What Does the Book of Ezra Talk About?
Ezra and Nehemiah is the direct sequel to the book of Chronicles and traces the history of the children of Israel from exile back to Jerusalem. Chronologically, though Ezra and Nehemiah are situated in the first third of the Bible, the events described in these books wrap up the history of the Old Testament, setting the stage for the arrival of Jesus Christ, the Messiah, in the New Testament roughly four hundred years later.
At the time of Ezra’s return to the Jerusalem, the children of Israel had been living in exile for almost fifty years. The prophet Habakkuk had warned that God would soon use captivity from a foreign power (Babylon) to chastise His people for their apostasy and idolatry.
Using King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon as His rod of discipline, God’s judgment would come to pass in the years to follow.
In 605 B.C. Nebuchadnezzar overcame King Jehoiakim of Judah and carried off several key Jewish hostages, including a young Daniel and his friends, to Babylon.
In 597 B.C. Nebuchadnezzar suppressed a failed Jewish rebellion, carrying off an additional ten thousand hostages, which included King Jehoiachim and the prophet Ezekiel.
In 586 B.C. Nebuchadnezzar would destroy Jerusalem and the temple outright, with the remaining survivors being taken to Babylon. These devastating events are described in poetic detail by the prophet Jeremiah in the book of Lamentations.
However, even in Israel’s darkest hour, all hope would not be lost. Jeremiah had prophesied that God would use Israel’s time in exile to break them of their idolatry and return their hearts to back to their God and first love. Furthermore, in time, God would gather His people back to Jerusalem and there establish a new, everlasting covenant through His promised Messiah (Jeremiah 32:36-44; 33).
True to His word and the prophetic vision of shifting empires found in Daniel chapter 2, the Persian Empire, under Cyrus the Great, would conquer Babylon in 539 B.C. In 538 B.C., Cyrus, stirred by the spirit of the Lord, would grant permission for the Jewish exiles to begin their return to their ancestral home (Ezra 1:1-4).
The first return to Jerusalem, in which the temple of the Lord was rebuilt and dedicated (536 – 516 B.C.), is described in the first six chapters of Ezra.
Work on the temple would begin in 536 B.C. (Ezra 3) but stop in 534 B.C. (Ezra 4) due to political opposition from the neighboring Samaritans and Jewish interest in their own building projects.
At this time, God would send the prophets Zechariah and Haggai (Ezra 5) to encourage the exiles to get back to work on the temple. After a fourteen-year hiatus, work would resume, and the temple would eventually be completed and dedicated in 516 B.C. (Ezra 6).
To put things in context, the events of Esther, Queen of Persia (483 – 473 B.C.), occur between the first return (under Zerubbabel in 536 B.C.) and second return (under Ezra in 457 B.C.).
Ezra, the scribe, would arrive in Jerusalem with the second wave of exiles in 457 B.C. (Ezra 7).
Upon returning, however, Ezra noticed that the remnant of Israel had failed to keep the Law of Moses by intermarrying with non-exiles and Canaanite women (Ezra 9). Remembering how pagan religion and false worship had infiltrated the nation via mixed marriages, Ezra sought to avoid future calamity and reverse this trend by separating the Israelites from the practices of their neighbors (Ezra 9:12-15; 10:11).
As it was written, “for you are a holy people to the Lord your God; the Lord your God has chosen you to be a people for His personal possession out of all the peoples who are on the face of the earth” (Deuteronomy 7:6).
God had called Israel to be holy and set apart from their neighbors and other nations of the earth. If Israel obeyed God’s commands and kept to His good and perfect Law, they would live well and enjoy the benefits of His favor. If they disobeyed and walked in their own ways, they would stumble, stagnate, and suffer.
As student of the Word, Ezra understood this and stood before the people to lead them back to the principles found in the Law of Moses.
Later in Nehemiah 8-12, Ezra and Nehemiah would even come together to enact a seven-day Torah reading, knowing that the physical restoration of the Temple and city walls would not matter if social reform, moral revival, and spiritual renewal was not achieved. Here, Ezra focused his attention (Ezra 7-10).
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