1. An Aaronic priest, a descendant of Eleazar and Phinehas, a scholar, an expert copyist and teacher of the Law, skilled in both Hebrew and Aramaic. Ezra had genuine zeal for pure worship and “prepared his heart to consult the law of Jehovah and to do it and to teach in Israel regulation and justice.” (Ezr 7:1-6, 10) In addition to writing the book bearing his name, Ezra apparently wrote the two books of Chronicles, and Jewish tradition credits him with beginning the compiling and cataloging of the books of the Hebrew Scriptures. Moreover, Ezra was an outstanding researcher, citing about 20 sources of information in the two books of Chronicles. Since many of the Jews were scattered far and wide in Ezra’s day, it necessitated the making of many copies of the Hebrew Scriptures, and likely Ezra pioneered this work.
No details of Ezra’s early life are given in the Bible. He lived in Babylon. He was from a family of high priests but was not of the particular branch that held the high priesthood immediately after the return from exile in 537 B.C.E. The last of Ezra’s ancestors to hold that office was Seraiah, who was high priest in the days of King Zedekiah of Judah. This Seraiah had been put to death by Nebuchadnezzar at the capture of Jerusalem in 607 B.C.E. (Ezr 7:1, 6; 2Ki 25:18, 21) In Babylon the Jews retained respect for the priesthood, and therefore, the priestly families maintained their identity. Moreover, the Jewish community organization, with the older men as heads, continued functioning. (Eze 20:1) Ezra’s family likely was interested in seeing that Ezra was equipped with a knowledge of God’s law, as was Ezra himself. Accordingly he was well educated.
If, as some scholars believe, a man could not become a scribe until reaching the age of 30, Ezra may have been more than 30 years old in 468 B.C.E. when he went to Jerusalem. He undoubtedly lived during the rule of Ahasuerus, in the time of Mordecai and Esther, at the time the decree went out to exterminate the Jews throughout the Persian Empire. There were many Jews living in Babylon, so this national crisis must have made an indelible imprint on Ezra, strengthening him in faith in Jehovah’s care for and deliverance of his people and serving as training, maturing him in judgment and competence to accomplish the tremendous task later set before him.—Es 1:1; 3:7, 12, 13; 8:9; 9:1.
To Jerusalem. It was in 468 B.C.E., 69 years after the return of the faithful Jewish remnant from Babylon under the leadership of Zerubbabel, that the Persian king Artaxerxes Longimanus granted to Ezra “all his request” with respect to going to Jerusalem and advancing pure worship there. According to the king’s official letter, those Israelites who of their own free will desired to go with Ezra to Jerusalem were to do so.—Ezr 7:1, 6, 12, 13.
Even in Ezra’s day, why did Jews who left Babylon need strong faith?
Many of the Jews had become prosperous in Babylon, and the prospects offered in Jerusalem were not attractive from a material viewpoint. Jerusalem was sparsely settled. The fine start made by the Jews under Zerubbabel seems to have deteriorated. One commentator, Dean Stanley, says: “Jerusalem itself was thinly inhabited, and seemed to have stopped short in the career which, under the first settlers, had been opening before it. . . . It is certain that, whether from the original weakness of the rising settlement, or from some fresh inroad of the surrounding tribes, of which we have no distinct notice, the walls of Jerusalem were still unfinished; huge gaps left in them where the gates had been burnt and not repaired; the sides of its rocky hills cumbered with their ruins; the Temple, though completed, still with its furniture scanty and its ornaments inadequate.” (Ezra and Nehemiah: Their Lives and Times, by George Rawlinson, London, 1890, pp. 21, 22) So to return to Jerusalem meant loss of position, disruption of ties, the denial of a more or less comfortable way of life, and the building of a new life in a distant land under circumstances that were trying, difficult, and possibly dangerous, not to mention a long and hazardous journey, since many hostile Arab tribes and other enemies might be encountered. It called for zeal for true worship, faith in Jehovah, and courage to make the move. Only some 1,500 men and their families were found willing and able to go, perhaps 6,000 or so in all. Ezra had a difficult task as their leader. But Ezra’s past course of life had prepared him, and he strengthened himself according to Jehovah’s hand upon him.—Ezr 7:10, 28; 8:1-14.
Jehovah God provided much-needed material aid, for the financial condition in Jerusalem was not good and the wealth of those traveling with Ezra was limited. King Artaxerxes and his seven counselors were moved to make a voluntary contribution to be used for buying sacrificial animals and their grain and drink offerings. Furthermore, Ezra was authorized to receive contributions for this purpose in the jurisdictional district of Babylon. If there was any surplus of funds, Ezra and those with him could determine how this might best be used. The vessels for temple service were to be delivered in full to Jerusalem. If needed, additional funds could be obtained from the king’s treasury. The treasurers beyond the River were informed that Ezra could request of them silver, wheat, wine, and oil up to a certain amount, and salt without limit, and that his request should be granted promptly. Moreover, the priests and temple workers were exempted from taxation. Additionally, Ezra was empowered to appoint magistrates and judges, and judgment was to be executed upon anyone not obeying God’s law and the law of the king, “whether for death or for banishment, or for money fine or for imprisonment.”—Ezr 7:11-26.
Recognizing Jehovah’s direction in this, Ezra immediately followed through on his commission. He collected the Israelites at the banks of the river Ahava, where he made a three-day inspection of the people. Here he found that, although some priests were among their ranks, not one of the nonpriestly Levites had volunteered, and they were very much needed for service at the temple. Ezra here demonstrated his qualifications as a leader. Undaunted by the situation, he immediately sent a formal embassy to the Jews at Casiphia. These responded well, providing 38 Levites and 220 Nethinim. With their families, this no doubt swelled Ezra’s entourage to more than 7,000.—Ezr 7:27, 28; 8:15-20.
Ezra then proclaimed a fast in order to seek from Jehovah the right way. Even though his caravan would be carrying great riches, Ezra did not want to bring the least shadow on Jehovah’s name by requesting an escort after he had expressed to the king his full faith in Jehovah’s protection for his servants. After entreating God, he called in 12 from among the chiefs of the priests, carefully weighed out to them the contribution, which, according to modern-day values, was evidently worth more than $43,000,000, and entrusted it to them.—Ezr 8:21-30.
The hand of Jehovah did prove to be with Ezra and those with him, protecting them from “the enemy in the way,” so that they arrived safely in Jerusalem. (Ezr 8:22) He had no difficulty in getting recognition by the priests and Levites serving at the temple, to whom he turned over the valuables he had brought.—Ezr 8:31-34.
Urges Israel to Dismiss Foreign Wives. After offering sacrifices at the temple, Ezra learned from the princes that many of the people, the priests, and the Levites who had been living in the land had taken foreign wives. Upon hearing this, Ezra ripped his garment and his sleeveless coat apart, pulled out some of the hair of his head and his beard, and kept sitting stunned until the evening grain offering. Then, falling upon his knees and spreading out his palms to Jehovah, he, in the presence of assembled Israelites, made public confession of the sins of his people, starting with the days of their forefathers.—Ezr 8:35–10:1.
Afterward, Shecaniah, speaking in behalf of the people, recommended that they conclude a covenant with Jehovah to dismiss their foreign wives and the children born to them, and then he said to Ezra: “Get up, for the matter devolves upon you, and we are with you. Be strong and act.” Accordingly, Ezra had the people take an oath, and word was sent out for all the former exiles to come together at Jerusalem within three days to straighten out this wrong. On that occasion Ezra exhorted those assembled to make confession to Jehovah and to separate themselves from their foreign wives. However, because of the great number of people involved in this transgression, it was not possible to care for everything right then and there, but gradually, in a period of about three months, the uncleanness was cleared out.—Ezr 10:2-17.
With Nehemiah. Whether Ezra remained in Jerusalem or returned to Babylon is not certain. But the bad circumstances into which the city came, with the corruption that had infected the priesthood, seem to indicate that he was absent. It may be that he was called upon by Nehemiah to return after the rebuilding of Jerusalem’s walls. We find, at any rate, that he appears on the scene again, where he is shown reading the Law to the congregated people and instructing them. On the second day of that assembly the heads of the people hold a special meeting with Ezra to gain insight into the Law. The Festival of Booths is held with rejoicing. After the eight-day observance, Tishri 24 is appointed as a day of abstinence and confession of their sins, with prayer. Under the strong leadership and direction of Ezra and Nehemiah, “a trustworthy arrangement” is made, not by word of mouth this time, but in writing, attested to by seal of the princes, Levites, and priests.—Ne 8:1-9, 13-18; chap 9.
Writing. The Bible books of Chronicles as well as the book bearing Ezra’s name give evidence that Ezra was an indefatigable researcher, with discernment in deciding between various readings of the copies of the Law existing then. He exhibited unusual zeal in searching the official documents of his nation, and it is evidently due to his efforts that we have the accurate record Chronicles gives us. We must remember, however, that he had God’s spirit of inspiration and that God guided him with a view to preserving a great portion of Israel’s history for our benefit.
Ezra’s zeal for righteousness, his prayerful reliance upon Jehovah, his faithfulness in teaching God’s law to Israel, and his diligence in advancing true worship make him, as one of the “so great a cloud of witnesses,” a fine example worthy of imitation.—Heb 12:1.