Today we will complete the book of Ezra. in the last chapter we saw that the Temple was completed and the first Passover in a long time was celebrated. Now we see that another group of exiles return, and among them was Ezra (7:8). He was of the priestly family of Aaron (vv. 1-4). He was very knowledgeable of the Law (v. 6) and sought to teach the Law (v. 10). We also see that God sovereignly brought him from Persia to Jerusalem (v. 6, 9). Ezra was also free to bring with him whomever he wanted from Persia to Jerusalem according to the decree of the king (vv. 11-13). This is, of course, the hand of God at work.
In addition, Ezra is given silver and gold (v. 15) with which to buy what is needed for the offerings (v. 17). Whatever is left over is to be used as Ezra sees fit (v. 18), and is even welcome to ask for more from the king (v. 20) and from those under his rule (vv. 21-22). Note that Artaxerxes recognizes God’s sovereignty in all of this (v. 23). He also tells Ezra to establish leadership over the returned exiles (v. 25). He is to teach the Law, and carry out the Law (v. 26). Ezra then pronounces blessings on God for His providential use of a foreign king to carry out good for His people (vv. 27-28).
Chapter 8 begins with the record of those who returned with Ezra (8:1-14). Ezra realizes that there are no Levites among these returnees (v. 15). If we look at the numbers of the returning exiles from the previous return, we see there also a relatively low number of Levites (see 2: 40). It is possible that not many Levites went into captivity, since Nebuchadnezzar left the poor of the land in Judah (see 2 Kings 24:14), and the Levites had no land possession. But by God’s grace, Ezra finds 38 more Levites to come with him (vv. 18-19).
In verse 21, Ezra proclaims a fast. This is because he refused soldiers from the king because of his declaration of faith in God and His protection (v. 22). And God answers their prayers (v. 23, 31). Ezra delegates the care of the money to twelve of the priests (vv. 24-30), who give an account to the priests in Jerusalem (vv. 33-34). Ezra then uses some of the money to provide the offerings (v. 35) and takes help from those around them according to the king’s edict (v. 36). It appears that God is sovereignly working all things out.
Until chapter 9. Ezra is told that the old cycle has already begun to repeat itself: the people are not separating themselves from the nations around them (9:1 – see Deut 12:30-31), but have taken for themselves wives from the nations (v. 2 – see Ex 34:11-16). Ezra immediately mourns what has happened (v. 3) and the people who returned with him join him (v. 4). And Ezra prays a prayer of repentance to God. The physical people sinned from the beginning so God punished them (v. 7). And even though a physical remnant has returned (v. 8) – though not as they were before the captivity (v. 9) – God has shown them some grace. And they have already fallen into sin (v. 11). This is important, because it makes clear that the promises God made while they were in exile (see Jer 31:31-34, Ezek 37:15-28) are not fulfilled in the physical remnant (vv. 13-15).
In chapter 10, we see that many follow Ezra in his prayer of repentance (10:1). The people then decide to divorce their foreign wives and send them away with their mixed-race children (vv. 2-3). The rest of the chapter details how this happens. Note that there was some opposition to this course of action (v. 15). Note also that excommunication is threatened for those who would not comply (vv. 7-8). Note also that among the nationalities mentioned regarding these marriages (see 9:1) that there is some crossover with the nations God forbade in Exodus 34:11-16 (see also Deut 7:1-6), but there are differences. In particular, we see Moab included here. David was the product of a mixed marriage between a Jew and a Moabite (remember the book of Ruth?).
So what is going on here?
I believe we are seeing the returning physical remnant starting to become what they were in Jesus’s day. They are deciding to require actions that are beyond what the Law states. They are disallowing what God has already allowed. They are threatening to break fellowship with those that do not adhere to their “new” requirements. While this is in the Bible to give us a history of the returning remnant, it is also showing us how the physical people went wrong from the moment they returned to the land. They not only disobeyed the revealed law (marrying Amorites and Canaanites), but their reaction was to add to the law.
As we have seen, God never wanted the outward actions. He wanted the heart (see Mic 6:6-8). Here, the people decide who is guilty, and offer a guilt offering (v. 19 – see Lev 6:4-7) in order to follow the letter of the Law. But as Christ made clear, He wants His people to follow the spirit of the Law (see the whole Sermon on the Mount, Matthew chapter 23). This is the start of the sectarian Judaism that was the norm in Christ’s day.