Bible Book Number 15—Ezra
Place Written: Jerusalem
Writing Completed: c. 460 B.C.E.
Time Covered: 537–c. 467 B.C.E.
1. What prophecies gave assurance of Jerusalem’s restoration?
THE end of the prophesied 70 years of Jerusalem’s desolation under Babylon was drawing near. True, it was Babylon’s reputation that she never released her captives, but Jehovah’s word would prove stronger than Babylonian might. Release of Jehovah’s people was in sight. Jehovah’s temple that had been laid low would be rebuilt, and Jehovah’s altar would again receive sacrifices of atonement. Jerusalem would again know the shout and praise of the true worshiper of Jehovah. Jeremiah had prophesied the length of the desolation, and Isaiah had prophesied how the release of captives would come about. Isaiah had even named Cyrus of Persia as ‘the shepherd of Jehovah,’ who would tumble haughty Babylon from her position as the third world power of Bible history.—Isa. 44:28; 45:1, 2; Jer. 25:12.
2. When and under what circumstances did Babylon fall?
2 Disaster befell Babylon on the night of October 5, 539 B.C.E. (Gregorian calendar), as the Babylonian king Belshazzar and his grandees were drinking toasts to their demon gods. Adding to their pagan debauchery, they were using the holy vessels from Jehovah’s temple as their cups of drunkenness! How fitting that Cyrus was outside Babylon’s walls that night to fulfill the prophecy!
3. What proclamation by Cyrus made it possible to restore Jehovah’s worship exactly 70 years after the desolation of Jerusalem began?
3 This date 539 B.C.E. is a pivotal date, that is, a date that may be harmonized with both secular and Biblical history. During his first year as ruler of Babylon, Cyrus “caused a cry to pass through all his realm,” authorizing the Jews to go up to Jerusalem to rebuild the house of Jehovah. This decree was evidently issued late in 538 B.C.E. or early in 537 B.C.E.* A faithful remnant journeyed back to Jerusalem in time to set up the altar and offer the first sacrifices in “the seventh month” (Tishri, corresponding to September-October) of the year 537 B.C.E.—70 years to the month after Judah and Jerusalem’s desolation by Nebuchadnezzar.—Ezra 1:1-3; 3:1-6.
4. (a) What is the setting of the book of Ezra, and who wrote it? (b) When was Ezra written, and what period does it cover?
4 Restoration! This provides the setting of the book of Ezra. The use of the first person in the narration from chapter 7 verse 27 through chapter 9 verse 15 clearly shows that the writer was Ezra. As “a skilled copyist in the law of Moses” and a man of practical faith who “prepared his heart to consult the law of Jehovah and to do it and to teach” it, Ezra was well qualified to record this history, even as he had recorded Chronicles. (Ezra 7:6, 10) Since the book of Ezra is a continuation of Chronicles, it is generally believed that it was written at the same time, about 460 B.C.E. It covers 70 years, from the time that the Jews were a broken, scattered nation marked as “the sons of death” to the completion of the second temple and the cleansing of the priesthood after Ezra’s return to Jerusalem.—Ezra 1:1; 7:7; 10:17; Ps. 102:20, footnote.
5. What relation has the book of Ezra to the book of Nehemiah, and in what languages was it written?
5 The Hebrew name Ezra means “Help.” The books of Ezra and Nehemiah were originally one scroll. (Neh. 3:32, footnote) Later the Jews divided this scroll and called it First and Second Ezra. Modern Hebrew Bibles call the two books Ezra and Nehemiah, as do other modern Bibles. Part of the book of Ezra (4:8 to 6:18 and; 7:12-26) was written in Aramaic and the remainder in Hebrew, Ezra being skilled in both languages.
6. What testifies to the accuracy of the book of Ezra?
6 Today the majority of scholars accept the accuracy of the book of Ezra. Concerning the canonicity of Ezra, W. F. Albright writes in his treatise The Bible After Twenty Years of Archaeology: “Archaeological data have thus demonstrated the substantial originality of the Books of Jeremiah and Ezekiel, of Ezra and Nehemiah beyond doubt; they have confirmed the traditional picture of events, as well as their order.”
7. How is the book of Ezra shown truly to be a part of the divine record?
7 Though the book of Ezra may not be quoted or referred to directly by the Christian Greek Scripture writers, there is no question about its place in the canon of the Bible. It carries the record of Jehovah’s dealings with the Jews down to the time of the assembling of the Hebrew catalog, which work was largely accomplished by Ezra, according to Jewish tradition. Moreover, the book of Ezra vindicates all the prophecies concerning the restoration and so proves that it is indeed an integral part of the divine record, with which it also harmonizes completely. In addition, it honors pure worship and sanctifies the great name of Jehovah God.
CONTENTS OF EZRA
8. Describe the chain of events leading to the end of the 70 years’ desolation.
8 A remnant returns (1:1–3:6). His spirit roused by Jehovah, Cyrus king of Persia issues the decree for the Jews to return and build the house of Jehovah in Jerusalem. He urges those Jews who may remain in Babylon to contribute freely toward the project and arranges for the returning Jews to take back the utensils of the original temple. One who is leader from the royal tribe of Judah and a descendant of King David, Zerubbabel (Sheshbazzar), is assigned as governor to lead the released ones, and Jeshua (Joshua) is the high priest. (Ezra 1:8; 5:2; Zech. 3:1) A remnant that may have numbered 200,000 faithful servants of Jehovah, including men, women, and children, make the long journey. By the seventh month, according to the Jewish calendar, they are settled in their cities, and then they gather at Jerusalem to offer sacrifices at the site of the temple altar and to celebrate the Festival of Booths in the fall of 537 B.C.E. Thus the 70 years’ desolation ends exactly on time!*
9. How does the temple work begin, but what happens in the years that follow?
9 Rebuilding the temple (3:7–6:22). Materials are assembled, and in the second year of their return, the foundation of the temple of Jehovah is laid amid shouts of joy and amid the weeping of the older men who had seen the former house. The neighboring peoples, adversaries, offer to help with the construction, saying they are seeking the same God, but the Jewish remnant flatly refuse any alliance with them. The adversaries continually try to weaken and dishearten the Jews and to frustrate their work, from the reign of Cyrus down to that of Darius. Finally, in the days of “Artaxerxes” (Bardiya or possibly a Magian known as Gaumata, 522 B.C.E.), they have the work forcibly stopped by royal command. This ban continues “until the second year of the reign of Darius the king of Persia” (520 B.C.E.), which is over 15 years after the laying of the foundation.—4:4-7, 24.
10. (a) How does encouragement from God’s prophets combine with the king’s order in getting the work completed? (b) What joy marks the dedication of this second temple?
10 Jehovah now sends his prophets Haggai and Zechariah to arouse Zerubbabel and Jeshua, and the building work is taken up with renewed zeal. Again the adversaries complain to the king, but the work goes on with unabated vigor. Darius I (Hystaspis), after referring to Cyrus’ original decree, orders the work to continue without interference and even commands the opposers to supply materials to facilitate construction. With continued encouragement from Jehovah’s prophets, the builders complete the temple in less than five years. This is in the month Adar of the sixth year of Darius, or near the spring of 515 B.C.E., and the entire construction has taken just about 20 years. (6:14, 15) The house of God is now inaugurated with great joy and with appropriate sacrifices. Then the people celebrate the Passover and go on to hold “the festival of unfermented cakes seven days with rejoicing.” (6:22) Yes, joy and rejoicing mark the dedication of this second temple to Jehovah’s praise.
11. How does the king grant Ezra “all his request,” and what is Ezra’s response?
11 Ezra returns to Jerusalem (7:1–8:36). Almost 50 years elapse, bringing us down to 468 B.C.E., the seventh year of the Persian king Artaxerxes (known as Longimanus because his right hand was longer than his left). The king grants the skilled copyist Ezra “all his request” with respect to a journey to Jerusalem to render much-needed aid there. (7:6) In authorizing him, the king encourages the Jews to go with him and grants Ezra silver and gold vessels for temple use, as well as provisions of wheat, wine, oil, and salt. He exempts the priests and temple workers from taxation. The king makes Ezra responsible to teach the people and declares it to be a capital offense for anyone not to become a doer of the law of Jehovah and the law of the king. With thankfulness to Jehovah for this expression of his loving-kindness through the king, Ezra acts immediately on the commission.
12. How does Jehovah prove to be with Ezra’s group during the journey?
12 At this point Ezra commences his eyewitness account, writing in the first person. He assembles the returning Jews at the river Ahava for final instructions, and he adds some Levites to the group of about 1,500 adult males already assembled. Ezra recognizes the dangers of the route to be taken but does not ask the king for an escort, lest it be construed as showing lack of faith in Jehovah. Instead, he proclaims a fast and leads the camp in making entreaty to God. This prayer is answered, and the hand of Jehovah proves to be over them throughout the long journey. Thus, they are able to bring their treasures (worth more than $43,000,000 at modern values) safely to the house of Jehovah in Jerusalem.—8:26, 27, and footnotes.
13. How does Ezra act in removing uncleanness from among the Jews?
13 Cleansing the priesthood (9:1–10:44). But not all has gone well during the 69 years of dwelling in the restored land. Ezra learns of disturbing conditions, in that the people, the priests, and the Levites have intermarried with the pagan Canaanites. Faithful Ezra is stunned. He lays the matter before Jehovah in prayer. The people confess their wrongdoing and ask Ezra to “be strong and act.” (10:4) He has the Jews put away the foreign wives that they have taken in disobedience to God’s law, and the uncleanness is cleared out in the space of about three months.—10:10-12, 16, 17.
14. What does the book of Ezra show as to Jehovah’s prophecies?
14 The book of Ezra is beneficial, in the first place, in showing the unerring accuracy with which Jehovah’s prophecies are fulfilled. Jeremiah, who had so accurately foretold Jerusalem’s desolation, also foretold its restoration after 70 years. (Jer. 29:10) Right on time, Jehovah showed his loving-kindness in bringing his people, a faithful remnant, back again into the Land of Promise to carry on true worship.
15. (a) How did the restored temple serve Jehovah’s purpose? (b) In what respects did it lack the glory of the first temple?
15 The restored temple again exalted Jehovah’s worship among his people, and it stood as a testimony that he wonderfully and mercifully blesses those who turn to him with a desire for true worship. Though it lacked the glory of Solomon’s temple, it served its purpose in harmony with the divine will. The material splendor was no longer there. It was also inferior in spiritual treasures, lacking, among other things, the ark of the covenant.* Nor was the inauguration of Zerubbabel’s temple comparable with the inauguration of the temple in Solomon’s day. The sacrifices of cattle and sheep were not even one percent of the sacrifices at Solomon’s temple. No cloudlike glory filled the latter house, as it had the former, nor did fire descend from Jehovah to consume the burnt offerings. Both temples, however, served the important purpose of exalting the worship of Jehovah, the true God.
16. But what other temple exceeds earthly temples for glory?
16 The temple built by Zerubbabel, the tabernacle constructed by Moses, and the temples built by Solomon and Herod, along with their features, were typical, or pictorial. These represented the “true tent, which Jehovah put up, and not man.” (Heb. 8:2) This spiritual temple is the arrangement for approaching Jehovah in worship on the basis of Christ’s propitiatory sacrifice. (Heb 9:2-10, 23) Jehovah’s great spiritual temple is superlative in glory and incomparable in beauty and desirableness; its splendor is unfading and above that of any material structure.
17. What valuable lessons are to be found in the book of Ezra?
17 The book of Ezra contains lessons that are of highest value for Christians today. In it we read of Jehovah’s people making willing offerings for his work. (Ezra 2:68; 2 Cor. 9:7) We are encouraged by learning of Jehovah’s unfailing provision for and his blessing upon assemblies for his praise. (Ezra 6:16, 22) We see a fine example in the Nethinim and other believing foreigners as they go up with the remnant to give wholehearted support to Jehovah’s worship. (2:43, 55) Consider, too, the humble repentance of the people when advised of their wrong course in intermarrying with pagan neighbors. (10:2-4) Bad associations led to divine disapproval. (9:14, 15) Joyful zeal for his work brought his approval and blessing.—6:14, 21, 22.
18. Why was the restoration of Jehovah’s people an important step leading to the appearance of Messiah, the King?
18 Though a king no longer sat on Jehovah’s throne at Jerusalem, the restoration aroused expectation that Jehovah would in due course produce his promised King in the line of David. The restored nation was now in position to guard the sacred pronouncements and worship of God until the time of Messiah’s appearing. If this remnant had not responded in faith in returning to their land, to whom would Messiah have come? Truly, the events in the book of Ezra are an important part of the history leading to the appearance of the Messiah and King! It is all most beneficial for our study today.