In Old Testament times the books of Chronicles, Ezra and Nehemiah were apparently joined to form one continuous story. The book of Ezra begins at the point where Chronicles ends, the year 539 BC.
In that year the Persian king Cyrus conquered Babylon and gave permission to the captive Jews to return to their homeland and rebuild their city and temple (2 Chron 36:22-23; Ezra 1:1-4).
Writer, priest and teacher
Ezra is traditionally believed to be the author of the book that bears his name. However, the events recorded in the first part of the book took place before Ezra was born. After the decree of Cyrus in 539 BC, thousands of Jews returned to Jerusalem. Under the leadership of the governor Zerubbabel and the high priest Joshua, they began rebuilding the temple (Ezra 2:1-2; 3:1- 2,8). But because of opposition from local people the work stopped, and nothing further was done till 520 BC, the second year of the Persian king Darius (Ezra 4:24). In that year the prophets Haggai and Zechariah began preaching, with the result that the people were stirred to action (Ezra 5:1-2; Hag 2:18), and within four and a half years completed the temple (Ezra 6:15). In due course Zerubbabel, Joshua, Haggai and Zechariah all died, and without strong and godly leadership the nation drifted from God. During this time Ezra was born, and he grew up to be trained as a priest and a scribe. Scribes were people skilled in writing who made copies of the law of Moses. Ezra, however, did more than that. He studied the law diligently and became known for his learning and insight. In addition he was a godly person who practised what he knew. He also had the ability to teach and explain the law clearly to others (Ezra 7:6,10-11; Neh 8:1-2,8-9). Originally Ezra lived and worked in Babylon. Then, in the seventh year of the reign of Artaxerxes (458 BC), he obtained authority and finance from the king to return to Jerusalem and carry out reforms there (Ezra 7:1,6-7,13-15,21-24). From the dates given in the book of Ezra, it can be seen that Ezra’s move to Jerusalem was about eighty years after Zerubbabel’s, and about sixty years after the completion of the temple. Because Ezra was preparing a book that recounted events before his time, he had to search through old documents and other historical records (cf. Ezra 4:7-8; 5:6-7; 6:1-2). Two sections of the book, which quote some of this material, are actually in the official language of the period, Aramaic (Ezra 4:8-6:18; 7:12-26). In one long section, Ezra has written in the first person (Ezra 7:27-9:15).
Contents of the book of Ezra
Upon hearing the decree of Cyrus in 539 BC, many of the Jews in Babylon returned to Jerusalem, though others chose to remain in Babylon (1:1-11). Those who returned were grouped according to their families and numbered about 50,000 (2:1-70). They quickly began the task of rebuilding the temple (3:1- 13), but opposition soon stopped the work (4:1-24). Sixteen years later the prophets Haggai and Zechariah stirred up the people to get working again and, in spite of further opposition, the work was completed – in 516 BC (5:1-6:22). In 458 BC Ezra led another group of exiles back to Jerusalem. He carried with him authority from the Persian king to correct disorders and regulate the Jewish community according to the law of God (7:1- 28). Through his strong faith in God, he and his company arrived safely in Jerusalem (8:1-36). Ezra was saddened to see that many Jews had married those who worshipped other gods. On behalf of the people he confessed their guilt to God (9:1-15). The people repented, then appointed officials who listed the offenders and ensured that they put away their heathen wives (10:1-44).
Later activity of Ezra
Ezra’s reforms had been only partially successful, and not till Nehemiah came to Jerusalem as governor did the people show any real willingness to leave their selfish ways. Nehemiah arrived in Jerusalem thirteen years after Ezra (cf. Ezra 7:7; Neh 2:1). Through Nehemiah’s strong leadership, the wall of Jerusalem was rebuilt (Neh 6:15), after which Ezra read the law to the people and explained its meaning (Neh 8:1-2,8-9). Ezra was a notable man of prayer (Ezra 7:27-28; 8:21; 9:1-15; 10:1,6), and once again he led the people in confessing their sins and asking God’s mercy (Neh 9:6-37). At the dedication of Jerusalem’s rebuilt wall, Ezra again played a leading part. The nation’s chief citizens and religious officials were assembled and divided into two groups, led respectively by Ezra and Nehemiah. These two groups then marched around the wall of Jerusalem in opposite directions, meeting at the temple on the other side of the city. There they joined in a great service of praise to God (Neh 12:31-40). It was a fitting climax to the Bible’s account of Ezra’s ministry.