In August 1864, during the American Civil War, General Sherman ordered his Union troops to destroy the city of Atlanta, Georgia, so that nothing would remain for the Confederates to reclaim or rebuild. A 36-day bombardment followed. Afterwards, Sherman ordered that Atlanta’s military resources be burned. The fire got out of control and left Atlanta in ruins. The city was left smoldering, reduced to rubble and ash, and those people left behind were there only because they were too poor, or too wounded, to leave. As the survivors slowly began to reconstruct their homes and stores, Sallie Clayton described walking past “burnt buildings, piles of rubbish of all sorts, heaps of ashes and clay and odds and ends of almost everything…”
These last few remaining folks must have wondered how in the world they might possibly rebuild the city as they sorted through the burned-out ruins. For them, finding enough food, and finding good shelter, took all their work, all their time, and all their emotional energy.
And yet, Atlanta would rise from the ashes, bigger and more fantastic than anyone could have imagined 150 years ago. Today, Atlanta, Georgia, is one of the largest cities in America. More than 5 million people live in the metro-Atlanta area, a city of gleaming skyscrapers, great sports stadiums, college campuses, and the state’s gold-domed capital building.
I wonder, if your life was a city, what would it look like right now? Is your “city” – your life – surviving, or thriving?
There are so many people around the globe living in their own “civil war:” lives are in tatters, businesses have been ruined, families have been torn apart and economies are shot to pieces.
Your “civil war” might be all about a tough financial season. It might be a time when your physical health is deteriorating. Maybe a loved one is struggling. Or sick. Or dead.
There was another time when nations and individuals faced trials like these. In the Old Testament, Ezra and Nehemiah faced a similar reconstruction project to what Atlanta faced in the 1860’s.
Instead of Atlanta, it was Jerusalem that had been destroyed by the Babylonians, who took the people of Judah into a 70-year exile.
The once great city of Jerusalem had lain in ruins for decades. The Jews who had been left behind when Judah had been taken away into exile were those considered the weakest and least valuable, those not worthy even of capture.
Miraculously, under King Cyrus, the people were allowed to go back to Jerusalem.
Ezra 1: 1 - 11 (HCSB) In the first year of Cyrus king of Persia, the word of the LORD spoken through Jeremiah was fulfilled. The LORD put it into the mind of King Cyrus to issue a proclamation throughout his entire kingdom and [to put it] in writing: This is what King Cyrus of Persia says: "The LORD, the God of heaven, has given me all the kingdoms of the earth and has appointed me to build Him a house at Jerusalem in Judah. Whoever is among His people, may his God be with him, and may he go to Jerusalem in Judah and build the house of the LORD, the God of Israel, the God who is in Jerusalem. Let every survivor, wherever he lives, be assisted by the men of that region with silver, gold, goods, and livestock, along with a freewill offering for the house of God in Jerusalem." So the family leaders of Judah and Benjamin, along with the priests and Levites—everyone God had motivated—prepared to go up and rebuild the LORD's house in Jerusalem. All their neighbors supported them with silver articles, gold, goods, livestock, and valuables, in addition to all that was given as a freewill offering. King Cyrus also brought out the articles of the LORD's house that Nebuchadnezzar had taken from Jerusalem and had placed in the house of his gods. King Cyrus of Persia had them brought out under the supervision of Mithredath the treasurer, who counted them out to Sheshbazzar the prince of Judah. This was the inventory: 30 gold basins, 1,000 silver basins, 29 silver knives, 30 gold bowls, 410 various silver bowls, and 1,000 other articles. The gold and silver articles totaled 5,400. Sheshbazzar brought all of them when the exiles went up from Babylon to Jerusalem.
Can we even begin to understand how enormous this undertaking was? A journey that would take about four hours by air today, took them four months. They walked, they carried their supplies, they made very slow time.
And think about this: those who chose to go were actually leaving a fairly comfortable environment, heading toward a very tough one.
Yet as they went back to Jerusalem, they were making a huge faith statement. They were trusting God to take care of them, they were accepting God’s challenge to do something great, and they were confident that they were in God’s will as they took action.
When Ezra and Nehemiah returned to Jerusalem, they found that no one had attempted to rebuild either the Temple, or the city. The task was just too big for the remaining few to even make a start. The stones were overturned, the gates were burned, and anything of value had long ago been taken by looters, or eaten by rats.
Jerusalem was ruined, and no one had the energy to rebuild it.
But Ezra and Nehemiah changed all of that. Together, they were used by God to rebuild the city, rebuild the Temple, and rebuild the walls of Jerusalem.
The people of Jerusalem were desperately short of food, national security, and sleep. They had to move stones weighing two tons and build gates that would withstand the attacks of well-trained armies. They worked with a sword in one hand, and a trowel in the other. They worked in an environment that was overwhelmingly negative, with each day’s news reports explaining why they couldn’t do … exactly what they were doing.
And the point behind this point: we can, too, and as Children of God, WE SHOULD, even when our external reality seems too hard to handle.
Under Zerubbabel, workers cleared the Temple Mount, quarried new stones, cleaned old stones, and finally, they laid the foundation for the Temple.
This was a really, really big day, and there was music, and celebration.
But there was also this:
Ezra 3: 12 - 13 But many of the older priests, Levites, and family leaders, who had seen the first temple, wept loudly when they saw the foundation of this house, but many [others] shouted joyfully. The people could not distinguish the sound of the joyful shouting from that of the weeping, because the people were shouting so loudly. And the sound was heard far away.
Challenging times hurt. Times of trial are difficult. Adversity is painful. It’s not fun or “easy” when the mountain in front of us is so big that it blocks out the whole sky.
Nothing in the message of Ezra comes free of pain. In fact, through all of it there is hard work, disappointment, discouragement, and exhaustion.
And that might be where you are right now … but here’s the key: don’t get stuck in the pain!
Our tough times are tough! The scary things we face are scary!
But how we respond to the challenges matters.
Do you shrivel up and sulk and tremble, or do you act like Esther and pray, fast, get up, wash your face, get dressed, go out and do what God has for you to do?!
I’m not minimizing or belittling what you’re going through, I promise, but I am encouraging you not to get trapped there!
It shouldn’t surprise us that the Bible has a message for challenging times, because the Bible has a relevant word for every season, for every people. Here, now, says the Bible, is an opportunity to thrive. Here, says the Bible, is an opportunity to grow your faith.
Ezra’s message for us is simple: your hard times, your trials, will demand either defeat, or victory. You will either simply survive, or you can thrive. Ezra’s path to victory was his unwavering faith in his God. When others thought he wouldn’t survive, that his plans for his city were foolish and doomed to fail… he did more than succeed. He thrived.
Ezra’s reformation efforts should encourage us as believers. And yet, we place our hope in Someone far greater than Ezra, and something far greater than any earthly temple. There’s a song that speaks about the “hopes and fears of all the years” … and these are only met in Jesus Christ, our Lord and Saviour!
Women of Reverence welcomes Belinda Van De Griendt as a guest blogger.
Belinda Van De Griendt is a 40-something wife, homeschooling mom, and grandmother.
She serves with her husband, Bjorn, as a deacon at City Base Church in Springs, and also works as the church secretary.
Belinda is passionate about the Word of God, and about helping others to grow in their spiritual lives through teaching the Word. Belinda has a BPrimEd from Wits and a Bachelor of Theology from UNISA.