The story of Ezra is an encouraging story about the grace and mercy of God. The reality of their continual sin has caused God to allow Israel and Judah to fall. Seventy years later, a new king arises named Cyrus who, moved by God, allows the Jewish exiles to return home and instructs them to rebuild God’s temple. Cyrus clearly states that the God of heaven has charged him to build him a house in Judah (Ezra 1:2).
All the necessary preparations are made, and a group of exiles is led home by Zerubbabel the governor and Joshua the high priest. What I find interesting or perhaps confusing is that not everyone was willing to leave their captivity and return to Jerusalem. Finally, they have their chance to return to the good life, and instead of jumping at the opportunity they choose to hold onto the life they have built in exile. Why do people choose to hold onto to their sins? It reminds me of Pharaoh in Exodus 8 who was given the choice of when the frogs were to be taken away and he chose tomorrow (Ex. 8:10). Why would anyone choose one more night with the frogs is beyond my comprehension?
The people of God have come full circle once again and are back in Jerusalem. The God of heaven is with them and its time to worship. The people rebuild the altar and offer up sacrifices to God. They realized at this critical juncture that God was their only hope for success as they push forward, and even return to keeping the festivals commanded by God.
In the second year, they begin to lay the foundation of the temple of God. Yet, with all their success; the reality of hardships is close at hand. After much opposition and difficulty, the people stop working on the temple and succumb to despair. It took God sending Haggai and Zechariah to persuade them to resume the work.
It is at this important point that Ezra the scribe comes on the scene. His goal is not rebuilding the temple or the altar but the hearts of the people. Often in the process of restoration, we lose sight of the heart of God and why we are doing it all. Ezra continues to restore the worship of God but focuses almost entirely on the hearts of the people. The story is told of the absence of the Levites and the intermarriage of the people. Ezra takes extreme measures demanding repentance and sanctification. The people are reminded, as we all need from time to time, that they are a holy people who serve a holy God and they must separate themselves from all sin.
Starting over is always difficult and often those hardships can be discouraging, even forcing us to give up. Yet, God is always at work in our lives (whether it be preachers or prophets) encouraging us to reach the finish line. Ezra teaches us that starting over is hard, but it also teaches us that the heart of God is always with us.
“What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us?”
(Romans 8:31, ESV)