Ezra, a scribe and a priest, and a descendant of Aaron, was a learned Jew who headed a great reform movement, which was largely responsible for maintaining the Jewish faith and nation. His family had been among the many carried captive by Nebuchadnezzar, but like many others who had become rooted in Babylon, they were not among the 53,000 who returned to Jerusalem when King Cyrus gave the opportunity. Ezra, imbued with a spirit of religious fervor, headed a later company to Jerusalem 78 years later.
Ezra’s Journey to Jerusalem (Ezra 8: 15-36)
He and other Jews had become vexed upon hearing of the poverty of their brethren in Jerusalem, that religious matters were ailing, and that the rebuilding of the temple was poorly served. Ezra laid the matter before representatives in Babylon and the Persian king, with favorable results. Large donations were made for the repairs of the temple and the institution of its worship upon a proper basis. 700 people volunteered to be the company. Ezra wisely divided the treasure among twelve principal men of his party. Before the journey, a fast was proclaimed and God was entreated to grant His blessing upon the undergoing and to direct the course of the travelers. Four months later Ezra and his party reached Jerusalem.
Ezra has been censured as narrow and cruel because of the reforms which he made at Jerusalem. The Jews who first returned from Babylon were full of zeal for the Divine law, and refused to intermarry or to have social dealings with their heathen neighbors, but their zeal slackened and carelessness and irreligion set in. Ezra discovered that many Jews were intermarrying with their neighbors, and if such a condition continued, the nation would become corrupted. As a result, they would lose God’s promise of national continuity, and the promise that ultimately He would use them for sending out His Truth which shall bless all the families of the earth. A general assembly of Israelites was called to consider this matter of mixed marriages and the requirements of the Law. It was a time of weeping, sorrow and distress amongst the people as they realized that conformity to the Divine Law would mean the breaking of family ties. The Divine Law had been broken and now the penalty was to be felt.
Of course, we need to recognize that Israel was under the Law Covenant, and was subject to every feature of the Law. No such law has been put upon other nations, nor upon Christians, who are not under the Law, but under grace. For consecrated Christians, the nearest thing corresponding to this Law is the Apostolic injunction that Christ’s followers should not intermarry with the worldly, but “only in the Lord” (1 Corinthians 7: 39) (2 Corinthians 6: 14). There is surely Divine wisdom in this injunction, yet it is not a law, and Christians who have married unconsecrated persons are not to leave them but to fulfill their marriage covenants.
Ezra’s Return to Jerusalem (Nehemiah 8)
Ezra apparently returned to Babylon to continue his study of the Law. We next hear of him thirteen years later, again a prominent figure at Jerusalem. Nehemiah’s work on the city wall and its gates had been completed a week before the Jewish new year. That week was used for rest and refreshment, and on that same day (about October 1st) a general convocation took place in an open square just behind the temple. Ezra read the Book of the Law in sections to the people from morning until noon, and the priests and Levites commingled with the people and explained to them the meaning of the various sections.
As the people heard the words of the Divine law, and realized their failure to keep it, they recognized why the Lord had allowed various chastisements, captivities, etc., to come upon them. The realization of sin caused them to weep, but Nehemiah, Ezra and others explained that this was not a time for tears, but for rejoicing. They were reminded that the very Law which foretold the punishments declared also God’s mercy, and that when they would repent He would forgive and restore them to His favor. Thus their tears were turned to smiles, their mourning to rejoicing.