It’s 539 BC. The prior four centuries have been all downhill for Israel. After David and Solomon, the nation had split into two kingdoms. One kingdom – ten of the twelve tribes – was eventually exterminated. The remaining two tribes were then conquered and exiled to Babylon … with Jerusalem and God’s grand temple razed to the ground. God has judged his people’s persistent sin; it seems he’s abandoned them forever.
So Ezra is full of optimism and delight as he narrates the surprising verdict of the newest conquering king. Cyrus invites the two surviving tribes (Judah and Benjamin, and some displaced Levites) to return to Jerusalem and rebuild its temple. Moreover, Cyrus relinquishes plundered temple equipment (Ezra 1) and allows myriad Israelites to return (Ezra 2). Successive overlords even defend these returnees against complaints from other nations who’ve moved in around Jerusalem, and they tax these foreign opponents to finance the rebuilding of God’s temple (Ezra 4–6)! Yes, God sometimes uses the foreign nations to punish wayward Israel. But he also uses them to start restoring his people. Phase 1 of Ezra-Nehemiah particularly celebrates the beginning (Ezra 3) and completion (Ezra 6) of the new temple in Jerusalem and the resumption of the full range of God-prescribed worship.
While God is everywhere, he chooses places to be especially present. We call these places ‘temples’. The Garden of Eden was like a temple, and Adam and Eve’s punishment for sin was banishment from the garden and God’s presence (Genesis 1–3). After God rescued Israel from slavery in Egypt, to dwell among them he instructed the building of a portable temple (the ‘tabernacle’, Exodus 25–40). When they settled in Canaan, they eventually constructed the first stone temple (1 Kings 5–8). Now after the exile in Babylon, they build the second Jerusalem temple (Ezra 1–6) – the same temple still standing for Jesus and the first Christian believers.
But that temple was razed by the Romans in AD 70. Where does God now especially meet his people? We’re foolish to think it’s still in specific buildings. After Jesus’ ascension and the widespread arrival of the Holy Spirit, God now dwells among Christian believers. We are God’s temple (Ephesians 2:19–22; 1 Peter 2:4–10), one now spreading around the globe. Potentially dull details in Ezra 1–6 mark an important stage in God’s long-held and often-surprising plans for world domination!