Ezra is the first book in the post-exilic period of Israel. King Nebuchadnezzar invaded Israel and carried the Jews away as captives in 606 BC. Israel was under Babylonian control until approximately 536 BC when the Medo-Persian Empire took control. The book of Ezra begins its history at the beginning of the Medo-Persian rule.
Ezra is the author of the book and is also the main character in the story starting in chapter 7 (Ezra 7:1, 11, 25, 28; 8:15-17, etc.). Though the book does not specifically claim Ezra as the author, the writing style changes from third person in chapters 1-6 to first person for the rest of the book. This coincides with when Ezra became the leader of the people out of Babylon headed to Jerusalem. He was a priest and the son of Saraiah (7:1-5). Ezra was a scribe which are sometimes called lawyers in the New Testament (7:6, 21). He was a godly man (7:10).
The book was written shortly after Ezra arrived in Jerusalem in 458 BC. It covers the history of Israel for the years 536 to 456 BC. The book starts where the book of 2 Chronicles ends and is a continuation of that book which is apparently written by the same author.
Ezra, like the books of Chronicles, was written some time between 460 and 440 BC.
While there is no specified audience (like the other historical books), Ezra is clearly writing to outline the history of the re-establishment of Jerusalem. This book covers a period of about 80 years. The book opens with the first wave of Jews returning to Jerusalem. Then 78 years later there is a second group who came to the city to rebuild.
The first group was led by Zerubbabel and is covered in chapters 1-6. Ezra led the second group in chapters 7-10.
Ezra 2:1 ”Now these are the children of the province that went up out of the captivity, of those which had been carried away, whom Nebuchadnezzar the king of Babylon had carried away unto Babylon, and came again unto Jerusalem and Judah, every one unto his city;”
Ezra 3:11 “And they sang together by course in praising and giving thanks unto the LORD; because he is good, for his mercy endureth for ever toward Israel. And all the people shouted with a great shout, when they praised the LORD, because the foundation of the house of the LORD was laid.”
Ezra 6:21, 22 “And the children of Israel, which were come again out of captivity, and all such as had separated themselves unto them from the filthiness of the heathen of the land, to seek the LORD God of Israel, did eat, And kept the feast of unleavened bread seven days with joy: for the LORD had made them joyful, and turned the heart of the king of Assyria unto them, to strengthen their hands in the work of the house of God, the God of Israel.”
Ezra 7:6 “This Ezra went up from Babylon; and he was a ready scribe in the law of Moses, which the LORD God of Israel had given: and the king granted him all his request, according to the hand of the LORD his God upon him.”
Cyrus, the King of Persia who conquered the Babylonians at the end of the book of Daniel, put out a decree that he wanted to build a house for the Lord in Jerusalem. He asked for volunteers from among the people of God (the Jews) to go back to re-inhabit Jerusalem and re-build the Temple. He wanted to return the items from Solomon’s Temple that the Babylonians had taken as well as finance the endeavor (chapter 1).
Chapter 2 provides a list of those who returned with Zerubbabel. There is also a genealogy which established the claims of the priestly line to the descendants of Aaron. This chapter says that there were 42,360 people plus servants, maids and musicians who returned to Jerusalem to begin the reconstruction of the Temple.
The beginning of the rebuilding starts in chapter 3 and goes through chapter 6. The altar is built and the Temple’s foundation is laid in chapter 3. However there was Samaritan opposition which stopped the work for 2 years (chapter 4). The Samaritans wrote letters to King Cyrus and surrounding kings leveling false accusations against the inhabitants of Jerusalem that they would rise up in rebellion against the nations around them. They were then physically prevented by the surrounding kingdoms from rebuilding the Temple.
Though they are just mentioned in Ezra 5:1, the prophets Haggai and Zechariah encouraged the people and the work began after a 2 year suspension. These two prophets have books which bear their names. More about what they preached and some of the surrounding events of the book of Ezra can be seen in their books.
King Darius, the Median king, discovered the documents where Cyrus had made a decree to build the temple and he re-invigorates the efforts by supplying whatever the Jews needed to finish the construction (chapter 6). This Temple is called Zerubbabel’s Temple as opposed to the original known as Solomon’s Temple.
There is a 57 year gap between chapter 6 and chapter 7. During this period the events of the book of Esther took place. Because of this large gap in time, most of the people who had returned with Zerubbabel to rebuild the Temple had died. Ezra arrived in Jerusalem with a new group of people and found that the original post-exilic Jews had strayed from the Lord (chapters 7, 8)
In chapter 9 Ezra prayed to the Lord on behalf of the people. Revival came to Jerusalem and the people took a separated and holy position towards God.