Read: Ezra 7-10
Ezra receives the royal blessing to return to Jerusalem, along with all the Jews who want to go with him. The “blank check” he’s given is quite incredible and it makes me wonder what prompted Artaxerxes to be so supportive. It would be interesting to know definitively who Artaxerxes was since the surrounding references point to Daniel (Darius) and Esther (Xerxes). After Googling around a bit, I landed on the Jewish Encyclopedia which provides some details:
Artaxerxes was the second son of Xerxes, who was murdered in the summer of 465 by his all-powerful vizir Artaban. The murderer accused the king’s eldest son Darius of the crime, with the result that Darius was slain by his younger brother Artaxerxes, who then mounted the throne.*
Given my cursory research, I’m far from being an expert on the subject, but it the cite above is generally consistent with other sources. It’s primarily interesting in understanding the context of Ezra’s return. In Esther we see that Mordecai is the second in charge under Xerxes and we also know that Nehemiah is Artaxerxes’ cupbearer given special permission to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem during his reign (from year 20 to 32 based on Nehemiah 2:1 and Nehemiah 13:6).
Why did the king of such a vast empire show such favor the Ezra? Was it all favorable? Or did some of the king’s cohorts suggest letting the Jews go because their strange beliefs? It’s interesting to ponder why, but that leads to a rabbit trail that I’ll set aside for another day.
What we do see from the text is Ezra gets the golden ticket to return to Jerusalem.
Now I decree that any of the Israelites in my kingdom, including priests and Levites, who volunteer to go to Jerusalem with you, may go. Ezra 7:13
Ezra recognizes this great favor can only come from the Lord:
Praise be to the Lord, the God of our ancestors, who has put it into the king’s heart to bring honor to the house of the Lord in Jerusalem in this way and who has extended his good favor to me before the king and his advisers and all the king’s powerful officials. Ezra 7:27-28
Perhaps this is our main lesson: first, we give God the credit and then we trust God to follow through:
I was ashamed to ask the king for soldiers and horsemen to protect us from enemies on the road, because we had told the king, “The gracious hand of our God is on everyone who looks to him, but his great anger is against all who forsake him.” Ezra 8:22
The hand of our God was on us, and he protected us from enemies and bandits along the way. Ezra 8:31
And so they return to the Promised Land after years in exile. All good, yes? Actually, not so good.
“The people of Israel, including the priests and the Levites, have not kept themselves separate from the neighboring peoples with their detestable practices… They have taken some of their daughters as wives for themselves and their sons, and have mingled the holy race with the peoples around them. And the leaders and officials have led the way in this unfaithfulness.”
When I heard this, I tore my tunic and cloak, pulled hair from my head and beard and sat down appalled. Ezra 9:1-3
If the problem were simply interracial marriage, Ezra could have dealt with that, but marriage in those days was quite different. By marrying outside of the remnant, you inherit the family gods and practices along with it. The path can only lead back to that which stoked the wrath of God in the first place. Ezra wastes no time in dealing with this atrocity. He calls a meeting of all the leaders with a powerful requirement to attend:
Anyone who failed to appear within three days would forfeit all his property, in accordance with the decision of the officials and elders, and would himself be expelled from the assembly of the exiles. Ezra 10:8
Show up or get kicked out! That’s pretty simple.
The great assembly met and all but four agreed to separate from the foreigners. The complex investigation is completed and those who were specifically guilty are listed for inspection, including Eliashib from the musicians.
Ezra was a devoted disciple of Moses, one who worked hard to uphold the law and embrace the Lord as he understood. A powerful priest who no doubt was great at discerning God’s will for the people, but not an architect or construction supervisor. For that, we look to Nehemiah.
The church at large has much to learn from Ezra. The one thing I take from this is to know your strengths and work within that which you are specifically gifted. Understand that the Lord can move in mighty ways and is not limited by individuals, but the Spirit gives gifts for a reason and His timing is always better than our plans. Lord, helps us to lean on you more today than yesterday, to hear your voice above all the noise of this world!