The Book of Ezra
Who? Scholars generally attribute authorship of the book of Ezra to a chronicler, maybe the same author who wrote 1 and 2 Chronicles. Ezra, a priest and scribe, is often considered the author; at the very least, the author used his journal to construct the book (Knute). Ezra, whom we will meet in the second half of the book as he leads the second group of Jews from Babylon, was a descendant of Aaron, the chief priest, and is described by his passion and devotion to God’s Law (7:11-26).
What? Following years of rebellion, God allowed the nation of Judah to be conquered by Babylon and King Nebuchadnezzar. As God promised (Jer. 29:10), after 70 years of captivity, the Hebrew people were released from bondage. The King of Persia issued the decree, “Anyone of His people among you - May His God be with him, and let him go . . . and build the Temple” (Ezra 1:3). Tens of thousands of Israelites recognized the king’s decree as the fulfillment of God’s promise to bring them home again and seized upon this opportunity to return to Jerusalem.
The writer of Psalm 126 penned a beautiful song of restoration as the Israelites celebrated the freedom of worship before God at His Temple. This joy had not been afforded them since they were carried away seven decades earlier, “our mouths were filled with laughter, our tongues with songs of joy.” Their joy was so evident that even their enemies declared, “The Lord has done great things for them” (126:1, 2). As the Israelites laid the foundation of the Temple, “with praise and thanksgiving, they sang to the LORD: “He is good; his love toward Israel endures forever” (Ezra 3:10, 11).
However, the joy soon subsided. Life was difficult for the exiles who returned to a land that had lain desolate for nearly 70 years. Though they eagerly began work on God’s Temple, after meeting opposition from enemies, the exiles became discouraged and set aside the work to which God called them. The altar of the Lord stood, as well as the foundation of the Temple, but the people did no other work to God’s house for nearly two decades.
The Israelites gave up on the purpose for which they had been called back to Jerusalem. God was not finished with them, however. Spurred on by the encouragement offered by God's message through His prophets, Malachi and Zechariah, and repentant of their self-centeredness, the work began again. Soon, the Temple was completed, God’s Presence dwelled there, and the exiles enjoyed the freedom to worship God again.
Incredibly, however, they persisted in turning their hearts from God. God had been faithful to set them free from Babylonian captivity as He had promised; however, His people continued to surrender to the sins of their forefathers. God redeemed them from the bondage of Babylon, and they were home again, but there were still areas of their hearts bound to something other than the freedom, joy, and peace Yahweh promised.
By bringing the captives back to Israel, God revealed that His plan to set a King on the throne in Jerusalem was still His plan; God does not break His covenant promises. Ezra shows us that God's plan for a Messiah never waned - no matter how much His people failed Him. This is not only a story from antiquity; it is also our story today. We continue to fail God, and He continues to be faithful to His word. He did send a Messiah and he did die that we could live in complete freedom, but we continue to allow a portion of our hearts to be captive to "obstacles and sin which so easily entangles us" (Heb. 12:1). We fail Him in so many ways and He continues to do as He promised - redeem and restore everything we lose to sin.
Just as the Israelites allowed the sins of their forefathers to burden them again and again, believers who have been set free from the bondage of sin, often live bound to some aspect of captivity. Though Christ’s death has pronounced us free indeed, in captivity, we forfeit the wide-open places of freedom for a fenced-in life (Ps. 18:19). Sometimes we trade His unconditional love for a list of rules and endless requirements. At times, we feel plagued by more doubt than faith, more emptiness than wholeness, more anxiety than peace, more anger than joy, more pride and arrogance than humility, more shame than love, more busy-ness than rest, or more fear than love.
Nonetheless, God does not desert us because of our years of compromise; He redeems and He restores. If salvation cured every effect of sin in our lives, wouldn't Christ rapture us to Heaven immediately following salvation? Instead, God sets us on the journey of restoration - the Church often calls it Sanctification, the process of becoming everything we already are in God's eyes.
That's what this Bible Study is about. If we desire to live the life God has planned for us, if our heart’s desire is to honor Him with this life, we must be willing to take the journey to restoration. He desires to redeem us from the bondage of captivity. For his plan has always been, and will forever be - redemption.
Just as God never relented in seeking to re-establish His relationship with the Hebrew people, even allowing them to return and rebuild the Temple in Jerusalem, God is still redeeming and is still leading us out of captivity. It is our choice to remain captive or to follow Him on the journey home to rebuild our Temple of the Holy Spirit (1 Cor. 6:19) so we become His beautiful residence He has always desired us to be. That is the freedom He offers to us all; that is the journey He set before all of us – the path to life, “In the path of righteousness is life, and in the pathway thereof there is no death” (Proverbs 12:28). Nor need there be captivity.
The proclamation is still to each of us and any day can be our day to return home and begin anew. Let us receive this invitation from our Father to continue to build, and for some, to rebuild this Temple in “jars of clay” (2 Cor. 4:7). May we go further on our journey, go deeper with God and settle for nothing less than what he planned for us on the day He first thought of us. Remember, He has paid for our redemption. The veil is still torn; the tomb is still empty; the glory still fills our temples. He is waiting on us to answer His call to complete freedom over our enemies, and to any who accept this call, may “His God be with him, and let him go . . . and build the house of the Lord God of Israel” (Ezra 1:3).
When? The book is often dated about 100 years after the exiles returned from captivity in Babylon - around 430 BC - and tells the story of events that transpired between 538 and 438 BC.
Why?: Why did God send Israel home? Because God’s plan, established with Adam and Eve and continues today, is for the redemption and restoration of His creation. One day, as God has promised, a King will reign from his throne in Jerusalem.
Following is a brief history of the Israelites that leads up to 538 BC so that we can better understand how these events fit into the timeline of the whole of Scripture. Remember, however, that this is not solely a history lesson. The history of the Hebrew people is given to teach us something about their God.
Even a cursory review of the Pentateuch (the first five books of the Bible) reveals the Israelites' lack of faithfulness in abundance. What better bears witness to their faithlessness than the fact that only two of the two million Hebrew people who originally left Egypt with Moses entered the Promised Land? That’s one in a million!
Years after entering the Land, Israel displayed the height of arrogance by demanding God provide a human king to rule over them, rejecting God as the true King of Israel. God used Samuel to authorize the establishment of a monarchial system of government, anointing the first two kings of Israel, Saul and David. David’s son Solomon was the third ruler of the Unified Kingdom of Israel.
Granted great wisdom, Solomon exercised very little of it during his reign. Disobeying God’s command concerning intermarriage, Solomon married more than 1,000 women and was enticed into idol worship because of them, just as God warned (Deut. 17:17). Because of his disobedience, God promised to punish Solomon through his descendants (1Kings 11:11-12). This came to pass during the reign of Solomon’s son, Rehoboam.
After his coronation, Rehoboam was advised by the nation’s elders to relieve the “heavy yoke” of taxation (1 Kings 12:4, 7) his father placed on the people. Lessening the taxes, the older men explained, would encourage the people to serve him faithfully and not reject him as king. However, some of his younger friends advised Rehoboam to make the tax burden “even heavier” (1 Kings 12:11) to demonstrate he was stronger than even Solomon.
Unfortunately, Rehoboam took the advice of his young friends, and, as the elders predicted, the people rejected him as king. The Unified Kingdom of Israel split into two kingdoms - the tribes of Judah and Benjamin remained faithful to Rehoboam, becoming the Kingdom of Judah (aka the Southern Kingdom), and the ten northern tribes cast their allegiance to Jeroboam, who became the first ruler of the Kingdom of Israel (aka the Northern Kingdom).
Following Jeroboam, 18 kings ruled the Northern Kingdom (1Kings 12-2 Kings 17), and their stories are fraught with disobedience. For over 200 years, God spoke through the prophets and persistently called the people of the Northern Kingdom to return to Him and warned them of upcoming wrath should they not. They did not listen. In 722 B.C., the Assyrians conquered the Northern Kingdom, destroying its capital city Samaria, murdering many of the citizens and sending many into exile. In turn, the Northern Kingdom was resettled by foreign tribes brought there by the Assyrians. (In the New Testament, we know these people as the Samaritans.)
The kings of the Southern Kingdom of Judah included both evil rulers and those who were faithful followers of God. Nonetheless, following several evil kings at the end of her history, the Southern Kingdom of Judah also fell into captivity, precisely as the prophets had outlined in specific detail:
With my great power and outstretched arm I made the earth and its people and the animals that are on it, and I give to anyone I please. Now I will hand all your countries over to my servant Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon; I will make even the wild animals subject to him. (Jer. 27:6)
Nebuchadnezzar became the leader of Babylon in 605 BC, and the following year, he invaded Judah, besieged Jerusalem, and made Judah his vassal state. He invaded Judah again in 597 BC after a failed rebellion by Judah’s leaders. Nebuchadnezzar’s third invasion in 586 BC was third and final siege of Jerusalem. The battle lasted more than two years and is described by Jeremiah in heart-wrenching detail in the book of Lamentations,
My eyes fail from weeping. I am in torment within; my heart is poured out on the ground because my people are destroyed because children and infants faint in the streets of the city. (2:11)
On July 18, 586 BC, Babylon finally breached Jerusalem’s city walls and dismantled the city house by house, brick by brick, ultimately destroying even the Temple of God. Nebuchadnezzar’s army killed many of the inhabitants of Judah and brought the most useful and talented back to Babylon (remember Daniel and his friends?), and there they lived, as God had warned, in captivity.
They were held in bondage in Babylon until Cyrus, ruler of the Persian Empire, conquered Babylon in 539 BC (approximately 70 years after Nebuchadnezzar's first invasion). It is at this point in history that the book of Ezra begins. Following Babylon’s defeat by Persia, after 70 years in captivity, King Cyrus issued a proclamation allowing the Israelites to return to Jerusalem. (This study of Ezra refers to the returning exiles in numerous ways: exiles, Israel, Jews. When I refer to them as “Israel” or “Israelites” in this study, I am not referring to the Northern Kingdom of Israel but to God’s people in Jerusalem.)
Redemption and Restoration
Then the heads of fathers’ households of Judah and Benjamin and the priests and the Levites arose, even everyone whose spirit God had stirred to go up and rebuild the house of the Lord which is in Jerusalem… All the articles of gold and silver numbered 5,400. Sheshbazzar brought them all up with the exiles who went up from Babylon to Jerusalem.