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Invitation to Ezra

Ezra is situated in the Writings section of the Hebrew Bible and is part of the Historical Books of the Protestant canon. Ezra originally appeared together with the book of Nehemiah; their separation was first attested by Origen. Jerome followed this practice of treating Ezra and Nehemiah as distinct books—against longstanding Jewish tradition—in his Latin Vulgate.


There are three basic views of the book’s authorship: 1) Ezra wrote the books of Ezra, Nehemiah, and Chronicles; 2) Ezra and Nehemiah each wrote the books named after them; and 3) the Chronicler (the author of 1 and 2 Chronicles) is responsible for the final form of Ezra and Nehemiah. Regardless of one’s view of authorship, it is clear that Ezra and Nehemiah rely on several sources, including edicts of foreign rulers, lists, letters between government officials, and their own first-person memoirs. All of these have been compiled, together with narrative and commentary, to tell the story of the Jewish people’s return from exile and rebuilding of the walls around Jerusalem and its temple.

Historical Context

In 586 BC the Babylonians entered and destroyed Jerusalem and its temple and deported its most important citizens, such as political and religious leaders, artisans, and craftspeople (an earlier deportation occurred in 605 BC and included Daniel and his three friends; see Daniel 1). After this, many other Judeans fled to Egypt, including the prophet Jeremiah, though he was taken against his will.

The Babylonian Empire fell to the Persian Empire in 539 BC, with Cyrus taking the capital city without a fight. The Persian king Cyrus would then institute religious reforms that allowed conquered peoples to return to their homelands to reestablish worship of their gods. As a result, the Jewish people were allowed to return to Jerusalem to rebuild the temple and city walls, events recounted in the books of Ezra and Nehemiah.

After Cyrus’s death in 529, his son Cambyses took over and conquered Egypt a few years later, in 525 BC. Cambyses died in 522 BC, after which a civil war erupted between a leader named Guamata (who had previously rebelled) and Darius. This war, which unsettled the Persian Empire, occurred during the prophetic ministries of Haggai and Zechariah. Darius was able to assert control of the Persian Empire by 519 BC, after which he imposed a strict, threefold system of taxation. Darius also divided Persia into satrapies, with Palestine belonging to the satrapy “Beyond the River.”

Darius died in 486 BC, after which Xerxes reigned until 465 BC. He is allotted one verse in Ezra (4:6). Artaxerxes ruled Persia for the next forty years (465–424 BC), spanning the ministries of Ezra and Nehemiah. Importantly, Ezra was sent to Judah during a time of unrest between Persia and Egypt, possibly in an effort to pacify Judah, since it was a buffer state between Persia and Egypt (see Fensham, Ezra and Nehemiah, 15). Later, a man named Megabyzus led a revolt in Egypt, shortly after which “Nehemiah was allowed to go to Jerusalem to rebuild the wall and to organize the province of Judah. Nehemiah was a loyal subject of Artaxerxes and could be trusted. It was under the circumstances very important for Artaxerxes to have a loyal governor in one of his minor provinces” (Fensham, 16).

Much more can be said about the historical context in which Ezra and Nehemiah worked to rebuild Jerusalem and its temple, but this brief overview sketches in broad strokes the tumultuous time during which God returned his people from exile and provides important context for understanding the political opposition they faced as they sought to complete this work.

Timeline of the Events in Ezra and Nehemiah

Brief Glossary of People, Places, and Events in Ezra

Ezra is filled with strange names and places with which most modern audiences are unfamiliar. The following is a brief glossary of the people, places, and events that readers will encounter while reading this book.

  • People
    • Ahasuerus: also known as Xerxes. He was the son of Darius I, husband of Esther, and ruler of Persia 486–465 BC.
    • Artaxerxes: ruler of Persia 465–424 BC.
    • Cyrus: king of Persia 559–529 BC. He allowed exiles to return to Judah and ordered the rebuilding of the Jerusalem temple as part of a larger religio-political policy that included restoration of the worship and places of worship of the gods of conquered people throughout his empire.
    • Darius: Darius I (not Darius the Mede in the book of Daniel), king of Persia 522–486 BC. The Jerusalem temple was rebuilt during his reign.
    • Esarhaddon: ruler of Assyria 680–669. The “enemies” in Ezra 4:2 claim to have worshiped Yahweh since Esarhaddon exiled them to Judah from an unnamed place.
    • Haggai: postexilic prophet who encouraged the rebuilding of the Jerusalem temple and whose oracles are recorded in the book of Haggai.
    • Jeshua son of Jozadak, Jeshua: high priest who, with Zerubbabel, oversaw the temple rebuilding project (known as Joshua the high priest in Haggai and Zechariah). Jeshua and Zerubbabel together formed the political and religious leadership of the postexilic community.
    • Mithredath: Cyrus’s treasurer who oversaw the return of the items stolen from the Lord’s temple.
    • Nebuchadnezzar: king of Babylon who overthrew Judah in 586 BC.
    • Osnappar: most likely the Assyrian king Ashurbanipal, who ruled Assyria from 668 to 627 BC.
    • Rehum: Persian official who opposed rebuilding Jerusalem during the reign of Artaxerxes.
    • Sheshbazzar: first governor of Judah, appointed by Cyrus, who laid the temple foundations and returned the temple vessels stolen by Nebuchadnezzar.
    • Shethar-bozenai: Persian official who initially opposed rebuilding the temple but supported the rebuilding project at the command of Darius.
    • Shimshai: Persian official who opposed rebuilding Jerusalem during the reign of Artaxerxes.
    • Tattenai: Persian governor of Beyond the River during the reign of Darius. Tattenai initially opposed rebuilding the temple but supported the rebuilding project at the command of Darius.
    • Zechariah: postexilic prophet who encouraged the rebuilding of the Jerusalem temple. His oracles are recorded in the biblical book of Zechariah
    • Zerubbabel: governor of Judah after the return from exile. Together with Jeshua, he oversaw the temple rebuilding project and provided political leadership to Judah.
  • Places
    • Beyond the River: Persian province west of the Euphrates River, also known as Yehud.
    • Ecbatana: capital city of Media where Darius found Cyrus’s decree allowing for the return of the Jewish exiles and rebuilding of the Jerusalem temple.
  • Events
    • Feast of Booths (also known as the Feast of Shelters and Feast of Tabernacles): one of the three primary Israelite celebrations. It is celebrated during the harvest and falls sometime from September through October (date varies based on lunar calendar).
    • Feast of Unleavened Bread: festival celebrated at the end of Passover, typically in April (date varies based on lunar calendar).

Purpose Statement

The book of Ezra chronicles God’s supernatural, sovereign restoration of his people, the city of Jerusalem, and temple worship.

Key Verse

“For Ezra had set his heart to study the Law of the Lord, and to do it and to teach his statutes and rules in Israel.”

— Ezra 7:10 ESV


I. Return from Exile (1:1–2:70)

A. Introduction (1:1)

B. Cyrus’s Decree (1:2–4)

C. Preparations to Return (1:5–11)

D. List of Returnees (2:1–70)

II. Rebuilding the Temple (3:1–6:22)

A. The Altar (3:1–6)

B. The Temple Foundation (3:7–13)

C. Opposition to Temple Rebuilding (4:1–5)

D. Successful Opposition to Rebuilding (4:6–24)

E. Resumption of Temple Rebuilding (5:1–5)

F. Report Sent to Darius (5:6–17)

G. Darius’s Response to the Report (6:1–12)

H. Temple Completed and Dedicated; Passover Observed (6:13–22)

III. Ezra’s Return to Jerusalem (7:1–8:36)

A. Introduction to Ezra the Scribe (7:1–10)

B. Artaxerxes’s Decree (7:11–28)

C. Second List of Returnees (8:1–14)

D. Recruitment of Levites (8:15–20)

E. Final Preparations for Return (8:21–30)

F. Arrival in Jerusalem (8:31–36)

IV. Ezra Confronts Covenant Breaking (9:1–10:44)

A. Report of Covenant Unfaithfulness and Ezra’s Response (9:1–5)

B. Ezra’s Repentance (9:6–15)

C. The People’s Repentance (10:1–17)

D. List of Returnees Married to Foreign Wives (10:18–44)

Return from Exile (1:1–2:70)

Introduction (1:1)

Ezra opens with the closing sentence from 2 Chronicles, indicating the close relationship between the two books. First and 2 Chronicles tell the story of God’s relationship with his people from Adam up through the monarchy, exile of Israel, and exile of Judah. Ezra picks up where 2 Chronicles leaves off, with God’s people still in the Babylonian exile, which began with the destruction of Jerusalem and final deportation of the Judeans in 586 BC. However, Chronicles ends and Ezra begins on the hopeful, redemptive note that God has “stirred up the spirit of Cyrus king of Persia” (2Chr 36:22; Ezra 1:1). This “stirring” indicates God’s sovereignty over all of creation, including foreign powers, a reality that forms the theological heart of the book of Ezra.

Cyrus, founder of what is known as the Achaemenid Empire, ruled Persia from 559 BC until his death in 529 BC. In 539 BC he conquered the city of Babylon—without a fight, according to the Babylonian Chronicle. This victory brought the Babylonian Empire under his control, and with it the conquered nation of Judah. The “first year” mentioned in Ezra 1:1 does not refer to the first year of his reign over Persia but rather the first year of his capture of Babylon. Thus he issued the decree allowing Judean exiles to return in 538 BC.

Ezra 1:1 and 2 Chronicles 36:22 both identify Cyrus’s decree as fulfilling “the word of the Lord by the mouth of Jeremiah.” This likely refers to Jeremiah 29:10–14, wherein the Lord states, “When seventy years are completed for Babylon, I will visit you, and I will fulfill to you my promise and bring you back to this place” (29:10). The “seventy years” of Jeremiah’s prophecy marks the time since Pharaoh Necho installed Jehoiakim as king of Judah; thus, though the prophetic clock began during the reign of a Davidic king, “Jehoiakim’s ‘reign’ was already bondage” because he operated under the hand of a foreign power (Levering, Ezra and Nehemiah, 40). Isaiah also identified Cyrus as the one who would bring God’s people out of exile, calling him the Lord’s “anointed” (lit. “Messiah”) in Isaiah 45:1 and “my shepherd” who will restore Jerusalem and its temple in 44:28.

Cyrus’s Decree (1:2–4)

Verses 2–4 record Cyrus’s decree to allow the Judean exiles to return to Jerusalem to rebuild the temple and restore worship of Yahweh there. A similar decree is given several chapters later in 6:3–5, and Cyrus’s decree in Ezra is consistent with the broader Persian policy of supporting the gods of conquered peoples and encouraging their worship. However, this policy was by no means universal, and some religious cults still experienced varying degrees of persecution. While Cyrus’s decree recorded in the Bible recognizes Yahweh as God, the Cyrus Cylinder similarly attributes all the Persian king’s success to Marduk, the chief Babylonian deity and patron god of the city of Babylon. Further, Cyrus boasts in the Cyrus Cylinder about reestablishing worship of many other gods, makes provisions for sacrifices to them, and asks that their worshipers pray for his success.

Cyrus refers to Yahweh as the “God of heaven(s)” (1:2). This title occurs twenty-two other times in the Old Testament and is also used in the Elephantine Papyri, a collection of Jewish documents from the Egyptian settlement at Elephantine. Its use is almost exclusively postexilic (after the Babylonian exile), and it is used either by non-Jews or by Jews addressing Persians or other non-Jewish people. It could represent a Jewish attempt to contextualize their understanding of Yahweh for a postexilic, non-Jewish audience. Whether or not that is the case, “God of heaven” clearly indicates that Yahweh is no regional deity but, rather, is the supreme God over all of creation. As will be emphasized throughout the book of Ezra, Yahweh directs all the affairs of the earth.

Cyrus Cylinder. Image by Paul Hudson – British Museum, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=83256229

After allowing for the return to Jerusalem of “whoever is among you of all his people” (1:3), Cyrus concludes his decree by making provision for the returnees. The language used is reminiscent of the exodus from Egypt, during which Israel “asked the Egyptians for silver and gold jewelry and for clothing” and the Egyptians “let them have what they asked” to demonstrate that God was showing the Israelites favor (Exod 12:36).

Preparations to Return (1:5–11)

In response to Cyrus’s decree, “the heads of the fathers’ houses of Judah and Benjamin” rose up to return to Jerusalem (1:5). “Fathers’ houses” refers to the extended family unit in ancient Israelite culture known as the bet ab (pronounced “bait ahv”). In her book Epic of Eden, Sandra Richter points out that ancient Israelite culture was patrilocal, patrilineal, and patriarchal, with all of life centered on the “father’s house.” In such an ordering of society, the extended family was led by a single male relative, the patriarch, who held authority over and responsibility for all the members of his house (patriarchal). In addition, one lived with one’s extended family on property controlled by the patriarch (patrilocal), and one’s ancestry was traced through one’s father (patrilineal). Thus, “the heads of the fathers’ houses” in Ezra refers to the extended Jewish family units throughout Persia, not simply the leaders of nuclear families.

The priests and Levites also rose up to return to Jerusalem. Readers have already seen in Cyrus’s decree the emphasis on rebuilding Yahweh’s temple, and here the author emphasizes that the people who will carry out the requirements of the cult also feature prominently in the return from exile. The reference to God stirring the spirits of the returnees underscores the author’s focus on the sovereignty of Yahweh, “God of heaven,” over the entire process. Verse 6 confirms that Cyrus’s command was carried out, and like 1:4, it echoes Exodus 12:36, thus painting the return from exile in exodus hues and further demonstrating God’s sovereignty. Human actors certainly play a role in the return from exile, but God fulfills the prophecies of Jeremiah and Isaiah by orchestrating the return, raising up and directing Cyrus, and stirring the spirits of some to return and others to fund the journey back to Jerusalem and the rebuilding of Yahweh’s temple.

Verses 7–10 confirm the return of temple accoutrements that Nebuchadnezzar had stolen, and this section ends on the triumphant note that Sheshbazzar brought everything with him “when the exiles were brought up from Babylonia to Jerusalem” (1:10). God’s promised return has commenced!

List of Returnees (2:1–70)

Following the statement in 1:5 that the heads of the fathers’ houses led their families to return, the narrator includes a list of the households that returned to the promised land. Apart from those hobbyists interested in tracing genealogical history, modern readers are prone to skip over this large portion of Scripture; however, this list performed an important function for the returnees by demonstrating their rightful status as inheritors of the promises God had made to the forefathers of Israel and Judah. In the land of Israel, the people could point to their occupancy there to prove their membership in the covenant community; in exile, the proof of membership had to be determined according to genealogical lists such as recorded here and repeated with variations in Nehemiah 7:6–73 (see Breneman, Ezra, Nehemiah, Esther, 83). Ezra 2:1 makes clear, though, that the returnees would indeed go back to their ancestral lands and thus reestablish the relationship between tribal land and membership in the covenant community.

In addition to its immediate purpose of confirming covenant membership of the returnees, the list functions as a record for later readers that the renewed Jewish community was pure—that is, the returnees were all Jewish. For, as Levering states, “the journey to the land . . . cannot be a return from exile if some of the people who attempt to return are not Israelites. The task of preserving the integrity of the people—their connection to the covenantal family of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob—thereby becomes a paramount condition of the restoration” (49). The importance of proving one’s ancestry is highlighted near the end of this section when, in verses 59–63, readers learn that some who claimed to be priests “were excluded from the priesthood as unclean . . . until there should be a priest to consult Urim and Thummim” (2:62–63). Though modern scholars do not know precisely what the Urim and Thummim looked like, it is clear that they were relatively small tokens (see Exod 28:30) used to discern God’s will.

Rebuilding the Temple (3:1–6:22)

The Altar (3:1–6)

Just as David built an altar for sacrifices at the temple site long before the temple was built, and just as the patriarchs built altars long before the tabernacle existed, the Jewish returnees rebuilt the altar at Jerusalem before commencing work on the rest of the temple. This they did in the seventh month of the same year they returned to Jerusalem, so in Tishri (September–October) of 538 BC. This month is particularly significant in the Israelite liturgical calendar, as during this time the Israelites were to celebrate the new year, the Feast of Trumpets, the Day of Atonement, and the Feast of Booths (see Lev 23:23–44; Num 29). Further, Solomon dedicated the first temple with his lengthy prayer that foreshadowed both God’s judgment on sin and his faithful restoration of his people when they returned to him (see 2Chr 6)—restoration put on display in Ezra. That “the people gathered as one man to Jerusalem” (3:1) indicates the unified nature of God’s people as they gather to reestablish the sacrificial system that Nebuchadnezzar had so violently ended decades earlier.

Verse 2 mentions two important leaders of the returned exiles. Jeshua was the high priest during this period and features in the prophetic books of Haggai and Zechariah. Zerubbabel—also mentioned in Haggai—was the governor of Judah who oversaw the rebuilding project. Together they formed the religious and political leadership of the nation.

Verses 2–6 take pains to confirm that the returnees are following “the Law of Moses the man of God” (3:2), as unfaithfulness to the covenant Yahweh had established on Mount Sinai resulted in their exile to Babylon. They therefore offer burnt offerings—sacrifices that were entirely burned upon the altar—twice daily, “according to the rule” (3:4) the Torah mandated (cf. Num 28:1–4). They also celebrate the Feast of Booths “as it is written” (3:4), which was one of the three pilgrim festivals that all Israelite men were to travel to Jerusalem to observe. During this feast the Israelites lived in booths, or temporary shelters, as a reminder of their time in the wilderness. Having just returned from a similar seventy-year wilderness experience, this festival was an excellent way to renew their faithfulness to Yahweh. This section ends by reminding readers that “the foundation of the temple of the Lord was not yet laid” (3:6), which is precisely where the next section picks up.

The Temple Foundation (3:7–13)

The remainder of chapter 3 records the laying of the temple foundation, which occasioned great joy for many of the returnees but caused others to wail loudly (3:11–12). Despite the weeping of the “old men who had seen the first house,” that is, Solomon’s temple, the joyful shouting of the rest of the returnees “was heard far away” (3:13–14).

According to 3:8, the temple foundation was laid “in the second year after their coming to the house of God at Jerusalem, in the second month,” that is, April–May of 537 BC. Solomon began construction of the first temple during the same month (1Kgs 6:1), which marked the beginning of the dry season. A potential problem arises with Haggai’s record, which dates the laying of the temple foundation during Darius’s second year (520 BC; see Hag 1:12–15; 2:15–18); however, Haggai is referring to the restarting of work on the temple foundation (cf. Ezra 4:24), not the initial reconstruction recorded here. The reason reconstruction stopped in 537 will become clear in a few verses.

The author’s reference to the Sidonians and Tyrians in 3:7 marks the second temple as a continuation of the first, as David secured “great quantities of timber” from the Sidonians and Tyrians (1Chr 22:4) and Solomon acquired cedar from Tyre and Lebanon (1Kgs 5:8–9). The payment offered for these building materials—“food, drink, and oil”—is the same type of payment offered in 2 Chronicles 2:9. Such an exchange of goods was vital for Phoenicia, which lacked arable land that could produce such staples (Fensham, 62). The “grant . . . from Cyrus” does not refer to the decree recorded in chapter 1 but, rather, indicates that the Judeans had secured permission to import cedar from another province in Cyrus’s empire (ibid.).

Significantly, the temple foundation dedication ceremony includes musical worship led by “priests . . . and the Levites, the sons of Asaph . . . according to the directions of David king of Israel” (3:10, emphasis added). As with the previous reference to the “Law of Moses,” the returnees take pains to make their worship of Yahweh consistent with Scripture, as they want to avoid the sins that previously culminated in exile. Finally, the worshipers recite Psalm 100:5, a verse that emphasizes Yahweh’s hesed, or covenant faithfulness, which the returnees experienced first in exile as judgment and now in the promised land as blessing. Whether in blessing or cursing, Yahweh remains faithful to the covenant he established with his people.

Opposition to Temple Rebuilding (4:1–5)

In 4:1–5 the author uses the names of Persian rulers as chronological markers to show that opposition from the people living in the land persisted through several decades. The opposition began in 537 BC with the commencement of the rebuilding project and continued through “all the days of Cyrus . . . even until the reign of Darius” (4:5). Darius I (not Darius the Mede of the book of Daniel) ascended the Persian throne in 522 BC after the reign of Cambyses II, whom the Bible does not mention. Further, the next section (4:6­­–7) records that the hostility continued during Ahasuerus’s reign (485–465 BC), and yet another opposition letter was sent to Artaxerxes, who reigned from 464 to 424 BC. These few verses, then, tell readers that the returnees experienced conflict with the people already settled in land for at least seven decades, from 537 BC until at least 464 BC.

The “adversaries of Judah and Benjamin” (4:1), called “people of the land” in 4:4, trace their presence in the promised land to the time of Esarhaddon, who ruled Assyria from 680 to 669 BC. The Bible doesn’t record a deportation and resettlement under Esarhaddon, but “a cylinder of Esarhaddon [reports] that he conquered Sidon during one of his campaigns, and it is most likely that Northern Israel (Samaria) was also involved in the rebellion against the Assyrians. With such a rebellion the deportation could have taken place as the fulfillment of a curse of a vassal treaty” (Fensham, 66–67).

The returnees’ refusal to allow the “people of the land” to assist in the rebuilding project stems from the latter’s syncretistic worship of Yahweh, as recorded in 2 Kings 17:24–44. There, readers learn that those whom Assyria resettled in Israel “feared the Lord” (2Kgs 17:32), but “every nation still made gods of its own and put them in the shrines of the high places” (2Kgs 17:29). Such syncretistic worship would be forbidden among God’s renewed covenant people.

Successful Opposition to Rebuilding (4:6–24)

Modern readers expect historical narratives to proceed chronologically, which makes Ezra 4 a particularly confusing chapter. However, the author is more concerned with demonstrating the prolonged and serious hostility that God’s people experienced than with recounting events in chronological order. Thus verse 6 leaps forward to record opposition during the reign of Ahasuerus (485–465 BC), then verses 7–23 detail efforts to stop the rebuilding of the city during the reign of Artaxerxes (464–424 BC). The section closes with a note about temple reconstruction during the second year of Darius (520 BC), who ruled the Persian Empire before both Artaxerxes and Ahasuerus. The author’s concern is to show that serious opposition to the rebuilding of Jerusalem and its temple was ongoing, though verse 24 makes it clear the temple itself was completed long before the city walls, opposition to which continued for several decades. In sum, Ezra 4 emphasizes that the rebuilding project was no small feat; rather, it required the returnees to muster enormous perseverance and faith in Yahweh to complete the good work that he had begun, not unlike Paul’s confidence that God would do the same for the church at Philippi (see Phil 1:3–11).

In their letter to Artaxerxes, the writers mention Osnappar (4:10), most likely the Assyrian king Ashurbanipal. Ashurbanipal, who is not mentioned in the Bible, ruled Assyria from 668 to 627 BC. He was “the only Assyrian king ever to capture Susa” (Williamson, Ezra, Nehemiah, 62) and continued the common practice of shifting conquered peoples around in the vast Assyrian Empire. “Beyond the River” (4:10), a moniker used during the periods of Assyrian, Babylonian, and Persian rule, refers to the area west of the Euphrates River. It became an official province of the empire during the Persian period.

The letter to Artaxerxes, which cites Jerusalem’s long history of rebellion against foreign rule, convinces the king to cease the rebuilding of Jerusalem. Verse 24 retreats at least five decades to recount that temple construction, which had stopped in 537 BC (see Ezra 4:4–5), restarted in the second year of Darius (520 BC). This notice about the temple thus resets the scene for readers—from the second year of Darius (520 BC) to the time of Artaxerxes (464–424 BC)—and introduces the following section of the narrative.

Resumption of Temple Rebuilding (5:1–5)

Nearly two decades after construction of the temple ceased, God raised up two prophets to call his people to return to the building project. Haggai delivered his prophetic messages from August to December of 520 BC, and the temple rebuilding began again during his ministry. Zechariah likewise began his prophetic ministry in 520 BC, which continued into early 519 BC. Together, these prophets supported the work of Zerubbabel and Jeshua, the political and religious leaders, respectively, of the returnees.

The resumption of building activity draws the attention of Tattenai, “the governor of the province Beyond the River” (5:3), and he and his associates inquire as to who gave the returnees permission to rebuild Yahweh’s temple. The term “governor” is also applied to Zerubbabel in Haggai 1:1, 14; 2:2, 21. Williamson points out that the term is sufficiently broad to apply to Tattenai as governor of Beyond the River, to a man called Ushtannu as “governor of Beyond the River and Babylon together,” and to Zerubbabel as governor of Judah in Haggai (76–77).

Even though Tattenai’s account comes on the heels of the author detailing the ongoing hostility the returnees faced in rebuilding Jerusalem and the temple, the narrative here does not indicate that Tattenai is particularly antagonistic toward the project; rather, he is simply inquiring about a significant building project occurring in the province he governs. Ezra 5:5 highlights God’s sovereignty and favor toward the rebuilding by stating that “the eye of their God was on the elders of the Jews, and they [Tattenai and his associates] did not stop them.” The reference to “the eye of their God” contrasts with the well-known clandestine operatives of the Persian king who would report back to him on matters occurring throughout his kingdom. These spies were known as “the King’s Eye” or “the King’s Ear” (Breneman, 108; Williamson, 108). Though the king may have seemed ubiquitous and omnipotent, only Yahweh truly is so.

Report Sent to Darius (5:6–17)

The author of Ezra routinely makes use of various documents available to him to craft his narrative. That this is described as a “copy of the letter” (5:6) indicates that what is recorded in the following verses is an actual copy of the administrative communication between Tattenai and Darius, not a summary of the letter. This “copy of the letter” recounts the interactions between Tattenai and the returnees, providing a brief summary for Darius that would give him the information necessary either to confirm or deny that the returnees were given permission to rebuild the temple. The report describes the work that has been done; it records the questions asked of the returnees and their response, which includes an account of why the temple was destroyed and how they ended up in the rebuilding process; and it requests that Darius search the royal archives to determine if the returnees are telling the truth about Cyrus’s decree and then make a decision regarding the temple rebuilding project.

Ahura Mazda. Relief in Persepolis. Image by Ziegler175 –CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:AhuraMazda-Relief.jpg

The term “elder” in 5:9 refers to the same group of people earlier called “heads of the fathers’ houses” (e.g., 1:5). When Tattenai inquires as to who permitted them to rebuild the temple, they reply by stating that they are building the house of “the God of heaven and earth” whom they had angered and who “gave them into the hand of Nebuchadnezzar” (5:12). After this, Cyrus “king of Babylon” decreed that the temple be rebuilt. “God of heaven” was discussed in the section above on 1:2–4, though here the returnees add “and earth,” likely to underscore Yahweh’s sovereignty. They could also be employing this particular name for God because the moniker was one used of the Persian god Ahura Mazda. Calling Cyrus “king of Babylon” is consistent with how he refers to himself in the Cyrus Cylinder: “I am Cyrus, king of the world, great king, legitimate king, king of Babylon, king of Sumer and Akkad, king of the four rims (of the earth)” (Pritchard, Ancient Near Eastern Texts, 316).

Darius’s Response to the Report (6:1–12)

Darius grants Tattenai’s request by searching for Cyrus’s decree “in the house of the archives where the documents were stored” (6:1). The decree was eventually found in “Ecbatana, the citadel that is in the province of Media” (6:2). The Achaemenid kings (the dynasty of Persian kings that Cyrus founded) spent summers in Ecbatana, and this was likely where Cyrus spent the summer of 538 BC after he departed Babylon (Williamson, 80). Quoting scholar Roland de Vaux, Williamson highlights the significance of the scroll being found in Ecbatana: “A foreigner operating in Palestine without the information which we possess could hardly have been so accurate” (ibid.).

As discussed above, Cyrus issued a two-part decree that 1) permitted and made provision for the reconstruction of the Jerusalem temple, and 2) declared that the temple vessels Nebuchadnezzar had stolen were to be returned to the temple in Jerusalem. Darius thus issues his own decree that reconfirms the details of Cyrus’s decree. In sum, Darius tells Tattenai to “let the work on this house of God alone” (6:7) and then opens the royal coffers to ensure that the returnees have all they need to complete the rebuilding project and offer sacrifices—“whatever is needed” (6:9). Consistent with Cyrus’s concern that newly resettled people pray for him and his success (see above at 1:2–4), Darius likewise asks that the returnees “pray for the life of the king and his sons” (6:10).

In a statement that reminds readers of the fate of Haman in the book of Esther, Darius promises to retaliate against anyone who “alters this edict”: “a beam shall be pulled out of his house, and he shall be impaled on it, and his house made a dunghill” (6:11). If that warning should prove ineffective, Darius offers an imprecation against anyone who would attempt to subvert the Jewish efforts to restore the temple and the worship of Yahweh that would occur there: “May the God who has caused his name to dwell there overthrow any king or people who shall put out a hand to alter this, or to destroy this house of God that is in Jerusalem” (6:12). God has again given his people favor with a foreign ruler, and the rebuilding project will continue.

Temple Completed and Dedicated; Passover Observed (6:13–22)

This final section of the book before Ezra enters the narrative describes the consummation of the work that began decades ago when Cyrus allowed the exiles to return and decreed the rebuilding of Yahweh’s house. The dedication of the completed temple, along with the Passover celebration, is marked with great joy, which shows readers modern and ancient that religious observation and right worship of the God of heaven brings about rejoicing, not drudgery. These events occurred in 515 BC, almost exactly seventy years from the temple destruction in 586 BC (cf. Jer 25:11–12; 29:10).

Verse 14 highlights the prophetic ministries of Haggai and Zechariah as key factors in the rebuilding process—the people needed encouragement to persevere, so God sent his messengers to spur them on. In addition to sending prophets, God also granted his people favor with several Persian rulers. The author’s reference to Artaxerxes in 6:14 and the “king of Assyria” in 6:22 seem problematic and out of place in this chapter. Artaxerxes will not come to power in Persia for several more decades, even though we have read already of his opposition to the returned exiles (Ezra 4). There he opposed the rebuilding of the city walls, not the temple, and he is likely included in the list of Persian royal support in chapter 6 in “anticipation of Artaxerxes’ support for the temple and its services in 7:15–24, 27” (Williamson, 83–84). 6:22 states that God “turned the heart of the king of Assyria to them.” Of course, Assyrian dominance has long since faded by this time, so this reference is a “stereotyped description of a foreign ruler” (Williamson, 85).

Also significant in these verses is that the people “offered . . . as a sin offering for all Israel 12 male goats, according to the number of the tribes of Israel” (6:17). The returnees are indeed a remnant—a small portion that stands in for the larger portion of Yahweh, which is all of Israel.

Ezra’s Return to Jerusalem (7:1–8:36)

Ezra the Scribe Introduced (7:1–10)

Chapter 7 transitions from the temple’s completion in chapter 6 to the introduction of Ezra, the priest and scribe who would teach God’s people the Torah and institute various reforms. Chapter 6 leaves readers in 515 BC, and chapter 7 fast-forwards some fifty-seven years to the reign of Artaxerxes. Though the author tells us little about what occurred in these almost six decades, we do know from Ezra 4 that the returned exiles experienced ongoing and fierce opposition to their efforts to rebuild Jerusalem. In fact, a letter from some opposition leaders convinced Artaxerxes to issue a stop order on the reconstruction of Jerusalem.

The rest of 7:1–5 records the genealogy of Ezra, who is identified in 7:6 as “a scribe skilled in the Law of Moses.”  Readers have already seen the importance of genealogies and name lists in the book of Ezra. Chapter 2 is a long list of names of returnees who could prove their rightful inclusion in the people of Judah who would go back to Jerusalem. Such proof of family heritage was particularly important for those who would serve at the rebuilt temple, as we saw in 2:59–63. There the returning exiles who could not definitively demonstrate “their fathers’ houses or their descent” (2:59) “were not to partake of the most holy food” (2:63) until God’s will could be determined. The inclusion of Ezra’s genealogy here, then, is meant to prove that he is indeed descended from Aaron, Israel’s first priest, and, therefore, has the right to act as a priest and to introduce certain reforms (Fensham, 98).

Twice the author states that “the good hand of his God” (7:6, 9) was upon “this Ezra” (7:6), thus reinforcing the author’s primary theme: God sovereignly directs all of life. Verse 10 includes a descriptor to which all readers of the book should aspire: “Ezra had set his heart to study the Law of the Lord, and to do it and to teach his statutes and rules in Israel.” For Ezra, the Torah is much more than a set of rules to memorize; it is a way of life to embody and one that, as we saw in chapter 6, brings great joy.

Artaxerxes’s Decree (7:11–28)

Having introduced readers to Ezra in the first half of chapter 7, the author recounts in the second half Ezra’s authorization from the Persian king Artaxerxes to return to Jerusalem, establish “judges and magistrates” (7:25) to ensure that people follow the law of God, punish those who disobey, and teach those who do not yet know God’s law. Just as Ezra’s genealogy confirmed his authority as an Aaronic priest, Artaxerxes’s letter demonstrates his authorization by the government to carry out the duties assigned to him.

As in Ezra 5, here the author includes another “copy” of administrative correspondence. Though some modern scholars discount its authenticity, features such as Persian loanwords, Artaxerxes’s self-identification as “king of kings” (7:12), and the reference to “seven counselors” (7:14) confirm the letter’s genuineness. Further, the letter’s concern with reestablishing worship at Yahweh’s temple is consistent with other available evidence of Persian royal support for the restoration of the temples of the gods of Persian subjects. Cambyses is even known to have appointed a local Egyptian to protect the ritual purity of a sanctuary there (Fensham, 103).

Artaxerxes permits Ezra to collect “all the silver and gold you shall find” (7:16). This statement does not indicate that Ezra has carte blanche to ransack the kingdom but, rather, that he was free to keep any silver and gold that “were offered voluntarily for this purpose” (Fensham, 105). Additionally, verses 21–24 serve as a “letter of introduction” that Ezra could show the treasurers of the Persian kingdom “to persuade the Persian officials en route to supply necessities” (ibid., 106).

Verse 26 ends the Aramaic portion of Ezra. Verses 27–28 record Ezra’s response to Artaxerxes’s decree. Here the book’s primary theme surfaces again: though Persian rulers grant permission for the exiles to return, rebuild, and worship Yahweh, it is God—and no one else—who controls the world. God “put such a thing as this” into Artaxerxes’s heart (7:27), and God demonstrated hesed, or covenant faithfulness, to Ezra. Whether in kindness and mercy or wrath and judgment, God has always shown and will always show hesed to his people. He can do no other.

Second List of Returnees (8:1–14)

Continuing in the first-person narrative that began in the previous chapter, chapter 8 opens with a list of the exiles who returned with Ezra to Jerusalem. This list differs from the previous list of returnees in Ezra 2 as well as the list in Nehemiah 7, which is expected since the purposes and contexts of the lists also differ. The record in view opens with entries of two descendants of Aaron and one of David, then continues with twelve lay families. Given the book’s concern to signal the return of a remnant of all Israel (see discussion above on 6:13–22), it is likely that the twelve families here likewise symbolize the twelve tribes of Israel. However, the author does not explicitly make such a connection for his readers.

The list mentions Ithamar, Aaron’s fourth son, and Phinehas, Aaron’s grandson through his third son, Eleazar. The mention of Phinehas recalls the Baal-Peor episode in Numbers 22–24. God protected his people from Balaam’s curse, and the episode ends in chapter 24 with the statement that “Balaam arose and returned to his place” (Num 24:25). However, in the very next verse, God’s people “whore with the daughters of Moab” (Num 25:1), and later we find out that Balaam “caused the people of Israel to act treacherously against the Lord in the incident of Peor” (Num 31:16). God struck the people with a plague because of their idolatry, and “Phinehas, son of Eleazer, son of Aaron the priest” intervened in a most violent way, driving a spear through a couple in coitus (Num 25:7–8). In response, God stops the plague and blesses Phinehas: “Behold, I give to him my covenant of peace, and it shall be to him and to his descendants after him the covenant of a perpetual priesthood, because he was jealous for his God and made atonement for the people of Israel” (Num 25:12–13). Such zeal for God and the purity of his people is exactly what the returned exiles would need in order to remain faithful to the covenant, something Israel and Judah had failed to do so many times before.

Levites Recruited (8:15–20)

Though twelve families, along with the descendants of David and Aaron, have volunteered to return to Jerusalem with Ezra, upon reviewing his list, Ezra “found there none of the sons of Levi” (8:15). To rectify this situation, Ezra gathers a delegation at his encampment on the Ahava River, which is likely a canal of the Euphrates River, but we do not know for certain (Fensham, 112).

Ezra’s delegation of leaders includes two men—Joiarib and Elnathan—to whom Ezra refers as “men of insight” (8:16). The Hebrew verb the ESV translates as “men of insight” means “to cause to understand,” that is, to teach or interpret. It is used in the same way five times in Nehemiah 8, the famous chapter in which Ezra reads the Torah to the gathered returnees as several others “helped the people to understand the law” (Neh 8:7; see also 8:2 [2x], 9, 12). “Helped to understand” is the same Hebrew verb, in the same verbal form, that is used in Ezra 8:16 to describe Joiarib and Elnathan. Ezra’s “men of insight,” then, are better understood as teachers or interpreters whom Ezra sends to Iddo to explain the Torah and thereby convince him of Ezra’s need for Levites to return with him to serve at the temple in Jerusalem. The delegation travels to “the place Casiphia” (8:17). Scholars are unsure what Casiphia refers to, though it may indicate “a sanctuary, possibly a kind of synagogue where pupils were instructed in the law” (Fensham, 114).

The delegation convinces Iddo of the need for Levites, and the author again credits God’s sovereignty: “the good hand of our God [was] on us” (8:18). Throughout the book of Ezra, God has moved the hearts of Persian rulers to allow exiles to return and the temple to be rebuilt, and now he moves the heart of a Jewish leader to staff the rebuilt temple. Readers cannot miss that, though humans certainly play a role in the work of God, God alone accomplishes his will.

Final Preparations for the Return (8:21–30)

With the addition of the Levites to Ezra’s delegation, the people are now ready to embark on their nine-hundred-mile journey back to the promised land. Their final preparations include prayer, fasting, and provision for the safekeeping of the temple vessels and other valuables during the long trek home.

In verse 21 the ESV states that Ezra proclaims a fast “that we might humble ourselves before God.” Ezra and his company, though, literally “oppress” or “afflict” themselves (“humble ourselves” in the ESV), perhaps because they know God is wont to act on behalf of the oppressed and afflicted. He protected Hagar when first she fled from and then was banished by Abraham and Sarah (Gen 16; 21:8–21), and he did the same for the Israelites suffering under Pharoah’s heavy hand in Egypt (Williamson, 118). God’s action on their behalf was necessary, Ezra says, because he did not want to request protection from the king of Persia; after all, Ezra had already declared to him that God’s hand would guide them and that his “wrath is against all who forsake him” (8:22). To ask for the king’s protection now would undermine Ezra’s claim that God would protect the delegation. Verse 23 confirms that God indeed answered Ezra’s prayer and gave them safe passage to Beyond the River.

Ezra’s second order of business before finally departing was to set apart “twelve of the leading priests” to watch over the “silver and the gold and the vessels” (8:25). Singling out twelve men is likely yet another allusion to the twelve tribes of Israel and one which will show up explicitly in the next section recounting Ezra’s arrival in Jerusalem. In verse 28 Ezra reiterates that the twelve priests and the offerings they steward are “holy to the Lord.” This reminder about the holiness of the priests, Levites, and goods they carry serves to warn the people that God protects what is set apart to him—both from outside forces and the priest themselves, should they be tempted to steal what belongs only to God (Williamson, 120).

Arrival in Jerusalem (8:31–36)

Having thus oppressed themselves, requested God’s protection along the way, and set apart men to guard the gold, silver, and temple vessels, Ezra’s delegation departs “on the twelfth day of the first month” (8:31). Ezra 7:9 states that “on the first day of the first month [Ezra] began to go up from Babylonia” (emphasis added). Any of us with small children can certainly understand the significant gap between when we begin to leave on a trip and when we actually pull out of the driveway. In Ezra’s case, he had to spend some time searching out Levites to accompany them to Jerusalem, which accounts for at least part of the eleven days that it took to leave their encampment on the Ahava River.

What readers learned in 8:23 is now confirmed in 8:31: “The hand of our God was on us, and he delivered us from the hand of the enemy and from ambushes by the way.” It is unclear whether the author is saying that God prevented enemy attacks on the journey or that he delivered the delegation when it was attacked; either way, God honored the delegation’s request for his protection and ensured their safe arrival in Jerusalem four months after departing Babylon. Levering connects the “three days” (8:32) that Ezra stayed in Jerusalem upon arrival with the three-day interval that Rehoboam requested while he deliberated over whether or not to heed Israel’s request for a lighter hand upon them, which ultimately led to the fracturing of Israel, which Ezra now seeks to undo (95). Further, for Christians, the three days recalls “when the pasch of the Messiah accomplishes the unification of humankind,” a task even greater than the unification Ezra sought to accomplish (ibid., 96).

8:33 lists “Meremoth the priest, son of Uriah” as one of the priests who oversee the counting of the silver, gold, and vessels transported from Persia. Meremoth also appears in Nehemiah 3:4, 21 as one of Nehemiah’s wall builders. He is a member of the family of Hakkoz, which had been unable to prove its priestly heritage from Ezra’s list (2:61). By chapter 8, it appears that Hakkoz’s family had been able to demonstrate conclusively its priestly lineage (see fuller discussion in Fensham, 120).

The returnees offer sacrifices upon their arrival: “twelve bulls for all Israel” (8:35). The offering of twelve bulls is yet another significant indication that the returned exiles saw themselves as a remnant representing all of Israel, not just the tribes of Judah, Benjamin, and Levi. In addition to offering sacrifices, they also delivered the Persian king’s messages to the Persian officials in the area. This final verse again confirms the widespread support of the Persian government and its officials for Ezra’s journey to Jerusalem and the work he would do there. Though Beyond the River is only one satrap, the plural “satraps” is not problematic because “it is nowhere stated that only one province . . . should assist the Jews,” and the nearby Egyptian satrap contained a large population of Jewish residents (Fensham, 122).

Ezra Confronts Covenant Breaking (9:1–10:44)

Report of Covenant Unfaithfulness and Ezra’s Response (9:1–5)

Despite the overall positive tone of the last several chapters, all is not well in Jerusalem. About four and a half months after Ezra arrives, a group of officials tells Ezra that “the people of Israel and the priest and the Levites”—and, in particular, “the officials and the chief men” (9:2)—have refused to distance themselves from “the peoples of the lands with their abominations” (9:1; see Exod 3:8, 17; 33:2; Deut 7:1 for similar prohibition lists). The returnees have instead intermarried with these people, the very sin that the original Phinehas confronted in the book of Numbers. In fact, the term the ESV translates as “faithlessness” in 9:2 is the same term used in Numbers 31:6 to describe Israel’s sin at Baal-Peor (see discussion above on 8:1–14).

Readers may wonder why it took so long for Ezra to learn of the people’s unfaithfulness (see 10:9, which states the assembly addresses this issue on the twentieth day of the ninth month). According to 8:36, Ezra had been busy traveling around Beyond the River to present “the king’s commissions to the king’s satraps and to the governors of the province.” Ezra 9:1 tells us that officials told Ezra of the unfaithfulness “after these things (i.e., the tasks of 8:36) had been done.”

Why, though, is intermarriage with the surrounding peoples so bad? The prohibition of intermarriage has nothing to do with race or ethnicity; rather, the concern is the potential for syncretism and idolatry that would compromise the undiluted and pure worship of Yahweh alone. This is made clear in the Torah’s prohibitions against intermarriage (see Exod 34:11–16; Deut 7:1–6), as well as in the tragic case study that Solomon’s life presents (see 1Kgs 11:1–8). However, readers must also keep in mind that other mixed marriages in the Old Testament were not judged in the same way as Solomon’s marriages, the Israelites’ marriages at Baal-Peor, or the marriages described here in Ezra 9. The most famous example of this is Ruth, who abandoned her home in Moab, demonstrated covenant faithfulness to Naomi, married an Israelite, and, in turn, would become an ancestor of David and eventually Jesus Christ himself. The issue of intermarriage, then, turns on the foreign person’s relationship with Yahweh. In Ezra (and later in Nehemiah), the foreigners do not forsake their gods to follow Yahweh, and thus they remain a threat to the covenant community and the pure worship of the God of heaven alone.

Ezra’s response to the intermarriage crisis comes in 9:3–5. Fasting, rending his garments, and tearing out his hair express outwardly his inner turmoil at hearing of the people’s unfaithfulness. Ezra does now what readers expect from a person who “had set his heart to study the Law of the Lord, to do it and to teach [it]” (7:10): he prays.

Ezra’s Repentance (9:6–15)

Having heard the report of the returnees’ faithlessness and expressed his grief over his peoples’ sin, Ezra now offers a “sermon prayer” of repentance, not unlike what many readers have heard during an altar call at a church service (Fensham, 131). Even though Ezra did not personally participate in the sin of intermarriage, he self-identifies with the sinners and repents for the sin as if he himself had committed it, thus giving readers a model for leading corporate repentance of sin in which one did not personally participate. This posture is in stark contrast with the culture of the modern West, which values so greatly individuality and personal responsibility that it balks at identifying with and repenting for sins committed by others. Even if one ultimately rejects Ezra’s model of corporate repentance and self-identification with the sins of others, a robust theology of sin and repentance must take into account this passage and others like it (e.g., Dan 9).

Ezra’s allusion to “the prophets” (9:10) is not a direct quotation of a single prophetic voice; rather, he stitches together several passages from the Old Testament to “give the essentials of the thought pattern” of God’s Word to Israel (Fensham, 131). The majority of Ezra’s references are to books that fall outside what is classified as “the Prophets” in the Old Testament; thus, we should understand “the prophets” here “in its widest sense,” as referring to anyone who speaks on behalf of God (ibid.).

Verse 15 is difficult to understand in most English translations because of how the Hebrew conjunction ki is translated. For example, the ESV translates the term causally, as “for” in both of its occurrences in this verse, resulting in a somewhat nonsensical statement in its second occurrence: “we are before you in our guilt, for none can stand before you because of this.” Read this way, Ezra is doing in the first clause exactly what the second clause says he cannot do. Paul Buyn (“A Paradoxical Situation,” 467–73) has demonstrated that we should read the Hebrew term concessively, as “though” in both of its occurrences, which results in a much clearer reading of the second clause and highlights the paradox of God’s grace and righteousness: “O Lord God of Israel, you are righteous, though we have escaped as a remnant, as is now the case. Here we are before you in our guilt, though no one can face you because of this” (ibid., 470). In sum, God is righteous even though the returnees have not been destroyed according to their sin before him (ibid.).

The People’s Repentance (10:1–17)

10:1–17 is the most difficult passage in the book of Ezra, as readers are given a front-row seat to the returnees’ painful decision to radically follow God by separating themselves from sin. They are, in effect, putting into practice Jesus’s later admonition to tear out one’s eye if it causes him to sin (Matt 18:7–9). The presence of women and children at the gathering heightens the narrative tension and forces to readers’ minds just how high the stakes are.

Ezra does not lead the deliberations or even offer a solution to the problem of mixed marriages. In response to his “weeping and casting himself down” and the “prayer sermon” delivered in 9:6–15, “a very great assembly” gathers around him (10:1). One person among the assembly comes forward to confess the people’s sin and offer a solution. He states that the returnees “have broken faith with our God” and should, therefore, enact a covenant renewal ceremony in which they “put away all these wives and their children . . . according to the Law” (10:2–3). Ezra’s hands-off approach is also evident in verse 8 as “the officials and the elders” proclaim the penalty for failing to comply with the command to convene and address the issue of intermarriage. Ezra does not utilize his authority here, even though the Persian king had vested him with the power to enact the harsh penalties (see 7:25–26) that the proclamation envisages: banishment from the “congregation of the exiles” and forfeiture of property (10:8). Hrm is the Hebrew term translated by the ESV as “forfeited.” It is most well-known from the Canaanite conquest, when the Israelites were to “ban” or “devote to destruction” the inhabitants of the land and their possessions. Thus, the elders will treat as Canaanites those returnees who refuse to repent.

We noted above that the issue with marrying foreign wives was not their ethnic identity but, rather, their false worship and the danger it posed to the Jewish community. Thus, while divorce, which the Torah permitted (see Deut 24:1–4), was a drastic action, it was appropriate given the seriousness of the sin of idolatry. Further, the term for “married” here and in Nehemiah 13 “is the hiph of ישב, literally, ‘to cause to dwell,’ i.e., ‘to give a home to.’ It applies only to mixed marriages” and may indicate that the marriages are not genuine because the Torah forbade such marriages in the first place (Williamson, 150).

Readers must also take care to distinguish between prescription and description in the biblical text. Ezra 9–10 describes the terrible conundrum the returnees had gotten themselves in by refusing to follow the Torah’s prohibition on intermarrying with non-Israelites, and it describes the returnees’ chosen course of action to rectify their sin. Ezra’s response and their drastic action reflect the seriousness of the sin. However, Ezra 9–10 is not prescriptive; that is, it does not prescribe divorce but allows it as a workable, though lamentable, solution to a considerable threat to the covenant community. When the Pharisees later question Jesus about divorce, he points to the ideal presented in the creation narrative to argue that divorce was never God’s intention (see Matt 19:1–12). Paul, likewise, argues against divorce even in the case of marriages between a Christian and a non-Christian if the non-Christian “consents to live with” the Christian spouse (1 Cor 7:12–16). Thus, readers today should not take Ezra 9–10 as a divine “permission slip” for divorce; rather, they should see it as the tragic solution to a uniquely tragic situation that the returnees brought upon themselves through their sin.

List of Returnees Married to Foreign Wives (10:18–44)

The book of Ezra, which began on the high note of Cyrus’s decree allowing the exiles to return, ends with a list of Israelites who sinned by intermarrying with “the peoples of the land” rather than separating themselves from them “with their abominations” (9:1). The list of the guilty is divided into three groups: the priests, the Levites, and the laity. Even though repentance in word and deed has occurred, Ezra ends with this dark chronicle of people who turned away from the commands of Yahweh, just as their ancestors had done before them, and for which God had sent them into exile.

The book of Ezra leads into its companion volume, Nehemiah, with which it was included until the time of Origen (see introductory material above) and which will continue the narrative of the return from exile and resettling in the land of promise. Even more, though, the ending of Ezra stirs within us a longing for the Messiah who would come several centuries later to finally and fully turn the hearts of God’s people to him. Readers today can look back at the life, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus the Messiah with thanksgiving for his victory over sin and death, but the original audience of Ezra still hopefully awaited his coming and longed for a way out of slavery to the faithlessness that clung to them even after their exile and return.


Breneman, Marvin. Ezra, Nehemiah, Esther. Vol. 10. New American Commentary. Nashville: Broadman and Holman, 1993.

Fensham, F. Charles. The Books of Ezra and Nehemiah. New International Commentary on the Old Testament. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1982.

Levering, Matthew. Ezra and Nehemiah. Brazos Theological Commentary. Grand Rapids: Brazos, 2007.

Williamson, H. G. M. Ezra, Nehemiah. Vol. 16. Word Biblical Commentary. Dallas: Word, 1985.


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Ezra 1


The Proclamation of Cyrus

1:1 In the first year of Cyrus king of Persia, that the word of the LORD by the mouth of Jeremiah might be fulfilled, the LORD stirred up the spirit of Cyrus king of Persia, so that he made a proclamation throughout all his kingdom and also put it in writing:

“Thus says Cyrus king of Persia: The LORD, the God of heaven, has given me all the kingdoms of the earth, and he has charged me to build him a house at Jerusalem, which is in Judah. Whoever is among you of all his people, may his God be with him, and let him go up to Jerusalem, which is in Judah, and rebuild the house of the LORD, the God of Israel—he is the God who is in Jerusalem. And let each survivor, in whatever place he sojourns, be assisted by the men of his place with silver and gold, with goods and with beasts, besides freewill offerings for the house of God that is in Jerusalem.”

Then rose up the heads of the fathers’ houses of Judah and Benjamin, and the priests and the Levites, everyone whose spirit God had stirred to go up to rebuild the house of the LORD that is in Jerusalem. And all who were about them aided them with vessels of silver, with gold, with goods, with beasts, and with costly wares, besides all that was freely offered. Cyrus the king also brought out the vessels of the house of the LORD that Nebuchadnezzar had carried away from Jerusalem and placed in the house of his gods. Cyrus king of Persia brought these out in the charge of Mithredath the treasurer, who counted them out to Sheshbazzar the prince of Judah. And this was the number of them: 30 basins of gold, 1,000 basins of silver, 29 censers, 10 30 bowls of gold, 410 bowls of silver, and 1,000 other vessels; 11 all the vessels of gold and of silver were 5,400. All these did Sheshbazzar bring up, when the exiles were brought up from Babylonia to Jerusalem.