It seems that in Old Testament times the books of Chronicles, Ezra and Nehemiah were joined to form a continuous story. The book of Ezra begins at the point where the account in Chronicles ends.
The year was 539 BC and the Jews’ period of exile in Babylon was at last over. Persia had just conquered Babylon, and the Persian king Cyrus had issued a decree giving permission to the Jews to return to their homeland (1 Chron 36:22-23; Ezra 1:1-4). The era that followed is known as the post-exilic period. Six books of the Bible deal with this period, three of them historical, the other three prophetical. The summary of events below will help towards a clearer understanding of these books.
Note: From this point on Israelites in general were commonly referred to as Jews. About two hundred years earlier, the people of the former northern kingdom of Israel had been taken captive to various nations, and in time became absorbed by those nations. But when people of the southern kingdom Judah were later taken captive to Babylon, they retained their national identity. The people of Judah were called Judeans, but this was shortened to ‘Jew’. Because most of those who returned from Babylon to Palestine were from the former southern kingdom, they could be called either Israelites or Jews. There was no longer any division in Israel, and the two names, along with the name ‘Hebrew’, were used interchangeably (Jer 34:9; John 1:19,47; 2 Cor 11:22; Gal 2:14).
First exiles to return
After Cyrus’s decree of 539 BC, many thousands of Jews returned to Jerusalem. They had their own Jewish leaders in the civil administrator Zerubbabel and the high priest Joshua (or Jeshua), but they were still within the Persian Empire and still under Persian rule. Jerusalem lay within the province known as Beyond the River (GNB: West Euphrates; NIV: Trans-Euphrates), which extended from the Euphrates River to the Mediterranean Sea (Ezra 4:10,16; 7:21,25).
Soon after arriving in Jerusalem, the Jews began to rebuild the temple. First they set up the altar, and in the second year they laid the foundation of the building (Ezra 3:1-3,8-10). However, enemies then began to oppose the builders, with the result that the work stopped (Ezra 4:1-5,24).
Haggai and Zechariah
For at least sixteen years no work was done on the construction of the temple (Ezra 4:24). Then, in 520 BC, God raised up two men from among the Jews in Jerusalem to rouse the people to get on with the job, and not to stop till it was finished. These two men were the prophets Haggai and Zechariah (Ezra 5:1- 2; Hag 1:1; Zech 1:1).
As soon as the people restarted work, there was renewed opposition (Ezra 5:3). The local governor referred the matter to the Persian king Darius (Cyrus having died some years previously). Darius investigated the matter and found that Cyrus had given permission to rebuild the temple. He therefore issued a second decree, supporting the initial decree of Cyrus, to allow the work to go on (Ezra 6:6-12).
Haggai’s stirring preaching brought immediate results, and soon the Jews were again at work on the reconstruction of the temple (Hag 1:2-6,12-15). Zechariah supported Haggai, and went on to give more extensive teaching designed to bring a spiritual change in the lives and outlook of the people (Zech 1:4; 6:15; 7:8-9; 13:1). Four years after the restarting of the work, the temple was finished (in 516 BC; Ezra 6:14-15; cf. 4:24).
The book of Esther
Persia’s next king after Darius was Xerxes I. He was also known as Ahasuerus, and reigned from 486 to 465 BC. He is the king who features in the story recorded in the book of Esther.
Return under Ezra
Artaxerxes succeeded Xerxes I as king of Persia in 465 BC. In the seventh year of his reign (458 BC) he issued a decree giving Ezra authority and finance to go to Jerusalem and carry out reforms there (Ezra 7:1,7,13).
It will be seen, from examining the relevant dates, that the events recorded in the opening part of the book of Ezra (i.e. events relating to Zerubbabel, Joshua and the rebuilding of the temple) took place before Ezra was born. The writer of the book of Ezra no doubt searched through many letters, documents and historical records to prepare much of the early part of the book. We do not reach the time of Ezra himself till half way through the book. Ezra’s return was about eighty years later than Zerubbabel’s. The people in Jerusalem in Ezra’s time were a different generation from those who returned with Zerubbabel.
Ezra was a priest and a scribe skilled in the law of God (Ezra 7:6,12). In former days a scribe was a person who made copies of the law for those who wanted to read it, but in post-exilic days he became also a teacher of the law. He was a person whose opinions in religious matters were highly respected. In later years the scribes gained more and more power in Israel, while the prophets declined in both numbers and influence.
Nevertheless, the scribe Ezra was a man sent by God. He read the law and explained its meaning, so that it became a handbook for the people to follow in their everyday living (Ezra 7:10; Neh 8:8). Here we see the origin of the religious system known as Judaism that was developed by the scribes over the next few centuries. However, examples from the Judaism of Jesus’ time show that it was spiritually unhelpful and far different in spirit from the sort of religious life that Ezra taught.
Return under Nehemiah
In the twentieth year of his reign, Artaxerxes issued a second decree allowing a government sponsored group of Jews to return to Jerusalem, this time under the leadership of Nehemiah (445 BC). The temple in Jerusalem had been finished more than seventy years earlier, but the city itself was still in a state of disrepair, and the wall around the city had not yet been rebuilt. The reconstruction of the wall and the city was the specific project for which Nehemiah received the support of Artaxerxes (Neh 2:1-8).
Ezra had gone to Jerusalem thirteen years before Nehemiah. His reforms met with only partial success, and only when Nehemiah arrived and became governor of Jerusalem did the reformation have any great effect on the population as a whole. The two men worked together in leading the people back to God (Neh 8:9). Nehemiah stayed in Jerusalem twelve years, then returned to Persia (Neh 2:1; 13:6). Some time later he came back to Jerusalem (Neh 13:6-7).
The biblical book of Nehemiah, which was written by Nehemiah himself, records the significant events of his two terms as Jerusalem’s governor.
The prophet Malachi
It seems that Malachi preached in Jerusalem during the period of reform by Ezra and Nehemiah. The date of his prophecy cannot be fixed with certainty, but the sins he rebuked were similar to those that Ezra and Nehemiah had to deal with.
The people expected that, because they had come back to their land and rebuilt their temple, they were going to enjoy the unlimited blessing of God. This did not prove to be so, and as a result they began to doubt whether God really cared for them. Malachi replied that the fault was on their side, not God’s. They had, by their sins, created obstacles that hindered their enjoyment of God’s love (Mal 1:2,6-7; 2:17; 3:7-8,13-14).
Malachi’s book brings to a close the prophetical ministry in the Old Testament history of Israel. Four hundred years would pass before the voice of a prophet would be sounded in Scripture again. It was the voice of one crying in a barren country, ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight’ (Mark 1:3).