Praying Through the Bible project
Prayer and the Surprising Acts of God
Any of those among you who are of his people—may their God be with them!—are now permitted to go up to Jerusalem in Judah, and rebuild the house of the LORD, the God of Israel—he is the God who is in Jerusalem…
The book of Ezra opens with a proclamation from the King of Persia, Cyrus. The first words of the book tell us that it was Cyrus’ first year as king, and that God caused Cyrus to issue this proclamation throughout the land. The proclamation says that any Jews who are still alive in his lands may now go to Jerusalem and rebuild the Temple.
The author then tells us that the heads of the families of Judah and Benjamin—those whose ancestors were taken away into Exile eighty years before, prepared to go.
Their neighbors (both Jews who had decided to stay, as well as non-Jews), donated to their cause. King Cyrus also had all the furnishings returned to them that had been taken from the Temple by the Babylonians.
For our purposes, the prayer is more interesting. Is Cyrus praying that the God of Israel be with them? But we must remember that pagans believed in many gods, and so, it would be no problem for Cyrus to ask the God of the Jews to be with the Jews.
The giving of neighbors reminds us of when God delivered the Jews from slavery in Egypt when they were allowed to take goods from their neighbors (Ex. 3:21-22; 11:2; 12:35-36). It is not surprising that the author would want to make a connection to that event: the Exodus and the Exile are two major events in all the history of Israel. Ezra often makes allusions to the Exodus: while this might have been a small event among many for the Persians, it was as momentous to the Jews as the Exodus from Egypt. Once again, God has delivered his people from captivity in a foreign land to the promised land.
How might a prayer that “God be with them,” offered by a pagan king, be any kind of model for our prayers? Of course, we can mimic the intent, and offer our own petitions that God be with someone or some group.
The context can provide us two other lessons about prayer. First, if a pagan king can pray that God be with His people, then surely we can pray for nonbelievers? Not just that they might come to faith, but that God be with them. It might seem strange to pray that God “be with” someone who does not worship or believe in Him, but we should remember that all people are God’s children. If a human child rejected their parent, or did not know who they were, a loving parent would still love that child and want the best for them.
The prayer also gives us something to pray about. God’s work in history, and in our lives, may often surprise us. Here, he uses a pagan King who practices Zoroastrianism as the conduit to return His people to their land. Moreover, Isaiah 44-54 describes Cyrus as a “savior” of the Jewish people, one who was anointed by God and a shepherd. The same concepts, of course, are used for the coming Messiah, Jesus, for a much more profound and more significant delivery of God’s people. Our prayers for God’s work can take into account God’s surprising work throughout history and in our own lives, which leads us to praise and thank him for his grace and steadfast love.
- Discovered in 1879 by archaeologist Hormonz Rassam during excavations at Babylon. ↩
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