Thursday, June 22, 2017

Reading Through the Book of Ezra

EzraNehOver this week and next I will be reading through the books of Ezra and Nehemiah accompanied by, Ezra-Nehemiah, The College Press Niv Commentary. Old Testament Series, by Keith N. Schoville. Ezra and Nehemiah record the story of the rebuilding of Jerusalem’s temple and wall and strengthening  of the faith of the returned exiles despite internal and eternal opposition. I have been posting quotes from the book on my Facebook page on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday (NT is Mon-Wed-Fri) and we can discuss comments and questions about the passage there. As usual my comments are in black and quotes from the commentary are in blue below…

Ezra and Nehemiah were compiled from the personal memoirs of these two men, along with several official documents from the period, maybe by Ezra or a later compiler. Ezra records the early returns to Judah from Babylon beginning about 539 BC and the rebuilding of the temple in Jerusalem. The book of Ezra is also concerned with the purification of the people from the many pagan influences from the places where they were exiled and a renewal of the worship of YHWH according to the Torah of Moses.

Ezra-Nehemiah was a call to remember the struggles of the past that had made the Jewish community viable, a summons to walk in the old ways rather than be enticed away from God by the appeal of Hellenism. Ezra-Nehemiah, 30

Chapters 1-3 record the decree of Cyrus to return to Jerusalem and rebuild the temple, the first group of returnees under Shesh-Bazzar, and the laying of the foundation of the new temple. The purpose of the return is to reinstitute worship of YHWH in Jerusalem. Only a small remnant of the exiles returns. With opposition, the people begin building the temple. They begin by completing the altar so that worship can begin again and then begin laying the foundation. The temple will not be completed for another 20 years.

The author intends his readers to understand that the return from Babylonian exile is comparable in some respects to the departure of Israel from Egypt. It marks a new beginning for God’s people orchestrated by God himself. Here as always, God moves people to provide for his work and the fulfillment of his plans. Ezra 1, 44

The author of Ezra-Nehemiah...was not writing a minutely detailed history. He was sketching the way God was at work to bring about the restoration of the remnant community in Jerusalem and its environs. He was making connections between the community that had been eradicated and the reestablished group. He was stirring up memories of the more ancient exodus from Egypt and suggesting that those who came out of Babylon were involved in a similar exodus. Ezra 2, 47

Although their forefathers had placed their trust in the sanctuary rather than in the Lord of that sanctuary (Jeremiah 7), these, their descendants, had learned in their land of exile that God’s presence and God’s worship did not require a building. Ezra 3.6, 68

Ezra 4-6 describes the 20-year process of the rebuilding of the temple in Jerusalem, with God's oversight and despite great opposition from the surrounding peoples. The first phase of the opposition was an offer to help them rebuild, which was refused by the leadership of the exiles because they did not want to compromise with the hybrid religion of the surrounding peoples. The opposition continued with a protest about the temple to the Persian government and the work was stopped. 16 years later, with the prophetic urgings of Haggai and Zechariah, the work resumed. After more letters back and forth from the surrounding peoples and from the Jewish exiles, the Edict of Cyrus was found and the Persian king ordered the temple rebuilding to continue with Persian support. The temple was completed and dedicated 20 years after the beginning of the work. God had worked behind the scenes so that the exiles could accomplish what He had planned.

We can be thankful for the determination of the Jerusalem group of returnees to adhere strictly to the decree of Cyrus, that they and they alone were charged with rebuilding the temple. In the process, they were also responsible for rebuilding the community of the committed. It was this group, rather than the northerners, through whom we received the Hebrew Bible and who paved the way for the redemptive plan of God in Jesus, the Messiah. Ezra 4, 75

The stimulus of the prophetic word and the energetic response of the leaders of the community are a powerful example of what God’s people can accomplish when challenged... clear divine guidance powerfully proclaimed will move God’s people to action and accomplishment, to his honor and glory.  Ezra 5, 83

The God of Israel is in control to accomplish his will and purposes. His people are called to faithfulness to his worship and service even though they are subject to the political control of others. Revolution is not required in order to remain faithful to the God of heaven and of Israel. Ezra 6, 95

Chapters 7-8 introduce Ezra into the narrative. Ezra was a well educated priest and scribe whose life mission was to understand torah, live it out and teach it to His people. He was a man of deep faith and prayer who led the people to trust God's provision and obey His instruction. Ezra sees the very generous grant and authority given by Artaxerxes for the trip to Jerusalem and to provision the temple and its services as an example of God's hesed, His loving care for the people and he gives God public praise and thanks for it. Ezra also takes great care to be held accountable for the vast sum of wealth that they transported to Jerusalem. Ezra is a good example of how a faithful man leads God's people and administrates God's work.

(Ezra's) dedication to God’s call was threefold: to study, apply it to his personal life, and to teach its decrees and laws to others. No wonder he persevered. Ezra provides a timeless example for every generation of God’s people. The disciple, when he or she reaches maturity, will be like the master (Luke 6:40). Such maturity comes with personal devotion to study, application, and teaching. Ezra 7.10, 99

Ezra realized that the king’s generous arrangements were really due to God’s hidden activity at work in the hearts (minds) of the king, his advisers, and powerful officials. God’s people ought always to trust in God’s providence and loving kindness. Ezra 7, 106

The journey was a walk by faith. The safe progress each day was an assurance for that day of the hand of God. To trust in God is to experience each day as an adventure in faith, trust that the gracious hand of our God is on everyone who looks to him. Ezra 8, 112

The book of Ezra ends by recording an incident in Ezra's ministry. Probably as a result of his teaching, some of the leaders confess to Ezra that they had married foreign wives. These would have been arranged marriages designed to improve the families' economic situations. This compromised the ability of this minority community to maintain faithfulness to God and was forbidden in the Torah. Ezra publically humbles himself and confesses the sin of the community which motivates the people to also confess and make this right. The leaders move first to put away the foreign wives and the community follows. Here allegiance to God must be chosen over allegiance to family.

Rather than force an unwilling community to do his will, Ezra allowed the word of God, which he taught, to reach fruition in the hearts of his hearers. At last his teaching was changing lives. Ezra 9.1-5, 118–119

Not only did Ezra identify himself with the people, all of them were bound up together in responsibility for the nation’s guilt. Unspoken but implicit in this final statement is that their only salvation in this situation was the grace of God. Ezra 9.6-15, 124

God is praised in the human act of confession, which acknowledges the righteousness of God in contrast to the guilt of the confessor. Doing God’s will, keeping his law will follow true confession.  Ezra 10, 130

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