by Rev. Julian Duckworth
The two books of Ezra and Nehemiah cover much of the same activity at the same time. The time is the return of the Jews from their exile in Babylon. This return starts with the book of Ezra. It begins with a decree from Cyrus, king of Persia, in which the king invites all the Jews to go back to Jerusalem to rebuild the house of the Lord. Apparently, the Lord had charged Cyrus to order this rebuilding to be done. The number returning was about 50,000, and Cyrus also returned the Temple gold and silver which had been plundered, fifty years earlier. The date of the return seems to be 538 BC, the year after Cyrus’ decree.
The book is in two parts, based on two separate waves of returning people. Chapters 1 to 6 is the return to Jerusalem led by Zerubbabel, and chapters 7 to 10 is the second return of others to Jerusalem, this time led by Ezra. It seems there was a period of 57 years between the two groups leaving Babylon.
When the first wave returned, they began to rebuild the Temple. First they made the altar and then laid the foundations for the Temple. As far as they could they followed the previous Temple pattern. Many of the Jews who had not gone into exile but lived through it in Judah sent a letter to King Xerxes declaring that when the Temple was finished, Xerxes would have no tribute from or right over Jerusalem. Xerxes, infuriated, ordered the work to stop. The rebuilding stopped until King Darius became king of Persia.
Darius found Cyrus’ original decree and wrote to the Jews to continue the re-building. So the Temple was completed and the Passover was celebrated at its dedication to God.
Ezra, in Babylon all this time, was sent to Jerusalem by the king of Persia, and the second wave of returning people went with him, about 2,000 people. Ezra was dedicated to God and sent to lead the Jews. One of his first rulings was against intermarriage of Jews with other peoples, for this had been happening in Judah during the exile in Babylon, and now was continuing. Chapter 9 is Ezra’s deep confession to God of the sins of the people. In the last chapter 10, the people re-dedicate themselves to their God, and make a commitment to put away their foreign wives. The chapter names those priests who had taken foreign wives, and they put them away.
About the book of Ezra
Its great theme is faithfulness to the Lord God, both in the re-building of the Temple and in the re-adoption of the whole Law of Moses. Its other theme is the providence of God in bringing his people back to their original home, through the will of powerful kings. A further significant theme is that worship of God was no longer seen to belong racially to the Jews but to any and all who would take up true worship of God (see 6.21)
The spiritual themes in Ezra are those of re-building our lives after being away from the Lord. The importance of us returning to God with confession and true repentance, and of God’s loving reception of us when we make that choice, is strongly brought out in the book.
Another spiritual theme is that of the positive use we can make of times and situations in our own lives when we have been self-centred and lost our relationship with God, and come to see that. These realisations serve to help us want and then decide to return to God. It is an interesting point that God appears to use the power and authority of great rulers – Xerxes, Darius and Artaxerxes – to finally bring about his own divine wish for his people to belong to him, return to him and to worship him in the temple of their daily lives.