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.
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).
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.