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Edward F. Markquart

Books of the Bible - Old Testament
Ezra and Nehemiah

Old Testament Sermon Series     Nehemiah 1:1-11

We are slowly getting to the end of this series of sermons on the Old Testament. If you know anything about the Bible, the first five books of the Bible are called The Law. The five books of The Law are: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy. In these five books are the laws of God, the laws for human civilization. The heart of that law is the Ten Commandments. The next section of the Old Testament is called the history section. The name of these books are: Joshua, Judges, Ruth, I and II Samuel, I and II Kings, I and II Chronicles, Ezra, Nehemiah and Ester. Today’s sermon will focus on Ezra and Nehemiah. Last week, the focus on the sermon was on Ester. Today, we are coming to the end of Old Testament history.

Today, we are going to focus on three personalities. The title of the sermon for today is “An Emperor, A Wine Steward and A Religious Professor.” God used the three of them to rebuild the nation. God used each of them uniquely and differently. That is, each had different roles in the rebuilding of the nation.

Today’s sermon is about rebuilding a nation, a city, a country or a family after a disaster. It is much more difficult to rebuilt something a second time than to build it the first time.  Some examples. In your mind, imagine a nation that has been wiped out by war. From the past, think of the nation of Japan or the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Think of any nation that has been wiped out or leveled to the ground, and you have to work through the process of slowly rebuilding that city or nation. It is much more work to rebuild a destroyed nation or city than to build it for the first time. Or imagine an earthquake has struck in Los Angeles. In your mind’s eye, you can visualize a large section of the city that has been wiped out and leveled to the ground by that earthquake. All the buildings have been leveled by the blast of the earthquake and all that you can see is flattened rubble. Or, in your mind’s eye, go down to a town in Texas immediately after a tornado has touched down on the ground and leveled that city. That city in Texas is no more. It has been leveled to the ground and is merely piles of rubble. It is much more work to rebuild that city the second time than to build it the first time.

Or think of a family that has gone through an enormously painful time and has been destroyed. This family has experienced a divorce, the kids are mad at each other and the parents are mad at each other and everyone is mad at each other and everybody is suing everybody and now you want to rebuild this shattered family. It is much harder to rebuild a family a second time than the first time. That is just the way it is. You have to do so many things to rebuild a city or nation or family. You have to get rid of the rubble which is a huge job. You have to get rid of all the depression because anyone in his or her right mind is depressed about what has just happened. When you are depressed, you don’t have any energy. You don’t know where to begin. And now you have to go and put your life back together. It is so much emotional work to rebuild and that is what the story for today is all about. The story for today is about rebuilding a nation, rebuilding cities, rebuilding marriages and rebuilding families.

I guarantee you: sometime in your life, “it” is going to fall apart for you and you will be required to rebuild your life or the life of your city, your family, or the life of somebody around you. That is just the way it is.

Today, we look at three persons. God used an emperor, a wine steward and a religious professor to help rebuild the nation of Israel and the city of Jerusalem. God used each one of them uniquely and differently to help rebuild the nation. All three were needed.

Let us first look at Cyrus, the Emperor. Those who lead nations can be good or bad. Kings, emperors, presidents and similar leaders of nations can really mess up or lead a nation to new heights. For example, years ago in the Old Testament, if you were conquered first by the Assyrians and then the Babylonians, it was really bad for you. This is what the Assyrians and the Babylonians did. The Assyrians and the Babylonians came in with their armies and leveled all the cities before them; they destroyed all the temples; they emptied the treasuries; and they took the local population and sold them into slavery. For four hundred years, these two nations were very nasty as they conquered other nations. You didn’t want to be around these nations or have them conquer you. These were not nice nations. They would come in, level the cities, destroy the temples, empty the treasuries, and take the local population and sell them into slavery.

In ancient history, right after the nasty reigns of the Assyrians and the Babylonians, came another kind of people and they were called the Persians. Thank God for the Persians. You wanted to live under the Persian empire; you didn’t want to live under the Assyrians or the Babylonians. The Persian Empire began under the reign of Cyrus the Great, from 660 to 630 BCE, Before the Christian Era or Before Christ. Cyrus the Great was an incredible emperor. Cyrus the Great was the first emperor and then Darius was the second emperor and then Artexerxes was the third. These were three good Persian emperors in a row. When the Persians conquered a land, they did not level the cities; they did not destroy the temples; they did not empty the treasuries; and they did not take the local population and sell them into slavery. Instead, they left the nation that they conquered intact. They left the cities standing; they left the temples up; they left the treasuries full; and they left the local population working. Over time, these people paid a lot more taxes. These were wise policies enacted by Emperor Cyrus, an incredible man.

The stories for today are part of that story. We know about Cyrus from history. I read the following quote from the Bible: “The Lord moved the heart of the king of Persia (Cyrus) to make a proclamation throughout his realm and put it in writing. This is what Cyrus, the king of Persia, said: ‘The Lord of the heavens has given me all the kingdoms of the earth and has appointed me to built a temple for him in Judah.’” Can you imagine that? Can you imagine an emperor of a pagan world who lived three thousand miles away from you coming and building your temple? That was his attitude. God used Cyrus and blessed Cyrus. They Jews could not have rebuilt their nation and their temple without the help of Cyrus, just as the Germans could not have rebuilt their nation after World War II without the help of the Marshall Plan.  The Japanese could not have rebuilt their nation after World War II without the help of some benevolent nations. Thank God for the “Cyruses” throughout human history. These “Cyruses” have been used by God; their hearts have been moved by God to make the world a better place.

So Cyrus did several things. He rebuilt the temple; he sent a good man to rule that land; he returned all 154 silver and gold goblets to the temple. He was an incredibly good leader. Darius was the same way. Artexerxes was the same. These were three wonderful rulers and God used all three of them. You cannot rebuilt a nation without the help of benevolent rulers such as Cyrus.

Personally, I have lived long enough to see similar things happen during my life. God uses people all the time who are not Christians to do God’s work in this world. The Bible called these people “God’s anointed.” I think that perhaps one of the greatest personalities who has walked across the stage of the twentieth century is Nelson Mandella of South Africa. Does anyone disagree with that conclusion? We all like Nelson Mandella. We have all been inspired by the life of Nelson Mandella, the way he sat in that prison all those years, the way he forgave his tormentors. South Africa has been rebuilt as a nation under the leadership of  Nelson Mandella. Mandella was not punitive and revengeful. He worked the peace processes of reconciliation. South Africa needed to be rebuilt as a nation, and it could not have been done without Nelson Mandella. The Bible calls such a person,“God’s anointed.”

Let us look at another example of God using a national leader who was not Christian but was still God’s anointed: Anwar Sadat and the rebuilding of Egypt. Anwar Sadat has to be one of the greatest men of God of the twentieth century. Sadat was not a Jew nor was he a Christian. Anwar Sadat was a devout Muslim and God used him to rebuilt Egypt when he signed that Camp David Accord. After the Camp David Accord, there was a possibility of peace for the first time in the Middle East for years. Why? Because God moved the heart of Anwar Sadat. The Bible says that God moved the heart of Cyrus of Persia and we know that God has been moving the hearts of national leaders of other nations for centuries and in our century as well.

Still another example. One of the reasons that you children and mine may not go to war with Russia or the Soviet Union is because the life of Michael Gorbechev. When Gorbechev became the Secretary General of the Communist Party in the Soviet Union, I remember talking to Bert Welliver who was still alive then and was Vice President for Technology for the Boeing Corporation. Bert was a two star general, as I recall, and he was Boeing’s liaison to the military. Bert was a “big gun” and worked in the Pentagon. When Gorbechev was elected, Bert told me that Gorbechev was going to be more influential on the twentieth century than either Lenin or Stalin. I laughed at Bert’s observation. Little did I know that Gorbechev was to become the primary personality under which the Berlin Wall came down and Soviet Empire disintegrated,  without one nuclear bomb being fired. Praise be the name of the Lord. Michael Gorbechev, under the influence of his mother in childhood, had been baptized by the name of Michael in a Russian Orthodox Church. His grandmother was also a devout Christian but Michael was not. He was an atheistic Communist Party leader. What I am suggesting to you today that when a person rebuilds your life, you often need the help of government whether it be Cyrus of Persia, or Darius or Artexerxes or the black radical Nelson Mandella or the Muslim Anwar Sadat or the communist, Michael Gorbechev. Thanks be to those political leaders, regardless of the label they wear, whose hearts have been moved by God. In the text for today, we learn to value any political leader whose heart has been moved by God and that God can use whomever God chooses to do his work in the world.

I would like to take this a step further. Often one’s life is a disaster. A personal disaster can be the result of one’s own foolish decisions and irresponsible behaviors or the personal disaster can just be the result of some bizarre, unexplainable circumstances. Either way, a personal disaster hits and you cannot dig yourself out of the hole that you are in. You need help to dig out from the hole. I personally believe that welfare in our country has helped person after person after person rebuild their lives. By far the vast majority of people who are on welfare are not people who are ‘welfare cheats’ who have been on welfare forever. Rather the vast majority on welfare are welfare recipients for a short time. The government has helped these poorer people to put their lives back together again. The government or Cyrus helps them to do that. I cannot tell you the number of people in our church who have experienced financial disasters and I have seen the government give them financial aid so that they can go back to school, retool, and I see them being productive citizens some ten to fifteen years later. They work their jobs; pay their taxes; and pay back to the government in taxes much more than the financial help that they received on welfare so many years ago. (By the way, the church did not have the economic resources to help these families to the degree that they needed financial help.) Thank God for Cyrus. Thank God for benevolent governments which will help people rebuild their lives. Whether it be after an earthquake. Whether is be after a torrential flood. Whether it be after a bombing. Thank God for governments which are like Cyrus and the Persians. You didn’t want to live where the Babylonians or Assyrians were in power.  The Babylonians and Assyrians would level you; the Persians would build you up. The purpose of some governments is to build the people up.

The second important person in today’s story was a man by the name of Nehemiah. If you want to build up somebody’s life or city or nation, you must have a Nehemiah. I would like to tell you the story of Nehemiah. It is a classic. Nehemiah was a wine steward. The man really knew his wines. He was a wine steward for Emperor Artexerxes and his brother had just come back from Jerusalem and had seen what a disaster had fallen on that city. Nehemiah prayed to God that he could help in the rebuilding of the leveled city of Jerusalem. One day, Nehemiah was pouring wine for the emperor and the Emperor Artexerxes said to him, “Nehemiah, why are you so sad today. You are not sick. Why are you so sad?” Nehemiah replied, “Emperor, praise be to God that you would ask such a question. I am so depressed today because my people back in Jerusalem need to rebuild the walls of the temple and everything else in the city but they are so depressed and I feel terrible for them. I would like to have a leave of absence and go back to Jerusalem and help them.” The Emperor said, “You can have a leave of absence. I will also give you some troops, and horses and all the cedar trees that you need and I will give you the money to help you rebuild your city and nation.” Nehemiah said, “What a miracle. What an offer. Thank you very much.” (This story is just a wonderful story.) So Nehemiah gets onto a donkey and he travels far and he comes into Jerusalem at night and nobody knows that he has arrived. The story tells us the detail that Nehemiah rides through the whole city on his donkey, and the story tells us that the donkey had a hard time carefully stepping through the city because the streets were in rubble. That is how bad it was. Everyone was depressed and nobody knew how to rebuild the city and everybody was down in the dumps and nobody knew where to start. Into that situation, here comes Nehemiah on his donkey, riding into town at night. The first thing that Nehemiah did was to assess the damage. Nehemiah’s heart had been moved to rebuild the city and he had a vision of what could be done and so Nehemiah started to get different groups of people to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem. I read from chapter three of the book of Nehemiah. It is one of the best chapters in the Bible. Initially it seems so boring, but when you get into the story, it is not boring at all. Listen to this. “Now, this is how the city wall was rebuilt. The high priest rebuilt the sheep gate and dedicated it. They dedicated the wall as far as the tower and no farther. Then, the men of Jericho built the next section. Then, another group of men built the next section. Then another clan built the fish gate and the next section. The son of Uriah built the next section. The son of Zechariah built the next section.” According to the Bible, each of these people rebuilt a small section of the wall of Jerusalem. After fifty-two days, the whole wall around the city had been rebuilt by each person or clan rebuilding the wall “a little bit.” And that is the way it is done. If you want to rebuild the life of a nation, the city or your own family, you cannot do it alone. You need help. And people need to help “a little bit.” If you are rebuilding the life of your family, you need to draw in the help of a grandparent, a parent, a pastor, a Sunday School teacher, a friend, a neighbor. If you are trying to put your life together after a disaster, you need the help of all kinds of people to help you “a little bit.”

For example, I had the privilege of doing a memorial service for young Marcus Fox in our church, a young husband of twenty-eight years, with two small children. Pam’s life was in shambles.  A husband who had drowned. She had two young children. She was so overwhelmed. She was so depressed. She asked to herself, “Who is going to love me like Marcus did? Where do I begin to rebuild my life with my children?” Pam, herself, could put her life back together all alone. What happened is that many people come in to help. This parent. And that parent. And this grandparent. And that grandparent. And that neighbor. And that friend. And this teacher. And that pastor. And gradually, all of us took a little section of her life and we helped her put her life back together again. That is the way it is always done. Life is helping people to rebuild after disasters. And God is asking you to do your little part. What part of the wall is yours? What part of the city of Jerusalem is yours? What are you working on to help someone put his or her life back together again? That is why Nehemiah is so good. He understands that principle. You do not help someone rebuild their life unless your own heart has been moved by God.

Now, we go to the third personality and that was the religious professor. His name was Ezra. Ezra was a religious professor; that is, he really knew the Old Testament. He worked for the Emperor Artexerxes. Ezra came back to Jerusalem knowing the value of teaching the Bible and using the Bible and the Bible’s spirituality to help the people rebuild their lives again. The story about Ezra is another colorful story from the Bible. Ezra came into the city and the people built him a high wooden platform, and Ezra climbed up on that high platform. Ezra opened his Bible to the book of the Law; that is, the books of Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy. The Bible tells us that Ezra started reading the Law at six o’clock in the morning, and he read the Bible for six straight hours out loud. Could you handle it? Listening to the Bible read to you for six straight hours? Well, you could handle it if you had never heard the Word of God during your life. They read from the Law for six straight hours. They did not read from the history books, nor from the prophets, nor from the Writings such as Proverbs and Psalms. If you want to help somebody’s life, you go to the good stuff and so Ezra went to the Law. Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy. After reading for six hours, the Levites or priests then went out into the crowd and they began to explain the Law to the people so that they could understand it. The priests explained it in their own everyday language, which was the language of Aramaic, so that everybody understood.

Ezra knew that the way you rebuild people is to rebuild their relationship with God. Ezra had some major points. That is, Ezra wanted to rebuild their relationship with God by getting into the Word, into the Bible, where the people were listening to the Bible read to them. The Bible became the center of the person who was rebuilding their life. If you want to rebuild your life and rebuild your family and rebuild your marriage, you rebuild your relationship to God by rebuilding your relationship with the Word. The other thing that Ezra did was to have everybody come to worship on Saturday, on the Sabbath Day. These people had gotten out of the habit of a consistent worship life. If you want to rebuild a nation or rebuild a city or rebuild a family or rebuild your own individual life, it is most helpful to develop a consistent worship life. Another thing that Ezra did that was so important was that Ezra got them to separate from their friends who were a bad influence on them. It is called the principle of separatism. For example, let’s say that you had a drinking problem. Let’s say that you have come to that point in life where you have lost your job and lost your family and lost your inner soul and you need to rebuild your life, one of the most important things in the rebuilding process is to separate from your past poor influences on you, to separate yourself from undesirable influences on your life. You need to separate from certain people who are bad for you, to draw a circle around you and those people who influence you negatively are not included in that circle of friendship. If you want to rebuild your life, you chose good friends who are of similar religious believes and moral values. And the last thing that Nehemiah said that if you are going to get married, marry a nice Jewish girl or boy. Marry someone who is part of the household of faith. Personally, I have found again and again, that people underestimate the value of marrying someone who is a fellow Christian. So many people go through family disasters and I often say to such people, “The next time around, please find a loving Christian who understands the values of God, value in the Word, and value in a community of Christian friends. Again and again and again, the Bible in Ezra and Nehemiah ask you to rebuild your life by marrying a devout believer.

All three of these people, the Emperor Darius, the wine steward Nehemiah, and the religious professor Ezra were involved in rebuilding the life of the nation. So I ask the question: what are you doing? Has God moved your heart to help someone rebuild their lives? Or are you outside the walls of Jerusalem, twiddling your thumbs and enjoying the sunsets. Or has God moved your heart to help rebuild the lives of your nation, your city, your community, or your family around you. That is the story of Ezra and Nehemiah.

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