Seizing New Opportunities

Explore the Bible Series

December 3, 2006


Background Passage: Ezra 1;1-3:13

Lesson Passage: Ezra 1:1-6; 3:1-3, 10-11


Introduction: Some weeks ago I wrote some brief background materials for the lessons of this quarter, and I thought some readers might find these summaries helpful. Special thanks to Pastor Bill Ascol and Bro. Bill Stinson, of the Bethel Baptist Church, for asking me to present this material in a workshop with their Sunday School faculty.




Exilic and Post-Exilic Rulers of the Babylonian and Medo-Persian Empires

This list includes only rulers who appear in the Old Testament accounts of the period.


Nebuchadnezzar:He was the son of Nabopolassar and governed Babylon for forty years (602-562 B.C.).Nebuchadnezzar proved an able military leader prior to his ascension to the throne; in particular, he won the critical battle of Carchemish, against the formidable Egyptian ruler Pharaoh-Necho (605 B.C.). He secured Syria, Palestine, and Phoenicia before returned to Babylon to take his fatherís place as ruler of the realm. In 586 B.C. he sacked Jerusalem and carried many of the people of Judah and Benjamin into captivity.Babylon flourished during his reign, and he completed an impressive array of architectural projects including the famous Hanging Gardens.Nebuchadnezzarís name occurs frequently in several books of the Old Testament, most notably, the Prophecy of Daniel.


Belshazzar: A descendant of Nebuchadnezzar, Belshazzar governed Babylon for about fourteen years (c. 553-539).Much of this time he served a regent for his father, Nabonidus. He appears in the remarkable ďhand-writing on the wallĒ incident in Daniel 5. According to the prophetís account, Belshazzar died as a result of Godís judgment on the kingís sacrilege.


Darius the Mede: This mysterious figure only appears in the pages of the Old Testament.The Book of Daniel claims that he took control of Babylon in the aftermath of Belshazzarís death. He, according to Daniel, passed the unfortunate law that led to the prophetís experience in the lionís den.Several Old Testament scholars believe that Darius may have been another name for Gubaru, an associate of Cyrus.


Cyrus: This Persian king seized power by overthrowing the rule of his father, Cambyses I (Cyrus governed 539-530 B.C.).His impressive military exploits consolidated an enormous empire under his governance.At one point Cyrus governed from the Aegean Sea to India.He brought an end to the dominance of the Babylonians by winning the battle of Opis (c. 538 B.C.).His enlightened policies of governance allowed conquered people to retain their culture and religion; thus, he permitted a large number of Jews to return to Jerusalem to rebuild the ruined city.He played an important role in the stories unfolded in II Chronicles, Daniel, and Ezra. During a military campaign in the Indian Mountains, Cyrus died in battle.His sudden and unexpected death shook the Persian Empire, and, for a time, Cyrusís son, Cambyses II assumed the throne.In all probability, the Jewish exiles, under Zerubbalelís leadership, returned to Jerusalem at this time.Cambyses died under mysterious circumstances, in Palestine, about 522 B.C.


Darius the Great: A cousin of Cambyses II, Darius had dubious claim on the Medo-Persian throne; nevertheless, he seized and consolidated his power through cruel military campaigns against any region that questioned his authority.Though a talented administrator and military leader, his political ambitions cost him serious military defeats at the hands of the Greeks (in particular, the famous Battle at Marathon, in 490 B.C.).Darius played an important role in the rebuilding of Jerusalem.The efforts to reconstruct the city, of course, began under Cyrus, but the efforts to resurrect a Jewish presence in Judah continued under Dariusí reign (c. 521-486 B.C.). The prophets Haggai and Zechariah preached during the reign of Darius.


Xerxes (also known as Ahasuerus): This Persian king appears prominently in the story of Esther.He governed Persia for approximately twenty-two years (c. 486-464 B.C.).He was the son of Darius the Great and grandson of Cyrus.Like Darius, he tried to take Greece, with some success, but in 480 B.C. his fleet suffered a crippling loss at the Bay of Salamis.Secular Greek sources and the Book of Esther portray Xerxes as a naÔve and indecisive monarch.


Artaxerxes: This is probably the man known as Artaxerxes Longimanus in secular sources of the era.He ruled the Persians for about forty-two years (c. 465-424).Nehemiah served in the court of this emperor, and Artaxerxes supported the efforts of Ezra and Nehemiah to complete the reconstruction of Jerusalem.Administrative nightmares and political unrest plagued his lengthy reign.



Brief Outlines of the Books of Ezra, Nehemiah and Esther

Samuel K. Tullock, Ph.D.


Historical Background:

Even a casual reading of I and II Chronicles, Ezra, and Nehemiah will reveal the close connection of these important Old Testament books.Indeed, some scholars surmise that all of these works were written by the same author.In the ancient Hebrew text of the Old Testament, Ezra and Nehemiah appear as one book (the same holds true for the Septuagint).These books have much in common, and, in some cases, share identical information (See, for instance, the genealogical lists in Ezra and Nehemiah).The books chronicle the rebuilding of the walls of Jerusalem (Nehemiah) and the reconstruction of the Temple (Ezra).The Book of Ezra begins with Zerubbabelís return to the ruined city of Jerusalem. The city, sacked by the Babylonians in 586 B.C., remained in a disgraceful condition for decades.Sheshbazzar and Zerubbabel (some believe these names apply to the same person) led large contingents of exiles to return to the razed city and began an ambitious effort to reconstruct the Temple (c. 538 B.C.).The work, early on, prospered, but, because of local opposition, the reconstruction languished for a lengthy period.The prophets Haggai and Zechariah urged the people to continue the work, and workman finished the Temple in 515 B.C.


Unfortunately, the rebuilding of the Temple did not bring significant religious and moral reform.When the scribe Ezra arrived in Jerusalem (c. 458 B.C.) people did not have much knowledge of the Law of Moses and a renewed priesthood had not been re-established. During Ezraís ministry the most pressing need for reform centered on the practice of Jewish intermarriage with the idolatrous people of the region.This formidable scribe initiated a vigorous pattern of public instruction in the Law and demanded that the Jews protect the integrity of their marriages.


Nehemiah served as a trusted servant in the royal household of Artaxerxes. In due time, news reached Nehemiah that the city walls of Jerusalem still lay in ruin.This godly man, after seeking the approval of the king, led a band of supporters to rebuild Jerusalemís fortifications (c. 445 B.C.).After reconstructing the walls, Nehemiah returned to Persia for many years; nonetheless, he eventually made a second trip to Jerusalem to deal with the rebellion of a troublesome man named Tobiah.


The historical events recorded in the Book of Esther occurred about the same time as Ezraís journey to Jerusalem. This beautiful, courageous Jewess married King Ahasuerus (Xerxes) after his divorce from Vashti.Ahasuerus governed Persia for about twenty-one years (c. 486-465 B.C.).God used Esther and her faithful uncle Mordecai to spare the exiled Jews from a sinister, genocidal plot by a prominent political figure named Haman.This book never mentions the name of God; nevertheless, Godís activities, on behalf of his people, are evident at every turn in the story.The Book of Esther gives the background of the Jewish feast of Purim.



Brief Outline of the Book of Ezra


I.                   The Return of the Exiles Under the Leadership of Sheshbazzar (1:1-6:22)

A.    The decree of Cyrus (1:1-11)

B.     The return of approximately 50,000 exiles (2:1-70)

C.     The reconstruction of the Temple under the leadership of Zerubbabel (3:1-13)

D.    The opposition of the Samaritans (4:1-24)

E.     The preaching of Zechariah and Haggai and the renewed efforts to finish the renovation of the Temple (5:1-6:22)


II.                The Ministry of Ezra (7:1-10:44)

A.    Ezraís intent to teach the Law to the people of Jerusalem (7:1-28)

B.     The genealogy of the exiles and the Levites (8:1-20)

C.     The exilesí journey to Jerusalem (8:21-36)

D.    Ezraís concern about the practice of intermarriage with idolaters (9:1-10:44)



Brief Outline of the Book of Nehemiah


I.                   Nehemiahís Burden to Rebuild the Walls of Jerusalem (1:1-2:8)

A.    Hananiís grievous report to Nehemiah concerning the ruin of Jerusalem (1:3)

B.     Nehemiahís prayer for guidance (1:5-11)

C.     Nehemiahís request of Artaxerxes (2:1-8)


II.                The Rebuilding of the Walls of Jerusalem (3:1-6:19)

A.    The delegation of the work (3:1-32)

B.     The opposition of Sanballat and Tobiah (4:1-23)

C.     Nehemiahís confrontation with those who oppressed the poor (5:1-19)

D.    The conspiracy to take the life of Nehemiah (6:1-14)

E.     The completion of the work on the city walls (6:15-19)


III.             Nehemiahís Reforms in the Aftermath of Rebuilding the Walls (7:1-13:31)

A.    The genealogy of the returned exiles (7:1-73)

B.     The reinstitution of the reading of the Law and the Feast of Booths (8:1-18)

C.     Judahís public confession of sin (9:1-38)

D.    The renewal of Judahís covenant with God (10:1-39)

E.     The choosing of leaders (11:1-36)

F.      The re-establishment of the priesthood and the dedication of the wall (12:1-47)

G.    Nehemiahís final reforms (13:1-31)



Brief Outline of the Book of Esther


  1. Esther Chosen Queen of Persia (1:1-2:23)
    1. Queen Vashti humiliates the king and is removed from the royal harem (1:1-21)
    2. Ahasuerus selected Esther to replace Vashti (2:1-18)
    3. Estherís uncle Mordecai uncovered a plot to assassinate the king (2:19-23)


II.                Estherís Deliverance of the Jews (3:1-10:3)

A.    Hamanís plot against the Jews (3:1-15)

B.     Mordecaiís plan to thwart Hamanís conspiracy (4:1-17)

C.     Esther planned a feast and exposed Hamanís plotto the king (5:1-7:10)

D.    Esther interceded for the her people (8:1-17)

E.     The victory of the Jews over their enemies and the establishment of Purim (9:1-32)


Resources consulted:


Archer, Gleason. A Survey of the Old Testament Introduction. Chicago: Moody Press,


Brand, Chad, et al., ed. Holman Illustrated Bible Dictionary. Nashville: Holman, 2003.


Fensham, F. Charles. The New International Commentary on the Old Testament: The Books of Ezra and Nehemiah. 3rd ed., Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1982.


Roberts, J.M. The New History of the World. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002.


Schultz, Samuel. The Old Testament Speaks. 2nd ed., New York: Harper and Row, 1970.


Tidwell, J.B. The Bible Book By Book. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1955.


Walton, John H. Chronological and Background Charts of the Old Testament. Grand Rapids: Academy Books, 1978.


Young, Edward J. An Introduction to the Old Testament. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1949.




Lesson Outline:


I.The Decree of King Cyrus (Ezra 1:1-4)

††††††††††††††††† A. Godís sovereignty over history (v. 1): At the very outset of Ezra, the text affirms Godís sovereignty over the kings of the earth.Cyrus, powerful king of the Persians, acted as the prophet predicted decades before (Jeremiah 25:11-12; 29:10).The Babylonians removed the first exiles in 605 B.C., and Cyrus made his decree about 538.Surely such a huge undertaking must have required some time to plan and execute; therefore, return of the Jews began at just about the time Jeremiah had predicted.

††††††††††††††††† B.Cyrusís decree (vv. 2-4): One should not assume, from the words of this decree, that Cyrus worshipped Jehovah. Instead, the passage indicated that Cyrus saw Jehovah as a regional god, among many such deities.

††††††††††††††††† C.The first return of the exiles (vv. 5-11): God stirred the hearts of many of the exiles (members of the tribes of Judah and Benjamin) to return to Jerusalem to rebuild the Temple.Their expatriate relatives and friends gave generous financial help for this important task, and Cyrus also restored to them the elaborate Temple utensils that Nebuchadnezzar had taken from Jerusalem. A man named Sheshbazzar, otherwise little-known in the Scriptures, took charge of the financial resources.


II. A List of Returning Exile Families (2:1-70): This chapter proves difficult to outline: therefore, perhaps we should only consider a couple of reasons why Ezra provided this elaborate list.Some commentators speculate that this list authenticated the genealogical heritage of the returnees.These pedigree issues would prove important as the people returned to the devastated land.Remember that the people left behind, many years before, had often intermarried with pagan peoples, and, in doing so, had compromised the monotheism of Judaism.Other commentators have suggested that this list would settle land-ownership issues that the exiles would inevitably face upon their return to Judah.These divergent views, of course, could both be true.Whatever the case, Zerubbabel son of Shealtiel provided leadership for the initial efforts to repopulate the land.Approximately 50,000 people made the journey from Persia to Judah (See vv. 64-65).


III.             Initial Efforts to Rebuild the Temple (3:1-13)

A.    The rebuilding of the altar of sacrifice (vv. 1-3): The people set a priority on building the altar first, and, under the leadership of Zerubbabel, they reestablished the Mosaic sacrifices. Apparently the builders were apprehensive about the citizenry of the area, and their urgency in building the altar grew from this fear.

B.     The reinstitution of the Feast of Tabernacles (vv. 4-7): This celebration of the harvest followed The Day of Atonement by five days, and the festivities lasted for a week.Also, the commemoration served as a reminder of the Exodus wanderings of the tent-dwelling people of God.

C.     The reconstruction of the temple foundation (vv. 8-13): Nebuchadnezzarís troops had so thoroughly destroyed the Solomonic Temple that these workmen had to rebuild the foundation.Zerubbabel and Jeshua appointed men to oversee the work, and, after the completion of this initial project, the people rejoiced and worshipped the Lord (See vv. 10-13).The celebration moved the people deeply.The younger worshippers shouted with joy, but the older people, who had seen the first temple, wept with joy. A great musician, Asaph, led the musical observance.