In this conversation on the book of Ezra, Aaron Messner—senior pastor of Westmister Presbyterian Church in Atlanta, Georgia—helps teachers understand the unique time and place of the events described in this book. The action takes place near the end of Israel’s Old Testament history and features unique characters—Cyrus, king of Persia; Zerubbabel from the kingly line of David; Jeshua, a Levite; and Ezra, a direct descendant of Aaron the high priest. Messner also gives teachers tools for dealing with challenges in the book, including two chapters of lengthy genealogies and an account of repentance that results in Israelite men separating from their foreign wives.
Listen to this episode of Help Me Teach the Bible.
- Ezra and Nehemiah (Tyndale Commentaries) by Derek Kidner
- Exalting Jesus in Ezra and Nehemiah (Christ-Centered Exposition) by James M. Hamilton
- Ezra and Nehemiah: A 12-Week Study (Knowing the Bible) by Kathleen B. Nielson
- The Message of Ezra & Haggai (Bible Speaks Today) by Robert Fyall
- Sermon texts on Ezra-Nehemiah by Dale Ralph Davis
The following is an uncorrected transcript generated by a transcription service. Before quoting in print, please check the corresponding audio for accuracy.
Aaron Messner: Ezra would help us to see the priority that worshiping Jesus should have and that that isn’t something that just is a formal and ceremonial reality but the centrality of worshiping Jesus then shapes every part of our lives. It shapes the purity of our worship, that we would be a people who, like Ezra, know the word, want to have the word taught in order that people may do it.
Nancy Guthrie: Welcome to “Help Me Teach the Bible.” I’m Nancy Guthrie. “Help Me Teach the Bible” is a production of The Gospel Coalition sponsored by Crossway, a not-for-profit publisher of the ESV Bible, Christian books and tracts. Learn more at crossway.org. Today, I am talking with Reverend Aaron Messner, who is senior pastor of Westminster Presbyterian Church in Atlanta, Georgia. Aaron, thank you for being willing to help us teach the bible.
Messner: Thanks, Nancy. It’s great to be with you.
Guthrie: So, let’s begin this way to help us get to know you a little bit. Would you tell us how your love for, your passion for, your desire to actually teach the Bible to other people, can you tell us how that developed in your life?
Messner: It developed in college. I had grown up in the church, very active in kind of an evangelical church, but not necessarily with the strongest Bible education. And so one of the things that happened was I went to Wheaton College. And I was kind of gung ho about serving the Lord and had volunteered in all kinds of different activities. But one of the things I realized very quickly in my first semester at Wheaton College, is that I didn’t actually know the Bible very well. I took an Old Testament class, and I was perpetually stunned at how little I knew the Bible. And I was taking a theology class and found myself on the wrong end of some theological arguments because there were certain things that I was asserting that were fairly easily disproved or countered.
And so I really found myself kind of going back to the drawing board and saying, I’ve spent my whole life in the church but I really don’t feel like I know the Bible very well. I was a student at Wheaton College, and across the street from Wheaton College is College Church. And Kent Hughes was the senior pastor, a really solid Bible expositor, helped start the Simeon Trust.
And so, even though College Church was on the opposite end of the spectrum from what I was used to, in terms of style of worship and other things, I realized really quickly, this is a church that teaches the Bible. And this is a church that has a large pastoral staff that seems knowledgeable of the Bible. I can take these guys out for coffee. I can ask questions, and they can answer them.
And that’s really where it began. Was being in this very Bible-rich, expository, preaching environment, where I was learning, and growing, and studying. It was really there for the first time that I read through the Bible, beginning to end. It was during that time that I began to understand really, for the first time, that the Bible really was a single coherent narrative that all centered around the personal work of Jesus.
I remember walking into Julius Scott, who was a professor at Wheaton College and saying in this kind of stunned voice into his office, “The Bible’s all one big story.” And he was like, “Yes, I know this.” And I was like, “I don’t think I did know that.” And he was like, “Well, I’m glad you do know.” So that undergraduate time was very rich for me, and just put me on a path of studying, and reading, and that eventually took me to graduate school.
And interning at Tenth Presbyterian Church under Phil Ryken, and then being on the staff at Tenth for five years. But that’s kind of where it began, was really that first semester at Wheaton College, and out of the humility of realizing I didn’t know the Bible nearly as well as I thought I did.
Guthrie: Well, you’ve had the dream team of mentors, good grief. Kent Hughes, and then to work under Phil Ryken, and some of the other pastors there.
Messner: No, I have a… My wife and I, we’ve joked because we met at Wheaton and got married the Saturday after graduation. And so we’ve really done our entire adult lives together. And we said we have a very jaded view of normal preaching because the only preachers that we’ve sat under our entire adult lives are Kent Hughes. Basically, Kent Hughes, Phil Ryken, and Joe Novenson. When that’s kind of standard normal preaching for you, then you have a really high standard. And I’m always disappointed to have to listen to myself after listening to those guys my entire adult life.
Guthrie: I don’t know, I’ve listened to you, and I wasn’t disappointed.
Messner: One of my intellectual mentors, not really a personal mentor, but, was a man named Dick Lucas, who is still preaching, and has been a blessing to so many. He used to say, “The Bible is for you. But part of the way you have to realize the Bible is for you is that it’s not always immediately about you.” And so I think we have this conviction, a good conviction that the Bible is for us. And we want to believe that the Bible is profitable and useful. And so what we tend to do is say, the way to make the Bible for us and useful to us is to make it about us. And so we don’t really know because the historical situation is foreign. So what we try to do is we try to make, put ourselves in that or put the biblical characters in our situation. We try to smooth out all the historical differences, and try to say, “See, this is just like your life.” And then what we end up with is kind of moralistic principles, which often are not false. There is…
Guthrie: Sometimes helpful.
Messner: Yes, sometimes helpful. But what we do is, we then have a Bible, particularly in Old Testament, but often even a New Testament, which is really an anthology of moral stories, moral principles. And what we lose is the primary purpose of the Bible which is to tell the grand story of salvation. So, understanding how all the various historical narratives of the Old Testament are, first and foremost, telling us about God, about salvation. And what Jesus tells us is, they’re ultimately telling us about him. So, Luke 24, John 5, he is saying, “If you want to understand the Bible, you have to understand the Bible is about me. And until you understand the Old Testament in relation to me, you really don’t understand it.”
I mean, Jesus makes that point very clear, John 5. He says to the Pharisees, “You come to the Scriptures because you think in them you have life, but you fail to come to me, whom the scriptures are about.” So, I think that’s one of the fundamental questions is, how does this story play a role in the larger grand narrative of redemption, ultimately bringing honor and glory to the Lord Jesus Christ, who is the center of that story, and doesn’t just emerge in that story somewhere in the beginning of the of the New Testament?
Guthrie: Well, I look forward to you handing us as teachers, along the way, some places where when we are teaching we can get to Christ. So, I look forward to how you do that because I know how well you do that. So, as we begin, in Ezra, at this point, the people have been in exile in Babylon for about 70 years. And that’s pretty key, because Jeremiah had prophesied that they would be in exile for 70 years. And that’s the kind of the point in the story in which we pick up in Ezra chapter 1. What do we discover here?
Messner: Well, I mean, one of the things that I really recommend is, as you’re teaching through this material, even if you’re teaching people who are lifelong church people, committed to the Bible people, I think it’s always perilous to assume that people know the Old Testament like they should or like, so…
Guthrie: Especially this period in the Old Testament. This is the confusing part.
Messner: Yes. I’m fairly certain, I can’t remember exactly all, but I’m fairly certain that I did a sermon on Ezra 1:1 in…
Guthrie: Oh really?
Messner: I think if you were gonna teach this, you’ve got to set the stage. And so when it talks about the first year of Cyrus, King of Persia, that the word of the Lord by the mouth of Jeremiah be fulfilled, there’s a lot of content right there. The author of Ezra is assuming you know the backstory. And I think it’s a mistake to assume that your people know the backstory. So I think there’s a great opportunity there.
One of the things that should happen at the end of this is, people should know this history in such a way that they now have that framework in their minds. They understand this portion of the Bible, and they understand it in relation to what has come before. I mean, for me, one of the great compliments that I received after, at the end of my Ezra, Nehemiah, which, before that I had, maybe a year earlier had taught Daniel but I had some elderly ladies in my church come up to me and say, “I now feel like I’m able to read the Old Testament and understand it for the first time. I’ve been a Christian my whole life, been trying to read the Bible my whole life. But now it’s like, now I have the framework with which to go to a particular text. And I know…”
Guthrie: I can put it on a timeline.
Messner: Yes. I can put it on a timeline. I know where to, you know, put this on the shelf, kind of thing. So, I think you want to take the time to set the stage. I mean, you have to understand the divided kingdom and the prophetic ministry leading up to the fall of Jerusalem and the destruction, and the exile, and then the return, all that’s got to be in place before you even begin this.
Guthrie: Yes. And don’t you think you also have to have, because the first verse is, “In the first year of Cyrus, King of Persia,” we’ve got to understand that the Babylonians, they came in, they took those who were in Jerusalem, Judea into exile, they’re in Babylon. But then, by this point, these 70 years later, they’re no longer the dominant world power. Now, the Medes and the Persians have come to power. And this man, Cyrus, is now pretty much the ruler over most of the known world. And he has a very different approach to how to manage and handle some of the people groups that have been brought into exile. What’s his approach?
Messner: Yeah, so, it’s interesting. The three great foes of Israel during the, Israel and Judah, during the period of the divided kingdom are Assyria, Babylon, and then the Persians, not necessarily foe, but they all have very different approaches to conquered peoples. The Assyrians, really, their approach is, destroy them and breed them out of existence. Which is why when the Assyrians destroy the Northern Kingdom, that’s kind of the end of the Northern Kingdom.
Guthrie: We really don’t hear from them again.
Messner: No. And that’s kind of the root of Samaritans, is this kind of interbreeding of, it was like, “We will assimilate you so that you aren’t even around as a people anymore.” The Babylonians, you could say was a little more humane, which is, “We’re gonna conquer you culturally. We’re gonna convince you.” And you see this in the beginning of Daniel, “that our food is better, and our culture is better, and our literature is better. We’re gonna forcibly convert you to our ways. We’re gonna change your names, and we’re gonna…” They bring the people in exile to have them live in Babylon with the idea that you will discover Babylon is superior.
And so there’s the hard work there of preserving your identity in the face of this enormous cultural pressure. The Persians, their approach was, “Hey, everybody can have their gods. And you know what would be awesome is if everybody’s gods were ultimately serving the Empire. So let’s have, let’s give everybody the freedom to be in their homeland, to build their own temples so that everybody’s kind of tribal gods are now working for the Empire.” So now, the challenge is to receive that blessing of being able to go back but not necessarily having your agenda co-opted for the reason perhaps that the Empire wants.
Guthrie: So you say Cyrus has his reasons for this. But we see right there in verse 1, the Lord has His own reasons for this. I mean, this is, isn’t this a beautiful picture? You know, this perennial question about man’s responsibility or free will and God’s sovereignty? Because, as you said, Cyrus is doing what he wants to do that’s gonna work out well for him. But he just doesn’t even realize that he’s being used as a tool by a sovereign God to accomplish His purposes.
Messner: That’s right. That’s right. I mean, and this is a consistent theme in the Scriptures. So, if we go all the way back to Genesis, Joseph is able to say to his brothers, “You intended it for evil, but God intended it for good.” God is sovereign. And He’s not the author of evil but He’s using everything that takes place. I mean, as Ephesians 1 then says, “This is the God who works all things in accordance with His perfect will.”
Guthrie: Let’s move down to verse 5. I just love what’s here in verse 5, where it says, “Then rose up the heads of the fathers of the Houses of Judah and Benjamin. They’ve heard this announcement by Cyrus and the priests and Levites, everyone whose spirit God had stirred up to go up to rebuild the House of the Lord that is in Jerusalem.” And then it begins this long list of what this initial group of returnees are going to take with them. What do we learn about this priority of what they’re taking with them in terms of the priorities of God and the priorities of His people?
Messner: So, what you can see is that the great priority is to rebuild the temple. And they are doing this at significant cost and risk to themselves. Most of the Jews ultimately were able to kind of look forward and say, “Hey, we could have a pretty good life for ourselves here in Persia. This is better than Babylon. We can see that, you know, we’re living in the heart of a great empire.”
You have to remember, Jerusalem is nothing. It’s been leveled to the ground. It’s been burned with fire. It is an ash heap. It has no security. It’s 1000 mile journey on foot with everything you have. And when you arrive, there is nothing there for you. So this is an act of great sacrifice. And why would one do it? Humanly speaking, it doesn’t make any sense.
You’re almost assuredly better off staying in Persia. Why are they doing it? Entirely for theological reasons. It’s because this is the land to which God has given to his people, where the house of God has been built, where God has promised to dwell in the midst of His people. So this really is, in some ways, I mean, the whole theme of temple is really one of the central threads of the whole biblical story.
I mean, in one sense, the story begins in the garden which is in some ways a proto temple, in which the greatest thing about the garden is God dwells with His people. He’s there with them. And as a result of their sin, the people are driven out to the East of Eden, or Adam and Eve are driven out of the garden, away from the presence of God. And when the Tabernacle is built, the gate coming back in is on the east side. So it’s clearly a reference to the fact that they were driven out to the East. They were cut off from that kind of fellowship with God, and now they are being welcomed back, coming into the presence of God, being able to meet with Him and dwell with Him. And the thing that sets Israel apart from all the other nations is that the God of the universe dwells in their midst.
And so here, what you have is the people of God realizing that at great worldly cost and sacrifice and risk, their great priority is to rebuild the dwelling place of God, where He promises to dwell in the midst of His people, and that’s what’s happening here. So all of these things have to do with the furnishings that accompany the temple. This is part of this grand project, which is at the center of the life of faith, which is to dwell with God.
And that’s how the story ends. It ultimately ends in Revelation, with the dwelling place of God is with man. And we live with God, and we experience His blessing. So this is the dwelling place of God amongst His people, it has been destroyed. And the rebuilding of that is the most important thing in the world for the people of God.
Guthrie: Chapter 2 is one of those chapters that if you’re teaching, you think, “Oh, man. What am I gonna do with this?” And that’s because, just on the surface, it can appear to be just a long, very long list of names and numbers. It is detailing for us all the people whom God had stirred up their hearts to home, who are making this trek back to Jerusalem. So, as a teacher, what are you gonna do with that?
Messner: I think this is the only time where I was more nervous for the scripture reading than the sermon. This is one of those texts where the principal, the 2 Timothy 3:16 principle is so important. This idea that all Scripture is God-breathed and therefore it is profitable. If we’re gonna be good Bible teachers, we have to believe that in the very depth of our being, because when we come to a text that is not immediately profitable, if we are not utterly convinced that it is in fact profitable, we move on.
We go looking for a profitable text. But if we are convinced that all scripture is God-breathed, the necessary correlation of it being God-breathed is that God doesn’t utter useless words. His words always accomplish His purposes, then we will press into this text. And any other very hard, difficult text to say, “What is the usefulness? How is this beneficial?” And I think there’s a lot of things here.
One is to be reminded that God is the Redeemer and the savior of real people. I think one of the illustrations that I used is, at the end of a movie, they always roll the credits. You don’t really care about those credits, generally, unless you know somebody in that credit. At which point you will hang to see your uncle’s name come across the screen because now those are real people doing real work.
And so God is doing a work to save a people for Himself. And yes, that’s a corporate reality but it is a corporate reality that is made up of individuals. And I can turn from this text and say, “And are you in that number?”
Guthrie: Yes. You talked about how in chapter 1, you could connect, as it’s listing out all of the furnishings and things they’re taking back to put in the temple. As a teacher, you could connect that to this story of God’s dwelling with His people that began there in Eden, and really goes all the way to Revelation 21 and 22, where God announces, He’s come down now to dwell, “I’m gonna dwell with my people.”
And I kind of think that chapter 2, you can do something similar. You could connect it to this announcement in Genesis 3 of an offspring, offspring of the women. And if you’ve been reading the whole Old Testament story, this is not the first time you’ve had a big, long list of names. But every time you could pretty much connect it to tracing this story of the offspring. And then as you said, it goes all the way to the end of the Bible where we read there in Revelation 21:2 “Whose names are written in the Lamb’s Book of Life.”
That makes a passage like this that just seems like a bunch of hard names to read come alive. When we get to chapter three, a person is introduced to us. In Ezra and Nehemiah, there’s really three leaders, and they each have distinctive purposes. And the first of these leaders is introduced to us in Ezra 3. Who is he? And what special skill does he employ for the task that he’s been given amongst God’s people?
Messner: So we have Zerubbabel. We learn about him, that in the genealogies of 1 Chronicles, if we look over at Haggai, he is actually part of the royal line of David.
Guthrie: That’s should make some bells go off.
Messner: Yeah. And in essence, he’s a king without a kingdom. He is part of this royal line. But part of why this is so important is, one of the…if you go back to 1 Chronicles 1 through 9, you have nine chapters of the genealogy of Israel, but it’s not equally balanced. Three of those chapters are the line of Judah. And part of what I think is the difficulty having been in exile is, “Is our story done? Here we have, we’ve been in exile for 70 years, is our story done? Are the promises of God still true?” And so here, what you have is this figure from the royal line of David whom God has promised that line will be unbroken. And you will have a king from that line who will rule over my people forever. And my kingdom will be established through him and it will have no end.
Obviously, Zerubbabel is not Jesus. He’s not the king who will rule forever, but he is this glorious declaration that the promises of God continue, they remain. Here is this leader who is boldly leading the people of God in order to lead this effort to rebuild the House of God. And he’s joined by Joshua who is leader of the priesthood.
So here’s this beautiful, when you go back to 1 Chronicle 9, who gets the lion’s share of the genealogy? The tribe of Judah and the tribe of Levi, has a way of saying, “I still have a kingly line. And I still have priests who are ready to offer sacrifices in the temple. So the fundamental character of God’s promises of a royal rule, and priestly intercession, they remain. And those are the two figures that we have here in Ezra 3. And so they have come to lead this effort, to rebuild the temple so that sacrifices can be offered once again, and atonement can be made. These two men embody, in many ways, the great redemptive promises of God.
Guthrie: So we see them head back, and the first thing they do is build an altar. They rebuild the altar, and they offer daily burnt offerings. And I think that can…we can just kind of read right through that because all of that Old Testament offering animals as sacrifices on altars, that is so foreign to us. And we think of that as a thing that’s completely over.
But, if your life and fellowship and relationship with God, if your hope of being forgiven of your sin is centered around the offering of animal sacrifices on an altar in the temple of Jerusalem, and it’s been 70 years, and there’s been no temple, and there have been building no sacrifices offered, that, don’t you think, helps us to think about what this would have meant? I suppose maybe there’d be a sense of relief, a sense of celebration that once again there’s hope of being forgiven?
Messner: I think it’s impossible for us to really wrap our minds around the centrality and the significance of the temple for Old Testament Jews. There’s really nothing equivalent to it in our society. We can say, “Oh, what if the White House got destroyed?” They would put the president somewhere else, and we’d rebuild it. The temple was not just a symbolic building, it was not just a beautiful building that represented national achievement, it was the place where God dwelled. And it was only because of the sacrifices offered there that people actually could be in right relationship with God, could have their sins atoned for. It was only because of that, that they could actually have the hope of Psalm 23, that they would dwell in the house of the Lord forever.
And so, to be able to go and the very first thing you do, you don’t have houses, you don’t have any security, you don’t have a wall, you’re building this in…but you’re gonna take the resources you have and you’re gonna commit them to being able to build an altar. And the temple is the first priority. It’s the priority. It’s the whole reason why they’re returning.
What is that for us? Well, it tells us something about the centrality of worship, the centrality of what it means to be in a right relationship with God, to what degree, you know, and obviously, we don’t do that through animal sacrifice. We do that through the sacrifice of the Lord, Jesus Christ. But to what sense can we ask ourselves, is that our highest priority? Being in right relationship with God through worshiping him on the basis of the atoning sacrifice that is ours.
Guthrie: So they’re back in the land, and they, first, they rebuild the altar. Then they begin rebuilding the temple. I’m looking in verse 11 of chapter 3, all the people shouted with a great shout when they praise the Lord because the foundation of the house of the Lord was laid. But then when we move into chapter 4, we see immediately my heading in my ESV says, “Adversaries oppose the rebuilding.” Who are these adversaries? And what’s their problem with the rebuilding of the temple?
Messner: It says, “Let us build with you for we have worshiped your God as you, we have been sacrificing ever since the days of Esarhaddon, King of Assyria who brought us here.” So what you see going back to my comment about the Assyrians, that what the Assyrians would do is when they would conquer people, they would scatter them, force them to live in different places, force them to intermarry. And so what you have here is these are a people who don’t have a clear ethnic identity because that was Assyria’s intent in conquering them…
Guthrie: That they intermarry with each other and lose that.
Messner: …that they would intermarry and lose their ethnic identity. So this is, in a sense, a people without clear identity who have been worshiping, it’s not orthodox, but these are folks who are coming and saying, “Hey, let us build with you.” So initially, they’re saying, they’re kind of, it seems like they’re extending the olive branch. But part of what Zerubbabel knows is, what has always been the besetting sin of Israel and Judah has been their syncretism.
If we go back to before the temple was destroyed in the first place, they never stopped worshiping at the temple. They kept bringing their sacrifices to the temple. But what Ezekiel gives us is this graphic picture of the syncretism that’s happening at the temple. That the temple itself is filled with idols of the nations and creeping things.
He gives us this graphic, almost disgusting picture of all the idols and animal statues that are littering the temple. So, Zerubbabel knows, that’s what took us down before. It was the fact that our worship was corrupted. It wasn’t according to the Word. It wasn’t the pure worship that God had laid out for us in His Word. It was the syncretistic worship that came as a way of making peace with the nations.
And so here, they come back. And that temptation is put before them right from the get-go. “Hey, we’d like to build with you. We wanna partner with you. We wanna…” But Zerubbabel knows, that is not saying, “We want to come to worship you on the terms of the Scriptures of the God of Israel.” This is saying, “Hey, come, let’s kind of be able to do this together.” And what does Zerubbabel say? “You have nothing to do with us in building a house to our God. But we alone will build to the Lord, the God of Israel.” So Zerubbabel is saying, “We’re gonna build this on our terms, according to the authoritative Word of God.”
Guthrie: And this does not sit well with these folks?
Messner: Right. Which shows you how disingenuous the offer is because as soon as the syncretistic option is revealed, and that they want, then immediately the opposition begins, and they begin to raise all kinds of trouble for them.
Guthrie: So they write a letter back to the king in Persia, and that puts a stop to the work. The work then ceases, and it ceases for a long time. Chapter 5 opens with, “Now the prophets, Haggai and Zechariah prophesied to the Jews who were in Judah and Jerusalem in the name of the God of Israel, who was over them.” If we’re teaching this, we probably want to turn to Haggai, and Zechariah and say, “What were they saying to the people?”
Messner: Yes, when I preached through these books, I actually took a two-week break at 5:1 and preached through Haggai. It’s short. So I would really recommend, Zechariah has enough kind of complications, that I think it’s probably a bit much to take a break and go through Zechariah. But you could go through Haggai really in one…
Guthrie: What is it? Like three chapters?
Messner: Yeah. It’s only two.
Guthrie: Yeah. And it’s all about getting back to the work of building the temple.
Messner: That’s right. And there’s a whole passage there on the significance of the Zerubbabel. So Haggai is actually really helpful and simple enough that I would actually encourage people to even take a one-week break and teach just the Book of Haggai. Part of the challenge of this book is, one chapter comes after another but there can be some pretty big gaps in time.
The return from exile is 538-539. And they begin to work. And that work gets shut down at 4:6. You then have this kind of complicated letter which I would actually argue is not immediate in the chronology because it’s a different king. So you see that the king in 4:6 is not the same as the king and 4:7. I think part of what’s happening with this letter is this is a later king. And this is given as an example to say, “This is the kind of opposition we have received the entire time.” I don’t actually think it’s a mistake which some more liberal scholars would say. They got their chronology all wrong. They don’t know which king is which. This is like Exhibit A, this is the kind of opposition that the people of God faced. They faced it from the beginning, they faced it all the way through. And then what happens is, there’s a 20-year gap.
Guthrie: Yes. A long time.
Messner: Right. So, you have this letter which is almost like Exhibit A of the kind of things, the kinds of opposition we faced, and then it picks back up that the work is shut down. And about over a 20-year period, about a 20-year period goes by between the end of 4 and the beginning of 5. And so what Haggai is coming in and Zechariah, they’re coming in and saying, “Hey, you guys shut this down because of opposition. But now the problem is not the opposition. The problem is you guys. It’s interesting, gentlemen, that you’ve been doing some building over these last 20 years, you just haven’t been building the house of the Lord. You’ve been building your own paneled houses, you need to recommit yourself to kind of first things first. You have to make the temple the priority that it is.” And they respond. Usually, the people of God don’t respond to the Prophet.
So here’s a case of, they preach and the people respond, and they do what they’re told, which is beautiful in and of itself. And they give themselves. And what we see is, the opposition comes again. If you’re waiting to do the work of the Lord in a way where the world cheers you on, that never happens. It doesn’t happen in the entire story of Ezra and Nehemiah. It’s always in the face of opposition. But what we see is that they really, they press into that, and they continue to do the work.
Guthrie: As we move into chapter 6, you mentioned earlier that there were a couple of different rulers named. So far we’ve had Cyrus and was it Ahasuerus was the next one?
Messner: Yes, that’s right.
Guthrie: Then in chapter 6, it opens this way. “Then Darrius, the king, made a decree. And a search was made in Babylonia in the house of the archives where the documents were stored.” So, tell us what’s happening here.
Messner: That’s a later conflict. But they’re using it as an example of, this is the kind of conflict we faced all the way. You want to know what kind of conflict I’m talking about? Here’s an example. This is what we…
Guthrie: But it’s in the future.
Messner: But it’s actually a future conflict. Otherwise, you’re gonna get really confused, especially if you have any knowledge of Persian kings and the order they come.
Guthrie: It’s just gonna look like it doesn’t line up at all.
Messner: Right. So what happens is, when they start building anew, the governor of the area basically says, “You guys don’t have permission to be doing this.” So it’s now 20 years later, and he says, “Hey, you can’t be doing this.” So what ends up happening is there’s kind of now this kind of legal dispute. “Do you have permission to be doing this?” So basically, the governor says, “You don’t have the right to do this.” And they say, “We actually do have the right to do this because Cyrus, 20 years ago, gave us permission.” So they actually then write to the current king and say, “Is this true? Do they have this permission? Because they claim they do? And I don’t really think they do.”
So then what happens is the current king goes back, they examine the archives, and then they go, “Oh, wow, Cyrus really did do this.” And if you can remember from Esther, part of the laws of the Medes and the Persians is that the rules of the king.
Guthrie: Once they’re made, man, they’re made.
Messner: Right. So now you’re bound because Cyrus was the great Persian king. And if he said it was good then I guess it’s good.
Guthrie: And then they build the temple. And we read at the end of chapter 6, it’s finished. It’s dedicated. They celebrate the Passover again. How long has it been since they have celebrated the Passover? And what must that have meant to them? Then we get to chapter 7. “Now, after this, in the reign of Artaxerxes, King of Persia, Ezra,” this son. So now we’re introduced to this other person, this person, the name that this book is named after. Tell us about Ezra.
Messner: Ezra, who we are introduced to, and you’ll see, in terms of just timeframe, so now we are…the people return. So that’s one of the hard things, is there’s some big jumps in time. The people return initially 538-539-538, the temple gets completed in 515. So that’s a 20-plus year gap where the temple is shut down, and now the temple’s, it’s rebuilt. They’re celebrating the Passover. But now we make another big jump in time, well into the kind of 400 BC.
You have a new King Artaxerxes, who’s actually the king who’s mentioned in chapter 4. And so here’s Ezra, the great verse on Ezra, Ezra 7:10, it says, “Ezra had set his heart to study the law of the Lord, and to do it, and to teach His statutes and rules in Israel.” So Ezra is from the priestly line. And he has given himself, devoted himself to studying the law.
Guthrie: Even while living in Babylon.
Messner: Even while living in Babylon. So here, he’s in a place where he’s not able fully execute the law of the Lord but he has devoted himself and surely, I really think, part of what Ezra knows, I mean, he’s seen that the people have returned. He knows that’s ultimately where God’s people are being called to, is back to the Promised Land. So here he is, in Persia. He’s grown up, and he’s devoted his life to studying the law of God. And what he ends up having this great heart to do, is to return and to be able to teach the law of God, and to help order the life of God’s people in God’s place according to God’s word. He knows that God’s people are in God’s place. He knows that the temple has been built.
But what his burden is, is to go and actually reorder the lives of God’s people according to His Word in that place. So this is kind of, in one sense, the next great return. The return from exile is something that really happens in three great waves. So there’s the initial wave of Zerubbabel, which leads to the building of the temple. Then there’s another great return led by Ezra, which is really focused on the ministry of the word, and rebuilding the people. And then ultimately, then you have, finally you have the return led by Nehemiah, which then Ezra and Nehemiah are kind of laboring together. And we think of Nehemiah, we think about the rebuilding of the wall. But that’s a continued project of really rebuilding the people.
Guthrie: In chapter 8, once again, we have a genealogy. Are we gonna approach this kind of the same way as we did in chapter 2? Or is there something unique about it, when we get to it in this place?
Messner: You don’t just wanna say every time there’s a list of names, these are real people and that’s the point. But what we are looking for here is the sons of Phineas. This is in one sense predominantly a priestly group that is returning. And so, what you can see here is the temple is not just a building. If you’re going to go back and teach the law of God, you need priests to be able to enact that, and to be able to continue to teach it, and continue to embody that. So this is important because it’s intimately connected. This group of folks is intimately connected to Ezra’s project. These are the men who are going to teach and enact the law of God. So the law of God is not just a…
Guthrie: Serving the temple, offer sacrifices.
Messner: Yeah. It’s not just going to be read but then…and Ezra 7:10 is key. Ezra had said it’s hard to study the law of the Lord, and to do it, and to teach His statutes and rules in Israel. So he would have given a hearty amen to James in saying, “Hey, we’re not interested in just being hearers of the law, that what the law of God does is it’s laying out this grand vision for how the people of God are to live as the people of God.” And it requires a robust priestly enterprise to be able to fulfill God’s commands for his people.
Guthrie: When Ezra gets to Jerusalem, he discovers and confronts a very significant problem in Jerusalem. What is that problem that he discovers?
Messner: Twofold. One is, they’re lacking obedience to the word. They’re lacking obedience to the ceremonial aspects of the word, which is why there’s this call for kind of priests and Levites to come and be a part of leading this, and they’re lacking obedience to the moral dynamics of God’s Word. And so part of what is happening there is, this big problem of intermarriage in which the problem here is not one of ethnic purity, but the problem is one of spiritual purity, that the whole reason why the exile took place. The great downfall of God’s people has been their syncretism with the gods of the peoples of the land.
And this goes all the way back to Solomon, that Solomon took foreign wives and their gods became a snare to him and led him into apostasy. And so, this has been the besetting sin of Israel and Judah, is that religious syncretism with the gods of the peoples of the lands. And so Ezra sees this intermarriage. And it’s like, he sees this return to the very spiritual realities which caused the exile in the first place.
Guthrie: In both Ezra and Nehemiah, this is a recurring problem, this intermarriage. And I think it presents a unique challenge to us as modern-day teachers. Because to most people, it does sound racial in nature. It sounds bigoted, it can really be a struggle to teach. So, one thing I heard you say that it wasn’t ethnic or racial. So maybe we could say, this is a religious problem. But maybe somebody comes back to you and says, “Okay, then who are the people of God? Aren’t they just the Jews?” How would you answer that?
Messner: I would say that, if you go back to the beginning of the story, that from the beginning, what God has purposed to do is to make a people for himself, which, in the Old Testament, is the people of Israel. And he’s going to bless that people. This is Genesis 12. And his purpose from the very beginning has been that through that people He would bring the blessings of His salvation to all peoples of the earth. So that’s the promise to Abraham in Genesis 12.
“I’m gonna make you into a nation. I’m gonna bless you. And through you and your seed, all the nations will be blessed.” And I think what we see is that God has always been gracious to save, in the Old Testament even, he’s able to save the nations who come to Him in faith. So, we can talk about that in terms of individual episodes. What’s stunning is, when you get to Matthew 1 and the genealogy of Jesus, there’s this genealogy that has all these begats, and then it keeps mentioning occasionally a woman. Of course we know what’s interesting is, in the genealogy of Matthew 1, there are women involved at every stage of the genealogy. We know this to be the case. But why are there only a small handful of women mentioned?
Why Tamar? Why Bathsheba? Why Ruth? They’re all Gentiles. That’s the key, other than Mary, all four women mentioned in the Old Testament genealogy are Gentiles who have been engrafted into the people of God and who…now, if you were interested in ethnic purity, you would be super embarrassed about those episodes. And when you were telling the story of the Jewish Messiah and the Savior of the world, you would hide those stories.
But Matthew highlights those stories to say, He is the Savior of all people. And that’s even woven into the genealogy. And that’s to say nothing of the countless verses that are throughout the Old Testament about the salvation of the nations. And we could just talk…the salvation of the nations is a grand Old Testament theme that in some way is part of Israel’s failure is Israel makes one of two failures throughout the Old Testament.
They either want to go be like the nations and disparage the glorious realities of their own God by chasing after the gods of the nations, or they actually come to despise the nations and don’t want any…that’s really what we see kind of with the people of…with the Jews in the New Testament is they really just, they’re so…maybe they are so leery of idolatry now that they don’t want anything to do with the nations.
And the reality is, God’s plan has always been to save a people for Himself from every tongue, tribe, and nation working through Israel unto Jesus who becomes the savior of the nations. And so, you have this great, ironic blessing in Numbers 6, that the Lord bless you and keep you, and make his face to shine upon you. Psalm 67 says, here’s the reason for that blessing. “May the Lord bless you and keep you and make His face to shine upon you so that His saving work may be made known to all the nations, so that all the nations may praise Him.” That’s always been the plan.
Part of what Ezra knows is that there will not be the salvation of the nations if we don’t have purity of religion in worshiping the God of Israel. That the true worship of the God of Israel is the only hope for the salvation of the nations. If we compromise that then there’s no salvation to be extended to the nation. So I think that’s absolutely what’s going on here, is this is a religious problem. It’s a syncretism problem. It’s the problem that besets Israel throughout the entire story. And so, coming back from the exile in which the exile fundamentally happened because of religious syncretism and idolatry, Ezra is like, “We cannot go back to this.”
Guthrie: The rest of chapter 9 is a passionate picture of Ezra, in a sense, interceding for these sinful people. He fasts, he falls on his knees, and then he prays. He prays this very passionate prayer to God to do a work in the hearts of His people. And then when you get to chapter 10, it says, “While Ezra prayed and made confession, weeping, casting himself down before the house of God, a very great assembly of men, women, and children gathered to him out of Israel for the people wept bitterly.”
And we see that there’s sadness over this sin, which, I guess, I’m talking to a preacher here. This is the kind of response you would wish, isn’t it? The kind of response you would wish from people when you are interceding for them to forsake sin?
Messner: That’s right. I think you could make the case that the ultimate litmus test of the genuineness of our faith is demonstrated in our repentance. I mean, what’s the great difference between David and Saul? Ultimately, it’s not the character of their sin. It’s the nature of their repentance.
When the teaching of the Word of God goes forth, and people understand what’s at stake, I mean, what you would hope for them and for any of us is that we would repent, that we would, as the Westminster Confession says, you know, with grief and hatred of our sin, we would endeavor to turn from it. And to seek for God’s forgiveness.
Guthrie: But, Aaron, repentance here means putting away these foreign wives. And we approach this with our mindset. That doesn’t seem right. That doesn’t seem moral. That on the surface just doesn’t seem like a very God-like action to break these bonds of marriage. So, how do we make sense of that?
Messner: We have to make important distinctions between descriptive phenomenon and prescriptive phenomenon. That there are lots of things that happen which doesn’t mean they are then prescribed going forward for all time and all places. This is a particular moment where, in many ways, the future of the people of God is at stake. So, these desperate times call for desperate measures. And they do what the people of God were not willing to do before, which is to make this clean break with idolatry. I think they did the right thing in this particular instance, realizing how grave and perilous their situation was, and God’s plan of redemption really being jeopardized at this point. So they did the thing that they had to do.
And so I think there’s much we can learn here about the gravity of the situation. But we don’t then say, “Hey, any time you make a bad decision in marriage,” I think Paul gives us enough clear prescription to say that’s not the paradigm that we shouldn’t be pursuing. But rather recognizing the uniqueness of the situation in the history of redemption.
Scriptures are for us, but they’re not always about us. So let’s be careful to immediately insert ourselves and our situation into a situation that’s actually not our immediate situation. And so there’s this unique historical moment of decision where Ezra does a drastic thing. It’s a hard thing. This is not an easy passage to teach or preach but it does show the gravity of what’s at stake here, what’s at stake here.
Guthrie: When we come to the end of teaching through this book, what would be our hope that the teaching of this book, what its impact would have been on those we’re teaching?
Messner: I think that we would see the centrality of worship, and the centrality of living according to God’s word. And that we would see that our worship and our obedience as people who are a part of this story. This story is ultimately pointing us to Jesus because Jesus is the one who has come and tabernacled among us. He is the very temple that was talking torn down and rebuilt for our salvation.
He is the sacrifice by which we have reconciliation with God. Ezra would help us to see the priority that worshiping Jesus should have and that that isn’t something that just is a formal and ceremonial reality. But the centrality of worshiping Jesus then shapes every part of our lives. It shapes the purity of our worship, that we would be a people who, like Ezra, know the word, want to have the word taught in order that people may do it and live their whole lives individually and corporately for the glory of our God in Christ.
Guthrie: A worthy aim. Thank you so much, Aaron, for helping us teach the Bible.
Messner: Thanks for having me.
Guthrie: You’ve been listening to “Help Me Teach the Bible” with Nancy Guthrie, a production of The Gospel Coalition sponsored by Crossway. Crossway is a not-for-profit publisher of the ESV Bible, Christian books and tracts, including “Ezra and Nehemiah: A 12-Week Study” by Kathleen Nielsen. If you’re teaching through the book of Ezra and/or Ezra and Nehemiah, and you don’t wanna have to write questions yourselves, use this incredible 12-week study written by Kathleen. Learn more about Crossway’s gospel-centered resources at crossway.org.