Ezra 1-6. The “First Return” and the rebuilding of the Temple
The book of Ezra begins where the book of 2 Chronicles ends. Ezra’s first six chapters tell the story of those who went up from Babylon to Jerusalem to rebuild the Temple. It covers a roughly 23-year period of time from the first year of Persian King Cyrus (538 BC) to the eventual completion of the Temple (by March or April, 515). These six chapters actually take place before the life of Ezra himself. The key leaders during this first return from Babylon were Sheshbazzar, Zerubbabel, Jeshua, Haggai, and Zechariah. As you read these chapters, note how opposition caused the Temple rebuilding to cease and how God’s stirring them up through His prophets re-energized the Temple rebuilding project, enabling the postexilic community to finish. Opposition to every effort to restore Jerusalem and Judah is a recurring theme in Ezra and Nehemiah. Ezra 4:6-23, in fact, contains a historical parenthesis that highlights opposition faced at various points during the postexilic period.
Esther 1-10. God’s providential protection of the Jews
Chronologically, the story of Esther fits in between the First Return (Ezra 1-6) and the Second Return (Ezra 7-10). King Ahasuerus, Esther’s royal husband, is the King Xerxes of Persian history. The book of Esther never uses the name of God and even seems in places to deliberately avoid a direct reference to God. Esther will mention fasting but never prayer, rejoicing but never praise to God. Pagans do not turn to God they “become Jews” (8:17). Clear throughout the book, though, is the invisible hand of God delivering His people from one of the greatest dangers they ever faced as a nation. When heaven seems most silent, God may actually be most present. As you read Esther, take note of the way God quietly orchestrates events along the way.
Ezra 7-10. The “Second Return” and spiritual reformation
Ezra 7 introduces us to Ezra himself, the diligent scribe in the Law of God and direct descendant of Aaron the high priest. Ezra leads a return from Babylon during the reign of the Persian King Artaxerxes, about 80 years after the first return (458 BC). Ezra worked to bring his people back to obedience to the law of God and was especially concerned about Jews who had intermarried with the pagan peoples of the land Such intermarriage would lead to the very idolatry that had landed them in exile in Babylon in the first place. A repeated expression in Ezra 7-10 (and in Nehemiah) is the good hand of God at work on their behalf as the chief reason for every success achieved (7:6, 9, 28; 8:18, 22, 31). Note also how often reference is made to the house of God. Ezra’s work of calling the Jews back to the Law is inseparably connected with the worship at the Temple.
Nehemiah 1-13. The “Third Return” and rebuilding the walls
Thirteen years after Ezra’s return from Babylon, Nehemiah led a return back to Jerusalem from Susa, where he was serving as cupbearer to King Artaxerxes. His chief burden in returning was to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem that had recently been damaged again, but he also did much to restore Temple worship (see 10:32-38). Nehemiah and Ezra were contemporaries and their efforts converge in Nehemiah 8, where Ezra reads the words of God to the people. Fresh comprehension of God’s words brought joy and was part of a series of events that led to a much-needed repopulating of the city (see 7:4-5; 11:1-3).
Nehemiah was a vigorous leader who could get quite confrontational at times (see 13:25) but who also had discernment in dealing with the many attempts to stop the work of rebuilding Jerusalem’s walls. Above all he was a man of prayer, and as you read of what he accomplished, note how many times he prays. He worked unremittingly, but he also prayed without ceasing. His prayers often use the word remember, as he petitions God to be mindful of what he has attempted to do for Him, what others are doing to oppose his work, and what God Himself has promised (1:8; 5:19; 6:14; 13:14, 22, 29, 31).