Ezra is one of the most beautiful books I’ve studied so far because it reveals God’s grace strengthening His people when they most needed it!
According to the command given through the prophet Jeremiah, God’s people were to make themselves comfortable in the foreign land where they were exiled:
Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they 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.
Then in 538 BC, after Persia had conquered Babylon, King Cyrus of Persia issued a decree, which released the Jews to go home and build the temple:
Thus says King Cyrus of Persia: The Lord, the God of heaven, has given me all the kingdoms of the earth, and he has charged me to build him a house at Jerusalem, which is in Judah. Whoever is among you of all his people, may the Lord his God be with him! Let him go up.
2 Chronicles 26:23
Then the Book of Ezra picks up where the story leaves off in 2 Chronicles.
Just a fun fact, the Book of Ezra is the first time I’ve seen the term “Jews” used. I’m not sure if it was around this time that God’s people were referred to by this nickname, but it comes from “Judah,” their hometown.
So after 70 years captivity, the Jews get the permission to return to Jerusalem. But they had just made themselves comfortable in a foreign land that was several hundred miles away from Jerusalem. Can you imagine packing up your life and walking for hundreds of miles from a home you might have grown up in to “start over” in a land of ruins? Jerusalem was completely destroyed. This would take a lot of faith – that to rebuild and restore was the better choice than to stay comfortable at home.
God knew that this would be hard for them, so He strengthened them and led them by His Spirit so that they would take courage and choose to begin the hard work of rebuilding:
The heads of the families of Judah and Benjamin, and the priests and the Levites—everyone whose spirit God had stirred—got ready to go up and rebuild the house of the Lord in Jerusalem.
…the journey up from Babylon was begun…for the gracious hand of his God was upon him [Ezra]…
God gave them everything they needed to accomplish their mission:
All their neighbors aided them with silver vessels, with gold, with goods, with animals, and with valuable gifts, besides all that was freely offered. King Cyrus himself brought out the vessels of the house of the Lord that Nebuchadnezzar had carried away from Jerusalem
Because the Jews decided to obey God and rely on His strength, the foundation of the temple was laid and there was great joy:
and they sang responsively, praising and giving thanks to the Lord,
For he is good,
for his steadfast love endures forever toward Israel.
And all the people responded with a great shout when they praised the Lord, because the foundation of the house of the Lord was laid.
Then, the foreigners of the land had wanted to join in on their worship, but because the returnees were commanded to keep separate, they had to put their foot down so as not to mix pagan religion in pure worship of God:
But Zerubbabel, Jeshua, and the rest of the heads of families in Israel said to them, ‘You shall have no part with us in building a house to our God; but we alone will build to the Lord, the God of Israel, as King Cyrus of Persia has commanded us.’
Then the people of the land discouraged the people of Judah, and made them afraid to build, and they bribed officials to frustrate their plan…
So although their obedience to God resulted in joy, it also came with great resistance and at times, disappointment. But they continued to listen to God, who ended up giving them the encouragement needed to keep going.
This was such a good lesson for me because whenever I decide to follow God in a particular area of my life, and things get hard, or when I’m afraid, or when I meet resistance along the way, it’s easy for me to make that a reason to compromise or not follow through.
But that’s why He’s given me His grace to rely on, just like He gave grace to the returnees. If I want to live the best life possible, it will always require that I rely on His grace. If the Jews wanted to see restoration, they were going to have to take courage and trust that God would give them everything they needed to rebuild and restore.
We also studied the Book of Esther this week. Although the text never mentions the name of God, His hand and sovereignty is clearly behind the events of the story. Miraculously, extreme favor is shown to Esther through the heathen King Xerxes of Persia, which leads to the total protection of God’s people still living in Persia (some Jews chose not to return to Jerusalem).
God seemed to be guiding Esther through her cousin Mordecai, who encouraged her to step up to King Ahasuerus (Xerxes) to prevent the destruction of their people:
For if you keep silence at such a time as this, relief and deliverance will rise for the Jews from another quarter, but you and your father’s family will perish. Who knows? Perhaps you have come to royal dignity for just such a time as this.
But Esther did face some cultural boundaries that, if followed, would have prevented her from ever approaching the king to influence him:
All the king’s servants and the people of the king’s provinces know that if any man or woman goes to the king inside the inner court without being called, there is but one law—all alike are to be put to death. Only if the king holds out the golden scepter to someone, may that person live. I myself have not been called to come in to the king for thirty days.
But God works above the cultural rules! He doesn’t need to follow the boundaries of society in order for His will to be accomplished, nor does he require anyone to honor these boundaries. Although He does ask for submission and respect for authority, if anything goes against His word, then His people were to obey His voice instead of the law, and He would do the rest.
Esther took courage in God and decided to face King Ahasuerus:
…I will go to the king, though it is against the law; and if I perish, I perish…
And though she broke the rules of society, God granted her favor:
The king said to her, “What is it, Queen Esther? What is your request? It shall be given you, even to the half of my kingdom.”
King Ahasuerus says this same line four times in the story! This emphasizes just how much favor Esther had. God was determined to show His people that He was still with them, though they decided not return, because He wanted to glorify Himself among the Persians, too.
And as a result of the miraculous favor Esther received, not only did the Jews defeat their enemies, but God was revered among the foreigners:
…many of the peoples of the country professed to be Jews, because the fear of the Jews had fallen upon them.
Esther showed me that there really is no excuse not to follow God’s voice. Though obedience might be hard and at times really scary, God will always supply the strength and favor needed to see us through. And the best part is the testimony that comes as a result of obedience, not just the accomplishment of the actual task!