Ezra: the return from exile

The book of Ezra is a relatively short book that details great joy for the Jews but also some sadness as well.  Like many things in life, it depends on one’s perspective whether the news is good or bad.  In the book of Ezra, the people are allowed return to their homeland.  However a relatively small number of them do.  Returning to Jerusalem and being allowed to rebuild the temple is a great thing for the Jews but Jerusalem and the temple don’t come close to comparing to the former glory that they had.  This is cause for sadness.

The book of Ezra opens a full generation before Ezra is actually involved with Jerusalem.  It opens in the first year of King Cyrus, the Medo-Persian king.  Ezra doesn’t appear until almost 70 years later but nevertheless he is the one who records the story and he does play a major part of the book at the end.

At the beginning of the book, the Jews are in Babylon, having been exiled there since Nebuchadnezzar destroyed Jerusalem and the temple along with it.  The prophet Jeremiah makes it clear that the Jews will spend 70 years in exile and 2 Chronicles references Jeremiah’s prophecy as well.

This gives us a bit of trouble with our dating system because we know when Jerusalem fell and we know when Cyrus allowed the Jews to return and there aren’t exactly 70 years in between.  What most likely has occurred here is that are three separate attacks on Jerusalem and three sets of deportations occurring in 605, 597 and 586 BC.

In Daniel 9, Daniel understands from reading the prophet Jeremiah that the Israelites are to be in exile for seventy years.  He then prays to God for mercy for Jerusalem and His people.  It is doubtful that Daniel believes that he will change God’s mind regarding the seventy years.  Instead it seems likely that Daniel is pleading with God to start the seventy-year countdown with the first deportation and not the last one.

Even using the first deportation in 605 BC we can’t easily reach seventy years as Cyrus’ decree occurs in 539 BC according to traditional dates.  The seventy years are important and God hasn’t shortened that length of time but it seems likely that God credits the time that the people will still be away traveling and perhaps even the time that the city was first under siege as they were essentially under another’s rule at that time.

In addition to this, years were likely counted differently with 605 BC counting as year one of exile rather than year zero the way that we count birthdays.  We must also account for the fact that the new year doesn’t start on January 1 in the Jewish calendar but rather sometime in March.  This also helps to account for the discrepancy.  Whatever the case, seventy years have passed by God’s counting as it was prophesied that the Jews would be away from their homeland as punishment for that long.

There is another important prophecy that is fulfilled in the book of Ezra.  Not only does Cyrus allow the Jews to return home at just the right time, even his existence is prophecy.  Almost 200 years before he came to power, Isaiah prophesied about Cyrus and called him by name.  Isaiah 44:24-45:25 speaks of Cyrus and what God had appointed him to do, long before Cyrus was even born.

When Cyrus issued the decree to allow the Israelites to return home he also released the articles which had been taken from the temple before Nebuchadnezzar destroyed it.  While there is no temple to return them to, this at least gives the people a connection to their past and allows them to use some of the items that they have been using for centuries.

Zerubbabel leads the first group of Israelites back to Jerusalem.  Later Ezra will come with a second group and Nehemiah will come with a third.  Ezra 2 records that there are approximately 50,000 Israelites who return home to Jerusalem with Zerubbabel.  While this is a significant number, it is only a fraction of those who were in Babylon.  It is just a tiny portion of the number of Israelites who left Egypt centuries earlier when Moses led 600,000 men, not counting women and children.

Why did so many of the Jews remain in Babylon?  The simple answer is that they had a good life there.  While they were under the rule of a king who was not an Israelite, this probably didn’t bother many of them.  As long as they prospered it didn’t matter who led them.  Another very practical reason why some of them didn’t return to Jerusalem is that there was no returning for them.  In other words, they had been born and raised in Babylon and it was the only home that they knew.  Only the oldest of the Jews even remembered Jerusalem and their homeland.  For most, Babylon was home.

The exiles who did return to Jerusalem had a lot of hard work ahead of them.  They were returning to rubble.  They were going back to reoccupy homes that had been abandoned, they were starting everything from scratch.

The first task in the rebuilding was to rebuild the altar.  This is accomplished relatively quickly and sacrifices are offered on it.  Next, the foundation for the new temple was laid.  While this was a jubilant time for many, others who had seen the former temple wept.  This was undoubtedly over the feeling of loss of the temple but probably also because the new temple would not compare to Solomon’s temple.  Ezra 3:10-13 records what happens:

10 When the builders laid the foundation of the temple of the Lord, the priests in their vestments and with trumpets, and the Levites (the sons of Asaph) with cymbals, took their places to praise the Lord, as prescribed by David king of Israel. 11 With praise and thanksgiving they sang to the Lord:

“He is good;
    his love to Israel endures forever.”

And all the people gave a great shout of praise to the Lord, because the foundation of the house of the Lord was laid. 12 But many of the older priests and Levites and family heads, who had seen the former temple, wept aloud when they saw the foundation of this temple being laid, while many others shouted for joy. 13 No one could distinguish the sound of the shouts of joy from the sound of weeping, because the people made so much noise. And the sound was heard far away.

When those around Jerusalem heard that temple was being rebuilt, they stirred up trouble in an attempt to stop construction.  They even sent a letter to King Artaxerxes who ordered the Israelites to stop building.  This opposition held up the building project for fifteen years.

The prophets Zechariah and Haggai encourage the people to resume building the temple despite the opposition from the neighboring people.  This causes the enemies of the project to write another letter to the king.

This time the letter writing backfires when things are pressed with King Darius.  He orders a search of the royal archives and discovers that Cyrus had in fact ordered that the Jews be allowed to rebuild their temple.  King Darius goes further than just reversing the halt of construction.  He orders that the entire project be paid for from the royal treasury.  He also issues a penalty of death to anyone who alters his edict, so no one dares challenge the Jews again.

After the long delay, the temple is finally completed rather quickly around 516 BC.  This is about twenty years after construction was started on it but only a few years after construction was resumed.

It is not until almost 60 years after the completion of the temple that Ezra shows up on the scene in 458 BC.  King Artaxerxes (but not the same one as before) grants Ezra permission to go to Jerusalem with a group of Jews who wish to return.  We aren’t certain because the Bible doesn’t say and historical records are unclear but Artaxerxes may have had very good motivation to do this.  It is possible that the king if half Jewish.

We know for a fact that Artaxerxes’ father was King Xerxes and we also know that Xerxes becomes married to Esther as we’re told in the book of Esther.  So while the record is not clear, it is certainly plausible that King Artaxerxes is Esther’s son.  Even if Artaxerxes is the son of another mother, he likely would have been influenced in some way by Esther and his father’s own revelation concerning the Jews.

So this sheds some light on why Ezra is instructed to go to Jerusalem to teach the people the ways of God.  Ezra is a priest and someone who is well educated.  He is instructed to not only teach the Jews in the area but all of the people are to be told about God’s ways.

Ezra comes to Jerusalem with offerings from the king.  He also comes with reforms for the new inhabitants of Jerusalem. He is greatly distressed to learn about the intermarriage that has taken place and deals with it swiftly.

Ultimately, even though the book of Ezra bears his name and he makes an appearance in it, much of the action takes place before his time.  The temple is rebuilt by the time Ezra arrives but he faithfully records the story of its construction and the obstacles that were overcome in order to accomplish this task.

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