I. The Return of the Exiles under Zerubbabel (Ezra 1:1–6:22)
I. The Return of the Exiles under Zerubbabel (1:1–6:22)
A. The Decree of Cyrus (1:1-11)
1:1-4 The book of Ezra begins where 2 Chronicles ends (see 2 Chr 36:22-23). Indeed, the sovereign Lord roused the spirit of King Cyrus (1:1) to issue a decree to end the Jewish exile and rebuild the temple in Jerusalem (1:2-4).
Although this was joyful news, it should not have come as a shock to God’s faithful people, for it happened to fulfill the word of the Lord spoken through Jeremiah (1:1). Jeremiah had prophesied that the Jews would return to Israel when the seventy years of exile in Babylon that God had decreed for them were fulfilled (see Jer 29:10). Furthermore, the prophet Isaiah had mentioned Cyrus by name, announcing that he would release the Jews and send them home (see Isa 44:28–45:13). These things were foretold far in advance of Cyrus’s appearance on the world scene.
The decree of return was voluntary; many Jews who had prospered in Persia after its conquest of Babylon decided to stay put. But, others returned to their homeland. Many Bible commentators see this event as a second exodus of sorts, because in it God’s people again were given permission to leave their land of bondage for the promised land and were richly supplied for the journey by the gifts of the men of that region (1:4).
1:5 The Lord’s house, the ruined temple in Jerusalem, needed to be rebuilt. So, this became the priority for the returned family heads of Judah and Benjamin, along with the priests and Levites—everyone whose spirit God had roused. Notice that God was the initiator. He is to be praised for putting the desire in their hearts. Notice also that the spiritual and civil leaders—the family heads, the priests, the Levites—led the way. During the days of idolatry and moral decay in Judah and Jerusalem before the exile, the spiritual and civil leaders were the prime culprits behind the problems. But, in Ezra’s day, the leaders aligned themselves with God’s agenda. His kingdom had become their priority. If we are to see lasting change in our churches and culture, we need leaders who will allow the same.
1:6-11 The returnees had everything they needed, from money to the temple vessels that Nebuchadnezzar had taken when he destroyed the temple (1:7). These articles were holy and consecrated to the Lord; it had been an abomination to have them housed in a pagan temple. How overjoyed the people must have been when king Cyrus returned these items (1:8-10)!
Bible scholars speculate over the identity of Sheshbazzar the prince of Judah (1:8). He seems to be the leader whom King Cyrus designated for the return and temple rebuilding. However, Zerubbabel is the generally acknowledged leader. Sheshbazzar is only mentioned three other times in Ezra (1:11; 5:14, 16), so it’s possible he died soon after arriving in Jerusalem and was succeeded by Zerubbabel. In any case, the former was the one in charge of bringing the temple articles back to Jerusalem (1:11).
Though the numbers listed in 1:9-10 do not add up to the 5,400 in 1:11, it is possible that the first list includes only the larger and more important items, while the total includes every piece down to the smallest items.
B. The Jews Who Returned to Jerusalem (2:1-70)
2:1-2 The opening verses identify the leaders of this early return; Zerubbabel is listed first (2:2).
2:3-70 The list of names here was meant to confirm that the returnees were true Israelites. Many Bible readers might consider the list to be tedious reading, but Ezra 2 would have been a genuine encouragement to the original readers, who were decades removed from this first return in 539 BC and were part of the second return under Ezra. Those readers were faltering in their worship of the Lord–even though they had the temple–and needed to be reminded of their need to follow God with all their hearts. It would have been a blessing to them to read the names of their families and ancestors among those who were willing to leave the safety and the known of Persia to trek back to Israel, to the unknown, and to rebuild the temple out of devotion to the Lord. The reminder of their ancestors’ commitment, in fact, would inspire Ezra’s readers to renew their own faithfulness to the Mosaic law, as happened in Ezra 9–10.
Because rebuilding the temple and restoring the proper worship of God were primary, Ezra noted that the returnees who were unable to establish their priestly ancestry were disqualified from the priesthood until that crucial connection could be verified (2:62-63). When the exiles reached Jerusalem and saw the rubble of the first temple that Nebuchadnezzar had left behind, they dug deep and gave freewill offerings for the house of God . . . based on what they could give (2:68-69). When it came to giving in the local church, this was Paul’s attitude as well: one ought to give according to his means (see 1 Cor 16:2; 2 Cor 8:3-4; 9:6-7).
There is a crucial lesson in Ezra 2 that applies to God’s kingdom agenda for the church today. This list of God’s people includes those who were willing to work to accomplish his will, even if it meant leaving comfort and convenience. Ezra 2 is a membership role, then, of those who were willing to say, “I am not going to sit on the sidelines and reap the benefits of God’s house and people. You can count me in.”
The church—not just the building, but the people within it—is the New Testament temple. This is why the church is so strategic to the building of God’s kingdom in our day. The church is the one entity on earth that offers the presence of God. Furthermore, it has the largest volunteer force potentially of any other institution in the world—with all manner of skills, talents, gifts, and resources at its disposal. And, maybe most important of all, the church is a biblically based, moral institution that still holds to and teaches God’s absolute standards.
Therefore, if churches were committed to a heavenly perspective and a kingdom agenda, there would be a massive transformation in our communities that would radiate out to our cities and, ultimately, our world. The church is not just a building in a neighborhood. God’s house is where community transformation begins. When churches degenerate to only being places we attend on Sundays, we have stopped being the people of God. Our kingdom calling is to move out into the community with God’s transforming power that affects every area of life.
C. The Altar Built and the Temple Begun (3:1-13)
3:1-2 The priest Jeshua and Zerubbabel the civil leader led the way (3:2). Jeshua was a descendant of Aaron, and Zerubbabel was in David’s line; thus, the people were guided by authorized leaders.
Interestingly, the first thing the returning exiles began building was not the temple, but the altar, so that they might restore the true worship of God. The altar was necessary to offer burnt offerings . . . as it is written in the law of Moses (3:2). Because it was the Jews’ failure to worship the Lord and serve him only that had led to the destruction of the temple and the Babylonian exile, the returnees knew that the temple had to have priority. And, even before it was rebuilt, the altar itself was. These returnees wanted to make sure they were faithful to the Mosaic covenant and its requirements so that they might worship God rightly—unlike their ancestors.
3:3 Here, the reader is reminded that the Israelites were in hostile surroundings: they feared the surrounding peoples. Thus, they could expect opposition, which would come soon enough. Nevertheless, they offered burnt offerings to the Lord in spite of their fear. They had come to embrace an important lesson: we are to fear God more than man.
3:4-5 The people celebrated the Festival of Shelters, also known as the Feast of Tabernacles or Booths (3:4). During it, they were to erect temporary shelters to remind them of how their ancestors had lived during their forty-year trek through the wilderness after leaving Egypt. For these Israelites who had returned from Babylon to Jerusalem in a second exodus, this celebration was a reminder of God’s provision.
3:6-9 With the sacrifices restored, the former exiles gave money . . . food, drink, and oil to those who supplied the materials and those who would perform the work on the temple (3:7).
The temple’s foundation was begun seventy years after Nebuchadnezzar’s first deportation of Jews to Babylon in 605 BC. Some Bible scholars count the beginning of work on the temple as the end of the seventy-year Babylonian exile, while others begin the count with the destruction of Jerusalem and the final deportation to Babylon in 586 BC, ending with the completion of the temple in 515.
3:10-13 When the foundation of the temple was laid, the people had a worship party. But, the singing and shouting with praise and thanksgiving to the Lord (3:11) was mixed with equally loud weeping from the older priests, Levites, and family leaders, who had seen the first temple (3:12)—Solomon’s temple that the Babylonians had destroyed. So, while it was a joy to be building God’s temple again, those who remembered what once had been knew it would not achieve its former glory.
D. The Temple’s Construction Halted by Opposition (4:1-24)
4:1-5 “The surrounding peoples” (3:3) who did not want to see the Jews rebuild the temple soon made their presence felt. When these enemies of Judah and Benjamin heard what was happening, they first tried to fake friendship with the Jews (4:1-2). But, Zerubbabel and the other leaders shut this tactic down with a blunt, “Thanks, but no thanks” (4:3). Rebuffed, they thus discouraged the people from building and bribed officials to frustrate the work (4:4-5). (Clearly, they were no friends of the returnees.)
4:6 Reference to Judah’s enemies led Ezra to insert a parenthetical account about other trouble (4:6-23); it probably happened before Nehemiah returned and completed rebuilding Jerusalem’s walls. Here, the issue was the rebuilding of Jerusalem, with the opposition beginning in the reign of the Persian king Ahasuerus, or Xerxes. The people who were already in the land were the descendants of the foreigners whom the Assyrians had imported into Samaria after the fall of the northern kingdom of Israel in 722 BC (see 4:10; 4:2). They were pagans who intermarried with the remaining Jews and mixed the worship of the Lord with their idolatry.
4:7-16 There is no record of what happened as a result of the protest to Xerxes. But, during the reign of King Artaxerxes, the letter of protest hit home (4:7). Their accusation was that once the Jews finished Jerusalem’s walls, they would stop paying tribute, the king would suffer dishonor, and the people of Jerusalem would become a rebellious thorn in his side (4:12-16).
4:17-23 Artaxerxes consulted his royal rec-ords and discovered that Jerusalem had, in fact, been the scene of uprisings . . . rebellions and revolts in times past (4:19). So, the king issued a decree for the Jews to stop their work (4:21-22), which prompted their enemies to use force to halt the construction (4:23). The Jews’ enemies knew that if they could neutralize the construction, they could neutralize the temple, the walls, the city, and the community. And, if they were successful in all this, the influence of God’s people would be neutralized. In other words, the enemies had an anti-kingdom agenda, and it was successful for a while.
4:24 This verse jumps backward in time, picking up the narrative where Ezra left off at 4:5. Here we learn that the temple work was stopped until the second year of the reign of King Darius in 520 BC. This means as much as eighteen years had passed.
E. The Temple’s Construction and Completion (5:1–6:22)
5:1-2 It was imperative that the temple be finished if the people of Israel hoped to restore the true worship of God, so it was a blessing when the long delay was interrupted by the ministries of the prophets Haggai and Zechariah. They began to call God’s people back to the work on his house (5:1). Because the people had also left the Word of God when they abandoned the temple project, Haggai and Zechariah called them back to faithfulness. As a result, the leadership of Zerubbabel and Jeshua responded, and the prophets of God were with them to help (5:2). Once again, the spiritual and civil leaders were renewed in their desire to finish the work God had given.
5:3-5 Trouble soon came again when the regional governor Tattenai and his assistants, who were accountable to the Persian king Darius, heard that the work in Jerusalem had resumed and came to investigate. Tattenai was concerned that the Jews in Jerusalem were planning something devious toward the Persian king. So, the governor asked who had given them the order to rebuild the temple. Furthermore, he made it clear he was taking names so he could report the Jewish leaders to King Darius (5:4). Thankfully, though, God was watching over the Jewish elders. He kept them from harm so that they could continue the work until a written response arrived from the king (5:5).
5:6-10 Tattenai began his letter by acknowledging that the Jews of the great God in the province of Judah were making significant progress on the temple, with the work being done diligently and succeeding through the people’s efforts (5:6-8). In this statement, the regional governor was not making any particular claims about “the great God”; he was simply noting that he was the God of that region. To acknowledge that certain gods had control over certain lands and peoples was a belief very common in the ancient world. With that done, Tattenai reported his actions and his interrogation of the Jews (5:9-10).
5:11-12 The Jewish leaders composed a response to the governor, which Tattenai in turn forwarded to King Darius. They start by identifying themselves: We are the servants of the God of the heavens and earth (5:11). (They knew who they were; that’s where you have to start. What you do flows from who you are.) They also were honest about their sin and its consequences. Because their ancestors had angered God, he handed them over to King Nebuchadnezzar (5:12). In other words, the king of Babylon hadn’t defeated them because his gods were more powerful. Rather, the God of Israel and Judah had delivered them into Nebuchadnezzar’s hands because of their disobedience.
5:13-17 Far from acting as rebels, the Jewish people in Jerusalem pointed out that they were acting under the orders of an earlier Persian ruler, King Cyrus. He had issued a decree to rebuild the house of God (5:13). Thus, everything they were doing was completely legal and above board and that was why they could confidently say of their building project, It has been under construction from that time (5:16). The Jewish leaders presented their case to Darius and urged him to conduct a search of the royal archives to verify their claims (5:17). Royal documents were carefully recorded and preserved, so the Jews were no doubt confident that they were on solid ground.
6:1-5 Chapter 6 is climactic in many ways and concludes the report of the first return of Jewish exiles to Jerusalem under Zerubbabel.
King Darius ordered the search requested by the Jewish leaders (6:1). Thankfully, the scroll was found with Cyrus’s edict commanding that the house of God in Jerusalem . . . be rebuilt (6:2-3), setting in motion a chain of events that led to the temple’s completion.
6:6-10 Darius’s own decree began with a stern warning to Tattenai and his officials to stay away from that place (that is, Jerusalem) and not to do anything to interfere with the construction of the house of God (6:6-7). Moreover, he said that the cost of the rebuilding was to be paid in full . . . out of the royal revenues from the taxes of the region west of the Euphrates River—that is, from the taxes collected in the region over which Tattenai served as governor (6:8). Thus, Tattenai was ordered to leave the Jews alone and to give them all the funds they needed from his own coffers. Then, Darius also ordered that everything be provided to the Jews so that they could offer their sacrifices to God (6:9-10). This statement is a reminder that God knows how to take the resources of the wicked to accomplish the work of his kingdom. It’s doubtful that Darius was a true believer in Israel’s God, but clearly he was happy to have the Jews pray on his behalf (6:10).
6:11-12 The king closed his letter with a P.S., warning any man who [interfered] with this directive what would happen to him. If anyone hindered the work on the Jerusalem temple, a beam would be torn from his house, and he would be impaled on it. Then, his house would be turned into a garbage dump for good measure (6:11). Darius’s warning to Tattenai couldn’t have been more clear. In effect, he said, “Stay away from Jerusalem, quit harassing the Jews, and send them all the money and provisions they need. Cross me, and I’ll have you executed.” The king concluded with a wish for God to overthrow anyone who would oppress his people (6:12). This account of God’s provision had to be a great encouragement to Ezra’s readers; it was evidence of the unending faithfulness of their God.
6:13-15 Tattenai and his officials had no choice but to carry out the king’s orders diligently (6:13). Darius had put the fear of God into them. The Lord’s number one agenda item for his returning people was to erect the temple, and no human agenda could get in the way.
Notice the importance of the prophesying of Haggai the prophet and Zechariah to the success of the work (6:14). Allowing God’s word to lead the way was necessary to keep the workers from becoming discouraged or losing focus. These prophets faithfully reminded the people of the urgency and importance of their work in God’s eyes. Thus, the temple was completed in the spring of 515 BC, twenty-one years after the work had begun (6:15).
6:16-22 The celebration at the temple’s completion was quite an affair. Everyone celebrated the dedication of the house of God with great joy (6:16). The number of animals sacrificed was incredible (6:17), suggesting that nothing was too good for the Lord.
The former exiles celebrated alongside a second group described as all who had separated themselves from the uncleanness of the Gentiles of the land in order to worship the Lord, the God of Israel (6:21). These were perhaps Jews who had stayed in the land when their brothers were exiled, defiling themselves with paganism by intermingling with the nations around Israel.
The Festival of Unleavened Bread (6:22) was also observed for seven days to remind the Jews to separate themselves from sin and defilement by removing all leaven (that is, yeast) from their bread and even their houses.
God had reminded his people that he alone is sovereign, no matter what earthly king sits on the throne. He had changed the . . . king’s attitude toward them (6:22), a reminder that “A king’s heart is like channeled water in the Lord’s hand: He directs it wherever he chooses” (Prov 21:1).