Ezra Sent to Teach the People
1 Now after this, in the reign of Artaxerxes king of Persia, Ezra the son of Seraiah, son of Azariah, son of Hilkiah, 2 son of Shallum, son of Zadok, son of Ahitub, 3 son of Amariah, son of Azariah, son of Meraioth, 4 son of Zerahiah, son of Uzzi, son of Bukki, 5son of Abishua, son of Phinehas, son of Eleazar, son of Aaron the chief priest— 6 this Ezra went up from Babylonia. He was a scribe skilled in the Law of Moses that the Lord, the God of Israel, had given, and the king granted him all that he asked, for the hand of the Lord his God was on him.
7 And there went up also to Jerusalem, in the seventh year of Artaxerxes the king, some of the people of Israel, and some of the priests and Levites, the singers and gatekeepers, and the temple servants. 8 And Ezra came to Jerusalem in the fifth month, which was in the seventh year of the king. 9 For on the first day of the first month he began to go up from Babylonia, and on the first day of the fifth month he came to Jerusalem, for the good hand of his God was on him. 10 For Ezra had set his heart to study the Law of the Lord, and to do it and to teach his statutes and rules in Israel.
11 This is a copy of the letter that King Artaxerxes gave to Ezra the priest, the scribe, a man learned in matters of the commandments of the Lord and his statutes for Israel: 12 “Artaxerxes, king of kings, to Ezra the priest, the scribe of the Law of the God of heaven. Peace. And now 13 I make a decree that anyone of the people of Israel or their priests or Levites in my kingdom, who freely offers to go to Jerusalem, may go with you. 14 For you are sent by the king and his seven counselors to make inquiries about Judah and Jerusalem according to the Law of your God, which is in your hand, 15 and also to carry the silver and gold that the king and his counselors have freely offered to the God of Israel, whose dwelling is in Jerusalem, 16 with all the silver and gold that you shall find in the whole province of Babylonia, and with the freewill offerings of the people and the priests, vowed willingly for the house of their God that is in Jerusalem. 17 With this money, then, you shall with all diligence buy bulls, rams, and lambs, with their grain offerings and their drink offerings, and you shall offer them on the altar of the house of your God that is in Jerusalem. 18 Whatever seems good to you and your brothers to do with the rest of the silver and gold, you may do, according to the will of your God. 19 The vessels that have been given you for the service of the house of your God, you shall deliver before the God of Jerusalem. 20 And whatever else is required for the house of your God, which it falls to you to provide, you may provide it out of the king’s treasury.
21 “And I, Artaxerxes the king, make a decree to all the treasurers in the province Beyond the River: Whatever Ezra the priest, the scribe of the Law of the God of heaven, requires of you, let it be done with all diligence, 22 up to 100 talents of silver, 100 cors of wheat, 100 baths of wine, 100 baths of oil, and salt without prescribing how much. 23 Whatever is decreed by the God of heaven, let it be done in full for the house of the God of heaven, lest his wrath be against the realm of the king and his sons. 24 We also notify you that it shall not be lawful to impose tribute, custom, or toll on anyone of the priests, the Levites, the singers, the doorkeepers, the temple servants, or other servants of this house of God.
25 “And you, Ezra, according to the wisdom of your God that is in your hand, appoint magistrates and judges who may judge all the people in the province Beyond the River, all such as know the laws of your God. And those who do not know them, you shall teach. 26 Whoever will not obey the law of your God and the law of the king, let judgment be strictly executed on him, whether for death or for banishment or for confiscation of his goods or for imprisonment.”
27 Blessed be the Lord, the God of our fathers, who put such a thing as this into the heart of the king, to beautify the house of the Lord that is in Jerusalem, 28 and who extended to me his steadfast love before the king and his counselors, and before all the king’s mighty officers. I took courage, for the hand of the Lord my God was on me, and I gathered leading men from Israel to go up with me.
God’s people were brokenhearted. Their homes had been destroyed, and they had been taken by force to a remote backwater of Babylon called the Kebar River.
God’s people sat by the rivers of Babylon and wept. Their great nation had been reduced to a small community of survivors, and Canaan was a desolate wasteland. They thought about the ruined city of Jerusalem and asked, “How can we sing the songs of the LORD while in a foreign land?” (Psalm 137:4).
Hope in the Valley
God spoke to His discouraged people through the prophet Ezekiel. He was given a vision in which he saw a flying platform carrying the throne of God. It hovered over the temple in Jerusalem but then moved away to the east. The significance was obvious. God had abandoned Jerusalem, but He had not abandoned His people or His promises. His plan to bring blessing to the world now focused on this group of exiles who were living seven hundred miles east of Jerusalem. Far from being in a backwater, these people were right in the center of the will of God.
Later, in another vision, Ezekiel saw a valley of dry bones. It was a picture of desolation and death that seemed to be without hope. But as Ezekiel watched, he saw the bones coming together, being covered with flesh, muscle, and skin, and then rising to life like an army. It was a picture of what God would do for His people. Out of the devastation, He would bring new life.
The Sweet Seduction of Success
Some of God’s people prospered in Babylon. King Nebuchadnezzar placed Daniel and other highly gifted young people on an educational fast track that prepared them for glittering careers. The king gave these young students Babylonian names, arranged for their education in Babylonian literature, and gave them a taste of the high life by offering food from the menu served at his own table.
A thousand years earlier, Pharaoh had persecuted God’s people and made them slaves. Nebuchadnezzar followed a different plan. Instead of persecution, he offered prosperity. His aim was to dazzle God’s people with the opportunities of life in Babylon until they were so caught up in the pursuit of success that they would forget about their distinctive calling as the people of God.
It worked with some of God’s people, but others, like Daniel, determined that however successful they became, they would never forget that they belonged to the Lord and that their highest calling was to honor Him.
Creating a New Community
Seventy years after God’s people were taken into exile, Babylon fell to the rising empire of the Medes and the Persians. The new king, Cyrus, decreed that any Jewish exiles who wished to return to Jerusalem were free to do so.
A group of about fifty thousand people caught the vision of creating a new community in the city of God and returned under the leadership of Zerubbabel (Ezra 2:64–67). After rebuilding their homes, they built an altar and began offering sacrifices as God had commanded Moses. Then they rebuilt the temple. It was a wonderful achievement that marked a new beginning for the people of God.
A View from the Fifth Mountain
God’s people were full of enthusiasm, but they had little understanding of God’s Law. When a priest by the name of Ezra came to visit, he was appalled at the spiritual condition of the people and set about the task of shaping the community by teaching God’s Word (Ezra 7:6).
Some time later, God raised up another leader named Nehemiah. He saw that although the temple had been completed, nothing had been done about the walls. The great city of God had no defenses and had precious little infrastructure. God put it into Nehemiah’s heart to do something about these things (Nehemiah 2:1–18).
When the walls were rebuilt, the people gathered in the public square to worship God. They called on Ezra to bring out the Book of the Law. Ezra must have had great joy in teaching the Word of God to this community of people who were committing themselves to a new life of faith and obedience.
Jerusalem was filled with the sound of music and singing. God’s people were back in God’s city, and they rejoiced because God had given them great joy (Nehemiah 12:43).
But something was missing. For anyone who had seen the grandeur of Solomon’s temple, the new one was a big disappointment. When the foundations were poured, younger people cheered, but older people who remembered the old temple wept (Ezra 3:12–13). The new building seemed like a poor shadow of the great temple that had once attracted the attention of the world.
The small community of returning exiles simply did not have the resources for a building on the scale of Solomon’s temple, and God sent the prophets Haggai and Zechariah to tell them not to “despise the day of small things” (Zechariah 4:10; see also Haggai 2:3).
But there was one overarching problem. The Most Holy Place had once housed the ark of the covenant where God’s presence had come down. The ark was the meeting place of God and man. But the ark had been destroyed, and it has never been recovered. So the Most Holy Place that had once housed the symbol of God’s presence became a conspicuously empty room.
When Solomon’s temple was dedicated, nearly five hundred years before, the cloud of God’s visible presence filled the building. But nothing like this ever happened in the second temple. God’s people sang songs of praise. They offered prayers, gifts, and sacrifices, but they were left longing for the presence of God and the fulfillment of His promises.
That continued through another long, dark valley. For four hundred years, God remained silent. Then one day, God spoke to an elderly priest named Zechariah as he was doing his work in the temple. He would have a son and name him John. His great task would be to prepare God’s people for the coming of the Lord. At last the time had come. God was about to fulfill His promises to Abraham and to David in the most extraordinary way.
- As we come to the end of the Old Testament, what have you learned about the fundamental problems of the human race? What hope does the Old Testament offer?