Introduction to Ezra
Ezra is identified as “a ready scribe in the law of Moses” (Ezra 7:6). He is also called “Ezra the priest” (Ezra 7:11), a descendant of “Eleazar, the son of Aaron the chief priest” (Ezra 7:1-5). Although not all conservative scholars agree, it is reasonably certain that Ezra himself wrote the book, as well as the two books of Chronicles. The last two verses of II Chronicles are almost the same as the first two verses of Ezra, the author thereby indicating that the one was intended as a continuation of the other.
The combined accounts of Ezra and Nehemiah, along with the prophetic books of Haggai and Zechariah, tell the story of the returning remnant of Jews after their seventy-year captivity in Babylon, undertaking to rebuild the city of Jerusalem, its walls and the temple.
It is interesting that, just as the exile from the land took place in three separate stages (II Chronicles 36:5-7; 36:8-10; 36:11-20), so the return took place in three stages. First, the returning remnant was led by Zerubbabel, as governor, together with Jeshua the high priest. They rebuilt the temple and reestablished the ancient worship. This story is recounted in the first six chapters of Ezra. It was during this period, extending over about eighty years, that the prophets Haggai and Zechariah exercised their ministry, encouraging the people to continue the work in spite of much opposition. The decree of the Persian emperor Cyrus, in about 536 B.C., initiated this phase.
The second group came under Ezra, in about 458 B.C. following a decree by Artaxerxes that gave Ezra both political and religious authority over Jerusalem, as well as financing to furnish the rebuilt temple and restore it to some measure of its former dignity and beauty.
The third wave came after another decree by Artaxerxes in about 445 B.C. given to Nehemiah, whose main commission was to rebuild the walls of the city. This mission is described in the book of Nehemiah.
There are two sections of Ezra (4:8–6:18; 7:12-26) that were written in Aramaic. These were essentially letters and decrees, and presumably Ezra simply copied them as they were, without translating them into Hebrew (Aramaic was the diplomatic language of the Near East at the time).
It is also worth noting that one of the apocryphal books, I Esdras, purports to have been written by Ezra. However, it contains a number of contradictions with the canonical book of Ezra, with the latter rather obviously providing the true record.
1:2 Cyrus. Cyrus was prophetically named long before he was born (Isaiah 44:28; 45:1,13), presumably during or soon after the reign of King Hezekiah, about two hundred years before its fulfillment as recorded here by Ezra. In fact, this is one of the main arguments by those who say there were “two Isaiah’s,” with the second one writing the section beginning with Isaiah 40. This skeptical notion is invalid, however. The ancient Jewish scribes and other scholars, as well as the New Testament writers, indicate there was only one Isaiah. The New Testament writers quote from both divisions of Isaiah, referring both to the same prophet (e.g., Matthew 8:17, quoting Isaiah 53:4; Matthew 4:14-16, quoting Isaiah 9:1,2).
1:2 The LORD God of heaven. It is noteworthy that a heathen emperor, Cyrus the Great, had somehow come to recognize the fact that Jehovah Elohim, the God of the Jews, was actually the God of creation. It may be that the prophet Daniel, who (according to the Jewish historian Josephus) was Cyrus’ prime minister, led him to this conviction. Josephus relates that Daniel read to Cyrus the prophecy of Isaiah that gave his name and indicated he would enable the Jews to return and rebuild Jerusalem and the temple.
1:2 house at Jerusalem. Ezra 1:1-3 is essentially a quote of the final verses of II Chronicles (II Chronicles 36:22-23). This is one of the reasons why many believe that Ezra was the scribe who researched the old records of the various kings of Judah and then organized them into the books of Chronicles.
1:3 let him go up. The archeological discovery of the “Cyrus cylinder” showed that Cyrus—perhaps because of the divine prediction of the Jewish return as his special ministry—did the same for various other captive peoples in his empire. This clay cylinder on which was inscribed an account of the decree of Cyrus was found in the nineteenth century in present-day Iraq (ancient Babylonia). It not only described the capture of Babylon but also his permission for the peoples captured by the Babylonians to return to their homelands.
1:7 vessels. When Nebuchadnezzar had plundered the temple at Jerusalem, the empire of Babylon was at its height. In the meantime, however, the Persian empire had defeated the Babylonians and was now preeminent in the world. It is noteworthy that, although Cyrus had his own “gods,” he had somehow come to recognize the true “God of heaven” (Ezra 1:2), and acknowledged that “He is the God” (Ezra 1:3).
1:8 Even those. The prophet Jeremiah had promised that, not only would the Jews return after their captivity, but also the temple vessels taken by Nebuchadnezzar would be returned (Jeremiah 27:22).
1:8 Sheshbazzar. It is commonly believed that Sheshbazzar is the Chaldean name for Zerubbabel, since both are called “governor” of the returning exiles (Ezra 5:14; 2:2; Haggai 1:1). It is possible, however, that Zerubbabel succeeded Sheshbazzar as governor.
1:8 prince. The term “prince” does not have to imply royalty, but only “principal.” However, Zerubbabel was actually a grandson of king Jehoiachin (I Chronicles 3:17-19).
1:9 chargers. That is, large flat dishes.