01 Ezra 1-3 The Exiles take RootEzra, Nehemiah, & Esther: Restore, Rebuild, & Redeem
To access all posts in this series, from the most recent to the oldest: http://servingandsharing.com/category/esther-restore/
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I have extensively used and copied from the Truth for Today Commentary on Ezra, Nehemiah, and Esther, written by my friend and former colleague at Heritage Christian University, Coy D. Roper, Ph.D. I highly recommend it!
Ezra 1-3 The Exiles Take Root
Ezra 1 – Cyrus’ Decree to Return and the Jews’ Response
1:1-4 Cyrus’ Proclamation to the Jews in Exile
Providence: How do you see God at work in these events?
Prophecy: What had Jeremiah written concerning the Jews’ return from exile? See Jer 25:11; 29:4-10.
What had Isaiah (700’s BC) written Cyrus? See the remarkable prediction recorded in Isa 44:28-45:5, in which Yahweh called Cyrus by name, though Cyrus would not come to power until 539 BC!
Prompting: Yahweh “stirred up” the spirit of Cyrus. How can we understand God’s motivating and influencing people without violating their freedom or forcing them to act against their will?
Proclamation: “Thus says Cyrus” is an expression of authority, a king’s pronouncement similar to “Thus says Yahweh.” “Throughout all his kingdom” suggests an enormous, very expensive effort involving hundreds of couriers and horses and long distances.
The Cyrus Cylinder is a document issued by Cyrus the Great, consisting of a cylinder of clay inscribed in Akkadian cuneiform script. The cylinder was created in 539 BC, surely by order of Cyrus the Great, when he took Babylon from Nabonidus, ending the Neo-Babylonian empire. This document is considered propaganda, praising the Achaemenid ruler Cyrus and treating Nabonidus like an impious and bad king. See more information and a translation of the message here:
Procedure: While previous policies (of Assyria and Babylon) sought to subjugate and weaken their subjects by exiling them away from home, Cyrus took a different approach. Conquered people would be more agreeable toward their captors if they could return to their own homes rather than being forced to remain dislocated elsewhere.
The task and the cost would be gargantuan. Hundreds of thousands, if not millions from various lands, would need almost infinite resources to get home.
1:5-11 The Jews’ Response and the Gifts for the Temple
This is the first return, in 538 BC, shortly after Cyrus’ decree.
Responsibilities: “Leaders go first!” Three groups initiated the return: household heads, priests, and Levites. What does this imply about their roles, responsibilities, and influence?
Note that only two of the twelve tribes, Judah and Benjamin, had been exiled to Babylon. The ten northern tribes, called “Israel,” had been deported to Assyria in 722 BC. Those tribes did not return home, perhaps because Yahweh considered their defection to be past the point of retrieval.
God “stirred their spirit.” We may assume that, due to their faith and their sense of responsibility, they were agreeable to that stirring. See notes above regarding Cyrus.
Resources: Note two sources of valuables:  a freewill offering from all those around them;  the temple articles that Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon had taken and placed in the temples of his gods.
These items had been taken during the three attacks on Jerusalem, in 605 BC (Dan 1:1-2), in 597 BC (2 Kgs 24:13), and in 586 BC when the temple was destroyed (2 Kgs 25:13-17). Some of these had been brought out by Belshazzar at the drunken feast described in Dan 5:1-4.
What would it be like to receive back these sacred temple items that had been out of the Lord’s service for so long? Imagine the thrill of unpacking boxes of precious items that have been in storage for 70 years!
It’s noteworthy that Scripture names Mithredath the treasurer. His hands touched and conveyed the precious items that had been in the first time. That makes one wonder how this entire series of events may have impacted Mithredath and others in the Persian government.
How would the retrieval of these items reestablish the connections between Yahweh and Israel, and between Solomon’s (destroyed) temple and the new temple?
What does this say about the superiority of Yahweh over the non-existent “gods” of Babylon? Who has the last word? Who is ultimately in control?
SHESHBAZZAR (Shĕsh băzʹ zȧr) Babylonian name probably meaning “may Shamash (sun god) protect the father.” Jewish leader who accompanied the first group of exiles from Babylon to Jerusalem in 538 BC (Ezra 1:8). King Cyrus of Persia apparently appointed Sheshbazzar governor of restored Judah and supplied his company of people with provisions and many of the treasures that the Babylonians had taken from Jerusalem. He attempted to rebuild the temple (Ezra 5:16) but got no farther than the foundation when he was replaced by Zerubbabel. His genealogy is not clear, but some believe the Shenazar of 1 Chron. 3:17 may be Sheshbazzar. If so, he was a son of Jehoiachin and uncle of Zerubbabel.
Takeaways from Ezra 1:
God is in control. He is sovereign, the King of kings and Lord of lords. This is true, even though man is free, responsible, and accountable for his decisions. Fear not!
God keeps his promises. The fulfillment of his word is certain, though delayed by other factors important to him.
God accomplishes his purposes. No power, physical or spiritual, can stop him.
God works in the world through his providence. Though not miraculously parting the ocean, raising the dead, etc., his hand is at work every day in every way. Read William Cowper’s him, “God Moves in a Mysterious Way,” and Walter E. Brightwell’s hymn, “The Providence of God.”
God cares about the details. He caused thousands of specifics to be recorded. While we seek to grasp the big picture (the forest), we must also see and treasure the individual components that make up that picture (the trees).
Ezra 2 – The Returnees, Their Arrival, and Their Giving
2:1-2a The Leaders
“These came with Zerubbabel …” This quick reference introduces the primary leader of the first return to Jerusalem in 538 BC. His significance must not be overlooked.
ZERUBBABEL [zeh RUB uh buhl] (offspring of Babylon) — head of the tribe of Judah at the time of the return from the Babylonian Captivity; prime builder of the Second Temple.
Zerubbabel is a shadowy figure who emerges as the political and spiritual head of the tribe of Judah at the time of the Babylonian captivity. Zerubbabel led the first group of captives back to Jerusalem and set about rebuilding the Temple on the old site. For some 20 years he was closely associated with prophets, priests, and kings until the new Temple was dedicated and the Jewish sacrificial system was reestablished.
As a child of the Captivity, Zerubbabel’s name literally means “offspring of Babylon.” He was the son of Shealtiel or Salathiel (Ezra 3:2, 8; Hag. 1:1; Matt. 1:12) and the grandson of Jehoiachin, the captive king of Judah (1 Chr. 3:17). Zerubbabel was probably Shealtiel’s adopted or levirate son (1 Chr. 3:19). Whatever his blood relationship to king Jehoiachin, Zerubbabel was Jehoiachin’s legal successor and heir.
A descendant of David, Zerubbabel was in the direct line of the ancestry of Jesus (Luke 3:27; Matt. 1:12). Zerubbabel apparently attained considerable status with his captors while living in Babylon. During the early reign of Darius, he was recognized as a “prince of Judah” (Ezra 1:8). Zerubbabel was probably in the king’s service since he had been appointed by the Persians as governor of Judah (Hag. 1:1).
With the blessings of Cyrus (Ezra 1:1–2), Zerubbabel and Jeshua the high priest led the first band of captives back to Jerusalem (Ezra 2:2). They also returned the gold and silver vessels that Nebuchadnezzar had removed from the ill-fated Temple (Ezra 1:11). Almost immediately they set up an altar for burnt offerings, kept the Feast of Tabernacles, and took steps to rebuild the Temple (Ezra 3:2–3, 8).
After rebuilding the Temple foundation the first two years, construction came to a standstill for 17 years. This delay came principally because of opposition from settlers in Samaria who wanted to help with the building (Ezra 4:1–2). When the offer was refused because of the Samaritans’ association with heathen worship, the Samaritans disrupted the building project (Ezra 4:4). Counselors were hired who misrepresented the captives in court (Ezra 4:5), causing the Persian king to withdraw his support (Ezra 4:21). The delay in building also was due to the preoccupation of Zerubbabel and other captives with building houses for themselves (Hag. 1:2–4).
Urged by the prophets Haggai and Zechariah (Ezra 5:1–2), Zerubbabel diligently resumed work on the Temple in the second year of the reign of Darius Hystaspes of Persia (Hag. 1:14). This renewed effort to build the Temple was a model of cooperation involving the captives, the prophets, and Persian kings (Ezra 6:14). Zerubbabel received considerable grants of money and materials from Persia (Ezra 6:5) and continuing encouragement from the prophets Haggai and Zechariah (Ezra 5:2).
The Temple was finished in four years (516/515 BC) and dedicated with great pomp and rejoicing (Ezra 6:16). The celebration was climaxed with the observance of the Passover (Ezra 6:19). If there was a discordant note, it likely came from older Jews who had earlier wept because the new Temple lacked the splendor of Solomon’s Temple (Ezra 3:12).
For some mysterious reason, Zerubbabel is not mentioned in connection with the Temple dedication. Neither is he mentioned after this time. Perhaps he died or retired from public life upon completion of the Temple. His influence was so great, however, that historians designate the Second Temple as “Zerubbabel’s Temple.”
God was apparently pleased with Zerubbabel’s role in bringing the captives home and reestablishing Temple worship (Ezra 3:10). On God’s instructions, Haggai promised Zerubbabel a special blessing: “I will take you, Zerubbabel My servant, the son of Shealtiel, says the Lord, and will make you as a signet ring; for I have chosen you” (Hag. 2:23).
Nor may the significance of the other leaders with him be missed. Each played a part, allowing Zerubbabel to fulfill his role and helping the other Jews to follow as well. For example, the next man named, Jeshua (also written as “Joshua” and meaning, “Yahweh is salvation”), was the Jewish high priest (Ezra 3:2; Hag 1:1; Zech 3:1).
The names Nehemiah and Mordecai were also common and popular. Here they do not refer to the better-known, later individuals described in the books of Nehemiah and Esther.
2:b-35 The People
The Old Testament distinguishes between those who had special religious assignments with the temple and worship and those who did not. Here the non-assigned group is listed first.
Denominational groups who mistakenly carry this distinction into their structure use the term “clergy” to refer to those with special religious roles and the term “laymen” to refer to those who do not. The New Testament itself, however, does not make this distinction or use these descriptors. Rather, all Christians are “priests,” offering spiritual sacrifices to God (1 Pet 2:5, 9).
These “laymen” named through verse 20 are listed according to the names of prominent ancestors. Those noted in verses 21-35 are listed according to the places where their families had lived.
Keep in mind, however, that most of these captives were not literally “returning” to Judah, because they had never lived there! Only the older generation was taken to Babylon from Judah. These younger ones had been born in captivity during the 70 years of exile.
2:36-58 The Temple Staff
These groups include the priests, the Levites, and the temple servants.
2:36-39 The Priests
36 The priests: the sons of Jedaiah of the house of Jeshua, 973; 37 the sons of Immer, 1,052; 38 the sons of Pashhur, 1,247; 39 the sons of Harim, 1,017.
2:40-42 The Levites
40 The Levites: the sons of Jeshua and Kadmiel, of the sons of Hodaviah, 74. 41 The singers: the sons of Asaph, 128. 42 The sons of the gatekeepers: the sons of Shallum, the sons of Ater, the sons of Talmon, the sons of Akkub, the sons of Hatita, the sons of Shobai, in all 139.
2:43-58 The Temple Servants
2:59-63 The Unregistered People
Verses 59-60 refer to 652 people who had no credentials to prove that they were Israelites. Interestingly, they came from these particular Babylonian cities. Either they lived apart from the Jewish community or they were proselytes (Gentile converts).
Of course, there were rules as to who was a legal citizen of Israel then, just as there are rules of citizenship today in our nation and other nations. To say that a person was not an Israelite was not in any way to devalue that person. It was simply to respect the rules as to an individual’s relationship to the community.
The second group was composed of “sons of the priests” who likewise could not certify their ancestry. As a result, they could not qualify to serve as priests without proof.
The Urim and Thummim or “lights” and “perfections” were likely (though not specifically described as such in Scripture) small stones used by the high priest to ascertain God’s will (Ex 28:30; Lev 8:8; Num 27:21; 1 Sam 28:6).
Note that serving as a priest was a high privilege, not a drudgery or mere obligation. May every Christian today have that same sense of honor when serving as a “priest” (1 Pet 2:5, 9) in the kingdom of God.
Also note how serious the returnees were to follow the Word of God to the letter, without compromise or objection. Why? Perhaps because they had had 70 years to learn this one simple lesson: don’t mess with God! Do it his way, or exile awaits!
Our “Restoration Plea” in the church today is based on this same principle. As Paul wrote Timothy in 2 Tim 1:13, “Retain the standard (or pattern) of sound words which you have heard from me, in the faith and love which are in Christ Jesus. 14 Guard, through the Holy Spirit who dwells in us, the treasure which has been entrusted to you.”
2:64-67 The Totals
Over 42,000 came as part of this group. Including servants, the number may have come to about 50,000.
2:68-70 Their Arrival, Gifts, and Settlement
Takeaways from Ezra 2:
Going home is worth it all. For them the journey may have taken four months and required crossing hundreds of miles. What would it take to move about 50,000 people that distance, in addition to their possessions and all the valuable articles and animals they had been given? They would be breaking camp, traveling all day, caring for cattle, preparing meals, cleaning up, and setting up camp for the night. We don’t know what dangers or enemies they may have faced or what risks may have constantly confronted them.
Yet what an adventure! What anticipation must have filled their hearts and their words! They had heard of this homeland from their parents and grandparents. They had pictures of it in their minds.
They would do whatever was necessary, for as long as it was necessary, to get to that land! It was not totally different from their ancestors’ experience, leaving Egypt for the Promised Land. In fact, their departure from Babylon has appropriately been call a “second exodus.”
And it parallels our own journey. This world is not our home, and yet we may be tempted to live as if we will be here forever! On this earth we are strangers and sojourners (1 Pet 2:11). Our primary citizenship is not here but in heaven (Phil 3:20). What is it worth to you to see God and be at home with Him? How will you stay on track and persevere? You will do it if the final destination is your only objective. See the hymns, “The End of the Way,” by Charles D. Tillman, and “The Last Mile of the Way,” by Johnson Oatman, Jr.
Giving as we are able is worth it all. If you had been where they were, and you were going where they were going, home at last after 70 years, what would you be willing, even eager, to give? You would give your last dollar to make that trip succeed and to rebuild the temple of the Lord who made it all possible!
The “manna principle” is the idea that each one gives as he is able and each one receives as he has need. See how this worked in the early church, and work to make it more of a reality in the church today.
Ac 4:34 For there was not a needy person among them, for all who were owners of land or houses would sell them and bring the proceeds of the sales 35 and lay them at the apostles’ feet, and they would be distributed to each as any had need.
2 Co 8:12 For if the readiness is there, it is acceptable according to what a person has, not according to what he does not have. 13 For I do not mean that others should be eased and you burdened, but that as a matter of fairness 14 your abundance at the present time should supply their need, so that their abundance may supply your need, that there may be fairness. 15 As it is written, “Whoever gathered much had nothing left over, and whoever gathered little had no lack.”
Ezra 3 – The Altar, the Sacrifices, and the Temple’s Foundation
3:1-7 The Altar and Sacrifices Restored
The Jews left Babylon to return to Judah, planning first and foremost to reinstitute worship and rebuild the temple. Though they would be delayed, they made a good start. Rather than procrastinate or fret about the enormity of the undertaking, they focused instead on doing just the next right thing, one step at a time. We must do the same. Just take the next step in serving the Lord, and do not put it off due to worry or fear.
Convening: The 50,000 or so Jews assembled “as one man.” They were united in their desire and their purpose. Therefore, they cooperated with each other. The leaders led, and the people followed. What a model that is for the church today! The seventh month of the Jewish (lunar) calendar was Tishri, coming in our September or October. This was about three months after their arrival.
Constructing: They built an altar to replace the one in the temple that Babylon had destroyed (2 Kgs 25:8-19; 2 Chron 36:19). They placed it on the same foundation as the original altar. That was a tremendous restoration moment, connecting the present to the past and pointing to the future.
Liberal critics of the Bible have falsely claimed, without justification, that the law of Moses was not fully written until after the return from exile. As this text makes clear, the law of Moses was already written long before this time. The Bible consistently regards Moses as the human author of the first five books.
Notice that they met their fear with faith. Terrified of the peoples of the land, they sought the Lord by constructing the altar and beginning, for the first time in 70 years, the sacrifices He had commanded.
They were meticulously thorough in doing everything exactly as the Lord had directed. Again, they had learned from the exile not to mess with God, not to add to or take from His word, and not to alter His instructions in any way.
Contracting: The Jews hired masons and carpenters. They gave food, drink, and oil to the Sidonians and Tyrians to their north, who could deliver cedar. Lebanon was famous for its cedar trees.
“Cedar is mentioned throughout the Old Testament as an item of luxury and wealth. David used cedar wood in building his palace (2 Samuel 5:11; 7:2), and it was also used in building the temple (1 Kings 5:6; 2 Kings 19:23), which was almost completely paneled with cedar (1 Kings 6:6, 16, 18, 20, 36). Solomon used it in his Palace of the Forest of Lebanon, with cedar columns, beams, and roof (1 Kings 7:2). It was also used in the construction of the second temple (Ezra 3:7). The abundance of cedar was seen as a sign of prosperity (1 Kings 10:27; 2 Chronicles 1:15.) David and Solomon acquired their cedar from Hiram, king of Tyre, a city in Lebanon (1 Chronicles 14:1; 2 Chronicles 2:3, 8) where the best cedar was to be found.”
Joppa, named after Noah’s son Japheth, was the port city they used.
3:8-13 The Temple Foundation Laid
The second month was Ziv (Iyyar), which corresponds to our April or May. This apparently was the spring of 536 BC. The delay of several months may have been due (as today) to supply-chain issues, getting the lumber delivered so the work could begin.
Zerubbabel was the secular governor, and Jeshua was the spiritual leader, the high priest. Notice the united relationships involved, as the rest of their brothers, along with their own sons and brothers, took part together.
Together they laid the temple foundation! It had been 70 years since Solomon’s temple was destroyed, and here they are, on the same spot, starting all over again, picking up where their ancestors left off. One can hardly envision the emotion of that moment.
Those who mistakenly claim to follow the Old Testament by using mechanical instruments in church worship today do not – cannot – follow God’s specific instructions that were given then. For example, only the priests, and only when wearing their priestly garments, played trumpets. You won’t see that today!
Only the Levites, the sons of Asaph, and only with cymbals, were authorized to praise the Lord, according to the directions of King David of Israel. Those directions may be found in 1 Chron 15:16; 2 Chron 29:25-26.
In other words, it was not a matter of people’s preferences as to what instruments would be used, by whom they would be used, and for what purpose they would be used. To try to use these instructions today is impossible, because God never told the church to do so. What instruments would be authorized? Who would God specifically designate to play them? What are these individuals to wear?
The New Testament clearly and exclusively authorized only vocal music – singing – in the worship of the church.
The message that they proclaimed sounds very similar to, “God is good, all the time. All the time, God is good!” All the people joined in the shouting. What a joyful moment!
Yet the occasion was bittersweet. While many celebrated the new beginning, many of the older men wept. They remembered, after 70 years, the beautiful first temple that Solomon had built and the Babylonians had destroyed.
Takeaways from Ezra 3:
The Right Foundation. As Jesus said in (Matt 7:24-27), a house is only as strong as that on which it is built. The great skyscrapers in Manhattan could only be erected because of the type, strength, and depth of the rock underneath them.
1 Co 3:11 For no man can lay a foundation other than the one which is laid, which is Jesus Christ. 12 Now if any man builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw, 13 each man’s work will become evident; for the day will show it because it is to be revealed with fire, and the fire itself will test the quality of each man’s work. 14 If any man’s work which he has built on it remains, he will receive a reward. 15 If any man’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss; but he himself will be saved, yet so as through fire.
Eph 2:19 So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints, and are of God’s household, 20 having been built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus Himself being the corner stone, 21 in whom the whole building, being fitted together, is growing into a holy temple in the Lord, 22 in whom you also are being built together into a dwelling of God in the Spirit.
Sorrow and Joy: It’s easy and common to lack back on the “good old days” with regret over what used to be but is now lost. That’s okay. We can understand the grief of these elderly Jews, in whose minds the image of that first temple was indelibly engraved. Certainly, we are to “weep with those who weep” (Rom 12:15).
At the same time, if we look for it, there is always joy in the present. Bereavement in a family is hard to bear, but the arrival of a child in that same family brings such delight. The same text (Roma 12:15) tells us to “rejoice with those who rejoice.”
Ro 12:10 Be devoted to one another in brotherly love; give preference to one another in honor; 11 not lagging behind in diligence, fervent in spirit, serving the Lord; 12 rejoicing in hope, persevering in tribulation, devoted to prayer, 13 contributing to the needs of the saints, practicing hospitality. 14 Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse. 15 Rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep.