These past few weeks I have enjoyed reading through the books of the Bible focused on the time after the exile of the God’s people to Babylon. In this regard, my major focus has been the books of Ezra and Nehemiah. These have been widely popular source material for Christian groups and Churches because of the parallels with our own journey of rebuilding and restoration as we emerge from the pandemic. My goal here is to offer some reflections on what I have been learning from these books but first I want to comment on the background of what is happening here:
The background to these books is the exile of God’s people. God warned this would happen as a result of disobedience as far back as Deut 28-30. The Northern Kingdom (Israel) was exiled around 722BC by Assyria (see 2 Kings 17) and they resettled a cultural mix of people into the land of Israel. These people were the early Samaritans. The Southern Kingdom (the tribes of Judah & Benjamin) fared somewhat better but were also exiled from around 605BC until 539BC. This exile started small but happened in several waves. It brought to fulfilment the words of Jeremiah, who had prophesied that the exile would last 70 years (Jeremiah 25 & 29). Ezra and Nehemiah (a single book in the Jewish Canon) mark the end of the exile as the people are begin returning to the Promised Land. The first group was allowed to return by King Cyrus (of the Persian empire) to rebuild the temple. Zerubbabel and Jeshua (the priest) were all part of this first wave (Ezra 1-6) and Zerubbabel saw to completion the work on the temple. Later they were followed by Ezra who led the people in a process of spiritual restoration (Ezra 7-10). Nehemiah (who held a prominent position in the administration of King Artaxerxes) then received a report about the state of Jerusalem and was moved to prayerfully seek God. His subsequent proposal to the King was met with favour, and he saw the work completed on the restoration of the city walls. Ezra again led them through a process of spiritual renewal as the people of God assembled to read the law, make a new agreement and dedicate the walls to God.
#1: God takes the initiative
The beginning of the book of Ezra leaves us with little doubt that the end of the exile is God’s initiative. Indeed we are told that “God moved the heart of Cyrus King of Persia” (1:1). He was in the 1st year of his reign and archaeologists have attested to Cyrus’ policy of encouraging exiles to return to their homelands. Champions like Zerubbabel and Jeshua soon rise to the fore, but it was most definitely God, working through a pagan King, that sets this all in motion. Their enemies work hard to derail the work, but the most they achieved was delay (4:24). God was clearly at work. This reminds me of some words of Gamaliel (a Pharisee) speaking to the Sanhedrin:
38 …For if their purpose or activity is of human origin, it will fail. 39 But if it is from God, you will not be able to stop these men; you will only find yourselves fighting against God.’Acts 5:38b-39
God had promised 70 years of exile but it was now over. God was bringing His people back to the land, just as He had promised He would.
#2: God uses People who trust Him
When he heard about the state of Jerusalem Nehemiah wept, mourned, fasted and prayed to His God. Nehemiah 1 records his incredible prayer in which he praised God, wrestled with His promises, and asked Him to grant him favour in the presence of the King. Nehemiah sought God in prayer. but He also had a plan for how to proceed. This involved coming before the King with sadness of heart which was forbidden and therefore very risky. God granted him favour and the King gave his blessing to go back and restore the walls of Jerusalem. Nehemiah works with perseverance and diligence to bring the work to completion, and he brings the same attitude to the state of the Nations spiritual renewal. He was zealous for God and worked hard to encourage the people to return to God and keep their promises to Him. In Ezra the prophets Haggai & Zechariah were also men of faith who challenged the people to get on with building God’s house after it had ground to a halt in the face of strong opposition. Haggai in particular challenged the people, because they were busy working on their own homes while God’s house remained a ruin. Zerubbabel & Jeshua the Priest are mentioned by name as they obeyed God in restarting the work.
#3: Teamwork and Opposition
Nehemiah 3 communicates the sense of teamwork enjoyed by those who worked on rebuilding the walls. It was not a job for the professionals, but was undertaken by all kind of people including rulers, priests, goldsmiths, servants, guards, merchants and perfume-makers. The wall was to protect God’s people but it was no use at all unless it was not completed all the way around. It was therefore only as strong as its weakest point! It reminds me a lot of the New Testament metaphor of the Body of Christ. Failure to play our part in this body has a huge impact on the whole.
Secondly, opposition is one of the strongest themes in these books. In Ezra this opposition comes from those who inhabited the land during the exile which included a cultural mix of peoples who were resettled there by the Assyrians. In Nehemiah, the main culprits are Tobiah (the Ammonite) and Sanballat (the Horonite) and they work tirelessly to undermine the rebuilding on the walls. Ultimately their efforts fail, but the people of God end up having to hold weapons in one hand whilst working with the other in order to protect themselves. Nehemiah also faces some opposition from within his own group after the people cry out against the exploitation of their nobles and officials. Anyone who has played a part in the work of building God’s Kingdom knows that opposition is to be expected!
#4: Spiritual renewal was crucial
Buildings were never the end goal, but merely a vehicle to facilitate the people’s relationship with God. In this regard, the temple was a symbol of God’s presence and it was the place where they came to meet with Him and bring their sacrifices. Some people however were understandably upset (Ezra 3:11-13, Haggai 2:2-3) by the rebuilding of the temple. It was never going to live up to the lavish temple built by Solomon. The prophet Zechariah (4:8-10) spoke strongly against this telling God’s people not to despise small beginnings, while Haggai prophesied that the glory of the new house (in which one day the Son of God would walk) would be greater than the former!
“The glory of this present house will be greater than the glory of the former house,” says the Lord Almighty. “And in this place I will grant peace,” declares the Lord Almighty.’Haggai 2:9
The celebration following the rebuilding of the altar (Ezra 3:1-6) and the latter part of both Ezra (chapters 7-10) and Nehemiah (8-13) describe big gatherings of God’s people. These times must have been hugely significant for God’s people as they praised God, read His law, confessed their sin and made new promises to live in obedience to God. Large corporate gatherings can often be big turning points in our faith, but the real test of renewal is in the day-to-day things further down the line.
#5: Ultimately fulfilled in Jesus Christ
There was also a continuing cycle of disappointment. The rebuilding work was very significant but the people’s willingness to obey soon proved to be a huge let-down. When Nehemiah returns to Jerusalem after a stint back in Babylon, he is very discouraged by what he finds. He finds himself having to bring reform to the temple (following provision of a room to Tobiah), to their giving (which they had neglected), to their observance of the Sabbath (which was being abused) and to their relationships (in intermarrying women from other nations). These reforms contain overtones of the arrival of Jesus at this same temple (Matt 21:12-17). Nehemiah achieves much but ultimately points forward to the ministry of Jesus. In his final grievance (related to their relationships) we find Nehemiah rebuking, cursing, beating them up and pulling out their hair (13:25). They had expressly made promises to God about all these things (10:30-39), but these promises had not lasted long. The need of the hour was pointed to the fulfilment of prophesies like Ezekiel 36:24-27 in which God said that God would give His people not just the desire but the will to obey. On our own we will simply always fail but through the Spirit that lives in all who believe in Him God moves us to obey. Of course, there will be an ongoing battle to choose to live by the spirit rather than by the flesh but for the first time God would put His Spirit in His people and move us to follow Him (Ezekiel 36:24-27).
24 ‘“For I will take you out of the nations; I will gather you from all the countries and bring you back into your own land. 25 I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean; I will cleanse you from all your impurities and from all your idols. 26 I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. 27 And I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws.Ezekiel 36:24-27
As we continue to emerge from the pandemic the lessons of Ezra and Nehemiah are hugely significant. We too need to rebuild in our relationships, our churches and our wider spheres of influence. Spiritual renewal and restoration is paramount to this to help us build back with God. He still needs people who trust and depend on Him. We still face opposition and need to work together as we seek to see the Kingdom of God advancing in the world around us. Rather than simply reverting to how things were before the pandemic how can we build back better?