Ezra Introduction

Outline of contents


1:1–6:22 Return from exile and rebuilding of the temple

The first six chapters of Ezra cover a period of just over twenty years (538–515 bc), during which time a number of the Jews returned from their exile in Babylon and, after some delay, rebuilt the temple in Jerusalem which had been destroyed by the Babylonians fifty years before.

These events have not been written, however, in the form of a continuous narrative, but rather certain particular moments have been highlighted while other historically important matters, such as the actual journey back to Jerusalem, are not described at all. This is because the author lived at a time much later than the events he was recounting and so was limited by the written sources, such as copies of letters, lists and other documents, which were available to him. By the way in which he has arranged these and by the connecting comments which he has added, he has drawn attention to the religious and theological significance of these events for his later readers.

First, he emphasizes that although what happened might have appeared to be insignificant within the larger affairs of the mighty Persian empire, these events were in fact governed by the sovereign God of heaven, who used even pagan kings such as Cyrus and Darius to achieve his will for his people (e.g. 1:1 and 6:14). This encourages the reader to view international affairs in a different perspective from the normal, where a small and remote religious community might otherwise easily become discouraged.

At times of political change, the Christian learns to look beyond the surface of major upheaval to discern the opportunities which God may be offering for renewed evangelism, for instance, or for a change of direction in church strategy which will make its service and witness more effective in the new climate of society’s expectations.

Secondly, there is a strong emphasis throughout this section on the continuity between the old institutions of Israel and those of the renewed Jerusalem community. The readers are thus reminded that they are the legitimate heirs of all that God had promised to his people long ago; theirs is no new religion but the direct continuation of that revealed to such leaders as Moses, David and Solomon.

There may also be a negative point involved here, namely the rejection of rival claims, such as those of the newly emerging Samaritan community in the north. If these chapters were compiled at the time when the Samaritan temple was being built (about 300 bc), then such reassurance would have been necessary. Thirdly, therefore, the author makes plain in chs. 4–6 that opposition to God’s work is best overcome by faithful continuation in the tasks assigned by him rather than by compromise or confrontation. All these themes will be developed further later in the books of Ezra and Nehemiah.

1:1–11 Cyrus orders the return of the exiles and the temple vessels

This first chapter focuses on the first two points just described. The setting is the year in which, following his rapid rise to power, Cyrus captured Babylon (538 bc), so replacing the previous world empire of Babylon with that of the Persians. Persian imperial policy differed from that of its predecessors. Whereas they had sought to establish their authority by such harsh measures as the wholesale movement of subject populations (exile), the Persians preferred to accommodate the interests of local peoples when that also best served their own purposes. The need for loyalty among the inhabitants of the western extremity of the empire, which included Palestine, was necessary before the Persians could contemplate further expansion into Egypt, and this turned out much to the favour of the Jews.

1:1–6 The proclamation of Cyrus. While the secular historian seeks to explain events in terms of the imperial policies of the day, the biblical author sees these as but the means which God used to work out his purposes. Thus the prompting of Cyrus (1) and of the people of God in faithful obedience (5) can be described with exactly the same language. Furthermore, Cyrus is said to have been used to fulfil earlier prophecies, reference probably being made to Je. 50:9 and 51:11 read in the light of Is. 44:28 and 45:13. In line with this, what may originally have been a fairly localized announcement (the form of the proclamation in vs 2–4 is that of an oral message, probably to the Jewish leaders) is now to be seen as having universal significance, a proclamation throughout his realm (1).

The proclamation (2–4) concentrates on permission to return. The details concerning the rebuilding of the temple were the subject of a separate edict (cf. 6:3–6), because they affected others, not just the Jews. The two passages should not be taken as variant forms of the same edict.

The response of the people (5) is followed by a note (6) which is meant to remind us of the exodus from Egypt. The financial support given by all their neighbours includes not only that from Jews who decided not to return (cf. v 4), but also from non-Jews. The language of this verse recalls the theme of the ‘despoiling of the Egyptians’ in Ex. 3:21–22;11:2;12:35–36. This is the first of a number of such allusions to the exodus which together invite the reader to view in a new light what otherwise might have been written off as an obscure and insignificant event within the history of the Persian empire. To the eye of faith, this return is no less momentous than the events surrounding the very birth of the nation of Israel itself. It was equally an act of divine deliverance and even of national rebirth.

Note. 2 The title the God of heaven makes its first appearance in the Bible here. It is most commonly used in contexts where Jews are in contact with Persians. It may initially have been adopted as a title acceptable to both parties (the Persian deity, Ahura Mazda, was a celestial god).

1:7–11 The return of the temple vessels. This paragraph is doubtless based on an inventory of the returned temple vessels which would have been preserved in the temple archives. The author’s purpose in including it was far from antiquarian, however, as his own comments about it make clear. First, several points again recall aspects of the exodus from Egypt. It is clear from Is. 52:11–12 that the return of these vessels had become part of the established expectation of what would be involved in the ‘second exodus’. In addition, v 11 uses a formula which is common elsewhere as a description of the exodus (‘were brought up from … to’, rather than niv came up; cf. Gn. 50:24; Ex. 3:8, 17; and especially 33:1). Finally, it is possible that the unique title for Sheshbazzar, the prince of Judah (8) may be a reflection of Nu. 7:84–86 (and cf. Nu. 2:3–31; 7:1–83; 34:18–28, in all of which niv translates the same word as ‘leader’), where the ‘princes’ of the various tribes are associated with such vessels during the wilderness period.

Secondly, v 7 emphasizes that these vessels are the very ones which had been taken from the first temple in Jerusalem (cf. 2 Ki. 24:13; 25:13–15; 2 Ch. 26:7, 10, 18). Symbolically, they perhaps took the place of the idol gods of other nations which Nebuchadnezzar captured and placed in his temple as a token of his superiority. Their return and, by implication, use in the second-temple ceremonies of the author’s own day thus helped to establish a strong line of continuity with the temple of Solomon. They served to focus attention on the unity of the people of God, so relativizing the break in worship at the temple caused by the exile.

Notes. 8 Sheshbazzar was the first governor of the Persian province of Judah (cf. 5:14). Nothing more is known for certain about him. It is likely that he was a prominent leader of the tribe of Judah, but suggestions that he was from the Davidic family or that he is to be identified with Zerubbabel are speculative. 9–10 The specific translation of the various types of vessel is highly uncertain, as a comparison of the various English versions will show. 11 The total, 5,400, does not equal the sum of the parts. This may be due to mistakes in the course of copying the signs for numerals or be a simple accounting error. There are many examples of the latter in the texts of the Persian treasury at Persepolis.

2:1–70 The list of the exiles who returned

It appears from the closing verses of the chapter that this list was compiled some time after the return itself. Quite why and when is not certain, but an attractive suggestion is that it provided the answer to the later official inquiry as to the names of those who were engaged on the building of the second temple (5:4). If this is right, then the list may include not only those who returned immediately after Cyrus’s proclamation but others who may have followed them in the subsequent ten or twelve years. The list is repeated at Ne. 7:6–73, where ‘the first to return’ (v 5) should be understood in a general sense, contrasting with later returns such as that led by Ezra (cf. Ezr. 8). The slight differences between the two versions of the list, which mainly concern the numbers, have been explained as due to problems in later copying of the complicated system for recording numerals at this time.

Following the names of twelve leaders (cf. Ne.7:7), the order of the list is lay families (3–35), priests (36–39), Levites (40) and minor cultic officials (41–58). It is followed by notes on those who could not establish their pedigree (59–63), a concluding summary (64–67) and other brief notes. The long section on the laity appears not to be a unity, however, since some are registered by family and others by place of residence. It is possible that the latter refer to those who never went into exile, but who nevertheless joined with those returning in the rebuilding of the temple.

The main theological purpose for the inclusion of this list is to emphasize once again the continuity between the post-exilic community and the former people of Israel. This is indicated especially by the notes in vs 59–63 concerning those who could not at this stage establish their genealogy to public satisfaction, and by the number of leaders (twelve), which recalls the number of the tribes of Israel. Furthermore, the emphasis at the start and conclusion of the list on each person returning to their own town (vs 1 and 70) points to the close association elsewhere in the OT between people and land, so that the chapter functions rather in the manner of the lists in the second half of the book of Joshua. There is thus a hint at a partial fulfilment of the foundational promise to Abraham (Gn. 12:2–3).

Of course, the sense of exclusivity which this chapter conveys needs to be balanced by the inclusive nature of God’s purposes attested elsewhere in Scripture, including the OT itself (and as suggested even in this chapter by the large number of foreign names, especially in vs 43–58). But in the present context of a crucial time of transition, it was inevitable that the emphasis should fall on the importance of the community’s sense of identity and on the maintenance of a tangible form of continuity with the past.

Similarly, Christian communities must learn to be sensitive to the priorities which their situation demands. The overriding vision remains that of reflecting the welcoming grace of God himself. There are times, however, when moral or doctrinal failings result in a church which is almost indistinguishable from the surrounding society. In such cases it may be that for a time the emphasis will need to revert to reform and a redefinition of the boundaries, a process which looks rather exclusive. Its purpose, however, should be to recreate a vibrant Christian centre which can once again function effectively to draw others into an experience of the love of God.

3:1–4:5 The restoration of worship

This section divides into three paragraphs. The first describes the restoration of the altar and of the worship associated with it (3:1–6), the second the preparations for rebuilding the temple (3:7–13) and the third the first note of opposition to the work, which was delayed in consequence (4:1–5). On the face of it, this portrayal does not seem to square with the impression given by the prophet Haggai, who later (about 520 bc) castigated the people for their complete neglect of the temple, and who prompted what appears to be a wholly new beginning on the work of building under the leadership of Zerubbabel and Jeshua (or Joshua).

Various ways round this difficulty have been proposed; for instance, that by the time of Haggai the small start made earlier had been more or less forgotten. Alternatively, however, it may be that we should not read the present passage as referring wholly to the first days of the return. Vs 7–13 and 4:1–3 might date from the time of Haggai himself (their arrival at the house of God in v 8 will then refer to the time when rebuilding commenced, not the date of the initial return from Babylon), with 4:4–5 put in afterwards to explain why such a delay had occurred in the first place (cf. 4:4 with 3:3, and note the time span mentioned in v 5). Whatever solution is adopted, however, the writer’s main point is clear, and it is intended to be exemplary: the priorities of the people were right in restoring some form of worship as soon as was practical—even before the temple itself was completed (3:6).

3:1–6 Restoration of the altar and worship. This paragraph at least refers to the first days of the return from exile. The altar was restored on its foundation (3), that is, on the site of the original altar which had been destroyed. Continuity with the worship of pre-exilic Israel was assured by centring on the very spot which God had revealed should be the sacrificial altar (cf. 1 Ch. 22:1). Similarly, the particular (4) and the general (5) sacrifices were resumed in accordance with what is written. The forms and expressions of their worship are precisely those which had been instituted by Moses and David.

Notes. 2 Jeshua was the high priest (cf. Hg. 1:1), an office which assumed increased importance after the end of the monarchy, and so here appropriately named first. Zerubbabel apparently succeeded Sheshbazzar as civil governor (cf. Hg. 1:1). Though he belonged to the Davidic family (1 Ch. 3:19), no significance is attached to that fact in the book of Ezra.

3:7–13 Preparations for rebuilding the temple. Almost every statement about the temple building in this paragraph is consciously intended to underline its similarity to that of the first temple. For instance, v 7 clearly echoes 1 Ch. 22:2–4 and 2 Ch. 2:15–16; the date in v 8 recalls 2 Ch. 3:2, while if the two years of preparation be added to the five years of building (cf. 6:15), then the total of seven years may be compared with 1 Ki. 6:38. The role of the Levites in supervising the work (8–9) is the same as 1 Ch. 23:4, and the description of the accompanying celebrations (10–11) recalls the dedication of the first temple (e.g. 2 Ch. 5:11–13; 7:3). Finally, an explicit comparison is drawn in vs 12–13, where the sound of joy at the restoration at least matched the disappointed weeping of those who were old enough to have seen the first temple. Again, therefore, an emphasis on continuity and legitimacy is the primary aim of this paragraph, while the note of joy with which it concludes is another challenge to the later generation of the author’s contemporaries.

4:1–5 First signs of opposition. If the incident in vs 1–3 dates to the time of Darius, as suggested above, it may well explain why shortly afterwards the whole project became the subject of an official inquiry in ch. 5. Those who were rebuffed soon started to take reprisals. Although individuals could be received into the community from outside (cf. 6:21), it would have jeopardized the legal authority for rebuilding the temple if other groups had joined in as equal partners. The wisdom of standing firm on this point was vindicated by the subsequent inquiry (cf. 5:3). The enemies of Judah and Benjamin (1) was probably written with the wisdom of hindsight; they may not have appeared as such at the time.

Vs 4–5 were added as a separate explanation for the delay between altar dedication (3:1–6) and temple rebuilding.

Notes. 2 Esarhaddon, king of Assyria’s settlement of the old northern kingdom with foreigners is not mentioned in the historical books (2 Ki. 17:24–41 concerns Sargon II), but is alluded to in Is. 7:8. 5 Darius succeeded Cambyses as king of Persia in 522 bc, and he reigned until 486 bc. The first two years of his reign were marked by many rebellions (not mentioned in Ezra, but of possible significance as background to the prophecies of Haggai and Zechariah), but thereafter he is represented in Ezra as having resumed the policies of Cyrus.

4:6–24 Open opposition

In this section, there is reference to three letters of accusation against the Jews, one written to Xerxes (6) and two to Artaxerxes (7–16). These two kings reigned after Darius, but chs. 5–6 revert to his reign. Unless our author was completely muddled in his chronology of the period, we must assume that this section is a digression or excursus and that v 24 is intended to show that we resume the narrative which was broken off at v 5 (whose wording it explicitly picks up). In favour of this solution is the fact that the accusations relate to the walls of Jerusalem (12–13), not the temple, which is the subject of the remainder of Ezr. 1–6.

The reason for this digression is clear enough. The writer has just recounted the rebuff of an offer of help. This apparently harsh decision was justified by these later events, when the groups concerned revealed their true colours as indeed ‘the enemies of Judah and Benjamin’ (1). Since this is only the first of many accounts of opposition to the work of God in the books of Ezra and Nehemiah, it serves as a warning that there is a constant need for vigilance, and that opposition is best dealt with while it is still ‘outside’ rather than allowing it to gain a foothold within the community, where it could be even more destructive.

Only one of the accusations is given in full (8–16), and the king’s reply (17–22) may be helpful later in explaining the background to Nehemiah’s mission. There is no evidence whatsoever to suggest that the charge ofplanned rebellion was correct, but in view of the unrest which frequently characterized parts of the western provinces of the empire, Artaxerxes could be forgiven for having ‘acted first and thought later’.

Notes 8 As v 7 indicates, the language here switches from Hebrew, the usual language of the OT, to Aramaic, and continues so as far as 6:18. Aramaic was used as a ‘diplomatic language’ in the Persian empire, and it is probable that many of the official sources on which our author drew were written in it. As it was well understood by the Jews, he chose to retain these sources in their original language and to use it also for his brief narrative connections. 10 Trans-Euphrates was the official name of the western satrapy (province) of the empire. Several of the other names and titles in these verses are obscure. 12 It is possible that those who returned with Ezra are referred to here. 20 The powerful kings are not Judeans (such as David and Solomon) but Artaxerxes’ predecessors, such as Cyrus and Darius. He is anxious not to be compared unfavourably with them.

5:1–6:22 The rebuilding of the temple

The bulk of this lengthy section is clearly focused on one incident which occurred during the rebuilding of the temple, namely the inquiry of the Persian official Tattenai (5:3–17) and the favourable response to it from the court (6:1–13). The author has framed this material with balancing comments about the overruling prompting and providence of God (5:1–2 and 6:14) before briefly rounding off the whole with notes about the celebration of the temple dedication and the Passover (6:15–22). It is worth observing that, as on previous occasions, many details that we might expect to be included are omitted; nothing is said, for instance, about the actual process and progress of the building itself. The author is concerned to tell only as much as he knows from his sources (primarily the copies of the correspondence between Tattenai and the king) and to comment on its theological significance.

In this connection, two points stand out. First, the positive attitude towards the Persian authorities as instruments of God’s purposes is again emphasized (see on 1:1 etc.). The author adopts the attitude that so far as possible, and in the particular circumstances of his own time, clashes between ‘church and state’ should be avoided; the rule of God is not compromised by the community which seeks to exploit its rights under civil law since, as their ultimate sovereign, God is well able to work through them for the benefit of his people. He does not propose that the re-establishment of political independence is in itself a necessary condition for the liberty of the people of God. Indeed, he happily refers to state support for prayer and sacrifice on behalf of the royal family (6:9–10).

Secondly, the theme of continuity, which has been repeatedly noted in the previous chapters, is continued here, both with regard to the temple building itself (e.g. 5:8, cf. 1 Ki. 6:36 and 7:12; 5:11, 13–15; 6:3–5), and its attendant ceremonies and institutions (e.g. 6:17–18).

Although Christianity is not dependent in the same way on such external institutions, it is important for us to be reminded that the ‘universal church’ includes not only all true believers now, but also all those who have lived before us. We share with them the same Bible, sacraments, many forms of worship and sense of values. It is often an encouragement to reflect upon this ‘communion of saints’ as well as a healthy exercise to examine our present situation in the light of their example. Without in any way down-grading the full authority of Scripture, we ignore the experience of other Christians (‘tradition’) at our peril.

5:1–2 Rebuilding the house of God. In line with the depiction in the books of Haggai and Zechariah 1–8, the primary stimulus for the work comes from the God of Israel himself, mediated through the prophetic word which evoked an enthusiastic response.

5:3–17 Tattenai’s inquiry. Whether this was prompted by the rebuff of 4:1–3 or not, there is no hint that Tattenai himself came to Jerusalem with hostile intent. Since the authorization for the work given nearly twenty years previously by Cyrus (cf. vs 13–16) was probably unknown to him, he needed to be sure that all was in order, especially as public funding may have been at issue (cf. v 15 with 6:4, 8). V 5 suggests that he was inclined to believe the Jewish account, an attitude which again the author ascribes to divine providence.

Notes. 10 The list of names is not included here, though it may have been used in ch. 2. Clearly, therefore, the author has abbreviated the copy of Tattenai’s letter which he was copying. 12 It is worth noting the extent to which this generation had made their own the teaching of the pre-exilic prophets, however unpalatable. Confession of past failure is an important element in renewal. 16 The second half of this verse is not strictly true, since whatever start had been made on the reconstruction under Sheshbazzar had long since ceased. What mattered, however, was that legally the Jews were claiming that their present activity was the direct continuation of the earlier authorization. Hence, they referred to the names that would have been recorded in the state archives, not their present leaders. 17 Quite reasonably, this is the very point of which Tattenai seeks confirmation. The fact that the relevant document was not found at Babylon, as expected, but at one of the other Persian capitals, Ecbatana (6:2), is a strong pointer to the accuracy of this account.

6:1–12 Darius’s reply. Darius incorporated a copy of the original decree of Cyrus in his reply (3–6). The Jews’ claim was fully vindicated, and Darius went on not only to reaffirm it, but to add certain provisions of his own with strong penalties for disobedience (7–12). Recent discoveries of Persian administrative texts, though not themselves referring to the Jews or the Jerusalem temple, have shown that such support for local cults was widely practised in the empire.

Note. 3 The last part of this verse should probably be emended to read ‘thirty cubits high, sixty cubits long and twenty cubits wide’, i.e. approximately 45 ft (13 m) high, 90 ft (27 m) long and 30 ft (9 m) wide.

6:13–18 Completion and dedication of the temple. As at the start of this section, the author again emphasizes the overruling hand of God in the political process. To the importance of the prophets (v 14; cf. 5:1) is added the identity of God’s command with that of the kings. Artaxerxes may be included here in anticipation of his support of Ezra in the next chapter; at any rate, the reference cannot be to the wholly negative role assigned to him in ch. 4.

The dedication of the temple presents the community in a very positive light. They regarded themselves as representative of the whole of pre-exilic Israel (v 17), and appropriately the ceremony was reminiscent of the dedication of Solomon’s temple, when the whole nation was still united (cf. 1 Ki. 8). Though this may seem far removed from the actual circumstances of the post-exilic period, it serves to hold before the reader the inclusive ideal which any religious community, then or since, should adopt.

6:19–22 Celebration of the Passover. The author here reverts to the use of Hebrew to round off the whole of Ezr. 1–6. The Passover was an appropriate festival with which to conclude his account of what we have seen was a series of events which he regarded in many ways as a second exodus. V 21 again stresses that the community was open to any who were willing to join without preconditions.

Note. 22 The king of Assyria is a superficially curious way of referring to a Persian king (Darius) and is perhaps to be explained in terms of Assyria being regarded as symbolic of an oppressive power (cf. Ne. 9:32), a role later ascribed to Babylon (cf. 1 Pet. 5:13; Rev. 14:8; 18:2). It was not wholly inappropriate, since Persia inherited the Babylonian empire, who in turn had inherited it from Assyria. There is also some evidence that the Persians were conscious of this inheritance.

7:1–10:44 Ezra

Material about Ezra is found in Ezr. 7–10 and Ne. 8. Part of this is told in Ezra’s own words, and it seems probable that the remainder has been rewritten from this account by a later editor. Assuming that the king in question is Artaxerxes I, there is a gap of some fifty-seven years between Ezr. 6 and 7. Nothing speaks louder of the writer’s theological rather than purely historical intent than his casual bridging of this gap by the words After these things (7:1). Clearly, he is not going to tell just about the next thing that happened, but about the next significant event in God’s overall plan for the renewal of the Jewish community after the dislocation of the Babylonian exile.

7:1–10 Introduction to Ezra

Ezra is introduced as a priest and a scribe. His genealogy (1–5) shows that he was a member of the priestly family, a descendant of Seraiah, the penultimate high priest of pre-exilic Judah (1 Ch. 6:14). In post-exilic times, however, the teaching role of the priests was increasingly assumed by the scribes, of whom Ezra is presented as an outstanding example (vs 6 and 10). This was inevitable once written Scripture became the primary religious authority. He thus stands at the transition point in the manner in which God’s law was mediated to his people, and we are prepared for the important part which the interpretation of a now fixed scriptural text plays in his narrative.

His journey to Jerusalem is summarized in vs 6–9; more detail follows in ch. 8. The first day of the first month (9) points to the Passover festival (cf. Ex. 12:2), and this is in line with the later interpretation of Ezra as a second Moses. Writing such as this draws personalities and events into a pattern of familiar saving-history, leading to a fuller appreciation of God’s ruling over the affairs of all his people, and enabling later readers too to trace comparable patterns in their own experience, however superficially insignificant. It is along these lines that many OT characters can still serve as an example for us today (cf. 1 Cor. 10:6, 11).

7:11–28 Ezra’s commission

This copy of Ezra’s commission by Artaxerxes, which may have been drafted in response to a specific request by Ezra himelf (cf. 7:6), is written in Aramaic (see on 4:8). He is given four tasks to perform.

First, he is to lead a return from Babylon to Judah (13). (This is the subject of ch. 8.) Secondly, he is to transport various gifts and grants for the temple (15–20) as well as an order to the treasurers of Trans-Euphrates to make certain supplies for the temple services. A copy of the latter is included in the text of the commission (21–24). Perhaps to guard against any suspicion of irregularity in the handling of this sensitive measure, its fulfilment is carefully spelt out at 8:24–30, 33–34 and 36.

Thirdly, he is to enquire about Judah and Jerusalem with regard to the Law of your God (14). In the context, this seems most likely to refer to the need to ensure that the grants for the temple were being used according to the Jewish law, which, in line with their custom elsewhere, would have been recognized by the Persians as the properly authorized constitution for the religious life of the province. This may underlie the treatment of the question of mixed marriages, which dominates chs. 9–10, since obviously such marriages would have caused problems of determining under which jurisdiction a couple lived.

Finally, Ezra is to teach conformity to the Jewish law to those Jews who lived outside the province of Judah (25–26). This would have been a delicate issue, since there would have been many possible points of conflict between the Law of your God and the law of the king (26). The Jews in Babylon must already have faced this issue and come to terms with it. Who better than one of their leading teachers to give such instruction to other groups in a similar situation? It is a problem which many believers in various situations have faced since then, so that Ezra’s approach would have been most instructive. Unfortunately, the silence of the following chapters suggests that he never got round to this part of his commission.

Momentous as the document was in terms of the history of the development of Judaism, Ezra’s prayer in response (27–28) sees here only further provision for the temple, the centre of his people’s worship, and an expression of God’s steadfast love. The conditions might have changed radically over the centuries since the first call of Abraham with all its attendant promises, but God was still the God of our fathers, who could move even a Persian monarch and his officials to further his purposes.

8:1–36 Ezra’s journey to Jerusalem

Most of this chapter is a relatively straightforward account which, as already noted, draws attention to Ezra’s obedience to his royal commission. Nevertheless, its three principal themes are attributed not just to his own abilities, but to the gracious hand of our God [which] was on us (18; cf. vs 22 and 31).

First, Ezra was anxious that among those who returned with him (1–14) there should be some Levites (15–20). Their subordinate role in the service of the temple may have meant that such a return would have been unattractive to them, but their presence on the journey may have been felt necessary if it was to conform symbolically to the wilderness journey following the exodus (cf. Nu. 10:11–28). On that occasion too they had been especially responsible for the transport of the sacred vessels.

Secondly, the safe journey itself was attributed to God’s gracious hand when Ezra had refused the offer of an armed escort (21–23). This seemingly rash boast drove the people to their knees, and their faith was rewarded. The different attitude of Nehemiah (cf. Ne. 2:9) reminds the reader, however, that God is able to work for his people through ‘normal’ as much as through extraordinary means, a principle which reaches its climax in the incarnation itself.

There is sometimes a tendency for Christians to fall into the trap of thinking that God is only at work in miracles and special events and to write off as ‘unspiritual’ such mundane procedures as, for example, committees. However, since for our salvation God chose to become man in the person of Christ, we may expect to find him at work just as much in the consecrated use of human means as in the bypassing of them. He is the God of our whole lives, and we should beware of compartmentalizing his activity. Ultimately, that road leads only to excluding him from much of our lives, or, in other words, to hypocrisy.

Thirdly, the transportation of costly offerings (see on ch. 7) without interference from bandits was also ascribed to God’s gracious hand. Here again, however, the elaborate accounting procedures which Ezra followed demonstrate that it would be a mistake to argue that a ‘spiritual’ as opposed to a ‘practical’ approach was being advocated.

Not surprisingly, the travellers offered sacrifices of thanksgiving once they had arrived in Jerusalem and rested (35). Coming so long after the first return, they had discovered that the idea of a second exodus was not a solitary event, but an experience which successive generations might enjoy. Its promise and hope were not exhausted by the first group to return, nor was blame attached to those who chose to go later. Rather, the prospect of deliverance and new life is seen to confront each new generation with its challenge for decision.

9:1–15 A report of mixed marriages and Ezra’s confession

Four months passed (cf. 10:9), and we must suppose, as 10:3 hints, that Ezra had in the meantime begun his teaching ministry, as illustrated by Ne. 8. From this chapter and elsewhere, we learn that he was able to reapply what might have been thought to be outdated laws to new situations, in particular by linking together different passages of Scripture in order to dig out the theological principles which underlay the specific older laws.

The result was that the people came to appreciate that marriage with an unbelieving foreigner was no different in principle from marriage with the local inhabitants of Canaan which had been forbidden to their ancestors. Most of the peoples mentioned in v 1 no longer existed, but by drawing on a variety of other material (including Lv. 18; 19:19; Dt. 7:1–4 and 20:10–18) the contemporary relevance of the laws was appreciated.

Ezra’s prayer is pure confession. It contains no request for forgiveness or other petition. Its climax is O Lord,you are righteous! (15). Even if God should destroy his people, Ezra acknowledged that he would be justified. This may be said to constitute the highest form of worship: God being praised solely for who he is, and not merely for what the worshipper hopes to gain from him.

Appropriately, therefore, Ezra adopted the stance of one in mourning for the dead (3), and he prayed representatively on behalf of all the people. His prayer (6–15) again draws on a variety of earlier biblical sources as it moves through individual and communal lament (6–7), reflection on God’s present mercies, which only underline the people’s ingratitude (8–9), specific confession (10–12), statement of future intent (13–14) and concluding general confession (15).

10:1–44 The problem of mixed marriages resolved

Ezra’s style of leadership repays study. As elsewhere (e.g. 9:1; Ne. 8:1), so here, he waited for the people to approach him. By teaching, patience and example, he was thus able to bring them without coercion to make for themselves the decisions he considered beneficial.

The narrative proceeds in a straightforward manner, leading, after due consideration of all the attendant circumstances (14), to the divorce of their wives by a number of men who are listed in the second half of the chapter. The poignant reference to women and children in the first and last verses of the chapter suggests that the narrator was not unaware of the human cost involved. The main difficulty a reader is likely to face is not in understanding what happened so much as why it happened.

The chief point that should be appreciated is that in its precarious situation the Jewish community in Judah needed a strong sense of its own identity if it was to survive at all. Artaxerxes’s commission (7:12–26) had provided Ezra with a mandate to develop Judaism as a strictly religious community. The qualifications for membership thus had to be redefined; otherwise there was a danger that the distinctive elements of the faith would be watered down, perhaps beyond the point of recognition. As a principle for the people of God, that point retains its validity (cf. Mt. 5:13–16), though the specific means which Ezra adopted to achieve it are explicitly ruled out for the Christian (1 Cor. 7; 1 Pet. 3:1–7).

For this reason, it would be unwise to see in this particular set of historical circumstances a direct parallel to the vexed question of a Christian deliberately entering into marriage with a non-Christian partner. (2 Cor. 6:14 is not directly addressing this issue, though its principle is often thought to apply to it.) Nevertheless, this whole episode serves to remind us of the primacy of doing all that we can to strengthen our own faith and that of our fellowship and not to lay ourselves open to situations which might lead in the opposite direction.

cf. compare

niv New International Version

OT Old Testament

Carson, D. A. (1994). New Bible commentary : 21st century edition. Rev. ed. of: The new Bible commentary. 3rd ed. / edited by D. Guthrie, J.A. Motyer. 1970. (4th ed.) (Esd 1.1). Leicester, England; Downers Grove, Ill., USA: Inter-Varsity Press.