The Book of Ezra

Gustave Doré (1866)

The book of Ezra is listed among the historical books of the Old Testament. There are twelve books listed among the historical books of the Old Testament: Joshua, Judges, Ruth, 1 and 2 Samuel, 1 and 2 Kings, 1 and 2 Chronicles, Ezra, Nehemiah, and Esther.

In the Hebrew Bible, Ezra is listed among the Kethuvim or the Writings. The last three books of the Kethuvim are Daniel, Ezra-Nehemiah, and Chronicles. Originally, the books of Ezra and Nehemiah were considered to be as a single book. The original book was divided into two in the fourth century by Jerome during the translation of the Hebrew Bible into Latin.

In the Hebrew Bible, the books of Ezra and Nehemiah introduce the history of Israel during the postexilic period after the people returned from their exile in Babylon. The book of Ezra records the events related to the work of the returnees after they arrived in Palestine, the rebuilding of the second temple, and the restoration of Judah. Both Ezra and Nehemiah reflect the life of the Israelite community during the Persian period. The two books present the efforts of the religious leaders of Israel to restore the people’s relationship with God through the rebuilding of the temple and the promulgation of the Law.

The book of Ezra is a bilingual book. The Hebrew of the book reflects late biblical Hebrew. Chapters 4:8 to 6:18 and chapter 7:11–26 were written in Aramaic. During the exile of Israel, the new generation of Israelites learned Aramaic, the language of their captors. During the Persian period, Aramaic became the common language of the empire.

The book of Ezra is primarily focused on the rebuilding of the temple and the restoration of the religious life of Israel after their return from exile. The work of restoration began with the Edict of Cyrus, king of Persia.

In 539 BCE Cyrus issued a proclamation authorizing and encouraging the people of Israel to return to their homeland. Cyrus also gave permission for the people of Israel to rebuild the Temple. The Edit of Cyrus was written in what is known today as the Cyrus Cylinder. The declaration was written in Akkadian cuneiform. The Edict of Cyrus appears in 2 Chronicles 36:22–23 and in Ezra 1:1-4.

The book of Ezra begins by describing the actions of the people who returned from Babylon. The first return was in 537 BCE under Sheshbazzar, a member of the royal family. Sheshbazzar appears in 1 Chronicles 3:8 as Shenazzar, the son of Jehoiachin. Only a small group of Jews, inspired by nationalistic zeal, returned with Sheshbazzar (Ezra 1:5–11).

The book of Ezra contains a list naming the people who returned to Jerusalem. This list was likely a census of those who returned from Babylon with Sheshbazzar. This first group of returnees was composed mostly of people from the tribes of Judah and Benjamin, including a few priests and many Levites. Once the returnees settled in the land, they came together to begin the work of rebuilding the temple.

Most of the Jews who had acquired wealth in Babylon, chose to remain in Babylon. They provided money for the return of the people and for the rebuilding of the temple (Ezra 1:4–6). Sheshbazzar laid the foundation of the new temple, but he died before the reconstruction was finished.

After the death of Sheshbazzar, his nephew Zerubbabel became governor of Judah. He came from Babylon bringing with him thousands of people. Because of economic hardship, the construction of the temple had been stopped after the death of Sheshbazzar.

The promised financial help from Persia did not materialize; the people were discouraged and the work of rebuilding the temple was not finished. The preaching of the prophet Haggai and the prophet Zechariah moved the people to finish the construction of the new temple. With prophetic encouragement, the new temple was finished in 516 BCE with great rejoicing.

Ezra was a priest who returned to Jerusalem to restore the religious life of the people. Ezra was the grandson of Seraiah (2 Kings 25:18) and a descendant from the family of Eleazar, the son of Aaron (Ezra 7:5). Ezra was also “a scribe skilled in the law of Moses that the LORD the God of Israel had given” (Ezra 7:6).

In 428 BCE Ezra led the third group of exiles that returned from Babylon to Jerusalem. Ezra’s return to Jerusalem took place in the seventh year of the reign of Artaxerxes (Ezra 7:7). The chronology of Ezra and Nehemiah is one of the most perplexing problems in Old Testament literature.

Ezra’s mission was to rebuild the Israelite community and restore the purity of the cultic life of the nation. Ezra’s first task was to insure the strength of the Israelite family. He took stern measures against intermarriage with foreigners, especially mixed marriages involving non-Jewish women.

In order to renew the religious life of the postexilic community, Ezra gathered the people for a ceremony of covenant renewal. In the month of the autumn harvest festival (Feast of Tabernacles), the people were gathered to hear the reading of the Law.

Ezra and the Levites read the law for the people from morning until noon (Nehemiah 8:1–8). The ceremony included a solemn act of covenant renewal. The people confessed their sins and Ezra prayed for the people. The covenant document was signed by the representatives of the people who promised “to walk in the Torah of Yahweh” (Nehemiah 10).

The posts below deal with the first six chapters of Ezra. These posts are based on the sermons preached by my pastor Jeff Griffin, the Senior Pastor of The Compass Church in Naperville.


Ezra: Stirring Our Heart

Ezra: Working with God

Ezra: Becoming an Optimist

Ezra: Overcoming

Ezra: Celebrating God’s Faithfulness

Claude Mariottini
Emeritus Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary

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