Good morning, brothers and sisters. We have completed the readings in Ezra and will continue the story in Nehemiah, the story of the return of the children of Judah from their seventy years of captivity in Babylon. The story contains many exhortations for us in these last days of the Gentile times as we await the return of our Lord and Savior. We see in this story that Yahweh blessed those who arose and worked in His service and who were not discouraged by opposition. Today, we too are called upon to work in His service; and likewise, we are not to be discouraged by the opposition that we face.The Northern Kingdom of Israel had been taken captive by the Assyrians and dispersed throughout the region. Other subject peoples were moved into Samaria, and this produced the mixed race that exists there to this day. Those ten tribes are still scattered, but we have the promise of their being re-gathered and identified in the Kingdom Age. About 125 years later, the Southern Kingdom of Judah was led into captivity in Babylon by Nebuchadnezzar because they had forsaken Yahweh in spite of the many warnings they had received from the various prophets. Jeremiah had prophesied a captivity of seventy years. During these long years of slavery, the faithful were encouraged by the prophesies of Ezekiel and Jeremiah who both assured them of a return and eventual restoration. Daniel witnessed the fall of Babylon to Darius the Mede, and he realized that God's Word demanded an end to this captivity and desolation of Judah.
The book of Ezra is the story of God's helping in the Restoration of the people to their land. In fact, the name Ezra means help. We saw how Yahweh helped His people. One commentator sums up the message of the book by citing Psalm 94 verse 17: UNLESS THE LORD HAD BEEN MY HELP, MY SOUL HAD ALMOST DWELT IN SILENCE. We find this word EZRAH in several of the Psalms, for example: Psalm 40 verse 17: BUT I AM POOR AND NEEDY; YET THE LORD THINKETH UPON ME: THOU ART MY HELP AND MY DELIVERER; MAKE NO TARRYING, O MY GOD. And then in Psalm 60 verse 11: GIVE US HELP FROM TROUBLE: FOR VAIN IS THE HELP OF MAN. And again Psalm 71 verse 12: O GOD, BE NOT FAR FROM ME: O MY GOD, MAKE HASTE FOR MY HELP. And finally Psalm 108 verse 12: GIVE US HELP FROM TROUBLE: FOR VAIN IS THE HELP OF MAN.
You can see here this golden thread of exhortation running throughout these passages -- the exhortation that we must rely upon Yahweh for help in all our needs rather than the help of Man; hence our title, Help is from the Lord. After the first group of people returned and were restored to the land, the process of Reconstruction commences. In Ezra Chapter 3 we have the rebuilding of the altar and the laying of the foundation of the Temple. Chapter 4 continues with the rebuilding of the Temple. This rebuilding is completed in Chapter 6 and the dedication takes place. Chapter 6 verses 19 through 21 announce an event of great joy: AND THE CHILDREN OF THE CAPTIVITY KEPT THE PASSOVER UPON THE FOURTEENTH DAY OF THE FIRST MONTH. FOR THE PRIESTS AND THE LEVITES WERE PURIFIED TOGETHER, ALL OF THEM WERE PURE, AND KILLED THE PASSOVER FOR ALL THE CHILDREN OF THE CAPTIVITY AND FOR THEIR BRETHREN THE PRIESTS, AND FOR THEMSELVES. AND THE CHILDREN OF ISRAEL, WHICH WERE COME AGAIN OUT OF CAPTIVITY, AND ALL SUCH AS HAD SEPARATED THEMSELVES UNTO THEM FROM THE FILTHINESS OF THE HEATHEN OF THE LAND, TO SEEK THE LORD GOD OF ISRAEL, DID EAT. We see here the principle of separation being emphasized.
Now, as we pick up the story in our daily readings in the book of Nehemiah, we shall see more Reconstruction taking place. The protective wall around the city is completed in Nehemiah Chapter 6, and worship is re-established. We have the public reading of the Law and the people are reacquainted with dwelling in booths which then leads to the re-establishment (or reconstruction, if you will), of the Feast of Tabernacles and the Day of Solemn Assembly.In our daily readings toward the end of this month, we will pick up with the reading of the book of Esther whose time frame is merged with the events of Ezra and Nehemiah. It is interesting that in the book of Esther we do not read once the Memorial name of Yahweh. Yet one cannot deny His involvement behind the scene in His work in the Preservation of His people. Once again we have illustrated for us that help is from the Lord. Thus we see Yahweh's hand in the Restoration, the Reconstruction and the Preservation of His people. You cannot help but think of these events as types of the modern-day restoration of the Jewish State of Israel. There seems to be a foreshadowing of what will be accomplished in perfect form at the coming of Christ. In a Wednesday class recently on Present Times: Israel, we noted that the modern restoration of Israel to the Land began in earnest just recently, and the people have mostly returned in unbelief, as agriculturists and husbandmen, as Brother Thomas puts it. Brother Robert Roberts divides the manifestation of the work of Yahweh into two groups or classifications that he sets forth in two different books. He discusses the astounding miracles that seem to defy Natural Law as observed by witnesses in the book The Visible Hand of God. Included here would be the miracles such as the Ten Plagues on Pharaoh's Egypt, the Parting of the Red Sea, the Burning Bush and Samson's great strength. In his other book, The Ways of Providence, he discusses events where the Elohim have shaped events in such a way that the ordinary person sees nothing miraculous having taken place. Here we could cite Yahweh's use of foreign nations to accomplish His will -- nations such as Assyria and Babylon's taking of Israel and Judah respectively into captivity or the Roman's destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70. It is Yahweh's ways of providence that must be cited to account for the return of the Jews to the Land in spite of all odds that it would be successful. Thus, in these current readings of the Restoration of the two tribes of Judah, we see this invisible hand of God at work. Brother Ron Cowie at one of the recent cottage classes during our Study Week recounted Yahweh's identification of Cyrus as a Gentile type of Christ over 200 years before Cyrus was even been born. Isaiah prophesies in Chapter 45, verse 1: THUS SAITH THE LORD TO HIS ANOINTED, TO CYRUS, WHOSE RIGHT HAND I HAVE HOLDEN, TO SUBDUE NATIONS BEFORE HIM; AND I WILL LOOSE THE LOINS OF KINGS, TO OPEN BEFORE HIM THE TWO LEAVED GATES; AND THE GATES SHALL NOT BE SHUT. This process of restoration did not take place easily and without great difficulty for the Jews. The Samaritans wanted to help the newly arrived Jews with the work. The Jews response is in Ezra 4 verse 3: BUT ZERUBBABEL, AND JESHUA, AND THE REST OF THE CHIEF OF THE FATHERS OF ISRAEL, SAID UNTO THEM, YE HAVE NOTHING TO DO WITH US TO BUILD AN HOUSE UNTO OUR GOD; BUT WE OURSELVES TOGETHER WILL BUILD UNTO THE LORD GOD OF ISRAEL, AS KING CYRUS THE KING OF PERSIA HATH COMMANDED US. This turned the Samaritans into active enemies who created big problems for the returned exiles as time progressed. More opposition developed under the reigns of Xerxes and Artaxerxes. Letters were fired back and forth between the adversaries of the Jews and various government officials. Armed rebellion was a constant threat and Reconstruction had to proceed under armed guard. Another problem was that the people themselves lost focus as to what needed to be accomplished. Intermarriage with unbelievers in the land became another major problem. So we ask, how does this relate to us today? We as members of the household of faith are not being restored to a land from which we have been forcibly removed. But we are easily distracted from our work in the Truth by outside forces. We lose our focus just as the Jews did, and the lure of the world and the flesh are ever before us. We need to look to the reactions of the Jews, Ezra, and Nehemiah to learn from them actions that are appropriate for us in these last days of the Gentile times. Isaiah further identified Cyrus as Gods chosen one in Chapter 44 verse 28: THAT SAITH OF CYRUS, HE IS MY SHEPHERD, AND SHALL PERFORM ALL MY PLEASURE: EVEN SAYING TO JERUSALEM, THOU SHALT BE BUILT; AND TO THE TEMPLE, THY FOUNDATION SHALL BE LAID. In Yahweh's great foreknowledge He knew that Cyrus would decree that the Jews should return to their own land, the Temple would be rebuilt, and there would be a foreshadowing of what will be accomplished in a more perfect way at the return of Christ. The reaction of the Jews to the decree of Cyrus was immediate. The godly among them, those who had been waiting for the passage of the 70 years and the restoration, could hardly believe their ears for joy. Previous despondency now gave way to anticipation of great things. But it wasn't a universal reaction. Some of them had been totally assimilated into the Babylonian way of life. Things were comfortable. Why would they risk this for a long and uncertain trip back to Jerusalem? Even though many Jews have returned to the homeland today, they mostly leave areas of strife and oppression like the old Soviet Union, not the societies where they can continue to live the good life like here in the USA. In our preaching efforts our words fall on deaf ears for the most part in the affluent parts of the world. The bulk of our baptisms are taking place in Third World areas at present. The Testimony magazine for August, 2004, makes some comments about the current Christadelphian community in the UK. The number of subscriptions to the magazine is about half of what it was in 1960. The ratio of baptisms to deaths in 2003 was approximately 1 baptism to 2 deaths, whereas in 1966 it was about 3 baptisms to 2 deaths. Compare these figures to 1870 when The Christadelphian magazine reported 199 baptisms and only 10 deaths! So what do these figures tell us? Do the British ecclesias today sound like a counterpart of the lukewarm Laodicean ecclesia in Revelation? We have to ask ourselves if we are lukewarm. Do we receive with joy the announcement of a Study Weekend, a Fraternal Gathering, a Family Day, a Bible School, a CYC outing or, perish the thought, a Hymn Practice? Or do we react like the Jews who opted to remain in Babylon when Zerubbabel led the first group back to Jerusalem? Ideally, our reactions should be the one captured in Psalm 126 in verses 1 though 3: WHEN THE LORD TURNED AGAIN THE CAPTIVITY OF ZION, WE WERE LIKE THEM THAT DREAM. THEN WAS OUR MOUTH FILLED WITH LAUGHTER, AND OUR TONGUE WITH SINGING: THEN SAID THEY AMONG THE HEATHEN, THE LORD HATH DONE GREAT THINGS FOR THEM. THE LORD HATH DONE GREAT THINGS FOR US; WHEREOF WE ARE GLAD. We know that a relatively small number returned to Jerusalem. Cyrus appointed a descendant of David, a man named Sheshbazzar, the one also called Zerubbabel, to be governor. He was a notable prince among the Jews and was given the task of organizing the work. This he did with the help of the high priest Jeshua. The decision was made to restore the nation on a similar basis to that existing at the time of David. A register of those returning was taken, genealogies determined which priests and Levites would be given what duties in the worship to be re-established and where Jews would be appointed places of residence. There were Gentiles who had become completely Israelitish in attitude and actually more faithful that those Jews who chose to remain in Babylon. Thus, Gentiles were not only brought into Israel, but they became closely associated with the temple service. This should become a symbol of Hope to us and Gentiles of all ages. Something like 43,000 Jews, servants and singers returned, a small number compared to the total taken into captivity. But this was sufficient for Yahweh's purpose. We have to ask ourselves if we will be among that comparatively small number of those ransomed from the hordes of humanity over the ages, all of them held captive to the slavery of sin. Again, it will be a relatively small number; but, as then, it will be sufficient for God's purpose in the Kingdom. There was no welcome for these returning exiles on the part of the neighboring nations. The Jews were viewed with resentment, suspicion and hostility. So how does the world view the called-out ones today? The Moabites, the Samaritans, and the Edomites hated the Jews and did not want the nation restored. But Jeshua and Zerubbabel proceeded with an infectious enthusiasm and determination that inspired the others. They are described as men of sign, Jeshua being a descendant of Aaron and Zerubbabel from the line of the kings. Therefore, taken together, they represented the King-Priest aspect of the Lord Jesus Christ in type. We read in Ezra that the work of rebuilding was interrupted by these antagonistic neighbors. The Jews at several points lost focus and were intimidated by these Gentiles, and it took the ministries of the prophets Haggai and Zechariah to set them back on task. The exhortation is strong for us today to remain on task and goal oriented in the work of the Lord. We have our present day Moabites, Edomites and Samaritans that distract us from our work. Today they come in the guise of bigger bank accounts, more spacious homes, flashy automobiles, higher rungs on the corporate ladder, and more prestigious club memberships; or they might be actual people that distract us from the work at hand -- politicians, apostate religious groups, family members, peer groups. Certainly, these are not all friendly to our message. Eventually, Ezra, a notable scribe, joined in the work at Jerusalem. Whereas Zerubbabel was responsible for restoration and rebuilding the physical or material temple, Ezra performed the valuable work of the reformation of the spiritual temple. He was a man of great faith and prayer, and this was in evidence when he had to confront the ecclesia with the serious problems like intermarriage with those outside the family of faith. Chapter 9 records Ezra's prayer, and a study of it provides us with a model or basis for our own personal communication with Yahweh. In this prayer, Ezra considers the problem and prepares his mind. He identifies himself with the people and makes their sin his own. In verse 6 he expresses the shame and humiliation of sin: O MY GOD, I AM ASHAMED AND BLUSH TO LIFT UP MY FACE TO THEE, MY GOD: FOR OUR INIQUITIES ARE INCREASED OVER OUR HEAD, AND OUR TRESPASS IS GROWN UP UNTO THE HEAVENS. Confession of sin follows in verse 7: SINCE THE DAYS OF OUR FATHERS HAVE WE BEEN IN A GREAT TRESPASS UNTO THIS DAY; AND FOR OUR INIQUITIES HAVE WE, OUR KINGS, AND OUR PRIESTS, BEEN DELIVERED INTO THE HAND OF THE KINGS OF THE LANDS, TO THE SWORD, TO CAPTIVITY, AND TO A SPOIL, AND TO CONFUSION OF FACE, AS IT IS THIS DAY. Like Ezra, we too should recall Yahweh's great mercy for past sin. This he does in verses 8 and 9: AND NOW FOR A LITTLE SPACE GRACE HATH BEEN SHEWED FROM YAHWEH OUR ELOHIM, TO LEAVE US A REMNANT TO ESCAPE, AND TO GIVE US A NAIL IN HIS HOLY PLACE, THAT OUR GOD MAY LIGHTEN OUR EYES, AND GIVE US A LITTLE REVIVING IN OUR BONDAGE. FOR WE WERE BONDSMEN: YET OUR GOD HATH NOT FORSAKEN US IN OUR BONDAGE, BUT HATH EXTENDED MERCY UNTO US IN THE SIGHT OF THE KINGS OF PERSIA, TO GIVE US A REVIVING, TO SET UP THE HOUSE OF OUR GOD, AND TO REPAIR THE DESOLATIONS THEREOF, AND TO GIVE US A WALL IN JUDAH AND IN JERUSALEM. In the next five verses he recounts Israel's negligence. Then in verse 15 he indicates Israel's dependence on God: O LORD GOD OF ISRAEL, THOU ART RIGHTEOUS: FOR WE REMAIN YET ESCAPED, AS IT IS THIS DAY: BEHOLD, WE ARE BEFORE THEE IN OUR TRESPASSES: FOR WE CANNOT STAND BEFORE THEE BECAUSE OF THIS. Ezra returned to Babylon, and Nehemiah arrived on the scene about thirteen years after Ezra's visit. Things had gone into decline during Ezra's absence. Neighboring nations sought to undo the work accomplished by Ezra. Nehemiah had to reintroduce reforms and organize a defense of the capital. This is the story we'll read over the next few weeks. Not only do they need to reconstruct the wall, but the people needed to be retaught. Both Ezra and Nehemiah were charged with the task of reform. They both foreshadowed or typed the greatest reformer of all, the Lord Jesus Christ. In Nehemiah we again find a man of action, and we also find a man of prayer. The affliction of the city of Jerusalem moved him to make a plea to Yahweh in four month's of weeping and prayer. His request to the king was preceded by prayer. He answered mocking, derision, insults and threats when rebuilding the wall by praying. His enemies tried to entrap him, and he turned to prayer for help. He met every problem, every frustration, and all opposition with prayer. What a wonderful exhortation this is for us! But Nehemiah was prudent in spite of all his energy: he prayed as a man of faith; he acted with wise precaution; he displayed outstanding moral and physical courage; he called on others to help him. Oh, that we might emulate these men of God in our efforts for the Truth. And might we always remember that help is from the Lord. Sometimes the tasks before us seem daunting, if not overwhelming. And then we consider these emblems on this table before us. They are a remembrance of a man for whom the lives of Zerubbabel, Jeshua, Ezra and Nehemiah were types. We study their lives and learn that through their examples, we too can become men and women of prayer; we too can become men and women of action. We too can stand for the Truth. And, yes, we too can become more Christ-like. We don't need to build monuments to fleshly pride - bigger houses and those bigger toys that so many glory in. Pharaohs built their pyramids, kings their palaces, politicians their constituencies; and many other built their egos. But our hope is symbolized in these simple items here before us. We are about to celebrate the memorial of our Lord's life, death and resurrection. Down through the ages men have left their memorials in the form of tombs, castles, arches and cities. Others including these same men, have left behind broken bodies, war-ravaged cities, desecrated landscapes and untold human misery as their legacy. These testify to the futility and worthlessness of human effort and human glory. But Yahweh has left as His greatest memorial a plate of bread and a cup of wine. They speak of agony such as we shall never know. They speak of joy which sustained our Savior in His time of great agony. They speak of sins forgiven. They speak of a Father Who desires to forgive, Who holds out arms of welcome, Who loves all mankind and its children. This love is so deep and wide and high that all the shame of the cross was not too high a price to pay. This love is such that He did not spare His Son, but gave Him for the terminally ill disease of sin with which we are all afflicted. Whenever and wherever we share these memorial emblems, let us not just remember the Lord Jesus Christ, but let us exalt Him. We join with brothers and sisters of like precious faith around the world this morning to honor the Son as we honor the Father. Let us honor that Name which is above every other name, the great Shepherd of the sheep, and through Him draw nearer and bolder to the Father of all.
Jack VOGELGESANG North Industry, Ohio
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