Preaching from Ezra, Nehemiah, and Esther
Two previous posts looked at challenges for understanding Ezra, Nehemiah, and Esther related to historical background and biblical theology. This post will begin addressing the challenge of preaching from these books. All too often preachers resort to using these books in an allegorical way or as illustrations of leadership principles derived from nonbiblical sources, instead of coming to grips with the theological teaching communicated through the narratives. Here we will consider two important concepts that can help us preach faithfully from these books: how the natural relates to the supernatural, and how the situation of Christians today differs from the situation of ancient Israel.
How the Natural Relates to the Supernatural
One of the most attractive features of biblical narratives is the frequent reports of miracles—divine intervention producing supernatural events. The Pentateuch provides numerous examples of God’s miraculous works as he delivers Israel from slavery in Egypt and initiates his covenant relationship with them at Mount Sinai. Throughout the Former Prophets and Chronicles, there are many instances of God giving miraculous military victories to Israel and confirming his word through the prophets by the miracles he enables them to perform. Of course, the Gospels record the signs of the in-breaking of the Kingdom of God given by Christ, including his resurrection from the dead, and Acts bears witness to the continued ministry of the Holy Spirit through the disciples, partly by describing the miracles they performed.
These stories clearly teach that God is sovereign and all-powerful, and it is enormously comforting to know that the Almighty has promised to care and provide for those who seek his kingdom and righteousness. Believers know that God may allow them to suffer at times in the present age but their destiny is an existence without death, mourning, or pain. There is even the possibility that God may intervene miraculously in our present lives, doing a miracle like those we read of in the Bible. But the day-to-day reality for the vast majority of God’s people does not include supernatural events.
This is where the books of Ezra-Nehemiah (presented as one book in the oldest manuscripts) and Esther can actually provide tremendous help and encouragement. One of the things that distinguishes them from most other Old Testament narratives is the lack of clearly miraculous events, even though God’s activity in them is no less powerful or effective. Thus, they are actually easier in some ways for most people to relate to.
God’s involvement is made explicit from the very first verse of Ezra-Nehemiah as he prompts King Cyrus of Persia to issue an edict permitting exiled Israelites to travel to Jerusalem to rebuild the temple there. To observers in sixth century BC Persia, it would not be clearly apparent that these events were due to the intervening hand of God. As a way of legitimating their rule over their subjects, Persian kings, especially Cyrus, instructed peoples to rebuild the temples of their gods. But the reader is left in no doubt that the Lord is ultimately responsible for the return and resettlement of the Jews and the reinstitution of worship at the temple. The narrator also puts these events in a wider context by connecting them to the prophecy of Jeremiah. Under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, the author has illumined for the reader the true meaning of what happened. The contemporary preacher, then, should encourage the audience to trust that God is at work achieving his purposes even through mundane affairs in which divine action may not be immediately apparent. The line between the natural and the supernatural is not as easy to draw as we may sometimes think. But we can trust that what God has planned and promised will come about, and it will often be in surprising ways. The contemporary preacher should encourage the audience to trust that God is at work achieving his purposes even through mundane affairs in which divine action may not be immediately apparent. Click To Tweet
This mode of divine operation can be observed repeatedly in Ezra-Nehemiah. The Jews overcome entrenched opposition to rebuilding the temple because an old royal memo just happens to be discovered in a place where no one was told to look for it (Ezra 6:1–2). The Persian kings decide to provide generously for the temple (Ezra 7:27; Neh. 2:7–8), possibly (to outward appearances) because of Jerusalem’s strategic military location in the western part of the empire. Nehemiah and his wall-building crew complete their task in fifty-two days despite a variety of attempts by their enemies to prevent them (Neh. 2–6). God enables his people to accomplish great and important things, but his actions are not shown in supernatural occurrences. Preachers have ample opportunity to exhort their hearers to faithfulness based on confidence in God’s regular working through apparently natural causes.
With the book of Esther, the situation may be even more emphatic. God’s name is never mentioned. Mordecai makes an oblique statement in 4:14 that if Esther keeps quiet during the Jews’ crisis protection will come for them from some other source. The closest thing to a miracle is the fact that the Jews are ultimately able to defend themselves against their enemies in 9:1–17, but the narrator is careful to note that Mordecai’s fame and influence had grown to the point where others feared him (vv. 2–4). This psychological factor is given as the explanation for the Jews’ success. The supernatural does not appear anywhere in the text. Nevertheless, the presence of the book of Esther in the Hebrew canon and the continual reversals beginning at 6:1 that lead the plot to the Jews’ victory over their foes when their destruction had seemed assured leave the reader to conclude that the source of the Jews’ deliverance is in fact God. Once again the modern preacher is presented with a great opportunity. Although each passage in Esther has its own specific emphases, sermons can repeatedly encourage listeners that God is able to protect his people according to his purposes and his timing, even when circumstances are bleak, no supernatural miracles are occurring, and God seems absent.
How the Situation of Christians Today Differs from the Situation of Ancient Israel
Secondly, God’s covenant promises to the ancient Israelites differed from his covenant promises to Christians today. Unfortunately, preachers often overlook this and draw invalid applications for their listeners. The covenant at Sinai promised Israel the land of Canaan and the prophets foretold that after the exile there would be a return to the land and the restoration of worship at the Jerusalem temple. These promises receive significant fulfillment in Ezra-Nehemiah. However, contemporary interpreters need to recognize that these narratives point to the theological principles that God fulfills his covenant promises to his people and seeks their worship as the centerpiece of his relationship with them. Preachers must then think carefully about how these principles relate to New Testament believers. The promises found in the Gospels, New Testament letters, and Revelation emphasize the establishment and growth of a spiritual kingdom with spiritual blessings for God’s people in this life and assurance of resurrection beyond the grave, not the inheritance of physical real estate or the construction of houses of worship. Likewise the covenant with Israel had a national component, whereby those outside of Israel were seen as a constant source of temptation to be unfaithful to God. Intermarriage was forbidden for this reason (cf. Exod. 34:15–16), which explains the alarm over such marriages in Ezra-Nehemiah (Ezra 9–10; Neh. 13:23–27). Christians today should similarly be exhorted not to marry unbelievers, but Christ desires believers of all nations, so interracial marriage, for example, need not be discouraged. Also, the New Testament teaches that believers who find themselves married to unbelievers should not initiate divorce (2 Cor. 6:14).
In Esther, God’s care for his people is proven by the fact that they defeat in battle those who wish to harm them, and put many of them to death. God is able to preserve his people in the New Testament age as well, but the emphasis shifts from physical to spiritual outcomes. Jesus warns against fearing those who can merely kill the body (Luke 12:4), and Paul exclaims that even when Christians are counted as sheep for slaughter they have complete victory (Rom. 8:36–37). Although expositors cannot promise that God will spare believers from temporal harm, the assurance of his care and ultimate deliverance to eternal salvation is no less strong.
The miraculous accounts in the Bible are exciting and inspiring, but they can seem distant and hard to connect to for many believers today. The books of Ezra, Nehemiah, and Esther show the same God who parted the Red Sea at work through the documents issued by a pagan ruler. They provide a glimpse of what God’s power looks like when he isn’t making axe heads float. As such, they offer preachers a special opportunity to encourage their hearers to engaged, faith-filled living in the everyday.
 ANET, 315-16.
 Kenneth G. Hoglund, Achaemenid Imperial Administration in Syria-Palestine and the Missions of Ezra and Nehemiah, SBLDS 125 (Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1992).
 Karen H. Jobes, Esther, NIV Application Commentary (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1999).