Read an Excerpt
Immersion Bible Studies: Ezra, Nehemiah, Esther
By Stan Purdum, Jan Turrentine
Abingdon PressCopyright © 2012 Abingdon Press
All rights reserved.
Help From Surprising Sources
Ezra 1:1–4:5; 4:24–6:22
Claim Your Story
Not long after my wife became pregnant with our first child, she awoke one morning with severe pain in her abdomen. I rushed her to the hospital where she was seen first by an emergency room doctor and then by a surgeon. The surgeon concluded Jeanine's pain was likely from an ectopic pregnancy, an embryo that had established itself in a fallopian tube instead of the uterus. Surgery was necessary, he said, and assuming it was an ectopic pregnancy, he would have to remove the fallopian tube, which would also end the pregnancy. We should be prepared for that likelihood, he said.
Jeanine underwent the procedure, and as it turned out, the embryo was in the right place, but one of the fallopian tubes was strangulated. The surgeon untangled it and closed the incision. When this doctor talked to us later, he explained that because of Jeanine's innards being disturbed, it was now likely that the pregnancy would spontaneously abort. The physician then left the room.
While Jeanine and I began to absorb this unwelcome prediction, our family doctor walked in. He agreed that the surgery had been necessary, but when we told him what the surgeon had said about the likely loss of the pregnancy, he said, "I think the odds are better than that. There's a lot of resilience there."
We clung to those words, not only because they were what we wanted to hear, but also because we knew something about our doctor's faith. He had a sign in his waiting room that read, "We dress the wound, but God heals." When I once commented to him about that, he responded with a specific mention of his commitment to Christ.
As it turned out, the pregnancy continued, and at full term, the family doctor delivered our healthy baby son.
Naturally, Jeanine and I had prayed before she went to surgery. While our own physician—a practicing Christian—brought hope into the hospital room that day, the surgeon—an abrupt man who gave no hint of his religious persuasion—was the direct provider of Jeanine's medical salvation and the one who cleared the way for the pregnancy to continue. As far as we were concerned, God worked through both of these men.
In the more than thirty-five years since, Jeanine and I and the three children who eventually rounded out our family have all had occasional medical issues, a few of them quite serious, and we have had the services of a variety of physicians. Only now and then were we aware of being treated by someone who was a committed Christian. Sometimes we recognized that particular doctors were members of other religions. Nonetheless, we often felt that God used medical practitioners from all these religious (and occasionally nonreligious) backgrounds to answer our prayers for healing.
You've probably had similar experiences, if not in medicine, then perhaps in legal matters, education, business, transportation, employment, or some other field. You may have even perceived an answer to prayer when a member of your family married someone of another faith—or no faith—who proved to be a devoted spouse and parent.
If you've read the Book of Ezra before, it should come as no surprise that God works through both believers and unbelievers to accomplish God's purposes, for this biblical book contains two prime examples: It was the Persian king Cyrus, an unbeliever, who made it possible for the Jews in exile in Babylonia to return to their homeland and start rebuilding their temple. It was one of his successors, Darius, another unbeliever, who enabled them to finish the job.
Now, as then, God's purposes are not derailed simply because there's no believer in the driver's seat.
Enter the Bible Story
The books of Ezra and Nehemiah are the final installments in the Old Testament storyline. That story began with God's call of Abraham (Genesis 12) and was followed by the time of the patriarchs (Genesis 12–50). It continued through Israel's wilderness period (Exodus through Deuteronomy), the conquest and settlement of Canaan and the pre-monarchy (Joshua; Judges; 1 Samuel 1–8), the monarchy (1 Samuel 9–31; 2 Samuel; 1 Kings 1–11; 1 Chronicles 10–29; 2 Chronicles 1–9), the divided kingdom (1 Kings 12–22; 2 Kings 1–24; 2 Chronicles 10–36), and the fall of Jerusalem and Babylonian exile (2 Kings 25; 2 Chronicles 36). Ezra and Nehemiah complete the story, telling of the return of the exiles and the rebuilding of Jerusalem. There are more Old Testament books following Nehemiah, to be sure—in fact, those by the prophets plug into the Genesis-to-Nehemiah storyline—but none move that storyline any further in time beyond the end of Nehemiah.
Cyrus, Agent of God (Ezra 1)
The Book of Ezra opens by saying King Cyrus of Persia was in his first year of rule (1:1), but in reality, he had already been the monarch of the Persian Empire for twenty years. It was, however, Cyrus's first year as ruler over the Babylonians, having defeated their army and added their country to the Persian realm. From the viewpoint of the people of Judah living in forced exile in that conquered land, Cyrus's takeover launched a new era, and his reign was "year one" of that era.
Cyrus's victory was good news for the exiles because unlike the Babylonian kings, Cyrus was quite willing for subject peoples to live in their own lands and worship their own gods. He was even willing for the empire to help fund their places of worship. This apparent magnanimity may have arisen from a pluralistic outlook on Cyrus's part—a willingness to thank "whatever gods there may be" for his success as well as seek their blessing on his continuing endeavors. But it was also politically expedient, helping to garner gratitude and loyalty from subject peoples throughout his realm.
Whatever Cyrus's motivations, the unidentified Hebrew prophet whose messages to the exiled Jews appear in Isaiah 40–55 announced in advance that Cyrus would be God's "shepherd" who would do what God wanted (44:28). This prophet also referred to Cyrus as the Lord's "anointed" (45:1) and quoted God as saying, "I have a right to awaken Cyrus; / I will smooth all his paths. / He will build my city and set my exiles free" (45:13).
During that "first year," Cyrus issued a proclamation saying that Israel's God had commanded him to "build him a house at Jerusalem in Judah" (Ezra 1:2). His proclamation granted permission for any Jewish exiles who wished to go to Judah to do so with both his blessing and the monetary and commodities support of those Jews who preferred to stay in Babylonia.
This proclamation appears twice in Ezra, first in 1:2-4, where it was originally in Hebrew, and again in 6:3-5, where it was originally in Aramaic. There are some differences in the two, which may have been because the Hebrew version gives the oral proclamation of the king's herald, while the Aramaic version was the official written memorandum of the decree. One difference is that the Hebrew version makes it sound as if the cost of the Temple rebuilding was to be entirely from the gifts given by the Jews remaining behind, while the Aramaic version clearly states, "The cost will be paid from the royal treasury" (6:4). Probably both sources helped fund the project. And in any case, those Jews not making the trek readily assisted those going to Judah "with silver equipment, with gold, with goods, livestock, and valuable gifts, in addition to all that was freely offered" (1:6). What's more, Cyrus gave the homeland-bound group the fixtures and treasures from the original Temple, items that the Babylonians had plundered from it at the time they had destroyed it.
Those Who Returned (Ezra 2)
It was a sizable group that made the trek from Babylonia to Judah—nearly fifty thousand people when you total the numbers in Ezra 2:64-65—and they were led by Sheshbazzar, who had been appointed by Cyrus for the task. Ezra 1:8 describes Sheshbazzar as "the prince of Judah," and it's probable that he was a son of Jehoiachin, the king of Judah who was deported to Babylonia in 598 B.C. (see 2 Chronicles 36:9-10). Jehoiachin's sons are listed in 1 Chronicles 3:18 (where Jehoiachin is called Jeconiah) and it's possible that the son there called Shenazzar was Sheshbazzar. This would also make Sheshbazzar a descendant of King David. Cyrus appointed him to be governor of Judah upon his arrival there (Ezra 5:14).
In the Common English Bible, the heading above Ezra 2 is "List of the returnees," but most of the fifty thousand people who "went up from there" (2:1) were not literally "returnees," for most had been born in Babylonia and had never even seen Judah. They were returnees only in the sense they that they were heading for the homeland of their ancestors.
Judging from the report in Jeremiah 52:28-30, the largest group of captives had been taken from Judah to Babylonia in 598 B.C. at the same time Jehoiachin was deported. A smaller group was marched out when the Babylonian army destroyed Jerusalem in 586, and a few hundred more were deported in 582, possibly as punishment for disturbance surrounding the assassination of Gedaliah, the first governor of Judah after the Exile began. Cyrus's decree permitting the return didn't come until 537, some forty-five years after even the last of the exiles arrived and sixty-one years after the first came (see the sidebar "How Long Was the Exile?"). During those decades, many of the original deportees would have died, leaving behind descendants born in captivity. Only those who were youths or young adults at the time of the deportation would have still been around, and some of those did return. Ezra 3:12 tells us that when the foundation was laid for the new Temple, those "older priests and Levites and heads of families, who had seen the first house, wept aloud when they saw the foundation of this house" (italics added for emphasis).
The Book of Ezra does not describe the 900-mile journey between Babylonia and Judah, but given that Babylonia covered part of modern-day Iraq and that there is significant desert land between there and Judah, it couldn't have been an easy trip. Nonetheless, the group eventually arrived in Jerusalem (2:68) and from there dispersed to the Judean towns from which they or their ancestors had come (2:70).
Establishing the Altar (Ezra 3)
Not long after arrival in Judah, the "returnees," of their own volition, gathered in Jerusalem to witness the establishment of an altar on the foundations of the original Temple altar, "so that they might offer entirely burned offerings upon it as prescribed in the Instruction from Moses the man of God" (3:2). Those rebuilding the altar worked under the supervision of the priest Jeshua, who was a descendant of the last high priest before the Exile, and Zerubbabel, who, like Sheshbazzar, was a descendant of King David. It's possible that Sheshbazzar and Zerubbabel were the same person, but it's more probable that Zerubbabel was Sheshbazzar's nephew, who succeeded him as governor of Judah.
With the sacrificial system in place, the people went on to celebrate the Festival of Booths, a fall harvest festival that commemorated the time Israel lived in temporary shelters ("booths") during the wilderness period. About seven months later, the leaders of the former exiles commissioned masons and carpenters to begin rebuilding the Temple. The workers soon had the foundation in place, and a dedication service was held. The event brought tears to the eyes of the old-timers who had seen the first Temple and shouts of joy to those who hadn't.
Facing Opposition (Ezra 4:1-5)
To understand what happened next, it's necessary to distinguish the formerly exiled Jews from those who never went into exile. The books of Ezra and Nehemiah tend to speak of the first group as if they comprise all that was left of "true" Israel, but the total of those deported—4,600 (Jeremiah 52:30)—is far too small to equal the population of pre-exilic Judah. What's more, both Jeremiah and the author of Second Kings say that the Babylonians left some of the poorest of the Judahites behind "to tend the vineyards and till the land" (Jeremiah 52:16; 2 Kings 25:12).
Centuries earlier, when the Israelites split into two kingdoms after the death of King Solomon (1 Kings 12), ten tribes stayed with the Northern Kingdom, which retained the name Israel, while only the tribes of Judah and Benjamin formed the Southern Kingdom, known as Judah. More than 135 years before Judah fell to the Babylonians, the Northern Kingdom was conquered by the Assyrians, who forcibly resettled it with other peoples. In time, these peoples mingled and intermarried with some of the northern Israelites left behind. During the Exile, with many owners of prime real estate in Judah ripped out of the land, those Judahites left behind, along with Israelites and mixed groups from the North, had ensconced themselves into the vacant properties. Intermingled with Israelites, some of these other peoples had begun to worship Israel's God but had continued to worship their own gods as well, a practice abhorrent to the "pure" post-exilic group. (Apparently some of Jews who did not go into exile, and possibly even some of the others, eventually joined the returned group; they did so by "separating themselves from the pollutions of the nations of the land to worship the LORD, the God of Israel" [Ezra 6:21].)
Naturally, when descendants of the Judean property owners returned, there was tension between them and those squatting on the land, but the Ezra account does not address that directly. It mentions, however, that the former exiles were "afraid of the neighboring peoples" (3:3). And, as subsequent events suggest, these neighboring peoples were worried about the former exiles who were reestablishing their place in the land by building a temple.
The writer of Ezra calls these neighboring peoples "enemies of Judah and Benjamin" (4:1). They approached Zerubbabel and the family heads with a seemingly innocent request: "Let's build with you, for we worship your God as you do, and we've been sacrificing to him ever since the days of Assyria's King Esarhaddon, who brought us here" (4:2). The former exiles immediately rejected this, insisting that only they had the exclusive right, by command of both God and King Cyrus, to build the Temple.
Nonetheless, the "enemies" somehow made the former exiles afraid to continue, bringing the work on the Temple to a halt for ten years.
The Temple Completed (Ezra 4:24–6:22)
The material that comes next, 4:6-23, is out of chronological order and concerns later events; we will deal with it in another chapter. The story of the Temple-building resumes at 4:24, reporting again that work on the Temple had stopped because of the opposition and did not resume until the second year of the reign of Persian king Darius.
What got the project moving again was the preaching of two prophets, Haggai and Zechariah (5:1), whose prophecies appear in the two biblical books bearing their names. While reviewing their words is beyond the scope of this study, it's notable that unlike some of the other prophets, these two saw great response to their prophecy. Their preaching effectively jumpstarted the stalled work.
At this point, a second Persian king, Darius, lent his support to the Temple project. His involvement came about when Tattenai, one of the empire's officials in the region including Judah, saw the Temple work underway and inquired who had authorized it. Upon being told that Cyrus had done so, Tattenai wrote to Darius, asking to have the royal archives searched to see if Cyrus actually had issued such a proclamation. It does not appear that Tattenai opposed the Jews; he was simply doing his job, being the "eyes" of the king in this far corner of the empire. Receiving the letter, Darius ordered the archives checked, was shown the memorandum of Cyrus's edict, and wrote back instructing Tattenai not only to allow the work on the Temple to continue, but to pay for it from "royal revenue that is made up of the tribute of the province ..." and supply the necessary animals and produce for sacrifices (6:8-9).
Thus, in 516 B.C., the Temple was finished and dedicated. The next month, the members of the restored community gathered again to observe Passover. Both the dedication and the Passover were celebrated "joyfully" (6:16, 22), the narrator says, "because the LORD had made them joyful by changing the attitude of the king of Assyria toward them so that he assisted them in the work on the house of God, the God of Israel." Despite the designation king of Assyria, this comment probably refers to either Cyrus or Darius. Both were kings of Persia, but Persia had absorbed Babylonia, which had absorbed Assyria, so in truth, the Persian rulers also reigned over Assyria.
In any case, the people of Judah owed a great debt of thanks to these two foreign kings, neither of whom worshiped Israel's God.
Live the Story
The help that two pagan kings, Cyrus and Darius, gave to the Jews to enable them to worship as they chose reminds us that secular governments are often stronger supporters of religious freedom for all than are theocratic ones, which often support one faith to the exclusion of others.
Recognizing the help of Cyrus and Darius for the Jews also reminds us that often, people who don't worship as we do may nonetheless be bearers of comfort, aid, understanding, and tolerance, and may be doers of good deeds.
Where in your life today might you be helped by recognizing that God's purposes are not stymied simply because no person of faith is in a position to change things?CHAPTER 2
Embodying God's Law
Ezra 4:6-23; 7:1–10:44
Claim Your Story
The fact that you're reading this book or are part of a group that's using this book as a study guide probably indicates that you're interested in knowing more about what's in the Bible. If that's the case, you're in good company, because Christians have long recognized that knowing what the Bible actually says about God and God's will is vital guidance for how we should live as disciples of Jesus.
Excerpted from Immersion Bible Studies: Ezra, Nehemiah, Esther by Stan Purdum, Jan Turrentine. Copyright © 2012 Abingdon Press. Excerpted by permission of Abingdon Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.