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March 13 lesson: Free to Worship

February 28, 2022
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Free to Worship

Spring Quarter: God Frees and Redeems
Unit 1: Liberating Passover

Sunday school lesson for the week of March 13, 2022
By Dr. Hal Brady


Lesson Scriptures: Ezra 6:1-12
Key Verse: Ezra 6:12a

Lesson Aims
  1. List the main points of the decree.
  2. Compare and contrast the decree of Darius with that of Cyrus (last week’s lesson).
  3. Commit to praying for opportunities to practice faithfulness in the tasks that God has assigned.
The once exiled residents of Judah and Jerusalem tried to exert their sovereignty in their homeland as they reconstructed the temple. In the process, certain forces delayed and prevented the construction. However, rather than giving up on the construction or acting violently against their opposition, these resettled Jews found support for their construction efforts from a surprising source.

This might be a good place to be reminded that it’s especially in difficult circumstances and trying situations that God calls his people to be faithful to his purpose for their lives. The question is, how has and is God calling us, you and me, to obey and through what unexpected circumstances?

Lesson Context

This lesson contains the text of a decree of Persian King Darius I (reigned 522-486 BC). He came to power after several years of internal strife. Darius strengthened the Persian government, established a new method of taxation, and further organized the empire.

The decree continued a policy established by Cyrus (reigned 539-530 BC). His policy allowed for the return of Jewish exiles to Jerusalem and the reconstruction of the Jewish temple (last week’s lesson).

Under the leadership of Zerubbabel, the exiles returned to Jerusalem and Judah (Ezra 2:1-2; Zechariah 4:9). Two years after the exiles returned, reconstruction began on the temple in Jerusalem in 535 BC (Ezra 3:8-9). However, the reconstruction was delayed several times by local opposition and regional authorities.

So today’s scripture lesson comes as a response to questioning from Persian officials Tattenai (Tat-nye) and Shethar-Bozanai (She-thar-boz-nye). After seeing the efforts at reconstruction, they questioned Zerubbabal and the local leaders concerning whose authority granted them rebuilding rights (Ezra 5:3,9). The builders noted that their authority came from God and Cyrus. Immediately, a letter was sent to Darius to inquire on the nature and authority of Cyrus’s decree (5:5-17). Thus, today’s lesson concerns Cyrus’s decree and Darius’s response to the Persian officials.

But, there always seems to be an ulterior motive. While Darius was concerned with following Cyrus’s decree, he also had a pragmatic reason to support the temple’s reconstruction. By allowing agreeable Israelites to return to their homeland, Darius would have loyal subjects located in a geographically expedient place near Egypt, a region known for its rebelliousness and insurrections.

In addition, Darius would be able to bring about a new tax system among the repatriated Jews in the regions of Judah, thus adding to his coffers.
  1. The Conduct of a Search (Ezra 6:1-2)
We are told that archaeological remains of Persian archives reveal detailed reports of taxes, expenditures, and local government occurrences throughout the empire. But, not all official records were stored at “Babylon.” Other cities held local and national records and treasures. Therefore, a search for Cyrus’s records would extend outside the capital.

That search for Cyrus’s decree took investigators to “Ecbatana,” a city located about 285 miles northeast of Babylon. The city served as the summer palace for Persian royalty, so it is possible that Cyrus issued his decree there during the summer of 538 BC.
  1. The Content of the Decree (Ezra 6:3-12)
The focus of Cyrus’s decree in chapter 6:3-5 expands a direction previously given in chapter 1:2-4. King Cyrus had given permission for the Jewish exiles to return to their homeland. Now, the text elaborates on a key detail of their return: the “reconstruction of the temple of God in Jerusalem.”

Prior to Darius’s decree, the altar, “the place to present sacrifices,” had been reconstructed (Ezra 3:2-3). Now the temple would be built to provide space for worship.

Direction for the temple’s reconstruction were given – height and width were to be sixty cubits or approaching 90 feet each way. A cubit equals about 18 inches. On the other hand, the dimensions of Solomon’s temple were different – length 60 cubits, width 20 cubits and height 30 cubits (I Kings 6:2). The decree did not include the temple’s length. One might assume that its length would match its height and width. If this assumption is correct then the building would form a perfect cube. This shape would echo the dimensions of the Most Holy Place of Solomon’s temple (I Kings 6:20).

Archaeological discoveries in modern-day Syria have shown that the use of “timbers” after several rows of “large stones” helped buildings survive earthquakes. Cyrus’s decree does not elaborate here.

What about the costs? Those remaining in exile contributed to the temple’s reconstruction (Ezra 1:4,6). But in an act of goodwill, the decree placed part of the financial burden on the “royal treasury,” and these funds come to the treasury by new taxation practices (see 6:8).

In verse 5, the centrality of the sacred “articles,” their removal from “the house of God,” and their eventual return to the temple is again made evident by Cyrus’s repetition (compare Ezra 1:7-11). These articles were made by Solomon and were used at the temple for worship (I Kings 7:48-51). However, Nebuchadnezzar confiscated them and took them to Babylon following the destruction of Judah and Jerusalem.

Note that these articles had been used in unholy ways during the exile (Daniel 5:1-4). Therefore they would need to be re-consecrated before they were “returned and deposited into the temple.” The restorative act required sacred anointing oil (example, Exodus 30:22-25). Important! The presence of these items in the newly restored temple represented the restoration of Israelite life as the holy people of God.

What do you think? How can Christians show the new life and restoration found in Christ Jesus?

What follows in verses 6 and 7 are the direct words of Darius to his officials, Tattenai and Shethar- Bozanai (see lesson context). The Trans Euphrates refers to the area west of the Euphrates River and east of the Mediterranean Sea. This area was a province of the Persian Empire of which Tattenai was governor. The identity and role of the other officials of that province is unclear.

Zerubbabel served as the governor of the Jews who had returned from exile. The governor coordinated local affairs with the Persian authorities. Another group of localized leaders consisted of the Jewish elders. They handled local affairs like family disputes or village conflicts. All this allowed the leaders to maintain good relationships with the Persians and the Persians to maintain control over the province without overt concern in local matters. However, Darius’s message here is do not interfere with the reconstruction of the temple.

In reply to the letter questioning the Jewish authority to reconstruct the temple, Darius’s reply is nothing less than a full confirmation of Cyrus’s permission that immediately precedes it. In fact, it goes beyond the original decree.

According to Darius, the cost of the project was to be paid from the royal treasury and this enabled an aura of official support to the temple reconstruction. The Persians provided space for the reconstruction and some financial backing.

Specifically, Darius committed to funding part of the temple’s construction expense from taxes and revenues from the Trans-Euphrates province. This action reflects a larger policy to restore and provide for local temples and cults in the empire. Darius’s financial generosity highlighted his desire to honor the temple, whether or not he believed in the temple’s God.

On the morning of January 17, 1994, the heavily trafficked Santa Monica Freeway lay in ruins. That morning an earthquake had rocked Los Angeles and the surrounding region. A portion of the freeway, known for its heavy traffic, was no longer passable. As a result, traffic delays and congestion increased throughout Los Angeles.

Because the freeway was crucial for the livelihood of the region, local officials offered a financial incentive for the freeway’s rapid reconstruction. As a result, the project was completed two months ahead of schedule. The financial backing encouraged workers to rebuild rapidly. Without a restored freeway, the livelihood of Los Angeles was at stake.

Hear me now! As unexpected as that financial backing was, the backing by Darius was all the more so. A pagan king who offered to help subsidize Israel’s temple! Through what unexpected measures has God provided for you to do his work?

In addition to financial backing, Darius ordered officials to provide the necessary resources for regular sacrifices in the temple (see Leviticus 1:2-13; 22:27; Numbers 7:87-88; 1 Chronicles 29:21). With these animals the returning exiles would eventually offer sacrifices (Ezra 8:35).

“Flour” made of wheat was used alongside daily sacrifices and burnt offerings. “Salt” accompanied grain offerings and burnt offerings. The preservative properties of salt served as a reminder of the preserving nature of God’s covenant (Numbers 18:19).

“Oil” accompanied the sacrifices and “wine” was presented as a drink offering (Exodus 29:40).

As we are informed, Darius’s use of the title “God of heaven” acknowledged the power and scope of the exiles’ God. This God is the creator of all things and omnipotent (all-powerful) over all creation, even the Persian Empire (Genesis 14:19; Isaiah 37:16).

Now Darius’s motives for backing the reconstruction became evident he desired that the returning exiles have a location where they might “offer sacrifices” rightly. And he hoped that the “God of the Jews” would be content and would hear their prayers, specifically those for “the king and his sons.” Additionally, prayers offered nightly were considered to be “a pleasing aroma” to God.

In verses 11 and 12, we see one other part of Darius’s decree. It is his intention to enforce the prescriptions of Cyrus with severe penalties for noncompliance.

As with a covenant or a royal inscription, the decree ended with a warning or curse for anyone who might disregard and defy the “edict” of the king. And ancient audiences would not have been shocked by such a dramatic and violent conclusion. Worshippers and leaders would have thought it appropriate that anyone not knowing the temple of a god should have their own house destroyed and turned “to rubble” (compare Jeremiah 26:1-6).

The form of punishment for this disobedience is really unclear. It could have meant hanged, crucified or “impaled.” Impalement was an ancient New Eastern practice or method of execution whereby a spiked stake was set in the ground (or wall) and a living body thrust upon it. Even though Jewish audiences would be familiar with it, the Law of Moses restricted the practicing of it (Deuteronomy 21:22-23). Persian officials would have a similar gruesome fate after a failed assassination attempt.

The decree’s final line (verse 12) acknowledges the “presence of God” and the protection of all under his domain. This is the same God who promised to choose a place where he would cause his name to dwell (Deuteronomy 12:11, Exodus 20:24). This promise referred to the unique place where God met his people, the “temple in Jerusalem.”

Darius anticipated that Israel’s God would protect his holy place and all within its premises.

While it is unlikely that Darius was influenced by ancient Hebrew literature, the psalmist warned against the “kings of the earth…and the rulers” who “band together against the Lord and against his anointed” (Psalm 2:2). The Lord would “break them” and “dash them to pieces” (2:9). Those who went against the Lord and his intentions would be destroyed.

In concluding, the writer of the lesson points out that while the temple of God that Darius envisioned no longer stands, God’s promises to watch over his “temple” remains true. (see I Corinthians 3:16,17).

Conclusion

The sovereignty the Jews gained under Cyrus and maintained under Darius was short-lived. In the centuries that followed, the Jewish people experienced many years of occupation. However, in that specific season under the reign of and support from Darius, the Jews survived and even flourished as they resettled their homeland.

It is especially in difficult circumstances and trying situations that God calls his people to be faithful to his purposes for their lives. That Cyrus and Darius, two Gentile leaders, allowed for the resettlement of Jerusalem and the reconstruction of the temple shows the surprising ways God provides for his people. Through what unexpected circumstances might God be calling you to obey?

Action Plan
  1. How can Christians make sure they are not hindering the work of God?
  2. How might the government use its authority for the God of the governed?
  3. What surprises has God given you in seeking to answer his call?
Resources for this lesson
  1. “2021-2022 NIV Standard Lesson Commentary, Uniform Series, International Bible Lessons for Christian Teaching,” pages 241-247.
  2. “Interpretation Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching Ezra-Nehemiah” by Mark Throntveit, pages 29-34.
  3. “Interpreter’s Bible, Volume 3,” pages 606-610.
Dr. Hal Brady is a retired pastor who continues to present the Good News of Jesus Christ and offer encouragement in a fresh and vital way though Hal Brady Ministries (halbradyministries.com).

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