God recognized Ezra as a man of judgment (Ezra 7:25). He was conscientious (Ezra 9:3). His principles led him to resolutely oppose sin. He had a profound love of God's Word and devoted himself to studying it and faithfully teaching God's truth (Ezra 7:10).
Ezra found the spiritual strength he needed through prayer and fasting. He was willing to sacrifice his own needs—and encourage others to do the same—to extol and honor God.
Understanding Ezra's background can help us see how God could use him to bring His people back to wholehearted obedience.
God forgets neither His people nor His promises to them. In love, He warned the people of Judah that, if they didn't repent of their sinful, rebellious ways, He would remove them from their homeland. When they refused to heed His repeated warnings through His prophets, He allowed the Babylonians to conquer and remove them through three major deportations (ca. 606, 597 and 587 B.C.). Their punishment was 70 years of captivity in a foreign land (Jeremiah 25:1-13).
True to His word, God fulfilled His promise to restore the descendants of Judah after the 70 years.
Zerubbabel headed the first return, which was to rebuild the temple (Ezra 1-6; ca. 536-516). Ezra led a later group in 457. Nehemiah, Ezra's contemporary, returned to rebuild the shattered walls of Jerusalem in 444.
The Bible tells us that Zerubbabel was a prince of Judah in Babylon. He led nearly 50,000 of his countrymen to rebuild the temple. They faced considerable opposition to this monumental project. Zerubbabel and others got sidetracked. Their focus shifted to building houses for themselves. But the correctional exhortations from prophets Haggai and Zechariah corrected the problem. Zerubbabel and his workmen got back on track and completed the temple around 516.
Although the people rebuilt the physical temple, they were still in poor spiritual condition. Then Ezra entered the picture.
When God needed a man of sterling character and strong conviction, He chose Ezra. Ezra means "help," as in helping to restore and reform Judah. His example can be encouraging to any who desire to be faithful to God.
Ezra was a direct descendant of the priestly family that included Eleazar, Phineas, Zadok and Aaron (Ezra 7:1-5). He was "a skilled scribe in the Law of Moses" (Ezra 7:6) and an "expert in the words of the commandments of the LORD, and of His statutes to Israel" (Ezra 7:11). In a testimony to his convictions, we read that "Ezra had prepared his heart to seek the Law of the LORD, and to do it, and to teach statutes and ordinances in Israel" (Ezra 7:10).
While in Babylon, Ezra gained the favor of King Artaxerxes, who granted him a commission to return to Jerusalem (this was the second return, ca. 457 B.C.). The king invited all who wanted to go—Jews, Israelites, priests and Levites—to accompany Ezra to Jerusalem. However, only 1,754 chose to make the journey, compared with 49,897 who had returned with Zerubbabel 79 years earlier.
Restoration of the people
Although the second return numbered fewer than 2,000 people, we must consider that five decades had passed since the completion of the temple in Jerusalem (in 516). Much can happen in two generations. The temple was complete and in use, but something was missing: a right attitude toward Almighty God. The people still lacked understanding. They were not wholeheartedly obedient to God.
God works in a systematic and orderly way. Through the great Persian king, Cyrus, He fulfilled His promise that the Jews could return to their homeland after 70 years in captivity. Next God provided Zerubbabel to rebuild the literal temple. Finally God set His hand to begin to restore the spiritual temple, a remnant of Judah. He used Ezra to accomplish this.
Ezra took a census of those who volunteered to return to Judah and Jerusalem with him. An important and practical reason for the census was to determine the needs for the temple services.
Ezra was surprised—as he considered who could serve in what capacity—that no Levites were present. "And I looked among the people and the priests, and found none of the sons of Levi there" (Ezra 8:15). So he directed leaders of his countrymen to "bring us servants for the house of our God" (Ezra 8:17). The leaders then made sure some Levites would return with Ezra for the service of the temple.
Next Ezra needed protection for "us and our little ones and all our possessions" on the long journey back to Jerusalem (Ezra 8:21). He was ashamed to ask the king to supply an escort of soldiers for defense against any enemies they might encounter. So he proclaimed a fast, and he and the people humbled themselves before God, asking Him to safeguard them on this dangerous trek. "So we fasted and entreated our God for this, and He answered our prayer" (Ezra 8:23).
The journey was safe and uneventful. "So we came to Jerusalem, and stayed there three days" (Ezra 8:32). Then they gave offerings to God.
After their offerings, the leaders came to Ezra worried about a significant problem: Men of the remnant of Judah and a few from Israel had taken wives from neighboring gentile nations. This God had expressly forbidden them to do, since such marriages would weaken their resolve to honor God, who had specifically chosen and selected Judah and Israel to represent Him.
Note Ezra's words in this regard: "The people of Israel and the priests and the Levites have not separated themselves from the peoples of the lands, with respect to the abominations of the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Jebusites, the Ammonites, the Moabites, the Egyptians, and the Amorites" (Ezra 9:1).
These heathen nations worshiped false gods. Were the Israelite men to remain married to their foreign wives, the prospect of false religion again enticing and seducing God's people was a real and dangerous problem. This, God had earlier warned, was precisely one of the reasons His people would be taken into national captivity unless they repented.
Israel reformed. God had sent Ezra to teach His people His way of life, to reveal to them their sins and exhort them to heartfelt repentance. "Now while Ezra was praying, and while he was confessing, weeping, and bowing down before the house of God, a very large assembly of men, women, and children gathered to him from Israel; for the people wept very bitterly. And Shechaniah the son of Jehiel, one of the sons of Elam, spoke up and said to Ezra, 'We have trespassed against our God, and have taken pagan wives from the peoples of the land; yet now there is hope in Israel in spite of this' " (Ezra 10:1-2).
Shechaniah encouraged Ezra to take the responsibility and make a decree that Jewish men separate themselves from their gentile wives. "Then Ezra arose, and made the leaders of the priests, the Levites, and all Israel swear an oath that they would do according to this word. So they swore an oath" (Ezra 10:5).
Ezra issued a proclamation throughout Judah and Jerusalem to the descendants of the captivity, directing them to gather in Jerusalem (Ezra 10:7). The men of Judah and Benjamin came as directed and sat in the open square of the house of God, trembling because of importance of the business at hand and because of heavy rain. (This took place in the time of year we would call December.)
Ezra led a confession to God, admonishing the gathered Benjaminites and Judahites and some Israelites to put away their pagan wives. The majority of them agreed to do so and obeyed God's command through Ezra. After several months "they finished questioning all the men who had taken pagan wives" (Ezra 10:17). God, through His faithful priest Ezra, had removed a major source of sin from the people. God recognized that His people need to be united spiritually in their worship of Him (2 Corinthians 6:14-15).
Although faithful Ezra had helped the remnant of Judah to return to God, they did not remain faithful. Neither had Israel repented and turned to God after Assyria removed its people from their northern kingdom almost three centuries earlier (721-718).
Another priest to gather Israel
Many of the descendants of the kingdom of Judah are still identifiable as we near the year 2000. The so-called lost 10 tribes of Israel, which disappeared from history after their captivity in Assyria, are also still extant, although not as easily identified, as we near the beginning of the third millennium.
Ezra the priest is a forerunner of Jesus Christ, the High Priest of God the Father (Hebrews 7). Near the end of the present age of man—promised Christ, our High Priest—a remnant of believers, spiritual Jews (Romans 2:28-29), would not only escape great tribulation (Revelation 12:12-17) but carry on the work God began through Jesus Christ (Matthew 24:14; Matthew 28:19; 2 Corinthians 5:17).
God promised the people of Judah He would return them to Jerusalem, after their 70-year Babylonian captivity, to rebuild the temple and restore proper worship. God similarly promises to return Judah and Israel to their ancestral homeland. Many prophecies show that at Jesus Christ's second coming He will gather the descendants of Israel and Judah from the ends of the earth (Isaiah 11:10-12; Jeremiah 23:3-8; Ezekiel 36:1-38; Ezekiel 39:25-29).
"'Then they shall know that I am the LORD their God, who sent them into captivity among the nations, but also brought them back to their land, and left none of them captive any longer. And I will not hide My face from them anymore; for I shall have poured out My Spirit on the house of Israel,' says the Lord GOD" (Ezekiel 39:28-29).
These astounding events are part of the good news of the Kingdom of God Jesus Christ proclaimed (Mark 1:14-15).