For 400 years, the Jewish people lived under the rule of “Judges.” After that – about 1000 B.C. – they were ruled by kings: first by Saul, then David, then Solomon. At Solomon’s death, the kingdom was divided into two parts: a north called “Israel,” and a south called “Judah.” From Solomon’s death until 722 B.C., nineteen kings ruled in the north and 13 ruled in the south. Both empires had great difficulty remaining true to God, and Israel found it most difficult – so much so that in 722 B.C., God had the northern empire destroyed because of their sinfulness.
The southern kingdom of Judah continued a history of spotty faithfulness to God. Seven more kings ruled until 586 B.C. when the nation was overcome by the Babylonians and displaced to Mesopotamia (this period is covered by both the book of Kings and the book of Chronicles). Centuries before, God warned Judah this would happen (Isaiah 39:5-7). He also promised their captivity would last seventy years and afterward, they would be released (Jeremiah 29:10-14).
By 539 B.C., the Persian King Cyrus had conquered the Babylonians and, as God had promised, he permitted the Jews to return to their homeland. Ezra (the book) begins to chronicle that return. Nearly 50,000 people made the first migration back to Judea and they immediately set about rebuilding the temple the Babylonians had destroyed half a century earlier. It was tough going. Facing outside opposition, overcome by materialism and a flagging interest in God, it took nearly 20 years to complete the rebuilding. Possession of a temple, however, will not make a spiritual people. What they needed was a spiritual leader. This book is named for that leader, whose name was “Ezra.” Ezra himself does not appear in the book until chapter 7 – about 457 B.C. – eighty years after the first return.