II. The Return of the Exiles under Ezra Ezra (7:1–10:44)
II. The Return of the Exiles under Ezra (7:1–10:44)
A. Ezra: the Man and His Commission (7:1-28)
7:1-6 Chapter 7 leaps ahead several decades to the second return under Ezra himself. During the reign of King Artaxerxes of Persia, Ezra—the book’s namesake—came to Jerusalem in 458 BC (7:1). His genealogy is provided to establish his priestly pedigree and to show that he descended from Aaron (7:1-5). A scribe was an expert in the law of Moses, capable of interpreting it and teaching it to the people (7:6). This detail would become vital to the next events recorded because though God’s people were out of Babylon, there was still a lot of Babylon (idolatry and immorality) in God’s people. Ezra’s primary ministry in Judah would be resolving this.
Ezra not only had the right credentials, but he also came up from Babylon with the full authority of King Artaxerxes of Persia, who granted [Ezra] everything he requested because the hand of the Lord his God was on him (7:6). This explanation for Ezra’s success, in fact, is the key to all that happened in the return of God’s people from exile and the rebuilding of the temple, from the first return under Zerubbabel to Nehemiah’s building of the wall around Jerusalem. God’s “hand” being on this process is mentioned numerous times in Ezra (7:6, 9, 29; 8:18, 22) and twice in Nehemiah (see 2:8, 18). So, while pagan kings from Cyrus to Artaxerxes had given the Jews all the protection, royal authority, and financial aid they needed, God was the true King behind these human thrones. He arranged events to fulfill his agenda for Israel.
7:10 Another key to Ezra’s ministry was that he had determined in his heart to study the law of the Lord, obey it, and teach its statutes and ordinances in Israel (7:10). Ezra was the total package. First, he studied God’s law. The Word of God is supremely authoritative because its author is the King of creation. If the divine Ruler of the universe has something to communicate to you, you can bet it’s important. Ezra, accepting this, was determined to know God’s Word through and through.
Second, he obeyed it. Ezra wasn’t content to be a mere academic, studying the Bible while failing to let it affect his beliefs, character, and actions. God wants his Word to guide our decision-making and to set the agenda for our lives, too. Merely knowing it is insufficient; we must live in submission to it.
Third, Ezra taught God’s Word to others. It is good and right to study and obey Scripture. But, we mustn’t stop there. We must share it with others so that they, in turn, can understand and obey it. Only then will our families, churches, and communities be transformed.
Ezra is a reminder of the importance of godly human leadership within the church. For the church to function at all, someone has to lead. Moreover, such leadership is God’s means of building his kingdom in history. Spiritual leadership today comes with the responsibility of advancing God’s agenda by helping to facilitate the biblical goals of Christian maturity and ministry effectiveness in the lives of those under one’s charge (see Eph 4:11-12). A good leader is someone who knows the way, goes the way, and shows the way, as Ezra did.
7:11-26 Ezra arrived in Jerusalem carrying a written letter from King Artaxerxes (7:11) giving permission for any Jew in his kingdom to go back to Jerusalem (7:13). It also spelled out how the civil authorities in that region were to help the Jews financially (7:15-24). The king’s edict focused on what was needed for the Jews to worship the God of the heavens (7:12, 21).
This group of returnees showed up with silver and gold given by the king and his counselors for God’s house, plus the offerings of people throughout the province of Babylon (7:15-16). These details are astounding! Not only did the king permit the exiles to return to their homeland, but he also ensured that they would not lack the resources needed to restore the temple and the worship of their God.
Though we have no reason to think Artaxerxes was a true follower of the Lord, he recognized the power of “the God of the heavens.” He probably believed in multiple gods but clearly wanted, like Darius (see 6:10), to experience the favor of the God of Israel. Thus, he called for obedience to God, so that wrath [would] not fall on [his] realm (7:23).
7:27-28 How did Ezra respond to this display of royal support? He exclaimed, Blessed be the Lord (7:27). He knew praise was the only appropriate response to God’s sovereign provision. Ezra reminded himself and his readers that God was the true power behind the events: he had put it into the king’s mind to glorify the house of the Lord in Jerusalem (7:27). He also took courage to accomplish the work before him because he had been strengthened by the hand of the Lord (7:28). When you know your God and experience his powerful work in your life, you will have the confidence and courage to fulfill the ministry he has given you, too.
B. The Return to Jerusalem (8:1-36)
8:1-14 The list Ezra compiled of the Jewish exiles who were willing to return to Jerusalem began with priestly families and descendants of David and was organized by family heads (8:1). It was a much smaller group of returnees than the earlier one under Zerubbabel and Jeshua (2:1-67).
8:15-20 When the group assembled for the hazardous, 900-mile journey to Jerusalem initially, Ezra discovered there were no Le-vites among the returnees (8:15). This was a concern because Levites would be needed to do the work of the Lord at the temple and to teach the law of Moses to the people. The exiles would desperately need to understand God’s Word if they were to be successful in their resettlement. Therefore, Ezra commissioned a band of eleven men to go to Iddo, the leader at Casiphia, an unknown area, with a message for him and his brothers . . . that they should bring . . . ministers for the house of . . . God (8:17). In response, Levites and a large number of temple servants signed up for the trip—because the gracious hand of . . . God was on Ezra and the group (7:18-20).
8:21-23 The next challenge was the lengthy, dangerous journey itself. Because Ezra had confidently told the king that God would protect his people on their journey, he was ashamed to ask the king for a military escort (8:22). Instead, Ezra called the people to fast and pray to God, an act of humility and dependence to which the Lord responded (8:21, 23).
The purpose for fasting was the same then as it is in our day. Fasting communicates to God that we are willing to go without a basic necessity for a period of time because we recognize our need for him is even greater. When we need to experience God more deeply or need his answer in a significant way, fasting is a tangible expression of our dependence on him. Though fasting certainly doesn’t twist God’s arm to respond as we want, it demonstrates to him (and to us) that we are serious about living according to his perspective.
8:24-30 Ezra did something else very important before setting out for Jerusalem. He committed the offering that the exiles were carrying with them into the hands of a group of trustworthy priests and Levites who would guard the silver and gold articles and deliver them safely to the temple (8:24-29). This wise move put Ezra above suspicion and delegated this task to those who would have rightful responsibility for the holy articles once in Jerusalem (8:28-30). Leaders of God’s people must be above reproach and call others to fulfill their own ministerial duties.
8:31-34 Ezra summarized the journey back to Jerusalem in one sentence: We were strengthened by our God, and he kept us from the grasp of the enemy and from ambush along the way (8:31). God had responded with divine deliverance to the people’s humble fasting and prayer (see 8:21-23).
8:35-36 Upon the group’s arrival to their new home, three days of rest (8:32) were followed by multiple sacrifices of praise and worship to God. Ezra gave a copy of the king’s decree to the leaders in the region, so that they would support the people and the house of God (8:36).
C. Sin of the People and Ezra’s Confession (9:1-15)
9:1-2 The joy of the return was short-lived. Ezra found himself with a crisis on his hands. Some leaders of the Jewish community approached Ezra with bad news, really bad news, and then even worse news. The bad news was that the returned exiles were showing how little they had learned from the example of their ancestors because they had not separated themselves from the surrounding peoples and their detestable practices (9:1). The really bad news was that the Israelite men had taken non-Israelite wives, so that the holy seed [had] become mixed with that of the surrounding peoples. Even worse, the leaders and officials [had] taken the lead in this unfaithfulness (9:2).
Such actions had been clearly forbidden by God. After the exodus from Egypt and before Israel entered the promised land, Moses had commanded them not to intermarry with the people groups listed in Ezra 9:1 (see Deut 7:1-3). Why? “Because they will turn your sons away from me to worship other gods. Then the Lord’s anger will burn against you, and he will swiftly destroy you” (Deut 7:4). The Israelites of Ezra’s day, then, were walking a path that would send them right back into divine judgment.
9:3-4 Ezra dramatically demonstrated his horror and humiliation before the Lord on behalf of his sinful people (9:3). Those who similarly took God seriously—that is, those who trembled at the words of the God of Israel—gathered around Ezra as he sat devastated (9:4).
Some Christians today, who have grown up in a culture that prizes individualism, might be puzzled at Ezra’s response here. After all, Ezra himself wasn’t guilty of this sin, so why should he be so concerned? But, Ezra had a right understanding of the corporate aspect of being a part of the people of God.
Think of it this way. A faithful offensive lineman may perform a well-executed block. But, if the rest of the offensive line collapses and the quarterback is sacked, the faithful football player is still on the losing end of things because he is part of a team. God calls his church a body—composed of many parts but functioning as one unit (see 1 Cor 12:12-31). We, as the church, are not merely to look after ourselves but to practice the “one anothers” of Scripture (see John 15:12; Gal 6:2; Eph 4:32; 1 Thess 5:11). God doesn’t want Lone Ranger Christians. Our spiritual vitality and growth only come as we serve the Lord together.
9:5-7 Like the godly leader he was, Ezra turned to the Lord in prayer. Though he was personally innocent, he readily identified with God’s people, his fellow Jews, who had sinned. Ezra fell on [his] knees and spread out [his] hands to the Lord, which was a position of deep contrition and repentance (9:5). He was personally ashamed and embarrassed to look up to God because of the people’s unfaithfulness (9:6).
Unfortunately, such blatant sin among the Israelites was nothing new, but had characterized previous generations who had suffered under the disciplining hand of God as a result (9:7). How could the men of Ezra’s generation be so blind and hard-hearted as to ignore their people’s history and invite God’s judgment once again?
9:8-9 Ezra might have despaired about the future of the restored community except for one wonderful truth about the Lord: He is a God of grace (9:8). He had seen fit to preserve a remnant of his people and to deliver them from slavery once again—not so that they might live for themselves, but so that they might rebuild the house of . . . God (9:8-9).
9:10-15 In light of God’s abundant grace, there was no excuse for this sin of intermarrying with the unrighteous nations surrounding them. Ezra acknowledged that the people had broken God’s clear commands, even quoting them back to God to demonstrate his understanding of how serious this offense was (9:11-12). Ezra knew God had already treated Israel far better than they deserved (9:13). He would be completely justified in sweeping them away and leaving no survivor (9:14). So, with all this said, Ezra made no specific request of the Lord. Instead, he threw himself and his people on God’s grace. He said, we are before you with our guilt . . . no one can stand in your presence because of this (9:15).
D. Confession of the People (10:1-44)
10:1-4 Ezra’s distraught condition over the sin of interfaith marriages and his humble, facedown repentance drew a large crowd to the open square in front of the temple (10:1). The people joined Ezra in bitter weeping, and, to their credit, were determined to deal with the situation. A man named Shecaniah spoke for the group, pledging their support for the painful steps the leader Ezra would have to take to remedy these sinful intermarriages (10:2-4).
The seriousness of the situation is indicated in Shecaniah’s use of the word covenant to describe the people’s earnestness (10:3). A covenant is a promise that binds the parties to its fulfillment. The people had determined to send away all the foreign wives and their children (10:3). Clearly, this cleansing would be difficult, but it was necessary to maintain the purity of the restored Israelite community and to avert further spiritual corruption that would bring God’s judgment again.
Having said that, I want to clarify that these were unique circumstances in the history of the nation of Israel. The church should not see these events as prescribing a principle for marriages today in which a Christian is married to an unbeliever. Clearly, a believer is to marry another believer—one who is “in the Lord” (1 Cor 7:39). But, if a person becomes a believer after he or she is already married to an unbeliever, Paul gives biblical counsel about such situations in 1 Corinthians 7:12-16.
10:5-8 Soon, the leaders circulated a proclamation . . . that all the exiles should gather at Jerusalem (10:7). The Israelite men who had entered into such marriages had flouted the Mosaic law’s prohibition against unholy unions (see Deut 7:1-4). And sadly, nearly one-quarter of the offenders were priests and Levites who knew God’s Word better than anyone. Drastic measures, then, had to be taken. Any offender who did not show up in Jerusalem to appear before Ezra would forfeit all his possessions and be excommunicated from the assembly of the exiles (10:8).
10:9-16 Ezra took his place of leadership to begin reviewing the cases, but a bone-chilling heavy rain made the proceedings miserable to endure (10:9). Then, Ezra called it like it was. He said, You have been unfaithful (10:10). And so, a plan was worked out to let leaders in each town judge the offenders among them (10:12-14). The related process took three months to implement fully, but in the end, the cleansing was complete (10:16).
10:18-44 As if to emphasize the seriousness of this sin and its threat to the restored community, the list of Jewish men who had married pagan wives was led by the priests . . . Levites . . . singers, and gatekeepers (10:18, 23-24)—those responsible for overseeing the temple and leading Israel to worship the Lord. Only when these leaders had dealt with their sin could the whole assembly move forward in establishing themselves in their land under God’s blessing.