Bible Studies on Ezra Lesson 4: The God Who Restores

Scripture Reading: Ezra 1:1–70

Background Reading: John 10:1–6, 22–30; Revelation 20:11–15

Discussion Starters

1. God lists the names of some but not all persons who made the return trip from Babylon. What role is attached to those whose names are given? Of what significance is that for today? (See note 4:1.)

2. In spite of the difficulties encountered in reading all these Israelite names, what comfort can be found in having God include this listing in His Word? (Do the background reading suggested above.)

3. The list of persons is not one homogeneous compilation but at least three sub-lists: verses 3–35 is made up of laity, while verses 36–58 could be classified as clergy, and verses 59–63 as those who could not identify their roots. Within the list of laity, verses 3–20 are classified by family names (i.e., by head of household), while verses 21–35 are listed by town. What theological significance might be ascribed to this?

4. What significance is there in the separate listing (vv. 36–58) of “the priests, . . . the Levites, . . . the singers, . . . and the sons of the gatekeepers”? Why should the clergy be singled out? (See note 4:40.)

5. Verses 59–63 list those who “could not identify their father’s house or genealogy.” Since they had obviously been moved by the Holy Spirit (1:5) to make the trip, why would their genealogy and home town still be important? From what privileges were they excluded? (See note 4:59.)

6. Simple addition of all the numbers given in verses 3–61 does not result in the figure of 42,360 given in verse 64. It does, however, conform to the total cited in Nehemiah 7:66. How would you justify these figures to a skeptic who would cite this as another example of biblical error? (See note 4:64.3.)

7. How was the rebuilding of the temple financed? Did all of the people contribute? Is there an implied defense of freewill offering versus tithing? What did King Cyrus contribute? From what other source did contributions come? (See note 4:68.)

8. Of what significance is there in the fact that “all Israel . . . dwelt in their cities”? Would they have been sinning if they had settled in some place other than their home town? (See note 4:70.)

Text Notes on Discussion Starters

4:1.1 We need to ask once again the object or purpose for this particular, and even peculiar, history coming down to us as the canon of Scripture. What is the object and plan of the author? Is it to give us some fascinating historical information, or is it to introduce us to the one who controls history? Is this a history lesson, or is it a theology lesson given to us via selected historical data? I want to suggest to you once again that this book is primarily about God, about who He is, the way He works, and the way He wants to be worshipped. Ezra is about the God who releases His people from captivity, the one who “proclaims freedom for the prisoners” and release from oppression (Luke 4:18–19). God is providing for the needs of His people as they go back to Jerusalem, but He is doing so by moving their hearts to do His will. This is quite different from the story of Israel wandering through the wilderness, where God directly made water come from a rock, where He sent manna and quail every day. God is not now using miracles but is using human agents whom He has appointed. Instead of miracles, we read now the story of providential guidance and of homely virtues winning the hearts of the captors. Instead of a pharaoh, whose heart was progressively hardened, we read of a Cyrus, who was surprised by prophecy and moved to compliance by grace and mercy.

4:1.2 This chapter is not about events! Notice that the story is about people and not about events, even though rather amazing events had to have taken place. According to the numbers given to us in Ezra 2:64–65, and corroborated by Nehemiah 7:66, there is a rather sizable migration of people and animals that are going to set out on this long journey. There are almost 50,000 people, counting the 7,337 servants and the 200 singers, a sharp contrast with more than 2,000,000 who came out of Egypt and went into the Promised Land. It is, in terms of distance, considerably longer than the journey from Egypt to Canaan, but in terms of time, considerably shorter. The route taken by this first return group would have taken it upstream along the Euphrates River to the city of Aleppo and thence southward along the Mediterranean Sea coast down to Jerusalem. This would have been a trip of some one thousand miles, which took them four months of time. Obviously there were some interesting, noteworthy events that occurred to God’s people on that trip. Events must have happened that were worthy of being reported and recorded for posterity, but they are not recorded for us by God in His holy Word. There probably were also some emotional reactions coming from the people as they entered Jerusalem for the first time and as they returned to their home villages. By telling us nothing about the trip or about their arrival, God is saying to us, in effect, that other things are His concern; other matters need to have our attention. This is not a travelogue.

4:4 The returnees are listed by family name, or the “heads of the father’s houses” (Ezra 1:5), referring to the patriarchs of extended families. God’s people are not just nameless faces or numbers on a computer screen. The church is composed of people, with individual personalities, individual needs, and individual names. God gives us these names here in Ezra 2 and then again in Nehemiah 7 because He wants us to know that all of us are important to Him. Christ said to His disciples that the Good Shepherd knows all of His sheep by name, and that all of His sheep know His voice (John 10:4, 27). That is the way it was with Israel throughout the Old Testament.

4:40 The restoration is limited. “The family heads of Judah and Benjamin” (1:5) refers just to those two tribes that had been taken into exile by King Nebuchadnezzar and does not refer to the ten tribes that had been taken captive and scattered by the Assyrians during the time of Isaiah. God is not restoring them but had limited His promises to those from Judah and Benjamin. Note, though, that God includes the “priests and the Levites,” since there could not be worship in the restored temple without those who were called to lead it. The primary purpose for bringing people back to Jerusalem is to restore the worship of God and to rebuild the temple, so that God could again be worshipped according to His commands. The priests, Levites, singers, and gatekeepers are the ones assigned to oversee and lead the worship, so they have a special role to play.

4:59 A man had to be able to trace his lineage to Aaron in order to serve in the priesthood (cf. Exod. 29:44; Num. 3:3).

4:64.1 “Everyone whose heart God had moved” is an indication that God is selecting some but not all of the people of Israel to go back to Jerusalem. Note that God is not making a law or a requirement for all to return but is working in the hearts of some, moving their hearts so that they would return when given the opportunity. There were many people who continued to live in Babylon, who stayed behind and did not come back. In the Book of Esther we read that there were many Jews who lived in the land of the Persians and that one of their number, the beautiful Queen Esther, lived in Susa, where the palace was now located. After Mordecai exposed the plan of Haman to kill all the Jews, the king issued an edict allowing the Jews to kill those who had conspired against them. The “Jews in Susa . . . put to death in Susa three hundred men, . . . while in the king’s provinces . . . they killed seventy-five thousand of them” (Esther 9:15–16).

4: 64.2 In contrast with the trip out of Egypt, the numbers are very small. Does that mean that the kingdom of God, the one promised to Abraham, to Isaac, to Jacob, to Joshua, to David, and to Daniel has shrunken to a small body, unable to defend itself? Since the first census taken by Moses and the second taken by Joshua, the size of the kingdom seems to have shrunken from more than 2,000,000 people to some 50,000. What we have here is a demonstration of the gathering out of the people of God from among the heathen. The focus is not on the nation of Israel but on the people of God who belong to the original covenant community and who are now being restored to their rightful place.

4:64.3 The sum of the figures listed in this chapter is only 29,818, while the corresponding totals from Nehemiah 7 are 31,089. One probable explanation for this difference is that the separate listings include only the men who were returning and not their family members. This is supported by the statement in verse 2, “the number of the men of the people of Israel.” This practice also characterized the original censuses taken in the wilderness, where God commands Moses to “number every male from a month old and above” (Num. 3:15). Just before the Israelites entered the Promised Land, God commanded a second census, this time requiring the counting of “all the congregation . . . from twenty years old and above, . . . all who are able to go to war” (Num. 26:2). The apocryphal Esdras corroborates the total number but adds that in his reckoning only those twelve years and upward were counted (1 Esd. 5:41). The important factor is that everyone was known by name, not the precise criteria used for counting.

4:68 Note the reliance upon “freewill offerings” (cf. 1:4, 6). God does not direct Cyrus to levy a tax on everyone and compel them to pay it, but he relies on the good will of those only whom God had made willing to build the temple at Jerusalem. In contrast with the early Nebuchadnezzar, who punishes everyone who does not do his wishes and does not worship him, Cyrus is quick to proclaim the glories of “the God who is in Jerusalem” and to petition the people for their support. When the people arrived at Jerusalem, “some of the heads of the families gave freewill offerings” (2:68), implying that some did not. What we have is an indication that the important element is the religious cravings of their hearts and not some kind of assessment which is equally distributed. “The Lord loves a cheerful giver” (2 Cor. 9:7). Note the contrast with the first temple. When the people “arrived at the house of the Lord in Jerusalem, some of the heads of the families gave freewill offerings” (2:68). “According to their ability they gave . . . 61,000 drachmas of gold, 5000 minas of silver” (v. 69). This figure of roughly one thousand pounds of gold may seem like quite a lot when viewed separately, but when compared with the quantities brought for the construction of the original temple at the time of David, this is a mere pittance. At the time of David there were given 190 tons of gold and 375 tons of silver! The contrast is so substantial that one has to ask the significance of it.

4:70 Israel has its roots in a special, historic relationship to God, their Father. He called them out of darkness and gave them a special place in which to live, with each tribe having its own assigned territory (Josh. 13–22). God is hereby re-establishing that special pattern and place because He promised it. Yet, Israel is to be a spiritual nation, not a biological or geographical one. God is hereby reclaiming the land that was His and returning it to those to whom it had been promised. Those who had settled on it during the time of exile would have to leave or be absorbed. From this time forward there are going to be sanctuaries known as synagogues throughout the Persian Empire. God is expanding His empire and using the Persian king Cyrus to announce the coming of His kingdom, just as he had done earlier with King Nebuchadnezzar and Darius the Mede. Already during the time of Abraham, God invited “aliens and strangers” into the house and let them become citizens of the kingdom. They were not biological children of Abraham, but they were spiritual children. Rahab was certainly one of those who was grafted into the family, as were such others as Ruth, the widow of Zarephath, and Naaman. We are told that “Solomon took a census of all the aliens who were in Israel, . . . and they were found to be 153,600” (2 Chron. 2:17). God did not intend to build a kingdom of this world or a church that was biological and ethnic in character, a body that all came from the same physical bloodlines, and because of those bloodlines, claimed superiority and exclusivity. The kingdom was a spiritual kingdom, united with the blood of Christ and not the blood of Abraham. The Jews of Jesus’ day could not seem to grasp that message. When Jesus preached it, they became furious; “when they heard this” (i.e., when they began to understand what He was saying), they “drove Him out of the town” (Luke 4:28).

Dr. Norman De Jong is a semi-retired pastor in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church.