In the last three lessons, we learned that–after being brought into the land of Canaan, after being given peace and wealth under King David and after Solomon built the great Temple in Jerusalem–the Jews slowly turned away from God. First, the northern kingdom Israel was conquered by the Assyrians in 722 BC and taken captive. Then the southern kingdom Judah was overrun by the Babylonians in 586 BC.
We recently learned of the life of the prophet Daniel. We learned that, although things looked dark and gloomy for the Jews as they were led into Babylon, God gave visions to Daniel teaching the Jews that they would be saved if they returned to Him in their hearts. Then, we learned how God raised Cyrus up as king of Persia and inspired him to set the Jews free. In this lesson we will learn how Israel was restored and the man by whom God accomplished the restoration: Esdras the scribe.
The Return to Israel
Imagine if a hurricane flooded your city and destroyed everything. Suppose all of the people had to escape to other cities and wait for a month–or more–for the waters to drain away. All electricity was out because of fallen trees and wires, the water polluted from the floods, houses flooded out and filth everywhere. No stores would be open, schools would be closed and your friends and relatives might be missing. Even though the storm had passed, you would not be able to return to your old way of life. The rebuilding process would take time and life wouldn’t return to normal for many months, or years–maybe never again.
God allowed Daniel to see the fulfillment of His promises as the power of Babylon was crushed and Cyrus gave the Jews permission to return to the land of Israel. However, the Jews had been away from the land for seventy years–almost two generations. There were men and women born in Babylon who never even knew of life in Israel and would likely have had no interest in going home. Those who did remember would have been very, very old and would know that the land wasn’t what it once was. The land of Israel was again filled with foreign peoples, foreign gods and foreign ways of life. The temple of Solomon was burned to the ground. The entire system of government established by David and Solomon was lost and the land was now ruled by the Persians. The Jews could not simply pack up and head back home, and we should not think that when Cyrus gave the Jews their freedom that everything returned to normal in Israel.
Some families did return to Israel, but most remained in Babylon, where the Jews received many benefits. Daniel, for example, enjoyed a very high position in Babylon and then with the Persians, and the Jews were treated quite well there. These Jews would have been in no rush to get back home to Israel, where the land was filled with pagans, the temple was destroyed and every part of Jewish culture and government was lost. The return was surely in the hearts of many Jews, but it was a project that would take time. In fact, the community in Babylon became a center for Jewish learning for many hundreds of years. Many Jews never returned to Israel but remained as members of what is called the “Jewish Diaspora“–the Jewish community outside of Israel, which later spread out through all the world. Even in our country we will find Jews of the diaspora.
In 539 BC, Cyrus freed the Jews and bid them return to their land and rebuild the temple. The king even provided the money to build with so that the Jews might always offer sacrifices and prayers for the royal family. Men in the land of Israel who hated the Jews tried to stop them from building in Jerusalem and were successful for some time. However, God sent the prophets Haggai and Zechariah to command the Jews to continue in their work and not to give in to the pressure of their enemies. In 520 BC, the Persian king Darius repeated the decree of Cyrus and warned that if anyone interfered with the work of the temple they would be put to death. Four years later, in 516 BC, the temple was restored in Jerusalem and the Jews celebrated the Passover in Israel. All of this history is recorded in the first six chapters of the book of Esdras in the Bible.
Esdras the Scribe
While the temple was being built in Israel, God was preparing the man who would restore the soul to the empty body of the temple in Jerusalem. While the temple itself was restored, the faith and life of the Jews was far from what it needed to be. The man’s name was Esdras or Ezra and he was a Jewish priest and scribe still living in Babylon. Before we study Ezra himself, let’s first consider what a scribe is.
The ideal vision of a Jewish scribe is written for us in chapters 38 and 39 of the book of Sirach. Many families ignore this book because the Protestants don’t accept it, but it is one of the most helpful books in all of the Bible! This passage of Scripture provides us with the best insight into the life of a good scribe and therefore guides our thoughts about what Esdras was and how he lived. Read the description of the life of a scribe from Sirach–and read it carefully:
“The scribe’s profession increases his wisdom; whoever is free from toil can become a wise man…the man who devotes himself to the study of the law of the Most High! He explores the wisdom of the men of old and occupies himself with the prophecies; He treasures the discourses of famous men, and goes to the heart of involved sayings; He studies obscure parables, and is busied with the hidden meanings of the sages. He is in attendance on the great, and has entrance to the ruler. He travels among the peoples of foreign lands to learn what is good and evil among men. His care is to seek the LORD, his Maker, to petition the Most High, To open his lips in prayer, to ask pardon for his sins. Then, if it pleases the LORD Almighty, he will be filled with the spirit of understanding; He will pour forth his words of wisdom and in prayer give thanks to the LORD,…He will show the wisdom of what he has learned and glory in the law of the LORD’S covenant. Many will praise his understanding; his fame can never be effaced; Unfading will be his memory, through all generations his name will live; Peoples will speak of his wisdom, and in assembly sing his praises. While he lives he is one out of a thousand, and when he dies his renown will not cease.”
Reading this, we understand what kind of man Esdras was, for not only was he a scribe, but he was a holy scribe, chosen and blessed by God. We meet Esdras in the seventh chapter of the book named after him:
Now after these things in the reign of Artaxerxes king of the Persians, Esdras…went up from Babylon, and he was a ready scribe in the law of Moses, which the Lord God had given to Israel: and the king granted him all his request, according to the hand of the Lord his God upon him…For Esdras had prepared his heart to seek the law of the Lord, and to do and to teach in Israel the commandments and judgment.”
We see that Esdras was a man who lived a holy life of study and prayer–a life that even God noticed and blessed. The Lord gave Esdras favor with the king of the Persians, so that the king provided him with safety and supplies along with the authority to establish judges in the land to see that all of Esdras’s commands be followed. This teaches us a very important lesson about life under God. Men of the world think that by working for wealth and power they can climb in power and importance in the world, but this is not the way the world works. Look carefully at Esdras and learn that power and wealth are in God’s hands and He gives them to holy men who do not seek them. Don’t be deceived by reasonings from people who pretend that we must be very busy in the world and climb over our neighbors to do great things for God. The kings of the earth will offer up riches and power to God’s holy servants anytime anything is needed. We, like Esdras, are to seek first the kingdom of Heaven, and all that we need will be given to us.
The Prayer of Esdras
The temple was built in 516 BC, but it remained a lifeless body, for the true religion of the Jews had not yet returned to Israel. In fact, the Jews that returned broke the laws of Moses and married the pagan women who were living in the land. Israel was stuck in a rut of sin and even after the most humiliating and painful exile were still unable to turn to the Lord and win the blessings He promised to the sons of Abraham. Most historians miss the most important events in world history when they tell the story of the world and they surely leave out events like the one that followed–that changed the history of Israel forever.
Esdras, that holy scribe of the law of God, took upon himself the sins of his people and offered this famous prayer of sorrow and repentance, after tearing his clothes from his body and pulling the hairs out of his head and beard in grief:
“My God I am confounded and ashamed to lift up my face to thee: for our iniquities are multiplied over our heads, and our sins are grown up even unto heaven, From the days of our fathers: and we ourselves also have sinned grievously unto this day, and for our iniquities we and our kings, and our priests have been delivered into the hands of the kings of the lands, and to the sword, and to captivity, and to spoil, and to confusion of face, as it is at this day. O Lord God of Israel, thou art just: for we remain yet to be saved as at this day. Behold we are before thee in our sin, for there can be no standing before thee in this matter.”
Esdras’s prayers accomplished what nothing else could: they broke the hearts of his people who watched this true priest suffer and offer himself and his own prayers for their sins. The people of Israel gathered around Esdras in front of the temple and presented themselves ready to fully submit to the law of God and turn once and for all from the ways of their past sins. This was the beginning of Israel’s return to the Lord, all of which started with the prayer of a righteous man. As St. James taught the Church many years later, “The fervent prayer of a righteous person is very powerful.”
The Reading of the Law
As the people admitted their great guilt and prepared themselves for confession and penance, Esdras stood before the people and read the entire law given by Moses to the ancestors of Israel when they came out of Egypt. In a beautiful ceremony that lasted for seven days, Esdras taught the law from beginning to end to the men and women of Israel and they began again all of the ancient practices that had been lost when the Jews were taken captive. Anything that they read in the law of the Lord, they immediately put back into practice in Israel.
This time of national confession and penance provides us with a beautiful example of how our lives are to be made holy. We do not need to travel around the world and study at the best universities to live a life pleasing to God. For all of Esdras’s learning we should note that he read the law to the people plainly and the people obeyed it simply. The meaning of Scripture is not too difficult for us to understand when we read it with hearts that are ready to obey God. When we study Scripture we must simply read God’s will and then put it into practice in our lives. If God says we should not be doing something that we are doing, let us cast it away from us and never think of it again. It God says we ought to do something that we are not doing, let us begin immediately to do it and never stop again. In this way we renew our relationship with God and show ourselves to be His true children and servants–ready to hear and do His will.
The Renewal of Israel
After the reading of the Law and hearing the explanation of Esdras the scribe, the people joined together to renew their covenant with the God of their fathers, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. The people gathered together and offered the following prayer, which provides us with a perfect summary of the history of the Jewish people from the beginning of time down to the life of Esdras the scribe. You can read this in your own Bible as it is found in the ninth chapter of the book of Nehemiah:
“Arise, bless the Lord your God from eternity to eternity: and blessed be the high name of thy glory with all blessing and praise. Thou thyself, O Lord alone, thou hast made heaven, and the heaven of heavens, and all the host thereof: the earth and all things that are in it: the seas and all that are therein: and thou givest life to all these things, and the host of heaven adoreth thee. Thou O Lord God, art he who chosest Abram, and broughtest him forth out of the fire of the Chaldeans, and gavest him the name of Abraham. And thou didst find his heart faithful before thee: and thou madest a covenant with him, to give him the land of the Chanaanite, of the Hethite, and of the Amorrhite, and of the Pherezite, and of the Jebusite, and of the Gergezite, to give it to his seed: and thou hast fulfilled thy words, because thou art just. And thou sawest the affliction of our fathers in Egypt: and thou didst hear their cry by the Red Sea. And thou shewedst signs and wonders upon Pharao, and upon all his servants, and upon the people of his land: for thou knewest that they dealt proudly against them: and thou madest thyself a name, as it is at this day. And thou didst divide the sea before them, and they passed through the midst of the sea on dry land: but their persecutors thou threwest into the depth, as a stone into mighty waters. And in a pillar of a cloud thou wast their leader by day, and in a pillar of fire by night, that they might see the way by which they went. Thou camest down also to mount Sinai, and didst speak with them from heaven, and thou gavest them right judgments, and the law of truth, ceremonies, and good precepts. Thou madest known to them thy holy sabbath, and didst prescribe to them commandments, and ceremonies, and the law by the hand of Moses thy servant. And thou gavest them bread from heaven in their hunger, and broughtest forth water for them out of the rock in their thirst, and thou saidst to them that they should go in, and possess the land, upon which thou hadst lifted up thy hand to give it them. But they and our fathers dealt proudly, and hardened their necks and hearkened not to thy commandments. And they would not hear, and they remembered not thy wonders which thou hadst done for them. And they hardened their necks, and gave the head to return to their bondage, as it were by contention. But thou, a forgiving God, gracious, and merciful, longsuffering, and full of compassion, didst not forsake them. Yea when they had made also to themselves a molten calf, and had said: This is thy God, that brought thee out of Egypt: and had committed great blasphemies: Yet thou, in thy many mercies, didst not leave them in the desert: the pillar of the cloud departed not from them by day to lead them in the way, and the pillar of fire by night to shew them the way by which they should go. And thou gavest them thy good Spirit to teach them, and thy manna thou didst not withhold from their mouth, and thou gavest them water for their thirst. Forty years didst thou feed them in the desert, and nothing was wanting to them: their garments did not grow old, and their feet were not worn. And thou gavest them kingdoms, and nations, and didst divide lots for them: and they possessed the land of Sehon, and the land of the king of Hesebon, and the land of Og king of Basan. And thou didst multiply their children as the stars of heaven, and broughtest them to the land concerning which thou hadst said to their fathers, that they should go in and possess it. And the children came and possessed the land, and thou didst humble before them the inhabitants of the land, the Canaanites, and gavest them into their hands, with their kings, and the people of the land, that they might do with them as it pleased them. And they took strong cities and a fat land, and possessed houses full of all goods: cisterns made by others, vineyards, and oliveyards, and fruit trees in abundance: and they ate, and were filled, and became fat, and abounded with delight in thy great goodness. But they provoked thee to wrath, and departed from thee, and threw thy law behind their backs: and they killed thy prophets, who admonished them earnestly to return to thee: and they were guilty of great blasphemies. And thou gavest them into the hands of their enemies, and they afflicted them. And in the time of their tribulation they cried to thee, and thou heardest from heaven, and according to the multitude of thy tender mercies thou gavest them saviours, to save them from the hands of their enemies. But after they had rest, they returned to do evil in thy sight: and thou leftest them in the hand of their enemies, and they had dominion over them. Then they returned, and cried to thee: and thou heardest from heaven, and deliveredst them many times in thy mercies. And thou didst admonish them to return to thy law. But they dealt proudly, and hearkened not to thy commandments, but sinned against thy judgments, which if a man do, he shall live in them: and they withdrew the shoulder, and hardened their neck, and would not hear. And thou didst forbear with them for many years, and didst testify against them by thy spirit by the hand of thy prophets: and they heard not, and thou didst deliver them into the hand of the people of the lands. Yet in thy very many mercies thou didst not utterly consume them, nor forsake them: because thou art a merciful and gracious God. Now therefore our God, great, strong, and terrible, who keepest covenant and mercy, turn not away from thy face all the labour which hath come upon us, upon our kings, and our princes, and our priests, and our prophets, and our fathers, and all the people from the days of the king of Assur, until this day. And thou art just in all things that have come upon us: because thou hast done truth, but we have done wickedly. Our kings, our princes, our priests, and our fathers have not kept thy law, and have not minded thy commandments, and thy testimonies which thou hast testified among them. And they have not served thee in their kingdoms, and in thy manifold goodness, which thou gavest them, and in the large and fat land, which thou deliveredst before them, nor did they return from their most wicked devices. Behold we ourselves this day are bondmen: and the land, which thou gavest our fathers, to eat the bread thereof, and the good things thereof, and we ourselves are servants in it. And the fruits thereof grow up for the kings, whom thou hast set over us for our sins, and they have dominion over our bodies, and over our beasts, according to their will, and we are in great tribulation. And because of all this we ourselves make a covenant, and write it, and our princes, our Levites, and our priests sign it.”
In this lesson, we have studied the return of the Jews to the land of their fathers. We have learned of the life of Esdras the scribe and how his holiness, prayer and study brought Israel back to serve the Lord. What we learn from the life of Esdras is how powerful the life of one good man can be. Today, Esdras is honored as the editor of many of the books of the Old Testament, the author of the books of the Chronicles in the Bible and the book of Esdras, which bears his name. He is called the “Second Moses” since he restored and developed what Moses originally established and arranged the new life of the Jews that would continue through the time of Our Lord. While many history books ignore him as they try to leave out the importance of religion, we know that Esdras is one of history’s most important men.
As you work through your studies, consider what God can accomplish with you if you offer yourself as Esdras did to be God’s servant–if you devoted yourself to study and teach the faith as Esdras did and work for the salvation of those around you. The world and the Devil like to make us think we are too small and weak to really make a difference, but history teaches us that is false! What was Abraham when God called him to become the father of a great nation? What was Moses when he was chosen to set the Hebrews free from slavery? What was David when he killed Goliath and saved his people? What was Ezra when he brought about a complete revival in Israel? They were all humble and obedient. You can be the same.
We have now studied well over 2,600 years of world history. Can you tell the story thus far?
Directions: Read each date and event and recite it several times. By daily repetition, thoroughly memorize these events. Memorize them using your complete chart so that you can “see” the chart in your mind.
- 4000 BC – 750 BC Ancient World
- 4000 BC Creation of the World
- 3500 BC Ancient Sumeria Begins
- 3000 BC Ancient Egypt Begins
- 2950 BC – 2000 BC Life of Noah
- 2000 BC – 1780 BC Life of Abraham
- 1450 BC – 1410 BC Hebrew Exodus
- 1200 BC Trojan War
- 1000 BC – 960 BC Life of King David
- circa 960 BC The Temple of Solomon
- 753 BC City of Rome Founded
- 750 BC Homer Writes the Iliad & Odyssey
- 750 BC – 500 AD Classical World
- 722 BC Assyrian Captivity
- 586 BC Babylonian Captivity
- 600 BC – 535 BC The Prophet Daniel in Babylon
- 530-450 BC Esdras the Scribe
- 500 AD – 1500 AD Medieval World
- 1500 AD – Present Modern World