Introduction to Ezra
and Study of Ezra 1-4
May 15th

Produced by The Listening for God Ministry
Copyright 2016

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Ezra (Overview)

The book of Ezra is the first of three post-exilic books of history. The other two are Nehemiah and Esther. In the Hebrew Bible, Ezra and Nehemiah are combined into one book. The content of this book corresponds with two of the books of prophesy that we will read later this year: Haggai and Zechariah.

The primary purpose of the book of Ezra is to show God’s faithfulness to his people (1). The events in the book also demonstrate the sovereign power that God holds over the world, as he is able to orchestrate believers and non-believers to fulfill his will. The believers respond with a variety of forms of prayer, including examples of brief "breath prayers" during long journeys and also long eloquent speeches for special occasions. We will also read about physical manifestation of prayer such as fasting, shouting, singing, and tearing of clothes.

The book of Ezra is relatively short compared to the last two books. Its ten chapters can be divided into two parts:

    Return led by Zerubabel (circa 538 BC) Chapters 1-6
    Ezra 1-4 (Return from Exile) - May 15th
    Ezra 5-6 (Temple Built) - May 16th

    Return led by Ezra (circa 458 BC) Chapters 7-10
    Ezra 7-10 (Second Group of Returnees) - May 17th

References used for the analysis of this book include the following:

  • Abegg, Martin Jr., Flint Peter, and Ulrich, Eugene; The Dead Sea Scrolls Bible, HarperCollins Publishers, NY, NY, 1999
  • Boadt, Lawrence, Reading the Old Testament: An Introduction, Paulist Press, Mahwah, NJ; 1984
  • Fee, Gordon D., Stuart Douglas, How to Read the Bible Book by Book, Zondervan, Grand Rapids, MI, 2002
  • Holy Bible, New Revised Standard Version, Zondervan Bible Publishers, Grand Rapids, MI; 1993
  • Kidner, Derek, Ezra and Nehemiah, An Introduction and Commentary, Inter-Varsity Press, Leicester England, Downers Grove, IL, USA, 1979
  • Life Application Study Bible, New International Version, Zondervan Publishing House, Grand Rapids, M; 1991 (with commentary from an inter-denominational team of experts)
  • Men's Devotional Bible, New International Version, Zondervan Publishing House, Grand Rapids, MI; 1993 (with daily devotionals from Godly men)
  • The New American Bible, Sponsored by the Bishop's Committee of the Confraternity of Christian Doctrine, Catholic Bible Publishers, Wichita, KS, 1970
  • Peterson, Eugene, The Message, The Bible in Contemporary Language, NavPress, Colorado Springs, CO, 80920, 2005

Ezra 1-4 (Return from Exile)

Please refer to one or more Bible versions of your choice to read this section. We recommend that you read at least two versions for added understanding. For your convenience, we have provided six links below, each of which takes you directly to today's chapters in a specific version:

Key Verse

“Thus says Cyrus, king of Persia: ‘All the kingdoms of the earth the LORD, the God of heaven,* has given to me, and he has charged me to build him a house in Jerusalem, which is in Judah.

- Ezra 1:2

Summary of Chapters

At one point in their history the Israelites had been enslaved by the Pharaoh in Egypt. God used Moses to lead the people out following a series of dramatic miracles. The people then wandered in the desert for forty years before arriving in the Promised Land. They conquered the land and built a great empire, but forgot about the divine being who had led them to their success. The empire split into two and begin a long trajectory away from God. After about 800 years most of the survivors had been taken to Babylon, from where they longed to go home.

The first group of exiles returned to Jerusalem and Israel after nearly 70 years of exile in Babylon. The first return took place in the year 538 BC because the LORD moved the heart of Cyrus, king of Persia. Cyrus sent them back with money and treasures from the old temple that had been taken by Nebuchanezzar and preserved, as noted in chapter 1.

Chapter 2 notes that all Israelites were given permission to return but only the tribes of Judah and Benjamin and the Levites returned, a small fraction of the people who had once populated a united kingdom of Israel. Chapter 3 reports that the people began re-building the temple and then celebrated with great emotion when the foundation was relaid:

    When the workers laid the foundation of The Temple of God, the priests in their robes stood up with trumpets, and the Levites, sons of Asaph, with cymbals, to praise God in the tradition of David king of Israel. They sang antiphonally praise and thanksgiving to God:

    Yes! God is good! Oh yes—he'll never quit loving Israel!

    All the people boomed out hurrahs, praising God as the foundation of The Temple of God was laid. As many were noisily shouting with joy, many of the older priests, Levites, and family heads who had seen the first Temple, when they saw the foundations of this Temple laid, wept loudly for joy. People couldn't distinguish the shouting from the weeping. The sound of their voices reverberated for miles around.

    - Ezra 3:10-13 (MSG)

Chapter 4 provides an account of Rehum and other enemies of Judah and Benjamin who wrote a letter to King Xerxes, successor to Cyrus, opposing the building of the temple. Xerxes agreed and instructed Rehum to tell them to stop.

Reflection and Application

Persia had overtaken Babylon in 539 B.C., enabling the Persians to control a wide area of land that included most of modern day Iran, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Israel, and Palestine. Unlike the Babylonians, Cyrus was compassionate to the people in the lands he had conquered and therefore was willing to let the Israelites return. Unlike the Pharaoh of Egypt, he listened when God told him to let his people go, and allowed himself to be used as an instrument of God. These chapters reinforce the principle that God can use believers or non-believers to achieve his purposes.

It would be more appropriate to state that the decision to release the remnant of the Israelites was in God’s hands rather than in Cyrus’s hands. When the people’s hearts changed, God allowed them to return home. We should never give up hope that God will restore us. Perhaps God allowed Persia to overtake Babylon so that he could work through Cyrus and perhaps he will move other people to help in our restoration.

Note that the people made the rebuilding of the temple a priority, even more important than the rebuilding of the wall for protection from invaders. God should be remembered as the first source of protection. Unbelievers will try to talk us out of things and oppose us – as Rehum did. We should not be discouraged.

It was fascinating to see the contents of the letters between Rehum and King Artaxerxes. This type of formal letter writing persisted for many generations, but is being replaced by the short-hand texting style of our era. If these two parties had used Twitter, their letters might have gone something like this:

    @KingArty Those peeps u let come bck r rebldng their temple & r going to stiff u on taxes! Just saying. #stopTempleRebuild

    @Rahum666 OMG! My people say u r right :0 They r hooligans. Put a stop to it!

God would have responded to these messages with a popular three-letter text messaging expression: LOL (Laughing Out Loud). Nothing was going to stop God’s plans to rebuild the temple. It would be completed 70 years after the exile from Judah regardless of the plans of little men writing fancy letters.

Questions and Prayers for Further Reflection

    Related Questions

    1. Do you have a memory of returning to a previous home after a long time away? How was it different?
    2. Have you had an unlikely person give you a message or perform an action on behalf of God?
    3. What is God looking for you to restore today?

    Recommended Prayer
    Father in heaven, we acknowledge that you are in control. Please help us to know what it is that you want us to restore today.

    Suggested Prayer Concerns
    People moving to new homes this month


    (1) Life Application Study Bible, New International Version, Zondervan Publishing House, Grand Rapids, M; 1991, p.770

    Looking Ahead

    Tomorrow's reading: 5-6 (Temple Rebuilt)

    Comments and Questions
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