The book of Ezra begins with the people of Israel having been in exile for several decades because of their persistent, unrepentant sin against God. Yet, God pours out his grace and gives them hope. We read in chapter 1 that Cyrus, king of Persia, ordered the release of the exiled Israelites. We need to understand that Israel wasn’t the only people that Cyrus set free. In fact, we know that Cyrus reversed of the policy of the former world powers, Babylon and Assyria, in how they dealt with exiles. With all conquered peoples, Babylon tried to prevent an uprising by breaking the three-fold cord of people, land, and religion. These were the three things that held people together, so if you broke them apart, they would be demoralized and decentralized, making it very hard to rebel. Kingdoms would conquer other kingdoms, and one of the first things they would do was export the people, especially its leadership, and relocate them as far away as they could from their homeland. They would then be encouraged to, at least, increase their religious pluralism, if not convert to the new kingdom’s gods.
But Cyrus stopped doing all of that. In his mind, it was better to let go the captured people he inherited when he defeated Babylon. And why he did this is something of mystery is scholars. But in the end, Ezra is clear that this decision came because of the will of a sovereign God. He says: “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” (1:1).
It was God himself who stirred the spirit of Cyrus to send his people back to the promised land. More than just release them, Cyrus also financed their return and the rebuilding of the temple! Cyrus says, “3Whoever 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. 4And 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” (1:3-4).
It might seem as if Cyrus is a great guy, even a follower of the Yahweh for doing this. But, for Cyrus, this was all political. In his mind, this was good for his ability to rule the Persian Empire. Yet all of this happened according to the sovereign working of God. All that Cyrus did came as a result of divine providence. How do we know this? Because God himself said he would do all of these things years before Cyrus was ever born. Back in Isaiah, God wanted to show his power over all the nations and encourage his people during their time of exile. And, again, back when Babylon was the world super-power, back before Cyrus was even a twinkle in his mother’s eye, about one hundred fifty years before the events of this edict take place, God says through Isaiah:
‘Thus says the LORD to his anointed, to Cyrus, whose right hand I have grasped, to subdue nations before him and to loose the belts of kings, to open doors before him that gates may not be closed: 2“I will go before you and level the exalted places, I will break in pieces the doors of bronze and cut through the bars of iron, 3I will give you the treasures of darkness and the hoards in secret places, that you may know that it is I, the LORD, the God of Israel, who call you by your name. 4For the sake of my servant Jacob, and Israel my chosen, I call you by your name, I name you, though you do not know me. 5I am the LORD, and there is no other, besides me there is no God; I equip you, though you do not know me, 6that people may know, from the rising of the sun and from the west, that there is none besides me; I am the LORD, and there is no other’ (45:1-6).
God says, though Cyrus will not know me, he will be my instrument to do my will. God would allow him to have victory and conquer even mighty Babylon. Why? That God might serve his people, Israel, and make known his power and glory over all nations.
Then, through the prophet Jeremiah, God says, “Now therefore thus says the Lord, the God of Israel, concerning this city of which you say, ‘It is given into the hand of the king of Babylon by sword, by famine, and by pestilence’: 37Behold, I will gather them from all the countries to which I drove them in my anger and my wrath and in great indignation. I will bring them back to this place, and I will make them dwell in safety. 38And they shall be my people, and I will be their God” (Jer 32:36-38). In his sovereignty, God says he will work all things together for the good of his people. He will raise up kingdoms and tear down others, all that his people might be freed from their exile to dwell in his land and be his people once again.
So, what’s going on in your life? What has happened this week, or last year, or decades ago that has you worried? What is happening that gives you concern or causes you to doubt the goodness of God? Can it be so much that it outweighs the providence seen in Ezra 1? After all, if God is able to do all of this to care for his people, can he not also care for you?
It’s because of events like this that we should be humbled and encouraged when we read the Bible say things like “cast all your anxieties on him, because he cares for you” (1 Pet 5:7). The God who raises up kingdoms and brings other down, who names world rulers a decades before their birth and ensures their victory, is the same God who know his people and cares for them. Is there anything too difficult for God?