The unity of the two books. Although frequently overlooked, Ezra and Nehemiah are both important books in the Bible. They record God’s second deliverance of the Jews from foreign captivity and the Jews’ second exodus to the Promised Land. In the original Hebrew scrolls (before bound books existed), Ezra and Nehemiah were taught together as one teaching or book. It was not until the writer Origen in the third century AD that any known commentator divided these books. The earliest known Hebrew manuscript to divide these books did not exist until 1448 A.D. (Mervin Breneman, The New American Commentary, Vol. 10, Ezra, Nehemiah, Esther (B&H Publishing Group 1993) p. 37). Ezra and Nehemiah also most likely had a single unknown author. Thus, the two books should be studied together for common themes.
Historical background to the Jews’ captivity in Babylon. In 605 B.C., Nebuchadnezzar II, the then crown prince of Babylon, gained control over Judah after he defeated the Assyrians and the Egyptians at Carchemish in northern Syria. That same year, he took the first wave of Jewish deportees to Babylon. These included the prophet Daniel and his friends (Dan. 1:1-3). In 597 and in 587 B.C., Nebuchadnezzar II invaded Judah and deported the Jews two more times. As part of God’s judgment upon the people of Judah, He allowed Nebuchadnezzar II to burn Jerusalem, including God’s Temple (2 Kgs. 25:8-12; 2 Chr. 36:17-19; Jer. 39:1-10; 52:1-23). This purified the Temple from the false worship that had gone on within it. It also fulfilled a prophesy that His house would be burned (1 Kgs. 9:7-8). Nebuchadnezzar II also looted whatever treasures he could find in the Temple and Judah (2 Kgs. 24:13-14). The Jews’ exile fulfilled multiple prophesies that Moses gave to the Jews before they ever entered the Promised Land (Dt. 28:64; 4:27-28; 29:28; 32:26; Lev. 26:33). To warn the people and to give them another opportunity to repent, the prophet Jeremiah also warned that the Babylonians would soon send the people of Judah into exile (Jer. 5:19; 17:4; 13:19; 20:4; 42:18; 50:17; Ezek. 12:3; 22:15; Neh. 1:8). But the Jews ignored these multiple specific warnings and opportunities to repent. The Jews’ 70-year exile was based upon the exact number of Sabbaths (once every seven years) that the Jews failed to observe in the Promised Land (Ex. 23:10-11; Lev. 26:34-35; Jer. 25:11-13; 29:10). God used this time of Jewish exile to heal the Promised Land and remold His people.
God’s promise to restore His people. Through Jeremiah, God promised that He would judge the Babylonians after exactly 70 years of captivity (Jer. 25:8-13; 51:57-58). He would then restore the Jews and their lands (Jer. 29:10-14). The prophet Isaiah even foretold Cyrus II of Persia’s future victory over Babylon before he was even born! “Thus says the LORD to Cyrus His anointed, . . ” (Is. 44:28-45:5). While in exile, the writing of Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Isaiah gave the Jews hope and focused their leaders, like Ezra and Nehemiah, on restoring proper worship and fellowship with God (Jer. 3:14-17; 23:3-8; 30:1-33:26; Ezek. 34:11-16; 36:8-12; 46:3).
God’s use of King Cyrus II to deliver the Jews. Out of mercy and grace and to fulfill His promises, God did not forsake His people. He instead used the Persians to free the Jews from Babylonian bondage (2 Chr. 36:22-23). In 559 B.C., Cyrus II (the “Great”) became King of Persia (550-530 B.C.), which then existed in south-eastern Iran and the Iranian coastline of the Persian Gulf. Nine years later, he conquered Medes, located in western Iran and the southern Caspian Sea, and he created a unified Medo-Persian Empire. Yet, at that time, it was called the Achaemenid Empire after Persia’s first king. In 539 B.C., to fulfill God’s prophecies, God empowered the Medo-Persian army to capture Babylon. Cyrus II’s general Gobryas diverted the Euphrates River. This caused the water level around Babylon to drop and allowed his troops to take Babylon by surprise. Just before this attack, the prophet Daniel told the Babylonian King Belshazzar that God had judged him (Dan 5:5-31). Daniel then became an advisor to the Persians. By some traditions, he showed the Persians the many prophecies predicting Cyrus II’s future conquests. In 538 B.C., the Holy Spirit moved in King Cyrus II’s heart, and he made a decree that gave the Jewish captives in Babylon the right to return to Jerusalem and rebuild the Temple (Ezra 1:1-4; 5:13-17). Possibly after having seen the Jewish prophecies, King Cyrus II further understood God’s divine providence in giving him his kingdom and his obligation to rebuild the Temple (Is. 44:28-45:4). Sheshbazzar brought the first wave of Jews from Babylonian captivity to Jerusalem (Ezra 1:11). Cyrus II’s son Cambyses (530 – 522 B.C.) then succeeded Cyrus II. In 525 B.C., he conquered Egypt. But he then supported those who delayed the rebuilding of the Temple. Possibly as a result of God’s judgment, he died shortly thereafter.
God’s use of King Darius I to allow the Jews to complete the Temple. In 522 B.C., Darius I (“the Great”) (522—486 B.C.), a cousin of Cambyses, took control over the Persian Empire after a usurper named Gaumata briefly took control over the throne. God then softened Darius I’s heart, and he allowed the Temple construction to resume (Ezra 6). Just prior to his reign, in 520 B.C., God also raised the prophets Haggai and Zechariah to exhort the people to finish rebuilding the Temple. In 515 B.C., the Jews dedicated the rebuilt Temple (Ezra 6:16-18).
God gave the Jews autonomy during Persia’s decline in power. During Darius I’s reign, Greeks in modern day Turkey rebelled against him, called the Ionian Revolt. Darius I then took control over all of Turkey. He then formed a massive army to defeat the Greek mainland. Yet, in 490 B.C., the Greeks of Athens and Sparta united to defeat a far larger Persian army at the Battle of Marathon. An Egyptian revolt thwarted Darius I’s attempts at a second invasion. In 475 B.C., Xerxes I (486-465 B.C.) succeeded him as the next emperor of Persia. He then attempted to lead a new invasion of Greece. But the Greeks defeated his navy at the battle of Salamis. The events of the book of Esther begin during the third year of Xerxes I’s reign. Esther became queen during the seventh year of his reign (Esther 2:17). Some believe that the plot that Mordecai uncovered to assassinate Xerxes I stemmed from his humiliating defeat to the Greeks. Yet, his 20-year reign ended in 465 B.C. after Hazarapat murdered him. (Breneman, The New American Commentary, p. 23). Artaxerxes I (464-424 B.C.) then became the next Persian king. At this time, Persia became weakened by revolts. In 460 B.C., the Egyptians revolted. In 459, the Athenians captured Alexandria. Many believe that Persia’s weakened state caused Artaxerxes I to offer autonomy in an attempt to instill loyalty in his empire. This benefited the Jews as they sought to rebuild. In 458 B.C., the seventh year of King Artaxerxes I’ reign, Ezra arrived in Jerusalem (Ezra 7:7-8). In 445 B.C., the twentieth year of King Artaxerxes’ reign, Nehemiah arrived. (Neh. 2:1). Between 445 B.C. and 425 B.C., Nehemiah led the Jews in rebuilding the walls of Jerusalem. Ezra and Nehemiah led the Jews in preparing their hearts for the Messiah.
The wait for the Messiah. Although Ezra and Nehemiah led the Jews in spiritual reforms, the Jews continued to live under foreign occupation. In 332 B.C., Alexander the Great (356 B.C. – 323 B.C.) took Jerusalem from the Persians. Between 332 B.C. and 141 B.C., the Jews lived under the rule of the Greek generals Ptolemaic and then Seleucid. While some Jews might have thought that God had abandoned them, God used this Hellenistic period of Jewish history to prepare the world for the Messiah. During this time, Greek converts to Judaism translated the Torah into Greek, which expanded it to the Gentiles. In Genesis 9:27, God promised to “enlarge” Japheth (the father of the European nations). Some Jews scholars saw this as applying to the Greek proselytes, whom they believed would become followers of the future Messiah: “According to the Targum, this means that the descendants of Japheth will become proselytes in the days of the Messiah, ‘His sons shall be proselytes and dwell in the schools of Shem, and Canaan will be a slave to them.’” (Targum Pseudo-Yonatan). Some Jews from this time period believed that, during the Messianic era, the believers amongst the descendants of Shem and Japheth would be gathered together under the Messiah’s perfect government (Is. 66:19-20). Isaiah’s prophecy allowed Paul’s contemporary, named Shimon ben Gamli’el, to authorize the Greek Septuagint translation of the Torah. (Megillah 9b.) This then spread God’s Word to the Gentiles. The early Church writers and the reformers like Martin Luther and John Calvin also saw the coming together of the descendants of Shem and Japheth as referencing the Messianic era of Christ. Both Jews and Gentiles are offered to share in the blessings offered to Abraham when you believe in Jesus: “in order that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles, so that we would receive the promise of the Spirit through faith.” (Gal. 3:14).
The inability of the Jews to recognize Jesus, the true Messiah. In 63 B.C., the Roman General Pompey captured Jerusalem, which set the stage for the arrival of the Messiah, Jesus Christ. But the Jews rejected Jesus because they were looking for a military leader to drive out the foreign oppressors. Moreover, the reforms of Ezra and Nehemiah failed to fully prepare the Jews for the Messiah. Ezra and Nehemiah reinstituted obedience to the Mosaic law. Yet, their necessary purge of pagan beliefs brought about a type of legalism that was prevalent when Jesus arrived. The Jews made obedience to the law the end goal. Jesus taught that obedience was important. But He taught that it was the fruit of a believer who loved God (Jo. 14:15; 14:21; 15:10).
Themes of Ezra – Nehemiah. Ezra and Nehemiah each led the Jews in brief revivals. Yet, for several reasons, they failed to establish long-lasting revivals of the Jewish faith.
1) Faith. Some Jews believed that God had abandoned them in exile. Others had established themselves living in foreign lands and saw no reason to start over in the Promised Land. Thus, Ezra and Nehemiah stressed God’s sovereignty over pagan rulers and the continuity of His plan for the Jews (Ezra 1:1; 5:5; 6:22; 7:27; 8:22; Neh. 2:8; 4:20). The Jews needed to understand that God’s hand had moved the Persian kings to free them to return and to rebuild His Temple. In short, they exhorted the Jews to have faith. Sadly, only a small remnant would have the faith to respond to God’s calling to leave their old lives behind for a second exodus. The revivals also failed because the Jews faith depended upon worldly success.
2) Spirit-led obedience. Moses warned the Jews that some of God’s blessings are conditional. While Spirit-led obedience would lead to blessings (Dt. 28:1-14), disobedience led to God’s progressive discipline. This culminated in exile (Dt. 28:15-68). Ezra and Nehemiah exhorted the Jews not to repeat the mistakes of their forefathers. The Jews had to be obedient to God’s Word as it is written (Ezra 3:2-4; 6:18; 7:6; 9:7; Neh. 8:14-15). Some Jews, however, failed to make obedience the fruit of a person’s love for God. Some Jews created a new yoke of legalism. Even worse, because their acts of obedience were not the result of a transformed heart, many Jews failed in their attempt to be obedient. They needed a new covenant based upon God’s promises through Ezekiel and Jeremiah of a transformed heart (Ezek. 36:26; Jer. 24:7).
3) Separation. Many Jews who returned had mixed their belief system with the beliefs of the pagan nations wherever they lived. This was another mistake that Ezra and Nehemiah sought to correct (Ezra 9:14). The Jews needed to remove their worldly influences from their walk. Their failure to stay separate from worldly ways would also undermine their attempts at revival.
4) Worship / God’s Fellowship. The restoration of proper worship and God’s fellowship was a central theme for the leaders who led the returning exiles. The leaders sought to rebuild the Temple to restore proper sacrifices and God’s Shekinah glory (Ezra 3:10-13; 6:16-22; Neh. 11:17, 23; 12:8-9, 27-43). Because this was the second exodus, many of the events mirror the book of Exodus. These included the building of a place where the Jews could properly atone for sins and properly worship God. This also included the celebration of the Passover (Ezra 6:19-22) and the Feast of Tabernacles (Neh. 8). The New Testament states that the Old Testament holy days reveal the “shadows” of Jesus (Col. 2:16-7; Heb. 10:1). These “holy convocations” or “miqras” can also be translated as “rehearsals” (Lev. 23:2). While celebrating these holy days, the Jews unknowingly rehearsed for the arrival of the glory of Jesus Christ.
5) Dependence on God. Prayer and fasting were also important for Ezra and Nehemiah (Ezra 8:21; 9:6-15; Neh. 1:4-11; 2:4-5; 5:19; 9:5-37; 13:14, 22, 31). Both depended upon God, not strong leaders. Living without a king forced the Jews to pray to God instead of depending upon a king to deliver them as they had done in the past. “[T]his new situation under foreign rule meant that the Jewish people became again more strictly a covenant community and not a nation of a monarchy. The community’s identity did not now depend on its political institutions and the identity of the nation but on its special covenant relationship with God. In God’s providence this was a step in preparation for the New Testament transition to the church under the new covenant in which all believers are one in Christ and where physical, ethnic, political, and geographic distinctions are overcome.” (Breneman, The New American Commentary, p. 51).
6) Leadership. Sheshbazzar, Ezra and Nehemiah each faced obstacles or opposition. None performed any miracles like Moses or Elijah. Each had to have the courage of faith, patience, and perseverance to lead in the face of failure or setback. The book of Nehemiah, for example, ends with Nehemiah’s frustration and cursing at the Jews for their ongoing disobedience.
7) Hope. Finally, the books of Ezra and Nehemiah are books about hope. Sheshbazzar, Zerubbabel, and Joshua led the failed first group of returnees. Ezra and then Nehemiah separately faced apathetic Jews who were unwilling to give up their old lives while living in the Promised Land. The rebuilding of the Temple did not bring the return of the Shekinah Glory. The rebuilding of the Temple and the walls of Jerusalem also did not usher in a return of the Davidic kings or the Messiah. In that sense, the books can feel anticlimactic. Indeed, the Jews continued to live under foreign rule. This included the Persians, then the Greeks and finally the Romans. Ezra and Nehemiah established the foundations for the arrival of the Messiah and the restoration of the Davidic kingship through Jesus. But the people placed their hope in a worldly solution for their problems. Their failed reforms demonstrated that they could not obtain a spiritual renewal without transformed hearts. Only Jesus and the Holy Spirit could deliver this.
Introduction: Most people only know of the first exodus. The Jews’ exodus from Egypt was memorable because of God’s many miracles. His deliverance of the Jews from Babylonian captivity was just as miraculous. He foretold in advance the exact time of His deliverance and the name of the pagan ruler that He would use to deliver the Jews. But the second exodus is not as well known because only a remnant of Jews used their God-given freedom to leave their old lives behind and return as pilgrims to the Promised Land. From God’s second deliverance and the second exodus, God reveals seven things that He offers you. This includes: (1) faithfulness, (2) fellowship, (3) encouragement, (4) free will, (5) provision, (6) restoration, and (7) guidance.
First, God told the prophet Jeremiah that the Jews would spend exactly 70 years in captivity. God also told Isaiah that the Jews’ future deliverer would be named Cyrus. In the exact manner God promised, God used the Persian King Cyrus II to free the Jews. From this account, God reveals that He is also faithful to keep His promises to you. Second, God used King Cyrus II to allow the Jews to return to the Promised Land to rebuild the Temple. The Temple was God’s means at that time for atoning for sins, allowing for proper worship, and restoring fellowship with Him. The Temple foreshadowed Jesus. Through Jesus, God provides a means for you to find fellowship with Him. Third, God also used Cyrus II to encourage the Jews to return to rebuild the Temple. God also promises to encourage and strengthen you to serve. Fourth, God gave the Jews the choice to leave their old lives behind to serve Him. Sadly, only a remnant accepted this offer. God gives every person the free will to accept or reject Him. Regrettably, only a remnant will accept the free gift that Jesus offers. Fifth, through the Jews who stayed behind and their pagan neighbors, God blessed the returning pilgrims with everything that they would need to succeed and rebuild. When you serve God, He also promises to provide for all your needs. Sixth, God used Cyrus II to restore many of the gold items that the Jews lost due to sin to rebuild the Temple. Through Jesus, God also promises to restore what you have lost due to sin. Finally, God raised up a courageous leader to lead the Jewish pilgrims on their journey. Today, God has given you the Spirit to both raise up leaders to serve and to guide your path.
God used a Persian king to fulfill His promises to free the Jews from foreign captivity. During his first year of rule and shortly after defeating the Babylonians, God stirred up King Cyrus II’s heart to issue a decree to release the Jews from captivity: “1 Now in the first year of Cyrus king of Persia, in order to fulfill the word of the Lord by the mouth of Jeremiah, the Lord stirred up the spirit of Cyrus king of Persia, so that he sent a proclamation throughout all his kingdom, and also put it in writing, saying:” (Ezra 1:1). In 538 B.C., Cyrus II issued this decree (Ezra 1:1-2; 5:13-17). Even though the Jews had not earned the right to be freed, God did this to fulfill His promises through Jeremiah. Cyrus II’s decree is also recorded in Chronicles (2 Chr. 36:22-23). It is further recorded in ancient Persian records. Thus, even skeptics accept this as historical.
God’s fulfillment of His promises through Jeremiah of 70 years of captivity. God stirred up Cyrus II’s heart “in order to fulfill the word of the Lord by the mouth of Jeremiah,” (Ezra 1:1). Before the Babylonians had captured Judah and began its waves of deportations, the prophet Jeremiah warned the Jews both of their future defeat and that they would spend 70 years in captivity: “8 Therefore thus says the Lord of hosts, ‘Because you have not obeyed My words, 9 behold, I will end and take all the families of the north,’ declares the Lord, ‘and I will send to Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon, My servant, and will bring them against this land and against its inhabitants and against all these nations roundabout; and I will utterly destroy them and make them a horror and a hissing, and an everlasting desolation. 10 ‘Moreover, I will take from them the voice of joy and the voice of gladness, the voice of the bridegroom and the voice of the bride, the sound of the millstones and the light of the lamp. 11 ‘This whole land will be a desolation and a horror, and these nations will serve the king of Babylon seventy years. 12 ‘Then it will be when seventy years are completed I will punish the king of Babylon and that nation,’ declares the Lord, ‘for their iniquity, and the land of the Chaldeans; and I will make it an everlasting desolation. 13 ‘I will bring upon that land all My words which I have pronounced against it, all that is written in this book which Jeremiah has prophesied against all the nations.” (Jer. 25:8-13). As the 70-year time period come to a close, the prophet Daniel read God’s promises to Jeremiah and prayed a prayer of repentance. He then prayed for God to fulfill His Word (Dan. 9:1-27). God heard Daniel’s prayers for God’s people, and God was faithful to fulfill this promise to free His people.
God’s fulfillment of His promises to restore the Jews to Israel. In addition to promising to free the Jews, God also promised through Jeremiah to restore those who sought Him out and return them to the Promised Land: “10 For thus says the Lord, ‘When seventy years have been completed for Babylon, I will visit you and fulfill My good word to you, to bring you back to this place. 11‘For I know the plans that I have for you,’ declares the Lord, ‘plans for welfare and not for calamity to give you a future and a hope. 12‘Then you will call upon Me and come and pray to Me, and I will listen to you. 13 ‘You will seek Me and find Me when you search for Me with all your heart. 14 ‘I will be found by you,’ declares the Lord, ‘and I will restore your fortunes and will gather you from all the nations and from all the places where I have driven you,’ declares the Lord, ‘and I will bring you back to the place from where I sent you into exile.’” (Jer. 29:10-14). God also fulfilled this promise. But only a remnant availed themselves of God’s promise.
God’s fulfillment of His promises through Isaiah to use Cyrus II as His instrument. In addition to telling the Jews exactly how long they would spend in captivity, God also told the Jews the name of the pagan ruler that He would use to free them. The prophet Isaiah foretold of King Cyrus II of Persia’s future victory over Babylon approximately 150 years before he was even born: “Thus says the LORD to Cyrus His anointed, whom I have taken by the right hand, to subdue nations before him and to loose the loins of kings; to open doors before him so that gates will not be shut” (Is. 45:1; 44:28-45:4).
The territory under King Cyrus II’s control when God prompted him to free the Jews1
God was faithful not to forsake the Jews. God promised that He will never forget His Covenant with His people: “For the LORD your God is a compassionate God; He will not fail you nor destroy you nor forget the covenant with your fathers which He swore to them.” (Dt. 4:31). He also would not forsake the Jews when He disciplined them: “Yet in spite of this, when they are in the land of their enemies, I will not reject them, nor will I so abhor them as to destroy them, breaking My covenant with them; for I am the LORD their God. But I will remember for them the covenant with their ancestors, whom I brought out of the land of Egypt in the sight of the nations, that I might be their God. I am the LORD.” (Lev. 26:44-45). “Be strong and courageous, . . . He will not fail you or forsake you.” (Dt. 31:6). God will also never leave or forsake you (Heb. 13:5). Even when God disciplines you, never lose hope or feel that He has abandoned you.
God freed His people out of a love for them. When Ezra later came to the Promised Land, he revealed that God freed the Jews out of a deep love for them. “For we are slaves; yet in our bondage our God has not forsaken us, but has extended lovingkindness to us in the sight of the kings of Persia, to give us reviving to raise up the house of our God, to restore its ruins and to give us a wall in Judah and Jerusalem.” (Ezra 9:9; Ps. 106:46). He promises to restore His people if they repent of their sins (2 Chr. 7:14). He also loves you and is eager to restore you when you turn back to Him.
God’s Word is true and is always fulfilled. In their time of darkness, the prophet Jeremiah encouraged the people that God could not break His promises: “Thus says the LORD, ‘If you can break My covenant for the day and My covenant for the night, so that day and night will not be at their appointed time, then My covenant may also be broken with David My servant so that he will not have a son to reign on his throne, and with the Levitical priests, My ministers.”’ (Jer. 33:20-21; 2 Chr. 21:7). Throughout the Bible, God reveals that His Word is true and always comes to pass: “Not one of the good promises which the LORD had made to the house of Israel failed; all came to pass.” (Josh. 21:45). “Blessed be the LORD, who has given rest to His people Israel, according to all that He promised; not one word has failed of all His good promise, which He promised through Moses His servant.” (1 Kgs. 8:56). “I declared the former things long ago and they went forth from My mouth, and I proclaimed them. Suddenly I acted, and they came to pass.” (Is. 48:3; 42:9). No other holy book can make similar claims of fulfilled prophecy as the Bible does. God’s Word is true and will always come true.
You also can trust in His promises to you. The accuracy of God’s promises in the Old Testament show how you can also trust His New Testament promises for you as well. “Faithful is He who calls you, and He also will bring it to pass” (1 Thess. 5:24). “Know therefore that the LORD your God, He is God, the faithful God, who keeps His covenant and His lovingkindness to a thousandth generation with those who love Him and keep His commandments;” (Dt. 7:9; 1 Cor. 1:9). He is faithful even when you are not (2 Tim. 2:13). Have you given thanks that you can trust in His faithfulness in your life?
Cyrus II confesses God’s sovereignty and His purpose in rebuilding the Temple. In addition to using Cyrus II to free the Jews, God also put upon his heart his obligation to assist the Jews in returning to the Promised Land and rebuilding the Temple: “2 ‘Thus says Cyrus king of Persia, ‘The Lord, the God of heaven, has given me all the kingdoms of the earth and He has appointed me to build Him a house in Jerusalem, which is in Judah.”’ (Ezra 1:2). The Temple was important because it allowed for God’s people to atone for their sins and properly worship Him. These things allowed for His people to be in fellowship with Him. This has been God’s goal for mankind throughout all of history.
God directed Cyrus II to issue a decree at the appointed time to rebuild the Temple2
God is sovereign and in control over all history. Most likely through the prophet Daniel and the writings of Jeremiah and Isaiah, God allowed Cyrus II to know that He was responsible for the Persian’s victory over Babylon. Isaiah’s description of his victory 150 years before he was born likely had a deep impact on him. Daniel explained: “It is He [God] who changes the times and the epochs; He removes kings and establishes kings; He gives wisdom to wise men and knowledge to men of understanding.” (Da. 2:21). “He makes the nations great, then destroys them; He enlarges the nations, then leads them away.” (Job 12:23). “Behold, the nations are like a drop from a bucket, and are regarded as a speck of dust on the scales; behold, He lifts up the islands like fine dust.” (Is. 40:15). “All the nations are as nothing before Him, they are regarded by Him as less than nothing and meaningless.” (Is. 40:17). “The LORD is King forever and ever; nations have perished from His land.” (Ps. 10:16). “You shall multiply the nation, You shall increase their gladness; . . .” (Is. 9:3(a)). “All the inhabitants of the earth are accounted as nothing, but He does according to His will in the host of heaven and among the inhabitants of earth; and no one can ward off His hand or say to Him, ‘What have You done?’” (Dan. 4:35). Many Jews likely felt as though God had abandoned them. But He was only waiting for His appointed time. Even when evil surrounds you or when you are ruled by evil leaders, do you trust that God is in control?
Seeing God’s hand in history requires faith. Some today believe that Cyrus II acted in a calculated manner to win the support of his conquered subjects. Cyrus II did in fact free other conquered people to win their support. “The ‘proclamation’ is the famous ‘Edict of Cyrus.’ A secular historian would not have seen God’s hand in this. The Cyrus Cylinder, a clay barrel inscription found in Hormuzd Rassam’s excavations at Babylon (1879-82), shows that this king made similar proclamations concerning other people’s gods.” (Breneman, The New American Commentary, p. 67). But Cyrus II could not dispute the inerrancy of God’s Word. He may have had more faith in God’s Word to give up his recently obtained Temple treasures than the Jews who refused to return home.
The restoration of God’s broken fellowship with the Jews. During the first exodus, God’s glory came to Israel when Moses completed the Tabernacle (Ex. 40:34-38). His glory then left Israel when the Philistines captured the ark (1 Sam 4:22). The Jews then collectively lamented their loss of fellowship with God: “2 . . . and all the house of Israel lamented after the Lord.” (1 Sam. 7:2(b)). After Solomon built the Temple, God allowed His Shekinah Glory to fill the Temple (2 Chr. 7:1). The later looting of the gold items in the Temple symbolized the Jews’ broken fellowship with God (2 Kgs. 24:13). God made a promise that His eyes would forever be placed on the Temple Mount: “The LORD said to him, ‘I have heard your prayer and your supplication, which you have made before Me; I have consecrated this house which you have built by putting My name there forever, and My eyes and My heart will be there perpetually.’” (1 Kgs. 9:3; 2 Chr. 33:7). Ezekiel also prophesied that the Shekinah glory would return with the Messiah (Ez. 43:1-5). Thus, the Jews desired to rebuild the Temple for the Messiah’s arrival.
Jesus loves you and died so that He could dwell in eternal fellowship with you. Out of love for mankind, Jesus first came and dwelled with us as a human. The Temple foreshadowed Him (Jo. 2:21). The glory of God was also revealed through Him: “And the Word became flesh . . . and we saw His glory, glory as the only begotten from the Father, full of grace and truth.” (Jo. 1:14). Yet, many could not comprehend His light because they loved evil (Jo. 3:19). Only those with faith could see that Jesus was and is the true light of the world (Jo. 8:12) He then died at the cross so that any who believe could live: “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life.” (Jo. 3:16). “But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.” (Ro. 5:8). “He who was delivered over because of our transgressions, and was raised because of our justification.” (Ro. 4:25). Like the Jews, you too are called to seek fellowship with Jesus: “God is faithful, through whom you were called into fellowship with His Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.” (1 Cor. 1:9). Jesus also offered to believers the enjoyment of spiritual intimacy with Him, symbolized by dining together with Him: ‘“Behold, I stand at the door and knock; if anyone hears My voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and will dine with him, and he with Me.”’ (Rev. 3:20). After Jesus returns, His Shekinah glory will again be present on a rebuilt Temple (Micah 4:1-8; Zech. 14:3-9). In heaven, you will also see the Shekinah glory of God the Father and Jesus Christ without a veil (1 Jo. 3:2). You “will see His face. . . [and] the Light of God (“Shekinah glory”) will illumine them forever and ever.” (Rev. 22:5). Jesus offers His fellowship so that you could find peace and fulfillment through Him (Jo. 16:33). Without His fellowship, your peace will be only temporary and easily broken (Eph. 2:13-15; Ro. 5:1). When you are in fellowship with Him, He offers the “peace that surpasses all understanding.” (Phil. 4:7). Sadly, many believers have been led to believe that being saved is the end all be all of being a Christian. Yet, it is only the first step in a person’s walk with Christ. If you want fellowship with Him, you must accept His knock on the door of your heart. Are you using your freedom to seek out Jesus’ fellowship?
God fulfilled His promises to David. In addition to providing a means for fellowship, the Temple also showed that God would still fulfill His promises to David of an eternal kingship: “11 . . . I will set up one of your descendants after you, who will be of your sons; and I will establish his kingdom. 12 He shall build for Me a house, and I will establish his throne forever.” (1 Chr. 17:11-12; 2 Sam. 7:13). ‘“He shall build a house for My name, and he shall be My son and I will be his father; and I will establish the throne of his kingdom over Israel forever.”’ (1 Chr. 22:10). Nebuchadnezzar II took the Jewish King Jehoiachin captive after he rebelled against Babylonian rule (2 Kgs. 24:10-12) Yet, while in captivity, God later influenced King Evil-merodach of Babylon (562-560 B.C.) to release King Jehoiachin from prison and to allow him to live (2 Kgs. 25:27-30). Jehoiachin had been a prisoner for 36 years at the time he was released. This act preserved the line of David to continue for the Messiah Jesus Christ to come.
God was faithful to preserve His everlasting covenant. By preserving Jehoiachin and helping the Jews to rebuild the Temple, God showed that He would keep His covenant with David. God repeated His promise of an eternal kingship through David: ‘“I will establish your seed forever and build up your throne to all generations.’ Selah.” (Ps. 89:4). “So I will establish his descendants forever and his throne as the days of heaven.” (Ps. 89:29). “He gives great deliverance to His king, and shows lovingkindness to His anointed, to David and his descendants forever.” (Ps. 18:50). “I also shall make him My firstborn, the highest of the kings of the earth.” (Ps. 89:27). “For thus says the LORD, ‘David shall never lack a man to sit on the throne of the house of Israel;”’ (Jer. 33:17). “For a child will be born to us, a son will be given to us; and the government will rest on His shoulders; and His name will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Eternal Father, Prince of Peace. There will be no end to the increase of His government or of peace, on the throne of David and over his kingdom, to establish it and to uphold it with justice and righteousness from then on and forevermore. The zeal of the LORD of hosts will accomplish this.” (Is. 9:6-7). “A throne will even be established in lovingkindness, and a judge will sit on it in faithfulness in the tent of David; moreover, he will seek justice and be prompt in righteousness.” (Is. 16:5). “Behold, the days are coming,” declares the Lord, ‘When I will raise up for David a righteous Branch; and He will reign as king and act wisely and do justice and righteousness in the land. In His days Judah will be saved, and Israel will dwell securely; and this is His name by which He will be called, ‘The Lord our righteousness.’”’ (Jer. 23:5-6). Jesus was born into the line of David (Matt. 1:1). He came to fulfill God’s covenant with David as the eternal King of Kings: “He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High; and the Lord God will give Him the throne of His father David; and He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and His kingdom will have no end.” (Lk. 1:32-33). “And on His robe and on His thigh He has a name written, ‘King of Kings, and Lord of Lords.’” (Rev. 19:16). You may declare Jesus to be your Lord. Yet, is He Lord over every aspect of your life?
Cyrus II urges the Jews to avail themselves of God’s blessing. Cyrus II was so moved by the power of God’s prophecies that he pleaded with the Jews to leave their old lives behind and return to Jerusalem to rebuild the Temple: ‘“3 Whoever there is among you of all His people, may his God be with him! Let him go up to Jerusalem which is in Judah and rebuild the house of the Lord, the God of Israel; He is the God who is in Jerusalem. 4 Every survivor, at whatever place he may live, let the men of that place support him with silver and gold, with goods and cattle, together with a freewill offering for the house of God which is in Jerusalem.’” (Ezra 1:3-4; 2 Chr. 36:22-23). Sadly, many would ignore God’s calling and encouragement. Most had developed new lives and occupations living in Babylonian captivity. Most were unwilling to leave their old lives behind.
The Promised Land did not look attractive to many Jews. There were several reasons why the chance to return to the Promised Land did not excite many. First, when the Babylonians took the Jews into captivity, they took all the skilled workers. Only poor land laborers were left (2 Kgs. 24:14; 25:12; Jer. 39:10). Thus, the returning pilgrims would need to rebuild everything. Second, the returning pilgrims would return to a land plundered of its resources and wealth. Before the exodus, Jeremiah warned that the Babylonians would cart off all of the Jews’ wealth if the Jews did not repent (Jer. 20:5). God had also used His prophets to give similar prophecies in the past (Dt. 28:30(b)-31, 33(a); Lev. 26:16(c); Jer. 5:17(a)(c); Neh. 9:37; Ezek. 25:4). But the Jews ignored these warnings. The Babylonians then took all the wealth. They further took every precious metal or stone that Solomon used for the Temple w (1 Kgs. 7:15-49). This included the pots and pans from the Temple (Jer. 52:19). Third, the returning pilgrims would not be returning to an independent country. They would continue to be subjects under the Persian empire, responsible for paying taxes and tribute to the empire.
God’s calling includes leaving your old life behind. Like the Jews, every person is called to leave their old sinful lives behind to serve God: “Therefore if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creature; the old things passed away; behold, new things have come.” (2 Cor. 5:17). “Therefore we have been buried with Him through baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life.” (Ro. 6:4). “that, in reference to your former manner of life, you lay aside the old self, which is being corrupted in accordance with the lusts of deceit, . . . and put on the new self, which in the likeness of God has been created in righteousness and holiness of the truth.” (Eph. 4:22, 24). Are you holding on to any of your old sins?
When you put your faith in Jesus, He will give you His strength and courage to serve. When you step out in faith to serve Jesus, He can also give you the strength and courage to serve Him: “For God has not given us a spirit of timidity, but of power and love and discipline.” (2 Tim. 1:7). “I can do all things through Him who strengthens me.” (Phil. 4:13). “And looking at them Jesus said to them, ‘With people this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.”’ (Matt. 19:26; Mk. 10:27; Lk. 18:27). If you are facing difficulties or setbacks, are you praying for Jesus’ strength to persevere and serve Him?
Only a remnant responds to God’s calling. Although some members from all 12 tribes eventually returned to the Promised Land, the heads of only three tribes accepted the initial offer to return. These came primarily from the tribes of Judah, Benjamin and Levi: “5 Then the heads of fathers’ households of Judah and Benjamin and the priests and the Levites arose, even everyone whose spirit God had stirred to go up and rebuild the house of the Lord which is in Jerusalem.” (Ezra 1:5). It was God who stirred the hearts of the people. Many of the exiles encouraged these pilgrims with provisions to help them rebuild. But only a remnant responded to God’s calling to return and serve Him.
The reading of King Cyrus II’s decree stirred the hearts of many Jews3
The return of a mere remnant also fulfilled a prophecy. The Bible records that some members of other tribes also returned: “Some of the sons of Judah, of the sons of Benjamin and of the sons of Ephraim and Manasseh lived in Jerusalem:” (1 Chr. 9:3). Faithful members of the 10 northern tribes also fled to Judah with the Levites during the apostate reign of the kings of Northern Israel (2 Chr. 11:16). But the representatives from the other tribes were small in number. Isaiah foretold in advance that only remnant would accept God’s offer to return to the Promised Land: “For though your people, O Israel, be as the sand of the sea, a remnant of them will return; the destruction decreed shall overflow with righteousness.” (Is. 10:22). Whenever God allowed calamity to fall upon His people to correct or discipline them, He always promised to preserve a “remnant” that He would use to restore His people (Is. 37:32; Micah 2:12-13; Zeph. 3:8-20). Through Paul, God repeated this promise: “In the same way then, there has also come to be at the present time a remnant according to God’s gracious choice.” (Ro. 11:5). Thus, even when evil abounds and few seem to follow after God, you can still be part of the faithful remnant who responds and serves Him.
The contrast between the first exodus and the second exodus. During the first exodus, Moses made clear that every member of the Jewish community, including the old, the young, and men and women, were called to leave Egypt to worship God and find fellowship with Him: “Moses said, ‘We shall go with our young and our old; with our sons and our daughters, with our flocks and our herds we shall go, for we must hold a feast to the LORD.”’ (Ex. 10:9). When the exodus began every single Jewish person left. Moreover, many Egyptians and other nationalities left with them: “A mixed multitude also went up with them, along with flocks and herds, a very large number of livestock.” (Ex. 12:12:38). In contrast, the second exodus was entirely voluntary. Only those who wanted to seek God out left on the difficult return journey to the Promised Land.
God’s offer to come to the eternal Promised Land for worship is also voluntary. God only wants people to worship Him out of free will and if motivated by a loving heart: “If it is disagreeable in your sight to serve the LORD, choose for yourselves today whom you will serve: whether the gods which your fathers served which were beyond the River, or the gods of the Amorites in whose land you are living; but as for me and my house, we will serve the LORD.” (Josh. 24:15). Jesus has called people everywhere to prepare for an eternal exodus. Like the second exodus, His invitation is entirely voluntary. Jesus’ free gift of salvation is available to all (Ro. 3:26). He does not want any to perish (2 Pet. 3:9). Sadly, not everyone will accept this calling: “For many are called, but few are chosen.” (Matt. 22:14). God blessed everyone with free will. But only a remnant will use their free will to seek out God. Will you be among the few who accept this calling?
The exiles encouraged and supported the Jewish pilgrims. Although only few responded to God’s calling, God stirred up the hearts of those who stayed to both encourage and support the returning pilgrims: “6 All those about them encouraged them with articles of silver, with gold, with goods, with cattle and with valuables, aside from all that was given as a freewill offering.” (Ezra 1:6). Thus, God provided the faithful pilgrims with everything they would need for their long journey and new lives to succeed.
God stirred the hearts of many to tithe to help fund those who would return4
Where God guides, He provides. During the first exodus, God also promised to provide for them from the gold that the Egyptians had acquired through their labors: “But every woman shall ask of her neighbor and the woman who lives in her house, articles of silver and articles of gold, and clothing; and you will put them on your sons and daughters. Thus you will plunder the Egyptians.” (Ex. 3:22). When the Jews left in obedience, God was faithful to keep His promise: “2 Speak now in the hearing of the people that each man ask from his neighbor and each woman from her neighbor for articles of silver and articles of gold.” (Ex. 11:2). “and the LORD had given the people favor in the sight of the Egyptians, so that they let them have their request. Thus they plundered the Egyptians.” (Ex. 12:36). From the amount of gold that they had to build the Tabernacle, God gave them the equivalent of millions of dollars in gold. During the first exodus, God also provided for all of the Jews’ other needs. He provided manna after the Jews grumbled about their food (Ex. 16:1-8). He later again provided meat when the Jews grew tired of God’s manna (Nu. 11:4-6, 32-33). He transformed the waters of Marah to provide drinking water (Ex. 15:22-27). He made water come out from a rock at Horeb (Ex. 17:6). He also caused the waters to gush out of a rock at Meribah (Nu. 20:10-11; Ps. 81:16; 106:41; Isa. 48:21). He also guided the Jews by a visible pillar of light both by day and by night (Ex. 13:21-22; 14:19). Thus, the Jews could trust God.
Jesus will also provide for all your needs when your serve Him. Today, Jesus promises to provide for your every need when you first seek to serve His kingdom and His righteousness: “But seek first His kingdom and His righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.” (Matt. 6:33; Lk. 12:31). If you are lacking anything that you need, seek to serve Jesus and trust Him to provide. Are you seeking to serve Him?
Cyrus II returns plundered Temple items to the Jews. Cyrus II was so moved by God’s prophecies that he even ordered his officials to return golden items from the Temple to assist in the rebuilding: “7 Also King Cyrus brought out the articles of the house of the Lord, which Nebuchadnezzar had carried away from Jerusalem and put in the house of his gods; 8 and Cyrus, king of Persia, had them brought out by the hand of Mithredath the treasurer, and he counted them out to Sheshbazzar, the prince of Judah. “9 Now this was their number: 30 gold dishes, 1,000 silver dishes, 29 duplicates; 10 30 gold bowls, 410 silver bowls of a second kind and 1,000 other articles. 11 All the articles of gold and silver numbered 5,400.” (Ezra 1:7-11a). As part of the Jews’ prior punishment, God gave these items to Nebuchadnezzar II and allowed him to burn the Temple to purify it from the Jews’ idolatry (2 Chr. 36:17-19). He now stirred the heart of a second pagan ruler to restore these items to the Jews. Every item was carefully accounted for. Yet, missing from the list were the largest and most expensive items. These included the ark of the covenant, the golden lampstand, the altar of incense, and the brazen altar. The Jews had previously turned the ark into an idol (1 Sam. 4:3-11). The Jews did not need the ark because it was their faith in God, not the ark, that mattered.
God also prompted King Cyrus II to return many of items from the Temple5
Spiritual renewal requires worship. The prior spiritual renewals in Judah all began with repairs to the Temple and the restoration of worship. Jehoash led the priests in spiritual reforms by first repairing the Temple (2 Kgs. 22:4-5). Josiah also led a spiritual renewal that included his servants repairing the Temple to restore true worship (2 Chr. 34:8). If you are looking for renewal, renew your worship life.
God’s promise of restoration. During the first exodus, God not only blessed the Jews financially, He restored them by making the Egyptians both fear and respect them: “3 The Lord gave the people favor in the sight of the Egyptians. Furthermore, the man Moses himself was greatly esteemed in the land of Egypt, both in the sight of Pharaoh’s servants and in the sight of the people.” (Ex. 11:3). This was also the fulfillment of another one of God’s promises to Moses: “I will grant this people favor in the sight of the Egyptians; . . ..” (Ex. 3:21(a)). “He also made them objects of compassion In the presence of all their captors.” (Ps. 106:46.) Jesus also promises to restore what you have lost to serve Him. He will make you a new creation (2 Cor. 5:17; Ro. 6:4). When you walk with Him, He also promises that even your enemies will be at peace with you: “When a man’s ways are pleasing to the LORD, He makes even his enemies to be at peace with him.” (Prov. 16:7). “Who is there to harm you if you prove zealous for what is good?” (1 Pet. 3:13). If you are lacking, pray for Jesus to restore what you have lost.
God raised up a shepherd to guide His sheep. In addition to providing everything that the Jews would need, God raised up Sheshbazzar as a faithful leader to guide the Jews returning to the Promised Land: “Sheshbazzar brought them all up with the exiles who went up from Babylon to Jerusalem.” (Ezra 1:11b ). He famously laid the foundations of the future Temple (Ezra 5:16). But later chapters mostly refer to Zerubbabel as the Jews’ leader upon arrival (Ezra 2:2; 3:2). Thus, Sheshbazzar was a man who lived outside the limelight. But he had the faith to respond in guiding the people home.
Sheshbazzar responded to God’s calling to lead the first settlers back to Israel6
Seek God’s guidance through His Word. Today, God’s Word can be a lamp to guide your steps. “Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path.” (Ps. 119:105). “So we have the prophetic word made more sure, to which you do well to pay attention as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star arises in your hearts.” (2 Pet. 1:19). The Holy Spirit also takes the Word and applies it to the unique circumstances of your life to guide your path (Jo. 16:13). Are you reading the Word and praying for the Holy Spirit to guide your steps?
Be a Sheshbazzar to guide others. God revealed that He is our Shepherd, and we are part of His flock: “‘As for you, My sheep, the sheep of My pasture, you are men, and I am your God,’ declares the Lord GOD.” (Ezek. 34:31). “Know that the LORD Himself is God; it is He who has made us, and not we ourselves; We are His people and the sheep of His pasture.” (Ps. 100:3). “For He is our God, and we are the people of His pasture and the sheep of His hand. Today, if you would hear His voice,” (Ps. 95:7). Jesus is the Good Shepherd. He loved His flock enough to die for them: “I am the good shepherd; the good shepherd lays down His life for the sheep.” (Jo. 10:11). “For you were continually straying like sheep, but now you have returned to the Shepherd and Guardian of your souls.” (1 Pet. 2:25). Jesus in turn calls upon leaders to respond to His calling and shepherd His sheep. “He said to him again a second time, ‘Simon, son of John, do you love Me?’ He said to Him, ‘Yes, Lord; You know that I love You.’ He said to him, ‘Shepherd My sheep.”’ (Jo. 21:16). If you love Jesus, will you shepherd His flock?
Serve in humility. Sheshbazzar’s name is barely mentioned again after this chapter (Ezra 5:16). That has caused some to believe that he must also be the leader “Zerubbabel”, referenced in later chapters as the leader of the returning exiles (Ezra 2:2). Yet, God frequently uses the humble to serve Him. Most frequently, His leaders serve with little or no publicity on Earth. God will, however, reward everyone in heaven who steps out in humility to serve Him. “For God is not unjust so as to forget your work and the love which you have shown toward His name, in having ministered and in still ministering to the saints.” (Heb. 6:10). Are you volunteering to serve God’s flock in humility?
Many laborers are needed to tend God’s flock. It would be a mistake to assume that someone else can step forward to lead. Being a spectator is not amongst God’s callings or gifts. Many leaders are needed: “And He was saying to them, ‘The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore beseech the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into His harvest.”’ (Lk. 10:2). Will you be a Sheshbazzar to those in need?
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