1. Author and Time of Writing
If we compare the last verses of 2 Chronicles (chap. 36:22-23) with the first few verses of the book of Ezra (Ezra 1:1-3) we find a nearly word-by-word conformity. The book of Ezra (the name Ezra meaning "help") therefore is the sequence to the Chronicles in regard to history and in regard to contents. And yet in between these two books lies the Babylonian Captivity, which lasted 70 years (compare Jeremiah 25). The captivity started with the first deportation of a part of the Jews under Jehoiakim around 606/605 BC and ended with King Cyrus of Persia's edict in the year 537/536 BC. This very edict wanted the Jews to return to Palestine to rebuild the destroyed temple in Jerusalem.
The books of Ezra and Nehemiah form a certain unity in the Hebrew Bibles and in the Septuagint. But they were separated, respectively differentiated in the Septuagint and later also in the Vulgate. In the Septuagint and the Vulgate we may nowadays find two further not inspired books (not belonging to the Canon of the Holy Scriptures) that bear the name Ezra. Saying this many a reader could be perplexed. We would like to remove this perplexity with the following little table:
Ezra the scribe has been considered author of the book for ages. He returned to Jerusalem with the second group of Jews returning from captivity in Ezra 7 (around 458 BC). This is why the author uses the first person (singular) from chap. 7 onwards (Ezra 7:1,28).
The verses of chap. 4:18-6:18 and 7:12-26 are not written in Hebrew but in Aramaic. Aramaic is a Semitic language, as is Hebrew. Aramaic was an official and an international trade language in the Persian Empire. The above mentioned paragraphs contain official documents written by respectively for the Persian court.
The prophets Haggai and Zechariah who are mentioned in Ezra 5:1 and 6:14 were contemporaries of Zerubbabel and of Jeshua. They confirm and add information in their writings to the facts described in Ezra.
2. Purpose of Writing
With the fall of the 10-tribes-kingdom Israel in 722 BC and the deportation of the Jews into Assyrian captivity and the end of the southern kingdom of Judah (605 to 586 BC) by the Babylonian captivity the theocracy ended among the people of God. The throne of Jehovah was no longer in Jerusalem (1 Chron. 29:23). The glory of Jehovah had departed from the temple before its destruction (compare 2 Chron. 7:2 with Ez. 9:3; 10:18; 11:23). God had put the government in the hands of heathen kings (Jer. 27:6; Dan. 2:37-38; Ezra 1:2). The "times of the Gentiles" (Luke 21:24) had begun. God no longer dwelt and reigned in Jerusalem but in His providence left the power to the four great world empires Babylon, Persia, Greece and Rome (of which the prophet Daniel prophesies especially).
After 70 years of exile (or banishment) God in His grace works a little revival with a small part of His people, with the remnant. But He works this through Cyrus (compare Is. 44:28), the ruler of the Persian Empire. Cyrus wants the temple in Jerusalem to be rebuilt and the worship to be renewed. On the famous Cyrus-cylinder that describes Cyrus' victory over Babylon the following words in cuneiform characters are to be found: ". the idols which lived in the cities I brought back to their places, . all their inhabitants I gathered and let them return to their dwellings."
The Bible tells us of three groups of Jews returning to Jerusalem. The first return happened around the year 536 BC. Zerubbabel, a descendant of King David, and Jeshua a descendant of Aaron the high priest were the ones to lead the first Jews on their return (Ezra 1-6). To start with, the altar to offer burnt offerings in the outer court of the temple was erected and then the temple itself was built.
The second group came with Ezra the priest and scribe in 458 BC (Ezra 7). Ezra had devoted himself especially to study and to do the law of Jehovah (the Word of God) and was eager to teach the word in Israel.
The third group came in 445 BC with Nehemiah. These events are described in the book of Nehemiah. Nehemiah saw his main task in rebuilding the walls and gates of the destroyed city of Jerusalem.
The books of Ezra and Nehemiah describe the revival (wrought by God) of a small part of the Jews who now returned into the land of promise and gathered again unto the place, which Jehovah had chosen to put his name there (Deut. 12:5; 1 Kings 11:36). To do this the Jews had to come out of Babylon the territory of worldly religious power and dominion. And yet it was not sufficient to be in the right place but the right spiritual condition in the fear of God was necessary too. Exactly this was missing with many of them. But there was much opposition from outside also that had to be overcome.
The history of the revival and return of these Jews out of the Babylonian captivity back to Palestine (Canaan) contains important and serious teachings for the Christian. How many a revival God has wrought in Christianity (and especially so in the 19th century)! The altar, that is the Lord's table (compare Mal. 1:7; 1 Cor. 10:21 and the temple, that is the assembly (Greek: ecclesia) as God's house and dwelling (1 Cor. 3:10-17) ought to be and remain important and valuable to the Christian nowadays as well.
a) Contemporary Prophets
The books of the prophets Haggai and Zechariah were written at the time of the rebuilding of the temple and are complementary to the book of Ezra in two respects. Haggai admonishes the Jews because they did not wholeheartedly serve the Lord. Zechariah prophesies even the coming of the Messiah.
b) Characteristics of Revival
The revival of the Jewish remnant in the book of Ezra bears seven characteristics:
c) Chronological Overview
4. Overview of Contents
I. Ezra 1-6: First Return of the Jews under Zerubbabel
II. Ezra 7-10: Second Return under Ezra