Two Psalms Tell the Story
Let us begin by looking at two Psalms:
The first one, Psalm 137 talks about the captivity of God’s people in Babylon: “By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept when we remembered Zion” (Psalm 137:1 NIV). The people remembered Zion, and made a resolve in their hearts not to forget Jerusalem but to remember her and consider her their highest joy even though Jerusalem at that point in time was in ruins.
The second Psalm is Psalm 126 which talks about the exiles coming back to Jerusalem from the land of captivity, Babylon. Here is expressed the joy of those returning: “When the Lord brought back the captives to Zion, we were like men who dreamed. Our mouths were filled with laughter, our tongues with songs of joy” (Psalm 126:1, 2a NIV).
The Historical Background
Jerusalem was destroyed in 586 B.C. and the people of Judah taken into captivity to Babylon. There they remained for many years. In the meantime Babylon’s power was destroyed and Persian Kings came to power. King Cyrus in 539 B.C. gave a decree which allowed Jews to return to their homeland.
The term “Jew” comes to prominence during this time as it is derived from “Judah” the most prominent tribe to return home. God had made mention of King Cyrus by name some 200 years before he ever came into the scene as the man who will allow the Jews to return and rebuild Jerusalem (see Isaiah 44:28; 45:1, 13).
The Book of Second Chronicles closes and the Book of Ezra opens with the decree of Cyrus. Scholars think that Daniel by now an old man might have shown to Cyrus the prophecies concerning him in the scroll of Prophet Isaiah since Daniel was influential in the court until the first year of King Cyrus (Daniel 1:21; 6:28).
Though Cyrus favoured the Jews it does not seem that he trusted in the God of Israel. Instead it was his policy of religious toleration that allowed the Jews to return home. So the people under the leadership of Zerubbabel who was of the royal line of David return to Jerusalem. It was a group of around 50,000 people. Interestingly Zerubbabel’s name means “seed of Babylon.”
A New Beginning
The temple, before its destruction, was the centre of the Jewish religion. But the people had persisted in idolatry. Therefore God had to discipline them. The temple was destroyed and the people were taken captive. Now they were returning to their land once again.
God was giving them yet another chance to begin again. So the people began to build the temple of God enthusiastically. But neighbouring peoples opposed the rebuilding of the temple and the work came to a standstill (Ezra 4:24). Then for eighteen years it remained like that. Finally under the prophetic ministry of Haggai and Zechariah (see Ezra 5:1, 2 and 6:14) the people were encouraged and they completed the temple during the period 520—515 B.C.
The Arrival of Ezra
Ezra was a priest who loved God’s Word passionately. His love for God’s Word was acknowledged even by King Artaxerxes (see Ezra 7:21). Now Ezra came to Jerusalem with a small group of people numbering around 1700. He came in 458 B.C. nearly 80 years after the first group of exiles had come back to Jerusalem.
Chapters 7 to 10 talks about Ezra’s arrival. It should be noted that there is almost sixty years of silence between Ezra 6:22 and 7:1 during which time the story of Esther happened.
A Mighty Move of God (Chapter 1)
God never abandons His people completely. Even though He brought punishment on His people; it was for a good cause to cure the people primarily of the sin of idolatry. God had already proclaimed through Prophet Jeremiah that the captivity of Babylon would last seventy years (Jer. 25:11) which was understood by Daniel (Daniel 9:2).
It led Daniel to humble himself before God in prayer (Daniel 9:3). Who knows how much influence that prayer had in King Cyrus issuing the decree to allow the Jews to go home. Clearly it was a mighty move of God. The Bible says, “The Lord moved the heart of Cyrus king of Persia to make a proclamation throughout his realm and put it in writing:” (Ezra 1:1b NIV). It is also amazing to note how King Cyrus gave back the valuable articles of the temple which Nebuchadnezzar had carried away from the temple (Ezra 1:7).
Life Lesson: You should note that God holds the hearts of kings in His hand (Proverbs 21:1). He controls the destinies of nations and uses them to fulfil His purposes. Your life, like Jerusalem, might be lying in ruins at this time. Yet God can cause powerful people to show you favour that there may be a rebuilding in your life. But remember that the people were asked to go and rebuild the temple. It signifies the fact that your relationship to God is central and it has to get topmost priority. Rebuild it first.
Dynamic Giving (Chapter 2)
List of names do not excite us. But to a people who had been in captivity and exile, it was not just a list of names. Instead it was their connection to their past; their tradition, their temple worship and above all their connection to their God—the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. These people knew that they were God’s people even though they had been punished by God. So they gave freewill offerings toward the rebuilding of the house of God on its site according to their ability (Ezra 2:68, 69).
Life Lesson: Christians should be a people of dynamic, spontaneous, cheerful and liberal giving. Such giving tells the world that your trust is not in your riches but in the Lord your God. It not only blesses others but will also bring you blessing. Know that your giving builds up the kingdom of God. (Read also Luke 6:38, 2 Corinthians 9:6, 7.)
Worship Is Central (Chapter 3)
The people were united as one man (3:1) and they began to build the altar of God (3:2). This was despite their fear of the peoples around them (3:3). All this was done according to the what is written in the Law of Moses (3:2). After they built the altar and started presenting offerings and sacrifices on it, they set about to rebuild the temple of God.
It was begun with praise and thanksgiving to the accompaniment of music. All the people gave a shout of praise to the Lord when the foundation of the house of the Lord was laid (3:10, 11). It was a very emotional moment. Some older people who had seen the former temple wept aloud while others shouted for joy. And this noise was heard far away though no one could distinguish the shouts of joy from the sound of weeping (3:12, 13).
Life Lesson: The worship of God is central to the life of God’s community. Worship has to come from united hearts. It has to come in obedience to God’s Word. Emotional responses are also part of worship. We need to note that Christianity is not about serving God, alone. But it is also about worshipping God together.
Someone has pointed out that embers keep glowing for a long time when they lie together, but if you pick one out and place it elsewhere it soon dies in ashes. Think about your role in worship in your Church. Are you conscious that you’ve got an important role to play? God is well pleased when you participate in worshipping Him along with His people.
Work of God Opposed (Chapter 4)
Enemies heard of the progressing work on the temple. They came as friends and offered to help. But the people understood their evil motives and refused their help. Then the enemies set out to discourage the people and make them afraid to go on building (4:4). They even hired counsellors to work against them (4:5) and sent letters of accusation to the Persian King (4:6). They were thus able to make the work come to a standstill (4:24).
Life Lesson: Any work for God is always opposed and discouragement is a great weapon of the enemy. You need to note that we are in the midst of a great spiritual battle. And it is bound to get worse in these end times as Jesus predicted.
Work Resumes (Chapter 5)
It is to a discouraged people that prophets Haggai and Zechariah were sent. They prophesied to the people in the name of the Lord, helping them (see also 6:14). So the leaders set to rebuild the house of God once again. There was opposition again. But God was watching over His people: “But the eye of their God was watching over the elders of the Jews, and they were not stopped until a report could go to Darius and his written reply be received” (5:5 NIV).
Life Lesson: Standstills are not the end of God’s work. Encouraged by God’s prophetic word you can still go ahead to restart God’s work again. What a comfort to note that even in the midst of opposition the eye of God is watching over you. As the popular and most meaningful song says, “His eye is on the sparrow And I know He watches me.” (Read also 2 Chron. 16:9a).
Work Completed (Chapter 6).
Insight: “The Ring of Truth: In a made-up legend, there is no need to add insignificant, divergent details. All the loose ends tie up neatly. Real life is messier. Here is a typical case: a document was searched for in Babylon, but it unexpectedly turned up in remote Ecbatana, where (history says) Cyrus spent the summer of his first year as king. Such details suggest that Ezra is based on accurate and detailed historical sources.” – Taken from the Notes in the Family Devotional Study Bible.
On the basis of the scroll that was found and the decree written in it, King Darius issued a decree in favour of the Jews allowing them to rebuild the temple. In addition the king commanded the enemies of the work not to interfere with it. Moreover they were asked to meet the expenses towards the temple from the royal treasury and provide for them whatever was needed. This enabled the Jews to complete and dedicate the temple with joy and sacrifices.
They also celebrated the Passover. This was done by purifying themselves and separating themselves from unclean practices. The Bible records: “For seven days they celebrated with joy the Feast of Unleavened Bread, because the Lord had filled them with joy by changing the attitude of the king of Assyria, so that he assisted them in the work on the house of God, the God of Israel” (6:22 NIV).
Life Lesson: God completes whatever He begins (Read Philippians 1:6). So don’t get discouraged if some work of God in your life has been stopped. Instead encourage yourselves through God’s Word to start again. Your God is one who through unexpected ways can turn the attitude of people towards you. He can cause them to show you favour. So be encouraged. The work of God will get done. Then you can celebrate with joy and purity.
Ezra Comes to Jerusalem (Chapters 7 and 8)
Remember that Ezra comes some sixty years after the dedication of the temple and the celebration of the Passover mentioned in 6:22. He was priest in the order of Aaron, and a great grandson of Hilkiah who was instrumental in the revival under Josiah (2 Chron. 34:14). He was one who was well-versed in the Law of Moses (7:6, 12). That means he was a great student of the Bible who first of all obeyed what it taught and then passed on its teaching to others courageously.
The Bible records: “For Ezra had devoted himself to the study and observance of the Law of the Lord, and to teaching its decrees and laws in Israel” (7:10 NIV). Even the Persian king knew of it and respected him because of his passion for God’s Word (7:12, 21)! The king even acknowledged that Ezra possessed the wisdom of God and he was asked to teach the laws of God to those who did not know them (7:25)!
Life Lesson: Passion for God’s Word was the driving force in Ezra’s life. He was someone who could correctly handle (that is teach) the Word of God (2 Timothy 2:15). Can you list out the benefits of studying God’s Word? Read Joshua 1:7—9, Psalm 1 and Psalm 119 (Psalm 119 which glorifies God’s Word is thought to have been written by Ezra himself.)
Ezra was a man filled with the Spirit of God as the phrase, “for the gracious hand of his God was on him,” is used repeatedly (7:6, 9, 28; 8: 22, 31). Enabled by the Spirit of God Ezra asked and was given everything from the king that he had asked for.
Ezra journeyed to Jerusalem from Babylon. It was a difficult journey of around 900 miles which took them four months. Most people who were exiles had built homes in Babylon by then. And they were comfortable there. Only few people had been willing earlier to go back to Jerusalem.
Ezra was concerned more with the spiritual condition of the people than anything else. His aim was to restore the heart of the people to a right relationship with God. It began with a public reading of the Word of God by Ezra and making its meaning clear to the people (see Nehemiah 8).
Ezra was an able administrator too. When he had assembled all the people returning with him, he checked among them and found no Levites there. So he sent messengers to a man called Iddo and had temple servants who were listed by name brought to him. Ezra was acting here with great care. He made sure that he had the right people with him who could assist in the temple worship. If he had not paused to make that check (remember there were no computers to make such check ups easy), the 4 month, 900 mile journey, would not have borne fruit.
Ezra relied greatly on his God. For such a long journey he refused royal escort. Instead he proclaimed a fast and sought to humble themselves before God for a safe journey. This was because Ezra had already told the king that God’s protection was available to them. (Read 2 Chronicles 7:14 and understand how humbling ourselves before God and seeking His face is very important.) It is estimated that Ezra was carrying with him gold and silver worth millions in today’s market. He also made sure that the articles were weighed and accounted for. When they reached Jerusalem they again weighed out the articles into the hands of the priest. How rare are such servants of God today who handle God’s money with accountability (8:34)!
Ezra’s Prayer and the People’s Confession of Sin (Chapters 9 and 10)
All was not well in Jerusalem. Even though the captivity had cured the people of idolatry, they had continued in the wrong practice of marrying foreign women. Interestingly it was such marriages that turned the wise Solomon away from God (see Nehemiah 13:26). When it was reported to Ezra that the people had intermarried with idol worshippers, his reaction was immediate: “When I heard this, I tore my tunic and my cloak, pulled hair from my head and beard and sat down appalled” (9:3). At the time of the evening sacrifice he fell on his knees and prayed to God and confessed their guilt in this matter.
Life Lesson: Sin in the life of a Christian community needs to be confessed and forsaken. Often we need a man of God like Ezra to lead us in our confession of sin. His prayer came out of a genuine heart. Even though he had not sinned in that matter, he identified with the sin of his people. Such praying which openly confesses sin to God is the starting point of having a restored relationship with God.
Ezra also was a very practical man. He led the nation in this reformation. His prayer, confession of sin, weeping and throwing himself down before the house of God, had immediate impact on the people. They supported Ezra to take action in accordance to the Law. Even though it appears very severe to us, he made the people who had married foreign wives to separate themselves from them. This was done with great urgency even though it was the rainy season (10:13) which made it difficult for people to gather together to get this done.
Life Lesson: Marriage is the first relationship that God established on earth. It is a very powerful union where the husband and wife becomes one flesh. God had commanded the Israelites not to intermarry with others (Exodus 34:15, 16 and Deut. 7:3—6) so that they would realize their role to reflect God’s light to nations in the dark.
But the Israelites had forgotten this and ended up in marriages that led them to idolatry and finally led them away from God. So dear teens, start praying for a godly husband or wife from now on. God will surely honour that prayer. Otherwise you would have to compromise your faith.
Further Thought: Beyond the immediate thought of getting relationships cleaned up, Ezra is giving the message of separation. As believers we need to heed this call. We live in this world where through the media and other sources a lot of worldly wisdom is taught us. We are tempted to live in compromise with the world: with its values, priorities, ambitions and sinful ways. But we are called to live a life of separation which is challenging in today’s context.
Perhaps we can be encouraged by the prayer of Jesus Christ as found in John 17:14—16. Let us be courageous to show the world that though we live in it we are not of it. It might mean taking practical and radical steps of separation like what Ezra demanded of the people who had compromised. [For more Read James 4:4 and 1 John 1:15 —17).
The word Ezra means help. Surely he was a help to God’s people. His main contribution was that he communicated His passion for God’s Word to others. Not only did he love it passionately, he obeyed it wholeheartedly and also taught it diligently. He never allowed his fellow Jews to live in spiritual compromise. He wanted the people to take practical steps to deal with sin.
Tradition tells us that it was Ezra who founded the synagogue worship during the captivity as they had no temple to worship at that time. Our Church worship with its public reading of Scripture comes down to us from this tradition.
Again tradition tells us that he was the one instrumental in leading a council of men who formed the Scripture cannon (that means they decided on the books to include in the Old Testament). Definitely this was the work of God. The mention of Ezra should immediately call our attention to a great revival of Bible Study. May a study of the life of Ezra inspire you to devote yourself to a lifetime of reading and meditating on the Word of God.
Ezra Leads Up to Jesus “The book of Ezra introduces an entirely new period in Israel’s history—a period in which they became more like a church than a nation. Israelites before the exile had given much of their energy to fighting enemy armies. Now they focussed on fighting sin and spiritual compromise . . .
As those who had chosen a ruined Jerusalem over a prosperous Babylon, the returned Jews looked to God instead of to government for help. Still they dreamed, more than ever, of the powerful Messiah the prophets promised. This dream, and their strong determination to obey the law of God, continued right up until the time of Jesus, about 450 years after Ezra’s last words.” – Taken from Introduction to Ezra, Family Devotional Study Bible.
Ezra 3:3 Despite Their Fear
Ezra 4:24 Thus the Work on the House of God in Jerusalem Came to a Standstill
Ezra 6:16 Dedication, House of God, Celebration, Joy
Ezra 8:26, 27 Bronze, as Precious as Gold