22. The Return to the Promised Land (Ezra)
Part I: The Book of Ezra330
Neither Judah’s exile nor her return should have come as a surprise to the Jews of Ezra’s day. The exile was foretold nearly a millennium before it took place. In Genesis 12:1-3, God entered into a covenant with Abraham:
1 Now the Lord said to Abram,
“Go out from your country, your relatives, and your father’s household
to the land that I will show you.
2 Then I will make you into a great nation, and I will bless you,
and I will make your name great,
in order that you might be a prime example of divine blessing.
3 I will bless those who bless you,
but the one who treats you lightly I must curse,
and all the families of the earth will pronounce blessings on one another using your name” (Genesis 12:1-3).331
God promised him a land (Canaan), a seed (descendants as numerous as the stars in the heavens), and a blessing (blessing for Abraham and his descendants, and through his seed, blessing for the world). Just a couple of chapters later, in Genesis 15:12-17, God spoke of a 400-year-bondage in a foreign land, after which He would bring His people into the Promised Land of Canaan:
12 When the sun went down, Abram fell sound asleep. Then great terror overwhelmed him. 13 Then the Lord said to Abram, “Know for certain that your descendants will be strangers in a foreign country. They will be enslaved and oppressed for four hundred years. 14 But I will execute judgment on the nation that they will serve. Afterward they will come out with many possessions. 15 But as for you, you will go to your ancestors in peace and be buried at a good old age. 16 In the fourth generation your descendants will return here, for the sin of the Amorites has not yet reached its limit.” 17 When the sun had gone down and it was dark, a smoking firepot with a flaming torch passed between the animal parts (Genesis 15:12-17).
This prophecy concerned the first “exile” of the nation Israel in the land of Egypt and a subsequent “exodus” from their Egyptian captivity. The first exodus became the prototype of a second “exodus” that God would accomplish, centuries later. The release of the Jews from their Babylonian captivity was thus described in terms that were deliberately reminiscent of the first exodus:
1 Now, this is what the Lord says,
the one who created you, O Jacob,
and formed you, O Israel:
“Don’t be afraid, for I will protect you.
I call you by name, you are mine.
2 When you pass through the waters, I am with you;
when you pass through the streams, they will not overwhelm you.
When you walk through the fire, you will not be burned;
the flames will not harm you.
3 For I am the Lord your God,
the sovereign king of Israel, your deliverer.
I have handed over Egypt as a ransom price,
Ethiopia and Seba in place of you.”
… 14 This is what the Lord says,
your protector, the sovereign king of Israel:
“For your sake I send to Babylon
and make them all fugitives,
turning the Babylonians’ joyful shouts into mourning songs.
15 I am the Lord, your sovereign ruler,
the one who created Israel, your king.”
16 This is what the Lord says,
the one who made a road through the sea,
a pathway through the surging waters,
17 the one who led chariots and horses to destruction,
together with a mighty army.
They fell down, never to rise again;
they were extinguished, put out like a burning wick (Isaiah 43:1-3, 14-17, emphasis mine; see also 44:27).
We find the first clear prophecy of this Babylonian captivity in the Book of Leviticus:
34 “‘Then the land will make up for its sabbaths all the days it lies desolate while you are in the land of your enemies; then the land will rest and make up its sabbaths. 35 All the days of the desolation it will have the rest it did not have on your sabbaths when you lived on it. 36 “‘As for the ones who remain among you, I will bring despair into their heart in the lands of their enemies. The sound of a blowing leaf will pursue them, and they will flee as one who flees the sword and fall down even though there is no pursuer. 37 They will stumble over each other as those who flee before a sword, though there is no pursuer, and there will be no one to stand up for you before your enemies. 38 You will perish among the nations; the land of your enemies will consume you. 39 “‘As for the ones who remain among you, they will rot away because of their iniquity in the lands of your enemies, and they will also rot away because of their ancestors’ iniquities which are with them… . 43 The land will be abandoned by them in order that it may make up for its sabbaths while it is made desolate without them, and they will make up for their iniquity because they have rejected my regulations and have abhorred my statutes” (Leviticus 26:34-39, 43, emphasis mine; see also Deuteronomy 28:64-68332).
The Babylonian captivity is therefore described in 2 Chronicles as the fulfillment of the prophecy in Leviticus:
20 He deported to Babylon all who escaped the sword. They served him and his sons until the Persian kingdom rose to power. 21 This took place to fulfill the Lord’s message delivered through Jeremiah. The land experienced its sabbatical years; it remained desolate for seventy years, as prophesied (2 Chronicles 36:20-21, emphasis mine).
The release of the Jews from their captivity in Babylon and their return to the land of Canaan was also prophesied centuries before it took place:
1 “Now when all these things happen to you—the blessing and the curse I have set before you—and you remember them in all the nations where the Lord your God has exiled you, 2 if you turn to the Lord your God and listen to him just as I am commanding you today—you and your descendants—with your whole mind and being, 3 then the Lord your God will reverse your captivity and have pity on you. He will turn and gather you from all the peoples among whom he has scattered you. 4 Even if any of your dispersed are under the most distant skies, from there the Lord your God will gather and bring you back. 5 Then he will bring you to the land your ancestors possessed and you also will possess it; he will do better for you and multiply you more than he did your ancestors. 6 The Lord your God will also cleanse your heart and the hearts of your descendants so that you may love him with all your mind and being, in order to live” (Deuteronomy 30:1-6, emphasis mine; see also Leviticus 36:40-42).
Much later, the prophet Jeremiah foretold the captivity of Judah and its release, specifying the number of years the Jews would be subject to Babylon:
8 “Therefore, the Lord who rules over all says, ‘You have not listened to what I said. 9 So I, the Lord, affirm that I am going to send for all the peoples of the north and my servant, King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon. I will bring them against this land and its inhabitants and all the nations that surround it. I will utterly destroy this land, its inhabitants, and all the nations that surround it and make them everlasting ruins. I will make them objects of horror and hissing scorn. 10 I will put an end to the sounds of joy and gladness, to the glad celebration of brides and grooms in these lands. I will put an end to the sound of people grinding meal. I will put an end to lamps shining in their houses. 11 This whole area will become a desolate wasteland. These nations will be subject to the king of Babylon for seventy years.’ 12 “‘But when the seventy years are over, I will punish the king of Babylon and his nation for their sins. I will make the land of Babylon an everlasting ruin. I, the Lord, affirm it” (Jeremiah 25:8-12, emphasis mine).
10 “For the Lord says, ‘Only when the seventy years of Babylonian rule are over will I again take up consideration for you. Then I will fulfill my gracious promise to you and restore you to your homeland. 11 For I know what I have planned for you,’ says the Lord. ‘I have plans to prosper you, not to harm you. I have plans to give you a future filled with hope. 12 When you call out to me and come to me in prayer, I will hear your prayers. 13 When you seek me in prayer and worship, you will find me available to you. If you seek me with all your heart and soul, 14 I will make myself available to you,’ says the Lord. ‘Then I will reverse your fortunes and will re-gather you from all the nations and all the places where I have exiled you,’ says the Lord. ‘I will bring you back to the place from which I exiled you’” (Jeremiah 29:10-14, emphasis mine).
Over a hundred years before Jeremiah, the prophet Isaiah spoke of Judah’s return from Babylon to the land of Canaan. The amazing thing about Isaiah’s prophecy is that he even names “Cyrus” as the “servant” God would employ to bring about the return of His people to the land of Canaan:
44:26 [Thus says the LORD] who fulfills the oracles of his prophetic servants
and brings to pass the announcements of his messengers,
who says about Jerusalem, ‘She will be inhabited,’
and about the towns of Judah, ‘They will be rebuilt,
her ruins I will raise up,’
27 who says to the deep sea, ‘Be dry,
I will dry up your sea currents,’
28 who commissions Cyrus, the one I appointed as shepherd
to carry out all my wishes
and to decree concerning Jerusalem, ‘She will be rebuilt,’
and concerning the temple, ‘It will be reconstructed.’”
45:1 This is what the Lord says to his chosen one,
to Cyrus, whose right hand I hold
in order to subdue nations before him,
and disarm kings,
to open doors before him,
so gates remain unclosed (Isaiah 44:26—45:1, emphasis mine).
During the days of their exile in Babylon, godly Jews had a deep sense of loss and a strong desire to return to Jerusalem and to the temple, where they could worship the God of their fathers:
1 By the rivers of Babylon
we sit down and weep
when we remember Zion.
2 On the poplars in her midst
we hang our harps,
3 for there our captors ask us to compose songs;
those who mock us demand that we be happy, saying:
“Sing for us a song about Zion!”
4 How can we sing a song to the Lord
in a foreign land?
5 If I forget you, O Jerusalem,
may my right hand be crippled!
6 May my tongue stick to the roof of my mouth,
if I do not remember you,
and do not give Jerusalem priority
over whatever gives me the most joy (Psalm 137:1-6).
You can imagine the joy and elation the Jews in Babylon experienced when they heard the words of this decree:
1 In the first year of King Cyrus of Persia, in order to fulfill the Lord’s message spoken through Jeremiah, the Lord stirred the mind of King Cyrus of Persia. He disseminated a proclamation throughout all his kingdom, announcing in a written edict the following:
2 “So says King Cyrus of Persia:
“‘The Lord God of heaven has given me all the kingdoms of the earth. He has instructed me to build a temple for him in Jerusalem, which is in Judah. 3 Anyone from his people among you (may his God be with him!) may go up to Jerusalem, which is in Judah, and may build the temple of the Lord God of Israel—he is the God who is in Jerusalem. 4 Let anyone who survives in any of those places where he is a resident foreigner be helped by his neighbors with silver, gold, equipment, and animals, along with voluntary offerings for the temple of God which is in Jerusalem’” (Ezra 1:1-4).
What an exciting moment in Israel’s history this must have been. Can you imagine the sense of eager anticipation these returning exiles must have felt? Surely they must have been thinking something like this:
“Our forefathers really missed God’s blessings. It was their sins which brought us into captivity. But now that’s all in the past. Now we’re returning to the land. We’ve learned to obey God’s law and to forsake idolatry. We’re going to go back to Jerusalem, rebuild the temple, and experience the blessings God promised. The ‘kingdom of God’ is finally going to be experienced on earth.”
The reader likewise finds himself entering into this spirit of hope and optimism. Adam and Eve were given a place of blessing, in the garden. Had they obeyed God, they could have lived there forever, enjoying His presence. But they failed, bringing about sin and separation. Then, God wiped the slate clean at the flood, and Noah and his family started fresh. But Noah and his descendents failed as well. Then came the tower of Babel and the confusion of languages, another judgment from God (soon to be followed by the judgment on Sodom and Gomorrah). But then God made an unconditional covenant with Abraham, promising to bless the whole earth through Abraham by giving him a land, a seed, and the promise of His blessings. It wasn’t long before Abraham and his descendants made a mess of things, and God had to sequester His people in Egypt, where they would remain separate,333 and where they would grow into a mighty nation. Those who left Egypt with Moses failed many times and were not allowed to enter the promised land, so a second generation was raised up to possess the land under the leadership of men like Joshua and Caleb. But the Book of Judges informs us that this generation would pass, and another ungodly generation would follow, caught up in a deadly cycle of sin and judgment.
What Israel needed was a king, a leader. Surely that would do it:
In those days Israel had no king. Each man did what he considered to be right (Judges 17:6).
Hopes were running high when Israel’s first king – Saul – was anointed. But it did not take very long to see that Saul was a failure who led the nation astray. Our hopes are rekindled, however, when we read that God designated David as Saul’s replacement. Now here is a man after God’s own heart. Surely the good times are here at last for Israel. But David is a sinner as well, and so is his son, Solomon. Because of Solomon’s sin, his kingdom is divided, and before long the people of God will be spewed out of the Promised Land of Canaan. The northern kingdom is scattered by the Assyrians, and the southern kingdom of Judah is carried off as slaves to Babylon.
Now, at last, the time has come for the Babylonian exiles to be released to return to the Promised Land. Do we not feel a renewed sense of hope and optimism? Surely the Jews will get it right this time. The lessons of history should serve to keep them from repeating the same sins. We will get only a few chapters (and even fewer years) into the return and restoration account when the people of God fail again. By and large, the books of Ezra and Nehemiah are not a “success story” to be imitated by men today. They are yet another repetition of the failures of God’s people, from the beginning of human history. The lessons we learn are often negative, but they have the positive effect of turning our attention and our trust toward God, and not toward ourselves. Let us listen well, then, to the story of Ezra. It is not only a fascinating account; it is one we desperately need to hear and to heed.
The Assyrians chose to scatter their enemies, hoping to sever them from all their ties to their land and their religion. The Babylonians made captives of their enemies, using them as slaves (as we see with Daniel and his friends). God then fulfilled His promise to bring judgment upon the Babylonians (Isaiah 13; Jeremiah 25:12; chapters 50-51). The Persians who defeated them dealt with their prisoners of war in a very different way. They sought to instill gratitude in their captives, rather than hatred. They sent their captives back to their homeland and helped them re-establish their worship. And so it was that God orchestrated the events of human history in such a way as to fulfill His promise, made nearly 200 years beforehand, that a man named Cyrus would act as His servant, bringing the Jewish exiles in Babylon back to the Promised Land (see Isaiah 44:26–45:1).
It is interesting that our author does not choose to emphasize the fulfillment of the prophecy of Isaiah, but rather the prophecy of Jeremiah:
In the first year of King Cyrus of Persia, in order to fulfill the Lord’s message spoken through Jeremiah, the Lord stirred the mind of King Cyrus of Persia. He disseminated a proclamation throughout all his kingdom, announcing in a written edict the following (Ezra 1:1, emphasis mine).
I believe we may safely assume that the prophecies of Jeremiah that were fulfilled by Cyrus would be those of Jeremiah 25:12 and 29:10-14.
There is yet another prophecy of Jeremiah that was fulfilled by the decree of Cyrus:
21 “Indeed, the Lord God of Israel who rules over all has already spoken about the valuable articles that are left in the Lord’s temple, in the royal palace of Judah, and in Jerusalem. 22 He has said, ‘They will be carried off to Babylon. They will remain there until it is time for me to show consideration for them again. Then I will bring them back and restore them to this place.’ The Lord affirm this” (Jeremiah 27:21-22).
Cyrus included a command to return the vessels removed from the temple in Jerusalem, which had been kept in Babylon. The text makes it very clear that it was God who moved in the heart of Cyrus (1:1) and in the hearts of the 50,000 (1:5). God was sovereignly working to fulfill His purposes and promises regarding His people.
In Ezra 2, we are provided with a list of those “whose spirits God stirred” (Ezra 1:5), prompting them to go back to their homeland. We should not minimize the courage and faith of those who chose to return. We know that some of those who made this trek were elderly (see 3:12). The trip was approximately 800 miles, taking several months (see 7:8-9). There were grave dangers involved in such a journey, especially for a group carrying many valuable objects with them (1:66-69; compare 8:21-23, 31). Life was not so bad in Persia, and many of the Jews seem to have been content to remain there, as did Esther and Mordecai (the Book of Esther).
When the people arrived they assembled in Jerusalem, where they promptly constructed an altar and began to offer sacrifices. Their motivation includes fear of their enemies:
1 When the seventh month arrived and the Israelites were living in their towns, the people assembled in Jerusalem. 2 Then Jeshua the son of Jozadak and his priestly colleagues and Zerubbabel son of Shealtiel and his colleagues started to build the altar of the God of Israel so they could offer burnt offerings on it as required by the law of Moses the man of God. 3 They established the altar on its foundations, for they were in terror of the local peoples, and they offered burnt offerings on it to the Lord, both the morning and the evening offerings (Ezra 3:1-3, emphasis mine).
The exiles’ concerns regarding the “local peoples” were not unfounded. When the Assyrians defeated the northern kingdom of Israel, they transplanted these Israelites far from their homeland. The Assyrians then brought in other subjected peoples. We know that these people began to worship the God of Israel, in addition to their own gods (see 2 Kings 17:24-33). When the Babylonians defeated the people of Judah and sacked Jerusalem, the land was left to only a few of the poor. As we might expect, surrounding peoples began to “possess” the vacated land. They were not at all happy to learn that the Jews had returned to repossess their land and to permanently settle there. These Samaritan-like peoples were not willing to give up the land they had occupied without opposition. The decree of Cyrus made any opposition illegal, but then the Persian king was a long way away.
In the second year of the exiles’ return, they began to rebuild the temple. This began with the laying of the foundation of the temple (3:9). When the builders completed laying the foundation of the temple, there was a great celebration. There was the music of trumpets and cymbals, along with joyful singing. There was something strange about this “celebration,” however:
11 With antiphonal response they sang, praising and glorifying the Lord:
“For he is good;
his loving kindness toward Israel is forever.”
All the people gave a loud shout as they praised the Lord when the temple of the Lord was established. 12 Many of the priests, the Levites, and the leaders—older people who had seen with their own eyes the former temple while it was still established—were weeping loudly, and many others raised their voice in a joyous shout. 13 People were unable to tell the difference between the sound of joyous shouting and the sound of the people’s weeping, for the people were shouting so loudly that the sound was heard a long way off (Ezra 3:11-13).
It was the older generation who was weeping loudly, while the younger generation was jubilant. Why? Because the older generation was living in the past; they were re-living “the good old days.” These folks could remember the temple in Jerusalem. How much more beautiful it was than what the reconstructed temple would look like. This living in the past and weeping was wrong. It is at the prompting of the prophets Haggai and Zechariah, that the temple will be completed. When the temple is completed and the people celebrate, there are no tears. Why? I believe it is because the prophets corrected the error of their thinking.
Think about it for a moment. These older men could only have seen the temple in its last days, just before its destruction. These older men would have been quite young when they last saw the temple. No doubt they were overly impressed with its appearance, just as our Lord’s disciples were awe-struck by the beauty of Herod’s temple:
Now as Jesus was going out of the temple courts, one of his disciples said to him, “Teacher, look at these tremendous stones and buildings!” (Mark 13:1)
We know that in its last days, temple worship had been greatly corrupted. Images of other gods were there (see 2 Chronicles 33:1-9, 22; 36:14-21). What, then, was so “good” about the “good old days”? I think the only thing one can say was “good” was that it was a beautiful building.
The fears of all (3:3) and the tears of some (3:12-13) were the first evidences of failure among those exiles who returned to their land. Chapter 4 further unfolds the sequence of events leading to the cessation of their efforts to rebuild the temple.
One must be very alert here to the chronological indicators in the text. A careless reading of the text could allow one to reach this conclusion:
The “peoples of the land” hear that the Jews are rebuilding the temple and offer their assistance. They, too, worship the God of Israel. The Jews know that if these peoples worship the God of Israel, it is only as one of many gods, rather than as the one true God. And so the Jews refuse to be “unequally yoked”334 with these unbelievers in the work of rebuilding the temple. Their neighbors then set out to oppose this rebuilding project. As a part of their resistance they send a letter to King Artaxerxes, accusing the Jews of rebuilding the temple and the city so they can once again rebel against their captors, as they have done throughout their history. When Artaxerxes looks into this matter, he discovers that the Jews of Jerusalem and Judah have a history of rebellion, and so the king issues an order for the Jews to cease their rebuilding project. The peoples of the land then march against Jerusalem, threatening to go to battle against them if they do not stop rebuilding immediately. After Haggai and Zechariah begin to prophesy, the Jews once again commence the rebuilding of the temple, even though it is against the specific orders of Artaxerxes.
There are several problems with the (false) view articulated above. First, King Artaxerxes reigned from 464 through 424 B.C., during the days of Ezra (Ezra 7:1ff.) and Nehemiah (Nehemiah 2:1ff.), while the events of Ezra 4:1-5 take place somewhere around 536 B.C. Second, the Jews would have had to commence rebuilding the temple against the orders of the king. Throughout the books of Ezra and Nehemiah, it is with the blessing of the kings of Persia that the return of the Jews and the rebuilding of Jerusalem and the temple take place. Third, the letter sent to Artaxerxes does not specifically mention rebuilding the temple, but rather the rebuilding of the city and its walls (see 4:12-13). Fourth (and in my mind, most compelling), the prophet Haggai rebuked the Jews for a very different reason than that of Ezra 4:6-23:
1 On the first day of the sixth month of King Darius’s second year, the Lord spoke this message through the prophet Haggai to Zerubbabel son of Shealtiel, governor of Judah, and to the high priest Joshua son of Jehozadak: 2 The sovereign Lord says this: “These people have said, ‘The time for rebuilding the Lord’s temple has not yet come.’” 3 So the Lord spoke through the prophet Haggai as follows: 4 “Is it right for you to live in paneled houses while my temple is in ruins? (Haggai 1:1-4, emphasis mine)
The Jews are rebuked for placing their own construction projects above the rebuilding of the temple. That’s a far cry from obeying the king’s decree and ceasing construction because they would be killed otherwise.
The solution to these problems is found in the details provided in Ezra 4. In Ezra 4:1-5, we are told that early on the peoples of the land sought to participate in the rebuilding of the temple and that their offer was flatly rejected. We then read that they set out to resist or hinder the Jews’ reconstruction efforts. This they did by intimidation and various other hindrances. We must remember that during the days of Cyrus and Darius those who opposed the Jews would have been in violation of the king’s decree and subject to severe punishment (see Ezra 6:6-11).
In verse 6, we are told that a complaint against the Jews was filed with Ahasuerus. Ahasuerus was the king of Persia during the events of the Book of Esther. No response by Ahasuerus is indicated. Verses 7-23 then reach out into the more distant future. The author seeks to show us that the hostility and opposition which commenced in Ezra 3 and 4 grows more intense as time passes. While the people of the land could not use military force to stop the rebuilding of the temple during the days of Cyrus or Darius, they would do so in the days of Artaxerxes, with his (temporary)335 permission.
Verse 24 then returns to the days of Zerubbabel, when opposition to the Jews’ work in Jerusalem was just in its initial stages. If we were reading the events of Ezra 4 in chronological order, we would read verses 1-5, then verse 24, and finally verses 6-23 would need to be in parentheses, since they project us forward in time to a future period of opposition on the part of the people of the land.
There is an important point to all this detail. Construction of the temple seems to have halted only a few months after it was first begun. This was not because Cyrus ordered the Jews to stop building the temple, or even because the people of the land forced (4:23) them to stop. It was because the Jews were disheartened and discouraged, and distracted by their own interests. They were disheartened and discouraged because this new temple was not going to be as glorious as the old one. It was not going to be an architectural masterpiece. They were discouraged because they faced a certain amount of opposition from the people of the land. We might say that the Jews were depressed. They turned their attention and their efforts toward building their own magnificent (paneled) homes. They became self-indulgent and self-absorbed. It is for their own sins that the prophet Haggai rebuked them.
The Jews had left Persia with much enthusiasm and zeal. No doubt they assumed that they would return to their land, quickly rebuild the temple and the city, and then turn their attention to their land and houses. When they found that completing the temple would not be as quick and easy as they had supposed (and that the temple was not as glorious as they had hoped, or remembered), they threw up their hands and turned their attention and energies to building their own homes. They did not give up on building the temple because it was forbidden by the king, or because the people of the land made it impossible. They gave up because the task was more difficult than they first thought, and because the temple did not seem as glorious as they had hoped. To turn their attention to their own homes was not that difficult (they really wanted to build their own homes anyway), and it did not seem to provoke the people of the land. It appeared safer and easier to put off work in Jerusalem, and it was really what they preferred anyway. How little it takes to cause God’s people to stumble (see Song of Solomon 2:15).
I am reminded of the words of the writer to the Hebrews:
You have not yet resisted to the point of bloodshed in your struggle against sin (Hebrews 12:4).
That is the point, I believe, of the parenthetical inclusion of 4:6-23. Are the Jews ready to “throw in the towel” and give up rebuilding the temple? They have not come up against an immovable object; they have encountered a little resistance. They have the assurance of God, the decree of the king, and the means provided to accomplish their task. If they faced the circumstances of verses 6-23 they could claim substantial opposition, but this is not the case. Verses 6-23 are placed here, I believe, to contrast the puny difficulties of this time to the major obstacles of a later day. No wonder these folks are rebuked by Haggai (see chapter 1).
The prophecies of Haggai and Zechariah did the job. The rebuilding of the temple resumed, with the encouragement and support of the prophets. The peoples of the land were greatly disturbed to see that the temple construction had resumed. Tattenai, the governor of the Trans-Euphrates area, along with others, challenged Zerubbabel. They wished to know who authorized the temple construction and the completion of the walls. They also wanted to have the names of those who were in charge of the project. In contemporary legal terms, the enemies of the Jews were seeking an injunction against them. They hoped that an order would be given to cease and desist from this construction project until a hearing could be held and a verdict pronounced.
Had an injunction been granted, construction could easily have been delayed for a year or more, even if the king of Persia ruled in favor of the Jews. But God was looking after His people. No order was given to stop the construction until the king had reached a decision. I find the letter that was sent to Darius most interesting. The Jews’ case was presented with amazing accuracy:
11 They responded to us in the following way: ‘We are servants of the God of heaven and earth. We are rebuilding the temple which was previously built many years ago. A great king of Israel built it and completed it. 12 But after our ancestors angered the God of heaven, he delivered them into the hands of King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon, the Chaldean, who destroyed this temple and exiled the people to Babylon. 13 But in the first year of King Cyrus of Babylon, King Cyrus enacted a decree to rebuild this temple of God. 14 Even the gold and silver vessels of the temple of God that Nebuchadnezzar had taken from the temple in Jerusalem and had brought to the palace of Babylon—even those things King Cyrus brought from the palace of Babylon and presented to a man by the name of Sheshbazzar whom he had appointed as governor. 15 He said to him, “Take these vessels and go deposit them in the temple in Jerusalem, and let the house of God be rebuilt in its proper location” (Ezra 5:11-15).
When Darius ordered the archives to be searched, he learned that the Jews had spoken correctly. Cyrus had given the Jews authority to rebuild Jerusalem, and the temple in particular. Darius gave very specific orders, permitting the Jews to continue, while prohibiting the peoples of the land from interfering:
6 “Now Tattenai governor of Trans-Euphrates, Shethar Bozenai, and their colleagues, the officials of the Trans-Euphrates—all of you stay far away from there! 7 Leave the work on this temple of God alone. Let the governor of Judah and the elders of Judah rebuild this temple of God in its proper place. 8 “I also hereby issue orders as to what you are to do with those elders of the Jews in order to rebuild this temple of God. From the royal treasury, from the taxes of Trans-Euphrates the complete costs will be given to these men, so that there may be no halt. 9 Whatever is needed—whether oxen or rams or lambs or burnt offerings for the God of heaven or wheat or salt or wine or oil, as required by the priests who are in Jerusalem—must be given to them daily without any neglect, 10 so that they may be offering incense to the God of heaven and praying for the good fortune of the king and his family. 11 I hereby give orders that if anyone changes this directive a beam is to be pulled out from his house and he is to be raised up and impaled on it, and his house is to be reduced to a rubbish heap for this indiscretion. 12 May God who makes his name to reside there overthrow any king or people who reaches out to cause such change or to destroy this temple of God in Jerusalem. I, Darius, have given orders. Let them be carried out with precision!” (Ezra 6:6-12)
I have to chuckle as I read the words of Ezra 6:13:
Then Tattenai governor of the Trans-Euphrates, Shethar-Bozenai, and their colleagues acted accordingly—with precision, just as Darius the king had given instructions (Ezra 6:13).
The words of warning contained in the decree of Darius took the wind out of the sails of the people of the land. They no longer opposed the rebuilding of the temple, and indeed assisted in whatever ways the Jews requested (which were probably few).
As a result, the temple was soon completed (Ezra 6:13-15). There was a great celebration as the temple was joyfully dedicated, and as they observed Passover.
19 The exiles observed the Passover on the fourteenth day of the first month. 20 The priests and the Levites had purified themselves, and they all were ceremonially clean. They sacrificed the Passover lamb for all the exiles, for their colleagues the priests, and for themselves. 21 The Israelites who were returning from the exile ate it, along with all those who had separated themselves from the uncleanness of the nations of the land to seek the Lord God of Israel. 22 They observed the Feast of Unleavened Bread for seven days with joy, for the Lord had given them joy and had changed the opinion of the king of Assyria toward them, so that he assisted them in the work on the temple of God, the God of Israel (Ezra 6:19-22).
This time there was no weeping.336
Nearly 60 years pass from the end of chapter 6 until the events of chapter 7. It is during this interval that the drama in Persia, depicted in the Book of Esther, takes place. It is also during this time that Artaxerxes issues a decree, forbidding the Jews to continue work on the walls and city of Jerusalem (Ezra 4:7-23). Something has caused King Artaxerxes to change his mind, for when we come to Ezra 7 we find Ezra and a group of Jewish exiles preparing to journey to Jerusalem and the land of Judah. This is the second wave of returning exiles, with the third return taking place when Nehemiah made his trek to Jerusalem (Nehemiah 1:1ff.).
Ezra is a very gifted man. He is a priest whose lineage is traced back to Aaron (7:5), and he is a scholar (7:6, 10-11). Whatever changed Artaxerxes’ mind about allowing the Jews to rebuild the temple, his decree was generally very supportive of the Jews who wished to return to Jerusalem to rebuild it. It specifically empowered Ezra to lead this effort, to govern, and to teach (see 7:12-26). Any man who is given the right to employ the death penalty is surely a man with authority (see 7:26). Ezra recognized that the king’s decree was evidence of the good hand of God:
27 Blessed be the Lord God of our fathers, who so moved in the heart of the king to so honor the temple of the Lord which is in Jerusalem! 28 He has also conferred his favor on me before the king, his advisors, and all the influential leaders of the king. I gained strength as the hand of the Lord my God was on me, and I gathered leaders from Israel to go up with me (Ezra 7:27-28).
Once again in Ezra, we come upon a meticulous listing of those exiles who returned to their homeland, this time with Ezra, some 80 years after the first wave of exiles returned with Zerubbabel. The first wave of exiles numbered around 50,000; this second wave was probably no more than 5,000 strong, counting women and children. Derek Kidner provides us with a good explanation for this second list:
The interest of this forbidding list of names and numbers lies in the fact that in every case but one these groups are joining, at long last, the descendants of the pioneers from their own family stock, who had been in the first part to return from Babylon eighty years before.337
When the people had assembled in preparation for their “exodus” by the river of Ahava, Ezra proclaimed a fast (8:21-23). Ezra had apparently spoken to the king concerning the sovereignty of his God. Having done so, Ezra could hardly ask the king for an armed escort to protect them and the wealth they were transporting from those who might wish to ambush them on the way (see 8:31). Ezra distributed the gold and silver and the temple utensils among twelve of the leading priests (8:24), and the people set out on their journey to Jerusalem. When these Jews arrived, they offered sacrifices to God at the temple and also delivered the king’s edicts to the governors of those lands surrounding Judah (8:35-36).
It was after this that Ezra learned some very distressing news. From the time the temple had been completed until the arrival of Ezra and those who accompanied him (approximately 70 years), the spiritual state of the Jews had seriously declined:
1 Now when these things had been completed, the leaders approached me and said, “The people of Israel, the priests, and the Levites have not separated themselves from the local residents who practice detestable things similar to those of the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Perizites, the Jebusites, the Ammonites, the Moabites, the Egyptians, and the Amorites. 2 Indeed, they have taken some of their daughters as wives for themselves and for their sons and have intermingled the holy seed with the local residents. Worse still, the leaders and the Levites have been at the forefront of all of this!” (Ezra 9:1-2)
It is worthy of note that the leaders of the Jews led the way in this sin (9:2). Ezra was stunned when he heard this report. He immediately began to mourn over these sins. He tore his garments and pulled some of the hair from his head (9:3). Those who were godly joined him in his mourning. Ezra’s prayer is certainly a model prayer; it is the prayer of a godly leader in response to the sin of his people:
5 At the time of the evening offering I got up from my self-abasement, with my torn tunic and robe, and then dropped to my knees and spread my hands to the Lord my God. 6 I prayed, “O my God, I am ashamed and embarrassed, my God, to lift my face to you. For our iniquities have climbed higher than our head, and our guilt extends to the heavens. 7 From the days of our fathers until this very day our guilt has been great. Because of our iniquities we, along with our kings and priests, have been delivered over by the local kings to sword, captivity, plunder, and embarrassment—right up to the present time. 8 “But now briefly we have received mercy from the Lord our God, in that he has left us a remnant and has given us a secure position in his holy place. Thus our God has enlightened our eyes and has given us a little relief in our time of servitude. 9 Although we are slaves, our God has not abandoned us in our servitude. He has extended kindness to us in the sight of the kings of Persia, in that he has revived us to restore the temple of our God and to raise up its ruins and to give us a protective wall in Judah and Jerusalem. 10 “And now what are we able to say after this, our God? For we have forsaken your commandments 11 which you commanded us through your servants the prophets with the words: ‘The land that you are entering to possess is a land defiled by the impurities of the local residents. With their abominations they have filled it from one end to the other with their filthiness. 12 Therefore do not give your daughters in marriage to their sons, and do not take their daughters in marriage for your sons. Do not ever seek their peace or welfare, so that you may be strong and may eat the good of the land and may leave it as an inheritance for your sons forever.’ 13 “Everything that has happened to us has come about because of our wicked actions and our great guilt. Even so, our God, you have exercised restraint toward our iniquities and have given us a remnant such as this. 14 Shall we once again break your commandments and intermarry with these abominable peoples? Would you not be so angered by us as to wipe us out, with no survivor or remnant? 15 O Lord God of Israel, you are righteous, for we are left as a remnant this day. Indeed, we stand before you in our guilt. However, because of this guilt no one can really stand before you” (Ezra 9:5-15).
Time will only allow us to point out a few characteristics of this marvelous prayer.
1. Ezra identifies himself with these Jews, and with their sins. He does not say, “They have sinned,” but rather, “We have sinned.” He does not speak of their iniquity, but of our iniquity (see 9:6-7).
2. Ezra recognizes the intermarriage of the Jews with the people of the land as a clear violation of God’s command, given in the law (see 9:12).
3. Ezra recognizes their sins as part of a consistent pattern of rebellion and disobedience, from the days of their forefathers to the present (9:7).
4. Ezra recognizes their present condition of slavery as the consequence of their sins, and the sins of their forefathers (9:7-13).
5. Ezra acknowledges that God has been gracious in dealing with their sins, for their judgment could have been much more severe (9:13).
6. Ezra acknowledges that in all of this God showed Himself to be righteous, while the Jews have shown themselves to be sinners.
7. Ezra casts himself and his people on his God, Who is gracious and compassionate.
How different Ezra’s leadership style is from Nehemiah’s, as we see it in Nehemiah 13. Ezra pulled out his own hair, while Nehemiah pulled out the hair of the people (Nehemiah 13:25). Ezra did not immediately correct the sins of the people. He was still praying and confessing their sins when Shecaniah encouraged Ezra to act decisively:
1 While Ezra was praying and confessing, weeping and throwing himself to the ground before the temple of God, a very large crowd of Israelites—men, women, and children alike—gathered around him. The people wept loudly. 2 Then Shecaniah son of Jehiel, from the descendants of Elam, addressed Ezra: “We have been unfaithful to our God by marrying foreign women from the local peoples. Nonetheless, there is still hope for Israel in this regard. 3 Therefore let us enact a covenant with our God to send away all these women and their offspring, in keeping with the counsel of my lord and of those who have regard for the commandments of our God. And let it be done according to the law. 4 Get up, for this matter concerns you. We are with you, so be strong and act decisively” (Ezra 10:1-4).
Shecaniah was apparently the spokesman for the large number of Jews who mourned with Ezra. Encouraged by the words of Shecaniah, Ezra took action. He sent word throughout Judah, summoning all the exiles to appear in Jerusalem within three days. Those who failed to do so would forfeit their property and their place among the people of God. As you might suspect, the Jews gathered in Jerusalem, as instructed.
What a scene that must have been. It was cold and raining heavily; the people were shivering. They trembled not only because of the cold, but because of their sins (10:9). Ezra rebuked the people for their sins and demanded that they separate themselves from the people of the land by putting away their foreign wives. The people acknowledged that Ezra was right, but they appealed to him to modify the process by which this sin was to be corrected. It was cold and raining, and the matter would take a considerable amount of time to carry out. They asked that their leaders might represent them and that their sins might be dealt with on a local level, in their own cities. This could be done according to a schedule, so that it could be resolved in a reasonable amount of time (10:13-14). Nearly all agreed that this was the right thing to do, and Ezra records the names of those few who were dissenters (10:15) – and so this sin was dealt with. Those guilty were identified. Their names are listed for us to read, beginning with the priests and the Levites who had sinned in this manner (10:18-23). Some of those who had married foreign wives already had children by them (10:44).
Before we leave this tragic incident, let me attempt to be quite clear about my understanding on the teaching of the Bible on the matter of divorce. It is apparent to me that in both Ezra and Nehemiah, divorce was not only permissible, it was commanded. We should remember that Malachi, the prophet who wrote just a few years after this incident, made it quite clear that God hates divorce (Malachi 2:16). The Jews sinned greatly by marrying foreign wives. They should never have married these foreign wives in the first place. The lists that we find in Ezra should tell us how important it was for these Jews to maintain their genealogical identity. Their inheritance was allocated on the basis of their tribal lineage. The promised Messiah was to come from the line of Judah (Genesis 49:10) and from the seed of David (2 Samuel 7:1-17). They must maintain racial purity. Not only would foreign wives lead them astray (Nehemiah 13:26-27), they would contaminate the seed. Divorce thus became necessary.
You and I are not ancient Jews. Our earthly inheritance is not allocated on the basis of our physical lineage. We are to marry within the faith (1 Corinthians 7:39), but those who married before they came to faith are encouraged to remain married to their unbelieving mate if at all possible (1 Corinthians 7:12-14; 1 Peter 3:1-6). Just because Ezra demanded that those who sinned by marrying foreign wives must divorce them is no excuse for us to walk away from our marriages today. I would liken the putting away of foreign wives in Ezra’s day to the teaching of our Lord concerning the severing of a member of our own body:
7 Woe to the world because of stumbling blocks! It is necessary that stumbling blocks come, but woe to the person through whom they come. 8 If your hand or your foot causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life crippled or lame than to have two hands or two feet and be thrown into eternal fire. 9 And if your eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. It is better for you to enter into life with one eye than to have two eyes and be thrown into fiery hell” (Matthew 18:7-9).
The remedy for sin is radical. Let us not misuse chapter 10 of Ezra as an excuse for sin.
For seventy years, the southern kingdom of Judah has been in bondage to Babylon and then to Persia. The godly saints have yearned to return to the land of promise (Psalm 137), and it has happened at last. What should we learn from this return, as Ezra describes it?
We should certainly learn about man. What we learn about man is far from flattering. I am reminded of the words of the hymn, “Prone to wander, Lord I feel it, Prone to leave the God I love.” When given the opportunity to return to the land of promise and of blessing, a mere 50,000 Jews chose to do so. The Book of Esther, which takes place during the 60-year period between Ezra 6 and 7, deals with many of the Jews who chose to be “left behind” – more accurately, to stay behind. This is not particularly encouraging. But even those devout people who did return were “prone to wander.” We see from chapters 3 and 4 that a little opposition and difficulty was all that was required to terminate the rebuilding of the temple. (Granted, the prophet Haggai will add the additional element of self-interest.) And then when Ezra returns to Jerusalem he soon learns that, beginning with some of the leaders, a number of the Jews have intermarried with the peoples of the land.
If one were to dare to speak of some of the events of Ezra as a revival, we must also acknowledge that revival is short-lived indeed! The initial enthusiasm of those who first returned with Zerubbabel quickly faded to the point that Haggai and Zechariah had to prompt the people to return to the task of rebuilding the temple (rather than attending to their own homes). We can also see that the next generation quickly fell into the sins of their forefathers. Imagine it; the Jews began to intermarry with the same folks who sought to hinder the building of the temple! They became sons-in-law to their enemies, those with whom they formerly would not even share the building of the temple. If we expected the Jews of the return to be different from their forefathers, we are sadly disappointed.
We can certainly learn much about God. The Book of Ezra portrays a God Who is sovereign and Who is faithful to His covenant promises, in spite of the failures and faithlessness of men. One cannot fail to see the truth of this proverb exemplified in the Book of Ezra:
The king’s heart is in the hand of the Lord like channels of water;
he turns it wherever he wants (Proverbs 21:1).
God moved in the heart of Cyrus, so that his decree fulfilled the prophecies of Jeremiah (25:8-12; 27:21-22; 29:10-14) and Isaiah (44:28—45:1). In truth and reality, Cyrus was God’s servant (Isaiah 44:28; 45:1), and so was Nebuchadnezzar (Jeremiah 25:9). In addition, God moved in the hearts of the Jews, prompting them to return to Jerusalem (Ezra 1:5). God spoke through the prophets Haggai and Zechariah, urging the Jews to renew the construction of the temple (Ezra 5:1ff.) God also worked through Darius, whose decree facilitated the completion of the temple (Ezra 6). In spite of all the failures of the Jews, God brought a remnant back to the Promised Land and fulfilled His promises regarding the return of His people. How I am reminded of these words in 2 Timothy 2:
If we are unfaithful, he remains faithful, since he cannot deny himself (2 Timothy 2:13).
What a faithful God we serve! This is not an excuse for Christians to sin or to be careless and sloppy in their walk with God. It is instead a strong incentive for faithfulness, for we can be assured that our labors are not in vain.
Where can we see Christ in the Book of Ezra? If God calls Cyrus His servant in the Book of Isaiah, He also speaks of the Messiah as His servant (Isaiah 52:13ff.). If God could use Nebuchadnezzar and Cyrus as His servants, just as He foretold, then surely He will send the Messiah, His servant, as well. Nehemiah is a great man and a great leader, but his ministry results in only a temporary repentance and revival. In order for God’s covenant promise to Abraham to be fulfilled, someone far greater than Ezra must come. The revival He brings must involve the transformation of hearts of stone to hearts of flesh, the renewal that comes through the fulfillment of the New Covenant:
24 “‘I will take you from the nations and gather you from all the countries and bring you to your land. 25 I will sprinkle pure water over you and you will be clean from all you uncleanness; I will purify you from all your idols. 26 I will give you a new heart, and I will put a new spirit within you; I will remove the heart of stone from your body and give you a heart of flesh. 27 I will put my spirit within you, and I will make you walk in my statutes and keep my ordinances, and you will do them” (Ezekiel 36:24-27; see also 11:17-20).
31 “Indeed, a time is coming,” says the Lord, “when I will make a new agreement with the people of Israel and Judah. 32 It will not be like the old agreement that I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand and led them out of Egypt. For they violated that agreement, even though I was a faithful husband to them,” says the Lord. 33 “But I will make a new agreement with the whole nation of Israel after I plant them back in the land,” says the Lord. “I will put my law within them and write it on their hearts and minds. And I will be their God and they will be my people. 34 “People will no longer need to teach their neighbors and relatives to know me. That is because all of them, from the least important to the most important, will know me,” says the Lord. “All of this is based on the fact that I will forgive their sin and will no longer call to mind the wrong they have done” (Jeremiah 31:31-34).
The full and final fulfillment of God’s promised blessings to Israel will not be found in the events of the restoration under Ezra or Nehemiah; it will only come about through the appearance of the Messiah. Thus, the Jews must look beyond the moment to the days ahead, when God will fully and finally bless His people. This becomes even more apparent in the Book of Nehemiah.
What, then, does the Book of Ezra have to teach us? Much, in every way. First of all we can learn from the example of Ezra. My friend, Marvin Ball, pointed this text out to me several months ago:
Now Ezra had given himself to the study of the law of the Lord, to its observance, and to teaching its statutes and judgments in Israel (Ezra 7:10).
Should this not be our passion and commitment as well? We should resolve (give ourselves) to the study of God’s Word. Daily devotional readings are fine, but they are far from sufficient. Listening to sound sermons and reading excellent books is good also, but it is not enough. We should make it a life goal to know God through His Word. A lifetime of diligent study will not exhaust the depths of God’s revealed Word.
The fervent study of God’s Word is not enough. It is an excellent beginning, but it must never be an end in and of itself. We must also devote ourselves to the practice of God’s Word. I am reminded of our Lord’s words to His disciples before His ascension:
18 Then Jesus came up and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, 20 teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:18-20).
What marks one as a disciple of Jesus Christ is not just their knowledge of God’s truth, but also their application of it:
Everyone who hears these words of mine and does them is like a wise man who built his house on rock” (Matthew 7:24).
“If you understand these things, you will be blessed if you do them” (John 13:17).
But the one who peers into the perfect law of liberty and fixes his attention there, and does not become a forgetful listener but one who lives it out—he will be blessed in what he does (James 1:25).
It is important to proclaim the truths of God’s Word, but our words are far more powerful when our deeds demonstrate the truths we declare to others:
33 I have desired no one’s silver or gold or clothing. 34 You yourselves know that these hands of mine provided for my needs and the needs of those who were with me. 35 By all these things, I have shown you that by working in this way we must help the weak, and remember the words of the Lord Jesus that he himself said, ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive’” (Acts 20:33-35).
16 I encourage you, then, be imitators of me. 17 For this reason, I have sent Timothy to you, who is my dear and faithful son in the Lord. He will remind you of my ways in Christ, as I teach them everywhere in every church (1 Corinthians 4:16-17; see also Philippians 3:17-19; 1 Thessalonians 2:1-12).
We can also learn from the failures of God’s people. How quickly and easily the people were discouraged so that they gave up the work on the temple, yet found time to work on their own homes. I find a very disturbing tendency to lack endurance and perseverance in God’s work, in myself and in others.
So we must not grow weary in doing good, for in due time we will reap, if we do not give up (Galatians 6:9).
But you, brothers and sisters, do not grow weary in doing what is right (2 Thessalonians 3:13).
Think of him who endured such opposition against himself by sinners, so that you may not grow weary in your souls and give up (Hebrews 12:3).
I have seen it happen time and time again. A person comes to faith in Jesus Christ, and in those early days, he or she overflows with joy and zeal for God. At first they cannot help but read their Bible and share their faith. Then perhaps a little opposition or rejection comes their way. Or perhaps they are disappointed by another Christian, or by their church. Perhaps God fails to bless them in the way and within the time frame they expected. Often such folks become more and more self-absorbed, less and less active in the things of God. They talk about the “good old days” and grumble about the present. They become disillusioned and bitter. They lack endurance. God has a word for us:
35 So do not throw away your confidence, because it has great reward. 36 For you need endurance in order to do God’s will and so receive what is promised. 37 For just a little longer and he who is coming will arrive and not delay (Hebrews 10:35-37).
1 Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, we must get rid of every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and run with endurance the race set out for us (Hebrews 12:1).
3 Because you know that the testing of your faith produces endurance. 4 And let endurance have its perfect effect, so that you will be perfect and complete, not deficient in anything. 5 But if anyone is deficient in wisdom, he should ask God, who gives to all generously and without reprimand, and it will be given to him (James 1:3-5).
Let me ask you very honestly, my friend, have you lost your first love? Then you need to repent and to return to your former works:
4 But I have this against you: you have departed from your first love! 5 Therefore, remember from what high state you have fallen and repent! Do the deeds you did at the first; if not, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place—that is, if you do not repent (Revelation 2:4-5).
May God give us a fresh supply of love and good deeds. May we practice our former works. May we not become self-absorbed and self-indulgent. May we be faithful to our calling, and obedient to His commands. May we return with fresh commitment to the work He has given us to do.
330 This is the edited manuscript of Lesson 52 in the From Creation to the Cross series prepared by Robert L. Deffinbaugh on November 4, 2001.
331 Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from the NET Bible. The NEW ENGLISH TRANSLATION, also known as THE NET BIBLE, is a completely new translation of the Bible, not a revision or an update of a previous English version. It was completed by more than twenty biblical scholars who worked directly from the best currently available Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek texts. The translation project originally started as an attempt to provide an electronic version of a modern translation for electronic distribution over the Internet and on CD (compact disk). Anyone anywhere in the world with an Internet connection will be able to use and print out the NET Bible without cost for personal study. In addition, anyone who wants to share the Bible with others can print unlimited copies and give them away free to others. It is available on the Internet at: www.netbible.org.
332 Notice that in Deuteronomy 28:68, the Babylonian captivity is described in “back to Egypt” terms. There will be a second exile, and a second exodus.
333 Primarily because the Egyptians loathed the Hebrews, and would not be interested in inter-marriage with them.
334 See 2 Corinthians 6:14.
335 His position on the Jews’ return and the rebuilding of Jerusalem obviously changes, as we can see his support of the return of Ezra and others (Ezra 7:1ff.) and later of Nehemiah (Nehemiah 1:1ff.).
336 Our study of Haggai will explain why the weeping ceased (see Haggai 2:1-9).
337 Derek Kidner, Ezra and Nehemiah (Madison, Wisconsin: Inter-Varsity Press, 1979), p. 65.