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March 6 lesson: Freed from Captivity

February 28, 2022
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Freed from Captivity

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

Sunday school lesson for the week of March 6, 2022
By Dr. Hal Brady


Lesson Scriptures: Ezra 1:1-8; 2:64-70
Key Verse: Ezra 2:68


Lesson Aims
  1. Recount the who, what, when, where, why, and how of Cyrus’s proclamation and its result.
  2. Explain the significance of King Cyrus’s proclamation
The subject of the Spring Quarter lessons is “God Frees and Redeems.” According to the writer of the lessons, this quarter’s Scriptures address three themes of true freedom in God: the power of memory, the significance of right belief, and the role of responsibility. The quarter’s lessons will show that true freedom comes through the sustained acceptance of God’s leading in our lives. When the people of God remember his work, they experience true freedom. So may these lessons remind us that God invites us to live freely and responsibly for him and for our community.

We turn now to Lesson 1, “Freedom from Captivity.” The first chapters of Ezra tell the story of a grand reconstruction project for Israel. For sure, older Israelites had vivid memories of their pre-exile life (Ezra 3:12). However, memories alone would not complete the reconstruction project. Israel needed help from an unlikely source. Thus, their memories, combined with unlikely assistance, put Israel on the path of following God’s requirement as they resettled their homeland.

Lesson Context

As we are informed, the text of Ezra tells the story of the Jewish people during the sixth and fifth centuries BC. In 586 BC, the Babylonian Empire, led by King Nebuchadnezzar, laid siege to Judah and destroyed Jerusalem (2 Kings 24:10-14). The siege’s result was the destruction of the Jewish temple and the removal of its treasures. And the removal of the treasures and the people of Judah were prophesied by Isaiah (II Kings 20:16-17). The Babylonians carried the people of Judah – with the exception of the poorest individuals – into captivity (II Kings 24:14; II Chronicles 36:20).

However, the Babylonian’s rule was short lived. In 539 B.C., the Persian King Cyrus destroyed the Babylonian Empire. He consolidated the Persian Empire’s dominance in a region that extended from modern-day Greece to modern-day India. Cyrus demonstrated tolerance of the religious practices of his subjects. A notable decree in this regard was written on a clay cylinder and is known as the Cyrus Cylinder. This decree detailed Cyrus’s conquest of Babylon and the favor he sought from Marduk, the patron god of Babylon. The decree culminated with the command to repatriate exiled peoples and rebuild their houses of worship. Isaiah prophesied that Cyprus, commissioned by the Lord, would provide an opportunity for the Jewish exiles to return to their homeland (Isaiah 44:28).

Very important! Cyrus’s decree fulfilled a promise made earlier by the prophet Jeremiah (Jeremiah 29:10,14). Note the prophecy’s fulfillment did not necessitate the return of all exiles, only a “remnant” (Isaiah 10:22).
  1. Persian Decree (Ezra 1:1-4)
Something new had happened. In the past, God had frequently made use of foreign nations through the agency of their kings, but God’s purpose had always been to chastise Israel. The nations had become the roots of divine wrath (for example, Isaiah 10:5). And the writer of Chronicle’s ultimate example of this activity records the devastation that resulted in the Babylonian exile (II Chronicles 36:17).

But now, when God “stirred up the spirit of King Cyrus of Persia” (1:1) with the positive intention of redemption that Israel might return to the Lord, God’s use of the nations brought about a new purpose.

As the long inscription known to us from the Cyrus Cylinder makes plain, the Persian throne returned “all” the exiled communities in Babylon without distinction and covered the initial costs of the rebuilding of their sanctuaries. The motivation, at least in Cyrus’s opinion, was political. Cyrus and the Persians felt that as a matter of policy it was better to give the subject people of the empire a measure of self-determination and religious autonomy in the hope that this effort would instill feelings of loyalty.

However, the audacious claim of the text remains it was God who “stirred” Cyrus to make his monumental proclamation. And the reason for God’s activity in this regard is also stated “that the word of the Lord by the mouth of Jeremiah might be accomplished (Jeremiah 29:10).

The title “God of heaven (v.2) is distinctive of the text of Ezra where nine of its 22 Old Testament occurrences are found (examples, 5:11,12; 6:9,10). The title combined with the phrase “has given me” recognized God's sovereignty as the creator of both the heavens and the earth. And while God is all-powerful as creator, he is active in his creation (Genesis 24:7; Nehemiah 1:4-5).

Cyrus proclaimed new building plans as Cyrus himself would help the exiles build God’s “temple.” That the temple would be rebuilt “at Jerusalem in Judah” reflects certain importance. You see, Ancient Israel had illegitimate worship sites at other locations (examples, 1 Kings 12:28-33; Amos 4:4). However, because of God’s declaration and King David’s leadership, Jerusalem became the political and religious center for Israel.

The decree of Cyrus did more than provide orders for the exiled people. It oriented their perspective of “God.” God had not abandoned them, but his presence was with them as they rebuilt the temple.

That God was in Jerusalem did not imply that the presence of God was limited to their city alone (example, I Kings 8:27). Rather, it indicated that God was present to his people in a special way in Jerusalem, especially his temple (Deuteronomy 12:5; 14:23).

In verse 4, it is believed that many Jews stayed in Persia and continued their already established livelihood. The Jews who stayed behind were known as the “Diaspora.” And scholars tell us that this title is an English transliteration of a Greek noun meaning “scattering” (Isaiah 11:12; James 1:12).

There is one other notation of verse 4 and that is, the Jews who did not return from exile should help those who did return, and a number of gift possibilities are mentioned.
  1. Preparation for Travels (Ezra 1:5-8,11)
Scholars tell us that “just as God had stirred up the spirit of King Cyrus of Persia” to send a herald which brought about the return from Babylon (1:1), so now the people’s faithful response to that proclamation came from “everyone whose spirit God had stirred…to go up” (1:5). It is crucial that we see the gracious promptings of God as the motivational force behind both aspects of the return. God is with them, in their midst, and at their head, leading them on to a second chance, a new opportunity to affirm their place in the great plan of redemption.

In this patriarchal culture, the “heads” of the tribes consisted of the fathers of the “family.” Therefore, tribal decisions were made by the tribal chief. Tribal leadership was intact, even in the midst of exile. The specification of “Judah and Benjamin” is notable because these tribes made up the southern kingdom of Judah (2 Chronicles 11:1) and were the specific tribes taken into exile by the Babylonians (2 Kings 24:2).

“Levites” were members of the tribe of Levi. Their task was overseeing Israel’s worship, holy places, and holy objects (example, Numbers 1:47-53). The author of Ezra often listed Levites alongside the “priests” and lay people to clarify the scope of all the exiles (see Ezra 3:8).

As mentioned earlier, while Cyrus issued the decree to rebuild the temple, it was ultimately God’s plan that those “whose heart God had moved” would return to build the house of the Lord (compare 127:1).

In verse 6, we see that Cyrus’s previous commands come to fruition. Unselfish support occurred when people gave generously and willingly to assist with the construction of the temple.

Moreover, in verse 7, we see that King Cyrus took control of the royal treasury. The treasury contained the articles belonging to the temple of the Lord from the campaign of Nebuchadnezzar against Jerusalem. Apparently, Cyrus had not melted down the articles into valuable bullion. Instead, the articles were kept and placed “in the temple of his god,” perhaps at the temple of Marduk (see Lesson Context).

Ancient texts describe other instances where Cyrus returned sacred artifacts to sacred cities. By returning them to his subjects, he made himself out as a pious king who honored all gods of his empire. However, his actions did not necessitate a particular attachment to those gods, including the God of Israel.

Cyrus needed “Mithredath the Treasurer” to release the artifacts from the treasury. And he counted them out to “Sheshbazzar” who was described as the “governor” (Ezra 5:14). And his only mention in Scripture is found in the book of Ezra.

“The articles”…”brought from the treasury” consisted of utensils and resources made of gold and silver (see Ezra 1:9-10, not printed in this text). And these numbers reflect a desire to be precise about the story of Israel’s return.

We are told that, like other ancient temples, Israel’s temple served as the treasury in which royalty and priests stored valuable materials. That there were 5,400 vessels describes the relative wealth to be housed in the rebuilt temple. Temples were thought to be safe because ancient peoples believed theft would offend the temple’s divine occupants.
  1. People Returning (Ezra 2:64-70)
The second chapter of Ezra begins by listing the family groups of exiles who returned to Judah and Jerusalem (Ezra 2:1-62). A close look at those lists will show that they do not add up to the company numbered 42,360.

Perhaps the reason is that some family units were left off the lists (see Ezra 2:59). However, according to the scholars, the list highlighted three observations about the returning people: (1) the exiles formed a family of the people of God, (2) the exiles preserved family relationships during the exile, and (3) the exiles returned to their homeland in sufficient numbers to rebuild.

The included slaves in verse 65 might refer to indebted Israelites (Leviticus 25:39,40) or to foreigners (Exodus 12:44; Deuteronomy 20;14). The prophet Isaiah called on Israel to accept foreigners (Gentiles) who loved God, kept the Sabbath, and adhered to God’s covenant stipulations (Isaiah 56:3, 6-8).

The singers who returned to Jerusalem were invaluable. Their talent reminded the exiles of the beauty and enjoyment of God’s creation. What talent has God given you to build his kingdom? And are you following the psalmist by worshipping the Lord with gladness (Psalm 100:1-2)?

The horses, mules, camels and donkeys, the exiles needed for their return was surely a reminder of their ancestors’ exodus from Egypt (Exodus 3:21, 22). As those Israelites left Egypt, they requisitioned the necessary wealth and livestock for the journey. Without doubt, the exodus defined Israel and its relationship with God (see Deuteronomy 5:6, compare Nehemiah 9:9-15). So God repeated history for Israel’s benefit, providing the exiles with sufficient resources for their return home.

Even though in verses 68-70 the temple had not been rebuilt, its ruins were likely accessible and its altar would be rebuilt (Ezra 3:2). At this point, the heads of the families took on the responsibility to encourage their households to give toward the reconstruction. That the people gave freewill offerings was reminiscent of giving for the construction of the tabernacle (Exodus 35:5).

Christian author Elizabeth Elliott says she believes the whole purpose of life is to learn to know God. Now, if finances are a part of life, then the purpose of finances must also be to know God, too – to love God and to love humankind and to share with them. Another way of expressing this is that to love God and humankind is to know the reality of “freewill offerings.”

Before concluding, two other notes: the “gold and silver” formed an endowment for the “work” of reconstructing the temple and for the “work” of the priests and second, the repatriation efforts would not occur at one time but would take time as some of the other people began to settle throughout the towns of Israel.

Conclusion

The writer of the lesson points out that after a 2019 fire destroyed parts of the cathedral of Notre Dame, an international competition redesigned the building’s destroyed rooftop and spiral. Architects had to keep in mind a variety of concerns: rebuilding costs, the cathedral’s history, and the relationship between the cathedral and the city.

Our lesson today of the Jews returning from exile to their homeland has similar concerns. However, what could have been a disastrous mess was avoided because God provided excellent direction through a decree of Persia’s King Cyrus.

Thus, God was with His people, at their head, leading them on to a second chance, a fresh opportunity to claim their place in God’s story of redemption.

Action Plan
  1. What some ways Christians might live as exiles in the world?
  2. How do you recognize God’s call to action? What questions might you ask to test that you are hearing from God? And how might Romans 12:2 and 1 John 4:1 support your answer?
  3. What are one or two ways you can ensure a generous heart when giving?
Resources for this lesson
  1. “2021-2022 NIV Standard Lesson Commentary, Uniform Series, International Bible Lessons for Christian Teaching,” pages 227-239.
  2. “Interpretation Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching Ezra-Nehemiah” by Mark Throntveit, pages 13-18.
  3. “Interpreter’s Bible, Volume 3,” pages 570-575; 587-588.
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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