The First in a Series of Sermons on Ezra-Nehemiah
we begin a new series on the books of Ezra and Nehemiah. These two closely related books cover that period in Israel’s history from the decree of the Persian king, Cyrus, in 538 BC, until about the year 458 BC, the time of Ezra. These two books demonstrate God’s faithfulness to his covenant promises–YHWH will bring his people back to the land after a time of exile in Babylon, and direct them to rebuild the city of Jerusalem and its temple–both now destroyed. Familiarity with these two books will help us to understand the establishment of a form of Judaism (so-called “Second Temple” Judaism) much different from that which existed in the days of Joshua, and then later under king David. By the time of Ezra and Nehemiah, Israel is no longer a victorious, thriving military power. Israel is now the vassal state of a Gentile empire, living on past glory, and although there are moments of revival and faithfulness among the people, this is a time when the Jewish people sought former glory and to recover that which was lost. Yet all of this serves to set the stage for a future Messiah–who alone can restore true Israel, and turn the hearts of a stubborn and rebellious people back to the covenant promises of their ever-faithful God. And so we begin our new series by setting the stage for the work of Ezra and Nehemiah and their accounts of an exile people who return home to find their temple in ruins, and their beloved city of Jerusalem all but deserted and now desolate.
587 BC was a year of great consequence for the people of Jerusalem and the kingdom of Judah. Israel had been a divided kingdom for nearly two hundred years–a time recounted in redemptive history in the ministries of the Old Testament prophets Amos, Hosea, and Isaiah. This was a time in Israel’s history characterized by division and a growing apostasy and idiolatry among the people, a time when God’s covenant curses were meted out upon both the faithless Israelites and their unbelieving rulers, and a time of the ever-increasing threat of domination by foreign powers.
The northern kingdom (Israel) was defeated and overrun by the Assyrians in 722 BC, but the southern kingdom, Judah, remained a functioning monarchy, continuing the Davidic royal line through the series of kings listed in 1 Chronicles 3:1-16. Eventually, Judah too became largely apostate–although there was a significant Reformation in the days of Josiah (around 620 BC). But Judah too eventually fell to the Chaldean armies of King Nebuchadnezzer of Babylon as recounted in 2 Kings 25:1–7, where we read of a siege of Jerusalem, and Judah’s total collapse in the days of king Zedekiah.
And in the ninth year of his reign, in the tenth month, on the tenth day of the month, Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon came with all his army against Jerusalem and laid siege to it. And they built siegeworks all around it. 2 So the city was besieged till the eleventh year of King Zedekiah. 3 On the ninth day of the fourth month the famine was so severe in the city that there was no food for the people of the land. 4 Then a breach was made in the city, and all the men of war fled by night by the way of the gate between the two walls, by the king’s garden, and the Chaldeans [a tribe ruled by the Babylonians] were around the city. And they went in the direction of the Arabah. 5 But the army of the Chaldeans pursued the king and overtook him in the plains of Jericho, and all his army was scattered from him. 6 Then they captured the king and brought him up to the king of Babylon at Riblah, and they passed sentence on him. 7 They slaughtered the sons of Zedekiah before his eyes, and put out the eyes of Zedekiah and bound him in chains and took him to Babylon.
Israel had fallen a long way from the glorious days of her great empire during the successive reigns of David and Solomon. Now, the formidable walls of Jerusalem were breached by Nebuchadnezzer’s armies, and the city and its defenses were left in ruins–an event which will figure very prominently in the Books of Ezra and Nehemiah. The Jerusalem temple was sacked, and its precious metals removed (i.e., the gold and silver vessels in temple) and taken as booty to Babylon by the victorious captors.
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