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Bible Commentaries

The Pulpit CommentariesThe Pulpit Commentaries

- Ezra

by Editor - Joseph Exell


THE Book of Ezra is a work of so simple a character as scarcely to require an "Introduction." It is a plain and straightforward account of one of the most important events in Jewish history — the return of the people of God from the Babylonian captivity. This return had two stages. It commenced under Zerubbabel, the lineal descendant of the kings of Judah, in the first year of Cyrus the Great in Babylon, which was B.C. 538; and it was continued, and in a certain sense completed, under Ezra, in the seventh year of Artaxerxes Longimanus, which was B.C. 458. The Book contains an account of both these periods, and is thus, primarily, divisible into two portions — the history of the first, and the history of the second return. The former occupies the first six, the latter the last four chapters. A close harmony may be observed between the two narratives. The origin of the movement in either case is traced up to a sentiment of goodwill in the mind of the reigning Persian monarch; the sentiment gives birth to a decree, which is recited at length; then a commission to conduct the captives back to their own land issues; the number of those who returned, and the names of the leading men, are given; the exact weight of the sacred vessels which the exiles brought back on each occasion is put on record, and the exact number and character of the offerings which they severally made to the God of Israel The history is also carried on in either case to the main result which followed the return. And here again there is a parallelism. On the first occasion the zeal of the exiles raised up with difficulty, and after much opposition, the material church of God — the temple — which the Chaldaeans had destroyed; on the second, they raised up and restored to its pristine glory the spiritual Church, or congregation of the people of Israel, which had sunk into a low and miserable condition through the influence of the neighbouring heathen. As history does not ever exactly repeat itself, there is of course much diversity combined with this resemblance. The rebuilding of the temple occupied a long term of years; the religious reformation was accomplished in a few months. The one was the work of the established civil ruler; the other of a mere scribe and priest, holding a temporary commission. To effect the one it was necessary to struggle with adversaries, and make appeals to the Persian king; prayer was the means by which the other was brought about, and a single appeal to the King of heaven sufficed.


It is maintained by many that the Book of Ezra is the work of several different hands, and that such unity as it possesses has been given to it by a compiler. The compiler is by some believed to have been Ezra, by others an unknown Jew contemporary with him. This latter theory rests upon the fact of the curious transitions from the third to the first person, and back, which occur in the later chapters (Ezra 7:28; Ezra 10:1). Ezra, it is thought, would have kept to one person or the other; and, as the parts where the first person is used are manifestly his, those where he is spoken of in the third person are ascribed to a different hand. In the earlier portion of the Book it is supposed that different styles may be traced; and here some have even ventured to name the authors of certain chapters. But it may be questioned whether these views do not spring from over-refinement, and assume a keenness of critical discernment which cannot be claimed without arrogance. The simple view, that Ezra. who is admitted to have written at least one section, really composed the whole, using for the most part his own words, but in places inserting documents, is to the full as tenable as any other hypothesis. The general harmony of the whole Book already noticed, and the real uniformity of its style, are in favour of this view. The objection from the changes of person is of no great importance, changes of this kind often occurring in works admitted to be the production of a single writer, as in Thucydides and in Daniel. Moreover, tradition ascribes the whole Book to Ezra; and if Ezra wrote Chronicles, which is the view of many critics, then the connection of the Book with Chronicles will be an additional argument in favour of Ezra's authorship.

§ 3. DATE.

The last event recorded in the Book of Ezra is the reformation of religion effected through Ezra's influence in the spring of B.C. 457, the year after his arrival at Jerusalem. The date of B.C. 457 is therefore the earliest that can be assigned to it. It may have been written a year or a few years subsequently, but can scarcely be given a later date than B.C. 444, the year of Nehemiah's arrival; since, if that event had taken place when the author wrote, he would almost certainly have mentioned it.


"Ezra," as already observed, is a history, and a very simple history. No book of Scripture has fewer difficulties or fewer obscurities. There is no miracle recorded in it, and hence its historical truth is admitted almost universally. the language closely resembles that of other Books of Scripture written about the same time, as Chronicles, Daniel, and Haggai. Like Daniel, it is written partly in Hebrew, partly in Chaldee, the latter being the form which Hebrew had assumed during the captivity. Like the same Book, Chronicles, and Esther, it contains a number of Persian words, as was natural at a time when Judaea was a province of Persia. The tone of the writing is level and uniform, never sinking into the familiar, and only in one place (Ezra 9:6-15) rising to eloquence. Very little that is directly didactic occurs in it: the writer tells his story as plainly as he can, and leaves his story to teach its own lessons. Once only (Ezra 7:27, Ezra 7:28) does he interrupt his narrative with a burst of gratitude and devotion, as he thinks of the goodness of God in putting good resolves into the heart of a Persian king, and in making him (Ezra) the instrument of carrying these out. Apart from this, he simply narrates facts, placing before us, briefly but clearly, the circumstances of the two returns, and the events immediately following them. It is remarkable that, instead of making his history continuous, he passes over, absolutely without notice, an interval of nearly sixty years, which is the space of time intervening between his sixth and his seventh chapters. We may perhaps conclude from this that from the time of the dedication of Zerubbabel's temple to the mission of Ezra, the history of the Palestinian Jews was a blank; which may well be, since during the whole of the period they were submissive and attached subjects of the Persian empire.


The only facts which are certainly known to us of Ezra are those recorded in his own Book and in the Book of Nehemiah. From these works it appears —

1. That he was a priest, a descendant of Eleazar, the son of Aaron (Ezra 7:5).

2. That he belonged to that branch of Eleazar's family which had recently furnished the high priests, being descended from Hilkiah, high priest in the reign of Josiah (2 Kings 23:4), and from Seraiah, high priest at the time of the destruction of Jerusalem (2 Kings 25:18).

3. That he was a "scribe," or teacher, interpreter, and copier of the law, one who made the law of Moses his main study, and the teaching and expounding of it his chief practical work.

4. That, being resident at Babylon, one of the Persian capitals, and well known to the king, Artaxerxes (Longimanus), he requested (Ezra 7:6) and obtained permission from the king to visit Jerusalem, and was allowed to carry with him all those of Israelite extraction who liked to take the opportunity of returning to their own land (ibid. ver. 13); various privileges were granted to him (ibid. vers. 16-26), and a commission issued giving him supreme authority over Judaea for a time. He accordingly quitted Babylon in B.C. 458, the seventh year of Artaxerxes (ibid. ver. 8), accompanied by a band of about 1800 men (Ezra 8:3-14) with their families (ibid. ver. 21), and reached Jerusalem after a journey of four mouths (Ezra 7:9). His authority was recognized; and after depositing in the temple a number of sacred vessels which Artaxerxes had intrusted to his care, and making numerous offerings (Ezra 8:35), he effected a reformation of religion, inducing all those Israelites who had married heathen wives, and become entangled in the abominations of heathen idolatry, to put their wives away, and return to the pure worship of Jehovah. He then, it is probable, returned to Babylon. Afterwards, in Be. 444, he is again found at Jerusalem (Nehemiah 8:1), occupying a position secondary to that of Nehemiah the governor (ibid. ver. 9) — a position purely ecclesiastical, in which, as scribe and priest, he teaches, blesses, and directs the devotions of the people. Here he continues till the dedication of the wall, when he takes a leading part in the solemn procession, or perambulation of the wall (Nehemiah 12:36), which was a principal feature of the ceremony. At this point the Scriptural notices terminate. Ezra is not said to have been concerned in the religious reformation of Nehemiah — one in some respects so like his own — whereof we have an account in Nehemiah's last chapter; and the probability would seem to be that he had died, or quitted Jerusalem, previously to it. Jewish tradition adds to this account various particulars, which would be of the utmost interest if we could rely on them.

1. Ezra is said to have instituted the "Great Synagogue," and to haw been its first president.

2. He is declared to have settled the Canon of the Jewish Scriptures, and to have re-edited the whole of them, malting additions and alterations under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, and at the same time forming the arrangement into the Law, the Prophets, and the Hagiographa, which obtains among the Jews to the present day.

3. He is said to have begun the practice of building synagogues in the Jewish provincial towns, and to have instituted the synagogue service, which seems certainly to have been unknown to the Jews before the captivity. Finally, he is reported to have lived to a good old age, and to have died — on his way from Jerusalem to the court of Artaxerxes — at Samarah, on the Lower Tigris, where his tomb was shown in the time of Benjamin el Tudela. What historical basis these traditions rest upon it is impossible to say. As we find no trace of the "Great Synagogue" either in Ezra or in Nehemiah, its institution by Ezra is scarcely probable. Even less weight belongs to the statement that he finally settled the Canon, since Nehemiah probably, and Malachi certainly, wrote their works after his decease. On the other hand, it is anteriorly probable that some priest learned in the law collected and re-edited the sacred Books on the return from the captivity, and the tradition that Ezra did so is remarkably in accordance with what is said of him, both in his own Book and in that of Nehemiah, as, that he was "a ready scribe in the law of Moses" (Ezra 7:6), "a scribe of the words of the commandments of the Lord, and of his statutes to Israel" (ibid. ver. 11), and that he "had prepared his heart to seek the law of the Lord, and to do it, and to teach in Israel statutes and judgments" (ibid. ver. 10). With regard to the institution of synagogues, there is no evidence; but perhaps it is most probable that they arose in the early Maccabee period, when the temple had been defiled, and Jerusalem was in the hands of the Syrians. Ezra's death and burial at Samarah has nothing about it that is improbable; but it is curious, that while the tombs of Jonah, Ezekiel, and Daniel are still shown in Mesopotamia, that of Ezra has passed into oblivion.

The personal character of Ezra stands out in the narrative, both of "Ezra" and "Nehemiah," as that of a thoroughly earnest, God-fearing, and man-loving man, and is without speck or flaw. Not, of course, that he was really perfect; but his defects are unnoticed. In his indefatigable activity as a teacher, in his deep sense of dependence upon God, in his combination of horror at sin with pity for the sinner, he reminds us of St. Paul, while in the depth of his self-humiliation on account of the transgressions of others he recalls the utterances of Daniel. As a servant of the Persian king, he so approves himself to his master as to be singled out for the high trust of an important commission. In executing that commission he exhibits devotion, trust in God, honourable anxiety to discharge his duties with exactitude, and a spirit of prayer and self-mortification that cannot be too highly commended. As supreme governor of Judaea, he is prompt and decided in taking the measures necessary to purify the Jewish community, while he abstains from all arbitrary acts, persuades rather than commands, and effects his purpose with the good will and hearty acquiescence of all classes. Placed in a subordinate position under Nehemiah after having held the entire direction of affairs, he shows no jealousy or discontent, but carries out with zeal the designs of his civil superior, is active within his own sphere, and does good service to the nation. Simple, candid, devout, sympathetic, full of energy, unselfish, patriotic, never weary in well doing, he occupied a most important position at a most important time, and was a second founder of the Jewish state. Eminent alike as a civil governor, as an ecclesiastical administrator, and as a historian, he left behind him a reputation among the Jews inferior only to that of Moses; and the traditions which cluster about his name, even if they had no other value, would at any rate mark the high esteem in which his abilities and character were held by his countrymen.

Literature of Ezra.

Ezra, so far as the present writer is aware, has not been made the subject of any special work. Bertheau has, however, written a comment, which is valuable, on the three Books of Ezra, Nehemiah, and Esther. General 'Commentaries on the Old Testament,' and 'Introductions to the Old Testament,' have necessarily treated of it. The best of these, so far as Ezra is concerned, are the 'Speaker's Commentary ' and the 'Introductions' of Havernick and Dr. Davidson. There is an important article on the Book of Ezra in Winer's 'Real worterbuch;' and others containing much that is interesting will be found in Dr. W. Smith's 'Dictionary of the Bible,' and in Kitto's 'Cyclopaedia.' Of the earlier commentators, Patrick may be consulted with most advantage.


The best arrangement of Ezra seems to be the following: —

Part I. (Ezra 1-6.). First return of the Israelites from captivity, under Zerubbabel.

Section 1 (Ezra 1:2.). Decree of Cyrus, and return under Zerubbabel, with the numbers of those who returned, and the names of the chief men.

Section 2 (Ezra 3:1-7). Restoration of the altar of burnt sacrifice, and celebration of the Feast of Tabernacles.

Section 3 (Ezra 3:8-15). Rebuilding of the temple, and opposition made to it.

Section 4 (Ezra 6:16-22). Dedication of the temple and celebration of the Feast of the Passover.

Part II. (Ezra 8-10.). Second return of the Israelites from captivity, under Ezra.

Section 1 (Ezra 7:8.). Decree of Artaxerxes, and return under Ezra, with the numbers of those who returned, and the names of the chief men.

Section 2 (Ezra 9:10.). Reformation of religion accomplished by Ezra.

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