There were 8 guys from maximum security in the Bible study tonight: three in the first group, and five in the second group. Only a portion of a tier is being let out at a time.
Our opening question was about how well did people do once they got out of jail – who was successful, and who was not. The common theme the men observed was that people who went back to doing what they did before they were locked up, and hanging around with the same people as before, tended to end up incarcerated again. Conversely, the men who had a plan for change and continued to work it were less likely to end up incarcerated again. Several of the men had family members – uncle, grandfather, cousin – who had successfully transitioned after incarceration.
Every man in that jail will be transitioning from the jail to somewhere else: treatment programs, prison, or back to the community. Over 650,000 people from prison back into the community each year. Occasionally there are ballot propositions, legislation, or court rulings that cause a large group of people to be released in a short period of time.
I let them know that tonight’s study would be a bit different. Usually I select a few verses that we study in depth. Tonight we were going to take highlights from the entire book of Ezra.
The book of Ezra tells the re-entry story of are large group of people. The story arc is as follows:
- Chapter 1: A change in legislation that releases the captives
- Chapter 2: The people that were released
- Chapter 3: The foundation of their transition back home
- Chapter 4: Opposition
- Chapter 5: Getting back on track
- Chapter 6: Re-establishing the normal rhythm of life
- Chapter 7: Finding people who will tell you the truth
- Chapter 8: Life on auto-pilot
- Chapter 9: Bad choices
- Chapter 10: Repentance and turning back to God
I gave them some background about the Babylonian captivity. People were sent into captivity based on where they lived. There was a time when the Babylonian authorities came through, if you were living in Israel or Judah they’d tell you, “Orange is the new black!” and ship you off to a Babylonian federal minimum security facility.
The people in captivity had some level of freedom, but they couldn’t go home – much like a trustee. Families lived together in captivity. Today there is a similar situation in Bolivian prisons where children under 6 remain with their parents in prison.
By the time the book of Ezra is written there have been children and perhaps even grandchildren raised during the captivity.
Chapter 1: A change in legislation that releases the captives
Ezra 1 New King James Version (NKJV)
End of The Babylonian Captivity
1 Now in the first year of Cyrus king of Persia, that the word of the Lord by the mouth of Jeremiah might be fulfilled, the Lord stirred up the spirit of Cyrus king of Persia, so that he made a proclamation throughout all his kingdom, and also put it in writing, saying,
2 Thus says Cyrus king of Persia:
All the kingdoms of the earth the Lord God of heaven has given me. And He has commanded me to build Him a house at Jerusalem which is in Judah. 3 Who is among you of all His people? May his God be with him, and let him go up to Jerusalem which is in Judah, and build the house of the Lord God of Israel (He is God), which is in Jerusalem. 4 And whoever is left in any place where he dwells, let the men of his place help him with silver and gold, with goods and livestock, besides the freewill offerings for the house of God which is in Jerusalem.
There was new political leadership (the first year of Cyrus king of Persia) and the law had changed. The people who had been in captivity were told they could now return to their homeland and rebuild the temple. Verse 4 essentially meant that if anyone who was too poor to make the trip his neighbors would support him. (Rashi)
Chapter 2: The people that were released
Ezra 2 New King James Version (NKJV)
The Captives Who Returned to Jerusalem
2 Now these are the people of the province who came back from the captivity, of those who had been carried away, whom Nebuchadnezzar the king of Babylon had carried away to Babylon, and who returned to Jerusalem and Judah, everyone to his own city.
64 The whole assembly together was forty-two thousand three hundred and sixty,
Since some of the names in this study are rather challenging I told the men they could substitute names like “Nebuchadnezzar” with “Bob”. It made the guys much more willing to read, and it was fairly amusing to listen to.
Here is the transition story of 42,360 people. The men in the maximum security unit are not alone in their journey. Others have gone before.
Chapter 3: The foundation of their transition back home
Ezra 3 New King James Version (NKJV)
Worship Restored at Jerusalem
3 And when the seventh month had come, and the children of Israel were in the cities, the people gathered together as one man to Jerusalem.
3 Though fear had come upon them because of the people of those countries, they set the altar on its bases; and they offered burnt offerings on it to the Lord, both the morning and evening burnt offerings.
11 And they sang responsively, praising and giving thanks to the Lord:“For He is good, For His mercy endures forever toward Israel.”
Then all the people shouted with a great shout, when they praised the Lord, because the foundation of the house of the Lord was laid.
I asked them what they thought the phrase meant when it said: “the people gathered together as one man.” The consensus was that it meant unity. There was agreement that when people are unified, whether for good or evil, that powerful things can happen.
And even though they were afraid of the people surrounding them they chose to move forward with offerings. What did that mean? Why was that important? Offerings mean focusing on something/someone outside yourself.
They laid a foundation of worship. Again this takes the focus off our own circumstances. We are part of something greater.
Chapter 4: Opposition
Ezra 4 New King James Version (NKJV)
Resistance to Rebuilding the Temple
4 Now when the adversaries of Judah and Benjamin heard that the descendants of the captivity were building the temple of the Lord God of Israel, 2 they came to “Bob” Zerubbabel and the heads of the fathers’ houses, and said to them, “Let us build with you, for we seek your God as you do; and we have sacrificed to Him since the days of “Bob” Esarhaddon king of Assyria, who brought us here.” 3 But “Bob” Zerubbabel and Jeshua and the rest of the heads of the fathers’ houses of Israel said to them, “You may do nothing with us to build a house for our God; but we alone will build to the Lord God of Israel, as King Cyrus the king of Persia has commanded us.”4 Then the people of the land tried to discourage the people of Judah. They troubled them in building, 5 and hired counselors against them to frustrate their purpose all the days of Cyrus king of Persia, even until the reign of Darius king of Persia.
The lesson here is that not everyone who claims they want to help are really there for your benefit.
Sometimes it’s incompetence, like the people who stops to help you change a flat tire but somehow ends up starting your car on fire. I had a co-worker who married into a large family. He wanted to do some remodeling of his house. His in-laws offered to help. The in-laws were proficient in the demolition part of the project but completely out of their element when it came to construction.
Sometimes it’s malice. A partial set from Galatians 5 lists deeds of the flesh as: hatred, quarrelling, jealousy, bad temper, rivalry, factions, party-spirit, envy. I seem to recall some church committee meetings where those were evident.
The lesson here is that there will be obstacles. Sometimes they will go on for a long time.
Chapter 5: Getting back on track
Ezra 5 New King James Version (NKJV)
Restoration of the Temple Resumed
5 Then the prophet Haggai and Zechariah the son of Iddo, prophets, prophesied to the Jews who were in Judah and Jerusalem, in the name of the God of Israel, who was over them. 2 So Zerubbabel the son of Shealtiel and Jeshua the son of Jozadak rose up and began to build the house of God which is in Jerusalem; and the prophets of God were with them, helping them.
They receive some encouragement and things finally start moving forward.
Look for people who offer encouragement and point you back to God.
Chapter 6: Re-establishing the normal rhythm of life
Ezra 6:19 New King James Version (NKJV)
The Passover Celebrated
19 And the descendants of the captivity kept the Passover on the fourteenth day of the first month.
Again, returning to the rhythms of a life of worship are important.
Chapter 7: Finding people who will tell you the truth
Ezra 7 New King James Version (NKJV)
The Arrival of Ezra
7 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,
9 On the first day of the first month he began his journey from Babylon, and on the first day of the fifth month he came to Jerusalem, according to the good hand of his God upon him. 10 For Ezra had prepared his heart to seek the Law of the Lord, and to do it, and to teach statutes and ordinances in Israel.
27 Blessed be the Lord God of our fathers, who has put such a thing as this in the king’s heart, to beautify the house of the Lord which is in Jerusalem, 28 and has extended mercy to me before the king and his counselors, and before all the king’s mighty princes.
So I was encouraged, as the hand of the Lord my God was upon me; and I gathered leading men of Israel to go up with me.
Ezra arrives. He has a heart for God and for teaching others. Who have been the people that speak truth into your life and continually point you back to God? Part of your transition plan is to look for people who are truthful with you.
Chapter 8: Life on auto-pilot
We didn’t actually read anything from Chapter 8. I told the group that it describes people just getting on with life. Another area where people run into problems with their re-entry or transition is when they just start doing things on autopilot. They are no longer watchful for things that can take them off track. We are at risk when we are mindless.
Chapter 9: Bad choices
I prefaced this section by asking what were the common themes that pulled people off their re-entry or transition plan. In the story the issue is intermarriage. What were the things that they would need to watch out for?
The most common issue the guys have seen in either their own recovery of that of others was relapse into addictions.
Another very common are that tripped people up was money. One guy talked about a job that he had that he really enjoyed. He looked forward to going to work in the morning and had a read sense of accomplishment every evening when he clocked out. He was riding the bus every day and he really wanted a car. Doing a little drug dealing on the side he was able to get then can. Then he wanted… And the cycle continued.
They guys are all aware of how easy it is to get quick money through drug dealing. They have seen the trap of striving after more things, but it still remains a risk.
Poor sexual choices and broken relationships are another area where people will run into trouble. This happens to be the issue discussed in Ezra 9.
Using violence also will get people sent back into jail or prison. Some see the adrenaline rush of violence as something akin to an addiction. For others it is a matter of breaking a cycle of violence that has been a recurring theme – finding an alternative to violent responses that seem normal and natural for them.
Ezra 9 New King James Version (NKJV)
Intermarriage with Pagans
9 When these things were done, the leaders came to me, saying, “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. 2 For they have taken some of their daughters as wives for themselves and their sons, so that the holy seed is mixed with the peoples of those lands. Indeed, the hand of the leaders and rulers has been foremost in this trespass.” 3 So when I heard this thing, I tore my garment and my robe, and plucked out some of the hair of my head and beard, and sat down astonished.4 Then everyone who trembled at the words of the God of Israel assembled to me, because of the transgression of those who had been carried away captive, and I sat astonished until the evening sacrifice.
Chapter 10: Repentance & turning back to God
Ezra 10 New King James Version (NKJV)
Confession of Improper Marriages
10 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.
Who are people that can speak truth into your life? Who are the people that will call you to repentance and weep with you? Whether you are transitioning to prison, a treatment program, or back into the community, find people who will support you and point you towards God.