The Doing of the Divine Decree
Scripture: Ezra 6:1–22
13 Then, according to the word sent by Darius the king, Tattenai, the governor of the province Beyond the River, Shethar-bozenai, and their associates did with all diligence what Darius the king had ordered. 14 And the elders of the Jews built and prospered through the prophesying of Haggai the prophet and Zechariah the son of Iddo. They finished their building by decree of the God of Israel and by decree of Cyrus and Darius and Artaxerxes king of Persia; 15 and this house was finished on the third day of the month of Adar, in the sixth year of the reign of Darius the king.
16 And the people of Israel, the priests and the Levites, and the rest of the returned exiles, celebrated the dedication of this house of God with joy. 17 They offered at the dedication of this house of God 100 bulls, 200 rams, 400 lambs, and as a sin offering for all Israel 12 male goats, according to the number of the tribes of Israel. 18 And they set the priests in their divisions and the Levites in their divisions, for the service of God at Jerusalem, as it is written in the Book of Moses.
19 On the fourteenth day of the first month, the returned exiles kept the Passover. 20 For the priests and the Levites had purified themselves together; all of them were clean. So they slaughtered the Passover lamb for all the returned exiles, for their fellow priests, and for themselves. 21 It was eaten by the people of Israel who had returned from exile, and also by every one who had joined them and separated himself from the uncleanness of the peoples of the land to worship the LORD, the God of Israel. 22 And they kept the Feast of Unleavened Bread seven days with joy, for the LORD had made them joyful and had turned the heart of the king of Assyria to them, so that he aided them in the work of the house of God, the God of Israel. (Ezra 6:13-22)
Mindy and I spent most of the past week with four other pastors and their wives on a pastor’s retreat. We did not know these other pastors before we got there, but one of them just so happens to serve at a church that I previously served as well. The two of us were mutually encouraged as we discussed some of the experiences, we’ve both had working at this particular church. This was one of those moments that seemed like a random stroke of chance, the two of us being at the same small pastor’s retreat. Now as Christians we know there is no such thing as randomness or chance. Sometimes we call these experiences “divine appointments,” but the theological word for it is providence. The sixth chapter of Ezra is a classic text about the providence of God.
Now we left off our story last week awaiting the reply of the Persian King Darius, who has been asked to verify whether or not the people of Israel, some 15 years after they have returned from exile, have the right to rebuild their temple. The governmental authorities wish to know if the king will indeed allow the rebuilding of the temple to go on. They ask Darius to “send us his pleasure in this matter” (Ezra 5:17).
This chapter brings the story to conclusion. The temple gets built, but how? Indeed, how does anything significant ever get done?
When we look back on the past, what do we see? Do we see fortune or providence? Do we see random chance, or do we notice the royal decree? You see, the Bible tells us that the providence of God is the doing of the divine decree. God’s providential power over the events of history is real, and it is meant to bring God’s people maximum joy.
Ezra helps us see this as he brings the story of the rebuilding of the temple to a close and shows us the cause of providence, the response to providence, and the outcome of providence.
The Cause of Providence
First, the cause of providence. The Bible would have us understand that there is a providential cause for everything that happens. As we read through the first 12 verses, we see that the answer to the question, “How was the temple completed?” is “by decree of the king.” The providential cause behind the temple being rebuilt is a king who decrees.
The Decree of Cyrus
“Then Darius the king made a decree” (v. 1). What is a decree, in particular, the decree of a king? It is an official pronouncement of the king’s desire. And since he is a king, what he desires is what is done. “Your wish is my command,” say the servants to their king. A king’s decree is a king’s command.
What Darius commands here is that a search be made of the royal archives to find out if what these people who have returned from exile in Babylon claim to be their authorization for rebuilding the temple is factual. Although Darius is the king now, even he has his limitations, for the law of the Persian empire was that a royal decree cannot be changed or revoked (Dan 6:8). So Darius’s decree is to find out if his predecessor, Cyrus the Great, had made the decree that the people of Israel claim is their authorization for their rebuilding project. Verses 2-5 affirm that indeed he had.
The Decree of Darius
So here’s what Darius says, starting in verse 6. His own decree is that the governors and their associates in the land of Israel “keep away” from the work on the house of God, and to not hinder them in any way. In fact, according to verse 8, Darius decrees that the weight of his kingdom be used to fully support the financial needs, even supplying the animals for the burnt offerings, they are to be given these things “day by day without fail” (v. 9).
The decree goes on in verse 11. “Also I make a decree that if anyone alters this edict, a beam shall be pulled out of his house, and he shall be impaled on it, and his house shall be made a dunghill.” When we read these words, we are shocked back into the reality of life in the ancient world. This is a world in which kings would use savage strategies to maintain stability in their kingdom. What is happening here is not a diplomatic pronunciation of good will. What we have here is the brutal savagery of a royal despot who is making it plain who is in charge.
And so, he concludes his decree in verse 12 by saying that it is to “be done with all diligence.” In spite of what sounds like the words of the god-fearing psalmist in verse 12, Darius is no believer in Yahweh. Verse 11 hints at the well-known policy of the Medo-Persian empire to adopt the local deities of all nations solely for the aim of the prosperity and longevity of their own kingdoms; he decrees that the God of Israel, the “God of heaven,” as he calls him, will be petitioned “for the life of the king and his sons.” This is the decree of Darius.
The Decree of God
So verse 13 tells us that Tattenai “did with all diligence what Darius the king had ordered.” And that’s how the temple got built. That’s how the work was finished. By decree of the king. That was the ultimate cause.
But in verse 14, as Ezra summarizes the story, he tells us something we cannot miss. He tells us that the work was completed “through the prophesying of Haggai the prophet and Zechariah the son of Iddo.” But he also says this: “They finished their building by decree of the God of Israel and by decree of Cyrus and Darius and Artaxerxes king of Persia.” Did you catch that? It was not merely the decree of the Persian kings, but the decree of God, that brought the work to completion.
Now this is, in the words of one commentator, “a piece of pure Jewish theology.” Ezra inserts here in the retelling of the story, a didactic element. He tells us explicitly the point he wants us to see in the story.
The temple was certainly rebuilt by the decree of several Persian kings. Each of them issued separate decrees, but the somewhat surprising singular use of “decree” here—“by decree (rather than decrees) of Cyrus and Darius and Artaxerxes”—views their commands collectively. Why does Ezra say it this way? It’s because of the theological point he makes right before that. “They finished their building by decree of the God of Israel.” The point is made emphatically. There is no way we could miss it. It is God’s decree, his command, that motivated the decrees of the Persian kings. What these kings did was simply echo the decree of Yahweh.
On the surface of the story of Israel’s rebuilding of the temple, we can see the role of the prophets who stirred up the people to get the work done. And we can see how critical the decrees of the Persian kings were as well. But what we can’t clearly see, unless we have the eyes to see it, is that the ultimate cause for the building’s completion is the divine decree. This is an example of the way the God of the Bible works. This is how he typically sees his work brought to completion.
This is an inescapable truth that we must believe if we are going to believe in the God of the Bible. As our catechism (Q9) says, “The decrees of God are his eternal plan based on the purpose of his will, by which, for his own glory, he has foreordained everything that happens.” We see evidence for this teaching here in Ezra. And we hear it in the words of the psalmist, who said, “Our God is in the heavens; he does all that he pleases” (Psa 115:3). God’s will, his decree, is the cause of everything that happens.
The Response to Providence
Now how should we respond to this teaching of the Bible about the God of the universe? How do you respond to it? It is one of the most controversial teachings of the Scripture. It can be quite challenging. If you embrace this view of providence, that God decrees everything that happens, how will you defend the goodness of God when bad news comes? And what effect will believing this doctrine have on your daily life? If God decrees everything that happens, does this mean your decisions don’t matter?
One thing’s for certain: the providence of God is meant to produce a response from us who believe it. Ezra implies the same in verse 14.
Providence Past and Present
You see, there are three Persian kings mentioned in verse 14 who are all credited as instruments God used to get the temple built again. Cyrus and Darius we understand, but the mention of Artaxerxes is surprising. After all, verse 15 says that the temple was finished “in the sixth year of the reign of Darius the king.” Artaxerxes came after Darius; he wasn’t even born until after Darius had died. How did he have anything to do with the rebuilding of the temple which was finished before he was even born?
By mentioning Artaxerxes here, Ezra “momentarily jolts the reader” forward into the contemporary time in which he was writing. The next chapter is set during the reign of Artaxerxes, when we will also be introduced to Ezra himself. We will see a decree of Artaxerxes in that chapter, a decree which does involve his own support of the temple (Ezra 7:15-24), so Ezra 6:14 can hardly be said to be erroneous. But it is right for the surprising chronology to get our attention, because that is what Ezra wants it to do.
Ezra wants us to see that the providence of God in the past is the basis for our hope in the providence of God in the present. The same God who controlled the events of history controls the events that affect our lives today. He is not the God of the dead past but of the living present.
God Is Personal
What this means for the readers of Ezra is that we should not read the outworking of history as fatalism. Yes, God has foreordained everything that happens, but this is not fatalism, because behind the outworking of history is a personal God. He is very much involved with his world and not an abstract force who has merely set things in motion and letting things play out by chance.
Instead, we should see God as the great King, the king of Kings. What happens in history is not random, but neither is it ultimately decided by the decree of a lesser king like Cyrus, or Darius, or Artaxerxes, nor yet by any modern-day king or emperor, president or prime minister, governor, manager, or CEO.
Many people wonder, when considering the providence of God like this, what good it does to pray, if God decrees everything that happens. Why pray if God in his providence will do all he wills. But, of course, if you understand that God is personal, that he is a king who decrees and not an immovable force, then you will understand that we pray to God precisely because he is providential. He has the power to see to it that everything goes according to his decree.
God Is Persuasive
In fact, God wants us to pray because he wants us to that the outcome of history is not due to karma but to a king, a sovereign but personal God who holds the power of persuasion over everyone and everything.
So at the end of chapter six, as we read about the celebration of the Passover finally being observed again, Ezra again editorializes. He says, “the Lord had made them joyful and had turned the heart of the king of Assyria to them, so that he aided them in the work of the house of God, the God of Israel” (Ezra 6:22). Notice that he groups all these Persian kings together: Cyrus, Darius, and Artaxerxes are “the king” whose heart has been turned by the Lord. As Persian kings, they were sovereigns over Assyria, that great nemesis of Israel that had struck fear in the hearts of the Jews for centuries.
But there is a greater king over Assyria, and he gets his decrees done not in spite of the kings of the world, but through them. As the biblical Proverb says, “the king’s heart is a stream of water in the hand of the LORD; he turns it wherever he will” (Prov 21:1). The story we’ve seen in Ezra 1–6 is surely the primary case in point for this teaching.
So if we embrace this view of the providence of God, we simply will not be able to say, “Que será, será,” for God is a personal king, not an immovable force. His rule over all things means he intends to interact with his creation and to commune with his creatures. We pray to him not in spite of his sovereignty but because of it, because he is the Great King who has the power to do whatever he pleases.
The Outcome of Providence
Now, what is the end of the matter? What will happen if we do accept the providence of God? What is the result of this response? What is the outcome of providence? To where does it take us?
There is an answer here, but we have to take a wider glance at the story Ezra tells us to see it.
What is this story that Ezra tells us? It is a story of restoration. The return from exile for the people of Israel means that they are being restored to their God. If they are back in their land with their temple rebuilt, then the implication is that the people are restored to God again.
Restoration is what this story is about, and that’s the importance of the story for you and me as well. Here we see how the promise of Jeremiah 29 is brought to fulfillment and how this promise still applies to us today.
For thus says the LORD: When seventy years are completed for Babylon, I will visit you, and I will fulfill to you my promise and bring you back to this place. For I know the plans I have for you, declares the LORD, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope. Then you will call upon me and come and pray to me, and I will hear you. You will seek me and find me, when you seek me with all your heart. I will be found by you, declares the LORD, and I will restore your fortunes and gather you from all the nations and all the places where I have driven you, declares the LORD, and I will bring you back to the place from which I sent you into exile (Jer 29:10-14).
Now back in Ezra 6, we find that when the temple was finished, the people dedicated it to the Lord. “They offered at the dedication of this house of God 100 bulls, 200 rams, 400 lambs, and as a sin offering for all Israel 12 male goats, according to the number of the tribes of Israel” (Ezra 6:17). Did you catch that? According to the number of the tribes of Israel. The nation of Israel, so long fractured between the northern and southern kingdoms, is now being restored. Now that their sins have been paid for, the nation is being reconstituted once again.
That’s what God has promised to do in Jeremiah 29:11. It is a prophecy about prosperity, a prosperity that is rooted in God restoring his people to himself again.
And in the same way, when Jesus said, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up” (Jn 2:19), the people are flabbergasted. Doesn’t Jesus know the story of Ezra? Doesn’t he know how long it took to build it? “But he was speaking about the temple of his body” (Jn 2:21). We find the ultimate fulfillment of Jeremiah’s prophecy, the promise of restoration, in the body of Jesus, once dead now raised.
Not only does Ezra tell us a story of restoration, but there’s another interesting aspect to this story found in verses 19-22. Here the people once again celebrate the Passover, that great feast commemorating God’s rescue of his people out of slavery in Egypt.
Now that the people have been restored to their God, what is the outcome? In verse 21 we read that the Passover “was eaten by the people of Israel who had returned from exile, and also by every one who had joined them and separated himself from the uncleanness of the peoples of the land to worship the LORD, the God of Israel.” The story Ezra tells us is not only a story of restoration but also a story of welcome. The hope of restoration is on offer to all who will come to Israel’s God.
The providence of God is about God restoring his people and then welcoming all who will come to him. He has made a way back, a way to be restored, and “the Spirit and the bride say, Come!” (Rev 22:17). Won’t you come to the temple? Won’t you come to Jesus who, with arms open wide, welcomes all who will come to feast at his table?
This is the offer of a gracious God who welcomes his people home.
What is the outcome of God’s providence, the prosperity for which God is carrying out all his decrees? It is for restoration, and for a gracious welcome, and ultimately, it is for our maximum joy. Ezra concludes this story, in verse 22, saying that “they kept the Feast of Unleavened Bread seven days with joy, for the LORD had made them joyful…” When the people saw all that this God of grace had done for them, bringing them back home, ensuring that their temple was rebuilt, indicating his desire to dwell among them, they were overcome with joy.
And that’s the outcome of God’s providence for us today. When we see how God has brought us out of exile, forgiving our sins at the cost of Christ’s life, and thereby restoring us to himself so that he can again dwell among us by the power and presence of his Holy Spirit—it is all for our maximum joy. When we respond to his welcome, he promises to make us joyful. He promises to cause all things to end in the maximum joy of his people for all eternity.
So come to him. Let him make you glad.
 A. Philip Brown, Hope Amidst Ruin: A Literary and Theological Analysis of Ezra (Greenville, S.C: Bob Jones University Press, 2009), 209.
 Brown, Hope Amidst Ruin, 39.