We've been looking at the book of Ezra the past couple of weeks. Ezra is a book in the Hebrew Scriptures that describes how God moved to restore his people at the lowest point in their history. When they were in exile 900 miles from home, and Jerusalem was destroyed, God stepped in to restore them as a people. We've been looking at how God continues to restore his people even today.
But today we face a problem. The first few chapters of Ezra are all good news. God raises up a king who allows Judah to go back and rebuild the Temple. They return with gold and silver, livestock, gifts, and valuable offerings. They begin to rebuild the altar and the foundation of the Temple, and begin worshiping God again. Everything is going well. You get the sense that God's hand is on these people, and that he is changing the hearts of kings and arranging all things so that restoration can take place.
But then you get to chapter 4. In chapters 4 and 5 it's almost all bad news. In Ezra 4, the author lists a mishmash of opposition that takes place during the reigns of three kings. They start to rebuild but they soon face massive opposition that puts a stop to all the work. For sixteen years, nothing happens.
The opposition they faced was varied. In verses 1 to 5 of chapter 4, enemies of Judah used intimidation and bribery to frustrate their work. In verse 6, in the time of Esther, they lodge a complaint. Then he fast-forwards years later to opposition that took place during the rebuilding of the walls, many years after the completion of the Temple building project. Chapter 4 lists all kinds of opposition at various times to show how difficult the work really was.
The opposition was also very serious. In those days, kings had to be concerned about insurrection. Rebellions often took place, and in order to survive kings went in and completely decimated the towns and annihilated the inhabitants, and cursed any future king who tried to resettle the ruins. So when Judah's enemies write to King Artaxerxes and say of Jerusalem:
…we are sending this message to inform the king, so that a search may be made in the archives of your predecessors. In these records you will find that this city is a rebellious city, troublesome to kings and provinces, a place with a long history of sedition. (Ezra 4:14-15)
When they write this, they aren't just being a nuisance. They're coming close to provoking a holocaust.
The end result of all of this opposition is found in Ezra 4:24: "Thus the work on the house of God in Jerusalem came to a standstill until the second year of the reign of Darius king of Persia." Chapters 5 and 6 unfold how things finally got back on track during the reign of Darius, who found the decree of King Cyrus in his archives, and who decreed once again that they could rebuild. In the end of chapter 6 they finally complete the Temple, although it's not nearly as impressive as it used to be and is now missing the Ark of the Covenant.
Here's the problem we face. Did God bring them back and allow them to rebuild the Temple or not? And if he did, why all the difficulty? Why does God restore them, and then they face problem after problem, so that nothing gets done for some 16 years? It doesn't make any sense.
You see, the point of this story in Ezra is really God's providential care of his people. So if God is providentially caring for his people, why all the opposition? Why all the false accusations? Why can't God's people catch a break? Either God is not all-powerful, or he is all-powerful but incompetent, or there is something else going on that we need to understand as well.
It's a question, by the way, that we face today. Suffering and tragedy are just part of life. Scott Peck began a book once with three famous words, "Life is difficult." He goes on to explain:
This is a great truth, one of the greatest truths. Once we truly know that life is difficult – once we truly understand and accept it – then life is no longer difficult. Because once it is accepted, the fact that life is difficult no longer matters. Life is a series of problems.
But for those of us who are Christians, how do you explain this? If God really is in control, and we really do give ourselves completely to him, why doesn't life go smoothly? Why do we continue to deal with problems like infertility, Alzheimer's, cancer, unemployment, false accusations, and mistreatment?
The same goes for a church. A friend of mine just announced that he's leaving his church and going to another. A lot of people really appreciate my pastor friend's ministry, and they're asking, "If we are really seeking God and serving him, why are we losing a good man like this?"
The problem is, if God is truly sovereign, and he really does care for his people, and he really is involved with the intimate details of our lives, why all the junk? Why does Judah go through so many years of opposition and defeat in the middle of restoration? Why does all this stuff happen in our lives as well?
Before we go on, let's take a minute and talk about this. In groups around you, why do you think God restored Judah but then let them go through all kinds of opposition and delay? How do you account for God's providential care in one hand, and all the nasty things that happen on the other hand?
I think I have an answer, and it's a really profound one. Do you want to hear it?
We don't know.
The question is how you resolve the providential care of God with the delays and the problems we face. Ezra affirms both of these.
So Ezra says that God was providentially caring for every detail of Judah's life.
Did God have a hand in their exile to Babylon? Absolutely. In Ezra 5:12, the letter they sent to King Darius said, "Because our ancestors angered the God of heaven, he gave them into the hands of Nebuchadnezzar the Chaldean, king of Babylon, who destroyed this temple and deported the people to Babylon." Judah didn't go into exile because of political or military events. Behind those events was God's sovereign hand.
Did God have a hand in bringing Judah back from exile? Absolutely. Ezra 1:1 says, "the Lord moved the heart of Cyrus king of Persia.."
Did God arrange for Judah to eventually succeed in rebuilding the Temple? Yes. In chapter 6, not only does Darius allow them to proceed, but he pays for all of their expenses right out of the royal treasury and orders that anyone who tries to stop them be impaled with a beam from their own house before their house is torn down. At the end of Ezra 6, the author says, "The Lord had filled them with joy by changing the attitude of the king of Assyria so that he assisted them in the work on the house of God, the God of Israel" (Ezra 6:22).
So how do you explain the 16-year delay and all of the opposition? In short, we don't know. We get the sense that God was in charge and he had some purpose, but we don't always understand why things unfold a certain way, or why we face opposition and delays. We don't understand it, but we know all the while that God is present even in the middle of what we can't explain.
I don't think anyone helps us understand this more than Elisabeth Elliott. Elisabeth Elliott is a missionary who spent some years among the Huaorani people in Ecuador. Her husband was one of five men who were killed by the Huaorani people. Years later, she married a professor of theology from Gordon-Conwell, but he too died after they had been married only a few years. She knew what it meant to serve God and yet live with unexpected loss.
She published a novel, her only work of fiction, called No Graven Image. The novel was about a missionary woman who mortgages everything, puts her whole life on the line, to go to a remote tribe and try to translate the Bible. She finally finds that the only person in the world who knows both her language and the language of the tribe. He gets sick, and she accidentally kills him by giving him a shot in the wrong way. The tribe then believe that she caused the death, and they throw all of her work into the water, and that's the way the book ends. Everything falls apart.
At the very end, Elisabeth Elliott says that if we had created God, he would do everything the way that we would like and we would always understand him. But if he is God, he has the right to do with me as he wants. We don't always understand him, but he can do whatever he wants.
Harold Ockenga, the editor of Christianity Today, told Elisabeth Elliott that he personally kept that novel off Christianity Today's list of the best books of the year. She got all kinds of letters from people saying they hated the book, saying, "God would never treat a dedicated Christian this way." But in a sense, her novel was biographical. It was fictional but it had some similarities to her own life.
The reason she wrote the book was to tell us that if we have a God who does everything the way we want him to, and a God that we always understand, then we have created a graven image for ourselves. But we don't have a God like this. We have a God who does allow his people to suffer, who does surprise us. We don't always understand him. God is God and he can do whatever he likes.
Elisabeth Elliott told another story. She used to go visit a couple of friends of hers in northern Wales who had a farm with sheep. She was there one time at the time of the year in which the shepherd has to do something awful to the sheep. At one point of the year, the shepherd has to take his sheep to a huge vat of antiseptic and completely submerge the sheep in that antiseptic. If they don't go through that, they will literally die from being eaten by insects and parasites.
So what they have to do is take the sheep and not only throw them in the vat so they can swim, but actually submerge them and hold them under. She says:
One by one John seized the animals. They would struggle to climb out the side and Mack the sheep dog would snarl and snap at their faces to force them back under. When they tried to climb up the ramp in a panicky way at the far end, John the farmer would catch them, spin them around, force them under again, holding them ears, eyes and nose submerged for a few seconds.
And as their lord and master was pushing their head under, drowning them at least as far as they could tell, their panicky little eyes would look up over the edge of the vat, and it was easy to see what they were thinking. What is god doing?
Now listen to what Elisabeth Elliott said:
I've had some experiences in my life which have made me feel very sympathetic to those poor sheep. There are times I couldn't figure out any reason for the treatment I was getting from my great shepherd whom I trusted. And like these sheep I didn't have a hint of an explanation.
The shepherd has to do that to the sheep, but there's no way the sheep can understand. There are really only two options. They can not get the antiseptic treatment and die, or they can trust the shepherd without explanation. Those are the only two options.
The whole problem is that there is a gap between the intelligence of the shepherd and the sheep. Because there is no way to explain, the sheep have to go through the experience without explanation or else die.
And those are the same two choices that we have. There is a bigger gap between us and our great Shepherd in heaven. We may never understand what we're going through. We may never know. We're not smart enough to know what God knows.
I'll tell you what can happen though. Do you want to know one of the reasons that the book of Ezra was written? Hundreds of years later, God's people still struggled with the question, "Can we live as God's people while we're still under foreign oppression, and when we still don't understand everything we're going through? Can we live as God's people even though our circumstances have changed and even though we don't have everything that we had hoped for?
And the book of Ezra's answer is, without a question, yes. We may not be able to understand everything that's going on, but we know he cares for me.
And we can know that we can trust the Great Shepherd because he is not just a dispassionate God who dispassionately issues decrees from above. He is the Great Shepherd who actually gave his life for his sheep. We can trust him because he said,
I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep…I am the good shepherd; I know my sheep and my sheep know me— just as the Father knows me and I know the Father—and I lay down my life for the sheep. (John 10:11, 14-15)
Father, many of us don't have the answers. Like Elisabeth Elliott, we've lived through experiences that make us feel very sympathetic to these sheep. We believe that you providentially care for us, and we don't know exactly how to reconcile this with all that happens in this life.
But we believe that we can trust you, because our Great Shepherd is the one who lay down his life for the sheep.
Teach us to trust you we pray, even when we don't understand. In Jesus' name we pray, Amen.