Christian Churches of God
Ezra and Nehemiah
(Edition 1.0 20101101-20121202)
The books of Ezra and Nehemiah tell the story of the Jews’ return from Babylon, the rebuilding of the temple and the city of Jerusalem and the re-establishment of the laws of God.
Ezra and Nehemiah
We continue here from the paper The Fall of Babylon (No. CB154) at the end of that paper we also began to talk of the initial stages of the restoration under Ezra.
As we learned from previous lessons when people do not follow God’s laws negative consequences result yet God does nothing unless He warns the people through the prophets. We will see that theme clearly played out in the times of Ezra and Nehemiah.
It is interesting to note that when Israel and Judah were disobedient they both endured the consequences of captivity. Israel went into the distant lands of the Assyrians and will not return to their homeland for millennia. Judah went into captivity closer to their homelands and were able to return to their lands. All these things were of course in God’s plan and purpose for His people.
We also need to be mindful that there will be another future return from captivity as described in Isaiah. 66:20. This will be a greater exodus than when Moses led the Israelites out of Egypt anciently. As the society continues to disobey God’s laws we will see many go into captivity again. We see also that at a point in the future those obedient to God will be brought back to Jerusalem (see Jer. 16:14-15; 23:7-8; Isa. 11:11-12) and they will ask to be taught by God’s people. At that time there will be another great restoration. Restoration means restoring something that has faded with age or been damaged. Clearly the law of Eloah has been severely damaged since sin first entered the world and has become progressively more so over time.
Typically people think of captivity as people being abused, beaten or mistreated yet for the most part the people of God were not oppressed during their sojourn or travels in Babylon although they sat down by the rivers and wept, and hung their harps upon the willow trees, and declared that they could not sing the Lord's songs in a strange land (Psalm 137:1-6). It is probable that many of them followed the advice of the prophet Jeremiah and built houses in which to reside (Jeremiah 29:3-7). There were great possibilities for the ambitious Hebrews, and numbers of them arose to positions of distinction and usefulness in the empire (Daniel 2:48; Nehemiah 1:1-11).
Let us look at what other pieces of information we can glean and learn from the book of Ezra.
Ezra Chapter 1: Proclamation of Cyrus
The Lord moved the heart of Cyrus, king of Persia, which is now modern Iran, to make a proclamation permitting the Jews to return to Jerusalem to rebuild the Temple (cf. Isa. 44:26-28; 45:1,13). This happened shortly after Daniel had read the handwriting on the wall, where it was declared that Babylon would fall to Persia, which came to pass that same night (Dan. 5:25-31). King Cyrus also returned the temple articles to the prince of Judah (Sheshbazzar) that Nebuchadnezzar had carried away when he conquered Jerusalem. Sheshbazzar was the Babylonian name given to Zerubbabel.
Chapter 2: List of those who returned (see also Neh. 7)
This chapter details the list of the exiles who returned to Jerusalem and other cities of Judah from which their parents had been taken captive to Babylon by King Nebuchadnezzar. They returned with Zerubbabel and others.
Chapter 3: Rebuilding the Altar
In the 7th month of the first year of their return they built the altar to sacrifice burnt offerings, and kept the Feast of Tabernacles in accordance with the law given to Moses (Lev. 1-7). After that they made the required burnt offerings on the New Moons and for all the appointed feasts of the Lord. In the Second month of the following year when the foundation of the Temple of God was laid the priests and the Levites sang praises to the Lord. All the people shouted their praise for the Lord but the older men wept for the beauty of the temple that had been destroyed.
However, the work made little progress beyond the foundations.
Chapter 4: Work on the temple stopped
When the enemies of Judah in the neighbouring nations heard that the captives who returned were building the temple they offered their help but it was refused. This made them angry and they tried to discourage and frighten the people by sending lies about them to King Cyrus. Consequently, due to wars the work on the Temple ceased for many, many decades, until Darius the Persian was king.
Chapters 5-6: The Temple is completed
The prophets Haggai and Zechariah lived in this era of the return from exile and they were inspired by God to encourage the people to resume building the Temple. Despite the opposition they finished building the temple according to the command of God and the decrees of Cyrus, and of Darius II called Darius the Persian. The provisioning decree was issued after the completion of the Temple which occurred in the sixth year of Darius the Persian (Ezra 6:15) which was 3 Adar (March) 418 BCE. The provisioning decree was later issued by Artaxerxes II king of Persia. At various times all three kings were concerned with the rebuilding of Jerusalem. The people then celebrated the dedication of the Temple with joy and the priests were installed in their divisions and the Levites in their groups for the service of God in the Temple. Then on the 14th and 15th days of the 1st month the people killed and celebrated the Passover (see also the paper The Sign of Jonah and the History of the Reconstruction of the Temple (No. 13).
As we see above, the events of chapters one to six of the book of Ezra concluded with the completion and dedication of the temple. For more details see the paper The Fall of Babylon (No. CB154). The events of these chapters happened many years earlier when the first Jews returned to Judah from Babylon under Zerubbabel.
Chapters 7 to 10 tell us what happened when Ezra returned. We will continue here at chapter 7.
Chapter 7: Ezra comes to Jerusalem
Ezra was a priest and scribe, a direct descendant of Aaron the High Priest, through Eleazar (Ezra 7:1-5). He studied and kept the law of God and desired to teach the law in all Israel (Ezra 7:6, 10). Ezra led the second group of exiles that returned from Babylon to Jerusalem.
In the seventh year of the reign of King Artaxerxes, Ezra obtained permission to leave Babylon and go up to Jerusalem and to take with him those of the captives who freely wished to go. They left on the first day of the 1st month and arrived at Jerusalem four months later on the first day of the 5th month (Ezra 7:6-9).
King Artaxerxes showed great interest in what Ezra wanted to do and granted him everything he asked for. Ezra was given gifts of silver and gold from the king, as well as freewill offerings from the people and priests for the temple of God in Jerusalem. Ezra went to teach the law to Judah and restore the temple service.
Chapter 8: List of heads of the families returning with Ezra to Jerusalem
Ezra proclaimed a fast and asked God for a safe journey for all the people and their possessions. It was dangerous for travellers going great distances in those days but Ezra did not want to ask the king to send soldiers for their protection. Rather they would rely on the hand of God. When they fasted and petitioned God, He answered their prayer.
Ezra set apart 12 priests and 12 Levites and entrusted them with the offerings of silver and gold and sacred articles that were to be taken to the house of God. When they arrived they handed the offerings over to the priests and Levites of the house of God and everything was accounted for and recorded.
Chapter 9: Ezra’s prayer about mixed marriages
Ezra found the people of Israel – including the priests, Levites, leaders and officials – had not kept themselves separate from their idolatrous neighbours and had intermarried with them. God had forbidden this practice (Deut.7:1-5) which led the Jews into idolatry and eventually captivity. Even though God sent many prophets to warn them they would not listen. Now when they returned from captivity they did the same thing.
Ezra was so angry and ashamed that he tore his clothes and pulled hair from his head and beard. Then he prayed to God before he proceeded to deal with the problem.
Chapter 10: The people confess their sin
Those guilty of intermarriage (vv. 18-43) agreed to made a covenant before God to send away their foreign wives and their children. The people put the matter in Ezra’s hands and Ezra put the priests, Levites and all Israel under oath to do what had been suggested. It took three months for a selected committee to investigate the cases and deal with the men who had married foreign women.
We are told that Ezra died as an old man, and was buried in Jerusalem (see Josephus, A of J, Book 11, chapter 5). According to Jewish records he died in the same year as Alexander the Great in 323 BCE, on which the OT Canon was closed and compiled.
Nehemiah was cupbearer to Artaxerxes, king of Persia. It was his job to taste the king’s wine, in case it was poisoned. Nehemiah came to Jerusalem as a civil governor, with authority from the king of Persia to rebuild the wall and restore Jerusalem as a fortified city. The Jews had been home nearly 100 years and had made little progress beyond building the temple because their neighbours interfered and they got orders from the Persian court to stop the work. This order was issued by Artaxerxes I because of a rebellion in the Empire during his reign. All work ceased on the Temple until the reign of Darius the Persian (Darius II).
Chapter 1: Nehemiah’s prayer
In the month of Kislev, the 9th month, in the twentieth year of the reign of King Artaxerxes II certain Jews arrived from Judea and gave Nehemiah sad news about of the bad state of Jerusalem. When he heard that the city’s walls were broken down and its gates burned with fire and the Jews were being harassed (and even killed) by neighbouring nations, Nehemiah wept and fasted and prayed before God for some days. He asked God to give him success and favour with the king so that the king would give him permission to go to Jerusalem.
Chapter 2: Artaxerxes agrees to send Nehemiah to Jerusalem
Some months later when the king asked Nehemiah why he was so sad, Nehemiah explained it all to the king and the king gave him permission to go to Jerusalem and there to act as governor of Judea. It was agreed under a promise to return to Persia within a given time. Nehemiah went with a strong escort supplied by the king, and also with letters to all the governors west of the Euphrates River instructing them to let him travel through their counties; also a letter to Asaph, keeper of the king’s forests, directing him to give Nehemiah timber for rebuilding the gates, the city walls and a house for himself. This news was not welcome by Sanballat (the Horonite) and Tobiah (the Ammonite) and other old enemies of the Jews who occupied the land.
Soon after he arrived, Nehemiah secretly inspected Jerusalem’s walls and the gates and then set about organising the repairing / rebuilding. These enemies of the Jews mocked and ridiculed them when they heard of the plan to rebuild. Nehemiah informed them that God would give them success, and they would have no part of the rebuilding.
Chapter 3: Gates repaired and walls rebuilt
All sorts of people joined together to work on the rebuilding. Nehemiah put them to work on sections near their own homes. Work started and ended at the Sheep Gate. In all there were 12 gates of Jerusalem (see also ch. 12:31,39). As well as repairing the gates they made repairs to districts and houses.
Chapter 4: Judah’s enemies oppose the rebuilding
Even though their enemies tried hard to discourage them with insults and mocking, the wall continued to develop. When the wall was half its original height the enemies became furious and plotted to lead an army against Jerusalem to bring about riots and confusion. The people prayed to God and posted guards day and night to deal with this threat. As things got worse Nehemiah had half the men work while the other half stood guard behind them. The men worked with their weapons within easy reach or with swords belted to their sides. The trumpeter stayed with Nehemiah to sound the alarm. Those who lived outside the walls were told to move into Jerusalem so that their servants could go on guard duty and also work during the day.
Chapter 5: The poor people protest and rich Jews are rebuked for charging interest
During the time of the restoration there was an outcry of protest from the poor against their rich brothers who were making a profit on them. In other words they were charging interest (usury) on loans even though this was against God’s law (Ex. 22:25). Those who ran out of money for food had to sell their children into slavery or mortgage their possessions to these rich Jews. Nehemiah was angry when he heard this and he called a public meeting and demanded that these rich Jews restore the fields and homes to the people, and drop their claims against them. The rich eventually promised to assist their brothers instead of burdening them. In contrast, Nehemiah who took no payment or other assistance for the entire twelve years he was governor and he also helped the poor out of his own funds.
Chapter 6: More opposition but the wall is completed
When the enemies of the Jews found out that the wall was almost complete they sent a message asking to meet with Nehemiah. However, Nehemiah realised they were plotting to kill him so he sent a message back to say he was busy doing a great work. At first they tried to get him out of Jerusalem for talks and when that failed they tried to have him killed when they sent him to see a false prophet. Nehemiah soon realised that a trap had been set for him. In spite of the obstacles Nehemiah let nothing stop the work, and the wall was completed on 25th Elul (6th month) in 52 days.
When their enemies heard this they were afraid because they realised this work had been done with the help of the God of Israel.
Chapters 7: List of those who returned with Zerubbabel
After the wall was finished and the doors on the gates were hung, gatekeepers, singers and Levites were appointed. Nehemiah gave responsibility of governing Jerusalem to Hanani and Hananiah and instructed them about opening and closing the Jerusalem gates and about guarding the wall. The guards were asked to live in Jerusalem so they could take their turn at guarding the wall. Homeowners who lived near the wall were told to guard the section of the wall near their homes. Everyone had to play their part as the city was large and the population small and the houses had not yet been built. The Lord told him to call together all the leaders and citizens of the city for registration by families. Nehemiah found the record of the genealogies of those who had returned to Judah previously (cf. vv. 6-73). The priests, Levites, gatekeepers, singers and some of the people returned to their own homes and towns throughout Judah.
Chapter 8: The Law is read
On the 1st day of the 7th month (the Day of Trumpets) all the people gathered together in Jerusalem and requested Ezra to read to them the Law of God.
Ezra stood on a wooden stand so that everyone could see him. He praised God and all the people lifted their hands and said “Amen! Amen!” Then they bowed down and worshipped God with their faces to the ground.
Note: these are the 19th and 20th Amens listed in the Bible. The number 19 relates to the order of judgement and 20 relates to expectancy and waiting (see note in the Companion Bible at 2Chr. 8:1). We know that Eloah is very detailed and prefect in every way. We see the order of judgement being shown through the correction delivered to the people by Eloah through Ezra, and expectancy and waiting of the hope delivered once through the saints being shown by their weeping and repentant attitude upon hearing the law being read.
Ezra, with the help of the priests, read aloud from daybreak until noon, while the Levites went among the people and explained the meaning of the passage being read. The people began sobbing when they heard the commands of the law. Ezra, Nehemiah and the Levites told them not to weep or cry for this was a holy day of joy and a time to celebrate. Then the people went to eat and drink and celebrate because they now understood what they heard.
On the second day of the 7th month they found in the law that during the Feast of Tabernacles they were to live in booths. So the people went out and brought back branches from trees and the whole company that had returned from exile built booths and lived in them. They made booths and kept the Feast of Tabernacles seven days.
From the records (Neh. 8:1-18) we deduce that Trumpets was on a Friday, and the second day referred to would have been a Sabbath. In accordance with Deuteronomy 31:9-13 the Law was read each day from the first day of the 7th month to the 21st day, the last day of the Feast, and it was explained by fourteen priests and Levites (Neh. 8:4-8). Then they kept the Last Great Day (22nd) as a solemn assembly according to the law.
CCG first read the law in 1998, the 21st year of the 120 Jubilee, in Wimberley Texas. This was the first time the law was read in a very long time. The law was again read in 2005, the 28th year of the 120th Jubilee, at Niagara Falls, Canada. In 2012 the law was read again at Phuket, Thailand. Now we earnestly pray the Witnesses arrive in time for the next readings which will be in 2019 and 2026. With each Sabbath cycle more and more of the law is explained and all peoples grow in grace and understanding.
Chapter 9: People confess their sins
On the 24th day of the same month the people returned and gathered together fasting and wearing sackcloth and having dust on their heads. Those of Israelite descent had separated themselves from foreigners. They read from the book of the law of God for about a quarter of a day and spent another quarter in confessing their sins; and everyone worshipped the Lord their God. The Levites called to God with loud voices and told the people to stand up and praise God. The people made a binding agreement, put it in writing, and their leaders put their seals to it.
Chapter 10: Sealing the agreement
Those who sealed the agreement numbered 84 names: this included Nehemiah, 21 priests, 17 Levites and 45 leaders of the people (vv. 1-27). The rest of the people joined their brothers and nobles and bound themselves with a curse (for those who broke the covenant), and an oath to follow the Law of God given to Moses. The people pledged to carefully obey all the commands, regulations and decrees of God (cf. vv. 28-38), and vowed not to neglect the house of God (v. 39).
Chapter 11: List of new residents of Jerusalem
The leaders of the people settled in Jerusalem. The rest of the people cast lots to bring one out of every 10 to live in Jerusalem while the remaining 9 were to stay in their own towns. Some men also volunteered to live in Jerusalem.
Chapter 12: List of priests and Levites who returned with Zerubbabel
At the dedication of the wall the Levites and singers were brought to Jerusalem to celebrate with songs and thanksgiving, and with music of cymbals, harps and lyres. From the fields around the towns the men appointed to be in charge of contributions, firstfruits and tithes brought in the portions required by the law for the priests and Levites.
Chapter 13: Close of Nehemiah’s work and final reforms
After serving 12 years as governor Nehemiah returned to the king’s court. During Nehemiah’s absence Tobiah, one of his enemies, had used his influence with Eliashib the priest to use a chamber in the temple that had been set aside for tithes and other offerings. Nehemiah was very angry when he returned and learned what Eliashib had done and also to see that the people had returned to their old ways in his absence and were not obeying God’s law. Nehemiah then set about restoring the temple, cleansing the Sabbaths and restoring the tithe system. He ordered that the gates to be closed as darkness fell on Friday evenings and not to be reopened until after the Sabbath had ended. He put guards on the gates so no merchants could bring their goods in to trade on the Sabbath. The people living on the land were commanded to bring the tithes of their produce to Jerusalem so that the priests and Levites were able to live in the city and attend to the Temple services.
Chapter 13 is a record of events that occurred prior to the chapter 8. Nehemiah returned to Jerusalem for the restoration of the law and the Reading of the Law in the Jubilee year.
According to Josephus, The Antiquities of the Jews “Nehemiah did many excellent things and he was very ambitious to make his own nation happy. He lived to a great age, and then he died” (see A of J, Book II, chapter 5).
See also the paper Reading the Law with Ezra and Nehemiah (No. 250).
There is an independent corroboration of the Restoration of the Temple and the priests involved and the exact independent dating of the event and the amounts collected in Egypt from the Temple at Elephantine which corroborates the account in Ezra and Nehemiah and dates the refurbishment exactly from the excavation of the Temple at Elephantine. The texts have been translated by Ginsberg and are published in the text by James B Pritchard, The Ancient Near East; an anthology of texts and pictures Vol. 1, pp. 278-282.
Points of interest to note:
The law of God was given to the people of God through the prophets of Israel. We know the law of God from the Scriptures which are also called the oracles of God or the revelation of God through a chosen prophet or priest. The first phase of the oracles of God ended with Ezra and Nehemiah and the last of the prophets who lived in the days of the Old Testament (see the paper The Oracles of God (No. 184))
The Bible is silent from that time until an angel of the Lord was sent to speak to Zacharias, the father of John the Baptist (Lk. 1:5-30). From then on what we know as the New Testament was added to the Old Testament to form the Bible we have today. See the papers Advent of Messiah: Part I (No. 210A) and The Bible (No. 164).
Remember we are to learn from the things of the past and look forward to a future time as described in Acts.
Acts. 1:6 When they therefore were come together, they asked of him, saying, Lord, wilt thou at this time restore again the kingdom to Israel?
The time will come when no man can work. Pray for everyone and work for the faith to uplift everyone. Speak ill of no man. Work for the truth. God will open the eyes of the chosen and the rest will remain blind.
Love one another as God and Christ love us.