Pulpit Commentary Homiletics
I. THE PROVIDENCE OF GOD IS ALL-CONTROLLING.
1. "The Lord stirred up the spirit of Cyrus."
(1) This he did by means. Josephus says that Cyrus was shown the places in Isaiah where he was mentioned by name and his exploits indicated about a century before he was born (see Isaiah 44:28; Isaiah 45:1-5). Possibly Daniel, who was in Babylon when Cyrus entered it, and the fame of whose wisdom was far-reaching, may have pointed them out to him.
(2) By his Spirit God made the means he employed effective. "The Lord stirred up the spirit of Cyrus." "He can turn the hearts of princes as the rivers of the south." Means are ineffectual without his blessing. That blessing should be sought upon all our undertakings.
2. By means of Cyrus God moved the Persian empire.
(1) The royal edict was issued.
(2) It was vocally proclaimed. Hebrews, caused a voice to pass, etc. This form of proclamation is for the multitude. For the multitude God causes his gospel to be preached.
(3) It was also written. This was for the magistrates. Also for reference. The word of the truth of the gospel is also written. This fixes its certainty.
3. The sequel shows how cordial was the response. As the exodus from Egypt was a figure of the emancipation of the believer in Christ from the bondage of sin, so was the return from the captivity of Babylon.
II. THE PROVIDENCE OF GOD IS ALL-PERVADING.
1. He rules the world according to a grand plan.
(1) This fact is seen in the Scriptures of prophecy. Broad outlines of future history of the world drawn (see for example Genesis 9:25-27). Here consider "the word of the Lord by the mouth of Jeremiah" (see Jeremiah 25:12; Jeremiah 29:10).
(2) Further seen in the conversion of prophecy into history. Examples abound. Example before us in the restoration of Judah from the captivity of Babylon. The time was "in the first year of Cyrus." This was B.C. 536. Add to this the seventy years of Jeremiah's prophecy, and we have the year B.C. 606, the very year in which "Nebuchadnezzar carried Jehoiakim and the vessels of the house of the Lord to Babylon (see 2 Chronicles 36:6, 7).
2. The plan of Providence includes the means to be employed for the accomplishment of his purposes.
(1) Stirs up the spirits of men to study his word (see Daniel 9:2). Stirred up the spirit of Cyrus also. Daniel was stirred up to pray; Cyrus, to act. It is God's order that his people should pray for their blessings (see Ezekiel 36:37). There is often a connection between the prayers of the good and the better actions of the wicked.
1. Learn that there is no such thing as chance.
(1) Afflictions do not spring out of the dust.
(2) See the hand of God in our deliverances.
2. Learn that providences are often retributive.
(1) The seventy years of captivity were in retribution for seventy sabbatic years in which selfishness refused the land her rest, and consequently the poor their privileges (comp. Leviticus 25:1-6, and 2 Chronicles 36:21).
(2) If we open our eyes we may see the operation of retributive providences every day. "Be sure your sin will find you out." - J. A. M.
I. FURTHER THAN THE CHURCH IS APT TO THINK. "The Lord stirred up the spirit of Cyrus," etc. "The Lord God of heaven hath charged me" (Cyrus) (vers. 1-4). The Jewish Church was slow to believe that God had much to do with any nation beside Israel. Jehovah was, in their thought, the God of Abraham and of his seed in a very distinctive if not positively exclusive sense. His action on those outside the sacred pale was, they popularly imagined, to punish or subdue rather than to control or rule them. They did not expect him to manifest himself to "the uncircumcised," or to use them in his service. But he was governing those outside nations, and he did act upon others than the children of the faithful. He who inspired Balaam to utter those exquisite words of poetic prophecy (Numbers 23., 24. ) now "stirs up the spirit of Cyrus, king of Persia;" makes this heathen monarch "his shepherd, performing his pleasure" (Isaiah 44:28); calls him his "anointed one whose right hand he has holden" (strengthened) (Isaiah 45:1), and constrains him to render signal service to his people which had great and enduring issues. The Christian Church is slow to believe that the hand of God is at the helm of all national and international affairs, and that he lays that hand of Divine power and wisdom upon men and things whether these be counted among his own servants or not. "Upon whom doth not this light arise?" It was by his all-wise direction that Greece prepared her thought and her language, and Rome her highways for the gospel in the "fulness of times." We know not to whom God is speaking, or whose hand he is guiding, in civilized or savage lands, but we may be sure that he is where we do not suspect his Presence, and is acting through men we should not have ranked among his servants, as the end will one day show. "His kingdom ruleth over all."
II. FURTHER THAN THE WORLD SUPPOSES (ver. 2). We smile now as we read that Cyrus imagined that God had given him "all the kingdoms of the earth" (ver. 2). The heathen monarch little dreamt what God was doing elsewhere, and what strong workmen he had in other spheres that were outworking his holy will, his gracious and redeeming purposes. Little does the world know, greatly does it under-estimate, the work which God is doing in the midst of it.
III. FURTHER IN INDIVIDUAL MEN THAN THEY ARE THEMSELVES AWARE. Cyrus did not know what use the Lord was making of him. "I girded thee, though thou hast not known me" (Isaiah 45:5). The Persian king could not foresee that God was inducing him to take a step which should have not only wide and lasting, but worldwide and everlasting, issues and influences. God may be prompting us to take steps - as he has with many since the days of Cyrus - which, when taken, will lead on to the most happy and fruitful consequences, stretching on far into the future, reaching wide over land and sea.
IV. THROUGH THE HEART AND MIND TO THE HAND OF MEN (vers. 3, 4, 7-11). God so acted on Cyrus that that king was
(a) inclined in his heart to take the generous course of liberating the Israelites and causing the temple to be rebuilt. It was generous on his part, for he was thus denuding his country of many of his most industrious and skilful subjects, and he was acting on behalf of a religion somewhat different from his own. And, thus disposed, he
(b) took every necessary and desirable step for its thorough execution. He
(1) issued a proclamation, which he put into writing, authorising all Jews in his kingdom to return to Jerusalem and rebuild the house of the Lord (vers. 2, 3);
(2) invited his subjects to aid the Israelites with money, cattle, and other valuable gifts (ver. 4); and
(3) restored the sacred vessels which Nebuchadnezzar had taken from Jerusalem (vers. 7-11). God may use us whether we know it or not, whether we will or not. He may employ us in his service even if, like Cyrus, we have a very partial knowledge of his will, and some inclination to do it, though we are not fully and wholly on his side. We may be, as many among the heathen have been, instruments in his hand. But how much better to be, as Ezra and Nehemiah were, agents of his, deliberately opening our minds to his truth, fixedly and finally yielding our hearts and lives to his service, consciously and rejoicingly working with him in his beneficent design. It is only such co-workers that will win his final acceptance and, hearing his "well done," enter into his glory. - C.
1. It would tend to cultivate within them a right view of the sorrow consequent upon sin. Their captivity was a punishment for idolatry. Sin sends men into slavery.
2. It would tend to cultivate within them a right view of the external in religion. Solomon's temple was the pride of Israel. They prided themselves in the magnificent masonry, in the richly-coloured garments, in the lofty altar; but now all is in ruins, and they in bondage, will they not learn to worship God in simplicity, in spirit and in truth? The sensuous m religion leads to slavery. It is well sometimes that our temple should be destroyed; God lays the outward in ruins that we may see the inward. The Church has often to go into captivity to learn the meaning of the spiritual.
3. It would tend to cultivate within them a right view of the Divine in worship. Israel thought that the temple was the one place of worship; but in captivity the scattered people learn that God will hear their cry from heathen cities and in desert places.
4. It would cultivate within them a right view of the sympathetic feeling which should prevail in their midst. Israel had been sore rent by faction; in captivity they are one. The Church is united by its sorrows. We observe respecting great religious movements -
I. THAT THEY OFTEN TAKE THEIR RISE IN THE STIRRINGS OF AN INDIVIDUAL SOUL. "The Lord stirred up the spirit of Cyrus king of Persia."
1. A Divine commencement. Here we see the beginning of the great movement of Israel's restoration to fatherland. History is unveiled and God is seen. The voice of God is heard in the proclamation of Cyrus. The human historian can only write the proclamation of the king; the inspired historian makes known the secret working of God. We know nothing of the Divine heart-stirrings which precede the great movements of our age. God is behind the king and we see him not. The political serves the spiritual. Let us rightly interpret our heart-stirrings; God is in them, they have great meanings. They are more than the beatings of a pulse, they are the beginnings of spiritual liberty. Heaven has various ways of stirring our souls.
2. A secret commencement. The restoration of Israel began in the secret stirrings of one heart. It did not begin with the crowd, but with the individual. And so great religious movements generally commence in the secret awakening of the one man. See the power of a God-moved heart. The kingdom of God cometh not with observation. Restorations are in the heart before they are in the world.
3. An unlikely commencement. The Jews were looking for a rod out of the stem of Jesse to restore them; God sent an ahem deliverer. A man of war becomes a man of peace; a man of conquest becomes an emancipator of the people. God employs unexpected agencies. Great religious movements often have unlikely beginnings.
4. An effectual commencement. The stirring of the heart of Cyrus had great possibilities in it - it expanded into a temple of worship; its pulsations are felt in our own age.
II. THAT THEY ARE TIMED BY THE FAITHFUL PROVIDENCE OF GOD. "That the word of the Lord by the mouth of Jeremiah might be fulfilled." Thus the captivity of Israel terminated in the set time of God.
1. The mercy of God. In the proclamation of Cyrus to the wretched slaves see the Divine mercy to those most undeserving of it; the word of God is a merciful message to man, it is a word of liberty, that the ruined temple of life may be rebuilt.
2. The fidelity of God. Israel had the promise of liberty fulfilled; so all the promises of God respecting the future glory of the Church will be accomplished.
3. The purpose of God. The captives were not to go out of bondage merely for their own freedom and enjoyment; but to build the temple of the Lord. Men are freed from the tyranny of sin that they may establish the kingdom of heaven; they must be liberated before they can build. This is the Divine purpose in the salvation of men, that they may engage in promoting spiritual good.
III. THAT THEY OFTEN REVEAL IN MEN UNEXPECTED EXCELLENCES OF MORAL CHARACTER.
1. The hidden excellences of men. The Jews probably did not expect much aid from Cyrus; but he had excellences of knowledge, of grace, they little suspected. God saw this and used him. Men are often better than we know, and are more prepared to aid the work of God than we suppose.
2. The revealed excellences of men. Cyrus incidentally shows by his proclamation the good that is in him. Times of religious revival reveal unexpected abilities in men; then the dull man becomes brilliant; the man of little opportunity becomes rich in knowledge; the cold man becomes generous in gift.
3. The utilised excellences of men. All that is good in men God uses for the welfare of his Church.
IV. THAT THEY ARE OFTEN FURNISHED WITH NEEDFUL MATERIAL AID IN THE MOST UNEXPECTED MANNER (ver. 6). The departure of such a people would require great preparation, and would necessitate great expense. How are the captives to meet it? The proclamation of Cyrus provides for it. A wondrous providence often causes the world in unexpected ways to minister to the temporal needs of the Church; men of the world often help to erect a temple in which they are little interested, and into which they will never enter.
V. THAT AT SUCH TIDIES SPIRITUAL THINGS ARE RESTORED TO THEIR RIGHTFUL SERVICE (ver. 7). The vessels of God were brought from the heathen temple and given to the returning Jews. In times of religious revival money, talents, children, all are brought from the possession of sin and placed in the service of God. Heaven now proclaims liberty to the captive! - E.
I. THE CHIEFS OF THE FATHERS OF JUDAH AND BENJAMIN RESPONDED.
1. Happy the people whose magistrates lead them nobly.
(1) In politics. The voice of the king. The purpose of that voice.
(2) In religion. The voice of God. The purpose of that voice: immediate; ulterior with respect to fulfilment of prophecy, etc.
2. Politics cannot be divorced from religion.
(1) God has joined them in the constitution of our nature.
(2) He holds citizens, as such, responsible to himself.
(3) Experience proves that godly men are the best citizens.
3. Evil rulers are scourges of God to wicked peoples.
(1) Not appointed without his providence (see Isaiah 3:4).
(2) Rulers are no worse than their people.
Representative governments - responsibility of the franchise. In hereditary magistracies (see Isaiah 1:10). "Rulers of Sodom" associated with "people of Gomorrah" (see Isaiah 1:25, 26). When the vices of a people are purged away, then worthy magistrates are raised up to them.
II. THE PRIESTS AND LEVITES RESPONDED.
1. Priests, leaders in religion.
(1) Sons of Aaron - type of Christ, also of Christians.
(2) Offices at the altar.
(3) Offices in the sanctuary.
2. Levites, leaders in literature.
(1) Scattered in Israel - schoolmasters, scribes of the law (2 Chronicles 34:13).
(2) Services about the temple. Literature should be the handmaid of religion. When otherwise, inversion of God's order fearfully mischievous.
III. SKILFUL ARTIFICERS RESPONDED. Those whose spirit God hath raised to go up and build the house of the Lord.
1. All useful labour is from God.
(1) He is the Author of our faculties.
(2) His providence furnishes opportunities for their culture.
2. All talent should be devoted to God.
(1) In building up his material temple.
(2) In furthering the building of his living temple.
(3) In our secular calling (see 1 Corinthians 10:31).
IV. A WILLING PEOPLE RESPONDED.
1. All they that were about them.
(1) Not all the nation. Some elected to remain in Babylon. Gain of merchandise, etc., etc. So it is still when God calls us to forsake the world.
(2) Those responded whose sympathies were true - "about them." Frequently the children of godly persons elect the service of Christ.
2. These strengthened their hands.
(1) True sympathy is help. Moral influence of virtuous citizens strengthens the hands of magistrates.
(2) Where sympathy is true it will furnish active help. Gifts from the wealthy - viz., things of "gold and silver," "goods," "beasts," viz., for transport (see Ezra 2:66, 67); "precious things." Gifts from the multitude - "freewill offerings." All is precious that comes from a loyal heart.
1. Learn that religion and politics may be harmonised without resorting to compulsion. The response was voluntary. Uniformity is not unity. Endless variety in living things.
2. Harmony in religion and politics is truest when free. With compulsion comes resistance and contention. Admit the principle of coercion, then the question is not between religion and politics, as abstract principles, but becomes often an ambitious and unholy strife. - J. A. M.
I. HIS TWO METHODS OF APPROACH. "Then rose up," etc. (ver. 5).
1. Instrumental. God worked on the minds of the chiefs of the people by means of the proclamations and edicts of Cyrus, and on the minds of the generality of ripe people by means of their leaders. Then - when the king's offer was circulated - "rose up the chief of the fathers of Judah and Benjamin," etc. And when Sheshbazzar (Zerubbabel) and the other natural leaders came forward, then the multitude volunteered: there is human agency here.
2. Direct. God's spirit acted directly and immediately on their minds. They were men "whose spirit God had raised;" they were like the "band of men whose hearts God had touched" (1 Samuel 10:26). God "laid his hand upon them," and lifted them up, spiritually, and they became strong and brave, ready to do a good work for him and for the world.
II. ITS SPIRITUAL RESULT. Elevation of soul. Their spirit was raised - as ours will be whenever God works within us as he did in them -
(a) above its common level of thought and feeling. They saw, as otherwise they would not have seen, the excellency of the service of God and of their native land; they felt, as they did not usually feel, how glorious a thing it was to lay everything on the altar of God and strike a brave and faithful blow for their country's freedom and independence. Their views were cleared, their ambition heightened, their mind enlarged, their soul exalted. God "raised their spirit," and they were lifted up
(b) above the inducements of a comfortable present; so that the pleasant homes and prosperous employments and agreeable friendships and enjoyable amusements in which they had been spending their days, these they were willing to leave behind them. And they were raised
(c) above the fear of misfortune in the future; so that the difficulties of the journey, the "lion in the way," the arrangements between one another, the desolate ruins of the once-favoured city, the enemies that might dispute their right, all these dangers and difficulties they were prepared to encounter and overcome. Under the touch of the hand of God they became, as we may now become, men whose "heart was enlarged" to dare and do great things, to attempt and accomplish what, in an unenlightened and uninspired state, they would never have dreamed of doing. God was with them, his spirit was in them, and these children of men became the servants and the soldiers of God. Dare to attempt nothing if God's Spirit be not in the soul, inciting and sustaining it. Dare to undertake anything if he opens the eyes of the understanding and if he dwells within the heart.
III. ITS MATERIAL ISSUES (ver. 6). Such was the spirit of these men, that
(a) those of their kindred who did not accompany them and their Persian neighbours "strengthened their hands with vessels of silver and gold, with goods and beasts and precious, things;" and
(b) thus equipped they marched out of their captivity, and went forth free men to espouse the cause of Jehovah and to make their mark on their age and, indeed, upon future ages. Our great wisdom is to know when God comes to us; to listen when he speaks; to respond when he calls. Many Jews in Persia heard but heeded not that voice; they felt the touch of that Divine finger but obeyed it not. They lived on in such comfort and enjoyment as their adopted country yielded; but they entered not the open gate of opportunity; they rendered no great service to their land, their church, their race. Not theirs the victory and the crown; these were for the men who responded when God called, and whose spirits rose to the height of that great occasion. - C.
I. IT WAS A PEACEFUL RETURN. God had "raised their spirit" "to go up to build the house of the Lord." They went with the good wishes of Cyrus and the people. "All they that were about them strengthened their hands." Jeremiah (ch. 29.) had told them what spirit they were to cherish during their years of bondage. "Seek the peace of the city whither I have caused you to be carried away captives, and pray unto the Lord for it: for in the peace thereof shall ye have peace." It is still a characteristic of the Jews that they are good citizens. Many of them signally won the confidence of their masters; as Ezra, Nehemiah, Daniel, Mordecai, arid the three Hebrew youths. The reward of their meekness and service came. Contrast this return with the flight out of Egypt. "They were thrust out of Egypt." "The Egyptians were urgent upon the people, that they might send them out of the land in haste; for they said, We be all dead men."
II. THE CHARACTER OF CYRUS. It is a large assumption which appears in his decree - "Jehovah the God of heaven hath charged me to build him an house at Jerusalem, which is in Judah;" but it is not out of harmony with what we know of his character. The noblest epithets are heaped upon him in the prophecy of Isaiah. He is "the anointed, the Messiah, of Jehovah." God "saith of Cyrus, He is my shepherd, and shall perform all my pleasure." He is "the righteous man" whom God "raised up from the East." Contrast this with the scorn of Egypt as an ally (Isaiah 30., 31.), and the denunciation of the pride of Assyria, and the prophecy of its doom (Isaiah 10.). And heathen writings illustrate the Scripture representation of him. They speak of his virtues; they record romantic circumstances in his early career which justify the belief that he was providentially preserved for some great purpose.
III. THE POINTS OF RESEMBLANCE BETWEEN THE JEWISH AND THE PERSIAN FAITH. The unity of God; that he should not be worshipped under the form of idols; that God was good, and that evil was not from him. Each faith was able to contribute something to the other; but fundamentally they were in harmony. Contrast this with the idolatries of Babylon, the scornful picture of Isaiah 46:1, 2; and picture the meeting in Babylon of the Persian victors and the Jewish exiles. An interest might well be excited in one another such as is indicated in our text. The narrative illustrates "God's making use of men's goodness to advance his purpose. He can make the wrath of man to praise him;" but he loves rather the frank service of those in sympathy with him. We too love to contemplate good acts done graciously; favours unmarred by any bitter memories. The feeling of the return finds lyrical expression in the joyousness and trust of Psalm 126. - M.