Despite the book being named after Ezra, we aren't introduced to him until chapter 7 and he is only present in the last four chapters of the book. Ezra was a dedicated priest who lived during the time of Artaxerxes I.
Ezra is a descendant of Aaron's son Eleazar and a scribe of the law. The establishes him as a member of the tribe of Levi and a priest. Notably, he is also descended from Zadok, who is discussed frequently in Kings and Chronicles.
Although we generally assume priests (preachers, ministers, etc.) have a closer relationship with God than the average person, this isn't actually true. In our time, this is evidenced by the number of priest and preachers committing heinous acts such as child molestation. However, during biblical times, this wasn't true either. The books of Kings and Chronicles frame the state of Israel based on the king, not the priests. In the Books of Law, we are told that the priesthood represented the firstborn of Israel. They were supposed to be set apart and keep the law so that they could enter the holy place and touch the holy objects. Of course, if we look at Bible history, the firstborn usually turns out to be a disappointment—Cain, Esau, Reuben, etc. Unlike the corrupt priests, Ezra set his heart to follow God's law.
Ezra returns to Jerusalem during the 5th month and during Artaxerxes' 7th year. Following the Israelite calendar, this would have been around August. More importantly, based on the historical record of Artaxerxes' reign, the year this occurred would have been 457 BC. The date is important because Ezra's return to Jerusalem with a letter from Artaxerxes marks one four decrees given in the books of Ezra and Nehemiah to rebuild the Jerusalem.
Daniel 9:25 tells us that the command to restore and rebuild Jerusalem marks the beginning of the 70 weeks prophecy. I'll go into more detail about the prophecy in the post on Daniel 9, but it's important to notice these decrees and establish their dates as we read. This is one of the reasons it takes several readings (and not necessarily in the same order) to understand Bible as a whole.
The letter Ezra is given from Artaxerxes proclaimed that the Israelites were free to return to Jerusalem. Ezra is sent to "inquire of Judah and Jerusalem according to the law of God," which means he was to make sure the Israelites were upholding the law of God. Artaxerxes specifies that the law of God was in Ezra's hand, proving that he was proclaiming Israel free to worship the God of Abraham, not a Persian god. This decree allows Judah to establish the law of God in their land, which is a step toward autonomy. Cyrus and Darius had allowed them to rebuild the city, but now Artaxerxes was giving them the command to restore the law of God. Near the end of his letter, Artaxerxes even establishes a possible death sentence on those within Judah who do not uphold the law of God.
Ezra 7:26 shows Artaxerxes validating the law of God, and thus giving Judah some level of independence to carry out God's law.
Artaxerxes even proclaims that money for the Jews to purchase what they need for sacrifices was to be given to Ezra. Artaxerxes tells the treasures to do whatever Ezra asks so that the Israelites can do whatever they need for the Temple. Ezra tells the Israelites that they are blessed the Lord has moved the king's heart in such a manner.
Points of Interest
Ezra gives us a record of the exact weight of precious metals brought to the Temple. If you wanted, you could convert these weights to modern units and establish the modern value of the metals based upon their current prices. This could then be compared to the cost of the original Temple. I am not providing that here, because I don't think that was the point of the telling us this information. Solomon's Temple was grandiose and magnificent; the reaction to the new Temple of those who had witnessed the first’s splendor confirms that the second Temple was not as magnificent. The point of informing us that the king handed over treasures for building the Temple is to show God's hand in the matter. It is evident that God had appointed this time for the Israelites to be freed from captivity. God wanted His nation reestablished, so He moved this king of Persia to do so. This also parallels the wealth Israel is given by Egypt when they leave.
An interesting point that comes from the presentation of these treasures is the completeness of the Temple. Most scholars claim that the Darius of the Bible is Darius I, thus by the beginning of Artaxerxes' reign, the Temple should have been complete. It is possible that despite having a completed Temple there was much room for improvement, and this why Artaxerxes supplied them with riches for the Temple. Others will argue that this works in favor of counting Darius II as the Darius of the Bible. However the dates do not line up to support Darius II as the Darius of the Bible. Therefore, we must assume Artaxerxes was merely improving a finished Temple.
One thing that stands out to me, is that the author refers to himself as "me" or "I" in the book. It's not often that we see a first person account of anything in the Bible. We can learn a lot from this, specifically that the author was at one point captive and returned with the other Israelites. The person returns with the chief men of the cities, but when they gather together, none of the men are priests from the tribe of Levi, so he sends for them. Thus we know the author had a desire for fairness.
Once representatives from the families of the tribe of Levi are present, the author declares a fast. This fast is because he was ashamed to ask the king for soldiers to protect them on the journey; instead they look to God to defeat their enemies. This is a major hint that despite speaking of Ezra in the third person elsewhere in the book, this "I" should be associated to him. It was Ezra who received the decree and given permission to get what he needed. It stands to reason that it would have been Ezra that was in the position to ask for a band of soldiers from the king as well.
References and Footnotes
- John Oakes. "Is the Darius who built the temple after Artaxerxes in Ezra 4 Darius I or Darius II?". Evidence for Christianity. November 29, 2015
- Brad Beaman. "Bible Timeline, Persian Kings Period". Brad Beaman: My Free Space. November 1, 2007