What does the book of Ezra teach us?

Last updated on January 15, 2024

When asked to name a powerful Bible book that is relevant to Christians today, not many will think of naming the Old Testament book of Ezra. But this book, describing the truly extraordinary events in the life of the prophet Ezra – roughly 500 years before Christ was born – certainly deserves our attention.

1. What makes the book of Ezra so interesting?

  • This book is about the rebuilding of the temple of Jerusalem, known as the Second Temple.
  • It ties together no fewer than four Old Testament prophets: apart from Ezra himself, it refers to Jeremiah, Haggai and Zechariah.
  • It describes the actions of a man called Zerubbabel, who is named in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke as an ancestor of Jesus Christ (Matthew 1:12–13; Luke 3:27).
  • The book may also be linked to the book of Esther. The prophet Ezra is one of the candidates considered for the authorship of ‘Esther’ and in fact, Ezra 4:6 mentions the great challenge that faced its main character, Esther.

But most importantly, God is powerfully at work in this book. First, He “stirred up the spirit of Cyrus king of Persia” (Ezra 1:1) to get this Gentile (i.e., non-Jewish) king to command the rebuilding of the temple and to return the treasures of the First Temple that had been taken by King Nebuchadnezzar[1]. And then He sends His Spirit to “the heads of the fathers’ houses of Judah and Benjamin, and the priests and the Levites, everyone whose spirit God had stirred to go up to rebuild the house of the Lord that is in Jerusalem” (1:5). This means an extraordinarily powerful manifestation of God’s Spirit in large numbers of individuals in, let’s not forget, Old Testament times! And, there is more….!

2. What is the book of Ezra about?

God had promised the return of the Jewish people to Jerusalem after their exile to Babylon. And He kept His promise: 70 years after the city had been destroyed in 586 BC, the Israelites returned as prophesied (Ezra 2:1). Now back in the Promised Land, the task of rebuilding the temple awaited. The book of Ezra essentially records what happened before the prophet Ezra got involved (further information can be found in the book of Nehemiah)[2] and what his own contribution was. The events he describes were prophesied by the prophet Jeremiah in Jeremiah 29:10, a fact that Ezra references in Ezra 1:1. Note – Even though Ezra is in the Old Testament as the last historical book, Jeremiah is the earlier book in chronological order!

Ezra wants to make sure that the readers are accurately informed and includes several lists of names (2:3-58, 2:60-61, 7:1-5, 8:2-14 and 10:18-43), as well as the contents of letters written by others (1:2-4, 4:11-16, 4:17-22, 5:7-17, 7:12-26) and a scroll (6:2-5) to substantiate what he writes.

3. How did Ezra become involved?

According to Ezra 7:1-5, Ezra was a Levite priest who was “a scribe skilled in the Law of Moses that the Lord, the God of Israel, had given” (7:6); “a man learned in matters of the commandments of the Lord and His statutes for Israel” (7:11).

When the Persian King[3] Darius reads in a report (5:7-17) that God had instructed King Cyrus to rebuild the temple in Jerusalem (1:2), he adds instructions in support of Jewish priests (6:7-10) that Darius’ grandson King Artaxerxes[4] follows up on. He issues the priest Ezra with a written decree to take those Israelites who volunteer to travel to Jerusalem, as well as the temple treasure that must be returned, and a generous gift (“all the silver and gold that you shall find in the whole province of Babylonia, and with the freewill offerings of the people and the priests, vowed willingly for the house of their God that is in Jerusalem” – 7:16 and 7:21-22).

By the time Ezra himself makes an appearance in the book, the rebuilding of the temple (which had commenced under the leadership of Zerubbabel and others, 2:2) had been halted for nearly two decades, due to protests by “the adversaries of Judah and Benjamin” (4:1). These adversaries were the Samaritans, a partly Jewish, partly non-Jewish people that had remained in the area whilst the Jews were forced into exile, and observed a mixture of Jewish religion and idolatrous traditions. King Artaxerxes orders the construction work to recommence.

4. What does Ezra tell us about God?

God keeps His promises. God had said the Israelites would return to Jerusalem, and they did.

God protects. The journey to Jerusalem is long and dangerous but Ezra feels ashamed to ask the King for protection. After all, Ezra had boasted that, “The hand of our God is for good on all who seek Him, and the power of His wrath is against all who forsake Him” (8:22). So instead of asking the King, Ezra orders a fast to ask God for protection. In response, God keeps Ezra and the people safe (8:23).

God can even use enemies for His purposes. Three Persian kings wrote instructions that greatly blessed the Israelites. This would have raised eyebrows in Persia, but King Artaxerxes warranted his decree by clarifying that he did not wish to upset the God of the Jews (7:23). The actions of these kings benefited the Israelites. God had also used King Nebuchadnezzar to their detriment, though. This shows us that God truly is the Almighty, Who can use friend and foe for good and for what must be.

5. Which lesson does the book have for Christians today?

Apart from the fact that God keeps promises, hears our prayers and is in control, the final two chapters draw our attention to His holiness and the need for us to respect and obey Him. God had ordered the Israelites to separate themselves from local idol-worshippers (9:1-2). They didn’t comply. When Ezra finds out, he is profoundly shocked and ashamed. Whereas Zerubbabel and his group had obediently rejected any help from the Samaritans, precisely because they were not supposed to mix (4:2-3), Jewish men had since married foreign women and given their daughters to foreign men.

In chapter 10, Ezra and the people decide that this wrongdoing must be righted, whatever the painful consequences might be. The foreign spouses and children born to foreign women must all leave (10:3). In the 21st century, many preachers and pastors will respond to the issue of existing sin with the notion that God will surely love the sinners as they are; expecting God to make the sacrifice of accepting the situation He expressly rejected. Ezra’s Israelites ultimately prioritized God and His commands. How many Christians today would, when confronted about existing sins, so drastically and completely honor God by repenting and totally turning their lives around…..?

Notes

[1] During the destruction of the temple built by King Solomon, in 586 before Christ.

[2] In the Masoretic Hebrew text, as well as in some major early translations (the Latin Vulgate and the Greek Septuagint), the books of Ezra and Nehemiah are considered one coherent book. Moreover, there exist apocryphal books ascribed to Ezra, that we do not consider part of the inspired Bible but are included in some versions. For details, see this Wikipedia page.

[3] Babylon was part of Persia.

[4] The Persian royal family had several kings on the throne in quick succession due to deadly conspiracies.

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