In the Bible, Ezra is one of several leaders called to lead a remnant of Jewish exiles back to Jerusalem from captivity in Babylon/Persia. While his predecessor and successor, Zerubbabel and Nehemiah, focused on rebuilding the temple and later the city walls, Ezra, a scribe, a priest, and a gifted writer, led the hearts of the people back to God through worship and the study and application of God’s Word.
Who Was Ezra and What Does the Bible Tell Us about Him?
Throughout the Old Testament, God called many individuals to lead, instruct, and deliver His people. Patriarchs, political leaders, military commanders, judges, prophets, and kings were all commissioned by God at specifics times for specific reasons, all for His glory. Ezra is no exception. Ezra may not have led Israel into battle or parted the Red Sea as Moses had done. He was not a king in the fashion of David or prophet to the nation with the reputation of Elijah. He was, however, one of the most influential leaders in the latter half of the Old Testament. But who was he?
Ezra, whose name means “help”, was a priest, a scribe, a teacher, and a member of the remnant of Israel who’d been taken into captivity by the Babylonian Empire, which later fell to the Persians. In captivity, Ezra had found favor in the Persian courts during the reign of Artaxerxes, so much so that the Persian king commissioned him to lead a group of Jewish exiles back to Jerusalem around 458 B.C. The caravan set out the following year. Ezra, however, was actually the second of three key leaders to lead expeditions back to Jerusalem, as prophesied by the prophet Jeremiah.
Under royal edict from King Cyrus of Persia, Zerubbabel had led the first return in 536 B.C. and helped rebuild the temple in Jerusalem. This return is described in the first six chapters of Ezra. As described in the book of Ezra, work on the temple would begin around 536 B.C. (Ezra 3) but stop in 534 B.C. (Ezra 4) due to political opposition from neighboring Samaritans. At this time, God sent the prophets Zechariah and Haggai (Ezra 5) to encourage the exiles to resume work on the temple. After a fourteen-year hiatus, work continued, and the temple was completed and dedicated in 516 B.C. (Ezra 6). The events of the book of Esther (483 – 473 B.C.), occur between the first return (under Zerubbabel in 536 B.C.) and second return (under Ezra in 457 B.C.).
Sixty years after the temple was completed, Ezra was commissioned by Cyrus’s successor, Artaxerxes, to lead the second Jewish return to Jerusalem in 457 B.C. (Ezra 7). Given the opposition faced by Zerubbabel and the first wave of exiles upon their return (Ezra 4), King Artaxerxes sent Ezra with a royal letter giving him both civil and religious authority to continue the work the first wave had begun. In his decree, Artaxerxes also added provisions for the exiles to refurbish the temple with treasure taken during the Babylonian invasion (Ezra 7:11-26).
During his time in exile, Ezra had received extensive training in the Books of the Law (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy) and had spent a significant amount of time in the Word of God, as it was his job to copy, interpret, and transmit the Book of the Law to the people. Ezra loved the Word of God. In fact, the book of Ezra says that “he had set his heart to study the law of the Lord and to practice it, and to teach His statutes and ordinances in Israel.” (Ezra 7:10)
In fact, while in Persia, Ezra had been instrumental in helping modernize the language of the Torah, correcting irregularities, and preserving the integrity of Israel’s sacred text. Some scholars believe Ezra may have also been the author of Psalms 119, the longest psalm in the Hebrew Bible, though his contribution is debated. It was Ezra’s extensive training, attention to detail, and passion for the Word of God that would prove instrumental in helping lead the hearts of the people back to God through His Word.
As a leader, Ezra was passionate, purposeful, and direct. He confronted problems in the community with boldness, listened to the wisdom and encouragement of contemporary prophets, and looked to the Word of God for guidance. Furthermore, he encouraged the people to focus their attention on God’s plan and His Word, never his own leadership. An argument could be made, therefore, that a writer, student of the Word, and teacher was exactly what the people of God needed at the time.
After all, at the time of Ezra’s return to Jerusalem, the children of Israel had been living in exile for almost fifty years. The prophet Habakkuk had warned that God would soon the invasion of a foreign power (Babylon) to chastise His people for their apostasy and idolatry. Using King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon as His rod of discipline, God’s judgment had come to pass. However, even in Israel’s darkest hour, Jeremiah had prophesied that God would use Israel’s time in exile for their benefit, winning back the hearts of His people and breaking Israel of its idolatry in the process. In time, God would gather His people back to Jerusalem (Jeremiah 32:36-44; 33), but their return was more than just a physical return to their ancestral home.
Upon returning to Jerusalem, the remnant of Israel had their work cut out for them. Not only would they be tasked with rebuilding the city and the temple, decades of indoctrination into Babylonian and Persian culture and religion would mean the Israelites would also need to return to their traditions and history. Who better to rebuild Israel’s cultural heritage and the people’s knowledge of God than one who’d spent his life obsessing over the Word of God and the stories of the Hebrew Torah?
Here Are 6 Things Christians Today Can Learn from Ezra:
1. God Has a Plan for Us That Sometimes Includes Our Darkest Days
It would be difficult for anyone to find a silver lining to captivity and exile. Certainly, there were many Jews living in Babylon and Persia who wondered if God had rejected and abandoned them altogether. However, even in their darkest days, God was still in control. He had not abandoned His people nor forsaken His covenant. He was with them and working for them in what must have felt like their darkest hour.
Unfortunately, God’s providence is rarely recognized in the moment. We only see it in hindsight. However, to those who hold to the promises of God, remember His faithfulness, and keep to His ways, they will see God at work in their lives. In Him they will find peace for today and hope for tomorrow.
2. No Experience Is Ever Wasted
In His sovereignty, God would use Ezra’s time in Persia to equip and prepare him for the days ahead. As Ezra studied the Torah, poured over the Books of the Law, and meditated on the Word of God, his heart was transformed, his focus sharpened, and his mind aligned to the things of God. This experience would prove invaluable in helping the people remember their stories, God’s Law, and who God had proven Himself to be.
No experience, therefore, is ever wasted for those who seek the Lord and have been called according to His purpose. Nothing was ever easy for the children of Israel in exile. In many regards, it was downright horrible. They had no temple to worship in, no altar to sacrifice upon, and nothing to call their own. This was not their home.
However, God had not abandoned His people. His plan for them, as Jeremiah had prophesied, was good and bigger than their worst days (Jeremiah 29:11). In fact, God’s plan included exile to revive and reform the hearts of His people.
3. Revival Begins with God’s Word
Upon returning to Jerusalem, both Ezra and Nehemiah understood that spiritual revival was just as important if not more important than physical restoration. It was good to be home, but if God did not have a home amongst His people, their work would be in vain. True revelation and revival come through exposure to the Word of God.
As the Psalmist writes, “I will never forget Your precepts, for by them You have revived me.” (Psalms 119:93)
Ezra’s leadership placed a renewed focus on the Word of God by studying, applying, then teaching it to others. This is a discipline Christians today would be wise to adopt in their own faith.
4. God Is King Over All Earthy Authorities
The apostle Paul later wrote that “there is no authority except from God, and those which exist are established by God" (Romans 13:1). Through the acts of Nebuchadnezzar and the edicts of Cyrus and Artaxerxes, we see that God’s promises are not only true but His power and ability to execute His plans are also bigger than all kings and earthly authorities.
Wicked kings and foolish leaders may stand against God and work against His people for a time. God, however, sits on the throne. Furthermore, God’s spirit often moves in the hearts and minds of powerful rulers to accomplish His good and perfect plan, for He alone is sovereign and seated on His throne! The power of kings and rulers, therefore, is in God’s hands. Their time to rule ordained by Him.
5. God’s People Are Set Apart
Upon returning to Jerusalem, Ezra noticed that the remnant of Israel had failed to keep the Law of Moses by intermarrying with non-exiles and Canaanite women (Ezra 9). Remembering how pagan religion and false worship had infiltrated the nation via mixed marriages, Ezra sought to reverse this trend by separating the Israelites from the practices of their neighbors and former captives (Ezra 9:12-15; 10:11), reminding them of their true identity:
“For you are a holy people to the Lord your God; the Lord your God has chosen you to be a people for His personal possession out of all the peoples who are on the face of the earth.” (Deuteronomy 7:6)
God had called Israel to be holy and set apart from their neighbors. If Israel obeyed God’s commands and kept to His Law, they would live well and enjoy the benefits of His favor. If they disobeyed or forgot what was good and true, they would fall. The same is true for Christians today, who likewise, are called to be holy and set apart in Christ. In fact, in Nehemiah 8-12, Ezra and Nehemiah came together to enact a seven-day Torah reading, knowing that the physical restoration of the Temple and city walls would not matter if spiritual revival was not achieved.
6. All Roads Lead to the Cross
Though Ezra was only moderately successful in ushering in a season of reformation, the events following his return from exile would expose the true missing piece of Israel’s revival, the transformation of the heart.
To some, the book of Ezra ends on a low note. The building may have been complete, but the revival was not. More was needed. As Old Testament concludes, the physical restoration of Jerusalem paved the way for the spiritual rebirth through the arrival of the promised Messiah, Jesus Christ, in whom a new covenant would be made and true salvation would be found.
In the end, Ezra may have been an unlikely leader for such a time of uncertainty. But if God had proven anything up to this point in Israel’s history, it’s that those He loves are chosen and equipped for the times they live in. The Jewish exiles may have also returned to Jerusalem to rebuild their city. God, however, sought to reform their hearts and restore the relationship they had broken.
Through Ezra’s leadership, Israel would learn to rebuild their lives on the Word of God, rediscovering their identity in God’s promises, God’s law, and stories of God’s goodness and faithfulness, which God’s people should cherish and cling to.
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Joel Ryan is an author, writing professor, and contributing writer for Salem Web Network and Lifeway. When he’s not writing stories and defending biblical truth, Joel is committed to helping young men find purpose in Christ and become fearless disciples and bold leaders in their homes, in the church, and in the world.