December 15, 2015.
Daily Reading: Ezra 5-10.
Background: Ezra 1-4.
Concepts and Connections.
The rebuilding begins again: After a long period of cessation due to persecution, Haggai and Zechariah, prophets of the Lord, stirred up the Jews who had returned to Judah and Jerusalem to begin again rebuilding the temple. The two strong leaders, Zerubbabel and Jeshua take up the work that had been stopped under the reign of Artaxerxes I and continue it through the encouragement of the prophets. Similar to what had happened before, when the people of the province Beyond the River saw that the rebuilding of the temple had begun anew, they went and tried to stop it, asking who gave them permission to begin the work again. However, the Lord was with his people and the people of this provence were not able to stop the work right away, for they tried to do it they way they had done before and get the King of Persia to stop the work. Thus Tattenai, governor of the province Beyond the River, sent a letter to King Darius, who was now reigning, telling him that the Jews had begun to rebuild the temple. In the letter, he includes the testimony of the Jews, how they told him that the house was built long ago by a great king of Israel, destroyed because of their iniquity and commissioned to be rebuilt in the first year of King Cyrus by royal decree (see Ezra 1). Perhaps they didn’t believe that Cyrus would make such a decree, for they asked the king to look in the royal archives to see if Cyrus did indeed issue such a decree. If he hadn’t, this would have been good reason to suspect the Jews of planning a rebellion and make for an easy accusation.
Darius’ reply, finishing the temple and celebrating the Passover: After receiving Tattenai’s letter, Darius indeed makes a decree to search the archives in Babylonia to see if Cyrus made the decree that the Jews had claimed he had. The decree was found written on a scroll detailing Cyrus’ proclamation for the Jews to return to their land and rebuild the house of their God, paid for from the royal treasury. It was all true, down to the command to bring the vessels of the house that Nebuchadnezzar had taken to Babylon and return them to the temple in Jerusalem. When this archive was found, Tattenai’s plan completely backfired and instead of stopping the work, his letter actually enhanced the world. Not the providence of God here, as He takes something that is meant for harm and works it to do His will. Darius said that the enemies of the Jews were to leave them alone and allow them to build the house of their God, once again paid for from the royal treasury. They were to be given what ever they needed to complete the work and sacrifice to their God. Moreover, if anyone tried to change this decree, they were to be impaled on a beam from their own house. Thus, Tattenai and his accomplices were forced to carry out the king’s order, and the Jews prospered. Haggai and Zechariah continued to encourage and prophesy. In the sixth year of the reign of Darius, the house of the Lord was finished. Many sacrifices and sin offerings for the tribes of Israel were made at its dedication, and the priests and Levites were set in their divisions according to the Book of Moses (see Numbers 3-4). At the proper time, the returned exiles kept the Passover (see Exodus 12) and the feast of Unleavened Bread (see Exodus 13) for the first time since they had been taken into captivity. There was much joy in Jerusalem because of the blessing of God and how He had made them favorable in the sight of the king to finish the house of the Lord.
Artaxerxes’ (II) commission of Ezra: In this chapter we finally meet the author of this book, Ezra, a priest and scribe who was skilled in the Law of Moses and who had the hand of God on him. Apparently Ezra had a good relationship with Artaxerxes (note that this is Artaxerxes II, not the same as the ruler who stopped the building of the house of the Lord), perhaps even on a personal level, as the majority of this chapter contains a letter that is given from Artaxerxes to Ezra, highly praising and commending him. Artxerxes makes a decree that anyone of the people of Israel who offers freely to go back to Jerusalem with Ezra may return and restore the worship and service of the house of the Lord. He sends them in peace and good will, offering the royal treasury to help in any place they had need in their return to the Lord. Further, he commands that those of the province Beyond the River also give whatever was needed to the children of Israel during their return, up to a certain amount. He makes it unlawful to impose a tribute, custom or toll on anyone of the priests or Levites who are in service in the house of the Lord and even tells Ezra to appoint magistrates and judges to judge the people in the province Beyond the River who had given the children of Israel such a hard time in the rebuilding of the house of the Lord. Ezra is commissioned to teach the people the law and is given royal authority to lay judgment and sentence on any who do not keep the law. Thus, Ezra returned to Jerusalem with a group of exiles which we will see in the next chapter, and he say his heart to study the Law of the Lord, to do it and to teach the Lord’s statues and rules in Israel. He blesses the Lord for giving them so much favor in the sight of the king, and he took courage in the Lord his God.
Ezra’s return: As Ezra prepared for his return to Jerusalem with a group of exiles, the heads of the families and the number with them are listed who would return with Ezra. After reviewing the people and priests, Ezra noticed that there were none of the sons of Levi who were returning with them, so he sends for a group of Levites to accompany them on their return, and gathers a group of over 250. Ezra is ashamed to ask the king for protection along the journey home because he had already told him that the Lord would protect them against their enemies as they went along their way. Notice the faith and trust they put in the Lord here, as instead of asking for royal guards, the people fast and pray to the Lord their God for protection, and indeed He listened and answered their prayer. It is important to note that the people are finally trusting in God instead of in man, as they did just before they went into exile. To guard the offerings, Ezra sets 12 of the leading priests, each to guard a portion of the treasure they were bringing back with them. They went their way and finally came to Jerusalem, staying three days before setting the treasures in the house of the Lord and beginning to burn offings to the Lord. They delivered the king’s commission to those in the province Beyond the River (see previous chapter) and they aided the people in the house of God. What wonderful feeling it must have been for the exiles to finally have returned back home.
The problem of Israel’s intermarriage: After finally returning to Jerusalem, a problem is brought before Ezra by the officials- the people of Israel had intermarried with the inhabitants of the land, which was strictly forbidden by the Lord (see Exodus 34:11-16 and Deuteronomy 7:1-5). Ezra is appalled when he hears this news, and he tore his garment and pulled hair from his head and beard. The children of Israel were to keep the bloodline pure to keep from doing the abominations of the nations around them and to make way for the Messiah who was to come. As Ezra sat appalled, the people began to tremble at the words of God. Then Ezra arose at evening from his fasting and falls before the Lord in prayer. You can hear Ezra’s shame and guilt throughout this prayer, the guilt he feels for the people of God who have no obeyed the command of the Lord. He reminisces of the iniquity that had landed them in captivity. He praises God for the favor He has shown to His people to save a remnant, but expresses his shame in their breaking of the covenant even in the midst of the Lord’s favor. He notes that the people of God cannot even say a word, for the Lord had shown them mercy beyond what they deserved, yet they continued to break the covenant. He says that God had punished them less than their iniquities deserved to give them such a remnant. It seems that Ezra is so appalled that he doesn’t even know what can be done. At the end of his prayer he doesn’t offer excuses or even ask for forgiveness. He just sits humbly before the Lord, confessing their sin, stating that the children of Israel are before the Lord in their guilt, and none can stand because of it. It almost seems as Ezra has given up all hope.
Repentant hearts: As Ezra is praying, weeping and making confession before the house of God, a great assembly gathers and comes with a solution. They confess their sin and suggest to make a covenant with God to put away the foreign wives and children according to the Law. They tell Ezra to arise, be strong and carry out this task, and Ezra made the leading priests and Levites take an oath that they would do what they had said. Then he called an assembly of all the returned exiles to meet at Jerusalem in three days, lest they be banned from the congregation. When the assembly came, all the men of Judah and Benjamin, they say in the open square before the house of the Lord, trembling on account of the matter at hand and the heavy rain that was coming down. When Ezra addressed the assembly, he stated their sin, telling them they had broken faith in marrying foreign women, increasing the guilt of Israel. He tells them to make confession and but away their foreign wives, and the whole assembly agreed with Ezra and committed to doing just that. However, because of the nature of the sin and the rainy circumstances, they assembly said it wouldn’t be practical to remedy the situation in a matter of a few days, but rather set forth a plan to take care of the problem in an efficient manner. There were only a few who opposed the plan of repentance, but the great majority was committed to serving the Lord. Note the sincere and soft heart of the people here, which is not all that indicative of the people of Israel before exile. Nevertheless, they were ready to confess and repent, and do whatever necessary to make their paths right with God. Thus, over the course of the next few months, the people set out to put away their foreign wives and children, city by city, until the matter was complete. The last section in this chapter is a record of all the sons of Israel who had married foreign women.
Tomorrow’s Reading: Psalm 135-138.
Have a soft heart before the Lord.