Profiles of Faith: Ezra - Spiritually Restoring a People

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Ezra - Spiritually Restoring a People

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God recognized Ezra as a man of judgment (Ezra 7:25 Ezra 7:25And you, Ezra, after the wisdom of your God, that is in your hand, set magistrates and judges, which may judge all the people that are beyond the river, all such as know the laws of your God; and teach you them that know them not.
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). He was conscientious (Ezra 9:3 Ezra 9:3And when I heard this thing, I rent my garment and my mantle, and plucked off the hair of my head and of my beard, and sat down astonished.
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). His principles led him to resolutely oppose sin. He had a profound love of God's Word and devoted himself to studying it and faithfully teaching God's truth (Ezra 7:10 Ezra 7:10For Ezra had prepared his heart to seek the law of the LORD, and to do it, and to teach in Israel statutes and judgments.
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).

Ezra found the spiritual strength he needed through prayer and fasting. He was willing to sacrifice his own needs—and encourage others to do the same—to extol and honor God.

Understanding Ezra's background can help us see how God could use him to bring His people back to wholehearted obedience.

Judah restored

God forgets neither His people nor His promises to them. In love, He warned the people of Judah that, if they didn't repent of their sinful, rebellious ways, He would remove them from their homeland. When they refused to heed His repeated warnings through His prophets, He allowed the Babylonians to conquer and remove them through three major deportations (ca. 606, 597 and 587 B.C.). Their punishment was 70 years of captivity in a foreign land (Jeremiah 25:1-13 Jeremiah 25:1-13 [1] The word that came to Jeremiah concerning all the people of Judah in the fourth year of Jehoiakim the son of Josiah king of Judah, that was the first year of Nebuchadrezzar king of Babylon; [2] The which Jeremiah the prophet spoke to all the people of Judah, and to all the inhabitants of Jerusalem, saying, [3] From the thirteenth year of Josiah the son of Amon king of Judah, even to this day, that is the three and twentieth year, the word of the LORD has come to me, and I have spoken to you, rising early and speaking; but you have not listened. [4] And the LORD has sent to you all his servants the prophets, rising early and sending them; but you have not listened, nor inclined your ear to hear. [5] They said, Turn you again now every one from his evil way, and from the evil of your doings, and dwell in the land that the LORD has given to you and to your fathers for ever and ever: [6] And go not after other gods to serve them, and to worship them, and provoke me not to anger with the works of your hands; and I will do you no hurt. [7] Yet you have not listened to me, said the LORD; that you might provoke me to anger with the works of your hands to your own hurt. [8] Therefore thus said the LORD of hosts; Because you have not heard my words, [9] Behold, I will send and take all the families of the north, said the LORD, and Nebuchadrezzar the king of Babylon, my servant, and will bring them against this land, and against the inhabitants thereof, and against all these nations round about, and will utterly destroy them, and make them an astonishment, and an hissing, and perpetual desolations. [10] Moreover I will take from them the voice of mirth, and the voice of gladness, the voice of the bridegroom, and the voice of the bride, the sound of the millstones, and the light of the candle. [11] And this whole land shall be a desolation, and an astonishment; and these nations shall serve the king of Babylon seventy years. [12] And it shall come to pass, when seventy years are accomplished, that I will punish the king of Babylon, and that nation, said the LORD, for their iniquity, and the land of the Chaldeans, and will make it perpetual desolations. [13] And I will bring on that land all my words which I have pronounced against it, even all that is written in this book, which Jeremiah has prophesied against all the nations.
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).

True to His word, God fulfilled His promise to restore the descendants of Judah after the 70 years.

Zerubbabel headed the first return, which was to rebuild the temple (Ezra 1-6; ca. 536-516). Ezra led a later group in 457. Nehemiah, Ezra's contemporary, returned to rebuild the shattered walls of Jerusalem in 444.

The Bible tells us that Zerubbabel was a prince of Judah in Babylon. He led nearly 50,000 of his countrymen to rebuild the temple. They faced considerable opposition to this monumental project. Zerubbabel and others got sidetracked. Their focus shifted to building houses for themselves. But the correctional exhortations from prophets Haggai and Zechariah corrected the problem. Zerubbabel and his workmen got back on track and completed the temple around 516.

Although the people rebuilt the physical temple, they were still in poor spiritual condition. Then Ezra entered the picture.

When God needed a man of sterling character and strong conviction, He chose Ezra. Ezra means "help," as in helping to restore and reform Judah. His example can be encouraging to any who desire to be faithful to God.

Ezra was a direct descendant of the priestly family that included Eleazar, Phineas, Zadok and Aaron (Ezra 7:1-5 Ezra 7:1-5 [1] Now after these things, in the reign of Artaxerxes king of Persia, Ezra the son of Seraiah, the son of Azariah, the son of Hilkiah, [2] The son of Shallum, the son of Zadok, the son of Ahitub, [3] The son of Amariah, the son of Azariah, the son of Meraioth, [4] The son of Zerahiah, the son of Uzzi, the son of Bukki, [5] The son of Abishua, the son of Phinehas, the son of Eleazar, the son of Aaron the chief priest:
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). He was "a skilled scribe in the Law of Moses" (Ezra 7:6 Ezra 7:6This Ezra went up from Babylon; and he was a ready scribe in the law of Moses, which the LORD God of Israel had given: and the king granted him all his request, according to the hand of the LORD his God on him.
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) and an "expert in the words of the commandments of the LORD, and of His statutes to Israel" (Ezra 7:11 Ezra 7:11Now this is the copy of the letter that the king Artaxerxes gave to Ezra the priest, the scribe, even a scribe of the words of the commandments of the LORD, and of his statutes to Israel.
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). In a testimony to his convictions, we read that "Ezra had prepared his heart to seek the Law of the LORD, and to do it, and to teach statutes and ordinances in Israel" (Ezra 7:10 Ezra 7:10For Ezra had prepared his heart to seek the law of the LORD, and to do it, and to teach in Israel statutes and judgments.
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).

While in Babylon, Ezra gained the favor of King Artaxerxes, who granted him a commission to return to Jerusalem (this was the second return, ca. 457 B.C.). The king invited all who wanted to go—Jews, Israelites, priests and Levites—to accompany Ezra to Jerusalem. However, only 1,754 chose to make the journey, compared with 49,897 who had returned with Zerubbabel 79 years earlier.

Restoration of the people

Although the second return numbered fewer than 2,000 people, we must consider that five decades had passed since the completion of the temple in Jerusalem (in 516). Much can happen in two generations. The temple was complete and in use, but something was missing: a right attitude toward Almighty God. The people still lacked understanding. They were not wholeheartedly obedient to God.

God works in a systematic and orderly way. Through the great Persian king, Cyrus, He fulfilled His promise that the Jews could return to their homeland after 70 years in captivity. Next God provided Zerubbabel to rebuild the literal temple. Finally God set His hand to begin to restore the spiritual temple, a remnant of Judah. He used Ezra to accomplish this.

Ezra took a census of those who volunteered to return to Judah and Jerusalem with him. An important and practical reason for the census was to determine the needs for the temple services.

Ezra was surprised—as he considered who could serve in what capacity—that no Levites were present. "And I looked among the people and the priests, and found none of the sons of Levi there" (Ezra 8:15 Ezra 8:15And I gathered them together to the river that runs to Ahava; and there stayed we in tents three days: and I viewed the people, and the priests, and found there none of the sons of Levi.
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). So he directed leaders of his countrymen to "bring us servants for the house of our God" (Ezra 8:17 Ezra 8:17And I sent them with commandment to Iddo the chief at the place Casiphia, and I told them what they should say to Iddo, and to his brothers the Nethinims, at the place Casiphia, that they should bring to us ministers for the house of our God.
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). The leaders then made sure some Levites would return with Ezra for the service of the temple.

Next Ezra needed protection for "us and our little ones and all our possessions" on the long journey back to Jerusalem (Ezra 8:21 Ezra 8:21Then I proclaimed a fast there, at the river of Ahava, that we might afflict ourselves before our God, to seek of him a right way for us, and for our little ones, and for all our substance.
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). He was ashamed to ask the king to supply an escort of soldiers for defense against any enemies they might encounter. So he proclaimed a fast, and he and the people humbled themselves before God, asking Him to safeguard them on this dangerous trek. "So we fasted and entreated our God for this, and He answered our prayer" (Ezra 8:23 Ezra 8:23So we fasted and sought our God for this: and he was entreated of us.
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).

The journey was safe and uneventful. "So we came to Jerusalem, and stayed there three days" (Ezra 8:32 Ezra 8:32And we came to Jerusalem, and stayed there three days.
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). Then they gave offerings to God.

Removing sin

After their offerings, the leaders came to Ezra worried about a significant problem: Men of the remnant of Judah and a few from Israel had taken wives from neighboring gentile nations. This God had expressly forbidden them to do, since such marriages would weaken their resolve to honor God, who had specifically chosen and selected Judah and Israel to represent Him.

Note Ezra's words in this regard: "The people of Israel and the priests and the Levites have not separated themselves from the peoples of the lands, with respect to the abominations of the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Jebusites, the Ammonites, the Moabites, the Egyptians, and the Amorites" (Ezra 9:1 Ezra 9:1Now when these things were done, the princes came to me, saying, The people of Israel, and the priests, and the Levites, have not separated themselves from the people of the lands, doing according to their abominations, even of the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Jebusites, the Ammonites, the Moabites, the Egyptians, and the Amorites.
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).

These heathen nations worshiped false gods. Were the Israelite men to remain married to their foreign wives, the prospect of false religion again enticing and seducing God's people was a real and dangerous problem. This, God had earlier warned, was precisely one of the reasons His people would be taken into national captivity unless they repented.

Israel reformed. God had sent Ezra to teach His people His way of life, to reveal to them their sins and exhort them to heartfelt repentance. "Now while Ezra was praying, and while he was confessing, weeping, and bowing down before the house of God, a very large assembly of men, women, and children gathered to him from Israel; for the people wept very bitterly. And Shechaniah the son of Jehiel, one of the sons of Elam, spoke up and said to Ezra, 'We have trespassed against our God, and have taken pagan wives from the peoples of the land; yet now there is hope in Israel in spite of this' " (Ezra 10:1-2 Ezra 10:1-2 [1] Now when Ezra had prayed, and when he had confessed, weeping and casting himself down before the house of God, there assembled to him out of Israel a very great congregation of men and women and children: for the people wept very sore. [2] And Shechaniah the son of Jehiel, one of the sons of Elam, answered and said to Ezra, We have trespassed against our God, and have taken strange wives of the people of the land: yet now there is hope in Israel concerning this thing.
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).

Shechaniah encouraged Ezra to take the responsibility and make a decree that Jewish men separate themselves from their gentile wives. "Then Ezra arose, and made the leaders of the priests, the Levites, and all Israel swear an oath that they would do according to this word. So they swore an oath" (Ezra 10:5 Ezra 10:5Then arose Ezra, and made the chief priests, the Levites, and all Israel, to swear that they should do according to this word. And they swore.
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Ezra issued a proclamation throughout Judah and Jerusalem to the descendants of the captivity, directing them to gather in Jerusalem (Ezra 10:7 Ezra 10:7And they made proclamation throughout Judah and Jerusalem to all the children of the captivity, that they should gather themselves together to Jerusalem;
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). The men of Judah and Benjamin came as directed and sat in the open square of the house of God, trembling because of importance of the business at hand and because of heavy rain. (This took place in the time of year we would call December.)

Ezra led a confession to God, admonishing the gathered Benjaminites and Judahites and some Israelites to put away their pagan wives. The majority of them agreed to do so and obeyed God's command through Ezra. After several months "they finished questioning all the men who had taken pagan wives" (Ezra 10:17 Ezra 10:17And they made an end with all the men that had taken strange wives by the first day of the first month.
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). God, through His faithful priest Ezra, had removed a major source of sin from the people. God recognized that His people need to be united spiritually in their worship of Him (2 Corinthians 6:14-15 2 Corinthians 6:14-15 [14] Be you not unequally yoked together with unbelievers: for what fellowship has righteousness with unrighteousness? and what communion has light with darkness? [15] And what concord has Christ with Belial? or what part has he that believes with an infidel?
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).

Although faithful Ezra had helped the remnant of Judah to return to God, they did not remain faithful. Neither had Israel repented and turned to God after Assyria removed its people from their northern kingdom almost three centuries earlier (721-718).

Another priest to gather Israel

Many of the descendants of the kingdom of Judah are still identifiable as we near the year 2000. The so-called lost 10 tribes of Israel, which disappeared from history after their captivity in Assyria, are also still extant, although not as easily identified, as we near the beginning of the third millennium.

Ezra the priest is a forerunner of Jesus Christ, the High Priest of God the Father (Hebrews 7). Near the end of the present age of man—promised Christ, our High Priest—a remnant of believers, spiritual Jews (Romans 2:28-29 Romans 2:28-29 [28] For he is not a Jew, which is one outwardly; neither is that circumcision, which is outward in the flesh: [29] But he is a Jew, which is one inwardly; and circumcision is that of the heart, in the spirit, and not in the letter; whose praise is not of men, but of God.
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), would not only escape great tribulation (Revelation 12:12-17 Revelation 12:12-17 [12] Therefore rejoice, you heavens, and you that dwell in them. Woe to the inhabitants of the earth and of the sea! for the devil is come down to you, having great wrath, because he knows that he has but a short time. [13] And when the dragon saw that he was cast to the earth, he persecuted the woman which brought forth the man child. [14] And to the woman were given two wings of a great eagle, that she might fly into the wilderness, into her place, where she is nourished for a time, and times, and half a time, from the face of the serpent. [15] And the serpent cast out of his mouth water as a flood after the woman, that he might cause her to be carried away of the flood. [16] And the earth helped the woman, and the earth opened her mouth, and swallowed up the flood which the dragon cast out of his mouth. [17] And the dragon was wroth with the woman, and went to make war with the remnant of her seed, which keep the commandments of God, and have the testimony of Jesus Christ.
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) but carry on the work God began through Jesus Christ (Matthew 24:14 Matthew 24:14And this gospel of the kingdom shall be preached in all the world for a witness to all nations; and then shall the end come.
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; Matthew 28:19 Matthew 28:19Go you therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost:
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; 2 Corinthians 5:17 2 Corinthians 5:17Therefore if any man be in Christ, he is a new creature: old things are passed away; behold, all things are become new.
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).

God promised the people of Judah He would return them to Jerusalem, after their 70-year Babylonian captivity, to rebuild the temple and restore proper worship. God similarly promises to return Judah and Israel to their ancestral homeland. Many prophecies show that at Jesus Christ's second coming He will gather the descendants of Israel and Judah from the ends of the earth (Isaiah 11:10-12 Isaiah 11:10-12 [10] And in that day there shall be a root of Jesse, which shall stand for an ensign of the people; to it shall the Gentiles seek: and his rest shall be glorious. [11] And it shall come to pass in that day, that the Lord shall set his hand again the second time to recover the remnant of his people, which shall be left, from Assyria, and from Egypt, and from Pathros, and from Cush, and from Elam, and from Shinar, and from Hamath, and from the islands of the sea. [12] And he shall set up an ensign for the nations, and shall assemble the outcasts of Israel, and gather together the dispersed of Judah from the four corners of the earth.
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; Jeremiah 23:3-8 Jeremiah 23:3-8 [3] And I will gather the remnant of my flock out of all countries where I have driven them, and will bring them again to their folds; and they shall be fruitful and increase. [4] And I will set up shepherds over them which shall feed them: and they shall fear no more, nor be dismayed, neither shall they be lacking, said the LORD. [5] Behold, the days come, said the LORD, that I will raise to David a righteous Branch, and a King shall reign and prosper, and shall execute judgment and justice in the earth. [6] In his days Judah shall be saved, and Israel shall dwell safely: and this is his name whereby he shall be called, THE LORD OUR RIGHTEOUSNESS. [7] Therefore, behold, the days come, said the LORD, that they shall no more say, The LORD lives, which brought up the children of Israel out of the land of Egypt; [8] But, The LORD lives, which brought up and which led the seed of the house of Israel out of the north country, and from all countries where I had driven them; and they shall dwell in their own land.
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; Ezekiel 36:1-38 Ezekiel 36:1-38 [1] Also, you son of man, prophesy to the mountains of Israel, and say, You mountains of Israel, hear the word of the LORD: [2] Thus said the Lord GOD; Because the enemy has said against you, Aha, even the ancient high places are ours in possession: [3] Therefore prophesy and say, Thus said the Lord GOD; Because they have made you desolate, and swallowed you up on every side, that you might be a possession to the residue of the heathen, and you are taken up in the lips of talkers, and are an infamy of the people: [4] Therefore, you mountains of Israel, hear the word of the Lord GOD; Thus said the Lord GOD to the mountains, and to the hills, to the rivers, and to the valleys, to the desolate wastes, and to the cities that are forsaken, which became a prey and derision to the residue of the heathen that are round about; [5] Therefore thus said the Lord GOD; Surely in the fire of my jealousy have I spoken against the residue of the heathen, and against all Idumea, which have appointed my land into their possession with the joy of all their heart, with despiteful minds, to cast it out for a prey. [6] Prophesy therefore concerning the land of Israel, and say to the mountains, and to the hills, to the rivers, and to the valleys, Thus said the Lord GOD; Behold, I have spoken in my jealousy and in my fury, because you have borne the shame of the heathen: [7] Therefore thus said the Lord GOD; I have lifted up my hand, Surely the heathen that are about you, they shall bear their shame. [8] But you, O mountains of Israel, you shall shoot forth your branches, and yield your fruit to my people of Israel; for they are at hand to come. [9] For, behold, I am for you, and I will turn to you, and you shall be tilled and sown: [10] And I will multiply men on you, all the house of Israel, even all of it: and the cities shall be inhabited, and the wastes shall be built: [11] And I will multiply on you man and beast; and they shall increase and bring fruit: and I will settle you after your old estates, and will do better to you than at your beginnings: and you shall know that I am the LORD. [12] Yes, I will cause men to walk on you, even my people Israel; and they shall possess you, and you shall be their inheritance, and you shall no more from now on bereave them of men. [13] Thus said the Lord GOD; Because they say to you, You land devour up men, and have bereaved your nations: [14] Therefore you shall devour men no more, neither bereave your nations any more, said the Lord GOD. [15] Neither will I cause men to hear in you the shame of the heathen any more, neither shall you bear the reproach of the people any more, neither shall you cause your nations to fall any more, said the Lord GOD. [16] Moreover the word of the LORD came to me, saying, [17] Son of man, when the house of Israel dwelled in their own land, they defiled it by their own way and by their doings: their way was before me as the uncleanness of a removed woman. [18] Why I poured my fury on them for the blood that they had shed on the land, and for their idols with which they had polluted it: [19] And I scattered them among the heathen, and they were dispersed through the countries: according to their way and according to their doings I judged them. [20] And when they entered to the heathen, where they went, they profaned my holy name, when they said to them, These are the people of the LORD, and are gone forth out of his land. [21] But I had pity for my holy name, which the house of Israel had profaned among the heathen, where they went. [22] Therefore say to the house of Israel, thus said the Lord GOD; I do not this for your sakes, O house of Israel, but for my holy name's sake, which you have profaned among the heathen, where you went. [23] And I will sanctify my great name, which was profaned among the heathen, which you have profaned in the middle of them; and the heathen shall know that I am the LORD, said the Lord GOD, when I shall be sanctified in you before their eyes. [24] For I will take you from among the heathen, and gather you out of all countries, and will bring you into your own land. [25] Then will I sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean: from all your filthiness, and from all your idols, will I cleanse you. [26] A new heart also will I give you, and a new spirit will I put within you: and I will take away the stony heart out of your flesh, and I will give you an heart of flesh. [27] And I will put my spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes, and you shall keep my judgments, and do them. [28] And you shall dwell in the land that I gave to your fathers; and you shall be my people, and I will be your God. [29] I will also save you from all your uncleannesses: and I will call for the corn, and will increase it, and lay no famine on you. [30] And I will multiply the fruit of the tree, and the increase of the field, that you shall receive no more reproach of famine among the heathen. [31] Then shall you remember your own evil ways, and your doings that were not good, and shall loathe yourselves in your own sight for your iniquities and for your abominations. [32] Not for your sakes do I this, said the Lord GOD, be it known to you: be ashamed and confounded for your own ways, O house of Israel. [33] Thus said the Lord GOD; In the day that I shall have cleansed you from all your iniquities I will also cause you to dwell in the cities, and the wastes shall be built. [34] And the desolate land shall be tilled, whereas it lay desolate in the sight of all that passed by. [35] And they shall say, This land that was desolate is become like the garden of Eden; and the waste and desolate and ruined cities are become fenced, and are inhabited. [36] Then the heathen that are left round about you shall know that I the LORD build the ruined places, and plant that that was desolate: I the LORD have spoken it, and I will do it. [37] Thus said the Lord GOD; I will yet for this be inquired of by the house of Israel, to do it for them; I will increase them with men like a flock. [38] As the holy flock, as the flock of Jerusalem in her solemn feasts; so shall the waste cities be filled with flocks of men: and they shall know that I am the LORD.
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; Ezekiel 39:25-29 Ezekiel 39:25-29 [25] Therefore thus said the Lord GOD; Now will I bring again the captivity of Jacob, and have mercy on the whole house of Israel, and will be jealous for my holy name; [26] After that they have borne their shame, and all their trespasses whereby they have trespassed against me, when they dwelled safely in their land, and none made them afraid. [27] When I have brought them again from the people, and gathered them out of their enemies' lands, and am sanctified in them in the sight of many nations; [28] Then shall they know that I am the LORD their God, which caused them to be led into captivity among the heathen: but I have gathered them to their own land, and have left none of them any more there. [29] Neither will I hide my face any more from them: for I have poured out my spirit on the house of Israel, said the Lord GOD.
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).

"'Then they shall know that I am the LORD their God, who sent them into captivity among the nations, but also brought them back to their land, and left none of them captive any longer. And I will not hide My face from them anymore; for I shall have poured out My Spirit on the house of Israel,' says the Lord GOD" (Ezekiel 39:28-29 Ezekiel 39:28-29 [28] Then shall they know that I am the LORD their God, which caused them to be led into captivity among the heathen: but I have gathered them to their own land, and have left none of them any more there. [29] Neither will I hide my face any more from them: for I have poured out my spirit on the house of Israel, said the Lord GOD.
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).

These astounding events are part of the good news of the Kingdom of God Jesus Christ proclaimed (Mark 1:14-15 Mark 1:14-15 [14] Now after that John was put in prison, Jesus came into Galilee, preaching the gospel of the kingdom of God, [15] And saying, The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand: repent you, and believe the gospel.
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).