The passages this week essentially tell two parallel stories. Ezra tells about some of the exiles who are released from Persia (which conquered Assyria) to return to Jerusalem to rebuild the temple. Haggai and Zechariah prophesy words of encouragement to the Israelites to remain faithful to God during the re-establishment of their lives in Israel, even while the Israelites are experiencing persecution from the resident population (imported there during the exile). On the other hand, the book of Esther tells about the view from Persia as the exiles are being targeted with persecution there as well.
In Ezra, the temple is rebuilt and the people are called to study and obey the scriptures. There is an interesting link between Ezra (the book) and Haggai’s book. Ezra 3:10-13 tells the story of the completion of the new temple’s foundation.
And when the builders laid the foundation of the temple of the LORD, the priests in their vestments came forward with trumpets, and the Levites, the sons of Asaph, with cymbals, to praise the LORD, according to the directions of David king of Israel. And they sang responsively, praising and giving thanks to the LORD, “For he is good, for his steadfast love endures forever toward Israel.” And all the people shouted with a great shout when they praised the LORD, because the foundation of the house of the LORD was laid. But many of the priests and Levites and heads of fathers’ houses, fold men who had seen the first house, wept with a loud voice when they saw the foundation of this house being laid, though many shouted aloud for joy, so that the people could not distinguish the sound of the joyful shout from the sound of the people’s weeping, for the people shouted with a great shout, and the sound was heard far away.
There was both sadness and gladness in response to the new foundation. Haggai gives additional insight in Haggai 2:3-9.
‘Who is left among you who saw this house in its former glory? How do you see it now? Is it not as nothing in your eyes? Yet now be strong, O Zerubbabel, declares the LORD. Be strong, O Joshua, son of Jehozadak, the high priest. Be strong, all you people of the land, declares the LORD. Work, for I am with you, declares the LORD of hosts, according to the covenant that I made with you when you came out of Egypt. My Spirit remains in your midst. Fear not. For thus says the LORD of hosts: Yet once more, in a little while, I will shake the heavens and the earth and the sea and the dry land. And I will shake all nations, so that the treasures of all nations shall come in, and I will fill this house with glory, says the LORD of hosts. The silver is mine, and the gold is mine, declares the LORD of hosts. The latter glory of this house shall be greater than the former, says the LORD of hosts. And in this place I will give peace, declares the LORD of hosts.’”
God says (through Haggai) that the new temple, even though it seems inferior, will have a glory greater than the former one. The new temple was not as magnificent as the one Solomon had built from a materials and size perspective. But think about this: when Solomon dedicated the temple (2 Chronicles 5), the glory of God filled the temple and the priests were unable to enter because of the presence of God. How much more glory could there be than that? And also notice the final sentence in the passage above – “In this place I will give peace.” When Jesus entered the temple, it was the physical presence of God once again entering the temple, and when Jesus died on the cross, the veil hiding the most holy place in the temple was torn (by God) from top to bottom, indicating that there was no longer a cause for separation between God and man. Jesus’ death (and ensuing resurrection) brought the promised peace between God and man at last.
The books of Ezra and Nehemiah tell of three groups of Israelites who were released to return to Jerusalem from the seat of that Persian Empire. The first group, led by Zerubabbel (who was a descendant of David and an ancestor of Jesus) laid the foundation of the new temple under the orders of king Darius (Ezra 6:14). The second group, led by Ezra, returned with the blessings of king Artaxerxes of the Persian Empire to reinstitute worship and sacrifice at the temple (Ezra 7:11-26). The third group, led by Nehemiah rebuilt the defensive wall around Jerusalem, also with the blessings of Artaxerxes (Nehemiah 2:1-8). The kings of Persia are shown, along with some Biblical storyline references in the chart below, from The Gospel Project Chronological teaching materials published by Lifeway.
Notice that Esther’s story falls in between Zerubabbel’s and Ezra’s stories. The resistance that is described in Ezra and Nehemiah is representative of the general anti-Jewish sentiment that was fostered all across the Assyrian Empire, but portrayed in it’s most extreme detail in the book of Esther. Esther was a Jewish girl who caught the attention of the king (Xerxes) who subsequently made her his queen. One of Xerxes’ highest officials (Haman) developed a hatred for Esther’s cousin, Mordecai, and convinced Xerxes to issue a command to exterminate all the Jews across the Persian Empire. Esther successfully interceded for the Jews and revealed Haman’s deception and evil intent, as well as convincing Xerxes to empower the Jews to defend themselves.
While Esther (the book) never utilizes the name of God, it still paints a beautiful picture of how someone of lowly means can be placed in a position of intercession and enable the salvation of God’s people. Mordecai encouraged Esther’s bold intercession by pointing out, “Who knows whether you have not come to the kingdom for such a time as this?” (Esther 4:14) Likewise, Jesus came at just the time God intended to bring salvation to God’s people. Galatians 4:4-5 says, “But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons”