THE RESPONSE TO THE DECREE (Ezra 1:5-11). The response made to the decree fell short of what might have been expected. The "patriarchal chiefs" who responded belonged solely, or mainly, to the two tribes of Judah and Benjamin; the "ten tribes" were for the most part deaf to the invitation addressed to them. Some, however, of Ephraim and Manasseh (1 Chronicles 9:3), and perhaps some of other tribes, were more zealous, and took part in the migration. Many, on the other hand, even of Judah and Benjamin, preferred remaining in Babylonia to undertaking the long and perilous (Ezra 7:22) journey to Palestine, and taking the chance of what might happen to them there. They were, as Josephus says, "disinclined to relinquish their property." In the course of nearly seventy years great numbers of Jews had acquired wealth; some had invested their money in lands and houses; others had extensive business connections; others, again, though poor, may have been unenterprising; and the result was that only some 42,000 persons took advantage of the opportunity, and proceeded from Babylonia to Jerusalem (Ezra 2:64). The response to the latter part of the decree, addressed by Cyrus to his heathen subjects, was more satisfactory. The Jews were helped by their neighbours freely, with gold, and with silver, and with goods, and with beasts, and with precious things (verse 6); and besides all this, a certain number of freewill offerings were contributed. As in Egypt at the time of the Exodus (Exodus 11:3), so now, the Jews found favour in the eyes of the heathen on their departure from among them, and were made partakers of their worldly substance. We may well suppose that once more God gave his people favour in the sight of those with whom they had been living, and disposed their hearts to liberality.
Then rose up the chief of the fathers. The "chief of the fathers" are the hereditary heads of the families recognized as distinct and separate (see Ezra 2:3-19).
All they that were about them. i.e. all their neighbours. Strengthened their hands. This is the literal rendering. The margin gives the right meaning—"helped them." With precious things. Migdanoth, a rare word, only used here, in Genesis 24:53, and in 2 Chronicles 21:3; always connected with silver and gold: derived from meged, which means "precious." Besides all that was willingly offered. The gold, silver, precious things, etc. previously mentioned were free gifts to individual Jews, and were additional to certain offerings which were intrusted to them for conveyance to Jerusalem. On the value attached by the Persians to offerings made in Jerusalem to Jehovah, see below, Ezra 6:10, and Ezra 7:17.
THE RESTORATION OF THE SACRED VESSELS BY CYRUS (Ezra 1:7-11). Following the ordinary custom of the early Oriental conquerors, Nebuchadnezzar, long before he destroyed the Jewish temple, had carried off from it, partly as trophies of victory, partly as articles of value, many of the sacred vessels used in the temple service (see 2 Chronicles 36:10; Jeremiah 27:19, Jeremiah 27:20; Daniel 1:2). At his final capture and destruction of Jerusalem he bore off the remainder (2 Kings 25:14, 2 Kings 25:15). These he deposited at Babylon in the temple of Merodach (or Bel), the god whom he chiefly worshipped (Daniel 1:2), where they probably remained until Belshazzar had them brought out and desecrated at his great banquet (Daniel 5:2). A religious instinct now prompted the Persian king to give the vessels back, in order that they might revert to their original use. The careful enumeration of them (Ezra 1:9-11) is characteristic of Ezra, who is very minute and exact in his details, and fond of making lists or catalogues.
The vessels. Probably all that he could find, yet scarcely all that had been taken away, since many of these were of bronze (2 Kings 25:14), and the restored vessels seem to have been, all of them, either of gold or silver (see Ezra 1:11). Which Nebuchadnezzar had brought forth. The carrying off of sacred vessels, as well as images, from temples is often represented in the Assyrian sculptures. It was a practice even of the Romans, and is commemorated on the Pillar of Titus, where the seven-branched candlestick of the Jewish temple is represented as borne in triumph by Roman soldiers. And had put them in the house of his gods. Elohayv, which is the form used in the text, can only mean "his god," not "his gods." Nebuchadnezzar represents himself, in his inscriptions generally, as a special devotee of a single Babylonian god, Merodach, whose temple, called by the Greeks that of Bel, is no doubt here intended (comp. Daniel 1:2).
Mithredath the treasurer. Not "Mithridates, the son of Gazabar," as the Vulgate renders. The Hebrew gizbar represents a Persian word, gazabara or ganzabara, which had no doubt the meaning of "treasurer," literally "treasure-bearer." We have here the first occurrence of the famous name, borne by so many great kings, of Mithridates. The name is thoroughly Persian, and is excellently rendered by the Hebrew מִתְיְדָת . It means either "given by Mithra" or "dedicated to Mithra," and is distinct evidence of the worship of Mithra by the Persians as early as the time of Cyrus. Mithra was the sun, and was venerated as Mitra by the early Vedic Indians. His worship in later Persia is clearly established; but, except for the name of Mithredath in this place, it would have been doubtful whether he was as yet an object of religious veneration to the Iranians. Sheshbazzar. It is generally allowed that this was the Chaldaean or court name of Zerubbabel. (The chief evidence of this is to be found in Ezra 5:16 compared with Ezra 3:8.) What the name signified is uncertain. The prince of Judah. Zerubbabel was the son of Pedaiah, brother of Salathiel, who was the legal heir of Jehoiachin, king of Judah. He appears to have been adopted by Salathiel as his son, and to have been recognized as the legitimate heir to the throne of David. Thus he did not owe his appointment to the mere favour of Cyrus, but was the natural leader of the people.
Chargers. Agarteley, a rare word, perhaps Persian. The LXX. translate ψυκτῆρες, "wine-coolers;" the Vulgate has phialae, "vases;" the apocryphal Esdras, σπονδεῖα, "vessels for drink-offerings." Probably basons or bowls are intended. Knives. Machaldaphim, another rare word of doubtful sense. The LXX. render παρηλλαγμένα, "changes," regarding the word as derived from חלת, "to exchange." The apocryphal Esdras has θυίσκαι "censers." But the most usual translation is that of the A. V "knives."
Of a second sort. Not "double," as the LXX. render; but "secondary," or "of inferior quality".
All the vessels were five thousand and four hundred. The numbers previously given produce a total of only 2499, or less than half of this amount. There must be some corruption, but whether in the total or the items is uncertain. The apocryphal Esdras raises the total number of the vessels to 5469.
We have noted already that the great and primary feature in the restoration of Israel from captivity was the restoration of the house. With a view to this restoration, as we have seen, the whole edict of Cyrus was framed. In the passage now before us we shall see, in the next place, that the results of that edict were in accordance with this design. They secured, i.e; the two first requisites for carrying out this design, providing, as they did, on the one hand, the requisite men; and, on the other, the requisite means.
I. THE REQUISITE MEN.
1. The requisite laymen. "Then rose up …. Judah" (Hebrews 7:14) "and Benjamin." The Church is before its ministers (comp. Philippians 1:1). Perhaps, also, the laymen in this case were the first to be stirred. Next, the requisite lay-leaders, the "chief of the fathers of Judah and Benjamin." Wherever any body of men moves towards an enterprise, there must be some to go first. In this case it pleased God so to arrange by his providence, and so to work by the edict of Cyrus, that some of those were ready to go first who naturally stood first as it were. This was particularly the case, as we afterwards find, with him who stood first of all amongst these "chief of the fathers of Judah and Benjamin," viz; "Sheshbazzar the prince of Judah," mentioned in Ezra 1:8. This Sheshbazzar, better known as Zerubbabel (comp. Ezra 5:16 and Zechariah 4:9; see also Daniel 1:6, Daniel 1:7), about whose exact descent and lineage it is difficult to make sure, seems, at any rate, to have been regarded both by Israelites and Gentiles as the representative of the house of David. As such, he was the natural leader of the movement for restoration; and as such a leader, in God's providence, he was found willing to act. In addition, next, to this sufficient lay element, we find also,
2. The requisite ecclesiastics. And that, as before, of all ranks. Both "the priests and the Levites," e.g; both the appointed ministers and their appointed assistants, are specified in Ezra 1:5. Mention is also made afterwards of Jeshua, the legitimate high priest, or supreme ecclesiastical head (Ezra 2:2; Ezra 3:2, etc.); and of the Nethinims and children of Solomon's servants (Ezra 2:43-58), the lowest grades of all those occupied in purely ecclesiastical work. This, therefore, completes the list. If the Church is before its ministers, it is not, therefore, without them. Neither Judah and Benjamin without Levi, nor Levi without Judah and Benjamin, could have restored the kind of house that God wished. It is to be admired, accordingly, that in this instance God caused the edict of Cyrus so to operate as to call forth sufficient of both. And something more than merely sufficient, so some have supposed. Besides men of Judah and Benjamin, and men belonging to or connected with the ecclesiastical tribe of Levi, some also belonging to other tribes of Israel are thought to be pointed to in the words "with all them whose spirits God had raised." The return of some such appears clearly implied in 1 Chronicles 9:3, and was only natural, when we bear in mind how many men of other tribes at various times before the captivity had joined themselves to that of Judah. It is further evident that such a separate ten-tribes element amongst those returning from Babylon would be a fact of much weight, since it would serve so greatly to make the restored house, as originally intended (Psalms 122:4), a house for the whole race, a centre of unity for all "the twelve tribes scattered abroad" (James 1:1). And it would also aid us in understanding St. Paul's long-subsequent description of those "twelve tribes" as "instantly serving God day and night" throughout the world (Acts 26:7). They did so in that common temple which they had all thus helped to restore.
II. THE REQUISITE MEANS. The men thus duly called were also duly equipped. Almighty God, by the edict of Cyrus, both "raised" their "spirit" and filled their hands (see Psalms 110:3; Philippians 2:13). For example, we find them provided with the requisite means of support. These men would have to live whilst on their journey, and whilst building the house. The "gold" and "goods" mentioned in 1 Chronicles 9:6, added to what we may suppose them to have made by selling their possessions (Jeremiah 29:4, Jeremiah 29:5), may have been meant for this end. So also the "beasts" in the same verse (comp. Ezra 2:66, Ezra 2:67, where none but beasts of burden are mentioned) may have supplied them with another requisite, viz; means of transport. Next, if we are right in referring the last words of 1 Chronicles 9:6 to the grant made by Cyrus himself, as afterwards defined in Ezra 6:3, Ezra 6:4, we see that they had, further, at their disposal the requisite materials for building. This point will perhaps appear more plainly if we compare the last-quoted passage with what is said in 1 Kings 6:36. Not only, i.e; were the necessary materials for building the temple granted, but they were granted, it would appear, of the precise shape and size required for erecting one most important part of the new temple, viz; its inner court. Further yet, another most important point, we find that the requisite temple vessels were supplied in this case (1 Kings 6:7-10). God's providence had so ordered it that a sufficient number of these—sufficient, at any rate, to make a beginning; sufficient also, it may be, to serve as a pattern for others (a point of great importance according to Exodus 25:9, Exodus 25:40; 1 Chronicles 28:11); and sufficient, in this way, to keep up the identity of the old worship and the new, and make it a true restoration—were placed at their service. This is a point to be marked. Taken away by Nebuchadnezzar principally at his first capture of Jerusalem (2 Chronicles 36:7, as contrasted with 2 Kings 24:13; 2 Chronicles 36:19), placed by him in the house of his "god" (Daniel 1:2), brought out thence at the great feast of Belshazzar on the same night that Babylon was captured (Daniel 5:3, Daniel 5:23, Daniel 5:30), they were preserved by God through all these vicissitudes as something destined for further use. Exactly corresponding with this is the careful way in which we find them handled by the Persian treasurer Mithredath, taking.them in his "hand," according to Lunge, so as to inspect and recognize them as Jerusalem temple vessels; and afterwards "numbered" or catalogued by him in the way that follows (1 Kings 6:9, 1 Kings 6:10) before giving them to Zerubbabel. What these vessels exactly were it is impossible for us now to make out; but it is evident that they were considered most important by all concerned at the time, and also evident that they leave little else in the way of "requisites" to be named. We may, perhaps, conjecture, however, that under the "precious things" of 1 Kings 6:6 may be included those priestly "garments" of which we read in Ezra 2:69, and those musical instruments, no longer now to be hung on the willows, of which Josephus informs us. Also (one other point yet), that other vessels besides these preserved ones were now offered for temple use, in such numbers as almost to double the whole number at the disposal of the priests (comp. the total of the numbers in Ezra 2:9 and Ezra 2:10 with the total given in Ezra 2:11). In fact, certain other "vessels of silver," for which no other use is specified, are mentioned by name in Ezra 2:6. But, whether with or without these conjectures, we have much here to admire.
HOMILIES BY W. CLARKSON
Ezra 1:5, Ezra 1:6
God's action on the minds of his people.
When Cyrus, moved of God, proclaimed liberty to the captives in Persia and invited the children of Israel to return to their own land, there was a very large proportion that preferred to stay, some from excusable and others from insufficient motives, but a large company of the people of God made an immediate and honourable response. These, to the number of 42,000 persons, forthwith made ready to leave their adopted country and to go up to Jerusalem, to build again the house of the Lord, rebuilding, at the same time, the shattered fortunes of the land of their fathers. The response to the king's overture illustrates God's action on the minds of his own people. We have—
I. HIS TWO METHODS OF APPROACH. "Then rose up," etc. (Ezra 1:5).
1. Instrumental. God worked on the minds of the chiefs of the people by means of the proclamations and edicts of Cyrus, and on the minds of the generality of ripe people by means of their leaders. Then—when the king's offer was circulated—"rose up the chief of the fathers of Judah and Benjamin," etc. And when Sheshbazzar (Zerubbabel) and the other natural leaders came forward, then the multitude volunteered: there is human agency here.
2. Direct. God's spirit acted directly and immediately on their minds. They were men "whose spirit God had raised;" they were like the "band of men whose hearts God had touched" (1 Samuel 10:26). God "laid his hand upon them," and lifted them up, spiritually, and they became strong and brave, ready to do a good work for him and for the world.
II. ITS SPIRITUAL RESULT. Elevation of soul. Their spirit was raised—as ours will be whenever God works within us as he did in them—
(a) above its common level of thought and feeling. They saw, as otherwise they would not have seen, the excellency of the service of God and of their native land; they felt, as they did not usually feel, how glorious a thing it was to lay everything on the altar of God and strike a brave and faithful blow for their country's freedom and independence. Their views were cleared, their ambition heightened, their mind enlarged, their soul exalted. God "raised their spirit," and they were lifted up
(b) above the inducements of a comfortable present; so that the pleasant homes and prosperous employments and agreeable friendships and enjoyable amusements in which they had been spending their days, these they were willing to leave behind them. And they were raised
(c) above the fear of misfortune in the future; so that the difficulties of the journey, the "lion in the way," the arrangements between one another, the desolate ruins of the once-favoured city, the enemies that might dispute their right, all these dangers and difficulties they were prepared to encounter and overcome. Under the touch of the hand of God they became, as we may now become, men whose "heart was enlarged" to dare and do great things, to attempt and accomplish what, in an unenlightened and uninspired state, they would never have dreamed of doing. God was with them, his spirit was in them, and these children of men became the servants and the soldiers of God. Dare to attempt nothing if God's Spirit be not in the soul, inciting and sustaining it. Dare to undertake anything if he opens the eyes of the understanding and if he dwells within the heart.
III. ITS MATERIAL ISSUES (Ezra 1:6). Such was the spirit of these men, that
(a) those of their kindred who did not accompany them and their Persian neighbours "strengthened their hands with vessels of silver and gold, with goods and beasts and precious, things;" and
(b) thus equipped they marched out of their captivity, and went forth free men to espouse the cause of Jehovah and to make their mark on their age and, indeed, upon future ages.
Our great wisdom is to know when God comes to us; to listen when he speaks; to respond when he calls. Many Jews in Persia heard but heeded not that voice; they felt the touch of that Divine finger but obeyed it not. They lived on in such comfort and enjoyment as their adopted country yielded; but they entered not the open gate of opportunity; they rendered no great service to their land, their church, their race. Not theirs the victory and the crown; these were for the men who responded when God called, and whose spirits rose to the height of that great occasion.—C.
HOMILIES BY A. MACKENNAL
Ezra 1:5, Ezra 1:6
The books of Ezra and Nehemiah are the historical introduction to this third period of Jewish history. The first or formative period is that of the exodus and the conquest of Canaan. The second, that of the kings, is the period of national development, when all that was possible to them as a nation was accomplished. The third period was that of national dependence, and it lasted 600 years. From the return from captivity to the fall of Jerusalem, the history of the Jews is bound up with the policy of the great empires, Persia, Macedonia, Greece, and Rome, on whose favour they depended, or to whore they offered a fruitless resistance.
Just as the exodus and the conquest trained the people for the second stage in their development and prepared its way, so the third period prepared for the fourth—Judaism in its relation to modem history. The true destiny of Israel is now revealed, to exist as a "leaven" among the nations. The Divine purpose in the Israelitish people is accomplished in Christendom; religious susceptibility, fitness for inspiration, has been the signal endowment of the Jews; theirs is a spiritual, not a national, glory. And the modem history of the unconverted remnant is not without significance; we see in them the natural stock out of which Christendom has grown. The tenacity and steadfastness which still characterise the race, their patience, gentleness, and readiness to serve or to rule, are some of the elements of their fitness to affect most intimately the history of the world, some of their qualifications to be the depositary of the promises of God.
The period of the return is sometimes contrasted with that of the exodus as an unheroic with an heroic time. It is easy to exaggerate the force of this contrast. That is not an unheroic or uneventful history which contains, as its heart, the story of the Maccabees. Even in these two books—Ezra and Nehemiah—the narratives of the rebuilding of the altar, the foundation and dedication of the temple, the building of the walls of Jerusalem, and the reorganisation of a corrupt society, are not inglorious. The tact, the courage, the patience, the fidelity displayed awaken admiration; and some of the incidents strike the imagination and stir the soul.
The true contrast is rather that between ancient and modern life, the conceptions and conditions of the old and the new world. Instead of miracle, we read the story of providential guidance and of homely virtues winning the hearts of the captors. We are involved in the details of foreign policy, brought face to face with the intrigues of Oriental rulers. The successive fortunes of the great heathen states profoundly affect the fortunes of the Jews. Their history is becoming international, cosmopolitan. A new source of interest appears in these books, commonly reputed dull, as we perceive this. The history affects us not by its contrasts with our more commonplace life, but by its revelations of the Divine and noble in the commonplace; it appeals not to our wonder, but to our sympathy.
The period of the exodus was marked by a splendid cycle of miracles inaugurated by Moses, and fitfully appearing down to far later days. In the period of the monarchy God revealed himself in a succession of prophets; men whose glory and whose main office it was to declare the great moral principles of the Divine rule into which they had the insight of spiritual genius; but who yet had often conferred upon them a predictive gift, a power to foresee and to foretell events, which fixed attention on their utterances and confirmed their mission as from God. The period of which we are now speaking was marked by regard for law; the reverence for God as the God of order which characterises modern thought and modern piety had here its birth. Ezra was "a priest," but he was also, and even more, "a scribe;" and the scribe, as Dean Stanley points out, was the forerunner of the Christian minister. We have wise men still, men of marvellous spiritual insight, ability to read the secrets of the human heart and to forecast human story; not these, however, but "pastors and teachers" are the officers of the Church. With the study of the law began the recognition of the sphere of the intellect in religion, the interpretation of God's will. The synagogue—in which, and not in the temple, the Christian congregation finds its historic origin—dates from this time; and so does the common school of the Jews. All this is of profound significance; it is the beginning of a religious revolution. God will henceforth be increasingly conceived of, not as interfering with, but directing, the course of events. Study is to take the place of signs; the knowledge of his will is to be gained, not through rare and fitful glimpses and glances, but by constant thought and careful reasoning.
Two lessons may be noted here—
First, As To THE PROVIDENCE OF GOD. "The fall of Sardis and Babylon was the starting-point of European life; and it is a singular coincidence that the beginning of Grecian art and philosophy, and the foundation of the Roman constitution, synchronize with the triumph of the Arian race in the East." £ Similarly, Christ came ".in the fulness of the times," when Gentile history, as well as Jewish expectation, had "prepared the way of the Lord." These coincidences have an evidential value; they mark design in history. Time, which removes us so far from events that they lose impressiveness, compensates for the loss by revealing more fully correspondences that speak of purpose. The majestic march of Providence makes also a direct appeal to the emotions of piety.
Next, AS TO THE PURPOSE OF GOD. The object of the separation of Israel to a peculiar destiny and discipline was that they might contribute moral and spiritual force to humanity. The "election" was for the sake of the human race. They were chosen not to judge mankind, but to influence it. The Jewish people, like him who was its archetype and greatest representative, came not to condemn the world, but to save the world. And this is the common order of spiritual efficiency. First separation, then influence. The first precept is, "Come ye out from among them, and be ye separate, and touch not the unclean thing;" then we can "be all things to all men," can "eat and drink with publicans and sinners." Some of these thoughts receive emphatic illustration in these verses.
I. IT WAS A PEACEFUL RETURN. God had "raised their spirit" "to go up to build the house of the Lord." They went with the good wishes of Cyrus and the people. "All they that were about them strengthened their hands." Jeremiah (Jeremiah 29:1-32.) had told them what spirit they were to cherish during their years of bondage. "Seek the peace of the city whither I have caused you to be carried away captives, and pray unto the Lord for it: for in the peace thereof shall ye have peace." It is still a characteristic of the Jews that they are good citizens. Many of them signally won the confidence of their masters; as Ezra, Nehemiah, Daniel, Mordecai, arid the three Hebrew youths. The reward of their meekness and service came. Contrast this return with the flight out of Egypt. "They were thrust out of Egypt." "The Egyptians were urgent upon the people, that they might send them out of the land in haste; for they said, We be all dead men."
II. THE CHARACTER OF CYRUS. It is a large assumption which appears in his decree—"Jehovah the God of heaven hath charged me to build him an house at Jerusalem, which is in Judah;" but it is not out of harmony with what we know of his character. The noblest epithets are heaped upon him in the prophecy of Isaiah. He is "the anointed, the Messiah, of Jehovah." God "saith of Cyrus, He is my shepherd, and shall perform all my pleasure." He is "the righteous man" whom God "raised up from the East." Contrast this with the scorn of Egypt as an ally (Isaiah 30:1-33; Isaiah 31:1-9.), and the denunciation of the pride of Assyria, and the prophecy of its doom (Isaiah 10:1-34.). And heathen writings illustrate the Scripture representation of him. They speak of his virtues; they record romantic circumstances in his early career which justify the belief that he was providentially preserved for some great purpose.
III. THE POINTS OF RESEMBLANCE BETWEEN THE JEWISH AND THE PERSIAN FAITH. The unity of God; that he should not be worshipped under the form of idols; that God was good, and that evil was not from him. Each faith was able to contribute something to the other; but fundamentally they were in harmony. Contrast this with the idolatries of Babylon, the scornful picture of Isaiah 46:1, Isaiah 46:2; and picture the meeting in Babylon of the Persian victors and the Jewish exiles. An interest might well be excited in one another such as is indicated in our text.
The narrative illustrates "God's making use of men's goodness" to advance his purpose. He can make "the wrath of man to praise him;" but he loves rather the frank service of those in sympathy with him. We too love to contemplate good acts done graciously; favours unmarred by any bitter memories. The feeling of the return finds lyrical expression in the joyousness and trust of Psalms 126:1-6.—M.
HOMILIES BY J.A. MACDONALD
Ezra 1:5, Ezra 1:6
"Then rose up," etc. The edict of Cyrus had been issued (see Ezra 1:2 4). The voice of God was in the voice of the king (see Ezra 1:1). But who responded?
I. THE CHIEFS OF THE FATHERS OF JUDAH AND BENJAMIN RESPONDED.
1. Happy the people whose magistrates lead them nobly.
2. Politics cannot be divorced from religion.
3. Evil rulers are scourges of God to wicked peoples.
Representative governments—responsibility of the franchise. In hereditary magistracies (see Isaiah 1:10). "Rulers of Sodom" associated with "people of Gomorrah" (see Isaiah 1:25, Isaiah 1:26). When the vices of a people are purged away, then worthy magistrates are raised up to them.
II. THE PRIESTS AND LEVITES RESPONDED.
1. Priests, leaders in religion.
2. Levites, leaders in literature.
III. SKILFUL ARTIFICERS RESPONDED. Those whose spirit God hath raised to go up and build the house of the Lord.
1. All useful labour is from God.
2. All talent should be devoted to God.
IV. A WILLING PEOPLE RESPONDED.
1. All they that were about them.
2. These strengthened their hands.
1. Learn that religion and politics may be harmonised without resorting to compulsion. The response was voluntary. Uniformity is not unity. Endless variety in living things.
2. Harmony in religion and politics is truest when free. With compulsion comes resistance and contention. Admit the principle of coercion, then the question is not between religion and politics, as abstract principles, but becomes often an ambitious and unholy strife.—J. A. M.
HOMILIES BY J.S. EXELL
The beginning of a great religious movement.
Israel had experienced long bondage in a foreign land under a heathen king; this would have a beneficial influence.
1. It would tend to cultivate within them a right view of the sorrow consequent upon sin. Their captivity was a punishment for idolatry. Sin sends men into slavery.
2. It would tend to cultivate within them a right view of the external in religion. Solomon's temple was the pride of Israel. They prided themselves in the magnificent masonry, in the richly-coloured garments, in the lofty altar; but now all is in ruins, and they in bondage, will they not learn to worship God in simplicity, in spirit and in truth? The sensuous m religion leads to slavery. It is well sometimes that our temple should be destroyed; God lays the outward in ruins that we may see the inward. The Church has often to go into captivity to learn the meaning of the spiritual.
3. It would tend to cultivate within them a right view of the Divine in worship. Israel thought that the temple was the one place of worship; but in captivity the scattered people learn that God will hear their cry from heathen cities and in desert places.
4. It would cultivate within them a right view of the sympathetic feeling which should prevail in their midst. Israel had been sore rent by faction; in captivity they are one. The Church is united by its sorrows. We observe respecting great religious movements—
I. THAT THEY OFTEN TAKE THEIR RISE IN THE STIRRINGS OF AN INDIVIDUAL SOUL. "The Lord stirred up the spirit of Cyrus king of Persia."
1. A Divine commencement. Here we see the beginning of the great movement of Israel's restoration to fatherland. History is unveiled and God is seen. The voice of God is heard in the proclamation of Cyrus. The human historian can only write the proclamation of the king; the inspired historian makes known the secret working of God. We know nothing of the Divine heart-stirrings which precede the great movements of our age. God is behind the king and we see him not. The political serves the spiritual. Let us rightly interpret our heart-stirrings; God is in them, they have great meanings. They are more than the beatings of a pulse, they are the beginnings of spiritual liberty. Heaven has various ways of stirring our souls.
2. A secret commencement. The restoration of Israel began in the secret stirrings of one heart. It did not begin with the crowd, but with the individual. And so great religious movements generally commence in the secret awakening of the one man. See the power of a God-moved heart. The kingdom of God cometh not with observation. Restorations are in the heart before they are in the world.
3. An unlikely commencement. The Jews were looking for a rod out of the stem of Jesse to restore them; God sent an ahem deliverer. A man of war becomes a man of peace; a man of conquest becomes an emancipator of the people. God employs unexpected agencies. Great religious movements often have unlikely beginnings.
4. An effectual commencement. The stirring of the heart of Cyrus had great possibilities in it—it expanded into a temple of worship; its pulsations are felt in our own age.
II. THAT THEY ARE TIMED BY THE FAITHFUL PROVIDENCE OF GOD. "That the word of the Lord by the mouth of Jeremiah might be fulfilled." Thus the captivity of Israel terminated in the set time of God.
1. The mercy of God. In the proclamation of Cyrus to the wretched slaves see the Divine mercy to those most undeserving of it; the word of God is a merciful message to man, it is a word of liberty, that the ruined temple of life may be rebuilt.
2. The fidelity of God. Israel had the promise of liberty fulfilled; so all the promises of God respecting the future glory of the Church will be accomplished.
3. The purpose of God. The captives were not to go out of bondage merely for their own freedom and enjoyment; but to build the temple of the Lord. Men are freed from the tyranny of sin that they may establish the kingdom of heaven; they must be liberated before they can build. This is the Divine purpose in the salvation of men, that they may engage in promoting spiritual good.
III. THAT THEY OFTEN REVEAL IN MEN UNEXPECTED EXCELLENCES OF MORAL CHARACTER.
1. The hidden excellences of men. The Jews probably did not expect much aid from Cyrus; but he had excellences of knowledge, of grace, they little suspected. God saw this and used him. Men are often better than we know, and are more prepared to aid the work of God than we suppose.
2. The revealed excellences of men. Cyrus incidentally shows by his proclamation the good that is in him. Times of religious revival reveal unexpected abilities in men; then the dull man becomes brilliant; the man of little opportunity becomes rich in knowledge; the cold man becomes generous in gift.
3. The utilised excellences of men. All that is good in men God uses for the welfare of his Church.
IV. THAT THEY ARE OFTEN FURNISHED WITH NEEDFUL MATERIAL AID IN THE MOST UNEXPECTED MANNER (verse 6). The departure of such a people would require great preparation, and would necessitate great expense. How are the captives to meet it? The proclamation of Cyrus provides for it. A wondrous providence often causes the world in unexpected ways to minister to the temporal needs of the Church; men of the world often help to erect a temple in which they are little intere