“I proclaimed a fast.” The fasting and humbling of oneself would have included prayers for God’s help and confession of one’s sins—and anything else people could think of doing that would remove their sin and guilt and move God to be favorable to them. It was common for a person to fast in the biblical world as a sign to God that they were serious about behaving in a godly way and that they needed God’s help (cp. Judg. 20:26; 1 Sam. 7:6; 2 Chron. 20:3; Joel 1:14).
“the Ahava Canal.” The location of the Ahava Canal is unknown, but it was the assembly point of Ezra and the Jews who were returning to Israel.
“a straight way.” In this context in Ezra 8:21, a “straight way” (lit. “a straight road”) is a level road without obstructions. Ezra and the people were praying for a prosperous and unobstructed journey.
Ezra saw the great importance of prayer and fasting to solicit God’s help (the fasting and humbling of self would have included prayer, even though it is unstated in the text). Ezra was leading a band of basically defenseless Jews who were carrying great wealth through a territory that had lots of tribes that would have had few qualms about attacking them, killing them, and taking their wealth (and likely the women and children as well). Ezra would have been well aware of the dangers but was too “ashamed” to ask the king for a band of soldiers to protect the caravan. Ezra had told the king, “The hand of our God is for good upon all those who seek him; but his power and his wrath is against all those who forsake him” (Ezra 8:22). If Ezra had asked for soldiers to guard his caravan, what he told the king about the goodness of God would have been seen as just empty speech. Worse, it would have been clear that the Jews did not really trust that their God would protect them, which would reflect upon God Himself, including His faithfulness to His people and His power to help and protect them. The Bible does not say exactly how Ezra knew he had found favor in God’s eyes and would be safe, but God did hear Ezra’s prayers and they traveled safely (Ezra 8:23).
Ezra models behavior that should be a part of every Christian’s life. Too often people start out on journeys without asking for God’s help and protection, but praying for a “straight way,” a smooth road for the tasks we embark on and/or engage in, is a wise thing to do.