The interruption caused by the Exile is due to the nation’s unrepentant violation of the Mosaic Covenant. But we have seen that God had already promised that if the nation would repent while in exile they would not only return from captivity, but God would also restore them (eventually) to a better covenant, that is, the New Covenant (Deuteronomy 30:1-6; cf. Jeremiah 31:31-34).
The return was made possible when in 539 BC the Persians under Cyrus overthrew and replaced the Babylonian Empire. The Persians reversed the policy of the Assyrians and the Babylonians and allowed the deported peoples to return home ((Ezra 1:1; Jeremiah 29:10; 33:7-13). Like the Exile, the return from the Babylonian captivity also took 3 stages. Each stage involved an explicit mission to be accomplished that was authorized by the Persian king.
By considering the mission of each of the stages and the consequent developments we can sketch how the nation was reformed and to what extent it became a covenant community with a constitutional government. It can be affirmed at the outset that the returnees began with a clean slate as far as idolatry was concerned. In fact the worship of literal idols never became an issue again in Israel.
Fulfilling the Creation Mandate
The first stage was the return under Sheshbazzar (Ezra 1:8-11; cf. 5:14-16) and then Zerubbabel (Ezra 2:2; 3:2), each of whom was appointed governor by the Persian king. Serving with Zerubbabel was Jeshua, who was the high priest (name spelled as Joshua in Haggai and Zechariah). The purpose of the return was to rebuild Jerusalem (Isaiah 44:28; 45:13), and the immediate mission was to rebuild the Temple in Jerusalem (Ezra 1:2-4), “the first and most important step in the rebuilding of the city” (Young 1977: 202). However, after building the altar and laying the foundation for the new temple, the work stopped due to opposition from the people who were already there (Ezra 4:24). Though the returnees continued to offer sacrifices on the altar, the work on the temple did not resume until almost 20 years later.
The work resumed as a result of the preaching of the prophets Haggai and Zechariah (Ezra 5:1-2; Haggai 1; Zechariah 1:1-6; 8:9-15). This time, though there was opposition again, under the continued preaching of Haggai and Zechariah, the work was completed and the temple was dedicated (Ezra 6:14-18). In fact they even observed the Passover (Ezra 6:19-22). Thus, in line with the Mosaic Covenant as an application of the Creation Mandate, they succeeded in laying the foundation for a nation that is in fellowship with God within the Holy Land. What is left to be seen is whether they also succeeded in laying the foundation for a nation that is consistent with God’s will.
The prophet Haggai preached a message that would help ensure that the people would not repeat an error of their ancestors: practising their monotheist faith as though rituals had intrinsic efficacy (like magical talismans), which we have seen is an expression of polytheism. For Haggai highlighted that though ritual impurity was contagious, ritual holiness was not (Haggai 2:10-14). In other words, one could become defiled by touching an unclean object, but one could not become holy by touching a holy object. The immediate application was to explain why, before they resumed work on the temple, they were experiencing economic problems (see 2:15-17; cf. 1:6-11). But the far-reaching implication is that “just working on the temple would not make the people holy …. The only hope the nation had for divine approval and acceptance was the grace of God. The temple would not be a magical talisman” (Longman and Dillard 2006: 481).
The next stage was the return under Ezra, a priest who was a “scribe skilled in the Law of Moses” (Ezra 7:6-8, 21). It is amazing that in Ezra 7:14-16 “Ezra is commanded by the king and his counsellors to go to Judah and see if the Jews there are living in accordance with the law of God, that is, the law which Ezra had at his disposal—we may presume the Pentateuch” (Fensham 1982: 105). Ezra was even authorized to “appoint magistrates and judges that they may judge all the people”; and to ensure that all the people “know the laws of your God” by which they would be judged, Ezra was to “teach anyone ignorant of them” (Ezra 7:25-26). Hence the foundation for a nation that is consistent with God’s will was also laid.
Becoming a Covenant Community
Whether the nation would indeed fulfil God’s will by becoming a covenant community with a constitutional government now rests on how they built on the foundations laid. It is thus significant to note the kind of teacher (of the law) that Ezra was. We read that he “had set his heart to study the law of the LORD, and to practice it, and to teach His statutes and ordinances in Israel” (Ezra 7:9-10). Ezra’s commitment to study and practice the law gave him more than the academic credibility and moral authority to teach it. For putting the law into practice would enable him to understand it better through a personal experience of it. And he would then know first-hand its truthfulness and reliability, enabling him to teach it with conviction.
In fact, without a prior commitment to practice the law, Ezra may even misunderstand it. We have already stressed that our pre-commitments constrain not only what we see and what we do not see but also how we interpret what we do see. People who are not already committed to do God’s will may have difficulty accepting anything taught in the Bible that they do not like, and thus may not see it or find ways to explain it away (cf. John 7:17). Ezra the priest was thus an ideal interpreter and teacher of the Mosaic Law. But there was still the need for a political leader vested with the power to hold the people accountable to it. Since Judah was just a province of the Persian Empire, the leader would be a governor and not a king (cf. Nehemiah 6:7). Would Judah get a governor who is committed to practice the Mosaic Law?
Role of Governor
This brings us to the third stage, the return under Nehemiah, who was appointed governor of Judah (Nehemiah 5:14), to rebuild the wall around Jerusalem (Nehemiah 2-6). His mission as governor was actually to rebuild Jerusalem into a city as an ancient city was incomplete without a city wall. And since a city is not a city without a relatively dense and diverse population, Nehemiah repopulated Jerusalem by conscripting one out of ten people in Judah to join the leaders already living in Jerusalem (Nehemiah 7:4-5; 11:1-4). Hence the rebuilding of the wall and the repopulation of Jerusalem “clearly were designed to provide the physical and political infrastructure for a successful capital and province within the Persian Empire” (Boda 2005: 722). In other words Nehemiah was rebuilding a functional nation.
Nehemiah managed to mobilize the people to rebuild the wall. Like the rebuilding of the Temple, this work also faced opposition from enemies. When the opposition reached the level of possible violence, Nehemiah prayed to God and called on the people not to fear but trust in Him, even saying, “our God will fight for us” (Nehemiah 4:20). He also armed the people; half of them would stand guard while the other half, who were also armed, did the work (Nehemiah 4:16-18).
Why take such elaborate precautions when “God will fight for us”? We need to revisit the Biblical teaching concerning divine sovereignty and human responsibility. We begin with comparing Nehemiah’s return to Jerusalem with that of Ezra. Both claimed that the “good hand” (favor) of God was upon them (Ezra 7:9; Nehemiah 2:8). Ezra and the returnees with him fasted and prayed for God’s protection on the precarious journey instead of requesting the king for troops and horsemen (Ezra 8:21). But Nehemiah returned with “officers of the army and horsemen” (Nehemiah 2:9).
Was Nehemiah faithless? Ezra himself said he did not request help from the king because, having confessed to the king that God’s favor was on those who seek Him, he was ashamed to ask the king for help (Ezra 8:22). Nehemiah was not in such a predicament. In other words, under normal circumstances Ezra would have sought the king’s help. For this is just being prudent; the question of faithlessness does not yet arise.
We need to distinguish between faithlessness and prudence. Believing in divine sovereignty (“God will fight for us”) does not mean we neglect the human responsibility to be prudent (do what is necessary to protect ourselves). Since one can be prudent and have faith at the same time, believers in God can function effectively in the real world. Ezra’s case shows that they may encounter exceptional situations where they need to, by faith (in God), do what would be imprudent under normal circumstances. This reminds us of God sending Elijah to live by the stream and then with the widow.
In the case of Nehemiah we are not in the position to judge whether the measures he took to protect themselves were more than necessary to be prudent, thus revealing faithlessness, because we were not there to assess the seriousness of the threat. We can however evaluate Nehemiah in this regard by considering his life as a whole and look for evidence that shows unmistakably whether he was a man of faith or not.
When the rebuilding of the wall was almost complete, and after a failed attempt to assassinate Nehemiah, the enemies sought to discredit Nehemiah through deception. They bought over a (false) prophet to lure Nehemiah into the Temple by warning him that “they are coming to kill you at night” (Nehemiah 6:10). Nehemiah refused and then realized “it was not God who sent him”; for as a layman, and possibly a eunuch, it would be a sin for Nehemiah to do what was suggested (Nehemiah 6:12-13). So the plot failed and the wall was completed and duly dedicated (Nehemiah 6:15; 12:27-30). Nehemiah’s refusal to take the precaution because it would be wrong for him to do so shows unmistakably that he was a man of faith. In other words, he would also do what Ezra did when the situation required it.
While still rebuilding the wall there was an outcry of the people against fellow Jews, thus causing a disruption to the work (Nehemiah 5:1-5). For to meet their financial obligations, they had to sell their children (into slavery) and their land to creditors, who took advantage of their predicament by charging them interest, which was against the Mosaic Law (Nehemiah 5:7; Deuteronomy 23:19). When Nehemiah heard their outcry, he was “very angry” and sought a solution immediately (Nehemiah 5:6-7). This was a delicate situation as he still needed the cooperation of the creditors to help rebuild the wall. Yet he needed to confront their injustice to fellow Jews.
Nehemiah succeeded in getting them not only to return the interest but also to cancel the debt by appealing to them to fear God, taking the lead himself as he himself had also given out loans (Nehemiah 5:8-13). Nehemiah was successful in such a difficult task also because of his exceptional selflessness as governor. For unlike previous governors he had not burdened the people with even the food allotted to him as governor (Nehemiah 5:14-19). And he paid for the expenses of a governor, including entertaining foreign dignitaries, with his own resources. He did all this out of the fear of God in view of the need of the people; he sought recompense only from God.
This shows Nehemiah was a man of faith who was committed to practice the Mosaic Law, including sacrificially living out its essence to love one’s neighbor as oneself. So he had both legal and moral authority in holding the people accountable to the Mosaic Law. Hence Nehemiah was the ideal governor to build not only a functional nation but also a covenant community in which the Golden Rule is upheld. Since he himself was subject to the Mosaic Law, his was a constitutional government. We see in Nehemiah a person whose faith in God (religion) enabled him to excel in fulfilling his calling as a governor (state).
Role of Priest
We now turn to Ezra’s role as priest in nation-building. Soon after his arrival in Jerusalem it was reported to him that through intermarriage “the people of Israel and the priests and the Levites have not separated themselves from the peoples of the lands with their abominations,” and the worst culprits were the leaders themselves (Ezra 9:1-2). This intermingling of the holy people (literally, “holy seed,” often translated “holy race”) with peoples who practiced abominations in God’s eyes was prohibited under the Mosaic Law, explicitly for religious and not racial reasons (Exodus 34:16; Deuteronomy 7:3-4).
Ezra was extremely distressed and publicly confessed to God this sin of the people (Ezra 9:6-15). The passion expressed out of his own conviction concerning the Mosaic Law caused the people who gathered around him to be deeply convicted of this sin. Led by their own leaders they decided to send away their foreign wives together with their children (Ezra 10:1-44). This may sound harsh. But it was necessary given their context (cf. Fensham 1982: 123-145). For how could a holy people, set apart to serve the holy God, be extensively interrelated through marriage with peoples who practice what were abominations in the eyes of this God?
Also we have seen what happened to Solomon; what Jezebel did to the Northern Kingdom; and what Athaliah did to the Southern Kingdom. The seed of the Exile was planted through intermarriage with idolatrous women, and now God’s people had just returned from exile to start all over again! It is significant that when Nehemiah dwelt with this problem he warned them using the example of Solomon being led to sin by his foreign wives (Nehemiah 13:23-29). When the prophet Malachi addressed this problem he highlighted that some of them even divorced “the wife of your youth,” who became “your companion and your wife by covenant,” to marry foreign women (Malachi 2:14-16).
Insofar as intermarriage with idolatrous foreign women would eventually lead to idolatry (failure to love God with all of one’s heart) and thus lead to injustice (failure to love one’s neighbor as oneself), what Ezra did was to ensure success in building and sustaining a covenant community.
Ezra’s effectiveness as a teacher of the Mosaic Law is seen from the effects his ministry had on the people. On a festive occasion on the first day of the month, when all the people gathered in Jerusalem, they requested Ezra “to bring the book of the law of Moses which the LORD had given to Israel” (Nehemiah 8:1). Ezra then read from it to the people, while a group of Levites explained the meaning to them.
It is not clear exactly how this was done, but it had a profound effect on the people. Though it was supposed to be a joyous occasion, the people wept because they were convicted of their sins. Nehemiah, Ezra and the Levites had to tell them to stop mourning and weeping (Nehemiah 8:9). Instead they were told to celebrate that day with joy, “for the joy of the LORD is your strength”; and with the help of the Levites they did (Nehemiah 8:10-12).
The next day, Ezra led a Bible study for the heads of household, the priests and the Levites. This led to their celebrating the Feast of Tabernacles as prescribed in the Mosaic Law, which had not been done in this way since the day of Joshua, who led them into Canaan (Nehemiah 8:13-18). Later that month the people gathered to fast with sackcloth (a sign of mourning) and confessed not only their sins but also the iniquities of their ancestors (Nehemiah 9:1-4).
This unexpected and “sudden change from joy to confession of sins” can be explained by the fact “that the Israelites were already weeping and mourning on the first day of the month after they had heard the law,” which was interrupted by the call to be joyful, followed by the celebration of a feast. They did not have the opportunity to release the burden of sins in their heart by confessing them accordingly. So “after this feast it would be natural for them to think again of their sins and iniquities” (Fensham 1982: 222).
The elaborate confession (Nehemiah 9:5-37) led to their making a written covenant on a sealed document (Nehemiah 9:38-10:39). In so doing they renewed the Mosaic Covenant by taking “an oath to walk in God’s Law, which was given through Moses” (10:29). The first of the signatories of the sealed document was Nehemiah himself (10:1). Thus Ezra’s teaching ministry led to a formal recommitment of the nation to be a covenant community under a constitutional government.
Role of Prophet
The prophet Malachi also played a role in nation-building. We are not sure exactly when he preached, but many of the problems he addressed were similar to those Nehemiah had to deal with. Walter Kaiser (1984: 16; cited in Longman and Dillard 2006: 498) highlights five:
1. Mixed marriages (Mal. 2:11–15; cf. Neh. 13:23–27)
2. Failure to tithe (Mal. 3:8–10; cf. Neh. 13:10–14)
3. No concern to keep the Sabbath (Mal. 2:8–9; 4:4; cf.
4. Corrupt priests (Mal. 1:6–2:9; cf. Neh. 13:7–9)
5. Social problems (Mal. 3:5; cf. Neh. 5:1–13)
This shows that the prophet (whose counterpart today is the media) complemented the government in holding the people accountable to the Mosaic Law (or in today’s context, a secular constitution).
Anticipating a Better Covenant
However, given fallen human nature, we do not expect the nation to remain faithful to God for very long. Unsurprisingly, when Nehemiah was away in Persia for a period of time, a number of serious transgressions happened (Nehemiah 13:4-29). This was why God had promised that the nation would (eventually) be restored to a covenant better than the Mosaic Covenant. So when God instructed the prophet Zechariah to conduct a symbolic ceremony in which Joshua the then high priest was crowned as king (Zechariah 6:9-15; cf. 3:8), it pointed to a new beginning with a new hope. But this symbolic act would be puzzling without the broader context of the New Testament.
For under the Davidic Covenant kingship belongs to the descendants of David, from the tribe of Judah. And the use of the Messianic title “Branch” (Zechariah 6:12; cf. Jeremiah 23:5; 33:15) in this connection confirms that the Davidic Covenant is in view here. But Joshua as high priest was, and had to be, from the tribe of Levi. So it is not surprising that “Christian interpreters have traditionally seen in this passage the blending of the offices of priest and king in the Messiah” (Longman and Dillard 2006: 494). For in view of how Jesus matches the anticipated Messiah in terms of His person and work, this is the most sensible interpretation of the text (see Hebrews 5:5-10; 7:11-8:13).
And God’s purpose cannot be thwarted by even the most vicious plot. This is clearly taught in the book of Esther, which recounts something that happened in the Persian capital some time before Ezra’s return to Jerusalem. The account clearly demonstrates God’s providence even when He seems absent. For even though God’s name is not mentioned in the book, God’s hand is everywhere in the narrative. In fact the book “is the most true-to-life biblical example of God’s providence precisely because God is absent from the story…. The complete absence of God is the genius of the book from which hope and encouragement flow” (Jobes 2008: 167-68). For it teaches us to see God’s hand in what is secular (non-religious) as well as secularist (anti-religious), which characterize most of modern life.
In our exposition on Joseph and Leadership Development we outlined the three means of divine providence, one of which is through a series of coincidences. This means is most clearly taught in Esther. The book is about how God delivered the Jews throughout the Persian Empire from destruction by using Queen Esther to thwart the wicked plot of Haman the Prime Minster. The meaning of the narrative is well presented in Longman and Dillard (2006: 221):
[The] story is built on an accumulating series of seeming coincidences, all of which are indispensable when the story reaches its moment of peak dramatic tension at the beginning of chapter 6. How “lucky” the Jews were that Esther was so attractive, that she was chosen over other possible candidates, that Mordecai overheard that assassination plot, that a record of Mordecai’s report of the assassination plans was written in the royal chronicles, that Esther had concealed her identity, that the king would have seen her without having called for her, that the king could not sleep that night, that he asked to have the annals read, that the scribe read from that incident several years earlier concerning Mordecai, that the king was wide awake enough to inquire as to whether he had rewarded Mordecai.... Luck indeed! What the writer of Esther has done is to give us a story in which the main actor is not so much as mentioned—the presence of God is implied and understood throughout the story, so that these mounting coincidences are but the by-product of his rule over history and his providential care for his people.
God had sovereignly placed Esther in the palace even before Haman became Prime Minister. Hence God provided the solution even before the problem arose. This is reflected in Mordecai’s word to Esther that encouraged her to risk her life: “And who knows whether you have not attained royalty for such a time as this?” (Esther 4:14-16). If God had not delivered the Jews there would not be a Jewish nation to be restored, let alone a return under Ezra or Nehemiah. God’s promise of restoration to the better covenant would then not come to pass. The book of Esther thus provides concrete encouragement that everything God has promised through His prophets will eventually come to pass.