Ezra and Nehemiah lived in a period that closely corresponds to our own day. It was a period of dispersion for many of the people of Israel. They were taken off into Babylonian captivity in 586 BC, and settled in some degree of comfort. They built homes and reared their families. It was also a period like our own, in that it was a time of restoration and return to Israel. The Diaspora, after all, was never intended to be a permanent situation for the Jewish people. In the case of the first dispersion, it lasted only seventy years, while in the present situation it has lasted over 1900 years.
During the time of Ezra and Nehemiah, just as in our day, God sovereignly moved men, kings, and nations to accomplish his purposes. Some time before these two leaders emerged, God moved King Cyrus of Persia to begin the restoration of Israel. As early as 537 BC, a group returned to Jerusalem under the leadership of Sheshbazzar, Zerubbabel and Jeshua (Ezra 1:8; 3:8).
This group began their return, no doubt, buoyed by the prophecies of Isaiah and Jeremiah. However, when they assembled, they found themselves to be a small remnant of just over 42,000 souls. Moreover, when this small band arrived in the land, they found it to be mostly desolate and destroyed. They also encountered great resistance from other settlers in the land.
TROUBLE AND DISAPPOINTMENT
The work of reconstruction went painfully slow. The altar was rebuilt, and the foundations of the Temple were laid. The work was then stopped altogether for several years, due to the evil influence of their enemies, and the resulting unfavorable decree from King Artaxerxes (Ezra 4:24). There was much discouragement, and the whole endeavor seems to have fallen into disgrace.
Although the Temple was finished in 516 BC, there continued to be much discouragement. At this low ebb God raised up Ezra and Nehemiah, who both at different times, left their high positions in the king’s court and journeyed to Jerusalem to assist the settlers.
In the accounts of Ezra and Nehemiah, we read of the extreme difficulties they encountered in getting the job done for God. They both faced almost insurmountable problems. Ezra found the people, even including the priests, in a sinful condition. Some of the priests had married foreign wives in open defiance of God’s command. Nehemiah found the walls of Jerusalem broken down.
Both men encountered enemies galore resisting their efforts. There was Sanballat the Horonite (from the area of today’s West Bank), Tobiah the Ammonite (from today’s Jordan), plus Geshem and his band of Arabs. These enemies mocked and ridiculed the work of restoration. They plotted to fight against Jerusalem and to stir up
trouble (Neh. 4:8).
Probably as a result of this constant harassment, the strength of the laborers began to give out (Neh. 4:10). In addition to this, many of the people sank into poverty. Some mortgaged their fields, while others sold their children into slavery, even to their own brethren (Neh. 5:1-5). Perhaps worst of all, some were openly consorting with their enemies (Neh. 13:28).
What a far cry this was from the glorious promises of the prophets, who had said that the redeemed of the Lord would return to Zion with singing (Is. 51:11); that they would dwell with confidence (Ezek. 28:24-26); and that the land would be like the Garden of Eden (Ezek. 36:35). They also said that the glory of the latter house would be greater than the former (Hag. 2:9). Yet, when the old men saw the foundations of the latter house they wept with disappointment (Ezra 3:12).
Ezra and Nehemiah were not disappointed, nor were they deterred from their purposes. These two men turned the people back to God. They demanded strict obedience to his laws. They rebuked and exhorted, even to the point of smiting and pulling hair (Neh. 13:25), until God’s people fell in line. Then, in the face of open hostility and warfare, they rebuilt Jerusalem. The builders actually had to work with a tool in one hand and a weapon in the other (Neh. 4:17). At last, the walls were completed, and with a renewed and consecrated people, the Feast of Tabernacles was joyously celebrated.
SOME FALSE IDEAS ABOUT HOW GOD WORKS
It seems that the whole episode of Ezra and Nehemiah points out some of our faulty ideas about how God works. We too, often forget that “nitty-gritty” aspect of the daily working out of God’s salvation. Years ago, the teaching was prevalent that when one “got saved,” his troubles were over. We know now that when one gets saved his troubles are only beginning. All sorts of problems – business, domestic, emotional – seem to emerge immediately after one comes to know the Lord. These problems represent Satan’s challenge to the new direction of that life. What the new saint needs at this point is steadfast endurance to continue on in the new direction.
When we think of the restoration of Israel we tend to think the same way; of saints in long white robes, marching upward to Zion, while playing tunes on their harps. It never has been that way in all the history of the redeemed. It was not that way in Moses’ day, or Joshua’s day, or Ezra and Nehemiah’s day. It is not that way today.
HOW THEN DOES GOD WORK?
Let us briefly summarize how God seems to work, based upon the experiences of Ezra and Nehemiah and also on our present-day experiences.
1. God’s people pray according to his will and his word. Daniel noticed that the prophet Jeremiah had foretold of a captivity lasting seventy years. He began praying an earnest prayer for Israel’s restoration based on this biblical promise (Dan. 9;1-19). We can be sure that the present restoration of Israel has come about largely by this kind of prayer, which is based on the Word of God.
2. God sovereignly moves kings, nations, and men to accomplish his will. As a result of Daniel’s prayer, God moved King Cyrus to issue a decree for the restoration of Jerusalem. After him, there were other decrees by Darius and Artaxerxes. This is reminiscent of the Balfour Declaration and UN Mandate of last century.
3. Satan immediately counteracts God’s plan by moving evil men, nations, and events to oppose that plan. Enter, the Sanballats, Tobiahs, Geshems, and in our day, the Arafats, Saddams, Ben-Ladens and the ayatollahs.
4. Then there is that nitty-gritty working out of God’s salvation in everyday life. That’s where the blood, sweat, tears, calluses, discouragement, frustration, and faith come in. This process is going on with great intensity in Israel today. Of course, it is also going on in each believer’s life.
5. At last, there is the victory and blessing. After Nehemiah had rebuilt the walls, he appointed singers. The people then celebrated the festival of Tabernacles. But the walls had to come before the harps.
SOME APPLICATIONS FOR OUR DAY
In Israel today there is a life and death struggle to accomplish the things which have been promised by God through his prophets. Already, many of the Jewish people have miraculously returned to the land in accordance with God’s Word (Is. 43:5-6). The land is now largely restored. Still, there are many other promises that must be claimed on a daily basis and worked out with great difficulty by the Israelis.
Just as in Ezra and Nehemiah’s day, things are in a mess. The land is filled with economic problems, political problems, social problems, religious problems, and on and on. To top it off, almost the very same confederation of enemies who resisted those leaders of old are still bitterly fighting against Israel today. Only today, they are better trained and armed.
This poor little country is blasted every day by the world media. There are enemies without and enemies within. There is much division, and some of the Israelis seem to be happily siding with their deadly enemies. Others, at times, seem to oppose the God who has brought them back.
So what do we do? Do we all quit and wait for some utopian age to come along. No! God’s people are not quitters. His word for us in this day, is the same as it was for Joshua when he brought the people into the land the first time: “be strong and very courageous.” (Josh. 1:6) To put it in modern lingo, “hang in there!” God’s purposes are being worked out in Israel today no matter how messy it seems.
On the personal level, we just need to get our own lives together, to quickly get our part of the wall repaired, and to quit our moaning. In the case of those living outside Israel, our part of the wall may be that time of intercession for Israel that has been neglected, or that visit to Israel that has been postponed due to fear. We need to stop siding with the enemies of Israel, and taking up their reproaches and lies on our lips.
To assume that the obstacles facing Israel today are an indication that God is not blessing the restoration is another lie of the enemy. Just as in the days of Ezra and Nehemiah, there are physical obstacles, not because it is all out of God’s will, but because the enemies will continue to resist God’s plans. Until the Messiah comes to rule in perfect righteousness and justice, the opposition will continue. But, we must not lose heart.
Remember, that once the wall is built, then the harps can be brought out as they were in Ezra and Nehemiah’s day. Then the celebration can begin, and all the beautiful things spoken of by the prophets can become a reality.
– Jim Gerrish
This updated article is presented courtesy of Bridges For Peace, Jerusalem.