|EZRA, BOOK OF |
(ehz' ruh) The name Ezra means “Yahweh helps.” Several had the name: a family head in Judah (1 Chronicles 4:17), a priest in the return with Zerubbabel (Nehemiah 12:1,Nehemiah 12:13), and a prince at the dedication of Jerusalem's walls built by Nehemiah (Nehemiah 12:32-33). The most famous is the chief character in the Book of Ezra.
The Book of Ezra is intimately connected with Chronicles and Nehemiah. The connection is so obvious that possibly one person wrote and compiled all three. This unknown person is referred to as the Chronicler.
Ezra and Nehemiah were actually one book in the ancient Hebrew and Greek Old Testament. Each book contains materials found in the other (e.g., the list in
Ezra 2:1 is also in
Nehemiah 7:1). Each book completes the other; Ezra's story is continued in Nehemiah (Nehemiah 8-10). Both are necessary to the history of Israel. A whole century would be unknown (538-432 B.C.), historically, apart from Ezra and Nehemiah. They are the next chapter of the history recorded in Chronicles.
Ezra lived during the reign of Artaxerxes (Ezra 7:1), king of Persia, but which one? Artaxerxes I (Longimanus), 465-425 B.C., or Artaxerxes II (Mnemon) 404-359 B.C.? If it is Longimanus, then “the seventh year of Artaxerxes the king” (Ezra 7:7) was 458 B.C.; but if Mnemon, it was 398 B.C. Scripture possibly intimates that Nehemiah preceded Ezra to Jerusalem. For example, Ezra prayed as though walls were already in place in Jerusalem (Ezra 9:9), yet they were built by Nehemiah. Also Nehemiah's reforms (Nehemiah 13:1) seem to have preceded Ezra's teaching the law and his reforms. There are real problems either way, but it seems logical to stay with the biblical order and date Ezra's journey to Jerusalem in 458 B.C.
Ezra was a priest and a scribe. He descended from Aaron through Phinehas and later Zadok (Ezra 7:1-5;
1 Chronicles 6:4-14).
Ezra's purpose for going to Jerusalem was “to study the law of the Lord, and to do it, and to teach the statutes and ordinances in Israel” (Ezra 7:10 NRSV). He was well equipped for this task as a priest and scribe. Jerusalem needed the law of God. The permanence of the Jews was threatened by opposition from non-Jews and by the Jews' careless disregard for the things of God. Ezra's teaching was needed to give solidity and strength to the Jewish community struggling against pressures to surrender its ethnic and theological identity.
Ezra was written from this kind of perspective. A variety of sources was used, either by Ezra or by another who gave the book its present form. Jewish tradition is strong that Ezra was the actual author of the entire book, as well as Chronicles and Nehemiah. Vivid details and the use of the first person pronoun permit scholars to speak of the Ezra Memoirs (Ezra 7:27-9:15).
The book has two major stories, that of Zerubbabel and the group of returnees who rebuilt the Temple (Ezra 1-6), and that of Ezra (Ezra 7-10, completed in
Nehemiah 8-10). Peculiarities in the book include the naming of Sheshbazzar (Nehemiah 1:1) as the leader of the first group to return and not Zerubbabel. Two approaches are possible. One is that Sheshbazzar was a real historical person who actually led a small group of anxious Jews to Jerusalem. The other is that Sheshbazzar might have been another name for Zerubbabel. But it seems unlikely that a Jew would have two Babylonian names.
Another peculiarity, found in both Ezra and Nehemiah, is the use of lists. The list in
Ezra 2:1 of those who returned with Zerubbabel is in
Nehemiah 7:1. Other lists include those who returned with Ezra (Ezra 8:1-14); “the sons of the priests there were found who had taken strange wives” (Ezra 10:18-43); those who helped rebuild Jerusalem's walls (Nehemiah 3:1); signers of the covenant (Nehemiah 10:1); residents in Jerusalem at the time of Nehemiah (Nehemiah 11:1); and another list of “the priests and the Levites that went up with Zerubbabel” (Nehemiah 12:1-26).
Another peculiarity is the Aramaic in Ezra. This was a widely used language of Ezra's era, related to Hebrew, used by Jews and Gentiles alike. Most of the book is written in Hebrew, but there are two large sections of Aramaic (Ezra 4:7-6:18;
Ezra 7:12-26). The Aramaic generally deals with official correspondence between Palestine and Persia.
The lists and the Aramiac show that the author was determined to use official documents where possible. Establishing the legitimacy of the Jews was an important objective, and these helped do that.
Ezra begins with the story of Sheshbazzar and Zerubbabel and the first Jews to return to Jerusalem from captivity in 538 B.C. Their main objective was to rebuild the Temple. Its foundation was laid in 536 B.C. Then there was a long delay. Haggai and Zechariah (Ezra 5:1) in 520 B.C. had encouraged the people to finish the project, which they did in 515 B.C. (Ezra 6:14-15), and they “celebrated the dedication of this house of God with joy” (Ezra 6:16 NRSV).
Almost sixty years passed before Ezra went to Jerusalem (458 B.C.), six decades of silence. He left Persia with “the letter that the king Artaxerxes gave unto Ezra the priest, the scribe” (Ezra 7:11), giving him unusual power and authority (Ezra 7:12-26). As he “viewed the people, and the priests, and [he] found there none of the sons of Levi” (Ezra 8:15). These were essential for his teaching program to implement the law of God in Jerusalem. During a three-day delay more than 200 “ministers for the house of our God” (Ezra 8:17) were enlisted. Four months later the group, probably less than 2,000, arrived in the Holy City.
Soon Ezra was informed of the most glaring sin of the Jews, intermarriage with non-Jews, those not in covenant relation with Yahweh (Ezra 9:2). Ezra was greatly upset (Ezra 9:3-4). He prayed (Ezra 9:6-15). In assembly people reached what must have been a heartrending decision: “Let us make a covenant with our God to put away all the wives, and such as are born of them” (Ezra 10:3). The book concludes with the carrying out of this decision (Ezra 10:1). Ezra's story reaches its climax in Nehemiah (Nehemiah 8-10). There he read from “the book of the law of Moses, which the Lord had commanded to Israel” (Nehemiah 8:1). A great revival resulted. Ezra is not heard of again.
Ezra's greatest contribution was his teaching, establishing, and implementing “the book of the law of the Lord” (Nehemiah 9:3) among the Jews. Other things have been attributed to him. Jewish tradition says he authored Chronicles and Ezra-Nehemiah. Ancient rabbis said that if Moses had not received the law from God, Ezra would have. Ezra is often called “the father of Judaism,” though others offer a different opinion. This is because he did most to codify, emphasize, and sent up the law of Moses. Also, he is credited with initiating what became Jewish isolationism and separatism, seen graphically in the New Testament. He led Jews to divorce their foreign wives and send them and their children away.
Ezra evidenced strong theology. He believed in the sovereignty of God, who could use a Cyrus, an Artaxerxes, and a Darius to accomplish His purposes. He believed in the faithfulness of God, who brought home as many exiles as He could. He believed in the sacredness and practicality of the Scriptures; he read them to his people and insisted that their teachings be carried out. He was a person of prayer; note his long confessional prayers (Ezra 9:5-15;
Nehemiah 9:6-37). He was a preacher: he used a pulpit (Nehemiah 8:4); he publicly read the Scriptures; and he helped to interpret them to his congregation (Nehemiah 8:8).
The value of the contributions of Ezra to the Jews is immeasurable. What he did probably saved them from disintegration. His efforts helped guarantee the ethnic and theological continuance of descendants of Abraham. He might not have been the father of Judaism, but he contributed greatly to saving the Jews' identity as a people of God.
I. God's Worship Must Be Restored (Ezra 1:1-6:22)
A. God can use a pagan “to fulfill the word of the Lord.” (Ezra 1:1-4)
B. God's people respond to God's ways. (Ezra 1:5-6)
C. God will recover and reclaim His possessions. (Ezra 1:7-11)
D. God's people, by name and as individuals, are important. (Ezra 2:1-67)
E. God's people are generous givers for a good cause. (Ezra 2:68-70)
F. God's people worship, regardless of the circumstances. (Ezra 3:1-6)
G. God's people will give and organize to get a job done. (Ezra 3:7-9)
H. God's people praise Him in success or in disappointment. (Ezra 3:10-13)
I. God's people must reject some offers of help. (Ezra 4:1-3)
J. God's work can be opposed and stopped. (Ezra 4:4-24)
K. God's work and workers must be encouraged. (Ezra 5:1-2)
L. God's work and workers are in His watchcare. (Ezra 5:3-5)
M. God's work may get pagan authorization and support. (Ezra 5:6-6:12)
N. God's work must ultimately be completed. (Ezra 6:13-15)
O. God's work must be dedicated publicly with joyful celebration. (Ezra 6:16-22)
II. God's Word Must Be Followed. (Ezra 7:1-10:44)
A. God's Word needs skilled teachers and helpers. (Ezra 7:1-7)
B. God's Word elicits commitment. (Ezra 7:8-10)
C. God's work accepts all the help it can get from many different sources. (Ezra 7:11-26)
D. God blesses His workers and expects to be praised. (Ezra 7:27-28)
E. God's work warrants good records. (Ezra 8:1-14)
F. God's work must enlist trained workers. (Ezra 8:15-20)
G. God's work calls for faith, prayer, and humility. (Ezra 8:21-23)
H. God's work warrants division of responsibility. (Ezra 8:24-30)
I. God's work necessitates good stewardship and generous sacrifice. (Ezra 8:31-36)
J. Gross violations of God's Word must be acknowledged. (Ezra 9:1-5)
K. Acknowledged sin leads to prayer and confession with deep theological insights. (Ezra 9:6-15)
L. God's grace and human confession call for active commitment. (Ezra 10:1-4)
M. God's people must act unitedly. (Ezra 10:5-9)
N. God's call for the separated life must be made clear by God's leaders to God's people. (Ezra 10:10-11)
O. God's way utilizes practical solutions for difficult problems. (Ezra 10:12-17)
P. God's way expects “fruit in keeping with repentance” (Matthew 3:8) from all who are guilty. (Ezra 10:18-44)
D. C. Martin