Ezra 1-2

First exodus

The first year of Cyrus marks the end of the captivity, just as the first year of Nebuchadnezzar had marked its beginning. Cyrus undertakes the restoration of the people and the temple; his first care is to return to the Jews the utensils for worship, which Nebuchadnezzar had formerly placed in the house of his god. The Persian king was aware of his mission and he knew what God had announced beforehand concerning himself through the prophets. Daniel was capable of instructing him concerning these things; Isaiah had said: "[He is] my shepherd, and he shall perform all my pleasure; even saying to Jerusalem, Thou shalt be built; and to the temple, Thy foundation shall be laid" (Isa. 44: 28). Cyrus alludes to this passage when he says: "All the kingdoms of the earth has Jehovah the God of the heavens given to me, and he has charged me to build him a house at Jerusalem, which is in Judah" (Ezra 1: 2). He could read these words in the prophets, which were written long before his birth: "Thus saith Jehovah to his anointed, to Cyrus, whose right hand I have holden, to subdue nations before him - and I will loose the loins of kings; to open before him the two-leaved doors; and the gates shall not be shut: I will go before thee, and make the elevated places plain; I will break in pieces the brazen doors, and cut asunder the bars of iron; and I will give thee the treasures of darkness, and hidden riches of secret places; that thou mayest know that I, Jehovah, who call thee by name, [am] the God of Israel. For Jacob my servant's sake, and Israel mine elect, I have even called thee by thy name: I surnamed thee, though thou didst not know me; I [am] Jehovah, and there is none else; there is no God beside me: I girded thee, and thou hast not known me." (Isa. 45: 1-5).

Cyrus, like the kings of Persia who succeeded him, detested idols. Acknowledging the God of Israel as "the God of the heavens", he particularly insists here on the fact that "he is God" (v. 3). In like manner Artaxerxes, king of Persia, later openly declares that the Lord God of Israel is "the God of the heavens" (Ezra 7: 21, 23).

But all this: these intellectual convictions (which might have nothing to do with a work of conscience or a living faith) and even the assurance of being an instrument chosen to accomplish the designs of God (v. 2), did not suffice to bring about the restoration of the captives. God intended to show that it was He Himself and no other who fulfilled His Word; this is why it is said: "Jehovah stirred up the spirit of Cyrus king of Persia" (v. 1). He also stirred up the spirit of the chief fathers of Judah and Benjamin and the spirit of the priests and of Levites (v. 5). It was only then that they returned to their land, but in the midst of what impoverishment! They had no cloud, no ark, and no Urim or Thummim! (Ezra 2: 63)

The book of Ezra has great significance for us. In the second book of Kings*, we have seen how the beginning of Judah's decline was momentarily interrupted by the two periods of Revival which characterized the reigns of Hezekiah and Josiah. Then, the lamp of testimony, which was then about to go out, suddenly threw off rays of brightness and, had the people taken heed, their final judgment might have been yet prevented or delayed; but this was not the case, for after these blessed and prosperous interludes, the evil, which had been repressed for a moment, once again gained the upper hand with growing intensity, so that judgment was its obligatory conclusion. The ruin was total.

Now, it was out of this ruin that, in the book of Ezra, God calls a Remnant. Not that these "children of the captivity" were in reality or collectively the true remnant of Israel; the true remnant was taken out from their midst and was separated from them, as the prophet Malachi teaches us. Thus, the true remnant was composed of those who feared the Lord and spoke to one another (Mal. 3: 16). When the Messiah appeared, those believers were living in Judea and were waiting for the deliverance of Israel; and when the public ministry of Jesus began, this same remnant, in the person of the twelve disciples and those who had received the word of Christ, surrounded the Savior. And moreover, at the end of the times spoken of in prophecy, this same remnant will wait for the appearance of the Messiah in glory, in the midst of the open apostasy of the people.

Nevertheless, even though this remnant of Judah, who returned to Jerusalem under Cyrus, in order to wait for the Messiah and to welcome Him, are not the true remnant, the Holy Spirit presents them as exemplifying the characteristics which a believing remnant should assume in a time of ruin: they are a most salutary example for us, Christians, who presently find ourselves in the midst of the ruins of Christendom: an example through which we learn how we may be witnesses of God in difficult circumstances. This is the important subject which the first Ezra of our book will present to us.

There were 24,144 people (Ezra 2: 1-35)** who returned from the captivity under the leadership of Zerubbabel and Jeshua (or Joshua), the high priest, assisted by nine chief men. From verse 3 to verse 20 of chapter 2, they are listed according to the name of their fathers, and from verse 21 to verse 34 according to the name of their cities. Those listed according to their cities went to inhabit and re-people their cities of origin, once they had returned to Palestine. The entire people was registered according to their genealogies, as Nehemiah 7: 5 tells us.

The priests, belonging to four families of the sons of Aaron, proved themselves zealous to resume their place and functions in the house of God which was about to be built. They numbered 4289 (Ezra 2: 36-39), whereas, out of the three families of the Levites, only one family was represented, and even this family was represented by a number which was quite insufficient.

Don't these facts have something to say to us at the present time? As all Christians are priests whose suited function is to worship God, many of them (although it goes without saying that even this number is too few) feel the need to fill their functions as worshippers in the Assembly of the living God. But how the absence of Levites, whose functions correspond to ministries in the Christian Assembly, is cruelly felt! It is not that there was any lack of people, as we shall see in Ezra 8, but on their part there was indifference, spiritual laziness, love of their own comfort, no doubt, and thus only seventy-four individuals present themselves to escort the priests, the people, and their chiefs! This is certainly one of the characteristic features of the present time just as it was in those days. Those who have received gifts of the Lord for evangelizing, teaching, and feeding the flock of Christ, fear to go forward with the strength which is given them, and exercise their ministry as the Lord has confided it to them. Instead of feeling their responsibility, they transfer it to others and prefer to give them place, rather than to themselves "keep [their] charge". Even if it is not the only motive for the clergy's usurpation in the Church, at least this spiritual laziness favors it to a high degree. Later we shall see what difficulty Ezra had to assemble a few Levites to go up to Jerusalem with him.

The singers, the sons of Asaph, were more numerous than the sons of Levi: the Word mentions 128 of them (Ezra 2: 41). What a precious function it is to sing the praises of God; but do we not often see, in the assemblies of the saints, the role of the "children of Asaph" largely represented in order to dispense with a service which is more exacting and which calls for greater responsibility?

The porters numbered 139; the Nethinim, or subordinate servants of the sanctuary, together with Solomon's servants numbered 392 (v. 58). These modest functions are very valuable in the eyes of the Lord. See how, from verse 43 to verse 57, God complacently registers all the names of their fathers. Likewise today, whether it is a matter of serving tables, of passing the bread and the cup, of taking care of the "upper room", none of this is forgotten by the Lord; the names of those who have kept the charge of this service are registered just as deservedly as others, and we shall see, in more than one case, that the one among the children of God who took the last place, forgetting himself in order to serve others, will occupy a place of honor, whereas a certain remarkable gift, which tended to glorify man rather than Christ, will sit down with confusion in the last place.

In all, the priests, Levites, singers and servants numbered 5022 souls.

Thus the number of people registered was 29,166 (Ezra 2: 1-35; 36-58) but the whole congregation together consisted of 42,360 persons (v. 64). Among them, 652 (v. 60) of the children of Israel could not prove that they were really part of the people. Moreover, a great number of priests "sought their genealogical register, but they were not found; therefore were they, as polluted, removed from the priesthood. And [Zerubbabel] the Tirshatha (a Persian word: the name given in Ezra and Nehemiah to the governor of Jerusalem under Persian kings), said to them, that they should not eat of the most holy things, till there stood up a priest with Urim and with Thummim" (vv. 62, 63).

Here we find the first feature which ought to characterize a remnant. In normal times, one was not held accountable to present his genealogy, for it was self-evident, to all, that a priest could not pretend to a place which did not belong to him. The situation was identical in the early days of the Church: no one dared to join himself to the Christian assembly (Acts 5: 13), because the power of the Holy Spirit presented a considerable barrier to the invasion of the world. In a time of ruin, it is quite different: when foreign elements have broken out in the house of God, the faithful and obliged to keep close watch in order to oppose any mixture with the world. In Ezra it is a matter of rebuilding the temple of the Lord, and the service of the house could not be associated with foreign elements. Thus we shall later see the remnant entirely repudiate any alliance with the world, in view of a common work; only here, it is not a question of repulsing elements from without, but of examining those persons who claim to belong to the people of God, in order to know if they can give proof of their origin. The case is the same today: the greatest vigilance is necessary, in order to assure that the life of God is really united to the Christian profession. Those who could not be acknowledged by the assembly of Israel, even although they might indeed be part of the people, ought not to blame anyone but themselves if they were not admitted to the service of the temple. They might well indeed be members of Israel, despite appearances, but why were they not prepared to prove their line of descent? Was this the fault of those who did not recognize them? Ought they not, rather, to blame their own indifference in keeping the proof of their origin?

The priests were doubly guilty. There remained only one resource for them: the coming of a priest with the Urim and Thummim, by means of which he consulted the Lord (Num. 27: 21; 1 Sam. 28: 6). Only God, who knows those who are His, could make manifest those who were really of the priestly family. Until that moment, they must wait and could not "eat of the most holy things". This example also indicates to us the course which the Christian assembly should follow in doubtful cases. Let us wait until we can consult the Lord, before admitting to the Lord's table those who cannot prove their divine origin in the sight of all. A Remnant according to the mind of God will never receive to the supper those who merely make a profession of Christianity, but rather, will receive those who are born of God and are His children by right.

In contrast to verse 43, which speaks of the servants of the sanctuary, verses 64 to 67 tell us of the servants and maid-servants of the people, for God does not forget them either. In one way or another, they fulfill their service. Whether it is a matter of washing the feet of the saints, of filling the most humble functions toward those who belong to the Lord, of giving but a cup of water to one of these little ones, God is mindful of it and records it. There were also, among this company, 200 singing men and singing women (v. 65). This singing involves something other than the praise of the holy place, which the sons of Asaph celebrated; the purpose of this singing was also in order to maintain, outside of the context of the set service of worship, the mutual communion of the people of God (Eph. 5: 19; Col. 3: 16).

Lastly, that nothing might be forgotten, God even takes account of the animals (vv. 66, 67), of everything which is useful to His people, and which is helpful to them. These are also carefully counted, without overlooking a single one. What care this numbering speaks to us of! All along the voyage which was to bring them to the house of God, God Himself had watched over His people, had prepared the necessary relief for their fatigue, and had made preparation beforehand for the needs of the weak, the women and the little children. What a God is ours! Shall we seek for a better guide, a better guardian? Is not our Father the Creator and Keeper of all things?

The first characteristic of the remnant, as we have seen, was minute care to avoid receiving any doubtful element into the priesthood, in order to maintain the service of the temple free of defilement. In verses 68 and 69, we find a second characteristic: zeal for the erection of the house of God, the devotion which sacrifices its own interests for the work of the Lord. The chief fathers voluntarily give a sum which could be evaluated at two and a half million in our currency (i.e., French francs, therefore convert to American currency; N.B. one dram = £1.1s or $4.97). This was little indeed, compared to what the chief fathers had formerly offered for the construction of the temple of Solomon (1 Chr. 29: 6-9), but in a time of extreme poverty, this gift had a great value in the eyes of the Lord of the temple and He, the possessor of all the treasures of the universe, appreciated it, according to the zeal which prompted them to offer it, just as later He esteemed the widow's mite more than the surplus of the rich.

To summarize, the characteristics of the remnant, in these two chapters, are the following:

The faithful accept the condition of humiliation and slavery into which their sins has placed them, and they seek neither to improve this state of things, nor to escape from it. Above all, they desire to preserve those who are part of the house of God free from any profane mixture. Not having the Urim and Thummim, they wait until God reveals His mind to them concerning many matters. They do not pretend to replace divine revelations, which are not granted to them for the moment, by some human arrangement of their own invention. They realize that the extent of their intelligence is indeed small. If the carelessness of some prevents the others from acknowledging them, and if the faithfulness of these others obliges them to exclude the careless ones from priestly service, it is no less true that the Lord knows those that are His, and that the moment will come when He will reveal them so faithfully that not one will be found missing.

In the meanwhile, these faithful ones must walk in the narrow path, without any pretension to the power which they did not possess, and with the feeble resources which the God of mercy had left a their disposition.

But this poverty does not in anyway exclude devotion. The house of God is the great object of the thoughts of the remnant and, from the time of their arrival in the land of promise, they subordinate everything to it. What follows will show us whether this zeal succeeded in maintaining itself.



*Meditations on the second book of Kings, by H. R.

**Translator's note: Is Senaah (v. 35) a place or person? (References: Ezra 2; 35, Nehemiah 7: 38: context suggests place; cf. also "Hossenah" Nehemiah 3: 3 where the contexts suggests a person) If it is a place, it would seem to make more sense to say "v. 35" instead of "v. 34" as the text says.