Background Scripture: Ezra 3:8-13.
Devotional Reading: Psalms 66:1-12.
The study of the books of Ezra and Nehemiah can be unsettling. Who wrote them? How many authors are involved? What exact years are involved in these books?
Even knowing that Ezra and his group’s arrival in Jerusalem was in the reign of Babylonian King Artaxerxes, we cannot be certain of the year because there were two kings by that name.
If it was the reign of Artaxerxes I, Ezra’s arrival would be 458 B.C. But if it was when Artaxerxes II ruled, the arrival would be 398 B.C.
Understand also that, although the exiled Jews were captives in Babylon, in time many of them prospered and decided to stay when the opportunity to leave finally came.
While many Jews were taken into captivity, only a remnant returned to a homeland that had suffered much and changed considerably in their absence.
But the good news of Ezra/Nehemiah is that knowing who, when, where, how and why is not essential to our study of these books, which raise issues and questions that are pertinent to us, too.
What Ezra and Nehemiah are dealing with is the restoration of the people of Israel after their long captivity.
All of us have experiences of loss — the loss of relationship through illness, death, alienation, divorce; losing one’s job or vocation; the loss of health from crippling accidents or diseases; natural disasters; even insurrection or warfare.
As people of faith, we take those concerns to God in prayer and ask for healing, deliverance and probably forgiveness.
Restoration indicates the returning of something to an original, former or normal state — putting something back as it was. But that does not necessarily mean that something is restored precisely as it was previously.
Often, we are so deeply disappointed by our “restoration” that we feel God has failed us. We set our hopes on a goal, and then when we reach the goal, we find it is not what we expected.
It is not that God has failed us, but that our expectations were doomed to failure.
This was the experience of the returned exiles from Babylonian captivity. The memories of the old Jerusalem and its Temple passed on by their elders did not seem to match the realities that were anticipated.
The Temple lay in ruins. The city walls were virtually invisible. The locals who had remained — or later came in from somewhere else — seemed a hostile population.
Was it for this that they had come so far on faith?
Our New Worlds
In time, perhaps, the returnees realized that God would not wave a celestial wand and make their return all that they had dreamed.
Often, we need to come to the same understanding.
Restoration may require reconciliation with a person or persons. It may mean that God has made it possible for us to deal with unfavorable conditions, not to make them go away.
Probably the younger returning exiles made the adjustments more quickly and fully. The older exiles were probably the ones most likely to be disappointed.
I believe that one of the reasons we don’t live beyond our 80s and 90s is because we grow alienated from what our world has become during our lifetimes, and we begin to look back to “the good old days” that probably were only different in kind, not in worth.
In a letter J.B.S. Haldane wrote, “I do not know what the future of mankind will be, but I do not suppose that it will one of which I should approve.”
All too often, that is a majority point of view. So, faith in God does not make “the new world” go away, but it can help us to adjust to a world that is “coming ready or not!”
That is what the exiles experienced.
Note, some of them found it hard to accept: “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, old men who had seen the first house (Solomon’s Temple), wept with a loud voice when they saw the foundation of this house being laid” (3:11,12).
Unfortunately, too often we who claim Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior want to keep the church from changing and becoming something different from what we have experienced.
We can learn from the returning exiles that God restores us, not by turning back the clock or rewriting the script, but by fitting us for the task of making restoration positive, rather than negative, joyful instead of sad; victorious rather than defeatist.