Rebuilding, opposition, joy, and...fulfillment?
Last week, Mike introduced us to the book of Ezra.
He gave us a bit of a history lesson, going through the timeline of events and kings leading up to the exile, and gave us some of the context into which Ezra fits.
And then he went over the first two chapters of Ezra. The book picks up exactly where Chronicles leaves off. Ezra has an introduction that matches word-for-word the conclusion of Chronicles, with a decree from King Cyrus of Persia that the people of Israel should return to Jerusalem and rebuild their temple for Yahweh.
The rest of the first two chapters is basically a chart. It’s a documentation of everyone who returned from Babylon to Jerusalem. Now, remember Jerusalem was the capital of the Southern kingdom after the split, so it was the Southern tribes who were originally deported from Jerusalem to Babylon by King Nebuchadnezzar. So it’s those same, Southern tribes who return. Do you remember what two tribes those were? It was the tribes of Judah, & Benjamin. And
documents all the people from those tribes who chose to return, along with all the gold and silver and other loot that was given to them as they left.
Today, we’re going to pick up in chapter three. And we’re going to cover a lot of ground today, all the way through chapter six. So if you want to follow along, I encourage you to find your place in Ezra chapter 3. We won’t be reading every verse together, just some key passages, and I’ll try to summarize the rest, but you can kind of skim the context as we read.
But before we dive in, I want to point out a few key characters that have been introduced, just as a reminder, because they play important roles throughout the story.
First of all, who’s the main character of this book? It’s the book of Ezra, so…who can we expect to play a very central role in this book? Why, Ezra, of course!
Well, Ezra IS the most central character of Ezra, however he actually hasn’t been introduced yet in the first 2 chapters. In fact, we won’t meet him in chapter three either, or in chapter four, or in chapter five, or in chapter six! In the book of Ezra, the person of Ezra is not even introduced until chapter seven! So, the first six chapters are really almost like a prelude, or a preface to the rest of the story.
So, if Ezra isn’t one of the key characters yet, who is?
First of all, of course you have King Cyrus. That’s an important name to remember. He’s the King of Persia who issued the decree that the temple of Jerusalem should be rebuilt, and that the Jewish exiles in Babylon should return to their homeland in Judah.
Next, there are some Israelite leaders named, in Ezra chapter 2. Chapter 2 has a list of numbers of men from various ancestors, but it starts by first listing a number of key leaders. Let me read just the first two verses again for you:
Ezra 2:1–2 CSB
1 These now are the people of the province who came from those captive exiles King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon had deported to Babylon. They returned to Jerusalem and Judah, each to his own town. 2 They came with Zerubbabel, Jeshua, Nehemiah, Seraiah, Reelaiah, Mordecai, Bilshan, Mispar, Bigvai, Rehum, and Baanah. The number of the Israelite men included
So, verse 2 has this list of specific men, and some of these names might sound familiar. Any stand out to you?
The first two, Zerubbabel and Jeshua, are the ones we’ll see come back up most significantly. But there are two other names that you may have seen or heard before.
How about Nehemiah? Yeah, that’s the name of the next book (actually Ezra-Nehemiah was originally one book), and Nehemiah is a very important person in the book of Nehemiah, BUT that’s a totally different guy. The Nehemiah in Ezra is a different guy than the Nehemiah in Nehemiah.
How about Mordecai? Where else do we see that name? There’s a pretty important character named Mordecai in the story of Esther! But again, it’s a different Mordecai. So I just wanted to clarify that when you see those two names, don’t get too excited, because they aren’t actually the same people you might first think of.
As for the rest of the names, they’re all just prominent leaders, representing the returning exiles and their various history and ancestry. But again, the first two stand out as especially prominent.
Zerubbabel and Jeshua. You’ll see those names again a few times. Usually you’ll see them both mentioned together, and it’s worth taking notice of who they are and why they’re significant.
Zerubbabel was the grandson of Jehoiachin. Jehoiachin was the last king of Judah before Jerusalem was destroyed by Babylon. So, Zerubbabel is a crucial tie-in to the line of David, and in fact you’ll find Zerubbabel listed in the genealogy of Christ, in Matthew chapter 1. So he’s definitely important, in terms of being the grandson of the last king to have any power in Jerusalem. He was a descendant of king David, and an ancestor of the Messiah. So it’s significant that he’s going to have a role in reestablishing Jerusalem, and the rebuilding of the temple.
His name is also interesting. Notice the second half is “Babel” or “Bavel.” That’s the Hebrew word for “Babylon.” “Zeru” means “seed” and “Zeru-b-Babel” means, literally “Seed in Babylon.” So, you could take that to mean either “planted in Babylon” or “descendant of Babylon” and either way, refers to the fact that he was born and raised during the exile, in Babylon. He never lived in Jerusalem, so although he was “returning to his homeland” he was actually leaving the only home he ever knew, and willfully transplanting himself into a new home, not where he was born, not where he was planted, but the home of his ancestors.
And that in itself is a reminder that this was true for a great many of those who moved to Jerusalem. We refer to this event as the “return home” from exile. And some of the older people, who were young when they left, could remember Jerusalem being home. but for many, this was NOT a return “home” … it was the “home” of their grandparents, but they had never personally experienced that place as “home.”
Zerubbabel was one of the most important leaders at that time, and he represents, even in his name, those who were born in Babylon but who chose to move to Jerusalem to rebuild what was destroyed in their grandparent’s day.
So that’s Zerubbabel. Grandson of the last king in Jerusalem.
Jeshua is the other one, also significant for his ancestry. He was the grandson of the last high priest in Jerusalem. And you’ll see him become the first high priest to serve after the exile.
His name is interesting, too, because of the other “Jeshua’s” in the Bible. “Jeshua” or “Yeshua” is an alternative spelling of “Joshua” or “Yoshua.” So it’s the same name as Joshua, who took Moses’s place and led the Israelites into the promised land. And it’s the same name given to the Messiah. “Yeshua” is the Hebrew name that became “Jesus” through the Greek and Latin. So I’d say it’s a fairly significant name, and it’s interesting that the first high priest after the exile had this name.
Together, with Zerubbabel and Jeshua, you have the grandsons of the last king and last high priest of Judah before Jerusalem was destroyed, so it’s significant to have those men, with such strong ties to their past, now in positions of authority again in Jerusalem.
Now that we know the key players, we enter chapter 3. This chapter gives us the details of what these leaders did, and what the people did, once they arrived in Jerusalem. Remember, this was NOT a short trip from Babylon!
Ezra 3:1–6 CSB
1 When the seventh month arrived, and the Israelites were in their towns, the people gathered as one in Jerusalem. 2 Jeshua son of Jozadak and his brothers the priests along with Zerubbabel son of Shealtiel and his brothers began to build the altar of Israel’s God in order to offer burnt offerings on it, as it is written in the law of Moses, the man of God. 3 They set up the altar on its foundation and offered burnt offerings for the morning and evening on it to the Lord even though they feared the surrounding peoples. 4 They celebrated the Festival of Shelters as prescribed, and offered burnt offerings each day, based on the number specified by ordinance for each festival day. 5 After that, they offered the regular burnt offering and the offerings for the beginning of each month and for all the Lord’s appointed holy occasions, as well as the freewill offerings brought to the Lord. 6 On the first day of the seventh month they began to offer burnt offerings to the Lord, even though the foundation of the Lord’s temple had not yet been laid.
Notice that they show a commitment to offering sacrifices as prescribed. They are doing things according to the covenant terms established through Moses. And they’re so commited to doing things right this time around, that they do it in spite of being afraid of how their neighbors might react.
Also notice that this was the FIRST thing they did! The offered sacrifices to God. Mike pointed out that this passage and the Exodus are not means to be parallel types, however in both the Exodus and the Return the goal was to worship God. Pharaoh - let my people go that they may worship Me; Cyrus - go and worship your God.
Now, this is not the main point of this passage, but it a good reminder that when it comes to following God, and doing the right thing, it’s not always a cake-walk! And when circumstances are difficult, daunting, and scary, the presence of fear or anxiety does not necessarily indicate a lack of faith. What truly demonstrates your faith is how you respond, and how you act in the midst of that fear and anxiety. Jesus is proof of this; In the garden of Gethsemane he demonstrated his faith in the Father, and his submission and commitment to following the will of the Father, even in the midst of agonizing stress and the anticipation of how he knew he must suffer.
So far in Ezra, the Israelites are also doing pretty well in demonstrating faith that ultimately results in a fear of Yahweh that is greater and more profound than their fear of their neighbors.
Does our worship precede our activity for God or does our activity for God precede our worship? Though they are connected, it is possible to do the work of God without the worship of God.
Let’s keep reading:
Ezra 3:7–13 CSB
7 They gave money to the stonecutters and artisans, and gave food, drink, and oil to the people of Sidon and Tyre, so they would bring cedar wood from Lebanon to Joppa by sea, according to the authorization given them by King Cyrus of Persia. 8 In the second month of the second year after they arrived at God’s house in Jerusalem, Zerubbabel son of Shealtiel, Jeshua son of Jozadak, and the rest of their brothers, including the priests, the Levites, and all who had returned to Jerusalem from the captivity, began to build. They appointed the Levites who were twenty years old or more to supervise the work on the Lord’s house. 9 Jeshua with his sons and brothers, Kadmiel with his sons, and the sons of Judah and of Henadad, with their sons and brothers, the Levites, joined together to supervise those working on the house of God. 10 When the builders had laid the foundation of the Lord’s temple, the priests, dressed in their robes and holding trumpets, and the Levites descended from Asaph, holding cymbals, took their positions to praise the Lord, as King David of Israel had instructed. 11 They sang with praise and thanksgiving to the Lord: “For he is good; his faithful love to Israel endures forever.” Then all the people gave a great shout of praise to the Lord because the foundation of the Lord’s house had been laid. 12 But many of the older priests, Levites, and family heads, who had seen the first temple, wept loudly when they saw the foundation of this temple, but many others shouted joyfully. 13 The people could not distinguish the sound of the joyful shouting from that of the weeping, because the people were shouting so loudly. And the sound was heard far away.
So now we have, under the leadership of Zerubbabel and Jeshua, the laying of the foundation of Yahweh’s temple. The building of the rest of the temple itself, the walls and everything in it, hasn’t even begun, they’ve just finished building and repairing the foundation. And yet that alone was cause for tremendous, LOUD celebration! It was the mark of a new beginning; the dawn of a new age. In fact, historians today still refer to this whole era of time, from Ezra to the time of Christ, as the “Second Temple Period.” A lot of influential study and writing was done by Jewish scholars during this time.
With the joyful people celebrating, you have a recognition of this hope, a renewed energy and the light of a new dawn. But verse twelve also points out a contrasting group of people. The older folks, who are old enough to remember the former glory and everything that was lost. They couldn’t help but see what was missing, and how far they still had to go if they ever were to truly be restored to what they once were. It’s another reminder of that variety of perspectives and mix of emotions that were swirling around in Jerusalem at this pivotal moment.
Let’s keep reading, picking up at the beginning of chapter four:
Ezra 4:1–5 CSB
1 When the enemies of Judah and Benjamin heard that the returned exiles were building a temple for the Lord, the God of Israel, 2 they approached Zerubbabel and the family heads and said to them, “Let us build with you, for we also worship your God and have been sacrificing to him since the time King Esar-haddon of Assyria brought us here.” 3 But Zerubbabel, Jeshua, and the other heads of Israel’s families answered them, “You may have no part with us in building a house for our God, since we alone will build it for the Lord, the God of Israel, as King Cyrus, the king of Persia has commanded us.” 4 Then the people who were already in the land discouraged the people of Judah and made them afraid to build. 5 They also bribed officials to act against them to frustrate their plans throughout the reign of King Cyrus of Persia and until the reign of King Darius of Persia.
Alright, so two things happened here.
First, we’re told that Judah and Benjamin’s “enemies” - exactly who they are is not specified - heard about the temple being rebuilt, and came to help. They came to the Jewish leaders and said “Hey! We’ve been worshiping and sacrificing to your God ever since we got here, let us help you!” But Zerubbabel, Jeshua, and the other leaders said “Nope! You have no part with us.” And they actually referred to the decree of Cyrus as a kind of justification for their reply. They said “Well, Cyrus commanded US to rebuild the temple, not you guys, so we’re just following the decree of the king of Persia, it’s not our fault!”
And so, they rejected the help of their neighbors.
The second thing that happened is presented as a direct result of the first: those people who were rejected then react by discouraging the building efforts. They threaten the Jews, bribe officials, and frustrate their plans. Now, the people are too afraid to build. This statement seems to be a stark contrast to their faith in the midst of fear in the last chapter, doesn’t it?
This passage is fascinating! It states some simple facts as to what happened. The basic dialogue and decisions and outcomes. What it doesn’t offer is any straightforward commentary as to the justification or condemnation of their actions. This narrative is offering primarily a historical account of what happened, not a moral commentary. But we can make some observations about what happened.
Many scholars come to the conclusion that because they are referred to as “enemies” in verse 1, and eventually go on to oppose the building of the temple, then those people who wanted to help must have really come with ulterior motives. Or perhaps, though they probably did worship Yahweh, they probably also worshipped other gods, and would have corrupted the holiness of the temple and been a trap for the Jews, causing them to mess up in all the same ways their ancestors did.
It’s entirely possible that this was in fact the motives the Jewish leaders had behind rejecting their enemy’s help. Maybe they were just trying to keep themselves pure and avoid the pitfalls of their haunted past.
The thing is, the passage doesn’t reveal the motives of either side. It’s not clear whether or not there were ulterior motives in those who wanted to help, and it’s not clear exactly what the Jews’ motives were for rejecting them.
But one thing I couldn’t help notice was the reason they did give when turning them away was NOT an appeal to the torah, or any other commandment or direction from Yahweh. Why not? If these people claimed to worship Yahweh, then surely if there was some commandment from Yahweh prohibiting them from helping to build the temple, then the Jewish leaders could simply appeal to that commandment, and since they all claimed to follow Yahweh, they would have to accept it!
But no, what did they appeal to? The decree of Cyrus! The authority of Persia. And that’s exactly what their enemies then used against them in retaliation. They were able to manipulate Persian authorities against the Jewish efforts, effectively forcing them to stop building for an extended period of time.
Isn’t that interesting? At first glance, we might be quick to praise Zerubbabel and Jeshua and the others for maintaining segregation in their efforts to be holy and faithful, and yes they appealed to the authority of Cyrus rather than the authority of God, but maybe they just thought that was a clever, diplomatic option to let them down easy? Maybe…but it’s definitely complicated, and I think it’s worth pondering the results of all this.
Because, regardless of the motives of anyone involved, the end result presents some problems. I think this turn of events should create a somewhat unsettled feeling, like something just isn’t quite right. Even though they’ll eventually finish the building, this little encounter sets an interesting precedent, and establishes a pattern, and if you pay attention, it will be clear that there’s something not quite right with the whole picture.
We’ll come back to that idea in a few minutes.
In the meantime, we have to talk about the rest of chapter four. This whole section is a sort of parenthetical that goes into some of the drama of the back-and-forth between Persian kings, the Jews, and the people opposed to the Jews.
We’re not going to read through it all together, just for the sake of time, but it’s juicy! If you like the drama and intrigue of political sabotaging and power plays, then you should totally dive into this on your own, it’s fascinating how both sides try to use the same authorities and decrees against each other, it’s like a courtroom drama!
On the other hand, I have to warn you that if you’re a fan of timelines and chronological storytelling, then Ezra chapter 4 is not for you! Remember that sometimes biblical writers were not as concerned with presenting a chronological storyline as they were with presenting themes and ideas in a way that clearly communicates the message of the story.
Ezra 4:5 leaves off with “until the reign of Darius” and 4:24 picks up with until the second year of the reign of King Darius of Persia. So it’s pretty seamless if you skip from verse five to verse twenty four, but verses 6-23 document a series of letters, and make references to kings who came after Darius.
That doesn’t mean that the writer of Ezra was confused, or that we can’t take this to be historically accurate. Ancient Jewish writers were certainly concerned with historical accuracy, however they did have different methods and traditions of storytelling than we are used to in our culture. We’ve talked about this before, and Ezra is not unique in this regard, it’s just one of the many reminders that reading the Old Testament is a cross-cultural experience.
So with all that said, we’re going to skip forward to chapter 5 to highlight a key passage. Chapter 4 ended with that little bookend, or the closing parenthetical:
Ezra 4:24–5:5 CSB
24 Now the construction of God’s house in Jerusalem had stopped and remained at a standstill until the second year of the reign of King Darius of Persia. 1 But when the prophets Haggai and Zechariah son of Iddo prophesied to the Jews who were in Judah and Jerusalem, in the name of the God of Israel who was over them, 2 Zerubbabel son of Shealtiel and Jeshua son of Jozadak began to rebuild God’s house in Jerusalem. The prophets of God were with them, helping them. 3 At that time Tattenai the governor of the region west of the Euphrates River, Shethar-bozenai, and their colleagues came to the Jews and asked, “Who gave you the order to rebuild this temple and finish this structure?” 4 They also asked them, “What are the names of the workers who are constructing this building?” 5 But God was watching over the Jewish elders. These men wouldn’t stop them until a report was sent to Darius, so that they could receive written instructions about this matter.
When they did start building again, we know they were doing the right thing, because the prophets of God were with them, helping them, and in verse 5 it specifically says that God himself was watching over the Jewish elders. As is true in any case, in any situation, it was ultimately by the grace of God and through the power of God, that the will of God was accomplished.
But they were still met with opposition, even as they worked. This wasn’t the first obstacle they faced, and it wouldn’t be their last, and yet they were clearly doing God’s will. And this is just a great reminder that when God tells us to do something, and we encounter obstacles, or so-called “closed doors,” those aren’t invitations from God to simply give up, or messages signaling that he’s changed his mind. If we are working with God, then we can trust him to overcome any obstacle, because his will is sovereign, and his work will be accomplished
And God did allow them to keep building. But it was after some interesting back-and-forth that we read in chapter 5.
Tattenai, a nearby governor, approached the Jews and said, basically “Who said you could do this? And give me the names of everyone doing this.” Again, we’re not explicitly told his motives, but it does seem like he was trying to get them in trouble! At the very least, he wanted to make sure they were legit, and therefore created a whole layer of bureaucratic red tape for them to get through. But they put together a full report, and Tattenai sent it to Darius, with the Jew’s full reply. And their reply, I won’t read the whole thing, but it boils down to “our ancestors built this a long time ago, Nebuchadnezzar destroyed it, but King Cyrus issued a decree that said we could come back and rebuild it.”
At this point, it’s worth mentioning that in the Persian empire, it was law that any decree from a king could never be overturned. That’s a fact that both sides kind of use in their favor, and it’s a detail that comes up again in the book of Esther as well.
So the Jews appealed again to the decree of Cyrus, and invited Darius to search the archives in order to prove it.
In chapter 6, Darius indeed gave the order to conduct a search for the decree, and they eventually found it. And it said exactly what the Jews claimed it did, so Darius then issued his OWN decree, which really backfired on Tattenai, if in fact he was hoping to stop them.
Ezra 6:6–13 CSB
6 Therefore, you must stay away from that place, Tattenai governor of the region west of the Euphrates River, Shethar-bozenai, and your colleagues, the officials in the region. 7 Leave the construction of the house of God alone. Let the governor and elders of the Jews rebuild this house of God on its original site. 8 I hereby issue a decree concerning what you are to do, so that the elders of the Jews can rebuild the house of God: The cost is to be paid in full to these men out of the royal revenues from the taxes of the region west of the Euphrates River, so that the work will not stop. 9 Whatever is needed—young bulls, rams, and lambs for burnt offerings to the God of the heavens, or wheat, salt, wine, and oil, as requested by the priests in Jerusalem—let it be given to them every day without fail, 10 so that they can offer sacrifices of pleasing aroma to the God of the heavens and pray for the life of the king and his sons. 11 I also issue a decree concerning any man who interferes with this directive: Let a beam be torn from his house and raised up; he will be impaled on it, and his house will be made into a garbage dump because of this offense. 12 May the God who caused his name to dwell there overthrow any king or people who dares to harm or interfere with this house of God in Jerusalem. I, Darius, have issued the decree. Let it be carried out diligently. 13 Then Tattenai governor of the region west of the Euphrates River, Shethar-bozenai, and their colleagues diligently carried out what King Darius had decreed.
To sum it up, Darius said, first of all: “Tattenai, go away and leave them alone!” But not only that, the region where Tattenai was governor had to pay and contribute to the work they were doing.
And just in case anyone is thinking of interfering, the penalty for doing so would be getting impaled on a beam torn from his own house, and his house will be made into a garbage dump. Whew! Let me tell you, Persians really had a thing for dramatic penalties. Again, we’ll see more of that in Esther!
As we come to the end of chapter 6, starting in verse 14, we find that they do finally finish building the temple:
Ezra 6:14–22 CSB
14 So the Jewish elders continued successfully with the building under the prophesying of Haggai the prophet and Zechariah son of Iddo. They finished the building according to the command of the God of Israel and the decrees of Cyrus, Darius, and King Artaxerxes of Persia. 15 This house was completed on the third day of the month of Adar in the sixth year of the reign of King Darius. 16 Then the Israelites, including the priests, the Levites, and the rest of the exiles, celebrated the dedication of the house of God with joy. 17 For the dedication of God’s house they offered one hundred bulls, two hundred rams, and four hundred lambs, as well as twelve male goats as a sin offering for all Israel—one for each Israelite tribe. 18 They also appointed the priests by their divisions and the Levites by their groups to the service of God in Jerusalem, according to what is written in the book of Moses. 19 The exiles observed the Passover on the fourteenth day of the first month. 20 All of the priests and Levites were ceremonially clean, because they had purified themselves. They killed the Passover lamb for themselves, their priestly brothers, and all the exiles. 21 The Israelites who had returned from exile ate it, together with all who had separated themselves from the uncleanness of the Gentiles of the land in order to worship the Lord, the God of Israel. 22 They observed the Festival of Unleavened Bread for seven days with joy, because the Lord had made them joyful, having changed the Assyrian king’s attitude toward them, so that he supported them in the work on the house of the God of Israel.
So the second temple of Yahweh was completed, and they dedicated it with a staggering amount of sacrifices, and with sin offerings for all twelve tribes of Israel. Remember, it was only two tribes who came to build the temple, and yet they offer sacrifices for all twelve tribes. And then they celebrated Passover and the Festival of Unleavened Bread together. These were celebrations of their original liberation from Egypt, symbols of their birth as a nation, and their celebration here commemorated a sort of rebirth for Israel. And it says that Yahweh made them joyful! Yahweh supported them and sustained them in their work, and gave them joy.
This was a beautiful moment for Israel! The dawn of a new age.
But, as much as this one scene is a positive one, remember how I mentioned earlier that there is something that should feel “off” about the whole picture that we see in Ezra-Nehemiah?
Yes, God brought the Jews back from Exile just as he promised through the prophets. And yes, God allowed them to rebuild his temple. And yes, eventually they would even be able to build up the walls of the city. All of the prophecies from Isaiah and Jeremiah of redemption and restoration were being fulfilled! Right?
Or were they?
The short answer is, well, yes and no! We’ll eventually see that in a variety of ways throughout the rest of the book(s). But for now, even with such a great start to the new temple, consider this:
The ultimate promise for the new temple and the new Jerusalem, would be that it would fulfill God’s promise to Abraham, to Moses, and to David, that Israel would bless all the nations, and that people from all over the earth would be streaming to God’s presence. And yet, we have in Ezra a celebration of Israel’s separation from the rest of the earth, the exclusion of their neighbors, and a seed of division that would transform their quest for holiness into hearts of hatred.
What’s more, we see a precedent set by the Jewish leaders that would, over the course of the next few hundred years, evolve into an even deeper attitude of exclusivity and legalism. Even if we assume that in Ezra, their intentions and motivations were perfectly good, eventually they got so caught up in their religious identity, that they totally lost sight of who God really wanted them to be.
OH, and by the way, we have the rebuilt temple that was promised, great! But what about this messiah guy, the anointed one, the savior and king who would restore Israel to former glory? Is Darius the messiah? Isaiah did call him a messiah. But he’s not a descendant of David! What about Zerubbabel? Well, he’s great and all but he doesn’t quite live up to the hype.
So, my point is that even with this joyous rebirth, and the celebration of the new temple, it’s only a partial fulfillment, a shadow of the promised kingdom. And eventually, with the return of oppression, and the absence of prosperity, the Jews realized that too, and if left them still yearning, still looking for that crucial, missing piece: the Messiah.