Sunday, May 4. Ezra 3 – 6

Ezra takes us into Bible history territory that is often unfamiliar to us.  These are stories that don’t often get told.

Though the people of Judah were taken captive by the Babylonians, in 539 B.C., the Babylonians were defeated by Cyrus, king of Persia.  Cyrus allowed all the Babylonian captives to return to their ancestral homes, and that included God’s people.

Ezra 1-3 recounted the story of Judah’s return.  The first thing they want to do is rebuild the temple.  They begin, but find themselves opposed by people of the land.

In chapter 4, some of the people of the land, descendants of the Northern Kingdom,  asked to join Judah in rebuilding, but Judah refused.  They correctly felt their captivity in Babylon was because of compromise, and these native people had gone even further in compromise.  They would not allow their participation.  So . . . the remnants of Israel opposed them.

But just here there’s a chronological problem.  Chapter four begins with the rebuilding of the temple and the opposition that was endured.  The frustration and stalled building program continues to the reign of Darius, King of Persia – nearly twenty years (verse 5).

Then the writer, in verse 6, moves nearly a hundred years later to the days of Xerxes and Artaxerxes.  He notes there was opposition during those days too, but it is not to the rebuilding of the temple, but the rebuilding of the city of Jerusalem and the Jerusalem wall.  It’s much like a parenthesis.  The purpose is to say that “This isn’t the only opposition God’s people faced.”
In verse 24, the parenthesis closes and the writer turns back to the days of Darius and the temple.  Chapters 5 and 6 continue the story of the rebuilding of the temple.

The relevant Kings of Persia are as follows:
Cyrus (539-530 B.C.)
Cambyses (unmentioned in Ezra – 530-522 B.C.)
Darius I (521-486 B.C.)
Xerxes (486-465 B.C.)
Artaxerxes I (464-423 B.C.).

Saturday, May 3. 2 Chronicles 36 – Ezra 2

By 539 B.C., the Persian King Cyrus had conquered the Babylonians and, as God had promised, he permitted the Jews to return to their homeland. Ezra begins to chronicle that return, but he himself does not make an appearance until chapter 7.

When Cyrus began his rule, he issued a decree, much like the one recounted in Ezra 1. Evidently, this decree appeared in several forms. Among them one discovered in 1879 in the ruins of Babylon is known today as the “Cyrus Cylinder” (pictured here and now housed in the British Museum).

Cyrus Cylinder
The Cyrus Cylinder inscription begins with a denouncing of the Babylonian king he conquered, moves to a genealogy of Cyrus himself, and exalts him as a popular and much beloved ruler. Then, more important for our text, he refers to the nations conquered by the Babylonians and writes: “I returned to [their] sanctuaries of which have been in ruins for a long time, the images which used to live therein and established for them permanent sanctuaries. I also gathered their former inhabitants and returned to them their habitations.”

It’s not exactly what is written in chapter one, but you would not expect the same decree for everyone. Each would have to be politically sensitive. The gist of the point remains the same.

While Ezra presents historical information, its purpose was not to simply present history. The writer has a point to make. Note that the first six chapters deal with six specific events over a 23 year period. Seventy-three years then lapse without a record between chapter six and chapter seven. The final four chapters deal with Ezra’s return and what he found.

One authority makes this point: “From the viewpoint of ordinary human beings, life appears governed by power and wealth, by international relationships built on confusing alliances of greed and self-interest, and by policies that come and go without enduring purpose. It probably seemed so to those who lived around the Mediterranean Sea and throughout Palestine after Nebuchadnezzar’s Babylonian Empire crumbled under the strength of Persia’s king Cyrus. One empire rose only to fall to another, ruthless men conquered and subdued smaller nations, and decrees were issued and withdrawn according to political advantage.

“But in the opening verses of the Book of Ezra, we are given a different perspective. We are taken from ground level, with its distortions and limited vision, and given a view from above. At this clarifying distance we see that life on earth is not directed by the whim of rulers or the might of armies but by the determination of God.

“Viewpoint makes all the difference in the world.”

Saturday, October 5. Ezra 8 – 10

It is difficult to be less politically correct than Ezra in chapter nine.

Think about it. How often do you hear mourning, prayers of desperation and see much hand-wringing when Christians marry non-Christians? If we did that sort of thing, how do you think it would be seen and received?

Is there a prohibition against marrying non-Christians?

I cannot find such a specific reference and even the law of Exodus 34:11-16 and Deuteronomy 7:1-4 (alluded to in this chapter) were not directly applicable in Ezra’s day. After all, the whole point of those laws was that Israel was to exterminate the Canaanites. You cannot exterminate them and inter-marry with them. But the days of extermination were far past and there was no indication that this law was intended to be an eternal command.

But inter-marriage did something else (as can be clearly seen in the case of Solomon): It weakened the dedication of Israel to the Lord. It still does.

As we read Ezra’s prayer, notice that though he is not guilty of this offense, he lumps his lot in with the people, he is one of them and one with them. He shares their guilt. There is no individual relationship with God. Our relationship with God is through the people of God.

Notice also that what Ezra is mourning is not so much just a violation of a command, but a seeming wholesale inattentiveness to threats against spirituality. When the spiritual dangers of marrying outside the community of faith never enter our mind, it is time, like Ezra, to mourn.

Tuesday, October 1. Ezra 6. Esther 1 – 2

Chapter six of Ezra can be a bit confusing. Remember that even though Haggai and Zechariah have been urging the rebuilding of the temple, those efforts have been frustrated by the surrounding nations, as well as the governor of the district, Tattenai. The governor, having been assured that Cyrus himself gave the Israelites permission to rebuild the temple, was unbelieving and sent to Darius for confirmation.

This is where the confusion comes in.

The records are searched and the document of Cyrus is found authorizing the temple (6:3-5).

The problem is, in our Bibles, verses 3-5 are set off as a quote from the document, but verses 6-12 are likewise set off as a quote, leading the unsuspecting reader to conclude that verses 6-12 are a part of the Cyrus memorandum – which doesn’t make historical sense.

The resolution is suggested by the translation. There is a little more space between verses five and six than in other paragraphs, but that is easily missed. The chapter actually cites two documents: the Cyrus document (verses 3-5), and Darius’ reply document (verses 6-12).

There are two important points in the chapter. First, that the rebuilding is not only sanctioned by the Persian government, but opposing politicians in the Persian realm are commanded to help with the financing of the rebuilding of the temple. Thus even the Lord’s enemies are forced to give Him honor. God always gets His way. Second, the temple is built and the Passover observed, but not only by Israelites. Even the gentiles who have purified themselves are able to join in because they “seek the Lord, the God of Israel.”

This reminds us that the eternal dream of God is that all people seek Him and worship Him.

Thursday, September 26. Ezra 5, Haggai 1 – 2

The first order of business for the returnees from Babylon was to rebuild the house of the Lord. The foundation of the temple was completed about 537 B.C., two years after their return. But due to opposition from surrounding non-Jewish neighbors, the building ground to a halt for the next seventeen years.

In the second year of Darius, the Lord raised up two prophets, Haggai and Zechariah, who urged (and at times shamed) the people into completing the task.

But it wasn’t just a matter of getting back to work. The very thing that had stopped the construction, opposition from surrounding nations, had to be dealt with. The opponents went straight to Darius.

Ezra chapter five continues the thread we have seen so often in the Old Testament. God moves to make those not His people be supportive of those who are. Hiram sent supplies to David. The queen of Sheba and the kings of Arabia paid homage to Solomon. Hezekiah was highly regarded by the nations (2 Chronicles 32:23). Jehoiachin was given a seat at the table of the king of Babylon (1 Kings 25:28). Now, Darius affirms the favor Cyrus showed the Jews and (in chapter six) not only approves the construction of the temple, but also orders the opposition to pay for it and pronounces the death penalty on anyone who gets in the way of its construction.

An important point here is that the writer of Ezra not only knew his facts, but also knew of the documents supporting those facts. The Bible did not originate in the fertile imaginations of men, but is the trustworthy account of the people of God and His dealings with them.

Wednesday, September 25. Ezra 2 – 4

Chapter two of Ezra looks very much like those other not-so-inviting chapters of genealogy in the Bible. But just like them, it is not there for decoration. It has purpose.

The return from seventy years of Babylonian captivity was not a hodge-podge “olly olly oxen free,” “whosoever will” can go home kind of return. It was organized, and you had to be qualified to return. You had to prove that you were of Jewish heritage. Sometimes that was done by proving your connection to your ancestral town (2:21-35), but even that connection could not qualify you for everything. To serve as a Levite or priest, you also had to come up with ancestral records (2:36-58).

The chapter begins with mention of eleven specific leaders. One is missing, likely due to a copyist’s error. The twelfth (Nahamani) is mentioned by Nehemiah (7:7) and this brings up a matter of reliability. When you compare this list with the same list in Nehemiah, you will see that there is very little variance between the names listed. There are, however, huge differences between the numbers. In the transmission of the text, numbers are the most difficult to transmit – which is why critics of the Bible so often point to number variances. It does not, however, materially alter the meaning of the text.

Notice how God has blessed His people even in captivity! These 43,360 people have among them a servant for every family (perhaps more than one per family) and are able, upon arrival in Jerusalem, to give God 1,100 pounds of gold and three tons of silver.

One final point, and it’s not a pretty one: It is significant that of the twenty-four families of priests designated in the time of David, only four families are willing to return. The majority of those entrusted with ministering before the Lord fell in love with Babylon and would rather live there than serve the Lord. Never underestimate the allure of the world.

Friday, October 5. Ezra 10 – Nehemiah 2

    Chapter ten of Ezra presents us with an interesting ethical problem.

    Israel’s main problem throughout her history has not been idolatry or faithlessness.  Israel’s problem has been her integration, assimilation, and syncretism with her non-Israelite neighbors.  Remember, for example, that she wanted a king so she could be “like the nations” around her.  In doing so, she rejected God as king.  In her desire to be like and accepted by her pagan neighbors and friends, she left the ways of God for the ways and subsequent ethics of those friends.

    This comes to prominence in a specific way in chapter nine when we discover that Israel has been inter-marrying with the non-Israelite people of the land.  Deuteronomy 7:3 specifically forbade these unions.  But now that they were made, what was to be done?

    The solution is not specified in scripture, and though a solution is offered in Ezra 10, there is nothing there to suggest that this is God’s solution.

    A temptation arises just here to approve of what was done, but the careful reader should note that God gives no such approval.  In the whole enterprise, God is silent.  So are we to use this text as an example for us today?  If someone marries “out of the faith,” or someone has a spouse who makes it difficult to live in the faith, does this passage provide precedent to approve of divorce?

    No.  It only tells us what Ezra and the leaders did in trying to deal with a spiritually debilitating problem.  The results were horrible.  Homes broken up.  Women and children shuffled into poverty.  To keep the marriage however was to invite continual apostasy.  What to do?

    I think the real lesson here is this: When people decide to do what God has told them not to do, the consequences are always disastrous and there is no good way to fix the problem.  You do the best you can, but no solution will be a good one.  Better to stay on the right course in the first place.

Thursday, October 4. Ezra 7 – 9

    Ezra 7 picks up in the seventh year of the Persian king Artaxerxes, approximately the year 448 B.C., fifty-three years after the initial return of the Jews from Babylon to Jerusalem and thirty years after the completion of the temple in Jerusalem.

    Evidently, things have not been going well.  We might well have surmised that from Haggai and Zechariah.  What God’s people need is some encouragement, and a fresh dose of dedication.  Ezra and his companions were to provide that.

    Ezra and those who made the journey with him to Jerusalem, while family, were, of course, not a part of that initial return.  And now, half a century later, they would be seen somewhat as outsiders.  But that’s a good thing.  Outsiders often see us as we really are and we’d do well to remember that in our churches.  Asking a family who becomes a part of your church why they chose as they did can be important.  And just as important is asking those why they chose somewhere else.

    But one of the things that strikes me about chapter eight is who does not initially elect to go: Levites.  The Levites were given the task of serving the Lord at the temple.  That temple can only be established in Jerusalem.  Without going back, they are, in essence, abandoning their calling for God.  The first return had divided families (the family names mentioned here are, with one exception) all mentioned in chapter two.  This return would effect a unity of sorts.  But why had these people not returned before?

    Perhaps because they were guilty of the same thing their brethren in Judea were guilty of: making their home among the pagans.  Once you get settled, integrate yourself in a community, it is difficult to maintain a holy distinction.  These returnees under Ezra recognized that, and determined to do something about it.  Perhaps that is why they were so upset with their brethren who, in the holy land of their inheritance, had done the same thing.

Tuesday, September 25. Ezra 3 – 5

    The Persian king Cyrus was a shrewd politician.  He knew his Babylonian predecessors had displaced untold numbers of people.  He could keep them displaced, and unhappy, or he could win their abiding allegiance by allowing them to go home.

    He chose the latter.

    And if one god was good, hundreds would be better.

    So he decreed that all captives might return to their homeland and rebuild their temples.  God’s temple was among them.

    God had not failed to prosper Judah during her captivity.  Some of her number had found a home in Babylon, but they had an allegiance to their homeland.  Some returned.  Some supported those who did.  All contributed to the cause of rebuilding the temple.  The amount of their contributions is staggering: 1100 pounds of gold and three tons of silver – over thirty million dollars in today’s valuation.

    It was a great beginning, but it was not to last.

    That’s the way it is with us all most of the time.  Great ideas generate great excitement, but someone has to carry them out, and that’s where things usually fall apart.  Faithfulness to God is not found just in a moment, but in the day to day, mundane, often difficult, routine of life.

Reading Through the Bible, Friday, May 6. Ezra 7-9.

    Over eighty years after the first wave of returning refugees to Judah, Ezra led another return from Babylon.

    Ezra was a direct descendant of Aaron, the first High Priest of Israel.  He was a good man, “well versed in the law of Moses.”  He was such a spiritual man that he caught the attention of the King of Persia who called him a “teacher of the Law of the God of heaven.”

    Ezra had so exalted the God of Israel to the king that when he led the return, he writes that he “was ashamed to ask the king for soldiers and horsemen to protect us from enemies on the road, because we had told the king, “The gracious hand of our God is on everyone who looks to him, but his great anger is against all who forsake him.” But their journey went without incident.

    The immediately impressive thing about Ezra’s return was how immediately, almost overnight, Israel’s situation was changed.  She went from being oppressed to being the ruling people of Canaan (called the “trans-Euphrates” people).  In fact, though they had been opponents of Judah for eight decades, Artaxerxes not only squelched the opposition, but required the Trans-Euphrates people to be obedient and supportive (financially) of the Jewish people.

    God is always present, but when He acts in a decisive way, it becomes obvious who His people really are.