Ezra

God Keeps His Promises


God Keeps His Promises

Ezra 1-2

Main Idea: Ezra 1-2 shows God keeping His promise and initiating the first installment of the new exodus and return from exile. God keeps His promises.

  1. God Stirs Cyrus (1:1-5)
  2. Plundering the Babylonians at the New Exodus (1:6-11)
  3. The New March on Canaan (2:1-70)

Introduction

Do you know what the story of the Old Testament is like? It’s like this: Imagine God building a theater. (Really, He built the universe, but just imagine a theater.) The heavenly hosts are the audience ready for the display (Eph 3:10), and the earth is the stage. On this stage, God is going to dramatize His glory.

This means that you and I are living in the grand production of the Cosmic Artist whose masterpiece is staged in all creation, unfolding across world history. Don’t envy movie stars and famous people. You’re living in something bigger and better than what they do in those paltry little productions that can only imitate the big one that God is producing. Don’t get duped into thinking that drama and romance and excitement are only to be seen in movies. As N. D. Wilson writes in Notes from the Tilt-a-Whirl,

To exist in this poem is a greater gift than any finite creature can imagine. To be so insignificant yet still be given a speaking part, to be given scenes that are my own, and my own only, scenes where the audience is limited to the Author Himself (scenes that I often flub), ... to have been crafted with at least as much care as a snowflake (though I’m harder to melt), and to hear and feel and see and taste and smell the heavy poetry of God, that is enough (Wilson, Notes, 38).

So God built this theater, and in one little section of the stage He planted a garden. He didn’t bother with actors. He put real-life characters on stage in the garden. This is God’s reality show. He meant for the real life characters to fill the stage with His glory. Instead they rebelled against Him, so they lost the privilege of living in the garden. God banished them from the realm of life.

As the cosmic drama continued, God chose a weak little nation, Israel, who were enslaved to a bigger, stronger nation, and He liberated them from slavery. Then He brought them into what amounted to another little garden on the stage, a land He had promised to them.

God meant for the little nation to fill the stage with His glory. On the way He had them build a tabernacle, then a temple. These were intended to be small-scale replicas of the whole theater. Temple and tabernacle symbolized the world (Ps 78:69). To show what He will do in the whole theater, God filled tabernacle and temple with His glory.

God’s people failed. Miserably. Just as God had done with Adam and Eve, He banished Israel from the little part of the stage He had given to them. When He banished them, to get at the significance of what was happening, their little replica of the whole theater was torn down. They were taken into captivity in Babylon.

As the plot had rolled toward that climactic moment when God finally threw them out, Israel’s prophets started to promise that just as God freed Israel from slavery in Egypt before, so He would save them again after He drove them out of the land. They promised a new exodus.

They promised that just as God and Israel came to an agreement at Mount Sinai, Israel would once again welcome God’s terms (Hos 2:14-23). They prophesied a new covenant (Jer 31:31-34).

The prophets promised that just as God had cleared the bad guys off the little part of the stage He gave to Israel, He would give them that part of the stage again. They prophesied a new conquest of the land. They promised that just as God had raised up David to shepherd His people, He would bring a righteous king from Judah. They prophesied a new David. They promised that just as God had filled the tabernacle and the temple with His glory, He would put His Spirit in them. They prophesied a new and greater experience of the Spirit. They promised that God would remove their hearts of stone and give them hearts of flesh. They prophesied new hearts. As the prophets described all this newness, they also described the theater’s destruction. After God tore down the theater, they prophesied, He would build a new and better one. They prophesied a new heaven and new earth: a new and better Eden.

New exodus, return from exile, new covenant, new conquest, new David, new experience of the Spirit, new hearts, in a new Eden—God promised all this and more to His people, and then He kept His word and judged their sin. He threw them out. They were taken from the part of the stage identified with the good guys to the part of the stage where the bad guys had their stronghold: Babylon.

Need

Do you ever feel that nothing you’re doing matters? Do you wonder what this world is for, what your life is about, and what you’re supposed to be doing? Do you wonder whether God is going to keep His promises?

The Bible’s story is the true story of the world. This is the story in which you have a part to play. This is the story where your role will be significant.

Preview

Ezra 1-2 is composed of three sections. Ezra 1:1-5 relates how God stirred up the spirit of Cyrus, resulting in his decree that those who wished could return to the land. This sets a new exodus in motion, and in Ezra 1:6-11 Israel plunders Babylon just as they had plundered Egypt. Then just as Israel was numbered for the march on the land in the book of Numbers, the people are numbered and prepared for a new march on Canaan in Ezra 2:1-70.

Context

Ezra falls nicely into two parts. (For an excellent discussion of the plot of Ezra, see Brown, Hope Amidst Ruin.) The first part, chapters 1-6, covers 80 years and concludes with the rebuilding of the temple. The second part takes place in just one year and concludes with the people sending away foreign wives. Both parts begin with a Persian decree, contain a list of returnees, and continue with an account of opposition overcome. In the first part the opposition is from the outside, and in the second it is from the inside.

There are thus two accounts of return to the land, and we begin with the first in Ezra 1.

God Stirs Cyrus

Ezra 1:1-5

When did God build the stage? According to a strict interpretation of biblical numbers, a little before what we refer to as 4000 bc. When did He bring Israel out of Egypt into Canaan? He brought them out of Egypt in 1446 bc and into Canaan after they spent 40 years in the wilderness. David reigned around 1000 bc. The northern kingdom was destroyed in 721 bc, and the temple was destroyed and Judah exiled in 586 bc. The first exiles from Judah had been taken captive in 605 bc.

These last dates are important because Jeremiah had been one of the prophets announcing what would take place when God threw Israel out of the little garden on the stage. Jeremiah announced 70 years for Babylon (Jer 25:12; 29:10). Daniel was taken into exile to Babylon in 605 bc, and in 539 bc Daniel was studying Jeremiah and received significant revelations about Israel’s future (Dan 9, see also Dan 5). Daniel was in Babylon the night Babylon was conquered by the Medes and the Persians, bringing Cyrus to power.

All this informs what we read in Ezra 1:1(ESV):

In the first year of Cyrus king of Persia, that the word of the Lord by the mouth of Jeremiah might be fulfilled, the Lord stirred up the spirit of Cyrus king of Persia, so that he made a proclamation throughout all his kingdom and also put it in writing.

So this is the way that Ezra begins his account of the first installment of the new exodus. You remember what the Lord did to Pharaoh’s heart? He hardened it (Exod 7:3; 9:12). Then we read in Deuteronomy 2:30, “But Sihon the king of Heshbon would not let us pass by him, for the Lord your God hardened his spirit and made his heart obstinate, that he might give him into your hand, as he is this day” (ESV). And Daniel 5:20 says of Nebuchadnezzar, “But when his heart was lifted up and his spirit was hardened so that he dealt proudly, he was brought down from his kingly throne, and his glory was taken from him” (ESV). So God hardened Pharaoh’s heart, hardened Sihon’s spirit and made his heart obstinate, and the spirit of Nebuchadnezzar was hardened. When God stirs the spirit of Cyrus in Ezra 1:1, He is doing the same thing that He did at the first exodus and on these other occasions, but in a different way. As the new exodus begins, God stirs up the spirit of Cyrus. What Proverbs 21:1 says is true: “A king’s heart is like streams of water in the Lord’s hand: He directs it wherever He chooses.”

Are you worried about recent political developments? About what your government is doing? Do you believe Proverbs 21:1? This world is God’s stage. The bad guys have their strongholds, but they remain God’s characters. This is God’s cosmic drama. He will have His way. Furthermore, Paul commands us to pray for the people in authority, though bad guys they may be. The Bible shows us that God has the ability to move the stream of water (the king’s heart) such that life gets worse for God’s people, and God has the ability to stir up that stream of water such that God’s promises to restore and bless His people begin to be fulfilled. Are you praying for God to prosper the gospel by means of the streams of water that now rule the word?

Look at how Ezra regards the prophecies of Jeremiah: “the word of the Lord spoken through Jeremiah” (Ezra 1:1). Jeremiah spoke God’s word. This is where we get our understanding of the Bible as being both divine and human, both authoritative and sufficient. And we believe the Bible to be totally true and trustworthy because God is faithful to keep His word. Look at what God does—He stirs up Cyrus so that what He spoke through Jeremiah “was fulfilled” (1:1).

God will keep His word. If that nail isn’t already fixed in your thinking, let Ezra 1:1 place it, and let every testimony to it in this passage be like a hammer blow on that nail until it is firmly driven home. No human and no demon will ever dislodge it. God will keep His word. He will judge sin. He will save those who trust in Jesus. Holiness will lead to happiness. God will keep His word.

Look at the decree Cyrus put in writing in Ezra 1:2-4:

This is what King Cyrus of Persia says: “The Lord, the God of heaven, has given me all the kingdoms of the earth and has appointed me to build Him a house at Jerusalem in Judah. Whoever is among His people, may his God be with him, and may he go to Jerusalem in Judah and build the house of the Lord, the God of Israel, the God who is in Jerusalem. Let every survivor, wherever he lives, be assisted by the men of that region with silver, gold, goods, and livestock, along with a freewill offering for the house of God in Jerusalem.”

Ezra 1:2 is a hammer blow on that nail that God keeps His word: earlier we read in Isaiah 44:28,

who says to Cyrus, “My shepherd, he will fulfill all My pleasure” and says to Jerusalem, “She will be rebuilt,” and of the temple, “Its foundation will be laid.”

The books of Ezra and Nehemiah are about the fulfillment of Isaiah 44:28, since the temple is rebuilt in Ezra and the walls of the city are rebuilt in Nehemiah.

Hear another hammer blow in Ezra 1:3: God promised in Jeremiah 16:15, “I will return them to their land, which I gave to their fathers” (my trans.; see also Jer 24:6; 30:3; 32:37). God keeps His promises. He says He will restore His people to the land, and if He has to move all Persia to do it, He will.

Hear another hammer blow in Ezra 1:4: God declared in Isaiah 48:20, “Leave Babylon, flee from the Chaldeans!” And now in Ezra 1:4 He has the Persian king call for the returnees to be assisted by their neighbors. This theme of the assistance from neighbors in Ezra 1:4 reminds us of something that happened at the exodus from Egypt: in Exodus 3:21-22 the Lord declared to Moses,

And I will give these people such favor in the sight of the Egyptians that when you go, you will not go empty-handed. Each woman will ask her neighbor and any woman staying in her house for silver and gold jewelry, and clothing, and you will put them on your sons and daughters. So you will plunder the Egyptians.

That’s exactly what happens in Exodus 11:2-3 and 12:35-36. Warren Gage has noted, “every instance of tabernacle-temple erection undertaken in the Bible finds the edifice built of victory plunder”(Gage, Gospel of Genesis, 22n21). Moses built the tabernacle with Egyptian gold. Solomon built the temple with materials David had plundered in his conquests (1 Chr 26:26-27). Zerubbabel built the temple we see here in Ezra with this gold taken from the nations, and Jesus took captivity captive and distributes gifts as He builds the temple of the Holy Spirit, the church, equipping the saints for the work of the ministry (Eph 4:7-16).

Ezra notes the response to the decree of Cyrus in Ezra 1:5 (ESV):

Then rose up the heads of the fathers’ houses of Judah and Benjamin, and the priests and the Levites, everyone whose spirit God had stirred to go up to rebuild the house of the Lord that is in Jerusalem. (cf. Exod 35:21-22)

We will see this again in chapter 2, but notice here how there are the leaders of families, priests, and Levites in the first part of verse 5. The leaders of the families will exercise broad influence among the people, and the priests and Levites will be crucial for the resumption of worship at the temple.

The Lord leaves nothing to chance. Just as He stirred the spirit of Cyrus, so He stirs the spirits of these who return in the second half of Ezra 1:5. The same terminology used in Ezra 1:1 for the stirring of the spirit of Cyrus is repeated in 1:5 for the stirring of the spirit of those who went up to Jerusalem. Ezra repeated the same words in the two verses to show the Lord’s power both over Cyrus and over His people.

Look at the influence the Lord has! Are there members of your family who are not interested in building the church, the temple of the Holy Spirit? Ask the Lord to stir their hearts. Do you have friends or neighbors or people in your life that you would love to see moved to join the cause of covering the stage God built with His glory? Do you see the rulers of the world and fear the detrimental effect they could have on the gospel? Seek the Lord to stir their hearts. He can do this great work.

Plundering The Babylonians At The New Exodus

Ezra 1:6-11

What Cyrus decreed in Ezra 1:4 is enacted in verse 6: “All their neighbors supported them with silver articles, gold, goods, livestock, and valuables, in addition to all that was given as a freewill offering.” Just as the Egyptians gave freely to Israel at the exodus, so now those who surround Israel as they exit Babylon give them silver and gold and other things of worth.

In addition to the plundering, there are more hammer blows on that nail, driving into place the truth that God keeps His promises. God promised in Jeremiah 27:21-22,

This is what the Lord of Hosts, the God of Israel, says about the articles that remain in the temple of the Lord, in the palace of the king of Judah, and in Jerusalem: “They will be brought to Babylon and will remain there until I attend to them again.” This is the Lord’s declaration. “Then I will bring them up and restore them to this place.”

Now we read in Ezra 1:7-8,

King Cyrus also brought out the articles of the Lord’s house that Nebuchadnezzar had taken from Jerusalem and had placed in the house of his gods. King Cyrus of Persia had them brought out under the supervision of Mithredath the treasurer, who counted them out to Sheshbazzar the prince of Judah.

The vessels are itemized in Ezra 1:9-10, and then note the last words of verse 11: “when the exiles went up from Babylon to Jerusalem.” Even though Babylon has fallen and the Persian Empire controls the place, the region is referred to as “Babylon” to highlight the way God is fulfilling the prophecies of a new exodus from Babylon and the return from exile to the land of promise.

God keeps His word. Not only that, He provides for His people. God promised to restore His people to their land, and it looks impossible. It looks impossible because Cyrus king of Persia is in charge. It looks impossible because they can’t possibly afford to go to Jerusalem and build the temple. God makes impossible things happen. God stirs the spirit of Cyrus, and Cyrus funds the rebuilding of the temple. Impossible!

Are you looking at something that seems impossible: raising funds for an international adoption, overcoming infertility, the possibility of getting married, overcoming some temptation or pattern of sin in your life, dealing with a difficult situation at work, renewing intimacy in your marriage, growing in wisdom to the point that you’ll be useful to the Lord? What do you look at in life and say, “That’s impossible”?

Look at these Israelites in exile. It was impossible that the king would issue a decree that they could return to the land and promise to pay for the rebuilding of the temple. If you had suggested those things before they happened, they would have sounded like castles in the clouds! Preposterous suggestions! Impossibilities! Exactly. Look at God’s power and justice and faithfulness and mercy on the stage.

God keeps His word.

The New March On Canaan

Ezra 2:1-70

The first verse of Ezra 2 tells us what the chapter contains:

These now are the people of the province who came from those captive exiles King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon had deported to Babylon. They returned to Jerusalem and Judah, each to his own town.

The second verse of Ezra 2 lists 11 leaders of the community.

The material in Ezra 2 is repeated almost exactly in Nehemiah 7, but there are some differences between the two chapters. One of those differences is that in Nehemiah 7:7 there are 12 names. Some scholars think this indicates that there were probably 12 names in Ezra 2:2, and one of the names was left out by mistake (so Throntveit, Ezra-Nehemiah, 18; Kidner, Ezra and Nehemiah, 37; Williamson, Ezra, Nehemiah, 24). If this is correct, the fact that there were 12 leaders of the returnees represents an intentional reconstitution of the 12 tribes of Israel. Even if this wasn’t originally the case with Ezra 2:2, it is the case with Nehemiah 7:7.

Let me be clear about what I’m saying here. I am not saying that the author of the book of Ezra made an error. I am saying that it appears that those who copied the book of Ezra made an error. This kind of thing is why evangelicals say that the Bible is inerrant in the autographs. An autograph is the hand-writing of some famous person. The autographa or autographs of the biblical manuscripts are the hand-written copies made by the authors themselves. We believe that the Holy Spirit inspired the authors of the books of the Bible. The inspiration of the Holy Spirit kept the authors from making errors. God is true and trustworthy, and what He communicated in the Scriptures through the biblical authors is true and trustworthy. So when we say that the Bible is inerrant in the autographs, we are simply saying that God inspired the original authors who wrote the Bible, but He did not inspire every scribe who copied the Bible so as to preserve them from minor error.

This portion of Ezra, with the numbers at the end of chapter 1 and the names in chapter 2, seems to have been a challenge for the scribes. When numbers were written in ancient Hebrew, they used a system of symbols that might not have been clear to later copyists. Derek Kidner refers to “many other indications in the Old Testament that numbers were the bane of copyists” (Kidner, Ezra and Nehemiah, 38). In the same way, the similarity of many Hebrew names could have caused scribes difficulty as they copied the text. We see difficulty with numbers in two ways in this section of Ezra.

How should we respond to this kind of information? One way to respond is the way Bart Ehrman does: “What good is it to say that the autographs (i.e., the originals) were inspired? We don’t have the originals! We have only error-ridden copies”(Ehrman, Misquoting Jesus, 7). If you are looking for excuses to rebel against the Bible, you can go Ehrman’s way.

Another way to respond to this kind of information is to look at what we have and ask if Christ-Centered Exposition: Exalting Jesus in Ezra and Nehemiah it is enough to enable us to understand the message of Ezra. So the numbers of the temple vessels don’t add up, a name appears to have fallen out, and the numbers in Ezra 2 don’t match the total given at the end of the list. There may be valid explanations for each. The lists may be excerpts while the totals are complete. The copyists may have bungled the job. Can we understand the text in spite of these difficulties? I think we can. In fact, I think that going Ehrman’s way would be as silly as receiving a reliable written message from someone you trust warning you about a nucular attack and rejecting the message because the word nuclear is misspelled. Would you risk being nuked because of a spelling error? Are you going to risk going to hell because there are difficulties with these lists in the Bible?

These difficulties do not keep us from understanding the message of the text. We can see, in spite of the question about the numbers of the vessels, that God kept His promise and restored those temple vessels. We can see, in spite of the question of the numbers of the returnees, that the people of Israel were restored to their land.

And when God restored His people to their land to rebuild the temple, He stirred the hearts of those who returned. He stirred the hearts of leaders in 2:2, of ordinary Israelites in 2:3-35, of priests in 2:36-39, of Levites in 2:40-42, of temple servants in 2:43-53, and of the sons of Solomon’s servants in 2:55-58. God stirred the hearts of everyone necessary for the work.

The fact that there are difficulties in the text should not make us conclude that the Israelites were not careful with details. Again, we can distinguish between what the author wrote and what later copyists did.

Look also at the way the returnees to the land respond to those who “were not able to declare the house of their fathers and their seed, whether they were from Israel” (2:59; my trans.) in 2:59-63. These people are listed out, and then in 2:61-62 we read that priests who could not demonstrate their genealogy were “disqualified from the priesthood.” We see here an intense concern with holiness. This concern for holiness is for the good of those excluded. If they are not priests and they draw near to God, they could be struck dead by His holiness breaking out against them. So their exclusion is for their protection.

It appears that the “sons of Hakkoz” in 2:61 (my trans.) were verified when a priest arose and consulted Urim and Thummim, as mentioned in 2:63. From what we read in the ESV of 1 Samuel 14:41-42, it appears that the Urim and Thummim were used as lots to determine the will of the Lord. These were two small stones kept in the high priest’s breastpiece, one indicating yes and the other no. A question would be put, a stone drawn out, and the answer would be determined. In Ezra 8:33, Nehemiah 3:4, and 3:21, we read of a descendant of Hakkoz named Meremoth serving as a priest. So it seems that the Urim and the Thummim verified his family.

Consider with me the status of the family of Hakkoz for a moment. These men want to serve as priests, but they are unable in themselves to demonstrate that they descend from the sons of Aaron. They need someone to arise and do for them what they cannot do themselves. They need a vindication that comes from outside themselves.

If you are an unbeliever, let me suggest that your condition is analogous to that of the sons of Hakkoz. You are unable to achieve for yourselves the vindication you need before God, but a priest has arisen who has provided what you need. Someone has done for you what you cannot do for yourself. Someone has provided a vindication that comes from outside yourself, outside what you are able to accomplish, and this vindication has been accepted before God.

What I mean is this: Your sin disqualifies you before God. Jesus lived the perfect life you should have lived, and He died on the cross under the wrath of God as you deserved—not as He deserved. He did this so that if you will trust in Him and swear fealty to Him as your Lord and King, His payment of the penalty will count for you. If you trust in Jesus, then, like these sons of Hakkoz, you can serve God as a priest.

As God hardened the heart of Pharaoh, He stirred the spirit of Cyrus. As Israel plundered the Egyptians and built the tabernacle, the Babylonians funded the rebuilding of the temple. As a census was taken in Numbers when the people prepared to march on Canaan, so the returnees to the land are enumerated here in Ezra 2.

There was an exodus from Egypt and an exodus from Babylon. Jesus also accomplished an exodus in Jerusalem (Luke 9:31). Everyone who trusts in Jesus participates in His exodus. Everyone who trusts in Him is forgiven of sin. Everyone who trusts in Jesus will participate in the exodus from being in bondage to corruption. This exodus will happen when all things are consummated and Jesus takes His people into the new heaven and new earth. Is this your story? Are you trusting in Jesus?

This passage is hammering on the nail of God’s faithfulness. Are you hearing those hammer blows and believing that God can be trusted to keep His promises? God will save every one of His people. Their names are recorded for life in Jerusalem. None will be lost.

Conclusion

Look at how Israel responds to the Lord’s faithfulness and deliverance here in Ezra 2:68-69. Everything necessary for the rebuilding of the temple has been provided by Cyrus (1:4, 7-11; cf. 6:4). Nevertheless, “some of the heads of the fathers’ houses, when they came to the house of Yahweh, which was in Jerusalem, gave freewill offerings for the house of God to establish it in its place” (2:68; my trans.).

I mentioned earlier that what we see here in Ezra 1-2 is the first installment of the new exodus and return from exile. I called it the first installment because we will see another installment of it in Ezra 7-8. Figuratively speaking, then, we have a new exodus and return in Ezra 1-2, and another new exodus and return in Ezra 7-8. This may provide a precedent for the authors of the New Testament presenting the first coming of Jesus as a new exodus and return from exile, and then Revelation also presenting the second coming of Jesus in the same way—as the climactic fulfillment of the pattern of exodus and return from exile.

In response to the way that Jesus has liberated us from bondage, don’t you feel the way these “heads of the fathers’ houses” feel in 2:68-69 (my trans.)? Everything has been provided, but don’t you want to give? Don’t you want to sacrifice? Don’t you want to make freewill offerings?

This is still the stage God built. He still wants it filled with His glory. Rebels will give Him occasion to display the glory of His justice. Those who trust Jesus will experience the glory of His mercy. So the question is not whether you will glorify God but how. How will you glorify God? Let’s fill the stage with praise for the One who is worthy, and let’s live in ways that demonstrate the happiness of holiness (see Ps 144:15).

Reflect and Discuss

  1. In what ways is the world like a stage built for the demonstration of God’s glory? Can you think of any other metaphorical descriptions of what the world is like?
  2. How does seeing the connection to Jeremiah’s prophecy of 70 years (Jer 25:12; 29:10), God hardening Pharaoh’s heart (Exod 7:3; 9:12), and Cyrus rebuilding the temple (Isa 44:28) enhance your understanding of this passage in Ezra?
  3. Do you have a copy of the Scriptures with cross-references? If so, do the cross-references in Ezra 1:1-5 mention the passages in Exodus, Isaiah, and Jeremiah?
  4. How can paying attention to cross-references enhance your appreciation of how God works to fulfill His promises?
  5. Are you confident that God keeps His promises, or are there some things that God has promised to do that you don’t think He will fulfill? Explain.
  6. Is there some tragedy or disappointment in your life that makes you think that God failed to keep a promise?
  7. Does our frustration with God come from His failure to keep His promises or from our expectation that He should do something He has not promised to do?
  8. How would you reply to the question, “Who are you?” Are you identifying yourself as someone redeemed by Jesus?
  9. How would you respond to someone who says that if the numbers in Ezra 2 and Nehemiah 7 aren’t correct, then we can’t trust the Bible and we can’t be sure of salvation?
  10. In what ways have you seen that God is at work to build the church?