This week during worship at King of Grace we are beginning a three-week survey of the books of Ezra and Nehemiah. Although you will find them in the middle of your Old Testament, they tell about the last history to be written before the New Testament begins. These books pick up about 50 years after the Babylonians destroyed Jerusalem and carried away all the people into exile. They tell about the fulfillment of God’s promise to return the Jews to Jerusalem and what happened when they rebuilt their lives and their city.

The return happened in three waves: Zerubbabel led the first group back to rebuild the temple (Ezra chs. 1-6). About 60 years later (during which time Esther was living and reigning as queen in Persia), Ezra arrived in Jerusalem to teach the Torah and rebuild the community (Ezra chs. 7-10). He was followed a few years later by Nehemiah, who led the rebuilding of Jerusalem’s city walls (Nehemiah chs. 1-13). All three stories are parallel to each other. Each begins with a king of Persia prompted by God to support the return of Israelite exiles. Then, each leader encounters opposition to their efforts that they overcome, but in a way that leaves us wishing it could have been better.

Ezra chs. 1–6

King Cyrus of Persia defeated the Babylonian empire and gave the Jews permission to return to Jerusalem. This was the fulfillment of an astounding prophecy pronounced by Isaiah 150 years before it happened. Isaiah mentioned Cyrus by name and listed two specific decrees Cyrus would make (Isaiah 44:24-45:6).

Zerubbabel led the first wave of Israelite refugees back home to Jerusalem. His name means “planted in Babylon” and he was a descendant of the great King David, to whom God had promised that one of his descendants would always sit on the throne in Jerusalem (2 Samuel 7:12-13). Is Zerubbabel that messianic descendant? Is he the promised Snake-Crusher from Genesis 3:15?

Under Zerubbabel’s direction, the people rebuilt the altar to the Lord on its old site in the middle of Solomon’s destroyed temple. Then they laid the foundation for the temple and some of the residents of the land came to offer help. But Zerubbabel refused, saying, “You have no part with us in building a temple to our God.” This understandably generated conflict and halted the whole project. We should feel disappointed at this point in the story. The prophets had envisioned the tribes of Israel coming together with all nations to participate in the worship of God when his kingdom finally comes (e.g., Isaiah 2, Zechariah 8, and especially God’s promise to Abraham in Genesis 12:1-3 that started this whole people of Israel).

The prophets Haggai and Zechariah then arrived on the scene and encouraged the people to keep building, and after 20 more years they finally finished the temple. Now, the last two times the Israelites had built a house for God, the fiery cloud of God’s presence had descended and filled the building (Leviticus 9 and 1 Kings 8). But that didn’t happen this time. This building was nothing like their glorious past or the hopes they had for the future.

What should we think of all this? The clue is in the first and last verses of the story (Ezra 1:1 and 6:22). God changed the heart of the king of Persia. But what about changing the heart of the Israelites, as Ezekiel hoped (Ezekiel 36:26)? Do chapters 1–6 illustrate a new people with a new heart? Or do they show us the same old Israelites who so often started well but ended badly?

The book started out by raising our hopes in the prophetic promises of the Messiah, the temple, and the kingdom of God, but then none of it happened. This history tells about how God fulfilled his promise to return his people to Jerusalem after years of exile. But it does not complete the story. God’s great covenant promises and the great hopes of the Old Testament prophets are left unfulfilled. We have to keep reading into the New Testament to hear about the real Messiah, Jesus of Nazareth, who has transformed our hearts and made us the true children of Israel.