Ezra Overview

Ezra is such a positive book, its interesting to notice the negatives.

Its also one of the few times we get to see the law as handed down to Moses operating close to how its supposed to in the promised land.

The thrust of the story is the rebuilding of the temple after Jerusalem is resettled. The fact that the Babylonian Kings, first Cyrus then Darius (after a wobble), supported this is the central miracle of the book, but not really elaborated upon. Ezra, the scholar of the law who became a confidant of Kings seems to be the human agent of this miracle of grace and holy promises kept.

Its a history book in tone, not very introspective.

The first moment of sadness is the weeping of old timers who remembered how much grander the old temple was when Israel was a proper nation.  This is a shadow of the old one.  There is almost nothings Messianic in Ezra, hinting at another phase to God’s redemptive plan, except this.

Then there is the sadness of the law’s demands, which pulls apart families of intermarriage with non-Jews. The people have learned their lesson, this is what destroyed the previous regime. Even Jesus said he came to break up families.

They totally understand the exile as judgement. In fact, they are self selected as the most switched on Jews, because they left sometimes quite successful lives in other countries to fulfil the holy mission of resettling Jerusalem. Its been a very long time since the general people are this keen on the law.

The law is sweet, it is about fairness and equality. It is wrapped in grace, the gracious gift of exile ending and plunder returned from the Babylonian empire, and the grace required to interpret the law to adjust as mercifully and compassionately as possible for situations that accidentally defy it.

The intermarriage issue means that one of the most positive books of the bible ends on a bitter-sweet note of sadness because of the tension between the law and grace. A second hint perhaps, of more to come when grace will be poured out on all nations, a new wine that the old wine skins of the law cannot contain.

I took away from it a great sense of obedience, a “fake it til you make it” approach to faith. I loved the story about Ezra boasting that the journey bringing the holy gold items back to Jerusalem would need no protection because God would protect them, and then worrying during the journey that he had gone too far.  But God came through.

1 The story of the rebuilding of the temple. I contemplate the character of Cyrus, the King who returned homelands and plunder to conquered people. What a heart!
2 The count of 42000 refugees who return. Many are middle class, successful in their adopted home, but for them there is no question about a chance tow move to Jerusalem

Sacrifices again
3 Joy and weeping as they restart the sacrificial system – following God will bring both
4 Locals start to agitate against a revitalised Israel, and have the work stopped. I argue this is rational behaviour, and believers need to put opposition in context.
5 Honesty in mission, yeah! To justify the work proceeding, the people write to the King in honest terms about their exile being judgement and the rebuilding being God’s work. 

Finishing the Temple, joy complete
6 Darius the King after Cyrus supports the completion of the temple. The returned faithful are joined by seekers who’ve lived locally but never known their own religion. Much joy and celebration.
7 The arrival of Ezra with a supportive letter from the King. He brings musicians. One senses his influence has been behind the whole thing, building on the king’s belief
8 Ezra collects priests and temple attendants from the empire. He boldly promises they won’t need guards bringing treasure back, and doubts his own faith, but God rewards

The hard demands of the law
9 As a scholar of the law Ezra knows intermarriage is wrong, as a leader he knows its happened and he needs grace.  A great prayer of unworthiness and the need for mercy
10 They resolve the intermarriage issue with a sad choice, either stay with your family or your people. The people really own this attempt to do Israel right.



Ezra 10

A disturbing and vivid chapter. The people respond to Ezra’s mourning over sin, culminating in a dramatic meeting in the rain where they promise to put away their foreign wives and the children by them. The rain seems to worry them more than the fate of the women and children involved. They appoint leaders by tribe to investigate and enforce the rules.

Israelites don’t have to leave their wives, but it’s a line in the sand: if not they forfeit property in Jerusalem and are expelled. It a “choose you this day who you will serve” moment that affects a lot of other people.

Then follows a sad list of all those who had inter married.

I understand Jerusalem is a symbolic city and they are preserving a culture too, but you worry at the fate of the women and children left with no husband or father. There is no mention of any provision for them.

I suppose sin is serious and it’s real. In the age of grace we intertwine sinful lives with being seen pure by God and it’s hard to remember that the evil matters.

I don’t think the harshness was lost on them. The people came up with the plan, Ezra did not impose it. What he did was pray, just that, with great pain and sadness.

They knew the rule of Moses to stay separate from the polytheistic culture of the promised land, or Jehovah would soon be a meaningless trinket in a long list of household gods. They also knew the condemnation malachai had for divorce, who called it treachery that made god weep and refuse offerings. In the ancient world divorce could be a social and economic catastrophe for women, who had few other options.

That’s why everyone was so upset. They had got into a situation where whatever they did was immoral and had to choose one path or the other.  It applied to about 100 out of 30000 or so. It reminds me of corporate restructures, to keep the whole viable they are harsh to a few.

I recall from earlier, in Genesis for instance, god treated the slaves and mistresses of Moses’dumb attempts to fulfill the covenant by fornication with great grace, we followed their story and saw that they and their children prospered and were all part of the plan. We’re not told what happened here, and often in life we don’t know how faithfulness to God plan works out, but that is the god I believe in. He is love.

May I have faith to trust and obey God. He knows how many hairs are on every head, and how many grains of sand there are. I can’t plan the big picture better than he can, but I can follow the path he has set.


Ezra 9

Ezra’s reaction and mighty prayer of forgiveness for intermarriage. Having dealings with and even marrying the surrounding peoples may seem normal but for Israel I can see it would quickly mean the faith and the cultural identity would be lost. Anyway, when God gave them the land back in Exodus, he commanded them not to do it, and as a scholar Ezra knows it.

His reaction, pulling out his hair, ripping his clothes and sitting appalled, is probably reflecting what he feels, but it is dramatic and demonstrates to the people it is not on.

Laying flat, too ashamed to show God his face he starts his prayer of forgiveness. He remembers God’s goodness, god’s law, and he is honest about the fact that despite his goodness, they created the exile by breaking god’s law, and now continue to break his law.

The only thing he can cling to is Grace – god’s identity is that he punishes us less than our sins deserve.

Ezra can only get to grace by disguising nothing. He makes a case for their unworthiness, not their worthiness.

Ezra 8

Ezra lists the people who came with him. Then there is a description of the sacrificial system being re-established.

When he first assembled the people, there are no temple priests or attendants, so he puts out the call and gets about 40 of the priestly clan and 220 attendants. It takes a lot of people to run the temple. But it’s essentially a slaughter house, quite a bit of work I suppose.

He sees gods hand in bringing the people to him. Rather wonderfully they fast and ask God for protection on the journey, because in Ezra’s enthusiasm to depict to the king that it is a blessed project, he said he would not need protection of a horse guard, because God would be his protection. It’s rather sweet that he confesses to momentary second thoughts… he was ashamed to ask for it after that. God indeed protects them. I like that sort of “fake it till you make” it trust thing.

He trusts 12 leading priests with the gold articles to guard. I see it is a journey of some considerable danger from bandits, given the treasure they are carrying. They make it, after 3 days rest a sacrifice is given and the letters of kingly protection go out to the region.

It is a chapter full of grace and blessing, human fear and faith, and godly guidance.

May I trust you day by day father.

I met with the minister of our church to voice my concerns about things yesterday. It was good and made me feel heard. I don’t think he is a person who changes quickly, but it started a conversation, as they say.  Will it work out? Fake it til I make it, eh?

Ezra 7

I’ve been wondering where Ezra was. He arrives once the temple is complete. He is the high priest. He brings other musicians and priests with him. He has been in Babylon, and is s great scholar. He knows all of the Jewish culture.

He brings with him a wonderful supportive letter from the king making it clear that it is to be done right in every detail and empowering him to fully re-establish the Jewish religious practices.

The letter seems to have a thread of shared monotheism. There also seems to be a hedging-your-bets element to it, avoiding the wrath of God just in case it’s true.

Whatever, god has clearly been at work in this situation, Ezra is the right man for the right moment.

Ezra 6

The decree of Cyrus authorising the temple building is produced, Darius doubles up on the support that the previous king gave to the project, authorising supplies be given that show a nuanced understanding of the Israelites religious practices. It’s a major win.

The local governors obey. The temple is done and Passover is celebrated to dedicate it. The faithful include the returned exiles and the local Israelites who seek God by separating themselves from the gentile practices.

I do believe this attitude of seeking is more important than the specific obedience involved.

The chapter ends with scenes of huge joy and celebration.

Father may I seek you regardless. And may I know and enjoy blessing when I see it.

Ezra 5

Honesty honours God

The issue of whether they can build the temple will be settled by a letter from the governor of their region to the king. As they point out is already a pretty huge victory that the governor wrote, he could have just unilaterally shut it down. The work proceeds while the letters are traveling. God is on their side, I can guess how this will work out.

The letter is quoted in full, and gives a ballsy picture of their sense of mission. The initial response to the question “who let you do this” is not to launch into obsequious praise of the Persian kings, but to honestly see themselves as servants of God, and the Kings, even the Babylonians who exiled them, as doing God’s will. They were the means by which god’s punishment for Israel’s unfaithfulness was meted out, and the permission by Cyrus to rebuild was allowing God’s servants to do his will.

They do ask Darius to check the records and see that the OK was for real, but they make no bones that God is the ultimate power in the equation.

I appreciate this. Recently our church has been doing some building work and, not for the first time in my existence, they have fudged and whinged around the local government approvals in a minor way.

I think it’s spiritually important to be completely straight with the power structures around you, and trust that God is in control of them and won’t let them frustrate his will on earth, as the Israelites have done here. It is a guileless response.

Personally I am unfocused and lacking a sense of mission. My children are making me sad as they are suffering from mental illness or disappointment in life. I need to pray for discipline and guidance.


Ezra 4

The surrounding nations presumably don’t like the regional power shift of Jerusalem becoming viable again. Their plot to stop it first involves offering to join the efforts, to hopefully make it lose its racial flavor. Then they run interference, bribing officials to frustrate and slow down progress. Finally they write directly to the king.

It is actually not hard to sympathise with the opposition. Their assessment that a strong Jerusalem would be bad for them could be entirely fair. Their letter to the king is effective because it’s not really slanderous, it tells the new king to check out the history of Jerusalem for himself, and he finds a history of trouble and shuts down the work.

The only thing that stops it being an entirely predictable and reasonable power struggle is that it is god’s plan that Jerusalem should be rebuilt. And god is love. It’s god’s long term plan of love for the world that they have inadvertently stumbled upon and blocked.

I think this is a good passage to remember when we find opposition in the world to get confidence to carry on. As the blues brothers said, we’re on a mission from God. Christians today get a seige mentality, and think of opposition as the forces of evil to be destroyed. But they are only behaving as we should expect. Beating them is not the mission directly, our response should be faith based and between us and God. A refocusing on our mission. Like how David, in times of crisis, would go into the presence of God and be restored.


Ezra 3

Joy and weeping mingled

The religious ceremonies recommence, after a 7 month settling in period. They are wary of what surrounding people will think, but are compelled to carry on anyway. The use an altar similar to the one Moses had.

The foundations of the new temple are laid, with the cry that God is good and his love endures forever, amid joy and weeping. The weeping is from those who remember the old temple. They are mourning what happened, letting God down and bring exiled, or sad because the new one will not be as grand. In the distance the sounds are not distinguishable.

Nothing more to be said about the poignancy of that. God is good, his love does endure, and life, even within his plan for it, is sometimes sucky.

Ezra 2

All the 42000 people who were returned to Jerusalem. You have to feel for the 600 or so who made the trek but couldn’t establish their family records.

Though they have been exiles, some are obviously wealthy, not your average refugees. 7000 slaves come with the group. They give offerings for the rebuilding of the temple. I don’t know how much the sum is relatively, but they carry a reasonable amount for that job with them.

I love how musicians are a separate group. It’s so defining of a culture and a religion.

The picture is of a people who’s sense of being a people under God is very important to them. They don’t have to think twice when told they can return to Jerusalem, despite success where they were.