Ezra — Return of the Exiles to Rebuild the Temple

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The book of Ezra picks up where 2 Chronicles left off—with the decree of Cyrus ordering the reconstruction of the temple in Jerusalem (Ezra 1:1-4)—which fulfilled the prophecies of Isaiah 44-45 and Jeremiah 29:10. According to pages 154 & 156 of Nelson’s Complete Book of Bible Maps & Charts, “Just as the Israelites were taken into exile in three successive stages (605, 597, 586 B.C.), they returned in three stages”—first under Zerubbabel’s leadership (c. 538 B.C.), then with Ezra the priest (458 B.C.), and finally under Nehemiah (444 B.C.). Most likely the book was written by Ezra, the Aaronic priest and scribe named in chapters 7-9, around the same time that Gautama Buddha, Confucius and Socrates were alive.

Ezra Chapter 1
The very first verse of this historical book demonstrates the sovereignty of God and His faithfulness to His promises. Just as the prophet Jeremiah had foretold, Israel was carried away into exile in Babylon for 70 years (c.f.—Jer. 25:8-11 & 29:10; 2 Chron. 36:15-23). Then the Lord fulfilled what He had decreed in Isaiah 44:28-45:13—having “stirred up the spirit of Cyrus king of Persia” to authorize the rebuilding of Jerusalem and its temple (Ezra 1:1).

In the first year of his administration, Cyrus the Great, king of Persia, sent out this royal proclamation to all the provinces of his kingdom:

All the kingdoms of the earth the LORD God of heaven has given me. And He has commanded me to build Him a house at Jerusalem which is in Judah. Who is among you of all His people? May his God be with him, and let him go up to Jerusalem which is in Judah, and build the house of the LORD God of Israel (He is God), which is in Jerusalem. (vv. 2-3)

Not only did the king invite the Hebrews to return to their homeland and rebuild the temple of “the God of heaven,” but the people around them were ordered to provide for this venture with whatever silver and gold, goods, livestock, freewill offerings and other provisions were available for the house of God in Jerusalem (4). The historian Josephus attributed this favor of Cyrus toward YHWH and His people to the fact that he had been shown the passages in the scroll of Isaiah, which had named the king and foretold his exploits 200 years before he was born!

With the king’s blessing, several leaders of Judah, Benjamin, the priests and Levites set out with a group of dedicated men and women to carry out the edict (5). They were amply supplied with all sorts of resources to help with the project (7).

All of “the articles of the house of the LORD, which Nebuchadnezzar had taken from Jerusalem and put in the temple of his god” were carefully inventoried and returned to the Israelites heading to Jerusalem (8). This included 30 gold platters, 1,000 silver platters, 29 knives, 30 gold basins, 410 silver basins, and 1,000 other articles, for a grand total of 5,400 precious relics (9-11). All of these were entrusted to a man named Sheshbazzar, who saw that they were safely transported from Babylon to Jerusalem.

Ezra Chapter 2
The first part of this chapter documents the number of returnees from various families and cities of Judah who traveled in this first group under Zerubbabel’s leadership (Ezra 2:1-61). According to verses 64-65, there were 42,360 Hebrews, plus 7,337 servants and 200 musicians—for a total of 49,897 men and women that returned to Jerusalem. Between them they had 736 horses, 245 mules, 435 camels and 6,720 donkeys (vv. 66-67).

Not all of the priests and Levites were able to prove their lineage with the proper genealogical documents (59-62).  Therefore, the governor would not allow them to serve at the temple until a high priest was nominated, who could consult the Lord’s guidance using the Urim and Thummim (63).

The leaders contributed “about 1,100 pounds of gold, about 6,000 pounds of silver, and 100 pieces of clothing for the priests” (Ezra 2:69, NCV). Then everyone settled in their ancestral towns and villages throughout the former territory of Judah and Benjamin (v. 70).

Ezra Chapter 3
In the 7th month of the year, everyone gathered together in Jerusalem (Ezra 3:1). Even though they were afraid of the pagans surrounding them, Jeshua, one of the leading priests, and Zerubbabel, the governor, rebuilt the altar of sacrifice in its proper place (2-3). “They also kept the Feast of Tabernacles, as it is written, and offered the daily burnt offerings in the number required by ordinance…” (4). Even though the foundation of the temple had not yet been laid, the Hebrews began to make their daily, weekly and monthly offerings—along with those required for each festival and those offered freely by the people (5-6).

Workmen were paid to lay the bricks and do the carpentry on the temple; while food, drink, and oil were given to the people of Sidon and Tyre to supply the lumber required for the project, as authorized by King Cyrus (7). Work on the temple was begun “in the second month of the second year” of their arrival in Jerusalem (8). Levites over 20 years of age were designated as supervisors of the project and some of the leading priests as foremen (9).

When the foundation was laid, the priests were decked out in their finery, playing trumpets, while the sons of Asaph, accompanied with cymbals, sang thanksgiving and praise responsively: “For He is good, for His mercy endures forever toward Israel” (10-11). Everyone shouted in celebration of this momentous occasion, yet some of the old-timers, who had seen the original temple, wept aloud (12). The din was such that no one could distinguish the one noise from the other, “and the sound was heard afar off” (13).

Ezra Chapter 4
As the people of God worked on the temple, the enemies of Judah and Benjamin came to Zerubbabel and the other leaders and asked to be allowed to help with the project (Ezra 4:1). They claimed to be worshipers of YHWH, having “sacrificed to Him since the days of Esarhaddon king of Assyria, who brought us here” (v. 2). However, anyone familiar with the history of northern Israel knows that the people settled in the area by the Assyrians were not devoted to the Lord, but merely sought to appease Him, while worshiping their traditional gods (c.f.—2 Kings 17:24-34).

Zerubbabel, Jeshua and the others saw through the sham and declined the offer of help from these pagans, saying, “…we alone will build to the LORD God of Israel, as King Cyrus the king of Persia has commanded us” (Ezra 4:3). This made their neighbors mad, so they launched a campaign to discourage the builders and halt the construction—even bribing government officials to delay or shut it down, from the reign of Cyrus the Great, until King Darius’ administration [about twenty years] (vv. 4-5).

At the beginning of the reign of Ahasuerus [more commonly known as Xerxes, the king in the book of Esther], these men launched a propaganda campaign, accusing the Jews of insurrection (6). This continued into the administration of Xerxes’ successor, Artaxerxes (7). In the common language of the empire, a leader named Rehum, a scribe by the name of Shimshai and representatives of the mixed multitude settled in the region by “the great and noble Osnapper,” king of Assyria, sent a damning letter to the king of Persia (8-11).

The text of the letter, recorded in verses 12-16 of this chapter recounted the history of Jerusalem as a “rebellious and evil city,” which had previously resisted the influence of foreign powers. They asserted that, were the Jews allowed to finish rebuilding the city walls, they would stop paying taxes, etc., and the king would suffer an economic shortfall. In typical diplomatic double-speak, the men pretended concern for the king’s honor and advised a thorough search of the royal archives to see whether these things were true and whether Artexerxes might not have cause to be concerned about losing his influence on that side of the Euphrates.

In verses 17-22 we find the king’s response. He told Rehum and company that their letter had been read to him, and a search of the archives had confirmed their allegations. Not only that, but Jerusalem had been the home of several “mighty kings,” who had dominated the region and collected revenues for themselves. Consequently, the Persian king gave orders for the building to stop, until he personally commanded otherwise.

Naturally, Rehum and the others were more than happy to comply with King Artaxerxes’ decree, once his letter was received. They marched right up to Jerusalem and forcibly stopped the builders (23). So the project stood idle from the days of Artaxerxes “until the second year of the reign of Darius king of Persia” (24).

Ezra Chapter 5
It took the encouragement of two prophets of YHWH, Haggai and Zechariah to get the project back on track (Ezra 5:1). With the assurance that the Lord was with them, Zerubbabel and Jeshua got everyone back to work (v. 2).

A new band of anti-Jewish leadership over the trans-Euphrates—Tattenai, Shethar-Boznai and their minions—came and demanded to know under whose authority the Hebrews were building again (3). The Jews simply listed the names of the men doing the work (4). By God’s grace, the leaders weren’t able to put a stop to the work without contacting Darius first (5).

The text of this correspondence is recorded in verses 6-17. Tattenai, Shethar-Boznai and company informed the king of this reconstruction of “the temple of the great God” in Jerusalem.  They gave the names of the men in charge and repeated what the Jews had said when they asked who told them to build. The Hebrews explained that the temple was originally built by a great king of Israel and then demolished by Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon after the Israelites rebelled against the God of heaven. They told how King Cyrus had issued a decree to rebuild the temple and return the articles of gold and silver that had been taken from Jerusalem years ago. As their predecessors had done, Tattenai and company now urged King Darius to search the archives in Babylon to see if this decree of Cyrus could be located, so he could advise them in how to handle the situation.

Ezra Chapter 6
Once Darius gave the order, a search was made, and a copy of the scroll authorizing the construction was located (Ezra 6:1-2). Not only had Cyrus ordered that the house of YHWH be rebuilt, but he had prescribed its dimensions and ordered that the expenses be paid from the royal treasury (3-4). Even the part about returning the gold and silver articles of worship was included (5).

With this revelation, King Darius not only ordered Tattenai, Shethar-Boznai and the others to keep their distance and allow the project to proceed unhindered, but he also told them to cover the costs from the tax revenue collected in that area (6-8). The king also ordered provisions for the sacrificial animals, grain, salt, wine, oil and other daily offerings, so that the Jews could “offer sacrifices of sweet aroma to the God of heaven, and pray for the life of the king and his sons” (9-10).

Should anyone interfere with this edict, Darius decreed that he be hanged on a timber pulled from his own house and that his home be demolished (11). “And may the God who causes His name to dwell there destroy any king or people who put their hand to alter it, or to destroy this house of God which is in Jerusalem” (12).

When this message was received, the governor immediately did as he was told, so the temple was finally completed as planned (13-14). Four years later, in the sixth year of King Darius’ administration, the temple was dedicated (15-16). The joyful occasion included the slaughter of 100 bulls, 200 rams, 400 lambs, and a dozen male goats (17). The priests and Levites served in their prescribed capacities, and everything was carried out according to the Law of Moses (18).

Everyone participated in the Passover, having diligently made themselves ritually clean for the occasion (19-21). During the seven days of the Feast of Unleavened Bread, everyone was happy, “for the LORD made them joyful, and turned the heart of the king of Assyria toward them, to strengthen their hands in the work of the house of God, the God of Israel” (22).

Ezra Chapter 7
Up until this chapter, the events in Jerusalem involved only the first wave of returning exiles, which did not include the author of this historical record, Ezra the priest and scribe. In Ezra 7:1-5 he is introduced, along with an impressive genealogy, tracing his ancestral line all the way back to Aaron the priest.

Now, Esther’s King Ahasuerus [Xerxes I] had been murdered and was succeeded by his son, Artaxerxes Longimanus. Perhaps influenced by the faith of Queen Esther or Xerxes’ prime minister, Mordecai, the king was sympathetic to the Jews and authorized a second wave of repatriation of Israel. By God’s grace, Ezra apparently had a close relationship with the Persian monarch, who gave the scribe everything he requested, when he led this second band of returnees from Babylon to Jerusalem (v. 6). He was accompanied by a large number of priests, Levites, singers, gatekeepers and temple servants (7).

On the first day of the first month of the seventh year of King Artaxerxes, Ezra departed from Babylon and came to Jerusalem by the fifth month (8-9). Although the distance between these two points is about 520 miles, the roads were not straight. In good four-wheel drive vehicle, you might make this trip in a few days, Ezra and company were riding camels loaded down with goods, driving livestock and leading a caravan that probably included women and children. So his journey took several months—which was actually quite an accomplishment, according to the tone of verses 9-10, which indicate God blessed the priest, due to his commitment to God’s Law.

Along with YHWH’s favor, the priest carried letters from King Artaxerxes authorizing Ezra and any Jews willing to accompany him to Jerusalem to carry the sacred scrolls, more utensils and offerings of silver and gold from the king and his subjects (11-16 & 19). This was intended to be spent on sacrificial animals, grain and wine to present to YHWH at the temple (17). Anything left over was to be spent according to Ezra’s discretion, as the Lord led (18). Anything not provided for from this offering was to come from the royal treasury—“up to 7,500 pounds of silver, 500 bushels of wheat, 550 gallons of wine, 550 gallons of olive oil” (Ezra 7:20-22, NLT). Furthermore, Artexerxes would not allow the governors of the land to tax the clergy members at the temple (24).

The king’s reason for such extravagant generosity? He didn’t want to offend the God of heaven (23).

Ezra was commissioned to appoint judges and other public officials and to educate folks about God’s Law (24-25). Anyone who wouldn’t cooperate could face fines, imprisonment, banishment or death (26). How amazing that a “pagan” king would give so much authority to a man from another ethnic and religious group!

So obvious was God’s providence in all of this, that Ezra blessed YHWH (27-28). Immensely encouraged, the priest gathered a large party of “leading men of Israel” to accompany him to Israel (28).

Ezra Chapter 8
The first fourteen verses of this chapter list the groups of men totaling about 1,500 who came with Ezra from Babylon during the reign of King Artaxerxes. Ezra mustered the masses at the river that flows to Ahava (Ezra 8:15). When three days’ inspection did not turn up any Levites, Ezra sent a team of leaders to Casiphia to request of Iddo, the family head, that he send some men to serve at the new temple (vv. 16-17). By God’s grace, a total of 38 men and 220 temple servants soon arrived to join the caravan (18-20).

The next order of business was to declare a fast. Since Ezra had boasted to the king, “Our God helps everyone who obeys him, but he is very angry with all who reject him,” he was loathe to request a bodyguard to accompany the Hebrews to Jerusalem (Ezra 8:22, NCV). So the men humbled themselves before God, asking Him to protect them, their families and their possessions (vv. 21 & 23).

Next, Ezra divvied up the treasure that had been donated by the king, his cabinet and other Hebrews among twelve leading men in his party (24-27). As he entrusted the items to these men, Ezra told them:

“You are holy to the LORD; the articles are holy also; and the silver and the gold are a freewill offering to the LORD God of your fathers. Watch and keep them until you weigh them before the leaders of the priests and the Levites and heads of the fathers’ houses of Israel in Jerusalem, in the chambers of the house of the LORD” (28-30).

They left Babylon on the twelfth day of the first month and made it safely all the way to Jerusalem without incident—praise God (31)! For three days the travelers rested, and then they weighed out the offerings to the treasurer at the temple (32-34). Then the returnees with Ezra made a huge burnt offering of twelve bulls, 96 rams, 77 lambs, and twelve male goats (35). Finally, they carried the king’s orders to the governors of the area, who actually cooperated for a change (36)!

Ezra Chapter 9
It was mere days after Ezra’s arrival that he was informed that “The people of Israel and the priests and the Levites have not separated themselves from the peoples of the lands…” (Ezra 9:1). Not only had the common people intermarried with the pagans around them, but the leaders had done so, as well (v. 2). Poor Ezra was so devastated by this disregard of God’s law that he tore his clothes, yanked out some of the hair of his scalp and beard, and sat down speechless for several hours (3-4)! Other sympathetic Jews came and joined him.

At the evening sacrifice, the priest got up from his stupor, fell on his knees, spread out his hands and prayed to YHWH (5). He said he was “too ashamed and humiliated” to face God, since the sins of His people was piled up to heaven (6). He acknowledged that the suffering of his people during their exile was punishment for their guilt (7). Now God was giving them relief from their oppressors and showing them a little kindness, and His people repaid Him with still more rebellion (8-12). Considering that He had already punished the Hebrews less than they deserved, they were surely pressing their good fortune by marrying idolators (13-14). He worried, “Would You not be angry with us until You had consumed us, so that there would be no remnant or survivor?” Ezra acknowledged YHWH’s  righteousness and their guilt, and appealed for His mercy on the tiny remnant of Jews left (15).

Ezra Chapter 10
“While Ezra was praying and confessing, weeping and throwing himself down before the house of God, a large crowd of Israelites–men, women and children–gathered around him. They too wept bitterly” (Ezra 10:1, NIV). One fellow from the family of Elam admitted their sin to Ezra and proposed that they all make a covenant with God to put away their pagan wives and children, so that they could be in compliance with the Law (vv. 2-3). He encouraged the priest and his fellow leaders to take on the task of advising them all how to do it, promising they would go along with whatever he said (4).

Ezra got everyone to swear an oath that they would do as the man said (5). Nevertheless, the priest “ate no food and drank no water, because he continued to mourn over the unfaithfulness of the exiles” (Ezra 10:6, NIV). A proclamation was issued requiring all the Jews in the area to assemble in Jerusalem within three days—otherwise their property would be confiscated and they would be excommunicated (vv. 7-8).

As ordered, everyone gathered in the square at the temple, trembling out of fear and the cold autumn rain (9). Ezra confronted them all, mincing no words:

“You have been unfaithful; you have married foreign women, adding to Israel’s guilt. Now make confession to the LORD, the God of your fathers, and do his will. Separate yourselves from the peoples around you and from your foreign wives.” (Ezra 10:10-11, NIV)

Everyone agreed; however, they suggested the matter be tabled, since there were so many guilty parties and the rainy season made it impossible for them to process all the divorce proceedings (vv. 12-14). They proposed that the local leaders of each town deal with the guilty parties under his jurisdiction by appointment, “so that the fierce anger of our God may be turned away from us concerning this affair” (Ezra 10:14, NLT). Of all those present, only four men were opposed (v. 15).

From the end of December until early next March, Ezra worked closely with the family heads to identify all the men who had taken pagan wives (16-17). The rest of this chapter identifies the guilty parties by name—over 100 in all. Among these were several priests—each of whom was required to make a trespass offering for their sin—Levites, singers and gatekeepers (18-25).  Verses 26-44 list about 75 men from the rest of Israel, who had married pagan women—some of whom had children.

From the first part of Ezra, we learn that just because God tells you to do something doesn’t guarantee it will be easy. Opposition is sure to come from somewhere—particularly those who feel threatened by your obedience. The key is not to allow circumstances to determine your response, but to keep doing what God and your spiritual leaders tell you, trusting the Lord to contend with those who contend against you. If you are required to deal with civic authorities, do so with firmness and respect, working within your legal rights.

From the second half of this book, we learn that God sometimes works through those in the highest positions of authority to bring about His will. He watches out for those who trust implicitly in Him, protecting, providing for and guiding them each step of the way. Even when we fail to keep His word, God is ready to forgive and restore those who humbly submit to Him.

Unless otherwise noted, all scripture quotations are taken from the New King James Version of the Bible—© 1982, by Thomas Nelson, Inc.