Ezra 1–4:5. II Chronicles 36: 11–23.
Sequel. What Emerged From the Exile.
Key Notes: The shock of exile. The decree of Cyrus, king of Persia. Who came back. How they became "Jews".
II Kings leaves the story of Israel with Judah and Jerusalem in ruins. II Chronicles, on the other hand, ends with a new era and a new concept in Israel’s life. The end of Chronicles and the beginning of Ezra is a continuous narrative. What we see returning from the exile is something of a surprise. We would expect the returnees to be impoverished refugees.
This lesson recaps the end of the monarchy and carries the story on.
IIChron.36:11–16 Zedekiah, the last king of Judah, did not humble himself before Jeremiah, God’s premier prophet in residence, nor to Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon who made him swear an oath in God’s name. The leaders and people were also unfaithful and wicked. Jerusalem had a bad reputation among its neighbors—“a rebellious city, hurtful to kings and provinces, and that sedition was stirred up in it from of old.” (Ezra 4:15). God sent messengers whose words were despised, scoffed at and mocked. Finally God’s wrath was aroused and the end came.
36:17–21 The people were given into the hand of the Babylonians to do with them as they chose. Most were slaughtered. The survivors were dragged off to Babylon, some 400 miles away, to be servants or slaves of the Babylonians. The valuable metals were carried out. The combustibles were burned.
Comment: The sack of Jerusalem is a demonstration of the holiness of God. That is a side of God’s holiness that is hard to digest but it is a fact. “Therefore let us be grateful for a kingdom that cannot be shaken, and thus let us offer acceptable worship, with reverence and awe; for our God is a consuming fire.” (Heb.12:28)
The sack of Jerusalem would be a terrible shock to everyone. They could not accept Jeremiah’s command to give the city up to the Babylonians. They had reasons.
•Isaiah had said that Assyria would not take Jerusalem. God frustrated Sennacharib and Jerusalem survived. Assyria later collapsed.
•Nebuchadnezzar was frustrated by the Egyptians. He would not come against Jerusalem either.
•Jerusalem was the Holy City, where God put His name and where His presence could be seen.
*"This is the Temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord.” Jer.7:4
•God would not use the wicked to punish the "not-that-bad". Hab.1:13
But it happened. Then they saw Babylon and its hanging gardens, a huge and magnificent city that made Jerusalem look provincial. The Fertile Crescent along the great Tigris and Euphrates rivers. Great wealth and power. The gods of Babylon had triumphed. Or so some would be tempted to believe. But God knew who were His, and their faith was stayed on Him. Daniel and his friends are our models of enduring and confident faith.
36:21 Seventy years of desolation were decreed by Jeremiah. Until then the land would have its Sabbaths. A Sabbath of years was seven years.
“When seventy years are completed for Babylon, I will visit you, and I will fulfill to you my promise and bring you back to this place.” (Jer.29:10)
There was also a Sabbath every seven years for the agricultural lands to rest. Every seventh year the land should lie fallow so that the soil could be repleted. After corn is planted for six years, American farmers plan to sow clover to rejuvenate the soil. Every forty nine years, there would be a general amnesty and reshuffling of properties.
“Six years you shall sow your field…but in the seventh year there shall be a Sabbath of solemn rest for the land, a Sabbath to the Lord; you shall not sow your field or prune your vineyard.” (Lev.25:8–10)
“And you shall count seven weeks of years, seven times seven years…and you shall hallow the fiftieth years and proclaim liberty throughout the land to all its inhabitants; it shall be a Jubilee for you, when each of you shall return to his property….” (Lev.25:8–10)
For 70 years the land had a Sabbath. The 70 years can be measured from 606 (Nebuchadnezzar’s first attack) to 536BC (when Cyrus’decree was issued). It can also be measured from 586 (the sack of Jerusalem) to 516BC (the rebuilding of the Temple).
36:22–23 The beginning of the Sabbath of years was the work of Nebuchadnezzar. The end of the Sabbath was proclaimed, not by Judah’s high priest, or king, but by Cyrus, king of Persia. God stirred his spirit to make a decree that a house be built in Jerusalem and that people of Judah were free to go back. Isaiah prophesied that this pagan king would be his shepherd to bring Israel back. Isa.44:28; 45:1–6
Ezra1:1–1–8 Cyrus’s decree is repeated. Heads of houses, priests and Levites got up and went, supported by gifts of all kinds from local people, perhaps Babylonians as well as Judeans. Cyrus contributed the vessels from the Temple that Nebuchadnezzar had confiscated, and Belshazzar had defiled. (Dan.5). Sheshbezzar, prince of Judah and Methredath the treasurer were in charge of the treasure.
We do not know who Sheshbazzar was from this brief note; he was evidently not in the royal line that would be expected to assume the kingship.
Ezra2:1–70 The people who returned to Jerusalem could be divided into groups:
•those who were identified by their family name 2:3–19;
•those who remembered their Judean town 2:20–35;
•priests and levites, temple servants and the ancestors of Solomon’s servants 2:36–58;
•those who could not be found in the genealogies but believed themselves to be in the priestly line. 2:59–63
Between 14,000 and 25,000 went into exile. 47,366 returned, and they were not poor. There was a servant for every sixth man and as many pack-animals. Moreover, we understand that this was a census of men, and with women and children, there would be well over 150,000. This is not a stream of bedraggled refugees. They are well-identified, relatively wealthy, and ready to go to work. They had prospered in Babylon. We will observe that they did not stay wealthy on their return. They had to revive a dead economy. There would be poverty in the time of Nehemiah.
The priests and Levites occupied Jerusalem. The other people went to their towns. There would be much rebuilding to do to get a roof over one’s head, although this was summertime.
Ezra3:1–7 Their first ceremonial act was to rebuild the altar and offer sacrifices. Although this was the seventh month, the feast of booths (Succoth), and the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur) are not mentioned. But they gave money to craftsmen and materials for people to start laying the foundation.
Ezra3:8–8–13 Six months later they gathered for the laying of the foundation. Zerubbabel and Jeshua led the way. It was a time of praising and singing, mingled with the tears of those who remembered the first temple. Significantly, the noise could be heard a long way off.
Ezra4:1–4 The residents who had been left by Esarhaddon of Assyria were upset. They asked to be included in the building since they worshiped and sacrificed to God as the refugees did. Zerubbabel, Jeshua and the other leaders refused. “You have nothing to do with us….” The refugees were discouraged by threats and stopped working for about 20 years.
The exiles were now a minority, under foreign government. From now on they will have no final control over their own destiny.
Cyrus the Persian gave them permission to return.
Darius will give them legal assistance.
Caesar Augustus will tell Mary and Joseph where to have their Baby.
Pontius Pilate will have Jesus’ life in his hands.
Herod killed James. Nero will kill Peter. Another Caesar will exile John.
If they have no control over their destiny, does that mean that there is no control? Not at all. God stands behind the rulers, determining their destiny and the destiny of His servants.
The exiles had the Law, and they followed it diligently. They tried to maintain their worship and customs under pagan rule. Some of them would strive for legal righteousness and we call them Pharisees. Others were terrorists, (sicarrii), or politicians (Herodians) or aristocrats (Sadducees). For the next 2500 years they would be driven from place to place (“the wandering Jew”), contributing much to whatever society permitted them, but having no place to call Home. They had become Jews--people from Judah.
In many respects we Christians are like them. We are ”God’s own people” (I Pet.2:9), a minority, tolerated to various degrees but not in control, although we try. Like them, we may be easily discouraged and put down. Our efforts to co-opt government and bring in the political kingdom have failed in the past. We learn by the mistakes of Calvin in Geneva, the Anabaptists in Munster, the Catholic hierarchy in the French Revolution and the Orthodox in the Russian Revolution.
“For here we have here no continuing city, bit we seek the city which is to come.” (Heb.13:14)
At the same time we listen to Jeremiah’s advice.
“Seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.” “...build house and live in them and plant gardens and eat their produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there and do not decrease. “ (Jer.29:7, 28; 29:6).