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About the Author
D. A. Carson (PhD, Cambridge University) is research professor of New Testament at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, where he has taught since 1978. He is a cofounder of the Gospel Coalition and has written or edited nearly 120 books. He and his wife, Joy, have two children and live in the north suburbs of Chicago.
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Genesis 1; Matthew 1; Ezra 1; Acts 1
THE FIRST STEPS TOWARD ISRAEL'S RETURN from exile and their rebuilding of the temple (Ezra 1) are full of interest:
(1) A person without much knowledge of history might be forgiven for thinking that Israel was the only national group released from the bondage of exile. Historically, that is not true. When the Persians took over from the Babylonians (who had sent Judah into exile), King Cyrus of Persia reversed the Babylonian policy. The Babylonians (and the Assyrians before them) transported the aristocracy and leading citizens of subjugated territories. Rebellion in the ancient world was often suspended on the threefold cord of people, land, and religion. If one of these three strands could be removed, there was less likelihood of revolt. By transporting all the leaders of every branch of a culture to some new territory far removed from their own land (thereby disconnecting people and land), these empires secured a kind of peace. Obviously they also introduced enormous dislocation, which must have had many negative effects, not least economic. Whatever the reasons, Cyrus not only stopped this policy, but permitted exiles — including the Jews — to return home.
(2) But Ezra is right in understanding this to be the work of God: "The LORD moved the heart of Cyrus king of Persia" (1:1). At another time, the Lord would cause a census to be taken of the entire Roman world, to bring a pregnant woman to Bethlehem — once again to fulfill an ancient Scripture (Luke 2).
(3) The prophecy in this case, according to Ezra, is that of Jeremiah (Ezra 1:1), probably referring to Jeremiah 25:11-12; 29:10-14; 51. It would be a mistake to read Ezra 1:1 as if God were somehow bound by Jeremiah's word, instead of the other way around. The point is that the prophecy of Jeremiah is nothing other than the word of God. God is bound by his own word. When Daniel understood that the prescribed time of exile was coming to an end, he set himself to seek the face of God for his people (Dan. 9) — which of course was exactly the right thing to do. And here we find the answers both to Daniel's prayers and to God's promises.
(4) As usual, when God works decisively, there are no loose ends. On the one hand, he moves Cyrus the King to make his proclamation; on the other hand, he moves in the hearts of many Jews to return home (1:5). After all, we are dealing now with a generation that had grown up entirely in the Tigris-Euphrates valleys. It would be like asking the second or third generation of immigrants to the United States from, say, Japan or Germany, to return "home." But God's people become willing in the day of his power.
Genesis 2; Matthew 2; Ezra 2; Acts 2
THE SHEER PRECISION OF THE REPORTS of return (Ezra 2) is one of the first things to strike the casual reader of this chapter. Not only are the numbers of the people accurately reported, along with the names of their clans, but even the numbers of their animals — horses, mules, camels, donkeys (2:66). One remembers the response of the old Puritan who was being berated for insisting on precision when talking about God and the teachings of the Bible. "Sir," he replied, "I serve a precise God."
That is only one side of the story, of course. This same God delights in the spontaneous praise of children, who are not known for precision. The Bible he has given us uses evocative imagery as well as precise reports. Yet our age is so committed to vague feelings that precision in matters divine is often despised. We want to follow our intuitions, not our instructions; we elevate feelings, not facts; we ingest treacle, not truth.
In this case there are several reasons for the precision of the report. For a start, such precision gives the account authority: this is not some distant hearsay, but the close reportage of someone who had intimate knowledge of the details. Further, naming these individuals and their families bestows on them an implicit approval. Countless tens of thousands of Israelites never returned to the Promised Land; they were too settled where they were, and the restoration of Jerusalem and the temple was of too little importance to them to warrant such dislocation. Their names have been lost; they are of little consequence in the sweep of redemptive history. But these names are remembered and written down in sacred Scripture. Read them slowly; they call forth our respect and gratitude.
But there is another element in the precision. Some of the returning clans could not show that they were descended from Israel (2:59); some of those who claimed priestly lineage were in the same predicament (2:62). The problem was taken seriously, and Zerubbabel the governor ordered that they be excluded from priestly service until the ancient way of divine guidance, the Urim and Thummim, could be reinstituted and their claims checked (2:63). Here were a people serious about observing the stipulations of the Mosaic covenant, serious about preserving the purity not only of the covenant community in general but of the priesthood in particular, serious about following all of God's words. The seriousness with which they undertook the massive enterprise of the return is attested even by the gifts that they gave toward rebuilding the house of God (2:68-69).
The fact that this fledgling postexilic community soon stumbled into a new generation of fresh problems and old sins should not diminish the power of their example for believers today.
Genesis 3; Matthew 3; Ezra 3; Acts 3
THE SHEER INTENSITY OF THE experiences of God's people during the first few months of their return to the Promised Land (Ezra 3) shines through the lines of the text.
(1) They are afraid (3:3). This is the first hint of the dangers that they face, the source of which becomes clearer in the following chapters. The Persian king Cyrus has granted permission to the Jews to return to their homeland, and even sanctioned certain payments for their support and for the rebuilding of the temple. But the frontiers of the empire are a long way from the center, and in the rough politics of the real world, possession is nine- tenths of the law. These Jews are, after all, a minority surrounded by foes much stronger than they.
(2) They are resolute (3:3). The opposition understands that the erection of the temple is not only a religious sign but a sign of growing political strength. The Jews therefore would have had some incentive to keep quiet and maintain a low profile. But their resolution at this juncture is admirable: despite their understandable fear, they build the altar of the Lord and re- institute the sacrificial system prescribed by the "Law of Moses the man of God" (3:2-6), and then proceed with the first steps of constructing a new temple.
(3) They are full of joy and praise (3:10-11). The laying of the foundation of the new temple elicits worship and adoration of God himself, who transparently is blessing the endeavors of his chastened covenant community. Here is hope not only for a temple, but for a restoration of the Davidic dynasty, the fulfillment of the glorious promises of hope delivered by the prophets during Israel's darkest hours of exile.
(4) Many weep (3:12-13). These tend to be the older ones who can still remember the contours of Solomon's magnificent temple. The foundations of the new structure seem piddling in comparison. Doubtless these people are grateful for days of small things; after all, they, too, have elected to return. But days of small things are still small, and the intensity of their emotional response is elicited by long memories of things past.
At least these people are alive, and getting on with God's business. Their responses may sometimes be wrenching, full of lows and highs, but they are real, vital, human, charged with life and engagement. Here there is no glum despondency, no cynical reserve, no emotionally flat withdrawal. Here are the emotions of a group of people committed, in difficult circumstances, to doing God's will.
Genesis 4; Matthew 4; Ezra 4; Acts 4
IN THIS BROKEN WORLD, THERE WILL ALWAYS be people who try, in one way or another, to discourage and defeat the people of God. Add such people to the discouragements and failures that surface from within, and circumstances can appear desperately bleak and foreboding.
In Ezra 4, the enemies of the returned exiles try three distinct approaches, all of them aimed at defeating this small community of God's people.
The first is to make common cause with them. It sounds so good: "Let us help you build because, like you, we seek your God and have been sacrificing to him since the time of Esarhaddon king of Assyria, who brought us here" (4:2). Unwary people might have been taken in. There is always a place for genuine unity, of course, but unbridled ecumenism inevitably results in redefining the Gospel in terms of the lowest possible denominator. One of the best ways to divert a committee is to pack it with your own supporters. Pretending support, you take something over and deploy its energies in some innocuous direction, like a cancerous growth that usurps the body's energies for its own aggrandizement. The strategy does not work in this case, because the leaders of God's people, far from congratulating themselves that help has arrived, refuse to be taken in. They turn down the offer. This precipitates a different strategy from the opponents, one that unmasks their true colors.
The second approach is "to discourage the people of Judah and make them afraid to go on building" (4:4). Some of their plan is disclosed in the book of Ezra; even more of it surfaces in Nehemiah. So committed are these opponents to the failure of God's people that they even hire "counselors to work against them and frustrate their plans" (4:5). Rumors, threats, shortages of supply, energy-sapping diversions — all are concocted by strategists-for-hire, clever people who think of themselves as wise, influential, and powerful, but who have no spiritual or moral perception of the situation at all.
The third attack is directly political. In a carefully crafted letter filled with half-truths, these opponents of God's people manage to convince King Xerxes to shut down the building project. The ban remains in force for decades. What begins as a seemingly insurmountable political barrier settles down into a way of life, the Jews themselves accepting the status quo until the powerful preaching of Haggai and Zechariah (5:1) shake them out of their lethargy.
How have these three instruments of discouragement been deployed in the twentieth century?
Genesis 5; Matthew 5; Ezra 5; Acts 5
MORE YEARS OF DELAY AND DISAPPOINTMENT go by before God raises up the prophets Haggai and Zechariah (Ezra 5), who encourage the people to restart the building of the temple. The temple's foundations have been laid, but nothing more has been done. Now, under the revitalizing ministry of the two prophets, the building starts again.
This precipitates a new crisis. Tattenai, governor of Trans-Euphrates (from the Persian perspective Trans-Euphrates means everything in the Persian Empire to the west of the Euphrates, including the strip of land we know as Israel), questions the authority of the Jews to engage in this building project. Tattenai writes to Darius, the new king, and in the next chapter Darius responds positively: the Jews are not only permitted to rebuild, but should be supported by the treasury.
One can see why, humanly speaking, imperial policy has reversed itself. For a start, we are dealing with a new emperor. More importantly, a careful reading of Tattenai's letter (5:7-17) shows it to be a remarkably even-handed missive, setting out the facts of the case without prejudice and simply wanting to know the right way forward. How different was the remarkably perverse letter of Rehum and Shimshai (4:11-16). As Scripture comments, that was really a letter "against Jerusalem" (4:8), a nasty piece of work that only the most astute monarch would have penetrated, and Artaxerxes was not that kind of monarch. So in the peculiar providence of God, the letter in Ezra 4 shuts the project down, while the letter in Ezra 5, written by pagans no less than the first, not only wins authorization for the building project, but money as well.
It is important for believers to remember that God sovereignly controls countless elements over which we have little sway. I recall speaking at a Cambridge college chapel more than twenty years ago on the assigned topic of death and judgment. What frightened me was the obligatory discussion that would follow. I preached as simply and as faithfully as I could, and after the meeting we settled down for the discussion. The chaplain was sure there would be "questions arising." In that interesting but mixed crowd, I waited with some trepidation for the first shot. Then a mathematics "don" (a college teacher) I had never met quietly commented, "If we heard more sermons like that, England would not be in her mess." That comment established the tone of the rest of the meeting. Everyone was serious, and I spent the time explaining the Gospel. But the fact that it was that question which set the tone, and not some taunting sneer, was entirely in the hand of God.
Genesis 6; Matthew 6; Ezra 6; Acts 6
ALTHOUGH THE SEVEN MEN WHO ARE appointed to certain responsibilities in Acts 6:1-7 are not explicitly called "deacons," few doubt that this is the beginning of what came to be called the diaconate. Several points call for comment:
(1) What precipitates this step is a problem — a particular kind of problem. The Greek-speaking Jewish Christians are dissatisfied with the level of support being received by their widows, compared with the support received by the widows of Aramaic-speaking Jewish Christians. Whether the charge is justified or not — and, if it is, whether it is an intentional slight or an accidental one because the Aramaic-speakers were on home turf and probably in the ascendancy — cannot at this point be determined. In any case, the divisiveness is at least as potentially dangerous for this large, fledgling church as the perceived injustice that precipitated it. Note: (a) The church ran its own welfare system for the indigent and the unsupported. (b) It is mildly reassuring, in a wry way, to discover that the earliest church faced problems of alleged inequity, injustice, and consequent divisiveness. (c) More telling is the fact that it addressed those problems. (d) Moreover, it is obvious that the size of a church, not to say its rising problems of equity and communication, may demand improvements in organization and the appointment of new officers.
(2) The reasoning of the Twelve is stunningly focused: "It would not be right for us to neglect the ministry of the word of God in order to wait on tables" (6:2). Again, they lay down some criteria and insist that they themselves will give their attention "to prayer and the ministry of the word" (6:4). We may not have the Twelve today, but pastors/elders/overseers have inherited this ministry of the word and prayer. That includes not only teaching others, but doing the serious study and preparation and intercession that stand behind good teaching and preaching. There will always be a hundred things to distract you. Do not be distracted from what is central.
(3) The criteria presented by the Twelve for the church to use in their choice of seven men are not managerial prowess and gifts of diplomacy. The men are to be known as full of the Holy Spirit and wisdom and faith (6:4, 5). Of course, these criteria include managerial savvy: if a person is full of the Holy Spirit, he or she will exercise care in relationships; and "wisdom" can include practical, godly skill in some defined area. But at bottom, these seven men are appointed because they are judged to be mature and godly Christians as well as gifted for the tasks assigned them.
Genesis 7; Matthew 7; Ezra 7; Acts 7
EZRA 7 RECOUNTS THE MISSION OF Ezra in the postexilic community in Jerusalem and Judah. Obviously it was part of imperial policy that if exiled groups were permitted to return to their homeland, they should be supported by their priests. From the perspective of pagan superstition, the rulers would not want any of the regional gods angry with them (7:23); from the perspective of the covenant community, this was formidable evidence that the good hand of God was upon them, that he was able to rule the affairs of the mightiest empires so as to preserve his own people.
The nature of Ezra's task could easily be taken as a model of the privileges and responsibilities of all whose duty it is to teach the Word of God to the people of God: "For Ezra had devoted himself to the study and observance of the Law of the LORD, and to teaching its decrees and laws in Israel" (7:10).(Continues…)
Excerpted from "For the Love of God, Volume Two"
Copyright © 1999 D. A. Carson.
Excerpted by permission of Good News Publishers.
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Table of Contents
M'Cheyne Chart of Daily Bible Readings,
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