The Books of Ezra and Nehemiah
Author and Date:
Some scholars posit that the Books of Ezra and Nehemiah were written in the fourth century BC by a Levite priest known as “the Chronicler”.
Others, while noting the striking continuity in the doctrinal themes of the books of 1 and 2 Chronicles, Ezra, and Nehemiah, believe that Ezra and Nehemiah were composed as late as 100 BC.
Originally a single book in the Hebrew texts and the Greek Septuagint, they were later divided into two books in the Latin Vulgate (fourth century AD) and called 1-2 Ezra; in the New Vulgate (twentieth century AD) these books are called by their present names.
Multiple source documents were used to compose these book as evidenced in part by the disordered chronology of the narrative and the occasional change in voice.
Ezra, Nehemiah, and the two Books of the Chronicles can be seen as a four-book unit since they share much of the same doctrinal message and theme: the need of a strong national identity for the Jewish people, free from pagan or Gentile influence; purity in worship; and fidelity to the covenant and Law.
Ezra recounts how the Temple was rebuilt by the exiles returning from Babylon and rededicated on the feast of Passover (cf. 1:1-6:22) and how Ezra reestablished the Law in Israel (cf. 7:1-10:44); meanwhile, Nehemiah recounts how he came to rebuild and settle the city of Jerusalem and how Ezra proclaimed the Law, eliciting a pledge of commitment from all the people (cf. 1:1-13:31)
From the heights of the Davidic Kingdom before the exile, Israel found itself a broken people, no longer an autonomous nation but a people under foreign rule.
Its separated Northern Kingdom had been destroyed, Jerusalem was in ruins and overrun by pagan influence, its Temple had been leveled and desecrated, and its Law and covenant had been forgotten by those who remained in Judah.
For the Jews of the exile, forced to live far from the Temple, ritual worship and sacrifice had been interrupted, and the faithful had begun to meet and pray in local houses of worship called synagogues.
Lacking the social structure of their homeland, the Law itself grew in prominence.
Ezra and Nehemiah were a reminder during the reconstruction period that, despite these changes, post-exilic Israel represented a continuous link with pre-exilic Israel.
The Second Temple, although not as magnificent as Solomon’s, was built on the same location and used the same sacred vessels that had been taken by Nebuchadnezzar (cf. Ezr 5:14).
The priests and the ministers were descendants of the men who had held these offices before the exile (cf. Neh 7:39-65).
These examples show once again the faithfulness of God, who never abandons his people and continues his plan of salvation history throughout the cultural, social, and political changes of the centuries.
(*The Didache Bible RSV-CE Ignatius Edition, 2006)
Ezra 1-10 The Assyrian conquest, deportation, and essential destruction of the Northern Kingdom of Israel occurred in 722 BC. This was followed by the Babylonian conquest and exile of the Southern Kingdom of Judah, which took place in stages between 597 BC and 587 BC. While the Northern Kingdom would never recover, the Judeans were reprieved a generation later by King Cyrus of Persia, who defeated Babylon and liberated the Jews, allowing them to return to the Promised Land. Ezra, a priest, and the governor Nehemiah played important roles in re-establishing the religious life of Judah in the post-exilic period. Many of those exiled in Babylon had been influenced by the pagan practices there, and the impoverished people who were left behind in Judah experienced a dearth of leadership and were left despondent over the destruction of their Temple. The returning Jews, which included Ezra and Nehemiah, wished to rebuild Judah and restore the proper worship of God according to their traditions. (CCC 312, 324)
Ch 1:1-4 This book begins with an expanded version of the final passage of 2 Chronicles: King Cyrus of Persia not only allowed but encouraged the people of Israel to return to Judah and rebuild the Temple. Although a pagan, Cyrus is known to have rejected religious beliefs and practices among the people he conquered. Still, these generous overtures were divinely inspired and once again demonstrated how the Lord can work even through unbelievers in order to achieve his holy will.
Ch 1:5-11 At the beginning of the Babylonian Exile, Jehoiachin was king of Judah. By the time it ended, it appeared that Shesh-bazzar (Shenazzar) was heir to the throne, being made governor over Judah. Shesh-bazzar was of the house of David and possibly a son of Jehoiachin, and the one later referred to as Zerubbabel. The Davidic line continued uninterrupted through his surviving descendants. The return of the exiles bears some similarities to the Exodus from Egypt, except that King Cyrus of Persia consented to the Israelites’ departure and even gave them back the gold, silver, and Temple furnishings that had been pillaged by Nebuchadnezzar. The identity of the People of God remained intact amid the most vexing trials, analogous to the Church today. (CCC 62-63, 203, 781-782, 1539, 1612)
Ch 2:1-63 This comprehensive list of the returning households demonstrates the continuity between the Judah of old and the new Israel after the exile.
Urim and Thummim: These were akin to lots or dice that the priests sometimes used to answer the questions they asked of God. It would appear from this passage that some returning families and individuals could not provide proof that they were indeed sons and daughters of Israel, and so the Urim and Thummim were to be consulted to judge such claims. To belong to the people of Israel was essential for full participation in the Temple worship.
THE “TEN LOST TRIBES OF ISRAEL” are the former northern tribes. In the time of Christ, the Samaritans had descended from a remnant of those lost tribes, whose beliefs and practices diverged from those of the Jews and consequently created friction between the two groups. Very few Samaritans survive to the present day.
(*The Didache Bible RSV-CE Ignatius Edition, 2006)
The Book of Haggai
Author and Date:
Haggai was a prophet of Judah in the post-exilic period, and his oracles are dated very specifically, down to the day-from late August to mid-December in 520 BC.
The prophet is always referred to in the third person, which suggests that a later disciple or editor gave the oracles of Haggai their present form.
Haggar and the next book in the minor prophet series, Zechariah, are both strongly exhortative prophecies calling for the restoration of Jerusalem and the rebuilding of the Temple-amid great difficulties.
The exiles from Babylon returned to find not only widespread destruction from the conquest of Judah by Nebuchadnezzar but also a half-century of neglect.
The elite and educated of Judah had been taken into exile, and those remaining were unable to rebuild the cities or organize social structures, so all remained in disrepair.
Moreover, Gentiles had settled the abandoned lands and put down roots.
Haggai wrote nearly twenty years after the return of the first exiles, and little progress had been made at that point; the task of rebuilding the Temple seemed overwhelming.
Yet, it remained an urgent task because the Temple restoration would signal a new era in salvation history and a return to the Law and worship to which God called his Chosen People.
Rebuilding the Temple, therefore, had an eschatological dimension in Haggai.
The effort also served as an act of faith, a recognition of God’s presence among his people since the Temple was God’s dwelling place.
The Temple also served as the center of worship, focusing attention on God as the sovereign Lord.
Haggai’s encouragement of the rebuilding project promised that God would bless and bring prosperity upon the people.
Among these blessings would be the coming of the servant Zerubbabel, a messianic figure who prefigured Christ (cf. 2:20-23).
(*The Didache Bible RSV-CE Ignatius Edition, 2006)
Haggai 1:1-15 Haggai’s prophecy coincided with the time of Ezra and the prophet Zechariah in the latter half of the sixth century BC. All three men were instrumental in rebuilding the Temple that had been destroyed by the Babylonians at the time of the exile earlier that century. The Jews who returned home after the exile found the infrastructure of Judah in disarray. In addition to the restoration of the Temple, it was urgent that proper worship be reestablished without any admixture of pagan rituals. The reconstruction of the Temple served as a powerful sign of the conversion of the people of Israel. Haggai’s prophetic message directed both to Judah’s governor, Zerubbabel, and to the high priest, Joshua, spelled out the urgency to rebuild the Temple.
Ch 2:1-23 This call from God to erect a new Temple came with messianic overtones: God would “shake all nations, so that the treasure of all nations shall come in” (2:7). Few if any Jews living at that time were alive when Solomon’s Temple was standing and, therefore, had not experienced its former splendor firsthand, yet the Lord said the “latter splendor of this house shall be greater than the former” (2:9). This new Temple, which would exceed the magnificence of the former, is Jesus Christ himself and his Mystical Body, the Church. The teaching on Christ’s Mystical Body is expressed in the Prayer of Consecration at the Ordination of a Deacon, which reads in part: “Almighty God...you make the Church, Christ’s body, grow to its full stature as a new and greater temple.” (CCC 592, 809, 1197, 1543)
Ch 2:10-19 The instruction that only ritually clean Jews could participate in the rebuilding of the Temple was to reinforce the notion that this new edifice signified the presence of God among his people and was, therefore, the most sacred of places. This ritual purity, therefore, made the workers aware of the sacredness of their work and its connection to prayer and worship.
(*The Didache Bible RSV-CE Ignatius Edition, 2006)
The period of the Return picks up and follows the continuing story of Scripture in the books of Ezra and Nehemiah.
The experience of homelessness goes beyond simply not having a geographical space to call one’s own.
It is rooted in a fundamental disorientation-living among unknown places and strange customs.
The people of the Southern Kingdom of Judah, the Jews, when exiled to Babylon were homeless in their foreign homes, constantly aware that they were strangers in a strange land.
But after nearly seventy years, many of the Jewish exiles had been born and raised in Babylon and few had ever seen the Holy City.
Many knew of Judah and Jerusalem only from the fragments of stories and memories told and retold by parents, grandparents, aunts, and uncles.
Yet these stories knit a long cord connecting them to the Holy City, keeping alive and increasing the desires of many of the exiles to return one day to the sacred land of their forefathers.
After so many years of exile, it is impossible to imagine the varied responses of the exiles when in 538 BC, Cyrus, the King of Persia, who had recently conquered the Babylonians issued a decree allowing the Jews in captivity to return to their homeland.
Many exiles take up Cyrus’ offer and return and begin the rebuilding, but not all.
For some, life in the foreign land of Babylon seems easier than the long journey and hard work ahead for those who return.
The Persians under Cyrus were far more favorable than the Assyrians and Babylonians had been to the religions of their subject peoples.
Rather than suppressing the worship of gods other than their own, Cyrus returned stolen images to their respective sanctuaries to placate both his subjects as well as their gods, whose favor he believed was as essential as that of the people for the peace of his new empire.
Accordingly, he permitted the Jews and their priests to return to the Holy Land to resume their ancestral rites.
Both Ezra and Nehemiah, following the oracles given to this great prophet, portray the exiles’ return as a “second” or “new” Exodus.
Perhaps the most surprising element of Cyrus’ 538 BC decree is that every returnee is to “be assisted by the men of his place with silver and gold, with goods and with beasts besides freewill offerings for the house of God which is in Jerusalem” (Ezr 1:4).
Ezra recounts that this support was in fact delivered to the exiles who left Mesopotamia.
Furthermore, Cyrus commands that the Temple vessels that had been carried away under Nebuchadnezzar be restored to the possession of the God of Israel.
The Ark of the Covenant is not among the items restored, as Jeremiah had already taken it out of the Temple before its destruction (2 Mac 2:5).
(*Walking With God: A Journey Through The Bible by Tim Gray and Jeff Cavins)
We are in a new time period, The Return!
The people of Israel have been in exile in Babylon and will now be set free
Cyrus the Great, King of Persia, conquered the Babylonians
In the prophets, we read that Cyrus would be raised up and send the people back to the Promised Land and we meet him today
Ezra is the HISTORICAL book
Haggai is the PROPHETIC book
WHAT A GIFT the Proverbs are!
Proverbs 20:1, “Wine is a mocker, strong drink a brawler; and whoever is led astray by it is not wise.”
How many people have let their lives be dominated by alcohol?
Proverbs 20:3, “It is an honor for a man to keep aloof from strife; but every fool will be quarreling.”
AIN’T THAT THE CASE??
So often we jump into every little argument
Whether it be nitpicking or some quarrel
Way back when we read the story of King David, we had asked in the prayer, “God, show me the battles you want me to fight and the battles you want me to stay clear of. Where do you want me to engage and go up and do battle or where do you want me to just say, ‘Ok that’s a fight but it’s not my fight.’” (Do you remember when we learned this? Go back and read Day 124: King David Rules in The Bible in a Year Study Guide….you had better, because it took me quite a while to find this exact day Fr. Mike was referencing so humor me and THAT is why the notes were late today 🤪)
To NOT have that wisdom to be able to do that is, as Scripture says, to be a FOOL
So back to the other readings in Scripture
We are in the beginning of THE RETURN
Ezra is a SCRIBE
Ezra Chs 1-6 are going to look a certain way and the second half of the book is going to look a different way
Ezra and Nehemiah were originally ONE BOOK
They used to be called 1 and 2 Ezra
They were probably written at around the same time as Chronicles
Remember, Chronicles that we read was the summary story about God leading his people from slavery in Egypt to freedom to the Promised Land to Exile and back again
So here is the story of BACK AGAIN, THE RETURN
The beginning of The Book of Ezra FULFILLS the prophecy of Jemiah where King Cyrus was named as the one who would let the people of Israel go back to their home
Cyrus might also even be named in The Book of Isaiah (Don’t worry, Fr. Mike will double check and get back to us 😁)
There is something REMARKABLE about this story
God is being faithful to his promise
He brought the people of Israel NOT TO DESTROY THEM
TO REFORM THEIR HEARTS
And now they have the opportunity to go back home
We will see that NOT EVERYONE WANTS TO GO BACK HOME
There are THREE WAVES OF RETURN just like there were THREE WAVES OF EXILE
Not everyone decides to return even though King Cyrus goes into the storehouses of the Babylonians and gives back the treasures and vessels from the Temple of God
He allows them to take those treasures back home
That brings us to Haggai, the second shortest book of the Old Testament
Haggai can be divided into THREE PARTS
APATHY the people were brought back to Jerusalem so they could rebuild the Temple
That list of all those families, the Levites, the priests, came home so they could rebuild the Temple
Now it has been 16 years since they have been back and they haven’t even started constructing the Temple
They are apathetic towards this and instead they are building THEIR OWN HOMES FIRST
God points out, “Yeah, um, you might have noticed that you are NOT SATISFIED. You might have noticed that you drink but you are still thirsty. You might have noticed that you eat but you are still hungry. You might have noticed that you keep doing all these things and you are not satisfied. That might have something to do with the fact that you haven’t really actually served me. You haven’t done what you have been brought back to do, which is rebuild the Temple.”
The second part of Haggai is DISCOURAGEMENT
They started rebuilding and things still haven’t turned around quite yet
The third part of Haggai is that unless they REFORM their lives there will be CONSEQUENCES
IT IS THE SAME STORY OF OUR LIVES
IT IS THE SAME STORY OF THE ENTIRE BIBLE
UNLESS YOU TURN FROM EVIL AND TURN BACK TO THE LORD, YOUR SIN IS NOT GOING TO END WITH YOU
IT IS GOING TO BE PASSED ON TO THE PEOPLE AROUND YOU
IT IS GOING TO BE PASSED ON TO THE WAY YOU END UP LIVING
So Haggai the prophet is not only saying, “Get rid of your apathy. Get rid of your indifference to the House of the Lord.”
Haggai is saying, “You don’t have to be discouraged. Don’t be long in the mouth. Long in the face? Whatever. Don’t be sad! You can actually move forward. God is calling you. He is going to help you with this project.”
Haggai is saying, “Reform your lives, or else just like in ancient times, just like in older times, just like for your fathers and your father’s fathers, and your mothers and your mother’s mothers, your evil will not end with you but will be passed on. So reform now.”
It’s such a good short book
IT ALSO CONVICTS US!!
THERE ARE AREAS OF OUR LIVES WHERE WE ARE APATHETIC
THERE ARE AREAS OF OUR LIVES WHERE WE ARE DISCOURAGED
THERE ARE AREAS OF OUR LIVES WHERE WE REALIZE WE NEED TO REFORM AND TURN BACK TO THE LORD PRONTO!!
SO WE ASK THE LORD TO HELP US TURN BACK TO HIM
BECAUSE WE ARE MADE FOR HIM!!
HE HAS GIVEN HIS LIFE FOR US!!
FOR THOSE WOUNDS OF APATHY, DISCOURAGEMENT, AND THE NEED TO REFORM, FR. MIKE IS PRAYING FOR YOU!!
PRAY FOR FR. MIKE
PRAY FOR EACH OTHER
Prayer by Fr. Mike: “Father in Heaven we give you praise and glory. We thank you. Thank you for bringing us back to the story. Thank you for bringing us back to this place of RETURN, this opportunity that the people of Israel had to come home, to go to the Promised Land, even though it was a foreign land to so many of them. We ask you to help us because you know that we know that you have made us for two worlds. You made us for this world and you made us for the next world. And that while this world during this life is our home, this is not our permanent home. You have made us for another home. You have made us for another world. It is a world that is foreign to us and oftentimes we are indifferent to it. But Lord God, in this story of Return, we ask that you please not only remind us of the story of your people, but also remind us of our destiny. That while we live in this world, we are made for another world. While this world is currently our home, it is not our final and ultimate home. Give us a longing for that home. Give us the will to fight for that home and bring us home, ultimately by your Grace. In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen.”