Philippe R. Sterling
The Book of Ezra provides an account of the restoration of the place of worship and the people of God in the post-exilic period.
Ezra is possibly the author of the book. The book covers two time periods and divides into two sections. The first section deals with the return under Sheshbazzar and Zerubabbel and the second section with the return headed by Ezra. There were 3 returns to the land in the post-exilic period as there were 3 exiles from the land in the captivity period: Zerubbabel’s return and the rebuilding of the temple (538BC), Ezra’s return and the reformation of the people (458 BC), and Nehemiah’s return and the rebuilding of the walls of Jerusalem (445 BC).
Literary Structure and Content
The book divides into two sections: chapters 1—6 and 7—10.
I. Restoring the Temple – God works through Cyrus to permit the return of the exiles and the rebuilding of the
temple under Zerubabbel (1—6).
A. The 1st Return – 538 BC (1—2)
1. Decree of Cyrus Permitting the Return (1) – Ezra records the decree that Cyrus made to allow the exiled
Jews to return to the land of Israel.
God had favorably disposed Cyrus to permit the Jewish exiles to return to the land of Israel. The temple vessels taken by Nebuchadnezzar were returned as well.
2. List of Returning Exiles (2) – Ezra records the list of the first returnees.
Ezra notes that 49,897 people returned – a small fraction of those who were in Babylon. Ezra lists Zerubbabel and Jeshua among the leaders. Zerubabbel was a grandson of Jehoiachin and would become governor. Jeshua (Joshua) would be the high priest.
B. Restoring the Altar and Laying the Temple Foundation – 537/6 BC (3)
1. Restoring the Altar and Resuming the Sacrifices (3:1-6)
The first order of business was to reinstitute sacrificial worship. The returnees built the altar, offered sacrifices and observed the Feast of Booths.
2. Laying the Foundation of the Temple (3:7-13)
About seven months after building the altar, the returnees began to lay the foundation of the temple. After laying the foundation, they offered praise to God.
C. Historic Opposition to Rebuilding – 536-450 BC (4:1-23)
The material in this section is a parenthetical digression from the main account of the rebuilding of the temple. Ezra traces the opposition to the rebuilding efforts of the post-exilic generations through the three periods of the return to the land. God overcomes the opposition to his purposes.
1. Opposition During the Reigns of Cyrus and Darius – 536-520 BC (4:1-5)
2. Opposition During the Reign of Xerxes – circa 485 BC (4:6)
3. Opposition During the Reign of Artaxerxes – circa 450 (4:7-23)
D. Rebuilding the Temple Postponed, Resumed and Completed – 520-515 BC (4:24—6:22)
1. Temple Construction Postponed – 536 BC (4:24) – Enemy neighbors discourage the returnees from
continuing to rebuild the temple.
2. Temple Construction Resumed – 520 BC (5:1—2) – God uses the prophetic ministries of Haggai and
Zechariah to encourage the returnees to resume rebuilding.
3. Temple Construction Challenged – Report to Darius (5:3-17) – The enemy neighbors interfere by
appealing to Darius to see if there was proper authorization for the rebuilding project.
4. Temple Construction Permitted – Reply of Darius (6:1-12) – Darius orders a search of the archives and
finds that Cyrus had issued authorization, and Darius honors the decree even requiring that taxes from the
region be used to help in the construction effort.
5. Temple Construction Completed and Passover – 515 BC (6:13-22) – The returnees respond to the
prophetic exhortation and complete the temple and celebrate the Passover.
II. Restoring the People – Ezra works to bring about a renewed dedication of the people to the Covenant with God
After the completion of the temple more work needed to be done. There were still many Jews living in exile. They needed to return to the land and rededicate themselves to the Covenant with God. Chapters 7—10 tell of the role of Ezra in facilitating a further return to the land. The first return took place in 538 BC after Cyrus had conquered Babylon. Now about 80 years later, Ezra leads a second group back to the land.
A. The 2nd Return – 458/57 BC (7—8)
1. Ezra the Scribe heads the 2nd return (7:1-10).
Ezra was a priest and a scribe well-versed in the law of God. Chapter seven states three times that God’s hand was upon Ezra (7:6, 9, 28)!
God blessed Ezra because he was focused on God’s word (7:10). He set his heart to study the law. He practiced the law. He taught the law in Israel. As we apply ourselves to study, apply and teach the word of God, we will have his gracious hand upon our lives and ministries (see Revelation 1:3).
2. Decree of Artaxerxes Authorizing the Return (7:11-28) – Ezra gives credit for Artaxerxes’ decree to God.
God is the prime mover of history. Ezra notes that it is God’s sovereign hand that moved Artaxerxes to issue the decree.
3. List of Returnees (8:1-14) – Only 4000-5000 people returned, a much smaller number than the previous
4. Preparations for the Journey (8:15-30)
Ezra assembled the returnees at a river and noticed that there were no Levites. The Levites functioned as teachers of the law. Ezra called for teachers and temple servants to join the group. A number responded to the call.
The journey would be a difficult and dangerous one of 900 miles. Ezra relied upon God through prayer and fasting.
They were taking valuable items. Ezra delegated responsibility to others carefully choosing dependable people making sure there were multiple parties for the financial oversight.
5. Safe Journey to Jerusalem (8:31-36) – God gave a safe journey.
B. The Problem of Mixed Marriages (9—10)
The book does not end with the return to the land. For God’s blessing to be upon the returnees they needed to be faithful to the Covenant with God. The problem of intermarriage with the people of the land quickly became apparent.
1. Report of Mixed Marriages to Ezra (9:1-4)
God had clearly required that his people not intermarry with their unbelieving neighbors (Exodus 34:14-16; Deuteronomy 7:3-4). This would lead them to compromise with the gods of their foreign spouses. Ezra hears that this was going on even with the leaders of the people.
2. Ezra’s Prayer (9:5-15) – Ezra confesses the sin of the people and intercedes before God.
Ezra provides a model for confession and intercession. Christ intercedes for us as our great High Priest.
3. Covenant to Annul Mixed Marriages (10:1-17)
Ezra not only prayed but wept and prostrated himself before the house of God. His example deeply impacted others so that they began to weep. Shecaniah put forward a proposal that they make a covenant to right the wrong. Ezra required that the leaders take an oath to do according to such a covenant.
4. List of the Offenders (10:18-44) – the book closes with a list of those who were guilty of marrying foreign
God’s people are prone to sin and in constant need of repentance and renewal.
The main theological theme of Ezra is covenant renewal centered on the worship of God. The book also reveals God’s providential rule of human affairs for the benefit of His people. God prompted the Persian kings to permit the Jews to return to the land and rebuild the temple. There is opposition to God’s purposes but God enables his people to overcome. God’s people sin but they can confess the sin and repent and return to the covenant.
God keeps David’s descendants alive. Zerubbabel is part of the Messianic line (see Matthew 1:12-13). God brings back the exiles to the land in accordance with his promise. He will likewise fulfill all messianic promises.
Eugene Merrill observes: “The post-exilic community was small but its God great. Reliance on such a God will assure a future more glorious than anything in the days gone by.”