Why study Ezra? There are many compelling reasons to dig into this small book.
One of the most incredible prophecies in the Bible is found in Isaiah 44:24-45:1:
I am Yahweh… who says of Cyrus, “He is my shepherd, and he shall fulfill all my purpose”; saying of Jerusalem, “She shall be built,” and of the temple, “Your foundation shall be laid.” Thus says Yahweh to his anointed, to Cyrus, whose right hand I have grasped, to subdue nations before him and to loose the belts of kings, to open doors before him that gates may not be closed…”
Isaiah recorded those words, before Cyrus was born. BeforePersia was a world power. Before Judah was sent into captivity. Before Daniel even was, Isaiah had a word from the Lord about a Persian king who would show kindness to Yahweh’s people.
To appreciate how dramatic of a prophecy this is, you have to understand that when it was given, the Medo-Persian Empire was not dominant. While Israel had been taken into captivity by the Assyrians, Judah—and Jerusalem along with her—was still in the land, preparing to fight the Babylonians. In modern terms, Iraq was the threat, not Iran. Jerusalem’s confidence was misplaced, but high nonetheless.
In order to combat Judah’s arrogant notion that she would avoid God’s wrath forever, Yahweh sent Isaiah with a series of visions. Judah would fall, that much was certain. Beyond that, God would send them into exile, yet he would still send a Savior, Yahweh himself, born to a Virgin, who would then suffer and die, stricken by God for the sins of his people.
But before any of that would happen, God would miraculously return Judah back to Jerusalem. Her people would come home, and dwell again in the land.
And to ensure that they didn’t take the credit for their return, Yahweh told them beforehand how it would happen—the Babylonians would fall, and in their place the Persians would rule. And one Persian in particular would direct Judah back into the land, “and Jerusalem shall be rebuilt” (Isaiah 44:28).
In order to direct people away from politics and to God, Yahweh does the unprecedented—he calls out the name of the person who would rule Persia, 150 years before he was even born.
And then…150 years later, it happened. A man named Cyrus defeats Babylon, Daniel reads to him Isaiah’s prophecy, and Ezra 1 come to pass: Ezra 1:1
“In the first year of Cyrus king of Persia…Yahweh stirred up the spirit of Cyrus king of Persia, so that he made a proclamation throughout all his kingdom and also put it in writing…”
The proclamation is that Israel would return, and is what is fulfilled in the book of Ezra.
Ezra is worth studying because it is a full-color illustration of Yahweh’s sovereignty. Nearly every chapter speaks of the meticulous application of that sovereignty for the purpose of rebuilding Israel. Nehemiah will focus on rebuilding Jerusalem’s physical architecture, but before God gets to that, Ezra first describes the rebuilding of Israel’s spiritual architecture, namely the temple and the priests.
The most remarkable thing about the book of Ezra is that despite their zeal in the return, and despite the miraculous nature of God’s prophetic word, the return doesn’t go well. In fact, it ends in failure.
In Ezra we see God answer his people’s prayers, and provide them leaders. He gives them safety in their return, and shows that when Israel trusts God’s power instead of military protection, God helps them. Sure there is difficultly in finding priests, but once Ezra prays, even that need is met.
Yet by the end of the book it is clear that things are not well. They are following the steps of Solomon, and not David. The book ends with them standing in the rain, repenting, and divorcing their wives. It reads like a gut punch. All of the hope of Isaiah’s fulfilled prophecy is sucked out the sin-sick Israelites, who learned nothing from their exile.
Thus the main lesson of the book of Ezra: the Old Covenant, even when powerfully displayed through God’s incredible providence, cannot change the sinner’s heart. Looking backwards, Ezra points to the fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy. But looking forward, Ezra points to the fulfillment of Jesus’ words in John 3. Nicodemus asked how he could start his life over, and Jesus told him, “You don’t need a new start! You need a new heart!”
This is precisely what was missing from Ezra’s Israel. No matter how miraculous God’s provision was for Israel in the Old Covenant, the remarkable end of the exile only served to illustrate that a new start would not ultimately be helpful. They didn’t need the priests of Levi, the temple of Solomon, or the protection of providence. The blessings of the Old Covenant were not salvific, and thus Ezra teaches us the need for something greater.
On every page, in every chapter, in every verse of Ezra, the truth of Hebrews 8:13 is proven:
In speaking of a new covenant, he makes the first one obsolete. And what is becoming obsolete and growing old is ready to vanish away.
Study the book of Ezra. As you do, the more you are in awe of God’s meticulous sovereignty, let that impress upon you that for those apart from Christ, they don’t need a miracle. They don’t need a new start. They need a new heart, which only comes through New Covenant.