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Bible Commentaries

Ellicott's Commentary for English ReadersEllicott's Commentary

- Ezra

by Charles John Ellicott




ALTHOUGH these two books have distinct authors, they describe consecutive periods of the same general stage of Jewish history, and in many respects are closely linked. Hence much of the matter introductory to their exposition must necessarily be common to the two, and equally applicable to both.
I. The names of Ezra and Neheiniah are combined in revelation after a manner of which Moses and Aaron furnish the only parallel. The analogy, though not perfect, will bear to be followed out to a certain extent. Strictly speaking, Zerubbabel and Joshua were the Moses and Aaron of the new Israel redeemed from captivity in Babylon. But these two names fade in the presence of their greater successors, who finished the work they only began. This has been the view of Jewish tradition; and Christian sentiment agrees with Jewish tradition. Here, however, the analogy begins to fail. Judaism has always regarded the priest Ezra alone as the restorer of the law and the polity, making Nehemiah with his book merely an adjunct; just as the Pentateuch was “the book of the law of Moses,” Aaron being altogether or almost kept out of view. When we go to the Scriptures themselves, Ezra and Nehemiah, the spiritual and the civil rulers of the new constitution, have an equal dignity, and both are very subordinate characters in comparison with those first organs of Divine revelation. They introduce nothing really original; they bring no new tables from the Mount; they have no Urim and Thummim; and are rather administrators of a revived law than legislators themselves. A few minor institutions owe their origin to Nehemiah. But neither he nor Ezra was directly the founder of the synagogue and other great additions to the Mosaic economy. The greatness of these two names is, in fact, very much the result of wonderful traditions which have been most prodigal in their honour, and especially in the glorification of Ezra.
II. Ezra and Nehemiah are both, though in different ways, connected by Jewish tradition with the final settlement of the Old Testament canon. Among the early Fathers an opinion was current that, when the originals of Scripture were burned with the Temple, Ezra, by inspiration of the Holy Spirit, restored the Law and the Prophets, adding or authenticating the books which were afterwards written. Another tradition is preserved in the Mishna, and has found more favour, that Ezra, or Ezra and Nehemiah, instituted the GREAT SYNAGOGUE, numbering 120 associates, and in conjunction with them settled the limits of the canon. In many parts of the Talmud such a college is referred to; but neither the canonical nor the apocryphal scriptures yield this tradition any real support. The “company of scribes” of 1Ma. 7:12 has been supposed to refer to this body. But 2MMalachi 2:13 gives the tradition a different form. it alludes to and quotes certain “writings and commentaries” of Nehemiah, and describes him as having “established a library” or collection of holy documents, including historical and prophetical books and writings of David, thus not obscurely pointing to the threefold conventional order of our present canonical volume. If we understand the “letters of kings concerning offerings” to mean the decrees of the Persian monarchs that make up a large part of our two books, the tradition may be understood to embrace the whole canon. It will be seen that there are traces in Nehemiah of interpolation as late as the days of Alexander the Great; and the question of the final ratification of the Hebrew canon is one still involved in obscurity.

III. The relation of these two to the other historical books of the canon has been matter of some controversy. Without any support from subsequent Jewish literature, a certain class of critics have invented a later editor, who, living in the time of the Greek Dominion, constructed the Chronicles, Ezra, and Nehemiah as one series of historical works. Agreeing in this, the hypotheses then differ; and their differences are of such a character as to confirm our confidence in the traditional view that the three books are distinct, that their true common editor was Ezra, and that only a very few additions were left for aftertimes. While the end of Chronicles is the beginning of Ezra, a long and unrecorded period comes between; Ezra and Nehemiah give the history of a totally different century of the national life; and they close the inspired historical records of the ancient nation. Malachi alone comes after them; while Haggai and Zechariah immediately precede, or rather they delivered their predictions in the days which the former part of Ezra describes. The last historical books of the Old Testament are works of which the authors were to a great extent editors also; and there is every reason to think that the chief of these editors was Ezra, who put the finishing touches on all that preceded his own annals. It can hardly be maintained that his editorship included the book of Nehemiah. seeing that this contains a long list of names almost entirely coinciding with a similar list in his predecessor.
IV. The authenticity of these two records cannot be reasonably called in question: the only attacks proceed from that style of criticism which makes the entire history of the Old Testament a series of inventions based on but a slight substratum of actual events. There is nothing here but a series of plain statements concerning a great historical fact which cannot be called in question. We observe the same use of public documents and genealogical lists with which the rest of the Bible makes us familiar. The sources [ are never referred to as such; for both writers, from their position, were above the necessity of giving their authorities. But we may be sure that the history of the first return under Zerubbabel had been preserved, and only required Ezra’s abridgment. The Persian documents quoted were in public archives. There is not an incident recorded, nor a character introduced, which is out of keeping with internal probability or external independent vouchers. The simplicity of the narrative and its utter absence of disguise, when recording the humble estate and deep unworthiness of the rescued people, plead irresistibly for the truth of the whole. The very dislocations of the narratives, with the repetition of lists, are in favour of the trustworthiness of the narrators. The want of strict agreement between them in names and numbers here and there simply indicates that the text, especially that of Ezra, is not in a perfect state. It must be admitted that the discrepancies between the two books themselves, as also between both and the Chronicles, are very numerous: no two lists perfectly agree either in order of names or amount of numbers. But a careful and dispassionate examination of the differences will lead to the conclusion that the text of one or the other or of both has suffered through transcription. Besides what has been said on this subject in former Introductions, something in the nature of historical vindication will be found in the course of the exposition itself.

V. As these two books give the history of the return from the Captivity, they cannot be understood without some knowledge of the character of that Captivity. In the last words of inspiration before our history commences the prophecies of Jeremiah are put into an historical form: the people were to be servants in Babylon until the reign of the kingdom of Persia; and the emptied land was to enjoy her Sabbaths, in sad vindication of ages of Sabbath neglect, “to fulfil threescore and ten years.” But there was mercy in the great visitation. Though the bondmen were sometimes made to howl (Isaiah 52:5), they were also to have peace in the peace of the place of their captivity for which they prayed (Jeremiah 29:5-7). They rose to wealth in the enjoyment of civil rights; they occupied places of high trust in the courts of their oppressors; they maintained their religious customs as far as they might do so in a strange land; above all, they kept alive their hope of restoration, and in token of this carefully preserved the records of their genealogies. These important facts have their illustration at all points in the books which contain the history of the Return.

VI. It follows that the events of which Ezra and Nehemiah are the historians must be studied in the light of the purposes of God in regard to His ancient people, and can be understood only in that light. In other words, they form a chapter in the history of redemption. It must needs be that the “holy seed “—holy because of it Christ was to come according to the flesh—should be kept undefiled among the nations, that the “holy land” should be ready to become the land of Immanuel, that the “holy city should both welcome and reject Him as its king, and that the “holy place” should receive the true High Priest, and be closed by His voice. Generally speaking, it was necessary, for the fulfilment of prophecy, for the maintenance of true religion in the world, and for the preparation of the earthly sphere of the Incarnate Son, that the ancient polity should be renewed and kept up until the “fulness of time.” Their relation to the future Saviour of the world—its present Saviour not yet revealed—gave to the Jewish remnant, and to everything connected with their history, an immeasurable importance. We may not be able to see the precise bearing on this of many details in these books and that of Esther; nor is it necessary to believe that many of them—in a certain sense the greater part of the minute narrative, with its genealogical and other lists—had any such precise bearing. Granted the general necessity for the new life of the people, as a witness of the past and the future, the particulars of its new history become on that account important. To sum up, if we consider the re-establishment of the people and the revival of the worship of Zion as a record of past prophecy fulfilled, as a means of keeping up the knowledge of God and the hope of His Kingdom in the present, and as part of the great preparation for the supreme future of finished redemption—these three in one—then scarcely any detail in these narratives will be thought to be without its meaning. Nothing is more needful as a preparation for the study of our history than the deep conviction of this principle.
VII. It is a narrower view of the same subject that sees in these histories the foundation of that Judaism of the interval with which the Gospel narrative and the Christian Church are so intimately bound up. To understand this we must remember that with Ezra and Nehemiah and Esther are to be connected the final post-exile prophets, Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi. The entire cycle, taken as a whole, reveals the tendencies of the Judaism which grew up after prophetic inspiration had ceased, and the finished development of which our Saviour found so utterly wanting. But in the process we must distinguish between the good and the evil. The good elements were many: the ancient Scriptures were restored to their place in the popular heart; Ezra was the first of an order of scribes entirely devoted to its exposition; and the synagogue worship, unknown in the Old Testament, was based on a revival of Sabbath devotion throughout the land. And the dispersion soon began to claim its rights beyond the land itself. Though Ezra and Nehemiah rebuilt the Temple and threw walls around Jerusalem—giving no hint themselves that the kingdom of God was on its way to the Gentiles—the prophets of their new economy were less restricted. And when the intermediate “fulness of time “came, Greek Scriptures and a Jewish service in Egypt and other lands paved the way for the Gospel. The evil elements were also very many. An internal, hard, ceremonial religion became, after four centuries, what the Lord found in Pharisaism; the scepticism which Malachi rebuked developed into Sadduceeism; and the descendants of the “perfect scribe” laid more than the foundation of Talmudical Rabbinism.
VIII. Out of this arises another canon, namely, that this portion of the history of the one CIVITAS DEI which runs through all ages has, like every other, its lessons to teach the Christian Church. In regard to this expositors have run into the usual opposite extremes. Some have gone so far as to find in Ezra and Nehemiah types of Christ; and their several and combined work has been made to prefigure the relations of Church and State for ever. It is easy to trace and condemn the error here. But we should be on our guard against the notion that the books contain only old history that has passed away. Devotion to the kingdom of God on the part of His servants, its grace and its dignity and its reward; opposition to that kingdom, its low endeavours, its futility, and its condemnation—these are lessons taught in every chapter. The everlasting distinction between the saints and the children of this world, and the importance of remembering this under all circumstances, is also taught. They who condemn the intolerance of Ezra and Nehemiah, and think the rigorous separation of the ancient people from their foreign wives a great mistake of these new legislators, altogether miss the lesson the books were intended to convey. The providence of God in the world, which is now the government of His Son the Head over all things to the Church, has no sublimer illustration than they present.—It may be added that the two writers, who are also the two main actors, are noble examples of the passive and active virtues of religion. Though their writings are not quoted in the New Testament, they contain a fair proportion of those precious apophthegms and watchwords of devotion that are the heritage of God’s people in every age.
IX. It is of great importance to fix in the mind, before entering on the study of our two historians, a clear idea of the relation of the events they record to profane history and secular chronology. On one or two points opinions are divided; but the following dates may on the whole be relied on as most probably satisfying all demands :—


558-529. Cyrus becomes king of the Medes and Persians, on the defeat of Astyages. 541. Belshazzar, vice-king of Babylon (Daniel’s vision, chapter 7).


Babylonian empire subverted, and Medo-Persian empire established by Cyrus. Darius the Mede made king of Babylon.


First year of Cyrus. Return under Zerubbabel (Ezra 1:0).


Second Temple founded (Ezra 3:8).


Opposition of Samaritans (Ezra 4:6), Cambyses (Ahasuerus of Ezra 4:6).


Building of Temple stopped. Gomates or pseudo-Smerdis (Artaxerxes of Ezra 4:7).


Darius I., son of Hystaspes, king of Persia, having slain Gomates (Ezra 4:5-24; Ezra 5:5; Ezra 6:1). Haggai and Zechariah begin their prophecies.


Second Temple completed (Ezra 6:15).


Xerxes (Ahasuerus of Esther).


Artaxerxes Longimanus (Ezra 7:1, Nehemiah 2:1). Return of Jews under Ezra.


Nehemiah goes to Jerusalem (Nehemiah 2:1; Nehemiah 5:14).


Nehemiah’s return to Jerusalem (Nehemiah 13:6).


Malachi’s last predictions. Death of Cyrus the Younger (also of Thucydides and Socrates).

X. The two books are the centre of what may be called the ESDBAS CYCLE of Biblical literature, the details of which are complicated, and must be studied in special works on the canon. The ancient Jews regarded the two canonical works as one, and in this they were followed by the early Fathers of the Christian Church. In the catalogues handed down to us they are distinguished as I. and II. Ezra or Esdras: so the Vulgate, Origen, and the Council of Laodicea. In the Alexandrine version, however, first comes our book of Ezra, with enlargements of various kinds; then, secondly, the genuine book itself; Nehemiah is there III. Esdras; and to these is added the later apocryphal IV. Esdras, containing certain final accretions to the Ezra literature. In the Vulgate the two added books, the enlarged translation and the apocryphal, are III. and IV. Ezra. At the close of the fourth century Jerome calls II. Ezra by the name of Nehemiah; and gradually its thoroughly independent character became generally recognised. For the character of the two apocryphal books—the latter of which has very little connection with the Biblical Ezra—works on the Apocrypha must be consulted. Suffice it to say here that what may be called—following the Greek style—I. Esdras is subordinately useful in some points of the textual criticism of our book of Ezra, especially where its numbers differ from those of Nehemiah.




I. All that is certainly known concerning Ezra is found in his own narrative as continued in Nehemiah. He was a priest, descended, through Seraiah, from Eleazar the son of Aaron; and also a scribe, devoted to the exposition of the Law of Moses. In the seventh year of Artaxerxes Longimanus, B.C. 458, he went from Babylon to Jerusalem at the head of a second company of the children of the Captivity, and with an ample commission for the restoration of the Temple and the reform of religion. After a rigorous inquisition into the abuses connected with mixed marriages, he is lost sight of, re-appearing afterwards in Nehemiah, with whom or under whom he takes part in the dedication of the wall and the conduct of religious service generally. He then finally disappears from the sacred history. Jewish tradition glorified his memory as second only to that of Moses. He is regarded as having been the first president of the “Great Synagogue,” to which is attributed the settlement of the Jewish canon; to have instituted the synagogue service; to have been the organiser of much authoritative tradition traced down from Moses; to have introduced the present Hebrew type; and clone other service to Jewish literature. Josephus says that he lived to a great age, and was buried in Jerusalem. Other traditions assign him a grave near Samara, after returning to Persia, and dying there aged 120.—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 private, uniformly and always the same devout, disinterested, patriotic lover of his people and friend of God.
II. The question of Ezra’s authorship is closely connected with an analysis of the book. It contains two distinct records: one, of the first return from the Captivity under Zerubbabel, occupying six chapters; and the other, of the second detachment, under Ezra himself, occupying the remaining four. Between the two there is a chasm of fifty-seven years passed over in total silence. The former part, embracing a period of twenty-two years, from the memorable first year of Cyrus, B.C. 538, is mainly made up of extracts from archives which Ezra has woven into a narrative. Certain portions of this, as of the second part, are written in Chaldee: the documents, namely, are given in their original, and the writer, equally familiar with both forms of the Hebrew, does not quite limit himself to the documents themselves, the Chaldee overflowing here and there. Certainly the first six chapters may be regarded as Ezra’s own compilation, and therefore as his own work. The second part gives the history of twelve months, being the record as it were of the discharge of a commission, narrating that in full and then abruptly breaking off. A close examination of the four chapters shows the same hand; the peculiar phrases—such as the “Lord God of Israel” and many others—are similar, with just those variations in uniformity which might be expected in one who had several languages at command. But there is one remarkable anomaly, that sometimes the first and sometimes the third person is used—an anomaly, however, that equally occurs in Daniel. It is to be explained at the outset by the humility of the writer, who introduces himself and his own character in the third person before he uses the direct style of narrative; and afterwards by the fact that public and great events are incorporated in the very style in which they were from time to time recorded. On the whole there is no reason to distrust the uniform tradition that has ascribed the whole book to Ezra.

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