The Eighth in a Series of Sermons on Ezra-Nehemiah
Erza–a man skilled in the law of Moses and a priest who descended from Aaron–was commissioned by the Persian king Artaxerxes to take a second group of Jewish exiles to Jerusalem. This was to be an official fact finding mission for the king. The others returning to Jerusalem with Ezra had not left Babylon with the earlier group of Jewish exiles several generations earlier for reasons unknown to us. The journey was a difficult one–four month’s duration and nine hundred miles. Chapter 8 of the Book of Ezra recounts Ezra’s journey from Babylon to Jerusalem to fulfill the mission assigned to him by the Persian king, and which fulfilled YHWH’s purposes for his people. But from a theological perspective, the scene described by Ezra throughout this chapter is that of a second Exodus, a theme which surfaced earlier, in chapters 1-3 of this same book. Apparently, as Israel’s prophets foretold of Jewish exiles returning to the land of Canaan, successive generations of Jews living in exile in Babylon sense the call to return home to Israel. Those Jews going with Ezra are depicted as an “ideal Israel” in miniature, making the long and difficult journey through the desert to join their brothers and sisters who, several generations prior, had already made the same journey to that land in Canaan promised to them by YHWH.
We are continuing our series on the books of Ezra and Nehemiah, and we are taking up Ezra’s account of a second group of Jews returning from their exile in Babylon to Jerusalem in 458 BC. Some sixty years have passed since the end of chapter 6, and the opening of chapter 7, which recounts Ezra’s appearance on the scene the same year. In the first six chapters of Ezra, we saw that upon their return to the Jerusalem area the first group of returning exiles began the task of rebuilding the altar and conducting sacrifices according to the law of Moses. Despite the efforts of their pagan neighbors–the people of the land–who made a sustained effort to keep the Jews from rebuilding, Jews finally completed rebuilding the temple 516 BC. The Jews were back in their land, they were one nation, but remained under the control of the Persian empire. While the second temple stands in continuity with the temple built by Solomon, things were not the same. The focus of Ezra chapters 7-10 shifts away from Israel’s past glories, toward the hope of the messianic age.
This shift can be seen in Ezra 7, as Ezra’ account of the Jews returning home to Jerusalem in 538 BC, and completing their temple (in 516), fades into the background in light of the need for reformation and renewal within Israel. Despite returning to their land and rebuilding their temple, the Jews once again face the perpetual struggle they have faced since first entering the promised land in the days of Joshua and the conquest, about seven hundred years earlier. How do the people keep their covenant with YHWH, when so many of them find themselves drawn to the paganism all around them? Although the people have been back in the land for several genrations, by the time of Ezra, a number of the Jews have intermarried with pagan Gentiles, and many are starting to adopt pagan ways of thinking and doing. Now that the leaders of the first generation of exiles have died off (Zerubbabel, Jeshua, Haggai, and Zechariah), God raises up Ezra and Nehemiah, who play important roles in Israel’s immediate future.
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