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Now and Not Yet and Ezra-Nehemiah

• Daniel Baker

Posted in Bible, Sermons

Tomorrow (Oct 2, 2022) we begin our series in Ezra-Nehemiah, so let’s get oriented to these great OT books. (We’ll pretend for a minute that we all have power and the church building will have power, and these remnants of Hurrican Ian are behind us).

Leslie Allen opens his Ezra commentary by writing,

Ezra-Nehemiah is the OT equivalent of the Acts of the Apostles—it is a book of new beginnings. Acts opens with the outpouring of the Holy Spirit promised to God in Joel 2 (Acts 1:4–5; 2:16–21, 33). The fulfillment of ‘the word of the LORD spoken by Jeremiah’ (Ezra 1:1) launches Ezra-Nehemiah. The book of Acts selectively narrates the early history of the church throughout the work of Peter, Stephen, Philip, and Paul. Here the reestablishment of the people of God after the exile is presented in a series of phases associated with the names of Sheshbazzar, Zerubbabel, Ezra, and Nehemiah.
Leslie Allen, Ezra, Nehemiah, Esther[1]

A comparison with the “new beginnings” of Acts is helpful, especially since Acts is not the end of a story: It's a “new beginning,” and it ends with much work left to do. Ezra-Nehemiah has that same dynamic of "new beginning" (back from exile!) but ending with much work left to do (Nehemiah's reforms in chapter 13). Dean Ulrich’s study of Ezra-Nehemiah gets at this idea as well, and even in his title it comes across: Now and Not Yet: Theology and Mission in Ezra-Nehemiah.[2] From Ezra 1 to Nehemiah 13, this "now and not yet" duality is before us.  

Let's get an overview of the narrative.

Ezra 1–6: Rebuilding the Temple

Ezra begins with heady stuff: A great pagan monarch ruling over one of the ancient empires takes up the cause of Israel. This great King Cyrus, first ruler of the long-lasting Achaemenid Persian Empire, writes a decree for the Israelites to return to Jerusalem and rebuild the temple (Ezra 1:1–4).

In these opening chapters is a powerful reminder, though, of who must start the work in the first place: "In the first year of Cyrus king of Persia, that the word of the LORD by the mouth of Jeremiah might be fulfilled, the LORD stirred up the spirit of Cyrus king of Persia, so that he made a proclamation throughout all his kingdom and also put it in writing....Then rose up the heads of the fathers’ houses of Judah and Benjamin, and the priests and the Levites, everyone whose spirit God had stirred to go up to rebuild the house of the LORD that is in Jerusalem" (Ezra 1:1, 5). 

It was "the LORD" himself who both "stirred up the spirit of Cyrus" and who "stirred" the spirits of his people to return to Jerusalem. This stirring was no spontaneous idea of God's but one he had foretold "by the mouth of Jeremiah" (Jer 25:11–12; 29:10).

Then Ezra records the powerful story of God establishing worship by his chosen people in his chosen place once again. Ezra 6 ends with one of the great worship services in the Bible. What is the end of God’s plan here? Worship and joy (Ezra 6:21–22). He gets the glory, and we experience joy: "he is good, for his steadfast love endures forever (Ezra 3:11).

But there’s work to do…

Ezra 7–10: Rebuilding the People

In Ezra 7–10 we begin to read of Ezra, “a scribe skilled in the Law of Moses that the LORD, the God of Israel, had given” (Ezra 7:6). Ezra came up at a later point in the empire when King Artaxerxes was in power (Artaxerxes ruled in 464–423 BC). Yet, the story will sound familiar. This king was at first hostile to the intentions of the Jews (see Ezra 4:7–23). But even Artaxerxes will be used by God in a way similar to Cyrus. He will send Ezra back with treasure and protection and even a commission to organize the people of God according to “the law of your God” (Ezra 7:26). Ezra 8–10 tells the story of the wave of Jews that returned with Ezra. They are safe in their journey, “for the hand of the LORD my God was on me” (Ezra 7:28), as Ezra himself says.

The problem of the day for Ezra was the intermarriage between the Jews and the surrounding nations. Ezra’s reforms in Ezra 9–10 will be about this particular issue. In fact, the book ends abruptly with the cryptic statement, “All these had married foreign women, and some of the women had even borne children.” Under the old covenant (Law of Moses), intermarriage was forbidden in order to help preserve the integrity of Israel’s religion. It was not a racial issue but a religious one. Only the Israelites were followers of Yahweh, and so it was assumed that marrying a non-Israelite was to adopt the religion of another nation. This violated the first commandment: “You shall have no other gods before me” (Exod 20:3). There were exceptions, of course. Rahab and Ruth are ones we talked about this summer.

So, yes, the ending of Ezra is abrupt, for sure, but such an ending does two things. One is it confirms what Dean Ulrich observed, that the celebrations and triumphs of Ezra-Nehemiah are an echo of the great NOW in the storyline of the Bible—but there is also present, and just as clearly, a sense of NOT YET. God is doing something NOW that’s wonderful—but this is NOT YET the culmination of our hopes and dreams and God’s promises. Thus, we aren’t yet at the true golden age, not yet experiencing God’s kingdom fully established on earth (see Rev 21–22). The reminder of intermarriage among God’s people makes this clear. We see the same “now and not yet” dynamic in Nehemiah.

Nehemiah 1–6: Rebuilding the Walls

Nehemiah 1–6 begins on a high note with yet another triumphant story, this one involving the blessing of the pagan ruler Artaxerxes and the completion of the walls around Jerusalem. These early chapters are filled with opposition to the work, especially from Israel’s neighbors but also from a breakdown in the integrity of God’s people themselves. In the end, “the wall was finished…in fifty-two days” (Neh 6:15), and Israel's neighbors recognized that something marvelous had just happened: "And when all our enemies heard of it, all the nations around us were afraid and fell greatly in their own esteem, for they perceived that this work had been accomplished with the help of our God" (Neh 6:16). Amen!

But...once again, there’s more work to do…

Nehemiah 7:1–13:3: Rebuilding the People 2.0

In Nehemiah 7:1–13:3 there is what we can call the rebuilding of Jerusalem itself. “The people within it were few, and no houses had been rebuilt” (7:4), and so a kind of repopulation project began to establish the city and its worship.

It is during this rebuilding project that we hear again from Ezra. In Nehemiah 8–10 there is a section that some have called a continuation of “The Ezra Memoirs.” Here we see the role of Ezra front-and-center as he leads Israel in one of the great Bible studies of all time: “They read from the book, from the Law of God, clearly, and they gave the sense, so that the people understood the reading” (8:8).

The reason some call it, “The Ezra Memoirs,” is the central place given to Ezra and the way Nehemiah gets talked about in the third person (e.g., 8:9). After these chapters when the wall is being dedicated, Nehemiah’s use of first-person returns: “Then I brought the leaders of Judah up onto the wall….While this was taking place, I was not in Jerusalem” (12:31; 13:6).

These chapters (7:1–13:3) are a great ascent to a culminating moment, which is another worship service. When the walls are “dedicated” (12:27), the Hebrew word used is the same as that used of the “dedication of the altar” (Num 7:10–11, 84, 88; 2 Chr 7:9; see also the Ezra 6:16–17) and the “dedication of the temple” of Solomon (Ps 30). It is the Hebrew behind "Hanukkah," the name of the December Jewish feast celebrating the temple’s dedication. These walls are given a similar kind of spiritual status by a service of “dedication.” This is no accident, as we'll see in our study. The day is marked by choirs giving thanks, myriad instruments to recapture the worship David commanded, and offerings given by God’s people.

Nehemiah 13:4–31: Are We There Yet?

But like in Ezra, Nehemiah does not end on this exalted plane. Instead we turn the page to a kind of coda, Nehemiah 13:4–31. Nehemiah returns to serve king Artaxerxes for an extended amount of time, and the integrity of the people suffers. When he returns he needs to restore spiritual order. He establishes the support of the Levites again, confronts officials, and rebukes those who have intermarried with Ammonites and Moabites—even pulling out the hair in their beards: Ouch! (Neh 13:25).

As Dean Ulrich says, “Nehemiah 13 resembles a splash of cold water in the face,”[3] and not the refreshing kind. It is the kind of splash that comes as a stark dose of reality.

Reality, however, isn’t only failure and compromise. The books of Ezra and Nehemiah remind us that here in this fallen world we can experience the blessing and grace of God. We can taste the presence and power of God. We can worship with the saints in glorious times of thanksgiving. We can experience revival. You could even say that these books remind us no generation is beyond the need for revival, and no generation is beyond the reach of revival. God’s power can bring personal and corporate revival whenever and however he pleases. May he do it in our midst and soon!

Keep in Mind as Your Read

Some things to keep in mind as you read through Ezra and Nehemiah in the coming weeks:

  • Ezra and Nehemiah are best seen as a single work, Ezra-Nehemiah. This is how they are given in the Hebrew Bible, placed together and placed right near the very end in what's called the "Writings." Origen in the third century AD is the first to present them as two books.[4] The fact these two books are really one book is why commentators almost always deal with them in the same volume.
  • Ezra-Nehemiah are theological history, meaning that it’s history told to convey theology and theology presented through historical writing. The history is exactly correct, but it’s also told in a way to teach important theological truths.
  • These books are written in the shadow of the prophecies of Jeremiah, that God would send his people to Babylon for 70 years but then bring them back to Jerusalem (Jer 25:12–13; 29:10). Thus, these books represent a fulfillment of one of the great OT prophecies.
  • These books are sophisticated in their use of sources. In them we find a combination of historical sources that are brought together in this single narrative of Ezra-Nehemiah. The main ones we can see are given in a helpful list by Derek Kidner[5]:
  1. The memoirs of Ezra (Ezra 7:27–8:34 and all of Ezra 9), which means that Ezra himself is the likely source of this material;
  2. The memoirs of Nehemiah (Neh 1–2; 4:1–7:5; 12:27–43 (maybe 31–43); 13:4–end), which means Nehemiah himself is the source;
  3. Jewish lists – The many lists (of people, treasures, temple elements, etc.) are evidently copied from “Temple archives, others from the lay administration. The importance of these is indicated by Ezra 2: “The following were those who came up from Tel-melah, Tel-harsha, Cherub, Addan, and Immer, though they could not prove their fathers’ houses or their descent, whether they belonged to Israel….These sought their registration among those enrolled in the genealogies, but they were not found there, and so they were excluded from the priesthood as unclean" (Ezra 2:59, 62). Remember, unlike the new covenant where your spiritual status is determined by personal faith in Christ and God's saving work in us (Gal 3:29), in the Abrahamic and Mosaic covenants, a Jew needed to be able to trace their lineage back to one of the twelve tribes and then to Abraham himself. And for the priests who needed to be Levites, this lineage was very specific. This is why Ezra the scribe is introduced with his ancestry (Ezra 7:1–5).
  4. Imperial decrees and correspondence: “Ancient administrators were as careful as their modern counterparts to keep records of decisions and letters and there is direct evidence (Neh 11:24) as well as indirect for the fact that the Persians used native advisers for the drafting of local regulations. Evidently our author had access to the archives (note the words, ‘The copy of the letter,’ Ezra 5:6).” We'll see that these ancient letters and decrees are used by the author to speak important truths. He's not just wanting to be historically complete. He wants us to understand certain things by using these remarkable letters and decrees.

Preaching Schedule

Finally, here’s our preaching schedule so you can read ahead to prepare for the sermons:

  • Oct 2 – Daniel – Ezra 1-6
  • Oct 9 – Craig Cabaniss - John 20:21, The Mission of God
  • Oct 16 – Phil Sasser – Ezra 7-10
  • Oct 23 – Daniel – Nehemiah 1:1-2:8
  • Oct 30 – John – Nehemiah 2:9-3:32
  • Nov 6 – Daniel – Nehemiah 4-6
  • Nov 13 – Ian McConnell – TBD
  • Nov 20 – Brad Hodges – Nehemiah 8
  • Nov 27 – Daniel – Nehemiah 9
  • Nov 4 – Mike – Nehemiah 10
  • Nov 11 – Philip Sasser – Nehemiah 11:1-13:3
  • Nov 18 – Daniel – Nehemiah 13:4–31

May God bless your study of these tremendous books and the preaching of them this fall.

Daniel

[1] Leslie Allen, “Ezra,” Ezra, Nehemiah, Esther, NIBC (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2003), 3.

[2] Dean R. Ulrich, Now and Not Yet: Theology and Mission in Ezra-Nehemiah, NSBT (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2021).

[3] Dean R. Ulrich, Now and Not Yet: Theology and Mission in Ezra-Nehemiah, NSBT (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2021), 150.

[4] F. Charles Fensham, The Books of Ezra and Nehemiah (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1982), 1.

[5] Derek Kidner, Ezra and Nehemiah, TOTC (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 1979), 148–149.

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