Studies in Ezra 1

Ezra was a descendant of Hilkiah, the high priest who found a copy of the law during King Josiah’s reign. (See Ezra 7:1 and 2 Chronicles 34:4) Ezra could not serve as a priest during the captivity because there had not been a temple since the exile, but he studied the Word of God and became “a skilled scribe in the law of Moses.” (Ezra 7:6) Ezra was also a great revivalist and reformer; in fact, revival among the returned exiles was initiated as Ezra read the Word of God. (See Nehemiah 8)

There is evidence to support the fact that Ezra likely wrote 1 and 2 Chronicles as well as Psalm 119. A great lesson learned from the book of Ezra is that revival often begins with a revival in the study of the Scriptures. The Word of the Lord is mentioned ten times in Ezra, and the people show extremely strong reactions upon hearing the Word of the Lord and remembering the Lord’s deliverance. (See Ezra 9:4-10:3) Ezra reports: “everyone who trembled at the words of the God of Israel assembled to me, because of the transgression of those who had been carried away captive, and I sat astonished until the evening sacrifice.” (Ezra 9:4) The prophetical books of Haggai and Zechariah are helpful to read in conjunction with Ezra since these prophets were among those Jews who were allowed to return from their exile to rebuild the temple in the late sixth century B.C. (See Ezra 6:14) Esther also records the situation of the Jews in the Persian Empire immediately preceding Ezra and Nehemiah’s ministries to the exiles upon returning to their land. (See Esther 1:1-9 and Ezra 1)

There are two major divisions in the book of Ezra, with chapters 1-6 recording the first wave of fifty thousand immigrants under Zerubbabel’s leadership returning to the their land, and chapters 7-10 covering the story of the two thousand exiles that returned to their land with Ezra a half a century later. First, in chapter 1, we notice that Ezra immediately puts an emphasis on “the Word of the Lord.” (Ezra 1:1) King Cyrus of Persia is introduced as being the king in the first year of his reign. We can imagine that God probably stirred the king’s spirit, possibly through the ministry of Daniel. (See Daniel 6:28 and 10:1)

King Cyrus was the most powerful ruler of his day. Yet in Isaiah 44:28 the prophet reports the Lord as saying, “…Cyrus, ‘He is my shepherd, and he shall perform all my pleasure, saying to Jerusalem, “You shall be built,” and to the temple, “Your foundation shall be laid.” It is clear from these words and through the events we see in Daniel and Ezra that the Lord used Cyrus as His instrument to accomplish His purposes. Daniel was the prime minister in the court of Cyrus and no doubt instructed Cyrus in God’s Word, and it was during Cyrus’ reign that Daniel gave some of his greatest prophecies, including the seventy weeks prophecy concerning Israel. (See Daniel 9)

In Ezra 1:2 we see that in King Cyrus’ decree he uses the phrase, “The Lord God of heaven.” The use of this phrase is particular to the writing in Ezra, Nehemiah and Daniel, and is not mentioned prior to these books. When Nebuchadnezzar captured Jerusalem and destroyed the city and the temple in 586 B.C., God removed his presence from between the Cherubim. Notice how Ezekiel describes this through a metaphor in Ezekiel 10 and 11 of his writings. He says, “Then the glory of the Lord departed from the threshold of the temple and stood over the cherubim.” (Ezekiel 10:18) This recalls another experience in 1 Samuel when the ark was captured and Phinehas’ daughter-in-law gives birth in distress upon learning of these tragedies. She names her baby “Ichabod,” meaning “the glory has departed from Israel.” (See 1 Samuel 4:19-22) In Ezekiel, predicting judgment on Israel through the Babylonian destruction and captivity, the Shekinah glory lifts from the temple and pauses to see the reaction of an idolatrous nation, yet there is none. It goes over the city and passes again, but the people do not respond. Then, the Shekinah glory lifts to the top of the Mount of Olives and waits again, yet there is no concern expressed by Israel, so the glory is caught up into heaven and is not seen again. For this reason, the post-captivity books like Ezra and Nehemiah refer to God as “The Lord God of Heaven” since the glory of the Lord had departed and gone up to Him during this time. Many years later, however, we know that there walked into the rebuilt temple a holy one who cleansed it. God returned in His Son, Jesus Christ; however, the Shekinah glory was not visible, it was hidden behind His human flesh. Those privileged disciples on the Mount of Transfiguration saw his unveiled glory. (See Matthew 17:1-13) Yet men despised, rejected, and ultimately crucified him. Despite all of this, Matthew’s gospel continually affirms the Lord Jesus’ kingship. He presents Jesus as one who was born as a king, lived like a king, performed miracles like a king, taught as a king, was arrested as a king, tried as a king, died as a king, buried as a king, rose as a king and returned to heaven as a king. He is indeed coming soon as the King of kings and Lord of lords. He is “The Lord God of heaven” just as Ezra identifies Him.

When the Shekinah glory was removed from the earth, God gave his people into the hands of the Gentiles, ushering in “The Times of the Gentiles.” This era will remain until the Lord returns forever, when Jerusalem will then become the city of the great king. We read in Ezra 1:2 that God later commands Cyrus to “build him a house in Jerusalem.” Next, Cyrus indeed grants permission to the exiles to return to Jerusalem, and asks that those who choose to stay in Babylon will help those who return. (See Ezra 1:3-4) Unfortunately, it appears from Ezra 1:5-6 that the response to return was disappointing, because many who had settled down in Babylon had been enjoying the affluence of a prosperous society. Why did they not go? We can conjecture that these people were probably the Jews who nearly lost their lives during the events instigated by Haman that are recorded in the book of Esther. (See Esther 3) So in Cyrus’ command to help those Jews who decide to give up their lives in Babylon to go back to the Lord’s given land, the principle involved here is similar to supporting the Lord’s work and His mission involving the people of Israel. This is comparable to warfare, where it is estimated that for every solider on the front lines it takes ten support troops to bring supplies. The supporting work for those who are to return to the land is just as important as those who would go back.

Lastly, let us examine the Lord’s use of Cyrus to preserve not only the people of Israel, but also the temple of the Jews. In Ezra 1:7, Cyrus hands the temple’s vessels and dedicated items over to the prince of Judah, Sheshbazzar, restoring these items to their rightful owners, the Jews. Nebuchadnezzar had captured these sacred temple ornaments from the fall of the Judah when Babylon destroys Judah, and then his son Belshazzar desecrates these vessels in drunkenness in his own palace in Babylon, drawing God’s judgment through the writing on the wall. (See Daniel 5) In Ezra 1:9-11, we can understand that these temple vessels represent tremendous wealth and importance for the people of Israel and the restoration of them as a holy people, consecrated to God.