An overview of the Book of Ezra
Malcolm C. Davis, Leeds, England
Ezra, Nehemiah, and Esther complete the historical books which form the earlier part of the Old Testament. They follow the books of Chronicles, which rehearse the history of the mediatorial kingdom of Israel and Judah up to the beginning of the Babylonian exile. They record the Lord’s dealings with the Jews after they had been taken into captivity.
Ezra and Nehemiah concern the remnant of Jews who returned to Jerusalem, while Esther concerns the majority who stayed within the empires which had taken them captive. These three books are parallel with the three final prophetical books of the Old Testament, Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi, who all prophesied to the Jewish remnant which had returned from Babylon, and should be read in conjunction with them.
Purpose of the book
The book of Ezra shows how the Lord fulfilled His promises, given through the pre-exilic prophets, to restore Israel to their Promised Land. He moved heathen monarchs to show favour to the Jews, and raised up leaders and prophets for the great task of restoring His chosen people. This book records the first two stages of the return of the remnant of Jews from Babylon. First, the Persian emperor Cyrus, by a benevolent decree, encouraged the Jews to return to Jerusalem in order to rebuild the temple of the Lord at Jerusalem. Zerubbabel, a descendant of the kings of Judah, led the first return to Jerusalem in 536 BC. Ezra, a Zadokite Levitical priest and scribe, led the smaller return about eighty years afterwards, in 458 BC, by a similar decree of Artaxerxes, a later Persian king. His task was to beautify the rebuilt temple, to re-establish the worship of the Lord there, and to teach his fellow-Jews the law of the Lord.
Analysis of the book
Chapters 1 to 6: The return of the Jewish remnant under Zerubbabel, and the rebuilding of the temple (536-515 BC).
Chapters 1 to 2: The return to Jerusalem.
Chapter 3: The rebuilding of the brazen altar, and the laying of the foundation of the temple.
Chapter 4: Opposition to the work, and its interruption.
Chapters 5 to 6: The work is restarted, further opposition to it is overcome, and the temple is completed and dedicated.
Chapters 7 to 10: The return of further Jews under Ezra, and the expulsion of the heathen wives (458-457 BC).
Chapters 7 to 8: Ezra’s journey to Jerusalem.
Chapters 9 to 10: The problem of the mixed marriages is reported to Ezra, confessed by him in prayer, and resolved.
Dates and historical setting of the book
605 BC: The beginning of Judah’s seventy years of exile and the ‘times of the Gentiles’.
605, 597, and 586 BC: Nebuchadnezzar deports Judah to Babylon in three stages.
586 BC: Destruction of Solomon’s temple.
The above events are recorded in 2 Kings chapters 24 to 25.
550 BC: Cyrus becomes ruler of the Medo-Persian Empire.
539 BC: Darius the Mede conquers Babylon for Cyrus, and the Persian Empire begins.
This latter event is recorded in Daniel chapter 5.
538 BC: The decree of Cyrus encouraging the Jews to return to Jerusalem to rebuild the temple.
536 BC: Zerubbabel leads a return to Jerusalem.
535 BC: The foundation of the second temple is laid.
535 BC: Opposition to the work causes the building to cease.
520 BC: The prophets Haggai and Zechariah encourage the remnant to restart building. Tatnai’s attempt to stop the work is rebuffed by Darius.
516 BC: The temple is completed.
515 BC: The Passover is celebrated.
485 BC: Another example of opposition, the letter to Ahasuerus.
465 BC: Another example of opposition, the letter to Artaxerxes.
458 BC: Ezra leads the second return to Jerusalem on the authority of Artaxerxes.
457 BC: The problem of the heathen wives is reported and resolved.
All these events are recorded in Ezra, which is a primary historical document for them.
The Lord, through Jeremiah the prophet, had predicted that the Jews’ captivity in Babylon would last seventy years, Jer. 25. 11-14; 29. 10-14. Accordingly, in 538 BC Cyrus, the Persian emperor, reversed the policy of his Babylonian predecessors and encouraged his subject nations to return to their native lands and to re-establish the former worship of their respective gods. He also gave his Jewish subjects the opportunity to take advantage of this new freedom of religion. By no means all his Jewish subjects took up this offer of limited freedom, however; many preferred to remain in the lands where their fathers had been held captive. But a small remnant of them decided to respond to Cyrus’ decree and to return to Jerusalem under Zerubbabel, a lineal descendant of Judah, in order to rebuild the temple which had been destroyed in 586 BC. They numbered just under 50,000 people altogether.
The book of Ezra is the historical record of both this first return to Jerusalem and Ezra’s return some eighty years later. This was with a much smaller group of returnees, numbering about 2,000 people. It was a very chequered history, but one that was ultimately successful in its main objectives. Most of the record is written in Hebrew but two sections within it, which include the text of Persian documents, are written in Aramaic, which was the international diplomatic language of the Persian Empire, Ezra 4. 8-16, 18; 7. 12-26.
Conservative scholars consider that there is no convincing reason to doubt the traditional Jewish view that Ezra is the author of the whole book. Ezra writes in the first person in chapter 7 verse 27 to chapter 9 verse 15. He could easily have written the surrounding chapters in the third person from other historical sources, especially since he is noted within the book as a skilful scribe. The books of Chronicles are also traditionally attributed to him, although some scholars have doubted that attribution. Ezra’s activity is evidently to be placed within the reign of Artaxerxes I (465-414 BC), although his book may have been written somewhat later than that, perhaps about 400 BC.
Ezra, whose Hebrew name means ‘helper’, was a lineal descendant of Phinehas, the grandson of Aaron (Ezra 7. 1-5, being a son of Seraiah, the grandson of Hilkiah). Hilkiah was the high priest during the reign of Josiah who found the book of the Law in the temple, 2 Chr. 34. 15. Jewish tradition gives Ezra a vital role in the formation of the Old Testament canon and the beginning of traditional Jewish synagogue worship. During the restoration of the Jews to their Promised Land he worked alongside Nehemiah for a time, although his exact movements during Nehemiah’s governorship are unclear. He was of blameless character and one whose exemplary godliness Christians should follow today.
The book’s message for today
In the book of Ezra, we can learn some of the principles which are to be applied in restoring the Lord’s people to their rightful spiritual heritage in Christ, both individually and corporately. Here we learn concerning both God’s side and man’s side in such restoration. God is sovereign all through, but, equally, He prepares qualified leaders to accomplish His work in the hearts and lives of His repentant people. They are responsible before Him to fulfil the task of restoration. Here Zerubbabel and Ezra, in particular, are examples of spiritual leaders who led God’s people out of Babylonish confusion and captivity into freedom and purity of life and worship. Ezra’s godly character, especially, is worth studying in detail with a view to emulating it today. Prominent throughout the book is the place and power of ‘the word of the Lord’ in the spiritual, social, and civil life of His redeemed people. Sadly, spiritual truth is being lost today amongst those whose leaders devalue it and fail to teach it. By contrast, Ezra in his day firmly adhered to the word of God. For these reasons, the book of Ezra is well worth close study.