Signs of the Coming Salvation: Biblical Theology in Ezra, Nehemiah, and Esther

This is one of the most powerful examples in the Old Testament of the principle that God is able to take the evilest of schemes intended to inflict destruction and shame and reverse expectations by using it to save his people.

In Jeremiah 25 God tells Judah that because the people have not listened to his words their land will be destroyed by the king of Babylon and they will become his subjects (vv. 8–11). This state of affairs will last seventy years. At the end of that period, however, the king of Babylon and his nation will themselves be subjected to others for their wicked deeds (vv. 12–14). God later adds that when the period of Babylonian domination ends he will bring those who have been exiled back to the land of Judah (29:10–14).

 

The ending of Nehemiah may be one of the most unsatisfying of any book in the Bible. But it actually makes an important contribution to biblical theology. An important key to understanding the theology of Ezra-Nehemiah (intended to be read as a single book and presented as such in the oldest manuscripts) is found in the reference to Jeremiah’s prophecy at the beginning of the narrative. Ezra 1:1 states that the events about to be described are related to the fulfillment of Jeremiah’s words. The author of Ezra-Nehemiah does not quote any passages, so the original readers were evidently familiar enough with what Jeremiah had said that they understood the significance of this allusion. Modern readers, however, may need to find out what Jeremiah said.

In Jeremiah 25 God tells Judah that because the people have not listened to his words their land will be destroyed by the king of Babylon and they will become his subjects (vv. 8–11). This state of affairs will last seventy years. At the end of that period, however, the king of Babylon and his nation will themselves be subjected to others for their wicked deeds (vv. 12–14). God later adds that when the period of Babylonian domination ends he will bring those who have been exiled back to the land of Judah (29:10–14). This promise introduces a phrase that recurs several times in Jeremiah that can be translated, “reverse the plight” (NET, v. 14), or “restore the fortunes” (CSB, ESV, NJPS, NRSV). This phrase typically means “to reestablish a state of affairs as it was,” implying that a situation that has become bad will improve to how it was before (footnote HALOT 1386, 3.c).[1] The phrase reappears in Jeremiah in contexts where the Lord describes further what the restoration of Judah will be like (30:3, 18; 31:23; 32:44; 33:7, 11). Thus, Jeremiah 25–33 creates the expectation that the Babylonians will come to Judah, destroy the Jerusalem temple, lay waste to the land, kill many inhabitants, and take many others away into exile but also that after seventy years the Babylonians will be overthrown, the exiled Judeans will be allowed to return to Judah, and the Lord will restore the blessings they previously enjoyed.

Aspects of this restoration correspond to much of what the reader finds described in Ezra-Nehemiah. The return of Judean exiles to Judah, the rebuilding of the temple in Jerusalem, the reconstruction of Jerusalem’s wall, and the reinstitution of the worship of the Lord all agree with the expectations created by Jeremiah. But to fully understand the connection the writer of Ezra-Nehemiah sees with Jeremiah’s prophecy, another component of the prophecy must be observed.

The oracles of restoration in Jeremiah 30–33 include a promise that after the days of judgment the Lord will make a new covenant with Israel and Judah (31:31–34). An important element of this covenant is God putting his law directly into the hearts and minds of his people, with the result that they will acknowledge his sovereignty and commit whole-heartedly to obeying him (vv. 33–34).[2] The narrator of Ezra-Nehemiah expects his readers to be familiar with this promise and to anticipate that it will be fulfilled along with other aspects of the restoration. Parts of the narrative provide hope that the returned exiles may indeed be experiencing its fulfillment. The community approaches Ezra about correcting the intermarriages even before any mention of Ezra teaching them the Law (Ezra 9:1–2). The community asks for the Law to be read to them and responds to the reading with rejoicing and diligent obedience (Neh. 8). They participate in an extended prayer of repentance of past sin (Neh. 9) and pledge to be obedient to the Lord henceforth (Neh. 10).

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