Our OT reading today features two lesser known biblical figures – Ezra and Nehemiah. They produced no miracles or victories, and they were not exceptionally successful leaders. A scholar and project manager, they strove to remind the people that even after almost a century of being away from Jerusalem, their ancient scriptures and half-ruined Temple still held the power to help them connect with God. It may seem like an insignificant interlude in the history of the Jewish people, especially considering that this leadership attempt had mixed results. However, it’s helpful to keep in mind that the trajectory of God’s purpose transcends both our successes and failures, and it’s worth trying to engage with the divine, even if the encounter is brief and its effect is fleeting.
The books of Ezra and Nehamiah are printed separately in our Bibles, but they used to be one text telling a unified story. Recall that some Israelites had spent about 70 (or maybe 48) years in Babylon, following the conquest of Judah in 597 BC (or 608, or 586). When the Persian Emperor Cyrus the Great subsequently conquered Babylon, he allowed the Jews, as well as other displaced nations, to repatriate. Keep in mind that several waves of deportations may have taken place (each resulting from an uprising in Judah), not everyone left, not everyone deported came back all at once, and some even chose to stay. So Ezra and Nehemiah tell of the first wave of returning exiles, who were led back to Jerusalem by Zerubbabel and Joshua. Upon arrival, Nehemiah worked to rebuild the Temple and city walls, and Ezra – to lead a spiritual revival. It wasn't smooth sailing, as they contended with the hostility of the surrounding nations, and the lack of consistency within their own, partly blamed on the prevalence of marriages outside of Israel. But, Neh. 8 tells us how emotional people felt when they finally re-dedicated the Temple and celebrated their autumn feasts, possibly for the first time in centuries.
What happened is that while in exile, or likely even prior to it, the Temple had been ransacked and desecrated; so they had lost the originals of scriptures and fell out of practice with regards to the feasts. So the Torah may have, in fact, been missing for some time, contributing to the spiritual decline even preceding Nebuchadnezzar’s arrival. Yet, all along, the Israelites managed to maintain their identity, aided by the prophets such as Ezikiel, who kept up their hope of returning (though I do wonder if they also created unrealistic expectations for life immediately upon return). Then, Hilkiah, the high priest, found "the book of the law in the house of the Lord" (2 Kg 22:8.), which may have contained either Deuteronomy, or all the books known as the Law (i.e., the first 5 books of our OT). This is what Ezra read out to the people over the better part of “the first day of the seventh month”, aka Rosh Hashanah (Head of the Year or Feast of the Trumpets). The Levites helped the listeners understand the words, likely, both by translating them into Aramaic for those who no longer knew Hebrew, and by offering a running commentary. Let’s appreciate the significance of the occasion: the book had been missing for a very long time, there was probably only one copy, most people were likely illiterate, and some had lost the language. No wonder they were weeping from the sheer power of the encounter with the inspired text – carefully compiled, edited, and preserved by their ancestors, and now restored to them.
Note that on this momentous occasion, Ezra didn't bring to his people the facts of their history, nor did he appeal to their intellect. He opened his own heart to seek the holy wisdom of God, and inspired his people to do the same. Words can, at times, act almost like they are alive; they have tremendous creative power, as symbolized by the image of God speaking the world into being, and in the Christian mystical conceptualization of Jesus, the Son of God, as “the Word.” Yet, even after all this took place, Ezra and Nehemiah – these two earnest, deeply religious people who tried to guide their nation into the renewed life with God – learned (as we do), that even the surest of God’s promises, even the most gracious of creative acts, is circumscribed by human nature.
For 5 chapters later, we read that Nehemiah went to Persia on a business trip, and returned only to find that the newly formed commitments based on the effects of Ezra’s reading had been compromised. The Temple has been neglected and defiled, the Sabbath wasn’t observed, the ever-present problem of mixed marriages was still there and worsened. How enraged Nehemiah became, crying, beating, and cursing them, and even pulling out their hair! Reminds me of the time when Moses went up to Sinai and came back to see the worship of the golden calf. Which is only to say that the exile and return didn’t change whatever situation existed before (or led to) it. The true revival isn’t found within the walls and books - not even the holy ones. And only because we may hold the most highly inspired ideals, the loftiest of dreams – God doesn’t owe it to us to fulfill them. And of course, even the most earnest religious leaders cannot do for us the work that needs to take place in our hearts by our own will, and with God’s help.
I find the realism of this story very refreshing in the context of our culture that puts a lot of faith (and demands a lot from) human leadership. Ezra-Nehemiah’s revival was by no means the final one in the history of Israel, or in the journey of humanity towards God. In Israel, the next notable revival took place, arguably, when John the Baptist emerged out of the wilderness with his message. But even John had an intuition that this wasn’t the end, that “someone greater” was coming after him. Jesus did come, and offered to us the ultimate “new covenant” of his body and blood; but, I daresay, the story doesn’t even end there. So does God keep his promises? Yes; but the true return from “exile” takes a whole lifetime to complete, by the collaboration of each human will with the creative and restorative power of the divine Word. Amen.