This book in named after the person who appears in chapters 7-10 of the book. Both the Hebrew Scriptures as well as the Greek Septuagint use Ezra (or Esdras) for the title.
In the Hebrew Bible, the book of Ezra was joined to the book of Nehemiah. This was done so that the number of the books of the Hebrew Bible would number 22, corresponding to the number of letters in the Hebrew alphabet. The Jews had a three-fold division of their Scriptures:
Psalms, Job, Proverbs, Ruth, Song of Solomon, Ecclesiastes, Lamentations, Esther, Daniel, Ezra/Nehemiah, 1 & 2 Chronicles
The Hebrews placed Ezra-Nehemiah in the Writings just after Daniel and just before the books of Chronicles.
Jerome divided the books into two separate books in his Latin Vulgate and our English Bibles follow this tradition. There seems to be some evidence that they were originally written as two separate books. Ezra 2 is repeated in Nehemiah 6:7-70 and this likely would not have been the case had they been written together.
The Septuagint included the books which we know as the Apocrypha. These were books which were reckoned by the Jews not to have the same authority as those which had been written by the prophets. The Septuagint contains an Apocryphal book of Esdras while the Latin Vulgate contains two such additional books.
First Esdras seems to date to the 2nd century B.C. and is an addendum to the book of Ezra. It deals with events from Josiah to Ezra.
Second Esdras was written in the late first century A.D. and contains no connection with our book of Ezra (it is apocalyptic in nature, made up of seven visions and set in the days of the Persian Empire). All of our copies are in Latin and no Greek manuscript has thus far been located.
Jewish tradition attributed this book to Ezra. From Ezra 7:28 to 8:34 and again in chapter 9, Ezra speaks in the first person, much as Luke does in certain portions of the book of Acts.
Ezra is described as a scribe in Ezra 7:21, so he would have had ample ability to write this book.
This book spans 92 years of Jewish history from the decree of Cyrus allowing the Jews to return to the land (539 B.C.) to the decree of Artaxerxes which halted the work of rebuilding the city of Jerusalem (446 B.C.).
Cyrus the Great
539 Edict to return to land
515 Temple completed
458 Second return under Ezra
444 Nehemiah rebuilds walls
Ezra, Nehemiah and Esther all deal with the story of Israel following the Babylonian Captivity. Nebuchadnezzar’s Babylon did not long outlive that king. It was soon replaced by the empire of the Persians.
The Persians had a different method of maintaining their empire. They determined that a happy and prosperous people made better taxpayers, so they permitted dispossessed peoples to return to their homelands. Under the Persian rule, there were three specific returns of Jews to the land of Judah.
The first was led by Zerubbabel and involved an initial rebuilding of Jerusalem.
The second was led by Ezra who oversaw the rebuilding of the Temple and the reinstitution of the sacrifices.
The third was led by Nehemiah and involved the rebuilding of the defensive walls of Jerusalem.
The story of Esther takes place in the interim between Ezra and Nehemiah. However it is a separate narrative as its focus is not upon the land of Judah but deals with the Jews throughout the Persian Empire.
1. The Sovereignty of God.
The Lord is seen to be directing the events of history as He moves pagan kings to do His will (Proverbs 21:1).
2. The Continuing Need for a Land.
God’s plan called for a return of the Jews to the land. They had been taken away as a punishment for their idolatry. They are now brought back so that they might serve Him and worship them in the land. This would be necessary so that the Messiah could be born in Bethlehem.
3. The Grace of God.
God is a God of second chances. He was bringing the people back into the land to give them a second chance to serve Him and to follow Him. They had formerly sinned in their idolatry. Now there is a call to renewed purity.
This is a book of covenant renewal. The people return to their covenant relationship with God and renew their promises to follow Him.
OUTLINE OF EZRA
First Return under Sheshbazzar and Zerubbabel
Return from Babylon
The Edict of Cyrus
The Exiles who returned
Rebuilding of the Temple
Second Return under Ezra
Return from Babylon
Decree of Artaxerxes
Restoration of the People
Problem of mixed marriages
Solution to the problem
As can be seen from the above outline, Ezra is a book about returning and rebuilding and restoring one’s relationship with the Lord. Such a journey is not necessarily an easy one. It can be fraught with pitfalls and temptations. But the journey home is worth the effort. Are you headed for home? There is a message in this book for you.
A DECREE TO RETURN
I love the prayer that goes: "Lord, here I am, again." God is a God of second chances. The theological term for this is the long-suffering of God. It means that He forgives and forgives and then forgives again.
The book of Ezra is about that kind of forgiveness. It is written to document the return of the people to the land from which they had been taken.
The Northern Kingdom of Israel had been destroyed by the Assyrian Empire and its inhabitants deported in 721 B.C.
The Southern Kingdom of Judah also underwent a series of deportations at the hands of Nebuchadnezzar, king of the Neo-Babylonian Empire.
These two deportations were markedly different in character.
Northern Kingdom of Israel
Southern Kingdom of Judah
Dates of Deportation
605, 597, 586 B.C.
Non-Semitic peoples resettled in the lands and eventually intermarried with those Jews who remained behind.
No outsiders were resettled in the land; it remained virtually uninhabited except for the poorest of the poor.
There were no doubt a number of geo-political reasons for these deportations. But underlying any of these was a spiritual reason. They took place as a result of God’s judgment against idolatry. As the people gave themselves up to the worship of the false gods of their neighbors, so the Lord gave them up to the conquest by their neighbors.
It seems a terrible thing to be disciplined by the hand of the Lord. But you need to know that in this case, the discipline WORKED. The Jews never again dabbled in
the idolatry which brought them to this point. There were other sins into which they fell, but they never again bowed down to pagan idols.
There is a lesson here. Obedience is easier than disobedience. God has called you to be holy and life is a lot easier when you follow his calling.
SETTING FOR THE STORY
Now in the first year of Cyrus king of Persia, in order to fulfill the word of the LORD by the mouth of Jeremiah, the LORD stirred up the spirit of Cyrus king of Persia, so that he sent a proclamation throughout all his kingdom, and also put it in writing, saying (Ezra 1:1).
This book starts out with a conjunction. It is translated here as "now," but could just as easily have been translated "and." There is a point being made. This is a continuing saga. Ezra is not a "stand-alone" book. It takes up the thread of history set down by the books of Kings and Chronicles. By opening with this conjunction, the author shows that this is a continuing story.
The nation of Israel was a nation desolate. The northern 10 tribes had been taken into captivity by Assyria in 721 B.C. and foreigners had been settled in their place. Then in three successive deportations, the southern kingdom of Judah had been taken away to Babylon and the land left a desolated waste.
With this conjunction, the story continues. Cyrus the Great comes on the scene and issues a proclamation which allows the Jews to return to their land.
There is a lesson here. It is that God has a continuing story. There are times when it looks as though that story is going to end. The Babylonian Captivity seemed to be such a time. The temple was destroyed, the land desolated, the people decimated. But that isn’t the end. It is only the beginning of a new chapter in God’s continuing story.
What is going on in your life? Problems that threaten to destroy and desolate and decimate? Situations that seem insurmountable? The tapestry of your life becoming unraveled? Take hope! There is a continuing story.
This portion of the continuing story began with the advent of a pagan king named Cyrus. He was the king of Persia.
When Cyrus was born, Persia was a small third-rate country under the shadow of their northern neighbors, the Medes. The king of the Medes entered into a number of alliances, sealing each of them by marriage. One of these alliances was to marry his daughter to Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon. Another such alliance was to marry his granddaughter to the king of Persia.
Thus Cyrus the Great represented the ruling families of both the Medes and the Persians. He began as a vassal to his grandfather Astyages, but soon set out on a campaign of conquest. Anatolia fell to him when he conquered Croesus (known to the Greeks as Midas) and the kingdom of Lydia. Then Gobryas, the king of Elam, revolted and came over to him. Finally Babylon itself fell to him as he took the city without a fight (as recorded in Daniel 5). Thus by the year 539 B.C. Cyrus was virtual ruler of the known world. His kingdom was as wide as the continental United States.
Cyrus becomes king of Persia.
Cyrus conquers the Medes.
Cyrus conquers Lydia and Anatolia.
Cyrus conquers Babylon
Nabonidus and his son Belshazzar had been unpopular. The former had alienated the priesthood and the latter did the same with the general populace. Cyrus began a public relations campaign that was to have direct ramifications for the Jews.
Ezra begins by telling us that the decree of Cyrus was made in order to fulfill the word of the LORD by the mouth of Jeremiah (1:1). The Babylonian Captivity had not been a mere happenstance of history. It had been the judgment of God promised upon a willful and rebellious people. The prophet Jeremiah had foretold of this coming judgment. But with that warning had also come a ray of hope. The Captivity would be of a limited duration.
Therefore thus says the LORD of hosts, "Because you have not obeyed My words, 9 behold, I will send and take all the families of the north," declares the LORD, "and I will send to Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon, My servant, and will bring them against this land and against its inhabitants and against all these nations round about; and I will utterly destroy them and make them a horror and a hissing, and an everlasting desolation.
"Moreover, I will take from them the voice of joy and the voice of gladness, the voice of the bridegroom and the voice of the bride, the sound of the millstones and the light of the lamp.
"This whole land will be a desolation and a horror, and these nations will serve the king of Babylon seventy years.
"Then it will be when seventy years are completed I will punish the king of Babylon and that nation,' declares the LORD, "for their iniquity, and the land of the Chaldeans; and I will make it an everlasting desolation." (Jeremiah 12:8-12).
Notice the specifics of this prophecy. It is that the people of Israel would be taken into captivity and their land ruined for a period of seventy years. This prophecy was fulfilled. Nebuchadnezzar came up against Jerusalem on three different occasions, each time taking a greater toll against the city.
Nebuchadnezzar takes Jehoiakim and certain sons of the Jewish nobility hostage including Daniel.
Nebuchadnezzar takes Jehoiachin and deports 10,000 of the upper class including Ezekiel.
Nebuchadnezzar burns the Temple, executes the sons of Zedekiah before his eyes and then has that king blinded and taken with the rest of the population in chains to Babylon.
The decree of Cyrus for the Jews to return and to rebuild their Temple was given in 538 B.C., the year after he had taken Babylon.
THE DECREE OF CYRUS
Thus says Cyrus king of Persia, "The LORD, the God of heaven, has given me all the kingdoms of the earth and He has appointed me to build Him a house in Jerusalem, which is in Judah.
"Whoever there is among you of all His people, may his God be with him! Let him go up to Jerusalem which is in Judah and rebuild the house of the LORD, the God of Israel; He is the God who is in Jerusalem.
"Every survivor, at whatever place he may live, let the men of that place support him with silver and gold, with goods and cattle, together with a freewill offering for the house of God which is in Jerusalem." (Ezra 1:2-4).
When we first read this, we are inclined to think that they are the words of a believer. Cyrus is attributing his victories over the Babylonian Empire to Yahweh and describes himself as an agent of the Lord is decreeing that the Temple of God be rebuilt in Jerusalem. From archaeological records, we learn that this was the policy of Cyrus toward all religions and people groups. The Cyrus Prism was discovered in 1879 by Rassam and describes this policy of Cyrus.
I am Cyrus, King of the World, Great King, Legitimate King, King of Babylon, King of Kiengir and Akkad, King of the four rims of the earth, Son of Cambyses, Great King, King of Achamaenes, Grandson of Cyrus, Great king, King of Achamaenes, descendant of Chishpish, Great king, King of Achamaenes, of a family which always exercised kingship; whose rule Bel and Nebo love, whom they want as king to please their hearts. When I entered Babylon as a friend and when I established the seat of the government in the palace of the ruler under jubilation and rejoicing, Marduk, the great lord, induced the magnanimous inhabitants of Babylon to love me, and I was daily endeavoring to worship him.... As to the region from as far as Ashur and Susa, Akkad, Eshnunna, the towns Zamban, Me-turnu, Der as well as the region of the Gutians, I returned to these sacred cities on the other side of the Tigris the sanctuaries of which have been ruins for a long time, the images which used to live therein and established for them permanent sanctuaries. I also gathered all their former inhabitants and returned them to their habitations. Furthermore, I resettled upon the command of Marduk, the great lord, all the gods of Kiengir and Akkad whom Nabonidus had brought into Babylon to the anger of the lord of the gods, unharmed, in their former temples, the places which make them happy.
Cyrus seems to have realized that a tribute-paying nation would be more profitable than a devastated country. Thus, he looked forward to turning the desolation into a profitable source of revenue.
Here is the point. Cyrus had his own reasons for instituting his political policy and they were not God’s reasons. Nevertheless, the actions of Cyrus were also fulfilling the plan of God for His people. The actions of the king were doing the will of God even though that king was working on his own agenda.
"It is I who says of Cyrus, ‘He is My shepherd! And he will perform all My desire.’ And he declares of Jerusalem, ‘She will be built,’ and of the temple, ‘Your foundation will be laid.’" (Isaiah 44:28).
Over a hundred years before the coming of Cyrus, God declared through the prophet Isaiah that this same Cyrus would perform His will by ordering the rebuilding of Jerusalem. Cyrus had not even been born when this was written.
"For the sake of Jacob My servant, and Israel, My chosen one, I have also called you by your name; I have given you a title of honor though you have not known Me." (Isaiah 45:40).
The Lord states that He chose Cyrus to perform certain things even though Cyrus himself was an unbeliever who did not know the Lord. God is not restricted to using believers to carry out His plan. In the same way that He used Cyrus, so also He used the pharaoh of the Exodus.
"For the Scripture says to Pharaoh, ‘For this very purpose I raised you up, to demonstrate My power in you, and that My name might be proclaimed throughout the whole earth.’" (Romans 9:17).
It was the Lord who raised up the unbelieving pharaoh of the Exodus to his position of leadership over Egypt. He did this so that, by bringing him to defeat through the plagues and through the incident at the Red Sea, the name of the Lord might be proclaimed throughout the whole earth.
Are we to take these instances of Cyrus and the pharaoh of Egypt as being the exceptions rather than the rule? Does God’s plan only extend to the great and the powerful while ignoring the humble and the weak? Not at all! If there were anyone who was said to have "free will," it was the king. He could point to someone and say, "Off with his head" and that head would topple. Thus, when the book of Proverbs states the principle of God’s sovereignty over rulers as a general principle, the implication is that God is sovereign over ALL men.
"The king’s heart is like channels of water in the hand of the Lord; He turns it wherever He wishes." (Proverbs 21:1).
It has been said that man’s free will flows in the channels which have been dug by the sovereignty of God. Such a concept is presented here. The Lord carries out His plans and protects His people, not merely in spite of a pagan king, but He actually uses that pagan king to work out His will.
Paul takes this principle a step further to teach that the rulers themselves are placed in their positions of authority by the Lord.
"Let every person be in subjection to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those which exist are established by God." (Romans 13:1).
Paul was not speaking in the context of a Christian king or governor. It was during the reigns of the Roman Emperors that he penned these words. He did not say that only those authorities which are obedient to divine laws are established by God, but ALL authorities.
This means that, whether a leader has taken a throne by force of arms or through inheritance or even through a national election by the vote of the "free will" of the populace, it is ultimately the Lord who places in office those whom He has chosen.
THE RESPONSE OF THE PEOPLE
Then the heads of fathers’ households of Judah and Benjamin and the priests and the Levites arose, even everyone whose spirit God had stirred to go up and rebuild the house of the LORD which is in Jerusalem.
All those about them encouraged them with articles of silver, with gold, with goods, with cattle and with valuables, aside from all that was given as a freewill offering. (Ezra 1:5-6).
As the call went out for people to return and rebuild the Temple, there were two responses which are mentioned in this passage. First, there were those who went. We are told specifically that God had been as work in stirring up their spirit to go and to do this work. We have already seen how God can motivate a pagan king to accomplish His will. Here we see how He also motivates His own people to do His will.
The second group is made up of people who did not make the journey, but who nevertheless supported the word with gifts and offerings.
There is a lesson here. Not everyone is called to be a missionary to a foreign country. But those who do not go themselves are nevertheless able to support those who do go.
INSTRUMENTS OF WORSHIP
Also King Cyrus brought out the articles of the house of the LORD, which Nebuchadnezzar had carried away from Jerusalem and put in the house of his gods; 8 and Cyrus, king of Persia, had them brought out by the hand of Mithredath the treasurer, and he counted them out to Sheshbazzar, the prince of Judah.
Now this was their number: 30 gold dishes, 1,000 silver dishes, duplicates;
1 30 gold bowls, 410 silver bowls of a second kind and 1,000 other articles.
1 All the articles of gold and silver numbered 5,400. Sheshbazzar brought them all up with the exiles who went up from Babylon to Jerusalem. (Ezra 1:7-11).
Cyrus also released the various articles of gold and silver that had been taken from the Temple by Nebuchadnezzar. These had evidently been kept in a collection. Daniel tells the story of how Belshazzar took some of these sacred vessels and defiled them in using them during an orgy of eating and drinking. These vessels are now to be cleansed and returned to their original use.
How about you? The Scriptures say that we are chosen vessels of the Lord. Are you a vessel in need of some cleansing? Has sin defiled your use to the Lord? There is good news here. It is that God is able to cleanse His chosen vessels and to return them to His good service.
THE NUMBER OF THOSE WHO CAME
In the 1970's a movie came out on broadcast television entitled "Roots." Written by Alex Haley, it was a true-life portrayal of a man’s attempts to trace down his ancestors. My wife’s family has a book of ancestors that go all the way back to the Mayflower.
On the other hand, there are some people who are ashamed of their family heritage - like the man who spent a fortune trying to uncover his family line and then another fortune trying to cover it up again. Why do people care at all about their ancestry? There are several reasons:
To learn exactly who they are, thus establishing a sense of self-identity.
To fulfill a sense of belonging. Everyone wants to belong, to fit in. It is inherent in the very makeup of who we are.
This chapter contains a long list of names. Such a list does not seem very interesting to us because we know virtually nothing of these people. They would seem to have no relevance to us in our day. But I want to suggest that there are some lessons that we can learn from the presence of this list in the book of Ezra.
1. This List is Preparatory for the Messiah.
At the beginning of the list is the name of Zerubbabel. He was a leader of the people due to the fact that he could trace his ancestry back to Solomon and David. His name appears in the genealogy of Jesus as found in Matthew 1.
Zerubbabel had the legal right to the throne of Israel. But he never laid claim to that throne. Though the Israelites looked to him for leadership, he never attempted to be recognized as a king. This was in keeping with a prophecy which had been made years earlier.
"As I live," declares the LORD, "even though Coniah the son of Jehoiakim king of Judah were a signet ring on My right hand, yet I would pull you off; 25 and I will give you over into the hand of those who are seeking your life, yes, into the hand of those whom you dread, even into the hand of Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon and into the hand of the Chaldeans.
"I will hurl you and your mother who bore you into another country where you were not born, and there you will die.
"But as for the land to which they desire to return, they will not return to it.
"Is this man Coniah a despised, shattered jar? Or is he an undesirable vessel? Why have he and his descendants been hurled out and cast into a land that they had not known?
"O land, land, land, Hear the word of the LORD!
"Thus says the LORD, "Write this man down childless, A man who will not prosper in his days; For no man of his descendants will prosper sitting on the throne of David or ruling again in Judah." (Jeremiah 22:24-30).
Coniah is another name for Jehoachin, one of the last kings of Judah. The Lord had promised that none of the descendants of Coniah would ever prosper upon the throne of David. This means that if Jesus had been the physical descendant of Joseph, he would have been ineligible to sit upon the throne of David. On the other hand, only a legal descendant of David has the legal right to the throne of David. It has been suggested that it is for this reason that the Gospel accounts contain two separate and distinct genealogies for Jesus.
Traces the genealogy of Jesus through David back to Abraham
Traces the genealogy of Jesus back to Adam
Traces the line through David and his son Solomon
Traces the line through David and his son Nathan
A legal lineage through Joseph
Possibly a physical lineage through Mary
2. This List is made up of Real People.
To us this list of names is nothing more than that - simply a listing of unknown names over which we may conveniently skip. But they are a lot more than that to the Lord. We do not know these people, but HE does.
Here is the point. If we consider our church to be a spiritual family, then we should try to make it a point to know one another’s names. And not merely their names. We should make an effort to be involved in one another’s lives.
That is not always an easy thing. People’s lives are sometimes messy. And noisy. And inconvenient. But that is what it means to be family.
3. This List contains a number of Places.
In verses 3-20 we read a listing of the record of the children of the heads of various clans. But in verse 21 there is a change. Here we read the children, not of a man, but from a certain PLACE. Throughout the rest of the chapter, we see interspersed among the listings of clans certain listings of towns and villages.
Bethel and Ai (2:28).
Some of these places were repaired and became once again the habitation of the returning deportees. Other places remained in ruins and some have even been forgotten to this day.
There is a lesson here. It is that sometimes coming back to God does not involve coming back to a specific physical location. Paula and I met at Florida Bible College at a time when it was located on Hollywood Beach. The building has since been sold and today is the Hollywood Beach Hotel. Though we treasure the memories from those years, those relationships can not be recaptured by returning to that location. It just isn’t the same any longer.
The good news is that the God whom we came to know in those days has not changed. We can not longer go to that locale, but we can go to Him. He is the same yesterday, today and forever.
Verse 23 makes reference of 128 men of Anathoth. This is significant. In the days before the final fall of Jerusalem, Jeremiah was told by the Lord to purchase a piece of property. With Nebuchanezzar already in the land, real estate prices were in a steady state of decline. This was NOT the time to be purchasing real estate.
And Jeremiah said, "The word of the LORD came to me, saying, 7 ‘Behold, Hanamel the son of Shallum your uncle is coming to you, saying, "Buy for yourself my field which is at Anathoth, for you have the right of redemption to buy it."’" (Jeremiah 32:6-7).
Jeremiah obeys the Lord and purchases the field. He is then instructed to save the deed as a future inheritance.
Thus says the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel, "Take these deeds, this sealed deed of purchase and this open deed, and put them in an earthenware jar, that they may last a long time."
For thus says the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel, "Houses and fields and vineyards will again be bought in this land.
After I had given the deed of purchase to Baruch the son of Neriah, then I prayed to the LORD, saying, 17 "Ah Lord GOD! Behold, You have made the heavens and the earth by Your great power and by Your outstretched arm! Nothing is too difficult for You (Jeremiah 32:14-17).
The reason that Jeremiah was to purchase this property was to illustrate a promise. The promise was that God would one day bring the Israelites back into the land and give it to them as their inheritance.
The property that Jeremiah purchesed was in Anathoth. Now we see these men going back to that selfsame city. Their actions in returning to this city was in fulfillment of the words of the Lord.
We also have promises from God. We are called to "buy into" those promises. Jesus warned that we should take care not to lay up our treasure here on earth, but to lay up our treasure in heaven.
4. This List is nearly exclusively Masculine.
Women were not mentioned in this list. That does not mean that they did not accompany the men, but it does mean that these men were considered to be the leaders of their households. There is one interesting exception:
The sons of Solomon's servants: the sons of Sotai, the sons of Hassophereth, the sons of Peruda... (Ezra 2:55).
The name Hassophereth is the feminine form of the Hebrew word for "scribe." This was an era in history where not all people could read and write (this would change dramatically in the days of Jesus). Very rare indeed was a woman who held the position of a scribe. But this woman evidently was known as a scribe.
We have a manuscript of the Pentateuch that was written many years later in the Middle Ages. The manuscript was copied by Miriam, the daughter of the renowned scribe Benaya. The title page contains this remark, "Please be indulgent of the shortcomings of this volume; I copied it while nursing a baby."
5. This List contains a Priestly Emphasis.
Now these are those who came up from Tel-melah, Tel-harsha, Cherub,
Tel-melah means "mound of salt." It could be that this was a village that was seeded with salt so that nothing would grow there. Tel-harsha likewise means "mound of broken pottery." Each of these towns were located on the eastern side of Mesopotamia. They were evidently deserted sites on which the Jewish exiles settled.
Addan and Immer, but they were not able to give evidence of their fathers' households and their descendants, whether they were of Israel: 60 the sons of Delaiah, the sons of Tobiah, the sons of Nekoda, 652.
Of the sons of the priests: the sons of Habaiah, the sons of Hakkoz, the sons of Barzillai, who took a wife from the daughters of Barzillai the Gileadite, and he was called by their name.
These searched among their ancestral registration, but they could not be located; therefore they were considered unclean and excluded from the priesthood.
The governor said to them that they should not eat from the most holy things until a priest stood up with Urim and Thummim. (Ezra 2:59-63).
There were certain men who returned who were descendants of the priesthood, but could no longer provide specific evidence as to their heritage. The records had been destroyed when the Temple was destroyed. And since the Law mandated that only descendants of Aaron could serve as priests, these men were excluded from the priesthood.
We do not have this kind of priesthood in the church today. The New Testament teaches that Christ has become our high priests and, through His ministry, He has made us all to be a kingdom of priests. Be we still need a holy lineage for that priesthood. It is not a physical lineage, but a spiritual lineage that we require.
But as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, even to those who believe in His name, 13 who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God. (John 1:12-13).
It is only those who have been born again into the family of God who enjoy the privilege of coming into the presence of God.
Verse 63 makes mention of the Urim and Thummim. These were devises which were somehow connected to the breastplate of the high priest and were used like lots to determine what might be the will of the Lord. Like some of the other Temple items, these had evidently been lost.
The governor seems to be a reference to Zerubbabel. His judgment regarding these priests was that they should be removed from their priestly office until a priest stood up with Urim and Thummim. The thing that is not mentioned here is that the Urim and Thummim never again made their appearance. The rabbis after this held that "since the destruction of the first temple the Urim and the Thummim ceased" (Tosefta Sota 13.1).
The Septuagint translated these terms with abstractions: Lights and Perfections; elsewhere it translates the terms as Manifestation and Truth. They were used by the high priest to determine "yes" or "no" answers to see what might be the will of God.
The mind of God has been ultimately revealed to us in Jesus Christ. He fulfills the Urim and Thummim.
He is the LIGHT of the world.
He is the PERFECT man.
He is the MANIFESTATION of God.
He is the TRUTH.
THE REBUILDING OF WORSHIP
In the last chapter, we saw the Jews returning to their homeland. The last verse closed with each family dispersing to go to their own hometown or city. This presumably took place in the spring. As this chapter opens, the summer has come to an end and the people come together for the purpose of rebuilding their place of worship.
THE UNITY OF WORSHIP
Now when the seventh month came, and the sons of Israel were in the cities, the people gathered together as one man to Jerusalem. (Ezra 3:1).
When the Jews first returned to the land, they tended to naturally gravitate to their own cities and their own villages. The entire land was desolate, but Jerusalem was especially devastated. The walls had been torn down. The Temple had been burnt. The city was a heap.
This began to change when, in the seventh month, the Israelites came together to Jerusalem. Our new year starts in January. We tend to number our months from that starting point. But this was not always the case. Even the names of the months that we utilize bear witness of a different starting point.
September is from the Latin septem and means "seven."
October is from the Latin octo and means "eight."
November is from the Latin novem and means "eight."
December is from the Latin decem and means "ten."
The new year started in the Spring. It coincided with the spring equinox. This was true even though the Jewish calendar was oriented as a lunar calendar with 28 days a piece.
We are told, not only that the people came together, but they came together as one man. It was as though a single body was at work. And in a sense, it was. This is how the church is always supposed to work. We have been called together to be the body of Christ. A body by its very nature is unified.
Paul gives the illustration of a disunified body. Imagine the arms and legs and eyes and ears all trying to go their own ways. It would be the death of the body. Churches die in the same way.
THE LEADERS OF WORSHIP
Then Jeshua the son of Jozadak and his brothers the priests, and Zerubbabel the son of Shealtiel and his brothers arose and built the altar of the God of Israel to offer burnt offerings on it, as it is written in the law of Moses, the man of God.
So they set up the altar on its foundation, for they were terrified because of the peoples of the lands; and they offered burnt offerings on it to the LORD, burnt offerings morning and evening. (Ezra 3:2-3).
There was a unity, not only among the people, but also among the leaders. Jeshua was evidently the high priest while Zerubbabel held the reigns of civil authority. But there was no competition between the two. They both came together for the purposes of worship.
Josephus puts the size of the altar at 20 cubits square and 10 cubits in height (30 feet square by 15 feet high).
They began with the altar. This was no small structure. The altar was a large structure made of uncut stones. No human hand had molded its makeup. It represented that which is offered to God.
There is a lesson here. Our offerings to God can never take away sin because they are blighted with our own human efforts. Only that which comes from the hand of the God is acceptable to God. This is why your own good works can never save you. Only God’s own Son can accomplish that.
Notice also that they did not wait until the entire Temple was completed before they began worshiping the Lord. They began with what they had.
Sometimes I talk to someone who feels that he needs to straighten up his own life before he can come to church and worship God. That is a little like someone who is involved in a traffic accident saying to the rescue workers: "I know that I need to be in the hospital, but first I want to go home and heal from these terrible looking injuries. When I am presentable I will come back to the hospital."
Come to the Lord with what you have. That is the place to start. And then the process will continue from there.
Verse 3 says that they set up the altar on its foundation, for they were terrified because of the peoples of the lands. The translation of the word "for" makes it look as though the reason that they set up the altar was because of their fear of the people of the land. But I don’t believe this is the case. Although the preposition usually carries the idea of "for" it can be translated in a variety of ways and even as a conjunction ("but"). I think that the context would warrant such a translation in this case. They set up the altar in spite of the potential opposition from those who were living in the land.
THE TIMES OF WORSHIP
They celebrated the Feast of Booths, as it is written, and offered the fixed number of burnt offerings daily, according to the ordinance, as each day required; 5 and afterward there was a continual burnt offering, also for the new moons and for all the fixed festivals of the LORD that were consecrated, and from everyone who offered a freewill offering to the LORD.
From the first day of the seventh month they began to offer burnt offerings to the LORD, but the foundation of the temple of the LORD had not been laid. (Ezra 3:4-6).
Their worship began with the Feast of Booths. This was a festival in which all of the people were to gather together and construct for themselves temporary booths in which they were to reside. It was a good thing, for there were probably not a lot of buildings standing in Jerusalem.
For an entire week, the Israelites would eat their meals and sleep in these temporary booths. For the children among them, it must have been akin to a week of camping. It was a holiday spirit and a time of remembrance. They were to remember that there had once been a time when they were without a home or a country and that they had been nomads wandering in a wilderness.
On this occasion, the Feast of Booths had a special significance. It looked back, not only to the time of wandering in the wilderness following the Exodus, but it also served as a reminder that they had recently been wanderers and were only now coming back into their homeland.
In verse 4 we read that this observance was according to the ordinance. This underlines what we know in theological terms as the REGULATIVE PRINCIPLE. It means that we worship God only in those manners in which He has designated worship to take place. This is in contrast to other positions:
Worship takes place in any way that is ordained by the church.
Worship takes place in any way that is not forbidden by the Scriptures.
Worship takes place only in those ways that are mandated by the Scriptures.
The worship among the Jews was not according to convenience or their own decision. It was in keeping with that which had been mandated in the Scriptures.
THE GIVING FOR WORSHIP
Then they gave money to the masons and carpenters, and food, drink and oil to the Sidonians and to the Tyrians, to bring cedar wood from Lebanon to the sea at Joppa, according to the permission they had from Cyrus king of Persia. (Ezra 3:7).
These people did not have a lot. They had lost everything when they were uprooted and taken away to a foreign land. They had rebuilt from scratch and now they had left their new homes in Mesopotamia to return to the Promised Land. They were in the process of rebuilding. But that did not stop them from giving to the Lord’s work.
Their view was that the rebuilding of the Temple of God was a project that was worthy of their gifts and offerings.
This was no small project. It would require the hiring of skilled craftsmen as well as the purchasing of construction supplies in the form of cedar wood from Lebanon which had to be transported by barge down to Joppa and then overland into the mountains of Jerusalem.
THE ORGANIZATION OF WORSHIP
Now in the second year of their coming to the house of God at Jerusalem in the second month, Zerubbabel the son of Shealtiel and Jeshua the son of Jozadak and the rest of their brothers the priests and the Levites, and all who came from the captivity to Jerusalem, began the work and appointed the Levites from twenty years and older to oversee the work of the house of the LORD.
Then Jeshua with his sons and brothers stood united with Kadmiel and his sons, the sons of Judah and the sons of Henadad with their sons and brothers the Levites, to oversee the workmen in the temple of God. (Ezra 3:8-9).
One of the popular sayings today is to speak out against "organized religion." It is really a silly statement. After all, what is the alternative - disorganized religion? God is a God of order. And there is an appropriate organization that coincides with the worship of God.
THE MUSIC OF WORSHIP
Now when the builders had laid the foundation of the temple of the LORD, the priests stood in their apparel with trumpets, and the Levites, the sons of Asaph, with cymbals, to praise the LORD according to the directions of King David of Israel.
They sang, praising and giving thanks to the LORD, saying, "For He is good, for His lovingkindness is upon Israel forever." And all the people shouted with a great shout when they praised the LORD because the foundation of the house of the LORD was laid. (Ezra 3:10-11).
If I had been organizing the rebuilding of the Temple, I would have had the architects and the builders and the masons and carpenters. But that would have left out an important part of the construction process. I am speaking of the musicians. Music is important. It is ordained by God to touch the soul of man.
God invented music - it existed at creation (Job 38:7). He is the greatest music-lover in the universe. The Bible does not tell us what kind of music God likes - rather, He is concerned about the musician.
THE REACTION TO WORSHIP
Yet many of the priests and Levites and heads of fathers’ households, the old men who had seen the first temple, wept with a loud voice when the foundation of this house was laid before their eyes, while many shouted aloud for joy, 13 so that the people could not distinguish the sound of the shout of joy from the sound of the weeping of the people, for the people shouted with a loud shout, and the sound was heard far away. (Ezra 3:12-13).
There were two divergent reactions from among the people at the laying of the foundation of the Temple.
Wept with a loud voice
Shouted aloud for joy
Why the two different reactions? We can understand those who shouted for joy. They were witnessing the rebuilding of the Temple. They were seeing the reconstruction of that which allowed them to worship the God of the universe.
But why did the old men weep? Verse 12 tells us that those who wept were those who had seen the first temple. I think that there are several possibilities:
They wept because the new Temple promised to be so much smaller and less grandiose than the original Temple.
They wept because they were reminded of the terrible consequences of sin. There is a lesson here. God is forgives sin. That is what the cross is all about. But the consequences often remain and have to be endured.
A RISING OPPOSITION
Whenever you start doing something for the Lord, it will not be long before opposition rears its ugly head. More often than not, such opposition will come, not from your enemies, but from those who claim to be your friends. That is the case as we come to the fourth chapter of Ezra.
AN ALLIANCE OF ENEMIES
Now when the enemies of Judah and Benjamin heard that the people of the exile were building a temple to the LORD God of Israel, 2 they approached Zerubbabel and the heads of fathers' households, and said to them, "Let us build with you, for we, like you, seek your God; and we have been sacrificing to Him since the days of Esarhaddon king of Assyria, who brought us up here." (Ezra 4:1-2).
The inhabitants of Israel had long since ceased to be Israelite. Israel had come to be a united kingdom under the kingship of Saul, David and Solomon. But following Solomon’s death, the kingdom had divided. The north had seceded from the south and two separate nations had resulted. The ten northern tribes continued to be known as Israel while the two southern tribes were known collectively as Judah.
Two hundred years later, the Assyrians swept down against both Israel and Judah. The southern kingdom of Judah managed to weather the storm, but the northern kingdom was swept away in the onslaught. Those who survived were deported to other lands in the east while other similar refugees were transported to settle in the lands which had belonged to Israel.
Thus as this chapter opens, there are people living in the land who have come to worship Yahweh, the One whom they perceive to be the God of that land. As they learn that a Temple is being built to Yahweh, they come and offer their services. After all, they are all worshiping the same God. It seems only right that they pool their resources in a true ecumenical effort.
A FITTING REJECTION
But Zerubbabel and Jeshua and the rest of the heads of fathers’ households of Israel said to them, "You have nothing in common with us in building a house to our God; but we ourselves will together build to the LORD God of Israel, as King Cyrus, the king of Persia has commanded us." (Ezra 4:3).
The offered assistance from their neighbors is coldly refused. This brings up a question. Were the Jews correct in refusing the aid that was offered? In the previous chapter they actively sought such aid in the form of building supplies from the Phoenician cities of Tyre and Sidon. Solomon had used Phoenician craftsmen in the work of constructing the Temple. Could this not have been an opportunity to take these worshipers of God and to lead them more correctly in the worship of the Lord? There are several answers:
1. The Fickleness of False Friends.
Josephus (Antiq. 11:19:2:1 and 11:19:4:5) describes these opponents explicitly as Cuthaeans or Samaritans. In the latter passage the Jews declined their cooperation "since none but themselves had been commanded to build the temple.... They would, however, allow them to worship there."
This offer of friendship would quickly turn to hatred. Why? Because the offer was a false offer. These neighboring people had their own agenda.
Here is the principle. False friends will continue to pretend friendship as long as it means that they can get what they want from you.
2. The Fabrication of False Fidelity.
The claim of these foreigners was that they had been worshiping the same God as the God of the Israelites. They reasoned that, since they were all worshiping the same God, then they ought to get together and hold hands and sing "Kumbaya" together around a campfire.
But we know that their’s was a false fidelity. They worshiped a god of their own making. They had heard that Yahweh was the God of this land, so they said, "Let’s take all of our previous idolatry and we will just change the names. Instead of Baal, we will worship Yahweh."
They even went so far as to accept the Pentateuch. But because they didn’t like certain portions of it, they took it and they rewrote it to be more culturally acceptable.
3. The Fable of Formulaic Fellowship.
We live in the age of syncretism - when the only sin over which society is intolerant is the sin of intolerance.
There are times when Christians SHOULD get together and cross denominational lines. But that does not mean that we automatically join in fellowship with every single person that says something nice about God. The Bible warns against the acceptance of heretics.
Reject a factious man after a first and second warning, 11 knowing that such a man is perverted and is sinning, being self-condemned. (Titus 3:10-11).
A factious man describes one who makes divisions where there should be none. There are some people who delight in starting arguments. They should not be permitted to remain in the church and sow their seeds of discontent.
A COLD WAR
Then the people of the land discouraged the people of Judah, and frightened them from building, 5 and hired counselors against them to frustrate their counsel all the days of Cyrus king of Persia, even until the reign of Darius king of Persia. (Ezra 4:4-5).
"To discourage" is literally "to weaken the hands," a Hebrew idiom (Jeremiah 38:4). As a participle, the verb rapah indicates a continuing process. The opposite idiom is "to strengthen the hands" (Ezra 6:22; Nehemiah 6:9; Isaiah 35:3; Jeremiah 23:14).
This is a blanket statement which covers the history of the reigns of Cyrus, Cambyses and finally Darius. Some Bible scholars see in verse 6 a primarily a parenthetical statement regarding the rebuilding of the wall around Jerusalem, which takes place later on in time, and then picks up again with verse 24 about the rebuilding of the temple.
I don’t believe this to be the case. The problem is that there were three different Persian kings as well as a governor by the name of Darius. The second problem is the use of Ahasuerus in verse 6. We are used to seeing it used in the book of Esther where it refers to Xerxes, but it is not a name, it is merely a title and can refer to any of the Persian kings.
The summary statement is made in verse 5 that the Jews had construction problems from the days of Cyrus to the days of Darius. The line of kings for this period was as follows:
Date of Reign
Granted permission for the Jews to return and rebuild Jerusalem and the Temple
Put a stop to the reconstruction
He was a pretender to the throne and quickly overturned
Granted permission for the reconstruction of the Temple to continue
He was the King who elevated Esther
Granted permission for Nehemiah to return and rebuild the walls of Jerusalem.
What has thrown Bible students astray is the mention of "Artaxerxes." The name translated "Artaxerxes" here in Ezra 4-6 is spelled slightly different than the Artaxerxes found in Nehemiah 7-8 (the difference is the kind of "s" used). I would suggest that the "Artaxerxes" mentioned here in Ezra is really a reference to the ruler which we know as Cambyses. Thus, it was under Cambyses that the building of the Temple was halted, contrary to the previous orders of his father, Cyrus.
A SLANDEROUS ACCUSATION
Now in the reign of Ahasuerus, in the beginning of his reign, they wrote an accusation against the inhabitants of Judah and Jerusalem.
And in the days of Artaxerxes, Bishlam, Mithredath, Tabeel and the rest of his colleagues wrote to Artaxerxes king of Persia; and the text of the letter was written in Aramaic and translated from Aramaic.
Rehum the commander and Shimshai the scribe wrote a letter against Jerusalem to King Artaxerxes, as follows 9 then wrote Rehum the commander and Shimshai the scribe and the rest of their colleagues, the judges and the lesser governors, the officials, the secretaries, the men of Erech, the Babylonians, the men of Susa, that is, the Elamites, 10 and the rest of the nations which the great and honorable Osnappar deported and settled in the city of Samaria, and in the rest of the region beyond the River. Now 11 this is the copy of the letter which they sent to him: "To King Artaxerxes: Your servants, the men in the region beyond the River, and now 12 let it be known to the king that the Jews who came up from you have come to us at Jerusalem; they are rebuilding the rebellious and evil city and are finishing the walls and repairing the foundations.
"Now let it be known to the king, that if that city is rebuilt and the walls are finished, they will not pay tribute, custom or toll, and it will damage the revenue of the kings.
The phrase, we are in the service of the palace in verse 14 is literally, "we eat the salt of the palace." Salt was used in the ratification of covenants. Even today we speak of someone who is "not worth his salt."
"Now because we are in the service of the palace, and it is not fitting for us to see the king’s dishonor, therefore we have sent and informed the king, 15 so that a search may be made in the record books of your fathers. And you will discover in the record books and learn that that city is a rebellious city and damaging to kings and provinces, and that they have incited revolt within it in past days; therefore that city was laid waste.
"We inform the king that if that city is rebuilt and the walls finished, as a result you will have no possession in the province beyond the River." (Ezra 4:6-16).
Have you ever been falsely accused? It cuts to the quick when someone says an untruth about you. What is even worse is when there is a little truth mixed in with the lie. That is the case here.
The city of Jerusalem HAD been a rebellious city. Against the advice of Jeremiah, the people had revolted against Nebuchadnezzar on at least three different occasions. It was for this reason that the city had been destroyed.
What was not true was the charge that the Jews were preparing to do it again. Their motivation in rebuilding the city and the Temple was so that they could worship God, not so that they could rebel against Persia. The remaining history of the Jews shows that, when they were finally allowed to complete the work of rebuilding the Temple and the walls of the city, they did not return to their rebellious ways. To the contrary, they continued as faithful subjects of Persia even when Alexander the Great marched into Palestine as a self-proclaimed liberator from the Persian Empire.
AN INOPPORTUNE EDICT
Then the king sent an answer to Rehum the commander, to Shimshai the scribe, and to the rest of their colleagues who live in Samaria and in the rest of the provinces beyond the River: "Peace. And now 18 the document which you sent to us has been translated and read before me.
"A decree has been issued by me, and a search has been made and it has been discovered that that city has risen up against the kings in past days, that rebellion and revolt have been perpetrated in it, 20 that mighty kings have ruled over Jerusalem, governing all the provinces beyond the River, and that tribute, custom and toll were paid to them.
"So, now issue a decree to make these men stop work, that this city may not be rebuilt until a decree is issued by me.
"Beware of being negligent in carrying out this matter; why should damage increase to the detriment of the kings?"
Then as soon as the copy of King Artaxerxes' document was read before Rehum and Shimshai the scribe and their colleagues, they went in haste to Jerusalem to the Jews and stopped them by force of arms.
Then work on the house of God in Jerusalem ceased, and it was stopped until the second year of the reign of Darius king of Persia. (Ezra 4:17-24).
The king believed the report of the enemies of Israel. He did some initial checking into the historical archives of Persia and learned that Jerusalem did indeed have a history of rebellion. Therefore he issued an edict to stop the rebuilding of the city.
There is a lesson here. It is that your past often follows you into the future. A past is a difficult thing to live down. You are branded by your deeds and they affect the way that people view you. While we can rest in the assurance that God forgives, that does not mean that sin does not have lasting consequences.
In this case, it was the children who were bearing the penalty for the actions committed by their fathers. Very few of the Jews who were living in this day had participated in the sinful actions which led to the destruction of Jerusalem. In the last chapter we noted that there were some very old people who looked at the Temple and who remembered the past glories of what it had been. But the majority of the people now returned were of a younger generation. They had been born into the Babylonian Captivity. And now they are reaping some of the consequences sowed by the previous generation.
Here is the principle. Sin ALWAYS leaves consequences. It is a fundamental rule of life, as natural as sowing and reaping.
In this case, it resulted in the work of rebuilding the Temple and the city of Jerusalem being halted. The construction would sit unfinished for several years until a new king was seated upon the throne of Persia. And at that time, the construction was recommence, not because of an edict of the king, but through the preaching of two prophetic witnesses - Haggai and Zechariah.
THE COMPLETION OF THE TEMPLE
EZRA 5 - 6
I’m not much of a sports fan. Though I enjoy participating in sports, the very idea of watching other people exercise leaves me cold. But a number of years I found myself watching one of the Olympic events. It was a race. I’m not certain, but it may have been the Marathon. In any event, the runners were in their final two or three laps. The lead runner crossed the finish line. For him the race was over, but the other runners never slowed up. And then something took place that grabbed everyone’s attention. One of the runners collapsed on the track. Bent over double and clutching his side, it was evident that he was in great pain. He struggled to get again to his feet but could not. From the stadium stands, an older man rushed to the track. The security guards at first sought to detain him, but then they recognized him as the young runner’s father. The father reached his son and helped him to his feet. And then, with his support and at a very unsteady gait, the two continued the last lap and the finish of the race.
They were dead last. But they finished the race. And as they crossed the finish line together, there was a thunderous roar of approval from the spectators. I do not think that there was a dry eye in the stadium.
There is something deeply satisfying about finishing a project. This is especially true when that project is one that has the endorsement of the Lord. There is something inherently glorious in completing a task that has been mandated by heaven.
That is what takes place in the fifth and sixth chapters of Ezra. In the previous chapters, God had provided the vision, the permission and the materials for the rebuilding of His temple. But then opposition had arisen. The people became discouraged. And the work stopped. A year passed. And then another year. And another. And still the work remained incomplete.
Finally something takes place that will bring a renewal of the task. It is the Lord Himself who brings this about through a revelation to His prophets.
THE MINISTRY OF THE PROPHETS
When the prophets, Haggai the prophet and Zechariah the son of Iddo, prophesied to the Jews who were in Judah and Jerusalem in the name of the God of Israel, who was over them, 2 then Zerubbabel the son of Shealtiel and Jeshua the son of Jozadak arose and began to rebuild the house of God which is in Jerusalem; and the prophets of God were with them supporting them. (Ezra 5:1-2).
As we read this, we must understand that the books of the Bible are not arranged in an exact chronological order from Genesis to Revelation. There are occasional overlaps. This is one of them. As we turn from the end of chapter 4 to begin chapter 5, we must understand that the books of Haggai and Zechariah have been written in the interim.
Then the word of the LORD came by Haggai the prophet, saying,
"Is it time for you yourselves to dwell in your paneled houses while this house lies desolate?" (Haggai 1:3-4).
The Jews had already returned to their homeland and had set about rebuilding their homes. This initial work was now completed. They had resettled in the land. They had even set out to rebuild the Temple. But at the first sight of opposition, they had given up on that endeavor. It is like the old saying, "When the going gets tough, the tough quit." They instead had focused their attention upon themselves and their own farms and properties. And so, Haggai calls them to account.
Now therefore, thus says the LORD of hosts, "Consider your ways!
You have sown much, but harvest little; you eat, but there is not enough to be satisfied; you drink, but there is not enough to become drunk; you put on clothing, but no one is warm enough; and he who earns, earns wages to put into a purse with holes." (Haggai 1:5-6).
Haggai is very down-to-earth and is to this era what the epistles are to the New Testament. Zechariah, by contrast, contains a great many symbols and visions and is to this era what Revelation is to the New Testament.
Haggai describes the situation that existed among the people of the land. There were housing shortages, disappointing harvests, lack of clothing and jobs, and inflation had taken its toll. People were working more and more for less and less.
Haggai uses a play on words as he proclaims that because the Lord's house had remained "a ruin" (hareb, Haggai 1:4, 9), the Lord would bring "a drought" (horeb, Haggai 1:11) on the land. The reason that things were going hard for the Jews was because they were not giving their full devotion to the Lord.
How about you? Is the daily grind grinding you down? Are you running the rat race and tired of the fact that, even if you were to win, you would still just be a rat? Are you working harder and harder for less and less which has to pay for more and more? Perhaps the real issue is your devotion to the Lord.
Ezra’s account does not give us the exact dates of when this took place. But we do find that information provided in the books of Haggai and Zechariah.
Date of his Ministry
2nd year of Darius, in the 6th month (Haggai 1:1).
August - December, 520 B.C.
2nd year of Darius, in the 8th month (Zechariah 1:1).
October, 520 B.C.
Notice what is the mechanism that the Lord uses to renew the work of construction on His Temple. It is the prophetic revelation which brings about a renewed leadership to the task at hand.
God speaks to His prophets
The prophets preach
The leaders lead
The people follow
Notice that the Lord works to move the LEADERSHIP of His people to bring about His work. This is the normal pattern in which God works.
Zechariah & Haggai
Zerubbabel, though technically not a king, was a descendant of the royal line.
Both the prophets and the priests and the descendant of the king had a role in the completion of the work of the Temple. They were working together and there is no indication of any jealousy or friction between any of them.
There is a principle here that you need to see. It is that God usually brings His blessings upon His people through the leadership of that people.
This is seen in the kings of Judah and Israel. When a godly king came to the throne, God blessed both that king as well as his subjects with prosperity. When an evil king came to the throne, the Lord brought famine and pestilence and foreign enemies against that king and against his subjects. It is for this reason that the Scriptures urge us to pray for our governmental leaders (1 Timothy 2:1-2).
This also has an application for families. Fathers have an awesome responsibility, not only for their own spiritual lives, but for the spiritual lives of their families. If you are a father, then you are responsible for the spiritual well-being of your entire household. As you follow the Lord and are obedient to His Word, so shall your family receive blessings from the Lord. And as you are disobedient to the Word of truth, so shall your family reap the negative consequences of your disobedience.
THE QUESTIONING OF THE GOVERNOR
At that time Tattenai, the governor of the province beyond the River, and Shethar-bozenai and their colleagues came to them and spoke to them thus, "Who issued you a decree to rebuild this temple and to finish this structure?"
Then we told them accordingly what the names of the men were who were reconstructing this building.
But the eye of their God was on the elders of the Jews, and they did not stop them until a report could come to Darius, and then a written reply be returned concerning it. (Ezra 5:3-5).
It is not long before news of the renewed construction project gets out. The local Persian governor soon pays a visit to the site and questions the workers.
His question would have been intimidating in the extreme. "Who gave you the authority for these actions?" He is taking names for an official report to the king. Those in leadership will bear the full responsibility for their actions. The names are given and the report is sent in.
It should be noted that Tattenai had both the authority and the wherewithal to halt the work of reconstruction pending his inquiries. But he did not do so. Instead he allows the work to continue while he makes his inquiries.
Why? What prevented him from stopping the work? The answer is given in verse 5 - the eye of their God was on the elders of the Jews. As a result, the work continued unabated.
THE LETTER OF INQUIRY
This is the copy of the letter which Tattenai, the governor of the province beyond the River, and Shethar-bozenai and his colleagues the officials, who were beyond the River, sent to Darius the king.
They sent a report to him in which it was written thus: "To Darius the king, all peace.
"Let it be known to the king that we have gone to the province of Judah, to the house of the great God, which is being built with huge stones, and beams are being laid in the walls; and this work is going on with great care and is succeeding in their hands.
"Then we asked those elders and said to them thus, ‘Who issued you a decree to rebuild this temple and to finish this structure?’
"We also asked them their names so as to inform you, and that we might write down the names of the men who were at their head.
"Thus they answered us, saying, ‘We are the servants of the God of heaven and earth and are rebuilding the temple that was built many years ago, which a great king of Israel built and finished. 12 But because our fathers had provoked the God of heaven to wrath, He gave them into the hand of Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon, the Chaldean, who destroyed this temple and deported the people to Babylon. 13 However, in the first year of Cyrus king of Babylon, King Cyrus issued a decree to rebuild this house of God. 14 Also the gold and silver utensils of the house of God which Nebuchadnezzar had taken from the temple in Jerusalem, and brought them to the temple of Babylon, these King Cyrus took from the temple of Babylon and they were given to one whose name was Sheshbazzar, whom he had appointed governor. 15 He said to him, ‘Take these utensils, go and deposit them in the temple in Jerusalem and let the house of God be rebuilt in its place.’ 16 Then that Sheshbazzar came and laid the foundations of the house of God in Jerusalem; and from then until now it has been under construction and it is not yet completed.’
"Now if it pleases the king, let a search be conducted in the king's treasure house, which is there in Babylon, if it be that a decree was issued by King Cyrus to rebuild this house of God at Jerusalem; and let the king send to us his decision concerning this matter. (Ezra 5:6-17).
I love the response that is reported to Tattenai’s questioning of the Jewish workers. He reports how he sought to find out who had instituted this work. In replay, they dutifully report the names of their leaders, but they do not stop there. They go on to say that they are working as servants of the God of heaven and earth (Ezra 5:11).
There is a respectful boldness in their answer. On the one hand, they wish to give no affront to the civil authorities. To this end, they appeal to the former Decree of Cyrus. The fact that they ask that it be searched out indicates that they did not have a copy of the original decree in their possession. And so, they respectfully ask that it be located to substantiate their claim. On the other hand, they are determined to obey God rather than men. Therefore they state in no uncertain terms that they are servants of God.
THE DECREE OF DARIUS
Then King Darius issued a decree, and search was made in the archives, where the treasures were stored in Babylon.
In Ecbatana in the fortress, which is in the province of Media, a scroll was found and there was written in it as follows: "Memorandum
"In the first year of King Cyrus, Cyrus the king issued a decree: "Concerning the house of God at Jerusalem, let the temple, the place where sacrifices are offered, be rebuilt and let its foundations be retained, its height being 60 cubits and its width 60 cubits; 4 with three layers of huge stones and one layer of timbers. And let the cost be paid from the royal treasury.
"Also let the gold and silver utensils of the house of God, which Nebuchadnezzar took from the temple in Jerusalem and brought to Babylon, be returned and brought to their places in the temple in Jerusalem; and you shall put them in the house of God.’
"Now therefore, Tattenai, governor of the province beyond the River, Shethar-bozenai and your colleagues, the officials of the provinces beyond the River, keep away from there.
"Leave this work on the house of God alone; let the governor of the Jews and the elders of the Jews rebuild this house of God on its site.
"Moreover, I issue a decree concerning what you are to do for these elders of Judah in the rebuilding of this house of God: the full cost is to be paid to these people from the royal treasury out of the taxes of the provinces beyond the River, and that without delay.
"Whatever is needed, both young bulls, rams, and lambs for a burnt offering to the God of heaven, and wheat, salt, wine and anointing oil, as the priests in Jerusalem request, it is to be given to them daily without fail, 10 that they may offer acceptable sacrifices to the God of heaven and pray for the life of the king and his sons.
"And I issued a decree that any man who violates this edict, a timber shall be drawn from his house and he shall be impaled on it and his house shall be made a refuse heap on account of this.
"May the God who has caused His name to dwell there overthrow any king or people who attempts to change it, so as to destroy this house of God in Jerusalem. I, Darius, have issued this decree, let it be carried out with all diligence!" (Ezra 6:1-12).
The Decree of Darius is presented in a reverse parallel to the Letter of Tattenai. This type of parallelism is known as a chiasm.
Tattenai’s Letter of Inquiry
Report: Work is being done diligently (5:7-8)
Inquiry as to authorization (5:9-10)
Reply of Jewish Elders: Cyrus Edict (5:11-16)
Request: Search for Cyrus Edict (5:17).
Darius’ Letter of Reply
Successful search for Cyrus Edict (6:1-2).
Text of Cyrus Edict (6:3-5).
Darius’ authorization (6:6-12).
Decree: Let it be done with all diligence (6:12).
In keeping with the request, a search is made of the official archives and Babylon and the Edict is NOT discovered. But that is not surprising. Babylon no longer served as the center of an empire. The Persians now ruled from their own palace cities in the east.
Xenophon tells us that it was the habit of Cyrus to spend the winter in Babylon, the spring in Susa and the summer in Ecbatana (Cyropaedia 8:6:22).
Then Tattenai, the governor of the province beyond the River, Shethar-bozenai and their colleagues carried out the decree with all diligence, just as King Darius had sent.
And the elders of the Jews were successful in building through the prophesying of Haggai the prophet and Zechariah the son of Iddo. And they finished building according to the command of the God of Israel and the decree of Cyrus, Darius, and Artaxerxes king of Persia. (Ezra 6:13-14).
Once permission has been given, the full weight of the Persian government lends itself to assist in the project. There is a symphony of effort as the elders and the prophets and the Lord and even the kings of Persia combine their mutual efforts to rebuild the Temple of God.
It has been noted that there is no mention of Zerubbabel from this point on. It could be that he had either retired from leadership or that he had even died. Or it could be that he is not mentioned because his role from this point onward was more "behind the scenes."
THE TEMPLE COMPLETED
This temple was completed on the third day of the month Adar; it was the sixth year of the reign of King Darius. (Ezra 6:15).
In this chapter we come full cycle in our story of the rebuilding of the Temple. We started out in chapter 3 where the work was begun. Then it was halted in chapter 4. In the last chapter we saw it resumed and the workers were questioned by the local governor. Finally, at the end of this chapter, we see the work completed.
The work of rebuilding is BEGUN
The work of rebuilding is HALTED
The work of rebuilding is RENEWED
The work of rebuilding is COMPLETED
And the sons of Israel, the priests, the Levites and the rest of the exiles, celebrated the dedication of this house of God with joy.
They offered for the dedication of this temple of God 100 bulls, 200 rams, 400 lambs, and as a sin offering for all Israel 12 male goats, corresponding to the number of the tribes of Israel.
Then they appointed the priests to their divisions and the Levites in their orders for the service of God in Jerusalem, as it is written in the book of Moses. (Ezra 6:16-18).
Now the Jews enter into a service of dedication as they present the results of their labors to the Lord. It is a joyous time of sacrifice of worship as the priests are appointed to their appropriate divisions - the priesthood is divided into 24 courses so that each course would officiate twice per year in the temple. All of the courses would come together at the times of the great feasts.
Now as they come, it is for a time of celebration to the Lord. We are told the number of sacrifices that are brought and the number is considerably less than was brought for the initial dedication of the Temple in the days of Solomon. There are considerable less worshipers gathered. And the Temple may be considerably smaller. But that is okay. The issue is not the size of the offering, the number of people or the size of the structure. The issue is the heart of worship.
One key thing that is lacking in this dedication which was observable in the previous dedications of the Tabernacle and Solomon’s Temple was the visible presence of the Lord in the Shekinah Cloud. After the Tabernacle was erected, we read that the cloud of the glory of the Lord filled the Tabernacle so that even Moses was not able to enter in (Exodus 40:34-35). In the same way, when Solomon’s Temple was dedicated, the cloud of God filled the Temple so that the priests were for a time unable to minister (2 Kings 8:10-11).
But this time there is no mention of the cloud. There is no visible presence of the Lord. The people celebrate, but there is silence from heaven. The book of Malachi contains a promise of the coming of the Lord’s presence.
"Behold, I am going to send My messenger, and he will clear the way before Me. And the Lord, whom you seek, will suddenly come to His temple; and the messenger of the covenant, in whom you delight, behold, He is coming," says the LORD of hosts. (Malachi 3:1).
The promise was that the Lord would one day come to His temple. But that coming would be preceded by a messenger who would prepare the way before Him.
This was literally fulfilled in the persons of John the Baptist and Jesus. John was the messenger of God who broke the prophetic silence after 400 years. And Jesus is the Lord incarnate who came suddenly to His Temple, overturning the tables of those who had defiled it and presenting Himself as the very Messiah of God.
THE PASSOVER RE-INSTITUTED
The exiles observed the Passover on the fourteenth of the first month.
For the priests and the Levites had purified themselves together; all of them were pure. Then they slaughtered the Passover lamb for all the exiles, both for their brothers the priests and for themselves.
The sons of Israel who returned from exile and all those who had separated themselves from the impurity of the nations of the land to join them, to seek the LORD God of Israel, ate the Passover.
And they observed the Feast of Unleavened Bread seven days with joy, for the LORD had caused them to rejoice, and had turned the heart of the king of Assyria toward them to encourage them in the work of the house of God, the God of Israel. (Ezra 6:19-22).
The Passover stood at the very beginning of the Jewish Religious Year. It celebrated the time when the Lord had delivered the Israelites from Egypt. There is something of a correlation between the events of the Exodus and the events of the book of Ezra.
Began with the people of God enslaved in Egypt
Began with the the people of God in captivity in Mesopotamia
God moved Pharaoh to release the people
God moved Cyrus to allow the people to return
The Israelites took contributions from the Egyptians from which they constructed the Tabernacle
The Jews took contributions from those who remained and from the Persian Treasury to rebuild the Temple
Since the time of the exile, the Jews would have been unable to properly observe the Passover
The mention of the king of Assyria in verse 22 seems unusual as there had not been a literal king of Assyria since the fall of the Assyrian Empire in 612 B.C. However, the term Assyria continued to be used to describe the lands which made up its formerly occupied territory, much the same way that someone might use a reference of "Russia" to describe all of the territories which were controlled by the former U.S.S.R. prior to its breakup.
with its sacrificed lamb. After all, the only appropriate place to sacrifice the needed lamb would have been at the Temple. In the same way, since the destruction of the temple by Titus in A.D. 70, Jews have not been able to sacrifice Passover lambs but have substituted eggs and roasted meat.
The Passover ultimately looked forward to the One who would be the fulfillment of the Passover Lamb, giving Himself for the sins of the world so that the wrath of God might pass over those who were under the sentence of death. It was fulfilled in the person of Jesus Christ and it is no accident that his crucifixion took place at the time of the Jewish Passover.
Thus far in the book of Ezra, we have seen the return of the Jews to the land and the rebuilding of their Temple. This was no easy task as they faced opposition and for a time were forced to leave off the work. But finally under the prophetic ministry of Haggai and Zechariah, the Jews were able to return and complete the work. The Temple was completed. The Jews were once again worshiping the Lord in His Temple.
The phrase "after these things" in Ezra 7:1 moves us forward in time to the year 458 B.C. This was almost 60 years after the events of the previous chapter. The Temple had long since been rebuilt. The sacrifices had long since been underway. All of the events in the book of Esther had taken place.
First Return under Zerubbabel
Events of the book of Esther
Second Return under Ezra
Third Return under Nehemiah
Book of Esther
Book of Nehemiah
Because of this, chapter seven might seem to be anticlimactic - a bit like the cavalry that arrives only after the battle has been completed. After all, the work has been completed. The opposition has been overcome. The sacrifices have been re-instituted. What more is there to do? But I want to suggest that, rather than being anticlimactic, Ezra’s ministry marks a new page in the spiritual life of Israel.
There is a principle here. It is the principle of generational spirituality. It means that each generation is responsible for developing its own spiritual relationship with the Lord. I can not rest upon the spirituality of my parents. And my children cannot rest on my spirituality. To be effective, the faith of our fathers must become my faith as well.
This does not mean that we can therefore neglect the spiritual upbringing of our children. Far from it! It means that we must bring our children up, not only to worship the God which we worship, but to do so in a way that is fresh and exciting and real and relevant to them. I may experience a generation gap, but such a gap dare not enter into the spiritual lives of my children.
EZRA’S PRIESTLY HERITAGE
Now after these things, in the reign of Artaxerxes king of Persia, there went up Ezra son of Seraiah, son of Azariah, son of Hilkiah, 2 son of Shallum, son of Zadok, son of Ahitub, 3 son of Amariah, son of Azariah, son of Meraioth, 4 son of Zerahiah, son of Uzzi, son of Bukki, 5 son of Abishua, son of Phinehas, son of Eleazar, son of Aaron the chief priest. (Ezra 7:1-5).
In a day when many of the priests had been disqualified because they could not trace their family line directly back to Aaron, there was one man who was an exception to the rule. His name is Ezra.
His heritage not only goes back to Aaron, it also goes through Zadok, the man who Solomon appointed to be the new high priest after the previous high priest had supported the rebellion of Adonijah (1 Kings 1:7-8; 2:35). We learn in Ezekiel 44:15-16 that the descendants of Zadok remained faithful to their charge when the rest of the nation was turning away to idolatry. They had a heritage of faithful service to the Lord.
Are you leaving a godly heritage for your children? My parents did that for me. There were several means by which they did it.
We had a tradition of daily Bible-reading in which our entire family would sit around the dinner table and read the Scriptures together.
We had a regular attendance in church. It was unthinkable to skip church attendance if you were not on your sickbed and virtually at death’s door.
Any time that we were going out the door, my mother would call out a blessing upon us.
As we were raising our daughter, we also had some similar family traditions. There were regular Bible Studies in our home. There was the memorization of Scriptures. And there was the regular teaching of the doctrines of the faith.
Now that I am a grandparent, I have come to find a renewed consciousness about such a family heritage. It involves a commitment that you and your family and all of your descendants shall follow the Lord. Joshua did that. He stood before all of the tribes of Israel and he urged them to follow his example as he said, "As for me and my house, we shall follow the Lord" (Joshua 24:15).
Both of these aspects, a generational spirituality as well as a family heritage of spirituality must be held in tension. They are both important.
Generational Spirituality (Each generation must haves its own personal relationship with the Lord)
Family Heritage of Spirituality (We are called to lead our families in a heritage of following the Lord)
EZRA’S PRIESTLY PROFESSION
This Ezra went up from Babylon, and he was a scribe skilled in the law of Moses, which the LORD God of Israel had given; and the king granted him all he requested because the hand of the LORD his God was upon him. (Ezra 7:6).
We have already seen that Ezra was from a long line of priests; men who had served in the Temple and who had offered sacrifices unto the Lord. Here we see that Ezra himself also had another role in the spiritual life of the people. He was a scribe. The Hebrew word for "scribe" is the Hebrew word (sapher). It comes from the root word describing a "book." Indeed, the Israelites in a later period referred to themselves as yam sapher, the "people of the book."
This was a day in which many people were not able to read or to write. This would change dramatically in the New Testament era, but that was still 400 years away. The only way for such a people to have God’s Word would be for someone to read it to them. Ezra was such a man. He was able to serve not only as a priest, but also as a teacher of the Scriptures.
Ezra evidently made a request of the Persian government. We are not told of the circumstances of that request, but we can deduce what was requested since the king granted him all he requested. We need only to look at what Ezra accomplished to see what it was he requested.
James stated this principle that "you have not because you ask not" (James 4:2). What is it that you want in life? You need to go to the Lord and ask Him for it. But be warned, the next verse tells us that when you ask, you must not ask for the wrong thing. We tend to ask for things that will advance our own agenda. The Lord wants us to ask for things that will advance His kingdom. "Seek His kingdom and His righteousness, and all these things shall be added to you" (Matthew 6:33).
Ezra asked for those things which would bring honor and glory to the Lord. And he received that for which he asked.
The reason that Ezra’s request was granted was because the hand of the LORD his God was upon him. We shall read this same comment as a continuing refrain throughout the next two chapters (Ezra 7:9; 7:28; 8:18; 8:22; 8:31).
EZRA’S PRIESTLY COMPANY
Some of the sons of Israel and some of the priests, the Levites, the singers, the gatekeepers and the temple servants went up to Jerusalem in the seventh year of King Artaxerxes. (Ezra 7:7).
Ezra’s return involved primarily a return of priests and Levites and others who had a heritage of serving within the Temple. We shall see in the next chapter that when this group was first assembled, they were notably lacking in several key areas. Ezra had to issue a second call before certain of the Levites responded and joined the company.
EZRA’S PRIESTLY PILGRIMAGE
He came to Jerusalem in the fifth month, which was in the seventh year of the king.
For on the first of the first month he began to go up from Babylon; and on the first of the fifth month he came to Jerusalem, because the good hand of his God was upon him. (Ezra 7:8-9).
The original Jewish calendar had started with Nissan being the first month. This continues to be the Jewish religious calendar to this day. But during the period of the kings, the Israelites had adopted a civil calendar in which the first month was reckoned in the fall. Commentators have wondered whether this is the religious or civil reckoning in this passage. I suggest that the context shows it to be the religious method - that was used in Ezra 6:19 just a few verses earlier.
Ezra’s Departure from Babylon
Ezra’s Arrival in Jerusalem
The first of the first month
The first of the fifth month
April 8, 458 B.C.
August 4, 458 B.C.
A journey of 120 days
The distance from Babylon to Jerusalem is about 500 miles as the crow flies. But Ezra was not leading crows. Caravans generally did not go in a straight line through the Arabian Desert. Instead they mad a long detour following the Euphrates River to the ancient city of Haran before turning southward to come along the Levant. Using this route, the distance is almost doubled.
EZRA’S PRIESTLY MOTIVATION
For Ezra had set his heart to study the law of the LORD and to practice it, and to teach His statutes and ordinances in Israel. (Ezra 7:10).
This was the secret of Ezra’s success. He had set his heart to study and to know and to live the Scriptures and to teach them to others. This is the language of commitment. His approach to the Law of the Lord was not a casual interest. It was not an occasional Bible reading whenever he might find the time. The Hebrew text says that he ESTABLISHED his heart for this task. Notice the progression of this motivation:
1. To Study.
I like the rendering of the old King James Version when it says, "Study to show yourself approved unto God as a workman" (2 Timothy 215). The New American Standard correctly translates this: "Be diligent to present yourself approved as a workman." There is to be a level of diligence in our study of the Scripture. We do not merely casually read the Word of God. We study it. We delve into it. We search for its truths.
2. To Practice.
I can remember hearing a quip: "The Law have I hidden in my notebook that I might not sin against Thee." The Bible does not say this. The Psalmist said, "Thy word I have treasured in my heart, that I may not sin against Thee" (Psalm 119:11).
Knowledge is not the end of our study of the Scriptures. We do not study so that we might know; we study so that we might LIVE differently.
Jesus once told a story of two builders. The first man built his house upon a foundation of rock. When the storms came, the house stood secure on its foundation. The second man built his house of a foundation of shifting sands. When the storms came, the ground shifted and his house and all that were in it were swept away.
What does the parable represent? We tend to think of it as the difference between having your life based upon doctrine versus having your life based upon something else. You listen to doctrine and you are on the rock; you listen to the world and you are on shifting sand.
But Jesus gave it quite another meaning. He said that it is the difference between the man who hears the teachings of the Lord AND ACTS upon them versus the man who hears but does not conform his life to those teachings (Matthew 7:24-27).
3. To Teach.
It is only after one has mastered the first two aspects of Scripture that one can come to the third. To be an effective teacher of the Bible, you must first have studied the Scriptures and then you must have practiced the Scriptures. If the truths of the Scriptures are not evident in your life, then you have no business trying to teach them to others.
EZRA’S PRIESTLY COMMISSION
We have seen a number of official documents presented for us thus far in the book of Ezra. The story of the rebuilding of the Temple has been effectively told in these documents.
Permission granted for Jews to return to the land and rebuild their Temple
Rehum & Shimsha
Report to the King against the Jews
Order to halt construction of the Temple
Report to the King that the Jews had resumed construction
A summary of Cyrus’ original edict and a new order that the work on the Temple is to be resumed
A decree granting Ezra authority to lead a second return to the Land to establish the teaching of the Law among the people of God
As this decree begins, the text changes languages. We continue to utilize the Hebrew alphabet, but the language is now Aramaic, the common language throughout Mesopotamia and the Levant during this period.
1. A Second Decree to Return.
"Artaxerxes, king of kings, to Ezra the priest, the scribe of the law of the God of heaven, perfect peace. And now 13 I have issued a decree that any of the people of Israel and their priests and the Levites in my kingdom who are willing to go to Jerusalem, may go with you. (Ezra 7:12-13).
This decree is set forth in a form of parallelism known as a chiasm. It begins and ends with the establishment of Ezra’s mission.
Mission: Inquiry concerning the "Law of your God, which is in your hand" (7:14).
Gifts for the temple from Babylon (7:15-16).
Vessels and funding for the temple service to be provided from the royal treasury (7:19-20).
Gifts for the temple from the province (7:21-24).
Mission: Teach knowledge of "the wisdom of your God which is in your hand" (7:25)
There had already been an initial return of Jews to the Land. That had taken place 80 years earlier. Now an edict is provided to permit a second return from among the ancestors who did not elect to return with the first group. The specific mention of the priests and Levites indicates that this second return is for the purpose of reviving and reforming the Temple worship.
Notice that these returnees are not made up only of the tribes of Levi and Judah. They are said to include any of the people of Israel. There is a lot of talk today about the "lost tribes of Israel." But the truth is that there were was a representative remnant of all of the tribes to be found in the land in a later age.
2. Finances for the Trip.
14 "Forasmuch as you are sent by the king and his seven counselors to inquire concerning Judah and Jerusalem according to the law of your God which is in your hand, 15 and to bring the silver and gold, which the king and his counselors have freely offered to the God of Israel, whose dwelling is in Jerusalem, 16 with all the silver and gold which you find in the whole province of Babylon, along with the freewill offering of the people and of the priests, who offered willingly for the house of their God which is in Jerusalem; 17 with this money, therefore, you shall diligently buy bulls, rams and lambs, with their grain offerings and their drink offerings and offer them on the altar of the house of your God which is in Jerusalem.
18 "Whatever seems good to you and to your brothers to do with the rest of the silver and gold, you may do according to the will of your God.
19 "Also the utensils which are given to you for the service of the house of your God, deliver in full before the God of Jerusalem.
20 "The rest of the needs for the house of your God, for which you may have occasion to provide, provide for it from the royal treasury.
21 "I, even I, King Artaxerxes, issue a decree to all the treasurers who are in the provinces beyond the River, that whatever Ezra the priest, the scribe of the law of the God of heaven, may require of you, it shall be done diligently, 22 even up to 100 talents of silver, 100 kors of wheat, 100 baths of wine, 100 baths of oil, and salt as needed. (Ezra 7:14-22).
Ezra is given a blank check payable to the royal treasury. To be sure, it does have a financial cap, but it is so extensive that it will be unlikely that Ezra will reach it.
60 minas (each mina made up of 60 shekels); A talent weighed about 75 pounds
About 6 gallons
The amount of wheat involved was relatively small. This would be used in the grain offerings. Of much greater extent was the silver and the oil.
3. The Command of God.
"Whatever is commanded by the God of heaven, let it be done with zeal for the house of the God of heaven, so that there will not be wrath against the kingdom of the king and his sons. (Ezra 7:23).
The motivation of the king’s edict is presented as being one of enlightened self-interest. As Israel obeyed the commands of the Lord, so it was reasoned that the Lord would not only bring blessings upon Israel, but also upon the foreign king who had allowed those commands to be carried out.
It is interesting to note that a revolt had taken place in Egypt two years earlier in which the Persian authority had been overthrown. This revolt was fomented through the influence of Athens. The same year in which Artaxerxes penned this decree, he entered Egypt with an army and began the process of putting down the revolt, a process which would be completed in 455 B.C..
4. A Tax-Exempt Status.
"We also inform you that it is not allowed to impose tax, tribute or toll on any of the priests, Levites, singers, doorkeepers, Nethinim or servants of this house of God. (Ezra 7:24).
The Temple and those who ministered therein were given a complete tax-exempt status.
5. An Authoritative Appointment.
"You, Ezra, according to the wisdom of your God which is in your hand, appoint magistrates and judges that they may judge all the people who are in the province beyond the River, even all those who know the laws of your God; and you may teach anyone who is ignorant of them.
"Whoever will not observe the law of your God and the law of the king, let judgment be executed upon him strictly, whether for death or for banishment or for confiscation of goods or for imprisonment." (Ezra 7:25-26).
Ezra is given a remarkable amount of authority by the king. He is hereby authorized to appoint magistrates and judges as a means of re-establishing the Law of God. In a later age, the Jews would have only limited authority while capital punishment would remain in the hands of their Roman overlords. But the Persian king granted Ezra and his government full powers of life and death.
Blessed be the LORD, the God of our fathers, who has put such a thing as this in the king's heart, to adorn the house of the LORD which is in Jerusalem, 28 and has extended lovingkindness to me before the king and his counselors and before all the king's mighty princes. Thus I was strengthened according to the hand of the LORD my God upon me, and I gathered leading men from Israel to go up with me. (Ezra 7:27-28).
At this point, the language of the text returns from Aramaic to Hebrew as Ezra lapses into a doxology of praise to the Lord. He gives full credit to the Lord for the king’s edict, recognizing that He is the one who digs the channels in which the will of the king flows (Proverbs 21:1).
THE SECOND RETURN
One of the complaints that is often made of the Bible is that it contains what is perceived to be two different creation accounts. There is the account given in Genesis 1 in which we see a setting forth of the six days of creation. And then there is a second account given in Genesis 2 in which man and woman are created in a single day and set into the Garden of Eden. These two accounts reflect a common Hebrew style of writing known as parallelism. First we see the broad description of what took place - sort of a bird’s eye view. Then we come back for a closer look at the key elements of that narrative, focusing on a worm’s eye view. The same thing takes place in the seventh and eighth chapters of the book of Ezra.
Bird’s eye view of the Return
Worm’s eye view of the Return
Describes the entire journey from preparation to end in just a few verses
Gives an in-depth description of the preparations and the actual journey
Gives a copy of the Decree of Artaxerxes granting permission for the journey
Sets for the list of names of those who went on the journey
THE ENROLLMENT OF THE SECOND RETURN
Now these are the heads of their fathers’ households and the genealogical enrollment of those who went up with me from Babylon in the reign of King Artaxerxes: 2 of the sons of Phinehas, Gershom; of the sons of Ithamar, Daniel; of the sons of David, Hattush; 3 of the sons of Shecaniah who was of the sons of Parosh, Zechariah and with him 150 males who were in the genealogical list; 4 of the sons of Pahath-moab, Eliehoenai the son of Zerahiah and 200 males with him; 5 of the sons of Zattu, Shecaniah, the son of Jahaziel and 300 males with him; 6 and of the sons of Adin, Ebed the son of Jonathan and 50 males with him; 7 and of the sons of Elam, Jeshaiah the son of Athaliah and 70 males with him; 8 and of the sons of Shephatiah, Zebadiah the son of Michael and 80 males with him; 9 of the sons of Joab, Obadiah the son of Jehiel and 218 males with him; 10 and of the sons of Bani, Shelomith, the son of Josiphiah and 160 males with him; 11 and of the sons of Bebai, Zechariah the son of Bebai and 28 males with him; 12 and of the sons of Azgad, Johanan the son of Hakkatan and 110 males with him; 13 and of the sons of Adonikam, the last ones, these being their names, Eliphelet, Jeuel and Shemaiah, and 60 males with them; 14 and of the sons of Bigvai, Uthai and Zabbud, and 70 males with them. (Ezra 8:1-14).
As we read through this list of names, we cannot help but to be struck by a sense of deja vu. We have done this before. We have seen some of these same names when we read through the second chapter of Ezra.
That had taken place 70 years earlier. It had been in the days of Cyrus, the founder of the Median-Persian Empire. That empire has now been established for 70 years. Persian emperors have come and gone. The city of Jerusalem and its Temple have been rebuilt. And by now, even the generation that saw that rebuilding have now grown old and died. A new generation has arisen. This new generation are a people divided. There are those in the new generation who live in Jerusalem and Judea. And there are those who live somewhere else in the Persian Empire.
It is at such a time that Ezra is moved by the Lord to institute a second return of Jews to the land. Some of these returnees will be cousins and nephews to those who returned the first time under Zerubbabel. This will be reflected when we see them coming from the same family names.
EZRA’S CALL FOR LEVITES
Now I assembled them at the river that runs to Ahava, where we camped for three days; and when I observed the people and the priests, I did not find any Levites there.
So I sent for Eliezer, Ariel, Shemaiah, Elnathan, Jarib, Elnathan, Nathan, Zechariah and Meshullam, leading men, and for Joiarib and Elnathan, teachers.
I sent them to Iddo the leading man at the place Casiphia; and I told them what to say to Iddo and his brothers, the temple servants at the place Casiphia, that is, to bring ministers to us for the house of our God.
According to the good hand of our God upon us they brought us a man of insight of the sons of Mahli, the son of Levi, the son of Israel, namely Sherebiah, and his sons and brothers, 18 men; 19 and Hashabiah and Jeshaiah of the sons of Merari, with his brothers and their sons, 20 men; 20 and 220 of the temple servants, whom David and the princes had given for the service of the Levites, all of them designated by name. (Ezra 8:15-20).
Ezra’s band had gotten as far as the Ahava canal when Ezra noticed that something was wrong. Ahava means "river" and might be a reference to the Euphrates river, possibly near the place where it and the Tigris flow together just before reaching the Persian Gulf. It was a staging area. It was the gathering place for everyone who was going to meet before they began the last stage of their trip.
The Levites were the workers at the temple. They were responsible for the care and maintenance of the holy place. They were the ones who were chosen to clean up after the sacrifices, to make sure everything was in place and they were responsible for the daily routine at the temple. Being a student of the law, Ezra knew that only Levites could perform those jobs. Yet when the call went out for people to return to Jerusalem to revitalize the worship in the Temple, no Levites stepped forward.
And so, a second call is sent out. Ezra asks for some very specific volunteers. And this time he gets them.
Is there a principle for us today? After all, there is no more Temple today and therefore no need of Levites to serve within it. How are we to apply such a passage.
You are the temple. And today the Lord seeks those who will worship Him in spirit and in truth. The call has gone out and the response has not been adequate. And so, a second call goes out. You are needed, not merely to fill a pew, but to be an active, serving member of a community of worship.
PRAYER AND FASTING
Then I proclaimed a fast there at the river of Ahava, that we might humble ourselves before our God to seek from Him a safe journey for us, our little ones, and all our possessions.
For I was ashamed to request from the king troops and horsemen to protect us from the enemy on the way, because we had said to the king, "The hand of our God is favorably disposed to all those who seek Him, but His power and His anger are against all those who forsake Him."
So we fasted and sought our God concerning this matter, and He listened to our entreaty. (Ezra 8:21-23).
Did you hear about the five-year old girl attended a formal wedding with her grandmother? Although she had been in Sunday school, this was her first time in a formal church service. During the wedding, the minister said, "Let us pray." Every person bowed his head in prayer. The little girl looked around and saw all the heads bowed and all eyes turned toward the floor. In her confusion she yelled out, "Grandma, what are they all looking for?"
What are you looking for when you pray — A God who awaits your beck and call, ready to fill your slightest whims? Or an Almighty Lord who sovereignly rules the affairs of nations yet gracious determines to listen to your petitions?
There is a principle here. It is that God’s people do not presume upon God. Ezra knew the promises of God. He was a scribe - a professional student of the Scriptures. He was confident in God’s promise to bring them back to the land.
But he does not take God for granted. Ezra knows that God’s will is accomplished in response to prayer. He knows that God’s blessings are appropriated through prayer. And so he lead the returnees to fast and pray.
This tells me something about prayer. It tells me that prayer is a sign of dependence upon God. Their prayer showed their dependence on God’s protection. They confessed that they did not have the power to protect themselves or to complete their journey successfully. They needed God, or they would fail without Him.
Indeed, they had committed themselves to trusting in God alone. Ezra tells us that he was ashamed to request from the king troops and horsemen to protect us from the enemy on the way, because we had said to the king, "The hand of our God is favorably disposed to all those who seek Him, but His power and His anger are against all those who forsake Him." Do you see what he did? He deliberately refused to request the protection of the king of the Persians for this returning party. He went out on a limb for God. He told the king, "God will protect us." And now he turns to the Lord and says, "If You do not protect us, then no one will."
This prayer is accompanied by fasting. Fasting involves an abstinence from food. That is not a pleasant thing. It shows that they were serious about this; they were willing to give up everything, even life itself.
What is the purpose of this fasting? The answer is given in verse 21: I proclaimed a fast there at the river of Ahava, that we might humble ourselves before our God. Do you see it? One of the purposes of fasting is to humble us. It is to remind us of our NEED. Just as we need food, so also we need the Lord. And so we fast as a sign and a reminder of that need.
Ezra had determined NOT to ask Artaxerxes for protection. He had proclaimed that God would protect His people. And now he is leading them in prayer and in fasting that they might receive that protection.
You might be looking at this and thinking that Ezra went out on a limb and now he is praying that the limb not be sawed off. When was the last time you went out on a limb for the Lord? When was the last time you did something that required you to really depend upon the Lord? There is something to be said here about Ezra’s faith. May our faith be similarly strengthened.
TWELVE COMMISSIONED MEN
Then I set apart twelve of the leading priests, Sherebiah, Hashabiah, and with them ten of their brothers; 25 and I weighed out to them the silver, the gold and the utensils, the offering for the house of our God which the king and his counselors and his princes and all Israel present there had offered.
Thus I weighed into their hands 650 talents of silver, and silver utensils worth 100 talents, and 100 gold talents, 27 and 20 gold bowls worth 1,000 darics, and two utensils of fine shiny bronze, precious as gold.
Then I said to them, "You are holy to the LORD, and the utensils are holy; and the silver and the gold are a freewill offering to the LORD God of your fathers.
"Watch and keep them until you weigh them before the leading priests, the Levites and the heads of the fathers' households of Israel at Jerusalem, in the chambers of the house of the LORD."
So the priests and the Levites accepted the weighed out silver and gold and the utensils, to bring them to Jerusalem to the house of our God. (Ezra 8:24-30).
There is a very careful accounting of all of the silver and the gold and the other valuables which are to be brought to the Temple. Care is taken to avoid even the appaearance of impropriety.
THE JOURNEY TO JERUSALEM
Then we journeyed from the river Ahava on the twelfth of the first month to go to Jerusalem; and the hand of our God was over us, and He delivered us from the hand of the enemy and the ambushes by the way. (Ezra 8:31).
Up to now we have been reading of all of the varied preparations for the journey to Jerusalem. That actual journey takes place in this verse and then we will see in the rest of the chapter all of the aspects which take place upon the completion of that journey.
Preparations for the Journey
Call of the Levites
Prayer & Fasting
Completion of the Journey
Arrival & Rest
Offerings in the Temple
Delivery of Edicts
Ezra had his fellow travelers in prayer and fasting that they might have a safe journey. The answer to that prayer is seen in the brevity of this one verse. There is nothing to tell about the journey. No bandits. Not even a speed bump. Instead we read that the Lord delivered us from the hand of the enemy and the ambushes by the way. The fact that they were said to have been delivered from enemies and ambushes assumes that there were indeed enemies and ambushes from which they had to be delivered. They had not been unreasonably afraid.
THE DELIVERY OF THE COMMISSION
Thus we came to Jerusalem and remained there three days. 33 On the fourth day the silver and the gold and the utensils were weighed out in the house of our God into the hand of Meremoth the son of Uriah the priest, and with him was Eleazar the son of Phinehas; and with them were the Levites, Jozabad the son of Jeshua and Noadiah the son of Binnui.
Everything was numbered and weighed, and all the weight was recorded at that time.
The exiles who had come from the captivity offered burnt offerings to the God of Israel: 12 bulls for all Israel, 96 rams, 77 lambs, 12 male goats for a sin offering, all as a burnt offering to the LORD.
Then they delivered the king's edicts to the king’s satraps and to the governors in the provinces beyond the River, and they supported the people and the house of God. (Ezra 8:32-36).
Notice the integrity of these proceedings. Ezra had been given charge of a vast financial fortune in these funds that were to go to the Temple. And so, Ezra was careful to set up a system of accountability for these funds. There was an exact count taken before they left and now there is an exact count taken as they arrive.
The church needs this kind of accountability. There have been far too many instances in which large Christian ministries have been rocked by financial scandals. It ought not to be. The pattern of the Scriptures is for a financial accountability.
In conclusion, this chapter points out five needs within the church:
1. The Need for Committed Workers.
This is seen in Ezra’s call to the Levites. It was not enough to have scribes or priests. There were needed those who would do the actual work of ministry.
I suppose that God could have accomplished His purposes through the angels. He could have written the gospel in the clouds or announced it in the thunder and lightning. But He didn’t. Instead, He uses MEN. Men are His method. I love the prayer that goes, "Lord, as long as you are going to use men, use me."
2. The Need for Prayer.
Before setting out on the journey, Ezra let the entire group in a time of prayer and fasting. Prayer was a priority. It was a priority to Jesus, too. How many times would you see Jesus going off to be alone in prayer. He never gave His disciples any tips on preaching. He gave no strategy for church growth. But He did teach them how to pray.
3. The Need for Faith.
We saw that Ezra had determined not to ask Artaxerxes for protection. This was a determination to trust upon the Lord. Notice that real faith brings about corresponding actions. Because of Ezra’s faith, his actions took a necessary direction.
Are there actions in your life which give evidence of your faith? Howard Hendricks asks it in this way: "What is there in your life that can only be explained in terms of the supernatural?" Real faith results in a changed life.
4. The Need for Integrity.
Ezra took a great deal of care to make certain that the exact amounts of money were delivered to the Temple ministry. There was a careful accounting involved.
The church needs to avoid every appearance of evil. This includes the way in which the church handles its finances, but it is not limited to this. We need to live our lives in such a way that there is no doubt about our integrity.
A CRISIS OF FAITH AND FAMILY
There is hardly a more important decision that you make in life than who you are to marry. Marriage is a sacred union, bound with vows and meant to last a lifetime. It involves two separate people coming together to be united as one in a union that is both physical, social, emotional and spiritual. It is because of this bond of unity that believers are warned against being unequally yoked with unbelievers.
The Israelites who first came into the land of Canaan were similarly warned against taking wives from among the pagan people who lived in the land. The Lord ordered that the Canaanites be exterminated, but the Israelites insisted upon a kinder and gentler approach. This disobedience led to their downfall. Soon Israelite men were taking pagan wives and from there it was only one generation removed from Israelites worshiping the false gods of Canaan.
Modern archaeology has uncovered evidence of the religious pluralism which existed in Israel in the days of the Kings. People worshiped Yahweh plus a handful of other gods. Because of this idolatry, the Lord handed over the Israelites into the hands of their enemies.
The Northern Kingdom of Israel was taken away into captivity by the Assyrians in 721 B.C. The Southern Kingdom of Judah fell to Nebuchadnezzar in 586 B.C. and the Temple was destroyed and the inhabitants of the land taken to Mesopotamia.
Now they have returned. First under Zerubbabel and now under Ezra, the people have come back into the land. The Temple has been rebuilt, the sacrifices have been resumed, and all things are now as they were before the Captivity. And that is the problem. All things are coming to be as they were before the Captivity - including the very thing that brought about the Captivity.
THE PROBLEM OF INTERMARRIAGE
Now when these things had been completed, the princes approached me, saying, "The people of Israel and the priests and the Levites have not separated themselves from the peoples of the lands, according to their abominations, those of the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Jebusites, the Ammonites, the Moabites, the Egyptians and the Amorites.
"For they have taken some of their daughters as wives for themselves and for their sons, so that the holy race has intermingled with the peoples of the lands; indeed, the hands of the princes and the rulers have been foremost in this unfaithfulness." (Ezra 9:1-2).
Ezra has not been back in the land for very long when he is approached by a delegation made up of some of the nobility of Judah. They are coming with a problem. The problem is one of intermarriage of the Jewish priests and Levites with some of the pagan peoples of the land.
The issue here was not mere nationalism. Neither was it racism. It was not a matter of one race looking down their noses at another race as not being good enough. Rather it was a case of spiritual compromise and an issue that the descendants of Abraham had been called as a separated people to be a blessing to the world. They were called to be a people apart, unspoiled with the idolatry of the nations. Instead they were involved in marrying pagans and were in danger of bringing that idolatry back into their homes.
The temptation here was not to turn away from God. Rather it was to add something to the proper and appropriate worship of God. Satan often tempts in this way. He doesn’t say, "Leave the Christian faith." Instead he urges you to add a little leaven to the Bread of Life.
Adam and Eve were tempted to add a little fruit to their diet.
Israel was tempted to keep worshiping God while they obtained an earthly king.
David wanted God’s love as well as that of Bathsheba.
Israel wanted to worship God and Baal.
You cannot compromise with sin. That is like dipping a white glove into a pool of mud. The mud does not become "glovey" - the result is always an extension of the sin.
Now the people of God were in danger of having it happen again. They were playing with fire by intermarrying with those who had a heritage of paganism.
The leaders of the nation have been the worst offenders. Both those in secular authority and those in spiritual authority were guilty of leading the way in intermarriage with the pagan peoples of the land.
There is a principle here about leadership. Leaders will always lead. If you are a leader, the question is not whether you will lead, but in which direction you will lead. This places leaders with a terrible responsibility.
Let not many of you become teachers, my brethren, knowing that as such we shall incur a stricter judgment. (James 3:1).
Leaders and teachers have a great responsibility, not only in what they SAY, but also in what they DO. That is because a leader always leads by example.
EZRA’S REACTION TO THE SITUATION
When I heard about this matter, I tore my garment and my robe, and pulled some of the hair from my head and my beard, and sat down appalled.
Then everyone who trembled at the words of the God of Israel on account of the unfaithfulness of the exiles gathered to me, and I sat appalled until the evening offering. (Ezra 9:3-4).
Ezra did not treat this situation lightly. He tore his garment and his robe, pulling out some of his hair both from his head and from his beard. These are the actions of great grief.
Here is the principle. If we ever come to the point where we take God seriously, we will also take sin seriously. Our problem is that we are no longer surprised by sin. We have come to expect it and to think of it as a normal part of the background.
We have seen "Christian" televangelists involved in all sorts of moral and ethical corruption. I am told that divorces among Christians are every bit as common as they are among unbelievers. I hear of Christians who have poor reputations in the business world. These sorts of things have become commonplace.
Ezra’s reaction to this news shows that he still had a high degree of sensitivity to sin. All too many of us have ben desensitized to sin to the point where we hardly notice its presence. A deadening has taken place akin to a shot of spiritual novocaine. What is the answer to such a situation? Go to the cross. The longer we spend in the shadow of the cross, the more sensitive we will be to sin.
EZRA’S PRAYER OF REPENTANCE
The remainder of this chapter is taken up with Ezra’s prayer of repentance. He is repenting on behalf of the nation of Israel. As such, this is a prayer of intercession as he goes to the Lord and intercedes for his people.
The Lord has done the same for us. We have an intercessor who goes before the throne of grace on our behalf. It is not some priestly scribe who does this. It is God’s own Holy Spirit who make intercession on our behalf.
1. The Posture of Ezra’s Prayer.
But at the evening offering I arose from my humiliation, even with my garment and my robe torn, and I fell on my knees and stretched out my hands to the LORD my God (Ezra 9:5).
Ezra goes before the Lord, falling on his knees and stretching out his hands to the Lord. Though we are not told for certain, the reference to the evening offering suggests that the place of this prayer was at the Temple. The Mosaic Law called for a sacrifice to be made each morning and each evening of each day. An animal would be put to death as a sacrifice for sins. Once the blood had been applied to the horns of the altar, a priest was permitted to enter the Temple and to place incense upon the altar of incense. As the sweet smell of incense filled the Temple, the people would be gathered outside for the sweet aroma of prayer.
At such a time, Ezra comes before the Temple. His robe is torn. His hair is in disarray. He is on his knees. He reaches out with empty hands for the Lord.
How do you come before the Lord? Is it with a spirit of pride or of well-being? Are you spiritually content with your life? Or are you hungry for that which only He can provide?
I am not saying that it is important that you bend your knees when worshiping. But it IS important that you bend your heart toward Him and stretch out to Him hands of faith.
2. The People of Ezra’s Prayer.
And I said, "O my God, I am ashamed and embarrassed to lift up my face to You, my God, for our iniquities have risen above our heads and our guilt has grown even to the heavens. (Ezra 9:6).
Ezra’s prayer is going to be a prayer of confession. He will be confessing the sins of the nation and the people of Israel. It is not a sin which Ezra himself has committed. He has not taken for himself a pagan wife. He has not joined himself to an idol worshiper. But he confesses nonetheless.
Ezra has identified himself with the people of God. As they have sinned, he bears with them in their guilt. And so he confesses their sin.
When was the last time you went to the Lord and confessed the sin of which your nation and your people and your church and your family has been a part? I believe that such a prayer would be appropriate.
3. The Praise of Ezra’s Prayer
"Since the days of our fathers to this day we have been in great guilt, and on account of our iniquities we, our kings and our priests have been given into the hand of the kings of the lands, to the sword, to captivity and to plunder and to open shame, as it is this day.
"But now for a brief moment grace has been shown from the LORD our God, to leave us an escaped remnant and to give us a peg in His holy place, that our God may enlighten our eyes and grant us a little reviving in our bondage.
"For we are slaves; yet in our bondage our God has not forsaken us, but has extended lovingkindness to us in the sight of the kings of Persia, to give us reviving to raise up the house of our God, to restore its ruins and to give us a wall in Judah and Jerusalem. (Ezra 9:7-9).
In this midst of this prayer of confession over the sin of Israel, there is a sunburst of the grace and the lovingkindness of God toward His people.
But now for a brief moment grace has been shown from the LORD our God (9:8).
In our bondage our God has not forsaken us, but has extended lovingkindness to us (9:9).
Ezra recognizes that the people of God have already been shown grace from God as He has worked in history to bring them back to their own land where they can again worship Him.
4. The Predicament of Ezra’s Prayer.
"Now, our God, what shall we say after this? For we have forsaken Your commandments, 11 which You have commanded by Your servants the prophets, saying, ‘The land which you are entering to possess is an unclean land with the uncleanness of the peoples of the lands, with their abominations which have filled it from end to end and with their impurity. 12 So now do not give your daughters to their sons nor take their daughters to your sons, and never seek their peace or their prosperity, that you may be strong and eat the good things of the land and leave it as an inheritance to your sons forever.’" (Ezra 9:10-12).
The predicament that Ezra spells out in his prayer is the disobedience of the people of Israel. God had warned them long ago against intermarrying with the pagan peoples of the land. To do so would be to partake of the uncleanness of their paganism.
5. The Perplexity of Ezra’s Prayer
"After all that has come upon us for our evil deeds and our great guilt, since You our God have requited us less than our iniquities deserve, and have given us an escaped remnant as this, 14 shall we again break Your commandments and intermarry with the peoples who commit these abominations? Would You not be angry with us to the point of destruction, until there is no remnant nor any who escape? (Ezra 9:13-14).
Ezra looks at how much the past sin of Israel has brought upon the people in the form of the Captivity and, as he recognizes that God was merciful in the dispensing of His justice, he wonders how the nation can possibly survive destruction to the point where there will be no more remnant.
Make no mistake. This situation was no minor speedbump on the highway of God’s covenant people. Ezra realizes that it has the potential for bringing utter destruction upon that covenant people. And if there is no covenant people, then there is no Messiah born from that people. And if there is no Messiah, then there is no salvation and you are still in your sins. It is nothing less than your salvation that is at stake.
6. The Poverty of Ezra’s Prayer.
"O LORD God of Israel, You are righteous, for we have been left an escaped remnant, as it is this day; behold, we are before You in our guilt, for no one can stand before You because of this." (Ezra 9:15).
As we conclude this prayer, I am struck by what is absent from it. There is no promise for reform. There is no explanation of the circumstances. There is not even a request for forgiveness. This is simply a prayer of confession. It is a prayer pronouncing the complete spiritual poverty of the nation.
Such a prayer is reflected in the words of Jesus: "Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven." (Matthew 5:3).
In conclusion, we can learn three things from Ezra’s prayer of confession.
True confession is the only way to confront sin.
True confession involves total honestly with God. There is no attempt to cover up or to minimize the sinfulness of this rebellion against God. It is displayed in all of its sinfulness.
True confession involves turning from sin to God, honoring Him as God, and demonstrating a willingness to trust Him and obey Him. It is not merely acknowledging sin with the attitude of one who wants to confess it, forget it, and run right out to sin again. It involves a renouncing of sin and a desire to go and to sin no more.
THE GREAT DIVORCE
This chapter forms a unit with the previous chapter. The problem that was introduced in Ezra 9 will now be resolved in Ezra 10.
The Problem: Intermarriage with people of the land
The Solution: Divorces from those wives
Prayer of Repentance
Proposal of Divorce
To understand the actions described in this chapter, we must first understand that the problems faced by Ezra and the nation were very real. The Mosaic Law had expressly forbidden the Israelites to intermarry with the people of the land (Deuteronomy 7:2-3).
1. An Unequal Union.
The Scriptures explicitly warn against being unequally yoked together with an unbeliever.
Do not be bound together with unbelievers; for what partnership have righteousness and lawlessness, or what fellowship has light with darkness?
Or what harmony has Christ with Belial, or what has a believer in common with an unbeliever?
Or what agreement has the temple of God with idols? For we are the temple of the living God; just as God said, "I will dwell in them and walk among them; and I will be their God, and they shall be My people." (1 Corinthians 6:14-16).
This passage does not specifically mention marriage. It speaks instead of any kind of tie by which we might be bound to another person. As such, it could apply to many of the different types of relationship into which people enter.
There is no closer tie that can bind two people together in this life than the tie of marriage. When a man and a woman enter into marriage, they become a single, unified entity. They become one flesh (Genesis 2:24).
For a believer to enter into such a relationship with an unbeliever is the height of foolishness. And yet, I have seen such an unhappy union take place again and again.
2. This issue of Idolatry.
The people who had been resettled in the land of Canaan were a people rooted in idolatry. Polytheism was the order of the day. People generally worshiped a wide variety of gods.
These pagan people had heard of the Lord. They had heard that Yahweh was the name of the God of the Jews. And so, they reasoned that perhaps Yahweh was a god who had influence in this land. For this reason, they added the name of Yahweh to the long list of gods that they worshiped. This was pluralism at its worst. They reasoned that the God of Israel was only one among many such gods.
Archaeologists in recent years have found evidence of people of the land engaged in this sort of pluralistic worship. They have found indications of Yahweh-worship mixed in with the worship of other pagan gods. It is a bit like the fellow who wears a cross along with a Star of David and a rabbit’s foot. He is treating the Lord as though He were nothing more than a good luck charm.
The returning Jews under Zerubbabel had resisted the invitation of these people to be involved in the rebuilding of the Temple, even though it meant the arousal of their enmity and open hostility. But now something much worse has taken place. The Jews have taken many of these unbelieving pagans into their own families. There is an entire generation of Jews who are being raised by pagan mothers.
There is a principle here. It is the principle of the primacy of spiritual parents. If you are a parent, then the question of whether the next generation will be Christian or pagan depends upon you. This is not to deny the sovereignty of God in salvation, but the Lord works out His plans through His people and parents are very often the means through which He works.
Ezra looks at this and realizes that the entire nation is in danger of being led into apostasy. What is at stake is nothing less than the salvation of the world. If there is no believing generation, it will not be long before there is no Israel. And if there is no Israel, then there can be no Messiah. And if there is no Messiah, then there will be no salvation and the entire world will remain in its sins.
A MOURNFUL GATHERING
Now while Ezra was praying and making confession, weeping and prostrating himself before the house of God, a very large assembly, men, women and children, gathered to him from Israel; for the people wept bitterly. (Ezra 10:1).
The author now switches to the third person. This does not negate the fact of a unified authorship, Ezra may have wanted to focus upon the issue at hand or else he might have been using notes which were originally penned by another.
No sermon has been preached. No legislation has been passed. No decree has been issued. Yet a great assembly gathers and goes into mourning. Why? Because a single man PRAYED.
An entire nation is brought to its knees beginning with the prayer of a single man. There is a principle here. It is that prayer works.
Prayer moves God. If it did not, then we would not bother to pray, for there would be no expectation of an answer. But the Bible tells us that God does hear prayer and that He acts upon it. As the bumper sticker proudly proclaimed, "God takes requests."
Prayer moves the people of God. Because God is the One who changes hearts, a prayer to Him is able to bring about change in the heart of another. It has been said that everyone becomes a Calvinist when he prays. This is because even the most ardent Arminian will pray that the Lord will change the heart of the sinner.
This principle has some important ramifications. It means that if you have a problem with another Christian, you should never neglect praying for him.
A SUGGESTED SOLUTION
Shecaniah the son of Jehiel, one of the sons of Elam, said to Ezra, "We have been unfaithful to our God and have married foreign women from the peoples of the land; yet now there is hope for Israel in spite of this.
"So now let us make a covenant with our God to put away all the wives and their children, according to the counsel of my lord and of those who tremble at the commandment of our God; and let it be done according to the law.
"Arise! For this matter is your responsibility, but we will be with you; be courageous and act." (Ezra 10:2-4).
The situation was serious. As we have pointed out, the spiritual future of the entire nation is at stake. The drastic situation calls for an equally drastic solution. The question that we must ask is whether this was the correct solution. Were the Israelites right in divorcing their pagan wives? The passage does not specifically say and there are arguments for either side.
The Plan was of God
The Plan was a Mistake
The absence of condemnation indicates approval, especially in light of the fact that Ezra closes on this note.
There is no editorial confirmation. If Nehemiah is seen as the continuation of Ezra, then it is possible that this was merely a problem along the way which was not satisfactorily resolved at the time.
Ezra agrees to the plan after a long time of prayer.
The Lord did not reveal the plan to Ezra as a prophecy; it was suggested by someone who was not a prophet.
The nation was in danger of falling into idolatry and Deuteronomy 7:2-3 specifically forbids such intermarriage.
It is never right to do wrong so that good may come of it. Malachi 2:14 contains a scathing indictment against Israel for its practice of divorce.
Nearly the entire nation agreed to the proposal.
Majority opinion is no guarantee of righteousness (an example is the case of the 10 spies who gave a report at Kadesh Barnea).
The actions of Ezra and the nation marked a return to the observance of the Law.
The New Testament confirms that believers are to remain married to an unbelieving spouse (1 Corinthians 7:12-14).
There was already a new generation growing that would have pagan roots.
1 Corinthians 7:14 tell how maintaining such a mixed marriage can have a positive effect upon the children.
The book of Malachi was written only a few years following the decisions that were made within this chapter. It therefore can be considered to be a commentary upon the actions of which we read.
Judah has dealt treacherously, and an abomination has been committed in Israel and in Jerusalem; for Judah has profaned the sanctuary of the Lord which He loves and has married the daughter of a foreign god. (Malachi 2:11).
This is an indictment of the very condition that is described in this chapter. Apparently the problem did not immediately disappear following the mass divorces at the end of this chapter. Nehemiah 13:23 tells us that the same pattern of intermarriage with pagans began to be adopted by some of the Israelites in Nehemiah’s day. Nehemiah’s reaction was not to order the same mass divorces, but instead, to urge the people to stop entering any future marriages with pagan Gentiles. He also deposed the high priest who had become a relative through marriage to one of the pagan enemies of Israel (Nehemiah 13:28).
Malachi goes on to address the particular problem of divorce.
This is another thing you do: you cover the altar of the Lord with tears, with weeping and with groaning, because He no longer regards the offering or accepts it with favor from the Lord.
Yet you say, "For what reason?" Because the Lord has been a witness between you and the wife of your youth, against whom you have dealt treacherously, though she is your companion and your wife by covenant.
But no one has done so who has a remnant of the Spirit. And what did that one do while he was seeking a godly offspring? Take heed then to your spirit, and let no one deal treacherously against the wife of your youth.
"For I hate divorce," says the Lord, the God of Israel, "and him who covers his garment with wrong," says the Lord of hosts. "So take heed to your spirit, that you do not deal treacherously." (Malachi 2:13-16).
This passage could almost be taken as a direct indictment against the decision and decree of Ezra. Under the cover of their tears of repentance, fraught with weeping and with groaning, the Jews made a grave decision to divorce their Gentile wives, even though they had entered into those marriages by covenant (2:14).
It is in the midst of such actions that the Lord stands as a witness against them, proclaiming in no uncertain terms that He hates divorce and that one who proceeds with such a divorce is doing it quite apart from the leading of the Spirit.
In conclusion, we must cite two possible interpretations:
Interpretation #1: The decision of Ezra and the people of Israel was a correct, though difficult one. Although they did the right thing, it carried its own negative consequences as later generations used this as an excuse to casually divorce their own wives.
Viewed in this regard, the Malachi passage would then point out a problem which the next generation saw as they used the divorces of the previous generation to participated in unwarranted divorces.
Interpretation #2: Though they had the best of intentions in seeking to repent and return from their sinful attitudes, Ezra and the people of Israel took a bad situation and made it worse by this instigation of across-the-board divorces. As a result, they lost the opportunity to be an influence for righteousness in this lost generation.
A SOLEMN OATH
Then Ezra rose and made the leading priests, the Levites and all Israel, take oath that they would do according to this proposal; so they took the oath.
Then Ezra rose from before the house of God and went into the chamber of Jehohanan the son of Eliashib. Although he went there, he did not eat bread nor drink water, for he was mourning over the unfaithfulness of the exiles. (Ezra 10:5-6).
Notice how Ezra begins his program of reformation. He approaches first the leading priests ( ), then the Levites and finally all of Israel.
Do you want to see reformation in the church? Then pray for reformation in your leaders. As go the leaders of a church, so will go that church. The same principle is true of nations.
Do you want to see reformation in the this nation? Then pray for reformation in your leaders. As go the leaders of a nation, so will go that nation.
Liberalism crept into the church through the doors of the seminary. Seminaries began teaching that the Bible contains historical errors and the next generation of pastors were a generation who did not believe the Bible to be the Word of God.
The same process is at work here in the book of Ezra. It is the same process that takes place in the family.
Parents lead by example. That is an iron-clad rule of life. Your children will learn a lot more from what you DO than they will from what you SAY.
A MANDATORY ASSEMBLY
They made a proclamation throughout Judah and Jerusalem to all the exiles, that they should assemble at Jerusalem, 8 and that whoever would not come within three days, according to the counsel of the leaders and the elders, all his possessions should be forfeited and he himself excluded from the assembly of the exiles. (Ezra 10:7-8).
So important was the situation that Ezra made it mandatory that all should attend. To overcome the possible apathy that he might face, he tied the meeting in with economic ramifications. Ezra had been given a great amount of authority from the king of Persian and now he did not hesitate to utilize this authority.
THE DECISION OF THE PEOPLE
So all the men of Judah and Benjamin assembled at Jerusalem within the three days. It was the ninth month on the twentieth of the month, and all the people sat in the open square before the house of God, trembling because of this matter and the heavy rain.
Then Ezra the priest stood up and said to them, "You have been unfaithful and have married foreign wives adding to the guilt of Israel.
"Now therefore, make confession to the LORD God of your fathers and do His will; and separate yourselves from the peoples of the land and from the foreign wives."
Then all the assembly replied with a loud voice, "That’s right! As you have said, so it is our duty to do.
"But there are many people; it is the rainy season and we are not able to stand in the open. Nor can the task be done in one or two days, for we have transgressed greatly in this matter.
"Let our leaders represent the whole assembly and let all those in our cities who have married foreign wives come at appointed times, together with the elders and judges of each city, until the fierce anger of our God on account of this matter is turned away from us." (Ezra 10:9-14).
It was November. The cooler weather had set in around the mountains surrounding Jerusalem. And it was raining as well. The people gathered in the cold rain. It was a somber mood. As Ezra got up to address them, the climate matches his words. There are two parts to his speech:
1. What They Have Done.
They have been unfaithful. This is the issue. It is not so much the means of their unfaithfulness, but the fact of their unfaithfulness that is at issue. God said not to do something and they disobeyed.
2. What They Are To Do.
Make confession to God.
Confession involves agreeing with God that you have sinned and that you stand guilty and condemned and without excuse. How different this is from the spirit of this age that says, "I didn’t do anything wrong and I promise not to do it again."
Do His will
Repentance involves more than a mere change of mind. It involves a commitment to turn from sin and to turn toward righteousness. As the hymn reminds us, we are called both to trust and to obey.
Separate from the object of unfaithfulness.
We are to separate from that which hinders our spiritual walk. Jesus said that such a separation means that we are to place the Lord before children or spouses or parents. He is to be the object of our first loyalty — a loyalty of such magnitude that anything else would be abject hatred by comparison..
THE MINORITY OPINION
Only Jonathan the son of Asahel and Jahzeiah the son of Tikvah opposed this, with Meshullam and Shabbethai the Levite supporting them. (Ezra 10:15).
There were some who opposed this plan. It is difficult to read their hearts. Was their opposition based upon a worldliness? Or was it that they felt that divorce in any case was wrong and to be avoided? Did they feel that the solution was worse than the problem? We do not know.
I am reminded of a particular instance when the elders of my church were making a difficult decision. There were not unanimity in their thinking and, when the vote was taken, there were two dissenting voices. They were gracious in their disagreement and agreed to go along with the decision of the majority, but they could not in good conscience vote in the affirmative. At this point, I saw a remarkable thing. The entire body decided that they ought to table the matter until they could all be in agreement. And when they came together the following month, after having contemplated and prayed on the matter, the entire group found itself following the wisdom of these two dissenting votes. I should add that this was not and is not today the normative practice, neither should it necessarily be the case. But we should realize that there are times when the minority view is the correct one.
I have already indicated that I am not entirely certain as to how we should judge the actions of this passage. But I do find it curious that there were voices of opposition and that there is nothing negative said of them. Furthermore the words of Malachi concerning divorce would seem to be in support of this minority view.
THE CONCLUSION OF THE MATTER
But the exiles did so. And Ezra the priest selected men who were heads of fathers' households for each of their father's households, all of them by name. So they convened on the first day of the tenth month to investigate the matter.
They finished investigating all the men who had married foreign wives by the first day of the first month. (Ezra 10:16-17).
These investigations took place over a period of two months - from November to January. The fact of these overly long investigations might lend some credence to the speculation that not all of these mixed marriages ended in divorce. Each case seems to have been treated individually. Otherwise they could have been completed in a day or so. Following the examples of Rahab and Ruth, the Jews may have concluded that a Gentile wife who demonstrated faith in the Lord was now a genuine member of the covenant community with a marriage that could be appropriately sanctioned by the national leaders.
At this point, we come full circle in the story. We began with the report of this intermarriage that had taken place. These last verses now close with the solution to that problem.
Report of the problem of intermarriage (9:1-2)
Ezra’s public mourning (9:3-4)
Ezra’s prayer (9:5-15)
Shecaniah’s confession and request for action (10:1-4)
Ezra’s exhortation & the people’s oath (10:5)
Ezra’s private mourning (10:6)
Resolution of the problem of intermarriage (10:7-44).
All these had married foreign wives, and some of them had wives by whom they had children. (Ezra 10:44).
There were not only wives who were affected in this situation; there were also children. This brings up a principle. It is that sin is never private. It invariable involves others. A sin between two "consenting adults" never remains solely between those adults. It inevitably overflows and spills into the lives of others.
Shakespere wrote, "Oh, what a tangled web we weave when first we practice to deceive." In the same way, we weave a tangled web when we sin.
Ezra 10 is one of the saddest chapters in the Bible. There are no winners here. It is a lose/lose situation. This sin hurt everyone. It hurt the husbands, it hurt the wives, and it hurt the children. Our sin today does the same thing to us. We might not always see the consequences so clearly and it might not always be so obvious but sin separates us from God. It leaves us in total despair. The stain of our sin follows us the rest of our lives and we can never be like we were before.
But there is hope. God has made a way of escape. The death of Christ paid the penalty for our sin. The blood of Jesus has washed away the stain of our sin. We can be made pure and holy. In His arms we find a new beginning.