Theology of the book of Ezra

I recently submitted this project as one of the requirement in my Old Testament Theology class at Northland. I certainly learned a ton of new information from the short book of Ezra. I must say it’s been one of my favorite projects so far.

Introduction

With the Assyrian and Babylonian exiles, the nation of Israel floundered. What was once a proud nation, selected by Yahweh as His chosen people to be a light for the world, was now a scattered multitude spread across the earth, facing the threat of disappearance through genocide or assimilation. Yet a number of distributed prophecies given by Yahweh foretold a day when Israel would once again be a nation. With the rise of the prophesied Persian king Cyrus came a ray of hope for the Jews in the dispersion. Two men, Zerubbabel from the royal line of David, and Ezra the faithful scribe, became witnesses and primary characters in a sovereignly orchestrated series of events that would reestablish the Jews as a separated nation ready to be used by Yahweh for the blessing of the rest of the world.

Literary Structure

The book of Ezra is easily divided into two sections. Using the natural division between Zerubbabel’s and Ezra’s ministries (Ezra 1–6 and 7–10 respectively), Baxter points out the book’s inherent parallel structure.1 Both book sections list sequential descriptions of the decrees, leaders, travelers, temple items, arrivals, ministries, and outcomes related to each leader.2 Thus the book is most easily studied in two parts: the return under Zerubbabel, and the return under Ezra.

Return under Zerubbabel

The narrative begins with a decree proclaimed by Cyrus the Great. In the year of the fall of Babylon to the Persian Empire (ca. 538 B.C.E.), he gave those Jews who wished to return to Israel his permission and blessing. Nearly fifty thousand people from the twelve tribes3 returned under Zerubbabel.4 Zerubbabel was the commissioned leader of the Jews, an appropriate office as he was a direct descendant of David.5

Upon their return, the Jews went home to their respective cities, but soon came together again at Jerusalem for the reinstitution of the sacrificial system and the religious feasts prescribed by the Mosaic law. This was an important step, both in obedience and preparation for the coming reconstruction of the temple.6 A year after the arrival, Zerubbabel and the Jews laid the foundation for a new temple. Though the temple would be far less splendid than Solomon’s, this event marked the reestablishment of Jewish identity in the land of Israel.

The reconstruction drew the focus of the surrounding populace. The inhabitants of Israel at the time of the return of the Jews were a multicultural mix of immigrants with diluted Jewish ancestry who became known as the Samaritans.7 Their syncretistic worship method stimulated a desire to merge efforts with the pure Jewish remnant building the temple. When Zerubbabel prudently rejected their cooperation, their disposition soured and they began a concerted effort to frustrate the Jews by resorting to intimidation and slander.8 Their determination to halt the work proved successful. The Jews became discouraged and neglected the construction of the temple for sixteen years.

After a long period of apathy, the prophets Haggai and Zechariah began to stir up the Jews and motivate them to recommence the temple construction. The book of Haggai recounts Yahweh’s indictment of the people for their lack of fervor. As a result of the preaching of the two prophets, the Jews continued the work where it had been left off. Unsurprisingly, they soon faced opposition once more, but unlike the first time, they persisted. Ezra records that “the eye of their God was upon the elders of the Jews” (Ezra 5:5), empowering them to continue. The Persian governor Tattenai made an inquiry about the legitimacy of the Jewish project, and after a search in the official records, Darius I irreversibly authorized the reconstruction. Four years later,9 the temple was finished. Upon completion, the Jews came together to celebrate and worship, and the narrative details the ritual cleansing of the people as they dedicated themselves to serve Yahweh.

Return under Ezra

Ezra 7 begins nearly sixty years after the completion of the temple with a decree by Artaxerxes I encouraging the Jews left in the Persian Empire to return to Israel. The king showed very strong support for the repopulation of Jerusalem and the refurnishing of the temple, offering gifts for the temple and as much funding as he thought necessary.

Ezra was a highly qualified scribe who had “prepared his heart to seek the law of the Lord, and to do it, and to teach in Israel statutes and judgments” (Ezra 7:10). It was at his request that the king authorized the return of the Jews.10 He was the leader of the estimated seven to eight thousand Jews who assembled in Babylon for the trip to Jerusalem.11 Ezra took special care to seek out Levites for service in the temple. Before the journey, he set aside time for a general fast asking Yahweh for protection in travel, as for testimony’s sake he did not want to appear to depend on man.12 After a safe journey, Ezra delivered the supplies for the temple and the people gathered to thank Yahweh.

However, once the work involving the temple was done, it came to Ezra’s attention that many of the Jews who descended from the return under Zerubbabel eighty years previously had intermarried with the foreign populace in Israel. Ezra’s reaction was radical, drawing the attention of the people of Jerusalem. After a period where he publicly “sat down astonished,” (Ezra 9:3) he fasted and prayed desperately for Yahweh’s forgiveness of Israel’s heinous sin. His humble reaction soon prompted a similar response by the Jews, and resulted in mass repentance.

The magnitude of the issue was such that Ezra issued a proclamation to all the Jews requiring an immediate assembly in Jerusalem. At the assembly, the Jews admitted their guilt and asked Ezra and the leaders of the people to help them separate from their pagan wives. During a three-month process, Ezra and the leaders dealt with each individual who had sinned, and where necessary separated the marriage.13

Themes of Ezra

The narrative portion of Ezra almost seems eclipsed by the detailed inclusion of genealogical lists and official documents.14 Yet these lists and many other details in the book highlight two key themes in Ezra. They are developed simultaneously in both parallel sections of the book. The themes are the separation of the Jews and the sovereignty of God.

Separation

Both Zerubbabel and Ezra determined that it was critical that the Jews who returned to Israel keep their Jewish identity pure. Zerubbabel refused to join efforts with the compromising volunteer workers surrounding Jerusalem. Separation directly resulted in strong opposition, yet the people remained separate, and eventually completed the project themselves. Ezra was horrified by the intermarriage of some of the Jews, and instituted drastic measures to ensure separation from pagans.

Immediately after their respective arrivals, both Zerubbabel and Ezra led the people in sacrificial worship to sanctify themselves for Yahweh before their upcoming tasks. Also, in the concluding event of the Zerubbabel section, the Jews joined those proselytes who had “separated themselves unto them from the filthiness of the heathen of the land” in a feast to praise and worship Yahweh together, so the separation was as much religious as racial. Non-Jews were given the opportunity to join the nation.

The long and detailed lists of those who returned with Zerubbabel and Ezra also highlight the fact that the strong national identity of the Jews remained even after many years of exile. Bell notes that “the lists demonstrate that many Israelites had maintained that continuity, which was especially important for the priests and Levites as part of God’s covenant for spiritual leadership.”15 The book of Ezra is about the Jews reforming their nation in order to retain their identity as a separated people for Yahweh.

Sovereignty

A second theme highlighted throughout the narrative is God’s sovereignty in leading and protecting His people. The first verse of Ezra explicitly states that Yahweh “stirred up the spirit of Cyrus king of Persia” to fulfill His prophecy by the prophet Jeremiah, written seventy years previously in the first year of Nebuchadnezzar’s reign in Babylon.16 The listing of Cyrus’ name points back to the prophecy of Isaiah, written a century and a half before, which named Cyrus as God’s shepherd who would bring about the restoration of Jerusalem. In the words of Ronald Manahan, Isaiah’s prophecy “enriches to a superlative degree the infinite ability of the true God.”17 From the outset, the book of Ezra is presented as a story of God arranging events to fulfill His purpose.

These events were arranged many times through decrees by the world’s most powerful figures. Ezra recounts verbatim five documents written by three kings (each one the world leader in his time) giving specific instructions concerning the rebuilding at Jerusalem.18 Bell notes many overt references to specific actions taken by Yahweh throughout the narrative.19 Ezra, in his prayer after hearing the sin of the Jews, begged Yahweh to extend His mercy in bringing them back by forgiving them instead of justly exiling them like He had done before. Brown writes that the literary style of Ezra, namely the portrayal of Yahweh as the primary force driving the storyline, reveals that “from the narrator’s point of view God was behind everything good that happened to His people.”20

Canonical Significance

The book of Ezra begins the final historical chapter of the Old Testament, often called the post-exilic period. Chronologically, the events in Ezra are followed only by Nehemiah and Malachi.21 The twin themes of separation and sovereignty are most significant when viewed in the broader context of Jewish history, especially in light of Yahweh’s covenant promises to Abraham, Moses, and David. His promise to Abraham was that the Jews would possess the promised land forever. However, at Sinai He seemed to set a condition on the promise of land by demanding obedience to His law and warning of judgment for disobedience. To David, Yahweh promised a seed that would rise as Messiah to rule in the nation of Israel.

With Israel’s rebellion and consequential exile, the covenants with Abraham and David seemed to be broken as a result of the condition in the covenant with Moses. The exile threatened the loss of Israel’s identity as a nation separated from the world to Yahweh. Doubtless many Jews in exile lost hope in the promises of Yahweh concerning their future.

However, the events of Ezra confirmed Yahweh’s commitment to His covenant promises. Though exiled in punishment for their sin, the Jews remained a distinct nation, and Yahweh sovereignly directed their return to the promised land. This was the reason for the commitment of Zerubbabel and Ezra to remain separate from the heathen. It was crucial that the Jews retain their separate identity. The return from the exile was a brilliant source of hope that Yahweh’s covenant promises were still extant. The return to the land tied the Jews to the Abrahamic covenant, and the leader Zerubbabel, a direct descendant of David, signaled the yet unfulfilled, but not invalidated promise of a coming Messiah.

Conclusion

The book of Ezra clearly portrays Yahweh’s sovereign plan for His separate people. Recognizing this unlocks direct application for the modern reader. The God who directed and protected His people Israel is the One who named His church “a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a peculiar people” (1 Peter 2:9).

  1. J. Sidlow Baxter, Explore the Book, 6 vols. in 1 (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1960), 2:196–97 []
  2. Under Zerubbabel and Ezra: decrees (1:1–4; 7:11–26), leaders (1:8, 2:2; 7:1–10), travelers (2:3–65; 8:1–20), temple items (1:6–11, 2:68–70; 7:15–22, 8:24–35), arrivals (3:1; 8:32), ministries (5:1–6:14; 9:1–15), outcomes (6:15–22; 10:1–44). Ibid., 2:197 []
  3. Although Ezra 1:5 mentions by name only the tribes of Judah, Benjamin, and Levi, the entire nation had a part in the restoration. For fuller explanation, see H. L. Willmington, Willmington’s Guide to the Bible (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale, 1981), 244–45 []
  4. There is some disagreement concerning the identity of Sheshbazzar, the man identified by Cyrus in 1:8 and 5:14, 16. He may have been a political appointee set and recognized by Cyrus, distinct from the leader Zerubbabel. Instead, it seems best to understand Sheshbazzar as an alternative name or designation for Zerubbabel himself, as the name appears only three times on two occasions. Both occasions are in official documents and both documents refer to accomplishments of Zerubbabel. However, this interpretation is less prevalent recently (see Steinmann). Andrew E. Steinmann, “A Chronological Note: The Return of the Exiles under Sheshbazzar and Zerubbabel (Ezra 1-2),” JETS 51 (Sep 2008), 516–18 []
  5. Cf. I Chron. 3:17 []
  6. Robert Jamieson, A. R. Fausset, and David Brown, Comentario Exegetico y Explicativo de la Biblia, trans. Jaime C. Quarles, 6th ed., 2 vols. (Barcelona: Casa Bautista de Publicaciones, 1977), 364 []
  7. John MacArthur, The MacArthur Study Bible, (Nashville: Nelson, 1997), 645 []
  8. The Samaritans remained a constant hindrance to the efforts of the Jews in Jerusalem. Their efforts continued throughout the reigns of the later kings Ahasuerus (Xerxes, ca. 486–64 B.C.E.) and Artaxerxes I (ca. 464–23 B.C.E.). Ezra 4 gives an example of their efforts by documenting official correspondence sent between the Samaritans and Artaxerxes I. An alternative interpretation, based primarily on an assertion by Josephus (Antiquities of the Jews 11.2), is that the Ahasuerus and Artaxerxes of Ezra 4 refer to rulers before Darius. It however has little historical evidence. For further discussion, see A. Philip Brown, “Nehemiah and Narrative Order in the Book of Ezra,” BSac 162 (Apr 2005), 175–94 []
  9. 516 B.C.E. []
  10. Cf. Ezra 7:6 []
  11. Ezra 8:2–14 lists approximately 1,500 men, plus thirty-eight men in 8:18–20, besides their families. Estimate taken from MacArthur, MacArthur Study Bible, 651 []
  12. Willmington notes that the total value of the supplies brought for the temple was likely over five million dollars. Given the long and dangerous route, his decision demanded substantial faith. Willmington, Guide to the Bible, 246–47 []
  13. In light of the consistently strict guidelines concerning divorce in the law of Moses and the positive reference to proselytes who converted wholeheartedly to Jewish faith in 6:21, it seems reasonable to conclude that those wives who converted to single-hearted worship of Yahweh were not separated from their families. In the case of those who remained pagan, MacArthur notes that “appropriate provision was doubtlessly made for the divorced wives and the children.” MacArthur, MacArthur Study Bible, 655 []
  14. Robert Bell notes that the narrative passages comprise less than half of the verses in Ezra (18.75% are documents, 40.7% are lists). Robert D. Bell, The Theological Messages of the Old Testament Books (Greenville, SC: Bob Jones University Press, 2010), 170 []
  15. Ibid., 173 []
  16. Cf. Jer. 25:1. Ca. 604 B.C.E. See J. Barton Payne, “The Arrangement of Jeremiah’s Prophecies,” JETS 07 (Fall 1964), 120–28 []
  17. Ronald E. Manahan, “The Cyrus Notations of Deutero-Isaiah,” GJ 11 (Fall 1970), 32 []
  18. By Cyrus: Ezra 1:2–4; 6:3–5. By Darius: 6:6–12. By Artaxerxes: 4:17–22; 7:12–26. Four of the five letters were written to grant authority to the Jews in their efforts. The second letter, apparently written by Artaxerxes I during the time of the events in Nehemiah, temporarily halted the work of rebuilding the Jerusalem wall, but ultimately served to highlight God’s overriding hand in allowing the Jews to complete the wall. See Neh. 6:15–16, esp. “for they perceived that this work was done by our God.” []
  19. E.g. Yahweh “stirred up the human spirit” of individuals (1:1; 5:5; 6:22b; 7:6, 9, 27, 28a), “made them [the returnees] joyful” (6:22a), put His eye on the elders (5:5), “commanded the work of building” (6:14), “strengthened Ezra” (7:28b), and gave travelling safety (8:18, 22, 31). Bell, Theological Messages of Old Testament Books, 172–73 []
  20. A. Philip Brown, “Point of View in the Book of Ezra,” BSac 162 (Jul 2005), 320 []
  21. Haggai, Zechariah, and Esther happen during Ezra []

2 Responses to “Theology of the book of Ezra”

  1. Andy Bonikowsky says:

    Great article!

  2. Anasa Lecavi says:

    Great article, will help me alot

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