The Book of Ezra begins with a decree from King Cyrus of Persia, allowing the Jews to return to Jerusalem to rebuild the temple that had been destroyed by the Babylonians in 587 BC (Ezra 1:2-4). The introduction to this decree specifies when it was proclaimed: “In the first year of King Cyrus” (539-538 BC, shortly after the Persian defeat of Babylon). It also introduces us to one of the principal themes of Ezra-Nehemiah: the relationship between God’s work and human work. Cyrus made his proclamation “that the word of the Lord by the mouth of Jeremiah might be accomplished,” and because “the Lord stirred up the spirit of King Cyrus” (Ezra 1:1). Cyrus was doing his work as king, seeking his personal and institutional ends. Yet this was a result of God’s work within him, advancing God’s own purposes. We sense in the first verse of Ezra that God is in control, yet choosing to work through human beings, even Gentile kings, to accomplish his will.
Workplace Christians today also live in trust that God is active through the decisions and actions of non-Christian people and institutions. Cyrus was God’s chosen instrument, whether or not Cyrus himself recognized that. Similarly, the actions of our boss, co-workers, customers and suppliers, rivals, regulators or a myriad of other actors may be furthering the work of God’s kingdom unrecognized by either us or them. That should prevent us from both despair and arrogance. If Christian people and values seem absent from your workplace, don’t despair — God is still at work. On the other hand, if you are tempted to see yourself or your organization as a paragon of Christian virtue, beware! God may be accomplishing more through those with less visible connection to him than you realize. Certainly, God’s work through Cyrus — who remained wealthy, powerful, and unbelieving, even while many of God’s people were only slowly recovering from the poverty of exile — should warn us not to expect wealth and power as a necessary reward for our faithful work. God is using all things to work towards his kingdom, not necessarily towards our personal success.
God’s work continued as many Jews took advantage of Cyrus’ decree. “Every one whose spirit God had stirred” prepared to return to Jerusalem (Ezra 1:5). When they arrived in Jerusalem, their first job was to build the altar and offer sacrifices on it (Ezra 3:1-3). This epitomizes the chief sort of work chronicled in Ezra and Nehemiah. It is closely associated with the sacrificial practices of Old Testament Judaism, which took place in the temple. The work described in these books reflects and supports the centrality of the temple and its offerings in the life of God’s people. Worship and work stride hand and hand through the pages of Ezra and Nehemiah.
Given the focus in Ezra upon the rebuilding of the temple, people’s jobs are mentioned when they are relevant to this effort. Thus the list of people returning to Jerusalem specifically itemizes “the priests, the Levites… and the singers, the gatekeepers, and the temple servants” (Ezra 2:70). The text identifies “masons and carpenters” because they were necessary for the building project (Ezra 3:7). People whose skills did not equip them for working directly on the temple contributed to the task through the fruit of their work in the form of “freewill offerings” (Ezra 2:68). Thus, in a sense, the rebuilding of the temple was the work of all the people as they contributed in one way or another.
Ezra identifies political leaders in addition to Cyrus because of their impact, positive or negative, on the construction effort. For example, Zerubbabel is mentioned as a leader of the people. He was the governor of the territory who oversaw the rebuilding of the temple (Haggai 1:1). Ezra mentions “Rehum the royal deputy and Shimshai the scribe,” officials who wrote a letter opposing the temple’s reconstruction (Ezra 4:8-10). Other kings and officials show up according to their relevance to the rebuilding project.
The temple is what the project was about, but it would be a mistake to think that God blesses craftsmanship and material work only when it is devoted to a religious purpose. Ezra’s vision was to restore the whole city of Jerusalem (Ezra 4:13), not just the temple. We will discuss this point further when we come to Nehemiah, who actually undertook the work beyond the temple.
Ezra describes several efforts to squelch the construction (Ezra 4:1-23). These were successful for a while, stopping the temple project for about two decades (Ezra 4:24). Finally, God encouraged the Jews through the prophecies of Haggai and Zechariah to resume and complete the job (Ezra 5:1). Moreover, Darius, king of Persia, underwrote the building effort financially in the hope that the Lord might bless him and his sons (Ezra 6:8-10). Thus the temple was finally completed, thanks to the fact that God had “turned the heart of the king of Assyria to them” so that “he aided [the Jews] in the work on the house of God” (Ezra 6:22).
As this verse makes clear, the Jews actually did the work of rebuilding the temple. Yet their labors were successful because of help from two pagan kings, one who inaugurated the project and the other who paid for its completion. Behind these human efforts loomed the overarching work of God, who moved in the hearts of the kings and encouraged his people through the prophets. As we have seen, God is at work far beyond what meets the eye of his people.
Ironically, Ezra himself does not appear in the book bearing his name until chapter 7. This learned man, a priest and teacher of the law, came to Jerusalem with the blessing of the Persian king Artaxerxes over fifty years after the rebuilding of the temple. His assignment was to present offerings in the temple on behalf of the king and to establish the law of God in Judah, both by teaching and by appointing law-abiding leaders (Ezra 7:25-26).
Ezra did not explain the king’s favor in terms of good luck. Rather, he credited God with putting “such a thing as this into the heart of the king” to send Ezra to Jerusalem (Ezra 7:27). Ezra “took courage” and acted on the king’s order because, as he said, “the hand of the Lord my God was upon me” (Ezra 7:28). This language of God’s hand being upon someone is a favorite of Ezra, where it appears six times out of eight times in the whole Bible (Ezra 7:6, 9, 28; 8:18, 22, 31). God was at work in and through Ezra, and that explains his success in his endeavors.
Ezra’s confidence in God’s help was tested when it came time for his entourage to journey from Babylon to Jerusalem. “I was ashamed,” Ezra explained, “to ask the king for a band of soldiers and cavalry to protect us against the enemy on our way; since we had told the king, ‘The hand of our God is gracious to all who seek him, but his power and his wrath are against all who forsake him’” (Ezra 8:22). For Ezra, to depend on a royal escort implied a failure to trust in God’s protection. So he and his retinue fasted and prayed rather than seek practical assistance from the king (Ezra 8:23). Note: Ezra was not following any particular Old Testament law in choosing not to receive royal protection. Rather, this decision reflected his personal convictions about what it meant to trust God in the real challenges of leadership. One might say that Ezra was an “idealistic believer” in this situation, because he was willing to stake his life on the idea of God’s protection, rather than to ensure protection with human help. As we’ll see later, Ezra’s position was not the only one deemed reasonable by godly leaders in Ezra and Nehemiah.
Ezra’s strategy proved to be successful. “The hand of our God was upon us,” he observed, “and he delivered us from the hand of the enemy and from ambushes along the way.” (Ezra 8:31). We do not know, however, if members of Ezra’s party carried weapons or used them for protection. The text seems to suggest that Ezra and company completed their journey without a threatening incident. Once again, the book of Ezra shows that human efforts are successful when God is at work in them.
The last two chapters of Ezra focus on the problem of Jews intermarrying with Gentiles. The issue of work does not emerge here, except in the example of Ezra, who exercises his leadership in faithfulness to the Law and with prayerful decisiveness.