There are seven Old Testament books A most intimately linked together;—three historical, three prophetic and one both historical and prophetic. I refer to Ezra, Nehemiah and Esther in the first group, Haggai, Zechariah and Malachi in the second; and Daniel standing alone as the third. All have to do largely with a special work of God, subsequent to the close of the seventy years' captivity predicted by Jeremiah in which the land of Palestine was to make up her lost sabbatic years (Jer. 25:11-14; 2 Chron. 36:21; Dan. 9:2). During this period of desolation her people were in bondage to the king of Babylon first, and after his overthrow, to the king of Persia. Babylon was the fountainhead of idolatry, and in its false worship, demon-inspired, was found in germ every evil teaching that Satanic ingenuity has ever devised for the turning away of unbelieving men from the revelation given by God in His holy Word.
It was to cure the people of Judah of their deeply-rooted love for idolatry that Jehovah gave them up to serve the Chaldeans, "that bitter and hasty nation." Dwelling in the midst of the heathen, surrounded on all sides by the detestable creations of the human mind energized by wicked spirits, they learned to the full the folly and wretchedness of forsaking "the Guide of their youth" for the "gods many and lords many" of the nations. Their experiences in this stronghold of paganistic corruption cured them effectually of the worship of images, and resulted in a gracious revival under God's good hand which gave to His word a place of importance in their souls that it had not previously held. Unhappily, this blessed work of God's Spirit soon lost its power and degenerated into a mere cold intellectual bibliolatry, in which the letter of the Word was clung to tenaciously while the spirit was quite ignored. So devoted were the Pharisaic successors of "the men of the great synagogue" (as Ezra and his companions were afterwards called) to the study of the sacred writings, that they even counted the words and letters of the law, while a great body of expository literature was produced, most of it pedantic and imaginative in the extreme, but all testifying to the veneration in which the Scriptures were held. Yet when He who is Himself the Spirit of the entire Old Testament, and of whom Moses and all the prophets wrote, appeared in their midst, He was not discerned by faith and was rejected and crucified by the descendants of the very remnant whose zeal for God is commended in the book of Ezra. Though He came in fulfilment of the very writings they read every Sabbath in public, and often in private, as the Babe of Bethlehem Ephrata, the Light of Galilee of the nations, and the lowly Prince of Peace riding upon an ass, they fulfilled other prophecies in rejecting Him and spurning His claims.
As a result of this stupendous blunder, in a day yet to come and now undoubtedly drawn very near, the mass of the Jews are to sink to a lower form of idolatry than ever, when they receive and own the Antichrist of the future as Messiah of Israel and minister of "a god whom their fathers knew not," the Roman Beast who will be worshiped by the apostate Jews and Christendom alike as "the god of forces" (Dan. 11:36 to end; Rev. 13).
This perversion of the word of God and insensibility to the Spirit's work is exceedingly solemn and may well have a voice for saints of God in this last end of the present dispensation of His grace, who have been largely delivered from Romish abominations and Protestant misconceptions of Scripture, and brought again to own in simplicity the headship of Christ, the presidency of the Holy Spirit in the Church, and the authority of the written Word over the consciences of all who call upon the name of the Lord. Here also there is grave danger of holding fast the letter, while losing sight of the tremendous importance of walking in the Spirit in living, realized fellowship with the Lord Jesus Christ, to whose peerless name God would gather all His own. Already a declension of no slight character has come in, and against those who seek to hold fast the Word and not deny the one only Name, the world, the flesh and the devil have combined to render powerless the testimony to the failure of the Church at large, and the abiding unity of the body of Christ.
It cannot therefore be other than salutary to prayerfully trace again some of God's dealings with a remnant of old, that we may learn afresh His mind for His people today. In this spirit we would turn to the record of Ezra the scribe, a portion of Holy Scripture of intensely practical character, and abounding with suggestive teaching for believers in all ages.
The first two and a half verses of chapter one are quoted from the ending of 2 Chron., thus suggesting that Ezra was, perhaps, the chosen instrument to complete the earlier record, and which God would not have concluded without a pledge of restoration.
But these first verses of Ezra are not really the beginning of the work of God of which he treats. The true starting point will be found in the 9th of Daniel. There we find a man of God on his knees over the word of God—a lovely sight and one that ever foretells coming blessing. There are three 9th chapters in this series of books that are in large measure of the same character, namely, the 9th of Ezra, of Nehemiah and of Daniel. In all three alike we have men, each one whose heart is under the power of the truth for his times, in the place of confession before God. Such an attitude of soul well becomes all who recognize in any degree the advancing apostasy and the growth of the spirit of insub-jection to the Holy Scriptures now so prevalent.
In Daniel's case, "he understood by books" that the seventy years of affliction were very nearly run. He was a student of prophecy, and as he pored over Jeremiah's serious messages, he recognized that the time for their fulfilment of the Word as to the restoration had drawn near. What is the result? It drives him to his knees. He was no mere intellectual Bible student like so many today. The Scriptures had power over his soul and brought him to prayer and confession. He made the approaching deliverance a matter of earnest supplication coupled with a self-judgment that was the outcome of being in the realized presence of God. He confessed his own sin and the sin of his people. There was no harsh criticism of others while congratulating himself on his own faithfulness. He had been faithful, no doubt, but he does not claim anything on that ground. He confesses the failure of the nation to which he belongs and acknowledges their sin as his own. "W^have sinned" is his cry, not "they have sinned."
And what is the happy outcome of all this? We get it in the beginning of Ezra. "Now in 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" (ver. 1). Thus had God begun to hear and answer His servant's prayer, in fulfilment of His own word given through Jeremiah.
People are often stumbled as to the relations of prayer and the purpose of God. If God has counseled, shall He not bring it to pass, whether we pray or not? The answer is that prayer is a part of God's purpose. He has willed to act when His people pray; and one of the first evidences that He is about to perform a certain thing is that the spirit of prayer and supplication is poured out upon His people in regard to that particular work. Here He moves the heart of a king in his palace to accomplish His word, after Daniel has made it a matter of prayer.
Cyrus issues a decree saying, "The Lord God of heaven hath given me all the kingdoms of the earth; and He hath charged me to build Him a house at Jerusalem, which is in Judah. Who is there among you of all His people? His God be with him, and let him go up to Jerusalem, which is in Judah, and build the house of the Lord God of Israel (He is the God), which is in Jerusalem. And whosoever remaineth in any place where he sojourneth, let the men of his place help him with silver, and with gold, and with goods, and with beasts, beside the freewill offering for the house of God which is in Jerusalem" (vers. 2-4).
In the beginning of this proclamation we see how evidently Cyrus was inspired of the Lord in the very title given to Jehovah. He is the "God of heaven." This is the name by which He is largely known in the series of books indicated above. It was a title He took when His throne was removed from the earth,and He gave His people into the hands of the Gentiles. He went and "returned to His place,"as Hosea puts it. He forsook the temple at Jerusalem, dissolved the theocracy and became "the God of heaven." Such He is still to His ancient people, and so He will remain till He returns to Jerusalem to establish His throne again as '' the Lord of the whole earth."
It is likewise of note that Cyrus issues no command for any one to return to Jerusalem. There is to be nothing legal in this movement. It must be the result of grace working in the soul. So the king gives permission, and all who have heart for it are free to go up to the place where of old the Lord had set His name.
For nature there was little indeed to attract any one to Jerusalem. It lay a burned, ruined heap in the midst of a land of desolation. But for faith there was an attraction which nature could not understand. It was the city of God, the place of the Name,—the only place on earth to which a grateful people could scripturally bring their offerings and where the guilty could bring a sacrifice for sin.
For believers now there is no such hallowed spot in this scene; "Neither in Jerusalem, nor at this mountain" is our place of worship. But our Lord has said: "Where two or three are gathered together unto My name, there am I in the midst." Where He is acknowledged as sole Head and Lord and His redeemed are gathered to Himself, is what answers to the place where He set His name of old. As so gathered He leads His saints into the heavenly sanctuary, and there draws out their hearts to offer the sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving. To get back to this simplicity, as it was at the beginning, may well be the desire of our hearts. Ever since the rising light of the Reformation there have been such stirrings of heart and conscience among the children of God;—yearnings after more of the simplicity of early days, with a larger appreciation of Christ, a separation from the unholy and profane.
It would be a grave blunder to make the scenes of Ezra typical of any one movement in Christendom. It rather has suggestive lessons by which saints may profit when any special work of gathering back to Christ in the Spirit's power is going on. And this is one of the first and most important lessons. Such a movement must be of the working of grace. It cannot be a legal thing or all its freshness and power are lost. Hence the unwisdom of trying to force people into a position where grace has not been drawing them.
It is customary in some quarters to rail against human systems and to put the leaving them on people's consciences as a matter of duty. By this means many take an outward place of separation who are not really drawn to Christ. It follows that such are very likely to be hard and legal in their ways and words, and will know little of that stirring of heart and attraction to the Lord Himself that we have pictured here in Ezra. The 5th verse tells us that certain of the chief of the fathers of Judah and Benjamin, together with priests and Levites, and "all them whose spirit God had awakened," arose "to go up to build the house of the Lord which is in Jerusalem." This was most precious to God. The voluntariness was a lovely evidence of grace working in their souls.
Some there were, perhaps the majority, who did not go up, and it is not for us to judge them as to this; for we cannot tell what natural hindrances there may have been. But the book of Esther is witness that God did not take the same pleasure in those who remained as in the company who "for the Name's sake" ascended to Jerusalem. He watched over them still, but He did not link His name openly with them as He did with the rest.
There was no enmity or spirit of judgment between the two classes. Those who remained helped their brethren who went up "with vessels of silver, with gold, with goods, and with beasts, and with precious things beside all that was willingly offered" (ver. 6).
The action of Cyrus to which our attention is next directed, in separating the vessels that had of old belonged to Jehovah's temple, from the treasure of the kings devoted to the heathen deities, is most suggestive, reminding us of the word of the Lord in 2 Tim. as to separating between vessels to honor and vessels to dishonor. What was of and for God must be purged out from the mixture. And this remains true for today.
The separated vessels are all numbered and committed to Sheshbazzar, called generally Zerubbabel (a stranger in Babel) the prince of Judah. It is noteworthy that this prince of David's line claims no honors by virtue of his illustrious descent. It was a day of weakness and of small things. Zerubbabel therefore takes his place as one whose faith others can follow, but he claims nothing as David's son and heir.
This may speak to the hearts of those who today are exercised as to the lack of sign-gifts and who desire something great that the eye may see. The time for great things is over, the dispensation is closing in failure on man's part as to all committed to him. It becomes those who really "have understanding of the times" to be through with pretension, and in simplicity to go along with the lowly. "The meek will He guide in judgment; the meek will He teach His way."
—H.A. Ironside Expository Commentary