Building the Foundation

(7) Returning Home with Ezra, Part 1: The First Return

Do you long for close relationships? Consider God’s people in Ezra, rebuilding the temple and reestablishing their relationship with Jehovah. They come home longing to return to their homeland, their culture and ways, and, even, back to their identities. Their experiences are recounted to encourage hearts to seek relationship with God–the foundation of strong, close relationships.

The people of Israel have recommitted to their continual worship to God, which includes the daily sacrifices given morning and evening; but they have no house for their heavenly King.

“From the first day of the seventh month began they to offer burnt-offerings unto Jehovah: but the foundation of the temple of Jehovah was not yet laid.” – Ezra 3:6

For the years that these people were away, they lived in cities across the Persian empire that influenced their ways of living and their perspectives. Some were wealthier than others. They were, in many ways, strangers with a common tie: they bore the name ‘Israel.’ Their leaders were subject to the laws of a polytheistic Persian emperor. And now they were surrounded by non-Israelite peoples who had moved into the area in their absence. It would have been logical to believe they could worship more devoutly by staying home and offering their sacrifices to God on their own. But they would have used man’s wisdom to come to that conclusion, not God’s. God had an ulterior motive; He wanted His people to develop relationships and grow closer to each other as they grew closer to Him.

One characteristic of God’s assembly is the gathering of His people together. This fellowship continues under the covenant of Christ (Hebrews 12:22-23). It is a relationship that shouldn’t be neglected (Hebrews 10:24-25). God does not want a rainy day friend. He wants the soul who makes the effort to come to Him in spirit and in truth (John 4:23-24). The character of the God-follower is clear–it’s not about what I want; it’s about what God wants. Those are the types of hearts that develop a lasting relationship with God, and, when those hearts gather, they become the types of companions who help each other. They gather with their tribe.

A second characteristic of God’s assembly is found in the next verse in Ezra:

“They gave money also unto the masons, and to the carpenters; and food, and drink, and oil, unto them of Sidon, and to them of Tyre, to bring cedar-trees from Lebanon to the sea, unto Joppa, according to the grant that they had of Cyrus king of Persia.” – Ezra 3:7ASV

God’s people are supporters and builders. The Israelites traded goods with the Sidonians and Tyrians to bring in the supplies for building the temple. These goods came from what was collected according to Cyrus’ decree. They had been earmarked for this purpose.

Healthy relationships are supportive, building-up relationships. We are frail beings, burdened with sickness, pain, doubt, discouragement, grief, and, right now, quarantine! We need relationships that help us thrive. The people in Ezra’ time illustrate how important it is to build, to work and grow. They remind the reader of what a small, powerless group of people can do when they put their trust in Jehovah. Yet, He didn’t use a miracle to supply what they needed; He used a pagan king’s support. He can use anyone and everyone to His purpose. That’s the power of God.

The truth is, sometimes it is outside of my power to provide for the needs of the people I care for. But God assures His children that He can meet every need (Luke 12:28-31). This is why a relationship that develops from an authentic bond with God has greater strength. And it’s a beautiful thing to watch His people form relationships with each other and be there for each other. God can use your hands to bring relief to a struggling soul. He can speak through the kind words of your friend to comfort you. God is the foundation from which healthy relationships can learn to breathe and grow.

The Starting Date

(6) Returning Home with Ezra, Part 1: The First Return

It’s feast season for the Israelites, and this is a big deal because they’ve not observed their feasts as a family in years. The people of this great homecoming are preparing to celebrate.

“And when the seventh month was come, and the children of Israel were in the cities, the people gathered themselves together as one man to Jerusalem.” – Ezra 3:1

Tishri is the seventh month in the Hebrew calendar. The first day of Tishri was the Feast of Trumpets (Leviticus 23:24). Work would stop, and trumpets would be blown, signaling arrival. It signaled the arrival of the month in which the Day of Atonement (Leviticus 23:27) and the Feast of Tabernacles (feast of booths, Leviticus 23:34) were to be observed. God, through the Law of Moses, commanded the Israelites to journey to the temple for this celebration. This was a time of remembrance for these returning families led by Zerubbabel. They gathered in Jerusalem after settling in the surrounding cities, where their homes and ways of life had been destroyed. Their focus—their priority—was the restoration of their worship to Jehovah God, but they couldn’t worship until the altar was set up.

“Then stood up Jeshua the son of Jozadak, and his brethren the priests, and Zerubbabel the son of Shealtiel, and his brethren, and builded the altar of the God of Israel, to offer burnt-offerings thereon, as it is written in the law of Moses the man of God. And they set the altar upon its base; for fear was upon them because of the peoples of the countries: and they offered burnt-offerings thereon unto Jehovah, even burnt-offerings morning and evening.” – Ezra 3:2-3

Ezra expresses how the threat of the locals–the people who settled the area after Israel was carried away–cause the Israelites to be afraid. Re-entering their old land did not mean they could walk in and take over. Pagan nations controlled their lands, and they had to step lightly. But Ezra shows they did not step lightly when it came to God’s command to offer sacrifices to Him. They set up the altar anyway.

“And they kept the feast of tabernacles, as it is written, and offered the daily burnt-offerings by number, according to the ordinance, as the duty of every day required;” – Ezra 3:4

During this seven-day feast, they were commanded to live in booths made from tree branches to symbolize their time in the wilderness (Leviticus 23:42-23). Later, when Nehemiah comes, they learn about this command and practice it properly (Nehemiah 8:17). Here they were, focused on the Lord’s house and worship to Him and had not yet built their homes. So, it’s pure coincidence that in this memorial time, a time meant to remind them of their days living in tents after their escape from Egypt, they are, again, coming out of captivity and living in tents. This was doubly the memorial for them, offered with grateful hearts for a new beginning.

The Israelites began to worship God and meet with Him from a tumbled-down temple site. They had so far to go, but they made the start. The feast was their starting point to reestablish the ongoing service of worship to God continually.

“and afterward the continual burnt-offering, and the offerings of the new moons, and of all the set feasts of Jehovah that were consecrated, and of every one that willingly offered a freewill-offering unto Jehovah.” – Ezra 3:5

The word “continual” expresses how these everyday offerings were to be given. The Hebrew word means “continually” or “always.” God, through Moses, established a continual succession of offerings that were to be sacrificed in the mornings and the evenings seven days a week, beyond what was sacrificed on holy days and on the first day of every month. He explains His reason for this by saying, “It shall be a continual burnt-offering throughout your generations at the door of the tent of meeting before Jehovah, where I will meet with you, to speak there unto thee. And there I will meet with the children of Israel; and the Tent shall be sanctified by my glory.” (Exodus 29:42-43).

Jehovah set up His tabernacle, and, later, His house in Jerusalem, to meet with His people and commune with them in a continual way. Through animal sacrifices, given every day, God taught them how they had to be cleansed by blood that would atone for sin, continually making them pure before Him. The inspired writer of Hebrews 10:1-4 gives the purpose behind this symbolic ritual, explaining, “For the law having a shadow of the good things to come, not the very image of the things, can never with the same sacrifices year by year, which they offer continually, make perfect them that draw nigh. Else would they not have ceased to be offered? because the worshippers, having been once cleansed, would have had no more consciousness of sins. But in those sacrifices there is a remembrance made of sins year by year. For it is impossible that the blood of bulls and goats should take away sins.” The animal sacrifices were just a fill-in for the ultimate solution to come: Christ. Christ is the continual sacrifice; His blood became the atonement for sin once for all and continually (1 John 1:7).

The people’s worship in Ezra depicts how a relationship should work. A meaningful relationship is one that keeps a continual, reciprocating communication that builds up and opens the way for future building up. That doesn’t mean we have to keep in constant contact; it means that each party feels that they are still in the relationship, and that it is going well. We are innately designed for companionship, and we need to hear and speak to each other. The worship of the Israelites correlates with the effort one takes to keep up a  valued relationship in the way that best fits the other person’s needs. It means doing builder-upper things that solidify the relationship for the future.

God describes His relationship with His people as an all-the-time relationship. He never sleeps on the job (Psalm 121:3-4). He is always there to listen and help His people. It is a pure relationship–there is no hurtful intent or evil motivation in it. He offers every soul the gift of that meaningful relationship. It may seem like an overwhelming effort to return to Him, but think of the struggle and perseverance of these people of God recorded in Ezra. Think of that crumbled temple ruin and the weight of work ahead of them. They set a starting point: they focused on their relationship with God first.

The Nature of Belonging

(5) Returning Home with Ezra, Part 1: The First Return

In Trust Issues, the first expedition families who had broken the nation’s marriage laws were separated from the assembly. The nation waxes exclusive. The funny thing is, relationships tend to be exclusive. A family is made up of certain members, which means everyone else is excluded. The relationship you have with your spouse excludes your child, and the relationship you have with your child excludes your best friend’s child. Part of a healthy relationship is knowing who belongs in it and who doesn’t. These people coming home to Jerusalem are what remains of what had once been a great nation. When they join together, they find strength in this exclusive citizenship, where, previously, they had faced isolation and suppression.

“The whole assembly together was 42,360, besides their male and female servants, of whom there were 7,337, and they had 200 male and female singers. Their horses were 736, their mules were 245, their camels were 435, and their donkeys were 6,720.” – Ezra 2:64-67 (ESV used for numerical clarity)

It must have encouraged them to be united again. They were not only united in body; they had a united purpose of rebuilding their temple. It must have been daunting, too. Those who remembered the splendor of Jerusalem would have compared the number of people arriving to the number of those who had been taken away as captives, but they were back and they were together.

“Some of the heads of families, when they came to the house of the Lord that is in Jerusalem, made freewill offerings for the house of God, to erect it on its site. According to their ability they gave to the treasury of the work 61,000 darics of gold, 5,000 minas of silver, and 100 priests’ garments.” – Ezra 2:68-69 (ESV used for numerical clarity)

This group of just under fifty thousand people were moved to give freely of their means to help their shared purpose. One mina of silver equaled approximately five years of a man’s wages. So, this was a great amount of money being given.

“So the priests, and the Levites, and some of the people, and the singers, and the porters, and the Nethinim, dwelt in their cities, and all Israel in their cities. And when the seventh month was come, and the children of Israel were in the cities, the people gathered themselves together as one man to Jerusalem.” – Ezra 2:70-3:1

Ezra notes that this group of people “gathered themselves together as one man.” How powerful and uplifting that feeling of unity must have been as they assembled in Jerusalem! They made the commitment to return home, and now enter the city of their origins ready to embark on their new life. There were troubles ahead for these people of God. They would falter. Yet, here, they are strong and solidly united.

God knew their hearts. He knew their willingness to return to Him. Through Ezra we are given this moment, together with the later moments when they would doubt and become discouraged, because this is a story of triumph. The journey of returning home did not end when they arrived in Jerusalem. It was the beginning their walk with God, and they were beginning it together. They gathered to serve their Creator, and He welcomed them to draw closer to Him.

Belonging is a deeply satisfying feeling. We need other people, and we need to belong among our own. There is strength in numbers, even if the relationship is just two people. Ecclesiastes 4:9-10a says, “Two are better than one, because they have a good reward for their labor. For if they fall, the one will lift up his fellow.” The instinctive desire to belong prompts us to search for companionship, work at relationship, and, ultimately, seek out the Maker to whom we all belong.

Belonging is a place where one’s needs are met. This is a gradual process. In the first phases of a relationship, one often basks in the warmth of belonging. When a couple has a new baby, there is a period of feeling needed and essential to that new life. This phase quickly slips by as the child expresses unhappiness when needs go unmet, but, over time, there develops a reciprocal affection that brings an even deeper sense of belonging. This give and take is found in all forms of relationship; and when each person tries to give freely and generously, the sense of belonging grows.

There will always be “exclusive” groups. Everyone innately wishes to be included. Being rejected by a group or a person with whom you thought you belonged probably means they can’t meet your needs. We’ve probably all made the mistake of spending ourselves out in unhealthy relationships, clinging just to belong… belong to someone… belong somewhere. Looking back on my own experiences, I’m grateful and relieved I was rejected because I can see now it was the wrong relationship for me.

Even though the laws separated these people of tainted blood, it did not prevent them from consecrating their lives to Him. God did not reject them. The governmental system was the limitation. It was a system that awaited a better, more inclusive system promised by God. Isaiah wrote about a time when all would be included in God’s assembly (Isaiah 56:1-8). That system came into being when Jesus gave up His life in exchange for the life of every person who would accept His untainted, perfect bloodline. He created the path for each soul to return home. It is the place where you can have your needs met, fully and unstintingly. It’s in the presence of your heavenly Father. He is home, and belonging to Him takes away the sting of rejection and isolation.

 

 

Trust Issues

(4) Returning Home with Ezra, Part 1: The First Return

If you haven’t noticed, genealogy is super important to these Israelites! There are a few reasons for this, which will become apparent as we look at Ezra’s writing.

“1 Now these are the children of the province, that went up out of the captivity of those that had been carried away, whom Nebuchadnezzar the king of Babylon had carried away unto Babylon, and that returned unto Jerusalem and Judah, every one unto his city; 2 who came with Zerubbabel, Jeshua, Nehemiah, Seraiah, Reelaiah, Mordecai, Bilshan, Mispar, Bigvai, Rehum, Baanah. 2 The number of the men of the people of Israel:” – Ezra 2:1-2

When Ezra records those in the first expedition, he starts with the leaders authorized to rebuild the temple at Jerusalem. Zerubbabel, who was a descendant of Jeconiah (a.k.a. Jehoaichin1). Jeconiah was the last king of Judah who was taken captive by Nebuchadnezzar. Zerubbabel’s Persian name under Cyrus was Sheshbazzar, a prince of Judah (Ezra 1:8), and he was considered the authorized leader, or governor, of this first expedition. He answered to Cyrus for his actions. After Zerubbabel comes Jeshua (or Joshua), the high priest. Ezra records Jeshua’s father as Josedech (Jehozadak) (Ezra 3:2), who is also mentioned in 1 Chronicles 6:14-15 as being of the priestly line and taken away into captivity. Ezra shows that the two branches of Israel’s government, the royal bloodline and the priesthood bloodline, were still intact and able to pick up where they’d left off.

Zerubbabel’s name continues to be coupled with Jeshua’s because the earthly and spiritual governance of Israel was designed to be a unified system. These two leaders were responsible for the well-being of the people and the rebuilding of the temple. Zerubbabel answered to the Persian empire and to God, while Jeshua answered to God directly for the people (Malachi 2:7). Though Zerubbabel is of the kingly line, there is no longer a dynastic king over Israel. The distractions and difficulties that Zerubbabel confronts prevents Israel from establishing another earthly kingship. They must return fully to the commands and ways of God; He is their only King once more.

Nehemiah later confirms Ezra’s documentation when Nehemiah finds the registry after the city wall is rebuilt and the gates are closed (Nehemiah 7). To summarize Ezra 2, verses 4-39, he numbers the returning Israelites by their patriarchs, or heads of family. He separates out the Levite patriarchs, Jeshua and Kadmiel (Ezra 2:40), and the remaining numbers of the group deal with their position or occupation (Ezra 2:41-60).

“41 The singers: the children of Asaph, a hundred twenty and eight. 42 The children of the porters: the children of Shallum, the children of Ater, the children of Talmon, the children of Akkub, the children of Hatita, the children of Shobai, in all a hundred thirty and nine.

43The Nethinim: the children of Ziha, the children of Hasupha, the children of Tabbaoth,…(Ezra 2:41-43 ASV)”

The temple servants, known as the Nethinim, are descendants of the people of Gibeon, who tricked the Israelites into making peace with them when Israel was first conquering Canaan to settle (Joshua 9). They donned old clothes and items, saying they had come from a far country. The Israelites took their word for it, made the agreement to be allied with them, and three days later, found they lived in the neighboring cities. Regretting that he and the elders didn’t ask God what to do before making the agreement, Joshua kept the promise, decreeing, “Now therefore you are cursed, and some of you shall never be anything but servants, cutters of wood and drawers of water for the house of my God” (Joshua 9:23ESV). Ezra later records the Nethinim as having been appointed by David (Ezra 8:20), so the king of Israel later upheld Joshua’s curse. It’s interesting to notice that they were not of a bloodline of Jacob’s sons, but they remained servants to Israel’s officials while in captivity.

Along with the Nethinim, Ezra lists the children of Solomon’s servants. They had begun their service when Solomon was king, and they returned with Israel to serve as their fathers had done. This reveals that the Babylonian empire kept Israel’s castes intact after capturing the government leaders (the king, his sons, and the priests). The Nethinim and Solomon’s servants continued as life-servants from Babylonian through Persian rule.

Ezra also records those households that “could not prove their fathers’ houses or their descent, whether they belonged to Israel” (Ezra 2:59 ESV). Of this last group, Ezra mentions children of the priests who had not retained a pure bloodline.

“61 And of the children of the priests: the children of Habaiah, the children of Hakkoz, the children of Barzillai, who took a wife of the daughters of Barzillai the Gileadite, and was called after their name. 62 These sought their register among those that were reckoned by genealogy, but they were not found: therefore were they deemed polluted and put from the priesthood – Ezra 2:61-62”

The tribe of Levite had a role of service to the house of God, and as such, Levites were held by a stricter set of laws. God stipulated that Levites who served as priests had to marry Israelites (Leviticus 21:14). Ezra explains that these children of priests had a “polluted” bloodline. They were not excluded from the nation; rather, they were excluded from officiating in the roles given to priests in the temple.

It is here in the last documents of Israel’s God-breathed history that we see people returning to Jerusalem who were separated out as unclean, either from the nation or the priestly order. They could not prove they had Hebrew blood, or they had mixed their bloodline with non-Hebrew nations. The Israelites were commanded not to marry outside their nation (Deuteronomy 7:1-4). This is a strange commandment to contemplate today, but it was looked on as a defilement, a pollution, that affected the nation as a whole.

There is a principle in this that applies to all relationships. The things we choose to do and the way we choose to live affects the people we care about. We don’t necessarily mean for our actions and choices to hurt others, but we can’t really know what will result from every action. It would be nice to be able to leap ahead in time and figure out what things work and what fails miserably in our relationships with others–and, then, avoid those things. But that’s not possible.  The saying, “Do what you want as long as it doesn’t hurt anyone,” provides permission without considering the crucial question, How can I know if this will hurt someone or not? How can the human mind really perceive the chain of events that stem from one action? If the theory is true that we are all connected by a six-degree-of-separation network, then our influence as we make choices is much, much greater than we tend to want to believe. Just look at the spread of this virus right now and consider how its movement is directly related to the choices and actions, good and bad, that each person makes. It’s mind-blowing.

These people of mixed blood, or of no Israelite blood at all, have to suffer the consequences of a choice they never made, and it’s all because their parents disobeyed their nation’s law. This leads to the question, Why did God make this commandment and want it enforced during a time when so few people were returning home?

These rules about Israelite marriages were necessary for many reasons, but it really boiled down to trust. The command required God’s children to trust Him. Trust has to be present in all healthy relationships. When God’s children made life choices based on God’s judgments, instead of their own hearts, it taught them to lean on Him and let Him take the responsibility for the far-reaching consequences to come. A second reason relates to God’s promise to Abraham that through his seed all nations would be blessed. Jesus was to come through Abraham’s line. If Israel intermarried, those carefully kept genealogies would not have existed; there would have been no tracing Jesus’ lineage back to King David, as prophesied.

Ezra’s story leads us through the natural progression of relationship, from invitation to acceptance to trust. Trusting means letting go of the control in a relationship. It’s a choice to let go, and it’s a weighty one. Establishing trust becomes more challenging when you’ve never learned to trust someone who is truly dependable. No one on earth can be depended upon to be as faithful as God. It’s why better, healthier relationships develop from the strength of a trusting relationship with God.

  1. There is mention of Jehoiachin, king of the land of Judah, and his 5 sons on a Babylonian ration tablet (c. 595-570 BCE). Read about it here. (Accessed 2020/03/30)

For the Record

(3) Returning Home with Ezra, Part 1: The First Return

Beginning, or re-beginning, a relationship requires both parties to accept certain guidelines. In essence, they are entering into an agreement. What that agreement entails is not necessarily explained at first, but that is part of the growth of all relationships–learning to work within someone’s boundaries and learning to draw your own lines.

“5 Then rose up the heads of fathers’ houses of Judah and Benjamin, and the priests, and the Levites, even all whose spirit God had stirred to go up to build the house of Jehovah which is in Jerusalem. 6 And all they that were round about them strengthened their hands with vessels of silver, with gold, with goods, and with beasts, and with precious things, besides all that was willingly offered.” -Ezra 1:5-6ASV.

Two tribes of Israel accepted the invitation to return home and rebuild what they had lost. The area around Jerusalem was the territory of Judah and Benjamin, which might be why the heads of these two tribes were quick to accept. The priests and other Levites would be needed both to provide the specifications to build the temple and to reinstate the proper manner of worship.

We don’t always know what we want to get out of our relationships or how we will react to certain situations. God does know what He wants in a relationship. He laid out exactly what He wanted in His relationship with the Israelites. He described it the Israelites by setting up a covenant through Moses, establishing the Levite tribe to become his priests and temple servants. God’s design for Israel’s government had the priesthood and its order as the nation’s governing officials with God presiding as their king. The king’s throne, or mercy seat, was located inside the temple—in the holy of holies—on Jerusalem’s mountain. Long before Israel was carried away to Babylon, they expressed dissatisfaction with the agreement God made with them. Namely, they did not want God as their king. They yearned for a physical king. So, God granted them an earthly dynasty of kingship which threw them into a system that wrecked their way of life.

Why did He allow them to mess with His boundaries and deny Him as their king? Sometimes relationships have to go through a trial and error period to learn the value of the boundaries that are being set. This phase is especially evident in parent-child relationships. The parent disapproves of the child’s desire for something that won’t benefit him or her. Still, the parent allows the child to make the mistake and experience the consequences in hopes that the child will learn to value the boundaries of the relationship and trust that the parent is trying to give the child the very best. This is what God allowed to happened to Israel. They went through some devastating times when they became subjects of a human dictator. One of the negative effects of this earthly kingship was the legacy of Jeroboam, the king who set up new worship centers in Bethel and Dan to keep Northern Israel from journeying into Southern Israel to worship at God’s true temple at Jerusalem.

This division of Northern and Southern Israel led ten of the twelve tribes to reject God altogether. They did not worship in Jerusalem for many generations. They forgot where “home” really was and stopped wanting God in their lives. They chose to forget about Him. The Northern kingdom was invaded, and few souls survived from those ten tribes. Yet, Ezra says there were those “whose spirit God had stirred to go up.” God waited and watched. He looked for those few remaining souls who wanted a relationship with Him. They wanted to return home and start again.

“7 Also Cyrus the king brought forth the vessels of the house of Jehovah, which Nebuchadnezzar had brought forth out of Jerusalem, and had put in the house of his gods; 8 even those did Cyrus king of Persia bring forth by the hand of Mithredath the treasurer, and numbered them unto Sheshbazzar, the prince of Judah.” – Ezra 1:7-8ASV

When the Babylonian king, Nebuchadnezzar, besieged Jerusalem, in 587BCE, he destroyed the temple Solomon built. He stole the gold and silver vessels from the temple, and, later, Belshazzar, Nebuchadnezzar’s successor, used them when he hosted a gathering in honor of his gods (Daniel 5:2-6, 30). These stolen, holy containers were inherited by Cyrus, who commanded them to be returned to the temple.

It has been more than two millennia since any human has witnessed the splendor of the first temple at Jerusalem, the golden-covered structures and the gem-studded garments. In our age, we can’t really comprehend what the return of these temple items meant to an Israelite. Cyrus the Great was fully acknowledging Who owned the treasures of God, subsequently granting rights to the nation of Israel. Going into captivity had torn the people from their God-given land, their family lines, and their identities. Their God-centered government, meant to separate their way of life distinctly from the nations around them, lost its authority. For seventy years, they had to function with caution under a pagan system that threatened and constrained them from being who they were.

Ezra reports that the stolen items were catalogued, or “numbered.” This was a transaction between Cyrus and the Israelites, and it is a characteristic act of a scribe of that time to document historical evidence of the political reinstatement of Israel as a nation.

Ezra continues his documentation by recording the returning families, found in chapter two. This is distinctly characteristic of Israel itself. This nation kept meticulous genealogical records. Recording family lineage was not only a tradition but a necessity.  The law of Moses required each citizen to prove he/she was an Israelite—of a tribe descending from Jacob—to participate acceptably both in everyday life and in the worship of God. These lengthy genealogies were guarded and kept for centuries. It is believed that Ezra continued this record-keeping of the kingly line in 2 Chronicles before beginning his history. (The documents existed until 70 CE, when Jerusalem was beseiged during the Roman reign and the temple was destroyed.)

Along with requirements for temple worship, an Israelite’s tribal lineage defined his social standing and the ability to provide for himself and his family. Large families meant a better chance of continuing a tribe’s line. This explains God’s blessing of many children repeated throughout the Old Testament. Without descendants, a tribe would diminish, or, worse, cease to exist. (Naomi, from the book of Ruth, mourns this, and God blesses her by having Boaz father Ruth’s first child in the name of Naomi’s husband’s line. See Ruth 4:13-14.)

Ezra begins his count with the phrase, “the number of the men of the people of Israel” (Ezra 2:2). He doesn’t call them “the children of Judah,” as he does in other places in this history. While most of these people are from the southern tribes, there is no longer a divided kingdom of northern Israel and southern Judah. The remnant of God’s people become one Israel again as God accepts them back into His family.

God wants all people to accept His offer to be part of His family. Today, God’s chosen nation is made up of people from all nations. The bloodline of spiritual Israel continues when one is born into the kingdom by a spiritual birth, not a physical one (Colossians 1:13; Colossians 2:12-13). This is the fulfillment of the promise made to Abraham that “all the nations of the earth shall be blessed” (Genesis 18:18; 22:18; 26:4). All are invited to enter the holy presence of Jehovah God. No one is left to stand outside; no one is barred from entering. God graciously grants all the choice of accepting this relationship agreement and entering His heavenly Jerusalem (Hebrews 12:22). And God also keeps a record. Every person who chooses to return to Him—male and female, all nationalities and races—is written down in His book of life (Philippians 4:3; Revelation 3:5).

 

Royal Favor

(2) Returning Home with Ezra, Part 1: The First Return

The book of Ezra was written in two languages: Hebrew and Chaldee, the Persian language. This tends to legitimize Ezra’s claim that his account was written during a time when the Persian Empire greatly influenced the culture and language of the nations under its rule. The events that occur in Ezra begin with a small group of people who want to return to their holy city, Jerusalem, and reestablish their nation and their faith in God. But they need power and protection to do this. God provides both through the decrees of world emperors, one being Cyrus II. Persian emperors were polytheistic kings. Yet, some of them showed respect for the gods of other nations as a political move. Cyrus II, or Cyrus the Great, empowers the Israelites who wish to return to Jerusalem and provides them with the protection to cross the land and inhabit their holy city. This royal favor from an earthly “god” of nations gives us a glimpse of the methods Jehovah God uses to empower and protect His beloved sons and daughters of Abraham.

Ezra 1 begins:

“Now in the first year of Cyrus king of Persia, that the word of Jehovah by the mouth of Jeremiah might be accomplished, Jehovah stirred up the spirit of Cyrus king of Persia, so that he made a proclamation throughout all his kingdom, and put it also in writing, saying, Thus saith Cyrus king of Persia, All the kingdoms of the earth hath Jehovah, the God of heaven, given me; and he hath charged me to build him a house in Jerusalem, which is in Judah.” – Ezra 1:1-2

Cyrus reigned circa 539-530 BCE. In 539 BCE when the Neo-Babylonian Empire under Belshazzar fell, Cyrus controlled no less than four great kingdoms. The Babylonian method for recording a king’s reign, which carried over into Persian tradition, makes the timeline difficult to pin down. The Babylonians considered the point at which the king took the throne the accession year, and the year after was the king’s first year of reign. So, Cyrus made the decree in 539 or 538 BCE. That the decree was made in his first year as emperor is confirmed in 2 Chronicles 36:22-23.

Ezra (c. 480-440) alludes to Jeremiah’s (c. 626-587) prophecy in which God told him the captives of Israel would return (Jeremiah 29:10-14) and the city would be rebuilt “on its mound” (Jeremiah 30:18). Like Ezra, many Israelites had waited for this day. To hear the Persian emperor Cyrus make this decree was to know their God had not forgotten His promises to them nor His covenant with them.

Cyrus II of Persia was known for being lenient toward the religious beliefs of the peoples ruled by his empire. The Cyrus Cylinder in the British Museum in London gives insight into his way of thinking.

“May all the gods whom I settled in their sacred centers ask daily…that my days be long and may they intercede for my welfare.” 1

Cyrus’ ruling strategy was to appease the gods of the lands he ruled in order to seek their blessing by returning the properties of these gods and their people to the land.2

The decree of Cyrus the Great to the children of Israel included the invitation to return to Jerusalem:

“2Thus saith Cyrus king of Persia, All the kingdoms of the earth hath Jehovah, the God of heaven, given me; and he hath charged me to build him a house in Jerusalem, which is in Judah. 3Whosoever there is among you of all his people, his God be with him, and let him go up to Jerusalem, which is in Judah, and build the house of Jehovah, the God of Israel (he is God), which is in Jerusalem. 4And whosoever is left, in any place where he sojourneth, let the men of his place help him with silver, and with gold, and with goods, and with beasts, besides the freewill-offering for the house of God which is in Jerusalem (Ezra 1:2-4).”

The call to build the temple was open to all Israelites, but it was not a mandatory command to go to Jerusalem. Cyrus gave the invitation to God’s people, and he provided financially for those who wanted to rebuild the governmental and spiritual hub of their culture and lives. Beyond the gifts that were given to aid them, the returning Hebrews were to be assisted by their local neighbors with the funds, tools, and livestock they needed to carry out the work. This was a massive construction project, and Cyrus opened a door for them with his decree. Through this emperor, God paved the way for those who longed to return home. Plus, He supplied the relief funds to restore their temple. And all this was accomplished before they had begun their journey.

Restoring relationship begins with an invitation. In a healthy relationship, no one is forced into it. God provides an invitation to all to come into His presence by supplying the relief fund when He set up the freewill offering of His Son, Jesus, to cover the massive cost of death. He does not force anyone to accept.

Just as God promised Israel that they would return, He promised that all nations would come into His house. Micah 1:2 prophesied, “And many nations shall go and say, Come ye, and let us go up to the mountain of Jehovah, and to the house of the God of Jacob; and he will teach us of his ways, and we will walk in his paths…”

The relationships we make in this life are fallible. We forget. We don’t always look for ways to bring us closer to those we love. Let’s face it; we’re a bit neglectful at times. God never forgets His promises. He will always keep His covenant with His people. Circumstances happen that cause us to think God has abandoned us. It isn’t true. His invitation is always open, and He will provide what you need to return home… to Him.

 

  1. English translation of the Cyrus Cylinder, Section 35 Cyrus’ Prayer, http://www.livius.org/ct-cz/cyrus_I/cyrus_cylinder2.html, Accessed 2020/03/30
  2. Ibid, Section 32 Religious Measures, Accessed 2020/03/30

Start Returning Home with Ezra

During this time of staying in our homes to stop the quick spread of COVID-19, it occurred to me that taking away all the busyness in our lives gives us a chance to focus on relationships. We get a chance to reconnect, reestablish,- and reconfirm who we are and what we mean to each other. This is a scary time, but it is also enlightening. Focusing on a relationship brings forward problems we have pushed aside, problems we could ignore before. Old wounds can be reopened; new issues come to light we didn’t know existed. It’s human nature to run from the past and hurry through the present, but that keeps the human spirit from reaping joy and peace in the future. One has to face the struggle to find harmony.

There is a family in the Bible that gives a detailed account of what it means to turn back and, courageously, take a look and accept the past. From this bold step, they learn to take on the challenge of what’s going on in the present and commit themselves to a better future. Ezra is a book that brings hope. It details the struggles of the children of God as they work through the phases of turning things back around in their lives to return to a relationship with their Creator and with each other.

In a psychological sense, everyone takes the same steps that these people of Ezra’s time took. Ezra’s account illustrates how to reconnect, reestablish, and reconfirm a relationship that is valued and important. Changes don’t happen immediately. Instead, one makes a series of decisions to develop strong attachments. Returning Home will be posted in four sections to break down the steps taken in relationship development and commitment. Starting with “The First Return,” Ezra will show us the breakaway from the old situation. “Reigniting” steps through the gradual change of the old way of thinking and doing. The third part, “Renewing,” follows the Israelite people as they implement a new way of thought and action.  The final part, “The Second Return,” follows the last chapters of Ezra, where a greater turning point occurs in a time when, after experiencing the new, changed state of life, God’s children have to ask the crucial question, “Will we stay committed to this relationship?”

Ezra begins his narrative when the Israelite captives are given permission to return from Babylonian capture after seventy years of captivity. The Babylonian empire has fallen, and Cyrus the Great of Persia is emperor of the nations. We’ll travel through the story using the American Standard Version of the Bible for reference. Historical references, some inspired by tidbits of information in the Zondervan Archaeological Study Bible KJV, will be accompanied by web links and excerpts from various encyclopedia and archaeology websites, as well as some information found on Wikipedia. My point is to use references that are, for the most part, well-established and, generally, uncontested in order to depict how Ezra’s account aligns with what we know in history. Below is my attempt at a timeline for context. It is my goal to post daily, so subscribe to be notified of new posts to the Returning Home series.

Israel's Captivity and Return Timeline