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  • The books of Ezra and Nehemiah.

  • In most modern Bibles, these books are separate,

  • but that division happened long after it was written.

  • It was originally a unified work written by a single author

  • The story is set after the Babylonians destroyed Jerusalem and it's temple

  • and took many of the people into exile.

  • And this book picks up about 50 years later

  • and tells the return of some Israelites to Jerusalem

  • and then what happened when they rebuilt the city and their lives there.

  • Specifically, the book focuses on 3 key leaders who led the rebuilding efforts

  • You have Zerubbabel, then Ezra and then Nehemiah.

  • And the books' design focuses on the efforts of each leader.

  • Zerubbabel leads a large group of people back to Jerusalem to rebuild the temple.

  • Then about 60 years later, Ezra arrives in Jerusalem to teach the Torah and rebuild the community,

  • and then he's followed by Nehemiah who leads the rebuilding of Jerusalem's walls

  • And these three stories are designed to be parallel,

  • each begins with the king of Persia prompted by God to send the leader to Jerusalem

  • and He offers resources and support

  • and then each leader encounters opposition in their efforts

  • which they then overcome but in a way that leads to a strange anti-climax in each of the three parts.

  • Let's back up and see how it fits together.

  • So the story begins with a decree from Cyrus, the king of Persia,

  • and he's moved by God to allow the exiles to return to Jerusalem and rebuild the temple.

  • And the author says this fulfills a promise made by the prophet Jeremiah

  • that the exiles would one day return to Jerusalem.

  • Now this fulfillment should trigger our hopes in the many other prophetic promises

  • that exile was not the end of the story.

  • We have hope for a future Messianic King from the line of David.

  • We have hope for a rebuilt temple where God's presence will dwell with His people.

  • Hope for God's kingdom to come over all the nations and bring His blessing just like He promised Abraham

  • And so it's with all these hopes in mind that we read on into the story of Zerubbabel.

  • His name means planted in Babylon.

  • He represents the generation born in Babylonian captivity

  • and he leads a wave of Israelites returning to Jerusalem.

  • After they settle there, they rebuild the altar for offering sacrifices and later the temple itself.

  • The foundation laying ceremony and then the temple's final dedication- these are key moments.

  • The past stories of the tabernacle and temple's dedication should be in our minds,

  • this is when the fiery cloud of God's presence is supposed to descend.

  • He's dwelling with His people and it doesn't happen.

  • And so while some people are happy about this new temple

  • the elders who had seen the previous Temple of Solomon they cry out in grief.

  • It is nothing like their glorious past or their hopes for the future.

  • And its right here that we get the first story of opposition and it's very odd.

  • So the grandchildren of the Israelites, who were not taken into exile,

  • they had been living in Jerusalem all along,

  • they come to offer help with the temple rebuilding and Zerubbabel refuses.

  • He says you have no part in our temple and this of course generates a conflict

  • which Zerubbabel overcomes but it's very strange

  • because the prophets had envisioned that the tribes of Israel would all come together

  • along with all of the nations to participate in the worship of the God of israel

  • when the kingdom finally comes.

  • So this is an anti climactic moment to say the least.

  • In the next section we zoom forward about 60 years and we're introduced to Ezra

  • he's a leader among the exiled Israelites in Babylon and he's a Torah scholar and a teacher,

  • and so he gets appointed by Artaxerxes king of Persia to lead another wave of people back to Jerusalem

  • and Ezra wants to bring about spiritual and social renewal among the people.

  • Our hopes are high

  • and again we come to another anti climatic moment in the story.

  • Ezra learns that many of the exiled Israelites that had come back

  • they had married non exiles who had been living around Jerusalem.

  • Some of them were non-Israelites and almost certainly some of them were.

  • Ezra then appeals to the commands of the Torah

  • that Israel was supposed to be holy and separate from the ancient Canaanites.

  • And he then says that the people living around Jerusalem are like the Canaanites

  • they're going to corrupt the exiles.

  • So Ezra offers a prayer of repentance and it's very heartfelt

  • but then he rallies all the leaders and enacts this divorce decree

  • that says all these marriages should be annulled, the women and children sent away.

  • And then the decree is only partially carried out when given a list of some of the men who divorce their wives.

  • The story is very strange for a number of reasons,

  • First of all, God never commanded Ezra to do any of this.

  • It was the leaders of Jerusalem who led Ezra to make the decree,

  • Second, the contemporary Prophet Malachi, he did say that the exile should care about purity

  • but he also said that God was opposed to divorce

  • and so the mixed results of the decree this all fits into this pattern

  • of a strange concluding anti-climax

  • which leads us to the next section about Nehemiah.

  • He's an Israelite official serving in the Persian government

  • and when he hears about the ruined state of Jerusalem's walls

  • he prays and then get permission from the Persian king Artaxerxes to go and rebuild the walls.

  • The King even gives them an armed escort and all these resources.

  • So after arriving in Jerusalem he begins the building project

  • and he too, faces opposition from the people who had already been living around Jerusalem.

  • Once again we face a tension in the story.

  • The contemporary Prophet Zechariah said

  • that the New Jerusalem of God's kingdom would be a city without walls.

  • That God's presence would surround it,

  • that people from all nations would come and join the covenant people.

  • But Nehemiah seems to operate with the opposite vision.

  • He informs the people surrounding Jerusalem that they have no part in Jerusalem.

  • And this of course provokes them to hostility and so well

  • Nehemiah carries out his vision for the city with integrity and courage.

  • They have to build the city with armed guards to protect them.

  • We keep wondering, could this whole conflict have been handled differently?

  • And this all leads to the conclusion of the book in two movements.

  • First positive and then negative.

  • Ezra and Nehemiah combine forces to bring about a spiritual renewal among the people.

  • They gather all the exiles together for a festival,

  • they read and teach the Torah to all the people for 7 days,

  • and then they celebrate the ancient feast of tabernacles

  • to remember God's faithfulness from the exodus and the wilderness journeys.

  • Then they offer a confession of their sins,

  • they vow themselves to renew the Covenant, follow all the commands of the Torah

  • and they finished with the great celebration over the temple, the walls of Jerusalem.

  • And we're thinking this could be the turning point but it's not.

  • The book ends on a huge downer.

  • Nehemiah tours around the city and he finds that the people have not been fulfilling their covenant vows.

  • So Zerubbabel's work is undone as he finds the temple being neglected

  • and staffed by all these unqualified people.

  • He then discovers that Ezra's work is being compromised

  • he finds everyone violating the Torah, people are working on the Sabbath

  • and even his own work on the walls is involved

  • because people are setting up markets around the walls of Jerusalem and working on the Sabbath.

  • So Nehemiah, he goes on a rampage,

  • he is beating people up, he's pulling out their hair and he's yelling,

  • "Obey the commands of the Torah!"

  • In his final words are a prayer that God would remember him that at least he tried and the book ends.

  • I mean it's very strange but we've been prepared for it, right?

  • These anti climactic moments have been woven into the book's design intentionally.

  • And so, it raises the question what on earth does this book contribute to the storyline of the Bible?

  • Well, remember the book started by raising our hopes

  • and the prophetic promises about the Messiah, the temple, the kingdom of God,

  • and then none of it happens.

  • So even though Israel is now back in the land,

  • their spiritual state seems unchanged from before the exile.

  • And while Ezra, Nehemiah, they do their best

  • but their political and social reforms among the people don't address the core issues of their heart.

  • so what the book is pointing out is the same need highlighted by the prophets Jeremiah and Ezekiel.

  • What God's people need is a holistic transformation of their hearts.

  • If they're ever going to love and obey their God.

  • And so the book ends on a downer,

  • yes but it forces you to keep reading on into the wisdom and prophetic books to find out

  • what is God going to do to fulfill his great covenant promises.

  • But for now that's the book of Ezra-Nehemiah.

The books of Ezra and Nehemiah.

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B1 INT US jerusalem ezra temple torah god people

Read Scripture: Ezra-Nehemiah

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    sophia   posted on 2017/06/29
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