The preceding analyses of temporal ordering, plot, point of view, and characterization have located and partially exposed the primary themes of Ezra’s narrative: God’s immanence in history, the continuity of the Returnees with pre-exilic Israel, the importance and authority of God’s word, the fulfillment of God’s promises, God’s sovereign power, opposition to God’s people, God’s gracious goodness, the importance of holiness, sin as unfaithfulness, God’s unchanging faithfulness, God’s righteousness, and hope for the Returnees’ future based on God’s saving acts in the past.It may at first seem strange that the rebuilding of the temple, Ezra’s return, and the mixed-marriage incident are not listed among the themes of Ezra may at first seem odd. However, a proper understanding of the difference between narrative topics and themes mitigates this difficulty. A careful comparison of these themes suggests that Ezra’s message revolves around three focal points: God, the Returnees, and the relationship between them. Of these three, the character and actions of God are the most prominent elements in Ezra’s thematic development.298
As one would expect from a narrative, Ezra presents his picture of God primarily through plot action and dialogue, though he has no qualms about using his narratorial privilege to ensure the reader gets his point. Throughout the narrative Ezra deliberately exposes Yahweh’s behind-the-scenes involvement in the affairs of His people in order to highlight Yahweh’s immanence and to provide his fifth century audience with a renewed vision of the facets of His character most relevant to their situation. As the reader observes God in action, four aspects of His character become unmistakably clear: His power, faithfulness, goodness, and righteousness.
The exile was the most devastating event in the history of Israel. It shattered the popular though misguided notion that God’s election of Israel as a nation, Jerusalem as His city, and the temple as His dwelling place guaranteed the Jews’ ultimate invincibility.299 After 70 long years in exile, the initial fulfillment of God’s promises to restore His people had no doubt rekindled hope for the total restoration of Israel, including her independent sovereignty and spiritual renewal. The Returnee’s expectations must have soared as they heard messianic prophecies of Judean world dominance300 and watched the rebuilding of the temple. Yet, for Ezra’s audience, 80 some years had passed since the initial return, and more than 50 years lay between the completion of the temple and their own time. Rather than ascending into a position of prominence, they had continued to experience hardship and oppression. Politically, they were little more than a small province in the vastness of the Persian empire.301 Artaxerxes had recently ordered their work on the city walls to stop, and the order was carried out forcibly (4:23 ), setting their efforts back virtually to square one.302 With Ezra’s return had come the discovery that the very sin that precipitated the Exile was again spreading like a cancer among them. The radical nature of the solution, regardless of its necessity, must have created waves throughout the whole province. In circumstances conflicted by social tensions, economic uncertainty, religious aspirations, and harsh political realities, Ezra’s audience may well have wondered if God had forgotten or abandoned them.
The Book of Ezra addresses this troubled milieu, not by proposing direct solutions, but by offering a renewed awareness of God’s immanence.303 If the narrative says anything, it says that God is still there, and He is neither still nor silent. The God of their fathers, who had spoken through Moses (7:6 ), through His servants the prophets (9:11 ), and through Jeremiah (1:1 ), had recently spoken to them through Haggai and Zechariah (5:1 ). Accompanying His words were His deeds. The God of Heaven who, enraged by their sin (5:12 ), had delivered them over to Nebuchadnezzar (9:7 ) is the same God who had not forgotten them in their captivity (9:9 ) but had preserved and revived them (9:8 ). It was He who had stirred Cyrus and appointed him to rebuild His house (1:1-2 ), stirred the hearts of the Returnees (1:5 ), intervened on behalf of His people (5:5 ), caused His people to rejoice (6:22 ), turned the heart of Darius (6:22 ), put the desire in Artaxerxes’ heart to beautify His house (7:27 ), extended favor to His servants before the Persians (7:28 ), heard His people’s prayers, and delivered them from danger (8:23 , 31 ). Ezra’s point can hardly be mistaken. God had not abandoned them. He had not relegated them to history’s rubbish heap. He was still at work in His world on behalf of His people.
God’s sovereign power is the first facet of His character that the narrative’s display of God in action highlights. The theme of God’s sovereign power develops throughout the Book of Ezra as the rebuilding of the temple unfolds.304 The actional dynamic that propels this theme is the work of God in the hearts of men. In each of the three phases of the Temple’s reconstruction—initiation, opposition, and completion—God’s sovereign power is evident in His control of men’s hearts to accomplish His purposes.305
Ezra’s account of the initiation of the Temple reconstruction begins with Yahweh prompting Cyrus to action: “Yahweh stirred the spirit of Cyrus … and he made a proclamation in all his kingdom” (1:1 ). The significance of Ezra’s opening scene lies in an appreciation of who Cyrus, King of Persia, was. In his “first year,”306 Cyrus had just conquered Babylon, the most powerful empire in the world. In combination with Media and Persia, his domain stretched from Turkey and Palestine in the west to the Indus River in the east, creating one of the largest empires the world has known.307 Yet at the height of his glory, the most powerful ruler in the world is shown to be but a tool for Yahweh to display His power. As the consequences of Yahweh’s stirring of Cyrus develop, the greatness of Yahweh’s power grows increasingly evident.
The first effect of Yahweh’s stirring is Cyrus’s emancipatory proclamation:
Thus says Cyrus, King of Persia, Yahweh, the God of Heaven, has given to me all the kingdoms of the earth, and He has appointed me to build for Him a house in Jerusalem which is in Judah. Who is among you from all His people, may his God be with him and let him go up to Jerusalem which is in Judah, and let him build the house of Yahweh, the God of Israel, He is the God who is in Jerusalem. And every one who remains from every place where he sojourns, let the men of his place assist him with silver and with gold, with goods and with cattle with a freewill offering for the house of God which is in Jerusalem.308
In this proclamation, Cyrus makes two assertions regarding the reason for his decree. The first assertion is that “Yahweh, the God of Heaven, has given to me all the kingdoms of the earth” (1:2a ).309 Cyrus clearly intends his statement to imply that he is the recipient of a divine right to rule. There is, however, more than political significance to his statement. It also implies Yahweh’s ownership of and sovereignty over all the kingdoms of the earth. Since Cyrus received the kingdoms of the earth from “Yahweh, the God of Heaven,” they must belong to Him. Further, if Yahweh granted Cyrus the right to rule His kingdoms, He must be the ultimate sovereign, the King of kings.310 Cyrus’s second assertion is that “[Yahweh] has appointed me to build for Him a house in Jerusalem which is in Judah” (1:2b ). This assertion is an explicit acknowledgment of Cyrus’s subordinate relation to Yahweh and of Yahweh’s actual sovereignty. The King of Persia is Yahweh’s servant, subject to His bidding. Yahweh’s sovereignty is no mere figural sovereignty like that of the Queen of England. His is an actual sovereignty, for He commands and Cyrus obeys.311
After stating the grounds and motivation for his proclamation, Cyrus grants permission for any Jews who want to return to their homeland to do so and enjoins their neighbors to aid them. As expected, the Jewish people respond immediately: “And the heads of the fathers of Judah and Benjamin rose …” (1:5 ). What is not expected, however, is Ezra’s next statement: “… of all whose spirits God stirred to go up to build the house of Yahweh which is in Jerusalem” (1:5b ). The response of the Jewish leaders, rather than being a function of their own inclinations, turns out to be a reflection of Yahweh’s sovereign working. Everyone and anyone did not respond to Cyrus’s offer to return to Judah and build the temple; rather, it was those whose spirits Yahweh stirred that responded. God’s elective stirring of the more than 42,000 Jews who were to return and rebuild the temple testifies to the extent and magnitude of His sovereign power.312
The Jews were not the only ones to respond to Cyrus’s edict. According to Ezra 1:6, their neighbors “strengthened their hands with vessels of silver, with gold, with goods, and with cattle, and with valuable things, besides all that was offered willingly.” Interestingly, Ezra’s description of the Persian response repeats the exact wording of Cyrus’s decree—with one slight addition. It is, however, that addition, “and with valuable things,” that suggests that the Persian response surpassed the perfunctory and was actually quite generous.313 The wording of Cyrus’s decree, “with silver and with gold and with goods and with cattle, with a free-will offering,” admits the interpretation that the first four items listed in verse four were suggested examples of the free-will offerings Cyrus was mandating. Ezra’s account of what actually happened indicates that not only did their neighbors give the items listed by Cyrus, but that in addition to the suggested free-will offerings they also gave “valuable things” above and beyond Cyrus’s suggestion. In the light of the revelation that Cyrus’s decree and the Returnees’ response were motivated by Yahweh, the generous support given the Returnees perhaps implies that the Persians’ generosity was motivated by Yahweh as well.
Following his proclamation, Cyrus brings out “the vessels of the house of Yahweh … by the hand of Mithredath the treasurer” (1:7-8 ). The logic of the narrative’s sequence suggests that Cyrus’s action is another effect of Yahweh’s stirring, though Ezra does not make this connection directly. In chapter six, however, if the reader has not drawn this conclusion on his own, Ezra fills it in for him. The copy of Cyrus’s decree found in Ecbatana by Darius explicitly states, “The vessels of the house of God … let them be restored and go to the temple which is in Jerusalem to its place, and you will deposit them in the house of God” (6:5 ). Clearly the return of the temple vessels was a result of Yahweh’s stirring as well.
The scroll from the archive in Ecbatana also brings to light a fourth effect of Yahweh’s stirring not even hinted at in chapter one. According to that memorandum, Cyrus had authorized the temple building to be funded by the imperial treasury: “and let the expense be given from the house of the king” (6:4 ).314 Cyrus’s return of the treasure taken by the Babylonians is one thing, but his grant of full financing from the royal treasury testifies unmistakably to Yahweh’s power to control men’s hearts. Alternatively, one could regard the waw copulative on twndgmbw as a waw explicativum summing up the previous items. E. Kautzsch, ed., Gesenius’ Hebrew Grammar, trans. A. E. Cowley, 2d ed. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1910), 154a. Given that interpretation, the Persian response rises no higher than dutiful obedience to Cyrus’s mandate. Removed because Shumate thought it undercut making a point of the addition. I don’t think it is a waw explicativum and I didn’t find any commentary to who took it that way, so why bring it up?
After the Returnees refounded the temple, they began reconstruction in earnest (3:10-13 ). Hearing of the work, the peoples of the lands come to the Jewish leaders requesting to participate in the building program (4:1-3 ). When their request is denied, they wage an organized campaign of opposition and terror up to the time of Darius (4:4-5 ). As noted before, Ezra concatenates a series of incidents occurring throughout the reigns of Cyrus, Darius, Xerxes, and Artaxerxes into what appears to be an insuperable mountain of opposition.315 The Returnees’ opponents get their way. Their intimidation tactics work, and their political cunning brings God’s plan to a halt, or so it seems. In the face of such overwhelming resistance, God demonstrates His sovereign power by turning Darius’s heart “to strengthen [the Returnees’] hands in the work of the house of God,” thereby overturning all opposition to His purposes (6:22 ). Ezra’s thematic development of the opposition to God’s people as well as its non-chronological placement creates a foil against which God’s power is magnified.
As in the case of Cyrus, God’s control of Darius demonstrates His sovereignty. In contrast to God’s dealing with Cyrus, Darius appears to be unaware of God’s working, reflecting the versatility of God’s power. He does not need man’s conscious cooperation to accomplish His purposes.
Another way in which Ezra displays God’s sovereign power in this phase of the narrative is through the extent to which God turns Darius’s heart. Darius could have simply issued permission for the Jews to continue building the temple. However, he chooses to follow through on Cyrus’s edict that the expenses for the temple should come out of the royal treasury (“house of the king”; 6:4 ). Rather than construing the edict narrowly to apply only to the rebuilding project, Darius broadens its reference to include the maintenance of temple worship: “Whatever they need, even sons of bullocks and rams and lambs for burnt offering to the God of Heaven; wheat, salt, wine, oil, according to the word of the priests which are in Jerusalem, let it be given to them daily without neglect” (6:9 ). Beyond that, Darius establishes penalties for anyone who would frustrate the work on the temple (6:11 ).
With the issuance of Darius’s decree, the Jewish elders “built and finished [the temple] … by the third day of the month of Adar” (6:14-15 ). In terms of plot structure, the story begun in chapter one reaches its denouement in chapter six, and a new story line begins in chapter seven. The temple is finished, and the celebration is over. However, in the midst of recounting the completion of the temple under Darius, Ezra gives the reader a panoramic view God’s working from the time of Cyrus to that of Artaxerxes: “And the elders of Judah were building and prospering during the prophesying of Haggai the prophet and Zechariah the son of Iddo; and they built and they finished from the command of the God of Israel and from the command of Cyrus and Darius and Artaxerxes, king of Persia” (6:14 ). The perspective of this verse is profound: God is the ultimate sovereign under whom each of these earthly kings ruled and according to whose command they acted. The anachronous location of this verse in the narrative chronology, as noted before,316 makes it even more distinct. Artaxerxes’ contribution to the temple has not been recounted, yet Ezra includes him as a contributor to the temple’s reconstruction. Ezra 6:14 , in connection with the explicit statement in 7:27 , “who put this in the heart of the king to beautify the house of Yahweh …,” creates a narratorial bridge between Ezra’s two plots and indicates that Ezra regarded Yahweh’s work in Artaxerxes’ heart as a continuation of and the final completion of the rebuilding of the temple.317
For the final time in the narrative, Ezra 7:27 reveals the invisible working of Yahweh in the heart of Persia’s sovereign to accomplish His purposes. As with Cyrus and Darius, Artaxerxes issues a decree that magnifies God’s sovereign power. Besides the extent of the liberality to which God moved Artaxerxes, the fact that Artaxerxes styles himself as “king of kings” makes God’s use of him all the more magnificent (7:12 ). The true King of Kings demonstrates His sovereignty by employing Artaxerxes’ hubris to accomplish His own purposes.
The natural conclusion from these events is that Yahweh’s sovereign power knows no bounds. Yahweh possesses the kingdoms of the earth and is their true king. Yahweh has the authority to appoint kings to do His will. His sovereign power also extends to the election of those He desires to participate in the return to Judah and the motivation of the Persians’ generosity. Jews and Persians, high and low, all are subject to His control.
The second facet of God’s character that Ezra highlights is His faithfulness. Ezra develops the theme of God’s faithfulness primarily by showing God sovereignly fulfilling His word.
Ezra introduces the theme of God’s faithfulness to His word, as he did the theme of God’s sovereign power, in the opening line of his narrative: “And in the first year of Cyrus, King of Persia, to fulfill the word of Yahweh from the mouth of Jeremiah, Yahweh stirred the spirit of Cyrus …” (1:1 ). By identifying Yahweh’s purpose for stirring Cyrus as the fulfillment of His word, Ezra invites the reader to see in his narrative the historical demonstration of God’s faithfulness to His promises. The qualifying phrase “from the mouth of Jeremiah” defines the scope of the “word of Yahweh” that Ezra has in mind: specifically what God revealed through Jeremiah. Although Ezra specifies Jeremiah’s prophecies as the object of Yahweh’s fulfillment, he leaves unspecified precisely which “word” of Jeremiah is being fulfilled.
Scholars generally identify Ezra’s allusion to Jeremiah with his prophecies of a seventy-year period of exile in Jeremiah 25:11 and 29:10 .318 The most common reason given for this linkage is the similarity of Ezra 1:1-3 and 2 Chronicles 36:20-23 . The author of Chronicles states that the Babylonian exile took place “to fulfill the word of Yahweh by the mouth of Jeremiah … to fulfill seventy years” (36:21 ).319 Immediately following this statement, he appends the account of Cyrus’s proclamation, clearly implying a connection between the termination of the seventy-year exile and Yahweh’s stirring of Cyrus. While this connection is explicit in Chronicles, Ezra makes no mention of the seventy-year prophecy, nor does he anywhere limit the extent of the fulfillment to the exile or its termination. The open-endedness of his allusion suggests that he has in mind a much broader spectrum of Jeremiah’s prophetic word.320 The fact that Ezra mentions Jeremiah in the context of the return from exile suggests that he has in mind the Jeremian promises of restoration and hope for the exiles.
Distributed throughout Jeremiah’s denunciations and calls for repentance are the tender mercies of Yahweh in the form of restoration promises.321 Yahweh promises that after 70 years of exile, “I will visit you and will establish my good word concerning you to bring you back to this place” (Jer. 29:10 ). Eight times throughout Jeremiah, the Lord promises that He will “restore the fortunes”322 of His people both physically and spiritually. 22
The primary physical element of the promises is that the exiles will return to their own land in great numbers, including those normally unfit or unable to travel—the blind, the lame, the pregnant woman, and the woman in labor (24:6 ; 29:10 ; 31:7-8 ).323 Jeremiah pictures this return as God leading His flock back to their pasture (23:3 ; 31:10 ). God will bring them up from the land of the north (Babylon; 16:15 ; 23:7-8 ; 31:8 ) and restore them to the land given to their fathers (3:18 ; 16:5 ; 30:3 ), even to their own cities (31:21 , 23 , 24 ). The magnitude of this restoration will be so great that it will eclipse the Exodus, and they will no longer swear, “As Yahweh lives who brought the sons of Israel up from the land of Egypt,” but “As surely as Yahweh lives who brought the sons of Israel up from the land of the North and from all the lands where He thrust them” (16:14-15 ; cf. 23:7-8 ).
The city of Jerusalem and its citadel324 will be rebuilt (30:18 ; 31:38-39 ), and it will once again be filled with people (33:10-11 ). The temple will also be restored (33:11 ).325 Israel herself will be the object of God’s building and replanting (24:6 ; 29:11 ; 31:27-28 ). In language expressing the depth of His love for Israel, the Lord promises to rejoice over her and build her with all His heart and all His soul (32:41 ). He will restore His people’s health, heal their wounds, and cause them to be fruitful and multiply (23:3 ; 30:17 , 19-20 ). The economy will again prosper as houses, lands, and vineyards are bought and sold in the land (32:15 , 42-44 ).
Beyond simply returning from exile, the Lord promises that He will break the yoke of foreign enslavement from their necks (30:8 ) and redeem them from their servitude (30:8 ; 31:11 ). He will raise up rulers over them who will care for them, providing them security so that they are no longer afraid or terrified and none of them is missing (23:3-4 ; 30:10 ; 46:27 ). Their leader will be “one of them,” and God will “bring him near, and he shall approach Me” (30:21 ). He will be a descendant of David and will rule as king over Israel (23:5-6 ; 30:9 ). His name will be Yahweh our Righteousness (23:6 ; 33:16 ), and He will reign with wisdom, justice, and righteousness over both Israel and Judah (23:5-6 ; 33:15 ). In conjunction with the promise of a Davidic ruler over His restored people, the Lord promises that “there shall not be cut off to David a man sitting upon the throne of the house of Israel” (33:17 ). The Lord will multiply his descendants as the host of heaven and as the sand of the sea (33:22 ). The Lord will also multiply the Levites, so that “the Levitical priests shall never lack a man” to offer offerings before the Lord (33:18-22 , NASB). There will again be songs of thanksgiving and rejoicing heard in the land (30:19 ; 33:11 ). There will be shouting for joy in Zion over the bountiful provision of the Lord, for He will “turn their mourning into joy … and cause them to rejoice from their sorrow” (31:12-13 ).
Yahweh’s promises of spiritual restoration, though not as numerous, are the most profound aspect of Jeremiah’s restoration theology. The statement that occurs most frequently throughout the restoration promises is “they will be my people and I will be their God.”326 This relationship, intended from Israel’s conception (Exod. 6:7 ; Lev. 26:12 ), will be established by the Lord with a new covenant (31:33-34 ) that will be eternal (32:40 ; 50:5 ). In response to His peoples’ calling upon Him in prayer, and seeking for Him with all their hearts (29:12-13 ), He will hear them and permit himself to be found of them (29:12 , 14 ). He will forgive their sins, cleanse their iniquities (33:8 ; 31:34 ), and write His law upon their hearts (31:33 ). He will give them new hearts, hearts to know Him (24:7 ) and to fear him so that they will all know God (31:34 ) and never turn from Him again (32:40 ). The land will be filled with an abundance of peace and truth (33:6 ), and Israel will finally become a testimony to God’s goodness that reaches the world (33:9 ).327
When the details of the Book of Ezra are examined in the light of the breadth and specificity of Jeremiah’s restoration theology, the effect is comparable to turning on a black lamp over a rock collection: suddenly drabness gives way to glowing, vibrant colors. What appear to be mundane plot inclusions or incidental details in Ezra actually turn out to be subtle statements of God’s fulfillment of His word through Jeremiah. Virtually every scene in Ezra 1-6 contains some reflection of Jeremiah’s prophecies. The prevalence of these allusions suggests that a key principle informing Ezra’s selection of material is the restoration promises of Jeremiah. In other words, the strong correspondence between promise in Jeremiah and fulfillment in Ezra suggests that Ezra is consciously including in his narrative those events from the Return and Temple Restoration that fulfill Jeremiah’s promises.
The return to the land stands out as the most prominent fulfillment of Jeremiah’s prophecy.328 The magnitude of the first return, 42,360 people (Ezra 2:64 ), reflects the initial fulfillment of Jeremiah’s promise that a great host would return (Jer. 31:8 ). The list in Ezra 2 implicitly points to several aspects of Jeremiah’s restoration prophecies. First, it links them to their fathers and thus to the land of their fathers in fulfillment of the promise: “I will restore them to the land which I gave to their fathers” (Jer. 16:5 ; 30:3 ). All the names in the Ezra 2 list, however, are not patriarchal. Most of the names in 2:21-35 , if not all of them, are names of cities.329 These verses in conjunction with the explicit statements in 2:70 and 3:1 that “all Israel [dwelt] in their cities” match Yahweh’s insistent call in Jeremiah 31:21 , “Return, O virgin of Israel, return to these your cities.”
In addition to repatriating the Jewish exiles, Cyrus also carries out Yahweh’s commission to rebuild His house of worship. One of the first tangible steps Cyrus takes after issuing his proclamation is to return the temple vessels Nebuchadnezzar had taken into the care of Sheshbazzar (Ezra 1:7-11 ). This fulfills God’s promise in Jeremiah 27:21-22 that “the [temple] vessels … shall be brought to Babylon and they will be there until the day I visit them, declares Yahweh, And I will bring them up and restore them to this place.” The renewal of free-will offerings (Ezra 3:5 ) and the thankful singing of Yahweh’s goodness and lovingkindness (Ezra 3:11 ) fulfill the prophecy that “again shall be heard … the voice of those saying, ‘Give thanks to Yahweh of hosts, for Yahweh is good, for his lovingkindness endures forever’; and of those bringing a thank offering to the house of Yahweh” (Jer. 33:10-11 ).330 The sound of joyful shouting at the founding of the temple, which was heard at a great distance (Ezra 3:13 ), matches Jeremiah’s promises that “from them will go forth thanksgiving and the voice of those who make merry” (Jer. 30:19 ). Ezra 6:22 recounts the joy at the celebration of the Passover in accord with Jeremiah 33:10-11 , “… again shall be heard … the voice of joy.”
When Tatnai permits the Jewish elders to continue working until a report comes from Darius, Ezra notes that his leniency was a result of “the eye of their God upon [them]” (Ezra 5:5 ). The similarity of Ezra’s terminology to Jeremiah 24:6 , “And I will set my eye upon them for good, and I will restore them to this land,” suggests that Ezra views God’s intervention on the Jew’s behalf as a fulfillment of that promise. Ezra’s more frequently used phrase “the (good) hand of God” also signals the fulfillment of the God’s promised benevolence to His people.
In addition to displaying God’s faithfulness in His fulfillment of His word, Ezra also develops his portrait of God’s faithfulness by noting how He has dealt with the exiles. Ezra underscores this aspect of God’s faithfulness in a number of places throughout the book. The first is in Ezra 3:11 . In context, the people are rejoicing over the founding of the temple and praising God for His goodness and faithfulness: “And they sang with praise and with thanksgiving to Yahweh for He is good, for His lovingkindness is upon Israel forever.”331 The phrase, “His lovingkindness is upon Israel forever,” highlights the dominant element of God’s relationship to His covenant people. He is eternally faithful in showing kindness to those with whom He has a covenantal relationship.332
The second instance in which Ezra notes Yahweh’s faithfulness is in Ezra 7:28 . After receiving the generous grant of Artaxerxes, including volunteer offerings of silver and gold by the king and his counselors (7:15 ), a huge credit line on the king’s treasury (7:21-22 ), exemption of all temple-related personnel from tribute, tax, or toll (7:24 ), and authority to appoint magistrates and judges to enforce and teach the law (7:25-26 ), Ezra lifts his voice in praise to Yahweh for extending lovingkindness to him: “Blessed be Yahweh, the God of our fathers, who … extended lovingkindness to me before the king” (7:27-28 ).333
The final and most dramatic statement of Yahweh’s faithfulness occurs in Ezra’s prayer of confession. Rousing from his stunned grief at learning that the people had again married foreign wives, Ezra pours out his heart to God. He begins by acknowledging both the magnitude of their guilt—“our iniquities have multiplied above the head and our guilt is great unto the heavens. From the days of our fathers we have been in great guilt …” (9:6-7a )—and God’s justice in delivering them into the hand of the “kings of the lands … with sword, with captivity, and with spoil, and with shame of face as it is this day” (9:7b ). Despite their overwhelming guilt before Yahweh, Ezra marvels that “in our servitude our God has not abandoned us but has extended loyal lovingkindness to us before the kings of Persia …” (9:9a ). This statement identifies two ways in which God demonstrated faithfulness to His people: by not forsaking them and by extending lovingkindness to them before the Persians. God’s loyalty to His faithless people constitutes perhaps the single greatest display of His faithfulness. Though they were unfaithful, yet He remained steadfast.334 Despite the guilt of Judah and Israel, God did not abandon His faithless people, but was still demonstrating His loyal love just as He had many years before through the prophet Hosea.335 Ezra lists three ways in which Yahweh had extended loyal lovingkindness to them: (1) granting them a reviving,336 (2) raising the house of God and establishing its waste places, and (3) giving His people a hedge in Judah and in Jerusalem (9:9 ).337 In essence Ezra is summing up everything that had happened from the time of Cyrus to the present—the return to Israel, the restoration of the altar and temple, the degree of protection that they had enjoyed—as evidence of Yahweh’s loyal lovingkindness to His people.
The third aspect of God’s character that features prominently in Ezra’s narrative is His gracious goodness. The first and most direct statement of God’s goodness is made by the Returnees at the founding of the second temple: “for He is good, for His lovingkindness is upon Israel forever” (3:11 ). The first phrase of this formulaic statement captures the essence of Yahweh’s nature and disposition toward His people: He is good.338 God manifests His goodness in actively bestowing benefits upon those who seek Him: “His hand is for good upon those who seek Him” (8:22 ). Although Ezra makes no attempt to develop a systematic treatment of God’s goodness, the history of the Returnees is replete with evidence of it.
As noted in the previous chapter,339 Ezra regards the founding of the temple (3:11 ), Artaxerxes’ grant of everything he requested (7:6 ), his safe arrival in Jerusalem from Babylon (7:9 ), the finding of insightful men among the Levites who were willing to return to Judah (8:18 ), and the deliverance of the Returnees from “the palm of the enemy340 and ambusher along the road” (8:31 ) as evidences of God’s goodness at work.
Perhaps the most extended statement of God’s goodness may be found in Ezra’s prayer of confession. Two aspects of his prayer contribute to this theme. The first is Ezra’s statement following his review of God’s judgment in 9:6-7 : “And now for a small moment there was favor from Yahweh our God to leave for us an escaped remnant and to give us a peg in His holy place; to lighten our eyes, O our God, and to give us a little reviving in our servitude” (9:8 ). As precarious as their status was,341 it was nonetheless a status resulting from God’s favor (hnjt; 9:8 ). In this statement Ezra’s lists four ways in which God manifested His favor: (1) preserving for them an escaped remnant,342 (2) giving them a peg in His holy place,343 (3) enlightening their eyes, and (4) giving them a little reviving in their servitude. The broadness of Ezra’s statement suggests that the entire process of restoration and rebuilding constituted a “reviving” that stemmed from God’s favor. From this perspective, the permission and provisions to return (1:2-4 , 6 ), the restoration of the altar (3:1-6 ), the motivation and support of Haggai and Zechariah (5:1-2 ), freedom to continue building during Tatnai’s investigation (5:5 ), the fact that God provided the financial resources for the reconstruction and maintenance of His house from the Persian treasury under Cyrus (6:4 ), Darius (6:8 ), and Artaxerxes (7:21-22 ), the completion of the temple (6:14-15 ), the overturning of opposition (6:22 ), and the largess of Artaxerxes’ grant (7:12-26 ) all testify to the immensity of Yahweh’s goodness toward His people.
After listing the evidences of God’s goodness and faithfulness (9:8-9 ), Ezra continues his prayer with a confession of their present abandonment of God’s law. One cannot help being struck by the ubiquity of God’s goodness, for even in the very law which they have broken is a testimony of God’s goodness. The stated purpose for the prohibition of intermarriage with the peoples of the lands is that “you may be strong and eat the good of the land and leave an inheritance for your sons forever” (9:12 ). Yahweh’s desire for the good of His people reflects His own goodness. He places limitations upon them because He is good and, therefore, wants what is best for them.
The closing sentence of Ezra’s confession brings into focus the aspect of God’s character that is most prominent in the final episode of the book: His righteousness. Ezra concludes his prayer with the words, “O Yahweh, God of Israel, You are righteous, for we are left an escaped remnant according as it is this day; behold, we are before Your face in our guilt; we are not able to stand before You because of this” (9:15 ). In the Old Testament righteousness generally denotes the condition of being in conformity to a standard, whether in reference to one’s character or actions.344 Throughout his prayer Ezra focuses upon what God has done, rather than upon who He is.345 Given that focus, his statement that Yahweh is righteous is an affirmation that Yahweh always does what is right. This understanding is further supported by Ezra’s following phrase: “for we are left an escaped remnant as it is this day.” The existence of an “escaped remnant” testifies to Yahweh’s righteousness in delivering and preserving His people.
What Ezra intended to imply by his affirmation of Yahweh’s righteousness has been interpreted in several ways. Some commentators take Ezra to be focusing on the judgment that Israel has received and still deserves. For example, C. F. Keil regards Ezra’s purpose as “not to supplicate pardon … but to rouse the conscience of the community, to point out to them what … they had to expect from the justice of God.”346 Similarly, Jacob Myers sees Ezra directing his prayer “toward the assembled members of the community in the hope that the guilty ones might take the necessary steps to rid themselves of contamination.”347 On the other hand, a number of commentators take Ezra’s statement to contain an implicit plea for mercy. F. C. Fensham , for example, takes Ezra to mean “that the Lord was friendlily [sic] disposed to them. He was so friendlily disposed that in spite of their sins they were granted a remnant.”348
As divergent as these interpretations appear, the semantic potential of Ezra’s terminology as well as the context of his prayer suggest that he has both God’s wrath and mercy in view, though God’s mercy is in the forefront and God’s wrath is in the background.349 Specifically, Ezra uses the term “escaped remnant” four times within the context of his prayer. The word flyp “escaped remnant,” derived from the verb flp “to escape,” has an interesting duality in meaning.350 It first implies the wrath of Yahweh’s judgment in that, because of their sin, He had reduced them from a numerous people to a mere remnant.351 In this way Ezra’s statement implicitly affirms that Yahweh was righteous for bringing destruction and exile upon His people for their sin.352
The second implication of “escaped remnant,” and probably the aspect that is foremost in Ezra’s mind, is Yahweh’s mercy in preserving them an escaped remnant.353 The “righteousness” of Yahweh’s mercy stems from His frequent promises to preserve a remnant of His people.354 In keeping His word to preserve a remnant, Yahweh demonstrated His righteousness. Contextually, the fact that Ezra first mentions the remnant as an evidence of God’s favor upon His people (9:8 ) supports the contention that mercy is at the forefront of his mind. In verse 13 , Ezra explicitly acknowledges that, in preserving a remnant, Yahweh had given them less than their iniquity deserved.355 This also supports the focus on mercy.
Ezra’s conclusion, therefore, is a simple assertion that Yahweh will do what is right. There is no question that they deserve destruction and that motivates Ezra’s vocal penitence and confession. At the same time, God’s undeserved loyal lovingkindness and grace in the past may indicate that He is yet willing to forgive if they will turn from their sin.
The divine titles distributed through the narrative do not explicitly develop a thesis about God as does, for example, “the Holy One of Israel,” in the Book of Isaiah.356 As the narrative unfolds, however, Yahweh’s unique identity emerges with clarity from the names and titles used by the narrator and characters.357 The titles “God of Israel” and “Yahweh, the God of Israel” are the most frequently used titles in the book.358 They identify Yahweh as the God of Israel and point to His special relationship to His people. The repeated identification of Jerusalem as the location of His temple also emphasizes to His unique association with the Jews.359
The title with next highest frequency in Ezra is “the God of Heaven.”360 It occurs eight times in Ezra, two times more frequently than in any other OT book. A number of commentators have argued that the origin of this title “should be sought in the diplomatic terminology of the Persian administration,”361 and that “Ezra’s use of the phrase ‘the God of Heaven’” constitutes a pragmatic accommodation to Persian religious terminology and perhaps even a “recognition of something authentic in Persian religion.”362 However, several observations about the distribution of this title in Ezra, even apart from it pre-exilic usage, render this view untenable. Contrary to Holmgren ’s assertion, Ezra never uses the title “God of Heaven,” either as narrator or in his autobiographical sketch. This specific title occurs only in Persian edicts. A variation of this title does occur in Tatnai’s account of the Jewish elder’s response to his investigation (5:11 , 12 ). Upon being questioned, they identify themselves as “the servants of the God of heaven and earth” (5:11 ).363 However, the fierce rejection by the Jewish leaders of any potential for syncretism (4:1-3 ) makes it highly unlikely that their use of the phrase “the God of heaven and earth” in 5:11 was intended as open-ended religious terminology that could be taken by the Persians however they wanted.364 Also, the fact that the narrator introduces Cyrus’s edict by stating that Yahweh was fulfilling His word through Cyrus clearly identifies the ‘Yahweh’ to whom Cyrus refers as the same ‘Yahweh’ to whom the narrator refers. This narratorial appropriation of Cyrus’s edict in no way represents an accommodation to Persian terminology, much less an acknowledgment that the Persians worshipped the same God as Israel. On the contrary, Ezra 1:1-2 establishes a narratorial framework within which all the rest of the references to God in the book are to be interpreted.
An interpretation that is much more consonant with the tenor of the book is that the narrator is using the Persians’ words to proclaim Yahweh’s supremacy. Taken together, the names and titles used for Yahweh suggest at least two definite propositions. First, since Yahweh is designated as the God of Heaven and the God of Israel (1:2-3 ), the God of Heaven and the God of Israel are one and the same. Second, within the interpretive framework established by the narrator, the titles, “God of Heaven” and “the God of heaven and earth,” imply that Yahweh is the supreme God. By the time the reader finishes the book, the accumulated references to Yahweh coalesce into a unified picture of Yahweh as the one supreme God who rules both heaven and earth. Yahweh, the God of Israel, whose temple is in Jerusalem in Judah, is not only the God of Heaven, He is the God of heaven and earth. His supremacy is unsurpassed.
True to its nature as narrative, the Book of Ezra does not leave the reader with a set of logically interconnected propositions about God. It presents, instead, a series of scenes and narratorial comments which form the composite portrait Ezra intends to portray and from which the reader must piece together the propositional content of his message. The most pervasive element of Ezra’s portrait is God’s immanence in post-exilic history. Though Yahweh is the supreme God of heaven and earth, He is not remote, unapproachable, or unconcerned. He is actively engaged in the lives of His people. Observation of His activity identified four major aspects of His character that Ezra emphasizes: His power, faithfulness, goodness, and righteousness.
The aspect of God’s character that receives the greatest emphasis and development is His sovereign power. Ezra repeatedly draws attention to Yahweh’s work in the hearts of men to accomplish His purposes (1:1 , 5 ; 6:14 , 22 ; 7:27 ). By highlighting Yahweh’s control of Cyrus, Darius, and Artaxerxes, Ezra demonstrates in narrative form what Daniel asserts propositionally: “the Most High God is ruler over the realm of mankind, and bestows it on whom He wishes” (Dan. 4:14 , 32 ; 5:21 ).365 Yahweh owns it all and controls it all. The greatest of human kings are subject to His decree (Ezra 6:14 ; 7:12 ). His sovereign power effects the permission, personnel, financial resources, and imperial support His people need to accomplish the rebuilding of the temple. At nearly every juncture of Persian interaction with Israel, Ezra shows God in charge, orchestrating the events of history in harmony with His own ends. History’s plot hinges on the master Plotter. Its inscrutable twists are of His design. The profound practical implication for post-exilic Israel is that God is as much in charge of their fortunes now as He ever was. Clearly, Yahweh is the controlling force behind all of Israel’s history, and by implication, behind all of human history.
The ends for which Yahweh uses His sovereign power reveal His faithfulness, goodness, and righteousness. God’s concern to fulfill His word is the motive that sets the narrative in motion (1:1 ). As Ezra recounts the Returnees’ story, no less than eight specific prophecies of Jeremiah are fulfilled. True to His name, Yahweh keeps His promises despite the opposition that mounted against His people. That “He is good” is fully substantiated as Ezra shows Him blessing, protecting, providing, encouraging, and sustaining those who seek Him, just as He said He would. Yet God’s faithfulness is a double-edged sword. Just as surely as He pours out promised blessings upon those who seek Him, He pours out promised wrath in righteous judgment upon those who forsake Him. It is God’s faithfulness to His word that fills Ezra with fear and trembling when He learns of the Returnees’ sin. The Exile gave testimony that as God had destroyed their fathers, He could righteously destroy them. Yet His mercy-tempered righteousness in preserving a remnant indicates that mercy may yet be found.
As richly textured as Ezra’s portrait of Yahweh is, it is not his purpose to create a literary portrait of God merely for the reader’s contemplation. He has highlighted specific facets of God’s character in order to make a pointed message to his audience. As always, who God is creates certain demands upon the character and behavior of His people. The next chapter explores the nature of those demands and their implications for the Returnees and their relationship to God.
298 This chapter focuses on Ezra’s portrayal of God. The following chapter will develop the themes that relate to the people and their relationship to God.
299 Although the prophets had often told the people that their election, rather than guaranteeing their invincibility, actually guaranteed that unfaithfulness to Yahweh would bring His wrath upon them as a potter smashes a vessel (Isa. 30:14 ; Jer. 19:11 ; cf. Amos 3:2 ), they nonetheless persisted in their ill-founded faith (Jer. 7:4-8 ).
301 Ephraim Stern , Material Culture of the Land of the Bible in the Persian Period 538-332 B.C. (Warminster: Aris & Phillips, 1982), 229.
302 Nehemiah described the condition of the city: “[its] walls were broken down and its gates were burned with fire” (Neh. 2:13-15 ). The rubble was so bad in places that Nehemiah found it impassible (2:14 ). It is likely that the damage Nehemiah surveyed was the combined result of Nebuchadnezzar’s destruction of the city and the more recent damage done by Rehum and Shimshai (Ezra 4:23 ).
303 Paul Ferguson , “Ezra, Theology of,” Evangelical Dictionary of Biblical Theology, ed. Walter A. Elwell (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1996), 233.
304 God’s power and sovereignty are so closely connected in Ezra that they may be treated as one theme. That God is powerful is clear from His control of the people and circumstances throughout the narrative. The fact that He controls the world’s greatest potentates establishes the sovereign nature of His power.
305 God’s method of exerting His power is noteworthy. In contrast to the many direct miraculous interventions seen throughout Israel’s history, God’s modus operandi in post-exilic history, as recorded in Ezra, is entirely behind the scenes, directing men’s hearts and minds.
306 The “first year” to which Ezra refers is Cyrus’s first year as the king of the consolidated Medo-Persian-Babylonian empire. He became king of Anshan in 559/8 B.C., and brought the Babylonian empire under his control twenty years later in 539/8 B.C. (J. C. Whitcomb, “Cyrus,” The Zondervan Pictorial Encyclopedia of the Bible, ed. Merrill C. Tenney [Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1975], 1:1054-56).
307 For extended discussions of the reign of Cyrus, see the articles by T. Cuyler Young , Jr., “The Early History of the Medes and the Persians and the Achaemenid Empire to the Death of Cambyses” and Amlie Kuhrt , “Babylonia from Cyrus to Xerxes,” in The Cambridge Ancient History, ed. John Boardman, et al., 2d ed. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988), 4:1-47; 112-38.
309 Because of the theological nature of Cyrus’s edict, critics frequently credit its “Israelite” language to a later Jewish editor. Bob Becking , for example, regards it as the application of “a ‘Cyrus-motif’ to the prehistory of the Ezra community … to give ‘imperial backing’ to the Ezra group” (“Ezra on the Move … Trends and Perspectives on the Character and His Book,” in Perspectives in the Study of the Old Testament & Early Judaism, ed. Florentino Garca Martnez and Ed Noort [Leiden: Brill, 1998], 163). There is, however, no compelling reason to reject the language of the decree precisely as it stands in the text; in fact, contemporary Persian texts appear to support it. In the Cyrus Cylinder, Cyrus attributes his rise in power to Marduk, the god of Babylon: “Marduk … called Cyrus, king of Anshan. He nominated him to be ruler over all” (D. Winton Thomas, Documents from Old Testament Times [New York: Harper & Row, Publishers, 1958], 92). In the temple of Sin at Ur, inscribed bricks were found which read: “Cyrus, king of all, king of Anshan, son of Cambyses, King of Anshan, the great gods have delivered all the lands into my hand” (Roland de Vaux , The Bible and the Ancient Near East, trans. Damian McHugh [Garden City: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1971], 69). In the same location, a cylinder presumably referring to Cyrus was found bearing the following inscription: “Sin the Nannar … of heaven and earth, with his favourable omen delivered into my hands the four quarters of the world” (ibid.). After surveying these archeological finds, de Vaux aptly concludes, “The presence of the tetragram [in Ezra 1:2-3 ] does not constitute an argument against the authenticity of these verses, since Cyrus, who in Babylon attributed his rise to Marduk and at Ur to Sin could have named Yahweh in connection with Jerusalem” (95). For further discussion of Ezra 1:2-4 in relation to other contemporary edicts by Cyrus, see A. Kuhrt , “The Cyrus Cylinder and Achaemenid Imperial Policy,” JSOT 25 (1983): 83-97; and H. G. M. Williamson , Ezra, Nehemiah, vol. 16 of Word Biblical Commentary (Waco: Word Books, 1985), 11-12.
310 Whether Cyrus believed what he said or, like Caiaphas (John 11:49-51 ), was used to state the truth regardless of his spiritual condition, does not affect the veracity of his statement. As noted in Chapter Four , the narrator’s imprimatur places the credibility of the decree beyond doubt.
311 Another implication of Cyrus’s decree is that the Return to Judah was simply a means of accomplishing God’s primary desire: the rebuilding of the temple. This fact perhaps explains why Ezra gives so little attention to the Return itself.
312 As mundane as the list of names in Ezra 2 is, nonetheless it too reflects the power of God, for God’s stirring of His people was not indiscriminate. Every category of workers needed to operate and maintain worship in the Temple appears in this list: priests (2:36 ), Levites (2:40 ), temple singers (2:41 ), gatekeepers (2:42 ), and temple servants (the Nethinim; 2:43-54 ).
313 For an extended discussion of repetition with variation and its function in Biblical narrative, see Sternberg , The Poetics of Biblical Narrative, 365-440.
314 The differences between the two records of Cyrus’s decree have also been cited as evidence against the authenticity of Ezra 1:2-4 . Examples of critical rejection of both decrees may be found in W. O. E. Oesterley , A History of Israel. vol. 2 (Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1932), 74-77, and Robert H. Pfeiffer , “Ezra and Nehemiah,” in Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible (Nashville, Abingdon Press, 1962), 2:217. More commonly, the Aramaic version (Ezra 6:3-5 ) is accepted due to its non-theological tenor and its original language citation. For example, see Sara Japhet , “The Temple in the Restoration Period: Reality and Ideology,” Union Seminary Quarterly Review 44 (1991): 210-11. Elias J. Bickermann , a critic himself, rightly regards most of the criticism leveled against these two forms of Cyrus’s decree as specious, being founded on presuppositions about Persian literary style which are not borne out by archeological evidence. “The Edict of Cyrus in Ezra 1,” JBL 65 (1946): 249-75. He argues that Ezra is citing two separate sources, each with a distinct function. The decree cited in Ezra 1:2-4 was intended for oral proclamation and naturally would have been issued in the language of the people to whom it was addressed, whereas that in Ezra 6:3-5 was an administrative memorandum for archival purposes and used Aramaic, the official administrative language of the Persian empire (253). For similar conservative evaluations, see R. K. Harrison , Introduction to the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1969), 1141, and Gleason L. Archer , A Survey of Old Testament Introduction, rev. ed. (Chicago: Moody Press, 1994), 461.
315 See Chapter One, pages 38ff., where Ezra’s development of the theme of opposition is discussed. For an explanation of why Ezra deviates from a strictly chronological presentation in Ezra 4-6 , see Chapters One and Two .
316 See Chapter One, pages 40-42.
317 Contra W. C. van Wyk ’s contention that crediting Artaxerxes with building the temple is an inconsistency on Ezra’s part. “The Enemies in Ezra 1-6 : Interaction Between Text and Reader,” Journal for Semitics 8 (1996): 45.
318 Among the commentators that follow this identification are C. F. Keil , “Ezra,” in vol. 4 of Commentary on the Old Testament, trans. Sophia Taylor (1866-91; reprint, Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 1996), 14; F. Charles Fensham , The Books of Ezra and Nehemiah, The New International Commentary on the Old Testament, ed. R. K. Harrison (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1982), 42-43; Edwin M. Yamauchi , “Ezra-Nehemiah,” in The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, ed. Frank E. Gaebelein (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1985), 4:601; and Mark A. Throntveit , Ezra-Nehemiah, in Interpretation (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1992), 14. F. C. Holmgren admits “the reference may be to a number of Jeremiah’s oracles concerning the future,” but he considers “Jeremiah’s prophecy of a seventy-year captivity for the people of Judah” to be the most likely reference. Israel Alive Again: A Commentary on the Books of Ezra and Nehemiah (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, Co., 1987), 6. Blenkinsopp suggests that Ezra is conflating Jeremiah 29 and Isaiah 41:2 , 25 ; 45:13 (74). In a completely different vein, Williamson suggests that “the word of the Lord through Jeremiah” refers not to promises of return from exile, but to “a passage [Jer. 51:1-14 ] predicting that the Lord would stir up the spirit of Cyrus in such a way that he would order the rebuilding of the temple and the return of the exiles” (Ezra, Nehemiah, 9-10). He bases his view on the occurrence of the verb ‘to stir’ ryu in Jeremiah 51:1 and in 51:11 in the phrase ydm yklm jwr-ta hwhy ryuh “Yahweh stirred the spirit of the kings of the Medes” (cf. Ezra 1:1 —srp-ilm vrk jwr-ta hwhy ryuh). Though the nearly exact verbal and syntactical parallelism between these passages makes this view quite attractive, it fails for several reasons. First, Jeremiah 51 says nothing about the rebuilding of the temple. The focus of the entire passage is on the Lord’s destruction of Babylon through Cyrus in vengeance for the Babylonian destruction of the temple. Second, Ezra’s focus is clearly upon the return and rebuilding of the temple. The (partial) fulfillment of this promise took place when the Lord stirred Cyrus and enabled him to defeat Babylon, not when Cyrus issued his proclamation of Jewish repatriation. Third, Williamson is forced to explain Ezra’s use of the phrase with the highly improbable conjecture that the author expects “his reader to interpret the negative prophecy of Jer 51 in the light of the positive statements of Isa 41 , 44 , and 45 ” (10).
319 The issues surrounding the identification of the starting and ending points, as well as the actual time span involved in the seventy-year exile, are beyond the scope of this chapter. For a discussion of this issue, see Peter R. Ackroyd , Exile and Restoration (London: SCM Press Ltd, 1968), 240, and the associated bibliography.
320 As Eskenazi concludes, “Jeremiah’s word in Ezra-Nehemiah is open-ended, inviting the reader to ponder what precisely will be completed” (In An Age of Prose, 44). John Applegate suggests a similar line of thought in his essay, “Jeremiah and the Seventy Years in the Hebrew Bible,” in The Book of Jeremiah and Its Reception, ed. A. H. W. Curtis and T. Rmer (Leuven, Belgium: Leuven University Press, 1997): 91-109. He concludes that “Ezra’s somewhat opaque use of Jeremiah … is [designed] to establish a broad theological continuity through a scheme of prophecy and fulfillment.” Unfortunately, he does not specify which elements compose that “continuity” (109). Doug Nykolaishen ’s master’s thesis heads in the right direction on this point. “The Use of Jeremiah 31 in the Book of Ezra” (M.A. thesis, Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, 1991). He begins with 49 potential correspondences between Ezra and Jeremiah 31 and eliminates all but five: joy in Ezra 6:22 and Jer. 31:13 ; law in Ezra 7:10 and Jer. 31:33 ; prayer for a safe journey in Ezra 8:21 and Jer. 31:7-9 ; breaking God’s covenant in Ezra 9:14 and Jer. 31:32 ; and making a covenant in Ezra 10:2-4 and Jer. 31:31-33 (143-45). Nykolaishen offers a number of valuable observations about inner-Biblical exegesis and particularly the relation Ezra bears to Jeremiah 31; however, the scope of his comparison prevented him from observing the wider correspondences that exist between Jeremiah’s prophecies and the record of their fulfillment in Ezra.
321 The passages that explicitly speak of a future restoration are Jeremiah 3:14-18 ; 16:14-15 ; 23:3-4 , 7-8 ; 24:4-7 ; 29:10-14 ; 30:3 , 8-11 , 17-22 ; 31:1 , 8-14 , 16-17 , 21 , 23-25 ; 32:6-15 , 37-38 ; 33:6-26 ; 46:27-28 . Passages that imply a future restoration include Jeremiah 12:14-17 and 50:4-5 . Robert D. Bell , “The Theology of Jeremiah,” Biblical Viewpoint 23, no. 2 (1984): 60-65.
322 The phrase twbv(-ta) bwv occurs 27 times in the OT. Of the eleven occurrences in Jeremiah, eight occur in the context of Jeremiah’s restoration promises to Israel (29:14 ; 30:3 , 18 ; 31:23 ; 32:44 ; 33:7 , 11 , 26 ). The KJV translates this phrase as “bring again the captivity,” however, a number of studies within the last century have concluded that a more appropriate translation is “restore the fortunes.” For an excellent summary of the major studies on this phrase as well as an independent analysis of the data, see John M. Bracke , “ub ebut: A Reappraisal,” ZAW 97 (1985): 233-44. He argues that the phrase “is a technical term indicating a restoration to an earlier time of well-being … [involving] Yahweh’s reversal of His judgment” (243-44).
323 Robert B. Chisholm , Jr., “A Theology of Jeremiah and Lamentations,” in A Biblical Theology of the Old Testament, ed. Roy B. Zuck (Chicago: Moody Press, 1991), 352.
324 The term ‘citadel’ /wmra occurs 32 times in the OT and refers to a “fortified dwelling, usually a part of the royal complex.” Victor P. Hamilton, “’armon,” TWOT, ed. R. Laird Harris (Chicago: Moody Press, 1980), 1:73.
325 Although Jeremiah gives no explicit promise that the temple will be rebuilt, 33:11 implies the existence of the temple after the restoration: “‘The voice of gladness and the voice of joy, the voice of a groom and the voice of a bride, the voice of those saying, “Give thanks to Yahweh of Hosts, for Yahweh is good, for His lovingkindness is forever,” bringing thank offerings to the House of Yahweh. For I will return the fortunes of the land as at the first,’ says Yahweh.” In order for people to bring thank offerings to the house of the Lord it must exist. The appended promise that “I will restore the fortunes of the land as they were at the first” further supports the conclusion that God was anticipating the restoration of the temple. [emphasis added]
327 Chisholm , 353-54.
328 The idea that the Book of Ezra presents the return from exile as a “second Exodus” has become increasingly popular since K. Koch first proposed that “Ezra’s march from Babylonia to Jerusalem was a cultic procession which Ezra understood as a second Exodus and a partial fulfillment of prophetic expectation.” “Ezra and the Origins of Judaism,” JSS 19 (1974): 184. Koch did not find this motif in Ezra’s account of the first return because he regarded that return as largely a fabrication by the Chronicler who “erroneously interpreted [Ezra 2 ] as a list of those who returned from Babylon” (189). Throntveit , building on Koch ’s thesis, argues that “by taking action specifically against marriage with Israel’s old enemies of the wilderness and conquest periods, the narrative seeks to reestablish in Ezra’s day the ‘conquest’ of the Promised Land. The otherwise inexplicable addition of ‘the Egyptians’ to this list [Ezra 9:1-2 ] strengthens the reader’s perception that the list is a ‘flashback’ to the similar situation that existed at the time of the first Exodus (cf. Exod. 3:8 ; 13:5 ; Deut. 7:1 ; 20:17 ).” The majority of those who have followed Koch ’s lead, however, have identified a “second Exodus” motif in Ezra 1-6 rather than in Ezra 7-10 . For example, Sara Japhet , argues that “the author of Ezra 1-6 … perceives the Restoration as an entirely new beginning, paralleling … the Exodus from Egypt, … [and has integrated this outlook] into the historical narrative which, as a result, draws the broadest possible analogy between the historical reality of the Restoration and the Exodus from Egypt” (“The Temple in the Restoration Period: Reality and Ideology,” 213-14). Nykolaishen goes so far as to say that this motif is “one of the main factors influencing the presentation of the material as it appears in the Book of Ezra” (“The Use of Jeremiah 31 in the Book of Ezra,” 132). Those who hold this view cite a number of correspondences between Ezra and the Exodus: (1) “release by imperial decree” (Ezra 1:2-4 ; cf. Exod. 12:31-32 ), (2) “aid received by the returned exiles from their Gentile neighbors” (Ezra 1:6 ; cf. Exod. 12:35-36 ), and (3) “the purpose of establishing worship” (Ezra 1:4 ; cf. Exod. 12:31 ). J. G. McConville , “Ezra-Nehemiah and the Fulfillment of Prophecy,” VT 36 (1986): 208. Williamson adds to this list the mention of the head of households in Ezra 2 (cf. Num. 2 , 7 , 34 ), and the use of the verb hlu in reference to the temple vessels (Ezra 1:11 ; cf. Exod. 3:8 , 17 ; 33:1 ) (Ezra, Nehemiah, 18-19). Despite the widespread acceptance of a “second Exodus” as a motif in Ezra, there are a number of considerations that limit the significance of these correspondences. First, Ezra de-emphasizes what would be the most obvious point of analogy, the return from Babylon. Ezra mentions it only in passing as he recalls the return of the temple vessels in chapter one (1:11 ). Second, the suggested correspondences between the Exodus and the return from exile occur uniformly in satellite events in terms of their relation to the plot. The secondary nature of the correspondences severely undercuts Nykolaishen ’s idea that a “second Exodus” was a primary theme shaping Ezra’s presentation. Third, the extent to which the events in Ezra correspond to those of the Exodus is limited. The nature of any similar event would evoke such correspondences, as the wide appeal to the Exodus by liberation theologians demonstrates. In view of these considerations, it seems best to suggest that, if Ezra intends any allusion to the Exodus, it is certainly a background motif. At most one could perhaps argue that these potentially allusive events were intended to recall Jeremiah’s promises of a restoration that would eclipse the Exodus (Jer. 16:14-15 ; 23:7-8 ).
329 The problem names are Nebo (2:29 ), which appears to refer to a person but elsewhere refers only to a city (cf. Num. 32:3 ; 1 Chron. 5:8 ; Isa. 46:1 ; Jer. 48:22 ); Magbish (2:30 ), which occurs only here in the OT; and Elam and Harim (2:31, 32), which are never used in reference to an Israelite city. Based on the context, one might assume that Nebo and Magbish refer to cities. It is, of course, possible that Elam and Harim are city names, but one cannot be certain at this point. For a discussion of the potential identifications for these names, see Williamson , 33-34, and his associated bibliography.
330 Yamauchi , 623.
331 A full discussion of the term dsj is beyond the scope of this chapter; indeed, four dissertations have been devoted to it. Nelson Glueck’s 1927 dissertation, later published as Hesed in the Bible, provided the seminal study on the subject (ed. Elias L. Epstein, trans. Alfred Gottschalk [Cincinnati: Hebrew Union College Press, 1967]). Three other dissertations have followed Glueck’s: Boone M. Bowen, “A Study of CHESED” (Ph.D. diss., Yale University, 1938); Katharine Doob Sakenfeld, The Meaning of Hesed in the Hebrew Bible: A New Inquiry (Missoula: Scholars Press, 1978), and most recently, Gordon R. Clark , The Word Hesed in the Hebrew Bible (Sheffield: JSOT Press, 1993). Clark ’s work is particularly valuable both for its interaction with previous dissertations and for its application of linguistic analysis to the study of hesed. Of the various theological lexicons, the best summary of the data may be found in H.–J. Zobel’s article in Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament, ed. G. Johannes Botterweck and Helmer Ringgren, trans. David E. Green (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1986), 5:44-63 . As is widely agreed, the primary components of hesed’s meaning are loyalty and lovingkindness. The unmarked or “normal” sense of hesed is “loyal lovingkindness” manifested between parties in a relationship, often a covenantal relationship (Exod. 20 ; Deut. 7:9 ; 1 Sam. 20 ; Psa. 25:10 ; Hos. 2:18-19 ; 6:6-7 ). To read “loyal lovingkindness” into the word regardless of context, however, is to commit the totality transfer error pointed out by James Bar over forty years ago: “The error that arises, when the ‘meaning’ of a word (understood as the total series of relations in which it is used in the literature) is read into a particular case as its sense and implication there, may be called ‘illegitimate totality transfer’” (Semantics of Biblical Language [Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1961], 218). There are a number of instances in which kindness rather than loyalty is the focus of the word, if loyalty is present at all, contra Norman H. Snaith , who asserts that “chesed, in all its varied shades of meaning, is conditional upon there being a covenant.” The Distinctive Ideas of the Old Testament (New York: Schocken Books, 1964), 94-95. The clearest example is Esther 2:9 in which Esther “found hesed” in the eyes of Hegai, the keeper of the king’s women. Other potential examples of this sense are Joshua 2:12 , Judges 1:24 , and 1 Samuel 15:6 . Ezra 7:28 offers another potential instance in which kindness rather than loyalty is at the forefront. Admittedly Ezra was in a covenantal relationship with Yahweh, but the context here favors the sense of kindness, and if loyalty is present at all, it is part of the background of which Yahweh’s kindness is extended. In contrast, Ezra’s use of the term in 9:9 has loyalty as a primary focus.
332 The synonymous parallelism of hesed and ‘emunah in Psalm 89 (cf. vv. 1 , 2 , 24 , 33 , 49 ) provides a prime example of the prominence of hesed’s sense of loyalty or faithfulness in covenantal contexts. (See v. 3 where the Davidic tyrb identifies that to which Yahweh is faithful.)
333 The verb hfn occurs with dsj only three times. Twice in Ezra (7:28 ; 9:9 ) and in the Joseph narrative (Gen. 39:21 ). Interestingly, all three contexts include the same components: God extending His hesed to his people, thereby granting them favor from the foreign power under whom they were in bondage.
334 Ezra’s focus on God’s loyalty in 9:9 perhaps recalls Jeremiah 51:5 . In the midst of proclaiming vengeance upon Babylon for the destruction of the temple and for “all the evil they have done in Zion” (Jer. 51:11 , 24 ), Yahweh assures His people, “For Israel is not widowed, nor Judah from his God, from Yahweh of hosts, though their land is full of guilt against the Holy One of Israel” (51:5 ).
335 For a valuable discussion of Hosea’s picture of Yahweh’s faithfulness to Israel as faithfulness to a spouse, see Allan P. Brown , “The Theology of Hosea” (Ph.D. diss., Bob Jones University, 1975), 88-110.
336 The word “reviving” hyjm occurs eight times in the OT with a surprisingly wide range of referents (“raw flesh” Lev. 13:10 ; “sustenance” Jud. 17:10 ; “recovery (from a battle)” 2 Chron. 14:13 ). In this context, H. C. M. Vogt argues that the phrase wnl-ttl “to give to us” should be translated “to make us” and that the terms following it [“peg,” “reviving,” “hedge”] are, therefore, titles for the post-exilic community. Studie zur nachexilischen Gemeinde in Esra-Nehemiah (Werl, 1966), 23-43, cited in Williamson , 135. In his review of Vogt’s book, J. A. Emerton provides a solid refutation of Vogt’s conclusion both from a syntactical and exegetical position. Review of Studie zur nachexilischen Gemeinde in Esra-Nehemiah, In Journal of Theological Studies, n.s. 18 (1967): 169-75. The sparing of the Returnees is the reviving, for God had again allowed Israel to return and be alive as a community (Williamson , 135).
338 The exact phrase, wdsj <lwul yk bwf yk, occurs eight other times in the Old Testament (1 Chron. 16:34 ; 2 Chron 5:13 ; 7:3 ; Psa. 106:1 , 107:1 ; 118:1, 29; 136:1). The same phrase with slightly different syntax also occurs in Psa. 100:5.
339 See Chapter Four under the discussion of explanatory intrusions by the narrator.
340 McConville , 218, suggests that Ezra’s references to the “enemy” in 8:22, 31 could be intended to signify Persia ironically. This suggestion is inconsistent with the tone of Ezra as well as the context of the terms.
341 Ezra begins his recitation of God’s goodness and faithfulness with the phrase “now for a small moment” (9:8 ). This phrase, as Throntveit observes, emphasizes “the tenuous nature of the community’s position rather than God’s merciful activity” (53).
342 For a discussion of this term, see below in the section on God’s righteousness.
343 The term “peg” dty occurs 24 times in the Old Testament. It most commonly refers either to a peg driven into the ground to secure a tent (Exod. 27:29 ; 35:18 , 20 , 31 , 40 ; Num. 3:37 ; 4:32 ; Judg. 4:21 , 22 ; 5:26 ; Isa 33:20 ; 54:2 ) or a wall peg used to hang vessels or jars (Isa. 22:23 , 25 ; Ezek. 15:3 ). Less common referents are the pin of a weaver’s loom (Judg. 16:14 ) and a spade or trowel with which one might dig a hole to cover excrement (Deut. 23:14 ). A few commentators take yated as a wall peg (Keil , 75), while the majority regard it as tent peg (Fensham , 129; Blenkinsopp , 183-84). As Williamson notes, either way “the result comes to much the same thing. The temple, ‘his holy place,’ is regarded as the guarantee of the community’s security and stability” (135).
344 Harold G. Stiger, “sadeq,” TWOT, 2:752-55. It is noteworthy that the standard implied by the term “righteous” varies depending upon the context (cf. Gen. 20:4 ; 38:26 ). The normal standard of righteousness for human conduct is God’s character as revealed in His word. However, when the term “righteousness” is applied to God, it appears to denote His conformity to His own standard, that is, His self-consistency both in His actions and His character.
345 Ezra’s focus on God’s action is evident in his recitation of the things God had done for His people. For example, Ezra mentions God’s actions in exiling them (9:7 ), preserving an escaped remnant (9:8 ), not abandoning them (9:9 ), speaking to them through the prophets (9:11 ) and giving them less than they deserved (9:13 ).
346 Keil , 78. He goes on to say, “wnravn yk is confirmatory. God has shown Himself to be just by so sorely punishing this once numerous nation, that only a small remnant which has escaped now exists.” Kidner says, “The prayer ends with a clear recognition that God has every reason to wash His hands of this community, as He had once threatened to do with an earlier generation (Ex. 32:10 ). This was no exaggerated fancy. There were other Israelites scattered abroad, through whom the promises could be fulfilled” (69). Williamson comments in a similar vein: “Even if God should utterly destroy his people, they acknowledge that he would be fully justified” (138).
347 Jacob M. Myers , Ezra-Nehemiah, vol. 14 of The Anchor Bible, ed. William Foxwell Albright and David Noel Freedman (Garden City: Doubleday & Co., 1965), 79.
348 Fensham , 132.
349 A number of commentators take this mediating position, among them Throntveit , 54, and Breneman , 155. Although his definition of “righteous” is debatable, Throntveit ’s observation on this passage is astute: “The doxology of judgment contained in verse 15 … forms an explicit warning to the community… . The usual meaning of ‘just’ carries connotations of ‘graciously righteous,’ so that the doxology should not be paraphrased to say only, ‘As a strict judge, O Lord, you must act against this sinful community, for we remain a remnant that has merely escaped.’ While this thought is present … Ezra also seeks to argue that no one can question the mercy of this God who in righteousness has not caused Israel to be utterly ruined” (54).
350 For a similar analysis of flyp (as well as other terms related to the idea of a remnant), see Gerhard F. Hasel , The Remnant: The History and Theology of the Remnant Idea from Genesis to Isaiah (Berrien Springs: Andrews University Press, 1972), 386-88.
351 George Rawlinson , Ezra, vol. 7 of The Pulpit Commentary, ed. H. D. M. Spence and Joseph S. Exell (New York: Funk & Wagnalls Co., n.d.; reprint, Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1950), 178.
352 Isaiah 10:22 specifically associates God’s destruction of all but a remnant of Judah with his righteousness: “For though your people, O Israel, may be like the sand of the sea, Only a remnant within them will return; A destruction is determined, overflowing with righteousness” (NASB). It was God’s righteous anger that sent them into exile. Three times in Ezra God’s anger is explicitly linked to judgment. The Jewish elders testify that “because our fathers enraged the God of Heaven, He gave them into the hand of Nebuchadnezzar” (5:12 ). In 8:22 , Ezra notes that “His wrath and his anger are upon all those abandoning Him,” and in 9:14 he acknowledges that God’s anger rightfully should consume them so that there is nothing left.
353 Williamson , argues that “‘remnant’ has acquired the rather specialized meaning of the community of those who have returned from the Babylonian exile. It therefore implies a positive act of restoration on God’s part, whereas in earlier and secular uses it means simply someone or something who had escaped from a disaster” (135).
355 A more literal rendering of the text reads, “Surely you, O God, have withheld below from our iniquities and you have given us an escaped remnant such as this.”
356 For a discussion of the theological significance of Isaiah’s repeated reference to Yahweh as “the Holy One of Israel,” see John Randolph Jaeggli , “An Historical-Theological Analysis of the Holy One of Israel in Isaiah Forty through Sixty-Six” (Ph.D. diss., Bob Jones University, 1987).
357 See the Appendix for a chart displaying the name and titles of God in Ezra and their distribution. The Hebrew and Aramaic words for God occur a total of 99 times in Ezra, and the name, Yahweh, occurs 37 times. The titles for God which occur in Ezra are “God of heaven and earth,” “Yahweh, God of Heaven,” “God of Heaven,” “Yahweh, the God of Israel,” “God of Israel,” “God of our/your fathers,” and “the God of Jerusalem.”
358 Together these titles occur 13 times: “Yahweh, the God of Israel” (1:3 ; 4:1 , 3 ; 6:21 ; 7:6 ; 9:15 ), “God of Israel” (3:2 ; 5:1 ; 6:14 , 22 ; 7:15 ; 8:35 ; 9:4 ).
360 Although this title is frequently viewed as a post-exilic title, it should be noted that it does not occur uniquely in post-exilic literature. The title occurs a total of 22 times in the Old Testament: (Gen. 24:3 , 7 ; 2 Chron. 36:23 ; Ezra 1:2 ; 5:11-12 ; 6:9 , 10 ; 7:12 , 21 , 23 [2x]; Neh. 1:4 , 5 ; 2:4 , 20 ; Psa. 136:26 ; Dan. 2:18 , 19 , 37 , 44 ; Jonah 1:9 ). Nineteen of these 22 occurrences are in post-exilic literature, with Gen. 24:3 , 7 and Jonah 1:9 being the only pre-exilic usages. Both Holmgren and Williamson assert that this title is found mostly in the contexts of Persian-Jewish communications (Holmgren, 9; Williamson , 12). While this is true for Ezra, it is not true for Nehemiah or Daniel, both of whom use this title in personal prayer to Yahweh or when speaking to fellow Jews (Neh. 1:4 , 5 , 2:4 , 20 ; Dan. 2:18 , 19 , 37 ).
361 D. K. Andrews , “Yahweh the God of the Heavens,” in The Seed of Wisdom, ed. W. S. McCullough (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1964), 52.
362 Holmgren , 9, 43.
363 The title “God of heaven and earth” occurs nowhere else in the Old Testament. Three similar or equivalent titles do occur in Genesis and Psalm 115: “the God of heaven and the God of earth” (Gen. 24:3 ), “the Possessor of heaven and earth” (Gen. 14:19 , 22 ), “Yahweh, Maker of heaven and earth” (Psa. 115:15 ).
364 Contra Andrews , who asserts that, “on the part of Jewish petitioners [in Ezra 5:11 ] it represents a claim that the cult of Yahweh qualified for recognition and support of the Persians, because Yahweh could be identified with ‘the God of the heavens.’ On the part of the Persian authorities it represents a recognition of this claim. The title, ‘the God of the heavens,’ represents a definition by which the Persian authorities tested the claims of the Jewish religion and determined its legitimacy” (“Yahweh the God of the Heavens,” 43).
365 As Eugene Merrill states, “The miraculous return and restoration of the pitiful exile community against overwhelming odds certified that Israel’s God is no parochial deity; rather, He is God of heaven itself.” “A Theology of Ezra-Nehemiah and Esther,” in A Biblical Theology of the Old Testament, ed. Roy B. Zuck (Chicago: Moody Press, 1991), 191.