The Book Of Ezra
The first words of Ezra, whose name means "help", are identical to those ending the book of 2 Chronicles, thus emphasizing the continuity of the history. It was seventy years after the captivity that Cyrus made his decree that the temple at Jerusalem was to be rebuilt. Ezra was a scribe who records the history of the rebuilding, though he was not among the first captives to return to Jerusalem. This return was led by Zerubbabel (ch 1:2), whose name means "melted by Babylon," and it was some years later that Ezra led another group (ch. 7:6), during the reign of Artaxerxes. It was also during this reign that Nehemiah came to Jerusalem (Neh. 2:1). Ezra's ministry was connected with the house of God, while Nehemiah's activity was centered on the building of the wall.
THE CAPTIVES OF JUDAH LIBERATED (vv. 1-11)
When the Medes and Persians defeated Babylon, Darius the Mede was ruler, and not until Cyrus the Persian took the throne was liberty proclaimed to Judah. This was God's time, as He had foretold by Jeremiah (Jer. 25:12) and Isaiah (Isa. 44:28). The proclamation of Cyrus is definite and specific, that he was persuaded that the Lord God of heaven had commanded him to build a house at Jerusalem. It seems rather strange that a Gentile king would be so emphatic in thus speaking for God, but it is recorded that God Himself had stirred up the spirit of Cyrus (v.1).
He invited and encouraged God's people, the Jews, to return to Jerusalem with the object of building God's house there. Notice, he does not give any honor to the idols of Persia, but says of the God of Israel, "He is God" (v. 3). He also gave instructions to neighbors of anyone who was concerned about taking this journey to Jerusalem, to "help him with silver and gold, with goods and livestock, besides the freewill offerings for the house of God, which is in Jerusalem" (v. 4). This was not only a matter of liberating slaves, but enriching them. Thus Cyrus was rightly representing a God of grace.
This proclamation had positive effect on the heads of the fathers' houses of Judah and Benjamin and on priests and Levites, as well as others whose spirits God had moved. Of course, their number was small compared to the number who had been taken captive, but God is pleased with every response of faith to His working.
People in the vicinity of those who purposed to go were willing to help them as Cyrus had directed, giving them articles of silver and gold, goods and livestock and precious things, that is, things of special value (v. 6). This shows at least that those so exercised to go to Jerusalem had not incurred the contempt of the people among whom they lived.
More importantly still, King Cyrus had all the articles that Nebuchadnezzar had taken from Jerusalem, brought out from the temple of his idols, to send them back to their rightful place. He knew that Babylon's idols were not God. The Persian treasurer, Mithredath, counted these out to Sheshbazzar the prince of Judah. The record of them was faithfully kept, 30 gold platters, 1000 silver platters, 29 knives, 30 gold basins,410 silver basins, and 1000 other articles. The total number of gold and silver articles was 5,400.Sheshbazzar took charge of all these, to bring them from Babylon to Jerusalem (vv. 9-11).
LIST OF RETURNED CAPTIVES (vv. 1-58)
This chapter shows the definite interest God had in every individual who returned from the captivity, so that the number from each city is recorded, and the total number. We are reminded in verse 1 that it was Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon who had taken these captive. Babylon means "confusion," so that Judah is pictured as being captives to a state of confusion, as is repeated in the history of the professing church. It is only by the power and grace of God that any measure of recovery can be accomplished. No full recovery will be made in Israel until the Lord Himself come in power and glory, and similarly, there will be no full recovery of the church's condition until in the presence of the Lord. Yet certain small measures of recovery have taken place from time to time by the clear intervention of the Spirit of God.
Verse 2 speaks of leaders who came with Zerubbabel, the first Jeshua, the high priest. The Nehemiah mentioned here cannot be the Nehemiah whose book follows Ezra, for he did not come at first, nor with so large a company (Neh. 2:9).
From verse 3 to verse 35 the people of various cities are enumerated, then from verse 36 to 39 priests are mentioned as being included in the number of those returning. Levites then are spoken of in verse 40 and singers in verses 41-42. Verse 43 introduces the Nethinim, whose total number was 392 (v.58). The Nethinim are referred to in Ezra 8:20 as having been appointed by David for the service of the Levites, probably Gibeonites who had been received by Joshua (Josh. 9:23).
We have remarked that the Nethinim were likely Gibeonites who had entered the congregation at the time of Joshua, who told them, "There shall none of you be freed from being bondmen, and hewers of wood and drawers of water for the house of my God" (Josh. 9:23). We do not read of any of them refusing this place of submission to Israel, and their willingness to return to Judah indicates a remarkable allegiance to the God of Israel, since they were Gentiles and had been away from Judah for 70 years. After so long an absence, not all of the Jews were prepared to return to their own country, so that the faith of their Gentile adherents shines out the more brightly.
SOME OF WHOM THERE WAS DOUBT(vv. 59-63)
On the other hand, there were some whocame from Tel Melah, but could not prove that they were really Israelites (vv. 59-60). Do they not remind us of some today who would like to be regarded as Christians, yet do not present a clear testimony that they are saved? It is not told us what was done concerning these people; but verses 61-63 refer to sons of the priests who came, but their names were not found registered in the genealogy. In this case, the governor decreed that they should not be permitted to act as priests until a priest with Urim and Thummim would pronounce them fit for this service. The Urim and Thummim (meaning "lights and perfections") were 12 jewels set in the breastplate of judgment (Ex. 28:30; Lev. 8:8) attached to the ephod of the high priest. It was used for the discerning judgment of God's mind concerning any problems in Israel. The 12 stones speak of the unity of the tribes of Israel, indicating that all questions must be considered from the viewpoint of that unity of all. But since the 10 tribes had been separated from Judah and Benjamin, there is no mention of any priest having the Urim and Thummim; consequently, proper discernment according to God was lacking. Actually, this will only be restored when the Lord Jesus comes in power and glory to reunite Judah and Israel. He is the High Priest who has the Urim and Thummim.
It is important to apply these principles in the present day. In the professing church it has been the practice for many years to welcome anyone who claims to be a Christian to every Christian privilege of fellowship, including the breaking of bread. Many of these were not saved, and many proved to be enemies of the cross of Christ; some denying the deity of Christ and other basic doctrines of scripture. Just as in the return from Babylon, so when God brings His saints to realize the truth of His Word, there must be concern to know that those who gather in fellowship with the saints are truly saved by the grace of God. If there is any doubt about this matter, their being received to break bread should be delayed until no doubt remains.
If some should protest that this is too rigid, there is a clear scriptural answer for this, "Whatever is not from faith is sin" (Rom. 14:23). If it is not faith that moves a person to desire to break bread, then it is sin. Should we encourage any person to sin? Therefore, it is only proper care for souls that we should seek to make sure they are acting by faith in so serious a matter.
TOTALS OF PEOPLE, LIVESTOCK, ETC. (vv. 64-70)
The whole assembly totaled 42,360, plus servants and singers adding 7,537 to the number. This was only a small percentage of Judah and Benjamin, but the Lord took account of every one. Their livestock numbered 736 horses, 245 mules and 6,720 donkeys. As to the number of horses alone, this was as nothing compared to Solomon's 40,000 stalls of horses (1 Kings 4:26). But at least Judah did have "a little strength" (Compare Revelation 3:8).
As to the money necessary for rebuilding, there were those of the heads of the fathers' houses who offered freely, according to their ability, so that the treasury was benefited by 61,000 gold drachmas, 5000 minas of silver and 100 priestly garments. The gold and silver too was nothing compared to the amount that came to Solomon in one year (1 Ki. 10:14, 17), but God records this because of His appreciation of the faith of these givers. The Lord Jesus said of Mary of Bethany, "She has done what she could" (Mk. 14:8). These also had done what they could, and the Lord valued this. What more could be expected of anyone?
Not all of these who returned to Judah were engaged in rebuilding the temple: for the most part the priests and Levites, some of the people, the gatekeepers and Nethinim, dwelt in their cities. The temple would have had little significance if there were no residents in any of the cities of Judah. Though the numbers in the cities would be small in comparison to their size before the captivity, yet each city would be a testimony to the restoring grace of God. Today also, each little assembly that God restores is a testimony to His grace and faithfulness, though such testimonies are far from being an occasion for our own pride. While we are thankful for God's goodness, we are only humbled by our own weakness.
THE ALTAR AND SACRIFICES RESUMED (vv. 1-8)
Though the building of the temple did not begin until the second month of the second year (v. 8), the children of Israel gathered together "as one man" in the seventh month of the year to Jerusalem, that is, the same year they returned to Judah. At least they could build the altar of God, which symbolized their relationship with God on the basis of sacrifice. We too can have no relationship with God apart from the sacrifice of Christ at Calvary. That sacrifice is therefore the basis of true worship. Jeshua the high priest, son of Jozadak and his brethren the priests, as well as Zerubbabel the governor, son of Shealtiel, and his brethren, lesser rulers in Judah, together joined in rebuilding the altar with the object of offering burnt offerings to the Lord. The burnt offering, being the most important of all the offerings, speaks of the glory that God receives from the value of the sacrifice of Christ, They were concerned too that they should do this consistently with what was written years before by Moses, the man of God.
In spite of their fear of the opposition to the true worship of God, they set the altar upon its bases. They established their worship on the true basis of the Word of God, not hiding this from the eye
This seventh month too was the month of the Feast of Tabernacles, and they kept this according to the written law, offering daily burnt offerings. Surely believers today are encouraged by this, even when deprived of the outward blessing of which the temple speaks, to do what they are able in giving the Lord His place of supreme honor.
After this Feast of Tabernacles, they continued to offer regular burnt offerings and offerings for the New Moons and for all the appointed feasts of the Lord. There were those also who offered freewill offerings to the Lord, offerings moved by special exercise of faith on the part of individuals. How good if we today engage in something like this too!
Verse 6 reminds us that they began these offerings from the first day of the seventh month, though the foundation of the temple had not yet been laid. But in preparation for building, they gave money to masons and carpenters, as well as food, drink and oil to the people of Sidon and Tyre, that they should bring cedar logs from Lebanon to the sea, to be floated to Joppa, from whence they would be transported to Jerusalem (v. 7). This was according to the directive of Cyrus. This was certainly not on the scale that prevailed in Solomon's building of the temple (1 Ki. 5:11-14), but the supplies were from the same source.
THE REBUILDING BEGINS (vv.8-13)
Preparations and gathering of materials for the rebuilding took some length of time, so that it was the second month of the second year before the building of the foundation began (v.8). Zerubbabel the governor, Jeshua the high priest with the other priests and Levites took the initiative to unitedly begin the building.
When the foundation was laid the people paused to celebrate this glad occasion. We may rightly say that, though everything was not yet accomplished, the basis of truth was recognized, which is a reminder of 2 Timothy 2:19, "Nevertheless the solid foundation of God stands." When there has been departure from the truth and saints of God are exercised by God to return to Him, itis of vital encouragement to be reminded that God's solid foundation stands. Surely it is this, and nothing less that we desire! Thus it was fitting that Judah should rejoice when the foundation was laid. Priests stood in their apparel with trumpets and Levites with cymbals, to praise the Lord (v. 10). Their praise and thanksgiving too was expressed in song, celebrating the goodness and mercy of the Lord. The people responded also with a great shout of rejoicing (v. 11).
However, though many of the older priests and Levites who had seen the first temple were thankful for this small measure of recovery, they wept in comparing the small size of this foundation with that which they had known before. Do we not today have something of the same sorrow when we consider the first estate of the Church of God when seen as established through the work of the Holy Spirit in the apostles, and compare it with the smallness of any recovery that has been seen since the failure and departure of the church generally? But the shout of joy evidently countered the sorrow of weeping.
There have been various measures of recovery of the truth of God in the church, as in Israel, though it seems as time goes on, such occasions have become more feeble, and it was so in Israel too. For it was not long after this return from captivity and the joy that Judah experienced, before their condition again deteriorated so sadly that by the end of the Old Testament Malachi records, not only the failure, but the rebellion of priests together with the people generally. Only a few then truly sought the Lord, of whom we read, "a book of remembrance was written before Him for those who fear the Lord and who meditate on His name" (Mal. 2:16).
PRETENDED FRIENDSHIP AND OPPOSITION (vv. 1-5)
Satan is subtle in the way he attacks a work of God. He appears to be friendly, as is seen in the way the adversaries of Judah and Benjamin came to Zerubbabel and other leaders of Judah, offering to help them to build the temple. They say they have been brought there by the King of Assyria (which was true), and that they had sacrificed to the Lord since that time (v. 2).This may have some semblance of truth in it, but they were Gentiles who had come into the land and adopted some of Israel's forms of worship, but we are told, "They feared the Lord, yet served their own gods" (2 Ki. 17:33).
Zerubbabel and Jeshua discerned their true character and told them firmly that they could not accept their help, but they alone (Judah and Benjamin) would do this work according to the decree of Cyrus, king of Persia (v. 3). Believers today too must not accept the help of unbelievers (however friendly they seem) in building that which speaks of the recovery of the truth of the Assembly of God.
Then the people of the land changed their tactics, showing that their offer of help in building was deceitful, for they did not want the temple rebuilt at all. They tried to discourage the Jews from their work, causing all the trouble they could and even hiring counselors with the object of frustrating their labors. Their opposition continued throughout the reign of Cyrus until Darius king of Persia.
LETTER OF ACCUSATION AGAINST JUDAH (vv. 6-16)
The friction was long continued, for inverse 6 we read of these adversaries writing a letter to King Ahasuerus, accusing the inhabitants of Judah and Jerusalem, though nothing is said about the results of their letter, But in the days of Artaxerxes also, Bishlam, Mithredath, Tabel and others wrote a letter to that current king of Persia (v.7). It seems this was in addition to the letter of Rehum the commander and Shimshi the scribe, whose letter is quoted in verses 11 to 16. They speak of themselves as representatives of a number of peoples who had been taken captive by Osnapper and settled in the cities of Samaria (vv. 9-10).Whether they actually represented those nations in writing as they did, maybe very questionable, but they wanted their letter to appear convincing.
They first remind the Persian king that the Jews now in Jerusalem had come up from Persia and were building what they call "the rebellious and evil city," finishing its walls and repairing its foundations (v. 12). They did not inquire of Artaxerxes as to the reason for Cyrus sending the Jews back, nor did Artaxerxes think of inquiring into this himself. But they write positively to the effect that if the city was rebuilt the inhabitants would not pay tax, tribute or custom to Persia (v. 13). Were they really concerned about Persia? Only insofar as they could benefit through Persia. This was like the Pharisees telling Pilate concerning the Lord Jesus, "If you let this Man go, you are not Caesar's friend" (Jn. 19:12). They had no love for Caesar, but used his name to frighten Pilate. But these adversaries of Judah only wanted Artaxerxes to surmise that the Jews would not pay tribute to Persia. They suggest a mere pleasing platitude to the king when they wrote that it was not proper for them to see the kings's dishonor (v. 14).
They asked the king for a search of there cords to find out that Jerusalem was a rebellious city, causing harm to kings (of course such Gentile kings as Nebuchadnezzar). It was true that Zedekiah had rebelled against Nebuchadnezzar after having sworn allegiance to him, and for this reason Jerusalem was destroyed. But they did not ask for records of Cyrus having sent the Jews back to rebuild the temple. Instead they declare that if Jerusalem was rebuilt the king would lose his dominion on the west side of the River Euphrates (v. 16).
THE KING'S ANSWER (vv.17-24)
Artaxerxes replied to this letter,telling Rehum, Shimshi and their companions that their letter had beenclearly read to him, so the he gave command to search the records, whichconfirmed the fact that Jerusalem had on occasion revolted against Gentilekings and also that Jerusalem had had mighty kings whocollected tax, tribute and custom from others (v. 20). Since this wastrue, the king did not want to see Jerusalem revive in such a way as torequire tribute from others rather than to pay tribute to Persia.
Therefore, he commanded that the Jews beforced to cease their building until a command should be given by him toallow it (v. 21). His reason was simply that he was thus guarding againstany damage the kings might suffer (v. 22). He ought to have realized that any rebellion against Persia was extremelyunlikely, for the Jews were reduced so greatly to a state of weakness thattheir former state would never be recovered.
Having this authority from the king,these adversaries went immediately to Jerusalem and by force of armsstopped their work. Thus the work of rebuilding was discontinued until thesecond year of Darius king of Persia. This connects with verse 5 of this chapter. Thus Satan gained his object for the time,but God was not defeated.
WORK RESUMED AND OPPOSITION RESUMED (vv. 1-5)
The initiative for resuming the work had come from the Lord who moved the prophets Haggai and Zechariah to speak in His name to the Jews in Judah and Jerusalem. Haggai's prophecy is recorded in the book bearing his name, which begins, "In the second year of King Darius on the first day of the month, the word of the Lord came to Haggai the prophet, to Zerubbabel the son of Shealtiel, governor of Judah, and to Joshua, the son of Jehozadak, the high priest" (Hag. 1:1).
The Lord ignored the decree of Artaxerxes that the building must not take place before he had given permission. Whose word was to be obeyed, that of Artaxerxes or that of the Lord? The people were saying, "the time has not come, that the Lord's house should be built" (Hag. 1:2). No doubt they would appeal to the fact that Artaxerxes had not given them permission. But the Lord asks them, "Is it time for you yourselves to dwell in your paneled houses, and this temple to be in ruins?" (Hag. 1:4). Haggai prophesied concerning the house of God, while Zechariah emphasized the city of Jerusalem. Here in Ezra we are told that Zerubbabel and Jeshua began to build the house, but with the help of the prophets (v. 2). The city was only to surround the house, but the house was God's center.
But the work of God will always be opposed by Satan, and the adversaries of Judah came to question them as to their having authority to build the temple and to repair the wall (v. 3).These were different men than had opposed them before, so that evidently a good deal of time had elapsed since the work had been stopped.
Judah had nothing to hide, and told them the names of the men who were supervising the work. They told them more than this also, as is reported in the letter that Tattenai sent to the king of Persia (vv. 7-16). At this time Tattenai could not make them cease working because "the eye of God was upon the elders of the Jews" (v. 5). God had commanded them to build and He would restrain any effort of the enemy to resist them.
A LETTER TO DARIUS (vv.6-17)
Tattenai then wrote a letter to King Darius, not in the same hostile strain as Rehum and his companions hadwritten to Artaxerxes (ch. 4:12-16), but simply inquiring as to the truthof what the Jews had told him. The message was sent as from the governor of the region beyond the river (Tattenai), Shether Boznai and their companions, the Persians beyond the River. These were Persians therefore, not the men of the captivity, as in the case of chapter4:14.
Their letter to Darius begins in reporting that work was progressing rapidly in the building of the temple of the great God at Jerusalem (v. 8). They did not consider the God of Israel as similar to one of the idols of the nations, but recognized Him as the great God. Their presentation of the whole matter was restrained and fair, not demanding that the work be stopped, but inquiring as to its being permitted by the king of Persia.
They reported asking the elders of Judah as to who gave them authority to build, and they replied that they were the servants of the God of heaven and earth and were rebuilding the temple built by a great king (Solomon) many years before. Thus their authority was primarily from God.
However, they told that the reason for the destruction of the temple, that their fathers had provoked the God of heaven to anger, so that He had delivered them into the hands of Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon, under whose authority the temple was destroyed and the Jews carried into captivity (v. 12). This was thoroughly accurate.
But they appealed also to an earthly authority, Cyrus king of Babylon. Actually he was king of Persia (ch.1:1), but since Persia had captured Babylon, Cyrus was king over Babylon too. In his first year (they affirmed) Cyrus had issued a decree to build this house of God (v. 13), giving orders too that the gold and silver articles of the house of God should be taken from Nebuchadnezzar's temple in Babylon and restored to Jerusalem. These things were placed under the authority of one named Sheshbazzar whom Cyrus had made governor, and this governor had come to Jerusalem and laid the foundation of the temple (v. 14).
Tattenai appeared to have been quite fair in the way he reported what the Jews had said, ending with their assertion that Sheshbazzar had come to Jerusalem and had laid the foundation of the house of God, but though it had been long under construction, it was not yet finished.
Their request to the king then was, not that he should find out if Jerusalem was a rebellious city, as was the charge of Rehum and Shimshi before (ch. 4:12-16), but rather that he should find if the records showed a command of Cyrus to rebuild the temple, and that the king would express his own mind to them as regards this matter (v. 17).
Having received the letter from Tattenai, Darius ordered that a search be made in the archives where the treasures were stored in Babylon. There is no doubt that God led the searchers to Achmetha in the province of Media, to find a scroll that recorded the decree of Cyrus concerning the rebuilding of the temple. The words of the decree are quoted in verses 3-5, confirming what has been told us in Ezra 1:1-11. Verses 6-12 record the words of Darius in reply to Tattenai. Neither this governor nor any of his companions was to interfere in the matter of the rebuilding of the temple, letting the work of this house of God alone (vv. 6-7), but allowing full right to the governor and the elders of the Jews to build as they had been given permission.
But more than that, Darius issued a decree that the cost of building should be borne by taxes due the king from his possessions west of the river (v. 8). Rehum had urged that if the temple were built, then the Jews would not pay taxes, but Darius decreed that the Jews would have tax money paid to them! Yet this was not all. Any needs the Jews had, bulls, rams and lambs for burnt offerings, wheat, salt, wine and oil, were to be given them at the requests of the priests in Jerusalem, not only on one occasion, but "day by day." It is interesting that Darius desired that the Jews should offer sacrifices to the God of heaven, and to pray for the life of the king and his sons (v. 10). Does not this appear to be a true work of God in the king's soul? Today, whatever government Christians may be under, it is important that they pray for those in authority over them.
Darius evidently thought it necessary also to solemnly decree that anyone who sought to alter his edict was to have his house destroyed and he himself hanged from the timber of his house (v. 11). This would rather effectually arrest any show of hostility by the enemies of the Jews. Then Darius also invoked the God of Israel to act against any king or people who opposed the building of the house of God. He closed with the firm declaration, "I Darius issue a decree: let it be done diligently" (v. 12).
THE TEMPLE COMPLETED (vv. 13-18)
Tattenai the governor and those associated with him did not hesitate to obey the king's decree, but were diligent in carrying out all his orders (v. 13). Through the prophesying of Haggai and Zechariah the Jews had resumed their building, and continued it also under such prophesying (v. 14). The decree of Darius was not sufficient to keep them building: they needed the help of God, just as we too need the grace and blessing of God if we are to build up the Church of God according to His Word.
We are not given precise dates as regards the length of the reign of Cyrus, Ahasuerus, Artaxerxes and Darius, so that we do not know how long the rebuilding took, but it was much longer than Solomon's seven years in building the first temple (1 Ki. 6:38), and it was finally completed in the sixth year of King Darius (v. 15).
Thus God was honored in the restoration of His house, which is typical of the eventual restoration of the temple in the millennium as described in Ezekiel 40, though this in Ezra's time was much smaller. Since God was honored, the Jews had perfect right to rejoice in celebration of this glad event of the dedication of the temple. A large offering was made, though it was small in comparison to Solomon's offerings at the dedication of the first temple (1 Ki. 8:62-63). In Ezra's case, the offerings were 100 bulls, 200 rams, 400 lambs and twelve male goats (v. 17). But the important matter is that all of these are types of the Lord Jesus in various aspects of the value of His sacrifice at Calvary. The priests and Levites were assigned to their proper places of service in connection with the temple, as prescribed in the book of Moses, no doubt specially Leviticus.
CELEBRATION OF THE PASSOVER(vv. 19-22)
A Passover could finally be kept in Jerusalem. Previous to this, the last Passover recorded is that of Josiah, which must have taken place over 100 years before this (2 Chron.35:1-19). This too was kept on the proper day, in contrast to the Passover in Hezekiah's time (2 Chron. 30:1-3), which was kept in the second month because many were not purified in the first month. On this occasion the priests and Levites had purified themselves, which speaks not only of being personally cleansed, but purified from any identification with evil, just as today whose who eat the Lord's supper should be free from evil associations.
The feast of Unleavened Bread, connected with the Passover, was kept for the seven days prescribed by Moses (v. 22).The seven days pictures the complete life of believers, being kept free from any contamination of evil, for we are not to suppose that we are intended to be free from evil just on certain holy days or occasions, but for our entire life. They kept the seven days with joy, and thus our joy is not to be temporary, but continued, as the Lord Jesus says, "that My joy may remain in you, and that your joy may be full." (Jn. 15:11).
It is interesting to observe at the end of Chapter 6 that the Lord had "turned the heart of the King of Assyria toward them." Thus the King of Persia is called also "the King of Babylon" (ch. 5:13) and "the King of Assyria." Persia had conquered Babylon after Babylon had conquered Assyria, so that Persia's king was in authority over Assyria and Babylon.
Ezra was the scribe whom God employed to give the history of these first six chapters, which took place before Ezra came to Jerusalem. Only in Chapter 7 does Ezra introduce himself into the picture.
EZRA'S RETURN TO JERUSALEM (vv. 1-10)
These first ten verses form a brief introduction as to who Ezra was and the fact of his coming to Jerusalem. Details are given after this, verses 11 to 26 quoting a letter given to Ezra by Artaxerxes, king of Persia, in whose heart God had worked to encourage Ezra in returning to Jerusalem; then Chapter 8listing those who accompanied Ezra and reporting on the details of thisjourney, the gifts for the temple with which they had been entrusted and their eventual arrival at Jerusalem.
First (in Chapter 7) Ezra gives his genealogy, going back to Aaron through Phineas and Eliezer (vv. 1-5). Thus he was a priest of God through birth. But he was a skilled scribe, which did not come through birth, but through diligently applying himself to leaning the law of Moses (v. 6). This ought to have been true of all the priests (Lev. 10:8-11), though most of them failed in this.
"The king granted him all his request, according to the hand of the Lord his God upon him." How clearly God led Ezra, even preparing the king to favor his return to Jerusalem, for he evidently presented a request to the king concerning this project.
Apparently some of the children of Israel, including priests, Levites, singers, gatekeepers and Nethinim, had arrived earlier in the seventh year of Artaxerxes (v. 7), and Ezra did not arrive until the first day of the fifth month, according to the good hand of his God upon him" (vv. 8-9). Verse 10adds, "For Ezra had prepared his heart to seek the Law of the Lord, and to do it, and to teach statutes and ordinances in Israel" (v. 10). It seems that it is not many in whom God works this preparation of heart, not only to seek the truth of God, but to do it, and also to teach it to others. Learning is good, but teaching the truth comes only after obeying it. How can we expect our teaching to be effective if we ourselves are not examples of our teaching?
ARTAXERXES' LETTERTO EZRA (vv. 11-26)
The letter of Artaxerxes to Ezra at this time is quoted in full. It appears that the king knew Ezra well enough (possibly only through reports) that he could have confidence in his being a true servant of God who had wisdom enough to both honor God and honor the king in his project of concern for the house of God in Jerusalem (v. 11).
He refers to himself as "king of kings," for there were kings in the Persian empire who were subject to him (v. 12). But how much more becoming is this title as applied to the Lord Jesus! (Rev. 19:16). However, he addressed Ezra as "a scribe of the law of the God of heaven." It seems he realized that Israel's God was much higher than the idols of Persia.
The king's decree was similar to that of Darius (ch. 1:3) in authorizing any of the people of Israel including priests and Levites who desired to volunteer for it, to go with Ezra to Jerusalem. He also wrote, "Whereas you are being sent by the king and his seven counselors" (v. 14), that is, because it was by the king's authority, and because they were to carry the silver and gold contributed by the king and his counselors, and the silver and gold that was given them in all the province of Babylon, freewill offerings given for the house of God in Jerusalem (vv. 15-16), therefore Ezra was instructed to be careful to buy with this money bulls, rams and lambs with grain offerings and drink offerings to be offered on the altar of the house of God in Jerusalem (v. 17). It is good to see that the king's first priority was that which was for God's honor. All these offerings symbolize Christ in some special way.
Thus, if God was given His place first, the king had confidence that he could depend on Ezra to rightly use the rest of the silver and gold, telling him he could act in this as "seems good to you," and "according to the will of your God" (v. 18). Articles that Ezra was entrusted with for the service of the temple he was to deliver in full before the God of Jerusalem (v. 19).
Furthermore, the king instructed that anything more that might be needed for the furnishing of the temple would be given from the king's treasury (v. 20). This was backed up by a decree addressed to all the treasurers on Israel's side of the River Euphrates that they were to give Ezra whatever he might require, only limiting the silver to 100 talents, the wheat to 100 cors and the wine and oil to 100 baths each, with no limit to the salt (vv.21-22).
It may seem amazing that the King of Persia would decree that "whatever is commanded by the God of heaven, let it be diligently done for the house of the God of heaven" (v. 23).We might expect such words from a godly king of Israel; but God knows how to work in the hearts of others outside Israel too. Artaxexes realized that the God of heaven was in such control that He might make Persia to suffer His wrath if they did not encourage Israel in being obedient to God.
More than this, the king ordered that it would be unlawful to impose tax, tribute or custom on any of the priests, Levites, singers, gatekeepers, Nethinim or servants of the house of God (v,24). Rehum and Shimshai had urged a previous Artaxerxes to stop the Jews from building by claiming that the Jews would not pay tax, tribute or custom (ch. 4:9-13), but the king now was ready to forego these things for heads of Israel, that Judah would prosper.
Ezra too was credited by the king a shaving God-given wisdom to appoint magistrates and judges in the region west of the River, who were conversant with the laws of God, so as to teach the people (v. 25). Thus, the king recognized that the land of Israel had a special place in the eyes of the God of heaven and earth, and desired that there should be due recognition of God's honor in that country. He rightly realized that it would be beneficial to his entire empire if God were given His place in Israel.
Finally, he instructed that the law of God was to be so fully enforced that anyone who would not observe it and the law of the king (which he regarded secondary to the law of God) would be exposed to judgment without delay, whether the case demanded death, banishment from Israel, confiscation of property or imprisonment (v. 26). If one's guilt was established beyond question, this is certainly good government, not like so many cases today, being dragged out for months without reason. The policy of the Medes and Persians that their laws could not be changed (Dan. 6:15) did have some merit, though in Daniel's case the law was bad and should never have been passed. But the Persians were not slow in carrying out sentence against law-breakers, and this is commendable.
Verses 27 and 28 record the words of Ezra in expressing his appreciation of the Lord's putting into the king's heart the desire "to beautify the house of the Lord," and also for the Lord's mercy to him in disposing the hearts of the king and his counselors favorably toward Ezra himself. He considered himself simply the object of God's mercy in his being shown favor by the king and his princes (v. 28). Being thus encouraged by the hand of the Lord upon him, he gathered leading men of Israel to accompany him to Jerusalem.
A LIST OF EZRA'S COMPANIONS (vv. 1-14)
Those who voluntarily came to accompany Ezra to Jerusalem are recorded here, the men numbering almost 1500. Women also must have been present, but are not mentioned. Not that God thinks less of the faith of women, for He often commends them for their devotedness, but since the emphasis here is on publication, and the women do not hold a public place, there was no reason to refer to them. Children too are not mentioned. In fact, the emphasis inverse 1 is on "the heads of their father's houses," showing God's vital interest in households.
PRIESTS, LEVITES AND NETHINIM ADDED (vv. 15-20)
Ezra gathered his company together by the river that flows to Ahava, camping there three days. However, among all these people he found none of the sons of Levi present (v. 15). How sad indeed was this deficiency! -- for their main concern was the temple of God at Jerusalem, and of all people the Levites ought to have been most anxious to return to Jerusalem, for they were rightly temple servants. Were they content to settle down in Babylon, concerned only for their own comfort in the midst of a world at enmity with God? May we not be like them, but be concerned to place God's interests first and be willing to labor for the blessing of His present house, the Church of God.
Ezra was not content to go to Jerusalem without Levites, so he called for a number of leaders among the Jews and commanded them to speak to Iddo, the chief man at the place Casiphia, which must have been a place where Levites and Nethinim had congregated, to tell him that Levites and Nethinim were required for the service of the house of God at Jerusalem.
Ezra must have been held in honor among these people, because his words had such effect as to lead eighteen men of one family and twenty of another family of Levites to respond to this call. But also 220 Nethinim responded. These were temple servants, likely Gentiles of the Gibeonites whom Joshua had put in the place of "woodcutters and water carriers" for the congregation" (Josh. 9:27). While the Levites were temple servants, the Nethinim were employed as helpers of the Levites, and there is every indication that they proved faithful through the years.
PRAYER AND FASTING (vv.21-23)
Even with all the required company now gathered, Ezra was not prepared to leave until they had earnestly sought the blessing and guidance of God. He proclaimed a fast that they might humble themselves before God "to seek the right way for us and our little ones and all our possessions" (v. 21). This was to be a long journey in which they might be exposed to the dangers of being attacked by robbers, of illness or accidents, bad weather or plain weariness. "For," he writes, "I was ashamed to request of the king an escort of soldiers and horsemen to help us against the enemy on the road, because we had spoken to the king, saying, "The hand of our God is upon all those for good who seek Him, but His power and His wrath are against all those who forsake Him" (v. 22). Thus, committing themselves simply to the Lord, they had full confidence their prayer was answered (v. 23).
PRIESTS ENTRUSTED WITH COSTLY PROPERTY (vv. 24-30)
Before leaving also Ezra chose twelve leaders of the priests and ten of their brethren with them to take charge of the silver, gold and other articles that had been offered for the house of God, things given by the king and his counselors as well as by Israelites who were present. These things weighed out to them are detailed in verse 26, -- 650 talents of silver, articles of silver weighing 100 talents, 100 talents of gold, 20 gold basins and two vessels of fine polished bronze, precious as gold. The 100 talents of gold would be worth close to $800,000.This was no small amount to be entrusted with for a four months journey!
Likely these priests were thoroughly trustworthy men, but it was still necessary to have more than one or two in charge of the property, in order to honor the truth that Paul emphasizes in 2 Corinthians 8:20-23, -- "avoiding this, that anyone should blame us in this lavish gift which is administered by us." Indeed the more honest a man is, the more he should desire to have his actions carefully scrutinized by others. Thus too, those who are trusted to handle money in an assembly should be careful to have the amounts and the disposition of any funds closely checked by others.
Ezra reminded the priests that they themselves were holy to the Lord and that what was entrusted to them was also holy (v. 28). Therefore he tells them, "Watch and keep them until you weight them before the leaders of the priests and heads of the fathers' houses of Israel in Jerusalem, in the chambers of the house of the Lord" (v. 28). What a reminder for every believer today! We are entrusted with the truth of the Word of God, and should take to heart what Paul writes to Timothy, "O Timothy! Guard what was committed to your trust" (1 Tim. 6:20).Just as the priests were required to give account in Jerusalem of all that was committed to their trust, so we shall give account at the judgment seat of Christ of the way we handled the word of God committed to us.
COMING TO JERUSALEM (vv.31-36)
Only a brief mention is made of the four month trip to Jerusalem, but full credit is given to God for His preserving care in bringing them in safety, for verse 31 indicates that there were enemies along the road. Yet any effort by them to cause trouble was thwarted before it began. On the fourth day after arriving at Jerusalem the silver and gold and all the articles carried there were weighed in the house of God by two priests accompanied by three Levites. How rightly this was done, that everything might be found in proper order. Similarly, at the end of our Christian journey, all our life will be weighed in "the balances of the sanctuary." Do we exercise ourselves to have "a conscience void of offense toward God and men," so that we shall gladly welcome that review? Notice that all the weight was written down at the time (v. 34). So indeed there will be an eternal record of that which has been done in true devotion to the Lord.
Those who returned were children of those taken captive 70 years before, and they offered twelve bulls, 96 rams and 77 lambs as burnt offerings to "the God of Israel," not simply the God of Judah. The twelve bulls were for the twelve tribes of Israel, though all those tribes were not even represented there. Also twelve male goats were added as a sin offering (v. 35), again with the twelve tribes in view. Today also, when God brings about a return of even a small number to recognize the truth of the Assembly of God, we must never lose sight of the fact that He loves the entire body of Christ, of which we are only a small part. Though it is impossible to have practical fellowship with all the one body, it is only right that we embrace them in our affections. When we break bread (however few we may be), we should always remember that "the bread which we break, is it not the communion of the body of Christ"? -- thus recognizing our fellowship with the entire body of Christ, not only those present.
Ezra's company delivered the king's orders to his officials in that area, which the officials honored by giving support to the Jews and to the work of the temple (v. 36). God in this way was giving special encouragement to His people in the work that was for His honor.
"So we fasted and entreated our God for this, and He answered our prayer" (Ezra 8:23).
HUMBLED BECAUSE OF MIXED MARRIAGES (vv. 1-4)
If Ezra expected to engage in the pleasant work of the priesthood, it must have been a keen disappointment to find soon after his arrival that there was very unpleasant work to do. For the priest's work was not only to offer sacrifices to God. He must deal with failure and sin among the people, and such cases were soon brought to his attention by the leaders (v. 1). They reported that, not only had the common people mixed with the peoples of the land, to practice the abominations (idolatry) of the Canaanites, Hittites, Perezzites, Jebusites, Ammonites, Moabites, Egyptians and Amorites; but the priests and Levites had done so also. This involved even more nations that had been in the land when Israel first came there. Linked with this idolatry they were practicing was the fact that the Jews had taken some women from those nations as wives. Is it not always true that bad associations will lead to a bad attitude toward God? -- that is, idolatry. But Ezra was told that the leaders and rulers had been foremost in this trespass (v. 2). Certainly, if leaders do it, the people will follow, and it is easier to follow a bad example than a good one.
But how good to see the effect this had on Ezra! It caused no bitter anger, no panic, no precipitate actions, but rather a humble, self-judgment expressed in tearing his robe, even plucking out some of the hairs of his beard, and sitting down in deep dismay (v. 3).
This brokenness and humility of the man of God had some serious effect on others who trembled at the words of God, and they assembled to him. If we have any regard for God Himself, His word will certainly make us tremble as we contemplate men's haughty defiance of that word, for a haughty attitude will bring down the awful judgment of the God they defy, and we should desire to see that averted if it is possible.
But Ezra knew how to wait upon God for an answer. His deep distress continued till the time of the evening sacrifice (v. 4). Then he arose, his garment and his robe having been torn, and spread out his hands to pray to the Lord his God.
EZRA'S PRAYER (vv. 6-15)
How different is Ezra's prayer from that of Elijah some years before, when he told God how unfaithful Israel had been while he (Elijah) had alone remained faithful (1 Ki. 19:10). Instead of this Ezra prayed as though he was just as guilty as others of Israel in this sad mixture of the Jews with the nations. He confessed the sin of all just as though it had been his, though he was not personally involved in the sin. He discerned this, that Israel had sinned, and he was part of Israel. As God's priest, he was eating the sin offering (Lev. 6:25-26), which involves feeling before God the seriousness of Israel's sin, in which the priest was to consider himself involved. We see this most strikingly in the words of the Lord Jesus in Psalm 69:5, "O God, You know my foolishness; and my sins are not hidden from You." Certainly the Lord Jesus had no sins of his own, but He took the responsibility on His own shoulders for the sins of Israel, confessed them before God, and in fact bore them "in His own body on the tree" (1 Pet. 2:24).
It is lovely to see this same spirit in Ezra, confessing before God, "O my God, I am too ashamed and humiliated to lift up my face to You, my God; for our iniquities have risen higher than our heads, and our guilt has grown up to the heavens (v. 6). In other words, their sin was far beyond their control or their ability to check it. But he does not confine his thoughts to the guilt then present, rather he confesses it had been there "since the days of our fathers' (v. 7). In speaking thus, he remembered that it was such guilt that had led to their captivity, their kings and priests being delivered into the hands of foreign kings because of this guilt, and brought down to shameful humiliation.
"And now for a little while grace has been shown from the Lord our God to leave us a remnant to escape." Ezra deeply appreciated the great kindness of God in the small measure of recovery He had given His people, though only a remnant. He had given them "a peg" in His holy place, a small support on which to hang their confidence, to have enlightened eyes to discern more clearly the truth of God, to be in some measure revived, though still in bondage. For verse 9 is rightly translated, "we are slaves." In spite of this, God had not forsaken them in their bondage, but had extended mercy in the sight of the kings of Persia, that they might at least be lifted in spirit above their circumstances, to have the temple of God repaired and the wall of Jerusalem rebuilt. Does this not show us that, even in a sadly confined state, God is able to provide grace to rightly worship Him (of which the temple speaks) and also to be in some true measure separate from the world (which the wall pictures)?
But now, after God had shown such grace, Ezra says, "We have forsaken Your commandment." God's command to them had been accompanied by His warning to Israel against idolatry and against giving their daughters as wives to the inhabitants of the land they entered (v. 12).
Ezra continued his prayer with the reminder that God had warned Israel against intermarrying with the nations of the land, and even against their seeking the peace of those nations, that is, to make them comfortable in the fact of living together. This is a warning for believers today, not to intermarry with unbelievers and not to make unbelievers feel as though there is no difference between us and them. Today, however, we have a positive gospel to unbelievers, to seek to win them to the Lord, that they may be saved, by which means they may be blessed with the same blessings we have.
After all the disobedience and guilt of Israel, Ezra considered that God had punished them less than their iniquities deserved (v. 13). It was true that God had punished them, but with the purpose of driving them back to Him, not with the mere object of punishing them. Then He had wonderfully delivered them from the rigor of that punishment by restoring them to their land.
After such kindness shown by God, Ezra asks, "should we again break Your commandments and join in marriage with the people committing these abominations? This he realized to be a most ungrateful way of responding to God's grace, and therefore he expected God to intervene in anger, to consume Israel so that no remnant at all would be left (v. 14).
Let us observe that Ezra does not ask for forgiveness of the people, but simply confesses Israel's guilt before the Lord, leaving God to do as He sees fit with them. He declares that God is righteous in having left the few Jews only as a remnant, but because of God's righteousness, no one of the remnant could stand before Him on account of their guilt (v. 15).
ACTION FOLLOWING PRAYER(vv. 1-17)
Ezra expected an answer to his prayer, and God provided the answer immediately in moving a very huge number of men, women and children to gather together before Him, weeping bitterly, for they realized that this was not a matter merely to pray about, but to be faced and settled before God.
One man, Shechaniah, became a spokesman for all, confessing their guilt in having trespassed against God in taking pagan wives. "Yet now," he said, "there is hope in Israel in spite of this" (v. 2). He asked that a covenant be made with God to put away these foreign wives and children born to them, and to let it be done according to the law (v. 3). He therefore encouraged Ezra to rise and act on this advice, since Ezra was in a place of authority, assuring him that he (Shechaniah) and others would back him up. Ezra then rose and required an oath to be sworn that Israel would clear themselves of their evil compromise by putting away their foreign wives and their children (v. 5).
Such an action certainly shows the seriousness of the evil of sinful associations. We must not diminish the seriousness of this, though in our day, under grace, we cannot require the putting away of wives, though they are not saved. The nations Israel was involving themselves with were actually demon worshipers, so that God had absolutely forbidden any marriages with them. Believers today are not under such a law, though they are told, "Do not be unequally yoked together with unbelievers" (2 Cor. 6:14). If they disobey this scripture, they are not told to put away the unbeliever, but rather, "a wife is not to depart from her husband" (1 Cor. 7:10), though "if the unbeliever departs, let him depart" (1 Cor. 7:15). Once the marriage is consummated, the believer is not free before God to leave it except in the case of the partner being unfaithful (Mt. 19:9). Today, a believer who marries an unbeliever must learn by experience the painful results of this disobedience, rather than being relieved of such results.
However, Ezra, still under deep exercise of soul, went apart from the people, into the chamber of Jehohanan, the son of Eliashib the high priest, where he fasted and mourned because of the guilt of the remnant of the captivity (v.6). How good it is too if we seek solitary, protracted exercise of heart before God in connection with any occasion of serious trouble amongst the saints of God. Daniel, when deeply concerned about the low condition of his people Israel, "was mourning three full weeks" (Dan. 10:2).
Then a proclamation was issued and sent to all the descendants of the captivity that they must gather at Jerusalem, this order being accompanied by the warning that one who refused to come would have all his property confiscated and he himself separated from the assembly of the returned remnant (vv. 7-8). Why should this be in the case of those who were not guilty of mixing with the nations? Because all were affected by the evil of even a few, though in this case it was more than a few. But all the people were intended to feel the guilt that Israel had incurred by the evil allowed in their midst, so that it would not be so likely to quickly rise again. We surely must always feel the shame of wrongs committed in our own company, and take sides with God in a proper judgment of them.
Within three days after the proclamation was made, this gathering took place, and even though the people had to sit outside in a heavy rain, there was no delay in facing the matter. The time would correspond to our December or January, so that the weather only increased their trembling over the matter that troubled them.
Ezra then spoke briefly and to the point, "You have transgressed and have taken pagan wives, adding to the guilt of Israel. Now therefore make confession to the Lord God of your fathers, and do His will; separate yourselves from the peoples of the land, and from the pagan wives" (vv. 10-11). Perhaps it was Ezra's prayer and self-judgment that kept the people from resisting this order, for generally those who have sunk into evil are stubborn enough to resist any reproof. But God was working, as He always does in response to faith and self-judgment.
All the people answered decisively, "Yes! As you have said, so we must do" (v. 12). How thankful Ezra must have been to hear these words! However, as they say, this work would take time, both because of the weather and because there were many involved in this transgression. They suggest that appointments might be made at stated times for the judging of every case, with judges and elders present, and this suggestion was accepted in spite of some apparently disagreeing (v. 15).
The most responsible for this guilt are mentioned first, priests, the sons of Jeshua (v. 18), and then other priests (vv. 20-22). Jeshua had been identified with Zerubbabel in building the house of God (Hag. 2:2-4), and for his sons to fall into the snare of the enemy was deeply serious, for this provided a bad example for others. When they gave their promise to put away their strange wives, they presented a ram as a trespass offering. Whenever we have been guilty of any sin, we must be reminded that Christ is "the propitiation for our sins" (1 Jn.2:1-2). If we think seriously of the agony He suffered on account of our sins, are we likely to carelessly slip back into sin again? Thus, self-judgment should be real, and full.
Levites are spoken of in verse 23, and singers in verse 24, then others of the people in verses 25-43. Thus we are reminded that, however greatly we may be blessed, none of God's people are automatically exempt from being tested by the seductions of the enemy.
Thus, every one of these unequal yokes had to be broken, regardless of what either party felt about it. This was under law. Under grace today, if one should find himself in an unequal yoke, the general principle is that he should leave it if he can do so without injustice toward the other party. Supposing it is a business yoke, if a believer has committed himself to a contract, he may find the only right way to break the contract is to buy himself out of it, which he should do if possible. It is not so easy as this in marriage, for scripture tells the believer, "a wife is not to depart from her husband" (1 Cor. 7:10). For under grace, "the unbelieving husband is sanctified by the wife, and the unbelieving wife is sanctified by the husband? Or how to you know, O husband, whether you will save your wife?" (1 Cor. 7:16). How thankful we ought to be that we are living under grace rather than under law!
Is it not striking that the only work recorded on Ezra's part in returning to the land is that of dealing with the unfaithfulness of the people? This should deeply impress us with the fact of God's abhorrence of bad associations on the part of His beloved people. But the faithfulness of Ezra is beautifully commendable.
Following this, it seems that Ezra faded into the background, at least not having an outstanding place in the history of the returned remnant of Israel, though, being a scribe, he is seen in Nehemiah 8:1-6 reading to the Jews from the Book of the Law of Moses. Though the Lord had pressed him into a most forward position for the purpose of purifying Judah from the corruption into which they had fallen, there was no ambition on Ezra's part to take a prominent place in the government of the nation. This is a lovely contrast to the attitude of the disciples of the the Lord Jesus when they disputed among themselves as to who should be greatest (Lk. 22:24). We have much to learn from the character of this devoted servant of the Lord. Indeed, the Lord's disciples had far more reason to be humble and self-effacing than Ezra had, for they had companied with the Lord Jesus Himself and had seen this marvelous lowly character manifested in all His ways. Ezra had not had this wonderful advantage, but he had learned well in the presence of God.
There can be no doubt that the most significant reason for the writing of this book of Ezra is to deeply impress on believers the seriousness of the question of our associations. This is particularly necessary ministry for our present day, at the end of the dispensation of grace, when the enemy of oursouls is trying every artifice to involve believers in the schemes of unbelievers and to mix believers and unbelievers so that no clear difference can be seen between them. May we take these things deeply to heart, that we may rightly honor our blessed Lord.
L. M. GRANT