God Restores His People
Lesson Focus: This lesson can help you affirm God’s Word and live your life based on its truth.
When We Seek God with All Our Heart: Jeremiah 29:10-14.
 "For thus says the LORD: 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.  Then you will call upon me and come and pray to me, and I will hear you.  You will seek me and find me, when you seek me with all your heart.  I will be found by you, declares the LORD, and I will restore your fortunes and gather you from all the nations and all the places where I have driven you, declares the LORD, and I will bring you back to the place from which I sent you into exile. [ESV]
The people of God had been deported to Babylon. They were exiles living in a ghetto a thousand miles from home, many had watched in horror as friends and family were murdered. They wanted to know where God was in all of that. Why was He allowing them to suffer? Some prophets said this, and others said that, but nobody seemed to know for sure what God was up to. Why were bad things happening to God’s people? Jeremiah 29 was written to answer that question. The chapter contains a letter from home written by Jeremiah, who was still living back in Jerusalem. The main point of the letter is that God knows what He is doing, even when it does not seem that way. His plans are always the best-laid plans. One reason God’s plans are best is because God knows all about them . God makes and God knows God’s plan. We do not know what the plans are, but God does. These are God’s plans for us, not our plans for God, or even our plans for us. God insists on His right to know and fulfill His plans, which is why the plans are so good. They are God’s plans rather than ours. The God who knows the plans also carries them out. In the verses that follow, Jeremiah proceeds to list all the things God will do. God will do the finding, the gathering, and the bringing back.
[10-14] In verse 10, Jeremiah brings forward another saying of the Lord which presents a positive view of the future. In this way those who were in exile should be motivated and encouraged because there was a goal in view and what was happening to them was not pointless. For shows that there is a divine logic behind the events that were to take place. When seventy years are completed indicates that there will come a time when the Lord’s righteous anger against His people will have run its course and its purpose will be accomplished. At that time they will be aware of their Sovereign Lord scrutinizing their situation and acting to bring it into alignment with what He desires. Even though it seems like a long time, the outcome will be for good. Fulfill is used elsewhere to refer to making good the terms of the covenant [Gen. 6:18; 17:7,19; Ex. 6:4]. My promise refers to the pledge that the covenant King has committed Himself to as regards the benefits He will bestow on His people. There is not, however, any promise for the period immediately ahead. The divine determination regarding Jerusalem has still to be executed fully, and the exiles already in Babylon will be joined by many more before the prophesied reversal of their fortunes will occur. The way in which their circumstances will change, and the time scale on which such change will arise are divinely determined and reliable: For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord. The Lord declares that He has certain ends in view and invites them to trust Him. The people were called to exercise faith without the accompaniments of Temple, sacrifice and sacred city, which the people had previously so identified with true religion that they had lost sight of the need to trust simply in God. He would deliver them, but on His time scale and not the one that they considered to be appropriate. The passing of the years would tend to encourage among them a right disposition towards the Lord, one of obediently waiting on His will, as opposed to the automatic claim they thought they had on His blessing. Then you will call upon me and come and pray to me, and I will hear you. This indicates that in the Exile the people were to come in repentance before God and develop a faith relationship with Him. You will seek me and find me, when you seek me with all your heart. The exiles are being informed that the restored status anticipated for them will be conditioned upon a genuine spiritual response from them, and it is this that they are expected to cultivate in their condition of captivity. Verse 14 makes clear the sequence involved. Their seeking will precede their return. Those who come back will already have approached the Lord in sincerity, and He can be completely relied on to help them in time of crisis. And the Lord promises to restore and bring back His people to their native land. The Lord who acted in judgment against His people is the one who will also effect their restoration.
When We Follow God’s Plan: Ezra 1:1-5.
 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:  "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."  Then rose up the heads of the fathers’ houses of Judah and Benjamin, 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. [ESV]
[1-5] The first six chapters of Ezra describe the first return from exile and the reconstruction of the temple. Although the small Jewish community faced many problems, we must commend them for putting first things first. In emphasizing worship, they built the altar and then the temple. Typical of biblical history, the author explained events in terms of the divine will: the Lord stirred up the spirit of Cyrus king of Persia. A person’s view of history, which is part of one’s whole worldview, is important. It is formed, at least partly, by one’s theological convictions. It affects how one understands historical events and determines how one understands biblical events. The author of Ezra-Nehemiah presented his material in a chronological framework. The author was concerned about history but did not pretend to give a complete history of postexilic times. Rather, he chose events that were significant in the reestablishment, continuity, and reorganization of the covenant community. This whole section [Ezra 1-6] emphasizes God’s sovereignty and His providence; God works in history to fulfill His will. God has preserved the covenant community; He has brought the Jews back to their land; He has even used the rulers of other nations to fulfill His purposes. Cyrus’s decision did not just happen. At a specific time, 538 B.C., the Lord caused Cyrus to act in a way that fulfilled specific prophecies. The author, with his biblical view of history, challenges us to believe that God works within a specific time frame, that He has a plan, that He keeps His word, and that His prophecies will be fulfilled. God does influence people to accomplish His will. The edict of Cyrus  sounds as though Cyrus were a true believer in the God of Israel. But other inscriptions indicate that Cyrus followed a consistent policy of honoring the religions and customs of his different subject peoples. The decree shows familiarity with biblical terms and themes because Cyrus likely conferred with the Jews in making the proclamation. A major theme of this book is introduced in verse 3: rebuild the house of the Lord, the God of Israel. The purpose of those Jews who left Babylon and returned to Jerusalem would be to rebuild the temple so that the faith of their community would continue. Their faith, decision, and action were of great importance in the continuation of God’s plan of redemption, both in providing the Scriptures and in preparing the way for the Redeemer. Those who remained behind were encouraged to provide goods, gifts, and offerings for those who returned to Jerusalem. The ones who responded to Cyrus’s decree and began preparations to return to Jerusalem were those whose spirit God had stirred to go . God sovereignly uses His own people as well as foreign rulers to accomplish His will. Their purpose in going to Jerusalem also was God-centered; they went to build the house of the Lord. The author made clear that the return from exile was God’s work: God took the initiative, and the people responded. From the beginning the author made clear that he considered the restoration and rebuilding of the worshiping community as the most significant event in this history. Behind the decision to go was God’s work in the spirit or heart. God raises up leaders and gives them responsibility, and God works in others to respond and participate in his work. Revivals are a result of God’s work in the whole community and in each individual. God’s work requires decision and faith, but it also calls for planning and preparation and demands a specific goal. The establishment of the Jewish community in their land was important; but here the immediate, realizable goal was the construction of the temple. We can imagine the intense discussion in the villages where Jews lived, the difficulty of making such a momentous decision, and the packing of clothes and household essentials. No doubt those who were leaving had to sell or give away some of their possessions.
When We Affirm God’s Truth: Nehemiah 8:1-6.
 And all the people gathered as one man into the square before the Water Gate. And they told Ezra the scribe to bring the Book of the Law of Moses that the LORD had commanded Israel.  So Ezra the priest brought the Law before the assembly, both men and women and all who could understand what they heard, on the first day of the seventh month.  And he read from it facing the square before the Water Gate from early morning until midday, in the presence of the men and the women and those who could understand. And the ears of all the people were attentive to the Book of the Law.  And Ezra the scribe stood on a wooden platform that they had made for the purpose. And beside him stood Mattithiah, Shema, Anaiah, Uriah, Hilkiah, and Maaseiah on his right hand, and Pedaiah, Mishael, Malchijah, Hashum, Hashbaddanah, Zechariah, and Meshullam on his left hand.  And Ezra opened the book in the sight of all the people, for he was above all the people, and as he opened it all the people stood.  And Ezra blessed the LORD, the great God, and all the people answered, "Amen, Amen," lifting up their hands. And they bowed their heads and worshiped the LORD with their faces to the ground. [ESV]
[1-6] Nehemiah’s ambition was not simply to reconstruct the city’s defenses but to revitalize a spiritual community. The spiritual, moral and social contribution of committed men and women is of greater importance than strong bulwarks. But Nehemiah soon discovered that reforming a community is a more exacting task than restoring its walls. He believed that the people living within the newly fortified city and their neighbors in the surrounding towns and villages had a right to spiritual prosperity as well as physical security. As soon as the building work came to an end, an unusual event took place which was to prove dramatically influential in the spiritual life of God’s people. The work was finished during the late summer just before it was time for the feast of Trumpets. So, only a few days after the completion of the rebuilding project, hundreds of men, women and children gathered in Jerusalem for a new year celebration in which God’s written Word played a central part. An outdoor public meeting was devoted entirely to hearing the reading and interpretation of Scripture. We can learn several things from these people.
(1) The people were single-minded. Although these people were from different homes within Jerusalem’s walls and beyond, they were driven by a common desire to hear the Word of God uniquely recorded in Scripture. They assembled as one man in that large public square. However diverse their individual likes and dislikes, this common desire to listen to the message of Scripture took precedence over everything else. A common desire to honor, apply and obey God’s Word will draw us closer together rather than separate us sharply from one another. It is part of the devil’s strategy to magnify our differences and minimize those immense Spirit-inspired doctrines which honor God, exalt Christ and enrich our witness. A passion to study these central themes of Scripture ought to draw God’s people closer to one another. An insatiable appetite for the faithful and relevant interpretation of Scripture is a powerful unifying force within the life of God’s people.
(2) The people were enthusiastic. The most remarkable feature about the demand for Scripture at this outdoor meeting was that it appears to have been initiated by the people rather than their leaders . They craved for God’s Word as hungry people long for food. This passionate quest for biblical truth is something more than mere human desire; it is a gift from God. Throughout biblical and Christian history, one of the characteristics of genuine revival has been the sovereign initiative of God in giving men and women a longing for spiritual things. It is not artificially promoted by religious leaders but initiated by God Himself. The people yearn for God’s truth and cannot have enough of it. It was this yearning which drove this vast crowd of people into the square by Jerusalem’s Water Gate to hear the public reading of Scripture.
(3) The people were attentive. Once they came together, nothing was going to distract them from the immense blessing they could receive from God’s Word. Every eye was fixed on the wooden platform which had been specially constructed in the city square. From there, Ezra and his colleagues were both visible and audible, and the eager listeners hung on every word: And the ears of all the people were attentive to the Book of the Law. This Jerusalem congregation clearly expected God to speak directly through the Word He had given to Moses centuries before. There was a vitality and urgency about their listening. Our daily reading of Scripture will only be of minimal worth if it becomes a mere habit, undertaken hurriedly, mechanically, or half-heartedly. If we are to derive help from it, this life-imparting exercise takes time. Throughout history, Christian devotional writers have frequently emphasized the importance of meditation as one means of quietly, patiently and sensitively imbibing the message of a Scripture passage. We need to allow time for it to penetrate the mind, stir the heart and direct the will. Similarly, merely listening to the public exposition of Scripture may not achieve what it might if we do not give our deepest attention to what we have heard. Christian preaching must be eagerly received and constantly applied. Calvin said that we must make the preached message our own so that by meditation it becomes enclosed within the deepest recesses of the human mind.
(4) The people were responsive. From the beginning of their meeting, this eager congregation recognized that they were not listening to the words of Ezra but to the voice of God. What Moses had reverently and reliably written centuries before was God’s unique Word to them so, when Ezra opened the book , the people, convinced of its authority, rose to their feet. It was an outward expression of their immense reverence for the message of Scripture, a practice still maintained in synagogues and by some churches when the congregation rises for the reading of a biblical passage. Moreover, they made a vocal as well as a physical response. Ezra gave thanks to God for the book in his hand and, as he blessed the Lord, the great God, the congregation answered, “Amen, Amen,” lifting up their hands to the words of the preacher. They made their own affirmation of commitment and loyalty audible by saying, “Amen”. Ezra could lead them in worship, but his words would remain as a solitary expression of his personal devotion unless the people identified themselves with what he was saying on their behalf. In this meeting, the people made no distinction between the exposition of Scripture and the offering of worship. Exposition and adoration belonged together, each flowing naturally into the other. “Worship” has become a buzz word in the contemporary evangelical vocabulary but its meaning is in danger of being narrowly restricted to that aspect of our praise which is expressed in singing. Yet we adore God as much by faithful exposition as by wholehearted singing. One must not be detached from the other. Just as the hearing of the Word can degenerate into arid intellectualism or mere conventional listening, so the vigorous singing of songs and hymns can become meaningless repetition not necessarily related to heart and mind. Neither listening nor singing is immune from the danger of distraction, insincerity and half-heartedness. At Ezra’s meeting, their reading from the book led directly to the opening of their hearts and mouths in praise and penitence. Lively, relevant, biblical exposition ought to promote genuine adoration, just as inspired singing can create a longing for more of the truth we have been exalting. Neither must be allowed to become an end in itself.
(5) The people were submissive. The Jerusalem worshippers not only rose to their feet but fell to their knees: they bowed their heads and worshiped the Lord with their faces to the ground . Recognizing that by His Word the living God was present among them, they had no greater desire than to fall before Him humbly, gratefully and adoringly. Seeking His face meant covering their own. It was the kneeling posture of a suppliant in desperate need of help, an indebted beggar gratefully acknowledging an undeserved gift, a servant who waits obediently in the presence of a beloved master. The people honored the uniqueness of the Book. It was natural to stand, and then to kneel before the God who was communicating with them directly through His Word. We do not worship the Book, but we adore the God of the Book who addresses us uniquely through it. Calvin made the point that we owe to the Scripture the same reverence as we owe to God since it has its only source in Him.
(6) The people were teachable. These people knew that the Word of God given to Moses was not only applicable to the people to whom it was originally given. God’s Word is always contemporary and relevant. Every part of it has something appropriately meaningful for every generation. We may not always have the patience or discernment to identify that message, but that does not mean that it is not there. At this Jerusalem outdoor meeting the Levites were the appointed interpreters of God’s unique Word. They gathered the congregation into smaller groups, and they gave the sense, so that the people understood the reading . The relevant application of Scripture is of paramount importance. It is not a book which simply describes life in the world of antiquity; it is a message for today, vibrant with meaningful up-to-date application in every society.
Questions for Discussion:
1. According to Jeremiah, what was God’s plan for His people? God never acts haphazardly but always acts according to His plan. What comfort does this bring to you, especially in situations where you do not understand why difficult things are happening to you? In these situations, what does God tell us to do [12-13]?
2. What is the importance of the statement in Ezra 1:1: that the word of the Lord by the mouth of Jeremiah might be fulfilled? What does this statement tell us about the author’s view of historical events and their relationship to the sovereignty and providence of God?
3. What six things can we learn from the people’s attitude and actions upon hearing God’s Word read to them? How can we apply these lessons each Sunday when we hear God’s Word taught and preached?
Ezra, Nehemiah, Esther, Mervin Breneman, NAC, Broadman.
The Message of Nehemiah, Raymond Brown, Inter Varsity Press.
Jeremiah, John Mackay, Mentor.
Jeremiah, Philip Ryken, Crossway.