Israel, the nation called by God Almighty to be his very people, stood in utter ruin. They are captive to an enemy wielding such force that armies fled before them. Ezekial, Jeremiah and Isaiah were raised up as prophets of the day to bring a message of hope to Israel and Judah. Their message: deliverance was possible. Deliverance came through a heathen, unbelieving king – Cyrus. Cyrus started his rule over in a little area we now know as Iran. He later became a more powerful ruler, overtaking more territory until he became the ultimate ruler of the Persian Empire – taking leadership for all of the Babylonian Empire and Judah. Babylon had at one time held the territory that we now know as Iraq. Cyrus developed such a name for himself that armies fled in his wake. He eventually took the now known lands of Syria, Iran, and Israel.
Cyrus was not a godly king that wanted to give the city of Jerusalem and the Temple of God back to Judah. He was reported to be a king that worshipped many gods. He wanted to get on the good side of as many gods as possible, so his intention in allowing Judah to return and the temple to be rebuilt was to gain the favor of Judah’s god (one he had heard about as being very good to those who worshipped him). God uses many instruments to accomplish his purposes – even those with wrong intention and selfish ambition. We cannot become so focused on the character of those God uses, but must remain focused on what God is doing through those he uses as his instruments. Here is what we find recorded about his intention:
He has assigned me to build him a temple of worship in Jerusalem, Judah. Who among you belongs to his people? God be with you! Go to Jerusalem which is in Judah and build The Temple of God, the God of Israel, Jerusalem’s God. (Ezra 1: 2-3)
The searching question posed by Cyrus in his decree to build is, “Who among you belongs to his people?” Look a little deeper about what is being asked:
Who among you…
God’s people should be so evident in their walk that this question would not be necessary. Service, mercy, love, purity, right living – all should be hallmarks of our walk, making this a question of redundancy. In the midst of those who are strangers to the “true God”, there should be so much evidence of God’s direct influence in our lives that even in the midst of a large company of people, we stand out as unique, divinely touched individuals.
Belongs to his people…
To belong is to be bound by birth, allegiance or dependency. Cyrus was asking a searching question of loyalty, dedication, and commitment. The one who pledges his or her allegiance to God shows their connection to God and his governing influence in their lives in all they say and do. Our very actions should make it unnecessary to ask “who belongs”.
Although this statement contained within the decree of Cyrus to rebuild is challenging, I find the greatest challenge in the final statement:
Those who stay behind, wherever they happen to live, will support them with silver, gold, tools, and pack animals, along with freewill offerings for The Temple of God in Jerusalem. (Ezra 1:4)
This has been a question that has plagued me in my own walk over the years. Why would anyone living in captivity, bound to the rule of a dominating force, want to “stay behind”? Yet it is a fact of even my own walk. God calls, challenges, creates an opportunity – and I wait for a clearer sign, hold out for a more definitive plan, ignore the obvious. Instead of seizing the opportunity placed before me for free living, I choose the pathway of less resistance and “stay”.
In this, I dare to say, I am not alone. We are daily faced with “decrees of release” that we weigh against our current situation and we dare not to budge from our positions of captivity because of a variety of very telling reasons:
• We are filled with all kinds of fear of the unknown – finding it difficult to step out in any kind of trusting obedience to God’s call
• We are content in our misery – finding great company in the midst of others so bound to their present misery and dominated by their present state of discontent
• We are unwilling to move beyond our present circumstances – stubbornly demanding our own way, own timing, own methods over those that are offered
• We are not able to clearly hear what is being offered – because we have been filled with so many conflicting “decrees” that we can no longer separate those that offer us hope from those that hold us in our captivity
• We are willing to let others go ahead of us – almost as if they go ahead to “test the waters”, allowing us time to measure the “risk” associated with their action of obedience
Regardless of the reason for our lack of enthusiastic response to God’s offer to be “free”, we all struggle with the desire to remain in our captivity at times. We yearn for release, and yet tenaciously hold onto our present struggles. In evaluating the rationale behind my own actions to “remain where I am” when God has provided a way of escape, I am challenged by my own stubborn determination to not fully pledge my allegiance to my Lord. I have come to realize that most of the time, our unwillingness to move forward into our freedom is deeply anchored in our lack of allegiance to the one who has so graciously called us out of our pit of bondage!
Judah is offered opportunity for release. Although it may not seem like much to the bystander, Jerusalem was everything to the Jew. This was the center of their worship and their life – the house of their God, the dwelling place of their king, and the center of their business world. There should have been no question about “remaining” – there should have been a hearty “see ya” echoing throughout the land.
Some Judean’s remained while others heartily embraced the opportunity. Some were content to “send their gifts”, while others selflessly dedicated themselves to the purpose of rebuilding. There are always those who are content to be on the sidelines of what God is doing, offering encouragement, funding the cause, yet with hands and hearts sadly unaffected by the work. My prayer is that we not be caught in that company of “watchers” or “senders”, but rather that we would yearn for both our hands and hearts to be affected deeply by the work of our God; that each of us would be so deeply affected by our bondage and captivity that we would want the foundations that represent our freedom to be built quickly, securely, and under the anointed hand of our gracious God.
To fully understand release, we must also understand captivity. To understand freedom, we must understand bondage. Captivity is the state of being held within bounds, under the control of another. Release is the state of being set free from those restraints or servitude; being relieved from all that confines, burdens, or oppresses. Bondage is the state of being in servitude to a controlling person. Freedom is the release from that which previously constrained and a sense of independence in decision or action. For Judah, their release to return to Jerusalem and begin the rebuilding effort was not a total relief from their oppressors or ending of their servitude to Persia. They were simply afforded the opportunity to go about the intended will of Cyrus in a land that had once belonged to them. They were not released from the oversight of his leadership or the demands of his government. They were simply joined to a selfish mission for the personal gain of his reign.
He believed that rebuilding the temple would encourage the God of the Jews to bless the land he had conquered as his own. I cannot help but believe that the people who went about the rebuilding looked at their mission a little differently. Their mission was to be restored as a people - enjoying the fullness of worship and fellowship with their God that they had once basked in. If that is where you find yourself today, be confident in this one thing - your determination to say "see ya" to the bondage of your present choices is God's opportunity to establish you on a firm foundation!