Session 33: Ezra and Nehemiah
“But now, for a brief moment, the Lord our God has been gracious in leaving us a remnant and giving us a firm place in his sanctuary, and so our God gives light to our eyes and a little relief in our bondage. Though we are slaves, our God has not forsaken us in our bondage. He has shown us kindness in the sight of the kings of Persia: He has granted us new life to rebuild the house of our God and repair its ruins, and he has given us a wall of protection in Judah and Jerusalem.” Ezra 9:8-9
“So we rebuilt the wall till all of it reached half its height, for the people worked with all their heart.” Nehemiah 4:6
Ezra--Key verses: 1:1-4; 3:2; 7:10; 9:8-12.
Nehemiah--Key verses: 2:11-20; 4:4-6; 6:15-16; 8:8-10
Key personalities: Ezra, Nehemiah, Zerubbabel, Sheshbazzar, Artaxerxes, Haggai, Cyrus, and Darius
Timeline: About 530-430 B.C. The Medes-Persians conquered the Babylonians, and the Spartans of Greece kept the fight and the legend of the 300. Esther is queen and saves the Jews. Persians build the first observatory. The Iron Age is the main reason for the vast armies; however, bronze is still in the majority of farming tools. The Greeks were at their pinnacle of power and influence with Socratic philosophy. They build the temple of Zeus, use carrier pigeons to communicate, reform economic and legal laws, write tragedy plays and poetry, build ships for exploration and the conquering of new lands. The Olmecs built Mexican pyramids, Darius finishes a canal from the Nile to the Red Sea (started by the Egyptians) that has taken 100 years to construct. 100 years later, Alexander the Great conquers the Euro-Western world, paving the way for Rome to grow.
The return from Exile! Israel is rebooted, gets a second chance (actually a hundred plus chances) to know God, love God, and follow His precepts to be a better, healthier nation that know Him and make Him known. This time, they do a better job. This is a harsh lesson learned that set up a nation for the Ultamlate Redeemer to whom all the Scriptures point.
The Books of Ezra and Nehemiah are about revival and reformation. They were originally written separately, but in the Hebrew canon, they are as one book that covers almost 100 years of Jewish history, as they describe the return of the Jewish people from their 70 years of exile. This is about God’s continual redemptive purpose in the midst of our sin, turmoil and pride. This time, God’s redemption is displayed in the return to the Promised Land after being captives in bondage in Babylon, and the how God’s promises are fulfilled as the people go home to restart their cultures, nation, rebuild Jerusalem, the city walls, and the Temple.
These two books show us the Hebrew history, written as a Narrative. Ezra, in 558 B.C., was a priest, and he takes the lead from Zerubbabel, who went back in 537 B.C., 80 years later. This is not the first to go back as only some of the exiles go back to rebuild the Temple. Ten years later, in 445 B.C., Nehemiah--a cup-bearer to King Artaxerxes-- gains his favor to take the rest of the captives and becomes the governor of Israel.
Because of the Hebew literary styles, most scholars conclude that Ezra wrote Ezra as well as 1 and 2 Chronicals.
Key Happenings: Restoration--God’s Redemption at work!
Cyrus’s overthrow. As Babylonians overthrew the corrupt Judah, it became corrupted and, by irony, in 539 B.C., they get plundered and taken over by Cyrus of the Persians. God works, and He worked in Cyrus’ heart to give the Jews back their land and provide what they needed (2 Chron. 36:22-23; Isa. 44:24-28; Ezra 1-4; Prov. 21:1).
Why the regime change? The Babylonians became corrupt drunkards; they were taken over and conquered by the Persians. Their final insult was violating God’s vessels from the Temple and the kingdom is torn away as Daniel warned them. The Babylonians like to take key people from their lands and place them in captivity to retrain them, to build loyalty and have control. The Persians took an opposite approach, they let the people return so they were grateful to gain their loyalty for power and control. Thus, by Ezra leading as the priest and Nehemiah’s role as governor, they led the people from captivity back to God’s promise (Dan. 5).
The Second Exodus, less spectacular than the first, but took about the same amount of time. The land sat, was dilapidated and plundered for 70 years, now slowly by waves of groups, the people return. Even after the long wait, there were over two million Jews and only 50,000 chose to obey God and come back under Zerubbabel; less than 1,900 came back with Ezra. These were the people who were committed to the cause and worked hard to rebuild Israel in the midst of war and problems with the people around them. The temple was burnt down, although most of its stones were still there: it had to be reconstructed with new wood beams and a great deal of labor (still not quite like Solomon’s). God was not daunted as purity of heart outweighed numbers of strength.
Zerubbabel. He was the son and successor of the last king, Johoiachin. He led the first group of free Jews back from Babylon, as the people were allowed to come back one group at a time. His name means 'offspring of Babylon,', and he was in charge of rebuilding of the Temple and appoints the Levites to be installed as priests with the rebuilding (1 Chron. 3:18; Ezra 1:8-11; 3:2-8; 4:2-3; 5:2, 14-16; Hag 1:12-14; 2:2; Zec. 4:6-10).
Ezra, meaning ‘God-helps’, was a faithful high priest, a Scribe, and knew the building needed to be restored, but would be of no use unless the people’s hearts and minds were restored to God. He made sure that the people knew it by Cyrus’ decree and favor that led them back, never forgetting that it was God’s Lordship and His redemption that was the real and main reason. He had to have a reformation and reintroduce the Torah, as the people came back with their pagan spouses and children who forgot about God and His Ways. He had to restore the law, train the priests and educate the people of the prescriptions and precepts of God’s Word (1: 2-4; 10:3-).
Nehemiah, means ‘Comforted by the LORD.’ He was the cup-bearer to the king Artaxerxes of Persia, 445 B.C., and he was a high official and had the king’s trust to ask for a bold move. After learning that the walls of Jerusalem were not rebuilt and fear for the lives of his people, he was grieved. He fasted, prayed reverently and passionately, and he asked God first, then the king, for permission to return and rebuild. Not only did he get to go, he also received soldiers, money, and a royal decree, too. He was able to defend the people from the Arabs and other hostiles; the group rebuilt the walls in 52 days, and he became its governor. He was a man of prayer with a heart after God and a heart for His people. He leaves an exalted position with the king and all its comforts and trappings to lead and live in a dilapidated land and rebuild not just the walls, but peoples’ heart to God. He restores Jerusalem as the central power of the region, opening up trade and political power, while continuing the spiritual restoration of the people to (Neh. 1:1-11; 2:1-6; 13:28-30).
Harassment. Those who returned were harassed by neighboring tribes, descendants of the remaining Jews who did not want God’s presence in their land. Even with the backing of the major power of the day and four Persian kings, the people had to rebuild with a tool in one hand and a sword in the other.
The Feast of Tabernacles or Booths, or Ingathering, Nehemiah 8, calls the people to recommit to God by reestablishing the feast days--this was celebrating how God led them through the desert for 40 years, providing for them as He continues to do today. This was held in the seventh month of Tishri (Sept./Oct.), which celebrated the end of the agricultural year that began five days after the Day of Atonement and lasted seven days. It marked the end of the harvest, and also commemorated the Jews' 40-year wanderings in the desert. During this festival, the Jews built and lived in booths or tents near the Temple/Tent Meeting in Jerusalem as a reminder of their ancestors, who wandered and lived in ‘booths’ to recommit themselves to God’s Law (the word Hebrew meant wanderer). It corresponds to our New Year's Day and was celebrated from morning to evening while various types of horns and trumpets were blown (Lev. 23:34-43; Num. 29:12-38; Duet. 16:13-15 Neh. 8:13-18; Col. 2:16-17).
The Restoration and Reformation. Ezra Chapters 9 and 10 calls the people to “covenant loyalty,” to renounce their sins and turn to God, or their restoration will be very temporary. He calls on them to stop their pagan ways of marrying of pagan women. They had to rebuild the temple and close their lives to be able to honor God appropriately. A warning was also given, as Cyrus granted the exiles permission to return, that God can easily change his mind.
The ‘seven’ is how small the people in Israel were after the captivity compared to their rebellious neighbors. This passage is also in a poetic stance and the Hebrew is much more clear than the English! For the Christian, this is also about how God restores and His plan of redemption is continual and ever so needed.
Many groups were established in this period to help keep the people of God on track. Like the main players Jesus encounters, the ‘Scribes’ copy the Torah and Writings and preserve them. The ‘Pharisees’ and ‘Sadducees’ came about 200 years later. The Pharisees started off great reforming the people back to God, the keeping of the Shabbat, keeping the law, and keeping the oral tradition and wrote it down as the Talmud. They are the spiritual fathers of modern Judaism and kept the Jews together over the centuries through many hard times. They believed in an afterlife and that Messiah will come to bring an era of world peace. However, by the time Jesus arrives, they lost their way. The Sadducees, a rival group, were elitists and gave a more liberal interpretation of the Law. The Sadducees wanted to maintain the priestly caste for control, personal power, and prestige; they rejected the Oral Laws and did not believe in an afterlife. They were fatalistic and did not inspire hope, and they will die out after the destruction of the Temple in 70 A.D.
These groups sought to reform. When they faltered, others rose up such as the ‘Essenes’ who also came about 200 years later. The Essenes wanted a deeper encounter with God and felt the other groups had become too traditional so they rebelled into a monastic life in the desert, adhering to strict dietary laws and to celibacy. They died out, too, but this group brought us the treasure that told of Jewish life in Jesus’ time, The Dead Sea Scrolls, discovered in 1947.
Key Takeaway: Ezra and Nehemiah for the Jews, then, were about courage and perseverance of a restored faith in the face of severe opposition. As they rebuilt the Temple, all of the apostate tribes and people living around them tried to stop them. This is the final period of the Old Testament, where God is setting up His people for the coming Messiah, the culmination of His plan and purpose. God’s plan of Redemption is at work as He restores His people back to their homeland, His Promised Land, they rebuild the Temple, establish synagogues and schools, so the Law, God’s precepts, and education is established so all can learn what it means to be a child of God. The story can continue. God’s decrees and love can be shown and sown, and the Jewish people remain as a cohesive group through today, for 2500 years from God’s hand and the vision to set it up right.
The foreshadow of Jesus Christ? Through each of these phases of Old Testament History, God is at work preparing His people for the great coming of the Lord and Savior, The Redeemer, Jesus Christ as the rebuilder of lives and faith. This is history, HIS story--His story of love, rebellion, sin, relationships, human emotions and pride showing our depravity and need for a Redeemer. Ezra and Nehemiah show us how to come before God in reverence and have a total dependence to Christ as LORD.
Questions to Ponder
- Have you ever considered your spiritual life like the broken down walls? How does God need to reconstruct you?
- Where and how do you see the Sovereignty of God in these two books?
- Where and how do you see God’s grace in these two books?
- How has God given you second changes? How does His grace help you know Him, love Him and follow His call?
- If you are a pastor, what do you notice about Biblical preaching? How can these ways help you become a better proclaimer of God’s true Truth?
- Have you ever had a spiritual rebuilding? What happened? What can you do to main your walls of faith?
- What do Ezra and Nehemiah tell us about God’s commitment to keep His promises? What does this say about His commitment to maintain a personal relationship with you? How does this give you hope and strengthen your faith?
- How does Ezra demonstrate a commitment to the Scriptures and God’s Truth?
- Why is holding onto God’s precepts so important? What happens when we do not?
- How is your faith a building process? What did you learn from these two books to ask God to hand you another brick?
- God’s continual redemptive purpose in the midst of our sin, turmoil and pride. What can you do to help wayward Christians who have given up by lives hurts?
- What is the format for success that Nehemiah has? Consider, he was grieved, so he fasted, passionately prayed and reverently went before God, then he asked the king. What does this do to help you?
© 2013 R. J. Krejcir, Ph.D. Into Thy Word Ministries www.intothyword.org