We saw at the end of 2 Chronicles the destruction of Jerusalem and the Babylonians taking the Jews into exile in Babylon. About 130 years before Ezra came to Jerusalem, in 458 B.C., God punished Judah’s persistent wickedness by sending the Babylonians to destroy the city, demolish the temple, and take thousands into exile. While they were in exile in Babylon the Israelites were able to build homes, have gardens, and live a fairly good life with some religious freedoms. Some Israelites even attained positions of power. But God had promised to return His people to the holy land after 70 years. Around 559 B.C. the Persian prince Cyrus II subdued the Medes and fused them into what would become the Persian Empire. In 539 B.C. the Persians defeated the Babylonians, paving the way for this promise to be fulfilled. One year later Cyrus began to allow the Jewish people to leave Babylon. Sheshbazzar led the first group back.
When the Israelites were deported to foreign lands, both the Assyrians and the Babylonians had settled other conquered peoples in the land of Israel. The returning exiles found these foreigners inhabiting the land that they sought to reclaim and rebuild. The foreigners claimed to worship the same God as the Jews, but they actually had created a religion that was a melting pot that combined both pagan and Jewish ideas and practices. They wanted to worship with the returning Jews but that would have meant a spiritual compromise for the Jews. So, they refused these people have any part in their community. It caused delays in the rebuilding of both the temple and the city of Jerusalem, but they figured it was better to take longer to build than compromise their faith and worship.
Here are some things to keep in mind as you read the Book of Ezra. First of all, we see God’s sovereignty. He is sovereign over all people and rulers, even pagan ones. He controls history and orchestrates events for his own purposes. Despite opposition, God will fulfill His promises and protect His people. God protected His people as they traveled back from Babylon to Judah and Jerusalem. Ezra recognized that the future of the nation was in God’s hands. Second, we see that God’s people must be pure and separate from the sinfulness of the world. Ezra was a priest and being set apart as God’s people was one of his convictions. The early returnees were also adamant that the foreigners would not have a part in who they were or what they did. When Ezra arrived later, after the Jews had settled in, he discovered the commitment to remain separate had been watered down and he set about leading the people to renew their covenant with the Lord. Third is the importance of following God’s Word. As a scribe Ezra was determined to study and obey the law of God and teach it to others. Ezra repeatedly explained his decisions by pointing to God’s instructions in scripture. Fourth is the importance of intercessory prayer. This invites God’s compassion and power. Ezra’s prayer of confession in chapter 9 is a model of humility in seeking God’s grace. Ezra knew these sinful people would not be moved by a sternly worded sermon condemning them. Instead, he tore his clothes, wept, and mourned over the sinfulness of the nation. God powerfully used his confession to pierce the hearts of the people, and a great revival took place. Similarly, Ezra had fasted and prayed for safety on their journey because only God could protect them. Lastly, we see the theme of restoration. Ezra describes not only the restoration of the temple but also the renewal of the spiritual, moral, and social fabric of the community. The overt goal may have been the restoration of the temple, but the restoration of the Jews sense of community and heritage was equally important. It was essential that they reclaim the separateness that distinguished them from everyone else. This marked them as God’s people. Organizing them around God’s law and renouncing the compromises they had made with the nations around them were crucial steps to that end.
The prophet Jeremiah had prophesied that the Jews would be in captivity for 70 years. At the beginning of Ezra, we see that the time had passed, and Cyrus was willing to let the Jews return home. God used Cyrus to help the exiles rebuild the temple. So, a few things about Cyrus. This is Cyrus II or Cyrus the Great. He ruled from 559-530 B.C. He was a renowned statesman and conqueror who founded the Persian Empire…modern day Iran. Cyrus inherited the rule of a small territory called Pars, located in Southern Iran, the kingdom of Lydia in Western Turkey and territories to the east. Eventually he ruled from the Aegean Sea to the Indus River. Isaiah prophesied of Cyrus’s deliverance of the Jews from captivity calling him the Lords anointed. Cyrus was a beneficent king who allowed captive peoples to return to their homelands and restore their places of worship. This included the Jews who were living in exile. Cyrus was not dedicated to the God of the Jews. History shows he worshiped Marduk of Babylon. Israel regarded Cyrus as called and empowered by God to free them. Cyrus was not the Messiah, but what he did served as an example of what the Messiah, Jesus Christ, would later do in setting God’s people free from servitude.
Cyrus came to power and the Lord moved in him to return the Jews back to their promised land. Cyrus was obedient to the Lord’s promptings and he released the Jews to go home. He even returned all the objects taken from the temple of the Lord to them. This consisted of 5,400 pieces of gold and silver. Once again, we see a list of names. It was important to be able to identify which tribe you were a part of, especially for the Levites and priests. If you could not prove your genealogy, you would not be allowed to serve the Lord in the temple and at His altar.
A bit about names here. We see that Sheshbazzar brought the Jews back to Judah and Jerusalem. It was common for the Jews to be given an ‘official’ Babylonian name. (Think Daniel and his three friends.) Sheshbazzar is a Babylonian name but this was most likely Zerubbabel who had risen to the position of a deputy governor of Judah. Zerubbabel was the son of Shealtiel and the grandson of Jehoiachin, the next to last king of Judah. He was the last of the Davidic line to be entrusted with political authority by the occupying powers. Zerubbabel was an ancestor of Jesus. Jeshua is the same person as the Joshua of Haggai 1:1. He was the son of the High Priest Jehoiada, who was taken into exile. But the Nehemiah listed here is not the same as the Nehemiah who wrote the book that bears his name. Jeshua the high priest was the grandson of Seraiah who had been put to death by Babylonian forces. Since there was no king in Jerusalem after the exile the high priest’s office took on great prestige and political power. By the time of the New Testament, priestly involvement in politics had led to great corruption in the priesthood and discontent among the Jews. Whew!!
Now we come to the rebuilding of the temple. The returning Jews gathered in Jerusalem first to rebuild the altar so that they could offer sacrifices to the Lord and then the next year they began to rebuild the temple. They had neither the resources nor the manpower to rebuild the same sort of temple as Solomon had. But they were thankful for what the Lord had enabled them to accomplish and that was a cause for a great celebration. It wasn’t about what the people had been able to do but what the Lord had enabled them to do. Many were excited but a few remembered the old temple. There was both joy and disappointment that day. It all depends on what the people expected. The shouts of joy were intermingled with the sobs of disappointment and the noise was heard far away. God is still sovereign, even when things do not turn out as we had planned.
In His Grip
Pastor Matt W