Ezra - Chapter One
Now that we have completed step one by putting our Scripture into context, we can begin the process of interpretation by looking more closely at our author’s words. Do not forget that the Bible is a book. Books are made up of words the author uses to relay a message. However, how the author forms those words also helps disclose the message he is conveying (the book begins and ends a certain way for a reason; the author repeats certain words for a reason.) Our author had a plan when he started writing and we want to remain on the path the author set before us. So, how will we do this?
Scrutinize the author’s words. Do you notice repetitions? Did the author use a particular word repeatedly? Did he ask lots of questions? Do you note the use of comparisons or contrasts? All these questions and others we ask of the text help inform our interpretation (asking the right questions is the key to understanding). Just as Context isn’t merely a history lesson, Interpretation is not simply a grammar class. Remember to keep asking, “what is the author’s point?”
This process leads us to the discovery of the depth and richness of God’s Word. We are looking for cues, not buried clues, obvious cues the author, led by the Holy Spirit, gave us to increase our understanding of his message. This is a systematic process, but it is one led by the Holy Spirit. He led men to write these words and the Spirit will also lead us to understand them.
So, let's begin.
STEP TWO: READ THE TEXT
If you haven’t already, take the time now to read Ezra chapter One. As you do, be sure to take note of anything that really “jumps out” at you - both in the words Ezra chooses, and the way he forms those words.
Also, as you read, consider these questions:
To whom is every action to fulfill God's promises credited?.
God's plan to redeem Israel also included His plan to __________ the nation as well.
What was God's purpose in returning the exiles to rebuild the "house of the Lord"? In other words, what was Ezra's primary message in Chapter 1?
Once you have finished reading Chapter One, you can move on to step 3.
STEP THREE: INTERPRETATION
Read the Text
1. Every action to fulfill God's promises results from God's activity: In the first verse, the author tells us that Cyrus' proclamation was issued in response to God's word (Jer. 29:10-14). Verse five reveals that God actually "stirred up" the hearts of everyone who chose to return to Jerusalem. Cyrus issued the proclamation; however, it was indeed God's design, and even this pagan king understood that (1:2).
The captives' release was at God's initiative; God acts through human agents to keep His promises, even if those people are working to forward their own agenda.
If you noted in the Context section earlier, when Assyria and Babylon's kings defeated Israel and Judah, each of these kings either killed or placed the people in captivity. They followed a policy of termination and exile, believing that the people could not choose to band together and revolt against their new rulers if they were not living in their homeland. Cyrus, however, held to a policy of toleration and promotion, believing that the people would not choose to revolt against their new king if they were left to practice their religions unhindered (under the guidance of local leaders). Therefore, when he conquered Babylon, he released its captives. God knew that Cyrus would return the exiles believing that by doing so, he was protecting the viability of his kingdom. However, it was not the political savvy of King Cyrus but the mighty hand of Almighty God who caused Cyrus to fulfill God's promises (Jer. 29:10-14). Every action to bring the exiles home was a part of God's plan.
2. God's plan of redemption includes His plan to restore as well: We might quickly read past the second detail I noticed; a list of dishes may seem irrelevant (like a list of begets). However, Ezra's list, consuming five out of the eleven verses (7-11) of chapter one, should cause us to pause and ask why He was so concerned about detailing what seems like an insignificant detail. (If it seems trivial, stop and ask why it is there; God wouldn't have led the author to include it if it was truly insignificant).
If we look a little further back in Israel's history (when King Hezekiah ruled over Judah before her fall to Babylon), we can understand the importance of these Temple dishes. On his deathbed, King Hezekiah reminded God that he had always been obedient and faithful (2 Kings 20:3), which moved God to heal him and promised to add fifteen years to his life. As a sign of His promise, the Lord made the sun move backward. Apparently, Hezekiah developed a sense of pride from God's grace because when officials from Babylon came to visit him, though Isaiah warned him not to trust Nebuchadnezzar, Hezekiah vainly showed off the Temple's treasures. Isaiah chastised him and told Hezekiah his actions would soon cause the loss of Judah's entire treasury. The book of Daniel describes the fulfillment of Isaiah's prophecy when Babylon invaded Jerusalem and robbed the Temple (Dan 1:1, 2). King Hezekiah's prideful rebellion resulted in the robbery and profane misuse of God's holy vessels when late these stolen vessels were used to toast false gods at a drunken feast given by Babylon's King Belshazzar (Dan. 5:4). These are the items, Ezra, with great detail, enumerates here.
Why would Ezra detail such an exacting list of these items? Because God's redemption is comprehensive, "Ezra 1 naturally sets the narrative plot in motion, but it also introduces the theological theme of restoration central to the entire book" (Doug Nykolaishen). God promised not only to redeem us from sin's captivity but to restore what sin robs from us (Joel 2:25). I particularly love that each item was counted, one by one, making it clear that God will force His enemy to account for everything he stills from Him.
God initiates redemption and meticulously accounts for everything thought lost to sin because restoration is a vital part of God's plan of redemption.
3. Did you notice the repetition of the phrase "house of the Lord:" Our author repeats this phrase at the beginning, middle, and end of Ezra chapter one, clearly setting forth a central theme. It is always important to see how your author begins and finishes his writing; however, when he carries a particular word or idea throughout the chapter (or book), you know to take notice.
At the beginning of chapter 1, Ezra told us the king proclaimed to release the captives "to build Him a house in Jerusalem" (v. 2). Following, in verse four, every survivor in Babylon was commanded to support the returning exiles "with a freewill offering for the house of God." Ezra then tells us that God stirred the people to return to "rebuild the house of the Lord" (1:5), and, finally, Ezra explains that Cyrus returned the articles from the house of the Lord (1:7).
Why wouldn't our author chose to simply say, "Temple"? Because "house of the Lord" relays an important message to readers. The exiles returned to Jerusalem with a singular purpose - rebuilding the Temple (1:3) where God's presence might dwell again. Though God is omnipresent - present everywhere - the Bible speaks of God manifesting His presence at particular times, i.e., the burning bush or the Ark of the Covenant within the Holy of Holies in the Temple. However, the destroyed Temple was a sign to all of Israel that they had forfeited that privilege. That is the tragedy of captivity; sin exiles us from God's Holy presence. However, Israel's sin had not changed God's heart; He still wanted to dwell among His people and saw to their return that they might rebuild His house.
However, returning to Jerusalem to rebuild the "house" of the Lord was also about God's covenant with David - "the dynasty as well as the temple" (Martin Selman). As God promised David,
"When your days are complete … I will raise up your descendant after you, and I will establish his kingdom. He shall build a house for My name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever…And your house and your kingdom shall endure before Me forever; your throne shall be established forever" 2 Sam. 7:11-16).
Ezra was not merely telling us that God would dwell in the Temple again (though that was profoundly wonderful news for Israel). By using the phrase, "house of the Lord," Ezra reminded his readers that God was committed to His promise to establish the throne of David forever. God is still committed to the covenant He established with Israel - a king will sit on the throne in Jerusalem. A Messiah is still coming, Ezra is confirming.
Ezra's message as he begins his book is clear: God is faithful, and His plan for the redemption and restoration of His people in Israel - and His people today - has not changed.
No doubt, when Babylon conquered Jerusalem, the people wondered if the nations' gods had outwitted and outlasted their God. Was God even who He said He was, and could He do what He promised? Worse, if God was who He said He was, had the Israelites so consistently failed Him that God had forsaken all He promised them? Had they lost everything forever? We don't have to imagine the heartache of the exiles in Babylon; it is recorded for us:
"By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down and wept when we remembered Zion. Upon the willows in the midst of it we hung our harps. For there our captors demanded of us songs, And our tormentors, jubilation, saying, "Sing for us one of the songs of Zion!" How can we sing the Lord's song in a foreign land?" (Ps. 137:1-4).
"Sing one of those praise songs," their enemy taunted them. The Israelites severely damaged the character of their God when they compromised their commitment to Him for lies that, in return, only brought them shame. They felt so hopeless in their discouragement that they hung their harps in the trees; no instruments of joyful worship were used anymore. The exiles were heartbroken, and they were ashamed. Can you imagine Israel's elation when Cyrus decreed they were allowed to return home (Ez. 1:1-4)? Again, we don't have to imagine it. Hear the joy of the Lord in their new song of praise:
"When the Lord brought back the captives of Zion, We were like those who dream. Then our mouth was filled with laughter and our tongue with joyful shouting" (Ps. 126:1, 2).
From heartbroken silence to joyful laughter. From humiliating shame to joyful shouting. God had been faithful to redemption. Each of the three questions above helps lead us to one specific message our author wanted us to see in Chapter One - God is faithful to His promises. He was devoted to His promise to bring the exiles home after 70 years of captivity, He was faithful to His covenant that a son of David would forever rule on the throne in Jerusalem, and He was devoted to "restore the fortunes of Judah and Jerusalem" (Joel 3:1). God remained faithful to the Israelites, and He has remained faithful to His who creation. The Lion of the Tribe of Judah was born in Israel because there was a remnant of followers of Yahweh who returned to Jerusalem this fateful day with Zerubbabel. He will return as King of Kings one day and dwell among His people forever. God is faithful, and we can trust Him when He stirs our hearts to journey with Him.
STEP FOUR: APPLICATION
Our final step of Bible Study is applying our author's message to our lives. This is often the first step for many Bible readers. Remember, however, if you apply Scripture before interpreting the original message to the original readers, you risk distorting God's Word.
God does turn our mourning into dancing! The Israelites had grieved for many years over their sins that caused captivity, but they finally had a reason to rejoice. Don't you wonder how many of them said, "I told you so! Remember what God promised us through Jeremiah?"
The city will be rebuilt on her ruins,
and the palace will stand in its proper place.
From them will come songs of thanksgiving
and the sound of rejoicing. 30:18, 19
God had done exactly what He promised; therefore, Ezra began his story, and we begin our study, by remembering that we can trust God's word. No matter how far from His will we might have journeyed, no matter how much damage sin has brought to Christ’s image in us, God has promised to redeem and restore, just as He promised. He was faithful to provide our redemption and will be faithful to our restoration because we are a part of His promise to make all things new.
While studying this book, there is an important message for us - God is not finished yet. Though we have been redeemed by the blood of our Savior, we still have a journey to walk here on earth. Until we reach Heaven, we will meet with disappointments, shame, failure, and, yes, exile. We will occasionally hang our harps in the trees thinking there is no reason for joy. But don't forget, our journey after salvation is about restoration - allowing God to make new all the things sin destroyed in each of us.
For various reasons, we “begin the life of faith with enthusiasm and commitment yet [find] the vitality of faith becoming eroded with the passage of time” (Alister McGrath). Complacency does not suggest a lack of love toward God, nor a lack of salvation. Our salvation is secure in Christ, and even though our love for him is genuine, complacency is evidence of a waning desire for Him and His ways. No matter the reason we set aside the pursuit of our Savior, our souls still experience the God-woven (Ps. 139) desires to know Him "more clearly, love [Him] more dearly and follow [Him] more nearly" (Richard of Wyche).
The world, which has fully forsaken the pursuit of God, teaches us to be satisfied with a little god who demands little of our devotion. However, we find that a little god (or a little of our God) never fulfills our hunger and thirst. Even if these other pursuits bring temporary happiness, when we begin placating that longing with lesser pursuits and possessions that have little or no eternal value, we find they provide no lasting joy. That joy is found only in a growing, maturing walk with Christ expressed in the work of sanctification.
Restoration, often called sanctification, is the pursuit of Christ’s righteousness and the antidote to the myriad of disappointments found in our walk with Christ. It is the restoration of the joy Christ implanted in us at salvation. Until we reach our eternal home (where we will be perfectly restored to Christ’s image), we continually need to be salvaged from the damaging effects of sin; the serpent is still a liar. As we submit to the Spirit, Christ restores holiness in us, and we become the person God saw when He first thought of us and we experience being the person He already knows we are. In that, we find joy unspeakable. Sanctification is surrendering to be the person God saw when He first thought of you, the person He already knows you are.
I don't mean to imply that a personal relationship with Christ means we never encounter disappointments in this life, including disillusionment with our faith. From time to time, we experience life-shattering struggles that may temporarily drain us of hope or joy. I am not trying to lead you to believe that all you need to do is read your Bible more and pray longer to find relief during those challenging times. Sometimes, all we can do is rest in the Father — and breathe.
I'm referring to an enduring disappointment or complacency in your relationship with Christ. How long has it been since your heart rested in Christ? Is your journey with him the most fulfilling part of your life or has something of this world supplanted the joy of Christ? Have you been waiting for a breakthrough for so long that you wonder if God even listens or cares how you feel? Have unanswered prayers, a lost job, an empty marriage, or an unexpected death left your heart shattered beyond what you think can be repaired? Do you find your greatest joy in the pursuit of Christ (Ps. 42:1)? Do you ever ask, Is this as good as it gets? Please let this truth penetrate your heart - God did not step out of Heaven only for you to settle for a life of disappointment, nor a life of temporary happiness. He stepped out of Heaven to invite you to a life of inexpressible joy, living hope, and an imperishable inheritance; He invited you to the fullness of life (1 Pet. 1).
Your faith journey is not over yet! God is still redeeming, and He is still restoring. The overwhelming concerns of this life may have led to complacency in your pursuit of Christ; that is why God wrote restoration into your life story. He wants to restore every part of your heart that feels damaged, disappointed, or unfulfilled. He wants to set you free from the pursuit of transient happiness and release you to the eternal joy and freedom found in the pursuit of Christ. His promise of restoration is still your promise today.
Let Ezra’s message help guide you as you continue in your journey in restoration. God didn’t write His covenant of love on your heart because He anticipated your perfection. He wrote His covenant of love on your heart because He loves you. Nothing more and nothing less. Your relationship with Christ is built on God’s faithfulness alone and therefore not at all tenuous.
Be encouraged by that truth. Even if you have allowed this sin-damaged world to move your eyes off Christ and forsake the pursuit of knowing him, even if you are weary or stressed from this often-difficult journey on earth, or if your soul is weighed down from overwhelming discouragement or if a portion of your heart is still captive to an enemy, take heart: God is faithful to His promise!
We find the confidence to move forward with God because God always acts first. He called us to restoration before we submitted our hearts to be known. God went out before we could be invited in (2 Sam.7:23). God gave all before He asked us to submit anything. God loved us while our hearts were captive to sin. That is profoundly important and profoundly freeing. We don’t have to work for our deliverance nor do we have to affect our own restoration. God always acts first, and He is faithful to finish what He begins.
Ezra’s book is vital to our journey of restoration - sanctification - because we, like the Israelites, may feel as though we have out-sinned God’s mercy. We may think we set Him aside too long ago to begin again. Don’t end your faith journey there; let Him restore your confidence in His faithfulness. Remember, none of this is about your efforts. It is about Christ’s righteousness. God is waiting to redeem and restore anything that holds your heart captive. Never doubt that those who sow in tears shall harvest with joyful shouting because that is what God has promised. And don't forget, whatever we give away in sin, God can restore - even make our enemy count out one beautiful dish at a time!