Exile, return, and reconstruction are powerful fault lines in our lives. They are no less so in our reading for today.
The Persian king, Cyrus, declares that the Jews in the Babylonian exile are free to return to their homeland. They do so and then undertake to rebuild the temple. Distant from the imperial center, however, they encounter stiff local political and economic resistance, and even lack some motivation. Eventually, King Darius gives them the go-ahead; they rebuild the temple (although not to Solomon’s glorious standard); and they celebrate the Passover.
What of it? Other than being yet another example of the ebb and flow of the history of God’s chosen people, what does the Babylonian exile, Israel’s return, and the temple’s reconstruction have to do with me right now?
A key is in Ezra 6:14, where the writer tells us that “[t]hey finished their building by decree of the God of Israel and by decree of Cyrus and Darius and Artaxerxes king of Persia.”
It required the orders of three earthly kings, and a delay of twenty years, to get the temple built. As public works go—think of a major interstate highway construction project—it is not surprising that multiple administrations and repeated delays would be the order of the day.
But what necessary thing came first? “They finished their building by decree of the God of Israel . . . .” Kings and princes are God’s tools, but no more than tools. The same is true of the political, economic, ecclesiastical, and cultural mandarins in a mass democracy of the early twenty-first century. Their decrees are sped and amplified by technology to a degree unimaginable to King Cyrus at the height of his Persian empire. Yet, unless God wills it in the first instance, they are powerless to bring us out of exile (or to oppose our return from exile).
We all know exile, sometimes self-imposed. Consider Jack Burden, the narrator of Robert Penn Warren’s All The King’s Men (1946) (another tale of empire):
So I pulled the sun screen down and squinted and put the throttle to the floor. And kept on moving west. For West is where we all plan to go some day. It is where you go when the land gives out and the old-field pines encroach. It is where you go when you get the letter saying: Flee, all is discovered. It is where you go when you look down at the blade in your hand and the blood on it. It is where you go when you are told that you are a bubble on the tide of empire. It is where you go when you hear that thar’s gold in them-thar hills. It is where you go to grow up with the country. It is where you go to spend your old age. Or it is just where you go.
My exile and yours is usually not a literal, geographical exile, but it is no less devastating for only being bordered by the frontiers of our hearts. This bleak exile-landscape is where sin—the Fall—has frog-marched us, fettered with our own ambition, pride, and bitterness. We long to return somewhere, anywhere, but our scale-covered eyes can barely perceive it. We try to bust out of exile by political action, self-improvement, social amelioration, and personal ambition. We try to find a sign, as articulated in 1970 by Five Man Electrical Band:
Sign, sign, everywhere a sign
Blockin’ out the scenery, breakin’ my mind
Do this, don’t do that, can’t you read the sign?
We all know how that turns out. In fact, we can’t read the sign. Indeed, if it is a sign of my own making, it will point me only deeper into exile.
God’s decree is different. He uses the princes and powers of the earth as his tools, even when those powers believe they are thwarting his will. His will is that, by grace, we look to the Cross, ignoring all other signs and powers, and that we claim the promise of his kingdom.