Ezra the Man and his Mission
C. E. Hocking, Cardiff
WE ARE NOW INTRODUCED to the man Ezra for the first time. The opening words of the chapter ('now after these things') might superficially be taken to infer that the details about to be recorded follow closely the events with which chapter 6 concludes. This is not so. As noted in our introduction to the book, there is a considerable time interval (57 or 58 years) between the close of chapter 6 and the opening of chapter 7, so that Ezra is separated entirely from the majority of that generation which returned under Zerubbabel. He was not one of those who had refused to come back from Babylon with the original contingent of saints. Most probably born after the events recorded in chapter 1, he is a fresh example of the stirring of the Spirit, and he is still active in Nehemiah's time, some twelve years later.
BUILDING THE HOUSE - BUILDING CHARACTER
Separated in time though they are, the subjects of the first and second divisions of the book are complementary. The keynote of chapters 1-6 is building the house and the saints are seen actively constructing the house of God. Ezra is raised by the Spirit to further God's work among His people. In their manner of life many of them were dishonouring the God of the house, and they needed to be taught that God desires a walk circumscribed by the truth of the Word. Hence the ministry of Ezra in chapters 7-10 is aimed at the building character, the deepening of the spiritual appreciation of God and His requirements. That to obey is better than sacrifice and to hearken than the fat of rams, is a truth every generation of God's people needs to grasp. The commissioning of Ezra in chapter 7 is followed by the return journey to Jerusalem in chapter 8, the humiliation and confession of Ezra on be¬coming aware of the state of the saints in chapter 9 and the putting away of the evil prevalent among them in chapter 10. The contents of chapter 7 may be outlined as follows :
1. The surveying of the movement, w. 1-10.
a. The leader, w. 1-6, Ezra, the priest and scribe.
b. The leading, w. 7-10, the good hand of God.
2. The commissioning of Ezra by the king, vv. 11-26.
3. The thanksgiving of Ezra to God, w. 27-28.
Ezra united in himself many qualities and his influence for good was tremendous. As someone has said, 'we see him as a servant and as a master, as a student of the law and as its administrator, as supreme in authority and as subordinate, in public and in private, uniformly and always the same devout, disinterested, patriotic lover of his people and friend of God'. He was at once statesman, judge, historian, priest, student, teacher, saint and reformer.
The chapter opens by introducing us to the family tree of Ezra, which is regarded as important in view of the part he is to play. The genealogy here recorded is not complete but selections have been made to enable the ready tracing of his forebears. Seven names separate Ezra from Azariah and another seven are inserted between Azariah and Aaron. These names appear to be the focal points. Aaron was the first high priest at the foundation of the Levitical priesthood. Azariah was priest at the time of the foundation of the temple of Solomon, 1 Chron. 6. 10. Ezra's ministry is at yet another crisis in the religious history of the nation, appearing after the re-erection of the temple by Zerubbabel. Ezra is a priest, the birth-roll but stressing that which was true of all priests in the Old Testament; they were priests by birth. The priesthood in New Testament times is not of course the privilege of a few of God's people as in those times. Nevertheless, it is important to note that the Lord's people are priests by virtue of birth, the new birth. It is the peculiar portion of God's children alone to draw near to the throne of grace to obtain mercy and find grace to help in time of need.
EZRA - SAINT AND STUDENT
Ezra is called 'the priest, the scribe', vv. n, 12, 21. The order is important, for the man as he is in devotion before God takes precedence over the man as a student of the Scriptures. He is a saint, he knows the presence of God. The reality of his communion with God is manifested in his confident faith in going up from Babylon, v. 6, and throughout the whole course of the journey. The evidence of God's guiding and controlling hand in 'putting such a thing in the king's heart', v. 28, causes him to burst forth in praise. The conditions existing among the saints at Jerusalem drive him to his knees in prayer and confession, 9. 5.
His 'practice of the presence of God' had its effects -his character drew forth the outward admiration of the king. The word 'peace' in verse 12 is italicized and the phrase 'at such a time' should be translated 'and so forth' as we mentioned earlier. The verse is therefore an abbreviation of the series of complementary epithets by which the king opens his letter given to Ezra. 'Scribe of the law of the God of heaven, perfect and so forth . . .' The Gentile king sees a reflection of the character of God in the noble manner of his life. Such blamelessness tells for God. It springs from a real concern that the actions of the life should be found consistent with the testimony of the lip, cp. 8. 22.
A man of ardent nature, his is not a mere academic interest in the things of God. His bold expressions of faith before the king cause shame to paralyse his tongue, 8. 22. The blatant sin among God's people causes him to 'sit astonied', con¬sternation gripping his soul, 9. 3-4. His heart for God and the welfare of the saints reduce him to tears, 10. 1. In this Ezra and Nehemiah are alike. They filled the people with enthusiasm because they made it clear that they felt it them¬selves. The soul who fives in the atmosphere of the sanctuary is both saintly and sensitive !
As a student, Ezra knew the Word of God. He is called 'the scribe', Neh. 8.1, not in the sense of being a state secretary but a diligent student of the Word of God, 'the ready scribe in the law of Moses', Ezra 7. 6, 'a scribe of the words of the commandments of the Lord and of his statutes for Israel', v. 11, and 'a scribe of the law of the God of heaven', vv, 12,
21. As 'a ready scribe' we are referred not to the dexterity of his pen but his wisdom and rich gift in the handling of God's Word. The word is rendered 'diligent' in Proverbs
22. 29 and indicates that effort by which he had gained such rare acquaintance with the Scriptures. He was a scribe of the words of the commandments, indicating something of the minuteness of his study, 7. II. He had 'set his heart', such was his stability of purpose and resolve to seek out divine truth, V. 10. What need there is in our time that such gift should be raised among God's people. The apostles' doctrine (the faith once for all delivered to the saints, the whole counsel of God) demands diligent and prayerful consideration. It is only such exercise that will develop true Ezras. His name signifies 'help'. May our God multiply those who shall be 'helps' to us that our appreciation of divine things may increase.
PRECEPT AND PRACTICE
To seek, to do and to teach, v. 10, is the significant order here, and these few words have been described as 'an epitome of an ideal scribe's career'. First there is the deep exercise involved in searching for the truth, the 'determination to know' die person and plans of our God. Mere acquisition of knowledge is, however, a dangerous thing. This great soul not only studied truth but sought grace from God to do it. He put into practice that which he had learnt. The Word of God was die rule of his life! We, too, must live by the truth, make its standards ours in our firm resolution to do that which we learn from its pages. It has been well said that God's law was burnt in upon his own soul and lived out in his life before he taught it to others. Such was the grace bestowed upon this man, however, that his desire was to share with others the fruits of his prayerful researches. There was a tremendous need in his day for the teaching of the truth and Ezra was not only ambitious to be well-pleasing to God but also had a God-given mission of blessing for the saints. Jewish life and thought were greatly affected and benefited through his ministry. It is recorded of our Lord that He began 'to do and to teach', Acts 1. 1. Gracious words proceeded from the lips of Him who was full of grace and truth. To practise the truth is the prerequisite of the Spirit's power in presenting it to the people.
The commission of Ezra did not raise him to the status of governor in the secular sense of the word. He was not given authority over any of the existing officials of the Persian government in the area either. Certain powers were given him by the king as can be gathered from die text of the letter in verses 11-26. He was authorized to appoint judges, v. 25, to instruct the Jews, v. 25, even to inflict such penalties upon the Jews as he deemed necessary, v. 26. However all this had as its aim the strengthening of the religious organization of his people. His work was the establishing of the Word of God as the authority for the civil, social, domestic and religious life of the people. The Word of God is the authority to which we are constantly referred in the chapter, vv. 6, 10, 11, 12, 14, 21, 25, 26. Ezra maintained the principles of the Word of God, even making the king aware of the place it should have in the life of the saint. Some are slow to learn that lasting profit and real spiritual development come through an increasing appetite for the Word of God, 1 Pet. 2. 2.
In this his mission necessarily differs from that of Nehemiah whose work in Judea was of a more secular nature and for which he was appointed governor. The two occasions when Ezra is introduced in the book of Nehemiah reveal him still exercising a spiritual and religious influence among the people. He is to the fore at the great 'Bible Reading' of chapter 8 and also at the religious ceremony when dedicating the walls in chapter 12. 27. In Ezra we see the more passive, inward and deep exercises of the spiritual life whilst Nehemiah demonstrates the active, outward and practical elements.
The nature of Ezra's work therefore required heart constraint. Throughout the chapter stress is laid on the willing heart. Ezra's request, or eager quest, is granted by the king, v. 6, he returns because of a personal exercise. The very development of his gift was the fruit of a purposeful heart, v. 10. All were given permission to return who were 'minded of their own free will to go up to Jerusalem', v. 13. 'Free will offerings' and 'that which was offered willingly', v. 16, were committed into the hands of Ezra and his brethren to assist in the work at Jerusalem. King and counsellors join together in 'freely offering' for the house of God, v. 15. Of course motives differed in all this. Ezra is stirred with deep desires to help his people, whilst some may have assisted to appear sympathetic and interested. The king seems to have been moved by the fear of divine displeasure and a desire for gaining divine favour, in the establishing of his kingdom and dynasty which was, of course, of great moment to him, v. 23. In this scene we have not the ability to truly assess even that which appears God-honouring in life and service. We may know nothing against ourselves but we are not herein justified, 1 Cor. 4. 4, R.V. We must await that day when our Lord shall judge. He alone can discriminate between the right and the wrong motive. Let us, however, develop that ability of the spirit to discern between good and evil, even between good and better and carry out our stewardship, with a conscience clear before God, living in the light of the judgment-seat of Christ.
Next issue : SEEKING AND GAINING A RIGHT WAY !