Ezra’s first vision sets the stage for all that follows. He is troubled in his spirit over the fall of Jerusalem and calls out to the Lord in prayer asking about the justice of the destruction of the city (3:1-11). He reviews the history of Israel with a special emphasis on the promise of God (3:12-19) and frankly acknowledges the “evil heart” of the people and their disobedience (3:20-27). But Ezra wonders how Babylon could be allowed to survive and prosper while Israel is destroyed and her people taken captive (3:28-36). Surely Babylon is far worse that Israel? What nation in the whole world has kept the commands of God? In this complaint to the Lord, Ezra stands in the tradition of Job, who complained about his personal experience with evil, and Habakkuk, who asks very similarly about the justice of allowing Babylon to prevail over Israel.
After giving this “complaint,” the angel Uriel is sent to Ezra to discuss the problem over the next few chapters. Like Job and Habakkuk, the answers given are not exactly as expected and Ezra continues to probe and question the angel on the problem of God allowing evil to prosper in the world. Uriel begins by telling Ezra that he is arrogant to think he can understand God’s ways. He gives Ezra three “problems” which are impossible for a human to understand, not unlike God questioning Job on Job 38-41. Ezra’s response is to fall on his face. He says it would be better if humans were never born rather than to have come into the world to live in ungodliness, suffer, and not to understand why.
Uriel tells Ezra a parable (4:13-21): the sea tries to take the territory of the forest, and the forest the territory of the sea. Uriel asks Ezra which is more likely to succeed in their plan. Ezra correctly responds both have foolish plans, neither can take the other’s territory. Uriel points out that as a human Ezra might remember his place and not try to understand the things of heaven.
Ezra makes a second complaint to the angel in 4:22-25. He asks why God has allowed Israel to become a reproach before the gentiles. It is as if the covenant no longer exists! Uriel responds much as the Lord did in Habakkuk 2 – have some patience! “If you live long enough,” Uriel says, “you will see the end of the age” (4:46-32). The seeds of ungodliness have already been sown, it will not be long the threshing floor is filled. Ezra asks how long it will be until the end of the age (4:33-43). Uriel’s response is as evasive as his previous ones – go and ask a pregnant woman if after nine months she can hold the child in a bit longer. His point is simply that there is a time which has been appointed and it will surely come.
Hades is like a womb, he says, and once the birth pangs begin, there is no escaping the birth. The time of the birth is more or less fixed and there are signs which point to the soon-ness of the birth. Once started, these birth pains cannot be stopped. The imagery of the end of days as “birth pangs” seems common in the apocalyptic; Jesus makes use of this image in Matthew 24:8. Ezra attempts a second time to know how long it will be until the final days, and once again Uriel answers with imagery which suggests a time is ordained and nothing can stop it (4:44-52).
Finally in 5:1-13 Uriel gives Ezra a series of “signs” which will accompany the end of the age. Those who dwell on the earth will be seized with great terror and people will fall away from true faith. Unrighteousness will increase and the land of Israel will be a waste and trodden under. In verses 4-5 there are a few of the typical cosmological signs: the sun shines at night, the moon during the day; blood will drip from wood and stones will speak. Other natural oddities will occur – birds will fly away and the Dead Sea will give fish. Menstruating women will give birth to monsters and chaos will reign.
Ezra awakens from this vision and fasts for seven days, mourning and weeping because of what the angel had shown him (5:14-20). Some of these “signs” are found in the biblical material, but in most cases the apocalyptic in the New Testament are quite sedate in comparison. The end of the age will be chaos and is described in terms of the natural order run amok, but the writers tend to hold back on the gory details as we have them here in 4 Ezra.