The Biblical Illustrator
Book Overview - Ezra
by Joseph Exell
That the Book of Ezra is a continuation of the Books of Chronicles is evident from the fact that the last verses of “Chronicles” are repeated as the first verses of Ezra. There is also the most marked similarity in the literary style and method.
The Authorship of the Book
There is no reasonable ground for denying that Ezra was the author of the book that now bears his name. But the admission must be made that the present form of the work may be due to the editorial labours of the Great Synagogue in the early days of the Grecian ascendancy. It is quite possible that Ezra was rather a collector than an organiser, and that what he left at his death was rather a mass of material than a completely edited history. These materials may have come into the hands of a later editor, who had the historical genius, and he has put them into the shape with which we are familiar, making necessary editorial corrections and editions.
Date of the Book
There seems to be some uncertainty as to whether the Jewish literary “renaissance” is to be dated the time of Ezra or between one and two centuries later, when the nation felt the inspiration of contact with Greek culture. We should have no doubt about its identification with the later period, but we must be willing to admit that the revived literary interest, and the new standards, must have materially influenced the re-editing of the ancient Scripture records.
An Unfinished Fragment
The Book of Ezra, as it stands, is an evidently unfinished fragment; and some would find the natural continuation in Nehemiah, chap. 8. The object of the compiler is evidently the same as that which gives character and tone to the Books of Chronicles. The mission upon which Ezra’s whole heart was set was the full re-establishment of the old Mosaic ritual; the reassertion of the old Mosaic social laws; and the revival of religion of that formal type which is always dear to the heart of the priest.
The Personality of Ezra
It may greatly help to a right understanding of the Book of Ezra if some effort is made to form a fair estimate of the personality of this scribe, and to notice how the circumstances of his age found a fitting sphere for the intense expression of his personality.
Ezra was a priest, with an unusually valuable pedigree, of which he would be sure to think much, and to make much. He was descended from Hilkiah, and traced his line back to Aaron. And he “magnified his office.” How he had gained his position of influence at the Persian Court we do not know, but we may be sure that his residence at Babylon made him familiar with the Chaldee language, which he introduces in some portions of his work (see Ezra 4:8; Ezra 6:18; Ezra 7:12-26). In the seventh year of the reign of Artaxerxes Longimanus, Ezra was granted a commission to lead a second body of Jews back to Jerusalem, to take upon himself the administration of public affairs, and to correct those social abuses which had arisen among the returned exiles, and of which serious news had reached Babylon. This commission Ezra carried out, but in the spirit of the priest rather than in the spirit of the statesman. He showed himself to be a ruler with a very narrow, one-sided, and exaggerated point of view. The reformation that he effected proved to be the beginning of mischiefs as serious as the evils which he so violently rooted out. The healthy and lasting reformation always has its basis in some spiritual truth, either freshly revealed or quickened to the view of men by the vivid apprehension of some reformer. Ezra was strong on duty, but he had no revelation or inspiration of truth at the back of the demands he made. He forced men to do what he thought right, and men only await the relief of the “force” to turn back to their wrong again.
Ezra’s first visit to Jerusalem was not prolonged. He returned a second time, apparently a short time after Nehemiah’s appointment as governor, and he was able to render to him valuable assistance. Ezra’s life-work appears to cover a period of about eighty years; but no account of the place or date of his death is given in Scripture. It is generally assigned to 432 or 481 b.c., but as Josephus says that he died a very old man, Rawlinson prefers the date 420-410 b.c. Traditions assign him a grave near Samara, after his return to dwell in Persia; and is said to have lived to be 120 years old.
G. Rawlinson says of Ezra: “He comes before us in so many capacities, and is revealed to us in such brief and hurried flashes, that we can with difficulty form any distinct conception of his personality. He was student, critic, linguist, antiquary, historian, teacher and preacher, judge, governor, reformer of a religious system, second founder of a political community. We cannot call him a person of brilliant genius, or of great originality; but yet we have to acknowledge in him one of the born leaders of men, one of those who have exercised on the world a vast influence, and an influence almost entirely good . . . It may be true that his aims were ‘narrow,’ and his methods ‘rigid.’ But he achieved a great success. In temperament Ezra was passionate and emotional.”
Dr. Geikie says: “Intensely earnest, he had the absolute confidence of a zealot in his own definitions of the requirements of the law. To enforce the Levitical holiness of Israel had become his one idea, and no Puritan was ever more energetic or stern in pressing his will on others as that of God.”
Dr. W. B. Pope says: “There is no character in the Old Testament more perfect and complete than that of Ezra. We see him as a servant and as a master; as a student of the law, and as its administrator, as supreme in authority and as subordinate, in public and in private, uniformly and always the same devout, disinterested, patriotic lover of his people, and friend of God.”
Dean Stanley says: “Ezra and Nehemiah (for in some respects they are inseparable) are the very impersonations of the impenetrable toughness and persistency which constituted them the reformers of their people. Reformers in the noblest sense of that word they were not.”
As to the Contents of the Book of Ezra, it may be noted that they are divided into two periods (a third period is treated by Nehemiah). The first period is anterior to the time of Ezra, and extends over twenty-three years, from the first return of the exiles in 538 b.c., up to the completion of the temple, in the sixth year of the reign of Darius, 515 b.c. The books of the prophets Haggai and Zechariah shed light on this period. The second period begins with the eighth chapter of Ezra, and extends to the close of the book.
One of the difficulties felt in dealing with the work of Ezra arises from the fact that some sections are written in the first person, and some in the third person. The most simple and natural explanation of this peculiarity may be found in the habit of Ezra, in inserting his extracts bodily, just as he found them.
Regarding Ezra and Nehemiah as one book, Dean Stanley writes: “In this one book is discoverable the agglomeration of four distinct elements; which is instructive as an undoubted instance of the composite structure shared by other books of the Old and New Testaments, where it is not so distinctly traceable. These component parts are as follows:
a. The portions written by the chronicler--the same as the compiler of the Book of Chronicles (comp. Ezra 1:1-2; 2 Chronicles 36:22-23)-- Ezra 1:3-6.; Nehemiah 13:1-20.
b. Ezra’s own narrative, Ezra 7:1-28; Ezra 8:1-36; Ezra 9:1-15; Ezra 10:1-44.
c. Nehemiah’s own narrative, Nehemiah 1-7:5; Neh_8-11:2; Neh_12:27-47; Neh_13:1-31.
d. Archives; Ezra 2:1-70.; Nehemiah 7:6-73; Nehemiah 11:8-36. In the divisions a., b., c. it may be questioned whether Ezra 7:1-26; Ezra 10:1-44; Nehemiah 8:1-18; Nehemiah 9:1-38; Nehemiah 10:1-39; Nehemiah 11:1-2; Nehemiah 7:27-73; Nehemiah 8:1-18; Nehemiah 9:1-38; Nehemiah 10:1-39; Nehemiah 11:1-36; Nehemiah 12:1-47; Nehemiah 13:1-3 (in which Ezra and Nehemiah are described in the third person) belong to another narrative interwoven by the chronicler who compiled the whole book.”
As a general conclusion, it may be said that there is no sufficient reason for distrusting the uniform tradition that the materials of the book were provided by Ezra.
the Week of Proper 13 / Ordinary 18