June 30, 2015
Scripture and Commentary, July 1-4
Ezra 1, Matthew 1
Ez. 3, Philippians 1
Ezra is part of a section of the Old Testament that tells the history of Israel from creation to the Jews’ return to Jerusalem after the Babylonian Captivity. Genesis through Esther comprise this history. They are followed in the Bible by the books, often called, Wisdom Literature, consisting of Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Song of Solomon. The Wisdom Literature is followed by the Prophets, beginning with Isaiah and ending with Malachi.
Like all Scripture, Ezra is organised around the ideas it intends to teach, and the first part, consisting of chapters 1-7, gives a short history of the Jews since the day Cyrus of Persia issued a decree allowing the Jews to return home and rebuild the Temple. You will remember that Israel divided into two nations after the death of Solomon. One nation, made up of the ten northern tribes, retained the name Israel. The second nation consisted of the tribes of Benjamin and Judah, and was known as Judah. Israel suffered social and religious decline, and was eventually defeated by Assyria. The Israelites then largely adopted the ways and religions of their Gentile conquerors, and virtually lost their identity as the people of God. In the New Testament they are known as Samaritans. The Judeans, later known as "Jews," also experienced decline, and were conquered by the Babylonians in 586 B.C. They were forced to leave their homes and live in Babylon, thus, the era is known as the Babylonian Captivity, or Babylonian Exile.
By 538 the declining Babylonian Empire was conquered by Cyrus of Persia. The Babylonians followed a policy of removing conquered people from their homelands, and scattering them throughout the Empire. When Cyrus conquered the Babulonians, he began a goodwill campaign toward the nations the Babylonians had relocated. He allowed them to return to their homelands, even giving them financial and military aid. This had the desired effect of promoting loyalty toward him, for the newly freed peoples considered Persia their liberator rather than their conqueror. Ezra 1:1-4 records Cyrus’ degree to the Jews, and verses 5-11 record a group of Jews return to Jerusalem, which occurred in 536. Thus we see the hand of Providence guiding history and accomplishing the purpose of God. The point of this passage is not that Cyrus was a good ruler. It is not an object lesson in the principles of good leadership. It is that God is still working with His people to accomplish His purpose of Redemption. He created this world for the purpose of bringing all things together in Christ. Returning Judah to Jerusalem is another step toward the completion of this plan. Yes, there are other messages here, such as the enduring mercy of God, His unstoppable power to save, conversion, repentance, and faith. People in positions of power can certainly profit from the example of Cyrus. But the pervading message here is the unstoppable progress of the purpose of God. He will accomplish the purpose for which He created this world and called the Jews. He will not fail.
Chapter 2 lists those who make up the first wave of Jews returning to Jerusalem. Verse 64 gives the total as 42,360, but verse 65 add another 7,337 servants. So this is no small migration. Yet it is no military machine either, since a great number of the people are women, children, and servants. This is a very small and weak band of pioneers going into a dangerous wilderness. Their courage is admirable.
Chapter 3 records their arrival in Jerusalem. The devastation of the area must have been terrible, and the people decide to settle in Jerusalem. This is not only the “Holy City” but also, due to the partial remnant of the city wall, the most secure and defensible place in the land. Almost immediately they build an altar and reinstate the offerings and feasts required by the Law. This shows that their quest is much more than “freedom” or a sentimental desire for the “homeland.” They intend to revive the true nature and calling of Israel, and they get right to work. In a very short time they attempt to rebuild the Temple, which had been plundered and destroyed by the Babylonians in 586. As the work progresses, more people arrive from Babylon, including priests and Levites "to set forward the work of the house of the Lord" (3:8). Their labours result in the very admirable task of laying the foundation of the new Temple, a feat accompanied by much celebration, and a few tears (3:12-13).
Ez. 4, Mt. 2
Ez. 5, Phil. 2
The first chapter of the book of Ezra records the decree of Cyrus releasing the Jews from captivity in Babylon. In 536 B.C. the first of several groups of Jews leaves Babylon, This is recorded in Ezra 2.
Their arrival is not unnoticed by the people who now inhabitant the land. When the Jews were taken to Babylon, other peoples moved into the area. Some were local tribes who were traditional enemies of the Jews, even including the remnants of Israel and other Jews. It is also likely that people from places as far away as Egypt came to claim what was left of the land and resources of the once powerful Hebrew nation. These people do not want to give up their holdings to the returning Jews, and they become adversaries from the very start. In chapter 4, some of these adversaries ask to be allowed to help with the Temple, but are refused. These particular adversaries are descendants of Israelites who had intermarried with Gentiles. They had also diluted their faith with pagan ideas and worship. On the surface their appeal to help rebuild the Temple appears good, and the rejection of their offer by the Jews (Ez. 4:2) seems cruel and arrogant. But perhaps the Jews understand that watered down, adulterated religion has to be rejected, and to allow its practitioners to help rebuild the Temple is to invite their erroneous faith into it when completed. It was just that kind of religious compromise that brought the judgment of God upon the Jews in the first place, and they have no intention of returning to it at this time.
Rather than repenting of their sin and purging themselves of false religion, the adversaries begin to make trouble for the Jews (4:4-6), even making false accusations to the king that the Jews are preparing to mount a rebellion against Persia (4:8-16). Believing the accusation to be true, the Persians send an army to Jerusalem to stop the rebuilding of the Temple by force of arms (4:23-24).
Thus chapter 4 ends with another foreign army occupying Jerusalem and enforcing a halt to the Jews' plan to return to the Law and the Covenant of God. The Jews must be angry at this, but they must also have questions. Aren't they trying to obey God? Aren't they trying to do what the Bible commands? Why isn't God making it easy for them? Why does He allow yet another army in Jerusalem to stop their progress?
Most of us face similar questions every day. We try to obey God, but, rather than finding the way easy and our efforts rewarded with success, we often find it blocked by the armies of our enemies. Overcoming one obstacle reveals not a clear and easy road ahead, but more and greater obstacles. It may be that our thinking needs to change if we are going to continue with Christ rather than give up in despair. Many have adopted the popular view that the Christian life is a luxury ride through life. It is not. It is a constant struggle with the world the flesh and the devil. We must expect this if we are not to be disappointed. Remember that our reward is in Heaven, not on earth. Here we are merely pilgrims. Our homes and our rest is in Heaven.
As noted, the first seven chapters of the book of Ezra give a brief history of the Jews who return from Babylon in, and shortly after, 536 B.C. Forced by military action to stop work on the new Temple, the work languishes, and so does the zeal of the Jewish people (4:23-24). The Lord raises up prophets to call them back to their work. It is important to note here that their work is not to simply build a new Temple or re-instate the sacrificial system. Their work is to be the Covenant People of God, and to love Him above all else. The Temple is a symbol of this. It is a symbol of His presence with them. The sacrifices offered there are symbols of their devotion to Him and His acceptance of them. They also symbolise the coming of the Messiah, whose sacrifice will actually take away their sins. The Temple is the place where God meets His people, where He makes them whole and clean, where He forgives their sins, and where they come to be in the presence of God. So the Temple is an important place and it serves an important function in Jerusalem. It is a focal point of the Covenant, and to be forced to stop rebuilding it is a serious blow to the Jewish people.
Chapter 5 records the ministries of the prophets Haggai and Zechariah. The result of their ministries is the renewed determination of the governor and the High Priest to build the Temple (5:2). Chapter 5:6-17 is a copy of the letter sent by the Jews in Jerusalem to the new king of Persia explaining their loyalty to him and asking him to search his records for the decree of Cyrus allowing them to return to Jerusalem and rebuild the Temple.
If the Temple is a focal point and primary symbol of the Covenant of God, the zeal to rebuild it is the zeal to be God's Covenant People. The objective is not simply to rebuild an object of national pride or a religious building where they can do religious things. The intention is to return to their calling to be the people of God. It is this intention that God wants to keep alive in their collective hearts. It was their departure from the Covenant that brought the wrath of God upon them in 586. It was their dilution of the faith, along with their lack of sincerity that led them into other sins and caused God to allow the Babylonians to conquer them. The Babylonian Captivity was punishment for breaking the Covenant and rebelling against God. Now that they are back in Jerusalem, God wants them to return to the Covenant again. Thus, the Temple, as the focal point of their Covenant keeping, must be rebuilt.
Ez. 6, Mt. 3
Ez. 7, Phil. 3
Ezra is a book of history. Therefore, a look at what has transpired prior to today's reading in chapter 6, will greatly help us understand its message. Chapter 1 records the decree of Cyrus releasing the Jews from captivity in Babylon. In 536 B.C. the first of several groups of Jews leaves Babylon and arrives in Jerusalem. Almost immediately they attempt to rebuild the Temple, which was plundered and destroyed by the Babylonians in 586. In chapter 4, adversaries of Judah ask to be allowed to help with the Temple, but are refused. The adversaries are descendants of Israelites who had intermarried with Gentiles and diluted their faith with pagan ideas and worship. On the surface their appeal to help rebuild the Temple appears good, and the rejection of their offer by the Jews (Ez. 4:2) seems cruel and arrogant. But perhaps the Jews understand that watered down, adulterated religion has to be rejected, and to allow its practitioners to help rebuild the Temple is to invite their erroneous faith into it when completed. It was just that kind of religious compromise that brought the judgment of God upon the Jews in the first place, and they have no intention of returning to it at that time.
Rather than repenting of their sin and purging themselves of false religion, the adversaries begin to make trouble for the Jews (4:4-6), even making false accusations to the king that the Jews are preparing to mount a military attack on Persia (4:8-16). Believing the accusation to be true, the Persians send an army to Jerusalem to stop the rebuilding of the Temple by force of arms (4:23-24).
The Jews respond with an appeal to the king. By this time, Cyrus is dead and Darius the Mede rules the empire (5:5-17). Darius searches his records and finds the decree of Cyrus, which is restated in our reading for today, Ezra 6:1-12.
A major point of this passage is the need for truth in religion. The Jews could have welcomed the compromised faith into their midst. Their presence would have made the work easier, the city wealthier, and the congregation larger. Instead, the Jews refused to compromise. Why? The message of Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel told them the Babylonian Captivity was the judgment of God for compromising the faith. They did not want to endure such suffering again, so, for a while, they maintained the pure faith. The primary point of this passage is the great, irresistible power of God. God brings His work to completion in His own way and time. He does not need the wealth of people, or great numbers of them to accomplish His will. A small band of faithful believers is much more valuable to Him than great crowds who have compromised the truth. He raises up empires at His pleasure, and casts them down when He wills. Empires are no more of a hindrance to Him than a storm on the sea to our Saviour.
At long last the Temple is completed. God has brought His people back to their homeland, and enabled them to rebuild the Temple. This means the sins which brought His anger and caused their captivity are forgiven, and they are restored to God's favour. This is all accomplished by grace. It is God alone who brought them out of Babylon, and God alone who gave them zeal to build the Temple and persevere in its construction though enemies tried to stop their work. God's wonderful mercy and unstoppable providence are clearly seen in this passage. And if God accomplished His promises to the Jews with such power and faithfulness, we can trust Him to accomplish what He has promised us in Christ. We may meet with opposition, and our faith may be as weak as that of the Jews in this passage, but God will bring His work in us to completion by His own power. He cannot fail.
The people do their work with great joy. This includes not only the rebuilding of the Temple, but also its dedication and services. We may also do our service unto God with joy. Worship, prayer, the services of the Church, and the reading of the Scriptures can be a source of great joy to us. Let them not become burdens we must force ourselves to bear. Let them be meat and drink to our souls, as streams in the desert. "Let us learn to welcome holy ordinances with joy and attend on them with pleasure. Let us serve the Lord with gladness. Whatever we dedicate to God, let it be done with joy" (Matthew Henry)
The previous chapters of the book of Ezra have given a short history of those Jews who returned to Jerusalem from Babylon. Its primary purpose is to recount the events and circumstances leading to the completion of the new Temple. Chapter seven begins the history of the ministry of Ezra in the seventh year of the reign of Artaxerxes, king of Persia, or, 458 B.C. Ezra is shown to be a priest whose ancestry can be traced to Aaron, brother of Moses (1-5). He is also a ready scribe (7:6) who is educated in the law of God (theology), earnest of heart to keep the law as a Covenant child of God, and skilled in teaching the Scriptures to the people (7:7-10).
Ezra had not even been born when the first band of captives left Babylon for Jerusalem 78 years earlier in 536 B.C. His parents had remained in Babylon, where he had learned the Scriptures and the work of the priest. But his heart yearns to see the Jews dedicate themselves to keeping the Covenant of God, and, for this purpose, he is willing to sacrifice a promising career in a place of wealth, for the dangers and uncertainty of an impoverished and backsliding Jerusalem. And Jerusalem is backsliding. It has been 57 years since the Temple was completed, and most of the generation which worked on it have passed away. Their children and grandchildren are sinking back into the paganism that has plagued the Jews for so long and tried the patience of God to the point of allowing the Babylonian Captivity. Ezra is being sent by God to call the people back to God once again.
Verses 11-26 contain a copy of a letter sent to Ezra from the king of Persia. Verses 27-28 show the priest's joy that God has moved the king's heart to such kindness toward the Jews. In verse 28, Ezra gathers influential Jews together who will support and go with him on his mission to Jerusalem. It is ironic that the city which should have been the world’s greatest missionary, needs and receives missionaries from Persia.
Ez. 8, Mt. 4:1-16
Ez. 9. Phil. 4
Life has become good for the Jews in Babylon. Freed from their oppression, they have become productive citizens of the Empire, often rising to great heights in social and financial status. Living in Babylon offers many advantages. It is heavily defended, so the probability of conquest is remote. It is wealthy and offers many ways to make a very comfortable living, and it tolerates a relaxed approach to all religions, which appeals to many Jews. It is far removed from the demands and dangers of the frontier type of existence of those in Jerusalem. Yet, Ezra longs to leave it for the Holy City. He longs to call the people back to God, and help them re-establish themselves as the Covenant people of God. Having the letter from Artaxerxes, Ezra has gathered influential people who are prepared to go with him. On the shores of the River Ahava, as the pilgrims stop to take stock of their people and resources, a shocking discovery is made; no priests have come. No priests were willing to face the hardship and danger. No priests were willing to leave the comfort of well-paying synagogues in Babylon. No priests were willing to do what they are called to do, serve in the Temple in Jerusalem (8:15). By the grace of God this problem is solved, and 258 priests join the caravan for Jerusalem (8:18-20). The articles and money for the Temple is put into their care, and the caravan travels without military escort to Jerusalem (8:22).
Their entrance into Jerusalem is received with great joy. They and the people record the money and articles brought for the Temple (8:33) and a great day of worship is observed. It is noteworthy that the sacrifices are all given as burnt offerings and sin offerings. They are not eaten by the people, but devoured by the fire of the altar as symbols of faith, confession, and dedication to God.
Ezra finds the spiritual conditions in Jerusalem as bad as those in the pagan peoples around them. In fact, the Jews have joined themselves to the pagans “according to their abominations” (9:1).
As in many times before there is practically no difference between the Jews and the pagans. They act alike. They dress alike. They worship alike. It is no wonder then, that the Jews intermarried with the pagans.
The situation drives Ezra to his knees in prayer. He recalls the blessings and grace of God, and yet, in the short time they have been in Jerusalem they have gone from a dedication to being God’s Covenant people, to being as lost as the Gentile pagans. The closing words of chapter 9 express the essence of Israel’s sin and Ezra’s prayer: “behold, we are before Thee in our trespasses: for we cannot stand before Thee because of this.”