Ezra Highlights Justice and Mercy
ONLY the Creator, possessing all wisdom and complete knowledge of every feature of his creation, along with all power, could make his own qualities of justice and mercy work in such complete balance that his purpose is perfectly carried out. The effects of these qualities on the people serving him move them so that precisely what he has predetermined is done, with benefits to all concerned.
The Bible book of Ezra highlights this fine coordination of Jehovah’s works, which are always done in harmony with his holy personality, there never being a deviation from his good purposes and sterling qualities. The apostle Paul, who understood the ways of God, assures us: “God makes all his works cooperate together for the good of those who love God.”—Rom. 8:28.
Ezra was a descendant of Aaron, Eleazar and Phinehas, and was therefore a priest, though not of the high-priestly line, the office usually being held by the oldest son in each generation. (Ezra 7:1-6) Ezra’s last ancestor to hold the high priesthood was Seraiah (probably his great-grandfather), who was executed by Nebuchadnezzar at the capture of Jerusalem. Ezra returned to Jerusalem in 468 B.C.E., 69 years after the return of some 49,000 Jews, including slaves, from Babylon under the leadership of Zerubbabel (also called Sheshbazzar) of the tribe of Judah. (Neh. 7:66, 67) Ezra’s account, however, first reports features of this earlier return under Zerubbabel before detailing the facts of his own later visit.
TEMPLE REBUILT FOR MESSIAH’S LATER COMING
Even though God had allowed Babylon to take his people into exile because of their sin and rebellion, destroying the temple and desolating the city of Jerusalem, he purposed to have the temple and city rebuilt. Why? In order to preserve true worship in the earth. More important, the Messiah was yet to come. To fulfill God’s purpose with regard to his arrival required that Jerusalem be standing, a populated city, with Jehovah’s temple in its midst (though it was then replaced by still a third building, built by Herod). Furthermore, it was essential that God’s law be the governing force in the land when the Messiah should come. This coming of the Messiah to the rebuilt city of Zion (Jerusalem) was foretold by the prophets.—Dan. 9:25.
God foreknew that there would be a few persons in their exiled condition in Babylon who would still love him and would desire to do what they could to restore pure worship. He could use them for his purpose. While, before the exile, the gross sinfulness of the people had demanded that the God of justice remove them from the land, his mercy would be extended to these few. This foreknowledge of God was revealed some 200 years previously when Isaiah the prophet spoke of the coming of a king, a liberator, who would be named Cyrus.—Isa. 44:28; 45:1.
Cyrus the Persian undoubtedly learned to know about Jehovah. Daniel the prophet occupied a high and respected position during the early part of Cyrus’ rule. (Dan. 6:28) Daniel undoubtedly showed him the prophetic mention of his name in the prophecy of Isaiah. One Bible scholar remarks:
“Holy Scripture shows what it was that made so favourable an impression upon Cyrus, by relating the rôle played by Daniel at the overthrow of the Babylonian monarchy, Dan. v. 28, 30. What wonder was it that the fulfiller of this prediction should have felt himself attracted towards the prophet who uttered it, and should willingly restore the vessels which Belshazzar had that night committed the sin of polluting?”*
GOD EXTENDS MERCY AND HELP
Recognizing the existence of other gods, Cyrus would have no difficulty in viewing Jehovah as a God, even the true God, the great God, and the One who, as he said, gave him “all the kingdoms of the earth.”—Ezra 1:2.
God’s great mercy, his power and the sureness of his purpose are revealed in his blessing of a very small number of faithful ones. Most of the Jews in Babylon were assimilated into Babylonish business life and they had little or no interest in restoring true worship. Nevertheless, God’s mercy operated toward the faithful few. With the motive of promoting pure worship, these set out from Babylon and arrived in Jerusalem after enjoying God’s protection through a hazardous journey across a barren wilderness. (Isa. 35:2-10) Surrounded by hostile neighbors, they built an altar to Jehovah and began laying a foundation for the temple. The Samaritans offered to join them in the work, pretending friendliness. But since they were practicers of a contaminated form of worship their offer was rejected by Ezra.—Ezra 4:1-4; 2 Ki. 17:29.
God approved the stand taken by the restored Israelites, for, to collaborate with these people would be making themselves “unevenly yoked with unbelievers” in true worship, trying to bring about an agreement between God’s temple and idols. (2 Cor. 6:14-16) However, the good spirit of the restored remnant started to waver when these professed friends began to give trouble through their influence with the Persian government, weakening the Jews to the point that temple building finally ceased.—Ezra 4:8-24.
In the meantime, self-concern for their own homes and affairs caused the Jews to let the house of God lie waste. But God’s purpose was not to be thwarted. (Hag. 1:8, 9) He sent the prophets Haggai and Zechariah to bring their minds back to the purpose for which they had returned to Jerusalem. They responded and temple rebuilding was resumed, even in the face of opposition. (Ezra 5:1, 2) Jehovah blessed their fearless obedience. On their appeal to King Darius the Persian, the governors of the surrounding provinces were ordered to stop hindering the Jews and to help them from the public treasury with any needed financial assistance. With this grant from Darius the work was completed and the temple was inaugurated with great rejoicing.—Ezra 6:6-12, 16-22.
GOD’S MERCY, NOT JEWS’ GOODNESS, ACCOMPLISHES HIS PURPOSE
Nevertheless, this success in the restoration of pure worship was not due to the goodness of the returned Jews, but, rather, to the operation of God’s mercy in carrying out his purpose. How so? Because it became necessary for him to send his servant Ezra. In spite of the evident revelation of God’s mercy and protection, the resettled Jews had violated the principle for which they had earlier stood firm, namely, separateness from pagan worshipers. Now they had gone so far as to enter into the most intimate relationship—marriage—with unbelieving, idol-worshiping women. Even the priests, Levites and princes succumbed to this sinful disobedience to God’s command.—Ezra 9:1, 2.
To the casual reader, what these Jews did may not seem so bad. But consider: If the small number of the Jews who had returned to Judah had been assimilated into the surrounding nations, who actually opposed their God and his worship centered at the temple, what would have been the result? Pure worship would have vanished from the earth. Why, only a few years later, in Nehemiah’s time, the children of such marriages were found unable to speak Hebrew!—Neh. 13:24.
Ezra could see the awful implications of this disobedience. He sat stunned for a period of time. Then, before the assembled Jewish repatriates, he offered public prayer, setting forth the serious sinfulness and ungratefulness of their actions. He prayed, in part:
“Because of our errors we have been given, we ourselves, our kings, our priests, into the hand of the kings of the lands with the sword, with the captivity and with the plunder and with shame of face, just as this day. And now for a little moment favor from Jehovah our God has come by leaving over for us those who escape and by giving us a peg in his holy place, to make our eyes shine, . . . And now what shall we say, O our God, after this? For we have left your commandments, . . . after all that has come upon us for our bad deeds and our great guiltiness . . . shall we go breaking your commandments again?”—Ezra 9:7-14.
Ezra thereby confessed before God and all the people the ingratitude and wickedness of those to whom God had shown unusual mercy. He did not ask for forgiveness, for the people themselves had to repent and set matters straight before they could expect the anger of God to turn from them. On seeing their own bad position, the people responded with contrite hearts. They dismissed their foreign wives. God could then forgive them and preserve them in the land.—Ezra 10:44.
So God’s mercy was not misplaced. Also, his care exercised by sending his prophets Haggai and Zechariah, as well as the leadership he provided through Ezra, preserved pure worship for the time. Today, as in the past, persons who seek to know God and to come into close relationship with him can serve for his purpose and receive his mercy and protection.
Biblical Commentary on the Old Testament, by Keil and Delitzsch, on Ezra, Nehemiah and Esther, p. 24.