[Disclaimer: Admittedly I write this an American citizen who has never voted. Having grown up on the Tuscarora Indian Reservation even though I may not be an enrolled member, out of respect for my Tuscarora fathers, who never voted because for them it would be tantamount to a sacrifice of Tuscarora sovereignty, I have never voted.]
Last week we witnessed the Republican National Convention and this week the Democratic National Convention takes center stage. As we prepare for an “interesting” (for the lack of a better phrase) presidential race, I am drawn to lessons we must learn from Ezra 1–6. We must realize that the LORD uses unbelieving politicians, ordinary believers, and political drama to accomplish His purposes. Only then will we have confidence and comfort in the LORD and in where He guides our country.
The LORD uses unbelieving politicians to accomplish His purposes
In Isaiah 44:28, God called Cyrus by name as the one who would decree the restoration of Jerusalem and the temple. Yahweh even calls Cyrus His anointed (45:1). But the author of Ezra stated that it was according to the word of Jeremiah that the LORD stirred up Cyrus to make the decree to rebuild the temple (Ezra 1:1). The author refers to Jeremiah 51 because, although it does not refer to Cyrus by name, it emphasizes God’s sovereign responsibility in stirring the human will to accomplish His purposes.
Jeremiah 51:1 emphasizes that the LORD would arouse the spirit of a destroyer who would destroy Babylon. Jeremiah 51:11 emphasizes that the LORD would specifically arouse the spirit of the kings of the Medes to destroy Babylon as vengeance for His temple. It is important to remember that Cyrus the Persian who conquered Babylon was also Darius the Mede (Dan 5:31).
The LORD was in sovereign control and through Cyrus would bring about the restoration of His temple. Cyrus made the decree that the temple be rebuilt (Ezra 1:2). Was Cyrus a true servant of God? The text does not say. It is important to remember that the Persian kings, including Cyrus, were politicians. The Cyrus Cylinder records another decree issued in 538 BC which presented the king’s support for the restoration of a number of different temples in and around Babylonia. One thing is certain, God used imperial policy to fulfill His word. Cyrus was a polytheist who desired to please all the gods so that his empire would experience success. Cyrus assumed that the LORD, who he called “the God of heaven” (1:2), was limited to Jerusalem (1:3).
Cyrus was a politician only motivated by the strength of his own empire. Cyrus perceived that allowing the Israel to return would grant him favor from the God of Israel. God uses kings, presidents, and prime ministers to accomplish what He purposes.
We may live in a country where presidential nominees do not even care about God’s favor any more, but we can have confidence that the LORD will use them, like He did Cyrus, to accomplish His purposes.
The LORD uses ordinary believers to accomplish His purposes
Cyrus’ decree emphasized: (1) the house (1:2); (2) the people; and (3) the provisions given (1:4). God had allowed there to be survivors from the complete destruction of Jerusalem in 586 BC. Now God was calling ordinary people to rise up, to return to Jerusalem and to rebuild the temple. But not all the Jews went back to Jerusalem when Cyrus made this decree. Daniel himself did not go back but still in Babylon even in the third year of Cyrus reign (Dan 10:1). Cyrus decree called on such men to give support to those who were going back to Jerusalem (Ezra 1:4).
The people function as the main character throughout the book Ezra-Nehemiah. God not only stirred Cyrus to make the decree (1:1) but also stirred his people to respond to it (1:5). Those who rose up were the tribes of Judah, Benjamin and Levi (1:5). The book of Ezra-Nehemiah is their story. They play leading roles in the significant events within the book (Ezra 2:68–69; 3:12; 4:3; 8:1; 10:16; Neh 9:13; 12:12–26). God sovereignly worked through these ordinary men and women to carry out Cyrus’ decree and accomplish His will.
The people, as one man, made it evident that they desired to please God and were ready to do whatever He asked. Only now could the foundation of the temple be laid (3:6b). In Ezra 3:7–13 the people continued to function with the authority of Cyrus. But even though God is at work that does not relieve His people from acting responsibly. In 3:10–13, the project was underway and the foundation was laid (3:10). The author of Ezra again emphasized the people’s role. All the people together with their leaders joyfully celebrate (3:10–13). The temple of God had a central part in the life of God’s people. When tempted to be disheartened God’s people must remember the centrality of God’s presence with His people.
We live in a country where we get to participate in the political process. As Christians vote this November, they can have confidence that God uses ordinary and common people to accomplish His purposes.
The LORD uses political drama to accomplish His purposes
Ezra 4:6–23 is not in the chronological flow of Ezra 4–6. Chronologically Ezra 4:6–23 falls between Ezra 10 and Nehemiah 1. The author used the letters to Xerxes (485–465 BC) and Artaxerxes (464–424 BC) to illustrate the heart of Israel’s enemies in Ezra 4:1–5. Artaxerxes recognized that Jerusalem had been rebellious (4:19) and had been strong under the David reign (4:20). In his political paranoia of a resurgence of the Davidic empire, Artaxeres ordered the work to be stopped.
Ezra 4:24 returns to the time between Cyrus and Darius (cf. 4:5). Eighteen years had passed since Cyrus decree so Tattenai asked the most natural question, “Who issued you a decree to rebuild this temple and to finish this structure?” (5:3). He went through the political system to determine if the Israelites were telling the truth but the Israelites were determined to continue their work. They saw that “the eye of their God was on the elders of the Jews” (5:5). They knew that their work progressed only because of God’s providential grace. Where men like Tattenai see political drama, God’s people see God’s providence. Believers can have full confidence in God who is sovereign enough to work through the normal functions of government to accomplish His purposes and therefore have confidence in God to submit to human governments (Rom 13:1–7; 1 Pet 2:13–17).
Tattenai reported to Darius and implored him to search for Cyrus’ decree (5:6–17). Any way that Darius could tie himself to Cyrus the Great would be politically helpful for Darius. By making a similar decree (6:8–10), Darius hoped that the God of heaven would protect his realm and reign. He, like Cyrus, thought that the LORD was limited to Jerusalem and nowhere else (6:12; cf. 1:3). Israel was able to complete the temple and worship the LORD as it was written in the book of Moses (6:18). The return of Israel to the land began with the temple. It began with a proper perspective on the LORD. Over the next four months, we must keep a proper perspective on the LORD realizing that He providentially uses unbelieving politicians, ordinary believers, and political drama to accomplish His purposes. His purposes may not be to reverse handing America over to a debased mind. His purpose may be to continue to allow this country to be characterized by all manners of unrighteousness, evil, covetousness, malice, envy, murder, strife, and deceit. His purpose may be to judge America.
In this political season, when the world struggles with the plights of political drama, we must see the plans of divine providence. Where the nation perceives problematic politics, we must prayerfully pursue providential provision.