We left the Black Hills of South Dakota and moved to Sioux City, Iowa, in May of 1999 – almost exactly 17 years ago on the day that I started to write this lesson. We’d bought a failing business that we thought we could turn around in a matter of months. We could not have been more wrong.
We couldn’t sell our house in Rapid City, so we had to rent one when we got to Sioux City. It was a scary place over on Jones Street, but it was all we could afford. It sat on a hill, 25 steps straight up to our front door. It smelled like kitties in the living room, the basement was full of termites, the air-conditioning failed (and being from the Black Hills we weren’t used to the heat and humidity) and the windows were in such disrepair that they wouldn’t open. My dad called it “The Rock,” and he wasn’t talking about the Lord. He was referring to the Nicolas Cage/Sean Connery movie about Alcatraz. This place was that horrible.
Over the course of our first year in Sioux City, while we battled the termites, air conditioning and a flooded basement, the store that we thought we could quickly turn around was losing money left and right. It was costing money to keep it open – money that we didn’t have.
You cannot imagine how discouraged we were…and things didn’t turn around for quite a while.
In the spring of 2000 (one year later) we finally sold our home in Rapid City, and we used the money for a deposit on a little bit better rental and got out of that scary place on Jones. We were still losing money through the store, hand over fist, but this next rental had working air conditioning, and all of the windows opened but one, but Jim had needle nose pliers and that solved that problem.
And somewhere in that spring of 2000 I found myself at the Christian book store. I couldn’t afford to be there, but there I was looking for a Bible study to help me understand my circumstances. For whatever reason, I pulled a paperback off the shelf entitled Ezra, flipped it over and read the back cover. The description was enticing. For many years I’d been what I’d call a New Testament Christian, but I didn’t know anything about my Old Testament. This little study promised to tell me all about the return of the Jews from their Babylonian exile. It said that it would go into great detail about how everything happened, and the corresponding reasons.
Well, I used the last few bucks I had on one of my credit cards and took it home. I started on it the moment I arrived. The first thing it said to do was get some colored pencils – I didn’t have those, and I’d just used my last ounce of credit to by the book. So I thought I’d just use a regular pencil and see what happened.
The problem was that I was supposed to draw different symbols, dashes, circles – all kinds of stuff – in a color-coded format. It was the most complicated thing I had ever undertaken (remember, I make pizza for a living) and I was only a paragraph into the thing.
The further I went into the study, the more complicated it became. I couldn’t figure out what had happened to these Jewish people and why on earth they were living in a Babylonian exile! Though, I did relate to their suffering. I honestly saw a parallel to my own exile in Sioux City, Iowa. I wanted to go home to my beloved Black Hills of South Dakota more than you could ever imagine. And here I was, stuck in a hot, humid hell-hole, losing money hand over fist, trying to learn something from a nonsensical Bible study. I remember thinking, “My God doesn’t make things this complicated…but Satan does.”
I closed the book and threw it in the trash. I sat down and I started to read my Bible from Genesis forward, and now I know what happened to those Jewish people. I know their kings and their prophets, and I know how it pertains to me living in the light of Christ Almighty.
Look with me at a promise that the LORD made through Isaiah. The context is the Israelites’ redemption from their captivity in Babylon, and it speaks to the intense thirst they have for God – remember those dry bones we talked about last week – God is going to satisfy that thirst.
19 Behold, I am doing a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert. 20 The wild beasts will honor me, the jackals and the ostriches, for I give water in the wilderness, rivers in the desert, to give drink to my chosen people, 21 the people whom I formed for myself that they might declare my praise. Isaiah 43:19-20 esv
I am doing a new thing…
water in the wilderness, rivers in the desert, drink to my chosen people…
The captives are going to call out to God in the midst of their spiritual drought. In captivity, they will know they’re dry as a bone. The captives will at last take responsibility for their thirst, and God will satisfy their thirst. He’s going to do a new thing, which speaks to a new time of forgiveness. They will be redeemed from out of Babylon, and blessed with God’s holy Presence.
And not only does this new thing happen to the Jewish people in exile, but a new thing can happen to us right here in Sioux City, Iowa – I am confident of this, because a new thing happened to me! When I finally took responsibility for my own thirst, God soaked me with rivers in the desert.
Now as we begin the account in Ezra, and as we read the records of the returning Exiles, keep in mind that Ezra is just writing this account. He does not go to Jerusalem in the first wave of returnees.
1In the first year of Cyrus king of Persia, that the word of the Lord by the mouth of Jeremiah might be fulfilled, the Lord stirred up the spirit of Cyrus king of Persia, so that he made a proclamation throughout all his kingdom and also put it in writing:
2 “Thus says Cyrus king of Persia: The Lord, the God of heaven, has given me all the kingdoms of the earth, and he has charged me to build him a house at Jerusalem, which is in Judah. 3 Whoever is among you of all his people, may his God be with him, and let him go up to Jerusalem, which is in Judah, and rebuild the house of the Lord, the God of Israel—he is the God who is in Jerusalem. 4 And let each survivor, in whatever place he sojourns, be assisted by the men of his place with silver and gold, with goods and with beasts, besides freewill offerings for the house of God that is in Jerusalem.” Ezra 1:1-4 esv
So here we have a Gentile ruler, which is to say, a worldly king who does not believe in the God of the Jewish people, making a proclamation in writing giving credit to the God in heaven who’s house is in Jerusalem for his victory and resultant enrichment. Nebuchadnezzar made a similar profession of faith, but only after he’d spent seven years eating grass on his hands and knees.
Cyrus, on the other hand, points out that he’s received the kingdoms of the earth from the God of the Jews in the midst of his blessing. He does not have to be brought low (like Nebuchadnezzar) in order to see from where his blessing originated.
Is this a profession of faith? Possibly. We have to keep it in context however, and the passage begins with: the Lord stirred up the spirit of Cyrus.
Remember, 1The king’s heart is a stream of water in the hand of the Lord; he turns it wherever he will. Proverbs 21:1 esv
As well, if we take just a peek into the local history of the time it appears that Cyrus genuinely sought to mollify all of his captive peoples, whether Jewish or otherwise, for the benefit of their gods during his rule.
And not only does Cyrus, in writing, declare that God has blessed him, but he tells the Jews that God has requested of him to suggest that they go back to Jerusalem to rebuild God’s house – the holy temple that was destroyed when they were exiled into Babylon.
This would be the equivalent of a worldly unbeliever in our day age coming up to a believer and saying something like: I believe that your God has blessed me with abundance, and He also told me to tell you to get your act together. And think about rebuilding your temple so that you may worship properly in His house – oh, and by the way, here’s a little financing to get you started.
How many of us are going to listen to that?
Well, probably some of us – but not very many, especially if we’re prospering right where we are, like many of the Jewish people were at this time. And if we don’t see anything wrong in our exile, and we consider ourselves blessed in affliction, we’re not going to open ourselves up for potential discouragement.
However, if we’re loving the Lord with all our hearts, all our souls and all our minds, we’re going to hear startling truth in Cyrus’ words. We’re going to be on board with rebuilding our temple, which in our day and age is our body (individually and corporately).
5 Then rose up the heads of the fathers’ houses of Judah and Benjamin, and the priests and the Levites, everyone whose spirit God had stirred to go up to rebuild the house of the Lord that is in Jerusalem. Ezra 1:5 esv
So the Jewish people are going back…at least some of them. What’s important to realize in the above verse is that God is always moving and calling out to us—it’s up to us to respond, i.e., “But if serving the Lord seems undesirable to you, then choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your forefathers serviced beyond the River, or the gods of the Amorites, in whose land you are living. But as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord.” Joshua 24:15-16 niv 1984
So some of the Jews are going back to rebuild – the heads of the fathers’ houses of Judah and Benjamin, and the priests and the Levites with all whose spirits God had moved.
One thing my commentaries pointed out was that a probable reason for such a small amount of returnees was the fact that the northern kingdom had been exiled about 135 years prior to the Judean exile (so approximately 200 or more years in exile). For instance, let’s say England in 1775 exiled our forefathers to America. Well, we’ve been born and raised here. I don’t want to go to England and start over no matter what kind of a deal they offer me! No matter what my roots were 200 years ago, my family and my heritage is here.
ALSO, they knew that their land (back in Judah) had been “resting” or experiencing a “Sabbath” for 70 years—it wasn’t pastures, farmland and villages anymore. Much of their land had reverted back to a wilderness and required resettling. This was going to be dangerous.
And besides wilderness, there were people there, just to the north, who really didn’t want the Jews coming back and starting up their religion again.
Remember when the northern kingdom was exiled… 24 And the king of Assyria brought people from Babylon, Cuthah, Avva, Hamath, and Sepharvaim, and placed them in the cities of Samaria instead of the people of Israel. And they took possession of Samaria and lived in its cities…
And there’s a plague of lions, and so the king of Assyria sends a priest from out of his batch of exiles to teach the transplants how to worship Jehovah, and that gets rid of the lions…but:
29 …every nation still made gods of its own and put them in the shrines of the high places that the Samaritans had made, every nation in the cities in which they lived…
33 So they feared the Lord but also served their own gods, after the manner of the nations from among whom they had been carried away. 2nd Kings 17:24-33 esv
And the new race that came out of those people, the Samaritans, do not want anything to do with the pure worship of Jehovah, which the exiles intend to restore – and God stirs up enough of these exiles to make a profound difference in what will take place in Jerusalem.
When the seventh month came, and the children of Israel were in the towns, the people gathered as one man to Jerusalem. 2 Then arose Jeshua the son of Jozadak, with his fellow priests, and Zerubbabel the son of Shealtiel with his kinsmen, and they built the altar of the God of Israel, Ezra 3:1-2a esv
First things, first; they will worship.
28 Therefore let us be grateful for receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, and thus let us offer to God acceptable worship, with reverence and awe, 29 for our God is a consuming fire. Hebrews 12:28-29 esv
Ascribe to the Lord, O heavenly beings, ascribe to the Lord glory and strength. 2 Ascribe to the Lord the glory due his name; worship the Lord in the splendor of holiness. Psalm 29:1-2 esv
…they built the altar of the God of Israel to offer burnt offerings on it, as it is written in the Law of Moses the man of God. 3 They set the altar in its place, Ezra 3:2b-3a esv
Most likely this means that they put the altar back into its original footprint.
They set the altar in its place for fear was on them because of the peoples of the lands, and they offered burnt offerings on it to the Lord, burnt offerings morning and evening. Ezra 3:3 esv
And they start to obey completely the Law of Moses, maintaining the burnt offerings and the feasts as prescribed by Moses. This was a sacrificial worship. In our day and age it would be our time, talent and treasure. (References were in homework). Fear was on them because of the peoples of the lands, and that’s these Samaritans. They are terrified of these people bringing trouble into their midst, and so the Jews start to worship in the ways that God gave Moses. Worship is their solution to fear. They gathered as one man… Ezra (3:1), so we know that the community is united in a common cause, and that’s in their worship of the Lord God Almighty.
It takes about 14 months after they’ve returned to Jerusalem to get the foundation of the temple in order. So far it doesn’t seem as if the Samaritans that they fear have tried to meddle in their plans, so they begin to rebuild the temple.
10 And when the builders laid the foundation of the temple of the Lord, the priests in their vestments came forward with trumpets, and the Levites, the sons of Asaph, with cymbals, to praise the Lord, according to the directions of David king of Israel. 11 And they sang responsively, praising and giving thanks to the Lord,
“For he is good, for his steadfast love endures forever toward Israel.”
And all the people shouted with a great shout when they praised the Lord, because the foundation of the house of the Lord was laid. 12 But many of the priests and Levites and heads of fathers’ houses, old men who had seen the first house, wept with a loud voice when they saw the foundation of this house being laid, though many shouted aloud for joy, 13 so that the people could not distinguish the sound of the joyful shout from the sound of the people’s weeping, for the people shouted with a great shout, and the sound was heard far away. Ezra 3:10-13 esv
Not everyone in this unified community was happy about the foundation. The older members of the community remembered the splendor of Solomon’s temple, and when they saw its itty-bitty replacement, they wept with a loud voice.
Here’s the deal, God had asked the Israelites, over and over again, (and there were some among the returnees who remembered this) “…consecrate yourselves and be holy, because I am holy…” (Leviticus 11:44) but they’d lived such unholy lives that now their temple was a shambles, and they knew it—their sins had manifested themselves into a pile of rubble. God’s chosen people “My peculiar treasure” (Exodus 19:5 KJV) suddenly saw their lust and greed for what it was, and they were filled with sorrow.
Now when the adversaries of Judah and Benjamin heard that the returned exiles were building a temple to the Lord, the God of Israel, 2 they approached Zerubbabel and the heads of fathers’ houses and said to them, “Let us build with you, for we worship your God as you do, and we have been sacrificing to him ever since the days of Esarhaddon king of Assyria who brought us here.” Ezra 4:1-2 esv
The adversaries (NIV 1984 uses the translation enemies) of Judah and Benjamin come along and offer their “help” in the rebuilding. These folks would be the Samaritans we just read about in 2nd Kings. They’re sort of like the Mafia. They’re enemies. They are completely different from the Israelites, and everyone knows it. Why on earth are they offering their “help?” Thankfully, the Jewish leadership knows what’s up.
3 But Zerubbabel, Jeshua, and the rest of the heads of fathers’ houses in Israel said to them, “You have nothing to do with us in building a house to our God; but we alone will build to the Lord, the God of Israel, as King Cyrus the king of Persia has commanded us.” Ezra 4:3 esv
In other words, “You can’t help us because we know you’re not holy and pure in your worship. Besides, we’re working under authority of the king!”
4 Then the people of the land discouraged the people of Judah and made them afraid to build Ezra 4:4 esv
4 Then the people of the land weakened the hands of the people of Judah, and troubled them in building, Ezra 4:4 kjv
5 and bribed counselors against them to frustrate their purpose, all the days of Cyrus king of Persia, even until the reign of Darius king of Persia. Ezra 4:3-5 esv
The exiles were deeply grieved and repentant when they saw that teeny little foundation, yet they continued to rebuild their temple – their place of worship. But then Satan, under the pretense of philanthropy, comes along and offers to help them.
This is an incredible parallel as regards our own personal walks with God. Oftentimes we assume that Satan will always come at us with blatant, obnoxious force, and we couldn’t be more wrong. Sometimes he comes quietly, in the form of a “helper.”
If we are truly repentant and we’re trying to clean up our act, what in the world do we want with people, whose beliefs don’t line up with our Scriptures, giving us advice on how and where we should worship? And perhaps, can they help us in that worship?
George Williams said of these “helpers,” they
…induce Christian people to accept in spiritual efforts the cooperation of persons who are not true followers of Christ.
—George Williams, The Complete Bible Commentary
They are God’s enemies, plain and simple. Their beliefs don’t line up with what we find in His Word. Their intention is not to “help” you. They are Pretenders and you need to avoid them.
So, these enemies of Judah and Benjamin, the Samaritan Mafia, Pretenders, offer their “help,” and when the Israelites refuse, the Pretenders go into subvert and destroy mode – just like any good Mafia operative would.
They bribed counselors against them to frustrate their purpose… esv
The KJV says hired; the NIV says bribed officials to work against them.
“Hired guns” would be the appropriate present-day terminology. The Samaritans paid the local Mafia to take care of the problem.
Discourage, frighten, frustrate, scheme, gossip – these are tools of the Pretender. If you reject a Pretender’s false overtures, you’re gonna pay.
This is an old, old scheme of the devil. He is not particularly creative, and he uses the same old tricks to divert and distract us away from our purpose in God that he always has. What’s really alarming is that we always fall for it!
I’ve actually had this same trick played on me, right here in this century. I had just started my writing ministry, and I wasn’t prepared for the Pretender. I wound up accepting help from a full-blown Pretender. When I realized what I’d gotten myself into, I separated from the Pretender’s “help.” That ole Pretender flipped out and made so much trouble for me that my ministry came to a standstill, and I had a serious crisis in my faith.
24 Then the work on the house of God that is in Jerusalem stopped, and it ceased until the second year of the reign of Darius king of Persia. Ezra 4:24 esv
24Thus the work on the House of God in Jerusalem came to a standstill until the second year of the reign of Darius king of Persia. Ezra 4:24 niv 1984
Discourage, frighten, frustrate, scheme, gossip.
But God knew that all that would happen, so He already had a plan of encouragement in place – because nothing is going to stop Him from doing His new thing.
God is the flawless inventor of our encouragement. And just like He did with me, He will get these Israelites back on track! God used faithful servants to minister to me at my lowest point and do a new thing in me. In two weeks we will see how He used two faithful prophets to do a new thing in Israel.
3 But those who prophesy are speaking to people to give them strength, encouragement, and comfort. 1st Corinthians 14:3 ncv
Worksheet to prepare for class on October 9, 2016 2-back-to-work-part-i-encouragement-worksheet
© 2016, Ta`Mara Hanscom
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