An understanding of the historical context often helps our understanding. It was a time of tribulation for both Jewish kingdoms. Israel, the northern kingdom had been conquered by the Assyrians 200 years before. Judah, the southern kingdom, was taken over by the Babylonians in 587 BC. Let’s focus on Judah’s situation.
The Babylonians took the population into exile, destroyed the temple in Jerusalem, took all the treasures and put them in Babylonian temples. The Davidic monarchy ceased to exist. All seemed lost. Around 538 BC there was a power shift. Cyrus the Persian took over the Babylonian empire.
In Ezra 4:17-25, the Persian officials complain to King Artaxerxes about the adverse impact on revenue that restoration of the temple in Jerusalem will have. There are complaints about the rebellious actions of the Jewish people. The king orders the rebuilding to stop.
In Ezra 5, Darius has become king. Haggai and Zechariah encourage the rebuilding to resume in the name of the God of Israel – v 5 “But the eye of their God was watching over the elders of the Jews, and they were not stopped until a report could go to Darius.” The officials’ letter had quite a different tone. The temple is now referred as the temple of the great God. Rapid progress is noted. The Jewish leaders’ response concerning permission to rebuild was included in the letter – an interesting change. They explained the temple was destroyed because they had angered their God. For me it shows the increasing confidence of the Jewish leaders. They are beginning to feel enabled by God to get on with the task.
The outcome: Darius gets the records checked (Ezra 6:3-5). He not only gives permission for the building to continue with diligence but orders funding and whatever else is needed by the priests to be made available. Verses 11-12 show the absolute support of Darius with his decree concerning the punishment for anyone who defies his decree. What a change from the first letters Ezra 4. The completion of the rebuilding, Ezra 6:13-16, and the celebrations “in accordance to the book of Moses” shows how far the Jewish people had come under the guidance of Haggai and Zechariah.
Ezra 7:1-10 records Ezra’s arrival from Babylon. Verse 6 tells us “The king granted him everything he asked, for the hand of the Lord his God was upon him.”
The people of Judah had come a long way. Through the guidance of the prophets, a conquered group of people who had lost just about everything, were able to rebuild the temple and retain their faith in God.
What have I learnt from these readings from Ezra?
Initially they seemed to be purely an exchange of official Empire correspondence, however, it has a very valuable lesson for us when we look behind the scenes at just what God was doing for His people.
As I reflect on recent events in my life I can see how God has not changed since the times of Ezra in His willingness and ability to care for His people.
I need to be patient and trust God to guide and enable me to do whatever He has planned for me, just as Haggai and Zechariah did, although, my journey pales in the light of their monumental task.