NAME the truly great men and women of your lifetime. Celebrities, including politicians, war heroes, sports figures, and maybe your parents and special friends come to mind. You remember them because of certain acts or character qualities. Now, name some biblical heroes – figures etched into your life through countless sermons and Sunday school lessons. This list undoubtedly includes many who served God faithfully and courageously. Does your list include Ezra? Far from being well known, this unheralded man of God deserves to be mentioned in any discussion of greatness.
Ezra was a priest, a scribe, and a great leader. His name means “help”, and his whole life was dedicated to serving God and God’s people. Tradition says that Ezra wrote most of 1 and 2 Chronicles, Ezra, Nehemiah, and Psalm 119, and that he led the council of 120 men who formed the Old Testament canon. He centres the narrative of the book of Ezra around God and his promise that the Jews would return to their land, as promised by Jeremiah (see the note on 1:1). This message formed the core of Ezra’s life. The last half of the book gives a very personal glimpse of Ezra. His knowledge of Scripture and his God-given wisdom were so obvious to the king that he appointed Ezra to lead the second emigration to Jerusalem, to teach the people God’s word, and to administer national life (7:14-26).
Ezra not only knew God’s word, he believed and obeyed it. Upon learning of the Israelites sins of intermarriage and idolatry, Ezra fell in humility before God and prayed for the nation (9:1-15). Their disobedience touched him deeply (10:1). His response helped lead the people back to God.
2 Chronicles finishes with Cyrus, king of Persia, asking for volunteers to return to Jerusalem to build a house for God. Ezra continues this account (1:1-3 is almost identical to 2 Chronicles 36:22, 23) as two caravans of God’s people were returning to Jerusalem. Zerubbabel, the leader of the first trip, was joined by 42,360 pilgrims who journeyed homewards (chapter 2). After arriving, they began to build the altar and the temple foundations (chapter 3). But opposition arose from the local inhabitants, and a campaign of accusations and rumours temporarily halted the project (chapter 4). During this time, the prophets Haggai and Zechariah encouraged the people (chapter 5). Finally, Darius decreed that the work should proceed unhindered (chapter 6).
After a 58-year gap, Ezra led a group of Jews from Persia. Armed with decrees and authority from Artaxerxes I, Ezra’s task was to administer the affairs of the land (chapter 7, 8). Upon arrival, he learned of intermarriage between God’s people and their pagan neighbours. He wept and prayed for the nation (chapter 9). Ezra’s example of humble confession led to national revival (chapter 10). Ezra, a man of God and a true hero, was a model for Israel, and he is a fitting model for us.
Read Ezra, the book, and remember Ezra, the man – the humble, obedient helper. Commit yourself to serving God as he did, with your whole life.
PURPOSE: To show God’s faithfulness and the way he kept his promise to restore his people to their land
AUTHOR: Not stated, but probably Ezra
DATE WRITTEN: Around 450 B.C., recording events from about 538-450 B.C. (omitting 516-458 B.C.); possibly begun earlier in Babylon and finished in Jerusalem
SETTING: Ezra follows 2 Chronicles as a history of the Jewish people, recording their return to the land after the captivity.
KEY VERSES: “So the Israelites who had returned from the exile ate it, together with all who had separated themselves from the unclean practices of their Gentile neighbours in order to seek the LORD, the God of Israel. For seven days they celebrated with joy the Feast of Unleavened Bread, because the LORD had filled them with joy by chasing the attitudes of the king of Assyria, so that he assisted them in the work on the house of God, the God of Israel” (6:21, 22).
KEY PEOPLE: Cyrus, Zerubbabel, Haggai, Zechariah, Darius, Artaxerxes I, Ezra
KEY PLACES: Babylon, Jerusalem
SPECIAL FEATURES: Ezra and Nehemiah were one book in the Hebrew Bible, and, with Esther, they comprise the post-captivity historical books. The post-captivity prophetic books are Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi. Haggai and Zechariah should be studied with Ezra because they prophesied during the period of the reconstruction.
The Return Led By Zerubbabel (1:1-6:22) Finally given the chance to return their homeland, the people started to rebuild the temple, only to be stopped by opposition from their enemies. God’s work in the world is not without opposition. We must not become discouraged and give up, as the returning people did at first, but continue boldly in the face of difficulties, as they did later with encouragement from the prophets.
- The first group of exiles returns to the land
- The people rebuild the temple
The Return Led By Ezra (7:1-10:44) Ezra returned to Jerusalem almost 80 years after Zerubbabel, only to discover that the people had married pagan or foreign spouses. This polluted the religious purity of the people and endangered the future of the nation. Believers today must be careful not to threaten their walk with God by taking on the practices of unbelievers.
- The second group of exiles returns to the land
- Ezra opposes intermarriage
The Jews Return
EXPLANATION: By returning to the land of Israel from Babylon, the Jews showed their faith in God’s promise to restore them as a people. They returned not only to their homeland, but also to the place where their forefathers had promised to follow God.
IMPORTANCE: God shows his mercy to every generation. He compassionately restores his people. No matter how difficult our present “captivity”, we are never far from his love and mercy. He restores us when we return to him.
EXPLANATION: In 536 B.C., Zerubbabel led the people in rebuilding the altar and laying the temple foundations. They reinstated daily sacrifices and annual feasts, and rededicated themselves to a new spiritual worship of God.
IMPORTANCE: In rededicating the altar, the people were recommitting themselves to God and his service. To grow spiritually, our commitment must be reviewed and renewed often. As we rededicate ourselves to God, our lives become altars to him.
EXPLANATION: Opposition came soon after the altar was built and the temple foundations laid. Enemies of the Jews used deceit to hinder the building for over six years. Finally, there was a decree to stop the building altogether. This opposition severely tested their wavering faith.
IMPORTANCE: There will always be adversaries who oppose God’s work. The life of faith is never easy. But God can overrule all opposition to his service. When we face opposition, we must not falter or withdraw, but keep active and patient.
EXPLANATION: When the people returned to the land, they were also returning to the influence of God’s word. The prophets Haggai and Zechariah helped to encourage them while Ezra’s preaching of Scripture built them up. God’s word gave them what they needed to do God’s work.
IMPORTANCE: We also need the encouragement and direction of God’s word. We must make it the basis for our faith and actions to finish God’s work and fulfil our obligations. We must never waver in our commitment to hear and obey his word.
Faith and Action
EXPLANATION: The urging of Israel’s leaders motivated the people to complete the temple. Over the years, they had intermarried with idol-worshippers and adopted their pagan practices. Their faith, tested and revived, also led them to remove these sins from their lives.
IMPORTANCE: Faith led them to complete the temple and to remove sin from their society. As we trust God with our hearts and minds, we must also act by completing our daily responsibilities. It is not enough to say we believe; we must make the changes God requires.
©Kingsway International Church, 1973.