We are going to begin a study of some of the concepts in the book of Ezra (help or helper). Again, it will not be an exhaustive study but we will point out some of the concepts that will help us understand the book better. Ezra contains a lot of history between the years 539 B.C. when Cyrus the Persian conquered Babylon, and 457 B.C. when Ezra came to Jerusalem to teach the people. Again, note the direct quote from 2 Chr 36.22-23 in Ezra 1.1-3. That’s because many believe that Ezra wrote Chronicles. He is a witness to the rampant intermarriage and the failure of that generation to fully live out what God wanted for the Temple and its symbolism.
We know that God has raised up Cyrus (Koresh meaning “farsighted” in Persian) to allow the Jewish people to return from exile in Babylon to rebuild the Beit Ha Mikdash (House of Kedusha), otherwise known as the Temple, according to the prophecy of Jeremiah (Jer 25.12). Cyrus believed that he was given the command to build the Temple by Yehovah, either being told to do it directly, or through Daniel who showed him the prophecies in Isaiah. However, many Jews did not want to leave the comforts of Babylon to be pioneers in a land very few were familiar with. The older generation had died off and the younger generation had no experience in the land. They did not want to leave a prosperous business or whatever in Babylon for a desolate, poverty stricken land surrounded by enemies. This who did come back put God first but allowed their enemies to stop the rebuilding of the Temple. The Temple will never return in status to be the symbolic platform for God’s glory (kivod) in the world as it was before, as seen in Hag 1.6-9.
After 16 years, a revival was sparked through the teaching of Haggai and Zechariah, and the Temple was completed (Ezra 5.1 through 6.22). In 457 B.C. Ezra comes (7.1-10) and he he is sent by the Persian king to teach and enforce Jewish law (Torah) and he is a priest, and teaching the Torah is his calling (Ezek 44.23). He brought a new generation of exiles back without an escort and he was faced with the problem of mixed marriages between Jews and pagans. After praying, he was able to take the people with him through an examination of this scandal and caused them to make a new covenant with Yehovah (10.44). This book will show us how Yehovah will use heathen rulers to do his will and it gives encouragement and a warning.
Ezra is seen as a second Moses, and he has the spirit of Moses (Exo 18.13-16; Ezra 7.10). Just as Israel has sunk into idolatry in Egypt, the people have sunk into idolatry causing the exile. The people needed a second Moses to teach them the Torah and the ways of God. Ezra will receive some opposition from the other priests who were also the teachers of the people. This dissension will evolve eventually into the teachers and the sages becoming “Pharisees” and the priests becoming “Sadducees” over time. Keep that concept in mind.
Ezra will pick up where he left off in Chronicles and he will write about events that happened before he came himself in the second aliyah (return). Eschatologically, what we see in this book is that it will happen again when Messiah comes. It will also confirm the fulfillment of prophecy concerning the return of the exiles, the rebuilding of the Temple and an account of the 70 years.
In Ezra 1.1-11 we have the book beginning with the first word “And” and in Hebrew that is signified by the Hebrew letter “Vav” (in some English Bibles it may have “Now”). This links Ezra with Chronicles, and Ezra 1.2-3 actually quotes the last two verses in Second Chronicles. Israel is no longer a kingdom but a province of Persia. It does not have a king but a governor. The king’s palace was on the Temple Mount and when they rebuild the Temple they will not build a palace, so everything has changed.
The people wanted to put up defensive positions when they returned because there were bandits everywhere in the area (Ezra 8.21-24). God had the heart of Cyrus in his hands (Prov 21.1) and he made a decree to allow the Jews to return to Jerusalem to rebuild the Temple, as we all know. Some say Daniel was instrumental in stirring up the prophecy in Isa 44.28 and 45.1-25 where it actually mentions the name of Cyrus 200 years before he was born.
So, the decree is written and the people are allowed to return and rebuild the Temple. There is no doubt that Cyrus was moved when he read his name in the book of Isaiah. But this action was also the general policy of the Persians. They liked diversity and integration into their administration system, but they also let the people have their own customs and beliefs. They were encouraged to seek the welfare of the king while engaged in their religious practices. However, a majority of the people declined to return. Those who did return knew they were doing a valuable work. But Yehovah said in Isa 10.22 that only a remnant would return from the exile anyway.
After the deportations, only the poor, the farmers and vine-growers were left in the land (2 Kings 25.12; Jer 39.10, 40.7, 52.16). They lived in the vacated areas (Jer 6.12). Refugees will eventually come back (Jer 40.11-12) and for 50 years those left behind lived in a dangerous position under Babylon (Lam 5.2-5). They were not treated very well and were used as slaves (Lam 11.13).
God had stirred up the spirits of the returnees and they were a dedicated group like the American pioneers in the 1800’s. There is a difference between having to be convinced to go and being moved by the Ruach Ha Kodesh to go. The journey was long and they were low on resources. They spread out over the land and had many enemies. The land was actually in the possession of another kingdom now.
But one good thing happened as a result of the Babylonian deportations . They did not replace the Jews with pagan peoples in the land like the Assyrians did. Judah was devastated but not defiled with pagan gods like Israel to the north was. Cyrus allowed the Temple treasures to be returned, but, there are some glaring omissions from the list given in Ezra 1.7-11. There is not mention of the Mizbeach Shell Zahav (Golden Altar of Incense), the Shulchan Ha Lechem Ha Pannim (Table of the Bread of the Faces), the Mizbeach Ha Gadol (Great Altar), the Menorah or the Aron Kodesh (Holy Ark). Some believe that these are lost to history, but we don’t think so.
We believe they may be hidden on the Temple Mount in a place prepared by Solomon. In the Mishnah, Shekalim 6.1-2 it says that the priests made a prostration apposite the wood-store. There was belief that came from their forefathers that the Ark was hidden there The Mishanh in Shekalim 6.1-2 also tells us about a priest who saw a block of pavement there that was different from the others. He told an associate, but before they could return to check it out he died. So they believed that the Ark was truly hidden there.
So, the question is asked, “Why wasn’t the Ark brought out in the Second Temple Period?” The Second Temple may have been below the kedusha of the First Temple. The First Temple was built for all of Israel. The northern kingdom was carried away into captivity. Even though the southern kingdom was allowed to return, they did not all return. The Temple was a “zekor” (remembrance) of the glory of what had been, and what is promised to be in the future. It is an example of the concept, “Here now, but not yet.”
Several times we have mentioned a concept called “kedusha.” When an object, place or a person has a kedusha (holiness), it cannot go “down or backwards” in kedusha. For example, when Antiochus Epiphanes IV was defeated by the Maccabees he had already defiled the altar in the Temple. When they decided to build another altar, they tore down the altar stones but they did not know what to do with them. The leaders were priests and they knew the concept of kedusha, so they knew you couldn’t just throw them away. So, they kept the stones in an area that had the same level of kedusha, and that was in the northwest chamber of the Temple called the Beit Ha Moked (Middot 1.6) meaning “Chamber of the Hearth.” It was the dormitory for the priests when they stayed there for their week of service in the Temple.
Its the same concept with the Ark and these other pieces of furniture. We believe they are hidden on the Temple Mount and they never left the sanctified (holy) area because of kedusha. In another example, when the bread was exchanged every Sabbath for the Shulchan Lechem ha Pannim (Table of the Bread of the Faces), it was brought to the sanctuary placed on a silver table to the right of the entrance into the Sanctuary. Then it was placed on the Shulchan Lechem ha Pannim (golden table) for one week. The old bread was taken off the Shulchan Lechem ha Pannim and placed on a golden table to the right of the entrance as you were leaving the sanctuary. It was on a golden table and when it was taken off it was placed on a golden table because it cannot diminish in kedusha.
The list of what was given back numbered 5,400 in total, and this is what was taken to Babylon (2 Chr 36.18). They were brought back by Sheshbazzar, the prince of Judah, who was a trusted leader Ezra 1.8,11). Some have said he was working with Zerubbabel (Ezra 2.2, 3.2) and others believe that this is a name for Zerubbabel. The fact is, nobody knows for sure. He is last mentioned in Ezra 5.16 where it says that he laid the foundation of the Temple. These were valuable items and Cyrus was very generous in giving these back. They were very expensive and could have helped in his own administrative finances. Some have said that these items were contaminated by idolatry in Babylon and that the Jewish people had lost all claim to them, but Ezra 1.11 despoils all such claims.
The people were coming back to rebuild the Temple before there are walls in Jerusalem (Neh 1.1-3). So we know that the situation was hard and dangerous. Another problem that developed was there were no crops. The people were starving. This is the situation that Ezra is dealing with, along with trying to build the Temple.
The Temple will be different that the First Temple in other way, too. There was no divine fire on the altar, Shekinah, Ruach Ha Kodesh or Urim v’ Thummim. The Urim v’ Thummim is prophesied to return in Neh 7.61-65. When Ezra comes back Judaism will also change. There is no king and the Temple is different for all of the above reasons. There is no palace for the king so that will change how the people approach the inner courts. The nature of the outer courts will change also.
Without a king there is no central authority figure. Yes, they had Yehovah but his earthly representative is the king, and we will have another major difference. Until Ezra, everybody was on the same page. Their allegiance to Yehovah depended on how good a king they had, or how bad. But there were no troublesome minorities within the majority. This will develop, however, after Ezra. We will have the Sadducees, Pharisees, Boethucians, Essenes, Traditional Jews and Hellenistic Jews, and all the various other groups that developed like the Babylonian Jews, Alexandrian Jews, the Asia Minor Jews, the Zealots and the Sicarii to name a few. This is a major change from what existed before.
The major problem in the First Temple period was idolatry and the people were enticed by it. We won’t have that problem in the Second Temple period. The people that returned learned their lesson and they passed that on to their children, but other problems developed like all the religious faction, sects or “denominations.” They also took measures to protect themselves in keeping the commandments. Ezra will institute certain customs. Whereas the First Temple period disregarded the Torah commands, after Ezra, they went the other way and built a fence of “customs” around the Torah in order to make sure the people didn’t transgress the Torah. The people “perished” in the First Temple Period because of the lack of “the knowledge” (“ha da’at” in the Hebrew of Hos 4.6) of the Torah and they did not want to make that mistake again. As a result, this attitude will develop into what we encounter in the Gospels and Epistles with all the different groups having contention with one another on how to walk (halakah) in the Torah.
Ezra comes back and he is a priest who will teach his people and fix that problem. The emphasis during the Second Temple period will be in educating the people in the Torah. Modern Jewish emphasis on education in the Tanak is molded after Ezra. But, that is not to say that there was no spiritual life among the exiles, too. Ezekiel has a “home Bible study” in Ezek 8.1. With no Temple, the emphasis was on meeting on the Sabbath, prayer, fasting, teaching and study. That is why Ezra is called the “second Moses.”
We will pick up here in Ezra 2.1-70.