayers of the good and the better actions of the wicked.
1. Learn that there is no such thing as chance.
(1) Afflictions do not spring out of the dust.
(2) See the hand of God in our deliverances.
2. Learn that providences are often retributive.
(1) The seventy years of captivity were in retribution for seventy sabbatic years in which selfishness refused the land her rest, and consequently the poor their privileges (comp. Leviticus 25:1-6, and 2 Chronicles 36:21).
(2) If we open our eyes we may see the operation of retributive providences every day. "Be sure your sin will find you out."—J. A. M.
HOMILIES BY W. CLARKSON
Ezra 1:1-4, Ezra 1:7-11
The wide reach of the rule of God.
We are accustomed to pray that the kingdom of God may come; we desire, and therefore ask, that men may offer themselves in willing subjection to the service of their Divine Sovereign. For this we must labour and pray, and always shall do so the more earnestly as we ourselves are the more unreservedly subject to his benign and gracious rule. Meantime there is a sense in which God's rule is a present thing. The kingdom of God is among us; the arms of his power are around us; the hand of his skill is directing our affairs. And this rule of the Supreme is wider than some suppose; its reach is far beyond the thought of many, perhaps of most of us. These verses will suggest to us how far it goes.
I. FURTHER THAN THE CHURCH IS APT TO THINK. "The Lord stirred up the spirit of Cyrus," etc. "The Lord God of heaven hath charged me" (Cyrus) (Ezra 1:1-4). The Jewish Church was slow to believe that God had much to do with any nation beside Israel. Jehovah was, in their thought, the God of Abraham and of his seed in a very distinctive if not positively exclusive sense. His action on those outside the sacred pale was, they popularly imagined, to punish or subdue rather than to control or rule them. They did not expect him to manifest himself to "the uncircumcised,'' or to use them in his service. But he was governing those outside nations, and he did act upon others than the children of the faithful. He who inspired Balaam to utter those exquisite words of poetic prophecy (Numbers 23:1-30; Numbers 24:1-25. ) now "stirs up the spirit of Cyrus, king of Persia;" makes this heathen monarch "his shepherd, performing his pleasure" (Isaiah 44:28); calls him his "anointed one whose right hand he has holden" (strengthened) (Isaiah 45:1), and constrains him to render signal service to his people which had great and enduring issues. The Christian Church is slow to believe that the hand of God is at the helm of all national and international affairs, and that he lays that hand of Divine power and wisdom upon men and things whether these be counted among his own servants or not. "Upon whom doth not this light arise?" It was by his all-wise direction that Greece prepared her thought and her language, and Rome her highways for the gospel in the "fulness of times." We know not to whom God is speaking, or whose hand he is guiding, in civilized or savage lands, but we may be sure that he is where we do not suspect his Presence, and is acting through men we should not have ranked among his servants, as the end will one day show. "His kingdom ruleth over all."
II. FURTHER THAN THE WORLD SUPPOSES (Ezra 1:2). We smile now as we read that Cyrus imagined that God had given him "all the kingdoms of the earth" (Ezra 1:2). The heathen monarch little dreamt what God was doing elsewhere, and what strong workmen he had in other spheres that were outworking his holy will, his gracious and redeeming purposes. Little does the world know, greatly does it under-estimate, the work which God is doing in the midst of it.
III. FURTHER IN INDIVIDUAL MEN THAN THEY ARE THEMSELVES AWARE. Cyrus did not know what use the Lord was making of him. "I girded thee, though thou hast not known me" (Isaiah 45:5). The Persian king could not foresee that God was inducing him to take a step which should have not only wide and lasting, but worldwide and everlasting, issues and influences. God may be prompting us to take steps—as he has with many since the days of Cyrus—which, when taken, will lead on to the most happy and fruitful consequences, stretching on far into the future, reaching wide over land and sea.
IV. THROUGH THE HEART AND MIND TO THE HAND OF MEN (Ezra 1:3, Ezra 1:4, Ezra 1:7-11). God so acted on Cyrus that that king was
(a) inclined in his heart to take the generous course of liberating the Israelites and causing the temple to be rebuilt. It was generous on his part, for he was thus denuding his country of many of his most industrious and skilful subjects, and he was acting on behalf of a religion somewhat different from his own. And, thus disposed, he
(b) took every necessary and desirable step for its thorough execution. He
(1) issued a proclamation, which he put into writing, authorising all Jews in his kingdom to return to Jerusalem and rebuild the house of the Lord (Ezra 1:2, Ezra 1:3);
(2) invited his subjects to aid the Israelites with money, cattle, and other valuable gifts (Ezra 1:4); and
(3) restored the sacred vessels which Nebuchadnezzar had taken from Jerusalem (Ezra 1:7-11).
God may use us whether we know it or not, whether we will or not. He may employ us in his service even if, like Cyrus, we have a very partial knowledge of his will, and some inclination to do it, though we are not fully and wholly on his side. We may be, as many among the heathen have been, instruments in his hand. But how much better to be, as Ezra and Nehemiah were, agents of his, deliberately opening our minds to his truth, fixedly and finally yielding our hearts and lives to his service, consciously and rejoicingly working with him in his beneficent design. It is only such co-workers that will win his final acceptance and, hearing his "well done," enter into his glory.—C.
THE RESPONSE TO THE DECREE (Ezra 1:5-11). The response made to the decree fell short of what might have been expected. The "patriarchal chiefs" who responded belonged solely, or mainly, to the two tribes of Judah and Benjamin; the "ten tribes" were for the most part deaf to the invitation addressed to them. Some, however, of Ephraim and Manasseh (1 Chronicles 9:3), and perhaps some of other tribes, were more zealous, and took part in the migration. Many, on the other hand, even of Judah and Benjamin, preferred remaining in Babylonia to undertaking the long and perilous (Ezra 7:22) journey to Palestine, and taking the chance of what might happen to them there. They were, as Josephus says, "disinclined to relinquish their property." In the course of nearly seventy years great numbers of Jews had acquired wealth; some had invested their money in lands and houses; others had extensive business connections; others, again, though poor, may have been unenterprising; and the result was that only some 42,000 persons took advantage of the opportunity, and proceeded from Babylonia to Jerusalem (Ezra 2:64). The response to the latter part of the decree, addressed by Cyrus to his heathen subjects, was more satisfactory. The Jews were helped by their neighbours freely, with gold, and with silver, and with goods, and with beasts, and with precious things (verse 6); and besides all this, a certain number of freewill offerings were contributed. As in Egypt at the time of the Exodus (Exodus 11:3), so now, the Jews found favour in the eyes of the heathen on their departure from among them, and were made partakers of their worldly substance. We may well suppose that once more God gave his people favour in the sight of those with whom they had been living, and disposed their hearts to liberality.
Then rose up the chief of the fathers. The "chief of the fathers" are the hereditary heads of the families recognized as distinct and separate (see Ezra 2:3-19).
All they that were about them. i.e. all their neighbours. Strengthened their hands. This is the literal rendering. The margin gives the right meaning—"helped them." With precious things. Migdanoth, a rare word, only used here, in Genesis 24:53, and in 2 Chronicles 21:3; always connected with silver and gold: derived from meged, which means "precious." Besides all that was willingly offered. The gold, silver, precious things, etc. previously mentioned were free gifts to individual Jews, and were additional to certain offerings which were intrusted to them for conveyance to Jerusalem. On the value attached by the Persians to offerings made in Jerusalem to Jehovah, see below, Ezra 6:10, and Ezra 7:17.
THE RESTORATION OF THE SACRED VESSELS BY CYRUS (Ezra 1:7-11). Following the ordinary custom of the early Oriental conquerors, Nebuchadnezzar, long before he destroyed the Jewish temple, had carried off from it, partly as trophies of victory, partly as articles of value, many of the sacred vessels used in the temple service (see 2 Chronicles 36:10; Jeremiah 27:19, Jeremiah 27:20; Daniel 1:2). At his final capture and destruction of Jerusalem he bore off the remainder (2 Kings 25:14, 2 Kings 25:15). These he deposited at Babylon in the temple of Merodach (or Bel), the god whom he chiefly worshipped (Daniel 1:2), where they probably remained until Belshazzar had them brought out and desecrated at his great banquet (Daniel 5:2). A religious instinct now prompted the Persian king to give the vessels back, in order that they might revert to their original use. The careful enumeration of them (Ezra 1:9-11) is characteristic of Ezra, who is very minute and exact in his details, and fond of making lists or catalogues.
The vessels. Probably all that he could find, yet scarcely all that had been taken away, since many of these were of bronze (2 Kings 25:14), and the restored vessels seem to have been, all of them, either of gold or silver (see Ezra 1:11). Which Nebuchadnezzar had brought forth. The carrying off of sacred vessels, as well as images, from temples is often represented in the Assyrian sculptures. It was a practice even of the Romans, and is commemorated on the Pillar of Titus, where the seven-branched candlestick of the Jewish temple is represented as borne in triumph by Roman soldiers. And had put them in the house of his gods. Elohayv, which is the form used in the text, can only mean "his god," not "his gods." Nebuchadnezzar represents himself, in his inscriptions generally, as a special devotee of a single Babylonian god, Merodach, whose temple, called by the Greeks that of Bel, is no doubt here intended (comp. Daniel 1:2).
Mithredath the treasurer. Not "Mithridates, the son of Gazabar," as the Vulgate renders. The Hebrew gizbar represents a Persian word, gazabara or ganzabara, which had no doubt the meaning of "treasurer," literally "treasure-bearer." We have here the first occurrence of the famous name, borne by so many great kings, of Mithridates. The name is thoroughly Persian, and is excellently rendered by the Hebrew מִתְיְדָת. It means either "given by Mithra" or "dedicated to Mithra," and is distinct evidence of the worship of Mithra by the Persians as early as the time of Cyrus. Mithra was the sun, and was venerated as Mitra by the early Vedic Indians. His worship in later Persia is clearly established; but, except for the name of Mithredath in this place, it would have been doubtful whether he was as yet an object of religious veneration to the Iranians. Sheshbazzar. It is generally allowed that this was the Chaldaean or court name of Zerubbabel. (The chief evidence of this is to be found in Ezra 5:16 compared with Ezra 3:8.) What the name signified is uncertain. The prince of Judah. Zerubbabel was the son of Pedaiah, brother of Salathiel, who was the legal heir of Jehoiachin, king of Judah. He appears to have been adopted by Salathiel as his son, and to have been recognized as the legitimate heir to the throne of David. Thus he did not owe his appointment to the mere favour of Cyrus, but was the natural leader of the people.
Chargers. Agarteley, a rare word, perhaps Persian. The LXX. translate ψυκτῆρες, "wine-coolers;" the Vulgate has phialae, "vases;" the apocryphal Esdras, σπονδεῖα, "vessels for drink-offerings." Probably basons or bowls are intended. Knives. Machaldaphim, another rare word of doubtful sense. The LXX. render παρηλλαγμένα, "changes," regarding the word as derived from חלת, "to exchange." The apocryphal Esdras has θυίσκαι "censers." But the most usual translation is that of the A. V; "knives."
Of a second sort. Not "double," as the LXX. render; but "secondary," or "of inferior quality".
All the vessels were five thousand and four hundred. The numbers previously given produce a total of only 2499, or less than half of this amount. There must be some corruption, but whether in the total or the items is uncertain. The apocryphal Esdras raises the total number of the vessels to 5469.
We have noted already that the great and primary feature in the restoration of Israel from captivity was the restoration of the house. With a view to this restoration, as we have seen, the whole edict of Cyrus was framed. In the passage now before us we shall see, in the next place, that the results of that edict were in accordance with this design. They secured, i.e; the two first requisites for carrying out this design, providing, as they did, on the one hand, the requisite men; and, on the other, the requisite means.
I. THE REQUISITE MEN.
1. The requisite laymen. "Then rose up …. Judah" (Hebrews 7:14) "and Benjamin." The Church is before its ministers (comp. Philippians 1:1). Perhaps, also, the laymen in this case were the first to be stirred. Next, the requisite lay-leaders, the "chief of the fathers of Judah and Benjamin." Wherever any body of men moves towards an enterprise, there must be some to go first. In this case it pleased God so to arrange by his providence, and so to work by the edict of Cyrus, that some of those were ready to go first who naturally stood first as it were. This was particularly the case, as we afterwards find, with him who stood first of all amongst these "chief of the fathers of Judah and Benjamin," viz; "Sheshbazzar the prince of Judah," mentioned in Ezra 1:8. This Sheshbazzar, better known as Zerubbabel (comp. Ezra 5:16 and Zechariah 4:9; see also Daniel 1:6, Daniel 1:7), about whose exact descent and lineage it is difficult to make sure, seems, at any rate, to have been regarded both by Israelites and Gentiles as the representative of the house of David. As such, he was the natural leader of the movement for restoration; and as such a leader, in God's providence, he was found willing to act. In addition, next, to this sufficient lay element, we find also,
2. The requisite ecclesiastics. And that, as before, of all ranks. Both "the priests and the Levites," e.g; both the appointed ministers and their appointed assistants, are specified in Ezra 1:5. Mention is also made afterwards of Jeshua, the legitimate high priest, or supreme ecclesiastical head (Ezra 2:2; Ezra 3:2, etc.); and of the Nethinims and children of Solomon's servants (Ezra 2:43-58), the lowest grades of all those occupied in purely ecclesiastical work. This, therefore, completes the list. If the Church is before its ministers, it is not, therefore, without them. Neither Judah and Benjamin without Levi, nor Levi without Judah and Benjamin, could have restored the kind of house that God wished. It is to be admired, accordingly, that in this instance God caused the edict of Cyrus so to operate as to call forth sufficient of both. And something more than merely sufficient, so some have supposed. Besides men of Judah and Benjamin, and men belonging to or connected with the ecclesiastical tribe of Levi, some also belonging to other tribes of Israel are thought to be pointed to in the words "with all them whose spirits God had raised." The return of some such appears clearly implied in 1 Chronicles 9:3, and was only natural, when we bear in mind how many men of other tribes at various times before the captivity had joined themselves to that of Judah. It is further evident that such a separate ten-tribes element amongst those returning from Babylon would be a fact of much weight, since it would serve so greatly to make the restored house, as originally intended (Psalms 122:4), a house for the whole race, a centre of unity for all "the twelve tribes scattered abroad" (James 1:1). And it would also aid us in understanding St. Paul's long-subsequent description of those "twelve tribes" as "instantly serving God day and night" throughout the world (Acts 26:7). They did so in that common temple which they had all thus helped to restore.
II. THE REQUISITE MEANS. The men thus duly called were also duly equipped. Almighty God, by the edict of Cyrus, both "raised" their "spirit" and filled their hands (see Psalms 110:3; Philippians 2:13). For example, we find them provided with the requisite means of support. These men would have to live whilst on their journey, and whilst building the house. The "gold" and "goods" mentioned in 1 Chronicles 9:6, added to what we may suppose them to have made by selling their possessions (Jeremiah 29:4, Jeremiah 29:5), may have been meant for this end. So also the "beasts" in the same verse (comp. Ezra 2:66, Ezra 2:67, where none but beasts of burden are mentioned) may have supplied them with another requisite, viz; means of transport. Next, if we are right in referring the last words of 1 Chronicles 9:6 to the grant made by Cyrus himself, as afterwards defined in Ezra 6:3, Ezra 6:4, we see that they had, further, at their disposal the requisite materials for building. This point will perhaps appear more plainly if we compare the last-quoted passage with what is said in 1 Kings 6:36. Not only, i.e; were the necessary materials for building the temple granted, but they were granted, it would appear, of the precise shape and size required for erecting one most important part of the new temple, viz; its inner court. Further yet, another most important point, we find that the requisite temple vessels were supplied in this case (1 Kings 6:7-10). God's providence had so ordered it that a sufficient number of these—sufficient, at any rate, to make a beginning; sufficient also, it may be, to serve as a pattern for others (a point of great importance according to Exodus 25:9, Exodus 25:40; 1 Chronicles 28:11); and sufficient, in this way, to keep up the identity of the old worship and the new, and make it a true restoration—were placed at their service. This is a point to be marked. Taken away by Nebuchadnezzar principally at his first capture of Jerusalem (2 Chronicles 36:7, as contrasted with 2 Kings 24:13; 2 Chronicles 36:19), placed by him in the house of his "god" (Daniel 1:2), brought out thence at the great feast of Belshazzar on the same night that Babylon was captured (Daniel 5:3, Daniel 5:23, Daniel 5:30), they were preserved by God through all these vicissitudes as something destined for further use. Exactly corresponding with this is the careful way in which we find them handled by the Persian treasurer Mithredath, taking.them in his "hand," according to Lunge, so as to inspect and recognize them as Jerusalem temple vessels; and afterwards "numbered" or catalogued by him in the way that follows (1 Kings 6:9, 1 Kings 6:10) before giving them to Zerubbabel. What these vessels exactly were it is impossible for us now to make out; but it is evident that they were considered most important by all concerned at the time, and also evident that they leave little else in the way of "requisites" to be named. We may, perhaps, conjecture, however, that under the "precious things" of 1 Kings 6:6 may be included those priestly "garments" of which we read in Ezra 2:69, and those musical instruments, no longer now to be hung on the willows, of which Josephus informs us. Also (one other point yet), that other vessels besides these preserved ones were now offered for temple use, in such numbers as almost to double the whole number at the disposal of the priests (comp. the total of the numbers in Ezra 2:9 and Ezra 2:10 with the total given in Ezra 2:11). In fact, certain other "vessels of silver," for which no other use is specified, are mentioned by name in Ezra 2:6. But, whether with or without these conjectures, we have much here to admire.
(1) How willing are God's people in the day of his power! When he has special work to be performed in his Church, how easily, how surely he provides the right men.
(2) How carefully, also, and how completely he enables them for their work, either by providing them with fresh instruments, or by using those which they have. Compare Ehud's "left hand," David's "sling," the "eloquence" of Apollos, etc. If called, therefore, to any work (and we are all called to the great work of glorifying Christ and fighting sin), in that call itself is our strength. "Go in this thy might" (Judges 6:14; see also Joshua 1:9; Judges 4:6).
(3) At the same time, we must not mistake. Preparation is not accomplishment (1 Kings 20:11). Collecting soldiers is one thing; arming and supplying them another; actual campaigning another yet. "Speak unto the children of Israel that they go forward." "Go in this thy might." The first word in that sentence as important as the last.
HOMILIES BY W. CLARKSON
Ezra 1:5, Ezra 1:6
God's action on the minds of his people.
When Cyrus, moved of God, proclaimed liberty to the captives in Persia and invited the children of Israel to return to their own land, there was a very large proportion that preferred to stay, some from excusable and others from insufficient motives, but a large company of the people of God made an immediate and honourable response. These, to the number of 42,000 persons, forthwith made ready to leave their adopted country and to go up to Jerusalem, to build again the house of the Lord, rebuilding, at the same time, the shattered fortunes of the land of their fathers. The response to the king's overture illustrates God's action on the minds of his own people. We have—
I. HIS TWO METHODS OF APPROACH. "Then rose up," etc. (Ezra 1:5).
1. Instrumental. God worked on the minds of the chiefs of the people by means of the proclamations and edicts of Cyrus, and on the minds of the generality of ripe people by means of their leaders. Then—when the king's offer was circulated—"rose up the chief of the fathers of Judah and Benjamin," etc. And when Sheshbazzar (Zerubbabel) and the other natural leaders came forward, then the multitude volunteered: there is human agency here.
2. Direct. God's spirit acted directly and immediately on their minds. They were men "whose spirit God had raised;" they were like the "band of men whose hearts God had touched" (1 Samuel 10:26). God "laid his hand upon them," and lifted them up, spiritually, and they became strong and brave, ready to do a good work for him and for the world.
II. ITS SPIRITUAL RESULT. Elevation of soul. Their spirit was raised—as ours will be whenever God works within us as he did in them—
(a) above its common level of thought and feeling. They saw, as otherwise they would not have seen, the excellency of the service of God and of their native land; they felt, as they did not usually feel, how glorious a thing it was to lay everything on the altar of God and strike a brave and faithful blow for their country's freedom and independence. Their views were cleared, their ambition heightened, their mind enlarged, their soul exalted. God "raised their spirit," and they were lifted up
(b) above the inducements of a comfortable present; so that the pleasant homes and prosperous employments and agreeable friendships and enjoyable amusements in which they had been spending their days, these they were willing to leave behind them. And they were raised
(c) above the fear of misfortune in the future; so that the difficulties of the journey, the "lion in the way," the arrangements between one another, the desolate ruins of the once-favoured city, the enemies that might dispute their right, all these dangers and difficulties they were prepared to encounter and overcome. Under the touch of the hand of God they became, as we may now become, men whose "heart was enlarged" to dare and do great things, to attempt and accomplish what, in an unenlightened and uninspired state, they would never have dreamed of doing. God was with them, his spirit was in them, and these children of men became the servants and the soldiers of God. Dare to attempt nothing if God's Spirit be not in the soul, inciting and sustaining it. Dare to undertake anything if he opens the eyes of the understanding and if he dwells within the heart.
III. ITS MATERIAL ISSUES (Ezra 1:6). Such was the spirit of these men, that
(a) those of their kindred who did not accompany them and their Persian neighbours "strengthened their hands with vessels of silver and gold, with goods and beasts and precious, things;" and
(b) thus equipped they marched out of their captivity, and went forth free men to espouse the cause of Jehovah and to make their mark on their age and, indeed, upon future ages.
Our great wisdom is to know when God comes to us; to listen when he speaks; to respond when he calls. Many Jews in Persia heard but heeded not that voice; they felt the touch of that Divine finger but obeyed it not. They lived on in such comfort and enjoyment as their adopted country yielded; but they entered not the open gate of opportunity; they rendered no great service to their land, their church, their race. Not theirs the victory and the crown; these were for the men who responded when God called, and whose spirits rose to the height of that great occasion.—C.
HOMILIES BY A. MACKENNAL
Ezra 1:5, Ezra 1:6
The books of Ezra and Nehemiah are the historical introduction to this third period of Jewish history. The first or formative period is that of the exodus and the conquest of Canaan. The second, that of the kings, is the period of national development, when all that was possible to them as a nation was accomplished. The third period was that of national dependence, and it lasted 600 years. From the return from captivity to the fall of Jerusalem, the history of the Jews is bound up with the policy of the great empires, Persia, Macedonia, Greece, and Rome, on whose favour they depended, or to whore they offered a fruitless resistance.
Just as the exodus and the conquest trained the people for the second stage in their development and prepared its way, so the third period prepared for the fourth—Judaism in its relation to modem history. The true destiny of Israel is now revealed, to exist as a "leaven" among the nations. The Divine purpose in the Israelitish people is accomplished in Christendom; religious susceptibility, fitness for inspiration, has been the signal endowment of the Jews; theirs is a spiritual, not a national, glory. And the modem history of the unconverted remnant is not without significance; we see in them the natural stock out of which Christendom has grown. The tenacity and steadfastness which still characterise the race, their patience, gentleness, and readiness to serve or to rule, are some of the elements of their fitness to affect most intimately the history of the world, some of their qualifications to be the depositary of the promises of God.
The period of the return is sometimes contrasted with that of the exodus as an unheroic with an heroic time. It is easy to exaggerate the force of this contrast. That is not an unheroic or uneventful history which contains, as its heart, the story of the Maccabees. Even in these two books—Ezra and Nehemiah—the narratives of the rebuilding of the altar, the foundation and dedication of the temple, the building of the walls of Jerusalem, and the reorganisation of a corrupt society, are not inglorious. The tact, the courage, the patience, the fidelity displayed awaken admiration; and some of the incidents strike the imagination and stir the soul.
The true contrast is rather that between ancient and modern life, the conceptions and conditions of the old and the new world. Instead of miracle, we read the story of providential guidance and of homely virtues winning the hearts of the captors. We are involved in the details of foreign policy, brought face to face with the intrigues of Oriental rulers. The successive fortunes of the great heathen states profoundly affect the fortunes of the Jews. Their history is becoming international, cosmopolitan. A new source of interest appears in these books, commonly reputed dull, as we perceive this. The history affects us not by its contrasts with our more commonplace life, but by its revelations of the Divine and noble in the commonplace; it appeals not to our wonder, but to our sympathy.
The period of the exodus was marked by a splendid cycle of miracles inaugurated by Moses, and fitfully appearing down to far later days. In the period of the monarchy God revealed himself in a succession of prophets; men whose glory and whose main office it was to declare the great moral principles of the Divine rule into which they had the insight of spiritual genius; but who yet had often conferred upon them a predictive gift, a power to foresee and to foretell events, which fixed attention on their utterances and confirmed their mission as from God. The period of which we are now speaking was marked by regard for law; the reverence for God as the God of order which characterises modern thought and modern piety had here its birth. Ezra was "a priest," but he was also, and even more, "a scribe;" and the scribe, as Dean Stanley points out, was the forerunner of the Christian minister. We have wise men still, men of marvellous spiritual insight, ability to read the secrets of the human heart and to forecast human story; not these, however, but "pastors and teachers" are the officers of the Church. With the study of the law began the recognition of the sphere of the intellect in religion, the interpretation of God's will. The synagogue—in which, and not in the temple, the Christian congregation finds its historic origin—dates from this time; and so does the common school of the Jews. All this is of profound significance; it is the beginning of a religious revolution. God will henceforth be increasingly conceived of, not as interfering with, but directing, the course of events. Study is to take the place of signs; the knowledge of his will is to be gained, not through rare and fitful glimpses and glances, but by constant thought and careful reasoning.
Two lessons may be noted here—
First, As To THE PROVIDENCE OF GOD. "The fall of Sardis and Babylon was the starting-point of European life; and it is a singular coincidence that the beginning of Grecian art and philosophy, and the foundation of the Roman constitution, synchronize with the triumph of the Arian race in the East." £ Similarly, Christ came ".in the fulness of the times," when Gentile history, as well as Jewish expectation, had "prepared the way of the Lord." These coincidences have an evidential value; they mark design in history. Time, which removes us so far from events that they lose impressiveness, compensates for the loss by revealing more fully correspondences that speak of purpose. The majestic march of Providence makes also a direct appeal to the emotions of piety.
Next, AS TO THE PURPOSE OF GOD. The object of the separation of Israel to a peculiar destiny and discipline was that they might contribute moral and spiritual force to humanity. The "election" was for the sake of the human race. They were chosen not to judge mankind, but to influence it. The Jewish people, like him who was its archetype and greatest representative, came not to condemn the world, but to save the world. And this is the common order of spiritual efficiency. First separation, then influence. The first precept is, "Come ye out from among them, and be ye separate, and touch not the unclean thing;" then we can "be all things to all men," can "eat and drink with publicans and sinners." Some of these thoughts receive emphatic illustration in these verses.
I. IT WAS A PEACEFUL RETURN. God had "raised their spirit" "to go up to build the house of the Lord." They went with the good wishes of Cyrus and the people. "All they that were about them strengthened their hands." Jeremiah (Jeremiah 29:1-32.) had told them what spirit they were to cherish during their years of bondage. "Seek the peace of the city whither I have caused you to be carried away captives, and pray unto the Lord for it: for in the peace thereof shall ye have peace." It is still a characteristic of the Jews that they are good citizens. Many of them signally won the confidence of their masters; as Ezra, Nehemiah, Daniel, Mordecai, arid the three Hebrew youths. The reward of their meekness and service came. Contrast this return with the flight out of Egypt. "They were thrust out of Egypt." "The Egyptians were urgent upon the people, that they might send them out of the land in haste; for they said, We be all dead men."
II. THE CHARACTER OF CYRUS. It is a large assumption which appears in his decree—"Jehovah the God of heaven hath charged me to build him an house at Jerusalem, which is in Judah;" but it is not out of harmony with what we know of his character. The noblest epithets are heaped upon him in the prophecy of Isaiah. He is "the anointed, the Messiah, of Jehovah." God "saith of Cyrus, He is my shepherd, and shall perform all my pleasure." He is "the righteous man" whom God "raised up from the East." Contrast this with the scorn of Egypt as an ally (Isaiah 30:1-33; Isaiah 31:1-9.), and the denunciation of the pride of Assyria, and the prophecy of its doom (Isaiah 10:1-34.). And heathen writings illustrate the Scripture representation of him. They speak of his virtues; they record romantic circumstances in his early career which justify the belief that he was providentially preserved for some great purpose.
III. THE POINTS OF RESEMBLANCE BETWEEN THE JEWISH AND THE PERSIAN FAITH. The unity of God; that he should not be worshipped under the form of idols; that God was good, and that evil was not from him. Each faith was able to contribute something to the other; but fundamentally they were in harmony. Contrast this with the idolatries of Babylon, the scornful picture of Isaiah 46:1, Isaiah 46:2; and picture the meeting in Babylon of the Persian victors and the Jewish exiles. An interest might well be excited in one another such as is indicated in our text.
The narrative illustrates "God's making use of men's goodness" to advance his purpose. He can make "the wrath of man to praise him;" but he loves rather the frank service of those in sympathy with him. We too love to contemplate good acts done graciously; favours unmarred by any bitter memories. The feeling of the return finds lyrical expression in the joyousness and trust of Psalms 126:1-6.—M.
HOMILIES BY J.A. MACDONALD
Ezra 1:5, Ezra 1:6
"Then rose up," etc. The edict of Cyrus had been issued (see Ezra 1:2 Ezra 1:4). The voice of God was in the voice of the king (see Ezra 1:1). But who responded?
I. THE CHIEFS OF THE FATHERS OF JUDAH AND BENJAMIN RESPONDED.
1. Happy the people whose magistrates lead them nobly.
(1) In politics. The voice of the king. The purpose of that voice.
(2) In religion. The voice of God. The purpose of that voice: immediate; ulterior with respect to fulfilment of prophecy, etc.
2. Politics cannot be divorced from religion.
(1) God has joined them in the constitution of our nature.
(2) He holds citizens, as such, responsible to himself.
(3) Experience proves that godly men are the best citizens.
3. Evil rulers are scourges of God to wicked peoples.
(1) Not appointed without his providence (see Isaiah 3:4).
(2) Rulers are no worse than their people.
Representative governments—responsibility of the franchise. In hereditary magistracies (see Isaiah 1:10). "Rulers of Sodom" associated with "people of Gomorrah" (see Isaiah 1:25, Isaiah 1:26). When the vices of a people are purged away, then worthy magistrates are raised up to them.
II. THE PRIESTS AND LEVITES RESPONDED.
1. Priests, leaders in religion.
(1) Sons of Aaron—type of Christ, also of Christians.
(2) Offices at the altar.
(3) Offices in the sanctuary.
2. Levites, leaders in literature.
(1) Scattered in Israel—schoolmasters, scribes of the law (2 Chronicles 34:13).
(2) Services about the temple. Literature should be the handmaid of religion. When otherwise, inversion of God's order fearfully mischievous.
III. SKILFUL ARTIFICERS RESPONDED. Those whose spirit God hath raised to go up and build the house of the Lord.
1. All useful labour is from God.
(1) He is the Author of our faculties.
(2) His providence furnishes opportunities for their culture.
2. All talent should be devoted to God.
(1) In building up his material temple.
(2) In furthering the building of his living temple.
(3) In our secular calling (see 1 Corinthians 10:31).
IV. A WILLING PEOPLE RESPONDED.
1. All they that were about them.
(1) Not all the nation. Some elected to remain in Babylon. Gain of merchandise, etc; etc. So it is still when God calls us to forsake the world.
(2) Those responded whose sympathies were true—"about them." Frequently the children of godly persons elect the service of Christ.
2. These strengthened their hands.
(1) True sympathy is help. Moral influence of virtuous citizens strengthens the hands of magistrates.
(2) Where sympathy is true it will furnish active help. Gifts from the wealthy—viz; things of "gold and silver," "goods," "beasts," viz; for transport (see Ezra 2:66, Ezra 2:67); "precious things." Gifts from the multitude—"freewill offerings." All is precious that comes from a loyal heart.
1. Learn that religion and politics may be harmonised without resorting to compulsion. The response was voluntary. Uniformity is not unity. Endless variety in living things.
2. Harmony in religion and politics is truest when free. With compulsion comes resistance and contention. Admit the principle of coercion, then the question is not between religion and politics, as abstract principles, but becomes often an ambitious and unholy strife.—J. A. M.
HOMILIES BY J.S. EXELL
The beginning of a great religious movement.
Israel had experienced long bondage in a foreign land under a heathen king; this would have a beneficial influence.
1. It would tend to cultivate within them a right view of the sorrow consequent upon sin. Their captivity was a punishment for idolatry. Sin sends men into slavery.
2. It would tend to cultivate within them a right view of the external in religion. Solomon's temple was the pride of Israel. They prided themselves in the magnificent masonry, in the richly-coloured garments, in the lofty altar; but now all is in ruins, and they in bondage, will they not learn to worship God in simplicity, in spirit and in truth? The sensuous m religion leads to slavery. It is well sometimes that our temple should be destroyed; God lays the outward in ruins that we may see the inward. The Church has often to go into captivity to learn the meaning of the spiritual.
3. It would tend to cultivate within them a right view of the Divine in worship. Israel thought that the temple was the one place of worship; but in captivity the scattered people learn that God will hear their cry from heathen cities and in desert places.
4. It would cultivate within them a right view of the sympathetic feeling which should prevail in their midst. Israel had been sore rent by faction; in captivity they are one. The Church is united by its sorrows. We observe respecting great religious movements—
I. THAT THEY OFTEN TAKE THEIR RISE IN THE STIRRINGS OF AN INDIVIDUAL SOUL. "The Lord stirred up the spirit of Cyrus king of Persia."
1. A Divine commencement. Here we see the beginning of the great movement of Israel's restoration to fatherland. History is unveiled and God is seen. The voice of God is heard in the proclamation of Cyrus. The human historian can only write the proclamation of the king; the inspired historian makes known the secret working of God. We know nothing of the Divine heart-stirrings which precede the great movements of our age. God is behind the king and we see him not. The political serves the spiritual. Let us rightly interpret our heart-stirrings; God is in them, they have great meanings. They are more than the beatings of a pulse, they are the beginnings of spiritual liberty. Heaven has various ways of stirring our souls.
2. A secret commencement. The restoration of Israel began in the secret stirrings of one heart. It did not begin with the crowd, but with the individual. And so great religious movements generally commence in the secret awakening of the one man. See the power of a God-moved heart. The kingdom of God cometh not with observation. Restorations are in the heart before they are in the world.
3. An unlikely commencement. The Jews were looking for a rod out of the stem of Jesse to restore them; God sent an ahem deliverer. A man of war becomes a man of peace; a man of conquest becomes an emancipator of the people. God employs unexpected agencies. Great religious movements often have unlikely beginnings.
4. An effectual commencement. The stirring of the heart of Cyrus had great possibilities in it—it expanded into a temple of worship; its pulsations are felt in our own age.
II. THAT THEY ARE TIMED BY THE FAITHFUL PROVIDENCE OF GOD. "That the word of the Lord by the mouth of Jeremiah might be fulfilled." Thus the captivity of Israel terminated in the set time of God.
1. The mercy of God. In the proclamation of Cyrus to the wretched slaves see the Divine mercy to those most undeserving of it; the word of God is a merciful message to man, it is a word of liberty, that the ruined temple of life may be rebuilt.
2. The fidelity of God. Israel had the promise of liberty fulfilled; so all the promises of God respecting the future glory of the Church will be accomplished.
3. The purpose of God. The captives were not to go out of bondage merely for their own freedom and enjoyment; but to build the temple of the Lord. Men are freed from the tyranny of sin that they may establish the kingdom of heaven; they must be liberated before they can build. This is the Divine purpose in the salvation of men, that they may engage in promoting spiritual good.
III. THAT THEY OFTEN REVEAL IN MEN UNEXPECTED EXCELLENCES OF MORAL CHARACTER.
1. The hidden excellences of men. The Jews probably did not expect much aid from Cyrus; but he had excellences of knowledge, of grace, they little suspected. God saw this and used him. Men are often better than we know, and are more prepared to aid the work of God than we suppose.
2. The revealed excellences of men. Cyrus incidentally shows by his proclamation the good that is in him. Times of religious revival reveal unexpected abilities in men; then the dull man becomes brilliant; the man of little opportunity becomes rich in knowledge; the cold man becomes generous in gift.
3. The utilised excellences of men. All that is good in men God uses for the welfare of his Church.
IV. THAT THEY ARE OFTEN FURNISHED WITH NEEDFUL MATERIAL AID IN THE MOST UNEXPECTED MANNER (verse 6). The departure of such a people would require great preparation, and would necessitate great expense. How are the captives to meet it? The proclamation of Cyrus provides for it. A wondrous providence often causes the world in unexpected ways to minister to the temporal needs of the Church; men of the world often help to erect a temple in which they are little intere
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Exell, Joseph S; Spence-Jones, Henry Donald Maurice. "Commentary on Ezra 1". The Pulpit Commentary. https://www.studylight.org/
the Fourth Week after Epiphany