1. Returning to Rebuild the Temple (Ezra 1-6)

Audio (37:23)

Zely Smekhov, 'Rebuilding the Temple
Zely Smekhov, 'Rebuilding the Temple'

It is 539 BC. The nightmare of warfare, slaughter, and deportation to Babylon has faded. Many alive now have never seen the Holy City, but have been born in Babylon, in the area around Nippur, where the Jews had settled after three deportations from Jerusalem between 604 and 587 BC. The last deportation in 587 BC had coincided with the utter destruction of their beloved city. As thousands of Jews were marched off to exile in Babylon, their last view may have been the smoldering ruins and broken down walls of their temple and city.

The Jewish Community in Babylon

Probable location of the Chebar Canal near Nippur. Since 539 BC, the Persian Gulf has silted up, extending the outlet of the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers into the Gulf by many miles
Probable location of the Chebar Canal near Nippur. Since 539 BC, the Persian Gulf has silted up, extending the outlet of the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers into the Gulf by many miles (larger map)

The exiled Jews are settled together in Babylonia in an area along the Chebar (or Kebar) canal.[2] This seems to be a navigable "great canal," designed for irrigation, flowing southeast for about 60 miles from above Babylon to east of Nippur, rejoining the Euphrates near Uruk (Erech).[3] In our day this watercourse is silted up and dry. The exiled Jews live in a number of towns in this general area.[4]

After the initial shock of radical displacement, the exiled Jews settle down and prosper in their new land. They plant farms in the rich and productive river bottom land between the great Tigris and Euphrates rivers. A strong religious community flourishes here, and for some, the desire for home never leaves/ One psalmist of this period writes:

"By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept
when we remembered Zion....
If I forget you, O Jerusalem,
may my right hand forget [its skill].
May my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth
if I do not remember you,
if I do not consider Jerusalem my highest joy." (Psalm 137:1, 5-6)

James J. Tissot, ‘Waters of Babylon’ (1896-1902), gouache on board, The Jewish Museum, New York.
James J. Tissot, 'Waters of Babylon' (1896-1902), gouache on board, The Jewish Museum, New York.

The Jews seem resigned to their fate as exiles far from their homeland. Yes, many years before, Jeremiah had prophesied that the exile would last 70 years (Jeremiah 25:11-12), but most have forgotten.

Then, all of a sudden, Babylon falls to the Medes and Persians in 539 BC. Overnight, the vast Babylonian Empire is under the control of Cyrus the Great -- and things change rapidly for the Jewish exiles. (For details see Introduction to the Post-Exilic Period and Appendix 4. The Medo-Persian Empire.)

Cyrus Helps the Exiles to Return (Ezra 1)

The Book of Ezra begins with events that occur many years before Ezra himself is born, with the momentous events of the return to Jerusalem. Let's take a look at the text and the historical events that surround it.

"In the first year of Cyrus king of Persia, in order to fulfill the word of the LORD spoken by Jeremiah, the LORD moved the heart of Cyrus king of Persia to make a proclamation throughout his realm and to put it in writing" (Ezra 1:1)

The "first year of Cyrus king of Persia" is measured by the writer from the date Cyrus took over Babylon, that is 539 BC. "The word of the Lord spoken by Jeremiah" promised God's intervention to "bring you back" to Jerusalem after 70 years.

"When seventy years are completed for Babylon, I will come to you and fulfill my gracious promise to bring you back to this place." (Jeremiah 29:10)

The text tells us, "the Lord moved the heart of Cyrus the king of Persia...." Yes, there are historical factors, which we'll consider. But God is the key factor. Through Jeremiah has predicts the return 70 years before it takes place, and now uses these historical factors to "move" or "stir up"[5] Cyrus's heart and restore his people to his homeland.

Cyrus's Proclamation (Ezra 1:2-4)

"2 This is what Cyrus king of Persia says: 'The LORD, the God of heaven, has given me all the kingdoms of the earth and he has appointed me to build a temple for him at Jerusalem in Judah. 3 Anyone of his people among you -- may his God be with him, and let him go up to Jerusalem in Judah and build the temple of the LORD, the God of Israel, the God who is in Jerusalem. 4 And the people of any place where survivors may now be living are to provide him with silver and gold, with goods and livestock, and with freewill offerings for the temple of God in Jerusalem.'" (Ezra 1:2-4)

Religious Policy of the Persian Empire

It is rather remarkable that upon conquering Babylon, Cyrus both frees the Jewish exiles to return to their homeland -- and helps fund rebuilding the temple in Jerusalem. How did this come about?

A notable feature of the Persian empire is its integration of a great diversity of peoples into a single administrative system, while at the same time maintaining a tradition of respect for their local customs and beliefs.

The Assyrians, and the Babylonians after them, destroy the temples of their adversaries. But the Persians are different. Though they have their own gods, they are polytheists. Their attitude is that having more gods on their side, who are favorable to them and to their rule, is a good thing.

The Cyrus Cylinder (front, written 539-538 BC), Babylon, now in the British Museum, London.
The Cyrus Cylinder (front, written 539-538 BC), Babylon, now in the British Museum, London.

Indeed, the Jews are not the only recipients of this more liberal view. The Cyrus Cylinder, a clay cylinder dating from the sixth century BC, written in Akkadian cuneiform, chronicling Cyrus's deeds, indicates that Cyrus is responsible for returning a number of peoples to their lands and rebuilding their temples in order to get more gods favorable to him and his family. Does this mean that God isn't the one who brings the exiles back to Judah? No, it is God who raises up a ruler to do just this.

Isaiah prophesies hundreds of years before this era about Cyrus and even refers to him by name (Isaiah 45:13).

"He is my shepherd and will accomplish all that I please;
he will say of Jerusalem, 'Let it be rebuilt,'
and of the temple, 'Let its foundations be laid.'" (Isaiah 44:28)

It turns out just as Isaiah prophesies. Cyrus releases the people and rebuilds Jerusalem (2 Chronicles 36:22-23; Ezra 1:1). Amazing!

We Christians should follow Paul's exhortation to pray for government leaders, no matter what our personal political persuasion or how righteous they are. God is greater than political party or man's policies. God is at work in the affairs of nations (1 Timothy 2:1-4).

God's Preparations (Ezra 1:5-6)

God not only prepares the heart of Cyrus. He also prepares the hearts of the people he has chosen to be part of the first wave of returning exiles.

"5 Then the family heads of Judah and Benjamin, and the priests and Levites -- everyone whose heart God had moved -- prepared to go up and build the house of the LORD in Jerusalem. 6 All their neighbors assisted them with articles of silver and gold, with goods and livestock, and with valuable gifts, in addition to all the freewill offerings." (Ezra 1:5-6)

Even though they aren't part of the returnees, "all their neighbors" contribute generously to the cause (Ezra 1:4). They may have decided to remain in their new land, but they aren't so materialistic that they refuse to help those who wish to return.

I wonder about the people who stay in Babylon. Some continue to be part of a vibrant and faithful Jewish community. Some help finance the expedition to Jerusalem, even though they stay behind. But some, I am sure, stay behind because they have become comfortable away from their land. Returning and rebuilding is too much trouble. Are we too tired or complacent or comfortable to become pioneers once again as God leads us?

To help you internalize and apply what you are learning from this study, I have included several Discussion Questions in each lesson. These are designed to help you think about and ponder the most important points. Don't skip these. It is best to write out your answers, whether you post them or not. However, you can post your answers -- and read what others have written -- by going to the online forum by clicking on the URL below each question. (Before you can post your answer the first time, you will need to register. You can find instructions at https://www.joyfulheart.com/forums/instructions.htm

Q1. (Ezra 1:5-6) Why did only some return to Jerusalem when given the opportunity? What are the likely characteristics of those who return vs. those who stay behind in Babylon? Why do only some answer Jesus' call to follow him on his journey to a radically different kind of lifestyle and mission? What are the characteristics of true disciples?

Restoration of the Temple Treasure (Ezra 1:7-11)

One sign of God at work is Cyrus's willingness to restore to the Jews the equivalent of many millions of dollars from the Babylonian's hoard of temple treasure stolen from the Jerusalem temple before it was destroyed. For a rich king to part with treasure takes God! Verses 7-11 list all the expensive articles of silver and gold.

Sheshbazzar, called "the prince of Judah" (Ezra 1:8, 11) is designated by Cyrus as the responsible party. The term "prince" refers to a person in authority, not necessarily someone of the royal line.[6] He is mentioned in Ezra 5:14-16 as participating in laying the foundation of the temple.[7]

List of the Exiles Who Returned (Ezra 2)

Chapter 2 consists of a list of the returning Jews by family. The "province" mentioned is that of Yehud (Judah), which was a sub-unit of the larger Persian division (or satrapy) called Abar-Nahara ("Beyond the River"),[8] referring to the Euphrates River.

I draw your attention to a few leaders listed in verse 2. Zerubbabel is of royal blood and becomes governor of the province of Judah (Yehud). Jeshua is the high priest. More on them in Lesson 2. Nehemiah is a relatively common name. This Nehemiah is not the later governor and rebuilder of the walls, featured in the book of Nehemiah. Some of the other names are found elsewhere in Ezra and Nehemiah, but these are common names, and probably not the same people. A similar list in Nehemiah 7:7 includes one further name. (To clear up confusions with names, refer to Appendix 3 -- Main Characters of Ezra and Nehemiah).

Note that the people who return are listed according to family or clan (Ezra 2: 3-19 or 20), others according to their ancestral home (verses 20 or 21 to 35). Those whose genealogy cannot be traced are listed separately (verses 50-61).

Several groups stand out: the priests (verses 36-39), the Levites (verses 40-42), the temple servants (verses 43-54), and the sons of Solomon's servants (verses 55-57). Priests who can't be certified according to their genealogy aren't allowed to partake of the priests' portion of the sacrifices until their status can be determined by a high priest consulting the Urim and Thummim, holy lots, by which God's will can be determined (verses 61-63).[9]

Route of the return to Zion
Route of the return to Zion (larger map)

Ezra 2:64 gives the total number of Israelites as 42,360, with an additional "male and female servants" or slaves totaling 7,337, as well as 200 male and female singers. In other words, one sixth of the returnees are slaves! This gives some indication of the wealth of some of the company. This acceptance of slavery comes back to hurt the community later during a famine, when Jews who can't pay for food are sold into slavery by wealthier Jews (Nehemiah 5:5). The number of horses, mules, camels, and donkeys indicates that most of the returnees walked the entire way from Babylon to Jerusalem. Only the wealthy rode animals; the rest of the animals were to carry the goods they brought with them.

Ezra 2:68-69 indicates that when they arrive, the wealthy give generous gifts to help rebuild the temple, as well as money for priests' garments.

Once the company arrives in Jerusalem, they return to the towns and villages that their families had lived in prior to the exile. The priests and Levites have assigned villages, as well as the other Israelites. A list of these villages is found in Nehemiah 11:25-36. Few people lived in Jerusalem itself (Nehemiah 11:1-2).

Rebuilding the Altar (Ezra 3:1-6)

When Noah's family come out of the ark, the first thing he does is to build an altar to the Lord and make a sacrifice (Genesis 8:20). Abraham, too, when he comes to a new place, would build an altar (Genesis 12:7-8; 13:4, 18; 22:9), as did Isaac and Jacob after him (Genesis 26:25; 33:20; 35:1, 3, 7).

So far as we know, the Jews built no altars for sacrifice in Babylon.[10] So in the seventh month after they arrive in Jerusalem, they clear away a space on the site of Solomon's temple, and build an altar.

"They set the altar in its place, for fear was on them because of the peoples of the lands, and they offered burnt offerings on it to the LORD, burnt offerings morning and evening." (Ezra 3:3)

Offering sacrifice before the temple is rebuilt. Artist unknown.
Offering sacrifice before the temple is rebuilt. Artist unknown.

There is considerable fear among the Israelites as they gather in Jerusalem. For one, no one is at home in their towns to protect their families. Since the Israelites displaced some other peoples when they settled, there is lots of tension. Nor do the people of the land want the Israelites to establish themselves by rebuilding the Jerusalem and their temple. But their fear leads them to God. If they can reestablish the sacrifices, then God will look with favor upon them.

So they "set the altar in its place" and begin the prescribed sacrifices that they had conducted in the old temple. These consisted of morning and evening sacrifices, as defined in the Pentateuch (Exodus 29:38-43; also Numbers 28:3-8). In addition these, they begin to offer the special sacrifices prescribed for the Feast of Tabernacles (Numbers 29:12-40), Sabbath sacrifices (Numbers 28:9-10), New Moon sacrifices (Numbers 28:11-15), for the other prescribed festivals (Numbers 28-29), and for families that bring "freewill offerings" (Numbers 15:3).

What was the altar like that was built on the temple site by the returning exiles?[11] It was likely made of unhewn stones. We read in 1 Maccabees, after the temple was defiled by Antiochus Epiphanes, that they took the defiled stones away and built the altar with "unhewn stones" (1 Maccabees 4:47).[12]

Beginning the Restoration of the Temple (Ezra 3:6-13)

"6b But the foundation of the temple of the LORD was not yet laid. 7 So they gave money to the masons and the carpenters, and food, drink, and oil to the Sidonians and the Tyrians to bring cedar trees from Lebanon to the sea, to Joppa, according to the grant that they had from Cyrus king of Persia.... 8b They appointed the Levites, from twenty years old and upward, to supervise the work[13] of the house of the LORD." (Ezra 3:6-7, 8b)

Sidon and Tyre are ancient Phoenician trading cities on the coast of present-day Lebanon. These cities were ports for the export of timber from the "cedars of Lebanon" that supply beams and lumber for roofs and gates in the public buildings of the region.

Rather than seeing the foundation completed here, it's probably more accurate to see the work of restoration begun, in the sense of "to build."[14] Ezra 3:6ff describes the beginning of the work in 537 BC, which quickly fell into activity. In Haggai 2:18, 17 years later in 520 BC, the same word is used to describe the resumption of building, not recompleting the foundation. We'll revisit this issue in Lesson 2.

The Babylonians had destroyed Solomon's temple in 587 BC by fire (2 Kings 25:9). You can't burn stone, though heat will crack some stones. But as the roof timbers burn, the entire structure, walls and all, come tumbling down, breaking many of the stones and making them unusable. Only rubble is left. So eventually, the ruins of the temple will have to be completely cleared from the site. Foundations, however, typically consist of large cut blocks of stone. You can see some of the foundations of the Second Temple at the present-day Wailing Wall.[15]

Celebration and Mourning (Ezra 3:10-13)

Beginning construction of the temple is a huge accomplishment, a big step towards the goal of completing of the temple. And this step merited a great celebration with singers, instruments, trumpets, and shouting.

"11b And all the people shouted with a great shout when they praised the LORD, because the foundation of the house of the LORD was laid. 12 But many of the priests and Levites and heads of fathers' houses, old men who had seen the first house, wept with a loud voice when they saw the foundation of this house being laid, though many shouted aloud for joy, 13 so that the people could not distinguish the sound of the joyful shout from the sound of the people's weeping, for the people shouted with a great shout, and the sound was heard far away." (Ezra 3:11b-13)

Those who had seen the previous temple aren't weeping tears of joy. Rather they "wept with a loud voice," words that describe mourning that the Second Temple isn't as grand as Solomon's. As we'll see in Lesson 2, Haggai rebukes this attitude (Haggai 2:3) and in Lesson 3, Zechariah warns against despising "the day of small things" (Zechariah 4:10). Faith looks to God, not just to what we can now see with our eyes, "for we walk by faith, not by sight" (2 Corinthians 5:7).

Q2. (Ezra 3) Rebuilding the temple in order to restore worship is the point of all this work. Is your personal worship what it should be? What foundations do you need to lay again in your personal restoration and revival of faith?

Opposition to the Rebuilding (Ezra 4:1-5, 24)

Any time people are led to a great thing for God, there is opposition. Sometimes opposition to God's work seems almost reasonable.

"1 When the enemies of Judah and Benjamin heard that the exiles were building a temple for the LORD, the God of Israel,2 they came to Zerubbabel and to the heads of the families and said, 'Let us help you build because, like you, we seek your God and have been sacrificing to him since the time of Esarhaddon king of Assyria, who brought us here.'

3 But Zerubbabel, Jeshua and the rest of the heads of the families of Israel answered, 'You have no part with us in building a temple to our God. We alone will build it for the LORD, the God of Israel, as King Cyrus, the king of Persia, commanded us.'" (Ezra 4:1-3)

When you read the offer of the surrounding peoples to help with the construction of the temple, it appears generous. In contrast, Zerubbabel 's answer might appear narrow and dogmatic. But to understand the situation accurately, we need to read between the lines.

Those who make this "generous offer" are "enemies of Judah and Benjamin," the two tribes that have returned from exile. The word "enemies," "adversaries" is the noun tsar, from the verb tsor, "oppress, press" someone hard.[16] Prior to the Jews returning from exile, they had been the dominant rulers and people of the area and they resent losing power over the region.[17]

Samaritan Syncretism

The Jews know that the worship of the "peoples of the land" is not pure Yahweh worship, but syncretism, a mixture of the pagan worship and Yahweh worship. Nor are the enemies Jewish by parentage. Notice their claim:

"We worship your God as you do, and we have been sacrificing to him ever since the days of Esarhaddon king of Assyria who brought us here." (Ezra 4:2)

These are Samaritans, primarily foreigners brought in by the Assyrians from another area to subdue the rebellious kingdom of Israel after 723 BC. They build their own temple at Mt. Gerizim in the fifth century BC, which is later destroyed by the Jews. Even in Jesus' day, the Samaritans contend that the proper place of worship was on Mt. Gerizim (John 4:20-24).

The Samaritans' "generous offer" to help with construction is a thinly veiled plot to retain control and influence. If the Jewish leaders accept their help, worship of Yahweh will be corrupted by mixture with pagan practices -- and likely, the Jews would be absorbed into the people of the land, rather than retain their distinctive identity as the people of Yahweh. The offer is refused.

But their decision to reject Samaritan help comes with a cost.

"4 Then the people of the land discouraged the people of Judah and made them afraid to build 5 and bribed counselors against them to frustrate their purpose, all the days of Cyrus king of Persia, even until the reign of Darius king of Persia." (Ezra 4:4-5)

Q3. (Ezra 4:1-3) Sometimes uncommitted people try to co-opt true worship for their own ends, as did the enemies of the Jews. What is the danger of letting people without a deep heart commitment and close walk with God redesign the church's image in the community? Redesign worship? Redesign the preaching? How can we be innovative and still be faithful to God's heart?

Let's skip down to verse 24 to see the conclusion. As a result of the constant harassment and discouragement of enemies putting barriers in their way, the sounds of workmen on the temple site eventually cease.[18]

"Thus the work on the house of God in Jerusalem came to a standstill[19] until the second year of the reign of Darius king of Persia." (Ezra 4:24)

Later Opposition under Xerxes and Artaxerxes (Ezra 4:6-24)

Now let's return briefly to the passage we skipped. Verses 6-23 are letters added here parenthetically, though they belong to a later period (486-459 BC). We'll discuss the content of these letters in Lesson 6, where they shed light on the historical period of Ezra and Nehemiah.

Tattenai's Letter to Darius (Ezra 5)

As you recall, the opposition of the steady opposition of the Samaritans and others, results in work stoppage on the temple site. God responds by raising up two prophets.

"1 Now Haggai the prophet and Zechariah the prophet, a descendant of Iddo, prophesied to the Jews in Judah and Jerusalem in the name of the God of Israel, who was over them. 2 Then Zerubbabel son of Shealtiel and Jeshua son of Jozadak set to work to rebuild the house of God in Jerusalem. And the prophets of God were with them, helping them." (Ezra 5:1-2)

As a result of prophetic urging, the rebuilding recommences. In Lesson 2 we'll explore Haggai's prophecy. In Lessons 3 and 4 we'll explore Zechariah's prophecies. We'll wait until then to fill in some of the details of how God reenergizes his people.

However, here we see the details of a bureaucratic attempt to frustrate the building of the temple.

"3 At that time Tattenai, governor of Trans-Euphrates, and Shethar-Bozenai and their associates went to them and asked, 'Who authorized you to rebuild this temple and restore this structure?' 4 They also asked, 'What are the names of the men constructing this building?'" (Ezra 5:3-4)

This time, the opposition comes not from local enemies (though they probably instigated this official investigation). Tattenai is the current satrap, the governor of the satrapy of Abar-Nahara ("Beyond the River"). He is the highest Persian authority in the whole region, and his authority extends over the province of Judah (Yehud).

When you read his letter, the satrap doesn't sound like an enemy, per se, but a bureaucrat who is trying to cover himself. He has received a complaint and feels it necessary to conduct an official investigation.

Notice that in his report to King Darius, he includes the Jews' testimony. They tell of "the God of heaven and earth." They also recount their sins, God's judgment, and then his gracious faithfulness (Ezra 5:11-16). Tattenai dutifully records the Jews' answers to his questioning, and then asks for a records search.

"Now if it pleases the king, let a search be made in the royal archives of Babylon to see if King Cyrus did in fact issue a decree to rebuild this house of God in Jerusalem. Then let the king send us his decision in this matter." (Ezra 5:17)

Tattenai is the consummate bureaucrat. He is unwilling to make the decision Jerusalem's enemies are pressing him to make. Rather he passes the decision up the hierarchy to the king's court for a determination.

But notice God's protection, even during this time of opposition.

"The eye of their God was watching over the elders of the Jews, and they were not stopped until a report could go to Darius and his written reply be received." (Ezra 5:5)

What a praise! Followers of God often must work and minister under threats and pressure. But God is faithful. The bureaucrat refused to stop work until he got word from his superiors! Sometimes even bureaucracy can further God's work.

The Decree of Darius (Ezra 6:1-12)

And so the wheels of government grind on, taking many months, perhaps years. But finally they find Cyrus's original decree among the government archives.

Notice the reminder, "Let the cost be paid from the royal treasury" (Ezra 6:4). This probably doesn't please Tattenai, the satrap, since the money will have to come out of his accounts. But the proclamation of Darius is clear and explicit. He acknowledges Cyrus's decree and reissues it under his own authority.

  1. The Jewish governor has authority to rebuild the temple.
  2. The workmen are to be paid from the royal revenue.
  3. They are to be given animals for sacrifice.
  4. Anyone who opposes the edict is cursed.
  5. Darius, the current king commands, "Let it be done with all diligence" (Ezra 6:12).

What had begun as a serious threat to building the temple has now become an answer from God -- full authority and full funding! Praise the Lord! Tattenai and his court carry out the orders with no further foot-dragging. The temple now has official government sanction and funding.

Completion and Dedication of the Temple (Ezra 6:13-18)

And so the temple is completed.

"14 So the elders of the Jews continued to build and prosper under the preaching of Haggai the prophet and Zechariah, a descendant of Iddo.... The temple was completed on the third day of the month Adar, in the sixth year of the reign of King Darius." (Ezra 6:14, 15)

The completion can be rather precisely dated to March 515 BC.

Q4. (Ezra 6:1-12) When faced with "insurmountable odds," why do we give up so easily? What are the characteristics of a disciple who retains a robust faith in the God of amazing breakthroughs and impossible solutions?

The Passover (Ezra 6:19, 22)

Passover is the celebration of God's deliverance of the Israelites from slavery in Egypt. Each household sacrifices a lamb, daubs the blood over their door so that the angel of the Lord would "pass over" them, and then eats a festive meal together (Exodus 12). The Feast of Unleavened Bread begins the next day and lasts seven days, celebrating the haste with which the Israelites left Egypt, without time enough for their bread to rise (Exodus 13).

"19 On the fourteenth day of the first month, the exiles celebrated the Passover....
22 For seven days they celebrated with joy the Feast of Unleavened Bread, because the LORD had filled them with joy by changing the attitude[20] of the king of Assyria,[21] so that he assisted them in the work on the house of God, the God of Israel." (Ezra 6:19, 22)

Purification and Separation (Ezra 6:20-21)

There's a clear emphasis on purification[22] and separation that precedes celebration of the Passover.

"20 The priests and Levites had purified themselves and were all ceremonially clean.... 21 So the Israelites who had returned from the exile ate it, together with all who had separated themselves from the unclean practices of their Gentile neighbors in order to seek the LORD, the God of Israel." (Ezra 6:20-21)

Ezra's Passover involves repentance from sin -- and inward action rather than just outward purity. The "Israelites who return from the exile" eat the Passover, but they are joined by people living in the land who have converted to faith in Yahweh, "the God of Israel." These converts "separated themselves from the unclean practices of their Gentile neighbors in order to seek Yahweh."

The pagans in the land would practice idol worship, eat foods forbidden to the Jews, and engage in sexual immorality. Those who want to "seek Yahweh" repent of the immorality of their culture and separate themselves from its sins. Jewish exclusivism in Ezra and Nehemiah may seem offensive to us until we realize that theirs is not a closed society, but one which a Gentile can join as a proselyte through faith and repentance.

There are lessons for us today. A lot of Christians are merely believers in a religious position. They might gather to worship, but do they -- do you -- come to "seek the Lord"? To know him? To love him? To find his way for your life? To surrender your heart afresh to him? We Christians are instructed to prepare our hearts prior to taking the Lord's Supper, a continuation of the Passover tradition. Paul tells us,

"A person ought to examine himself before he eats of the bread and drinks of the cup." (1 Corinthians 11:28)

For believers, this is not outward purification, but a time of reflection before God, a confession of sin, and a repentance from the areas of our lives that reflect "the unclean practices of our Gentile neighbors."

"If we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus, his Son, purifies us from all sin.... If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness." (1 John 1:7, 9)

Q5. (Ezra 6:20-21) What do repentance and separation from the sins of our culture look like for a disciple today? How should we prepare ourselves to worship Jesus in the Lord's Supper? How should we prepare to serve him with purity day by day?

Lessons for Disciples

Ezra 1-6 provides a number of lessons for disciples to ponder.

  1. God can raise up rulers, even non-Christian rulers, and then "stir their spirit" to carry out his plans. Cyrus was one of these God had chosen long before (Isaiah 45:13; 2 Chronicles 36:22-23; Ezra 1:1). We need to pray for our civil leaders (1 Timothy 2:1-4).
  2. The many Jews who remained in Babylon symbolize perhaps a tendency in us to become too comfortable to radically serve God any longer. We must never become too comfortable, or too tired, or too complacent to follow Jesus wherever he leads us, at whatever personal cost may be required.
  3. Rebuilding the altar and laying again the foundation (Ezra 3) speak of a strong desire on the part of the Israelites to restore worship to what it should be. Is your personal worship what it should be? What foundations do you need to lay again in your personal restoration and revival of faith?
  4. Whenever you seek to do Kingdom work, you can expect opposition from enemies, who are ultimately motivated and energized by Satan (Ezra 4). Sometimes we experience temporary setbacks in our spiritual warfare. This shouldn't surprise us.
  5. Sometimes uncommitted people try to co-opt true worship for their own ends, as did the enemies of the Jews (Ezra 4:1-3) There is a desire for us to make church "attractive" to our community and accessible to seekers. This can be good. However, what can happen is that "the show" and "feel-good" preaching, replace authentic worship and careful teaching of the Word. If we allow the uncommitted to "build with us," it may not result in something that is God-centered any longer.

  6. Available in paperback, PDF,  Kindle formats
    God uses gifted men and women to stir up his people and call them to return to the central tasks of our faith, as God used the prophets Haggai and Zechariah to energize the people to complete the temple (Ezra 5:1-2)
  7. We should not give up when times are hard. God is well-able to bring amazing break-throughs, such as Darius's reinforcement of Cyrus's original decree, resulting in full funding and renewed energy to complete the task of rebuilding God's house (Ezra 6:1-12).
  8. God calls us to repentance and separation from the sins of our culture (Ezra 6:20-21), both to prepare ourselves to worship him in the Lord's Supper, and to serve him with purity day by day.


Father, put in us the kind of faith-pioneer spirit that those who returned from exile possessed. Help us to remain separate from the sins of our culture that would compromise our integrity. Help us not to give up when the going gets hard, but to continue to believe in the paradigm-changing power of the Almighty God, our Father. In Jesus' name, we pray. Amen.

Key Verses

"Anyone of his people among you -- may his God be with him, and let him go up to Jerusalem in Judah and build the temple of the LORD, the God of Israel, the God who is in Jerusalem." (Ezra 1:3)

"Then the peoples around them set out to discourage the people of Judah and make them afraid to go on building." (Ezra 4:4)

"Now Haggai the prophet and Zechariah the prophet, a descendant of Iddo, prophesied to the Jews in Judah and Jerusalem in the name of the God of Israel, who was over them. Then Zerubbabel son of Shealtiel and Jeshua son of Jozadak set to work to rebuild the house of God in Jerusalem. And the prophets of God were with them, helping them." (Ezra 5:1-2)

"So the elders of the Jews continued to build and prosper under the preaching of Haggai the prophet and Zechariah, a descendant of Iddo. They finished building the temple according to the command of the God of Israel and the decrees of Cyrus, Darius and Artaxerxes, kings of Persia. The temple was completed on the third day of the month Adar, in the sixth year of the reign of King Darius." (Ezra 6:14-15)


[2] Ezekiel 1:1,3; 3:15, 23; 10:15, 20; and 43:3.

[3] W. Ewing, "Chebar," ISBE 1:638. The Arabs refer to it as Shaṭṭ en Nî.

[4] See Ezra 2:59; Nehemiah 7:62.

[5] "Moved" (NIV), "stirred up" (NRSV, ESV, KJV) is ʿûr, "rouse oneself, awake, incite" (TWOT #1587).

[6] Nāśîʾ, "prince, captain, leader, chief, ruler" (TWOT #1421b).

[7] Some identify Sheshbazzar as Shenazzar (1 Chronicles 3:18), which would make him a son of Jehoiachin, and uncle of Zerubbabel, who emerges as a more prominent leader of this period. R.L. Pratt, Jr., "Sheshbazzar," ISBE 4:475. Fensham sees this identification as "not acceptable" (Ezra and Nehemiah, p. 46). See also a discussion of the issues in Kidner, Ezra and Nehemiah, Appendix 2.

[8] Ezra 4:10, 11, 17, 20; 5:3, 6; 6:6, 8, 13; 7:21, 25; 8:36; Nehemiah 2:7; 3:7.

[9] According to Numbers 3:10; 16:40, only the descendants of Aaron should serve at the altar. Presumably, the Urim and Thummim had been lost at the destruction of the temple, or the current high priest has no practice in using them to determine God's will. Scripture doesn't mention the use of the Urim and Thummim after the exile.

[10] A Jewish community on the island of Elephantine, on the Upper Nile opposite Aswan (6th through 4th centuries BC) built a temple where sacrifices were offered. It was destroyed by Egyptian insurgents in 410 BC. Apparently worship there was polytheistic (R.K. Harrison, "Elephantine Papyri," ISBE 2:61).

[11] The tabernacle and temple had seen various altars over time, from the portable bronze altar that accompanied the tabernacle, to the simple altar David built on the threshing floor of Arunah (2 Samuel 24:18-25). We don't have a description of the original altar in Solomon's temple, except that it was bronze (1 Kings 8:64; 2 Kings 16:14). For a while it was supplanted with a copy of a pagan altar from Damascus (2 Kings 16:10-15).

[12] They apparently follow instructions in Deuteronomy 27:5-7, which directs construction of the altar built by Joshua at Mount Ebal (Joshua 8:30-31).

[13] "Building" (NIV), "work" (NRSV, ESV, KJV) at the end of verse 8 is melāʾkâ, "work, business." It can refer either to the activity of working, the requisite skills of work, or to the results of work. In contrast to terms like ʿāmal and yāgaʿ which emphasized the toilsome, laborious side of work, this term emphasized work as involving skill and benefits (Andrew Bowling, TWOT #1068b).

[14] "Foundation" in verses 6, 10, 11, and 12 is not a noun, but a verb, the Pual stem of yāsad, "to found, to fix firmly," from which the major nominal meanings derive, i.e. "foundation," especially of a building (TWOT #875). Sometimes the word is probably used more generally, as here, in the sense of "to build." Joyce Baldwin (Haggai, Zechariah, Malachi, pp. 52-53) notes that "the Hebrew employs no noun corresponding to the English 'foundations.' Two sentences in which the Chronicler uses this verb are particularly instructive: 'Now concerning ... the rebuilding of the house of God...' (2 Chronicles 24:27, RF), and, speaking of the collection of tithes, 'In the third month they began to lay the foundation of the heaps' (2 Chronicles 31:7, RF), or 'they began to pile up the heaps' (RSV). These examples show that the word 'foundation' is not essential; in fact it has been a very misleading translation. In both sentences quoted, yasad could have been adequately translated by the simple verb 'build'."

[15] The new structure is less grand than Solomon's, which had been built when the nation was rich and powerful. Many who had seen Solomon's temple weep when they see the foundation of its replacement (Ezra 3:12). The large facade at the front of the Second Temple seems different from the design of Solomon's Temple. The Second Temple is 60 cubits high and 60 cubits wide (Ezra 6:3). A cubit was the length of a man's forearm, from the elbow to the finger tips, typically about 18 inches (0.5 meter) So the size is 90 feet (27 meters) high and wide. The weight of that stone edifice is tremendous, so the foundation stones underlying that area must be sound and strong. It is quite possible that entirely new foundations are needed to bear the weight of the differently-positioned walls of the Second Temple.

[16] Holladay, Hebrew Lexicon, p. 305.

[17] The province of Judah (Yehud) is in the satrapy Abar-Nahara ("Beyond the River"). Yehud had been formed by the Babylonians to replace the Kingdom of Judah after the fall of Jerusalem, with an appointed governor over it. However, rebels assassinated the governor and then fled with the remaining people to Egypt (2 Kings 25:22-26; Jeremiah 40-41). So the Babylonian Province of Judah was really only a province on paper until the new Persian king Cyrus appointed Sheshbazzar, and later Zerubbabel, governor of Judah (Ezra 1:8, 11). As we'll see, the enemies included governors of other Persian provinces in the area.

[18] Work on the temple began shortly after 537 BC following Cyrus's decree, and then lagged for perhaps a decade or more. It didn't resume until about 520 BC, the second year of Darius, the new Persian emperor. Some of the details of restarting the project are found in Ezra 5 and 6, as well as Haggai and Zechariah.

[19] "Came to a standstill" (NIV), "stopped and was discontinued" (NRSV), "stopped and it ceased" (ESV), "ceased ... ceased"(KJV) indicate the use of the Aramaic verb beṭal ("stop, be discontinued") twice (Holladay, Hebrew Lexicon, p. 399).

[20] "Changing the attitude" (NIV) is literally, "turned the heart" (NRSV, ESV, KJV).

[21] The reference to "the king of Assyria" is unexpected. The Persians, not the Assyrians, are the current rulers. Perhaps the reference is designed to remind the reader of the traditional oppressor (see Nehemiah 9:32). Of course, the reference points to Cyrus who issued a decree to return, and then the current king Darius, who has recently dramatically underscored the Persian policy to subsidize the temple at Jerusalem.

[22] Purification of oneself for the Passover continues to Jesus' day (John 11:55). Purification is largely through outward acts. In Jesus' day this involves ceremonial baths, purging the house of any leaven, and avoidance of contact with anything (or anyone) ritually unclean.

Copyright © 2024, Ralph F. Wilson. <pastor@joyfulheart.com> All rights reserved. A single copy of this article is free. Do not put this on a website. See legal, copyright, and reprint information.

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