Ezra: Introduction – Ezra 1–2

Read the Passage: Ezra 1-2

Author and Date: While Ezra’s name doesn’t appear in this book until Ezra 7:1, he is regarded by most scholars to be the author of the book of Ezra, as well as the books of 1 Chronicles, 2 Chronicles, Esther, and Nehemiah. Note that all of these books are grouped together in the Old Testament, for taken as a whole, they narrate the history of Israel, especially the return to the Promised Land. The idea of Ezra as author is affirmed by the style and content of the book, by Ezra’s own qualifications as a scribe and priest, and by Ezra’s appearance in the narrative itself. The books of Ezra and Nehemiah are one book in the Hebrew Bible, and many in the Jewish tradition refer to the book of Nehemiah as the book of Second Ezra (also in the Septuagint and Vulgate). Moreover, Ezra and Nehemiah were contemporaries, along with the prophets Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi. Interestingly, no New Testament author quotes from the book of Ezra, and the name Ezra does not appear in the Bible outside of Ezra and Nehemiah. This book was written sometime after Ezra’s return to Jerusalem in 458 BC and before Nehemiah’s return in 445 BC. A writing date around 450 BC is likely.

Theme and Purpose: The book of Ezra chronicles the return of God’s people (after their seventy-year Babylonian exile), the rebuilding of the temple, and the revival of the people under the ministry of Ezra. Observe that just as there were three deportations to Babylon (i.e., 605 BC, 597 BC, and 586 BC), so there were three returns to Jerusalem (i.e., 538 BC, 458 BC, and 445 BC). This book records that the temple reconstruction began in 536 BC, resumed in 520 BC, and was finished in 516 BC. Note that it took roughly 100 years to rebuild the city of Jerusalem, including its temple, dwellings, and the city wall. Together the books of Ezra and Nehemiah chronicle the entire rebuilding process. The greater purpose of these books, however, is to show God’s sovereignty and His covenant faithfulness. The failures of the people that are reported in this book—namely their delay in rebuilding the temple and their intermarriage with pagans—are described to show that the return to the land was only a minor victory that anticipated the future coming of the Messiah who would usher His people into the true Promised Land.

Structure and Outline: Given the narrative nature of this biblical text, any outline of the book of Ezra will be somewhat subjective. Below is a suggested thematic outline of this text:

  • Return under Zerubbabel (1:1–2:70)
  • Rebuilding of the Temple (3:1–6:22)
  • Return under Ezra (7:1–8:36)
  • Restoration of the People (9:1–10:44)

Cyrus’ Decree (1:1–4)

At Isa. 44:28, more than 150 years prior to the events in Ezra 1, God prophesied that Cyrus of Persia would allow God’s people to return to Jerusalem and rebuild the temple. In 539 BC this prophecy was fulfilled by the decree of Cyrus, which is recorded in Ezra 1:2–4 (cf. 2 Chron. 36:22–23). Ezra notes that the return from exile also fulfilled Jeremiah’s prophecy of a 70-year captivity (cf. Jer. 25:11). In regard to Cyrus’ decree, note that: (1) God commanded Cyrus to rebuild the temple—cf. Ezra 1:2; (2) Cyrus was willing to allow any Israelite to return to Jerusalem—cf. Ezra 1:3; and (3) Cyrus instructed all other citizens of Persia to help finance the travel of the returnees—cf. Ezra 1:4. Observe that Daniel was the prime minister of Persia at this time, under Cyrus (cf. Dan. 6:28). Moreover, Josephus writes that Daniel influenced Cyrus to pen this decree by reading to him the prophecies of Isaiah. Indeed, God is always at work, even when we cannot immediately see His hand.

Peoples’ Response (1:5–11)

While the opportunity to return to Jerusalem was good news, most Israelites in Persia had been born there and were likely comfortable in Persia. Nevertheless, just as God had stirred the heart of Cyrus to issue his decree (cf. Ezra 1:1), so also God stirred the hearts of many Israelites to return to the Promised Land (cf. Ezra 1:5). Moreover, just as Cyrus had instructed, somewhat amazingly, many citizens of Persia actually assisted in financing the returnees’ travel (cf. Ezra 1:6). Cyrus, too, helped by returning many of the temple treasures that earlier had been pillaged by Nebuchadnezzar. These artifacts would have been needed for temple operations. Observe the similarities between the return from Babylon and the return from Egypt (cf. Exod. 11:2–3; 12:35–35). Interestingly, Ezra 1:8 notes that the temple treasures were given to a man named Sheshbazzar, who was likely a leader appointed by the Persians, along with Zerubbabel, who was the Jewish leader.

Returnees’ Identities (2:1–70)

Ezra 2 contains a list of those who returned from Persia to Israel. Note that a similar list is given at Neh. 7:6–73. The list here includes various returnees (cf. Ezra 2:2–35), priests and Levites (cf. Ezra 2:36–42), Nethinim servants (cf. Ezra 2:43–54), descendants of Solomon’s servants (cf. Ezra 2:55–58), and people with uncertain genealogies (cf. Ezra 2:59–63). All-together, there were about 50,000 returnees and 8,000 beasts of burden who made the trek from Persia to Israel. Note that Zerubbabel, who is mentioned for the first time at Ezra 2:2, was of the lineage of David and was the political leader recognized by the Jews. As was noted above, Sheshbazzar was a Persian appointee who was recognized by Babylon. Jeshua (cf. Ezra 2:2) was the Jewish High Priest (cf. Hag. 1:1), whose father Jozadak had been exiled a generation or so earlier by Nebuchadnezzar (cf. 1 Chron. 6:15). Note that there would be two future returns to Israel under Ezra (cf. Ezra 7–10) and Nehemiah (cf. Neh. 2).

Application Questions:

  1. What do you know about the book of Ezra? What verses or passages from this book come to mind?
  2. What events in your life demonstrate God’s faithfulness to you? Can you trace the sovereign hand of God in your life?
  3. Why do you think that the Persians were willing to give the returnees gifts of silver, gold, other goods, and livestock?
  4. What was the Urim and Thummim that it cited in Ezra 2? How can God’s people best discern His will?
  5. Why was it so important for the Jews to be able to trace their genealogy? Was the Jews’ emphasis on ethnicity immoral?