EZRA — NEHEMIAH AND THE PROMISES
The exiling of the Jews to Babylon by King Nebuchadnezzar led to a profound change and return to Yahwehism. This was due primarily to the instructions Jeremiah the prophet had sent in a letter. “This is what the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel, says to all those I carried into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon, ‘Built houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Marry and have sons and daughters; find wives for your sons and give your daughters in marriage, so that they may have sons and daughters. Increase in number there; do not decrease. Also, seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper.’ Yes, this is what the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel says, ‘Do not let the prophets and diviners among you deceive you. Do not listen to the dreams they encourage you to have. They are prophesying lies to you in my name. I have not sent them,’ declares the Lord” (Jer. 29:4-9).
Jeremiah’s Letter also impacted the Babylonians. The faithful listened to Jeremiah and became good and productive citizens. A Jewish girl by the name of Esther became a queen and her uncle Mordecai the king’s first minister and counselor. King Cyrus became familiar with the Hebrew prophets and saw himself as a servant of God fulfilling the Promises to the Jews. Ezra, a scribe and a trusted servant of Cyrus may have introduced the king to the prediction of Jeremiah, regarding the return and rebuilding of Jerusalem and the temple. “In the first year of Cyrus, king of Persia, in order to fulfill the word of the Lord spoken by Jeremiah, the Lord moved the heart of Cyrus the king of Persia to make this proclamation in writing throughout his realm.” It read, “The Lord, the God of heaven, has given me all the kingdoms of the earth and he has appointed me to build a temple for him at Jerusalem in Judah. Anyone of his people among you – may his God be with him, and let him go up to Jerusalem in Judah and build the temple of the Lord, the God of Israel, the God who is in Jerusalem. And the people of any place where survivors may now be living are to provide him with silver and gold, with goods and livestock, and with freewill offerings for the temple of God in Jerusalem” (Ezra 1:1-4).
Jeremiah had no doubt what the Lord was promising He would do for his people that would obey His instructions. “When seventy years are completed for Babylon, I will come to you and fulfill my gracious promise to bring you back to this place. For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future. Then you will call upon me and come and pray to me, and I will listen to you. You will seek me and you will find me when you seek me with all your heart. I will be found by you,” declares the Lord, “and will bring you back from captivity. I will gather you from all the nations and places where I have banished you,” declares the Lord, “and will bring you back to the place from which I carried you into exile” (Jer. 29:10-14). The exile was intended to free the Jews from their earthly entanglement with the world in a completely ungodly setting. It took three and one half generations to rebuild a people that would seek the God of their fathers and learn to live by His laws. Not only did the new followers of God change, but they also became missionaries to their captors. They treated their captors as friends and trusted them with their sons and daughters. They shared their produce from their gardens. Imagine what an influence on faith in Yahweh Daniel, Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego had on the natives (Dan. 3:24-30; 6). These men taught their captors to respect their God. King Darius proclaimed publicly, “I issue this decree that in every part of my kingdom people must fear and revere the God of Daniel. For He is a living God and he endures forever; his kingdom will not be destroyed, his dominion will never end. He rescues and he saves; he performs signs and wonders in the heavens and on the earth. He rescued Daniel from the power of the lions” (Dan. 6:25-27). God did work in mysterious ways to keep his Promises to man and the world alive through strangers.
Ezra and Nehemiah did not exactly do what they had promised to the kings that actually initiated the return of the exiles. The Persian kings gave no orders regarding the rebuilding of the wall and Jerusalem. King Cyrus’ decree was to rebuild the temple and not establish another independent nation. When the returning exiles began to rebuild the wall, the local residents complained to the Persian kings but by then they faced threats from the west and could not sent an army to stop the Jews from re-establishing themselves. Nehemiah gambled and succeeded. A third kind of a kingdom came into being that combined all three offices of king, prophet and priest into one. These leaders gave the impression that God was in charge, but in reality it was their interpretation of what God wanted. They completely rejected Jeremiah’s instructions of merging with their captives. God had sent them to Babylon, a world empire where they could expand his influence on humanity. But racist nationalists like Ezrah, Nehemiah, Mordecai, Zerubbabel and many others brought God back to Judah. The Jews were not willing to share their God with the world. Jesus was the first to the break the ice and let a stream of water flood the world. These leaders lacked the understanding of a Gamaliel who advised the Sanhedrin, “Leave these men (disciples) alone! Let them go! For if their purpose or activity is of human origin, it will fail. But if it is from God, you will not be able to stop these men; you will only find yourselves fighting against God” (Ac. 5:38-39). Of course, these returning missionaries from Babylon believed they were doing God’s bidding.
Cyrus, Darius and Artaxerxes took Jeremiah serious and began to send those Jewish exiles that wanted to leave back to Judea after the seventy years. They were to return home and rebuilt the Temple in Jerusalem to honor the God of the Jews that had shown himself superior to all the other gods. Those who returned under Jerubbabel, Joshua, Ezrah and Nehemiah became rigid legalists and not a light to the nations. They became a separatist society. They dissolved all mixed marriages, broke up families and stranded children without support. The sacrifices and offerings were restored and no foreigners were allowed to join the new community. It became a strictly Levitical society headed by a high priest. No Davidic King or Messiah would even dare to raise his head, and when “One” finally appeared, namely Jesus the Christ, He was crucified. For some five hundred years, the Promised Land was the object of contention among foreign invaders. And whenever the people of the Promises had some breathing room, they returned to a priestly kind of legalism that became known as Judaism.
Divine approval for the rebuilding of the Temple and the restoration of the Law and the sacrifices came from the prophets Haggai and Zechariah. These spokesmen for God also gave credence to the non-Davidic leadership of Zerubbabel and to the priestly head of Joshua. Their zeal for the Temple services and sacrifices overshadowed the meager social reform attempted by Nehemiah. It also put a heavy additional tax-burden on the people who were already destitute due to foreign exploitation. Zechariah the prophet quickly realized that the entire restoration project was misdirected. The word of the Lord stated, “administer true justice; show mercy and compassion to one another. Do not oppress the widow or the fatherless, the alien or the poor. In your hearts do not think evil of each other” (Zech. 7:9-10). “These are the things you are to do: speak the truth to each other, and render true and sound judgment in your courts; do not plot evil against your neighbor, and do not love to swear falsely. I hate all this,” declares the Lord (Zech. 8:16-17).
The “apple of his eye” was to be an influence to the nations and not an exclusionist society, “Shout and be glad, O Daughter of Zion. For I am coming, and I will live among you,” declares the Lord. “Many nations will be joined with the Lord in that day and will become my people. I will live among you and you know that the Lord Almighty has sent me to you. The Lord will inherit Judah as his portion in the holy land and will again choose Jerusalem. Be still before the Lord, all mankind, because he has roused himself from his holy dwelling” (Zech. 2:10-13). “In those days ten men from all languages and nations will take firm hold of one Jew by the edge of his robe and say, ‘Let us go with you, because we have heard that God is with you'”(Zech. 8:23). That day has yet to come. Not even Jesus the Christ could usher it in. The Romans did open up Jerusalem and Judea to the world. On Pentecost present were “Parthians, Medes and Elamites; residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Capadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya near Cyrene; visitors from Rome; Cretans and Arabs. They came to worship the Hebrew God in the Great White Temple Herod had built, but the Jewish leaders kept God locked up. He broke out and left the temple for good on the day Christ Jesus was crucified (Mt. 27:50-53).