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    Aug 10, 2014

    Class 25: Ezra, Nehemiah, & Esther

    Series: Old Testament Overview

    Category: Core Seminars, Salvation, The Wrath of God, Covenants, Repentance, Indwelling Sin




    Today we’ll look at three more historical books, Ezra, Nehemiah, and Esther.  The first two tell us about the Jews’ return from exile, just as God promised through Jeremiah.  Yet, they show us that something is still missing.  Things just don’t seem to be as glorious as the prophets predicted.  Where are the New Heavens and the New Earth Isaiah spoke of?  Why don’t the people have the new hearts that Jeremiah predicted?  Where is the glorious and magnificent temple Ezekiel saw?  And further, why hasn’t everyone come back?  That’s a key question in the book of Esther.  The people we’ll meet in that book are still in a foreign land.  So, after the exile some things are just as predicted and promised.  But many of God’s promises have yet to be fulfilled.  That’s the issue these books grapple with.


    And, of course, we’re in the same situation, aren’t we?  God’s made good on some of his promises, but the best of them are still waiting.  What are some of the challenges of living in this “in-between” time?    








    We’ll start with Ezra and Nehemiah, and then take on Esther at the end of the class.  Ezra and Nehemiah originally constituted one book,[1] so we’ll treat them that way today.  Many think it was Ezra the priest who assembled it.   The history recorded in Ezra-Nehemiah spans from the time the Jews began to return to Jerusalem, in 538 BC to a century after that first return.  Ezra himself gives us the historical context necessary to begin our study in Ezra 1:1-4.  The Jews had been in exile for 70 years, when we read this:


    1In the first year of Cyrus king of Persia, that the word of the Lord by the mouth of Jeremiah might be fulfilled, the Lord stirred up the spirit of Cyrus king of Persia, so that he made a proclamation throughout all his kingdom and also put it in writing:


    2“Thus says Cyrus king of Persia: The Lord, the God of heaven, has given me all the kingdoms of the earth, and he has charged me to build him a house at Jerusalem, which is in Judah. 3Whoever is among you of all his people, may his God be with him, and let him go up to Jerusalem, which is in Judah, and rebuild the house of the Lord, the God of Israel—he is the God who is in Jerusalem. 4And let each survivor, in whatever place he sojourns, be assisted by the men of his place with silver and gold, with goods and with beasts, besides freewill offerings for the house of God that is in Jerusalem.”


    The Jews are coming home!  It’s a time of real excitement and hope.  It’s believed that Psalm 126 was written at this time.


    1When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion,
        we were like those who dream.
    2Then our mouth was filled with laughter,
        and our tongue with shouts of joy;
    then they said among the nations,
        “The Lord has done great things for them.”
    3The Lord has done great things for us;
        we are glad.


    The redemptive-historical context is clear.  After the trauma of the exile, the people are reminded that God is still faithful to His age-old promises.  The nation’s been resurrected and the Mosaic Covenant reestablished.  But the New Covenant isn’t yet hear, and God’s final kingdom is still in the future.  Instead, the postexilic nation is just one more earthly type of God’s great work to come.




    Let’s summarize Ezra-Nehemiah like this:


    God is renewing the covenant by restoring His people, the temple, true worship, and Jerusalem.  But it’s not the end, and it doesn’t fulfill all the great prophesies.  Thus His people still look to the future.


    The return from exile was exciting.  But it wasn’t all it was expected to be.  We’re back in the land, but not in the New Heavens and the New Earth.  Instead, we’ve got a kind of “exile in the land” as we saw last week in Chronicles.  Some people have new hearts, but not everyone.  And we have a new temple, but it’s no picture of glory.  It all leaves the reader longing for something more, thinking there must be something more to come.  Thinking back to Daniel, the seventy years have finished–so the physical exile is done.  But the seventy “sevens” until the Messiah arrives have only just begun, and so the spiritual exile continues.    


    Let’s walk through Ezra-Nehemiah now, and I’ll point out some texts that most clearly demonstrate some key themes.  And as we go I’ll also fill you in on the chronology of all that’s going on.


    A.  God Initiates and the People Respond:  Ezra 1:5-6


    What’s important to notice about the beginning of the book is the focus on God’s faithfulness to His promises.  Remember what we just read in Ezra 1:1. Did you catch that reference to Jeremiah?  Jeremiah had prophesied that the exile would only last 70 years.  Just as promised, 70 years later God moved Cyrus’ heart to allow the Jews to return home.  We also see in verse 5 that God moved the hearts of the people to go as well.  “Then rose up the heads of the fathers' houses of Judah and Benjamin, and the priests and the Levites, everyone whose spirit God had stirred to go up to rebuild the house of the Lord that is in Jerusalem.”  God was entirely behind this restoration.


    B.  The People Return and Rebuild:  Ezra 1:7 – 6:22


    Then God then provide, piece by piece, all that the people need to rebuild their community.  To start, we read in 1:7 “Cyrus the king also brought out the vessels of the house of the Lord that Nebuchadnezzar had carried away from Jerusalem” and gave them back to the Jews.  This was no small thing.  It probably included the golden alter, golden table, golden lampstands, golden basins, and massive bronze pillars, stands, and basins, so large they could not be weighed, as described in 1 Kings 7.  This was enormous wealth.  They were irreplaceable, and God has miraculously restored them to the people so they could reinstitute proper temple worship.


    Next, look at 2:2, where we see a man named Zerubbabel.  What’s significant about him is that he’s of the royal line of David.  God had promised to David that he would have a descendent reigning over God’s people forever.  But at the end of 2 Kings we saw the last Davidic king carted off as a prisoner to Babylon.  So the fact that this guy is leading God’s people back to the promised land means God is still committed to His covenantal promises.


    Another significant figure, also in verse 2, is Jeshua (or some translation may render his name Joshua).  You’ll notice from verse 40 that he’s a Levite, which means that, along with the line of kings, the line of priests is also being restored.  As we read in Leviticus, it’s the priests who make atoning sacrifices and lead the people into worship.  And so the restoration of the priesthood is critical for restoring the people to a right relationship with God.  Of course we also know that this priesthood necessarily points forward to a greater priest to come because the blood of bulls and goats can never take away sin. 


    The other things needed for worship, besides the priests, are an altar and a temple.  We read of their construction in chapters 3-6.  After some opposition from unfriendly neighbors (ch. 4), the work was completed in 516 BC, a little over 20 years after the people’s return (cf. 6:15).  With the temple complete, they finally celebrate Passover again in 6:22.  “And they kept the Feast of Unleavened Bread seven days with joy, for the Lord had made them joyful and had turned the heart of the king of Assyria [that is, Darius, king of Persia which had conquered Babylon which had conquered Assyria] to them, so that he aided them in the work of the house of God, the God of Israel.”  It’s only fitting that worship resumes in the land at the temple with a Passover meal after God brought the people out again from under oppression by the Gentiles!


    But all’s not right.  Look back at 3:12.  “But many of the priests and Levites and heads of fathers' houses, old men who had seen the first house, wept with a loud voice when they saw the foundation of this house being laid, though many shouted aloud for joy, so that the people could not distinguish the sound of the joyful shout from the sound of the people's weeping, for the people shouted with a great shout, and the sound was heard far away.”  The temple meant so much, as we’ve already discussed.  But some there could remember what the first temple looked like.[2]  And this new temple didn’t come close to what God’s people knew before.  And while that was discouraging for them, we can see it as a sign that God wasn’t finished.  He still had greater things to come.




    C.  The People Sin and Repent:  Ezra 7-10


    At the beginning of chapter 7 the story takes a big leap forward in time.  Now we’re in 458 BC, nearly 60 years after the temple’s completed (cf. 7:7-9).  Here, Ezra the priest is leading a second wave of exiles back to Jerusalem.  We learn about Ezra in 7:9-10 that “the good hand of his God was on him. 10 For Ezra had set his heart to study the Law of the Lord, and to do it and to teach his statutes and rules in Israel.”  We can learn a great lesson from Ezra here.  Notice that he studies and does the word of the Lord before he presumes to teach it.


    But when Ezra arrives back in the land, he finds that many Jews have intermarried with the surrounding pagan nations, a grievous sin.  We read in 9:1-3, “The people of Israel and the priests and the Levites have not separated themselves from the peoples of the lands with their abominations… For they have taken some of their daughters to be wives for themselves and for their sons, so that the holy race has mixed itself with the peoples of the lands. And in this faithlessness the hand of the officials and chief men has been foremost. 


    Did you notice that reference to “the holy race?”  Literally, that word for “race” is “seed.”  Remember God’s promise in Genesis 3:15 that he would raise up a “seed” to crush the serpent’s head.  Israel was the carrier of the seed-promise.  If they assimilated into pagan culture and abandoned their unique relationship with the true God, they risked losing the promise!  If Satan can’t kill off God’s people through exile, he’ll try to corrupt them instead.


    So…what happens?  Ezra prays (9:6-15), acknowledging the people’s sin and God’s holiness.  Note the gravity of Ezra’s confession and how well he understands the consequences of sin.  “O Lord, the God of Israel, you are just, for we are left a remnant that has escaped, as it is today. Behold, we are before you in our guilt, for none can stand before you because of this.” (v15).


    In chapter 10 the people repent.  And it’s more than mere acknowledgement of sin or feeling bad.  They take action to undo their sin, to restore right behavior toward God.  They work to re-separate themselves from the surrounding nations.


    The main lesson is that while the exiles have returned and rebuilt the Temple, God hasn’t yet completed his plan of salvation.  Look Ezra’s prayer in 9:8But now for a brief moment favor has been shown by the Lord our God, to leave us a remnant and to give us a secure hold within his holy place, that our God may brighten our eyes and grant us a little reviving in our slavery.   The remnant has returned, but it is only a “little reviving” from slavery.  It all makes us say, “This can’t be everything; there must be more to come.”


    D.  Nehemiah Returns and the People Rebuild the Walls:  Nehemiah 1-7


    Which brings us to Nehemiah, and another phase of reestablishing the people back in the land.  Nearly 100 years after the first exiles returned, Jerusalem’s walls are still broken down.  This means that the people, the Davidic line, and the priest-led worship are all still vulnerable to Israel’s enemies.  Both militarily and morally.  So when Nehemiah, a government official serving the Persians in Susa, hears about this, he weeps and sets himself to prayer. 


    What’s interesting about his prayer in chapter 1 is that, like so many other prayers in the Bible, Nehemiah begins with a confession of sins in v6-7.  “Even I and my father's house have sinned.  We have acted very corruptly against you and have not kept the commandments, the statutes, and the rules that you commanded your servant Moses.”  And, verses 10-11, he premises his request upon God’s glory.  Just like in so many other prayers we’ve seen (Moses’ and Daniel’s to name just two), the ultimate goal in prayer, is that He might be glorified by giving to us. 


    In chapter 2, Nehemiah travels to Jerusalem, about a decade after Ezra returned.  When he gets there he’s able to convince the people to rebuild the walls.  On a quick side-note, look at what he says in 2:20.  “The God of heaven will make us prosper, and we his servants will arise and build.”  Notice that divine sovereignty and human responsibility are there, right next to each other.  Neither is compromised nor ignored.  It’s no problem for inspired authors to juxtapose these two great doctrines without apology.  Thus those who earnestly love the word of God exalt in and tremble at His sovereignty, and live lives of moral responsibility and accountability. 


    Returning to our story, we see the Jews experience opposition from their neighbors.  These enemies first mocked the Jews for undertaking such a difficult and expensive task of engineering (4:1-3).  But when the people are faithful and steadily make progress, the pagans’ mockery turns to a plot to attack the builders.  Nehemiah responds by arming the builders.  So their enemies try (and fail) to undermine Nehemiah personally by slandering his reputation (chapter 6).  Satan will sometimes try to attack God’s people, and especially their leaders, with a frontal assault.  And other times through more subtle means.  But God is faithful to protect his people regardless.


    Nehemiah also experiences opposition from within Israel (chapter 5).  Some of the builders began to complain that the work is too expensive given their modest means.  So Nehemiah convinces the nobles and officials to stop charging interest, which allows the work to continue.  In the end the people complete the wall around Jerusalem in less than a year.  This section of the text ends with these encouraging words in 7:73.  “So the priests, the Levites, the gatekeepers, the singers, some of the people, the temple servants, and all Israel, lived in their towns.”  That return to rest sounds similar to those key passages in Joshua when the Israelites first took that land.  It truly is a re-beginning. 


    E.  The People Rejoice—and Relapse:  Nehemiah 8-13


    So, we come to the part that everything else has been driving to: the reestablishment of the covenant!  Look at 8:8.  “They [that is, the Levites] read from the book, from the Law of God, clearly, and they gave the sense, so that the people understood the reading.”  It’s interesting to note the people’s reactions.  Upon hearing the law read and expounded, it says in verse 6 that they shouted, “Amen!  Amen!”  But then in verse 9 it says that they wept.  They were realizing that they’d broken that law they were reading.  But the priests told the people not to mourn but to celebrate at the reading of God’s word.  It seems that the people were rightly mourning their sin, and then rightly celebrating God’s grace in their lives.


    I wonder, do you also have deep emotional reactions to the reading and teaching of the word of God?  Does it cause you to weep, as the weight of you sin sinks in?  Does it bring rejoicing that an infinitely holy God would give his own life to make us holy?  I hope it does. 


    The long rebuilding and renewal process is complete when the people bind themselves again into covenant with God, in 10:29.


    [All the people now] join with their brothers, their nobles, and enter into a curse and an oath to walk in God's Law that was given by Moses the servant of God, and to observe and do all the commandments of the Lord our Lord and his rules and his statutes.


    The people are in the land, the line of David lives on (and therefore so does the seed of the woman), priests are making sacrifices on the altar, the temple is rebuilt, the walls around Jerusalem are secure, the law is publicly read and explained, and the people formally renew their commitment to God’s covenant.


    So is this what we’ve been waiting for?  Sadly, no.  No sooner do the people renew the covenant than they break it again.  In chapter 13 we see them violating the Sabbath.  And once again they intermarry with the surrounding nations.  And so we again see that same problem again.  The law is not yet written on their hearts.  This is not the full arrival of the kingdom of God.  This is not the new covenant with new hearts in the new heaven and the new earth.  Sin and death still reign.


    We are here at the end of the Old Testament’s historical record, and the heart is still wickedly deceitful above all things, and beyond cure.  Who can understand it?  A greater salvation, greater than the Exodus, greater than the return from exile must yet be coming.  A greater kingdom, greater than David’s, greater than Solomon’s, greater than Ezra’s and Nehemiah’s, still awaits!








    On to Esther!  Same time, different place.  It’s now in the 480s/470s BC, half a century after the return of the first wave, but before Ezra’s return.  But we’re in Susa, Persia’s capital, where some Jews still live in exile.


    What’s really strange about the book of Esther is that God’s never mentioned.  And apart from some fasting (4:3, 16) there’s not even any religious references.  That makes the book’s purpose and application less-than-obvious. So contribution does it make to God’s unfolding plan of redemption?  Well, the story illustrates through narrative the truth that God cares for his people.  That he will rescue his people from his enemies, and that God’s people can ultimately rest assured that God will protect them—even when we can’t see how He’s working.




    In fact, that’s a good theme statement for Esther:


    God protects his people, even if we can’t see how he is working. 


    In a world where God’s invisible, the faithful can often wonder if God is really at work.  But it’s important to remember that God’s acts of providence in our world are most commonly done with a hidden hand.  His work can be so easily overlooked.  And sometimes, it’s that subtlety of his actions that makes His deliverance all the more powerful.




    So…Esther.  Let me summarize the story.  In the first two chapters a young Jewish girl named Esther rises in King Xerxes’ favor, such that he makes her his queen.  Her cousin, Mordecai overhears a plot to kill Xerxes, and so he informs Esther of this.  Esther alerts the king and the plot is stopped.  In chapter 3 the Jews face a crisis.  A man named Haman is promoted in the king’s court, and he’s offended when Mordecai won’t pay homage to him.  To exact his revenge, Haman doesn’t go after Mordecai alone, but seeks a decree to have all the Jews in Persia exterminated.  Mordecai persuades Esther to help.  She petitions the king to spare the Jews, and he takes action on their behalf.  Meanwhile, the king unwittingly humiliates Haman by forcing him to publicly honor Mordecai.  And, when Haman’s plot is thwarted, he’s executed.


    That’s the story; let’s touch on a few important themes.


    A.  God will judge.


    First, God will bring judgment on the wicked.  The villain here is Haman.  He’s guilty of pride, arrogance, attempted murder, and attempted genocide.  Worst of all, he’s directed his sin specifically and directly against God’s people, which is to say, against God himself.  His evil is not random or merely selfish:  it is willfully and intentionally directed against the people and purposes of God.  Haman is an archetype of the enemies of God.


    But we see in the story that in God’s providence, all Haman’s plans backfire on him.  Haman wants to humiliate Mordecai, but the king forces Haman to honor Mordecai publicly.  Haman wants to murder Mordecai by impaling him on a pole; but the king executes Haman by hanging him on that very same pole.  Haman wants to eliminate the Jews in a mass, empire-wide genocide.  Instead, God uses the occasion to allow the Jews to not only defend themselves, but to triumph over their enemies.  We read in 9:2, “The Jews gathered in their cities throughout all the provinces of King Ahasuerus to lay hands on those who sought their harm. And no one could stand against them, for the fear of them had fallen on all peoples.


    God does judge the wicked - sometimes even in this life.  And so Christians should have peace about trials in this life, confident that God will bring justice.


    B.  God works through circumstances.


    Note how Mordecai persuades Esther to rescue her people from this sentence of death.  “who knows whether you have not come to the kingdom for such a time as this?”  Mordecai asks in 4:14.  Mordecai believes that there is a purpose to Esther’s becoming queen, and that her purpose is made clear by the opportunity presented to help save God’s people.  God uses earthly instruments, like people’s actions, to accomplish His plans.  In fact, as you look across the Scriptures you’ll notice how rare it is that his miracles take the form of the abrupt disruption of history that you might see, say, in the Exodus.  Rather, he uses people, situations, events, all quite naturally, very inconspicuously, towards the end He intends.  Mordecai is telling Esther that she should understand herself and her queenship to be the instrument by which God accomplishes his purposes.  Doubtless, God does not need any particular person or circumstance to achieve his purposes.  But he’s ordained to use people like Esther—and us—to spread his word and redeem his people  “It could be you!” Mordecai is saying, “You could be that instrument!  How exciting!”  And to that he says, “Who knows?”  Indeed, who knows?


    There are no accidents or coincidences in life.  God guides and directs all of his creation, and that means he guides the circumstances of your life as well.  We should carefully examine the situations God puts us in and look for opportunities for to serve our Lord and savior.  Who knows what God will do with those little acts of faithfulness?


    C.  God will save his people


    The theological point? God zealously protects His people.  This is one major theme of the entire Bible, and it’s clearly the point of this little story of Esther.  It’s not always clear at the time how God is working or how things will turn out in the end, but God delivers his people and carries his redemptive plan forward.  And note that they way God achieved Israel’s deliverance in this situation maximized his own glory and pretty much prevented Mordecai or Esther from taking credit or boasting about anything.  In fact, God’s purposes and salvation in this book are even deeper and more meaningful than events on the surface might suggest.  Do you remember when Sauls’ kingship failed?  It was when he refused to carry out God’s command to totally destroy the Amalekites and their king Agag.  (1 Sam. 15).  Well, we find out in 2:5 that Mordecai is a distant descendent of king Saul and, 9:24, Haman of king Agag.  In God’s kindness, his rescue of his people results in redemption for the line of Saul, centuries after he disobeyed command.  Certainly no accident that these genealogical details are brought to light in this book.




    So what do we take away from these three books on living in this “in-between” time?  When God is still waiting to finish delivering on his promises?  Well, we need to trust that God is at work, even when we can’t see it.  Like we saw in Esther.  Our job, like queen Esther’s and the people in the land, is to be faithful with the opportunities we can see.  But ultimately, we’re dependent on God to secure that obedience, as we see the failure at the end of Neheimiah pointing ahead to God’s greater provision in Christ.







    [1] Only since the early Middle Ages have they been published as two books. 

    [2] It had been destroyed only 50 years earlier, even though the exile itself had begun over 70 years earlier.