The Word: Ezra 1:1-8
The book of Ezra is named after the priest who returned from Persia to instruct the post-exilic community in the Torah of God. Interestingly, Ezra does not appear until more than halfway through the book (chap. 7). The first part of Ezra (chaps. 1—6) is centered on the initial return of the exiles from Babylon and the establishment of the second temple. In this section, the community faces various challenges and opposition as the members attempt to complete the temple project. Forced to stop work on the building, construction on the temple ceased for about 20 years, until the structure was completed under the auspices of the Persian government and the prophetic exhortation of Haggai and Zechariah. With the undertaking completed, the post-exilic community could move forward in their faith journey with the reconstructed temple functioning as a pivotal element of Jewish religious life until its destruction by Romans in AD 70.
The return of the priest Ezra inaugurates the second half of the book (chaps. 7—10). In this part of the book, a company of families, including other priests and servants of the temple, joined Ezra on the journey to the Judean homeland. Upon arrival, however, Ezra faced the problem of a community that had intermarried with spouses who did not worship Yahweh, the God of Israel. The closing section of the book (chaps. 9—10) records the aggressive steps Ezra and the leaders proposed to address the situation.
The study text for this week begins the story of the post-exilic community, as those living in Babylonia made their initial trek home after decades of living in captivity.
Today’s study shows us that regardless of our disobedience and human schemes, God always has a plan for His people, and He is faithful to bring it to fruition.
A. Cyrus: Liberator of God’s People (Read John 1:1-2)
Israel’s failure to obey God’s commandments had resulted in the loss of the Promised Land and their exile to Babylon. It was their faithlessness that brought them here, but God’s faithfulness that would bring them home.
Kevin Mellish, one of the lesson writers, writes: The book of Ezra opens with a reference to the first year of Cyrus king of Persia. Cyrus defeated the Babylonian armies in 539 BC, which the writer establishes as the first year of his reign. This date corresponds to Cyrus’ first year as ruler over the old Babylonian Empire (539-537 BC), even though Cyrus had been king over Elam since 559 BC and then extended his rule with subsequent conquests over the kingdoms of Persia, Media, Lydia, Assyria, and finally Babylonia. For the author of Ezra, however, Cyrus’ victory over the Babylonians, Judah’s captor, was so important for the Jewish community living in exile and what it meant for the people of God going forward, that this victory became the basis for marking the years of the reign of Cyrus.
The writer understood the military and political accomplishments of Cyrus to be events God had orchestrated, which the prophets had alluded to earlier. The prophet Jeremiah announced that the people would be subject to Babylon for 70 years (Jer. 25:11), but would return home after the allotted time had been completed (v. 10). All of this occurred, of course, in order to fulfill the word of the Lord. The writer of Isaiah 40—55 spoke of Cyrus as God’s instrument of deliverance/salvation, and even called him God’s anointed (45:1), a term that applied to the kings descending from the line of David.
God used Cyrus, a Gentile king, even though he was not a worshiper of the Israelite God. The text notes that the Lord moved the heart of Cyrus king of Persia to proclaim deliverance for the exiles. Ironically, the Hebrew word for moved (or “stirred up”†) is also applied in Chronicles to refer to foreign kings whom God “stirred up” to carry out judgment on Israel earlier (1 Chron. 5:26; 2 Chron. 21:16). Such language implies that God’s hand was at work in history and through historical figures to accomplish God’s redemptive purposes for His people, whether it was to bring judgment or deliverance. (Kevin Mellish*)
The first words of Cyrus’ edict were not to release the Israelites to return home, but rather to build a temple for God in Jerusalem.
o Knowing that the temple dedicated to the worship of God is the first priority, what should we learn about worship over human comforts—in our prayers, in our daily decisions, in how we use our resources of time and resources?
B. The Decree of Cyrus (Read Ezra 1:3-4)
Historically speaking, Cyrus was a revolutionary leader. Cyrus attempted to rule over his subjects with understanding and by granting a measure of autonomy. Cyrus practiced a foreign policy that was unlike the Assyrians and Babylonians before him. The latter ruled through fear, intimidation, and brutality. It was common practice for the Assyrians and Babylonians to deport the large population groups they conquered in order to confuse them and reduce the possibility of revolt. Cyrus, however, reversed this policy and allowed his subjects, not just the Israelites, to return to their homelands and reestablish their former cultural and religious practices.
The exiles received permission to go up to Jerusalem in Judah and rebuild the temple.
The returned exiles are referred to as survivors, which has the theological connotation of “remnant” (1 Chron. 13:2; 2 Chron. 30:6; 34:21; 36:20; Neh. 1:2-3). God, through His mercy and covenant faithfulness, did not allow the people of Israel to be destroyed completely. God preserved a remnant of His people to survive and reestablish their community and religious life. These survivors would also be supported by the Persian government, in much the same way the Israelites from the first exodus received assistance from the Egyptians (Exod. 3:21-22; 11:2; 12:35-36). In addition to financial aid and logistical supplies for the returnees, Cyrus provided the livestock for voluntary offerings for the temple (Ezra 3:5; 2 Chron. 31:14; 35:8). Later, the Persian king Darius supplied the material and animal resources the people needed to finish the temple and offer sacrifices at the new structure (Ezra 6:8-12).
C. The People Prepare to Return Home (1:5-8)
With permission for the exiles to return home, the text identifies different groups ready to make the journey: The family heads of Judah and Benjamin, and the priests and Levites. The list of returnees begins with a reference to the “heads of families,” who are also called “elders” in Ezra and Nehemiah.
God moved not only the heart of Cyrus (v. 1) as the leader but also the hearts of those He called to go build the temple (v. 5). In response, their neighbors offered gifts of value, and Cyrus himself returned all the articles Nebuchadnezzar had taken from the temple in Jerusalem.
When God reveals His plan, He also reveals His provision.
· In what ways have you seen God provide for a material need in your life or the life of another?
· In what ways have you seen God provide for a spiritual need in your life or the life of another?
· How have you seen God work through others to meet a need—either material or spiritual—in your life?
Connect to My Life and the World
God’s choice of Cyrus as the primary instrument of returning the exiled Israelites to their homeland shows us that race, nationality, gender, education, citizenship, power status, social status, nor even our level of belief in God can stand in the way of His divine plan.
· When we understand that God can use “people not like me” to accomplish His will, what difference will this make in how we treat people of other races, political opponents, immigrants, the economically disadvantaged, and the wealthy and powerful?
God gave His chosen people a chance to start over, in spite of their rebellion and their failure.
· How are we as Christians called to treat those who have betrayed us, used us, or attacked us? Does everyone deserve a second chance? Why or why not?
Verses 4 and 6 show the abundance of God’s goodness to His people.
· Can you relate a time when God showered you with an abundance of goodness far beyond what you expected or deserved? Explain.
· How should we respond to such blessings?
· Could God move the hearts of world leaders today to do something that would favor Christians?
*KEVIN MELLISH is associate professor of Hebrew Bible and chair of the department of biblical studies at Olivet Nazarene University, Bourbonnais, Illinois, and author of 1 and 2 Samuel in the New Beacon Bible Commentary series.
Material for this lesson is found in: Faith Connections Leaders Guide Summer 20 Illustrated Bible Life Summer 20 Reflecting God Summer 20 Holy Bible (various translations)