The time of exile in Babylon is over and about 50,000 people return to Jerusalem. We’ll read first about their efforts to restore the city and the Temple, second about the prophets who encouraged them toward faithfulness, and third about faithful Jews still living in Persia.
The seventy years of exile have ended – just as Jeremiah prophesied in Jeremiah 25. The king of Persia allows anyone who wants to go to Jerusalem to return. Chapters 1-6 of Ezra will tell us of Zerubbabel’s efforts to rebuild the Temple. As we read, we should be comparing this to the previous constructions of both the tabernacle and Solomon’s Temple, which were met with the presence of God after they were completed. Yet, at the end of chapter 3 – the joyful shouts are mixed with mourning. Hope and sorrow. There’s something relatable about the combination of those things.
In these chapters, Zerubbabel and friends face opposition to their re-building project. The inhabitants of the land (who themselves were brought from Assyria to live in Israel) ask to help, which Zerubbabel quickly refused (presumably because they aren’t ‘truly’ Israelites). So, the inhabitants tattle to the new king who puts a stop to the building. But – the prophets Haggai and Zechariah encourage the exiles to keep building. At their encouragement and with a second letter to another king – work continues with the king’s blessing.
In the face of opposition, Zerubbabel and others apparently stopped working on the Temple and got to work on their own houses and the wall (which Darius stopped in Ezra 4:21). But, Haggai calls them back to their original task, which was the completion of the Temple. As they begin work again, they’re given an incredible promise on two occasions. The Lord says, “I am with you.” A great reminder and confirmation that he has not abandoned his people. This is further confirmed with a promise specifically to Zerubbabel in 2:23 that he will become like a signet ring (which what kings use to stamp their seal in wax on official documents). Fast forward to the New Testament and Zerubbabel shows up in Jesus’ genealogy. Jesus, we learn in Hebrews 1:3, is the “exact imprint of God’s nature who upholds the universe by the word of his power.” Jesus is the fulfillment of this promise to Zerubbabel.
Today, we begin to hear Zechariah’s prophecies. In the first four chapters, Zechariah calls Israel to remember why they went into exile in the first place and to return to the Lord by loving him and walking in his ways. Then, we get a description of five visions which take us through chapter 4. The first vision shows four horsemen who represent the Lord’s careful attention over the whole earth who report that the earth is at rest under the rule of the Persian kingdom while Jerusalem and Zion remain deserted. The Lord promises to comfort Zion and choose Jerusalem. The second vision of horns and craftsmen reveals that the four kingdoms which scattered God’s people will themselves be destroyed. The third vision of a man with a measuring line shows that the Lord is preparing to return to reign over his people in his place. The fourth vision of Joshua the High Priest reveals the Lord’s plan to purify his people on one day through his servant “the Branch.” The fifth vision in today’s reading is of a golden lampstand symbolizing the Lord’s watchful eye over his people. The lampstand is given oil via two branches of two olive trees which likely represent Joshua the high priest and Zerubbabel, the two representatives of the people who are standing by the Lord in their day.
In chapters 5 and 6, we see four additional visions. The first three mirror the first three visions from yesterday’s reading and make similar points. The vision of the flying scroll reveals that the people of Israel will be purified by the word of the Lord. The vision of the woman in a basket reveals that the people’s wickedness was taken away when they went into exile (Shinar = Babylon). The four chariots patrol the earth again and report peace in the north, which represents the Lord’s final defeat of all of Israel’s enemies (which usually came from the north – Babylon, Assyria, Persia). A final vision in chapter 6 rounds out Zechariah’s prophetic visions/acts. This living parable reveals God’s plan for a priest-king named the Branch to rule over his people. In chapters 7-8, Zechariah calls the people to faithfulness, justice, truth-telling, peace, love of neighbors, and righteousness. If the people will be faithful, the covenant blessings can still come to them. Chapter 9 moves us into a new section that introduces several collages of images that represent the coming Messianic priest-king – who will enter on a donkey (9:9).
We continue to see images of the coming messianic kingdom. Chapter 10 shows us that the Lord will gather his people to himself and will reverse their scattering. Chapter 11 reveals that the people of Israel willingly choose to follow corrupt shepherds/leaders. But chapters 12-14 show us they will not always follow corrupt leaders. Instead, the Lord will bring salvation to Judah by becoming the leader who is pierced for them and from this salvation will flow a fountain to cleanse Israel’s sin and uncleanness. On the day when the shepherd is struck, a majority will turn away – but some will call upon the name of the Lord and be saved. Yet, for all who refuse to turn to the Lord, they will be humbled and brought into submission. And once the Lord has returned to his place, he will be reign over all the earth and the whole of New Jerusalem will become “holy to the Lord.”
We like to think of Esther and Mordecai as a heroes – and no doubt, they are. But they’re also unlikely heroes. In some ways, they’re the opposite of Daniel, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. Here’s a snipper of how Mike Cosper re-tells the story:
“Esther was born in exile, immersed in a Persian culture, and raised by a cousin named Mordecai – a name given in honor of the Persian god Marduk. Esther’s name, too, is in honor of the Persian goddess Ishtar. When their story begins, no one knows they’re Jewish. When Esther is taken into the King’s harem, her cousin tells her to do everything she’s told to do: eat the food, participate in the beauty regimen, sleep with the Persian King. There is compromise happening all the way through the story.
And yet, these two profoundly compromised characters experience a kind of awakening. They make themselves vulnerable in their hostile culture, and their self-sacrifice leads to a miraculous redemption for the people of God. Not only are their lives spared, there is a kind of religious renewal that happens at the end of the story, with the inauguration of Purim.
Esther’s story is an invitation for anyone who finds themselves immersed in a hostile world, struggling with a sense of lost identity, and longing for spiritual renewal. She confronts demonic evil with vulnerability and weakness. She and her cousin Mordecai practice a kind of resistance that not only improves the welfare of God’s people, but improves life throughout the kingdom of Persia. They fulfill the mandate of Jeremiah 29, seeking the good of the city.”
Do you resonate with the last paragraph? Read Esther in hope. God can use flawed, compromised people to bring spiritual renewal to his people.