Ezra 7-10: Pleading of the High Priest

Chapter 7

The events leading up to chapter 7 have been providing a background to Ezra’s (the name means “help”) involvement in the restoration of Israel, a context and culture in which Ezra operated as the LORD’s key servant in re-building of the Temple.  This is the same Ezra whose lineage is traced directly back to Aaron, the chief priest – as a reminder that it is the High Priest who re-built the temple, and no mere “layman”, pointing towards Jesus the High Priest who is the one who destroyed the temple and also built it up in three days (John 2:19).  Not only is it refreshing to know that this son of the high priest Aaron is the key catalyst behind the Second Temple, but he is also a “scribe skilled in the Law of Moses that the LORD the God of Israel had given, and the king granted him all that he asked, for the hand of the LORD his God was on him”.  Indeed, his faithful walk with Christ has led those around him to grant him favour and understand the ways of the LORD as well.  Therefore, this man is equipped, and ready to leave Babylonia to Israel for the purpose of teaching the LORD’s statutes and rules in Israel (v.10), knowing that the previous six chapters provided the context of the return of the exiles as summarised in v.7-9 of this chapter.  The LORD effectively uses King Artaxerxes to provide Ezra (the refrain, again – “a man learned in matters of the commandments of the LORD and his statutes for Israel” – repeated previously in v.6 and v.10) with the resources (i.e. all the silver and gold that Ezra shall find in the whole province of Babylonia, v.16, the money used to purchase bulls, rams, and lambs, with their grain offerings and their drink offerings, v.17) to do all that is necessary, “according to the will of your God” (v.18).  It is clear from v.11-20 that the king, too, is well-versed in the necessities of Temple maintenance.  What a contrast in v.24 for Artaxerxes to command the treasurers to not impose a tribute, custom or toll on anyone of the specified servants of the house of God (c.f. Rehum and Shimshai’s lies in Ezra 4:11-15).

This chapter ends with a first person commentary of Ezra – indeed, blessed be the LORD who put such a thing as this into the heart of the non-Israelite king, to beautify the house of the LORD that is in Jerusalem.  Whilst the book of Ezra focused primarily on theology than chronology, we saw Zerubbabel and Jeshua’s work on the Second Temple completed by chapter 6; and in the remaining chapters of Ezra, we shall see this scribe of the LORD focus on the community of Israel and the issues of their hearts as revealed later.

Chapter 8

Ezra therefore left Babylonia with a number of exiles to return to rebuilt Jerusalem – yet, his primary concern is the presence of the sons of Levi (v.15), despite the lengthy detail given to the returning exiles in v.1-14.  It is from Iddo that Sherebiah (“heat/flame of the LORD”) (with his sons and kinsmen, sons of Mahli the son of Levi), Hashabiah (“whom God regards”), and Jeshaiah (“salvation of the LORD”) (of the sons of Merari, with his kinsmen and their sons) were appointed, these men (and their kinsmen/sons) making up the 12 leading priests (v.24).  In the same vein, Ezra continues to rely on the LORD for protection by fasting and imploring Him for safety at the river Ahava (meaning “water/essence“), relying not on Artaxerxes’ band of soldiers and horsemen which would otherwise be reliable in worldly eyes.  Most importantly is Ezra’s pronouncement that these men are “holy to the LORD”, a refrain often used as a reminder of the priesthood, the setting apart of Israel from other nations and the Sabbath rest (c.f. Exodus 28:36, 30:37, 31:15, 35:2, 39:30; Deuteronomy 7:6).  This is key, given the events in chapters 9 and 10.

Symbolically, Ezra’s return is timed to a meaningful date in the Israelite calendar.  Where chapter 3 began with the Feast of Booths in the 7th month (Tishri) of the ecclesiastical year, this chapter focuses on the Passover, occuring between the 15th to the 21st of the month of Nisan (the 1st month).  Therefore, whilst under Zerubbabel and Jeshua’s re-institution of the Temple the Feast of Booths and other offerings were kept (fitting in the context of the Feast reminding them of the tent-centric life of Abraham and the saints as we look forward to new creation), under Ezra the re-institution began with the Passover, an equally fitting reminder of the separation of the Israelite community from the captivity of the Egyptians, just as the community is now restored after 70 years of Babylonian captivity.  To conclude this chapter with the words of Matthew Henry as the churches finally entered (a temporary) rest:

“That will be dispensed with when we want opportunity which when the door is opened again will be expected from us. It is observable, … That among their sacrifices they had a sin-offering; for it is the atonement that sweetens and secures every mercy to us, which will not be truly comfortable unless iniquity be taken away and our peace made with God… That the number of their offerings related to the number of the tribes, twelve bullocks, twelve he-goats, and ninety-six rams (that is, eight times twelve), intimating the union of the two kingdoms, according to what was foretold, Ezek. xxxvii. 22. They did not any longer go two tribes one way and ten another, but all the twelve met by their representatives at the same altar.
…That even the enemies of the Jews became their friends, bowed to Ezra’s commission, and, instead of hindering the people of God, furthered them, purely in complaisance to the king: when he appeared moderate they all coveted to appear so too. Then had the churches rest.”

Chapter 9

Throughout chapter 8, the theme of being “holy to the LORD” (taking us back to Exodus and Deuteronomy) has been briefly explored – and immediately Ezra is faced with the challenge of spiritual purity of the returned Israelites.  “The people of Israel and the priests and the Levites have not separated themselves from the peoples of the lands with their abominations” – language which is directly lifted from the Deuteronomic law (chapters 13, 14, 17, 18, 22-27).  What beauty then, that in spite of our sins, that the LORD is merciful.  Look at Ezra’s humility as he stood on behalf of Israel before the LORD, praying as if he himself was the High Priest mediating on behalf of the nation, as if it was Christ mediating between Israel and His Father.  The words in v.6-15 could be lifted from the lips of Christ as he bore our sins on the cross – that he should be counted as a worm whilst the burden of the Fall was on His shoulders (Psalms 22:6), pleading in relation to man’s heaven-high guilt (v.6), the nation given into captivity for its iniquities (v.7), that the LORD has not forsaken them in their slavery (v.9), that they still break His commandments (v.10), that they have inter-married against the commandments of the prophets (v.11-14; c.f. Exodus 34; Deuteronomy 7:3).  Ezra recognises that His grace and His steadfast love is still on this remnant of Israel (v.15), preserved as this remnant hides in Christ.

Chapter 10

It is telling that the first person to confess the sin of inter-marriage is from Shecaniah (the name aptly means “dweller with Jehovah or intimate with Jehovah”) son of Jehiel (“God lives”), of the sons of Elam (“eternity”).  It is because of his first confession that the nation is on its first steps to heart-felt recovery, rather than that of the mere infrastructure.  The restoration of the Temple, though centre to the lives of the Israelites, would be meaningless in face of a rebellious remnant.  It would take a man, intimate with Christ, to proclaim the living and eternal God through true repentance by separation from their wives, as Ezra calls for in v.9-11 (though not universally agreed by the Israelites – v.15).  Symbolically, this begins in the 9th month (Kislev – commonly known as the month of “hope”, during the autumn season), lasting until the first day of the first month (v.17 – i.e. Tishri, the month of “beginnings”) – that in this period of refining, Israel would not only hope to be restored but is given a new beginning (and, especially, that even the sons of Jeshua, son of Jozadak (v.18), the Levites (v.23) would be purified from their sins the same way as the other “laymen” of Israel, a reminder that the Israelites are all but sinners, with Ezra standing as the typological mediator between them and the LORD). 

The book interestingly ends on this “census” of those who have sinned and inter-married – a bittersweet mixture of a new beginning under Ezra’s leadership of the community, having established the re-institution of the Temple in the earlier chapters under Zerubbabel and Jeshua; yet time with tell as to whether these sons of intermarriage (v.44) would have a role to play in the first coming of the Messiah and whether they cling to the Promised Seed or become the seeds of Satan, leading Israel astray.

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Ezra 7-10: Pleading of the High Priest

Ezra 4-6: Witness of the Merciful

Chapter 4

It is ironic that the “merciful” and the “shining one” (Rehum the commander and Shimshai the scribe, v.8) wrote a letter against Jerusalem, and instead decided to stand firm with Artaxerxes.  The wicked intentions of the adversaries against the Israelites are laid bare, as the motivation behind the rebuilding of the temple is far more important than the actual assistance in rebuilding the temple.  Zerubbabel, Jeshua and the rest of the heads of the fathers’ houses in Israel are right to discern that only the Israelites stirred by God, as commanded through Cyrus, shall do the rebuilding.

The truth is clearly twisted in the letter to Artaxerxes – “You will find in the book of the records and learn that this city is a rebellious city, hurtful to kings and provinces, and that sedition was stirred up in it from old.  That was why this city was laid waste” (v.15).  Indeed, if only that were true, then Israel would be standing gloriously over Persia.  It was their sin that caused themselves to be laid to waste, and moreover, it was Cyrus who commanded the rebuilding and not out of the Israelites’ own volition.  The fact that such persecution persisted until the second year of Darius, king of Persia, indicates that the book of the records was not even consulted, where Cyrus’ decree in favour of the rebuilding would have been plain.  If anything, the proper rebuilding of the temple would heal Persia rather than hurt Artaxerxes.

Chapter 5

The real account of the history of the Israelites are then communicated in v.10-17, in contrast to the lying words of Rehum and Shimshai.  Instead of Artaxerxes’ folly of disregarding the word of the LORD coming to Cyrus, Darius is now presented again an opportunity to clarify whether the LORD has truly used the king of Persia to bless the Israelites – as is evidently the plan of God when he spoke through Haggai and Zechariah (v.1-2).

Chapter 6

What glory then, that Darius should follow in the footsteps of Cyrus and decree the completion of the restoration of the house of the LORD, returning what Nebuchadnezzar had taken (v.5).  The decree is of such significance that any alteration would be punishable by death, impaled on the wood of the house of the LORD, his house being made a dung-hill.  What irony that Christ should bear this punishment, to be impaled on the tree in this same city where His name dwells (v.12), on behalf of those who have (in their own spirit) altered the edict by forsaking the true meaning of the temple in their daily lives.  Whilst the Israelites here understand that sacrifice by keeping the Passover (v.19-22), and are overjoyed at the prospect of the conversion of this king of Assyria (hence his assistance in the work of the house of God), Darius’ decree is but a foreshadow that one day the salvific work of the Messiah (which the Temple symbolises) would be ignored and shunned even by those who allege to re-build the house but for their own selfish intent.  Instead, the words of Rehum and Shimshai are, in the days of the incarnate Second Person, applied to Christ Himself as if He were rebellious and that his coming was not spoken of in the books of records; contrarily, He was the one who would unite all men under one banner, as spoken of consistently throughout the Old Testament and as witnessed by Himself and His Father (John 8:13-18).

 

Ezra 4-6: Witness of the Merciful

Ezra 1-3: His love endures forever

Chapter 1

Ezra immediately begins after the Books of Chronicles, and the redemptive hope that Israel awaited for (whilst it stood under the captivity of Babylon) was found in Cyrus – a Gentile, a Persian king.  It is from Ezra that it becomes ever more apparent that the forward looking faith of the Old Testament saints was, as Abraham believed, not in the physical land of promise but in the new creation where He is preparing a place for us (John 14:2).  Isaiah prophesied concerning this anointed shepherd (Isaiah 44:28, 45:1), typological of Christ the Shepherd; Jeremiah prophesied concerning the end of the captivity, leading up to Cyrus’ rule (Jeremiah 25:12, 29:11).  Thus, in God’s specified timing of 70 years of captivity, the restoration begins not with the external infrastructure of the elected nation, but begins from inward out – from the house of the LORD outwards (v.3-4).  Thus the resources begin to be inherited, by the meek from the strong, as symbolically brought by Sheshbazzar – the prince of Judah also known to be “born of Babel”, a mark of our captivity now destroyed.

Chapter 2

As one can note from Ezra 2, the numbers of Israel have waned drastically under the captivity of Nebuchadnezzar (v.1-35), followed by the Levites (v.40-42), the temple servants (v.43-54), the sons of Solomon’s servants (v.55-57) (both temple servants and sons of Solomon’s servants being 392 people – v.58), the unidentifiable Israelites (v.59-63 – subject to the consultation of the Urim and Thummim, “light and perfection” / “revelation and truth“, to ensure that these are truly the once-exiled Israelites).  The whole assembly was no longer as glorious as it once was in the days of Moses (v.64-66; the resident aliens alone were 153,600 in Solomon and David’s day, c.f. 2 Chronicles 2:17).  In spite of this, the theme of redemption is not one of quantity but that of an identity shift – for Zerubbabel no longer needs to carry that name, and no one needs to carry a Chaldean / Babylonian name in slavery anymore – for the people are now, after a long 70 years, living “in their towns” (v.1, 70), which sandwiches what is otherwise a depressing census in between.  What joy to return to our Father’s house, despite being born in slavery to sin and given a name which is emblematic of our godless past, as we look forward to receiving new names in His eternal household (Revelation 2:17, 3:12).

Chapter 3

Thus, the re-unification begins in the seventh month, the month of beginnings – the month of the Day of Atonement – Tishri (seventh month of the ecclesiastical year).  It has been a while that the children of Israel were gathered as one man (c.f. Judges 20) to Jerusalem; just as these Babylonian captives were scattered and united in their fathers’ houses, so they are now gathered together as one Church – a glorious shadow of us being gathered to the Father’s house in new creation, as part of the grander scheme of an eternal co-existence with Christ as His unified Body.  So, by the hands of Jeshua (whom Jehovah helps), son of Jozadak (whom Jehovah has made just), and Zerubbabel, son of Shealtiel (asked of God), the altar of the God of Israel was re-built – re-instituting the law of the burnt offerings (v.2-3), the Feast of Booths (v.4) and the other offerings and appointed feasts (v.5).

It is important that this occurred before the foundation of the temple of the LORD was laid (v.6).  Although the foundation was built first with the Tabernacle (Exodus 26) and the Temple (2 Chronicles 8:16), just as Israel was established before the Temple was built, so there is a turning point here.  It is more apparent now that the sacrifices are central to the identity of their renewed unity and restoration after captivity – and that such could be done before the restoration of the Levitical priesthood (v.8).  Finally, the chapter ends on the refrain – “For he is good, for his steadfast love endures forever” – however, this refrain adds “toward Israel” at the end, an addition which is excluded in other passages (1 Chronicles 16:34, 41; 2 Chronicles 5:13, 7:3, 7:6, 20:21; c.f. Psalms 136).

In spite of the restored glory of Israel throughout the first three chapters of Ezra, it is met with a varied response – with sorrow by the older generation (who have seen the first Temple) and with joy by the newer (v.12).  It appears, however, the catalyst to the weeping of the older generation is the laying down of the foundation (as opposed to the direct comparison of the first Temple and the restored Temple), possibly reminding them of the glorious pre-captive days of the first Temple.  Although not touched on by the book of Ezra, Haggai provides much insight in chapter 1 (regarding the state of the house of the LORD as the people busy themselves in their own houses, reminding them that the house of the LORD is of equal if not greater priority), and chapter 2 (v.1-9):

“In the seventh month, on the twenty-first day of the month, the word of the LORD came by the hand of Haggai the prophet, “Speak now to Zerubbabel the son of Shealtiel, governor of Judah, and to Joshua the son of Jehozadak, the high priest, and to all the remnant of the people, and say,  ‘Who is left among you who saw this house in its former glory? How do you see it now? Is it not as nothing in your eyes?  Yet now be strong, O Zerubbabel, declares the LORD. Be strong, O Joshua, son of Jehozadak, the high priest. Be strong, all you people of the land, declares the LORD. Work, for I am with you, declares the LORD of hosts,  according to the covenant that I made with you when you came out of Egypt. My Spirit remains in your midst. Fear not.  For thus says the LORD of hosts: Yet once more, in a little while, I will shake the heavens and the earth and the sea and the dry land.  And I will shake all nations, so that the treasures of all nations shall come in, and I will fill this house with glory, says the LORD of hosts.  The silver is mine, and the gold is mine, declares the LORD of hosts.  The latter glory of this house shall be greater than the former, says the LORD of hosts. And in this place I will give peace, declares the LORD of hosts.’”

Indeed, the “latter glory of this house shall be greater than the former” – referring not to the renewed temple, but rather to the true glory of Christ Jesus, shaking “the heavens and the earth” – so that the treasures of all nations shall come in, from both Israel and the Gentiles.

Therefore, Israel is no longer filled with the arrogance that once plagued the final generation before the Babylonian captivity – for the new blood rejoices in the central multimedia representation of the sacrifice of the Lamb of God, whilst the old blood is reminded of their sins which caused this captivity, which led to the scatter and exile.  While the generations stand together in worship, the Church is at its weakest – its sins laid bare, and yet Israel should sing ever more proudly that the LORD’s steadfast love endures forever.  However, the His love is not merely for Israel – but for the Gentiles too, as exampled by Cyrus’ fundamental involvement in this restoration.

Ezra 1-3: His love endures forever