1 God demonstrates His sovereignty sometimes in unexpected ways in order to accomplish His purpose. He demonstrates that by using and directing secular governments and pagan kings as His agents. Second, God is going to show us through this book that His people are personally known to Him and that all of the people are important to building the kingdom, not just a few leaders. Third, through this book God is going to demonstrate to us that the printed Word is His primary tool for accomplishing His purpose, but also the primary means of grace. God works primarily through the printed word and not through miracles, or visions, or dreams.
2 One of the first things that you notice when you open the book of Ezra are the long lists of names:
Ezra 1 The inventory of temple utensils
Ezra 2 The names of the exiles who returned
Ezra 8 The family heads returning with Ezra
Ezra 10 Those guilty of intermarriage
Ezra is certainly not a popular book, or one that is well known, but of this we can be certain: It is part of the Word of God. Ezra is no accident; it was placed in the canon by none other than God Himself. It is His Word. He had a reason for commissioning its writing and a purpose for its inclusion. From Paul’s letter to Timothy, we know that “all Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work” (2 Tim. 3:16–17). Although it may not be transparent at first reading, chapters of the Bible that contain long lists of hard-to-pronounce names, or letters from government officials, are truly part of God’s revelation of Himself and His plans for the salvation of His people. We have previously seen the importance of chapters in Deuteronomy and Joshua which showed how God provided for His people and cared for the priests who served in the church. Paul reminds his spiritual son Timothy that “the Holy Scriptures . . . are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus” (2 Tim. 3:15), thus impressing on us the necessity of serious Bible study, and not being content with the mere milk of the gospel. Studying the entirety of Scripture will help us become complete, equipped for every good work. Discipline and diligence will help us see new, deep truths.
3 The Jews knew, from reading their own history, that there would always be opposition to the kingdom of God. Already in the Garden of Eden they were warned that there would be intense conflict between the seed of the woman and the seed of Satan (Gen. 3:15). That warfare would be present in all the pages of history. They themselves, as malcontents in the wilderness, had demanded that God bring them back to Egypt so that they might enjoy the delicacies of the Nile (Num. 11–14). Isaiah and Jeremiah had powerfully and pointedly reminded them that they had engaged in severe persecution of the prophets that God had sent to warn them. While they were still in Babylon, Daniel had confessed on their behalf all the ways they had rebelled against God and condemned His prophets (Dan. 9:3–19). Jesus warned His disciples to “beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravenous wolves” (Matt. 7:15). Peter condemns the crowd at Pentecost for crucifying the very one who came to save them (Acts 2:23). Paul reminds the Thessalonians that they had suffered at the hands of “their countrymen, just as they did from the Judeans, who killed the Lord Jesus and their own prophets” (1 Thess. 2:14–15). The writer to the Hebrews reminds his readers that “they endured a great struggle with sufferings; partly while you were made a spectacle both by reproaches and tribulations” (Heb. 10:32–33). Paul warned the Ephesian elders that, after his departure, “savage wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock” (Acts 20:29). Persecution from non-Christians, even from those who masquerade within the church, should be expected.
4 A second thing you will notice is that the book of Ezra contains copies of letters and official documents. Much of the content of the book is material that comes from secular historical archives. To find a comparable situation, we would have to be reading a book about the formation of some denomination and find that it is only ten chapters long, with almost half of the book filled with letters from President Franklin Roosevelt, President Harry Truman, and President Dwight D. Eisenhower. Those letters would have been dredged up from the presidential archives: some located in Hyde Park, New York, some in Kansas City, Missouri, and others from Washington, D.C. An unusual history, for certain. Again, a demonstration of God’s sovereignty over kings and presidents.
5 The book of Ezra can easily and accurately be divided up into two parts, a division which seems to be beyond dispute. The first part includes chapters 1–6, which covers for us the first stage of the return of God’s people, led by Zerubbabel in 538 B.C., during the first years of the reign of Cyrus the Great in Babylon. The second part of the book, chapters 7–10, focuses on the second stage of the return, under Ezra in the seventh year of Artaxerxes in the year 458 B.C. What we have, then, is a history book which is about two very closely related but chronologically distinct events, occurring some eighty years apart. Even the trips between Babylon and Jerusalem, involving thousands of people traveling through hostile territory, over long periods of time, are given no attention. The history book, in effect, ignores all of the events in between and is saying, effectively, that these are the only two things about which the author is going to concern himself. Instead of making a continuous chronological historical account, Ezra passes over, absolutely without notice, an interval of nearly sixty years, which is the space of time intervening between his sixth and seventh chapters. Instead of giving us exciting, detailed accounts of the trips, we are simply informed that they occurred. To draw a parallel, we might think of an American historian who wrote a book focused exclusively on the Revolutionary War of 1776 and the Civil War of 1860, while ignoring everything in between. In writing such an account, the author would be ignoring the War of 1812, the French and Indian Wars, and the war with Mexico. Would that be a legitimate, valuable history?
6 Every historian has a purpose or motivation for writing. Every historian also has a bias or a perspective that pervades his or her writing. Sometimes that bias becomes obvious, but sometimes it is well hidden. Dr. Sidney Mead, dubbed by some as “the father of American religious history,” was one of my professors. He disguised his bias very well but was secretly a Unitarian, one who rejected the divinity of Christ. In all his writings and lectures, he avoided giving any credit to orthodox Christianity and seldom even mentioned the name of Christ. That distorted the truth in myriads of ways, painting a false picture of America’s early history. The motivation may be different and may even be suspect, for some write to achieve fame, while others write to achieve academic standing and rank. Others do it in efforts to correct the record, so they are called revisionist historians. Sometimes that is necessary.
7 The historical content of Ezra is accepted almost universally without controversy. The primary material is well supported by Jewish tradition, by secular historical records, and by the writings of Josephus. It is of recent enough origin so that the secular record corroborates the biblical account. The language of Ezra, like that of Daniel, is partly Hebrew and partly Chaldee, because of the official Chaldean documents and the fact that the people of God were living in a Chaldean culture. The official correspondence was written in Aramaic, which was the language of international diplomacy at the time. Judah, after all, is a province of Persia during this time of history and is not a separate nation. As we read through the book of Ezra we will be amazed at the ways that God works, using His earthly agents to accomplish His purposes. Look at the way God uses King Cyrus to do such an unconventional thing as allow all these people to go back to their homeland and supply them with all they might need, especially the animals for sacrificing to Jehovah. Then, even greater, look at the way that King Artaxerxes provides for the needs of the second wave of migrants, including huge amounts of wealth. Clear evidence that God, the Holy Spirit, is directing their hearts and minds. Sovereignty demonstrated again.
8 Ezra 9 and 10 are about the intermarriage of Israelites with pagans who had been populating the land of Canaan during the absence of God’s people. God had often warned His people about the dangers of such practices (see Deut. 7:1–12; Josh. 23:6–13; 1 Kings 11:1–11). God is a holy God who cannot tolerate or condone evil. In this instance, it is a listing of priests and Levites who are guilty. They, of all people, are supposed to be examples and be teachers of the Law. Their sins have to be exposed and corrected. God is a jealous God (Exod. 20:5; 34:14) who will not ignore such sinful behavior. Ezra now becomes God’s agent for addressing and correcting the problem.
Dr. Norman De Jong is a semi-retired pastor in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church.