Sunday, November 4, 2012

Ezra 1-3 & Psalm 126: Restoration and Return

LINK: Ezra 1-3 & Psalm 126

BACKGROUND

The Book of Ezra

Jerusalem fell in 586 B.C., and the exiles were deported to Babylon. Babylon was overthrown by Cyrus of Persia in 539, and the exiles began their return to Jerusalem in 538.  Temple construction began in 536, was halted in 530, resumed in 520, and was completed in 516. Ezra came to Jerusalem in 458.


This book was written around 450 B.C. recording the events from about 538-450 B.C. with nothing recorded from 516-458 B.C. Ezra follows 2 Chronicles in the history of the Jews. 


Ezra and Nehemiah are one book in the Hebrew (Jewish) Bible. With Esther, they make up the "post-captivity" historical books. We will be reading Haggai and Zechariah interspersed within Ezra because they prophesied during the reconstruction period. Since we will read Nehemiah as a character study, I will not be interspersing it with Ezra. 


Here is the historical flow along with the events in Daniel and different Persian kings:

Ezra 1:1-4 (538, edict of King Cyrus [559-530] for return) 
Daniel 6:1-28 
Ezra 1:5-2:20 (538, first return of 49,897 exiles under Zerubbabel) 
Nehemiah 7:26-73a 
Ezra 3:1-13 (536, the altar and the temple foundation built) 
Daniel 10:1-12:13 
Ezra 4:1-5 
Ezra 4:24 
King Cambyses (530-522) 
King Smerdis (522) 
Haggai (520, Persian King Darius I [521-486]) 
Zechariah 1:1-8:23 (520-518) 
Ezra 5:1-6:22 (515, temple completed) 
Ezra 4:6 (486, accusation against Judah, King Xerxes/Ahasuerus [485-465]) 
Esther (479, Esther becomes queen) 
Ezra 4:7-23 (ca. 464-458, King Artaxerxes I/Artashasta [464-424] stopped rebuilding of Jerusalem) 
Ezra 7:1-10:44 (458, Second return of 4,000-5,000 exiles under Ezra) 
Nehemiah 1:1-7:3 (444, Third return of exiles under Nehemiah to rebuild walls) 
Nehemiah 7:73b-11:36 
Nehemiah 12:1-13:31 (ca. 430, Nehemiah's second return) 
Malachi (450-430)

Ezra 1 - Cyrus' Edict

This chapter opens in 538 B.C., 47 years after Nebuchadnezzar destroyed Jerusalem (2 Kings 25; 2 Chronicles 36). The Persians had overthrown the great Babylonians, and Cyrus became king of Persia in 559 B.C. Isaiah 44:28-45:6 prophesied that Cyrus would help the Jews return to Jerusalem. He allowed them to bring back articles belonging to the temple that Nebuchadnezzar had taken away. 


Persian records show that many Jews had accumulated much wealth while in captivity. Consequently, many remained, preferring the comfortable life in Babylon. 


Ezra 2 - A List of Returning Exiles

There is a parallel list in Nehemiah 7. The Nehemiah in Ezra 2:2 is not the same Nehemiah who rebuilt the walls of Jerusalem. Also, the Mordecai is not the same Mordecai in the book of Esther. 


This is the listing of the southern kingdom of Judah consisting of the tribes of Judah and Benjamin. 49,897 returned back under the direction of Zerubbabel in order to build the temple. They gave of their wealth and according to their ability for the building of the temple. 


The walk back to Jerusalem would have been almost 1,000 miles and there was danger of constant ambush by robbers, especially because they had the temple treasures with them. But God was leading, and the people who had a heart for Him were stirred to go. When they got there, the people settled in the respective towns and villages of their ancestors. 


Ezra 3 - The Rebuilding of the Altar and Temple


The people united together to rebuild the altar first because it was the center of worship. They needed to make atonement for their sins through the blood sacrifices and start the regular ritual of morning and evening burnt offerings prescribed by their Law (Leviticus 1-7). These would have been the first burnt offerings in 50 years, since 586 B.C. They did this all even though they feared the foreigners who had been deported by the Assyrians into Palestine.


They began the period of preparation for building the temple May-June 536 B.C., exactly 70 years since the first deportation in 605. They traded food and olive oil for cedar wood imported from Lebanon just as Solomon had done in the building of the first temple 430 years earlier (966 B.C., 1 Kings 5:1-10, 18; 2 Chronicles 2). 


After the foundation was laid, the priests and Levites praised God as David had prescribed (1 Chronicles 16; 25) and similarly to how Solomon brought in the ark (2 Chronicles 5:12-13). 


There was great joy but great sorrow by those who remembered the glory of Solomon's temple compared to the current one. 


REFLECTION 

In July 2012, I walked the 120 acres of the land of my ancestors in Cross Fork, Pennsylvania. My grandmother left that town in 1906 after her parents both died within two weeks of one another, leaving her an orphan at 11 years of age.  I am the first to return to the land of my forefathers in over 100 years! I have wanted to go there for much of my life. It is a dream come true to finally have done it (it took the wedding of a dear friend in Pittsburgh to prompt us to go).  


My grandmother never returned to that land, and sadly, because of the bitterness of becoming an orphan at such a young age and dishonest dealings from church families in Cross Fork that caused her to lose her inheritance, she was always bitter toward God. She never returned to Cross Fork or to God, and she did not like that I had made a decision to make Jesus my home. I walked that land by Kettle Creek with both joy and weeping. 



Ancestral Land, Cross Fork, Pennsylvania, July 2012
This gives me just a little bit of a glimpse of what it must have been like for the exiles to return to their homeland and settle in the towns and villages of their ancestors after 70 years. They were returning home. What joy but also what sorrow to remember the stories of the past glory and what once was. 

Jesus is our home. He is where we need to return every day. Many of us are held in captivity in our souls, and we need to return to Him where we can settle and find peace and rest there. 


APPLICATION 


Return to your true home today. Walk His land. Find rest and peace. 


PRAYER 


Psalm 126 is a "Song of Ascent" recalling the joy of the returning exiles. The agricultural reference in 126:5-6 indicates that they would face bad seasons (Haggai 1:9-11), but God would give them rain and harvests (Haggai 2:15-19) and keep His covenant promise.  Let it be your prayer today:


When the Lord brought back the captive ones of Zion,
We were like those who dream.
Then our mouth was filled with laughter
And our tongue with joyful shouting;
Then they said among the nations,
“The Lord has done great things for them.”
The Lord has done great things for us;
We are glad.
Restore our captivity, O Lord,
As the streams in the South. (the Negev desert south of Judah that overflowed in rainy season)
Those who sow in tears shall reap with joyful shouting.
He who goes to and fro weeping, carrying his bag of seed,
Shall indeed come again with a shout of joy, bringing his sheaves with him.
(Psalm 126:1-6)
I love verses 5 and 6 in The Message translation:
So those who planted their crops in despair
       will shout hurrahs at the harvest,
So those who went off with heavy hearts
       will come home laughing, with armloads of blessing.
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