The narrations recorded in the books of Ezra and Nehemiah, chronicle the return of the exiles back to the ‘promise land’ and how they went about rebuilding the fallen city of Jerusalem, and in the process tried reclaiming their heritage.
The author of the book remains unknown but it is widely believed that Ezra-Nehemiah along with the book of Chronicles were authored by the same person. The year is 539 BC, almost fifty years after the exile to Babylon and Ezra picks off right where Chronicles ended with the decree of Cyrus.
Cyrus Helps the Exiles to Return
In the first year of Cyrus king of Persia, in order to fulfill the word of the Lord spoken by Jeremiah, the Lord moved the heart of Cyrus king of Persia …Ezra 1:1
God moved the heart of the king of Persia and he issued a decree that supported the exiles, willing to go back to Jerusalem, to build the temple of the ‘Lord of Israel’ which the prophet Jeremiah had predicted almost 70 years ago Jeremiah 25:11–14.
In his decree, Cyrus claimed that the Lord had appointed him to rebuild the temple but like any good politician, he transferred the responsibility, masking it as a show of goodwill to the exiles. Even the temple rebuilding funds were to be gathered from the citizens in the form of donations or freewill offerings.
The exiles were predominantly from the tribes of Judah (Tribe of king David) and Benjamin (Tribe of king Saul) and the priestly tribe of Levites. These three tribes were perhaps the most attached to the city of Jerusalem and its neighboring towns as their profession involved work in the temple or in the palace at Jerusalem. Their hearts were moved by God and they were prepared to go up and build the house of the Lord in Jerusalem.
Sheshbazzar was chosen as the person to lead this massive activity. The leaders gathered the offerings and rallied the folks, those who were willing to return to Jerusalem. Even the Babylonians joined in on the campaign to restore Jerusalem by donating articles of silver and gold, goods and livestock, and with valuable gifts, in addition to all the freewill offerings that had been collected.
As a show of good faith, Cyrus returned some of the remaining articles that had been stolen from the temple in Jerusalem. Sheshbazzar accounted for these articles and brought them along with the returning Jews back to Jerusalem.
Not everyone chose to return, probably the ones who had been raised up in Babylon had no emotional attachment to their homeland. But for the ones that chose to leave their lives behind in Babylon for the sake of the work of God, their names are mentioned by the author.
The identity of the returning group was really important and for that reason the author classifies them by the names of the family head or by the place of their origin. Their identity decided their places of stay and their part in the temple rebuilding process.
In both the chapters we do not see any new instructions from God. So the returning exiles did not take any chances and followed the same tribal system that existed for centuries in Israel. The builders were overseen by the Levites to preserve the purity of the temple sight.
For the ones who claimed to be from the priestly clan but could not authenticate their lineage they were ministered using Urim and Thummim lest they do anything to bring upon the wrath of God on themselves and those surrounding them.
The intentions of the returning exiles were noble, leaving everything behind to rebuild the city of Jerusalem but as we will see in the following chapters, they did little to rebuild their broken relationship with God.