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Ezra

March 24, 2010

I. The Return of Israel      Ezra 1:1-2:70

II. The Temple Project       Ezra 3:1-13

III. Opposition Rises      Ezra 4:1-24

IV. Restarting, Reconfirming, and Completing      Ezra 5:1-6:22

V. Ezra Arrives      Ezra 7:1-8:36

VI. Problem Discovered; Problem Resolved      Ezra 9:1-10:44

Commentary

The Return of Israel Ezra 1:1-2:70

The first exile of Judah at the hands of Babylon took place in 605 BC. Jeremiah had prophesied Judah’s exile would last 70 years [Jer. 25:11-12; 29:10-14]. Babylon fell to Persia in 539-538 BC with Cyrus ruling over Babylon. During Cyrus’s first year as ruler, he proclaimed and encouraged Israel to return [see Is. 45:13]. His name and his work was prophesied approximately 100 + years before he was even born. Instead of practicing oppression and exiling the people they conquered, Persia endorsed a policy of letting the people they conquered stay in their lands working and worshipping as per their culture and appointing Governors over the people to govern and maintain peace. Because of this policy, Cyrus issued his decree enabling Israel to return. He even encouraged the rebuilding of the temple first and returned all the gold and silver vessels confiscated by Babylon. It is said that Cyrus was not a believer in God but only a sympathizer concerning any and all gods. Historically that fits the policies of Persia but when one reads his decree and the generosity given Israel, one wonders if he did believe in the Lord God Almighty as the One True God. Israel was given funds and food for their migration back home to rebuild God’s Temple.

God moves the hearts of the Israelites to return home; those of Judah, Benjamin, and Levi. The gold, silver, and temple vessels were inventoried and given into the care of Sheshbazzar, Cyrus’s appointed Governor over Jerusalem and the returning Israelites. There is much discussion among scholars about just who is Sheshbazzar. Perhaps that is the Babylonian name for Zerubbabel, similar to the Babylonian names given to Daniel and his three friends.

Chapter 2 details those who returned; 42,360 Israelites plus 7337 servants and 200 singers. Note the significant number of animals needed to carry all their goods and gifts. In essence, it’s a small scale exodus. The people’s hearts were not only moved to return home but also moved to support the rebuilding of the temple with their own gifts in addition to those encouraged and provided by Cyrus. They returned to Jerusalem to rebuild the Temple but they settled in their former home towns. Jerusalem was destroyed and left in ruin. No doubt there were some inhabitants and rebuilding over the last 70 years but the city itself was not a welcoming site.

Returning home after being away for a long period of time may not always be welcoming but it is always humbling. This is true in life and in faith. We leave thinking we are in control and return, broken and humbled, acknowledging that God is the one really in control. Never lose sight of the fact that God is sovereign over all things. Return to your roots of family and faith with hearts of thanksgiving and humility, willing to obey God and glorify His Name because of His goodness, mercy, and grace.

The Temple Project      Ezra 3:1-13

The initial return and settling of the Israelites is complete and they come from their various communities and assemble in Jerusalem. Their first project is to rebuild the altar under the direction of Joshua, the priest, and Zerubbabel in accordance with what Moses had described. Note that they build in fear because of the pagan peoples and those Israelites left behind who had intermarried with the pagans. The altar is finished and the Israelites immediately begin to observe the daily sacrificial offerings and celebrate the Feast of Tabernacles.

Next they begin to rebuild the Temple foundation by hiring masons, carpenters, and contracting with Tyre and Sidon in Lebanon for cedar beams. This work begins about 7 months after the altar was finished [in the second year of their return] and was supervised by Levites who were 20 years of age and older. Upon completing the foundation, a celebration of praise and thanksgiving was held, worshipping God for His goodness and love. The young Israelites shouted for joy and the elder Israelites wept.

This is a true picture of genuine worship; praise to God, a joyful sound, and weeping before the Lord in repentance and humility. Note also that all participated in the building project. This is God’s will and God’s way that all believers participate in the building of His Kingdom. Everyone of us has a useful gift for use in building God’s kingdom. Using our gifts demonstrates our love for God and brings glory to His Name.

Oppositions Rises      Ezra 4:1-24

Verses 1-5 most likely summarizes the resistance the Israelites feared when they began to rebuild the altar and the temple foundation [see Ezra 3:3]. This opposition came from those of Assyrian heritage who backfilled Israel’s northern kingdom after they were conquered and exiled. Their opposition was so strong that it prevented Zerubbabel and the returning Israelites from wanting to continue rebuilding the temple after having finished laying its’ foundation, a period of about 6 years before the opposition wrote a letter of complaint to Artaxerxes as stated in verses 11-16.

This letter of complaint was written by the commanding officer [governor?] located in the former northern kingdom [most likely Samaria]. He was representing the people living in the Trans-Euphrates. He knew of Cyrus’s decree and the reason the Israelites had returned to Jerusalem [implied in verse 12]. This letter makes the following points:

1. We here in the Trans-Euphrates are dedicated to the interests of all Persia.

2. The Israelites Persia sent to Jerusalem are rebuilding the walls and the city. [This may have been a lie or it may explain the work slowdown on rebuilding the temple for those approximately 6 years before this letter.]

3. Jerusalem has a long history of being rebellious and wicked [this is true].

4. If the Israelites are allowed to continue rebuilding the city, you as King and all Persia will suffer the consequences of their rebellious nature.

5. In fact, Persia could lose control of the Trans-Euphrates [over-statement].

6. Search your records and see if this is not true and advise us on what to do.

As in the case of all opposition to the Lord’s work, the opposition is founded on lies coupled with truth so as to make the lie believable. They are also founded on a personal motive of wanting to maintain or expand ones power base and responsibility. “What’s in it for me” is a great motivator for opposing what is right and just.

The King Artaxerxes has the records searched and confirms that history does indeed support the concerns expressed by the commanding officer of the Trans-Euphrates. The king advises them to inform the Israelites in Jerusalem to stop work on rebuilding the city until advised differently. Thus, the work of rebuilding was stopped by decree backed up with force.

It is not unusual for the level of our commitment/obedience to the Lord’s work to be challenged and the work itself opposed. Our faith must be tested if we are to become strong [James 1:3-4]. We are to accept our trials and testing with joy knowing that we have been chosen to serve God, glorifying His Name in the most difficult of circumstances. God really does care for us [I Peter 5:6-11].

Restarting, Reconfirming, and Completing      Ezra 5:1-6:22

Haggai and Zechariah, God’s prophets, begin exhorting the people to finish what they had started, rebuilding the Temple. They motivated Zerubbabel to organize the restart and even were part of the work force. When they begin again to rebuild the Temple, the new Governor of the Trans-Euphrates challenged the Israelite initiative. But this time the Israelites refuse to stop work while awaiting confirmation from the next King of Persia, Darius.

Tattenai, the Governor, writes Darius to confirm Persia’s’ authorization to rebuild the Temple. He references the information he received from the Israelites which was a decree from Cyrus authorizing the rebuilding of the Temple. He too requests the king to search the records to confirm their authorization.

The records were searched and the original authorization from King Cyrus was found. The king’s authorization included dimensions and funds for the project. King Darius instructs the governor not to interfere with this project and let the Israelites rebuild their Temple. He also instructs the governor to pay all their expenses, material and labor. His instructions even include providing animals to the Israelites for their sacrifices so they can worship God and pray for the King. Anyone who disobeys Darius’s decree is subject to punishment from Darius and from the God of Israel.

Thus, the Israelites continued to build without any further challenges or opposition. Haggai and Zechariah continued to preach, motivating the Israelites to finish the Temple. Once they began, it took only 5 years to complete the Temple Project. Upon completion, the Temple was dedicated and the Levites organized to care for it and to guide Israel’s worship of the Lord God. One month later they celebrated their first Passover in approximately 90 years.

When one faces opposition against the Lord’s work, state clearly why you are doing it and why it is important. Keep your spirits up and hope alive by paying close attention to what God’s spokesmen are saying. Their exhortations of wisdom and encouragement are absolutely necessary if we are to persevere and complete the Lord’s work. Organize the project, plan the work, employ the right people, have a point person to deal with opposition, and listen carefully to those whose responsibility is to proclaim the Word of God. And don’t forget to celebrate and worship when the project has been successfully completed to the glory of God.

Ezra Arrives      Ezra 7:1-8:36

After the Temple had been rebuilt and dedicated, and sometime during the reign of Artaxerxes, Ezra [a descendant of Aaron] returned to Jerusalem from Babylon. He was a learned man in the Law of Moses. The King, Artaxerxes, granted Ezra all his requests indicating he was respected by the King and the Israelites. As a result, many Levites returned with Ezra to Jerusalem.

This all happened in the 7th year of Artaxerxes reign or about 547 BC, 58 years after the Temple was rebuilt. If I were writing this chronologically, I would be commenting on the book of Esther between Chapters 6 and 7. Ezra took his heritage seriously in that he devoted himself to the study of God’s Law and was an accomplished teacher of God’s Word. God is using Ezra to reestablish His Law among the Israelite remnant according to Leviticus and Deuteronomy in particular. God is starting over with His people Israel. All has been made ready; the generosity of Persia and its’ kings and the rebuilding of His Temple.

Artaxerxes writes a letter to Ezra decreeing that any Israelite who wants to make the journey with him is free to leave. Ezra has a mission and that is to access the obedience of the Israelites living in Judah and Jerusalem with respect to God’s Laws. The Kings of Persia had funded the rebuilding of the Temple and have encouraged the Israelites to return. Now the King expects to receive a report that Israel is obedient to their God. Ezra also goes with a gift of silver and gold to Israel’s God from the King who encourages Ezra to collect like offerings from the Israelites too. This money was to be used to purchase animals for the sacrifices. Any funds that are not used to buy sacrificial animals can be used per Ezra’s discretion. Obviously the King views Ezra as honest and trustworthy. In fact, the royal treasury is available if Ezra needs funds to purchase anything else for the Temple. However, the King does place an upper limit on the value Ezra can request. Ezra is forbidden to raise money through taxation from any who live and work at the Temple. Chapter 7:25-26 seem to indicate that Ezra is being sent to Jerusalem to be Israel’s High Priest and also as the King’s representative in Jerusalem and Judah. Ezra is responsible for teaching God’s Law to Israel and for upholding Persian Law over all the people in Jerusalem and Judah.

Verses 27-28 records Ezra’s thanksgiving and praise to God for directing the King to make all this possible through his generosity and kindness toward Israel.

Chapter 8 lists the people and families returning to Jerusalem with Ezra. The people gather at the canal that flows toward Ahava. They came and Ezra took inventory of the people and learns no Levites are among them. Ezra sends eleven men to Iddo in Casphia to seek out and request Levites to return so Ezra will have the proper people with which to manage the Temple and worship. They were successful and when those families arrived at the canal, Ezra proclaimed a fast to humble themselves before God and ask Him to grant them a safe journey because Ezra trusts in God and had refused help from the King. This is a significant act of faith in that robbers preyed on travelers and they happened to be carrying significant quantities of silver and gold. Ezra divides the wealth among twelve men, whom he consecrated, to guard it until they reached Jerusalem.

God did protect them and they reached Jerusalem safely. They rested 3 days and then accounted for the silver and gold they were given, finding all was in order. Then they worshipped God. Finally, they delivered the King’s decree concerning their purpose and responsibilities to the Persian authorities over the Trans-Euphrates.

After reading these two chapters, two things are certain. God is sovereign over the rulers of this earth [both the good and the bad] and he blesses those who honor Him, protecting them from harm and exalting them because they faithfully obey God, are honest, and are faithful and trustworthy. We who are faithful to God’s Laws are respected among God’s chosen rulers. It may not seem that way but what we see and hear is not necessarily what is true. This story concerns a good ruler but what about a bad ruler. God is still sovereign. Remember God can take the bad and make it come out good. He has a plan and a purpose. It doesn’t make sense to us all the time. We just have to believe and trust, looking for the good in bad situations.

Problem Discovered; Problem Resolved      Ezra 9:1-10:44

It didn’t take Ezra long to learn that the Israelites who were living in Jerusalem and Judah were not keeping God’s Law concerning marriage. A great number, including the Levites, had intermarried with the pagan idolatrous tribes. They had come, rebuilt the Temple, worshiped, but failed to keep God’s Law concerning intermarrying with the pagans. They were indulging in the same sin which led them into idolatry and which led to their downfall and caused God to become angry with them and have them destroyed except for this small remnant. Evidently Haggai and Zechariah, God’s prophets, had died and the leaders and elders were actually the first ones to have disobeyed and been led astray.

Ezra hears of this problem, tears his tunic, pulls out his hair, and is appalled. He has been sent to Jerusalem to teach them God’s Law and to encourage them to be faithful to God and obey His commands. Ezra is also to report back to the King what he has learned. The King expects a good positive report because Persia had funded the rebuilding of the Temple. If the Israelites are not following God’s Law, the King expects it to be corrected immediately. Naturally, Ezra is concerned about God’s attitude toward this remnant and also the King’s attitude. The Israelites who had returned are in deep trouble and don’t know it.

Ezra’s first step is to go to the Lord in prayer. He does not pray for wisdom or guidance but prays confessing their sin before God. He doesn’t pray for their sin but prays for our sin, including himself [see vs. 6]. A true leader never separates himself from the problem or the people but includes himself as one with them. Ezra acknowledges Israel’s sin and acknowledges God has every right to punish them in the same way He had done in the past. Ezra also acknowledges God’s grace toward them [vs. 8]. God has not deserted them but has shown them kindness. God has released them from slavery, has returned them to their homeland, has enabled them to rebuild His Temple, and, thus far, has spared them from His wrath. God has started over to bring glory to His Name through His people, Israel. Instead of following His Law they have broken His Law and become a sinful and impure people, unusable for God’s purpose.

In closing [Ezra 9:13-15] Ezra acknowledges their guilt, acknowledges God would be just in punishing them, acknowledges God’s grace, acknowledges that God is righteous, and acknowledges they are not worthy to be His people. Ezra has confessed their sin toward God and awaits God’s just judgment.

Ezra realizes the task he was given by God and by the King is much much larger than he had ever anticipated or imagined. Before he can teach, he must correct.

“The effectual fervent prayer of a righteous man [Ezra] availeth much ” [James 5:16b, KJV]. See James 5:13-16 to gain insight into this situation. Ezra’s prayer and confession attracts the attention of the Israelites and they too began to weep because of their sin. Interesting, one of the leaders of Israel comes forth confessing their sin but also proclaiming there is hope. God is in the restoration business and is sovereign over all things. God has not given up on Israel and, therefore, Israel should not give up on God. Shecaniah, the leader who came forth, has a solution. They have confessed their sin and now it is time to repent of their sin by removing all their pagan wives and the children they bore from their homes. This is a drastic action and what we would call an un-loving action. But their sin was serious and would have serious consequences on them in the future if they refused to take this action now. Unpleasant? Unfair? Probably so. Necessary? Yes, absolutely! If they didn’t take this action now, their sin would become greater not less. Shecaniah leaves his proposed solution in Ezra’s hands. Israel pledges to support any decision Ezra makes [Ez. 10:4].

Ezra accepts this solution and implements it through the priests and Levites [most likely those who had returned with him]. He then retires to where he was staying and fasts. The proclamation is issued for all to assemble in Jerusalem in the next three days or they would lose their identity as true Israelites, people chosen by God. They all came and gathered at the Temple. It was raining, mud was everywhere, and the people were distressed because of the weather and because of what they were about to do. Ezra asked the assembly to confess their sin before God and separate themselves from the foreign wives. The people respond positively to Ezra’s message. But because of the weather and the great number of people involved, they ask that more time be given to make this happen. Confession involved sacrifice and there just wasn’t enough time to accomplish this task and nobody wanted to stand in the rain awaiting their turn to make their sacrifice. This idea was accepted and it actually took three months to accomplish this task. Thus, Israel was purified and could move forward as God’s chosen people to bring glory to His Name.

Sin is serious and serious sin requires drastic action. God willingly grants us grace so we may confess, repent, and renew our relationship with Him, the Lord God Almighty. Let us confess our sins, seek His forgiveness before it is too late, and praise His Holy Name forever.

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