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.
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.”
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.
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.