Restoring the People

Posted: April 12, 2015 in Ezra, Route 66

Route 66: Ezra, “Restoring the People”

Sometimes children have to be put in “time out.”  Different methods of discipline work with different personalities of kids, and that means sometimes kids get spanked & sometimes they get some forced quiet time.  In the case of the Jews, they got both!  They certainly got spanked when Jerusalem was conquered, but they also got placed in “time out” when they were removed from their home and taken to Babylon.

The nation had been decimated – utterly destroyed by the nearly unstoppable force of the Babylonian empire.  As Nebuchadnezzar became ascendant over all of the ancient Near East, he tired of the rebellion of the minor kings of Judah, and he brought down the full force of the Chaldean-Babylonian armies upon them.  The city of Jerusalem and its temple within was left in smoking rubble, and the people were carted off to all corners of the empire.

By all respects, it would have looked like a typical invasion of an ancient superpower upon a vassal city…but there was much more to it than meets the eye.  Ultimately, this was the sovereign hand of Almighty God at work.  For decades, God had protected Jerusalem and the people of Judah from nations far mightier than they.  God had destroyed the Egyptian armies when He brought His people out of slavery – God had given His wandering untrained people overwhelming military victory over the original inhabitants of Canaan – God had repeatedly delivered His people from attacks of various neighboring enemies – and (more recently) God had even protected the Jews from the onslaught of the Assyrian empire (something God did not do for the northern kingdom of Israel, as He withdrew His hand of protection from them).  Over and over again, God had shown Himself more than capable of defending His people from enemies that ought to have overwhelmed them.

But not this time.  Although God had sent prophet after prophet to warn His people, they steadfastly refused to repent of their sins against Him.  There were occasional periods of revival, but overall, the supposed people of God took their covenant with God for granted and flaunted gross sin in front of Him.  The kings of Judah provoked God to wrath…and God gave it.  As with the northern kingdom, God withdrew His hand of protection, and actually brought in the Babylonian empire to rain down destruction upon Judah, and that’s what they did.

Though the judgement of God is terrible, His mercies are great.  The discipline He brought upon the nation was necessary, but temporary.  The land required 70 years of rest due to the sin of the people, and 70 years in captivity were all that the Jews spent in exile.  True to His covenant promises to Abraham, Moses, and David, God brought His people back into the land, and resumed His ultimate plan to bring forth the promised Messiah through them.  For the prophecies to be true, there needed to be descendants of Abraham and David in the land of Israel, and that is exactly what God ensured would happen.  The “time out” of the nation was over, and God brought them back to the land.

That is the story of Ezra (and Nehemiah).  Just as the history of the kingdom’s sad decline into sin was recorded, so was the history of the mercies of God that He poured out onto His people.  Unlike other nations around the world, the Jews did not pass out of existence when removed from their homeland.  They kept their unique identity (a miracle in itself!), and were brought back to the land of promise.  Their sovereignty may have been taken, but their worship was not.  The temple was rebuilt, and the people of God were restored to the home and religion God had originally given them.  The mercies of God are great – and they are seen every day in merely the existence of the Jewish people, if nothing else!

BACKGROUND:
As with the last several books we’ve looked at (Samuel, Kings, Chronicles), the book we know as “Ezra” is actually part-one of a dual set.  The earliest manuscripts that exist of the book show Ezra-Nehemiah as one unit, and it wasn’t until well after the Old Testament canon was established that the books were split in two.  Of course there is little doubt that the distinct testimonies of Ezra and Nehemiah are contained in each work, and the split is natural & unforced – but they may have been ultimately compiled by the same person (perhaps Ezra or the unnamed Chronicler), and all combined as one original unified book.  As an aside, the Latin Vulgate has this listed as 1-2 Esdras, and there are some other apocryphal books known by other various of Esdras, which can get rather convoluted.  The books we know as Ezra-Nehemiah are the only versions of the books found within the Hebrew Bible (Masoretic text), which is the reason our Bibles include this version and none of the others.

Again, the book is technically anonymous, though there are sections of first-person accounts (of both Ezra & Nehemiah, respectively).  The date range covered by the books stretches out over the reign of several Persian kings (which comes with its own interpretative challenge, as we’ll see in a bit), covering a period of almost 100 years – somewhere in the range of 539 – 424 BC.  The book itself is unique among the Old Testament, as it includes the first language other than Hebrew: Aramaic.  Whoever wrote/compiled the book incorporated several pieces of correspondence that was sent back and forth to the kings of Persia, and left those letters in their original Aramaic.  Although the language is closely related to Hebrew, it is a different language entirely – and it ends up becoming the natural language of the Jews.  When Jesus and the apostles spoke to one another, they spoke in Aramaic; not Hebrew (and they would write in Greek; not Aramaic).

SIGNIFICANCE / THEMES
Although Ezra most certainly is a book of history, it is primarily a book of theology.  What is shown through the history is the greatness of the mercies of God, and the innate sinfulness of man.

The mercies of God are evident as not only are the Jews returned to their homeland, and allowed to rebuild the temple – but that they do so with the full funding of the Persian Empire!  Remember that this was a people who had repeatedly sinned against the covenant relationship they had with God, and God was faithful to His covenant promises to the extent of allowing the people to experience every single curse listed in the book of Deuteronomy.  But the other aspect of the curses in the covenant that is often overlooked is the fact that they wouldn’t last forever.  God knew that His people were going to sin, but He also knew that His people would be restored.  He specifically promised to bring them out of captivity.  Deuteronomy 30:1–6, "(1) “Now it shall come to pass, when all these things come upon you, the blessing and the curse which I have set before you, and you call them to mind among all the nations where the Lord your God drives you, (2) and you return to the Lord your God and obey His voice, according to all that I command you today, you and your children, with all your heart and with all your soul, (3) that the Lord your God will bring you back from captivity, and have compassion on you, and gather you again from all the nations where the Lord your God has scattered you. (4) If any of you are driven out to the farthest parts under heaven, from there the Lord your God will gather you, and from there He will bring you. (5) Then the Lord your God will bring you to the land which your fathers possessed, and you shall possess it. He will prosper you and multiply you more than your fathers. (6) And the Lord your God will circumcise your heart and the heart of your descendants, to love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, that you may live."  Not only did God look forward to the day He would bring His children from captivity back into the physical land of promise, but He also looked forward to a day far in the future when they would truly worship Him as He always intended: with all their soul, in spirit and truth.  Prophetically, that won’t take place until the Millennial Kingdom, but that day IS coming, no doubt.  (If God was literally faithful to the first part of this promise, what makes anyone think that God wouldn’t be literally faithful to the latter part?)

The mercies of God are truly good!  They are far beyond anything that we deserve.  Think of it: not only did God create us, but He created us with the full knowledge that we were going to sin against Him.  He created millions of people with the full knowledge that not only would they sin against Him, but that they would always sin against Him…and yet He still reaches out to them in love and grace with the gospel.  God gives everyone the equal opportunity to receive of His grace.  Can you imagine giving Adolf Hitler the opportunity to be saved?  God can.  His mercies are truly great, and they flood the world every single day.

Of course, God may be faithful to His mercies, but mankind is still faithless in our worship.  Just as surely as God brought the Jews back into the land, they proceeded quickly to start in on their sin once again.  The final two chapters of the book of Ezra detail the quick sin of the Jews, and how they dealt with it when confronted by Ezra.  It’s as if the people were almost daring God to punish them once again, they slipped back into their sin so quickly.

This is real life, is it not?  Humans are simply sinful, wretched creatures.  Left to our own devices, we do nothing but sin against God.  We engage in our lusts, and walk in rebellion against the God who loves us and created us.  That was our natural tendency prior to coming to faith in Christ, and (if we’re not careful) that can be our natural tendency now as well.  But that brings us back again to the gospel and mercies of God!  As much as we fail (and we will surely fail) – as much as we sin (and we definitely sin) – God does not cast us aside, nor does He remove His covenant promises from us.  As Christians, we have been bought by the blood of Jesus.  Our sins have been paid in full by the Son of God.  And not just a few of our sins; ALL of them.  God saw us from before the foundation of the world, knew our failings, and still sent Jesus to die upon the cross for us.  Our nature is to sin against God; God’s nature is to love us in spite of our sin.  He will definitely show Himself holy, and the full wrath of God is seen against sin when we look upon the suffering and death of Jesus at the cross – but God also shows Himself lovingly merciful and gracious as He continues to reach out to us in spite of our sin, having already provided for our forgiveness through the resurrection of Jesus from the dead.

Can we get all of that out of Ezra?  Absolutely!  That’s the story here.  Man is sinful, but God is merciful…and the mercies of God are ever-greater.

GENERAL OUTLINE

  • 1st Wave of Return (1-3)
  • Temple Construction & Controversies (4-6)
  • 2nd Wave of Return (7-8)
  • Sin of Intermarriage (9-10)

1st Wave of Return (1-3)
The decree and provision of Cyrus (1)
Like other historical books of the OT, Ezra picks up where the previous account left off.  In this particular case, it literally begins in the same place as the first few verses of Ch. 1 basically mirror the concluding verses of 2 Chronicles. As we read those first few verses, the initial question we might have is “What word to Jeremiah?”  God gave Jeremiah several prophecies regarding the return of the Jews from Babylonian captivity – at least two of which were very specific as to the timing involved.  Jeremiah 25:12, "Then it will come to pass, when seventy years are completed, that I will punish the king of Babylon and that nation, the land of the Chaldeans, for their iniquity,’ says the Lord; ‘and I will make it a perpetual desolation."Jeremiah 29:10–11, "(10) For thus says the Lord: After seventy years are completed at Babylon, I will visit you and perform My good word toward you, and cause you to return to this place. (11) For I know the thoughts that I think toward you, says the Lord, thoughts of peace and not of evil, to give you a future and a hope." .  The point?  God promised 70 years, and God gave them 70 years…and that was it.  Once the time was done, it was done.  God said that He would bring them back, and that’s exactly what He did.  In fact, they went back with all of the freedom and blessing of Cyrus, king of Persia (something else prophesied in the Bible – Isa 44:28).

Although at first glance, Cyrus’ declaration seems to indicate that he had faith in God, in all likelihood, he remained a pagan.  Apparently, Cyrus allowed many of the people whom the Babylonians took captive to return to their own lands, and rebuild their temples and various systems of worship.  It seemed to be his way of hedging his bets and incurring the favor of whichever god may have been the right one.  At the same time, there’s no real way of knowing.  Taken at face value, if all of these words are the words of Cyrus (and not a bit of inserted commentary by the author), then perhaps Cyrus did come to faith.

  • In any case, it demonstrates that God can use even pagan kings for His glory.  Is it better to have God-fearing, Bible-believing national leaders?  By far!  But even when pagans lead nations, Almighty God still reigns over the universe.  There is no reason to fear men when we have a proper reverent fear of God.

At the decree of Cyrus, those who were willing to return to Israel did so.  Apparently, not everyone was excited about it, as many had become settled and comfortable in the land of foreigners.  God moved the spirits of some to leave & rebuild the temple (1:5), and that’s what they did.  As they returned, they brought back the provisions of the temple that survived: gold & silver platters, basins, knives, and more.  They were returning with everything they needed to start over again.

  • We need to beware of getting too comfortable in this world.  Remember, this world is not our home!  We are citizens of the kingdom of heaven, and our home is truly with the Lord Jesus…we just are awaiting our relocation orders.

Restoration of the people (2)

  • General population (2:1-35): This is the first of many family lists in Ezra-Nehemiah.  We know next to nothing about the vast majority of the people here, but we need to remember that at one point, the original readers knew much.  This was like looking through their own family photo album.  They could look back and see how their own ancestors returned from captivity and were brought back to the land of promise.  To us, these are random names; to the original readers, this was evidence of God’s mercy upon their own personal family.
    • God has shown mercy to each of us, as well.  Perhaps no one else will ever know all the ways God has revealed Himself in your life, but you know.  Give Him glory!  Give God thanks!  Take the time to see the various ways God has brought you through trials and displayed to you His glorious grace.
  • Ministry workers (2:64-70): Quite a bit of Ch. 2 is dedicated to the listing of the priests, Levites, singers, gatekeepers, Nethinim (some form of temple assistant), and other ministry workers.  Why?  Remember that this is a theological history of the Jewish return from captivity.  For the people to truly be reinstated in the land, they needed to be able to worship there.  And for them to be able to worship, they needed the ministry servants as God saw fit – thus the genealogy for the Levites and priests (and others) needed to be established.  In fact, there were several people who claimed a priestly lineage, but didn’t have any sort of official record to prove it.  These people were not allowed even to eat of the allotment given to the priests until an established priest could take their case before the Lord (2:63).
    • There’s a parallel here to the priesthood we have in Christ.  Remember that as a Church, we are a priesthood of believers, all serving our Great High Priest, the Lord Jesus.  This isn’t something that someone can randomly take to him/herself.  You are either in Christ, or you’re not.  If you are not a born-again believer, than you cannot partake of the benefits of salvation.  You don’t have access to God – you don’t have the power of the Holy Spirit – you don’t have forgiveness of sin, etc.  Those only come to those who truly have faith, who are part of the royal priesthood of Jesus.

Restoration of worship (3)

  • Altar rebuilt (3:1-7).  It would be a while before the temple could be rebuilt, but obviously the people could not wait that long to start bringing sacrificial offerings again.  After all, the people continually sinned (just like us), and they needed continual atonement (something we have completed in Christ Jesus).  So Zerubbabel the governor & Jeshua/Joshua the priest “built the altar of the God of Israel” (3:2), and used it appropriately.  The sacrificial system was restored as best as possible, and they kept the Feast of Tabernacles, the New Moon, and the other appointed feasts as they gave offerings to the Lord.
  • Temple foundation rebuilt (3:8-13).  As soon as they could (the 2nd month of the 2nd year of their arrival – 3:8), they began work upon the temple itself.  Zerubbabel and Jeshua organized the Levites, planned the project, and went about things in an orderly fashion.  Although there was much to do, they were ready to rejoice when the initial foundation of the temple was laid.  Praising God was the right thing to do, but not everyone could find it in their hearts to praise the Lord.  Some wept so loud that it was impossible to distinguish the weeping from the shouting.
    • Why did the people weep?  Because those who had seen the original temple understood how far the people had fallen.  Even without any building being yet constructed, those who had lived to see the original temple of Solomon understood from the footprint of the foundation that this was going to pale in comparison.  The people were restored, but that didn’t mean everything was back to exactly the way it was.  There were consequences for their sin that would last for generations to come.  There would never be another Solomon’s temple (and even the version that these people remembered was nothing like it was in its heyday) – it was gone forever.
    • Does God bring restoration after sin?  Yes, absolutely & praise the Lord He does!  But sometimes there are consequences that last the rest of our lives.  God can restore much, but He can never restore innocence.  The memories of our sin (at least in our minds) live on.  Thankfully for God, they do not.  As far as the east is from the west, so far as God removed our transgressions from us! (Ps 103:12)
    • The key is to not live in regret.  Once we are forgiven, we are forgiven…so live as such!  Live soberly, so that you do not fall into the same temptation, but live joyfully knowing that Jesus has already paid the price for your sin.  It may not take away the memories, but it sure takes away the sting.

Temple Construction & Controversies (4-6)
Attempted subversion (4:1-5)
Once news got out that the Jews were rebuilding the temple, it caused all kinds of disturbance among their neighboring enemies.  The Jews may have been in captivity for 70 long years, but it wasn’t long enough for the enemies of God to forget how God previously protected His people in the past.  They did everything they could to stop (or at least slow) the work of God, because they knew that if God’s people didn’t worship, they would fall into disobedience.  (That’s still a favorite technique of the devil!  If he can distract the Christian from worship and prayer, he can wreak all kinds of havoc in our lives…or better yet, let us wreak it ourselves.)

The first attempt to stop the Jews was to try to get in from the inside.  The “adversaries of Judah and Benjamin” (4:1, interestingly remaining unnamed) offered to partner with the Jews and help them in the work of rebuilding.  They claimed to worship God just like the Jews did.  Zerubbabel and Jeshua wisely saw through the lies and refused their help, only to have the enemies try other means of discouraging the people.

At this point in the text, the timeline can become rather confusing.  We know that it was Cyrus king of Persia who initially commanded the Jews to return, and that’s when Zerubbabel and Jeshua began the work.  But from Ch 4-6, the book of Ezra lists off other various kings of Persia, and seems to go somewhat out of order, and we can easily lose track of what opposition the Jews faced when.  It’s helpful to get a broader look at the chronology of the Persian kings:

  • Cyrus (539 – 530BC).  Also possibly known as Darius the Mede, or with Darius the Mede as contemporary, per Daniel.
  • Darius (521 – 486BC).  Zerubbabel began his work during the reign of Cyrus, but finished it during the reign of Darius.  It was during this timeframe the temple was rebuilt.
  • Xerxes I / Ahasuerus (486 – 464BC).  This was the king recorded for us in the book of Esther.
  • Artaxerxes I (464 – 424BC).  Most of the events of the actual people of Ezra & Nehemiah took place during this reign.

What the book of Ezra (not the scribe/priest) does during this time is bounce back and forth a bit through the reigns of the various kings.  The Jews came under opposition from others during the reigns of each of these kings, and the author/compiler of the book combines all of the documentation of it in one place. He will return to the temple construction project during the reign of Darius in a bit, but for now he gives a list of some of the other trials.

Accusation to Ahasuerus (4:6).  The author doesn’t say much of what happened here, other than an accusation was made against the inhabitants of Judah and Jerusalem.  (Perhaps this is a veiled reference to the accusation made by Haman against the Jews, which was exposed by Mordecai and Esther?)

Looking ahead: Artaxerxes and the wall of Jerusalem (4:7-24)
It wasn’t just the rebuilding of the temple that caused so much concern for the enemies of Judah; it was the rebuilding of the city of Jerusalem itself.  In the past, Jerusalem had been a powerful fortified city, and it benefitted the enemies of the Jews to ensure that the wall stayed down.  This serves for much of the account of Nehemiah, but the author of Ezra-Nehemiah gives a bit of a preview of it here, including several letters that went back and forth from Artaxerxes concerning the wall of Jerusalem.  Remember that this is out-of-order, chronologically speaking – this didn’t take place until long after the temple reconstruction project was completed.  However, it fits the same theme of opposition, which is why the author included it here.

Looking ahead, it also gives a bit of insight as to the political struggles faced by Nehemiah.  Not only was he battling the discouragement of enemies right outside his door, but he was also dealing with the lies and rumors they spread to the king who originally sent him to rebuild the wall of Jerusalem.  Nehemiah faced spiritual battles on all sides, and unless God had been with him, there would have been no chance of success.

  • Likewise, we’ll all face battles from within and without.  We need to be prepared.  The Bible makes it clear that our enemy is not flesh and blood, but spiritual powers and principalities (Eph 6:12).  It may come from areas we least expect it, but through the power of the Holy Spirit, God still gives us the strength to stand firm.

Construction resumes (5:1-5)
The account actually picks up with the final verse of Ch 4, showing that the parenthetical section of the account of Artaxerxes has ended, and the regular narrative in the reign of King Darius has begun again.  Although much of the struggles that Zerubbabel and Jeshua faced in rebuilding the temple in Darius’ reign is somewhat unrecorded for it, no doubt it was overwhelming.  They had begun rebuilding the temple in the reign of Cyrus, but opposition caused it to cease, and they didn’t start again until the 2nd year of the reign of Darius.  What caused them to start anew?  A word of encouragement from the Lord through the prophets Haggai & Zechariah (5:1).  The people needed to take courage and trust the Lord that He was with them and would do the work (Hag 2:4).  Whereas Zerubbabel and Jeshua lacked the strength to do it, God did not.  Zechariah 4:6–7, "(6) So he answered and said to me: “This is the word of the Lord to Zerubbabel: ‘Not by might nor by power, but by My Spirit,’ Says the Lord of hosts. (7) ‘Who are you, O great mountain? Before Zerubbabel you shall become a plain! And he shall bring forth the capstone With shouts of “Grace, grace to it!” ’ ”"

  • What mountains seem overwhelming?  Through the might of God, they are leveled!  Sin & death has no more dominion over us; they have been conquered through the cross and resurrection of Christ.  WE do not have the power to stand, but GOD does.  We stand fast through the power of the Holy Spirit, knowing that He is more than able to accomplish the good work He desires to do within us.

Petition to Darius (5:6-17).  As soon as Zerubbabel and Jeshua restarted the rebuilding, opposition began anew.  One “Tattenai” who was a governor of a foreign land under Darius caught wind of the project, and basically feared sedition.  He confronted the Jews, who responded that they had been given permission by the previous king of Persia (Cyrus) to rebuild the temple.  Tattenai didn’t believe the Jews, and asked King Darius to search the records to see if their story was true.

Darius’ final decree (6:1-11).  As it turns out, the records of Persia were more complete than that of modern politicians and their private email servers. J  Darius had the records searched, and indeed he found the original proclamation of Cyrus.  In response, Darius commanded that Tattenai allow the Jews to proceed with the project, and he even went a step further: he financed it.  Not only would reconstruction continue, but Darius wanted everything the Jews needed to be given to them, so that the Jews would make offerings and sacrifices on behalf of Darius and the Persian Empire.

  • Again, God can do much through pagan kings!

Temple completed (6:13-18).  It took four years to finish the project, but the Jews did indeed finish (on the 3rd day of the 6th year of Darius – 6:15), and the people rejoiced.  Although the amount of the sacrifices offered was substantially less than what was originally offered in the days of Solomon, it was still a massive amount considering the current state of the nation.  The work was done & the people were “officially” back!

Passover kept (6:19-22).  The mention of Passover here is less chronological than it is theological.  We’re not told how much time elapsed between the completion of the temple and this particular Passover celebration, but the fact they celebrated it was significant.  After all, the Jews had just experienced a sort of 2nd Exodus.  God initially brought the people of Egyptian slavery when He brought them to Canaan; now God brought the people out of Babylonian captivity by bringing them back to the land of Israel.  God was faithful to deliver His people – and this still looked forward to the greater deliverance to be brought through the promised Messiah.

2nd Wave of Return (7-8)
Ezra returns (7).  This really begins a 2nd half of the book, with the account of Zerubbabel completed, and jumping ahead to a different king of Persia.  (Remember the order: Darius – Ahasuerus – Artaxerxes I.)  The events of the book of Esther have come and gone, and the Jews have been saved from extinction.  Meanwhile, life has been proceeding somewhat as “usual” in Jerusalem with the initial wave of Jews who returned.  Now it’s time for a new influx of people, and a new leader: Ezra.

  • Ezra introduced (7:1-10).  Ezra is a priest and scribe (7:5-6) – exactly what the people needed at this time.  They had returned to the land and begun worshipping God again with the priests who were there, but they also needed to know how to worship God properly, according to the Scripture.  As will be seen, they hadn’t done well on this point, and God seemingly raised up Ezra to bring precisely this correction. 
    • What will God allow us to do when we prepare our heart to seek Him and His truth?  Great things for the glory of God!
  • Ezra commissioned by Artaxerxes (7:11-26).  Ezra already had favor with the king (how, we don’t know), and Artaxerxes specifically sent Ezra back to Jerusalem for the express purpose of worshipping God.  (How great is that? J)  As with Darius, the idea was that Ezra would pray to God on behalf of the Persian king, and the king was more than happy to bankroll Ezra to be able to do it.  All the offerings were to be paid for by the king’s treasury – the surrounding lands were to provide for the needs of Ezra and the priests – and on top of it all, the priests, Levites and other ministry workers were made exempt from taxes.  Nothing was to get the way of Ezra’s ministry, be it in offering sacrifice or teaching the people the law of God.
    • Once more, we cannot say with any certainty that Artaxerxes was a believer in the Lord God of Israel, though he certainly encouraged the worship of the Lord God of Israel.  It’s a reminder to us to pray for our leaders, whether or not they are Christians.  If God can use men like Cyrus, Darius, and Artaxerxes, certainly He can use the leaders of our own nation (be they Republican, Democrat, or whatever).
  • Ezra’s thankfulness (7:27-28).  Closing out Ch. 7, Ezra offers up his thanks to God for the favor God showed him.  It may have been the command and finances of King Artaxerxes of Persia, but ultimately everything that happened was by the will of the King of the Universe, the Lord God of Israel.

Restoration of the people #2 (8)

  • Population (8:1-20).  Once more a listing of the names are given of those who returned.  The group is far smaller this time.  The 1st wave of return included over 42,000 men; the 2nd wave includes around 1500.  Again, people had grown comfortable in their lives, and not everyone had it in their heart to step out in faith and trust God.  Of course, it is only those who are willing to walk in faith that actually see the work of God.  If we’re content with the things of the world, why would we expect to see anything greater? 
  • Seeking God’s protection (8:21-23).  Before Ezra gets too far in his travels, he takes a break to fast and pray. Why?  Because he wanted to ensure they were truly walking by faith.  Ezra was ashamed to ask for an escort – why?  Because if the Jews were truly under the protection of the Most High God, then an armed guard ought to be superfluous.  Keep in mind that Ezra & the others were carrying much wealth with them (as will be detailed).  They were tiny crew of everyday joes & their families…and thus they were a prime target for ambush.  So what did Ezra do?  He prayed.  And God answered their prayer. (8:23)
    • The logical thing for Ezra to have done would have been to ask for a guard.  Yet Ezra chose to take a step of faith.  Obviously, God doesn’t call us to abandon wisdom or to act foolishly, but this was something that God seemed to lay upon Ezra’s heart.  Ezra would likely have been disobedient in doing anything else.  When God calls us to trust Him, then trust Him!  Sometimes that takes fasting & prayer, and that’s OK.
  • The provisions & travel (8:24-36).  How much did Artaxerxes entrust Ezra with?  Somewhere in the range of 25 tons of silver & 3.75 tons of gold.  That’s a lot of cash!  And they had a long way to go.  How did Ezra know that God answered his earlier prayers?  Because even with all of that cash & as far as they had to go, they saw the favor of God the entire way.

Sin of Intermarriage (9-10)
Discovery of pagan marriages (9)

  • The problem (9:1-4).  So Ezra has arrived in Jerusalem, with the express duty of the king to teach the proper worship of God, to offer sacrifices, and to pray for God’s favor on the Persians due to God’s favor upon the Jews.  And what does he find?  The Jews have placed themselves in a position for God to once again remove His favor from them!  The Jewish men had married the pagan women of the surrounding nations, not only endangering the purity of the Jewish line (as was the case with the Samaritans), but engaging in the ancient sin with which Balaam had encouraged through the king of Moab.  Don’t get the wrong idea – this wasn’t racism; this was guarding against idolatry.  It had been idolatry that caused the people to sin and provoke God to wrath, and they were about to do it all over again.  Ezra saw the sin for what it was, and took it with the utmost seriousness by tearing his robe and physically plucking out some of his beard.
  • Ezra’s prayer of confession (9:5-15).  It’s interesting that Ezra confesses the way that he does, in that he personally hadn’t engaged in any of this sin.  His family is unnamed, but there’s no indication that he married a pagan.  And yet he still confesses on behalf of his people.  This is true intercession.  This is putting yourself in the place of another, and pleading to God on their behalf.  No one did this better than Jesus when He literally put Himself in our place, taking our sin upon Him, and becoming the Intercessor and Mediator between us and God.  In Ezra’s case, all he could do was honestly confess sin, and throw the nation upon the mercies of God; in Jesus’ case, He actually dealt with the sin, satisfying the righteous wrath of God on our behalf.

National action (10)

  • Confession of leaders (10:1-17).  Ezra’s example inspired the other leaders to do the same.  They saw the problem, and they were ready to deal with it.  They understood that it wasn’t too late for repentance – that the mercies of God were great towards those with sincere & contrite hearts.  They were ready to confess, and they hoped that God was ready to forgive. (We don’t have to hope; we have that sound assurance!  1 Jn 1:9)
    • In this particular case, the solution was as awful as the sin: divorce.  They had placed themselves in a position where there was no good answer.  It was a hard thing to be done, and this is the only instance in Scripture were divorce was commanded to the people of God.  That doesn’t mean it was ever God’s desire, or that it was ever less than anything than something God hates.  It means that sin stinks, and sometimes the consequences of sin are lasting.  There were not only women being removed, but children as well.  Sin always hurts.  There’s always a victim. 
    • Thank God for forgiveness, and that one day we will be delivered from it all!
  • Families named (10:18-44).  There were lists of names of those who followed the Lord in faith by returning to the land, and there is a list of names of those who sinned against the Lord in their pagan marriages.  This is less of a shaming, than a warning.  Pagan wives were seen among every class of people, from the general population to the priests.  Everyone fell to the same temptation.  None were exempt.  (Take heed, lest we all fall!)

Conclusion:
Praise God for His mercies!  The people had been captive for 70 years, and God brought them back.  He allowed them to continue worship – He allowed them to rebuild the temple – He allowed them to rebuild their capital city.  In spite of all kinds of opposition & trials, God was faithful to strengthen them & see them through.  Yet the people still sinned.  God was merciful to bring them back, but they still needed transformed hearts.  If they didn’t continually follow after the Lord, they would find themselves right back in the same spot from which they started.

That’s just our human nature.  God is gracious, and we sin.  God shows us mercy, and we sin.  God strengthens us and forgives us, and then we fall into temptation once again.  Oh wretched men & women that we are!  Who will deliver us from this body of death!  We can thank God for Jesus Christ!  Jesus not only gives us the strength through the Holy Spirit to break the cycle of sin, but we have the promise in Christ that one day we will be forever free from the very presence of sin.  We will no longer be subject to its temptations.  Praise God!  That’s a day we can look forward to!

In the meantime, walk by faith.  Walk in the strength of the Holy Spirit, and the humility to remain dependent upon the mercies and grace of God.

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