Ezra and Nehemiah record the exciting drama of the restoration of the Jews to their land following Babylonian captivity. The restoration period offered the Israelites a unique opportunity to re-establish the Temple, worship institutions, and the city of Jerusalem on lasting spiritual foundations.
But that period also brought the recently returned exiles into great temptation and potential disaster. The biblical record of the three returns of the Jews from Babylon provide not only a history of the restoration, but also many spiritual lessons concerning God's faithfulness, Satan's strategy, and the importance of separation from sin.
Dr. Laney presents a synthesis of the restoration period and discusses the interpretive, historical, geographical, and theological issues involved in these often-neglected but spiritually-rich books.
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By J. Carl Laney
Moody PressCopyright © 1982 The Moody Bible Institute of Chicago
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THE FIRST RETURN UNDER SHESHBAZZAR
The Babylonian exile was a direct result of Israel's disobedience to the stipulations of the Mosaic Covenant (Exod. 20:3—23:33). At Mt. Sinai God set before His people Israel two possible paths of life—the way of obedience leading to life and prosperity, or the way of disobedience resulting in death and adversity (Deut. 30:15-20). He promised the blessings of agricultural prosperity, national security, and military victory for those who obeyed the stipulations of the covenant (Lev. 26:3-13). On the other hand, God warned His people about the curses of military defeat, agricultural disaster, and severe famine should they choose the course of disobedience (Lev. 26:14-39).
The ultimate judgment on Israel's disobedience to the stipulations of the covenant was to be exile from the Promised Land and dispersion among the foreign nations. The Lord said, "But if you do not obey Me ... I will scatter [you] among the nations and will draw out a sword after you, as your land becomes desolate and your cities become waste" (Lev. 26:14, 33). The penalties of disobedience, which had been spelled out so clearly, were realized among the Israelites of the Northern Kingdom when Samaria fell to the Assyrians in 722 B.C. A century later God began to raise up the Babylonians to serve as His instrument of judgment on the Southern Kingdom of Judah (Hab. 1:6). The Judeans were taken into exile in the years 605 B.C. (Dan. 1:1-3), 597 B.C. (2 Kings 24:10-16), and 586 B.C. (2 Kings 25:1-12).
But the God of righteous wrath is also the God of loving grace, and with the promise of judgment for disobedience came the offer of restoration on the basis of repentance and confession (Lev. 26:40-45). Even while His people were in exile God promised to remember His covenant with the patriarchs and restore the Israelites to their land (see Lev. 26:45; Deut. 30:1-5). The prophet Jeremiah promised that God would bring His people back to their homeland after seventy years of captivity (Jer. 29:10), The first restoration, led by Sheshbazzar, marks the fulfillment of God's Word through the prophet. Israel's return to the land is a tremendous testimony to God's faithfulness and grace.
I. The Return of the Jews from Babylon (1-2)
Ezra 1-2 records the first return of the Jews from Babylon under the leadership of Sheshbazzar, whom Cyrus had appointed in 537 B.C. to govern Judah. The specific purpose of the return as set forth in Cyrus's decree was to rebuild the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem and to restore Yahweh worship. Receiving from Cyrus the holy vessels that Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon, had looted from the Temple, Sheshbazzar and a group of approximately forty thousand Jewish exiles returned to Judah.
Over a century before the exile even took place, Isaiah the prophet declared that Yahweh would raise up an anointed deliverer who would serve as His instrument for liberating the Jews and initiating the restoration of the Temple. Isaiah prophesied that God would call this deliverer from the east and give him victory over the nations (Isa. 41:2). Although not a believer in Yahweh as the only true God (Isa. 45:4-5), his way would be prospered by the Lord and he would let the exiles go free (Isa. 45:13). He would perform God's desire in connection with rebuilding Jerusalem and restoring the Temple (Isa. 44:28). Isaiah went so far as to identify the deliverer as "Cyrus" nearly two hundred years before his appearance on the political scene of the Ancient Near East (Isa. 44:28; 45:1)!
With the hand of Yahweh upon him, it is little wonder that Cyrus founded the largest empire the ancient Near East had ever seen. In 559 B.C. Cyrus inherited the throne of Anshan, a small state near the Persian Gulf. After unifying the Persian people, he attacked the weak and corrupt Astyages, king of Media. The army deserted Astyages for Cyrus, and the Persians were able to take the capital city of Ecbatana (Achmetha) in 550 B.C. without a battle. Cyrus then welded the Medes and Persians into a unified nation—Medo-Persia. Four years after the capture of Ecbatana, Cyrus defeated Croesus, king of Lydia, and captured his capital at Sardis (546 B.C.). The Babylonian Empire was in a weakened state and thus in no condition to resist Cyrus. According to the account of Herodotus, the fifth-century B.C. Greek historian, Cyrus and his soldiers managed to divert the waters of the Euphrates, which ran through the city of Babylon. The Persians then entered the city under the wall through the river bed and captured Babylon without a battle on October 12, 539 B.C.
Cyrus desired to win over the people of his great kingdom. To accomplish that he showed restraint toward those he conquered and those who had been forcibly removed from their homelands by previous rulers. In effect, Cyrus reversed the repressive policies of the Assyrians and Babylonians. He allowed exiles to return to their homelands and permitted subject peoples to enjoy some degree of local autonomy, particularly in religious affairs. Cyrus himself writes: " I returned to these sacred cities on the other side of the Tigris, the sanctuaries of which have been ruins for a long time, the images which used to live therein and established for them permanent sanctuaries. I also gathered all their former inhabitants and returned to them their habitations."
Under this lenient policy of political and religious tolerance, Cyrus decreed the return of the Jews to Jerusalem in the first official year of his rule.
A. THE EDICT OF CYRUS (1:1-4)
One of the first official acts of Cyrus after the capture of Babylon in 539 B.C. was to decree the release of the Jewish exiles. The "first year of Cyrus" (1:1) should be identified as his first regnal year, beginning in Nisan 538 B.C., rather than his accession year as ruler of conquered Babylon (539 B.C.). It is from this point that the author Ezra dates the reign of Cyrus, since only then did he begin to exercise sovereignty over Palestine. Ezra views the decree as divinely intended to fulfill Jeremiah's prophecy of restoration after a seventy-year captivity (Jer. 25:12; 29:10). He observes that Yahweh "stirred up" Cyrus to act even as Isaiah had prophesied (Isa. 41:25; 45:13). Ezra notes that the release of the captive Jews was proclaimed publicly as well as recorded in writing. The existence of a written record of the edict sets the stage for the events of chapters 5 and 6.
The book of Ezra contains two ordinances of Cyrus—one in Hebrew (1:2-4) and one in Aramaic, the official diplomatic language of that day (6:3-5). The ordinance of Ezra 1:2-4 was a royal proclamation addressed to the Jews and published by heralds throughout the kingdom in many languages, including Hebrew. The ordinance of Ezra 6:3-5 is an official memorandum of the edict addressed directly to the royal treasurer and was not made public at the time. This document was stored in Ecbatana, a fortress city and summer residence of the Persian kings.
In verse 2 Cyrus acknowledges Yahweh as the God of heaven, but there is no indication that he recognized Yahweh as the only true God. As a polytheist, Cyrus acknowledged many gods. He could worship the god Sin at Ur, Marduk in Babylon, and Yahweh in Jerusalem. On the Cyrus Cylinder the king attributes his victory over Babylon to Marduk, and expresses the hope that the people he has resettled in their homelands will beseech the gods Bel and Nebo in his behalf! Cyrus wanted the blessing of Yahweh on his kingdom and sought His favor by decreeing the rebuilding of His Temple in Jerusalem. Lest there be any question regarding his spiritual status, Isaiah indicates clearly that Cyrus did not "know" Yahweh as a true believer would (Isa. 45:4-5).
The edict of Cyrus provided both a labor force (1:3) and financing to rebuild the Temple (1:4). According to Josephus, Cyrus had read the prophecy of Isaiah 44:28, which names him in connection with the rebuilding of the Temple. Josephus suggests that Cyrus was "seized by a strong desire and ambition to do what had been written." The reference to "every survivor" calls to mind Isaiah's prophecy that a remnant of Jews would survive the captivity and return to the land (Isa. 10:20-21). In addition to the voluntary gifts provided by the neighbors of those who decided to return, the official memorandum to the treasurer (6:4-5) allowed for the cost of rebuilding the Temple to be paid out of the royal treasury!
B. THE RESPONSE OF THE PEOPLE (1:5-6)
As God stirred up Cyrus (1:1), so He "stirred up" a remnant of the Jewish people in Babylon into action. Some of the people responded by going (1:5), while others responded by giving (1:6) of their material resources to help finance the trip. Only the tribes of Judah and Benjamin are named, since, generally speaking, the exiles in Babylon were from the Southern Kingdom and members of those tribes. The relationship between "the priests and the Levites" (1:5) is a thorny problem for students of the Old Testament. Essentially, the Levites (descendants of Levi's tribe) ministered to the priests (descendants of Aaron, a Levite) in the outward elements of the worship services (Num. 1:50; 3:6). The priests performed the ceremonial exercises of the worship itself. All priests were Levites, but not all Levites were priests.
In addition to providing the pilgrims with gold, silver, household goods, and cattle, many of the Jews in Babylon participated in a freewill offering for the Temple. It is interesting that most of the exiles decided to remain in Babylonia, where they were well settled and enjoying a good life (see Jer. 29:47). Josephus mentions that many Jews did not want to leave Babylon on account of their possessions.
C. THE RETURN OF THE TEMPLE VESSELS (1:7-11)
Although not mentioned in the royal proclamation recorded in Ezra 1:2-4, the official memorandum (6:5) provided for the return of the Temple vessels that Nebuchadnezzar had plundered from the Temple in 605, 597, and 586 B.C. (Dan. 1:1; 2 Chron. 36:7, 18). It was the custom of ancient warriors to take their idols into battle so that their gods could grant them victory (2 Sam. 5:21; 1 Chron. 14:12). A conqueror would capture the gods of his vanquished enemy and place the idols in his own sanctuary. But since the Jews had no images of Yahweh (Exod. 20:4-6), the Temple vessels were taken by the victorious Babylonians as a substitute. Cyrus had his royal treasurer count the vessels out before Sheshbazzar, whom he had appointed to govern Judah. The treasurer's Persian name, "Mithredath," honors Mithras the sun god and means "Mithras has given."
The name Sheshbazzar confronts students of Scripture with something of an identity crisis. Who was Sheshbazzar? His name may be connected with "Shamash," the Babylonian sun god. He is identified as "the prince of Judah" (1:8), but the word prince may be too specific a translation, for the Hebrew word nasi simply refers to one who is "lifted up" as is used to denote various leaders of Israel. The translation "leader" or "chief" would serve well in this context.
There are three main views as to the identity of Sheshbazzar and his relationship with Zerubbabel. Some expositors argue that Sheshbazzar is simply another name for Zerubbabel. Daniel is cited as an example of a Hebrew who had two names (Dan. 1:7). In support of this view is the fact that Zerubbabel is said to have laid the foundation of the Temple (Ezra 3:8; 5:2; Zech. 4:9), but in an official letter to Darius, Sheshbazzar is said to have done this (Ezra 5:16). It is then concluded that the two must be the same person. But couldn't both men have participated in this project? Others have suggested that Sheshbazzar may have been the officially appointed leader (Ezra 5:14), whereas Zerubbabel rose up as a popular but unofficial leader at the time of the first return. However, First Esdras 6:18 states that the Temple vessels being returned to Jerusalem were entrusted to Sheshbazzar and Zerubbabel as separate individuals. The view that most satisfactorily corresponds with the biblical record is that Sheshbazzar was appointed by Cyrus (1:8; 5:14), but may have died soon after the return in 537 B.C. Zerubbabel, who was probably Sheshbazzar's nephew (1 Chron. 3:17-19), was then elevated to the position vacated by his uncle and received the title "governor of Judah" (Hag. 1:1, 14; 2:2, 21). In favor of this view is the fact that although both men have been associated with laying the foundation of the Temple in 536 B.C. (Ezra 5:16; Zech. 4:9), only Zerubbabel is associated with completing the project two decades later (Hag. 1:1, 12; Zech. 4:9).
The total number of articles of gold and silver that were brought back to Jerusalem by the exiles is 5,400 (1:11). Unfortunately, this figure does not correspond with the subtotals provided in Ezra 1:10-11, which add up to 2,499. Although it is possible that the numbers were miscopied by a scribe, nothing in the Hebrew text would point to this conclusion. More likely, only the larger or more important vessels were enumerated in verses 10 and 11 (amounting to 2,499 objects), whereas a total of 5,400 Temple vessels were returned to Jerusalem.
D. THE REGISTER OF RETURNING EXILES (2:1-70)
Ezra 2 contains an orderly, group-by-group register of the exiles who returned to Judah under the leadership of Sheshbazzar and Zerubbabel. It is not a list of individuals (with the exception of 2:2), but a list of families (lay, priestly, and levitical) and towns with their inhabitants. The same list with some variation in names and numbers appears in Nehemiah 7:6-73. The differences between the two lists may be due to scribal errors or technical difficulties in the transmission of numbers. It has been suggested that Cyrus's edict applied only to Jews, and that the list served to establish the rights of those who desired to avail themselves of the king's permission to return. However, the list includes individuals who were unable to prove their Jewish ancestry (2:5960). It is more likely that the list was compiled simply as a historical record of a memorable and significant event—the return and resettlement of the exiles of Judah.
1. The leaders (2:1-2a). The leaders of the people head the list of those who returned to Judah and Jerusalem. The returnees are designated "the people of the province" (2:1). It is debated whether "the province" in Ezra 2:1 and Nehemiah 7:6 refers to the province from which the exiles returned, Babylonia, or the province to which they returned, Judah. The context of 2:1 and the fact that Judah had its own governor (5:14) would suggest the latter view. Zerubbabel, a grandson of Jehoiakim and nephew of Sheshbazzar (1 Chron. 3:17-19) was a natural candidate to assume a position of leadership in the return, Jeshua the high priest (Zech. 3:1) provided leadership for the reestablishment of the Temple institutions. The Nehemiah referred to here is not Nehemiah the wall builder who returned to Jerusalem in 444 B.C. Nor is this Mordecai the cousin of Esther (Esther 2:5). Differences in time and place would rule out such identifications.
2. The lay people (2:2£-35). There were two ways an individual's relationship to the people of Israel could be certified—by presenting genealogical records of his recognized family, or by identifying himself as a former resident or property owner in a particular city of Judah. Ezra 2:26-20 records those exiles who could identify themselves with a known Jewish ancestor. Ezra 2:21-35 records those exiles who could identify themselves with a certain city, either as a former resident or an heir to property there. The name "Gibbar" in 2:20 is identified as "Gibeon" in Nehemiah 7:25. Although the names agree substantially with the list in Nehemiah 7:7-66, half the numbers disagree—a stark testimony to the difficulty involved in transmitting and translating Hebrew numbers. It is possible that the numbers were originally written with signs or letters of the alphabet that were later misunderstood. It has also been suggested that since the numbers of Nehemiah's list are generally larger, the original figures may have in some cases been estimates, which were later revised.
3. The priests (2:36-39). Only four of the twenty-four priestly families organized by David (1 Chron. 24:7-18) were represented among the Jews who returned to Jerusalem. However, the 4,289 priests could have managed well the ceremonial exercises of sacrifice and worship at the new Temple. The name "Pashur" (2:38) is not found in 1 Chronicles 24, but is probably to be identified with a descendant of the Malchijah group (see 1 Chron. 9:12; 24:9).
4. The Levites (2:40-42). Only 341 Levites returned to assist the priests in the outward elements of the worship services. A similar reluctance to leave Babylonia was evidenced by the Levites at the time of Ezra's return (Ezra 8:15).
5. The Temple servants (2:43-54). According to Ezra 8:20 this order of Temple workers was founded by David. They were designated Nethinim ("given," i.e., dedicated to God) and served as assistants to the Levites.
6. The descendants of Solomon's servants (2:55-58). This group is closely linked with the previous one, for the single total in verse 58 serves both groups. They may have been descendants of prisoners of war captured by Solomon who were later dedicated to the Temple service (see Exod. 12:48; Num. 15:14-16).
7. The exiles of obscure origin (2:59-60). Some who returned from Babylon could not establish their Jewish ancestry with certainty. Without family records they could not prove property ownership or ethnic purity. That, however, did not prevent them from participating in the return to Judah.
8. The priests with unconfirmed claims (2:61-63). There were also those among the returned exiles who claimed to be priests but could not confirm their claims by genealogical records. In keeping with the warning of Numbers 16:40, "no layman who is not of the descendants of Aaron should come near to burn incense before the LORD," they were not allowed to exercise the official duties of the priesthood. In addition, Sheshbazzar the governor ruled that they should not eat from the holy offerings (Num. 18:9-10) until their status be finally decided. The means of determining God's will in the matter would be by the Urim and Thummim. These objects ("lights and perfections") were attached to the breastpiece of the high priest's ephod (Exod. 28:15-30) and were used by the priests to determine God's will when faced with two alternative courses of action (1 Sam. 23:9-12).
Excerpted from Ezra/Nehemiah by J. Carl Laney. Copyright © 1982 The Moody Bible Institute of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of Moody Press.
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Table of Contents
Ezra: Historical Background,
Part One: The First Return Under Sheshbazzar (Ezra 1-6),
Part Two: The Second Return Under Ezra (Ezra 7-10),
Nehemiah: Historical Background,
Part One: The Restoration of the City Walls (Nehemiah 1-7),
Part Two: The Reforms of Ezra and Nehemiah (Nehemiah 8-13),
Appendix: Historical Survey of the Restoration Period,