Ezra is more than a collection of facts about the Jewish exiles returning to Jerusalem. It also shows how God is true to His Word and fulfills His promises.
The book of Ezra does not name its author, but Jewish tradition says Ezra wrote it as well as the books of Nehemiah and Chronicles. In the Hebrew Bible Ezra and Nehemiah are regarded as one book.
The book of Ezra opens with the same wording that closes the book of Chronicles (2 Chronicles 36:22-23). These verses describe the edict by Cyrus, king of Persia, allowing the captive Jews to return to their homeland from Babylon, encouraging them to rebuild the temple in Jerusalem and even providing funding to cover the costs of travel and reconstruction.
The Lion Handbook to the Bible states: “Ezra, Nehemiah and Esther cover the last century of Old Testament Jewish history, roughly 538-433 B.C. Ezra follows on from Chronicles (2 Chronicles 36:22-23 and Ezra 1:1-3 are identical), which ended with the destruction of Jerusalem and the people being taken into exile in Babylon by Nebuchadnezzar (587). Ezra and Nehemiah describe the three-stage return. …
“On the wider plane, the Jewish events belong to the time following the overthrow of the Babylonian Empire by Cyrus, king of Persia, in 539. Ezra and Nehemiah span the reigns of five Persian kings” (David and Pat Alexander, p. 306).
It is interesting to note that two languages are used in the book of Ezra: Hebrew and Aramaic. The Aramaic section is from chapter 4:8 to 6:18 and 7:12-26. The rest of the book is in Hebrew.
History and chronology of Ezra
The history of the book consists of two portions, separated from each other by about 58 years.
The first portion (1:1-6:22) contains the history of the returning Jews and the rebuilding of the temple in Jerusalem, which had been decreed by Cyrus in 538 B.C. The temple was completed in about 516 B.C., during the reign of Darius.
The latter portion, starting in 7:1, contains the personal history of Ezra’s journey to Jerusalem with a group of exiles in 457 B.C. and his religious reformation.
The chronology of Ezra 4 through 6 can be confusing since it is not in order. Following is the chronological order of Ezra 4 through 6:
- Ezra 4:1-5
- Ezra 4:24
- Ezra 5
- Ezra 6
- Ezra 4:6-23
Exiled Jews returned in three stages
The people of Judah were taken captive in three stages, and the exiles who returned from Babylon under the Persian rule also did so in three stages:
- When Cyrus issued his famous decree in 538 B.C., the first group returned under Zerubbabel the governor.
- The second group returned with Ezra in 457 B.C.
- The third group returned in 444 B.C. under the leadership of Nehemiah.
Ezra the scribe
Ezra (meaning “help” or possibly “God has helped”) was one of the captives in Babylon. He was of priestly descent through the line of Zadok back to Aaron (Ezra 7:1-5). He was highly regarded as a scholar of the Scriptures, and is called “Ezra the priest, the scribe, expert in the words of the commandments of the LORD, and of His statutes to Israel” (7:11). He was not only a scholar but an instructor in the law of God. As chapter 7:10 states, “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.”
Notice that he:
- Wholeheartedly sought and studied the law of God.
- Put the law into practice in his life.
- Became a “skilled scribe” (Ezra 7:6), which enabled him to teach God’s laws.
Old Testament Survey states: “Ezra’s imperial commission authorized him to appoint magistrates and judges, to teach ‘the law of your God,’ and to punish those who failed to obey it (Ezra 7:25f.). It gave him an official Persian title, ‘scribe of the law of the God of heaven’ (v. 12)—in modern terms, perhaps ‘secretary of state for Jewish affairs.’ Thus Ezra arrived in Jerusalem with both the power and zeal to reorganize the Jewish community around the law” (William LaSor, David Hubbard and Frederic Bush, p. 562).
Ezra showed genuine humility when he realized that “we have forsaken Your commandments” and understood that, as a result, “we are before You, in our guilt, though no one can stand before You because of this!” (Ezra 9:10, 15).
Ezra is an example of a person who sought to obey God and thereby please Him. As we put into practice the principles and laws contained in the Word of God, we, too, need to have our “senses exercised to discern both good and evil” (Hebrews 5:14), producing greater spiritual depth and maturity in our lives.
Concern for the people
The people’s lack of devotion to God was of primary concern to Ezra, and he sought to bring about a reformation of their religious life. The Jewish community had neglected the affairs of God and were more concerned about their own personal matters. God inspired Ezra to initiate changes and rekindle their religious zeal, once again establishing aspects of the law that had been neglected.
Outline of Ezra
The contents of the book of Ezra may be divided as follows:
Chapters 1 and 2: The first group of exiled Jews returns to Jerusalem.
Chapter 1: The proclamation by Cyrus allows the exiles to return to Jerusalem.
Chapter 2: The list of those who returned.
Chapters 3 through 6: Rebuilding the temple.
Chapter 3: An altar is built in order to resume sacrifices. The foundation of the temple is laid.
Chapter 4: Opposition, mostly from the local Samaritans, brings the work to a standstill for the next 15 years.
Chapters 5 and 6: Urged on and encouraged by the prophets Haggai and Zechariah, the work on the temple is resumed in 520 B.C. After four years the temple is completed, and the people observe the Passover.
Note: Roughly 58 years separate chapter 6:22 from chapter 7:1, and it is during this time that the events described in the book of Esther took place. Through her courage and fortitude Esther averted a complete massacre of the Jewish people.
Chapters 7 through 10: Ezra’s return to Jerusalem.
Chapters 7 and 8: The decree of Artaxerxes in 457 B.C. commissions Ezra to return to Jerusalem with huge amounts of gold and silver and temple articles originally plundered from the temple by the invading Babylonians. Ezra and his party fast and pray for protection, and God does protect them (8:21-23). The journey takes about three and a half months; but with God’s protection (8:31), they arrive safely in Jerusalem.
A list of those who accompanied Ezra is recorded in chapter 8.
Chapters 9 and 10: The problem of mixed marriages.
On arrival in Jerusalem, Ezra is confronted by a situation that made him heartbroken and upset. The people, including priests, Levites and rulers, had intermarried with the heathen peoples in the area, a practice forbidden by God (Deuteronomy 7:1-5) not out of racial prejudice but because it led to idolatry. These marriages would weaken their resolve to obey and serve God. The 113 men who had contracted the marriages in defiance of God’s law are listed in Ezra 10:18-44.
Ezra’s heartfelt prayer
Ezra’s spiritual leadership is demonstrated when he “arose from my fasting … fell on my knees and spread out my hands to the LORD my God” (9:5). The prayer that follows is an example of the type of intimate communication God desires, and it should be studied by those who desire to increase the effectiveness and power of their prayers (9:6-15).
The results of Ezra’s prayers were dramatic and immediate! Most of the people accepted guilt and showed a willingness to put away their pagan wives (chapter 10). “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” (10:5). He led them to confess their guilt before God (10:9-11), and the people responded with “a loud voice, ‘Yes! As you have said, so we must do’” (10:12).
Prayer and fasting
God’s promises are sure
In Ezra 1:1 we are told that it was God who inspired Cyrus to issue the decree “that the word of the LORD by the mouth of Jeremiah might be fulfilled.” God had prophesied through Jeremiah that the captivity would last 70 years (Jeremiah 25:11; 29:10). God also prophesied through the prophet Isaiah about 200 years in advance that Cyrus would act as His instrument in fulfilling His promises to return a contingent of exiled Jews to Jerusalem in order to rebuild the temple (Isaiah 44:28; 45:1-4).
Ezra is not only a compilation of historical facts and details, but also proof that God has fulfilled and will continue to fulfill His promises announced through the prophets. As “a skilled scribe” of God’s Word, Ezra knew there are many promises that still have to be fulfilled—in particular, the coming of Christ to rule the earth.
Christ’s return to earth
As the disciples intently watched Jesus Christ ascending into the clouds, they were assured by two angels, “This same Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will so come in like manner as you saw Him go into heaven” (Acts 1:11, emphasis added).
Upon His return, dramatic and far-reaching changes will take place that will alter the way people and governments of nations think and act. A time will come when people will realize that God’s promises were brought to completion exactly as He said they would.
Then people will recognize their sins as Ezra did: “Since the days of our fathers to this day we have been very guilty, and for our iniquities we, our kings, and our priests have been delivered into the hand of the kings of the lands, to the sword, to captivity, to plunder, and to humiliation, as it is this day” (Ezra 9:7).
God will be praised because His “counsels of old are faithfulness and truth,” and He will remove the deception, “the veil that is spread over all nations.” What will be the result of this? “He will swallow up death forever, and the Lord GOD will wipe away tears from all faces” (Isaiah 25:1, 7-8).
Furthermore, those willing to wait for Him “will be glad and rejoice in His salvation” (Isaiah 25:9).
Are you willing to trust and have hope and faith in the sure promises of God as Ezra did?
Only you can answer this question. Your decision will dramatically impact your present and future life.
Read more about why God gave prophecies and how we are supposed to respond to them in the article “Purpose of Prophecy.”
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