The first Book of Return
Ezra and its companion book, Nehemiah, continue the history of God’s OT people after the age of the Captivity. They pick up the report from the final verses of the Chronicles, which report that 70 years after the captives were taken away, in the first year of the Persian conqueror Cyrus, “the Lord moved the heart of Cyrus the king of Persia to make a proclamation throughout his realm and to put it in writing:
Thus says Cyrus king of Persia: All the kingdoms of the earth the Lord God of heaven has given me. And He has commanded me to build Him a house at Jerusalem which is in Judah. Who is among you of all His people? May the Lord his God be with him, and let him go up! (Chron. 36:23)
Cyrus. Cyrus, the Persian conqueror who ordered the return, was not necessarily a believer. It was his policy to return ethnic groups to their homelands. His other decrees show he spoke with equal respect of other people’s gods. But the Lord surely used Cyrus to accomplish his own purposes, as he did other pagan rulers.
Authorship. Parts of both Ezra and Nehemiah are written as first person reports of the two men. Other parts are in the third person, descriptions of their actions. There are a number of documents quoted in Aramaic, the diplomatic language of the day. And there are lists which would have been on file in the temple archives. While we cannot tell who organized all these sources into the books we have today, Ezra and Nehemiah are accurate reports of the times they discuss and were probably completed shortly after 430 B.C.
Ezra. Ezra was a priest, of the line of Zadok. Thus one of his priestly tasks was to teach the law of God. Ezra committed himself to this mission while in Babylon (7:10). Ezra also held a position of influence in the Persian court (7:21-26). It’s likely this dedicated individual initiated the Bible study movement which undergirded the synagogue and found later expression in the rabbi (teacher) of Jesus’ day.
10 For Ezra had prepared his heart to seek the Law of the Lord, and to do it, and to teach statutes and ordinances in Israel.
21 And I, even I, Artaxerxes the king, issue a decree to all the treasurers who are in the region beyond the River, that whatever Ezra the priest, the scribe of the Law of the God of heaven, may require of you, let it be done diligently, 22 up to one hundred talents of silver, one hundred kors of wheat, one hundred baths of wine, one hundred baths of oil, and salt without prescribed limit. 23 Whatever is commanded by the God of heaven, let it diligently be done for the house of the God of heaven. For why should there be wrath against the realm of the king and his sons? 24 Also we inform you that it shall not be lawful to impose tax, tribute, or custom on any of the priests, Levites, singers, gatekeepers, Nethinim, or servants of this house of God. 25 And you, Ezra, according to your God-given wisdom, set magistrates and judges who may judge all the people who are in the region beyond the River, all such as know the laws of your God; and teach those who do not know them. 26 Whoever will not observe the law of your God and the law of the king, let judgment be executed speedily on him, whether it be death, or banishment, or confiscation of goods, or imprisonment.
Date and outline. The first group returned the first year of Cyrus (538 B.C.). Ezra’s group came the 7th year of Xerxes (458 B.C.). The book tells the story of these 2 groups and thus can be outlined as the 1st Return (ch. 1-6) and the 2nd Return (ch. 7-10)