Series: Scarlet Thread
In just a moment of review, last Wednesday night a week ago, we were talking about the great revival under Josiah, the last good king of Judah. He repaired the temple fallen into ruin [2 Chronicles 34:8-13]. He reinstituted the Passover [2 Chronicles 35:1-19], and the scroll of the Book of the law was found, the Bible, lost in the house of God [2 Chronicles 34:14-21]. And in his day, God sent a tremendous revival [2 Chronicles 34:29-33]. But at the age of thirty-nine, he was slain by Pharaoh-Necho at Har Megiddo (Hebrew), at Armageddon, and his death was deeply mourned [2 Chronicles 35:20-25].
And then we spoke of the great, tremendous world destiny-determining battle that was fought at Carchemish between the forces of Pharaoh-Necho and Assyria on one side and a young upstart of a general named Nebuchadnezzar on the other side [2 Kings 23:29; Jeremiah 46:2] . And in that battle of Carchemish fought in 605 BC, Egypt was forever destroyed as a world power. She has never recovered to this present day, nor will she, according to the Word of the Lord [Ezekiel 29:15-16].
In that battle in 605 BC, Assyria fell from history forever. And we mentioned the fact that so completely was Assyria destroyed and so buried was their great city of Nineveh that, in the after years, Alexander the Great marched his army over Assyria and over Nineveh and had no idea that a great civilization lay underneath his feet.
It is almost impossible to believe how history can be turned in one great conflict, a thousand years is a day, and a day as a thousand years. And in that battle, Pharaoh-Necho was forever destroyed, his army and his Egyptian empire. And we read last Wednesday night a week ago Jeremiah’s ode of triumph over the destruction of Pharaoh-Necho [Jeremiah 46:1-26].
Then following through the Lord’s appeal to His people to repent, to come back to God [Jeremiah 7:3, 26:3, 36:3], and Jeremiah cried that return to the Lord [Jeremiah 26:13], and Nebuchadnezzar, this rising star of a general, the king of Babylon, Nebuchadnezzar came in 605 BC and took away Daniel and some of his peers of the royal blood [Daniel 1:1-7]. Jeremiah cried, “Repent, get right with God” [Jeremiah 3:12-14], and Nebuchadnezzar came in 598 BC and took Ezekiel and many of the flower of the priesthood and of the nobility [2 Kings 24:11-14]. Jeremiah lifted up his voice and said, “Repent, get right with God” [Jeremiah 26:13].
And when Nebuchadnezzar came the third time, in 587 BC [Jeremiah 39:1-10, 52:4-30; 2 Chronicles 36:17-21], he didn’t need to cry anymore. After a siege of eighteen months, the Holy City was destroyed. The temple was destroyed. The beautiful accouterments, embellishments, furniture, vessels of the temple were taken to be placed in the temples of heathen gods in Babylonia, and the people were carried away into captivity [2 Chronicles 36:19-20].
Then we closed that lecture with a note that there is always hope for God’s people. In the prophecies of Jeremiah, he said, “Seventy years and God will visit you, and you can come home” [Jeremiah 29:10-14]. And in Isaiah, beginning at the fortieth chapter, all of those chapters thereafter were written for the comfort and consolation of God’s people. It begins:
Comfort ye, comfort ye My people, saith your God.
Yea, speak ye comfortably unto Jerusalem, and say unto her, that her warfare is accomplished, her iniquities are pardoned; for she hath received of the Lord’s hand double for all her sins.
Thus, we see the people in exile, their temple destroyed, their Holy City destroyed, their land lying in waste, and they hanging their harps upon the willow trees in a strange and a foreign land [Psalm 137:1-3]. And that’s the way we closed last Wednesday night a week ago.
Now we’re going to enter into the period of the exile. After Zedekiah, the last Davidic king of Judah, whose sons were slain before his eyes, whose eyes were put out and carried in chains to Babylon where he died in a dungeon [Jeremiah 52:8-11], after Zedekiah, there is no national king in the Davidic line until Jesus came; Jesus, David’s rightful heir [Matthew 1:1].
But He was rejected and crucified [Matthew 27:27-50], so there has been no king of the chosen people outside of those rulers that we know as Maccabees who, as we’re going to see, were priest kings. There’s been no Davidic ruler, no king over Israel for now over 2,500 years. I mention that just to point out the fact that all history is like a bridge that has come to the middle of the abyss.
If there’s no consummation, if there’s no ultimate in God’s purpose and plan, then the existentialist philosopher is correct, there is no meaning and no purpose in life. It’s like a tale told by an idiot, as Shakespeare would describe it. But, we believe, according to the sure word of prophecy, that what we find in these days past and what has tragically been cut off in the middle of the great chasm of history, has yet another span. It has another consummation. It has another outreach, and we are looking, of course, for the day when the King of Israel will return, be seated upon the throne of His father David [2 Samuel 7:12-16], and when He shall establish a kingdom which, according to the prophet Daniel, shall have no end [Daniel 7:27]. And we’re in the midst of that. We’ve come thus far, but someday, some glorious day, there is to be a marvelous and triumphal ending to the story.
But now the people are in tears and in exile [Psalm 137:1-3]. The sadness of the captivity, the Babylonian captivity, can be seen in the five elegies that constitute the book called Lamentations. They are almost certainly the dirges of Jeremiah. I have never heard them read. Once in a while, I have preached from a text in those lamentations, but they are beautiful. They are deeply, penitentially spiritual. I wish we had time to read them.
I have said that they are almost certainly written by Jeremiah. The Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Old Testament Scriptures, precedes the Book of Lamentations with these words: “And it came to pass after Israel was led into captivity and Jerusalem laid waste that Jeremiah sat weeping and lamented with this lamentation over Jerusalem and said,” and then follows the five elegies that are written in the book [Lamentations 1:1-5:22].
When you read them, they remind us of the cry of the Lord Jesus in Matthew 23:37, who in a like and similar situation said: “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, your house is left unto you desolate” [Matthew 23:37-38]. I have a little comment to make about this catastrophe that overwhelmed the chosen people of God.
A like judgment awaits any people, however highly favored, who forget that public and private prosperity is secured only by godliness and righteousness. There is no peace and no prosperity to a nation or a people who live in blasphemy, and in infidelity, and in Christ’s rejection, and in corruption and sin.
Whether that is true of Israel, whether that is true of Judah, whether that is true of Rome, read in the Bible or read Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire and look at modern America. It makes your heart faint within you because the destiny of the nation lies not in armies and navies, not in scientific advancement, not in wealth or prosperity, but it lies in the godliness and the righteousness of its citizens, and when the people become corrupt and ungodly, as certain as the night follows the day, there will follow inevitable an ultimate and final judgment.
We see this so tragically in the life of the people of Judah, who are now in Babylonian captivity [2 Kings 24:14-16]. In those days of the exile, there were three great prophets. Jeremiah prophesied in Jerusalem. Daniel, the prophet statesman, saw his visions in Babylon, and Ezekiel in Tel Abib, which is about two hundred miles north of Babylon in the Mesopotamian Valley, saw his glorious visions written in the Book of Ezekiel.
Of those, Daniel and Ezekiel are so like the great apocalyptic writer John [The Revelation 1-22]. The visions of Daniel and the visions of Ezekiel and the visions of the apostle John in the last book of the Bible, in the Apocalypse, all have a tremendous common denominator. It would be impossible to understand the Revelation without also understanding Daniel.
And if you had any introduction of meaning at all to Ezekiel, it would be because you had faithfully studied Daniel and the Revelation. The prophet Ezekiel and the seer of Patmos, the sainted apostle John [Revelation 1:9], were separated by 660 years, yet both worked—the one in the prophecy of Ezekiel, the other in the great apocalyptic revelation in the Revelation—they all worked toward the same center, a city, a temple, a throne, a glorified Man upon it, a rainbow round about it, the overthrow of Gog and Magog, and the glory of God enfolding it all. Isn’t that a remarkable thing?
The prophet Ezekiel saw the great and beautiful city with its temple and its throne of jasper and glory [Ezekiel 40-47]. He saw it in the captivity [Ezekiel 40:1]. And the sainted apostle John saw the vision of the new heaven and the new earth and the new glory of another kingdom [Revelation 21-22] when he was exiled on Patmos to die of exposure and starvation [Revelation 1:9]. Apparently, it is out of the heartaches and the troubles and the tears of life that we see our greatest visions of God.
Now, we are going to speak of the return to Judah, the return from the Babylonian captivity. The deportation to Babylon, as I have described it a moment ago, was in three stages. The people were carried to the captivity in 605 by Nebuchadnezzar with Daniel and his peers [Daniel 1:1-7], in 598 by Nebuchadnezzar, Ezekiel and his fellow priests [2 Kings 24:11-14], and in 587 [Jeremiah 39:1-10, 52:4-30; 2 Chronicles 36:17-21], the full captivity that carried with it the destruction of the temple, the city, and the state.
Now the return from Babylon was also in three stages. After the seventy years from 605 to 536, after the seventy years, the return to Judah and to Jerusalem was also in three stages; in 536 under Zerubbabel [Ezra 2:1-64], in 458 under Ezra [Ezra 7:1-10], and in 445 under Nehemiah [Nehemiah 7:5-66].
Under Zerubbabel, there were 42,360 returned, only a small remnant of those who were taken into captivity [2 Kings 24:14-16; Jeremiah 52:28-30]. The rest of them found themselves at ease in the land, so they remained in Babylon and the Mesopotamian Valley. Only 42,360 of them chose to go back home [Ezra 2:64]. They walked for four months across the pitiless desert, and the song that they sang is Psalm 126:
When the Lord turned [again] the captivity of Zion, we were like them that dream.
Then said they among the heathen, the nations, The Lord hath done great things for them.
The Lord hath done great things for us; whereof we are glad.
Turn again our captivity, O Lord, as the streams in the south.
They that sow in tears shall reap in joy.
He that goeth forth and weepeth, bearing precious seed, shall doubtless come again with rejoicing, bringing his sheaves with him.
The song they sang as they crossed the pitiless, barren desert to return home to Judah, the little band of 42,000—they were pilgrims, profoundly penitent, and they set themselves, not to rebuilding the walls of the city, but to the reestablishment of the ancient faith [Ezra 1:5]. And the first thing they did was to erect the altar of sacrifice. And the offerings began before the Lord. Before they did anything else, they erected that altar [Ezra 3:2-6]. We are talking about the scarlet thread through the Bible, and there we see it again so poignantly and so significantly. They began at the center. They began at the cross. And if we would worship God, that’s where we also must begin. We must begin at Calvary [1 Corinthians 2:2]. We must begin on our knees in the confession of our sins [Matthew 3:6]. We must plead the blood, the righteousness imputed to us by our Savior who died in our stead [1 Corinthians 15:3; 2 Corinthians 5:21]. That’s where they began.
First, they erected the altar and began the sacrifices [Ezra 3:8-13], just as in our worship before God, we ought to begin on our knees, on our faces, bowing at the cross, asking God’s forgiveness and salvation. Then the second thing they did after they erected the altar, they laid the foundation of the temple. And in Ezra 3, verses 8 to 13, you have a most unusual descriptive passage.
They say in Ezra, the third chapter, that when the foundation of the temple was laid, the shouts of joy by the younger people were deafening and thunderous, and it says that the wailing of the older Jews who had seen the Solomonic temple was no less loud, and the noise was such that you could not distinguish between which was which and what was what, as they shouted on the part of the younger people at the relaying of the foundation of the temple and the wailing and crying of the older people who looked at such small beginnings and wept over the remembrance of the glory of the Solomonic temple [Ezra 3:12-13].
Now when they began the reconstruction of the temple, they were stopped for fifteen years by the opposition of the Samaritans and by the loss of the will of the people to build it [Ezra 4:21-24]. I tell you, I sometimes surely need a double portion of God’s Spirit. Sometimes I think, O Lord, the host of darkness rides so hard it’s just impossible for us to oppose its flood tides. That’s what happened to the people here. They stopped the building of the temple because of opposition from the outside and because of their despair of ever rebuilding it, of ever rebuilding the city, of ever getting their state viable again. Just out of sheer discouragement and despondency and despair, they stopped for fifteen years [Ezra 4:24].
Then arose two prophets; one was an old man by the name of Haggai, and the other was a young man by the name of Zechariah. And through the remarkable encouragement of these two prophets, the people began to build again and completed the temple [Ezra 5:1-2; 6:13-15].
I want to point out to you how, when we stagger at something God says, we don’t know what God’s purpose is, how our eyes and our minds are so limited it’s hard for us to realize sometimes the glory of God’s promises and predictions. Now you look at this one. In his encouragement to the people to build the temple, in Haggai 2, verse 7 and verse 9, the prophet says to them, “Thus saith the Lord God the glory of this temple that you are building will be greater than the glory of the former temple” [Haggai 2:7, 9].
I can easily think that the people who heard Haggai say that, I could easily think of their inward response, “That is impossible. It is unthinkable that this little small beginning that we are attempting for the Lord could ever rise to the glory of the temple of Solomon. It is unimaginable, it is unthinkable. It’s inconceivable.” I could imagine that.
Well, what do you think about it? Was the prophecy right, that the glory of the temple that they were rebuilding would be greater than the glory of Solomon’s temple? [Haggai 2:7, 9]. Tell me yourself. Had you rather have seen Solomon’s temple without Jesus, or had you rather have seen this temple with the Lord? Why, there’d be no comparison. I don’t care what Solomon’s temple looked like. It had nothing of the glorious interest for us that the temple of this one that Haggai’s talking about, with Jesus in it, and Jesus preaching in it, and Jesus walking through its porches, and Jesus teaching the people, and Jesus coming there that Passion week, every day, to speak to the people.
You don’t know, you don’t know. Just give God time. Let God work out His purpose, and not one of His prophecies will ever fail or fall to the ground. They may look impossible to us. Just like watching somebody die, and before the embalmer takes the body, a dead cadaver immediately begins to corrupt, immediately. I have never quite understood how corruption could so immediately seize upon a body, but it does, immediately. The whole visage and the whole character of the body changes. Now you just look at that, and then remember the promise of God; that it is sown in corruption, it shall be raised in incorruption; it is sown in weakness, it is raised in power; it is sown a mortal body, it is raised a spiritual body; it is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory [1 Corinthians 15:42-44]. How could God do that?
And maybe the dust blows to the wind, into the earth with the wind, and maybe the big fish eat it up, or a big oak plunges its roots down through the middle and saps its strength and it goes up into leaf, and flower, and bark, and limb. How that? All I know is God said that in the power of His grace and might and Spirit, He will raise us up from the dead [Romans 8:11]. And to us, it just seems so beyond even what God could do. Not so, not so. These prophecies that the Lord makes, not one of them will ever fail or fall to the ground. It will come to pass in God’s day and in God’s time.
So with the building of that temple. Twenty years after the return, after Zerubbabel came back, the temple was dedicated. And in Ezra 6, verses 16 and 17, sacrifices there were made, a sin offering was made for all Israel [Ezra 6:16-17]. There’s nothing in the Bible of the lost ten tribes. The Diaspora includes Ruben and Simon and Levi and Naphtali and Issachar and Dan and all of the rest. “All Israel,” that is expressly stated [Ezra 6:17]. Sacrifices were offered. Sin offering was made in the dedication of the temple for all Israel, and in the same chapter, Ezra 6, verses 19 and 22, they kept the Feast of the Passover and Unleavened Bread, the scarlet thread through the Bible [Ezra 6:19, 22].
Now I want to point out something to you that to me is just unbelievable. There’s no need for you to turn to it, though I’m going to turn to it. I hold in my hand here an open Bible at Ezra, at Ezra. And here is the sixth chapter of Ezra, there, there, there, down to there. And this is the beginning of the seventh chapter of Ezra, and it goes on without a break, without any notation of a hiatus at all. It just starts up here, “Then Darius, the king, made a decree,” and that’s 6 [Ezra 6:1]. Then now after these things, in the reign of order Artaxerxes the king [Ezra 7:1], and then it goes on.
I want to use that as an illustration of how God has written the Bible and its purpose. There are fifty-eight years between the end of chapter 6 in Ezra [Ezra 6:22], and the beginning of chapter 7 [Ezra 7]; 516 BC at the end of Ezra [Ezra 6:22] and 458 BC at the beginning of chapter 7 [Ezra 7:1]. This shows you, as I’m going to demonstrate here in a moment, this shows you in poignant illustration and vivid example the selective purposes of the Bible. The Holy Scriptures are not a record of world events, to present the story of the development of civilization or culture or society or of mankind, but the Holy Scriptures have one great purpose, namely, to present the progress of God’s unfolding, redeeming purpose.
Now, you look at the event that took place in these fifty-eight years of silence. Now listen to it. Between chapter 6 [Ezra 6:22] and chapter 7 [Ezra 7:1], in the Book of Ezra [Ezra 6:22], in those fifty-eight silent years, these things came to pass. Listen to them. In China, Confucius lived and died. In India, Buddha, Gautama Buddha, lived and died. In Greece, the nation reaps her golden age. Herodotus, the father of history, began to write. Thucydides, the first great philosophical historian, began to write. Socrates and Anaxagoras were the great philosophers, with their pupils, Plato and Aristotle. Aeschylus, Euripides, Sophocles were writing their tragedies. Pindar was penning his beautiful lyrics. Aristophanes was writing his comedies. Pericles and Themistocles and Aristides were swaying the Athenian public with their political judgments and oratory. And Marathon and Thermopylae and Salamis were the battles fought on land and sea in that little period of time between the sixth and the seventh chapters of the Book of Ezra [Ezra 6:22-7:1].
You would think the quintessence of all civilization and cultural advancement of the whole human race is represented in that list that I have just presented to you. There is no hint of it. There is no reference to it in the Bible. It is passed over in absolute silence. The Scriptures have a very definite purpose. God wants us to be saved, and that’s why the Bible. He wants all men to come to repentance and find in Christ their personal Savior [2 Peter 3:9]. That is the Bible.
And when a man preaches in the power and the Spirit of the Lord, that’s what he preaches. He preaches, “Ho, ho, all that thirst come, come to the waters and drink. Come without money and without price” [Isaiah 55:1]. Why do you spend time and effort in life for that which satisfieth not? Hear, and your soul shall live [Isaiah 55:2-3]. “Let the wicked man forsake his ways, and the unrighteous man his thoughts: and let him return unto the Lord . . . and He will abundantly pardon” [Isaiah 55:7]. That is the gospel. That is the Bible. That is what the man in the pulpit ought to preach. “Come, come, come.” And all of these other things, what you might say about Confucius or not, about Buddha or not, your references to history or not, all of those things are just incidental.
The great, main burden of the Scriptures, of the message of the church, if it’s true to its faithful mandate from heaven, and of the God-called preacher is always one of redemption.
Have you been to Jesus for the cleansing power?
Are you washed in the blood of the Lamb?
Are you fully trusting in His grace this hour?
Are you washed in the blood of the Lamb?
[“Are You Washed in the Blood?” Elisha A. Hoffman]
That is the Bible.
There’s only one exception to this silence of fifty-eight years [Ezra 6:22-7:1], and that is in that period occurred the story of Esther [The Book of Esther]. She lived from about 484 to 465. The story took place in those years. Looking at Esther, in just a comment, always you find the Jews in history with a vast, disproportionate influence in the life of the nation and nations and in the life of the people.
They’re talking about firing that General Brown up there, you know, for saying that the Jews had an overweening, overabounding influence in the financial life and political life of America. I don’t object to it. He’s just telling the truth. That’s been true everywhere in the beginning. There are no people with the tremendous abilities and gifts and influence like God’s chosen family.
You can start with the story of Joseph in Egypt, or Daniel in Babylon, or Ezekiel by the Chebar, or Mordecai and Esther in Susa, or Nehemiah in Shushan, or any other date and time in history. They’ve changed the course of civilization. And you have that illustrated in the Bible story of Esther [Esther 1:1-10:3].
Now we must hasten because I must conclude this lecture tonight, because next Wednesday night, we’re going to study the interbiblical period when the greatest changes in the biblical people, in the biblical story, came to pass. Four hundred years of silence, but tremendously important because of the changed world into which we come when we read the story of the life of our Lord. Under Ezra, when the people went back, under Ezra, there came to pass some of the great and abiding institutions of Judaism.
Ezra came back seventy-eight years after Zerubbabel led his first pilgrims [Ezra 7:6-9], and fifty-eight years after the temple was rebuilt [Ezra 6:15]. He came from Babylon with a caravan of pilgrims that numbered about five thousand souls, and likewise, he journeyed across in about four months. This man Ezra was a scribe, that is, he was a student of the Scriptures, and he wrote them, copied them. And he was a priest. He was a man of vast abilities and dedication. He immediately, because of his sterling character and his pristine gift, when Ezra came, immediately he became head of the Jewish community in Jerusalem. And at that time, when Ezra came, the adult men in Jerusalem numbered just about forty thousand.
Now the decay in the Persian Empire evidently forced Ezra to give up his leadership among the Jews. The walls of the city were still unbuilt. The people were in reproach from the Samaritans and the Arabs, but worse, the people had fallen into heathen ways [Nehemiah 1:3-7]. And it was in such a state as that that Nehemiah was moved in the palace in Shushan, under the Persian monarch, to weep when his kinsmen came and described the wretchedness of the people, the destruction of the city, and the ruined walls that still lay in all manner of disorganization and rubble [Nehemiah 1:1-4].
So, in 445 BC, about twelve years after Ezra returned, Nehemiah came [Nehemiah 2:1-11]. He was appointed governor of the Jewish community, and his first governorship lasted for twelve years [Nehemiah 5:14]. Then he went back to Shushan, the palace [Nehemiah 13:6]. Then he came the second time to be governor of the people, and that governorship lasted about three years [Nehemiah 13:7]. And there was a great revival in the Jewish community with Ezra and with Malachi the prophet [Nehemiah 8:1-18].
With Nehemiah and Ezra and Malachi, the walls were rebuilt [Nehemiah 4:1-23, 7:1-3], the people purified [Nehemiah 9:1-3]. And what Haggai and Zechariah were to Zerubbabel [Haggai 2:2, 21-23; Zechariah 4:6-10], Malachi and Ezra were to Nehemiah [Ezra 8:1-4; Malachi 3:8-10]. Ezra and Nehemiah made a great team, the scribe priest and the ruler governor. I have said many times that an unbeatable team is a godly pastor and a godly deacon, a man of God in the pulpit and a man of God in the pew.
What the devil wants to do is always to sow discord among them, to pull the pastor away from his deacons, pull the deacons away from the people, the congregation, to separate us. But as long as we stay together in Christ, in the Lord, we are an unbeatable team. And you find that in the story of Ezra and Nehemiah. Often in the Bible do we see men like that, in pairs. There’ll be Joshua with Moses. There’ll be Jonathan with David. There’ll be Baruch with Jeremiah. There’ll be Peter with John. There’ll be Timothy with Paul.
It’s a wonderful thing in the church to see men of God who are dedicated, not just one man bearing it alone, but men together working for our blessed Lord. Now to speak of Ezra himself; Ezra has been called the second founder of the Jewish state, Moses the first one and Ezra the second one. He almost certainly wrote 1 and 2 Chronicles. He almost certainly gathered the Hebrew canon, the Old Testament Scriptures. He was almost certainly the founder of the great synagogue that came later to be known as the Sanhedrin. He was almost certainly the founder of the spread of the synagogue over the land to teach the people.
He was the father of the order of the scribes. He himself in Ezra 7:6 is called a ready scribe. The significance of the Scriptures in the three-hour public service in Jerusalem, described in Nehemiah 8, was led by him [Nehemiah 8:1-4]. He is the father of all expository preaching, taking the Bible and explaining to the people the meaning thereof [Nehemiah 8:5-9].
I think those who refer to Ezra as the second founder of the Jewish nation, I think they are correct in so describing that remarkable man; Moses here and Ezra there. And after Ezra, you have the shaping of the Jewish people that has remained to this present hour.
So the king is exchanged for a governor [Nehemiah 5:14], and the priest who precedes the prophet [Ezra 7:11]. A new era is instituted with new institutions, new offices, new officers, and new activities. And this leads us to the interbiblical period that we will discuss next Wednesday night.
God is moving. He never retracts. He never hesitates, nor does He ever change in His purpose; on and always on His redemptive story in the Scriptures, in human history, and in our lives today.
For more sermons by W.A Criswell, please visit www.wacriswell.com
View more sermons for inspiration for your next message.