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Ezra and Nehemiah were exceptional, God-centered, Word-oriented, and Spirit-led leaders who deeply desired that God’s people prosper and that His name be uplifted and proclaimed worldwide. Their lives modeled what God can do through dedicated, faithful servant leaders.
Because of our sinful natures, cultivated habits, and hereditary traits, we can experience true, lasting changes only through the study of God’s transforming Word and the assistance of the Holy Spirit. Believers live “not by might nor by power, but by My Spirit” (Zech. 4:6, NKJV) and by embracing God’s promises by faith (Hab. 2:4), resulting in a vibrant spiritual life.
This quarter’s lessons illustrate that life is complicated. As soon as we try to do good things, obstacles appear and opposition arises. Even friends may openly or secretly oppose us and, perhaps, become our enemies. Hurdles and resistance to good demonstrate that Satan is alive and that sin is real. Fighting Satan is humanly impossible because evil is stronger than we are. Only God can secure victory, revolutionize thinking, and give us power to live balanced lives. Life’s discouragements are opportunities for change. Disappointments may help us focus on essentials and accelerate our spiritual growth, as we obtain victory over each crisis through God’s empowerment.
Neither the book of Ezra nor Nehemiah ends with optimism. Sin is a serious matter, spreading easily and quickly. The biggest challenge does not come from outside, but from infidelity to God with His own people not following His revealed will. To be faithful to the Lord and persevere in following His instruction is the strongest test for God’s church. As Ezra correctly understood, the only power to change comes through diligently searching the Scriptures, comprehending, and internalizing them.
In order to fulfill the starting point of the prophecies of the 70 weeks and the 2,300 evenings and mornings (which both began in 457 B.C.), God graciously intervened and influenced King Artaxerxes I to allow Ezra along with a group of Israelites to return to Jerusalem, to secure the safety of their journey, and even to provide needed physical and financial provisions for the temple services (Ezra 7:11-28).
The key theological themes of these two books are God’s providence, faithfulness, and covenant. God fulfilled His promises, even though His people were narrow-minded, disoriented, distracted, and stubborn. Through His servants, He called them from their state of lethargy to revival and reformation.
“The work of restoration and reform carried on by the returned exiles, under the leadership of Zerubbabel, Ezra, and Nehemiah, presents a picture of a work of spiritual restoration that is to be wrought in the closing days of this earth’s history. The remnant of Israel were a feeble people, exposed to the ravages of their enemies; but through them God purposed to preserve in the earth a knowledge of Himself and of His law. They were the guardians of the true worship, the keepers of the holy oracles” - Ellen G. White, Prophets and Kings, p. 677.
Ezra and Nehemiah are historically linked, and they cover a crucial transition in the life of God’s people. These 23 chapters form one big story, but with subunits; they are complementary and cover similar theological issues. By carefully studying the pattern revealed in the composition of these two books, we can discern God’s great historical actions and gracious leadership.
Keep in mind that not everything presented in these books is written in chronological order, and that some parts are composed in a thematic manner.
As we will see, the challenge for Ezra and Nehemiah was not to reconstruct the temple (it was finished and dedicated in 515 B.C., more than 50 years before Ezra’s arrival) but to rebuild the city of Jerusalem, her administration, and the national autonomy — all eventually paving the way for the coming of the Messiah.
As we study God’s Word this quarter, may the Lord bless us by inspiring us, touching our hearts, transforming our thinking, and enabling us daily to follow Him faithfully and enthusiastically.
Jirí Moskala, ThD, PhD, is dean and professor of Old Testament exegesis and theology at the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary at Andrews University. He joined the faculty in 1999. Prior to coming to Andrews, Moskala served in various capacities (ordained pastor, administrator, teacher, and principal) in the Czech Republic. He is a member of various theological societies and has authored or edited a number of articles and books in the Czech and English languages. In addition, he has participated in several archaeological expeditions at Tell Jalul, Jordan.
Lesson 1 September 28-October 4
Read for This Week’s Study: Jer. 25:11, 12; Dan. 9:1, 2; Ezra 4:1-7; Isa. 55:8, 9; Ezra 7:1-28.
Memory Text: “Thus says Cyrus king of Persia: All the kingdoms of the earth the LORD God of heaven has given me. And He has commanded me to build Him a house at Jerusalem which is in Judah”. (Ezra 1:2, NKJV).
In the writings of Jeremiah, God had promised that His people would return home after 70 years of Babylonian exile. King Cyrus was God’s instrument to allow this return to happen. Anointed by God (Isa. 45:1), Cyrus issued a decree about 538 B.C., freeing up God’s people to return to their country and to rebuild the temple.
It was God (not Cyrus) who spoke regarding Jerusalem: “ ‘Let it be rebuilt’, and of the temple, ‘Let its foundations be laid’ ” (Isa. 44:28, NIV). God was the guarantor that Jerusalem would be rebuilt, and He stirred the heart of Cyrus to grant permission to build the temple.
It is always encouraging, too, to see God’s people respond positively to the Lord’s actions: “Then the family heads of Judah and Benjamin, and the priests and Levites — everyone whose heart God had moved — prepared to go up and build the house of the LORD in Jerusalem” (Ezra 1:5, NIV).
Here we see an example of people responding positively to God’s mighty and gracious acts. Our best performance comes from a realization of who God is and what He has done, and from knowing how He lovingly intervenes on behalf of His people.
Study this week’s lesson to prepare for Sabbath, October 5.
Sunday ↥ September 29
Read Jeremiah 25:11, 12 and 29:10 and Daniel 9:1, 2. When did the first return of the exiles happen? What prophecy was the return fulfilling?
The Lord influenced Cyrus to allow the first return, in fulfillment of Jeremiah’s 70-year prophecy. Jeremiah had written that the land of Judah would lie desolate for 70 years under Babylon (this happened, from 606/605 B.C. to 537/536 B.C.), but then God would open the doors for the captives’ return. As Daniel studied the writings of Jeremiah, he realized that the time had come for that promised return.
In Daniel 9, Daniel is distraught because the 70 years were nearly up with no apparent change, and the new Persian empire had now risen to power. He mourned and turned to God, pleading for mercy and the fulfillment of His promises. In the same chapter (Dan. 9:24-27), God assured Daniel that He watches over everything and has a future planned, with a Deliverer who will die for the people to atone for their sins, bring righteousness, and fulfill the sacrificial system. In effect, God was saying, “Daniel, don’t worry. Since the true Deliverer (Jesus) will surely come, I will also send a deliver for you now”. Shortly afterward, God moved Cyrus, the king of Persia, to give the command to release the captives. God is always true to His promises (See Daniel 10 for how God intervened in order to secure the prosperity of His people in their homeland.)
Ezra 1 records King Cyrus’s proclamation that the nation of Israel was free to return to Jerusalem and to build the house of the Lord. The command was given sometime between the years 539–537 B.C. Not only does Cyrus let them go, but he also makes sure that they return with gifts and offerings, including the original vessels from the temple, which had been stolen by Nebuchadnezzar. This event reminds us of the Israelites leaving Egypt many years before, when God also moved the hearts of the people to present them with parting gifts. This first group to return to Judah was composed of about 50,000 people, which most likely included women and children from other territories.
What other historical prophecies have been fulfilled exactly as promised in the Word, and how can we draw comfort from them that God knows the future and that we can trust His promises to us?
Monday ↥ September 30
The first group of returnees received the task of rebuilding the temple of God. We will study about the opposition to the building of the temple in a later lesson. Now, we will discuss the succession of Persian kings during the temple’s prolonged construction and the rebuilding of Jerusalem. It is important to know the history behind the stories of Ezra and Nehemiah, as it provides a deeper insight into their messages.
Read Ezra 4:1-7. Who were the different kings mentioned during whose reign the opposition to the building of the temple occurred?
Here is the list of Persian kings, in their chronological order, who are connected with the books of Ezra and Nehemiah. It begins with Cyrus, who established the Persian Empire and conquered Babylon in 539 B.C.:
As we study these books, it’s very important to know that the appearance of these kings is not mentioned in Ezra in chronological order. For example, Ezra 4:6-24 is inserted before chapter 5, which continues the story of the opposition to the building of the temple. Consequently, the letters involving Xerxes I (Ahasuerus) and Artaxerxes I described in Ezra 4 occurred after the events recorded in chapters 5 and 6, dealing with Darius I. This sequence can seem perplexing to readers, and it may account for some of the confusion that people have had over the centuries regarding the books. As we go through the quarter, knowing the order of events will help us better understand the messages of Ezra and Nehemiah.
How often have you found things in the Bible that have perplexed you? How can you learn to trust God, and His Word, even when you come across things that don’t seem to make sense? Why is it important for you to do so? (See Isa. 55:8, 9).
Tuesday ↥ October 1
In Ezra 7:1-10 and 8:1-14, we see that King Artaxerxes I allows Ezra to return to Jerusalem (the year is 457 B.C). and to take with him anyone who would like to return. Not much is known about the relationship between the king and Ezra, or whether Ezra worked for the court. Ezra 8 lists the heads of the families of those who returned, starting with the priestly returnees, followed by the royal line, and ending with the general Jewish population. Twelve families are named specifically, giving the impression that this is a deliberate reminder of the twelve tribes of Israel.
The passage lists about 1,500 men, which would approximate 5,000 to 6,000 total, counting women and children. This was a much smaller group than the first group that had returned with Zerubbabel and Joshua.
Read Ezra 7:1-10. What does it teach us about Ezra?
Ezra is a scribe with a priestly legacy. As a priest, he is a descendant of Aaron, the brother of Moses, who was the first priest of the nation of Israel. Due to the accounts recorded in Ezra, as well as in Jewish tradition, Ezra’s name stands very high even today. Whether Ezra served as a scribe in the court of King Artaxerxes is not known; thus, this description of Ezra as a scribe either refers to his previous responsibilities or to his abilities, which he begins to use after his arrival in Judah. However, Ezra must have worked for Artaxerxes in some close capacity in order for the king to send him out as the leader of the expedition.
In Ezra 7:6 and 10, Ezra is labeled as a “skilled” and “devoted” scribe or teacher. The word “skilled” literally means “rapid”, connoting someone who is quick in comprehension and mental maneuvering of information. Ezra had a quick mind — he was known for his knowledge and mental astuteness regarding the Law of God. Moreover, the fact that the king chose Ezra to bring a group of Israelites to Judah is a testament to Ezra’s courage and leadership abilities.
Notice, Ezra prepared his heart to seek “the law of the LORD” (Ezra 7:10). How would we apply that principle to our own lives now?
Wednesday ↥ October 2
Read Ezra 7:11-28. What were the components of the king’s decree? Why were these instructions important for the people of Israel?
The decree of Artaxerxes resembles Cyrus’s first decree. The king counsels everyone who is willing, especially from the priestly lines, to make the journey to Jerusalem. Although according to the Murashu historical documents, the majority of the Jews ultimately remained in Persia (as demonstrated in the story of Esther), there were those who had waited for the opportunity to start a new life in the homeland of their ancestors. The king directed most of his comments to the treasurers of the Trans-Euphrates territory. The treasurers were to provide Ezra with whatever he needed to restore the city and “to beautify the house of the LORD” (Ezra 7:27, NKJV). Ultimately, the king commissioned Ezra to ensure the proper observance of the Law of God as well as the law of the land, by setting up the judicial system. The order and organization that this command would produce are important aspects of any society. Moreover, the king made it easier for Ezra and the Israelites to restore their homeland.
Does the king’s concern for the rebuilding of the city and the temple indicate that he had become a believer in Ezra’s God? Artaxerxes calls God, the “God of Israel, whose dwelling is in Jerusalem” (Ezra 7:15, NKJV). The terminology the king uses about the God of Israel implies that he saw the Lord as just another local deity who needed to be appeased by gifts. He didn’t want this local god to be angry with him and his sons (Ezra 7:23). Additionally, we should note that 457 B.C. is also the year of an Egyptian revolt against the Persian government; thus, it is likely that the amenable actions of the king were designed to gain loyalty from the province of Judah.
Unfortunately, despite the interaction the king had with both Ezra and Nehemiah, it didn’t make him a believer in God. At least nothing in the texts indicates that he had become one, which means that the Lord can use even unconverted people to do His will on earth.
Even amid so much pain and suffering, how can we learn to trust in God’s sovereignty over the world, as seen here?
Thursday ↥ October 3
Read Ezra 7:6 and 10. What do these texts teach us about the importance of proper religious education?
Ezra’s wholehearted devotion to God and his decision to study, practice, and teach the Word of God (Ezra 7:6, 10) prepared him for greater ministry in Israel. The biblical text literally states that he devoted himself to the studying, doing/making, and teaching of the Law of the Lord.
Ellen G. White provides an important insight: “Born of the sons of Aaron, Ezra had been given a priestly training; and in addition to this he had acquired a familiarity with the writings of the magicians, the astrologers, and the wise men of the Medo-Persian realm. But he was not satisfied with his spiritual condition. He longed to be in full harmony with God; he longed for wisdom to carry out the divine will. And so he “prepared his heart to seek the law of the Lord, and to do it”. Ezra 7:10. This led him to apply himself diligently to a study of the history of God’s people, as recorded in the writings of prophets and kings. He searched the historical and poetical books of the Bible to learn why the Lord had permitted Jerusalem to be destroyed and His people carried captive into a heathen land” - Prophets and Kings, p. 608.
“The efforts of Ezra to revive an interest in the study of the Scriptures were given permanency by his painstaking, lifelong work of preserving and multiplying the Sacred Writings. He gathered all the copies of the law that he could find and had these transcribed and distributed. The pure word, thus multiplied and placed in the hands of many people, gave knowledge that was of inestimable value” - Page 609.
Notice that though Ezra had learned of the ways of the pagans, he saw that they were not correct; thus, he sought to know the truth from the source of truth, which was the Word of God and the “law of the Lord”. He had to unlearn a great deal of what he learned at the worldly universities, because, no doubt, much of what they taught was wrong. After all, how much good were “the writings of the magicians and the astrologers” going to do him?
In what ways, even today, might we need to unlearn a lot of what we have been taught from the world?
Friday ↥ October 4
Further Thought: Read Ellen G. White, “Ezra, the Priest and Scribe”, pp. 607–617, in Prophets and Kings.
Consider Ezra’s diligent work: “Ezra became a mouthpiece for God, educating those about him in the principles that govern heaven. During the remaining years of his life, whether near the court of the king of Medo-Persia or at Jerusalem, his principal work was that of a teacher. As he communicated to others the truths he learned, his capacity for labor increased. He became a man of piety and zeal. He was the Lord's witness to the world of the power of Bible truth to ennoble the daily life” - Ellen G. White, Prophets and Kings, p. 609.
“In the work of reform to be carried forward today, there is need of men who, like Ezra and Nehemiah, will not palliate or excuse sin, nor shrink from vindicating the honor of God. Those upon whom rests the burden of this work will not hold their peace when wrong is done, neither will they cover evil with a cloak of false charity. They will remember that God is no respecter of persons, and that severity to a few may prove mercy to many. They will remember also that in the one who rebukes evil the spirit of Christ should ever be revealed” - Page 675.
Inside Story~ Democratic Republic of Congo ↥
Banza Mwela, the pastor of a Sunday church in the Democratic Republic of Congo, nearly died when his wife and son doused him with skin-burning acid on the day of his baptism into the Seventh-day Adventist Church.
But Banza, his face permanently disfigured, clung to life and today is an Adventist lay pastor preaching a powerful testimony that draws crowds to Jesus.
“I praise the Lord that I belong to the Seventh-day Adventist family and that the devil has been defeated”, Banza said.
The story began in October 2013 when Banza attended an evangelistic campaign in the southeastern city of Likasi. Keen to know more about Adventist doctrines, he enrolled in the pastoral training school at the local Philip Lemon University.
On the day of his baptism, Banza returned home, happily singing a hymn about the power of Jesus. As he entered the house, his adult son lunged toward him and threw a pail of sulfuric acid on his face and body. Blinded and burning with pain, Banza cried out in agony and crumpled onto the floor.
Banza’s wife and son, enraged that he had left their church, had plotted the attack and hoped that he would die on the spot, said Robert S. Muhune, president of the East Congo Union Mission.
“But fortunately a miracle happened”, he said. “The man didn’t die”.
Neighbors heard Banza’s cry and rushed him to the hospital.
Doctors weren’t sure that he would make it. He lost an eye and most of the skin on his body. He spent weeks in intensive care, and skin grafts and other reconstructive plastic surgery are continuing even now. The Adventist world church has helped cover the expensive operations.
Banza’s wife and son disappeared after the attack and are on the run.
While Banza remains in pain, he spends little time in the hospital bed. He actively shares his testimony in churches and at camp meetings. His favorite Bible passage is Isaiah 43:1-3, which he reads as he shares his story: “But now, thus says the Lord, who created you, O Jacob, and He who formed you, O Israel: “Fear not, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by your name; You are Mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overflow you. When you walk through the fire, you shall not be burned, nor shall the flame scorch you. For I am the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior; I gave Egypt for your ransom, Ethiopia and Seba in your place”.
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