Ezra-Nehemiah, two books that were originally one, were not written to give us management and leadership advice. They were not even meant as a colllection of moral stories from the lives of godly men. When read together in one sitting, Ezra-Nehemiah recounts a bitter-sweet chapter in the history of God’s covenant people. Here’s why it was a time that brought shouts of joy and tears of sorrow.
Brief Moments of Joy
When we think about Ezra-Nehemiah, we often focus on the positive moments. There were several moments of great joy in this story:
- Three waves of Jews returned to Jerusalem from exile.
- The foundation of the second temple was laid.
- Eventually, the new temple was finished.
- Finally, the walls around the city were rebuilt and dedicated.
It took nearly one hundred years to accomplish all of this. There were many obstacles, setbacks, and opponents that slowed their progress, but finally the city was rebuilt and, “The joy of Jerusalem was heard far away.” Even though there are many tears, there is also much shouting, singing, and praising God in this story.
God’s Hand on Them
A repeated idea throughout Ezra-Nehemiah is that God’s hand was on his people to protect them and give them success. As in the stories of Daniel and Esther, the people of God found favor in the eyes of pagan kings because God’s hand was on them. There is no such thing as “good luck” or “good fortune” in this story. If something worked out well, it was because God’s invisible hand was involved.
Throughout the exile, this remnant of God’s people never lost hope. They never stopped believing God would keep his promise to gather all of his people from the nations and restore the land of Israel to them. Even though they knew God had been provoked to anger, he would one day forgive them and free them from their bondage. God had never stopped loving them, never stopped providing for them, and never stopped working his plan.
This hope led to obedience. Ezra and Nehemiah insisted that the Jews obey the Law of Moses, in hopes that their obedience would turn back God’s wrath from them. This was a period of reform and rebuilding. They reinstituted the feasts and the sacrifices. They read and taught the Law to the people. They strictly enforced compliance. They tried everything they knew to turn the people back to God and turn away God’s wrath.
Tears of Sorrow
But the wrath of God was not turned back in this story. Even though many Jews returned to Jerusalem and Judah, the exile has not ended. Both Ezra and Nehemiah use the word “slaves” to describe their state. They returned home in a state of slavery. These are the words of Ezra:
For a brief moment favor has been shown by the Lord our God, to leave us a remnant and to give us a secure hold within his holy place, that our God may brighten our eyes and grant us a little reviving in our slavery. For we are slaves. Yet our God has not forsaken us in our slavery.
Every joyful moment in the story is followed by sorrow. Every triumph is followed by tears. Just when the reader thinks the sunshine is breaking through and the time of restoration was about to begin, another dark cloud would roll in and it would start to rain all over. When the temple’s foundation was laid, there were young people shouting for joy and older people weeping in sadness. These words, on that occasion, seem to be the perfect commentary for this entire period, “The people could not distinguish the sound of the joyful shout from the sound of the people’s weeping.”
The Ezra portion of the story ends horribly, with Ezra trying to turn away God’s wrath by sending away the foreign wives the Jews had married. He was appalled by the fact that Jewish men had taken foreign wives and he thought maybe if they abandoned their families, sending them away into the wilderness, God’s wrath would be removed from them. Though this effort was sincerely motivated by a desire to do God’s will, one wonders if Malachi (who lived and prophesied during this time) did not have this in mind when he said:
The Lord was witness between you and the wife of your youth, to whom you have been faithless, though she is your companion and your wife by covenant. Did he not make them one, with a portion of the Spirit in their union? And what was the one God seeking? Godly offspring. So guard yourselves in your spirit, and let none of you be faithless to the wife of your youth. “For the man who does not love his wife but divorces her, says the Lord, the God of Israel, covers his garment with violence, says the Lord of hosts. So guard yourselves in your spirit, and do not be faithless.”
The Nehemiah portion of the story ends similarly. Nehemiah loses control. He screams and yells and curses at people. He threatens them, beats them, and even pulls out their hair. He is beyond frustrated. He is irate that the Jews continue to forsake the Sabbath, marry foreign wives, and dishonor the temple.
And the story ends. It ends in frustration. It ends with the people’s hearts being unchanged. It ends with a dark cloud looming over Jerusalem. In spite of the progress made, the Jews are still in slavery.
Someone other than Ezra, Nehemiah, and the prophets would have to come to take away this curse. It would not be removed through tears, prayers, animal sacrifices, or sending wives away. It would have to be removed by the coming Messiah. Only he could lift the curse, free the captives, and redeem the people of God from exile.
I love you and God loves you,