Ezra 4-6 and Psalm 137
Part of today’s reading is Psalm 137. I’m starting with it because this is not a note to end on. Sit with it a few minutes, but don’t take it with you for the whole day. Maybe there is no helping that.
Psalm 137 is a tour through the raw emotions felt by those in exile. It’s the lament of the desperately misplaced. It’s a prayer to remember their home, Jerusalem, and their former standing with God. It’s a chilling and shocking request for God to repay Babylon for what they did to Jerusalem, concluding with the horrifying mental image of babies being smashed against rocks. The emotions are palpable and powerful.
Let that be a “looking back” exercise from where we are in Ezra. Look how far things have come, from complete and utter despair in a foreign land, to being home again and in the process of rebuilding and restoring. Speaking of Ezra…
When you try to do something worthwhile, there is likely to be a few obstacles. Even the most simple of projects can take twice as long as you’d thought. And that’s without anyone trying to sabotage your efforts.
At this point in the book of Ezra, the people of Jerusalem are working hard on rebuilding the city and temple, probably running into all the usual pitfalls of trying to build things. But they have a much bigger problem: Some locals are trying to stop them from building, even actively sabotaging their building plans.
These locals write the king about the people in Jerusalem, employing disinformation and half-truths, and claiming that they are all troublemakers who will rebel once the city and walls are built. The king Artaxerxes can agree that, historically speaking, they are indeed troublemakers, and he orders the construction halted.
Amidst the long hiatus, the Jews in Jerusalem receive some much needed encouragement from the prophets Haggai and Zechariah, and are sparked to begin rebuilding again. Tomorrow we’ll be looking at the part Haggai played in this.
Soon after starting the project back up, they are pestered by the locals again, who are questioning if they have permission to build. They provide their entire story, and inform the locals that Cyrus commanded them to rebuild. Word gets back to the king and they do some fact checking in the archives. They find the papers regarding the edict of Cyrus, and the king makes it clear that the original edict stands. The rebuilding will continue, and the efforts will be subsidized by the empire, including animals to sacrifice.
But did you catch what the king’s motivations are? It is “so that they may offer pleasing sacrifices to the God of heaven, and pray for the life of the king as his children.” So it isn’t so much for the people as much as it’s to ensure the well-being of the king. What, did you think the king wasn’t getting something out this deal?
Overcoming these obstacles, the rebuilding of the temple is eventually finished, followed by a dedication for the temple, a massive sacrifice to atone for the sins of Israel, the appointing of priests, and observing feasts (think back to the first temple in 1 Kings 8). In other words, they are doing all the things they were not able to do while in exile. Now they have a stronger connection to and reestablishment of their worship and traditions they enjoyed before they were exiled.
It is a joyous day. Indeed they’ve come far toward restoration, but we’re left with an anti-climax and the feeling that there is much work left to be done. You can’t just build a temple, go through some motions, snap your fingers, and declare that the people are restored. There is work yet to be done on the hearts of the people.
Today’s Bible passage can be read or listened to at BibleGateway here – Psalm 137 & Ezra 4-6
Tomorrow we will read the two chapter book of Haggai as we continue on the