Scripture Reading – Ezra 7; Nehemiah 1-2, 4, 6-8; Malachi 1-4
Significant Moments in The Story
The priest Ezra comes to Jerusalem to teach the Law – Ezra 7
Nehemiah returns to Jerusalem to help rebuild the wall – Nehemiah 2
The rebuilding of the wall around Jerusalem is completed – Nehemiah 6
Ezra reads the law to all the people – Nehemiah 8
The following comes from The Story Small Group Discussion Guide
It’s no surprise that the Hebrew people were homesick after 70 years of foreign captivity. At this point, it had been 80 years since King Cyrus first gave the green light for the exiles to return to their beloved Jerusalem. Zerubbabel was among the first to go. Fifty thousand former slaves packed their bags and joined him on the trek back to the holy city in 537 B.C. But many remained beyond the borders of God’s promise.
Ezra had earned the favor of Persia’s King Artaxerxes during his time in Babylon. The king authorized Ezra to take a second contingent of Israelites back home. Ezra was a faithful scribe and teacher, and he was given permission not only to teach God’s law but also a mandate to appoint judges and a bottomless expense account to finance his journey.
Nehemiah remained in the palace of Susa as the favored cupbearer of the Persian king. He was dismayed to hear that the walls of Jerusalem remained in disrepair, for without walls, no city would be secure. The king gave Nehemiah a leave-of-absence so he could lead 42,000 exiles back to Jerusalem. His first order of business was to assess the condition of the walls and the people. He quickly rallied the city leaders to rebuild.
Sanballat and Tobiah were none too pleased. As leaders of nearby nations, they were threatened by the prospect of Jerusalem’s comeback. They retaliated with intimidation and made repeated attempts to out-maneuver Nehemiah and his rebuilding project, but Nehemiah was undeterred. He encouraged his leaders and armed his people. Some worked while others stood guard. Some carried supplies with one hand and a weapon in the other, but the threats continued. Even when Israel’s enemies enlisted an Israelite as a false prophet to undermine the progress, Nehemiah was not shaken. He refused to entertain empty lies, and the wall was rebuilt in record time—only 52 days!
As Nehemiah rebuilt the walls, Ezra set out to rebuild God’s people. He began by teaching them the Scriptures for the next 13 years. The people gathered to hear Ezra read and other priests joined in to teach as well. At last, they got it! They grasped the reality of God’s great story and celebrated the Feasts of Booths as Moses had written of so long before. The people and the priests hungered to worship God and God’s people were restored in the Land of Promise.
Yet old habits die hard and the people’s fervor soon dwindled. The priests and the people became apathetic, so God commissioned the prophet, Malachi, to speak His words of divine warning. The priests had begun to dishonor God with sacrifices that were less than the best. They treated their wives poorly and wondered why God was not pleased with their worship. They withheld their offerings and the whole community began to again turn away from God.
Malachi prophesied the return of the prophet Elijah as sign of things to come. God had restored His people and protected His faithful remnant. He had protected Judah’s royal line in keeping with His promise to David. He spoke His final words of warning and promise through Malachi and then God was silent. God’s people would not hear from Him again until the promised Elijah would step forth as God’s new messenger. God’s redemptive story, for now, was quietly marching toward history’s climactic event.
Icebreaker Question: What’s the most extensive remodeling or construction project you have been involved in?
- List the three things to which Ezra devoted himself (Ezra 7, p. 292). What is significant about this order that also applies to the successful Christian life of every believer?
- Why is it important for teachers like to be like Ezra – “well versed” and “learned” (Ezra 7, p. 291) in God’s word? Share with your group who has been your most influential Bible teacher and why.
- Compare the “first exodus,” Exodus 11:1-3 and 12:35-36, with this second exodus. How can you tell that this was clearly God’s response to Ezra’s prayer (Ezra 7, p. 294)?
- Why do you suppose Nehemiah did not reveal to anyone the plan that God had put in his heart (Nehemiah 2, p. 295-296)?
- Nehemiah prayed for protection, but he also posted guards. Does this show a lack of faith on Nehemiah’s part? How should we “follow-up” after we pray for something?
- Nehemiah’s enemies tried to use the false prophet Shemaiah to distract him from the rebuilding project. How do you determine if a message from God or another source?
- What can you learn from Nehemiah about leadership?
- What does Nehemiah teach us about prayer? Do you notice any patterns in his prayer life?
- Years after the walls had been rebuilt, the prophet Malachi was sent to correct the priests and the people (Malachi 1-4, p. 302). What were they doing that dishonored God?
- According to the prophet Malachi, what is the correlation between one’s relationship with God and one’s treatment of their spouse?
What defines a Jew?
Up until this point, the Jewish people have been primarily defined by their nationality/tribal identity or by their connection with the territory of Judah/Israel. During the time of Ezra and Nehemiah, a shift will begin to take place. Identification with the Jewish community will no longer be an issue of nationality or location but adherence to the Law. Central to this week’s readings are Ezra’s calling to return to Jerusalem to teach the Law and the reading of the Law in Nehemiah 8.
This focus on the question of identity will also be key to one of the more controversial parts of the part of the Bible. In Ezra 10, when it is discovered that a number of Jewish men have married non-Jewish women, Ezra orders that all who have married non-Jewish women should divorce their wives and send them away with their children. This passage is troubling on several levels, and there are some who believe that stories such as Ruth may have been included in the Scripture, in part, as a counter-argument to this move. In any case, it should be understood that the primary concern for Ezra was not so much idolatry as identity. Ezra, and later Nehemiah in his concern for rebuilding the wall, intended to establish boundaries in which a clear Jewish identity could be maintained.
God is faithful
Once again, the theme of God’s faithfulness to His covenant and His people echoes throughout these passages. The story of the provision of resources for the rebuilding of the wall, the royal permission given to Ezra to teach the Law, and the success of rebuilding the wall in the face of threats from surrounding peoples is all understood as the fruit of God’s work to bring restoration to His people. Through every disaster and through ever moment of Israel’s rebellion against God, God has not given up on his promise to sustain his chosen people. In light of God’s enduring faithfulness, His people are invited to turn to Him and renew a right relationship with God based on faithfulness to His covenant and commitment to relate only to Him.
What happens between the time of Ezra & Nehemiah and the Gospels?
In October of 333 BC, Alexander the Great defeats the king of the Persian empire, establishing Alexander and the Greeks as the dominant power in the known world. Ten years later, when Alexander dies, a great struggle for control of his expansive empire begins. During this struggle, Judah is invaded numerous times by competing factions seeking to gain control of as much of Alexander’s realm as possible. Eventually, the chaos will subside, and more positive aspects of the Greek empire – language, culture, philosophy – will begin to seep into the lands under Greek control, including Judah. Many Jews will begin to focus on becoming citizens of a larger world, while others will find such efforts a threat to their identity as God’s people. Judaism will enter into a time of struggle with forces without and within. On one side, there will be those who argue that Judaism should adapt to a Hellenized world, while those on the other side will argue for rejecting such a world. Those on this side of the argument will shift their focus to the Temple as a symbol of remaining distinct from the rest of the world.
In the 2nd century BC, the Hasmonean family will gain political and religious control of Judah, thanks in part to an alliance with the growing power that was Rome. While the Hasmoneans will gain Judah independence from Greek political control, the substance of Greek influence will remain in place. This will lead to the formation of three important groups in Judah that will become significant as we turn to the Gospels.
The first group was the Sadducees. This group was made up of members of the priestly and wealthy class. They supported the Hasmoneans and a more Hellenized culture. At the same time, they were committed to the ancient symbols of the king and the Temple. They compared the Hasmoneans to King David, and they looked to the Scriptures to root their new Greek experience.
The second group that formed during this time was the Essenes. They were so horrified by the Hasmoneans and their Hellenistic influence that they withdrew completely from culture as a “new exodus.” Living in their own communities like Qumram, the Essenes devoted themselves to the Scripture, looking forward to the renewal of a proper priestly order and the day when God would redeem Jerusalem and the Temple.
The third group that formed during this time was the Pharisees. Like the Essenes, they devoted themselves to the Torah and to the strictest observance of the commandments. The Pharisees were convinced that the Hasmoneans were bad and asked the Roman governor Pompey to remove the Hasmoneans from power. They were certain that Judah was better off under the control of a foreign power than “bad Jews”.
In 63 BC, Pompey and the Romans entered Jerusalem and removed the last of the Hasmoneans from power. Pompey and his troops entered the Temple, to the Holy of Holies. However, they did not destroy or maim it in any way. In 42 BC, after Augustus and Antony take control of the Roman empire, they place Herod in control of Judah. Herod will undertake many building projects, including a complete renovation of the Temple. It is this structure, far grander than the one Zerubbabel rebuilt in the book of Ezra, that we will encounter in the Gospels.