As we are moving further into the book of Ezra, and several of our women are in the Nehemiah Bible study, a few of you have reached out to better understand the historical context of these closely related books. Therefore, I want to use this brief post to help orient you.
First, the people of Judah are in a state of political and geographical exile. Due to their unfaithfulness to God and His law, and after various warnings from both the prophets Jeremiah and Isaiah, the majority of the kingdom of Judah was attacked and carried into captivity by the Babylonians under the leadership of King Nebuchadnezzar. The process of exile happened in various phases and is detailed in 2 Kings 24-25. As a result, spiritually speaking, they are a people under the control of foreign gods in Babylon; and simultaneously separated from the presence, rule, reign, and blessings of the God of Israel. Due to their exile, the land of Judah/Canaan will undergo a 70 year period of Sabbath Rest, which has symbolic significance as it relates to the concept of redemption.
Second, the Babylonians were conquered by the Medo-Persian empire, shifting Judah’s captors from Babylon to Persia. This reality is described in Daniel 5-6:5. Judah’s remaining time in the Persian empire is described in the remainder of the book of Daniel and in the books of Esther and Nehemiah. ‘The events in Ezra-Nehemiah take place from the beginning of the Persian Empire with the conquest of Cyrus the Great over Babylonia through the reigns of the Persian emperors Darius and Artaxerxes.’ 1
Third, King Cyrus, the king of the Persian empire, ‘freed the peoples who had been taken into exile in Babylonia and allowed them to keep their customs and religious identities. As a political and military leader, he was concerned about the stability of his empire, loyalty from subject peoples, and economic resources.’ 2 This reality, and the sovereign plan of God, is what informed his decision to encourage the people of Judah to return to Judah to rebuild the House of God and to give them all the resources needed to accomplish that task. In fact, as Isaiah prophesied in chapter 44, verse 28, the Persian King Cyrus had sent exiles led by Zerubbabel back to Jerusalem in 538 b.c. (Persia had defeated Babylon in 539.)
Fourth, ‘the people of Judah who returned from exile in Babylonia went to the westernmost outpost of the Persian Empire, an area bordering Egypt, Phoenicia, and Cyprus, to establish a community with limited autonomy but loyal to Persia. Accordingly, the people of Judah were subject to the Persian authorities and were heavily taxed. Judah was part of the province called Beyond the River, the Persian satrapy to the west of the Euphrates River that included Samaria and Judah.’ 3 This event showed forth the faithfulness of God to discipline, humble, and ultimately restore His people in light of His
1 Noss, P.A., & Thomas, K. J. (2005). A Handbook on Ezra and Nehemiah. (P. Clarke, S. Brown, L. Dorn, & D. Slager, Eds.) (p. 10). New York: United Bible Societies.
2 Ibid., p. 11
3 Ibid., p. 11
everlasting covenant that He made with their father Abraham. (Gen.12:1-3; chapters 15-17 & Leviticus 26:27-39) In particular, considering the Leviticus 26 passage, this restoration of Judah is symbolic of a ‘second planting’ of God’s seed, following a period of allowing His field to lay fallow for 70 years. (Some scholars refer to this as a ‘second exodus’, a starting over from the previous generation of God’s people who came out of captivity from Egypt.)4
Fifth, and finally, the period of Ezra-Nehemiah & the ‘Egyptian Captivity’ (some add the ‘creation’ to this list) serves to demonstrate a primary point:
• That God Graciously & Sovereignly works in impossible scenarios to return His people to His Place (Temple/Land), under His rule and blessing.
There can be periods when it seems like the kingdoms of the world are winning; whether personally, corporately, or geo-politically. But as we consider Ezra-Nehemiah, God shows us that He is sovereign over both the nations and our salvation.
4 Breneman, M. (1993). Ezra, Nehemiah, Esther (electronic ed., Vol. 10, pp. 50–51). Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers.