You will find an introduction and outline of Ezra, here.
A prayer to use before reading from Origen (c. 185 – c. 254) was an early church father from Alexandria. From, The HarperCollins Book of Prayers: A Treasury of Prayers through the Ages (Edison, N.J.: Castle Books, 1997).
Lord, inspire us to read your Scriptures and meditate upon them day and night. We beg you to give us real understanding of what we need, that we in turn may put its precepts into practice. Yet we know that understanding and good intentions are worthless, unless rooted in your graceful love. So we ask that the words of Scriptures may also be not just signs on a page, but channels of grace into our hearts. Amen.
An Outline of Ezra: based on Klein (2000)
I. 1:1-6:22 Return from Exile and Rebuilding the Temple: These chapters tell us about the first generation after the return from Exile. There is some discussion about the various forms of Cyrus’ decree in Chapter 1 and Chapter 6. The version in chapter 1 is in Hebrew and the version in chapter 6 is in Aramaic. Aramaic was the language used in international diplomacy.
A. 1:1-4:7 A Narrative in Hebrew
1:1-11 The Return Under Sheshbazzar: Notice that while Cyrus acts, God is the one ultimately in charge of events. Cyrus’ actions are seen as the fulfillment of Jeremiah’s prophecy (Jer. 29:10). The Jews were not the only people Cyrus gave permission to return home to. Other groups who were captives in Babylon were also allowed to return home. This version of Cyrus edit is in Hebrew and may not be as historically accurate as the version in chapter 6. Here, God is referred to as Yahweh and gifts are to be given for the Temple. The reference to “The Lord, the God of heaven” in verse 2 does not mean Cyrus follows Israel’s God, but rather he is acknowledging or accommodating his edict to his subjects beliefs. The title “God of heaven” was occasionally, but not exclusively used to refer to the God of the Jews.
Notice that verse 6 gives an echo of the Exodus from Egypt as neighbors give them gifts.
Sheshbazzar is the leader of the return but we do not know what happened to him, how long he was the leader or when Zerubbabel takes his place.
2:1-70 The List of Those Who Returned: Sheshbazzar is not mentioned.We are not told about the return home but we are told who returned. Scholars think this list may be a compilation of list of several returns. The list is organized into laity, priests, Levites, and servants. There are also people who cannot prove their ancestry. The potential priests among them are temporarily excluded from service until a priest, using the Urim and Thummim could provide a resolution. When they returned to Jerusalem there was a freewill offering toward rebuilding the Temple.
The assumption in Ezra is that there were not Jews who had been left behind remaining on the land. Historically we know not everyone was taken into exile and some Jews did remain on the land. We also know that not everyone who could have left Babylon and returned did so. Remember that the author here (as in other Old Testament books) is more concerned about theology than historical accuracy.
3:1-6 The Reestablishment of the Altar: Notice that no one calls the people together, they come of their own accord to rebuild the altar. Historically we know that the altar from the first Temple was used, at least occasionally (Jer. 41:5). What is the author trying to tell us by telling the story this way? We might have expected a genealogy of Jeshua and Zerubbabel which linked them to David or Aaron or Moses, but no link to pre exilic Israel is given. The emphasis seems to be on the participation of the entire community. Fear of neighboring people seems to be part of the motivation to keep a schedule of sacrifice.
3:7-13 The Temple Foundation is Laid: The book of Ezra suggests that the building of the Temple began during the reign of Cyrus. Actually work on the Temple probably didn’t begin until the reign of Darius. As you read, remember the stories of when the first Temple was built and notice the echos in this telling. In verse 12, why do you think the old people wept? Were these tears of sorrow or of joy?
4:1-3 Offer of Assistance Refused: The “adversaries” or “enemies” may have been people who were forcibly taken to Palestine and who worshiped Yahweh and probably also their own gods. Why is their offer rejected? Was it that they worshiped God and other gods? Or that the returning people were the true people of God? Or that they had been specifically commissioned by Cyrus to do this work?
4:4-5 Opponents Stop the Building of the Temple: We don’t know how the “people of the land discouraged the people of Judah”. In other Biblical texts ( Haggai, for example) outsiders are not the cause of the delay in building the Temple, but rather the community itself is to blame.
4:6-7 Summary of Letters: Negative reports are sent to Persian authorities about the Jews.
B. 4:8-6:18 A Narrative in Aramaic: Aramaic was the official language of diplomacy. Ahasuerus is the king’s name in Persian, in Greek his name is Xerxes.
4:8-16 A Letter from Rehum to Artaxerxes: Jerusalem is said to be a perennially rebellious city and the king is warned that if rebuilding continues, Jerusalem will not pay its financial responsibilities.
4:17-23 The Reply and Its Consequences: The king has the pertinent records examined and believes the letter writers are correct in their concern and work on the city is to stop.
4: 24 Work on the Temple Stopped
5:1-5 Opposition to Renewed Temple Building: The prophets Haggai and Zechariah prophesy and work on the Temple is resumed. The authorities question the resumption of work but God keeps the work going.
5:6-17 A Letter from Tattenai to Darius: A letter is sent checking on the validity of the building project. Notice the theological answer to Tattenai’s question about their names.
6:1-12 Darius Replies: The decree is found at the summer residence of the Persian kings. Darius reiterates that money for rebuilding the Temple should come from the royal treasury. Also animals are to be provided for sacrifice. What do you think about the request that the king and his son’s be prayed for? Cyrus made similar requests. From the Cyrus Cylinder:”May all the gods whom I have resettled to their sacred cities ask daily Bel and Nebo for a long life for me.”
6:13-15 Completion of the Temple: Work on the Temple is completed.
6:16-18 Dedication of the Temple: The Temple is dedicated and the Passover is kept. Notice now the people are called “Israel” where earlier they were called “the Jews”. Perhaps this is to recall the connection between Israel and the Temple. There are similarities between this telling and the dedication of Solomon’s Temple (1 kings 8; 2 Chr 7:4-7)and the celebration when the foundations for this Temple were made ( Ezra 3:10-13)
C. 6:19-22 Celebration of the Passover: These verses are in Hebrew. Notice that it was not just the returned exiles who celebrated the Passover (v21).
Read More About It:
Here are several good sources to aid your reading of Ezra.
Anderson, Bernhard W., Katheryn Pfister Darr, Understanding the Old Testament Abridged fourth Edition. (Upper Saddle River,New Jersey: Prentice Hall) 1998.
Cohn Eskenazi, Tamara, “Ezra”, in The New Oxford Annotated Bible with the Apocryphal/Deuterocanonical Books, Fully Revised 4 th Edition, Michael Cougan, ed. (New York:Oxford University Press) 2010.
Jeffery, Arthur, John J. Collins, “Ezra” in The New Oxford Annotated Bible with the Apocryphal/Deuterocanonical Books Metzger, Bruce M., Roland E. Murphy, eds.(New York: Oxford University Press) 1994.
Klein, Ralph W “Ezra” in HarperCollins Bible Commentary Mays, James L. ed.(San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco) 2000.
Klein, Ralph, “The Books of Ezra and Nehemiah”: ” in The New Interpreter’s Bible Vol 3, Keck, Leander E. ed. (Nashville: Abingdon Press) 1999.