Weekly Thought: Encouragement from Every Book Ezra: A Restored People
After many years of suffering and darkness in exile for God’s people in Babylon, hope springs anew in the book of Ezra. Amazingly, the Lord stirs up the pagan king Cyrus to allow a group of the exiled Jews to return home to Jerusalem and rebuild the holy temple of God. The Lord’s faithfulness is evident in his way of working; he stirs up the heart of the king for his purposes and for the good of his people. Finally, after the shame of the destruction of the temple and the disorientation of living in a foreign land, there is light and a new beginning for Israel. Cyrus even provides all the resources needed for this group to be successful in accomplishing the task of building the temple. Led by Zerubbabel, God’s people head for home and a fresh start.
Yet, as we read throughout the book of Ezra, we discover that the work of rebuilding and restoration is far from simple. Due to apathy, opposition, and discouragement, it takes nearly twenty years for the construction of the temple to be finally completed. Through it all, though, God is faithful and the temple rises from the rubble once more. Naturally, this is an occasion of worship and great rejoicing in what God had done:
“And the people of Israel, the priests and the Levites, and the rest of the returned exiles, celebrated the dedication of this house of God with joy” (Ezra 6:16).
“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 to them, so that he aided them in the work of the house of God, the God of Israel” (Ezra 6:22).
This picture of true worship and joyful thanksgiving would provide a lovely and tidy ending to the story for God’s people. After brokenness, now we see restoration. Out of the decades of sorrow arises a new moment of joy. Through failure, God provides redemption. However, as the book of Ezra makes clear, the completion of the physical temple is not the end. There is much more work to be done. True restoration is about more than right ritual or joyful worship.
This is where Ezra comes onto the scene. Nearly sixty years after the temple has been established, the scribe Ezra is sent to Jerusalem to continue the mission of restoration in a new way. His work is more than mere physical labor. His task is to teach and to help rebuild the people, to renew their covenant faithfulness and commitment to the Law of God. While the rebuilding of a physical holy place—the temple—was a clear sign of hope and of God’s presence, God also desires for his own people to be holy and set apart in every way, not just in the visible symbols of cedar and stone. As is evident in Ezra 7:9-10, Ezra is just the man for the job:
“For on the first day of the first month he began to go up from Babylonia, and on the first day of the fifth month he came to Jerusalem, for the good hand of his God was on him. 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.”
Ezra reflects what should be the attitude of all who seek God’s will: setting in our heart to not only study God’s Word but also to do it and to teach it to others. For God’s people to be truly faithful and holy, they need leaders like Ezra who have deep-rooted desire to learn, obey, and proclaim.
Even with the right disposition of heart, Ezra realized that in his day, restoration and renewal requires hard work and difficult choices because the challenges he faced were very great. This reality is on display in Ezra 9 as he is informed about Israel’s serious sin:
“The people of Israel and the priests and the Levites have not separated themselves from the peoples of the lands with their abominations, from the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Jebusites, the Ammonites, the Moabites, the Egyptians, and the Amorites. For they have taken some of their daughters to be wives for themselves and for their sons, so that the holy
race[a] has mixed itself with the peoples of the lands. And in this faithlessness the hand of the officials and chief men has been foremost.” As soon as I heard this, I tore my garment and my cloak and pulled hair from my head and beard and sat appalled. Then all who trembled at the words of the God of Israel, because of the faithlessness of the returned exiles, gathered around me while I sat appalled until the evening sacrifice” (Ezra 9:1-4).
The holy temple was a sign and symbol of God’s distinct and special presence among Israel, who were supposed to be set apart and holy in the way that they lived. Yet, they were not living up to that call to purity. In fact, they were marrying foreigners of other lands and were participating in their abominations, which was one of the major reasons they ended up in exile in the first place. They became just like every other nation in idolatry, in wickedness, and in injustice. These marriages threatened their mission to rebuild as a holy people devoted to the Lord and his law because they were directly disobeying God in aligning with foreign nations.
Ezra’s response to Israel’s sin shows what is needed for true restoration. In his heartfelt and heart-wrenching prayer to the Lord, he responds in total recognition of the gravity of the
people’s sin, an appeal to God’s mercy and love, and a call to repentance. Notice these aspects in portions of Ezra’s prayer:
“O my God, I am ashamed and blush to lift my face to you, my God, for our iniquities have risen higher than our heads, and our guilt has mounted up to the heavens. From the days of our fathers to this day we have been in great guilt. And for our iniquities we, our kings, and our priests have been given into the hand of the kings of the lands, to the sword, to captivity, to plundering, and to utter shame, as it is today” (Ezra 9:6-7).
“For we are slaves. Yet our God has not forsaken us in our slavery, but has extended to us his steadfast love before the kings of Persia, to grant us some reviving to set up the house of our God, to repair its ruins, and to give us protection in Judea and Jerusalem.” (Ezra 9:9)
“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.” (Ezra 9:15)
In his praying, Ezra does not make an attempt to hide or to diminish the weightiness of the sins that the people have committed. He openly admits how undeserving and ungrateful Israel has been. He also recognizes God’s steadfast love despite their unfaithfulness. It is clear that Israel’s only hope is the mercy and longsuffering love of God. And in his praying, he demonstrates his understanding of the need for repentance, that the people turn back to the Word of God as spoken in the Law and the Prophets. Ezra’s praying, fasting, confessing, and weeping before God leads the people to be heartbroken over their own sin, and they decide to make a
covenant to repent and do what is right. The people attempt to turn back to holiness in their marriage relationships and in their association with pagan nations.
This account from God’s word reminds us that restoration to what God wants us to be must begin with an intensely honest admission of our guilt before the Lord, with a broken heart concerning sin, a reliance on God’s mercy, and a commitment to change for the better. Ezra reminds us that holiness must be utterly pervasive in the lives of God’s people. It’s not just about the outward appearance or in physical buildings or in the worship of the mouth. It’s about a heart to God’s will and a courage to make tough decisions in order to obey that will. It’s about being totally holy in our hearts, in our relationships, in our families, and in everything we do. The Lord Jesus has set before us a holy standard to follow, one that leaves no area of our lives untouched. Being a restored and holy people of God’s own possession requires a consistent evaluation of our lives in relation to Jesus and a constant willingness to lament and repent when we fail to live up to it. And when we do that and rely on God’s mercy and faithfulness to help as we do, we can have joyful confidence that God is restoring, refreshing, and renewing his people in his love, grace, and forgiveness.