Friday, July 12, 2013

Celebrating with Joy

Scriptural Reading: Ezra 6:13-22
Devotional Reading: Ezra 5:1-5

Have you ever started a project and dreamed of the completion date? I know we do that when we purchase items such as cars and student loans. We just can’t quit paying on those projects or bill collectors would be on our trail. There are projects that we start, however, and simply say, “I’ll get to it later.” But will later ever come for the completion date to celebrate? Where are our priorities? When I lived away I decided to make a quilt to remind me of my upbringing. I was gung ho, happy, joyfully hurriedly cutting out the pieces. Guess what? I did not piece the quilt together for at least four (4) years. It should not have taken that long. I simply made excuses and stopped. When the project was complete, however, I was so happy again. It was such a joyous occasion for me personally, a feeling of success. Perhaps you have had or will have an experience to cause such celebratory joy. Would you like to plant a garden? Start a small business? Join a work-out class or gym? Whatever you do, give God the glory when you complete it.

Today it is necessary to write a project charter in order to move forward with big projects. The author(s) must have knowledge of the project’s purpose and how it relates to the organization’s mission statement and goals. A project charter is created in sections, including the overview, project goal, identifying team members and their roles, and describing the process for completing the project by a specific deadline and within budget. After the project has been completed, the people will celebrate. However, will they celebrate unto the Lord God who allowed the building and success of the project? The Psalm of David, 145th number, verses 2-3, & 6-7 state, “Every day I will bless you, and praise your name forever and ever. Great is the Lord, and greatly to be praised; his greatness is unsearchable…The might of your awesome deeds shall be proclaimed, and I will declare your greatness. They shall celebrate the fame of your abundant goodness, and shall sing aloud of your righteousness.” (NKJV)

As we continue this quarter of study entitled “God’s People Worship” we are mindful of: (1) how Christian worship compares today both in its devoted and revered practices and its disrespectful practices and (2) what we can learn from God’s relationship with the worshipping ancient Israelites that will help us honor and worship Him today. We are in Unit II – “Worshipping in Jerusalem Again (Ezra)” of the three units of the quarter. This is the third lesson of a five-lesson study of worship in Jerusalem after a remnant of Israel returned home from exile in Babylon during the time of Ezra.

God used King Cyrus of Persia to permit the Jews to return to Jerusalem after seventy years of Babylonian captivity and rebuild the walls and the Temple. He returned the gold and silver that King Nebuchadnezzar had taken from the Temple. Cyrus also commanded their neighbors to contribute. Approximately 50,000 Jews, a remnant, returned to Jerusalem. They were so happy for the blessing some of the heads of the fathers’ houses contributed gold and silver for the house of God and garments for the priests. The people then went to their various cities to settle until the seventh month of the first year. When the seventh month arrived the returning remnant gathered to build an altar for burnt sacrifices unto God. They proceeded to keep all of the feasts and give the required and freewill offerings to the Lord. With the monies they collected during the freewill offerings, the gold and silver returned by King Cyrus, and monies received by King Cyrus, they were able to contract with the masons and carpenters. They also gave food, drink, and olive oil to the experienced seafarers who would bring the cedar logs from Lebanon. (See Ezra 3:1-7) In the second month of the second year the returning remnant gathered to begin building the Temple. As soon as the foundation was laid, the work ceased, and the people began to worship the Lord, celebrating they had been restored to the land of their fathers and their goal of completely rebuilding the Temple was in sight. (See Ezra 3:8-13)

The adversaries of Judah and Benjamin heard what sounded as a community rejoicing with shouts from far away. When they heard the Israelites were building a temple, they offered their assistance as they pretended they worshipped Him alone. (See Ezra 4) Zerubbabel, Jeshua, and the heads of the families saw through their scheme and denied their offer. Then the enemies bribed officials who wrote and told lies to “frustrate their plan throughout the reign of King Cyrus of Persia and until the reign of King Darius of Persia.” Ezra 4:5b NKJV Basically they wrote a letter to King Artaxerxes stating that the people were rebuilding a wicked city, its walls, and its foundations. They did not mention the Temple because they knew King Darius had issued a decree. These enemies stated it would be against the king’s honor if the wicked city was completed for they were a rebellious people. This people would not pay its tribute and the royal revenue would be reduced. King Artaxerxes did not have all the information in which to make a truthful decision. He issued a cease order that the Israelites not rebuild the city until he could issue a decree. He did not issue a decree and his decision was as to the rebuilding of the city only. The enemies, however, hurried to enforce his cease order and implied the Temple work must cease. “At that time the work on the house of God in Jerusalem stopped and was discontinued until the second year of the reign of King Darius of Persia.” Ezra 4:24 NKJV

During this time while the building of the Temple was suspended, the Israelites had an altar with which they used to worship the Lord. That was not enough, however. They had allowed their enemies to counsel them and frustrate their plan instead of following the instructions of the Almighty God. Prophets Haggai and Zechariah were sent by God to rectify the situation. (See Ezra 5) Haggai rebuked them for their selfishness and neglect of God’s house, specifically stating at Hag 1:4, “Is it a time for you yourselves to live in your paneled houses, while this house lies in ruins?” NKJV Zechariah, both priest and prophet, was known for his writings of visions, descriptive of all those hopes and anticipations the Temple represented. Zerubbabel, Jeshua, and the prophets quickly set out to rebuild the house of God. Naturally if you are working for God, expect the enemy. Tattenai, the Persian governor of the province west of the Euphrates, Shethar-boznai, a Persian officer of rank, and their associates approached them to find out by what authority they had to build the structure and the names of the builders. God was with the Israelites. They did not cease work on building the Temple until they had a decision from King Darius. Also, the enemy officials gave the true facts in order for Darius to make a proper decision. In their letter to King Darius they wrote the Israelites had stated they were servants of God who were rebuilding His house that had been built many years ago. It had been destroyed when their ancestors angered Him and they were carried into captivity. God used King Cyrus not only to release the Jews, but he made a decree that the Temple should be rebuilt on the original site and the gold and silver removed from Solomon’s Temple to be restored to the rebuilt Temple. The Israelites encouraged King Darius to search the royal archives for authority to rebuild the house of God because they had not thought it necessary to keep a copy of the decree. They had simply worshipped God, built an altar, and built the Temple foundation. However, they continued to build the Temple with the favor of God as they awaited the pleasure of the king in this matter.

King Darius Hystaspes was the founder of the Perso-Arian dynasty, attempting to conquer and divide monarchs. He became a friend to the Israelites. King Darius conducted a search of the documents stored in Babylon. He could have ended the search when Cyrus’ decree was not located. But he had the search extended to Ecbatana a/k/a Achmetha, the capital in the province of Media (Medes). The decree of King Cyrus was located. It not only gave the Jews authority to build the Temple, but it provided the dimensions of its size, commanded the cost to be paid from the royal treasury and the restoration of all gold and silver vessels removed. Ezra 6:1-5 Upon reviewing the decree, King Darius pursued the same policy as King Cyrus in restoring the privileges to the Jews that had been lost, but he went a little further. Darius told those who brought him the letter hoping to rule against the Jews at Ezra 6:9-10, “let the work on this house of God alone;…Moreover I make a decree regarding what you shall do for these elders of the Jews for the rebuilding of this house of God: the cost is to be paid to these people, in full and without delay…Whatever is needed…for burnt offerings to the God of heaven…as the priests in Jerusalem require-let that be given to them day by day without fail, so that they may offer pleasing sacrifices to the God of heaven, and pray for the life of the king and his children.” (NKJV) His decree further states in verses 11 and 12 that anyone altering the decree shall be hung on his doorpost, his house shall become a dunghill, and that any king or people who attempts to alter the decree or destroy the Temple shall be overthrown by God who has established His name.

After receiving the pleasure of the king in this matter the Jews’ enemies became their friends and the Temple building continued without opposition as stated at Ezra 6:13-15, “Then, according to the word sent by King Darius, Tattenai, the governor of the province Beyond the River, Shethar-boznai, and their associates did with all diligence what King Darius had ordered. So the elders of the Jews built and prospered, through the prophesying of the prophet Haggai and Zechariah son of Iddo. They finished their building by command of the God of Israel and by decree of Cyrus, Darius, and King Artaxerxes of Persia; and this house was finished on the third day of the month of Adar, in the sixth year of the reign of King Darius.” (NKJV) Tattenai, Shethar-boznai, and their companions would rather help the Jews than be executed. So the Jews built with more contentment. Even the elders pitched in to build the Temple. Not only was it the commandment of God, but of the kings. These foreign kings who worshipped other gods had decreed the building of the Temple and given finance toward its work. The elders felt obliged to do what God had commanded, the prophets had prophesied and the foreign kings had decreed. The house of God was completely built four years later, the sixth year of the reign of King Darius.

The Jews then dedicated the completion of the Temple through celebration as stated at Ezra 6:16-18, “The people of Israel, the priests and the Levites, and the rest of the returned exiles, celebrated the dedication of this house of God with joy. They offered at the dedication of this house of God one hundred bulls, two hundred rams, four hundred lambs, and as a sin offering for all Israel, twelve male goats, according to the number of the tribes of Israel. Then they set the priests in their divisions and the Levites in their courses for the service of God at Jerusalem, as it is written in the book of Moses.” (NKJV) The people who celebrated at the dedication ceremony were the officiating Levites and priests, the children of Israel, descendants of each of the ten tribes of the Northern Kingdom (people of Israel), along with the tribes of Judah and Benjamin and the rest of the children of captivity. They dedicated the Temple with great joy, making burnt offerings and sin offerings to God with animals provided by King Darius. Twelve male goats were offered as a sin offering for the twelve tribes. It was time to celebrate what the Lord had done, whether large or small. They did not have a pity party because of their smaller offerings and smaller Temple in comparison to Solomon’s Temple. 2 Chro 5-7 After the service the Jews set up the Temple administration according to Moses who was of the tribe of Levi. (Ex 2:1-2, 10) Levites are the descendants of Levi, one of the tribes of Israel. Although all priests were Levites, not all Levites were priests. Levi had 3 sons – Gershon, Kohath, and Merari. From those branches of the family, the Levites were organized into 3 levels of service. 1) Aaron and his offspring descended from Kohath. They formed the priesthood. 2) Descendants of Kohath who were not descendants of Aaron. They were in charge of the most sacred parts of the Tabernacle (Num 3:27-32; 4:4-15; 7:9) 3) Descendants of Gershon and Merari. They were given lesser duties. (Num 3:21-26, 33-37) The Levites were chosen to serve God. (Num 3:6; 4:23-49)

This writer believes the people had been keeping the Passover festival once delivered from captivity. I have assumed this fact simply because the people were commanded by God as recorded at Ex 12:14 to keep it as a “perpetual ordinance”. During captivity they had worshipped the idols of their captors. After deliverance the children of captivity would be able to keep the Passover and Feast of Unleavened Bread. They may have been in fear, at first, due to their enemies, but God had protected them. At last they were able to celebrate the holy service at the Temple as is declared in Ezra 6:19-22, “On the fourteenth day of the first month the returned exiles kept the passover. For both the priests and the Levites had purified themselves; all of them were clean. So they killed the passover lamb for all the returned exiles, for their fellow priests, and for themselves. It was eaten by the people of Israel who had returned from exile, and also by all who had joined them and separated themselves from the pollutions of the nations of the land to worship the Lord, the God of Israel. With joy they celebrated the festival of unleavened bread seven days; for the Lord had made them joyful, and had turned the heart of the king of Assyria to them, so that he aided them in the work on the house of God, the God of Israel.” (NKJV) The priests and the Levites were united in purification. Each of them wanted to be ceremonially clean to be able to perform their duty in the Temple. There were new converts from other nations and those who had remained behind and joined other nations when the Jews went into captivity. They had now separated themselves from those other nations and its pollutions of worship in order to worship the God of Israel. With joy they celebrated the festivals unto the Lord because He had turned the heart of the king of Assyria. Now why is Darius the king of Assyria in this passage, but he was the king of Persia in Ezra 4:24? The same question can be asked as to why Cyrus is reflected as king of Persia in Ezra 4:5 and king of Babylon in Ezra 5:13. The point is that Assyria, Babylon, and Persia are represented by the enemies of God. Each of these countries are different, but they are the same because they are enemies which God ultimately controlled.

According to Haggai, the people got weary and let the Lord’s house lie in ruins for several years before they finally returned to work and completed it. The same is true once the work is complete. If the people are weary in their worship of God, the church is spiritually incomplete although it is physically complete. They must be sincere in their worship. He will have the glory because, “When the ways of people please the Lord, he causes even their enemies to be at peace with them.” (Prov 16:7 NKJV)

Written by Deborah C Davis

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