Thirty years after the fall of Jerusalem, I, Shealtiel (also known as Ezra), was in Babylon. I was lying on my bed, troubled and disturbed, 2as I thought about the ruins of Jerusalem and the prosperity of those who lived in Babylon. 3I was deeply disturbed and began to express my fears to God Most High. 4“O Lord and Master,” I said, “you, and you alone, spoke the word at the beginning of creation and formed the world. At your command the dust 5produced the lifeless body of Adam. Then with your hands you shaped it, you breathed into it the breath of life, and he began to live. 6You brought him into the Garden of Eden, which you yourself had planted before the earth was made. 7
You gave him just one commandment, but he disobeyed it, and you immediately made him and his descendants subject to death.
“From Adam were born more nations, tribes, clans, and families than can be counted. 8
All the nations did whatever they wished; they sinned against you and rejected your commands. But you did nothing to stop them. 9
Then again, after a while, you brought on the flood and destroyed the world's population. 10They all suffered the same fate: as death had come to Adam, so now death came to a whole generation in the flood. 11But you spared one man, Noah, with his family and all his righteous descendants.
12“The number of people living on earth began to increase, and the number of families, tribes, and nations grew. They soon fell into sin and were worse than the generations before them. 13But then you chose Abraham. 14You loved him, and to him alone in the dead of night you secretly disclosed how the world would end. 15You made an everlasting covenant with him and promised him that you would never abandon his descendants. You gave him Isaac, and to Isaac you gave Jacob and Esau. 16You chose Jacob, and his descendants became a great nation, but you rejected Esau.
17“You rescued the descendants of Jacob from Egypt and led them to Mount Sinai. 18There you bent down the skies, shook3.18 Some ancient translations shook; Latin steadied. the earth, moved the world, made the water beneath the earth tremble, and brought disorder to the universe. 19The dazzling light of your presence passed through the four gates of fire, earthquake, wind, and frost, in order to give the Law and its commandments to Jacob's descendants, the people of Israel. 20
Yet you did not remove their evil impulse, but let your Law guide their lives. 21The first man, Adam, weighed down with an evil impulse, sinned and was defeated, and the same was true of all his descendants. 22So the disease became permanent, and although the Law was in the hearts of the people, so also was the root of evil! That is why what was good passed away, while what was evil continued.
23“Many years later you sent your servant David 24and told him to build a city which would bear your name and in which sacrifices would be offered to you. 25This was done for many years, but then the inhabitants of the city disobeyed you 26and sinned just like Adam and all his descendants, because they had the same evil impulse. 27So you handed over your own city to your enemies.
28“I said to myself, ‘Perhaps Babylon has been allowed to conquer Jerusalem because the people who live there are better than we are.’ 29But when I got to Babylon, I saw more sins than I could count, and now for thirty years I have seen many sinners here. So I was perplexed 30when I saw how you tolerate sinners and do not punish them, how you protect your enemies and yet destroy your own people. 31You haven't given anyone the faintest hint as to how these ways of yours can be changed. Surely Babylon is no better than Jerusalem. 32No other nation, except Israel, has ever known you or accepted your covenants. 33But Israel was never rewarded, and never profited from its labour. I have travelled widely in other nations, and I have seen how prosperous they are, although they don't keep your commands. 34Now then, Lord, if you would just weigh our sins on the scales against those of the rest of the world, it would be perfectly clear that their sins are heavier. 35There has never been a time when the people of the world did not sin against you; but has any other nation kept your commands as well as Israel has? 36You may find individuals who have, but you won't find a nation that has done so.”
41The angel Uriel, who had been sent to me, replied, 2“You can't even understand what happens in this world. Do you think you can understand the ways of God Most High?”
3“Yes, sir, I do!” I answered.
The angel continued, “I have been sent to ask you to solve three riddles about what happens in this world. 4If you can explain even one of them to me, I will answer your questions about God's ways and teach you why the human race has an evil impulse.”
5“I agree, sir,” I said.
Then he said to me, “Good! How do you weigh out a kilogramme of fire? How do you measure a cubic metre4.5 Some ancient translations cubic metre; Latin blast. of wind? How do you bring back a day that has passed?”
6I answered, “Why do you ask me such questions? No human being could answer them.”
7Then he said, “What if I had asked you how many dwelling places there are at the bottom of the sea? How many rivers flow into the waters beneath the earth? How many rivers are there above the dome of the sky? Where are the exits from the world of the dead? Where are the entrances to4.7 Some ancient translations exits from… entrances to; Latin exits from. Paradise? 8If I had asked you these questions, you might have answered, ‘I have never gone down into the waters beneath the earth, and I have never entered the world of the dead. I have never gone up to heaven.’ 9But all I have asked you about is fire, wind, and the day that has just passed — things that you have experienced. Yet you have given me no answer. 10You can't even understand things that you have been familiar with since you were a child. 11How then can your little mind understand the ways of God Most High? Can one already worn down by this corrupt world understand the ways of the incorruptible God?”
When I heard this, I fell face downwards on the ground4.11 Verse 11 in Latin is unclear. 12and said to him, “It would have been better if we had never been born than to have to live in a world of sin and suffering without understanding why things happen as they do.”
13The angel Uriel answered, “I once went into the woods and heard the trees plotting together. 14They were saying, ‘Let's go to war against the sea and push it back, so that we may have more room.’ 15But the waves of the sea also plotted together and said, ‘Let's conquer the woods and extend our territory.’ 16But all the plotting of the trees was useless because fire came and destroyed them. 17And the plotting of the sea was just as useless because the sand stood firm and blocked its advance. 18Now, if you were the judge and had to decide between them, which would you pronounce right?”
19I replied, “They were both wrong, because trees belong to the land, and waves belong in the sea.”
20“You have given the right answer,” he said. “So why can't you see the answer to your own problems? 21
For just as trees have their place on land, and waves have their place in the sea, so the people of this world can understand only what goes on in this world, and only heavenly beings can understand what goes on in heaven.”
22“Please tell me, sir,” I asked, “why then was I given the ability to understand anything? 23I am not interested in asking questions about what goes on in the heavens; I am only concerned about things that go on about us. Why has God allowed Israel to be disgraced by foreign nations? Why has he let the nation he loves be handed over to the power of godless nations? Why do the Law and the covenant that were given to our ancestors mean nothing any more? 24Why do we die as quickly as insects? Why is our life shorter than a breath? Why does God think us unworthy of his mercy? 25Why doesn't God do something to help his own people? These are the questions that I want to ask.”
26Uriel answered, “If you live long enough, you will be surprised at what you will see, because this age is rapidly passing away. 27This age is so full of misery and imperfection that it cannot hold all the blessings that God has promised the righteous in the time to come. 28The evil about which you have asked me has already been planted, but the time for its harvesting has not yet arrived. 29This evil must be harvested, and this world where it was planted must be removed, before the new age where the good is to be planted can appear. 30
At the beginning of time one grain of evil seed was sown in the heart of Adam. See how much wickedness it has already produced! Think how much more it will produce before it is cut down and threshed out at Judgement Day. 31You can see for yourself what a big crop this one evil seed has produced. 32How terrible will be the harvest on Judgement Day when these countless ears of corn are threshed out!”
33Then I asked, “How long do we have to wait before this happens? Why are our lives so short and full of misery?”
34Uriel answered, “Don't be in a greater hurry than God Most High! You are thinking only of yourself, but God has to be concerned about everybody.4.34 Verse 34 in Latin is unclear. 35Your questions are the same ones asked by the souls of the righteous dead in the places where God is keeping them waiting: ‘How long must we wait here? When will the day of judgement come, when we will get our reward?’ 36
The archangel Jeremiel answers them, ‘It will happen as soon as the complete number of those who have suffered as you have are here. For God has weighed this age, 37measured the years, and numbered the days. Nothing will be changed until time has run its predetermined course.’ ”
38“But, sir,” I replied, “all of us here on earth are such wicked sinners. 39Is it possible that because of our sin the righteous dead are having to wait for their reward?”
40His answer was, “Can a pregnant woman keep her child from being born after her nine months are up?”
41“No, sir, she cannot,” I answered.
And he continued, “In the world of the dead, the place where God has stored the souls is like a womb. 42It is as eager to return the souls entrusted to it from the beginning of the world as a woman is to end her labour pains. 43When that happens, you will have the answer to all your questions.”
44“Please, sir,” I asked, “if you think I am able to understand it, can you 45tell me one more thing? Is the time that is still to come longer than the past that has already gone by? 46I know how long the past has been, but I don't know the future.”
47“Come here and stand at my right,” he commanded, “and I will show you a vision and explain its meaning.” 48So I stood by him and looked, and I saw a blazing fire pass by in front of me, and when it was gone, I saw that smoke was still there. 49Then a rain cloud passed by in front of me, bringing a heavy downpour of rain; and when the downpour was over, there was still a light rain. 50“Think about this,” said Uriel. “Just as the downpour was greater than the light rain that followed it and the fire was greater than the smoke left behind, in the same way the time that has passed is much longer than the time to come. The time that is left is like the rain and the smoke.”
“Please tell me,” I asked, “do you think I will be alive until that time? If not, who will be alive when it happens?”
52He answered, “I can tell you some of the signs of the end, if that is what you are asking about; but I am not here to tell you how long you will live, and in any case, I don't know.
51“But these are the signs: The time will come when all people on earth are in the grip of great confusion.5.1 Some ancient translations confusion; Latin unclear. The way of truth will be hidden, and no faith will be left in the land. 2
Wickedness will increase until it has become worse than you have ever known it to be. 3The country that you now see ruling the world will lie in ruins, with no inhabitant or traveller there. 4After that,5.4 After that; Latin unclear. if God Most High lets you live long enough, you will see that country in confusion. The sun will suddenly start shining at night, and the moon in the daytime. 5
Blood will drip from trees; stones will speak; nations will be in confusion; the movement of the stars will be changed. 6A king unwanted by anyone will begin to rule, and the birds will fly away. 7Fish will be washed up on the shores of the Dead Sea. The voice of one whom many do not know will be heard at night; everyone will hear it. 8The earth will break open5.8 One ancient translation The earth will break open; Latin Chaos will appear. in many places and begin spouting flames. Wild animals will leave the fields and forests. At their monthly periods women will bear monsters. 9Fresh water will become salty. Friends everywhere will attack one another. Then understanding will disappear, and reason will go into hiding, 10and they will not be found even though many may look for them. Everywhere on earth wickedness and violence will increase. 11One country will ask a neighbouring country if justice or anyone who does right has come that way, but the answer will always be ‘No.’ 12At that time people will hope for much, but will get nothing; they will work hard, but will never succeed at anything. 13These are the signs of the end that I am permitted to show you. But if you begin to pray again and continue to weep and fast for seven more days, you will hear even greater things.”
14Then I woke up, and I was trembling violently, I was so disturbed that I was about to faint, 15but the angel that had come to talk with me took hold of me, strengthened me, and set me on my feet.
16The next night, Phaltiel, who was a leader of the people, came to me and asked, “Where have you been? And why do you look so sad? 17Don't you know that the people of Israel in the land of their exile have been put in your care? 18So get up and eat. Do not abandon us like a shepherd leaving his flock to the attacks of savage wolves.”
19“Leave me alone,” I answered. “Do not come near me for the next seven days. Then come back.” So he left.
20Then, crying and mourning, I fasted for seven days, as the angel Uriel had commanded me to do. 21At the end of the seven days, I was again deeply troubled, 22but I recovered my ability to think, and again I began to speak with God Most High. 23“Lord and Master,” I said, “from all the forests and the plants on earth you have chosen this one vine. 24From all the countries of the world, you have chosen this one small land. From all the flowers in the world, you have chosen this one lily. 25From all the water in the deep oceans, you have filled up this one river. From all the cities that have ever been built, you have set apart this one city, Jerusalem, as your own. 26From all the birds that were created, you chose this one dove. From all the animals that were made, you chose this one lamb. 27From all the nations of the world, you chose this one nation to be our own, and you gave its people your Law, which is honoured by people everywhere.
28“And now, Lord, since all this is true, why have you dishonoured5.28 Some ancient translations dishonoured; Latin prepared. this one people more than all others by handing them over to many nations? Why have you scattered your own people, 29who believed in your covenants? Why have you let them be trampled on by people who rejected your promises? 30If you are so angry with your people, you yourself ought to punish them.”
31When I had finished speaking, the angel who had come to me on a previous night was sent to me again. 32He said, “Listen carefully to me, and I will teach you more.”
33“Please go on, sir,” I said.
So he continued, “Are you worried about the people of Israel? Do you think you love them more than God, who made them?”
34“No, sir,” I replied. “I spoke as I did because I was so confused and upset. I am always troubled whenever I try to think about the ways of God Most High or to understand even a small part of what he does.”
“You cannot understand!” he answered.
And I asked, “Why not, sir? In that case, why was I born? Why didn't I die before I was born? Then I wouldn't have seen the sufferings and troubles of the people of Israel.”
36The angel said to me, “I will answer you if you can do the following things: Tell me how many people are yet to be born; collect scattered raindrops for me; make dead flowers bloom again; 37open the rooms where the winds are locked up and make them blow for me; show me the picture of a sound. If you can do these things, I will answer your questions about the sufferings of the people of Israel.”
38I answered, “Lord and master, no one can do these things, except God, who is not confined to this world. 39How can I give you any kind of answer? What do I know?”
40He continued, “You could not do even one of the things that I asked you to do. How can you expect to understand God's judgements or why God has promised his love to his people?”
41Then I said, “But, Lord God, your concern is with the people who will be alive at the end of the world. What will happen to those who live before that time? What about us? What about those who came before us, and those who will live after us?”
42He answered me, “The final judgement can be compared to a circle, and just as a circle has no beginning or end, so those who come early will not be too early, and those who come late will not be too late.”
43I replied, “But couldn't you have created all human beings, those of the past, the present, and the future, so that they would all live at the same time? In that way, you could have had your final judgement sooner.”
44He answered, “The creation cannot move faster than the Creator. And besides, the world wouldn't have been able to hold all the people if everyone had been created at the same time.”
45“Why, then,” I asked, “did you tell me just now that one day you would bring back to life at the same time every creature that ever lived? If the world can hold them all then, it can hold them now.”
46He answered, “That would be like asking a woman who has given birth to ten children why she didn't have them all at once, instead of one at a time.”
47“That would be impossible,” I answered. “She can't have them all at once.”
48“In the same way,” he continued, “I have made the world like a womb so that it produces human beings at regular intervals. 49The rule that neither a young child nor an old woman can give birth to a baby also applies to the world that I have created.”
50Then I said, “Since you have brought up the subject, may I ask if the world you have been talking about is still young or is it approaching old age?”
51He replied, “You can learn the answer from any woman who has given birth to several children. 52
Ask her why her younger children do not grow as tall as her older children. 53She will tell you that those born when she was young and healthy are much stronger than those born when she was getting old and becoming weak. 54You will notice that you are smaller than people of earlier generations; 55those who come later will be smaller still. This shows you that creation is already getting old and losing the strength of her youth.”
56“If you please, Lord,” I asked, “will you show me the one through whom you will bring judgement on your creation?”