A Merciful Return for Israel
Topic: English Passage: Ezra 1-2
On July 29, 1986, at a lounge in southeast Louisiana, an argument broke out between two parties. One on side of the dispute, there was a man named Van Douglas Hudson. He was there with his wife and some friends. On the other side of the altercation there was a man named Jack Mulkey who had had too much to drink.
Van Douglas Hudson confronted the intoxicated Mulkey, and tensions flared. Attempts were made to calm the men down, but they were unsuccessful. Hudson stormed out of the lounge and, shortly after, returned holding a short-barreled 12-gauge shotgun. He shot Mulkey in the chest, which ended up killing him. Then Hudson ejected the shell, joined his wife and friends, and they left the lounge.
Witnesses later identified Hudson as the man who had fired the gun, and police found the weapon in the trunk of his car. Van Douglas Hudson was convicted of second-degree murder and incarcerated.
Why am I telling you this? Well, Van Douglas Hudson was one of 56 convicted criminals which the outgoing governor of Louisiana pardoned in the final three months of last year. He was forgiven, and he was released.
The authority of a president or a governor to pardon people who have been convicted of a crime is nothing new, so that kind of action doesn’t always make the news. But there have been times when pardons make headlines.
In the case of the Louisiana governor, the pardons made the news, not just because of the number of them, but because of the type of crimes that had been committed. Of the 56 pardons, 40 of the individuals had been convicted of murder, either in the first degree or in the second degree.
This wasn’t because of some new evidence that cleared the person. This wasn’t because the individual had worked out some kind of deal. This wasn’t because the case had been reopened or because a judge or jury had decided to change the verdict. These pardons were the result of a governor using his authority to grant mercy.
I say this to you because I want you to have a proper frame of mind as we begin learning more about the return of Israel to her promised land. Israel was not simply a victim of foreign nations. Israel had been warned over and over—for generations—that if they did not return to the law of God, they would be destroyed, and the land would be given to someone else. And that’s exactly what happened.
The tribes in the north were destroyed and scattered by the Assyrians, and about 150 years later, the southern kingdom was destroyed and taken into exile by the Babylonians. Nobles were taken as prisoners, and both Scripture and history tell us that captives were taken away with hooks in their lips and noses. It was painful, and it was degrading. And it was all God’s righteous judgment upon them.
But the same God who judged them so severely for their own wickedness also promised He would show them mercy. God promised Abraham that He would preserve his descendants, and through the prophets God told Israel that their captivity would not be forever.
This is what the opening verses of Ezra point us to. From a human perspective it was Cyrus king of Persia that allowed the people to return and rebuild, but behind that, there was the sovereign, faithful mercy of God to keep His promises, even to a disobedient people.
So, let’s a look a little more closely at this story and understand how this all began to unfold. Look with me again at verse 1.
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, so that he made a proclamation throughout all his kingdom and also put it in writing:
The “Cyrus” we meet here is known in history as Cyrus the Great, or Cyrus II. He was born around 585 BC and was king of an ancient Iranian dynasty. Eventually his empire conquered Babylon and so took over all the nations within its borders. Under Cyrus II, the Medo-Persian Empire was the largest empire that had existed up to that time. But even though Cyrus’ rule was “great” in size, it was not an authoritarian rule like the Babylonians had. The Persian Empire was pretty accepting, or tolerating, of the religions of other nations.
King Cyrus came to power over Babylon around 539 BC, and the proclamation we read about comes the very next year. With the rise of a new king, this kind of proclamation would have been a reform to help unite the people under his rule.
There is, at the British Museum, an ancient object known as the Cyrus cylinder. It’s a small skinny barrel made of clay that sits on its side. It’s about 8 or 9 inches long and about 3 inches in diameter. All around this clay cylinder there is Babylonian cuneiform, which is an ancient form of writing that looks like little triangles and lines. A good portion of it has been restored and translated, and here is what some it says:
“I am Cyrus, king of the universe, the great king, the powerful king, king of Babylon… king of the four quarters of the world…” Then it goes on to describe his conquest of Babylon, which is followed by this: “Marduk, the great lord, rejoiced at my good deeds, and he pronounced a sweet blessing over me, Cyrus, the king who fears him and over all my troops.”
You need to understand that Cyrus was not a converted Jew. When we read about his devotion to Yahweh, the God of Israel, don’t take that to mean he is repentant and converted. He took over the gods of the kings he conquered and hoped to invite their blessing on his kingdom. This is what drove Cyrus’ kindness to the people he conquered.
In the Cyrus cylinder, it says that he made “permanent sanctuaries” for the gods who lived in his land. He also says, “I collected all of their people and returned them to their settlements… May all the gods that I returned to their sanctuaries…ask for a long life for me… I have enabled all the lands to live in peace.”
So, historians today will tell us that Cyrus allowing the Jews to go back to Jerusalem was simply a consequence of his benevolent policies. But the author of Ezra wants us to understand that there is much more happening here. This is happening, according to verse 1, so that the word of the Lord by the mouth of Jeremiah might be fulfilled. This is happening because the Lord stirred up the spirit of Cyrus king of Persia.
In a general sense, just like the other prophets, Jeremiah prophesied that Israel would return. For example, Jeremiah 32:27 says, “Behold, I will gather them from all the countries to which I drove them in my anger and my wrath and in great indignation. I will bring them back to this place, and I will make them dwell in safety.”
But more specifically, Jeremiah also gave a time limit.
In Jeremiah 25:11, God said, “This whole land shall become a ruin and a waste, and these nations shall serve the king of Babylon seventy years. Then after seventy years are completed, I will punish the king of Babylon and that nation, the land of the Chaldeans, for their iniquity, declares the Lord, making the land an everlasting waste.”
Jeremiah 29:10 says, “When seventy years are completed for Babylon, I will visit you, and I will fulfill to you my promise and bring you back to this place.  For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope.”
Now, the time between the final destruction of Jerusalem and Cyrus’ decree is only about 47 or 48 years, so if we take 70 years as a specific prophecy, we need to start counting a little sooner and stop a little later. Some commentaries start counting at the very first attack on Jerusalem which goes back another twenty years. Others make up the time by stopping the clock when the rebuilding of the Temple is complete, which is 20 years after that. Some take the prophecy to be more figurative, and others see it as a limit. In other words, it wouldn’t last more than seventy years, and God was gracious to cut it short. Either way, this is God being faithful to His word.
Now, what’s interesting about this proclamation isn’t just the chronology, it is that the prophet Isaiah prophesied it 150 years earlier and he even mentioned Cyrus by name.
In Isaiah 44, God says, “I am the Lord, who made all things… who says of Cyrus, ‘He is my shepherd, and he shall fulfill all my purpose’; saying of Jerusalem, ‘She shall be built,’ and of the temple, ‘Your foundation shall be laid.’”
In Isaiah 45, Cyrus is called God’s anointed, and it promises his victory. Verses 3-6 say, “I will give you the treasures of darkness and the hoards in secret places, that you may know that it is I, the Lord, the God of Israel, who call you by your name.  For the sake of my servant Jacob, and Israel my chosen, I call you by your name, I name you, though you do not know me.  I am the Lord, and there is no other, besides me there is no God; I equip you, though you do not know me,  that people may know, from the rising of the sun and from the west, that there is none besides me; I am the Lord, and there is no other.”
This is not merely a political shift that happened to work out in Israel’s favor. This is God working out His eternal plan.
Jewish literature says that Daniel, who served under Babylon, ended up serving with Cyrus and sharing this prophecy with him. And they say this is what led Cyrus to make the proclamation. We can’t know for sure, but either way, it’s the result of God’s decree.
Let’s read the decree one more time, and then we’ll see what happened next. Ezra 1, verses 2-4. This is what was proclaimed throughout the land and written down—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.  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.  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.
So, not only is Cyrus allowing Israelites to go back, if they want to, he is returning what was taken from them and asking others to help as well. We saw something very similar when Israel escaped from Egypt. God gave them favor with the Egyptians, and the people gave them gold and silver.
And what happened as a result of this proclamation? Did it work? Yes, it did! Look at verse 5 and read to the end of the chapter—Then rose up the heads of the fathers' houses of Judah and Benjamin [these were the primary tribes in the south], 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.  And all who were about them aided them with vessels of silver, with gold, with goods, with beasts, and with costly wares, besides all that was freely offered.  Cyrus the king also brought out the vessels of the house of the Lord that Nebuchadnezzar had carried away from Jerusalem and placed in the house of his gods.  Cyrus king of Persia brought these out in the charge of Mithredath the treasurer, who counted them out to Sheshbazzar the prince of Judah.  And this was the number of them: 30 basins of gold, 1,000 basins of silver, 29 censers,  30 bowls of gold, 410 bowls of silver, and 1,000 other vessels;  all the vessels of gold and of silver were 5,400. All these did Sheshbazzar bring up, when the exiles were brought up from Babylonia to Jerusalem.
So, we get an initial count of what the people take with them, and we get a final count as well. All the gold and silver and bronze instruments that had been used in the Solomon’s Temple, and which had been taken by Nebuchadnezzar, are going back.
This is like a prisoner not only being released from jail, but he gets all his stuff back. On top of that, to continue the analogy, you’ve also got prisoners and officers contributing to the pot. God has made sure they have everything they need.
And right after the list of stuff, we get a list of the people. Look with me at chapter 2. Verse 1 says—Now these were the people of the province who came up out of the captivity of those exiles whom Nebuchadnezzar the king of Babylon had carried captive to Babylonia. They returned to Jerusalem and Judah, each to his own town.
The leader of this group was a man named Zerubbabel. He was a man from the line of David who had been born in Babylon. We’ll see more of him as we continue the story.
The rest of the chapter lists the names and numbers of the rest of the people that came. I am not going to go through the list, but to summarize it for you, Ezra includes families from the tribes of Judah and Benjamin, and he also included priests and Levites which is important since they are the ones who are supposed work in the temple. Beyond those groups, we also see that there were servants. There were even people there who wanted to serve in the Temple, but because there was no record of their genealogy, they had to wait until a priest could divinely confirm their status.
According to verse 64, the entire group was over 42,000 people. That’s a large caravan of people, and they had all decided that they were going to go back. The journey home would be anywhere from 3-5 months, and some of them had never even seen Israel; they were born in Babylon, just like Zerubabel. After almost 50 years, however, they were going to reestablish their homes in Israel.
We’re going to stop our study right there, but as we close our time today, I want to help us think about what to make of what we’ve seen. What lesson is here for us besides a historical one. Let me briefly share five highlights, and then we’ll close.
Number 1, we see the mercy of God. We see God’s mercy in restoring His people. They didn’t deserve to go back, but God did it anyway.
And in reading about God’s mercy, we need to remember that the same is true for us every day. I don’t deserve God’s goodness. I don’t deserve the blessing of my wife and my kids and my home. I sin so frequently. But God is merciful, is He not? He has shown us His mercy in Jesus Christ who has paid the price of our sin.
Listen, I know that some of you come to church feeling particularly guilty. Things happened over the course of this week, and you’re not proud of it. So, why are we here? We’re here because God is merciful. He has cleansed us in Christ. And just like Israel is getting a fresh start, God gives you a fresh start every day because of what Christ has done. Our God is merciful.
Number two, we see the faithfulness of God. The reason God was merciful to Israel is because He is faithful to His promises.
Just like God kept His promise to Israel, He is going to keep every single promise He has made to us who are part of His Church. The greatest of those promises is that one day, Jesus is coming back. We don’t have a timeline for it the way Israel had in Babylon, but it’s going to happen because God is faithful to His promises. We have hope, and we can endure, because we know this time of difficulty is going to end.
So, we see the mercy of God in restoration. We see the faithfulness of God in fulfilling His promises.
Number three, we see the sovereignty of God. This is such an amazing doctrine. God is sovereignly controlling all that takes place. He is the one who stirred up Cyrus’ heart. Proverbs 21:1 says—The king's heart is a stream of water in the hand of the Lord; he turns it wherever he will.
Listen, I know that 2024 is an election year. And I know that some people’s expectations and joy are tied to who does, or who doesn’t, end up in the White House. But listen, no matter who ends up sitting in the Oval Office, we know that God is still sitting on His throne. He is the Potter, and all of us are clay. He molds us however He wants. He is orchestrating all of human history—the things we like, and the things we don’t.
And just like God orchestrated the return of the Israelites, God has in eternity orchestrated the victory of Christ and His people. Nothing can change that.
Now, if you believe in the power and sovereignty of God, that doesn’t mean you can just sit back. It should lead you to pray to Him, like many of the Israelites were doing, including Daniel. Jesus understood God’s sovereignty better than any of us, and He prayed much more faithfully than you or me.
Kings and presidents aren’t in charge of this world. God is in charge. So, let’s continue to rely on Him.
A fourth element of this story is the provision of God. God didn’t just send the Israelites back, hoping they could make it all happen on their own. He provided for His people. And provided abundantly.
Where did Noah get the wood for the ark? Did you ever think about that? That’s a lot of trees to chop down, but Noah had everything he needed.
When the Israelites go back, they are already have everything they need to get the job done. God has fully equipped them. And He did it so generously. He gave them more than they needed.
Personally, you need to know that God is not going to call you to do something that He will not provide for in some way. This doesn’t mean we get to sit back and do nothing. But it does mean we don’t have to panic about not having enough.
Jesus said, “Seek first the kingdom and the righteousness of God, and you’ll have everything that you need.”
In 2 Corinthians 9, Paul says to the church, “God is able to make all grace abound to you, so that having all sufficiency in all things at all times, you may abound in every good work.”
That’s not a promise that we get to have everything we want, but it’s a promise that we’ll have everything we need to complete the assignments God has for us. You just better be sure you’re doing God’s work and fulfilling His plan, rather than your own.
In a corporate sense, there’s also a reminder here that God has gifted our church with the ability to do all that He asks us to do. If we need more money or more ministers, He’ll take care of that, in His time. Again, that doesn’t mean we sit back and do nothing, but it means we move forward with confidence that He will provide if we’re focused on His glory.
The final reminder I see in this passage is the administration of God. We see His mercy, His faithfulness, His sovereignty, His provision, and lastly, His administration.
God is not a sloppy God. I know the temptation in chapter 2 is just to skip over all of it. But at least take note that God had lists. God took roll. The instruments were accounted for, and the people were registered. God is a God of order, and we’ll see this again as we continue the story. There is an organization and a structure to what God is doing. God, if I can put it this way, is an administrator.
In a corporate sense, this helps remind us that administration shouldn’t be an afterthought. Administrative clarity can be wrongfully idolized, but we shouldn’t throw it away. There is a strength and a unity that good organization brings. It clarifies roles. It empowers leaders. It helps create accountability. Good structure helps things be done with excellence. And if you’ve ever read books like Leviticus or Deuteronomy, you know that God cares about details, particularly when it comes to worship and ministry.
At a personal level, we have a reminder here that God doesn’t intend for you and me to simply shoot from the hip every time. If you and I are going to do great things for God’s glory, we need to be organized with what we’re doing. It will be a tremendous help if we can form some kind of structure to move forward. And it’s not structure or administration, for the sake of structure and administration. It’s for the benefit of the ministry.
I don’t mean to say that ever aspect of your life needs to be planned out to every detail. What I’m saying is that when it comes to more formal things like ministry in the church, or even a personal ministry, you’d like to begin, it helps to have some sort of structure.
What is God calling you to do? What role does He have for you? You’re going to have to think about that. Maybe you’re going to help with hospitality. Maybe you’ll help in the nursery or with the kids or with the security team. Whatever it is, you want to do it right. You want to do it with excellence.
If you make a commitment, honor the commitment. Put it on your calendar. That’s a very simple but important expression of administration or organization. Write it down somewhere so you don’t forget.
I know some of you think administration or organization is stuffy. It feels like it stops the flow of God’s work. But that’s not always the case. Good administration—healthy, clear organizational structures—will actually help the work of God move forward.
Moses appointed elders to help him lead the people. God ordained teams to tear down the Tabernacle, and He told them how to march. The Apostles appointed seven men to solve a problem. So, we can’t always jump into ministry with some kind of dream but no actual plan. If God is calling you to do something, plan out how you’re going to make that happen. Let the organization of God show through a little bit, and let it help you excel for His glory.
As we continue in this story, we’ll see how God uses leadership and organization to help the work advance.