At A Glance
FrontLine • January/February 2007
A new year always carries with it the potential for a fresh start, a rededication to building (and in some cases, rebuilding) the work of God in your life. Ezra and Nehemiah are just such books of new beginning and (re)building. God had graciously brought His people through the long winter of captivity and opened a door for their return to the land of promise and blessing. Though books of ancient history, Ezra and Nehemiah testify to truth that is timeless, practical, “profitable for doctrine … reproof … correction … and instruction in righteousness,” and essential for the maturity of the most modern believer (2 Tim. 3:16, 17).
One of the most valuable lessons of history is that the basics — the nature of God and the nature of man — never change. “Secular history” is a misnomer, an oxymoron. All history is theological. History is the illustrated encyclopedia of the acts of God, a virtual branch of theology whereby God makes Himself known to any man who has eyes to see it and a Bible by which to interpret it. This is precisely what one discovers with the opening words of Ezra: “Now in the first year of Cyrus king of Persia [538 B.C.], that the word of the Lord by the mouth of Jeremiah [605 B.C.] might be fulfilled, the Lord stirred up the spirit of Cyrus king of Persia, that he made a proclamation throughout all his kingdom, and put it also in writing” (1:1). Kings and nations, dates and documents — these are the stuff of history. But here the purposeful plan and involvement of God are pushed unmistakably into the foreground. That is where the Book of Ezra begins.
Ezra is part historical, part autobiographical. In the first six chapters of the book that bears his name, Ezra records events that precede him by eighty years. He does not come into the story until chapter 7. Ezra divides into two major segments:
• Ezra 1–6: The First Return under Zerubbabel (538–516 B.C.)
• Ezra 7–10: The Second Return under Ezra (458–424 B.C.)
The events of Nehemiah, Ezra’s contemporary who returns in 445 B.C., also occur within the time frame of the last segment of the book of Ezra. This column will survey the first segment of Ezra.
Cyrus’s Decree and the Jews’ Return (Ezra 1–2)
1:1–4. Cyrus’s decree to permit the Jews to return to their homeland was not an isolated policy but a universal policy toward all expatriated refugees throughout the empire that he had just wrested from Babylon. Cyrus ordered that all the gods and temple paraphernalia confiscated by the previous rulers be returned to their original places of worship — accompanied by all the former captives who wished to return to their own homelands. From a purely historical perspective, the policy was both humanitarian and shrewdly politic, for it is “easier to control an empire full of contented subjects than discontented ones” (F. F. Bruce). Simultaneously, however, Cyrus’s policy was providential and prophecy-fulfilling. It is inviting to suppose that God “stirred” Cyrus’s heart to do something unique especially for His people. But the universality of Cyrus’ act — applying across the board to all conquered nations — in no way diminishes the evident providence behind it; it only enlarges it. God sometimes providentially prompts individuals to take decisions and actions that specifically benefit His people; but sometimes He orchestrates — mysteriously through the free and independent choices of men — wide-ranging policies that equally address the needs of His people and carry forward His purposes in the earth. (Think of the tax of Caesar Augustus that brought Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem for the birth of Messiah.)
1:5, 6. In fulfillment of Jeremiah’s prophecy (Ezra 1:1) and in answer to Daniel’s prayer (Dan. 9:1ff.), God providentially prompted individuals to freely fulfill His will. He “stirred up the spirit of Cyrus king of Persia” (Ezra 1:1) and prompted a select remnant, “whose spirit God had raised, to go up to build the house of the Lord which is in Jerusalem” (Ezra 1:5). This language of divine “stirring” corrects a popular notion that everyone who did not return to Judah was (at best) disobedient and out of God’s will or (at worst) unspiritual, materialistic, and perhaps even pagan. In addition to several other arguments against this misconception, the language of Ezra 1:5, 6 indicates that (1) God Himself did not prompt everyone to return, (2) those who remained behind materially assisted those who did return, and (3) those who remained behind were not necessarily disobedient for not returning. Some see an intentional theological point in this selective stirring. God, as if “to emphasize that He is not the God of the big battalions, stirred only a remnant of this remnant into action. This whittling down of numbers and power … is reminiscent of His way with Gideon’s army” (Kidner). In fact, He makes this point explicitly in the encouragements of Zechariah 4:6 (“not by might, nor by power, but by my spirit”) and 10 (“the day of small things”), later spoken to this very generation of returnees.
1:7–11. The largest segment of this introductory chapter on the return of Jewish exiles to Israel is devoted to the mention and enumeration of the temple vessels that were being returned to Israel along with the exiles. Why? If these verses seem to supply just another bit of tedious historical detail of little spiritual value or theological significance , you need to check your marginal cross references. The record of Jerusalem’s destruction includes detailed references to the systematic looting of the temple valuables (see 2 Kings 25:8– 17). And just as specifically as the record of their removal, God prophetically promises their recovery (see Jeremiah 27:19–22). In the historical context of Jeremiah 27 and 28, this prophecy served an immediate and practical function. The test of a true prophet was whether or not his predictions materialized exactly as predicted. Jeremiah warned his contemporaries not to listen to the false prophets. They insisted that Israel would not remain in servitude to Babylon (27:12– 15) and, to prove it, prophesied that the plundered temple vessels would soon be returned from Jerusalem (27:16–17). One false prophet named Hananiah even claimed that the Lord would bring back the temple vessels “within two full years” (28:1–4) as proof that He would deliver them from the yoke of Babylon. Jeremiah’s reply is stunning (28:5–17), and in the end it was his prophecies that were fulfilled. The details belabored in Ezra 1:7–11 vindicate the absolute reliability of God’s promises in His Word.
2:1–70. Like the details of 1:7–11, the list of the names and families of the first returnees does not reflect some Jewish preoccupation with genealogical tedium. Its function is to demonstrate “five ways in which Yahweh was faithful to His promise of restoration” by furnishing them with “legitimate leadership,” preserving them as “a covenant people,” returning them to their rightful inheritances, “[providing] for fellowship with them,” and granting “the necessary resources” for the return (David Shumate, “The Theological and Practical Value of the Name Lists in Ezra 2 and 8,” Biblical Viewpoint, November 2003).
Worship Restored in Jerusalem (Ezra 3)
For seventy years, the Jerusalem temple lay desolate, while weeds sprouted and wild animals found refuge in its ruins. Then the bronze altar was set up, worship was restored, the Feast of tabernacles was observed, and the foundation of the temple was laid. That’s when the opposition began in earnest.
Work Stopped by Opposition (Ezra 4)
Ezra is particularly instructive and remarkably modern in its insight into opposition strategies of the enemies of God’s purposes and people. Strategy 1 is deceptive infiltration — proposed cooperation (on basis of common ground) but with an ulterior motive (4:1–3). Strategy 2 is direct interference and harassment (4:4, 5); this continued “all the days of Cyrus [538–530 B.C.] … until [the second year of] the reign of Darius [520 B.C.].” The reader must jump from 4:5 to 4:24 to complete the immediate thought of harassment in building the temple. All the intervening material (4:6–23) is an extended parenthesis that telescopes forward to include later examples of the same kind of opposition during Ezra’s time (about seventy-five years later). Strategy 3, introduced in that parenthesis, is legislative intervention, characterized by intentional misrepresentation and mischaracterization (4:12), misinformation (4:13), disingenuousness (4:14), and inflated alarmism (4:16). These strategies are strikingly modern.
Work Resumed Despite Opposition (Ezra 5)
Just as God “stirred up” the spirit of a pagan king to issue a decree (1:1) and “stirred up” the hearts of a remnant of His people to return (1:5), God again “stirred up” the spirit of the leaders and the people to resume the work on the temple (Haggai 1:14). And He did it through the preaching of Haggai and Zechariah (5:1). Haggai and at least the beginning of Zechariah fit chronologically right between Ezra 5:1 and 2. God did not cause the harassment of their enemies to cease, but prospered the labors of His people in spite of it.
Opposition Reversed, Work Completed (Ezra 6)
Eventually, God providentially reversed the harassment of the enemies of His people. Their letter of warning and protest to Darius (5:6–17) actually produced the opposite effect. Darius’s reply (6:1–12) commanded them not only to refrain from hindering the Jews, but also to financially support the rebuilding of the Jerusalem temple by redirecting their tax revenues directly to the Jewish officials. As a result, the temple was completed and dedicated (6:13–18) and the Passover celebrated (6:19–22). Ezra 6:21 enunciates a principle of separatism that should govern the worship of every believer: “Separated … to seek the Lord God.” Both are essential for true worship and biblical separation. When we seek the Lord without being willing to separate from the defiling influences of the surrounding world, we betray a fundamental misunderstanding of God and His character. When we separate for its own sake without genuinely seeking the Lord, we become externalistic, legalistic, and petty. I don’t know which is worse, but I know neither is Biblical. We must have both.
Since all history is theological, all history is relevant to my life and yours. What timeless messages does Ezra 1 communicate to God’s people today? Here are two. (1) The precision and reliability of all of God’s words. What could have sounded more unlikely to an ancient Jew than that God would literally raise up a pagan king named Cyrus to deliver His people after exactly seventy years of chastisement and restore them back to their land along with the preserved treasures of the temple? What asyet- unfulfilled prophecies seem too unlikely to be fulfilled literally? The fleshing out of explicit prophecies in history furnishes God’s people of all ages certified reasons for clinging confidently to whatever promises and assurances God has made to us in the Bible regarding our origin, our destiny, our circumstances, or our future. (2) The remarkable providences God can employ to effect what He has said. These include God’s ability to work providentially in and through the free acts and choices of the most unlikely candidates (including even heathen kings and false prophets), and God’s ability to work providentially in and through His own people to pray, to obey, to follow, and to give in order to accomplish His words and purposes, however unlikely they may appear.
Dr. Layton Talbert teaches theology and apologetics at Bob Jones Seminary, Greenville, SC and is a Frontline Contributing Editor.
(Originally published in FrontLine • January/February 2007. Click here to subscribe to the magazine.)