Ezra comes after First and Second Chronicles in the Bible, though it was likely written about 200 years earlier, and tells the story of a large group of Israelites returning from exile in Babylon.
Ezra takes place about 50 years after the city of Jerusalem and the people of Israel’s Southern Kingdom, Judah, were conquered by the Babylonian empire. The Israelites were scattered, and many were taken as slaves to Babylon and Persia.
At the beginning of the book, the king of Persia, Cyrus, is prompted by God to allow some of the Jews to return to Israel to rebuild the Temple. God raises up Zerubbabel to lead a group back to Jerusalem.
The people settle back in Israel and rebuild the altar for offering sacrifices to God and His Temple. Although they face opposition and conflict in the rebuilding process (Ezra 4), both projects are completed. But unlike the construction of the Tabernacle in Leviticus 19 and the dedication of the first Temple in 1 Kings 8, when the new Temple is dedicated in Ezra 6, God’s presence does not descend into the Temple in a cloud as it did before. The people who remember the original Temple and its glory are heartbroken.
A similar story is told in the second half of the book. Ezra is an Israelite scholar of the Torah and teacher in Babylonian captivity. The Persian king, Artaxerxes, is prompted by God to allow Ezra and a group of Israelites to return to Jerusalem to teach the Torah and introduce spiritual and social reform among the community.
But the book ends with another disappointing turn of events. Ezra returns to Israel and finds that the people are not obeying the Torah and are marrying people who worship other Gods. Ezra makes a decree to rid Israel of its perceived immorality: all of the Israelite men should divorce their pagan wives and cast them and their children out of Jerusalem.
However, God never commanded Ezra to make the decrees—He listened to the Jewish leaders for advice. So, Ezra’s decrees are not fully obeyed and his reform is left incomplete.
A new heart: The stories of Zerubbabel and Ezra begin full of hope, but end with disappointment. Though the Israelites are back in the land that God promised them, it seems that their spiritual state has remain unchanged, even after the exile. Though these leaders tried their best to rebuild the Temple and make social and religious reforms, what the people of Israel ultimately need is a new heart—one that is not calloused by sin, but is transformed by God’s love, mercy and grace.
The importance of the prophets: While the Israelites were in Exile, many prophets spoke to the people on God’s behalf to encourage them to remain faithful to God, obey His laws and keep their eyes fixed on the hope of His promises. But it’s clear in both Zerubbabel and Ezra’s leadership strategies (Ezra 4:3, 9-10) that they did not heed the words of prophets like Jeremiah, Ezekiel and Malachi.
Ezra 1:2-3: “‘This is what Cyrus king of Persia says: “The Lord, the God of heaven, has given me all the kingdoms of the earth and he has appointed me to build a temple for him at Jerusalem in Judah. Any of his people among you may go up to Jerusalem in Judah and build the temple of the Lord, the God of Israel, the God who is in Jerusalem, and may their God be with them.”’”
Ezra 7:25: “‘And you, Ezra, in accordance with the wisdom of your God, which you possess, appoint magistrates and judges to administer justice to all the people of Trans-Euphrates—all who know the laws of your God. And you are to teach any who do not know them.’”
HOW DOES THIS FIT INTO GOD’S STORY?
The book of Ezra reminds readers that following God with your whole heart requires a transformed heart. The people of Israel didn’t need a new Temple or a new set of rules to follow—they needed a way for their sinful hearts to be made new.
The book encourages people to continue reading to find out how that heart transformation becomes possible.