BIBLE STUDY The Book of
This study notes provide the core content of a group of bible studies on the Book of Ezra. While the core message of the study has been captured for you to read, written text can not fully express the sense of anointing upon the discussion of the word or the joy of corporate fellowship. We encourage you to pray before you begin reading that the Lord would open your heart and mind to be receptive and responsive to God’s message contained within this study. There may be times when you find it difficult to reconcile God’s truth to your own opinion or worldview, God’s truth is eternal, it does not change, our understanding of the truth does change as we allow God to work in our hearts and minds.
Ezra - an introduction Ezra - Who was He? Read: Ezra 7 v 1 - 6. (priest, scribe, expert in the law.) Ezra 7 v 10 (devoted, motivated) Ezra 7 v 21 (good position, respected) Ezra 7 v 25 (wise, Godly) Ezra 10 v 1 & 6 (man of prayer/fasting, influential) Ezra is considered to have written 1 & 2 Chronicles, Ezra, Nehemiah and possibly Psalm 119. He documented events carefully. As well as knowing the word of God, he spoke it and acted on it. (Ezra & Nehemiah were originally one book.) A (very brief!!) History of World Empires 1. Egypt was in decline. Judah and Israel were often inclined to form alliances with Egypt against invaders from the north. 2. Assyria in the north exiled Israel (the ten northern tribes) but their empire fell to the Babylonians in 612 B.C. 3. Nebuchadnezzar, ruler of Babylon, captured Jerusalem and carried the people of Judah away captive. (2 Chronicles 36 v 15 - 20.) 4. The Persian empire overthrew Babylon. The Persian Empire was greater than its predecessors and also more humane. Cyrus, King of Persia, ordained that all exiles could return home* and that The Temple should be rebuilt in Jerusalem. (2 Chron 36 v 21 – 23 and Ezra 1) *This edict was inscribed on a clay cylinder and is, even today, still in existence and owned by the British Museum (exhibit no. ANE90920) – presently on loan to the museum of Iran 5. The Persian Empire was eventually overrun by Alexander the Great in 331B.C. forming the Greek Empire. 6. The Roman Empire succeeded the Greek Empire. This was the greatest and last world empire. Themes in the Book of Ezra History is controlled by God The Jews return - prophecy fulfilled Rededication and commitment Overcoming opposition Encouragement and direction from God’s Word Going forward in Faith Keeping marriage pure Keeping our faith pure
Ezra chapter 1 Picture the scene. The place is Babylon. Thousands of Israelites were living here in exile and this had been their fate for 70 years (see point 3 above) – according to the prophecy of Jeremiah (chapter 25v11). They lamented the loss of their homeland and Jerusalem. Read Psalm 137v1. Many had died and many more had been born in this foreign land. Some had made themselves a home in this country – but the rest yearned for their homeland and Jerusalem, and to once again be able to worship in the Temple. Read verse 1 This was a pivotal point in world history, and in the history of God’s people (see point 4 above). Under Cyrus, Babylon became Persia and as was the norm the new King issued decrees at the beginning of his reign. And God miraculously used King Cyrus to change the fortunes of his people “the Lord moved his heart”. See also Isaiah 45v13. 2
Read verse 2-4 · Although a gentile Cyrus acknowledged God · Cyrus gave all exiles the opportunity to return to their homelands (not just the Jews) · It was Cyrus who pushed for the rebuilding of the Temple · Cyrus encouraged the people to give Q. What lesson can we learn from verses 1 and 2 of Ezra? History is controlled by God. He will work out his purposes in our individual lives, in our families and in our circumstances, even at national levels. God is not remote and not slow in acting. Read verses 5 & 6 There is an onus on the heads of families and on the leaders in the church to be willing and ready to take the lead (family heads, priests and Levites). For any family or church to function in unity the impetus should come from the top. When God moves in people’s hearts (v5) it is important for all to respond in unity of purpose. The Israelites demonstrated this in that everyone became involved. If they couldn’t go themselves, they could give to assist others. Q. To what degree are we prepared to assist in the whole church moving forward and being blessed of God? (Financial, prayer etc) Do we see it as a burden or a responsibility or a ministry? Read verses 7-11 When God is in the project his presence is often confirmed by miracles and by the Holy Spirit working in the hearts of non-believers. Cyrus, the pagan Persian king, having given permission for the exiles to return to Jerusalem, now also assists them by returning all the gold and silver items that the Babylonians had confiscated from the Temple years before – 5,400 in all. This was a generous act from a pagan king. It was a miracle in itself that God had protected all these Temple items – millions of pounds worth, in today’s money. Daniel was one of the prophets in captivity and it was during his ministry that Belshazzar, the Babylonian king sacrilegiously used the Temple articles for his great feast. That was the night he saw the “writing on the wall” and Daniel prophesied the collapse of his kingdom. (See Daniel 5v25). Sheshbazzar was one of the leaders. This may have been Zerubbabel (often leading Jews were given Babylonian names) or it may have been someone sent to assist Zerubbabel. Zerubbabel was important as the governor who headed up the return and rebuild of the Temple. He was also important because if Israel had been a nation state (which they no longer were) he would very likely have been their king. Zerubbabel is mentioned in the lineage of Jesus in Matthew 1v12&13) and was a descendant of David.
Ezra chapter 2
Read verses 1&2 Ezra documents carefully all those who returned, starting with these 11/12 men (Nehemiah also includes Nahamani to the list, making 12, therefore 1 representative for each tribe). He then goes on to list everyone else. Verses 3-20: Verses 21-35: Verses 36-39: Verse 40: Verse 41: Verse 42: Verses 43-58: Verses 59&62: Verses 64-67:
the men of the people of Israel (5,604) the men of Bethlehem (8,540) the Priests (4,289) the Levites (74) the Musicians (128) the Gatekeepers (341) Temple Servants & descendants of Solomon (392) those of unknown descent, including priests (652) the whole company numbered nearly 50,000 people and over 8,000 animals. 3
They all travelled over 600 miles (as the crow flies, probably nearer 1,000 miles) back to Jerusalem and back to their inheritance. Read verses 68-70: They gave according to their ability, in other words those who had more gave more – but they all gave, millions of pounds in all. With gladness they resettled, each according to their inheritance (hence the importance of the careful documentation and the use of the Urim and Thummim when in doubt).
Ezra chapter 3
Read verses 1-3 The first lot of exiles had returned with great rejoicing; with permission from Cyrus, and with the commission to rebuild the Temple. But it wasn’t all about the building! Before construction on the Temple could begin, the altar was to be rebuilt. Q. In our lives, what do the Temple and the Altar represent? What was the purpose of the altar? On a personal basis what does verse 2 teach us about our priorities? See Matthew 6v33 Joshua the Priest and Zerubbabel the Governor took the lead in rebuilding the altar, but it is noticeable that there was one other important element – all of the people. Q. How can we follow their example? Other people had moved in to the land when the Jews were in exile and they were not best pleased when the exiles returned to claim their land and rebuild their temple. But, despite their fear, the Israelites built the altar and sacrificed burnt offerings. Summary of Types of Offerings Burnt offering (often with grain/ drink offerings)
Presented to God alone
Denoted worship and surrender
Fellowship offering For God & people Denoted communion Thanksgiving and shared meal Sin offering Blood alone No enjoyment of the Guilt offerings presented to God sacrifice. The people were freed from sin. Read verses 4-6 The rebuilding of the altar was achieved in time for the important seasonal sacrifices and celebrations, most of which happened in the seventh month (equating roughly to Sept/Oct in our calendar): Month Seven – Tishri 1st Day: Feast of Trumpets Beginning of Civil New Year 10th Day: Day of Atonement National Repentance 15th-21st: Feast of Tabernacles (Booths) To remember entrance into the Promised Land So they celebrated new beginnings and made atonement for the sins of the people. These feasts helped them to understand · the importance of keeping “short accounts” with God · the importance of fellowship and working together
Read verses 7-9 The people had brought huge amounts of money with them and now used this to buy in materials from Tyre and Sidon (famously the cedars of Lebanon) and once these were ready they began the work. The priests and Levites (all over the age of 20) joined together to supervise the building. Her we see the importance of unity in the leadership. Read verses 10-13 There was great rejoicing and celebration at the completion of the foundations. All the people joined in. Q. Why do you suppose that unity has been stressed 3 times in this chapter? How can we apply it to our work for the Lord? Who were the exceptions (v.12)?
Ezra chapter 4 (Verses 6-23 of this chapter deal with later opposition under future Persian kings – Xerxes and Artaxerxes - and refer to the rebuilding of the city, not the Temple; they do not fit chronologically with the story until after chapter 6)
Read verses 1-5 and verses 24: Enemies and opposition These enemies were Samaritans – people who had been relocated to Israel by the Assyrians years before. They were Israelites in that they lived in Israel but they were not descended from Jewish families. This was subtle opposition, because they claimed to worship God but in reality they did not. Zerubbabel knew that Israel was a nation “set apart” – compromise with other faiths and intermarriage was not allowed by God – and so he declined their help. So these pagan locals tried to discourage the building by bribing the Persian officials to frustrate their plans. Q. How do we define our enemies? Q. How can people be both a neighbour and an enemy? Q. How did Zerubbabel react and how should we react?
Verse 24 reveals that this opposition slowed the work to a standstill. And it also tells us that King Cyrus (who had given the Jews permission to go home and rebuild) had been succeeded by King Darius.
Ezra chapter 5 Containing the account of the letter from Tattenai (the Persian governor) to King Darius.
Read verses 1-7: God sends encouragement First of all we notice that the prophets now got involved with encouraging the people to continue in rebuilding the Temple. Both Haggai and Zechariah were contemporary with these events (prophesied around 520-510 BC). This shows the importance of the spoken word of God. The priests and scribes had the scriptures, but the prophets – sent by God - conveyed the word of God on a daily basis and spoke into specific situations. What started as local opposition was becoming a national and political problem. Tattenai (the Persian governor) wanted to know about names and authorisation so that the case could be checked out against the (immutable) Persian law. 5
Q. How can the authority of governments conflict with the authority of God’s Word? Q. Can words of prophecy make a difference to us today? Read verses 6-17: Tattenai’s letter to the Persian King, Darius. Tattenai may have had concerns because when the construction of the Temple started it may have looked like a fortress and maybe a threat to Persian rule. And so he wrote the letter in which he firstly noted the diligence of God’s people (v8). He recounted on their behalf, the history of the Temple and the decree in which Cyrus gave them permission to build, and which made provision for the funds to do this. He represented the Israelites fairly. Q. How did Joshua and Zerubbabel conduct themselves (mentioned in Tattenai’s letter) and how did this affect the outcome?
Ezra chapter 6 Read verses 1-12: Darius’ reply and a new royal decree. The original scroll (clay tablet) written by Cyrus was found and Darius was convinced that the Jews had the right to rebuild, giving his permission for the work to continue (7). He even offered more money and provision for the daily offerings! (v8-10). And finally he decreed dire consequences for any who opposed (v11-12). In 515BC the Temple was completed, 5 years after the prophets got involved. God had been faithful and he had used both faithful Jews and pagan laws and resources to achieve his will.
Q. Why did God allow Darius to help but not the Samaritans (4v3)? Read verses 13-18: the Temple completed and dedicated The Temple was completed in 515BC. God had been faithful – he had provided help from the people and leaders; from the prophets Haggai and Zechariah; and from the Persian Kings. The people rejoiced and celebrated, even though they could not do it on the scale that Solomon had 500 years before. They made 700 sacrifices, plus the sacrifice of 12 male goats – one for each tribe – as a rededication. And the priests and Levites were consecrated for their ministry. But one thing was missing from the new Temple – the Ark of the Covenant. This is a significant loss because the Ark was the Mercy Seat of God. In the Holy of Holies the Ark was the place of atonement, the place where (once a year) the High priest would enter with the blood of a perfect lamb to sprinkle on the lid of the Ark and make atonement for the sins of all Israel. The last mention of the Ark is in 2 Chron. 35 and 2 kings 23. It is not known what happened to the Ark. Jesus was the final sacrifice negating the need for the Ark anyway. Jews today simply have a day of prayer, fasting and reflection of their sins (Yom Kippur). Read verses 19-22: The Passover and dedication of the people The Passover feast was established when the Israelites were in the Wilderness to celebrate the exodus from Egypt. Notably, both Jews and proselytes (those who had converted to Judaism and had been circumcised) were all invited to join in (v21). God never intended for the Jewish race to be exclusive. God has always welcomed all who come to him in repentance. The Passover is about rededication of the people. Yeast was a symbol of the way in which evil works, so they ate unleavened bread to represent personal purification and dedication. They had proved God’s faithfulness once again and their hearts were filled with joy. Q. But do you think the project was all ‘plain sailing’?
Chapter 4 verses 6-23: In the meantime .... These verses which we omitted earlier in the study show how the opposition from the People of the Land (Samaritans/non-Jews) was a very longstanding affair and carried on for about a hundred years. It overlaps with Nehemiah’s story of when he is rebuilding the walls of the city. It is worth bearing in mind that God enabled his people to rebuild successfully, despite this constant opposition.
Ezra chapter 7 Some 50-60 years later Read verses 1-10: We considered Ezra’s qualities and qualifications in our introduction. Q. How did God use Ezra’s gifts. How can he use yours? Read verses 11-26: During the reign of Persian King Artaxerxes (457BC) The Jewish Remnant in Jerusalem were having a difficult time with local opposition. So God chose Ezra to lead a second group of refugees from Babylon to Jerusalem to bring physical, moral and spiritual support. With boldness Ezra approached the king in whose heart God was already working. Artaxerxes decreed that: · Ezra was to be appointed leader with authorisation to act (v25) · The Jews were allowed to leave Babylon and go to Jerusalem (v13) · Money was to be given from the Royal Treasury (v22) · Animals for sacrifices were to be provided (v17) Artaxerxes obviously feared God and wanted his blessing (v23) Read verses 27&28: Ezra recognised God’s hand in all of the events and wrote his own ‘mini-psalm’ of praise because, he said, “God’s hand was upon me”. Q. Have you ever thought of writing your own Psalms? How do you think it would be helpful?
Ezra chapter 8 Read verses 1-14: Preparing to go back With the backing of King Artaxerxes of Persia, Ezra assembled the various heads of families and their descendants in preparation for their emigration to Jerusalem. This was a new generation of Israelites who had been born in captivity in Babylon. A total of 1,515 men (plus women and children) agreed to go with Ezra – and many of these, if you compare the names, were descended from the first group who had returned 70 years before. Read verses 15-20: Something was missing!! They were ready to leave from the assembly point at Ahava when they realised that something was missing. There were no priests or temple workers – no one to pray and minister to the needs of the people on their journey. Q. Is it possible to be so taken up with doing God’s work that we forget to involve God? 7
Read verses 21-23: Getting our priorities right At the very beginning, before setting forth, Ezra proclaimed a fast. Q. What was the purpose of the fast? In faith, Ezra had made a point of telling the king that God would protect them on the journey. With a richly laden caravan of slow moving people he realised how vulnerable they would be on the long journey (which was to take four months). Ezra and the people therefore prayed and put all their trust in God. Fasting was a way of humbling themselves and submitting to God’s will. (Note: verse 31 tells us that God did indeed protect them from enemies and bandits on the way.) Ezra’s whole argument was a spiritual one – if God wasn’t with them they shouldn’t be going anyway. Read verses 24-30: Ezra entrusted the treasures to the 12 leading priests – one representative of each tribe. These priests were servants of God and of the people. The treasure was to be used in God’s service. Q. In what way, as Christian pilgrims on a journey, do we have a similar responsibility with the treasures/gifts that God gives us? Read verses 31-36: Mission accomplished Eight or nine hundred miles on, they arrived safely in Jerusalem, thanks to God’s guiding and protecting hand. By refusing the kings offer of an armed guard they had proved God’s faithfulness once again to themselves, but also to the heathen nations. Then they rested. Some of the greatest people in the Bible spent time resting (v 32). Q. Can you think of some? Rest is important, which is why God ordained that the seventh day would be a day of rest and worship. “He leads me beside still waters. He refreshes my soul.” (Psalm 23) They rested, and after giving the offerings to the House of God, they worshipped.
Ezra chapter 9 Read verses 1&2: Intermarriage Many of the people had sinned against God’s Laws in the area of marriage, including the priests and Levites! (Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised in view of the practices of some Christians today – even Church leaders.) They had intermarried with heathen women and (according to Malachi 2v14) many had divorced their Jewish wives to do so. They had defiled the Holy Seed and disobeyed the Lord. Q. Why does sexual sin (and disobedience to God’s plan for marriage) damage the individual, the church – and even the country we live in? What is Marriage? · You can have a ‘living together’ marriage of emotions and sexual attraction but this more usually shortlived with no real commitment · You can have a legal marriage (in a Registry Office) which shows you are married in the eyes of the Law and denotes commitment but does not fulfil the Biblical requirements. · You can have a church (religious) marriage where the couple are married in God’s sight and are joined together by God and in God and promise to stay together for life. 8
The church marriage is what Jesus defines in Matthew 19v4-6: Haven’t you read that at the beginning the Creator made them male and female and said, “For this reason a man will leave his Father and Mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together let no man separate.” The purpose of marriage is not purely for mutual enjoyment Paul makes it clear that marriage is for sexual and emotional fulfilment to the extent that each other’s needs are met and there should be no need for either party to seek love elsewhere. But, God has also said in Genesis that the purpose of marriage is to provide the right setting for bringing up children. “Go forth and multiply”. Stable families make stable society. Marriage is a symbol of the union between Christ and His Church Paul says, in Ephesians 5v31-33: For this reason a man will leave his Father and his Mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh. This is a profound mystery – but I am talking about Christ and the church. When we damage marriage by acting outside these guidelines we damage our relationship with Christ. Ultimately the individual suffers, the family unit suffers and society also suffers.
Read verses 3-5: Ezra’s response to the news Imagine the anti-climax and disappointment for Ezra. He and the second influx of Jews had been so elated and overjoyed at their safe return to Jerusalem and their worship in the Temple. But on hearing the news that some Jews had married Canaanite women their joy was turned to dismay and sorrow. Q. What did Ezra do (v3) – and why (v5)? Before Ezra prayed he humbled himself and publicly expressed his grief. Tearing one’s garments was an outward symbol of the turmoil and horror in one’s heart. Ezra was simply appalled. Q. Why doesn’t this kind of news appal us today?
Read verses 6-9: Ezra’s prayer Ezra admits their sin but is thankful to God for his faithfulness. Q. What had God done for them (v9)?
Read verses 10-15: Ezra’s payer continued Notably Ezra identifies with Israel’s sin. He says “we” and “us”. One man’s sin affects the whole church – especially if nothing is done to correct it. Israel was one covenant nation before God; and we are One Body of Christ. The Israelites had become tainted by the culture of Babylon, and when they returned to Israel they were no longer offended by the practices of the Canaanites. Q. Can we become so accustomed to evil that it no longer shocks us and we no longer fear the judgment of God? Ezra pleads for God’s grace for the remnant of Israel – that the Lord would keep them and restore them.
Ezra chapter 10 Read verses 1-4: Shekaniah’s advice given Ezra’s emotional response drew the crowds to repentance. Amidst the emotion Shekaniah spoke words of truth and wisdom. Yes, the people had sinned. Yes, they deserved judgment. But God is a God of grace. There was still hope (v2) if the people would repent and resolve to put things right. Shekaniah also promised that the wrongdoers would be supported and encouraged by the congregation. It wouldn’t have been easy for Zechariah because we read in verse 26 that his own relatives were part of the problem. But he stuck fast to God’s word. Q. How much of a conflict is it for Christians today who have relatives in partnerships where God is not at the centre? What can they learn from Shekaniah?
Read verses 5-8: Shekaniah’s advice followed Ezra got everyone on board. But once again he withdrew, to fast and pray in repentance on behalf of the people. This passage demonstrates that we should never underestimate the power of our prayers, even if we feel at times that we are the only one praying for change in society. It also shows us that tears are just as important as joy. Tears and repentance are factors which motivate people to change. The people were called to gather in Jerusalem.
Read verses 9-17: The response of the people It was December, in the middle of the rainy season, but Ezra told the people what they must do (v11). Marriages to foreign wives were to be dissolved and the wives and children were to return to their families. Only 4 people rejected Ezra’s advice. Each family was looked at by name and after three months the task was completed. They discovered over 100 offenders which included 27 priests! God, in his grace, accepted their confession and repentance and forgave them. The book ends with a list of their names. Sadly, although they were forgiven, the pain of their actions would remain with the wives and children. ------ a d ------
Look again at the themes in the introduction (page 1) How can we be challenged and encouraged by them?
Anne O'Brien's detailed study on the book of Ezra