The Jewish Apocalypse of Ezra deals with the problem of the Jews in the post-70 world. Has God abandoned his people? This is extremely important for New Testament studies since the “Jewish problem” arises in nearly every context. The New Testament passage which deals with this problem in the most detail is Romans 9-11. While Paul reaches a similar conclusion, he does so in a non-apocalyptic manner. Paul is obviously writing well before the fall of Jerusalem, so this is not the “crisis” which has caused Paul to ask about the fate of the nation of Israel. In Paul’s case the “crisis” is the resurrection of Jesus in general and more specifically his own calling to be the apostle to the Gentiles which raises the question of what happens to the Jews in the new era of “church.”
Paul deals with the problem much differently than 4 Ezra. Rather than question God’s fairness or badger God with questions about his management of the universe, Paul grounds his understanding of Israel in the election of the nation to be the people of God and in the unalterable promises of God (9:1-21). Even there, Paul is willing to accept that God makes some things for destruction, as objects of his wrath. But Israel is not by nature an object of wrath, although they have “experienced a hardening in part” (9:30, 11:25). Romans 10 makes clear it is God’s desire for Israel to be saved, they are not cut off from God and a remnant of Israel will be saved in the future. Romans 11:1 cannot be clearer: God has not rejected his people, and eventually “all Israel will be saved” (11:26).
Paul is writing in the pre-A.D. 70 world. Israel still exists as a political reality, Jerusalem and the Temple still stand. 4 Ezra is on the other side of the terrible destruction of Jerusalem asking a legitimate question – does God still care for Israel? This question may be at the heart of the closest parallel in the New Testament to 4 Ezra, the Book of Revelation.
While Revelation never states the question in quite the same way 4 Ezra does, the fate of Israel in the post-A.D. 70 world is near the center of the theology of the book. That Israel will continue to suffer and pass through torment is a given in the book; the nation will ultimately be tested to the point of death. At the last moment, the Messiah will appear and vindicate his people and establish them in peace and safety in Jerusalem (and later the New Jerusalem) with a restored temple and renewed worship. Revelation demonstrates, like 4 Ezra, that God has a plan to set things right in the future for the nation of Israel.
Another text which deals with the problem of Israel in the period after the fall of Jerusalem may be the book of Hebrews. This book deals with the theological problems caused by a belief in Jesus as Messiah, especially the sacrificial system in the light of the death and resurrection. The sacrifices are no longer necessary for a Jew to approach God since Jesus has given access to all through his blood. The temple and Jerusalem are therefore no longer needed. This is argued in non-eschatologically and would have appealed to Jews in the Diaspora.
Ezra has his final vision three days later while sitting under an oak (14:1-18). The Lord calls to him and tells him to store up all of the visions he has received because the ages are growing old and the time of the end is drawing near. History has been divided into twelve parts, and nine of these parts are already past as well as half of the tenth part. The eagle of the last vision is “already hastening to come.”
Ezra the requests the Lord allow him to rewrite the scripture so the present generation will know what has happened (14:19-26). The Law was burned along with the Temple, therefore the people need new copies given to them by the Lord. The Lord allows this, but some of the books are kept secret (14:26). He announces his intention to rewrite the scripture to the people (14:27-36), and for forty days he goes into a field along with five scribes.
He is given a drink by an angel which will give him complete understanding and total recall as he dictates all day long. After forty days ninety-four books were created: the twenty-four canonical books and the seventy “hidden” books (14:37-48). This can be taken as a reference to an Old Testament canon since the 24 books are obviously the books of the Hebrew Bible. If 4 Ezra is dated to the end of the first century, then we have at least some indication that the canon was fixed by that date (for the author of 4 Ezra, at least!)
After another seven days, Ezra experiences another vision (13:1-13.) A great wind stirs the sea and Ezra sees a figure of a man flying with the clouds, surrounded by a great multitude. The mountains melt like wax before him. A huge multitude has gathers to make war against him, but they are destroyed by flaming fire from his mouth. This man then came down from the mountain and called his people to him; some were joyful but others were sorrowful; some came bound while others brought offerings.
Ezra is perplexed by the vision and prays for an interpretation (13:14-20). The Lord responds by explaining that the world will make war city against city and all of the signs described before will come to pass. The man will come and the multitudes will gather to make war against him, but he will stand on top of Mt. Zion and judge the nations (13:21-39).
This man is called “my son” (verse 37). The people who gather to the man are the Jews, even the “lost” ten tribes (13:40-45). The man who is coming will destroy the nations while preserving the people of God (13:46-50).
Ezra asks why the man was coming from the heart of the sea (13:51)? The reason is that the sea is a great mystery, nor one can know when “my son” will come (13:52-58, cf. Mt. 24:36, 42, no one knows when the Son of Man will come, but one can know the “signs,” Mt. 24:32-35.) Ezra leaves the field and gives God great glory because he controls the times and governs whatever comes to pass.
Ezra’s second dream in the field involves an eagle with twelve wings and three heads (11:1-35). The heads and the wings mutate in various ways throughout the dream, some becoming dominant while others wither and become puny. Ezra hears a voice from the body of the eagle rather than from one of the mouths. As Ezra watches this eagle, a creature like a lion appeared and addressed the eagle (11:36-46). The lion-creature says the eagle is the last of the four beasts which remain (probably referring to Daniel 7). The eagle has judged the earth, but not with truth, therefore it will be judged by the Most High. As the lion is speaking, the eagle’s heads disappears and the body of the eagle burns up and the earth is terrified (12:1-3).
Ezra is perplexed and asks the Lord for an interpretation of this vision (12:4-9). The Lord speaks to Ezra and confirms the eagle is the fourth beast of Daniel’s vision (12:10-39). The wings are twelve kings which will reign over it, and the three heads are the final three kings which will arise in the final days. One will be poisoned while the other two die by the sword. These are probably to be taken as Roman emperors, although which is to be the start of the sequence is always a problem (Julius, Augustus, etc.) and if the three minor rulers are to be included in the sequence (Cf. Revelation 18 where there are a series of ten kings). The lion is the Messiah (12:32, cf. Rev. 5:5), who comes at the end of days from the line of David. He will denounce the final beast and deliver the remnant of the people of the Lord and make them joyful in the end on the Day of Judgment.
Since Ezra has been gone from the people from some time, the people make a search for him. When they discover him the field, they ask him how they have offended him (12:40-45). Ezra tells them to take courage because the Most High has not forgotten them in their struggle. He has been praying to the Lord on behalf of the desolation of Zion and will stay in the field another seven days (12:46-51).
Given the predominant imagery of an eagle, this vision seems to make the final empire in Daniel’s vision the Romans and describes the Messiah as overcoming the Romans and judging them for their ungodliness. The identity of the four kingdoms in Daniel is a debated subject, many scholars take the fourth empire to be Greece, especially in the light of chapter 11 and the predictions of Antiochus IV Epiphanies and Seleucid meddling in the politics of Palestine. Others take the fourth empire as Rome, arguing Rome is by far the most powerful and dominate of world empires. Collins (OTP 1:550 note b) considers 4 Ezra a re-interpretation of Daniel, applying the fourth beast to Rome; I would be inclined to see 4 Ezra as confirming the fact Daniel’s fourth beast is Rome.
This prophecy was likely written after the fall of Jerusalem by a Jew who desired to comfort other Jewish readers. God is aware of the evil of Rome, the fall has been predicted long ago by Daniel. Eventually the Messiah will come to deliver the Jews from the oppression of Rome. It is possible this hope existed well before A.D. 70, especially during the ministry of Jesus. We know there were a few small scale rebellions in the early part of the first century (Judas the Galilean in A.D. 6, for example) as well as several false messiahs.
4 Ezra represents a messianic hope for delivery from Rome some 70 years after the time of Jesus, but it may reflect a more long standing hope for deliverance. It was well known that after the fall of Jerusalem there were three generations, about 70 years, before the Temple was rebuilt. 4 Ezra seems to represent the thinking of people living in the “three generations” between A.D. 70 and the messianic fervor of A.D. 135. If there was an expectation for the Messiah even after the fall of Jerusalem, it is little wonder the Jews (Pharisees and disciples both) misunderstood Jesus as messiah. Certainly Jesus talked about the Kingdom of Heaven, but the method for establishing the kingdom was not exactly what they may have had in mind.
After seven days of fasting, Ezra is still troubled in his spirit and once again brings a complaint before the Lord. He reviews creation (6:38-54) before asking his real question – if Israel really is God’s favorite people out of all those descended from Adam, how is it that the other nations domineer and devour her (6:55-59)?
Uriel once again comes to Ezra and gives him another parable (7:1-25). This time a city is in the middle of a plain, but the entrance to the city is very narrow so that only one man may walk along the path and dangers are on either side. If a man is given the city as an inheritance, how can the man take possession of it without passing through the dangers? The angel makes the analogy clear. Israel is in sin because of Adam and therefore all her entrances are narrow and filled with danger. Israel is coming into her inheritance shortly, but to get into that city they must pass through the “narrow gate” fraught with dangers.
Uriel does not pause for another question from Ezra this time but rather moves right into the “signs” section of the vision (7:26-44). A time will come when a city appears and Israel will be delivered from the dangers of this world. “My son the Messiah” will appear and people will rejoice with him for 400 years (v. 28). Translations of this verse shows considerable variation in this title (OTP 1:537, note e). The Armenian has “the Messiah of God,” Georgian has “the elect my Messiah,” while the Latin has “my son Jesus.”
After that time he will die (v. 29) and the world will return to primeval silence. After seven days the world will be roused and all corruptible will perish. The dead will be raised to life and the Most High will be seated on the seat of judgment in order to pass judgment. The unrighteous will go down into the “furnace of hell” while the righteous into the “paradise of delight.”
This part of the vision is remarkable for a number of reasons. First, there is an indication of a temporary kingdom after the coming of the Messiah. This is not quite like Rev. 20 and the thousand-year kingdom (in 4 Ezra this kingdom only lasts four hundred years), but at least there is an expectation here of a gap between the coming of Messiah and the eternal state during which time the messiah will rule in peace on earth. Secondly, the term Messiah is used for the coming deliverer. This single Messiah will reveal himself and rescue the people from the dangers of the present age. Third, the major difference is that the Messiah dies at the end of the temporary kingdom. This expectation does not seem to be found in the New Testament at all. The description of the judgment at the end of the temporary kingdom sounds much more like the judgment in Mt. 25:31-46, although Revelation has a “complete” judgment at the end of the thousand years as well (Rev. 20:11-15, the “lake of fire” sounds much like the “furnace of hell” here in 4 Ezra).
Ezra praised God because of this revelation, but expresses some fear that there will not be many who are judged worthy at this final judgment (7:45-61). Uriel agrees, just as precious stones are precious because they are rare, so too the righteous is precious because they are so few. In 7:54-57 there is a superficial parallel to 1 Cor 3:10-14 in that a man builds on his foundation either precious things or worthless things. In 4 Ezra the earth is said to produce wither precious or worthless things as well. The point of these two passages are quite different, as are the catalog of worthless things. Ezra once again laments on behalf of the human race since so many of them are born into a world to be tormented then judged unworthy (7:62-74).
Uriel responds the state of humanity is Adam’s fault, the judgment is fair and just (contra 1 Enoch 31). Ezra then asks the angel about the place of the dead and the sorts of things which await the unrighteous dead (7:75-101). Uriel will describe this to him, but first he admonishes him to not be associated with those who are tormented. Ezra is told he has a “treasure of works laid up with the Most High” which will not be shown until the final judgment. This “storehouse of works” and the later questions about praying for those in torment are obvious hooks to later Catholic theology. It is odd, therefore, that these sections do not appear in the Latin version of 4 Ezra. Verses 36-105 are missing. Uriel gives the seven ways the unrighteous put themselves in torment (verses 81-87) and the seven ways the righteous can enter into paradise (88-99). Essentially those who serve the Lord in this life are rewarded, if not, they are tormented.
After seeing these things Ezra asks if the righteous will be allowed to intercede on behalf of the tormented (7:102-105). The Day of Judgment, Ezra is told, is decisive. No one will pray for another after the Day of Judgment and everyone will bear their own righteousness or unrighteousness. Ezra wonders about this, since Abraham was allowed to intercede on behalf of Sodom (7:106-111; The Latin text resumes at verse 36, after the strong negative answer on prayers for the dead in verse 105). He mentions the prayers of Moses, Joshua, Samuel, David, Solomon, Elijah and Hezekiah, all of whom prayed to the Lord on behalf of others and were heard. Uriel’s answer involves the difference between this age and the age to come. This age is weak, therefore the strong can pray for the weak with some effect. The coming age, however, is an age of glory and perfect righteousness (7:112-115). No one will be able to have mercy on the one who is judged in the coming age. Ezra once again laments over the seeming futility of mankind’s existence, but Uriel explains that the world is fair (7:116-131). Uriel quotes Moses – choose life that you may live!
Ezra then implores the Lord on the basis of his attributes (7:132-8:3). He lists seven divine attributes such as mercy, gracious, bountifulness, etc. If God is this good, how can he judge people so harshly? Uriel’s response is to repeat the parable of the earth. From the earth come many clay pots which are nothing but dust, but only a few pieces of gold. “Many have been created, but few will be saved” (verse 3, a similar line to Mt. 22:14, “many are called but few are chosen” but with a completely different application).
Ezra tries to implore the Lord on the basis of creation once again (8:4-36). The point of this long prayer is that God’s creation is good and well-ordered. Why then would God, who is good and righteous, destroy those who have taught his law the same way he destroys other “beasts?” This question comes back to the problem of the destruction of Jerusalem. Ezra is told that it is true that God does not care so much for the unrighteous as he rejoices in the righteous (8:37-40). Ultimately, whatever a farmer sows will grow and give fruit (8:41). Ezra tries to shift the blame back to God: if the crop does not come in, it is because the rains did not come. He therefore begs God to spare the people and have mercy on creation (8:42-45). The Lord responds to this accusation that while Ezra is righteous, he does not love creation more than God. Ultimately everything will be judged fairly; evil will be done away with and the righteous will enter into paradise (8:46-62). Judgment is in fact drawing near, a fact which is only revealed to a few.
As in the earlier visions, last part of this vision is a description of the signs which will precede the end of the age (8:63-9:13). As before, there will be earthquakes and political chaos, showing that everything the Lord has declared from the beginning will be shown to be true. The fate of the wicked is described one more time in 9:14-25. Ezra compares the wicked to the righteous as a wave is to a drop of water. The Lord compares this to wheat on the threshing floor, more is burned than is used for food. “Let the multitude perish which has been born in vain, but let my grape and my plant be saved, because with much labor I have perfected them” (verse 22). Ezra is sent into a field to contemplate this answer and the Lord gives him a series of dreams.