Heading Home: An Introduction to Ezra

May 9, 2021 Speaker: Ben Janssen Series: Ezra: Heading Home

Scripture: Ezra 9:10–15

10 “And now, O our God, what shall we say after this? For we have forsaken your commandments, 11 which you commanded by your servants the prophets, saying, ‘The land that you are entering, to take possession of it, is a land impure with the impurity of the peoples of the lands, with their abominations that have filled it from end to end with their uncleanness. 12 Therefore do not give your daughters to their sons, neither take their daughters for your sons, and never seek their peace or prosperity, that you may be strong and eat the good of the land and leave it for an inheritance to your children forever.’ 13 And after all that has come upon us for our evil deeds and for our great guilt, seeing that you, our God, have punished us less than our iniquities deserved and have given us such a remnant as this, 14 shall we break your commandments again and intermarry with the peoples who practice these abominations? Would you not be angry with us until you consumed us, so that there should be no remnant, nor any to escape? 15 O LORD, the God of Israel, you are just, for we are left a remnant that has escaped, as it is today. Behold, we are before you in our guilt, for none can stand before you because of this.” (Ezra 9:10-15)

I can’t trace my family history back all that far. I’ve dabbled a bit Ancestry.com and other sites like that, had a few family members do the same thing and find some interesting facts. But I was driving my truck on Friday and watching people pass by and I thought about all the generations before us that laid the foundation for where all of us find ourselves today. How fascinating it is to consider all those stories of history that impact us whether we know it or not.

That’s one thing that also goes through my mind as we begin this morning a nine-week study of the book of Ezra. It’s a series I’ve entitled, Heading Home. As one of the 66 books in our sacred canon, it’s important that we study this book and understand its message. It tells a story from ancient history that, as a Christian, affects you and me whether we realize it or not.

This morning I want to introduce the book to us by speaking to its historical, theological, and Christian context.

The Historical Context of Ezra

First, let’s begin with a consideration of the historical context of Ezra. In order to understand this book, we need to know what kind of book it is. That will help us understand its purpose, the reason why it was written, and why it is in our Bibles.


Ezra is found in the English Bible after 2 Chronicles and before Nehemiah; in other words, it is counted among the historical books, starting with Joshua and ending with Esther. In the Hebrew Bible, Ezra is found in the final three-fold division of books, the “Writings,” after Daniel and before the books of the Chronicles. Nehemiah does follow Ezra, but the two were usually considered a single work, both written by Ezra. But the fact that the second chapter of Ezra is repeated in Nehemiah suggests that the two were indeed two separate works.[1] Obviously, the two are related, but we plan to study only Ezra in this series.

Again, Ezra is a book of history. It reads as a narrative, telling a story, a true story, a story of history. To understand Ezra, we need to understand something of its place in the historical record. Ezra begins the same way the book of 2 Chronicles ends, so the story picks up from where the Chronicles of the Kings of Israel ended.

History of Exile

How does that story end? In disaster. The northern kingdom of Israel was taken into captivity by the kingdom of Assyria in the late 8th century BC. And then, about one hundred years later, the Babylonian king, Nebuchadnezzar, invaded Jerusalem.

Notice we are talking about real historical dates here; the biblical accounts square remarkably well with what is known in history. This is not made-up history. But the Bible does state, unapologetically, the theological explanation for this history. Picking up at the end of 2 Chronicles, we are told that the reason Judah fell to Babylon was not merely because of Babylon’s superior military might but because the people of Israel ignored God’s messengers (the prophets) and despised his words. So, 2 Chronicles 36:16 says, “the wrath of the LORD rose against his people, until there was no remedy.”

In 587 BC, Jerusalem fell entirely to Babylon. The God of Israel had brought against his own people their dreaded enemies “who killed their young men with the sword in the house of their sanctuary and had no compassion on young man or virgin, old man or aged. He gave them all into his hand” (2 Chron 36:17). Verse 19 says that Israel’s temple, the one that Solomon had built centuries earlier, was burned to the ground. And verse 20 tells us that the remaining citizens of Jerusalem were exiled to Babylon. Both Assyria and Babylon utilized this strategy of resettling defeated people into their country in order to assimilate them into the culture and crush any hope of a nationalistic revival and revolt among the peoples of the defeated nation.

But, the disastrous story of Judah’s exile to Babylon also ends with hope. Just as centuries before the people of Israel, languishing in Egypt under the oppression of Pharaoh, did not go unnoticed by their God, so also now God would take note of the oppression of his people in Babylon. They would not be there forever.

Hope and Redemption

So the book of Ezra begins,

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” (Ezra 1:1-3).

Cyrus, the Hebrew name is pronounced Koresh, is known in history as Cyrus the Great, the founder of the Persian empire. Cyrus had inherited the vast Median empire and began to expand it. He took Babylon in 539 BC and made it a province in his empire.

The Persians had a different approach to how to handle the people they conquered. There’s an ancient clay cylinder in the British Museum that was discovered in the ruins of Babylon in 1879. Known as the Cyrus Cylinder, it dates to the time of Cyrus and contains a declaration in his name.[2] Cyrus’s idea was to restore the sacred cities and temples, return conquered peoples to their lands, and ask them to intercede for him to their own gods, that his own pagan god (Marduk) would give him long life and prosperity.

Now perhaps that is a better public policy for a king to employ toward his defeated foes. But the Bible would have us see more than this in this historical record.

The Theological Context of Ezra

As we’ve said, the Bible tells the story of history but does so with a theological lens. The Bible tells history from God’s perspective. The story of history is, according to the Bible, the story of God.

History and Prophecy

Now you can deny this theological worldview, but you cannot dismiss it that easily. Because history unfolds in accordance with biblical prophecy. Much of what happens in history was foretold by scripture well ahead of time.

This is particularly true with the events that begin the book of Ezra. Perhaps Cyrus thought that his strategy for dealing with conquered people in his kingdom was one of his greatest ideas, but the Bible emphatically says that “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” (Ezra 1:1). So, yes, Cyrus proclaimed that the Jews could return to their homeland, but God was the real actor here.

How do we know that? Can we back up the claim that God made a pagan king, Cyrus the Great, one of the most powerful rulers history has ever known, do this? Or is it one of those unprovable assertions Christians often make?

Here we have definitive proof. Verse 1 says that the reason God stirred up Cyrus to enact this policy was in order to fulfill the prophecy of Jeremiah. We read in Jeremiah 29:10 that “when seventy years are completed,” God would “visit” his people and fulfill his promise and bring them back to Jerusalem. So whatever might have been going through Cyrus’s mind, whatever his intent may have been when he made this historic proclamation, we know what was going through God’s mind and what God intended by his actions.

Even more striking are the words of the God of Israel recorded by the 8th-century BC prophet, Isaiah. In Isaiah 44, God reminds his people that he is their Redeemer, the one who formed them from the womb, who made all things, and who frustrates the plans of his enemies (vv. 24-25). This God is the one who fulfills every word of his prophets (v. 26). And then, he speaks of one named Koresh, saying, “He is my shepherd, and he shall fulfill all my purpose,” when this Cyrus says of Jerusalem, “She shall be built,” and says of the temple, “Your foundation shall be laid” (v. 28).

Now this is absolutely amazing! These words in Isaiah were written at least 100 years before Cyrus was even born! Such specificity of prophecy is the reason why many critics say that these words must have been written after the fact, or at least not until Cyrus the Great was already on the rise. But of course that kind of criticism betrays ones’ a priori assumption, which calls for criticism of its own.

The Jewish historian, Josephus, says that what happened is that Cyrus became aware of the prophecy about him and, in admiration of this “divine power, an earnest desire and ambition seized upon him to fulfill what was so written.”[3] It’s possible that that is how this all came about, but of course that would still be an example of prophecy fulfilled with amazing precision.

Making History

But the story of Ezra only begins with the fulfillment of this amazing prophecy. That’s just the beginning of the story. What we read about in the book itself is its own history-making story, and, we should understand, prophecy-fulfilling story as well. As the Jews begin their return from exile in Babylon, there are two main things that the book of Ezra highlights for our consideration.

First, in chapters 1-6, we find the story of the effort to rebuild the temple in Jerusalem. Chapter one tells of the response to Cyrus’s proclamation by “everyone whose spirit God had stirred to go up to rebuild the house of the LORD,” and chapter two gives an account of the nearly 50,000 people who comprised the initial returnees. It is in chapter three that the work to rebuild the temple begins with mixed emotions. But this rebuilding of the temple did not go through without significant difficulty and trouble from certain adversaries who brought a halt to the construction for quite some time before the temple was finally finished and dedicated in chapter 6.

We don’t actually meet Ezra until chapter 7, and the last four chapters are centered on his return from Babylon to Jerusalem with the intent to “study the Law of the LORD, and to do it and to teach [God’s] statutes and rules in Israel. So, as chapters 1-6 describe the struggle to rebuild the temple and Israel’s way of worship amidst opposition from without, what we find in the second half of Ezra is the struggle to rebuild Israel’s way of life in obedience to God’s laws amidst opposition encountered from within.

That’s the theological context for Ezra, and it sets us up to see what we can learn from its story today. We have more in common with these ancient Jews than you might think. Their story is our own story, a story which reminds us that the journey home is filled with adversaries who seek to destroy our hope in what God has promised to do for us as his people.

The Christian Context for Ezra

So what can you and I expect to learn from Ezra? What is the significance of this Old Testament history for us today? What is the Christian context for Ezra? Here are three things for us to keep in mind as we begin this study.

Return from Exile

First, we need to keep in mind the meaning of exile and the meaning of a return from exile, because it is much more significant than a concern about where certain ancient peoples were living at any given time in history.

Again, we must keep the theological context of exile before us. If God was indeed behind the exile of Israel to Babylon, sending her there because of her sins, then what would it mean for Israel to be returning from exile? What would a return from exile mean theologically? It would mean that the sins which brought the exile about in the first place had been dealt with. Return from exile is another way of saying forgiveness of sins.[4]

The forgiveness of sins is an obvious and important Christian category, but we tend to think of it first as something offered to individual persons. But that is not how Israel’s prophets tended to think of it and perhaps we would understand our Bibles better if we adopted their perspective.

Temple Worship

From this perspective, we can see now what would be in the minds of these Jews who were permitted to return to their homeland and to rebuild their temple. The second thing we need to keep in mind is the meaning of the temple.

What was the significance of the temple in Jerusalem in the story of Israel? The temple was the place where heaven and earth were joined, where God was understood to be with his people, dwelling in their midst. So it would not be enough for Israel to return to Palestine; the forgiveness of sins would also include the restoring of Israel’s worship in the temple.

This is why the struggle to get the temple rebuilt is of such concern in the book of Ezra. The people would succeed, but Israel’s second temple was not on par with the first one that Solomon had built.

And why should you and I care about this story? Because when we open our New Testaments and begin to read the Gospels and the story of Jesus, we are reading from the perspective of second-temple Judaism. And what we find is a people who are not quite home yet. They’ve got their temple and they live in their land, but problems remain.

Obeying the Law

That leads us to a third thing we should keep in mind: the importance of God’s Law. It was not enough for Israel to live in their land and to have their temple. To be fully restored, the Law of God had to be understood and obeyed. The promised kingdom of God that Israel was looking for, “the great, unrepeatable, eschatological and national blessing promised by her god,” could not be fully realized while pagans still had power over Israel and her temple was not fully restored and the Law was not being followed perfectly.[5]

This is why Ezra’s arrival in Jerusalem was significant. We read in Ezra 7:10 that he “had set his heart to study the Law of the LORD, and to do it and to teach his statutes and rules in Israel.” This is what the kingdom of God should look like.

But just as the temple was rebuilt only with great difficulty, so we find that the implementation of God’s Law did not go off without a hitch. Chapters 9-10 reveal the faithlessness of the people, first and foremost the faithlessness of the leaders themselves (Ezra 9:2).

Ezra’s prayer, a part of which was our Scripture reading this morning, is much more than a prayer of personal repentance, much more significant than some private piety. Ezra’s prayer in Ezra 9, like Daniel’s in Daniel 9, like Nehemiah’s in Nehemiah 9, is to be understood as a prayer for Israel’s real return from exile.[6] It is a prayer for the kingdom of God to come.

So while Ezra tells us about Israel returning home from exile, rebuilding the temple, and seeking to live by God’s Law, Ezra also tells us that the people of God are not home yet. The kingdom of God has not yet come.

A Future and a Hope

Why does a book like Ezra matter to Christians? Because only when we understand the world set up by the events of Ezra will we understand the world into which a prophet from Galilee came saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel” (Mark 1:15). We cannot understand Jesus and his message, we cannot understand the meaning of the kingdom of God and of the new covenant, we cannot understand the gospel, until we understand what these things meant to first-century Jews. And Ezra helps us do that.

It’s after the prophet Jeremiah announces that God will restore his people from exile that we find these famous words of promise from God: “For I know the plans I have for you, declares the LORD, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope.” This oft-repeated promise is regularly misapplied, for it cannot be understood apart from the context of Israel’s story recorded in Ezra.

What future and hope has God promised to you and me? Suffice it to say that it is not that dream home or successful career or comfortable retirement. It’s actually far better than any of that.

The book of Ezra can point us in the right direction, to the promises and claims of Israel’s Messiah who, from Ezra’s time in history, was yet to come. And even though you and I look back in history to Israel’s Messiah and we can see more clearly what the kingdom of God is, what the true return from exile looks like, we too must wait the full consummation of what is to come. We’re not home yet.

But if you will receive Israel’s Messiah, if you will believe in Jesus of Nazareth and accept the welcome he extends to sinners, you will not have to wait to die and go to heaven to taste the glories of the age to come.


[1] R. K. Harrison, Introduction to the Old Testament, (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1969), 1136.

[2] See the description on The British Museum website, at www.britishmuseum.org/collection/object/W_1880-0617-1941.

[3] Josephus, The Antiquities of the Jews, 11.2.

[4] And vice-versa. See N. T. Wright, Jesus and the Victory of God (London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 1996), 268.

[5] Ibid., 271.

[6] Ibid., 248-49.

More in Ezra: Heading Home

July 4, 2021

Even Now There Is Hope for Israel

June 27, 2021

The Hand of God Is Upon Us

June 20, 2021

The Man of God's Faithfulness