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The Restoration Begins (Ezra 3:1-4:5) April 19-21

Ezra 3 begins with the seventh month of the Hebrew calendar, Tishri, corresponding to September-October. Cyrus' decree had been delivered in 538 B.C., sometime after March-April. It probably took several months to prepare and mobilize for the return. If it then took three and a half to four months to actually travel to Judea—as it later took Ezra's group (see Ezra 7:9; 8:31)—there is no way the Jews of the first return could have been settled in the Promised Land by Tishri of 538 B.C. More than likely it was 537. Many have even suggested 536. Probably the Jews had arrived in the land some months before—enough time for them to be resettled in the cities as noted in Ezra 3:1.

Tishri is an important month on the sacred calendar, containing four of God's seven annual festivals. Mentioned first in this chapter, because of his religious duties relevant to the festivals, is Jeshua, or Joshua, the high priest (Haggai 1:1; Zechariah 3:1). He is referred to as the son of Jozadak (Ezra 3:2, 8) or Jehozadak (Haggai 1:1). The high priest prior to the exile was named Seriah, who was captured by the Babylonians: "And the captain of the guard took Seraiah the chief priest" (2 Kings 25:18). He was executed along with others (verses 19-21). But his son survived. For in giving the high priestly genealogy, 1 Chronicles 6:14 says: "...Seraiah begot Jehozadak. Jehozadak went into captivity when the LORD carried Judah and Jerusalem into captivity by the hand of Nebuchadnezzar." And now we see that Jeshua or Joshua was the son of Jehozadak. Once more, it is worth noting how historically consistent the various books of the Bible are.

Zerubbabel, the governor, is referred to as the son of Shealtiel (Ezra 3:2, 8). In 1 Chronicles 3:17-19, Shealtiel is listed as a son of the former Jewish king Jehoiachin or Jeconiah. Yet the same passage in 1 Chronicles lists Zerubbabel as the son of Pedaiahanother son of Jeconiah. "It may be that Shealtiel died childless and his brother Pedaiah married his widow, following the custom of Levirate marriage (see Deut. 25:5-10; 1 Chr. 3:18)" (Nelson Study Bible, note on Ezra 1:8). That would make Zerubbabel the son of Pedaiah through biology and identification with him as the one who raised him—but the son of Shealtiel by name and inheritance. Note also that Zerubbabel, a Davidic prince, was appointed governor and not a vassal king under Cyrus. Recall God's stern dictate that no descendant of Jeconiah would sit on the throne of Britain and reign as king over Judah (see Jeremiah 22:24-30). The throne of Britain had been transferred elsewhere (see our online publication, The Throne of Britain: Its Biblical Origin and Future). In that light, it is interesting to see that there is no hint of the people trying to promote Zerubbabel as king—despite the desire for the restoration of Jeconiah's line at the beginning of the exile. It seems they had come to accept the prophecies of Jeremiah as divinely authoritative.

Indeed, we see a restored religious zeal in Ezra 3—a genuine desire to please God. The returned Jews rebuilt the destroyed altar at the site of the Jerusalem temple. "They set the altar on its bases" (verse 3)—that is, on the foundations where it had originally stood—and reinstituted the sacrifices they had been unable to offer in Babylon (as Jerusalem was the only place God designated acceptable for such sacrifices). Jamieson, Fausset & Brown's Commentary says: "This was of urgent and immediate necessity, in order, first, to make atonement for their sins; secondly, to obtain the divine blessing on their preparations for the temple, as well as animate their feelings of piety and patriotism for the prosecution of that national work" (note on verse 2). And this reinstitution of the sacrificial system was despite their fear of adversarial national neighbors (same verse). "We can measure our faith by what we do when we're afraid, despite our fears!" (Bible Reader's Companion, note on verse 3).

The sacrifices recommenced on the first day of Tishri (verse 6), which is the Feast of Trumpets (see Leviticus 23:23-25; Numbers 29:1-6). The tenth day of the same month is the Day of Atonement (Leviticus 23:26-32; Numbers 29:7-11). And from the 15th through the 21st is the Feast of Tabernacles, the 22nd then constituting another festival (Leviticus 23:33-44). The people kept the Feast of Tabernacles, which God always intended to be a major highlight of the year for His people, with the appropriate number of sacrifices (verse 4; see Numbers 29:13-38). The Feast of Tabernacles symbolizes the coming rule of Jesus Christ over all nations (see our free booklet God's Holy Day Plan—The Promise of Hope for All Mankind). Indeed, on one level, this observance of the Feast of Tabernacles by the returned exiles prefigures the wonderful observance of this same festival by a regathered Israel following Christ's return (Zechariah 14:16).

The foundation of the temple was not yet laid, but the obtaining of materials for the building's construction was underway. In building the first temple, King Solomon had purchased materials from Tyre and Sidon (in modern Lebanon) and had them shipped to Joppa (just south of modern Tel Aviv), paying for them with grain, oil and wine (see 2 Chronicles 2:10-16; 1 Kings 5:1-11). We see almost the exact same details under Zerubbabel and Joshua, who had permission from Cyrus for such business (see Ezra 3:7).

Construction on the second temple began in the second month of the second year since returning to Judea (verse 8). The second month, Iyyar, corresponding to April-May, was also the month in which the building of Solomon's temple had begun (see 1 Kings 6:1). "As the Jews probably returned to [Judea] in the spring of 537, the second year would be the spring of 536" (Expositor's Bible Commentary, note on Ezra 3:8). Yet some date the return to 536, which would make the second year 535. Interestingly, this is 70 years from the first captivity of Jews at the hands of the Babylonians in 605 B.C.

The Levites were appointed as overseers over the laborers (verses 8-9). The Jeshua of verse 9 is not the high priest but a Levite (see 2:40).

"The returnees to Jerusalem celebrated laying the temple's foundation in almost the same way that the previous generation had celebrated the first temple (see 2 Chr. 5:13). Two choruses were sung responsively. One group sang For He is good; the other group responded with For His mercy endures forever (see Neh. 12:31)" (Nelson Study Bible, note on Ezra 3:10-11). The New Bible Commentary says regarding this: "The singing was antiphonal, with either two choirs, or a choir and a priest-soloist. This is a feature of many psalms. The words preserved in our text would be the chorus (cf. 1 Ch. 16:34; 2 Ch. 5:13; 7:3; Ps. 136)" (note on Ezra 3:11).

"Laying the foundation was a cause of celebration. The descriptive 'great shout of praise' (v. 11) reflects the typically loud expression of both grief and joy in the Middle East. The old remembered the glory of Solomon's temple [destroyed 50 years before] and were heartbroken that this temple was less than half as large. The young were excited at the prospect of what lay ahead" (Bible Reader's Companion, note on verses 10-13). A lesser temple was better than no temple. God had brought judgment, but He had led a remnant here to begin again.

"It Is Not for You and For Us" (Ezra 3:1-4:5)

In chapter 4, the Jewish people encounter a serious problem. Note that the people are referred to as Judah and Benjamin (verse 1)—once again showing this was not a return of all the tribes of Israel but just those who, along with many of the Levites, had made up the southern kingdom of Judah.

Certain "adversaries" come to offer help on the temple's construction. These were evidently the people now inhabiting the territory of the former Israelite northern kingdom of Samaria, though that is not explicitly stated here. The first-century Jewish historian Josephus does explicitly refer to these people as Cuthaeans or Samaritans (Antiquities of the Jews, Book 11, chap. 2, sec. 1; chap. 4, sec. 3), people of Babylonia and Syria relocated by the Assyrians to the land of Israel after the deportation of the Israelites. Those in the delegation here mention their forefathers of nearly a century and a half earlier having been brought over by the Assyrian emperor Esarhaddon, who reigned from 681 to 669 B.C. (verse 2).

The governor, high priest and elders reject the Samaritan offer of help: "You may do nothing with us is not a rude rebuff; it is a righteous [and wise] refusal. The people offering help were not friends, but adversaries (v. 1). They may have sacrificed to the Lord, but they were idolatrous at the same time (see 2 Kin. 17:29-35)" (Nelson, note on Ezra 4:3). Indeed, 2 Kings 17:33 says of them, "They feared the LORD, yet served their own gods—according to the rituals of the nations from among whom they were carried away." Their offer of assistance may even have been a hypocritical ruse to infiltrate the Jews, gain more influence and sabotage their project. "A man who flatters his neighbor spreads a net for his feet" (Proverbs 29:5).

Expositor's comments: "Even after the destruction of the temple, worshipers from Shiloh and Shechem in the north came to offer cereals and incense at the site of the ruined temple (Jer 41:5). Moreover the northerners did not abandon faith in Yahweh, as we see from the Yahwistic names given [in the book of Nehemiah] to Sanballat's sons, Delaiah and Shelemaiah.... But they retained Yahweh, not as the sole God, but as one god among many gods; Sanballat's name honors the moon god Sin. Though Ezra-Nehemiah does not explicitly mention the syncretistic character of the northerners, evidence suggests that the inhabitants of Samaria were syncretists.... In 1962 the Ta'amireh Bedouins who had found the DSS [Dead Sea Scrolls] discovered a cave in Wadi Daliyeh with fourth-century B.C. papyri. Paul Lapp in 1963 found there a great mass of skeletons, numbering between two hundred to three hundred men, women, and children: the remains of the leading families of Samaria who had fled in 331 from Alexander. A good proportion of their personal names included the names of such deities as Qos (Edomite), SHR (Aramaic), Chemosh (Moabite), Ba'al (Canaanite), and Nebo (Babylonian)" (note on Ezra 4:1-2).

Syncretism (blending of beliefs or ecumenism—compromising truth for the sake of cooperation and unity) was the sin that had led to the deportations of both Israel and Judah. It would have been foolish for the returned Jews to blend with those who were still practicing it. Yet interestingly, as was mentioned, this is not given as the reason for the refusal. According to Expositor's, the wording of verse 3 "is literally 'it is not for you and for us'.... The Jews tried tactfully to reject the aid proffered by the northerners by referring to the provisions of the king's decree" (note on verse 3). In fact, Josephus says that the Jews replied "that it was impossible for them to permit them to be their partners, whilst they {only} had been appointed to build that temple at first by Cyrus...although it was indeed lawful for them to come and worship there if they pleased" (sec. 3).

Despite the non-condemnatory and even hospitable approach, the refusal nevertheless provoked hostility and opposition from the Samaritans. These adversaries "tried to discourage the people of Judah. They troubled them in building" (verse 4). "'To discourage' is literally 'to weaken the hands,' a Hebrew idiom.... The opposite idiom is 'to strengthen the hands'.... 'Make them afraid' [NIV, or 'trouble']—the verb balah means 'to terrify' and often describes the fear aroused in a battle situation" (Expositor's, note on verse 4). So it appears the Samaritans may have resorted to forms of sabotage or terrorism.

They also "hired counselors against them" (verse 5)—"or lawyers, probably to represent them against the Jewish community at the Persian court. The Samaritans persisted in these attacks until the reign of Darius as much as fourteen years later" (Nelson, note on verse 5). Before looking ahead to that time, however, the setting of our next few readings is still the reign of Cyrus.

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