The book of Ezra-Nehemiah—books in the Protestant canon but only one book in the Hebrew Bible—tell the story of the Jewish people’s return to the promised land. More specifically, it tells the story of God fulfilling his promise “through Jeremiah” (Ezra 1:1) to restore his people to the land. They have lived through the horrors of the Babylonian exile, when Babylon marched upon Jerusalem, razed the city and its temple, and captured all but the very destitute of God’s people. Now, some seventy years later, God has stirred the heart of a foreign king, Cyrus, to send his people back home.
The journey from exile to restored temple and rebuilt city walls—an essential defensive feature of ancient cities—is neither quick nor easy, and the story introduces readers to a dizzying number of ancient rulers (not always in chronological order—here’s a timeline to help sort it out) and other characters with hard-to-pronounce names and backstories that Ezra-Nehemiah is not compelled to relay.
Ezra-Nehemiah is a lot like an austereogram. The details are more important than in “magic-eye pictures,” but for the purposes of this discussion of reading Ezra-Nehemiah theologically, it is helpful to set aside all the confusion over names and dates and other muddling details—especially for readers like us, who are centuries removed from these events. If we can bracket those out for the moment (these issues are addressed well in commentaries and scholarly literature), then we can see the theological significance of God’s sovereignty, worship, justice for the least of these, community building, and Scripture in Ezra-Nehemiah.
From the start of the book God’s sovereignty takes center stage. It is his word that is fulfilled and it is he who “roused the spirit of King Cyrus” (Ezra 1:1) to send home the exiled Jews. His “gracious hand” guided and protected Nehemiah (Neh 2:8), and he “put it into the king’s mind to glorify the house of the Lord in Jerusalem” and gave Ezra favor with the rulers of Persia (Ezra 7:17–28). Whereas God remains hidden in Esther, in Ezra-Nehemiah he is anything but. Rather, we see God overtly directing kings for his own glory and the good of his people. There can be no mistaking his sovereignty in this book as he leads his people in righting the wrongs that caused their exile nearly a century ago.