Discovering Ezra / Nehemiah

Do you ever get your hopes up, only to be disappointed again and again? In the U.S., we get our hopes up every four years for a President who will finally solve our nation’s problems. Every year we get our hopes up that we will keep our New Year’s resolutions. We get our hopes up that the Mets (or pick your team!) will make the playoffs, or we’ll get a big raise or promotion, or we’ll finally find a new way to earn some easy, extra income. We get our hopes of for all kinds of things, only to be let down again, just like before.

Reading the Old Testament (OT) will do this to you. You read about how God made everything good, but Adam and Eve spoiled it. You read about God’s promise of a future Savior who never seems to come. You read about God’s promises to Abraham, Moses, and David – and to the entire nation of Israel, but they never seem to happen completely.

After everything that occurs in the OT, Israel turns out to be a major disappointment. They disobey God repeatedly and are taken to Babylon for 70 years. That’s where the books Ezraand Nehemiah come in (which were originally published as one scroll it seems). From a historical standpoint, they explain what happened at the end of the OT, on the other side of the 70-year captivity.

When you read this book(s), your hopes up yet again that Israel will finally do right, and that God will come through to fulfill his promises at last. But you discover something else instead, that no amount of hardships (like the Babylonian captivity) and behavioral reform can solve the problem of a sinful heart. This book does show the faithfulness of God, as he brought the nation of Israel back to their land and enabled them to return to Jewish life and worship. Yet it also shows the unfaithfulness of his people.

The Main Characters
These OT writings feature three main characters: Zerubbabel, Ezra, and Nehemiah.

Zerubbabel (Ezra 1-6)
This man led a group of Israelites to return to their homeland in 538 BC. The Persian King Cyrus appointed him as the governor of Israel and gave him the task of rebuilding the Temple in Jerusalem. Little was accomplished until 520 BC due to some discouraging events.
Zerubbabel descended from David, which not only gave him proper credentials to lead the Jewish nation, but which also may have raised hopes that he could be the promised Messiah (Ezr 3:2, 8; 5:2; Neh 12:1; Hg 1:1, 12, 14; 2:2, 23; Mt 1:12, 13; Lk 3:27).

Ezra (Ezra 7-10)
This man was a scribe who was an expert in the Law of Moses (Ezra 7:6). A Persian king, Artaxerxes, tasked him with teaching Israel both the law of God and of the Persian kings. He was also told to enforce these laws when they were broken (Ezra 7:25-26).
Ezra did not descend from David. Instead, he descended from the priestly line of Aaron (Ezra 7:1-5). He was a godly man with a heart to do what is right in the sight of God. He led a second group of Israelites back to their land after the Temple had been rebuilt. This group especially included priests, musicians, and other Temple volunteers (Ezra 7:7, 13). Through his leadership, he reacquainted the people with the Law of Moses and restarted the worship of God in the Temple.

Nehemiah (Neh 1-13)
Nehemiah was a godly man who returned to Israel some years after Ezra. As Zerubbabel had returned to rebuild the Temple, Nehemiah returned to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem. He served as governor over Israel for about 12 years. Thanks to his determined leadership, Israel overcame many obstacles and rebuilt the walls completely.

Three Important Lessons
Altogether, this book (or these two books) teach some important lessons about God and his people.

God rules over the rulers of the world, not just over the rulers of Israel.
King Solomon once wrote, “The king’s heart is in the hand of the LORD, like the rivers of water; he turns it wherever he wishes” (Prov 21:1). The word rivers describes something like an irrigation ditch that is carved out to direct the flow of water in a specific way for a specific purpose (like watering a specific corn field or draining a fish pond).

God’s control over the decisions of world rulers, even pagan ones, in this way, teaches us that government leaders are not as much like untamed flood waters as it may seem, doing whatever they want. They are governed by God and overruled by him as needed.
The records of Ezra and Nehemiah vividly demonstrate this fact.

  • Cyrus, a pagan, Persian king, ordered the first pilgrimage back to Israel (Ezra 1:1-11).
  • Darius, another Persian king, authorized the continuation of this project (Ezra 6:1-12).
  • Artaxerxes, another Persian king, authorized the restoration of Temple worship by Ezra (Ezra 7:11-28)
  • Artaxerxes also authorized the return of Nehemiah to rebuild the walls (Neh 2:1-9).

These examples show that God intervenes in the affairs of this world no matter who is running the show from a political standpoint, whether in the Western world or in first-world countries. It is true for any government, even in third-world countries and in nations that persecute Christians.

Today we should pray for the leaders that affect our lives, wherever we live. We should pray that they will make decisions favorable to Christian living and spreading the gospel (1 Tim 2:1-3). Yet when it seems that there is no hope in sight and our political leaders are far from God, we can rest in the fact that God is still in control and will alter and influence their choices in his perfect, sovereign time and way. Do you believe this?

The greatest hindrance to God’s plans is not what goes on in the world, but what goes on in our hearts.

When you read Ezra and Nehemiah, you learn about some major opposition the Israelites faced as they rebuilt the Temple, restored worship, and reconstructed the city walls.

  • Enemies of Judah and Benjamin tried to infiltrate the people to undermine the rebuilding of the Temple from within (Ezra 4:1-2).
  • Other outside people tried to discourage the Israelites’ hearts, hoping to suspend and bring to a halt the rebuilding of the Temple (Ezra 4:4-5).
  • Enemies of Judah wrote a letter to the Persian kings which temporarily halted the building project (Ezra 4:6-24).
  • Nehemiah’s rebuilding project bothered nearby government leaders (esp. Sanballat and Tobiah) (Neh 2:10).
  • These men became angry and mocked Nehemiah and the people (Neh 2:19; 4:1-3).
  • These men and others tried to assault Nehemiah and the people building the wall to stir up confusion (Neh 4:7-9).
  • These same people tried to lure Nehemiah away from the work so they could injure him (Neh 6:1-4).
  • These people also tried to undermine the work through a propaganda campaign (Neh 6:5-9).
  • These men tried to kill Nehemiah in the Temple (Neh 6:10-14).

As you can see from these at least nine instances, the people (esp. Ezra and Nehemiah themselves) faced difficult challenges. Yet in every case God gave wisdom and protection. Nothing the enemies tried to do could stop God’s plans from going forward.

The biggest problems that men like Zerubbabel, Ezra, and Nehemiah faced, however, was not from outside but from within. The last chapter, Nehemiah 13, makes this clear. It comes after the Temple was built, Temple worship was restored, and the wall was built.

Despite these major developments in Israel and overcoming many outside forces, Nehemiah faced the same problem that Moses, Joshua, the Judges, Samuel, David, the other kings of Judah, and all the prophets faced – the sinfulness of the peoples’ hearts.

Bear in mind that many if not most of the Israelites were not born again; they did not believe in the message of the Messiah by faith. At best, they were interested in political, social, and economic success for their nation in an ethnic way. At worse, they were only interested in their own personal comfort and success as individuals. That being the case, Ezra and Nehemiah faced a difficult task indeed.

The people were marrying pagan wives (Ezra 9-10; Neh 13:3, 13:23-28).
This happened prior to and during Ezra’s tenure, and it happened again during Nehemiah’s governorship. It violated the Mosaic Law which banned marriages to people from the seven nations who lived in Canaan before the conquest (Deut 7:1-6). These nations were: Hittites, Girgashites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites, and Jebusites. The Jews had married wives from at least five of these groups during Ezra’s time (Ezra 9:1). This law was a way to protect Israel from the harmful influence of idolatrous culture and religion and was not a repudiation of the people themselves. In fact, Nehemiah points out that it was this very practice that Solomon had begun when he married many foreign wives, pushing Israel in this direction ever since (Neh 13:26-27).

They were already neglecting the Temple, even though it had been rebuilt and restored to working order a few years before (Neh 13:4-9).

One of the priests, Eliashib, had converted an important storage room into a living space for an enemy of Israel, Tobiah. This meant that the room was no longer used to store sacrificial grain offerings, frankincense for ceremonies, clothing and tools, tithe offerings, and the wine and oil for ceremonies and sacrifices.

What’s more, many priests and musicians had abandoned their ministry responsibilities to go find other forms of work to support themselves. They were supposed to be supported by the sacrificial offerings of the people, but these resources were being mismanaged and the giving had decreased. Surprisingly, this all occurred soon after the Temple had been rebuilt.

They were already neglecting the sabbath (Neh 13:15-20).
On the seventh day of the week, they were supposed to pause from all their work and business dealings. Instead, they were making juice, harvesting grain, loading trucks (ahem, donkeys), and doing business with outside vendors on that day, like any other workday. Most surprising is that this was the ultimate reason why Israel had gone into captivity (Ezra ; 2 Chron 36:19-21; Jer. 25:9-12; 27:6-8; 29:10; Lev. 26:34-43; Dan. 9:2).

They conducted illegal business outside the wall (Neh 13:21-22).
This stands out because the walls of Jerusalem were supposed to protect them. To prevent the people from doing business on the sabbath, Nehemiah ordered the gates to be shut and security guards to be in place so that business would stop on the Sabbath. To circumvent these precautions, some people spent the night outside the walls so they could keep on doing business on the Sabbath!

Both Ezra and Nehemiah led the nation of Israel to correct this disobedience to God. In both cases, they displayed especially strong, dramatic, and even forceful tactics.

  • Ezra instructed the people to divorce their pagan wives and abandon their children born to these wives.
  • Nehemiah didn’t go so far, but he confronted the leaders and deported key outside influencers. He even spoke curses to some of them, violently hit others, and pulled out the hair of others to persuade them to stop doing these things.

Some people debate whether these men made the right decisions in the way they responded to Israel’s disobedience. Should Ezra have made all the Israelites who had intermarried divorce their wives and abandon their children? Should Nehemiah have behaved in the forceful way that he did? No matter what, they definitely showed frustration with the shocking disobedience of Israel and an ardent zeal to do what is right.

Why did the people so quickly engage in the very same sins and fail in the very same ways, after 70 years of captivity and a longer history of good and bad examples? God had solved the problems of outside, pagan disturbance and opposition and had even intervened in the hearts of pagan kings. Yet the problem of Israel’s heart was unchanged. Why? Because many or most of Israelites were not true, born-again believers.

The entire OT ends with Nehemiah 13. Like many times before, Israel continued to disappoint anyone who reads the OT. Today it is important to realize that your greatest problem is the same as theirs. God is fully in charge and able to handle the world events around you. The problems and circumstances of your world are not your greatest foe. Your greatest foe is the sinfulness of your heart and the desires of your fleshly nature.

God’s promises give us a never-ending reason to hope for a better future.
That hope is not found in ourselves. It is found in God (Psa 42:11). In particular, it is found in Jesus the Messiah who has come and will come again in the future. God promised this person to Adam and Eve after they had sinned the first time (Gen 3:15). Then he promised to send this deliverer as a descendant of Abraham (Gen 17:2-8; 22:15-18) and David (2 Sam 7:12-15). This person would deliver and bless not only Israel, but all the nations of the world. He would deliver people from their sins (for real) in a way that Temple worship and obeying the Law could never do.

Yes, when you read Ezra and Nehemiah, you find yourself getting your hopes up that this time things would be different, that people would finally turn around and do right for a change and that God would win completely once and for all. Yet like all the books and moments before, Israel’s return to the land would be another clue that nothing had changed. The real Messiah had not come, and God’s final deliverance had not occurred.

Today, the most important part of this hope has already happened (Rom 15:1-5). Jesus Christ the Messiah has come from God. He has lived a perfect and sinless life and has died and resurrected from the grave, unlike every other person before or since.

Today we are still waiting, though, for him to finish the other part of his mission – to banish all evil and to set up his kingdom on Earth forever.

If you have not yet turned to Jesus and your God and Savior to deliver you from your sinful nature but are trying to reform your life by yourself instead, then you need to believe on Jesus today, once and for all. Will you make that choice?

If you have already believed, then you need to ask whether you are allowing him to change you to be like him or whether you are being pulled away by the allures of this world. Consider whether you are allowing the politics and problems of this world to weaken your trust in God. Are you living in the peace and hope of a God who is in full control of all things? If not, then now is the perfect time to renew your trust in him.

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