“[8] But now for a brief moment favor has been shown by the LORD our God, to leave us a remnant and to give us a secure hold within his holy place, that our God may brighten our eyes and grant us a little reviving in our slavery. [9] For we are slaves. Yet our God has not forsaken us in our slavery, but has extended to us his steadfast love before the kings of Persia, to grant us some reviving to set up the house of our God, to repair its ruins, and to give us protection in Judea and Jerusalem.” - Ezra 9:8-9 (ESV)

The Book of Ezra answers a question that 2 Chronicles leaves dangling for the reader: how does God orchestrate the return of Judah from captivity in Babylon? To be sure, 2 Chronicles does not leave the question completely unanswered. There is a tantalizing hint in the closing words of the book:

[23] “Thus says Cyrus king of Persia, ‘The LORD, the God of heaven, has given me all the kingdoms of the earth, and he has charged me to build him a house at Jerusalem, which is in Judah. Whoever is among you of all his people, may the LORD his God be with him. Let him go up.’” - 2 Chronicles 36:23 (ESV)

The book of Ezra recognizes that the major events that have occurred for them, both good and bad, have been directly due to the treatment of them by Yahweh according to the terms of their covenant with him through Moses. Yahweh's reach is not limited to the borders of Judah and Israel. Yahweh orders the universe according to his purposes, so orchestrating the transition from Babylon to Persia and the release of Judah from captivity after 70 years is not a challenge.

The Big Idea of Ezra

I have taught that the big idea of Ezra is that Yahweh ends the 70-year exile as promised. As we saw in 2 Chronicles and as we will see in Jeremiah, the timing is not happenstance or random, nor is it due to the whims and decrees of foreign kings. Rather, Ezra chronicles the return of the people of Israel from exile at the precise time that had been decreed by Yahweh.

An Outline of Ezra

Ezra can be divided into two main parts, the return under Zerubbabel in chapters 1-6 and the return under Ezra in chapters 7-10. Of course, there could be smaller subdivisions, but I generally prefer breaking up a book into the largest component parts possible.

The Return Under Zerubbabel

Chapter 1 opens with the proclamation of Cyrus king of Persia for Jews to return to Israel. This proclamation is directly attributed to the sovereignty of God (Ezra 1:1). Chapter 2 contains a list of the people who returned and some of the offerings they made for the reconstruction of the Temple. The altar and Temple are rebuilt in chapter 3, and we see an example of how important perspective is. Those who had never seen the Temple of Solomon rejoiced at the laying of the foundation while those who had seen Solomon's Temple wept (Ezra 3:11-13).

Trouble arises in chapter 4 when some nearby inhabitants oppose and ultimately thwart the rebuilding process until Darius succeeds Cyrus in Persia. At that point, the people begin to build despite the halt in response to prophetic urging in chapter 5. By chapter 6, with Darius's added help, they finished the temple.

The Return Under Ezra

We are introduced to Ezra the scribe in chapter 7. Ezra returns to Judah with others of the exiles from Judah in chapter 7 with the blessing of King Artaxerxes king of Persia. Chapter 8 records the names and numbers of those who returned. At this point, the book of Ezra is narrated in the first person from Ezra's point of view. Ezra writes how he gathered Levites for the work of ministry in the temple, then proclaimed a fast, and assigned twelve of the leading priests to receive an offering for the temple. They all arrive together at Jerusalem at the end of chapter 8.

Ezra concludes with a handling of a crisis in the final two chapters. In chapter 9, Ezra is told that many of the people, especially political and religious leaders, have married foreign women, thus mixing the race of Israel with those of other nations. This intermarriage had been clearly forbidden for the Israelites to do in Exodus 34:11-16, Deuteronomy 7:1-5, and Joshua 23:11-13. After mourning and making a prayer of confession and lamentation, Ezra gathers the people and they make a plan to root out the men who have taken foreign wives. Ezra ends with a list of the names of the priests, Levites, and other Israelites who married foreign wives, in that order.

The Benefits of Ezra

How does Ezra help or motivate us to live for God through Christ? Perhaps the most outstanding thing about Ezra is its simplicity. The book of Ezra is a straightforward demonstration of the fact that Yahweh keeps his promises. Yahweh had promised, predicted, and prophesied that the people of Judah would be in exile for 70 years. Lo and behold, the people are back after 70 years.

God keeps his promises. He is not subject to kings and circumstances. They are subject to him. It is all too easy for us to look at circumstances and trust that God will or even can keep his promises. But when we look at our circumstances and fear, it is due to a miscalculation. We wrongly compare the problems to the apparent likelihood or perceived potential path to the fulfillment of God's promises. But God does not work subject to chance. Chance is subject to God. When we are tempted to lose heart in our circumstances, we can call the story of Ezra to mind.

There are many things about Ezra's example which may serve as models for us. His leading the people in repentance and humility is one. Ezra recognizes Yahweh's kindness in bringing the people back to the land. It is not due to their might, prowess, or intelligence but to Yahweh's mercy. Ezra does not help the people to look inside themselves for the motivation and power to live as they ought. Ezra showed that looking inside ourselves should lead us to flee from self-dependence. We are not enough. Left to ourselves, we are sinful, disobedient failures. We live not according to our own devices but according to the will and mercy of our great God. All the good we have experienced is due to God's grace and mercy.

As we consider how to respond to a book like Ezra, we may find in Ezra a model of leadership and balance in the connection between theory and practice. Ezra applied himself to know the Law of God not as a theoretical pursuit but as a practical one. We may also find in the people a reminder of our own propensity to sin and the need to put away from ourselves the sins which we have openly welcomed into our lives.

In these ways and many more, we can derive benefit from reading Ezra. But above, before, and behind it all there is the God who is there, who has made himself known, and who keeps his promises. Ezra is not about Ezra or the people. It is about how Yahweh keeps his promise to end the exile and continue working out his purposes in his people for their ultimate redemption in Christ. God is still working in the world and history in the same way today, and that may be the first thing of which we need to be reminded in reading Ezra.

On Ezra and Living for God Through Christ