Praying Through the Bible project
The Prayers in the book of Ezra
The person of Ezra, along with Nehemiah, are two of the greatest men in Israelite history. They are both credited with being key figures in bringing the Jews back from Exile and creating a new community wrought from the destruction of the Temple and their lands. The prayers in the book of Ezra offer us an opportunity to learn about prayers of confession.
The books of Ezra and Nehemiah were originally one book, but were separated into two in the 3d century AD by the theologians Origen and Jerome.
After the description of Judah, the Israelite leaders were taken into exile to Babylon. For eighty years they lived there, and spend much of the time reassessing how this tragedy had happened. Was the Babylonian god more powerful than YHWH? Did God no longer care about them? Some believed those things. But many of the priests and scholars began to review the writings of their ancestors: from Genesis to 2 Chronicles. And they discovered that God had been long-suffering, patient, and gracious to them, while they had continually failed to be faithful. They rethought their faith and began a renewed focus on what it meant to be God’s people: it was not enough for the king and the priests to follow—everyone should be faithful. It was these people who edited and preserved the biblical writings, with a new focus on scripture, and on what it meant to follow God.
After a time, the Babylonian Empire was defeated by the Persians. Ezra begins by describing how the king of Persia, Cyrus, allowed the Jews to return to their land under a leader named Sheshbazzar. There, he oversaw the rebuilding and reconstruction of the Temple. The people had to deal with opposition from people who had remained behind, but the project was eventually completed.
Ezra came next, sent by King Artaxerxes, bringing more exiles back to Jerusalem. There, he dealt with some of the problems he found in the unfaithfulness of the people.
While the books are primarily historical in their structure and content, there are a few themes that appear throughout both works.
- God kept his promise to eventually restore his people from exile to their land. He did this by working through Persian kings and Jewish prophets.
- Opposition to God’s people and their renewal was fierce at times, but God was faithful to his people, and they prevailed.
- Humility and humbleness were required—Israel had been an unfaithful people for much of their history, and in need of constant correction. They now awaited a “new covenant” that the prophets had promised (See Jeremiah 31, Joel 1, Ezekiel 36).
- “All Israel” was restored. This does not mean political sovereignty; it refers to the temple, worship, and sacrifices, and the keeping of the law of Moses.
There are seven prayers in the book of Ezra. The prayers, as usual, reflect the themes above. As we might expect, the first three are praises or thanksgiving—thanks that God has begun restoring his people to their lands. There are a couple of petitions, and the rest are confessions, both private and public, mirroring the need for the people to confess their sins and renew their faith and devotion to God.
While we probably spend most of our time offering prayers of praise, thanksgiving, and petitions or intercessions, the setting and situation of Ezra allow us to focus more on prayers of confession than other books.
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