Servants in Restoration (1)
Malcolm C. Davis, Leeds, England
The following articles are a study of the complementary roles and characters of Ezra and Nehemiah in the history of the restoration of the Jews from exile in Babylon to Jerusalem, as recorded in the books which bear their respective names. We wish to explain their clear application in spiritual principle to God's heavenly people today, the church.
the history of the restoration
In this restoration there were three distinct stages:
Firstly, in 537 B.C. Cyrus, king of Persia, the conqueror of the Babylonian empire, encouraged the Jews in exile to return to Jerusalem to rebuild the temple destroyed by Nebuchadnezzar in 584 B.C. Some went under the leadership of Zerubbabel, who was a Judahite in the direct line of Christ, and Joshua, a Levite in the priestly line. Together they set up the altar and, after a long delay clue to opposition from the surrounding Gentiles, finished rebuilding the so-called second temple in 516 B.C. in the reign of Darius. This was seventy years after the destruction of Solomon's Temple, thus fulfilling exactly, Jeremiah's prophecy of seventy years of desolation.
Secondly, in 458 B.C. a later Persian emperor, Artaxerxes, sent Ezra the scribe, a Levite and priest of the line of Phinehas, to Jerusalem with a further group of Jewish exiles to establish the authority of the law of God over the returned Jewish remnant there.
Thirdly, in 445 B.C., later in Artaxerxes' reign, Nehemiah of the tribe of Judah, cupbearer to the Emperor, requested permission to return to Jerusalem to rebuild the city's wall, which was in ruins. This request was granted, and Nehemiah returned as their governor to Jerusalem with a further contingent of Jews. Despite opposition they rebuilt the wall in fifty-two days. Thus the mark of the city's separation from the hostile Gentiles around was re-established and its outward testimony to die world restored. Ezra and Nehemiah were connected with the second and third stages of this restoration of God's earthly people, Israel, and overlapped in their ministries.
THE PRESENT APPLICATION OF THE RESTORATION
The main subject of Ezra and Nehemiah is the corporate spiritual restoration of God's earthly people Israel to their true spiritual inheritance in Jerusalem by coming out of Babylon. In Scripture, from Genesis to Revelation, Jerusalem has always been God's city, whereas Babylon has always been man's or Satan's city. This restoration has a clear parallel with the history of God's heavenly people, the New Testament church during the past few centuries, in the growth of New Testament assemblies out of the professing body of Christendom. Several earlier assembly writers, such as Edward Dennett and H. A. Ironside, have sought to expound this parallel in their expositions. The confusion of Christendom today is becoming increasingly like the latter-day system called Babylon the Great in Revelation. Also, members of the true Body of Christ, God's heavenly people, are divided and scattered. There is, therefore, a need for a corporate spiritual restoration to a truly apostolic and Biblical position, from which the present people of God have for so long departed.
All the historical stages of this restoration are found to be very instructive for believers in local assembly testimonies today. The Old Testament restoration began with a sovereign movement of the Spirit of God in the hearts of the Persian Emperor, Cyrus, and some of the Jewish exiles, such as the prophet Daniel, who understood from 'the books' that the seventy years of exile had almost come to an end. Cyrus encouraged the Jews in exile to return to Jerusalem and rebuild their temple, where the Lord had set His Name prior to the exile. So, in our day of grace, believers have come out of various other forms of worship within Christendom, to gather simply to the Name and Person of our Lord Jesus Christ. Then, just as Zerubbabef and Joshua first set up the altar in Jerusalem, so today the cross of Christ with all its spiritual significance for believers in the gospel of the grace of God, is made central to our lives and preaching. Then, just as the rebuilding of the temple followed the Old Testament restoration, so today, after the truths of the gospel have been experienced by individual believers, the resulting local assembly can function corporately as a temple for the Lord's Name, worship, and glory. Again, just as Ezra was sent to re-establish the authority of the law of God over the lives of the returned Jewish remnant, so today the similar authority of the whole word of God needs to be established over the members of the assembly, so that in their lives they conform fully with God's will. Finally, just as Nehemiah was sent to rebuild the city wall, so today a clear difference and separation needs to be made between the local assembly and the world outside. In this way there can be a true testimony to Christ in the locality in which the believers live, and the possibility of progress and expansion of the work into other districts.
Both the principles and the problems of Old Testament restoration are most instructive for us in our day.
We can consider six comparisons, as follows:-
1. The inward aspects of restoration were begun before the outward ones; the wall was rebuilt after the altar and the temple.
2. The Jews who returned at Cyrus' bidding took the ground before the God of all Israel, the whole earthly people of God, although by no means all the nation returned with them. So, in New Testament days the ideal local assembly would include all baptized and obedient believers in Christ living in each locality, but sadly in practice this very rarely happens today for various understandable and regrettable reasons. The ideal situation, however, remains our aim.
3. All three stages of the restoration were accompanied by a genealogy which clearly defined the genuine children of Israel, thus preserving the testimony for God. Today, only truly born-again believers form a valid local assembly testimony.
4. At various stages of the restoration, obedience to the law of God is accompanied by spontaneously given contributions to the work. True obedience to Scripture engenders generous giving.
5. At several stages of the work the spiritual expression of joy is explicitly mentioned; this is always the pleasant by-product of true and full obedience to God.
6. Just as the work in Old Testament days required more than one kind of servant, so in the local body of New Testament believers there is a place for the exercise of a variety of spiritual gifts.