TODAY’S READING: Ezra 1–3
Ezra begins where 2 Chronicles ends: the decree of Cyrus in 538 BC that allowed the Jewish exiles to return to Israel. Originally, Nehemiah was not disconnected from Ezra, and with the likelihood that Ezra (a priest) authored Chronicles, these four books (1 and 2 Chronicles, Ezra, Nehemiah) should be read as a connected narrative. The setting was the rise of the Persian empire: an empire that extended from Cyrus to his son Cambyses (replaced by his brother) to Darius (a general for Cambyses), and from Darius’ son Xerxes to Xerxes’ son Artaxerxes. In this time, the religiously tolerant Persians allowed the Jews to go home.
Sheshbazzar led the first return in 538–7 BC (Ezra 1:8–11), followed by a group led by Zerubbabel (a direct descendent of David). Zerubbabel rebuilt the temple, Ezra rebuilt the community of faith, and Nehemiah rebuilt the city walls. Each met internal opposition and experienced disappointment. Post-exilic hopes were dashed as what began with promise ended in frustration, with the result that eyes were lifted to the only lasting hope: the return of the Messiah and a kingdom that would include all nations. Interestingly, the big lesson of Ezra-Nehemiah is that often life and reform movements end in disappointment and infighting. When faced with broken dreams and crushed hopes, we are to lift our eyes from our little picture to regain the big tapestry view: the King, all nations, and the blessed hope of heaven where all peoples get along because they are focused on glorifying the Lamb.
The Jews were not the only ones Cyrus allowed to go home. An extra-biblical proclamation found in the “Cyrus Cylinder” shows the pluralistic nature of Cyrus’ public policy. He felt his power was due to his tolerance (in contrast to Babylonian cruelty) and he said that his god Marduk (who he called the “lord of the gods”) wanted all sanctuaries of all religions rebuilt. Cyrus changed the name of god depending who he was addressing, showing his political and religious dexterity.
Thankful as we may be for the religious liberties the powers of our day grant us, let us bear in mind that their agenda does not match ours. The freedom of worship is not to be confused with the mandate to save souls, to confront all ideologies that deny the deity of Christ, and to ransom brands from the burning of false religions. We are “conversionists,” commanded to rescue from darkness and bring the nations into the kingdom of the Son of His love (Col. 1:13). A missions temptation is to settle for religious liberty, but we must contend for the preaching of a Jesus-centered gospel. We must insist on calling for repentance and prioritize the saving of souls.
Secular and pluralistic powers will, for the most part, grant us liberty to go home and worship our way, but if we insist on leaving home and demanding that all peoples of the earth worship the God of Israel, they are not so accommodating. The rebuilt temple was to the young as religious freedom is to most of us—a cause for celebration. But the old remember that the temple was intended as a rallying place for all nations. The sages among us will not let us settle for personal religious freedom. We must ever fight to set captured souls free, and that will mean wrath from pluralists, even as it means glory for God. The Lord will stir up the spirit of kings (Ezra 1:1), and we must yet stir up the 49 million Hindus from their pluralism, preaching Christ alone. This is true religious freedom.