Jehovah’s Word Is Alive
Highlights From the Book of Ezra
THE Bible book of Ezra picks up where Second Chronicles leaves off. Its writer, Ezra the priest, begins the account with the issuing of a decree by King Cyrus of Persia that allows a remnant of the Jews exiled in Babylon to return to their homeland. The narrative ends with Ezra’s taking measures to cleanse those who have defiled themselves with the people of the land. All in all, the book covers a period of 70 years—from 537 to 467 B.C.E.
In writing the book, Ezra has a clear objective: to show how Jehovah fulfilled His promise to free His people from exile in Babylon and to restore true worship in Jerusalem. Hence, Ezra focuses only on the events that pertain to this purpose. The book of Ezra is an account of how the temple was rebuilt and how Jehovah’s worship was reestablished despite opposition and the imperfection of God’s people. The account is of great interest to us because we too are living in a time of restoration. Many are streaming to “the mountain of Jehovah,” and the entire earth is about to be “filled with the knowing of the glory of Jehovah.”—Isaiah 2:2, 3; Habakkuk 2:14.
THE TEMPLE IS REBUILT
In response to Cyrus’ liberation decree, about 50,000 Jewish exiles return to Jerusalem under the leadership of Governor Zerubbabel, or Sheshbazzar. The returnees promptly set up the altar on its site and begin to offer sacrifices to Jehovah.
The following year the Israelites lay the foundation of the house of Jehovah. Enemies keep interfering with the rebuilding work and eventually succeed in getting a royal command issued to halt the work. The prophets Haggai and Zechariah stir up the people so that they resume the temple construction despite the ban. The fear of opposing an unalterable Persian decree originally issued by Cyrus keeps their adversaries at bay. An official investigation brings to light Cyrus’ order “concerning the house of God in Jerusalem.” (Ezra 6:3) The work progresses well and comes to completion.
Scriptural Questions Answered:
1:3-6—Were the Israelites who did not volunteer to return to their homeland weak in faith? Some may not have returned to Jerusalem because they were materialistic or lacked appreciation for true worship, but this was not true in every case. First of all, the 1,000-mile [1,600 km] journey to Jerusalem took four or five months. Moreover, settling in a land that had remained desolate for 70 years and doing the rebuilding work there would require much physical stamina. Therefore, unfavorable circumstances, such as physical ailments, advanced age, and family obligations, undoubtedly prevented some from returning.
2:43—Who were the Nethinim? These were people of non-Israelite origin who served as temple slaves or ministers. Among them were the descendants of the Gibeonites of Joshua’s day and others “whom David and the princes gave to the service of the Levites.”—Ezra 8:20.
2:55—Who were the sons of the servants of Solomon? These were non-Israelites who were given special privileges in Jehovah’s service. They may have served as scribes or copyists at the temple or in some administrative capacity.
2:61-63—Were the Urim and the Thummim, which were used when an answer was needed from Jehovah, available to the returning exiles? The claimants to priestly descent who failed to establish their genealogy could have given legitimacy to their claim by using the Urim and the Thummim. Ezra mentions this only as a possibility. The Scriptures contain no record of the use of the Urim and the Thummim then or thereafter. Jewish tradition has it that the Urim and the Thummim disappeared with the destruction of the temple in 607 B.C.E.
3:12—Why did “the old men that had seen the former house” of Jehovah weep? These men could remember how magnificent the temple built by Solomon was. The groundwork of the new temple that was before them was “as nothing in [their] eyes” in comparison. (Haggai 2:2, 3) Would their efforts bring back the glory of the former temple? They must have felt disheartened, and therefore they wept.
3:8-10; 4:23, 24; 6:15, 16—How many years did it take to rebuild the temple? The foundation of the temple was laid in 536 B.C.E.—“in the second year of their coming.” The building work stopped in the days of King Artaxerxes, in 522 B.C.E. The ban continued until 520 B.C.E., the second year of King Darius. The temple was completed in the sixth year of his reign, or 515 B.C.E. (See the box entitled “Persian Kings From 537 to 467 B.C.E.”) Thus, the temple construction took about 20 years.
4:8–6:18 (4:8, footnote)—Why were these verses written in Aramaic? This portion largely contains copies of letters from government officials to kings and their replies. Ezra copied them from public records written in Aramaic, the commercial and diplomatic language of the day. Other parts of the Bible written in this ancient Semitic language are Ezra 7:12-26, Jeremiah 10:11, and Daniel 2:4b–7:28.
Lessons for Us:
1:3-6. Like some of the Israelites who remained in Babylon, many of Jehovah’s Witnesses cannot take up the full-time ministry or serve where the need is greater. Yet, they support and encourage those who can and make voluntary donations to further the Kingdom-preaching and disciple-making work.
3:1-6. In the seventh month of 537 B.C.E. (Tishri, corresponding to September/October), the faithful returnees offered their first sacrifice. The Babylonians had entered Jerusalem in the fifth month (Ab, corresponding to July/August) of 607 B.C.E., and two months later the city’s desolation was complete. (2 Kings 25:8-17, 22-26) As foretold, Jerusalem’s 70-year desolation ended right on time. (Jeremiah 25:11; 29:10) Anything Jehovah’s Word foretells always comes true.
4:1-3. The faithful remnant rejected an offer that would have meant forming a religious alliance with false worshippers. (Exodus 20:5; 34:12) Jehovah’s worshippers today similarly take no part in any interfaith movements.
6:21. Witnessing the progress of Jehovah’s work moved Samaritans who then lived in the Jewish homeland and returnees who had succumbed to pagan influences to make needed changes in their lives. Should we not enthusiastically participate in our God-assigned work, including the Kingdom-proclamation work?
EZRA COMES TO JERUSALEM
Fifty years have elapsed since the rebuilt house of Jehovah was inaugurated. The year is 468 B.C.E. Taking along with him a remnant of God’s people and contributed funds, Ezra goes from Babylon to Jerusalem. What does he find there?
The princes tell Ezra: “The people of Israel and the priests and the Levites have not separated themselves from the peoples of the lands as regards their detestable things.” Moreover, “the hand of the princes and the deputy rulers has proved to be foremost in this unfaithfulness.” (Ezra 9:1, 2) Ezra is shocked. He is encouraged to “be strong and act.” (Ezra 10:4) Ezra takes corrective measures, and the people respond favorably.
Scriptural Questions Answered:
7:1, 7, 11—Do all these verses refer to the Artaxerxes who brought a halt to the building work? No. Artaxerxes is a name or title applied to two Persian kings. One was either Bardiya or Gaumata, who ordered the temple work stopped in 522 B.C.E. The Artaxerxes of the time when Ezra came to Jerusalem is Artaxerxes Longimanus.
7:28–8:20—Why were many Jews in Babylon reluctant to go up to Jerusalem with Ezra? Even though more than 60 years had passed since the first group of Jews had returned to their homeland, Jerusalem was only sparsely settled. Returning to Jerusalem meant building a new life under uncomfortable and dangerous circumstances. The Jerusalem of the day did not hold out attractive material prospects to the Jews who might have been prospering in Babylon. Not to be overlooked was the dangerous journey. The returnees had to have strong faith in Jehovah, zeal for true worship, and courage to make the move. Even Ezra strengthened himself according to the hand of Jehovah upon him. With Ezra’s encouragement, 1,500 families—perhaps numbering 6,000 people—responded. After Ezra took additional initiatives, 38 Levites and 220 Nethinim responded.
9:1, 2—How serious a threat was intermarriage with the people of the land? The restored nation was to be the guardian of Jehovah’s worship until the coming of the Messiah. Intermarriage with other inhabitants was a real threat to true worship. Because some had formed marriage alliances with the idol-worshipping people, the entire nation might eventually be assimilated into the pagan nations. Pure worship could have vanished from the face of the earth. To whom, then, would the Messiah come? No wonder Ezra was stunned at seeing what had taken place!
10:3, 44—Why were the children put away along with the wives? If the children had stayed behind, the likelihood that the dismissed wives would return on account of them would have increased. Moreover, little children generally require the care of their mother.
Lessons for Us:
7:10. As a diligent student and effective teacher of God’s Word, Ezra set an example for us. He prayerfully prepared his heart to consult the Law of Jehovah. As he consulted it, Ezra gave his utmost attention to what Jehovah was saying. Ezra applied what he learned and exerted himself in teaching others.
7:13. Jehovah wants willing servants.
7:27, 28; 8:21-23. Ezra gave credit to Jehovah, made sincere entreaty to him before making a long and dangerous trip to Jerusalem, and was willing to risk personal safety for the sake of God’s glory. He thus set a fine example for us.
9:14, 15. Bad associations can lead to Jehovah’s disapproval.
Jehovah Keeps His Promises
How valuable the book of Ezra is to us! Right on time, Jehovah fulfilled his promise to free his people from Babylonian exile and restore true worship in Jerusalem. Does that not strengthen our faith in Jehovah and his promises?
Think of the examples the book of Ezra provides. Exemplary devotion to God was shown by Ezra and the remnant who returned to have a share in the restoration of pure worship in Jerusalem. This book also highlights the faith of godly foreigners and the humble attitude of repentant wrongdoers. Indeed, Ezra’s inspired words furnish clear proof that “the word of God is alive and exerts power.”—Hebrews 4:12.
[Chart/Picture on page 18]
PERSIAN KINGS FROM 537 TO 467 B.C.E.
Cyrus the Great (Ezra 1:1) died in 530 B.C.E.
Cambyses, or Ahasuerus (Ezra 4:6) 530-22 B.C.E.
Artaxerxes—Bardiya or Gaumata (Ezra 4:7) 522 B.C.E. (Assassinated after reigning only seven months)
Darius I (Ezra 4:24) 522-486 B.C.E.
Xerxes, or Ahasuerus* 486-75 B.C.E. (Ruled as coregent with Darius I from 496-86 B.C.E.)
Artaxerxes Longimanus (Ezra 7:1) 475-24 B.C.E.
Xerxes is not mentioned in the book of Ezra. He is referred to as Ahasuerus in the Bible book of Esther.
[Picture on page 17]
[Picture on page 17]
The Cyrus Cylinder stated the policy of returning captives to their homelands
Cylinder: Photograph taken by courtesy of the British Museum
[Picture on page 20]
Do you know what made Ezra an effective teacher?