THE EXILES RETURN Ezra 1–6“Everyone whose heart God had moved—prepared to go up and build the house of the Lord in Jerusalem” (Ezra 1:5).The enthusiasm of those who returned to Judah was tested by hardship and by opposition from local peoples. Despite a long delay, the Jerusalem temple was rebuilt and God was again worshiped at the site He had chosen.
This time line relates events reported in Ezra with other postexilic events.
|Decree of Cyrus (Ezra 1:1–4)||538B.C|
|The first return (Ezra 1:5–2:70)||539B.C|
|Temple construction begins||536B.C|
|Opposition & Delay|
|Ministry of Haggai||520B.C|
|Ministry of Zechariah||520B.C|
|Events of Esther||483–473B.C?|
|Decree of Artaxerxes (Ezra 7:11ff)||458B.C|
|Return under Ezra||458B.C|
|Decree of Artaxerxes (Ezra 4:17ff)||446B.C|
|Decree of Artaxerxes (Neh. 2:1–8)||444B.C|
A decree of Cyrus permitted the Jews to return to Judah and rebuild the Jerusalem temple (1:1–11). Ezra listed the returning families (2:1–70). They rebuilt the altar (3:1–6) and laid the temple foundation (vv. 7–13). Ezra quoted letters documenting opposition to the Jews (4:1–5:17) and the decree of Darius authorizing the temple completion (6:1–12). The task was completed (vv. 13–18) and Passover celebrated once again (vv. 19–22).
Understanding the Text
“In order to fulfill the word of the Lord” Ezra 1:1–4. Jeremiah had predicted the Captivity would last 70 years (Jer. 25:11–12; 29:10). Isaiah, writing in the time of Hezekiah, had named Cyrus as the ruler who would fulfill God’s will (Isa. 45:1–5). The very year this Persian conqueror supplanted the Babylonian kings, he did issue a decree permitting the Jews to return home. The decree also authorized reconstruction of the Jerusalem temple! Josephus says that Cyrus read Isaiah’s prediction and was moved to fulfill it. It’s more likely this decree was one of many similar orders issued by Cyrus, who reversed the Babylonian policy of deportation, and permitted all captive peoples to return home. The prophecy of Isaiah, and the action of Cyrus, remind us that God is sovereign. He controls the fate of nations, and all history moves toward ends which He alone has determined. The One we worship truly is God. “Everyone whose heart God moved” Ezra 1:5–2:70. While some 50,000 Jews turned their hearts toward home, many more thousands chose to remain in Babylon. The Captivity had not been harsh: recovered records show that Jews, who were settled in an attractive district by the Kebar canal, were successfully involved in trade and business in the enemy capital. Why go back to face hardship, when life was easy in Babylon? Only those whom God moved to complete commitment would make the difficult choice. Those who stayed were comfortable. But they missed out on so much. The names of the returnees are enshrined in Scripture. And only those who returned witnessed the restoration of God’s temple and worshiped there. How important to keep our hearts open to the Lord, so that if He calls us to a special place of service we will be willing to respond. “With praise and thanksgiving they sang to the Lord” Ezra 3:1–13. Those who returned to Judah found a desolate land. Thorns and thistles choked once-fertile fields, while Jerusalem was a heap of ruins. How hearts must have fallen as the enormity of the task before the returnees was driven home. Yet as soon as the people settled in their towns, they reassembled at Jerusalem. There they rebuilt the altar, roughed out the foundations for the new temple, and praised God. The greater our difficulties, the more important it is to put God first. When we do we, like those in ancient Judea, find our hearts also filled with joy and praise. “The enemies of Judah” Ezra 4:1–5:17. Judah was a tiny area within a larger administrative district of the Persian Empire. Neighbors in what had once been Israel at first offered to help build the temple. The offer was rejected: they were not members of the covenant people descended from Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. The rebuff hardened local antagonism, which developed into active opposition. This opposition, with the difficulty faced by the returnees in scratching a living from ruined fields, halted construction of the temple. The letters in these chapters are written in Aramaic, the diplomatic language of that age, rather than in Hebrew. Ezra clearly quotes material available to him in the Jerusalem archives. Note too that the letters do not all date from the early return. What Ezra has done is to draw evidence from material written over a span of many years to document the fact that God’s people faced serious opposition. We too can expect opposition at times. Hostility from outsiders is no sign that God has abandoned us, but may in fact suggest that we are doing exactly what God wants! “A decree concerning the temple of God” Ezra 6:1–12. In the end King Darius confirmed the order of his predecessor, Cyrus. Not only was the temple to be rebuilt, but the very officials who had opposed it were ordered to pay all construction expenses from the royal treasury! The God of the Old Testament truly is sovereign. Men may plot against His people, but God’s plans will be carried out. “Then the people of Israel . . . celebrated the dedication of the house of God with joy” Ezra 6:13–22. There had been years of struggle and discouragement. But at last the temple was finished. By showing his ability to “change the attitude” of the ruler of the empire that supplanted ancient Assyria, God had “filled them with joy.” God is still at work, even in the lives of our enemies. The wait may be long, but God can still change attitudes, and fill us with joy too.
Where Will the Money Come From? (Ezra 6)
I suppose it’s one of our most common worries. We need to build an addition on the church. But where will the money come from? I’d like to go to seminary. But where will the money come from? I wish I could help that missionary. But where will the money come from? I feel God wants me to go into nursing. But where will the money come from? The same question was surely asked in ancient Judah as the people considered finishing the temple. The Prophet Haggai described the desperate conditions of that time: “You have planted much, but have harvested little. . . . You earn wages, only to put them in a purse with holes in it” (Hag. 1:5–6). How could a destitute people, struggling to make ends meet, ever raise the funds necessary to complete God’s temple? In his message urging Judah to give priority to God’s temple, the prophet makes this statement. “ ‘The silver is Mine and the gold is Mine,‘ declares the Lord Almighty” (2:8). How the people of Judah must have struggled. They were convinced they must complete the temple. But where would the money come from? And then the decree of Darius, in response to the challenge raised by Judah’s enemies, arrived. There, with the permission to rebuild, were the words, “The costs are to be paid by the royal treasury” (Ezra 6:4). The endless wealth of one of the world’s mightiest empires was suddenly made available to God’s poverty-stricken people. The incident teaches us an important lesson. “Where will the money come from?” is an important question. But not knowing should never deter us from acting if we are sure of God’s will. The message from God that Haggai shared so long ago is still true. The silver is the Lord’s. And the gold is the Lord’s. When we commit ourselves to do His will, the Lord will provide.
Lack of funds cannot keep us from doing God’s will.