If it was your intent to write some tome that would form part of a great religion, I'm pretty sure that you would not set about by keeping records of the decrees of foreign kings, a list of the staff who were employed or an accounting record of the inventory of the temple that you've just built. Yet this pretty well much explains the bulk of the book of Ezra.
Ezra is a book which is obviously written by an official and of itself, encompasses a kind of dull and drawn out narrative. Of its ten chapters, five contain official correspondence; so the whole book tends to read more like the minutes of a council meeting than anything else. If you want a story with a narrative with a bit more kick, then the book of Nehemiah which follows in English translations is a more entertaining read. In Latin and Greek texts they were often seen as a pair and sometimes known as 1 & 2 Esdras and in Hebrew texts, they're sometimes combined into the single Ezra-Nehemiah. In fact, the two are contemporaries, with Ezra being named in Nehemiah's book in Chapter 8. Even there Ezra is a bit of a bore, as he reads from the Torah from daybreak until noon in front of the people. Admittedly people in the ancient world who didn't live in a world dominated by the clock, or distracted by television, the internet and other media, probably had far longer attention spans than we do but I suspect that even they must have been bored senseless at some point.
So why bother with this snorefest? Ezra, the most boring person in the land is passionate about recording what was important to him. Ezra who is obviously a scribe or someone who is trained in the law, is citing the documents which lead to the restoration of the temple and to me it's pretty obvious that he's taken he time to make sure that he has made sure that his sources are correct and accurate. I like that.
After suffering wave after wave of invasion, the nation of Israel is carved up and the southern united kingdom of Judah and Benjamin, is carried off as captives to Babylon under Nebuchadnezzar in 609BC. For the next seventy years, Babylon also succumbs to a bigger empire in that of the Persians and in 538BC, Cyrus the Great decides that he wants to be rid of these people and sends them back to where they came from.
It must be said that the Persian Empire was one of tremendous religious tolerance. Rather than face revolt from all sides, they found it easier to extract taxes and tribute from client kingdoms by keeping them passively happy by letting them get on with their own religious practices in peace.
After the reign of Cyrus, other kings such as Ahasuerus, Artaxerxes and Darius (the Second) are mentioned and after a great deal of faffing about, which wasn't exactly helped by neighbouring client kingdoms, the Jews finally had the temple rebuilt and working in 423BC. The book of Ezra begins with the temple and the nation in ruins and ends with being restored to working order.
You'd think that after this had happened, that even a boring story of rebuilding a great piece of public works, would come to a satisfactory conclusion but in Chapter 9 the story changes focus and we read this, which fits into a larger narrative:
I am too ashamed and disgraced, my God, to lift up my face to you, because our sins are higher than our heads and our guilt has reached to the heavens. From the days of our ancestors until now, our guilt has been great. Because of our sins, we and our kings and our priests have been subjected to the sword and captivity, to pillage and humiliation at the hand of foreign kings, as it is today.
- Ezra 9:6-7 (NIV)
Tradition has it that it was Ezra who compiled the books of Chronicles into their current form. The short summary of Chronicles is that what once was a single Israeli kingdom under David, snapped into two pieces which gradually became more corrupt; with the northern kingdom being wiped off the map entirely and the southern kingdom being hauled off into captivity.
The rebuilding of the temple in Ezra which happens through the financial support of foreign powers, is to be taken as an object lesson both for the Jewish nation to set aside corruption and sin and to restore worship to God. The end of the book of Ezra sees a contrite and repentant people, dealing with the issues which caused them to be carried off in the first place. Admittedly this is quite harsh considering that this specifically revolves around the intermarriage of Jews with other nations; which broke a covenant to keep the law and separate themselves from them.
There is another thing to remember about the book of Ezra though. As you read through the decrees of Cyrus, Artaxerxes and Darius, it's worth remembering that from their perspective, they honestly don't really care about the Jewish people or their god. Ezra is writing his book and is looking back over a period of history and can see how God worked but in the middle of the process, that work probably looked slow if not impossible. The story about restoring God's people to their home, is a longer one than any of the lifetimes of the people involved and He moves in events almost imperceptibly. Are we to assume that God was slow in His actions or was the moving of events, which included the tearing down of the Babylonians and the raising up of the Persian Empire, part of a longer game? Blessing sometimes comes from unexpected sources and its only with a long enough perspective sometimes, that we can actually. View the bigger picture.
Also, this is temple which lasts through until the period of the New Testament and until its destruction in 70AD. When Christ spoke about tearing down the temple and rebuilding it in three days, he was speaking metaphorically about his own body but he did so whilst standing in the temple courts, which if if it is this same place, was opened in the time of and recorded by Ezra.
I don't know about you but I like that spot of continuity.
PS: Ezra in Hebrew, means "help". Even after scouring Hebrew dictionaries, I still don't know in what sense that help is.