Handfuls on Purpose
by James Smith, 1943
THE STIRRED-UP SPIRIT. Ezra 1:1-11.
The clock of God's providence may seem at times to go slow, but it always strikes at the proper minute. During the seventy years of the Jews' captivity, the cup of Babylon's iniquity was being filled, so that the time of their deliverance synchronized with the time of Babylon's downfall. The quiver of the Almighty is full of arrows. In the first year of his reign, Nebuchadnezzar carried many into captivity. He reigned forty-five years; his son (Evil-merodach), twenty-three; and his grandson (Belshazzar,) three years—which make up the seventy predicted years of their bondage. In the third year of Belshazzar, Darius, the Mede, captured the city of Babylon, and Cyrus, the king of Persia, became ruler (Daniel 5). The accession of Cyrus to the throne was another marvelous fulfillment of prophecy (Isaiah 44:28). The very name of the Jews' liberator was mentioned one hundred and fifty years beforehand. This is no mere coincident or random occurrence, it is an indisputable proof of inspiration. At this crisis three distinct prophecies found their fulfillment:
1. The punishment of the king of Babylon (Jeremiah 25:12).
2. The end of the seventy years' captivity (Jeremiah 29:10; Daniel 9:2).
3. The coming of the deliverer named. We may use these words, "The Lord stirred up the spirit of Cyrus," as a key to unlock some of the treasures of this chapter.
I. The Spirit Needs Stirring Up. "The Lord stirred up the spirit of Cyrus" (v. 1). The will of God will never be done by us until the spirit within us is stirred up to do it. Man is not a machine. Cold, mechanical service is an insult to the living God. Selfishness is death in His sight. It is possible to have the form of godliness while the spirit is sleeping the sleep of death. You has He quickened who were dead in trespasses and sin.
II. God Alone can Effectually Stir up the Spirit. "The Lord stirred up the spirit of Cyrus." The source of all spiritual life and power is with Him. Every God-quickened spirit is a spirit raised from the dead, that He might work in that spirit both to will and to do of His good pleasure (Philippians 2:13). There is a divine purpose in every divinely-awakened soul. It is the Spirit that quickens.
III. The Means by which the Spirit was Stirred up. There was (1) the Word of God. Daniel understood by books the number of the years... that the Lord would accomplish seventy years in the desolations of Jerusalem (Daniel 9:2). Daniel may have showed Cyrus the prophet's reference to himself, as the divinely-appointed shepherd by whom the temple was to be built, and the captives freed without a price (Isaiah 44:28; 45:1-13). (2) The providence of God. The fact that Cyrus was now made Governor of Babylon, he was in a position to carry out the prophetic declaration. He discovered that the means of accomplishing these purposes of God were committed to him. Woe must come upon him if he obeys not the heavenly call. Thus, God still stirs up the spirits of men, by making them to know and feel that His word has special reference to themselves in the doing of His will. No man will heartily obey the Gospel of God unless he has, like Cyrus, been powerfully convinced that it is for himself, as if there were no other to whom it could be so applied, and whose only alternative is to obey or sin against the clearest Light. A woman was once led to claim the bare promise of God through receiving a letter addressed to another woman of the same name. She concluded that, if her name had been written in the Bible, she could never have believed that it was her that was meant. When the Holy Spirit applies the word of God, it is always unmistakably luminous and personal.
IV. The Evidences of a Stirred-up Spirit.
(1) There is faith in the word of God. Cyrus said, "The Lord God of Heaven... has charged me to build Him an house at Jerusalem" (v. 2). The king of Persia was no more clearly and urgently charged to build the temple than we are to believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and serve Him without fear, in holiness, all the days of our life (Luke 1:74-75). This call to us is quite as personal and imperative as the call that came to Cyrus. Have we as heartily believed it?
(2) There is confession of the purpose of God. "He made a proclamation through all the land" (v. 1). When we discover what the will of God is concerning us, we should not be ashamed to make it known publicly what our attitude is toward this revealed will. Has he not warned us that "Whoever is ashamed of Me and of My word, of them will I be ashamed."
(3) There are liberal things devised for the honor of God. The large-heartedness of Cyrus is seen in his offer to let all the captives go who desired the restoration of Jerusalem (v. 3). in his providing for the sojourners by the way (v. 4), and in his delivering up of "all the vessels of the house of the Lord" into the hand of "the prince of Judah" (vv. 7-8). The liberal devises liberal things (Isaiah 32:8). The spirit that has been stirred up by God will surely be constrained to do God-like things. The spirit of Carey was powerfully stirred up when he said, "Expect much from God, and attempt much for God." Moody said, "God never uses a discouraged worker." The stirred-up spirit is always on the alert for opportunities of helping on the work and people of God, and devises means whereby His banished ones may be restored. Such spirits seek first the Kingdom of God and His righteousness, and God works in them both to will and to do of His good pleasure.
THE SECRET OF SUCCESS IN THE LORD'S WORK. Ezra 6:14.
"They prospered through the prophesying of Haggai and Zechariah." Those words may be taken as the key to the whole situation, as described in chapters 3 to 6. Including servants and maids, who had gone with their masters and mistresses, over forty-nine thousand accepted the offer of Cyrus, to leave their captivity and go up from Babylon to Jerusalem. They counted themselves blessed, on hearing such a "joyful sound" (Psalm 89:15). (See Luke 4:18). Now, look at—
I. The Work to be Done. "To build the house of the Lord God of Israel" (chapter 1:3). This house was for the honor of God: it was to be a testimony to His holy Name. We may learn from this that it is the prime duty of those who have been delivered from bondage to seek that the name of God might be magnified among the heathen. Every redeemed one should build for Him an house of testimony.
II. The Start Made. The first thing they did was to set the altar upon his bases (chapter 3:3). They began with the altar. This is the sure basis of all acceptable work for God. The atoning sacrifice must have its true place if the great house of God's Church is to be built up and established. The altar of the Cross is not upon its proper basis when it stands on the wisdom of men instead of the wisdom of God. The true basis of the Cross of Christ is to put it where God has put it, between sin and salvation. Then they laid the foundation (chapter 3:10). After the burnt-offerings came the laying of the foundation. Those who lay the foundation, and go on with the building before the altar of the Cross is placed upon its right basis, are vainly working outside the gracious purposes of God. The foundation of God's house is laid on the rock of Christ's atoning sacrifice. God's order is, first, reconciliation, then stability and progress. After this they praised the Lord (chapter 3:11). This was not formal Psalm-singing, it was the spontaneous outburst of hearts filled to overflowing with joy and thanksgiving. "They shouted with a great shout" (Joshua 6:5). Such a result surely proves that this is the right method and spirit in which to do the work of God.
III. The Adversaries. When the people of God begin to shout and praise, then the enemy will be stirred up to envy and opposition. "The adversaries of Judah came... and said, Let us build with you" (chapter 4:1, 2). They professed to be seeking also the honor of the God of Israel. These may have been the "fathers" referred to by the woman of Samaria in John 4:20. The work so far has been a success, and now they wish to become partners in the business. But the answer of those divinely commissioned ones was fearless and unequivocal. "You have nothing to do with us to build an house unto our God; but we ourselves will build" (chapter 4:3). Those sent ones were not going to be unequally yoked with unbelievers. What part has he who believes with an infidel? (2 Corinthians 6:14-16). When they saw that they were to have neither part nor lot in the matter, then they sought to "weaken their hands... and trouble them;" they also "hired counselors to frustrate their purpose" (chapter 4:4,5). But one thing they forgot, or refused to believe, and that was, that "their purpose" was God's purpose. The cause of God cannot be properly advanced but by those who know that they have been called of God.
IV. The Temporary Interruption. "Then ceased the work of the house of God which is at Jerusalem" (chapter 4:24). The wicked may have their day of triumph, but their time is short. How was the work stopped? Those "hired counselors" wrote a letter to the new king of Persia, representing Jerusalem as a "rebellious and bad city," and that these Jews who had lately come from Babylon were rebuilding it for the purpose of fortifying themselves against the power and authority of Babylon. The king on receiving the letter made search, and found "that the city of old time has made insurrection against kings" (chapter 4:19), and because of the city's past glory and power he "gave commandment to cause these men to cease." This must have been a staggering blow to those enthusiastic men. What could it mean? Does the providence of God contradict His Word? In the time of perplexity, wait.
V. The Renewed Effort. "Then the prophets Haggai and Zechariah prophesied unto the Jews that were in Jerusalem,... then they began to build the house of God" (chapter 5:1, 2). This revival came through the word spoken "in the Name of the God of Israel." There is need for a prophet to ring out the message of God when His work has come to a standstill. These discouraged workers needed to be reminded that they were saved out of Babylon to serve the Lord in Jerusalem, and that "the eye of their God was upon them" (chapter 5:5). The prophets doubtless made it clear to them that this was God's work, and that they had been called of Him to do it, so in His Name the work is resumed with more determination than before, for "with them were the prophets of God helping them" (chapter 5:2). Nor was it in vain, for Darius the king discovered in "the house of the rolls" the decree of Cyrus concerning the Jews and the house of God, and immediately sent a letter to the "adversaries" saying, "Let the work of the house of God alone" (chapter 6:7). So "they prospered through the prophesying of Haggai and Zechariah" (chapter 6:14). And the house was finished (v. 15). The remedy for our helpless hands and feeble knees is a clearer apprehension of God's purposes of grace in par individual lives, and a fearless, whole-hearted devotion to the fulfillment of the same. He gives power to the weak, and to them that have no might he increases strength.
EZRA: HIS LIFE AND CHARACTER. Ezra 7:10.
Ezra, who led the second party from Babylon to Jerusalem, was both a priest and a scribe—a minister of the sanctuary and an exponent of the law of Moses. Between the first and second detachments there is a period of fifty-seven years. The last four chapters of the book are descriptive of the work done under the personal guidance of the author. In looking at this man and his work we shall find much that stimulates to faith and service. Observe his—
I. Preparation. "Ezra prepared his" heart to seek the law of the Lord, and to do it, and to teach" (chapter 7:10). The preparations of the heart belong to man (Proverbs 16:1, R.V.). When a man is prepared in his heart to seek the Word of God, to do it and to teach it, a great work of revival has already begun. The heart must first be put right with God before the life can become useful for Him. These preparations belong to man, but the revelations belong to God. Christ's first message was Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand. Change your mind; prepare your heart for that new order of things which has, in grace, come within your reach.
II. Qualification. "The hand of the Lord his God was upon him" (v. 6). Because of this invisible and powerful hand upon him, the king granted him "all his requests." The mighty hand of God's guiding and upholding power came upon him after he had prepared his heart to seek those things by which His Name might be glorified. The All-conquering Hand is the accompaniment of the prepared heart. We think of the disciples of Christ preparing their hearts during those ten days in which they waited for the promised power of the Holy Spirit. All who are filled with the Spirit have the hand of the Lord their God upon them.
III. Provision. "I, Artaxerxes the king, do make a decree... that whatever Ezra shall require of you, it be done speedily, unto an hundred talents of silver" (chapter 7:21, 22). Here he had the assurance that all his wants would be supplied. Ezra prepared his heart, and God in this singular manner prepared against all his needs. He never sends His servants a warfare on their own charges. The measure of supply was to be unto even "an hundred talents of silver" ( 22,000), but the measure of our supply is "according to His riches in glory by Christ Jesus." Unsearchable riches. "Look unto Me, and be you saved" from your poverty and powerlessness.
IV. Commission. "And you, Ezra, after the wisdom of your God, that is in your hand... teach you them that know not the laws of your God" (chapter 7:25). Those who have the wisdom of God in their hearts must become the "messengers of the Lord of Hosts" (Malachi 2:7). The counsel of this heathen king would put many professing Christians and religious teachers to shame. If God is to have a chance of gaining moral victories among those who know not His will, surely His Word must be plainly taught to them by those who have experienced the power of it in their own hearts and lives. Faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the Word of God. The hearing that stirs up faith in God is not the hearing of the words of man's wisdom, but the hearing of that word which is the wisdom of God. Preach the Word.
V. Consistency. "I was ashamed to require of the king soldiers and horsemen to help us against the enemy in the way, because we had spoken unto the king, saying, The hand of our God is upon all them for good that seek Him" (chapter 8:21, 22) To say the least, this is the simple honesty of faith If our faith is in God, and we know that the cause is His, why should we beg for the patronage of men? Our life should be consistent with our testimony. To preach "faith in God," and be found catering for the favors of the ungodly, is to make the religion of Jesus Christ to stink in the nostrils of reasonable men. If the Lord be God, follow Him. But what did Ezra do? He made it a matter of special prayer, and the Lord of Hosts answered him (v. 23). Cast all your care upon Him.
VI. Devotedness. "The holy seed have mingled themselves with the people of those lands... When I heard this thing I rent my garment and my mantle, and plucked off the hair of my head, and sat down astonished" (chapter 9:2, 3). This was a violation of the Divine command (Deuteronomy 7:3), and the tidings of it came to Ezra as a heart-breaking sorrow. He felt it the more keenly because of the warmth of his own heart towards the Word and ways of God. The depth of our sorrow over the sins of others will be according to the depth and reality of our sympathy with the cause of God. For a people, separated unto God (Deuteronomy 7:6), to be unequally yoked together with unbelievers, is enough to make every true servant of Christ sit down astonished. It is a paralyzing and soul-sickening sight If we had more of Ezra's devotedness we would know more about the sufferings of Christ (Jeremiah 8:21). What else could he do than fall upon his knees and spread out the case before God (vv. 5-15), for he felt that as long as they lived in sin they could not stand accepted before Him (v. 15).
VII. Success. "Then all the congregation answered, As you have said, so must we do" (chapter 10:12). And the guilty priests "gave their hands that they would put away their wives" (v. 19). The earnest prayer and faithful testimony of this consecrated scribe prevailed, and a great victory was won for God in the spiritual uplifting of the people. Some of those "strange wives" may have been as dear to some of those men as an eye or a right hand, but they must be cut off. The more closely the affections become entwined with any forbidden object, the more fatal is the snare. The secret of Ezra's success is an open one, and is within the reach of every servant of Christ—true-hearted, whole-hearted loyalty to God's Word and work. Have faith in God; the prayer of faith shall save.