Overview of the Book of Ezra

Question
Overview of the Book of Ezra
Answer

Overviews of the Books of Ezra & Nehemiah

Note: The Overviews for Ezra and Nehemiah are identical.

Author: The author is unknown.

Purpose:

To encourage those who returned to the Promised Land to continue the work that Zerubbabel, Ezra, and Nehemiah had begun.

Date: c. 430-400 B.C.

Key Truths:

  • God endorsed and blessed Zerubbabel, Ezra, and Nehemiah as they furthered the restoration after exile.
  • Ezra and Nehemiah provided faithful leadership as the restoration of Israel faltered.
  • The Temple and Jerusalem played a central role in bringing God's blessing to his people.
  • The people of God must be led to repentance and holiness in order to receive God's blessing.

Author:

The same author composed Ezra and Nehemiah. Although modern translations of Ezra and Nehemiah treat them as two separate books, they were originally one work. The Hebrew Bible, the Talmud, the writings of Josephus (c. A.D. 37-100) and the oldest manuscripts of the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Old Testament) treat them as one book. Origen (A.D. 185-253) was among the first to separate Ezra and Nehemiah into two books. Jerome did likewise in the translation of the Latin Vulgate (A.D. 390-405), as have modern translations.

Ezra has traditionally been considered the essential author of Ezra-Nehemiah as well as 1 and 2 Chronicles. Yet differences between Chronicles and Ezra-Nehemiah strongly suggest that different people wrote them (see "Introduction to 1 Chronicles"). Given Ezra's important role in Israel and his literary skills (see note on Ezra 7:6), it is likely that he was at least significantly involved in the writing of this book. Ezra no doubt wrote his memoirs (Ezra 7:27-9:15) as Nehemiah wrote his (Neh. 1:17:5; 12:27-43; 13:4-31). Ezra and Nehemiah were probably completed around 430-400 B.C.

Time and Place of Writing:

In recent interpretation, questions have been raised as to the interconnections between the ministries of Ezra and Nehemiah. It has traditionally been held that Ezra came to Jerusalem in 458 B.C., "the seventh year" (Ezra 7:8) of Artaxerxes I, and that Nehemiah followed him in "the twentieth year" (445 B.C.; Neh. 2:1). Some interpreters have argued that Ezra 7:8 actually refers to Artaxerxes II, thus placing Ezra's arrival in 398 B.C. (after Nehemiah's in 445 B.C.). Other interpreters have amended "seventh" in Ezra 7:8 to "twenty-seventh" or "thirty-seventh," thus placing Ezra's arrival after Nehemiah's. Nevertheless, the content of the book favors the more traditional view, in which Ezra arrived before Nehemiah and their ministries overlapped. They appeared together at the reading of the law (Neh. 8:9) and at the dedication of the city wall (Neh. 12:26,36).

Following the traditional view, Ezra-Nehemiah was finalized between 430 and 400 B.C. Ezra most likely wrote while he worked on the restoration in and near Jerusalem.

Original Audience:

Ezra-Nehemiah was written to the community of Jews in and around Jerusalem during the restoration attempt. Since the initial move toward restoration had begun a century earlier, many in the original audience must have descended from families that had lived in the area for several generations. Because the restoration continued for an extended period of time under Zerubbabel, Ezra, and Nehemiah and drew a continuing influx of Jews to the area, others in the original audience were more recent transplants to the Jerusalem locale. While Ezra wrote mainly to encourage and direct those who had returned to participate in the restoration, it is likely that he also intended his work to encourage those still living in Babylon to join the restoration efforts.

Purpose and Distinctives:

Ezra-Nehemiah is a historical narrative that presents the work of Zerubbabel, Ezra, and Nehemiah in a very positive light. By showing only the positive side of their leadership, the book encouraged those who had returned from exile to continue the work these leaders had begun.

At least three other closely related concerns appear time and again in the book. These vital themes appear in the opening record of the decree of Cyrus (Ezra 1:2-4): (1) divine authorization of the restoration program, (2) the importance of rebuilding the house of God, and (3) the essential role of all the people of God in the project.

The record of the Cyrus edict twice mentions the divine authorization of the restoration program. First, Cyrus issued his all-important decree because "the LORD moved the heart of Cyrus" (Ezra 1:1). Second, Cyrus himself acknowledged that his decree came from God (Ezra 1:2). As the book continues, the Lord legitimated the actions of the returnees time and again. For example, those who returned did so because the Lord had moved their hearts (Ezra 1:5), Ezra succeeded because the gracious hand of God was upon him (Ezra 7:9), and Artaxerxes supported the rebuilding enterprise because the Lord put it in his heart (Ezra 7:27).

Cyrus commissioned the return from exile for the express purpose of rebuilding "a temple . . . at Jerusalem in Judah" (Ezra 1:2) and bringing offerings "for the temple of God in Jerusalem" (Ezra 1:4). The reconstruction of the Temple and the city of Jerusalem was a central feature of the restoration (see "Introduction to 1 Chronicles"). The book therefore concentrates on how the temple was completed (Ezra 6:13-18) and how the wall surrounding the city was built and dedicated (Neh. 12:27-47). The readers who lived after these initial construction projects had ended were encouraged to perpetuate the orientation of the people of God toward the city and its Temple.

Cyrus's commission was directed toward all the people of God, not merely toward this or that leader. Cyrus stressed that "anyone of [God's] people" (Ezra 1:3) and "the people of any place" (Ezra 1:4) could return to the land. The long lists of otherwise unknown individuals also underscore the fact that the people of God as a whole were deeply involved in the restoration of the nation (Ezra 2:3-70; repeated in Neh. 7:8-73). The reforms that Ezra and Nehemiah led were not limited to a select few but were designed to transform the entire community of returnees (Ezra 10:1-44; Neh. 13:1-31). The book stresses that all of God's people needed to be sanctified for the restoration of the nation to God's blessings.

Ezra-Nehemiah is a compilation of a number of separate documents that were masterfully woven together to form a beautiful and powerful whole. Lists play a significant role. Included are lists of: (1) the Temple articles (Ezra 1:9-11), (2) those who initially returned from exile (Ezra 2:3-70; repeated in Neh. 7:8-73), (3) the leaders who returned with Ezra (Ezra 8:2-14); (4) those involved in mixed marriages (Ezra 10:18-43); (5) those who rebuilt the wall (Neh 3:1-32), (6) those who sealed the covenant (Neh. 10:1-27), (7) new residents in Jerusalem and in the surrounding towns (Neh. 11:1-36), and (8) the priests and Levites who returned with Zerubbabel (Neh. 12:1-26).

Much official correspondence has also been included. These letters were not even translated, but were kept in their original Aramaic, the language of international diplomacy at that time and place. They include: (1) the letter of Rehum to Artaxerxes (Ezra 4:11-16), (2) the reply of Artaxerxes (Ezra 4:17-22), (3) the letter of Tattenai to Darius (Ezra 5:7-17), (4) the memorandum regarding the decree of Cyrus (Ezra 6:2-5), (5) the reply of Darius to Tattenai (Ezra 6:6-12), and (6) the letter of Artaxerxes on behalf of Ezra (Ezra 7:12-26). Beyond this, the decree of Cyrus (Ezra 1:2-4), the memoirs of Ezra (Ezra 7:27-9:15), and the memoirs of Nehemiah (Neh. 1:1-7:5; 12:27-43; 13:4-31) have been included.

Christ in Ezra-Nehemiah:

The revelation of Christ is an important distinctive in the book of Ezra-Nehemiah. The book of Ezra-Nehemiah reveals Christ in at least five ways:

(1) The work of Ezra and Nehemiah was based on the efforts of Zerubbabel, the descendant of David who represented the royal family at the beginning of the final restoration of God's people to blessing (Hag. 1-2; Zech. 1-8). Zerubbabel's efforts fell short of expectations, but Jesus would later descend from Zerubbabel (Matt. 1:12-16) and receive the promises given the house of David after exile.

(2) The idealistic portrayals of Zerubbabel, Ezra, and Nehemiah as leaders anticipate the work of Christ. As they devoted their lives to leading God's people toward the blessings of God, Christ leads his own toward ultimate and eternal blessings. Like Christ (Matt. 23:1-39), Ezra and Nehemiah confronted and corrected sin within Israel (Ezra 9:1-15; 10:10-14; Neh. 1:6-7; 9:1-3, 26-38; 13:15-27). Like Christ (John 17:6-26), they identified themselves with God's sinful people and prayed for them (Ezra 9:6-15; Neh. 1:4-11).

(3) The focus on reconstructing and properly operating the temple in Jerusalem anticipates Christ. The Temple is central in the Christian faith. Christ not only cleansed the Temple (Matt. 21:12-13; John 2:13-17); he also is the Temple (John 2:19-22). Christ established the church as the Temple of God (1 Cor. 3:16-17; 2 Cor. 6:16), and he now ministers in the heavenly Temple (Heb. 9:11-12, 24). When he returns, Christ will bring the new Jerusalem from heaven to the earth to make the new heavens and the new earth the holy city of God, with himself and the Father as its Temple (Rev. 21:22). The themes of holiness, sacrifices, prayers, forgiveness, the priesthood, and the presence of God, associated with the Temple in Ezra-Nehemiah, are all fulfilled in Christ.

(4) The moral reforms that Ezra and Nehemiah brought to the nation also find ultimate fulfillment in Christ. Christ also called God's covenant people to return to the Lord and his law (Matt. 5:17-19). In fact, through his death, his resurrection and the empowerment of his Spirit, he cleanses those who believe in him from unrighteousness and leads them into faithful living (1 John 1:7-9), so they may inherit the blessings of God (Matt. 25:34-40; Rom. 6:1-23; 1 Pet. 3:9-12).

(5) During Ezra's brief stay in Jerusalem he reconstituted Israel and gave its faith a form in which it could survive through the centuries. Ezra organized the Jewish community around the law, the Torah. From this time on, the distinguishing mark of a Jew would not geographical or national, but adherence to the law. The law opened a way to overcome the ethnic and geographical limitations of former days. This change in Jewish faith lay the groundwork for many of the characteristics of the Christian faith. Christian worship, church organization, community life, missionary efforts, and the like depended heavily on the changes that grew out of Ezra's ministry.

Introduction Material:

Introduction to the Historical Books

Answer by Dr. Joseph R. Nally, Jr.

Dr. Joseph R. Nally, Jr., D.D., M.Div. is the Theological Editor at Third Millennium Ministries (IIIM).