The Book of Ezra
Rector’s Weekly Letter to the Congregation for Sunday, June 16, 2019
The Book of Ezra
The book of Ezra and that of Nehemiah were originally one book. They continue the story of Judah from where the books of Chronicles stopped. These two books are the primary source of information on life in Israel after the return from exile. The name Ezra means help.
The book of Ezra has 10 chapters and 280 verses. It tells the story from the accession to power of Cyrus II the Great of Persia who conquered Babylon in 539 BC. Cyrus is reported to have been a very magnanimous ruler who treated people with humaneness foreign to the times. He freed peoples exiled in the empire by previous kings. Ezra records the proclamation that Cyrus made in regard to the Jews permitting them to return to their land to rebuild the temple of God. The amazing fact is that 150 years before this proclamation, the prophet Isaiah prophesied about a Cyrus who would be anointed by God for the sake of Israel (Isaiah 45), the only foreign ruler to have been said to be anointed by God. The book of Ezra is divided into two parts: Chapters 1 – 6 describe the return of the first batch of returnees under Zerubbabel. This group immediately set on rebuilding the temple which was a mega task given that the land had lain mostly waste for 70 years. This time the Jews were determined to do things right. They were returning to first principles and were fixed on toeing them line by line.
But the people who were planted in the Northern Kingdom by the Assyrians after the exile of 722 BC, did not like the idea of the South rising again. That’s what rebuilding the temple would mean. So, the leaders of those people took steps to disrupt the work. First, they offered to help in the work perhaps with ulterior motives to sabotage from inside. Zerubbabel and other leaders declined the offer. Then they resorted to discouragement, threats, and bribing agents to work against the rebuilding of the temple.
King Cyrus died in 530 BC. The detractors of the Jews now wrote to the new king accusing the Jews of rebuilding the temple, adding that doing so is likely to cause the Jews to rebel against the king. The king wrote back concurring that indeed the work of rebuilding the temple should stop because the Jews were prone to insurrection. At the same time, the prophets Haggai and Zechariah prophesied at this time encouraging the people to build the temple. Because of all the bickering, the people had developed lethargy about the whole business of rebuilding the temple and instead diverted their focus to building their own houses. Perhaps the houses they built resembled the ones they had seen in the “developed” world of Babylon. With encouragement from the two prophets, the work on the temple started again. Again, the detractors wrote to the king of Persia, now Darius, accusing the Jews of resuming building the temple. They informed the king that the Jews claimed to have been allowed to do so by King Cyrus.
King Darius consulted official records and found it true that Cyrus had indeed allowed the Jews to return to Jerusalem to rebuild the temple. He ordered the writers of the letter not to interfere in the rebuilding of the temple anymore, but instead to actually pay the costs for the work.
Chapters 7 – 10 cover the ministry of Ezra who came to Jerusalem with the second batch of returnees. He was sent by King Artaxerxes with specific instructions to oversee the affairs of the Jews in Jerusalem, to appoint capable leaders, and to make sure God’s laws are obeyed by the people. Ezra was the right man for the times. He carried out with excellence the tasks allocated to him. He emphasized proper worship and purity, especially the purity of marriage.
Some questions that Ezra helps us to answer today:
What should we do when many turn their back on biblical teaching?
“Who among you is willing to take the long road of obedience to God?” That was the question asked by Cyrus of the Jews in Babylon. It was not easy to leave the comforts of Babylon to return to an uncertain situation in Jerusalem in obedience to God. It was easy to rationalize.
Can a minority be right? Only 42,360 Jews returned to Jerusalem. They were contending with the empire after the death of Cyrus. They said they were permitted to rebuild the temple. The empire said no, you were not permitted; stop the work. But when the right thing was done, that is, when records of history were consulted and interpreted correctly based on the obvious sense of the words used, the minority was found to be right and the majority wrong.
Starting anything requires for us first to build God’s temple firmly in our hearts so that God’s principles guide us in our endeavor: starting a business, a relationship, a church, a school, a nation, a program, etc…
Worship: The Ultimate Priority
by John MacArthur (2012:14 -17)
What the World Needs Now
. . . It seems incredible that so many people would treat objects like burnt tortillas, misshapen Cheetos, and rust stains as objects of veneration. But the sad truth is that such a distorted concept of worship is actually easier to find nowadays than authentic worship based on sound, biblical principles. Tragically, although the Bible is clear about how and whom and when we are to worship, little genuine worship takes place throughout most of the world today.
I have often thought that worship must be one of the most misunderstood doctrines in all the Scriptures. That is spiritually debilitating because worship is at the center of everything Scripture commands of us. In other words, if you are not a true worshiper, everything else in your life will be spiritually out of sync. Conversely, nothing will accelerate your spiritual growth and sanctification than gaining a right understanding of true worship.
WORSHIP IN THE BIBLE
The theme of worship dominates the Bible. In Genesis, we discover that the Fall came when Adam failed to worship God by obeying the one command God gave. In Revelation, we learn that all of history culminates in an eternal worshiping community in the presence of a loving God. From the beginning in Genesis, all the way through to the consummation in Revelation, the doctrine of worship is woven into the warp and woof of the biblical text.
Jesus quoted Deuteronomy 6:4 – 5 and called it the greatest commandment: “Listen, O Israel! The Lord our God is the one and only Lord. 30 And you must love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, all your mind, and all your strength (Mark 12:29 – 30 NLT). That is a call to worship, and by identifying it as the foremost of all God’s commandments, He was emphatically affirming worship as the universal priority.
Exodus 20 records the giving of the Ten Commandments. The very first of those commandments calls for and regulates worship. “I am the Lord your God, who rescued you from the land of Egypt, the place of your slavery. You must not have any other god but me. You must not make for yourself an idol of any kind or an image of anything in the heavens or on the earth or in the sea. 5 You must not bow down to them or worship them, for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God who will not tolerate your affection for any other gods [vv 2 – 5 NLT] In the Old Testament, worship covered all of life; it was supposed to be a continual preoccupation for the people of God. For example, the Tabernacle was designed and laid out to emphasize the priority of worship. The description of its details requires seven chapters—243 verses—in Leviticus. Yet only 31 verses in Genesis are devoted to the creation of the world.
The Tabernacle was designed only for worship. It was the place where God met His people. To use it for anything but worship would have been considered the grossest blasphemy. In the Tabernacle, there were no seats. The Israelites did go there to sit and be ministered to, and they certainly didn’t go there for entertainment. They went there to worship God and serve Him. If they had a meeting for any other purpose, they had it somewhere else.
The arrangement of the camp suggests that worship was central to all other activity. The Tabernacle was at the hub of the camp. Immediately next to it were the priests who led in the worship. A little further out from the Tabernacle were the Levites, who were involved in service. Beyond that were the various tribes, each one facing towards toward the center, the place of worship.
All the political, social, and religious activity in Israel revolved around the law. Critical to the law was the list of ceremonial offerings described in Leviticus 1 – 7, all of which were acts of worship. The first offering on the list is the burnt offering, which was unique because it was completely consumed—offered totally to God. No part was shared either by the priest or by the offeror, as in other offerings.
Thus, the burnt offering was the most significant illustration of worship. In fact, the altar on which all the offerings were given was known as the altar of the burnt offering. Whenever the offerings are referred to in Scripture, the burnt offering appears at the beginning of the list because when anyone comes to God he is to come first of all in an act of worship, where everything is given to God. That is how the law of God graphically reinforced worship as the supreme priority in the life of Israel.
Moses’ law spelled out exactly how the implements used in the worship services were to be made. For example, Exodus 30:34 – 36 gives a prescription for incense. Incense is symbolic of worship in the Scriptures because its fragrance rises into the air as true worship rises to God. Verses 37 – 38 sound a warning about the incense:
“Never use this formula to make this incense for yourselves. It is reserved for the Lord, and you must treat it as holy. Anyone who makes incense like this for personal use will be cut off from the community” [NLT].
In effect, God was saying, “Here is a recipe for special perfume, emblematic of worship. This perfume is to be unique and holy perfume. If anyone dares to make this perfume for himself, just to smell better, I will kill him.”
Clearly, there is something so unique, so holy about worship that it is set utterly apart from anything else in the human dimension. No one may take from God that which He has devised for His own glory.
But that perfume symbolizes something much more significant than any compound of inert ingredients; you and me. Our lives are to be like that perfume—holy, acceptable, fragrant—ascending to God as a sweet-smelling odor (see Romans 12:1 and 2 Corinthians 2:15). The person who uses his life for any purpose other than worship—no matter how noble that purpose may seem—is guilty of a grave sin. It is the same sin as that of an Israelite who misused the holy incense—a sin so serious that under the law it was punishable by death.