This week we are continuing our three-week survey of the books of Ezra and Nehemiah. Last week we learned about the first return of Israelites from exile back to Jerusalem under the leadership of Zerubbabel in 536 B.C. Our hopes were high that the Old Testament prophecies of a messianic kingdom for all nations were going to be fulfilled, but it didn’t happen. Zerubbabel wouldn’t allow the Gentiles in the land to participate in the building of the temple for the God of Israel.

Ezra, chs. 7–10

Like the Persian kings before him, King Artaxerxes decreed that any Israelites who wished to return to Jerusalem could go. So Ezra led a second wave of Israelites back from exile in 458 B.C., almost 80 years after Zerubbabel’s group. Once again, the story sets our expectations high that God’s kingdom is going to come on earth. Instead of focusing on the temple building, Ezra focused on teaching the people to follow the law. If he can get the Israelites turned around, this story might just have a happy ending.

The author then gives one story as an example of Ezra’s work. He learned that the first wave of Israelites had intermarried with some of the residents of the land who were part-Jewish or totally non-Jewish. This was a violation of the law of Moses from Deut 7:3-4. It was this kind of covenant failure that had landed Israel in exile in the first place and Ezra feared history might be repeating itself. He and the leaders responded by trying to set things right. 111 Jews divorced their foreign wives and abandoned their families.

Did it work? Did they set themselves right in God’s eyes?

No, because righteousness does not come through observing the law. The point of the story isn’t to give us a lesson to follow or avoid. It is illustrating the failure of Ezra’s approach to righteousness in order to deepen the need for a Savior, who followed the law in our behalf and paid for our failures.

Ezra was full of passion and love for God and did everything in his power to lead the Israelites into a new era of devotion to God, and he should be commended for that. But it didn’t work. He couldn’t bring about the full realization of his hopes and dreams, even when trying and praying his hardest. This isn’t the happy ending you’ve been looking for. The full realization of that hope came only when God himself personally entered in to Israel’s story as their Messiah and king.