Lessons from Ezra-Nehemiah (and Haggai and Zechariah) in This Time

As I reflected during the season of stay-at-home orders, I felt a slight (not complete) resemblance between our situation and that of God’s people when they were living in exile, away from the Promised Land and in the foreign land of Babylon. While I wasn’t removed from my physical home like they were, there was a sense in which life as we know it had been so altered that I felt like I was living in a strange land. Not being able to gather in-person for church felt like their experience in which they could no longer go to the temple for worship (thankfully, our buildings were not destroyed!). We wondered how long this would last and were longing for life to return to some semblance of how it was before, just as the people of Israel did when they were in exile. 

Because of that feeling, when things started to reopen a bit and the church community could gather again, my mind moved to the way the people of Israel returned from exile, which we read about in the Old Testament Books of Ezra and Nehemiah as well as the Books of Haggai and Zechariah, since those prophets ministered during that time. I discovered an interesting similarity (again noting there are differences) in that their return was not immediate, but gradual. You actually see three different phases of their return from exile in Ezra and Nehemiah. First, some come under the leadership of Zerubbabel and they start rebuilding the temple (see Ezra 1-6). A number of years later, however, another group would come back with Ezra (Ezra 7-10), and finally, another group comes back with Nehemiah (as discussed in Nehemiah). However, not everyone returned; some of God’s people remained living in what was called the Diaspora, the places with the Jewish synagogues (in the New Testament Book of Acts we read of the Apostle Paul visiting the Diaspora as he goes about his missionary journeys). As I thought about their return, I couldn’t help but think that our return as a worshipping community will come in various waves as we navigate this pandemic -- and some might never fully return but remain as part of the worshipping community online just as some remained in the lands of exile. This recognition has helped as we have had in-person services, not expecting all to come back at once and to understand that it will take time. Recognizing how God used the Jews who remained in exile to further His kingdom also makes me wonder what could happen in this world of online worship services. There were some other interesting lessons and insights that emerged as I considered their return as we began our in-person services.

A Gradual Rebuild Thwarted by Other Priorities

In addition to a gradual return, there was also a gradual rebuilding of Jerusalem. They came and began building the temple, but for a variety of reasons, the process slowed down and it took 20 or so years for them to complete the rebuilding. As we see in Haggai 1:2-10, for a time the people were more concerned with building their homes than rebuilding the temple; Haggai’s ministry had to spark them to rebuild the temple. It is not just our worship services and ministries that have been affected in this time, but every aspect of our lives have been disrupted. As we seek to rebuild our lives moving forward, what is our priority? As we rebuild our schedules and relationships, are we thinking of how we can worship God and grow in our faith, or will we be focused on other activities? 

While they first rebuilt the temple, they still had to rebuild more of their society. We see in Ezra that it was not enough to just have the temple; he had to teach people. Many had not paid attention to obey God’s Word and had not remained holy, marrying people who worshipped other gods - which led them back into idolatry, the very thing that caused them to go into exile (Ezra 7-10; also see Zechariah 1:1-8 and the call to return to God and not be like their fathers). Going to church is not going to cure our sinful hearts, and we need to continue to pay heed to our lives. The people had to confess their sins and also move into actions in terms of changing that behavior, as repentance is shown not just with words but with deeds. Is our desire to get “back to normal” a way to get back to the same idols we may have had before life came to a screeching halt? Have new idols been generated in this time? How can we turn from them and back to God?

Finally, a number of years later, Nehemiah was saddened because the walls were still not restored to the town - so he is sent to do that. He leads in the face of opposition and the walls are completed, but then he also has to deal with injustice within God’s people (Nehemiah 5; also see earlier in Zechariah 7) and issues with proper worship and idolatrous marriages (Nehemiah 13). The people faced opposition from other groups (Ezra 3 and Nehemiah 4), but it seems the biggest challenges to moving forward came from the internal struggles God’s people had to stay devoted to Him. There are going to be external distractions, but we need to recognize that the greatest enemy to our faith and our flourishing is found within. Let us not forget to examine our hearts in this season.

A Disappointing Return That Points To Our Ultimate Hope

While the people returned from exile, there was also a sense in which the return never fulfilled their expectations and hopes and was meant to point them to a future day to come. A return that had joy but also disappointment is seen even as they began to rebuild the temple. As the people lay the foundation of the temple, we read in Ezra 3:10-13: “when the builders laid the foundation of the temple of the Lord, the priests in their vestments came forward with trumpets, and the Levites, the sons of Asaph, with cymbals, to praise the Lord, according to the directions of David king of Israel. And they sang responsively, praising and giving thanks to the Lord, ‘For he is good, for his steadfast love endures forever toward Israel.’ And all the people shouted with a great shout when they praised the Lord, because the foundation of the house of the Lord was laid. But many of the priests and Levites and heads of fathers' houses, old men who had seen the first house, wept with a loud voice when they saw the foundation of this house being laid, though many shouted aloud for joy, so that the people could not distinguish the sound of the joyful shout from the sound of the people's weeping, for the people shouted with a great shout, and the sound was heard far away.”

There was great joy but also sorrow as the temple was not the same as the previous one; they were not back from exile in its fullest extent and they saw this even at the beginning as the new temple was not measuring up to the old temple. Haggai points this out as well, saying that the new temple does not compare to the old one when it is completed (Haggai 2:3-4). This initial discouragement might have led to them abandoning their rebuilding process; when they met with opposition, it was easy for them to give up and they were distracted by their own interests in needs -- rebuilding their homes instead of rebuilding the temple. This disappointment at what they had seen or what they were seeing may have also let them drift into the old sins. 

I suspect we will have disappointments when we return, as we try to “reopen” our lives and live as normal as possible in this season. May we remember, though, that our hope is not found in the everyday practices of life -- of going to sporting events or not having to think through whether we should go somewhere or what precautions to take. Our hope is found beyond this world. Haggai told the people in 2:6-9, “For thus says the Lord of hosts: ‘Yet once more, in a little while, I will shake the heavens and the earth and the sea and the dry land. And I will shake all nations, so that the treasures of all nations shall come in, and I will fill this house with glory, says the Lord of hosts. The silver is mine, and the gold is mine, declares the Lord of hosts. The latter glory of this house shall be greater than the former, says the Lord of hosts. And in this place I will give peace, declares the Lord of hosts.’” Later in that same chapter, God tells them that He will overthrow the other kingdoms (2:21-22). Zechariah also spoke of a time of prosperity (Zechariah 1:17; 2:4, 11; 3:10), but these things were not fulfilled in the return from exile as the people remained under the rule of other nations, and eventually, Jerusalem was destroyed again. These hopes were beyond their time. The writer of the New Testament Book of Hebrews refers back to this idea from Haggai in noting that we look forward to a kingdom that cannot be shaken (Hebrews 12:26-28). Do we value this kingdom to come more than the kingdoms we see on earth right now? Are we praying for God’s kingdom to come now on earth as it is in heaven and then seeking to promote this kingdom with our lives?

Who Can Solve This? The One To Come

The people’s focus in this time was often centered upon the temple, as that was the dwelling place of God. However, this temple points us forward to how God would come to dwell among His people in Jesus (John 1:14) who said that he was greater than the temple (Matthew 12:42). In fact, the prophecies during the return from exile would point to a person to come who would bring to fruition these ultimate hopes, as the leaders of the time were not to be the ones who brought about these ultimate blessings. In particular, the Book of Zechariah points to the coming Messiah who would come humbly on a donkey (Zechariah 9:9) and would be pierced and mourned over (Zechariah 12:10). Zechariah 14 ends with the hope at the day of the Lord, which has come already in Jesus in part, but of which we await the fullness. As we are in the season in which no one really knows what is going on or what to do next (there are no experts right now, only students of the times and responders to what we discover), may we look to Jesus as the King of King and Lord of Lords.

Examining Our Hearts and Hopes

In this time as we “re-enter” life, we need to remember that this is going to be a process and it might be gradual. As we have seen in recent weeks, we may even at times be taking steps backwards before going forward. But we need to look at our hearts in this time of disruption and make sure they are focused on God first -- that He is the foundation of the rebuilding that we are doing. As we do so, may we look at our hope that is found not here but in God’s promises to come. That is the coming of Jesus the Messiah who has never failed and never erred, who knows all things and has the power to raise his own life - and ours - from the grave.

Their gradual and disappointing return should lead us to examine and think about our hearts and our hopes as we return in these phases. First, I want us to pause and think about our hearts.

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