I have made it my goal to write short posts reflecting on my devotional reading every day. These posts are composed off the cuff, in 30 minutes or less. The following is one such post. Before writing this post, I read: Ezra 1–4, Psalm 22, Proverbs 22.
The first four chapters of Ezra make for an interesting contrast with all the chapters of the Chronicles that immediately precede it. Though some of the pages are taken up with similar, uninteresting(-at-least-to-us) details of the number of people who returned from the Exile to rebuild the temple of God under the command of Cyrus, other parts of this passage indicate the significant change that had taken place in the people of Judah and Benjamin and Levi during their sojourn far from their homes. In short: they had learned not to worship other gods. This becomes increasingly clear throughout Ezra-Nehemiah, and as one comes to the New Testament it is obvious that the lesson did indeed stick.
This is not to say that the Jews had no ongoing religious issues. They did, to be sure. But these issues were not the issue of idolatry, at least in the strict sense of the word. Tim Keller would likely argue that the issues they had were still matters of idolatry of a sort, and I would be inclined to agree with him; but in any case, they were no longer putting up Asherah poles or making sacrifices to Baal or Molech. There were many consequences of the Exile, including the end of the Davidic line of kings over Judah, the loss of the Ark of the Covenant, and the destruction of the First Temple. Most important of all, though, was this reality that the Jews never again engaged in large-scale worship of gods besides Yahweh. Their functional henotheism gave way at last to true monotheism.
It is amazing to me—and wonderful—that the result of God’s judgment was not only the punishment of the judged but also their hearts being changed. He used a dreadful consequence to bring about real, lasting change in his people. It strikes me that sometimes we see exactly this, albeit on a smaller scale, in our own lives. There are times when we run far astray, and in his mercy he judges us, so that we will return to him. Now, there is a final judgment beyond which there is no return, but in the interval, how great his grace! This is a double blessing to us who follow Christ: First, it reminds us that if we stray, he is faithful to send opportunity after opportunity (usually increasingly painful opportunity) for our repentance. Second, it gives us reason not to go astray at all, realizing that the further we run, the more difficult will be our judgment. In both, we are reminded to worship our God: who judges justly and mercifully in the same stroke.
*[henotheism]: the belief in and worship of a single God while accepting the existence or possible existence of other deities that may also be worshipped. (see Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Henotheism)