The book of Ezra begins with the same words that end 2 Chronicles. Chronologically, it would make sense for Ezra to follow immediately after Chronicles. But theologically, it really belongs before Chronicles. This is the way the Hebrew Canon places Ezra and Nehemiah. These opening words end up serving as an inclusio or bookend to the history of Ezra-Nehemiah-Chronicles, which closed out the Hebrew Canon. This would open the history with this letter from Cyrus and then repeat it at the end.
The book of Ezra was compiled sometime between 430-400BC. This was the time following the return of Israel from their exile in Babylon. The Persians had conquered the Babylonians and now the Persian king was open to allowing the people of Israel to return to their land. There is not a scholarly consensus on the author, though tradition has consistently pointed to Ezra. The book does contain a number of lists and letters, some of which were retained in their Aramaic form and not translated into Hebrew. This makes it all but certain that the author was more of an editor who compiled a final edition of this history.
The opening lines of Ezra come from a proclamation made by Cyrus, king of Persia.
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 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 (Ezra 1:2-4).
This opening lays out the three main themes that are addressed in Ezra: 1) the rebuilding of the temple in Jerusalem, 2) the importance of the whole people to the plan of God, and 3) the power of the written Word of God.
The temple in Jerusalem is clearly one of the main themes for Ezra. Along with the rebuilding of the actual temple, the houses and structures of the city had to be rebuilt. The companion book of Nehemiah will detail the rebuilding of the city walls. And the people of Israel had to be rebuilt. There is great hope that this new temple and new city and new people will experience the fullness of God’s covenantal blessings. But both Ezra and Nehemiah are filled with significant problems, specifically intermarriage. The people were guilty of marrying with pagans, and with this marriage came the adoption of pagan beliefs. Unfaithfulness would always undermine the work of God among his people.
Ezra emphasizes the role of ordinary people in the life of Israel. Cyrus calls the “whoever” of Israel to go and rebuild the city. He didn’t call the famous or powerful or beautiful or noted. Cyrus, as he was used by God, called the ordinary. The list of people in Ezra 2 is a list of nobodies. They were unknown, and these were the people called by God to rebuild his house. Leaders are important. And with leadership can come the trappings of celebrity. This is not inherently bad. But all too often today, we become enamored with celebrity. We are prone to follow because of someone’s fame and not because of their character. Like Ezra, we need churches today that are pastored by ordinary nobodies, ruled by ordinary unknown elders, and filled with ordinary regular people. This is how God will build his people.
The third main theme in the book of Ezra is the power of the written Word of God. Cyrus speaks because he was simply fulfilling what the LORD said via the mouth of Jeremiah. This proclamation was then put in writing. This written proclamation from the pen of a pagan king was used as an instrument by the sovereign LORD to bring the people back to Israel. God sovereignly works through free human agents to execute his will. Ezra is full of lists and letters. These written notes provide the details of the history of God’s covenant faithfulness. God had promised in his Word to restore the people to Israel. Now he is fulfilling that Word. Ezra agrees with Hebrews that “the word of God is living and active” (Heb 4:12) and with 2 Peter that the Word contains all that is needed for “life and godliness” (2 Pet 1:3). The written word of Ezra provides hope for all, a hope that reaches its apex in seeing our name written in the Lamb’s book of life (Rev 21:27).