In our theology cohort with our church we are reading J. Scott Duvall and J. Daniel Hays. (2019). God’s Relational Presence: The Cohesive Center of Biblical Theology. The theme of the book is that the one thread that ties the whole story of scripture together is the idea of God’s relational presence, the key phrase being, “before the LORD!” As we read and discuss, I’m processing what I’m learning.
Ezra and Nehemiah tell the story of Israel’s return after being in exile for 70 years in Babylon. They tell the story of rebuilding the temple and the city wall in Jerusalem.
Three key people take the scene in Ezra and Nehemiah. Zerubbabel is a leader, helping to govern as well as working on rebuilding the temple. Nehemiah participates in both rebuilding the temple and the city walls. Ezra leads the people in reading and understanding God’s laws.
In Ezra-Nehemiah the hand of God and his sovereign actions working through various Persian monarchs underscore that God is watching over his people even in exile and helping them to overcome obstacles and to return to the land. On the other hand, the resulting situation described in Ezra-Nehemiah seems to be a far cry from the glorious return and restoration under a Davidic king that was prophesied in the prophets and implied in the Davidic covenant of 2 Samuel 7.J. Scott Duvall and J. Daniel Hays. (2019). God’s Relational Presence:
The Cohesive Center of Biblical Theology
One key lesson we learn in Ezra and Nehemiah is that while the people return, rebuild the walls, rebuild the temple, it’s not the restoration God was promising. They were still slaves – they were not politically independent.
Though we are slaves, our God has not forsaken us in our bondage. He has shown us kindness in the sight of the kings of Persia: He has granted us new life to rebuild the house of our God and repair its ruins, and he has given us a wall of protection in Judah and Jerusalem.Ezra 9:9
But see, we are slaves today, slaves in the land you gave our ancestors so they could eat its fruit and the other good things it produces. Because of our sins, its abundant harvest goes to the kings you have placed over us. They rule over our bodies and our cattle as they please. We are in great distress.Nehemiah 9:36-37
No matter how hard they worked, God alone would restore His kingdom in His time. Ezra and Nehemiah demonstrate the prophetic hope of the new covenant brought to us through Jesus. It would be several hundred years yet, when Jesus would come to earth to establish the eternal kingdom. “Jesus went into Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God. “The time has come,” he said. “The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!””
A second lesson from these books is that religious leaders cannot change hearts, that reform is not enough! Nehemiah, thought to be the last book of the Old Testament written, ends in anger that people had forsaken the Sabbath, intermarried, cluttering the storerooms. While we think providing “religious” structure may be helpful, what changes people is the Spirit of God. Religious structure can sometimes give people a false sense of satisfaction – as if it is enough. The Christian walk is not about reformation – it’s about transformation from the inside out! That’s why we need the gospel!
The promised restoration has started, but it is far from being fulfilled. As the historical account of the OT draws to an end, two momentous promises of God remain unfilled: the establishment of a Davidic king on the throne and the return of the intense, empowering, relational presence of God dwelling in the midst of his people.J. Scott Duvall and J. Daniel Hays. (2019). God’s Relational Presence:
The Cohesive Center of Biblical Theology
This idea is sad … that there would be numerous prayers, sacrifices, activity in and around the temple … but the phrase, “before the LORD” is never used in Ezra or Nehemiah.
For they have taken some of their daughters as wives for themselves and for their sons. Thus the holy seed has mixed itself with the peoples of the lands, and in this faithlessness the officials and leaders have led the way.Ezra 9:2
One interesting point is made in Ezra 9. Ezra learns that the Israelites have intermarried, taking foreign wives. We know from Israel’s history that taking foreign wives often led to worshiping idols – which was why they were taken into captivity. But there is another thread to consider – the “seed.” God had promised that a redeemer would come through the woman’s seed in Genesis 3. Maintaining a pure line for the seed was significant for the birth of the Messiah as He would come through the Davidic line!
Bringing the people of Israel back into the land, rebuilding the temple, rebuilding the wall, reestablishing their way of life, was a way to preserve the lineage from which the Messiah would come – if they had not, did not intermarry. While God’s glory did not fill the temple, the work there was not for nothing.
The problem is that although the structure of the kingdom portrayed by the prophets is there in outline, the substance is not. There is no glorious return, no magnificent temple set in the midst of the regenerated earth. It is clear also that the people have still not undergone that spiritual transformation that makes them perfectly the people of God. There is no magnificent reign of the Davidic prince.
The return from exile results in only a pale shadow of the predicted glorious kingdom for the people of God.Goldsworthy, G. (2002). According to plan: The unfolding revelation of God in the Bible.