By Sam E. Stone
The book of Ezra is composed of two sections: chapters 1–6 record how the Jews returned from captivity to rebuild the temple; chapters 7–10 describe how Ezra came back to Jerusalem and led reforms. A period of some 57 years passed between the end of Ezra 6 (515 BC) and the beginning of Ezra 7 (458 BC). During this time, the events described in the book of Esther took place.
Plans for the Trip
The second section of the book begins with a listing of Ezra’s credentials. Ruben Ratzlaff notes, “Like many of the genealogies of the Old Testament, it includes only the more significant names. There are frequent omissions.” Ezra was a priest (vv. 7, 11; 10:10), and v. 6 reports that he was also a teacher well versed in the Law of Moses. Some suggest this is the first mention of a scribe in the Bible, a group Ezra may have helped create. He not only copied the Law, but also taught it to others.
Artaxerxes, the king of Persia, approved Ezra’s leading the Jews in their return from Babylon to Palestine. Scripture makes clear exactly how it happened that the king had granted him everything he asked. Put simply, “The hand of the Lord his God was on him”(v. 6). James Smith explains, “Ezra was able in some unexplained way to secure an appointment from the king to return to Jerusalem as a religious reformer.” This blessing came from God. Many years later James observed, “Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights” (James 1:17). No doubt prayer undergirded all of Ezra’s efforts.
Returning with him was a broad mix of Israelites—priests, Levites, musicians, gatekeepers and temple servants. Especially mentioned are those who would be serving God in the new temple there. The dating of this trip is clearly indicated. In 458 BC Ezra and his entourage arrived back in Jerusalem. It had been almost 80 years since the first return, and 147 years since Daniel and his friends were taken to Babylon. Their travel time to get back home was four months.
Ezra 6:10 is a popular verse with preachers. It suggests a worthy goal for all God’s children, under three headings. Ezra was determined to do three things—study the Law of God, practice the Law, and teach the Law to others.
Preparation for the Trip
Before leaving with his fellow travelers, Ezra called them together for a special time of prayer and fasting. The Day of Atonement was the one fast required of the people each year (see Leviticus 23:32). The people could add other voluntary fasts, however. C. F. Keil explains, “Fasting, as a means of humbling themselves before God, for the purpose of obtaining an answer to their petitions, was an ancient custom of the Israelites (Judges 20:26; 1 Samuel 7:6; Joel 1:14; 2 Chronicles 20:3).”
Years later when Jesus was on earth, fasting was widely practiced. John the Baptist’s followers regularly participated in fasting (Luke 5:33-35). Jesus himself fasted for 40 days and 40 nights in the wilderness before beginning his earthly ministry (Matthew 4:2). Not all those who fasted did so for the right reasons, however. Our Lord condemned the Pharisees who bragged about fasting twice a week, but whose hearts were far from what God wanted them to be (Luke 18:12). They tried to impress people with their spirituality, but they failed to impress God!
Leslie G. Thomas points out, “Jesus warns that one may soil this fine act of physical restraint by using it for the purpose of spiritual show.” Proper fasting is not done to show off for others, but is essentially between a believer and God (see Matthew 6:16-18). We are not to call attention to ourselves when we fast. One writer observed, “A lowly spirit doesn’t necessarily mean a long face!” In the first-century church, people fasted when elders were appointed (Acts 14:23) and before sending out Paul and Barnabas as missionaries (Acts 13:1-3).
Ezra opens his heart when he admits that he didn’t want to ask the king for military protection for them on the trip, since Ezra had assured the king that God was with them! This section closes with this powerful summation: “So we fasted and petitioned our God about this, and he answered our prayer.” When we fast and pray, God will still do so today!
Sam E. Stone is the former editor of Christian Standard. He continues his writing and speaking ministry from his home in Cincinnati, Ohio.
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