Throughout the journey with my classmates through the literature of the Old Testament, I have studied many extraordinary individuals including Abraham, Moses, and David to name a few. I would hone in on all of their idiosyncrasies and shortcomings because I wanted to find a flaw in them and say, “See! They’re not perfect. They’re flawed.” And they are flawed. They’re human. If they weren’t flawed, we wouldn’t be having this major millennium year old discussion. That’s exactly what I didn’t pick up on quite immediately. I scorned Abraham because I read that he had told two lies. I honed in on his flaw without looking at the grandeur portrait. However, that’s what I aim to do in this blog. I will hone in on the flaws but only because they illuminate the play unfolding behind them.
Ezra and Nehemiah are quite similar fellows. Well, they want similar things. Ezra wants to restore the glory of God to the people of Israel: “For Ezra had set his heart to study the Law of the Lord, and to do it and to teach His statutes and rules in Israel” (Ezra 7:10). Nehemiah is of like mind. He wants to restore Jerusalem to its former glory by rebuilding its wall: “And I said to the king, ‘If it pleases the king, and if I have found favor in your sight, that you send me to Judah, to the city of my fathers’ graves, that I may rebuild it’” (Nehemiah 2:5). Ezra and Nehemiah were also contemporaries during this period as Ezra went to Jerusalem in 457 BC with Nehemiah joining in 444 BC. With their missions being similar and within the same time period, it isn’t much of a shocker that Ezra and Nehemiah, originally, were not separate books:
The Masoretic tradition regarded the books of Ezra and Nehemiah as one book and referred to it as the Book of Ezra. This was also the Greek tradition, and the same Greek name, Esdras, was given to both books. The division into separate books does not occur until the time of Origen (fourth century C.E.) and this division was transferred into the Vulgate where the books are called I Esdras (Ezra) and II Esdras (Nehemiah).
Seeing how Ezra and Nehemiah fit closely together in time as well as literature, we’ll be exploring both of them, their actions, their failures, and what they contribute to the grand theme of redemption.
Before Ezra enters the scene, it must be noted how he was impacted to rejuvenate the souls of the people of Israel in Jerusalem. Zerubbabel lead the charge given by Cyrus, king of Persia, to rebuild the temple in Jerusalem which fulfills the prophecy given by Isaiah:
Thus says the Lord to His anointed, to Cyrus, whose right hand I have grasped, to subdue nations before him and to loose the belts of kings, to open doors before him that gates may not be closed . . . “I have stirred him up in righteousness, and I will make all his ways level; he shall build my city and set my exiles free, not for price or reward,” says the Lord of hosts. (Isaiah 45:1,13)
As Zerubbabel is building the temple, Samaritans come up to offer help with building the temple as they say they worship the same God and only want to help. Zerubbabel, however, declined their help and said, “You have nothing to do with us in building a house to our God.” This generates conflict between the Israelites, who are rebuilding the temple, and the Samaritans which seems to go against what God wants for His people as evidenced by Zechariah’s prophecy from God:
“These are the things that you shall do: Speak the truth to one another; render in your gates judgements that are true and make for peace; do not devise evil in your hearts against one another, and love no false oath, for all these things I hate, declares the Lord . . . Thus says the Lord of hosts: Peoples shall yet come, even the inhabitants of many cities. The inhabitants of one city shall go to another, saying, ‘Let us go at once to entreat the favor of the Lord and to seek the Lord of hosts; I myself am going.’” (Zechariah 2:16,20-21)
In Zerubbabel, we see a first glimpse of unfulfillment of prophecy of the new Jerusalem in a time that seemed to have all the settings for Israel to begin a golden age in Jerusalem. Instead, the Israelites had to turn away the Samaritans in order to retain purity as noted by Ellicott:
“The account in 2 Kings 17 carefully studied will show that the stern refusal of the leaders was precisely ill harmony with the will of God; there was nothing in it of that intolerant spirit which is sometimes imagined. The whole design of the Great Restoration would have been defeated by a concession at this point.”
While Zerbbabel and the leaders of Israel managed to rebuild the temple, they weren’t able to unite the peoples in worship to God. In fact, they drove away the Samaritans who wanted to take part in the worship of God. Here is where Ezra comes into play (about 70 years after the completion of the temple). As mentioned aforehand, Ezra wanted to increase Israel’s zeal and spiritual prowess through teaching of the Torah. Thus, Ezra, being supported by the king of Persia, Artaxerxes, took Jews, who were willing, to Jerusalem to bring about spiritual renewal and dedication to God. However, instead of finding people dedicating themselves to God, he found that “the holy race has mixed itself with the peoples of the lands.” Israel had mingled with the idolaters. As a result, Ezra tears his clothes and begs God for forgiveness for the sins of the people.
Afterwards, Shecaniah convinces Ezra to force all the Israelites to divorce their idolatrous spouses and children. Some scholars seem to believe this action by Ezra to be harsh; however, Hastings illuminates the other side with his comment:
It was certainly an action that could be justified only by extreme circumstances. To an impartial onlooker it might seem high-handed, harsh, even cruel. But there could be no doubt as to the perfect purity and integrity of his motives. Unlike most of his adversaries, he had no personal interest in the dispute- -no selfish ends to gain. His one ambition was to glorify God and to be of service to his nation.
A contemporary of Ezra, the prophet Malachi, quotes God with a rather stark contrast to that of Ezra’s decree: “’But not one has done so who has a remnant of the Spirit. And what did that one do while he was seeking a godly offspring? Take heed then to your spirit, and let no one deal treacherously against the wife of your youth. For I hate divorce,’ says the LORD, the God of Israel” (Malachi 2:15-16).
However, regardless of whether or not the action was justified, the result of Ezra’s proclamation was disunity. At this point, a type of literary foil can be seen within Zerubbabel’s anticlimactic end where the nations were not worshiping God with Israel. The foil can also be seen with Ezra whom wanted to bring up Israel with spiritual teachings and zeal for God, but, in the end, he tore husband from wife, mother from son, and maybe even brother from sister. Next, Nehemiah leads the last attempt at unifying Israel for this newly rebuilt Jerusalem.
The book of Nehemiah opens up with him weeping after the brokenness of Jerusalem’s once great wall. He recalls a commandment to Moses in a prayer to God:
“Remember the word that you commanded your servant Moses, saying ‘If you are unfaithful, I will scatter you among the people, but if you return to me and keep my commandments and do them, though your outcasts are in the uttermost parts of heaven, from there I will gather them and bring them to the place I have chosen, to make my name dwell there.’” (Nehemiah 1:8-9)
Nehemiah, then, acknowledges that the place God chose to dwell was the temple in Jerusalem. He uses this as a plea for God to grant him the chance to go and rebuild the wall of Jerusalem. King Artaxerxes of Persia grants him permission and supports him in his endeavors. After Nehemiah went to Jerusalem, he began building on the wall when conflict arose.
People who had already been living around Jerusalem question Nehemiah and his attempt to erect a wall around Jerusalem: “’What is this thing you are doing? Are you rebelling against the king?’” Nehemiah replies to them, “’The God of heaven will make us prosper, and we his servants will arise and build, but you have no portion or right or claim in Jerusalem.’” Nehemiah’s answer is very similar to Zerubbabel’s reply to the Samaritan’s in Ezra 4:3; It’s a very purity-driven reply.
However, the contemporary prophet, Zechariah, quotes an angel saying, “’Jerusalem shall be inhabited as villages without walls, because of the multitude of people and livestock in it. And I will be to her a wall of fire all around, declares the Lord, and I will be the glory in her midst’” (Zechariah 2:4-5). This seems to be a rather ironic mixture of opinions between Nehemiah and Zechariah. Nehemiah is aware of Zechariah’s words, but he continues to build his wall anyways, dividing Jerusalem from the world. Interestingly enough, towards the end of Nehemiah, even after the efforts of Ezra with his spiritual teachings and after the efforts of Nehemiah with his wall to keep Jerusalem safe from the Samaritans and other idolaters, the Israelites continue to break God’s laws.
After all of the efforts, Zerubbabel’s work is compromised by people neglecting their duties in the temple; Ezra’s work is compromised as people do not remember the Torah and work on the Sabbath among other things; even Nehemiah’s work is compromised as merchants set themselves up on the Sabbath on the walls of Jerusalem. This anticlimactic nature of Ezra and Nehemiah brings a thought to the forefront of the mind: “If all of these efforts were made to bring in the new Jerusalem, and they all failed, then the prophecies of the new Jerusalem were either wrong or not yet fulfilled.” This is the true meaning I believe the reader is supposed to get from Ezra and Nehemiah: While the people of Israel have returned from exile to Jerusalem, not much seems to have changed except their location. While Ezra and Nehemiah try to work to better the people of Israel, they fail. These failures are portrayed by the writer in order to convey the message to the reader that much more change is needed than just a city in order to please God. The reform of the heart is required, and that is what Ezra and Nehemiah failed to get across to the people of Israel. The Jerusalem that Zechariah talks about is not the location of Jerusalem. The Jerusalem God wants is the Jerusalem that chooses Him in their hearts: “’And I will give them one heart, and a new spirit I will put within them. I will remove the heart of stone from their flesh and give them a heart of flesh, that they may walk in my statutes and keep my rules and obey them. And they shall be my people, and I will be their God’” (Ezekiel 11:19-20).