Gospel Doctrine Old Testament Lesson #47; Ezra 1–8, Nehemiah 1–2, 4, 6, 8.
A little historical background helps set the stage for this lesson. In 721 B.C., the kingdom of Israel (the Northern Kingdom or ten tribes) was taken by Assyria. About a hundred years later, the Babylonians destroyed Assyria and also conquered the kingdom of Judah (the Southern Kingdom), taking many Jews captive. By the time these chapters at the beginning of Ezra took place, Babylon had in turn fallen to King Cyrus of Persia.
The book of Ezra opens with a decision by King Cyrus that must’ve surprised everyone around him: he tells the captive Jews to return to their land and build a temple. The lesson tells us, “The ancient Jewish historian Flavius Josephus reported that Cyrus read his name in Isaiah’s prophecies, was touched by the Spirit of the Lord, and desired to fulfill what was written.” This prophecy King Cyrus had read is recorded in Isaiah 44:28 which states, “That saith of Cyrus, He is my shepherd, and shall perform all my pleasure: even saying to Jerusalem, Thou shalt be built; and to the temple, Thy foundation shall be laid.”
God had given Cyrus an individual set of instructions—complete with his name attached to them. Imagine how Cyrus must’ve felt reading his name in a prophecy given 150 years before he was born, distributed so that all could see. It would have been incredible to say the least—like something out of one of these fantasy books my kids like to read (that always seem to revolve around prophecies). The particulars of this story are unique and historically significant, recorded and passed down through hundreds of years. And yet, the overall idea of getting our own set of personal instructions is, of course, common—an experience probably all of us have had.
When I read this story, I remembered an Ensign article ten years ago that seemed to speak to me directly. The article, “Waiting a Little Season,” was about a single woman whose greatest desire was to marry but who had not had the opportunity. She equated her experience to the scriptures about Zion’s Camp, in particular Doctrine & Covenants 105:14 that says, “For behold, I do not require at their hands to fight the battles of Zion; for…even so will I fulfill—I will fight your battles.” As I read the story, the intensity of my emotional reaction confused me. I had married relatively young so her experience wasn’t one I could personally relate to. This was not a story with my name in it—or even one with an obvious parallel for me.
At that time, my husband and I had three children. I felt there was one more for us but we had ruled out a fourth pregnancy. I had spent many hours of my last pregnancy throwing up—to the level of bursting blood vessels in my face and eyes from the violence of it and needing IV fluids to prevent dehydration. So, after years of prayer and saving, we had decided to adopt from Russia. We had completed all the paperwork and everything felt “under control.”
Famous last words, right? The next few months did not go as planned. A financial disaster (tens of thousands of dollars of repair on our home) meant we had to postpone the adoption. Other setbacks followed. I felt frustrated in a way I had never felt before—almost as if the wind had been knocked out of me. I had followed the promptings I was given—had done everything I possibly could do to make this happen. It was, of course, then that this story I had been so affected by months ago came back to my mind. I was not required to make this happen. God would fight this battle for me—in his time—after we had waited a little season. (To tie that story up, through some developments that I could’ve never made happen on my own, we did end up adopting a little boy the next year.)
We could say that what makes King Cyrus’s experience different than our own is the magnitude of it. His action was large and consequential—letting a captive people go because of a prophecy—a prophecy from a God he did not necessarily even believe in (King Cyrus was a Zoroastrian). Yet, in some ways, it’s actually King Cyrus who has it easy here. His personal instructions from God came with his name printed on them and with explicit direction on what to do. Ours usually don’t come this way. It’s up to us to listen and learn to recognize the instructions meant just for us.