The Global Message of Ezra
The Big Picture of Ezra
The central message of the book of Ezra is found in Ezra the scribe’s moving confession on behalf of his people (Ezra 9:6–15). God had justly sent Israel into exile for its sins (9:6–7), but, in his perfect timing, the Jews who later returned to Jerusalem have received God’s grace to revive them (9:8). God’s mighty hand has stirred the Persians to send the Jews home with supplies to rebuild the temple in Jerusalem (9:9).
The completion of this task is in jeopardy, however, not from the Persian kings or external enemies but from within the community of faith itself—God’s unholy people who dwell in God’s holy city (9:10–12). Exile threatens to repeat itself unless the Jews repent from intermarrying with the peoples of the land (9:13–15).
Though Ezra’s confession occurs in the second half of the book, its themes are found throughout this book. The two parts of the book of Ezra (chs. 1–6 and chs. 7–10) narrate historical events separated by about seventy years (compare 1:1; 7:1). Yet Ezra 1–6 and Ezra 7–10 share an important feature: both sections record the struggles of the Jewish remnant to stay faithful to the God who has graciously brought them home from exile.
The Global Message of Ezra
How does a book about Jews returning to Jerusalem contain global good news?
Blessing the nations. The international scope of the Lord’s plan becomes evident from the first verse. The book of Ezra begins in Hebrew with the word “and” (Ezra 1:1), indicating that exile to Babylon will not be the end of the story. Israel’s defeat hardly proved that Babylon’s gods were stronger than the God of Israel—quite the opposite! Exile was just a forerunner to a new stage of history in which God would show his sovereignty over all nations. As God promised through the prophet Jeremiah (2 Chron. 36:22; Ezra 1:1), the exile of his people to Babylon (2 Chron. 36:17–21) would be followed seventy years later by a return to the land (Jer. 25:11; 29:10). The sojourn in Babylon would be God’s special way of preparing Israel to be a global blessing once again (Jer. 29:11–14). The nation would fulfill its original commission to bless the other nations of the world (Jer. 31:7; 33:9).
God’s surprising deliverance. The promise of such a glorious restoration seems to fly in the face of reality. Much like Egypt in Exodus, Babylon was an arrogant superpower that would never liberate Israel willingly. But in the just providence of God, Babylon collapses under the weight of its own pride (see Daniel 5) and falls to Medo-Persia, a gentler empire with a rather different foreign policy. The book of Ezra tells us that “the Lord stirred up the spirit of Cyrus king of Persia” (Ezra 1:1) to send Israel back to its homeland. Cyrus provides Israel with supplies to rebuild the temple in Jerusalem (1:2–4). Much as God once granted Israel favor with the Egyptians (Ex. 3:22; 12:36), Israel receives favor from the Persians, who give them precious metals (Ezra 1:4) and return the temple’s instruments of worship (1:6–11).
God also directs later Persian kings such as Darius and Artaxerxes to ensure that the Jews receive all that they need to revive their worship in Jerusalem (Ezra 6:6–12; 7:11–26). Each Persian king mentioned in the book of Ezra pays his respects to the “God of heaven” (1:2; 6:9, 10; 7:12, 21, 23). Ezra rightly praises God for touching the hearts of these kings (7:27–28).
A universal language. It is not only the story line of Ezra that emphasizes God’s lordship over the nations; even the language of the book underscores this, for it sometimes shifts to Aramaic (Ezra 4:8–6:18; 7:12–26). This is significant because Aramaic was the international language of diplomacy in the Near East, whereas Hebrew was the specific language of the Jews. The God of Israel possesses authority over all peoples.
Intermarriage. Given these universal purposes of God, why is the book of Ezra so harsh in condemning intermarriage with other peoples, even to the point of describing how the Jews banished their foreign wives and children (Ezra 9–10)? The issue at stake here, however, is spiritual compromise rather than ethnic bias. As Ezra’s confession indicates (9:10–15), intermarriage with the peoples was a return to the same sins that led Israel into exile in the first place. The spiritual condition of Israel was grave—even the priests of Ezra’s time were guilty of intermarriage (10:5, 18). Since their leaders had led the way in rebelling against God, it was necessary for the Jews to take drastic measures in separating from the pagan influences brought by intermarriage. Otherwise God’s judgment in the form of exile could easily have been repeated.
The Global Message of Ezra for Today
Though the book of Ezra narrates the activities of a tiny Jewish community, their story of repentance and redemption has three major implications for the global church today.
God’s redemption and the world powers. First, God reigns supreme over all human powers, both cruel (Babylon) and gentler (Persia) ones. God may allow proud empires to have their day in the sun, but he also reserves the right to replace them when it suits his global purposes. So the political loyalties of Christians must belong, first and foremost, to the only King whose rule is eternal: “his dominion is an everlasting dominion, which shall not pass away, and his kingdom one that shall not be destroyed” (Dan. 7:14). Our allegiances must align with God’s indestructible kingdom rather than with the fate of a particular country or political cause.
God’s redemption and his people’s suffering. Second, the children of God should differ from the world in how they view suffering. Unlike other ancient and modern peoples, they can have confidence that God is equally at work in victory and defeat. The book of Ezra shows us that the sovereignty of God extends even to the suffering of his oppressed people. The numerous miracles that God accomplished for the Jews in restoring them to the land did not spare them from suffering—instead, the eyes of God watched over his people even as he allowed their enemies to oppose them (Ezra 5:5). This truth finds its ultimate expression in how the crucifixion of Jesus Christ, an apparent defeat from a human perspective, actually proved to be God’s greatest victory over the powers of this world (Col. 2:14–15).
God’s redemption and his people’s sin. Third and finally, the description of the Jews in Ezra shows that the greatest threat to God’s global purposes is his own people who will not—or cannot—stay faithful to him. The Old Testament prophets had predicted a glorious restoration of Israel to the land. But the various struggles of the Jews who returned from exile seemed anything but glorious. The temple rebuilt in Ezra 4–6 did not remain forever—it was eventually destroyed by the Romans in a.d. 70. Spiritual apathy had begun long before this, however. Within a single generation after the rebuilt temple’s dedication (6:19–22), the Jews of Ezra’s time walked away from God (see Ezra 9–10; also Nehemiah 13). The spiritual problem of human hearts that cannot stay faithful to God finds its only solution in the saving grace of Jesus Christ. He is in himself a new temple (John 1:14; 2:18–21). Through his atoning work he has restored God’s presence to his people—the very reason the temple existed. And through the work of Jesus and the Holy Spirit, God is now building his church into a new temple in Christ that will embody his presence in the world (1 Cor. 3:16–17; Eph. 2:21; 1 Pet. 2:5).