The Book Of Ezra
WE now enter upon the second part of this book. In the first part, the return of the people from Babylon and the building of the temple are narrated; and in the second we have the personal mission and the work of Ezra. It should again be noticed that the signs of the transference of governmental power in the earth from the Jew to the Gentile are everywhere apparent. Thus the date of Ezra's mission is given as "in the reign of Artaxerxes king of Persia," and indeed his commission for his work from the king is given at length (vv. 11-26), in proof that God's people were at this time under the authority of the Gentiles, and that God Himself ever recognizes the powers which have their source in His own sovereign appointment.
It may aid the reader if the structure of chapters 7 and 8 is first briefly indicated. After Ezra's genealogy (Ezra 7: 15) a short summary is given of the king's permission for him to go, of his journey up to Jerusalem, and of the object of his mission. (vv. 6-10) Then follows the king's letter, conferring upon Ezra authority to act, as well as the necessary powers for the execution of his work. (vv. 11-26.) This chapter closes with Ezra's ascription of praise to God for having inclined the heart of the king to Jehovah's temple, and for having extended mercy to himself before the king, etc. (vv. 27, 28.) In Ezra 8: 1-14 we have a catalogue of those who voluntarily availed themselves of the royal permission to go up from Babylon with Ezra. All these having been assembled by "the river that runneth to Ahava," Ezra finding that none of the sons of Levi were there, took measures to secure "ministers for the house of our God." (vv. 15-20.) All being thus prepared, two things follow; first, fasting and supplication before God (vv. 21-23); and secondly, the appointment of twelve of the chief of the priests to take charge of the silver, the gold, and the vessels which had been offered for "the house of our God." (vv. 24-30 ) Lastly, we have the journey, and the arrival at Jerusalem, together with the necessary preparations for the commencement of Ezra's work. (vv. 31-36.)
It will thus be seen that chapters 7 and 8 should be read together, forming as they do a continuous narrative, of which chapter 7: 1-10 is the preface or introduction.
The genealogy of Ezra is traced back to Aaron. (vv. 1-5.) He was one therefore entitled to all the rights and privileges of the priesthood (see Ezra 2: 62); and, moreover, he was a ready scribe in the law of his God, and thereby qualified to be the instructor of the people in the statutes of Jehovah, (See Lev. 10: 8-11; Mal. 2: 4-7.) He became a priest by birth and consecration; but he only became "a ready scribe in the law of Moses, which the Lord God of Israel had given," by personal study of the Word. Inherited office therefore, even with the Jews, could not bestow the qualifications for its exercise - these could only come from individual converse with God in the Scriptures; for while by virtue of consecration the priest was entitled by grace to minister before God, he could only minister acceptably when all was done in obedience to the Word, and it was impossible that he could teach unless he himself were acquainted with the mind of God. It was neglect of this second part of their office that led to the failure and corruption of the priesthood; for so completely was the word of God forgotten in the days of Josiah, that the finding of a copy of the law in the temple became an epoch in his reign.
It is therefore of surpassing interest - like finding a beautiful flower in the midst of a sandy desert - to discover in Ezra one who, while he cherished his priestly descent, found his joy and strength in the law of his God; and in verse 10 the secret of his attainments is unfolded. He had "prepared his heart to seek the law of the Lord, and to do it. "Let the reader ponder this significant and instructive statement - "He had prepared his heart." So the apostle prayed for the Ephesian believers, that "the eyes of their heart" (heart is the right reading) might be enlightened, that they might know what is the hope of His calling, etc. (Eph. 1: 18.) Yes, it is to the heart that the revelations of God are made, even as it was to the heart of the Magdalene that the Lord manifested Himself at the sepulchre, rather than to the intelligence of His disciples. Nor can we attach too much importance to this truth. Preparation of heart (and this also cometh from the Lord) is everything, whether for the study of the Word, for prayer, or for worship. (See 1 Cor. 8: 1-3; Heb. 10: 22; 1 John 3: 20-23.)
There is yet another thing. If Ezra prepared his heart to seek the law of the Lord, it was first and foremost that he might do it. It was not therefore to increase his knowledge, to add to his repute as a teacher; but it was that his heart, life, and ways might be formed by it - that his own walk might be the embodiment of the truth, and thus well-pleasing to the Lord. Then followed teaching, "and to teach in Israel statutes and judgments." This order can never be neglected with impunity; for where teaching does not flow out of a heart that is itself subject to the truth, it is not only powerless to influence others. but it will also harden the heart of the teacher himself. This is the secret of many a failure in the Church of God. The saints are ever and anon startled by the sudden departure from the truth, or by the fall, of those who had occupied the place of teachers; but whenever the state of the heart is overlooked, and the activity of mind is permitted upon divine things, the soul is exposed to some of Satan's most subtle temptations. A true teacher should be able in measure, like Paul, to point to his own example, and to say, as he did to the Thessalonians, "Ye know what manner of men we were among you for your sake." (See also Acts 20 and Phil. 3)
It is evident, moreover, that Ezra was in communion with the mind of God as to His people. His heart was upon them; for we learn that he had sought permission of the king to go up to Jerusalem, and that "the king granted him all his request, according to the hand of the Lord his God upon him." (p. 6.) What he desired, therefore, was the welfare, the blessing of his people, the people of his God, but being under subjection to the king, he had to obtain his leave; for the Lord will not have us, even for His own service, slight the authority under which we are placed. If, however, the Lord had put the desire to serve Him in the heart of Ezra, He will influence the king to answer His servant's request.
How good it is to leave ourselves in His hands! We are tempted oftentimes to overleap the barriers which man may place in our path, to force open the doors which the hand of man may have closed; but it is for our comfort and strength to remember that the Lord can make His way plain before our face whenever He wills, and that our part is to quietly wait on Him, ready to go forward when He shall speak the word. The recognition of the hand of God upon him was a characteristic of this devoted servant (see verse 9; Ezra 8: 18, 22, 31, etc.), and it was at once the source both of his patience and of his courage.
The details of the journey, of which we have a short account in verses 7-9, will occupy us in the next chapter; and hence we may pass at once to the king's letter of authorization to Ezra - a letter which empowered him to act, defined the object of his mission, and provided, through the king's treasurers beyond the river, the means for the execution of his service in connection with the ordering of the house of Jehovah.
First, after the salutation - a salutation which shows that Ezra was a true witness in the midst of the Gentiles - the king decrees that "all they of the people of Israel, and of His priests and Levites, in my realm, which are minded of their own freewill to go up to Jerusalem, go with thee." (v. 13. ) Cyrus, as seen in Ezra 1, had also accorded the same privilege; and now, after the lapse of many years, once again the Spirit of God works, through the king, to deliver His people. But no human constraint was to be exercised: if any man went up, it must be voluntarily; for God would have willing servants. If under constraint, it must be only that of the Holy Spirit. Then, from verses 14-20, the scope and objects of Ezra's mission are carefully defined even as to its details. He was "sent of the king and his seven counsellors, to enquire concerning Judah and Jerusalem, according to the law of thy God which is in thine hand." (v. 14.) He was, further, to take charge of the silver and. gold which the king and his counsellors had freely offered to the God of Israel, also of that found in the province of Babylon, together with the free-will offering of the people, etc.; and this was to be expended in the purchase of animals, for sacrifice, etc., or as Ezra and his brethren might decide, "after the will of their God."
The reader may gather the particulars of Ezra's commission for himself. His attention, however, may be directed to one or two of its instructive features. It cannot fail to be observed that this Gentile monarch refers everything to the will of God, or, to speak more exactly, that he directs that all should be ordered in subjection to that will. It would almost seem, Gentile though he was, that he was in full fellowship with the object of Ezra; and from the confession of Jehovah, as the God of heaven (vv. 21, 23), it is not impossible that grace had visited his heart. Whether this were so or not, he carefully provides for the execution of Ezra's mission in every possible way, and at the same time entrusted Ezra with the government of his people "after the wisdom of God." Finally, penalties were attached to disobedience to the law of God and to the law of the king, rising even to death itself. The lesson lies on the surface that God is sovereign in the choice of His instruments, and that He doeth according to His will among the inhabitants of the earth as in the army of heaven, and that none can stay His hand, or say unto Him, What doest thou? An illustration of this is found in our chapter in that "Artaxerxes, king of kings," and "Ezra the priest, a scribe of the law of God," are yoked together for the execution of God's thoughts for His people and for His house in Jerusalem.
Ezra himself is filled with adoration as he contemplates the wonder-working power of the hand of his God; for having recorded the letter of the king, he breaks out into an ascription of praise: "Blessed be the Lord God of our fathers, which hath put such a thing as this in the king's heart, to beautify the house of the Lord which is in Jerusalem: and hath extended mercy unto me before the king, and his counsellors, and before all the king's mighty princes." (vv. 27, 28.)
He adds, "And I was strengthened as the hand of the Lord my God was upon me, and I gathered together out of Israel chief men to go up with me." In this he showed himself to be a true man of faith. he traced everything up to God. He lost sight of himself, and to his soul God was all and in all. It was thus not his request (v. 6) that induced the king to act, but it was God who put the thing into the king's heart; it was not Ezra's influence that commended him to the king and his princes, but it was God that extended mercy to him in their presence; it was not in his own power that he assembled the chief men to go up with him, but it was God who strengthened him with His own hand upon him.
In all this he is a striking example to every believer; and happy is he who, like Ezra, has learned to live in the presence of God, to look beyond the actions of men to the power that controls them all, and to receive all, favour or persecution, aids or hindrances, from the Lord. That soul has acquired the secret of perfect peace amid the confusion and turmoil of the world, as well as in the presence of Satan's power.
THE close connection between this and the preceding chapter will be at once perceived. Ezra 7 closed with the words, "And I gathered together out of Israel chief men to go up with me;" this commences with, "These are now the chief of their fathers, and this is the genealogy of them that went up with me from Babylon, in the reign of Artaxerxes the king." This genealogy reaches to the end of verse 14, and it shows how precious to God were the very names of those who responded to His call at such a moment. The response itself is the fruit of His grace; but in the exercise of that same grace He is pleased to impute to His people that which He Himself had produced in their hearts. It was a goodly company, numbering over fifteen hundred souls, who were thus gathered to return to the land of their fathers - the land of all their traditions, as well as the land of all their hopes.
The first act of Ezra was to assemble them by "the river that runneth to Ahava; and there abode we in tents three days: and I viewed the people and the priests, and found there none of the sons of Levi." (v. 15) There were two, but only two, priests; viz., Gershom, son of Phinehas, and Daniel, son of Ithamar; but of the Levitical family, outside the priesthood, there was absolutely not one. Well might Ezra have been concerned, for it was a sad symptom of the state into which the people had fallen. The priests alone enjoyed access to the holy place of the house of their God, and the Levites alone were the appointed ministers in all that appertained to its service; and yet when the proclamation was made that they might return and once more resume their privileges, they were untouched and indifferent. They had found a home in the very place where their fathers had hung their harps on the willows, and wept when they remembered Zion. And it is the same with God's people now. The moment they are tempted by the enemy to "mind earthly things," they become careless of their spiritual privileges, and, if not aroused from their lethargy, may even become "enemies of the cross of Christ." No child of God who understands his heavenly calling could be content to dwell in Babylon.
Nor was Ezra content to leave the Levites behind. Besides, he knew the needs of the Lord's house, and it pained this devoted servant to find them caring for their own things rather than for the courts of Jehovah. He accordingly took measures to reach their consciences, that they might even yet join him in his mission to Jerusalem. To this end he sent for some of their chief men, among whom were Joiarib and Elnathan, "men of understanding." It is well for the people of God when, in times of decay and corruption, there are still men of understanding to be found. It is by these that God preserves His saints from sinking into still deeper depths, and keeps alive what of faith and hope may still remain. Ezra knew where to put his hand on some of these; and his zeal for the work on which his heart was set is expressed in the commission with which he entrusted them.
He says, "And I sent them with commandment unto Iddo the chief at the place Casiphia, and I told them what they should say unto Iddo, and to his brethren the Nethinims, at the place Casiphia, that they should bring unto us ministers for the house of our God." (v. 17.) It is said of the Lord Jesus, or rather, speaking in spirit, He Himself said, "The zeal of thine house hath eaten me up" (Psalm 69: 9; John 2: 17); and this was because the glory of the Father was ever His supreme object. God's name, God's honour, were ever the delight of His soul. And Ezra also, in his measure, desired Jehovah's honour in His house, and was therefore in fellowship with the heart of God Himself. This was the secret of his earnestness in seeking to obtain ministers for the house of our God."
And God wrought with him, as he himself confesses; for he says, "By the good hand of our God upon us, they brought us a man of understanding, of the sons of Mahli, the son of Levi, the son of Israel; and Sherebiah, with his sons and his brethren, eighteen; and Hashablah, and with him Jeshaiah, of the sons of Merari, his brethren and their sons, twenty; also of the Nethinims, whom David and the princes had appointed for the service of the Levites, two hundred and twenty Nethinims: all of them were expressed by, name." (vv. 18-20.) There were still less than forty Levites, while there were two hundred and twenty Nethinims.* It is another proof that, amid the carnal ease of Babylon, the national hopes and privileges of the nation had ceased to exert any practical power upon their minds. By the side of the sloth of the Levites, it is beautiful to notice the number of the Nethinims (probably of an alien race) that obeyed the summons of Ezra.
*For an explanation of these, see on Ezra 2.
It may be in reference to this that it is said, "all of them were expressed by name." God notices their faithfulness, and caused it to be recorded.
All was now ready, as far as collecting the people was concerned; but both Ezra as well as the people needed preparation for the journey which they had undertaken. Hence he says, "Then I proclaimed a fast there, at the river of Ahava, that we might afflict ourselves before our God, to seek of Him a right way for us, and for our little ones, and for all our substance. For I was ashamed to require of the king a band of soldiers and horsemen to help us against the enemy in the way; because we had spoken unto the king, saying, The hand of our God is upon all them for good that seek Him; but His power and His wrath is against all them that forsake Him. So we fasted and besought our God for this; and He was entreated of us." (vv. 21-23.)
The work of God is never lightly to be entered upon; and it was with a true discernment both of the character of the work, and of what was due to His glory who had called him to it, that Ezra proclaimed this fast, that he and the people might afflict themselves before their God. The flesh cannot be used, in any shape and form, in the Lord's service; and it is only when in true separation from all that it might feed upon, and in humiliation in the presence of God, that our motives, aims, and objects are tested and become apparent. Thus amongst those that had gathered around Ezra, some might have been attracted by other things than the welfare of the house of their God. This is always the case in any action of the Holy Spirit. Ezra, therefore, would have all searched by the light of God's holy presence, that they might learn that nothing would avail to protect and guide them in their journey, and nothing could sustain them by the way or in their after service, but the good hand of their God. Thus it was that he and they together fasted, afflicted their souls, and prayed.
And the question may well arise whether in this day our service for God is not often too easily taken up; whether it would not conduce to spiritual power and efficacy if, before we embarked upon anything for God, we were more frequently found in this attitude of Ezra and his companions. Far be it from us to insinuate for one moment that the Lord's servants do not thus seek His face before commencing their service. Our question concerns rather collective waiting upon God, with fasting, before work is entered upon in which the saints at large have a common interest. It was understood in the early Church; for we read, "There were in the Church that was at Antioch prophets. . . . As they ministered to the Lord, and fasted, the Holy Ghost said, Separate me now* Barnabas and Saul for the work whereunto I have called them." (Acts 13: 1, 2.) If there were but a revival of such a practice in the power of the Holy Ghost (for to imitate it without the power would be worse than useless), far larger results from service in teaching and ministry might be confidently anticipated.
*This word "now," or some such, should be inserted as a translation of the Greek particle de, and as showing the connection between the ministering and fasting, and the command of the Holy Spirit; in fact, the Holy Spirit responded to the prayers of these prophets.
Another reason for this gathering actuated Ezra. He was a man of faith, and he had avowed before the king his confidence in God for protection during his journey, and he would not therefore ask for a military escort. And now, in consistency with his profession, he, together with the people, cast himself on God for guidance, for a "right way for us, and for our little ones, and for all our substance." As every believer knows, it is one thing to express trust in God before a difficulty comes, and another thing to maintain that dependence in the presence of, and when passing through, the difficulty. Ezra was able to do both, and was able to rest in the assurance that the hand of his God would be upon all them that seek Him for good, and that His power and His wrath would be against all them that forsake Him. All this he doubtless told out before the Lord during this fast, and indeed he had pledged the faithfulness of God before a Gentile monarch, so that the name and honour of Jehovah, were concerned in appearing for His servant. Ezra tells us, "So we fasted and besought our God for this; and He was entreated of us." Yea, God delights to respond to the confidence of His people, and to appear for those who testify to what He is for them amid trials and dangers.
The reader should remark, that it was no imaginary danger which Ezra had conjured up; for he records afterward to the praise of his God that "He delivered us from the hand of the enemy, and of such as lay in wait by the way." (v. 31.) Surely God is the refuge and strength of His people, and a very present help for them in trouble, and they would know it more fully if, like Ezra, they did but learn to count upon Him as all-sufficient in all possible circumstances. When Nehemiah made the same journey some years after, he was accompanied by captains of the army and horsemen. (Neh. 2: 9.) In him faith was not in such lively exercise, though he had a true heart for the Lord's interests. How much better to trust in the Lord than in a visible arm! and they that wait on Him will, like Ezra, never be ashamed.
In the next place Ezra "separated twelve of the chief of the priests, Sherebiah, Hashabiah, and ten of their brethren," to take charge of the offerings he had received for the house of their God until they should arrive at Jerusalem. (vv. 24-30.) The ground of the choice was, that they were "holy unto the Lord," as also were the vessels. (v. 28.) As the prophet said, "Ye must be clean that bear the vessels of the Lord." And this we know was according to the divine order; for none but the priests and Levites could touch or carry the holy vessels or furniture of the house of God. (See Num. 4)
Out of a blind misconception of this, and of the nature of Christianity, has grown the ecclesiastical custom of setting apart an order of men, the clergy, for ministration in the Church. It is quite true that those who minister in any way from the Lord to His people must needs be set apart for their service; but this must be accomplished, not by the hands of men, but by the sovereign action in grace of God through the power of the Holy Ghost. Under law there was a distinct class of men - the priests and the Levites - but these were divinely appointed and divinely consecrated; but under grace, while there are still distinctions of gifts and services (1 Cor. 12), all believers alike are priests, and as such have an indefeasible title to appear in the holiest in the immediate presence of God.
It was then to the custody of the priests that Ezra committed the holy vessels, and the silver and the gold, which had been given as a free-will offering unto the Lord God of their fathers. And he enjoined them to watch and keep these things "until ye weigh them before the chief of the priests and the Levites, and chief of the fathers of Israel, at Jerusalem, in the chambers of the house of the Lord." (v. 29.) The expression "weigh them" contains a principle of importance. It was not that Ezra doubted the fidelity of the priests he had selected; but even as the apostle of a later age, he would "provide for honest things, not only in the sight of the Lord, but also in the sight of men." (2 Cor. 8: 21.) The people might have had full confidence in the integrity both of Ezra and of the priests; but Ezra would remove all occasion for the enemy's work by having the vessels, and the silver and the gold, weighed when put into the priest's hands, and again weighed when delivered. He thus proved his and their fidelity. And surely this is a godly, a scriptural example to be followed by those who in any way have charge of the offerings of the Lord's people. Such should be careful to render an account of their stewardship, and not wait to be pressed to give it.
Many a difficulty in the Church of God might have been obviated if this practice had been adopted, It may further be noted that on reaching Jerusalem the weighing was done by others than Ezra, "and all the weight was written at that time." (vv. 33, 34.) In modern language, the accounts of Ezra were checked and audited, and this was done on the fourth day after the completion of their journey.
In verse 31 we have a short statement (already alluded to) concerning their journey. It simply records the faithfulness of their God in answer to their prayers. "Then we departed from the river of Ahava on the twelfth day of the first month, to go to Jerusalem: and the hand of our God was upon us, and He delivered us from the hand of the enemy, and of such as lay in wait by the way. And we came to Jerusalem." In Ezra 7: 9, it is said that they began to go up upon the first day of the first month, this being the probable date of gathering the people to the river Ahava. (Ezra 8: 15.) The actual journey occupied therefore a little less than four months; and Ezra testifies that God safely guided them through all its perils and dangers, and shielded them from all their foes. Truly "the name of the Lord is a strong tower: the righteous runneth into it, and is safe."
Nor were they unmindful of the Lord after the difficulties of their journey were over; for "the children of those that had been carried away, which were come out of the captivity, offered burnt-offerings unto the God of Israel, twelve bullocks for all Israel, ninety and six rams, seventy and seven lambs, twelve he goats for a sin-offering; all this was a burnt-offering unto the Lord."
It is touching in the extreme to see this feeble remnant, as also was the case at the dedication of the house of God (Ezra 6: 17), embrace in their faith the whole of Israel. They were but few in number, but they could accept no narrower ground than that of the twelve tribes, and to this they testified by the number of their offerings. It is the same now, or should be so, with those who are gathered out to the name of the Lord Jesus Christ on the ground of the one body. They also may be few, feeble, and poor; but if they have any intelligence of the wealthy place into which they have been brought, they will refuse any narrower ground than that of all the members of the one body; and if they hold this truth in power, their sacrifices of praise will bear witness to it in the presence of all. Failing to do so, they degenerate, whatever their profession, into the narrowest sectarianism, than which nothing is more abhorrent to the mind of the Lord.
Others may taunt them with their poverty and broken condition; but if they do but, "with all lowliness and meekness, with long-suffering, forbearing one another in love," endeavour to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace, maintaining before God the sense of oneness with all the saints, the Lord will abundantly sustain them with His approbation and blessing.
It will be noticed that there were two kinds of sacrifices - burnt-offerings and sin-offerings. From the numbers, it would seem that the twelve he goats, as well as the twelve bullocks, were for all Israel, and that the other offerings were individual, the spontaneous expression of grateful hearts for the mercy of Jehovah, towards them, in bringing them in safety to Jerusalem and to His house.
Having thus put themselves under the efficacy of the sacrifices, and having established their relationships with God on the only possible ground, they proceeded to deliver "the king's commissions unto the king's lieutenants, and to the governors on this side the river: and they furthered the people, and the house of God." (v. 36.) This order is as instructive as beautiful. They first placed themselves under the favour of God, through their offerings, and then they turned to the king's officers. They gave their God their first thoughts and the first place, and they owned thereby that all depended on Him. He answered to His people's confidence by touching the hearts of the lieutenants and governors, and inclining them to favour His people and the object they had in view.
How blessed it is to be wholly dependent on God, and to look to Him alone to further His cause!
WHOEVER seeks the welfare of God's people must expect a path of trial and sorrow; for, with the affections of God Himself actuating him, the servant will, in his measure, identify himself with their state and condition while labouring for the glory of God in their midst. This was perfectly exemplified in the life of Him who was able to say, "The zeal of thine house hath eaten me up;" and also, in no mean degree, in His servant Paul, who says, in the power of the Holy Ghost, "I endure all things for the elect's sake, that they may also obtain the salvation which is in Christ Jesus with eternal glory." (2 Tim. 2: 10)
It was the experience also of Ezra in the opening of this chapter. Filled with a holy zeal, he had been moved to come up to Jerusalem, that he might "teach in Israel statutes and judgments;" and he finds at the very outset that many of the chosen people had already sunk nearly as low as, if not lower than, the Canaanites, whom God had cast out before them. He says:
"Now when these things were done, the princes came to me, saying, The people of Israel, and the priests, and the Levites, have not separated themselves from the people of the lands, doing according to their abominations, even of the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Jebusites, the Ammonites, the Moabites, the Egyptians, and the Amorites. For they have taken of their daughters for themselves, and for their sons: so that the holy seed have mingled themselves with the people of those lands: yea, the hand of the princes and rulers hath been chief in this trespass." (vv. 1, 2.)
Such is man! Nay, such are the people of God when following the inclination of their own hearts, instead of walking in obedience to His word! Remark, moreover, that when the saints fall into sin, it is often into worse and grosser forms of sin than those committed by the people of the world. It is as if Satan, having gained the advantage over them, would mock at and triumph over them by displaying the most horrible forms of the flesh. In the case before us, it was not only the abominations of the Canaanites, etc. (the former inhabitants of the land), but also those of the Ammonites, the Moabites, the Egyptians, and the Amorites, into which the children of the captivity had fallen; i.e., into every possible form of corruption.
And all this had taken place in so short a time - within a few years of the completion of the temple. Objects of the special grace of God in their deliverance from their Babylonish: captivity, they had turned His grace into lasciviousness.
What forbearance and long-suffering on the part of Him who had restored them once again to the land of their fathers, in that He did not instantly deal with them in judgment! But if His people are ever the same in their backsliding and sins, He is also unchangeable in His mercy and grace. Hence the gifts and calling of God are without repentance; and therein, and therein alone, lies the security of His people.
The special sin here mentioned is, that "the holy seed have mingled themselves with the people of those lands;" i.e., by inter-marriages. This had been expressly forbidden.* (See Ex. 34: 12-16.) It was therefore in wilful disobedience that they had contracted these shameful alliances with the world; for this is what these marriages typify - the besetting sin of God's people in every age. The apostle James thus says, "Ye adulterers and adulteresses, know ye not that the friendship of the world is enmity with God? whosoever therefore will be" (is minded to be) "a friend of the world is the enemy of God" (James 4: 4); and the apostle Paul cries, "Be ye not unequally yoked together with unbelievers: for what fellowship hath righteousness with unrighteousness? and what communion hath light with darkness? And what concord hath Christ with Belial?" etc. (2 Cor. 6: 14, 15.) For if Jehovah, deigned to say that He was married to Israel (Isa. 54; Jer. 2), believers now are said to be married to Christ. (Rom. 7; 2 Cor. 11) Whether for the Jew therefore or for the Christian to unite himself with the world is both unfaithfulness and sin, as well as to forget the holy place of separation into which the former had been, and the Christian is called.
*That it was not inter-marriages only may be gathered from the passage above cited from Exodus, as also from Numbers 25; in fact, all the abominations of the idolatry of the several nations named were connected with these marriages.
Nor was this sin confined to any one class of the people. "The hand of the princes and rulers had been chief in this trespass," and the priests and the Levites, as well as the people, are distinctly named. It would seem then that the princes and rulers had first set the example, and that the others had only been too ready to follow. "One sinner destroyeth much good," especially when that one has a place of position and influence. As when a standard-bearer fainteth in the day of battle, the soldiers are often discouraged and so easily defeated, so after Satan has succeeded in entrapping a leader in the Church of God, he often finds it easy work to ensnare many who are less conspicuous. On this account the sin of a ruler or priest under the law needed a larger sacrifice than that of one of the common people. It is therefore a solemn thing - solemn for himself and for the consequences entailed - when a "prince" or "ruler" becomes the leader of God's people into the path of worldliness and idolatry.
Such were the heavy tidings brought to the ears of Ezra soon after his arrival in Jerusalem; and in the next verse we have the effect produced upon this pious and devoted soul. He says, "And when I heard this thing, I rent my garment and my mantle, and plucked off the hair of my head and of my beard, and sat down astonied." (v. 3) He was thus smitten with a great and unspeakable grief because of the sins of his people, and the secret of the intensity of his sorrow, expressed in all these outward signs of humiliation before God, was that he felt in his inmost soul the dishonour done to Jehovah's holy name.
It is comparatively easy to feel for God's people when they are dishonoured by their sinful conduct in the eyes of the world; but it is only those who are, through, the power of the Holy Ghost, in communion with the mind of God, those who share in His affections for His own, those therefore who first and foremost are filled with zeal for the maintenance of His glory, that can estimate their sin as it affects the holy Name by which they are called, can go down, take up, make the sin their own, and tell it all out before God. Moses, Nehemiah, and Daniel are examples of this in their several measures, as well as Ezra; but all these, with others that might be named, are but feeble foreshadowings of Him who so identified Himself with His people that in confessing their sins He said, "O God, thou knowest my foolishness; and my sins are not hid from thee." (Ps. 69: 5.)
The grief and humiliation of Ezra were used to reach the consciences of others, or rather to attract to him all who in any degree had mourned over the condition of the people; for he tells us, "Then were assembled unto me every one that trembled at the words of the God of Israel, because of the transgression of those that had been carried away." (v. 4.) "To this man," says the Lord, "will I look, even to him that is poor and of a contrite spirit, and trembleth at my word;" for trembling at God's word is the evidence of a, tender conscience, of one walking in the fear of God, and desiring to he found in His ways. Blessed was it therefore that there were still such among the children of the captivity, though it would seem their trembling sprang rather from an apprehension of the consequences of the transgression of their fellows, than from a gracious fear of offending their God.
However this might have been, where had they been, and where their testimony before the arrival of Ezra? But that their hearts were true is shown by their taking their stand at this critical moment with him; and we learn at the same time that we have no power to help our brethren until we distinctly and openly take our stand against the evil by which they have been ensnared. Faithfulness to God is the first qualification for helping others.
Ezra retained his place in the dust - borne down by his inexpressible sorrow - until the evening sacrifice. If on the one hand he was heart-broken on account of the people's sin, on the other he discerned, in the exercise of faith, the only ground of approach to God concerning it. In a word, he laid hold of the efficacy of the sacrifice as the foundation on which he could appear before God to spread out before Him the iniquities of the children of Israel. (Compare 1 Sam. 7: 9; 1 Kings 18: 36, etc.) The evening sacrifice was a burnt-offering, all of which, consumed on the altar, went up as a sweet savour unto the Lord; and when once Ezra was before Him in the value of this - in all the value typically of what Christ was to God in His death - the success of his intercession was assured. The Lord Himself could on this account say, "Whatsoever ye shall ask in my name, that will I do, that the Father may he glorified in the Son." (John 14: 13.) It was then, as understanding the value of the sacrifice, that Ezra rose up from his heaviness, and having rent his garment and mantle, he fell upon his knees, and spread out his hands unto the Lord his God, and confessed the sins of his people. Let us examine a little these outpourings of his burdened heart.
Remark, first, how completely he takes the place of the people before God. He says, "O my God, I am ashamed, and blush to lift up my face to thee, my, God: for our iniquities are increased over our head, and our trespass is grown up unto the heavens." (v. 6.) Not even in spirit does he separate himself from those who had sinned; he and they - indeed, all the people - are one, corporately one before God. It was so in the eyes of God Himself; for when Achan transgressed, He said to Joshua, "Israel hath sinned." Ezra understood this, and was thus qualified to become an intercessor for the people with God; for unless we apprehend our oneness with God's people, that their sin and sorrow are our sin and sorrow, we cannot truly bear them on our hearts before the Lord in the time of their need.
Having thus taken their place, Ezra confessed that nothing but sin had marked them from the days of their fathers, and that all God's judicial dealings with them, in delivering them "into the hand of the kings of the lands, to the sword, to captivity, and to a spoil, and to confusion of face, as it is this day," had been on account of their iniquities. He justified God in all His past dealings with His people. And then he owned the grace that had been shown to them from the Lord their God in bringing back a remnant, "and to give us a nail in His holy place, that our God may lighten our eyes, and give us a little reviving in our bondage. For," he adds, "we are [not were, as in our version] bondmen; yet our God hath not forsaken us in our bondage, but hath extended mercy unto us in the sight of the kings of Persia, to give us a reviving, to set up the house of our God, and to repair the desolations thereof and to give us a wall in Judah and in Jerusalem. (vv. 8, 9.)
The order of Ezra's confessions is most instructive. Having owned the sins of his brethren, and justified God in His ways with His people, he in the next place magnifies the grace which had visited them in their low estate, and had brought them - a remnant - back to the land, and permitted them once again to set up the house of their God. But why does he recite this proof of Jehovah's grace and mercy? It was to show the character of His people's sin; for he proceeds, "And now, O our God, what shall we say after this? for we have forsaken thy commandments;" and then he confesses that they had sinned against both light and grace. He conceals nothing, and extenuates nothing, but spreads all out before God, whilst he owns that if, after all the mercy they had received (v. 13), they should again break God's commandments, and "join in affinity with the people of these abominations," God might well be angry with them till He had consumed them, "so that there should be no remnant nor escaping." (v. 14.) He then concludes by once more justifying God, and by taking His part against himself and the people. He says, "O Lord God of Israel, thou art righteous, for we remain yet escaped, as it is this day: behold, we are before thee in our trespasses: for we cannot stand before thee because of this." (v. 15.)
There is much in this inspired confession to commend to the attention of the Lord's people. Its main features have already been indicated; but we desire to emphasize the fact that Ezra from first to last justifies God, and lays bare the iniquities of his people. This in itself is not only a proof of the work of the Holy Spirit, but also a promise of blessing. The place of confession is always the place both of restoration and of spiritual power; and hence it is always a sign of a bad condition when that place is rarely taken. Let us then for a moment challenge ourselves. We have more than once pointed out the correspondence between this remnant and that gathered out to the name of the Lord Jesus Christ in the present day. Is there no correspondence between the sins of the two? Is it not the fact that we have largely "joined in affinity" with the people of the world? Have we not submitted ourselves to their habits, ways, and customs? Is not worldliness our bane? Are not traces of Egypt to be seen everywhere in the assembly? Do we not think more of riches and, social position than of the fruits of the Spirit?
Moreover, is it not seldom that our sins (we do not mean our individual sins, but the sins of God's people) are really confessed in our meetings? Nay, is there not an unwillingness on our parts to hear our sins spread out before the Lord? If, for example, our departures from the word of God are owned, our setting aside the authority of Christ, our coldness, our unfaithfulness to the Lord and His truth, our want of separation - if these things are told out in our meetings for prayer, is there not often a manifest impatience, a feeling like that expressed in Malachi, "Wherein have we done this or that?" But we cannot too soon learn the lesson that the Lord will have reality; that, if we are blind to it, He sees our condition, and that until we are brought to own it, like Ezra in this scripture, He must from His very love to us deal with us in corrections and chastisements.
It should also be observed that Ezra does not once pray for forgiveness. Nay, with any intelligence of the mind of God, it was impossible that he should do so. When there is known evil in our hearts or in the assembly, our first responsibility is to judge it, not to pray for forgiveness. Thus, when Joshua lay on his face before the Lord, after the defeat of Israel by the men of Ai, the Lord said, "Get thee up; wherefore liest thou thus upon thy face? Israel hath sinned," etc.
And yet how often does Satan beguile the Lord's people, in a time of manifested evil, by suggesting through one or another, Let us pray about it. Confess our sins we surely should, but even then only as seeking grace and strength to deal with the evil, and to separate ourselves from it; for if Ezra lay before the Lord in this chapter owning his people's guilt, we shall see him in the next energetic in dealing with the sin he had confessed, and resting not until it had been put away.
THE Lord used the sorrow of His servant to reach the consciences of His people, who had been guilty of transgressing His commandments; for, in truth, the sorrow of Ezra was no common sorrow. Every indication is given of the intensity of his grief. When he "had prayed, and when he had confessed, weeping and casting himself down before the house of God." By his prayer, his confessions, his tears, and his prostration before God, he had told out his grief for the sins of Israel; and he had done so publicly "before the house of God." It became known therefore to those for whom he had been pleading; and "there assembled unto him out of Israel a very great congregation of men and women and children: for the people wept very sore." (v. 1.)
It would seem that the tears of the people proceeded either from contrition, or from fear of the consequences of their misdeeds. Ezra was armed with authority (see Ezra 7: 25, 26), and his zeal for his God was manifested; and they therefore knew that he would proceed to separate them from the evil for which he had humbled himself before God. This would entail upon many of them the most bitter consequences. Though they had acted in self-will, in disobedience, their hearts might have been truly upon the wives they had married, and upon their children. To separate from them might thus involve the rending of the most affectionate ties, a prospect which might well cause them to weep. That this is the explanation of their tears seems plain, from the fact that women and children were found with the congregation that had gathered about Ezra. Alas! how hard it is to retrace the steps of unfaithfulness and sin! And how often the bitter fruits of it remain for the rest of our lives!
There were some, however, who saw the necessity of proceeding at once to act in the matter, at whatever cost, knowing, as they must have done, that Jehovah, could not bless them, or prosper them in the land, as long as they were living in open violation of His commandments. "Shechaniah the son of Jehiel," we read, "one of the sons of Elam, answered and said unto Ezra, We have trespassed against our God, and have taken strange wives of the people of the land: yet now there is hope in Israel concerning this thing. Now therefore let us make a covenant with our God to put away all the wives, and such as are born of them, according to the counsel of my lord, and of those that tremble at the commandment of our God; and let it be done according to the law. Arise; for this matter belongeth unto thee: we also will be with thee: be of good courage, and do it." (vv. 2-4.)
Several points in this address of Shechaniah may with profit be noticed. First, it is worthy of attention, as noticed in the last chapter, how the Lord uses the faithful zeal of one to arouse others to the sense of their condition. Before the advent of Ezra, the consciences of all seem to have been deadened. Not even Jeshua or Zerubbabel appear to have been troubled because of the prevailing sin. Ezra was alone, and alone he would be, if necessary, in taking the part of God against the transgression of the people. But it needed courage and a single eye, and both these things Ezra, by grace, possessed. And he had God with him in the part he was taking; and now we see the effect. Shechaniah comes forward on behalf of the people, owns their sin, and accepts the necessity of subjection to the Word; and besides him there were those who trembled at the commandment of God (those alluded to in chap. 9: 4), who had been drawn to the side of Ezra. In times of evil, the only path of blessing - and even of success, in its divine sense - is the path of fidelity.
Secondly, it may be observed, that both wives and those born of them were to be put away. The wives, not being of Israel, were unclean, and the children, the fruit of the mixed marriages, were also regarded as unclean. This was under law, - but now under grace all this is reversed. Not that a Christian is at liberty to intermarry with the unconverted; but, as the apostle teaches, "the unbelieving husband is sanctified by the wife, and the unbelieving wife is sanctified by the husband: else were your children unclean; but now are they holy." (1 Cor. 7: 14.) That is, if either husbands or wives, converted after their marriage, find themselves linked up with the unconverted, the above instruction applies to their case.
Under law, as in the scripture before us, the heathen wife and her children were to be sent away; but under grace the unbelieving wife is sanctified by her husband, and the children are holy. It will be readily understood that the sanctification referred to is of an external character, as well as the holiness of the children. The wives and children were dismissed under the law because they were unclean, and as such could not be admitted into the congregation of Israel; but under grace the unconverted wife is sanctified through the husband, and is thus considered as set apart for God with His people on the earth. So also the children,* they are holy; i.e., separated off from the world through the death and resurrection of Christ, and reckoned therefore on earth as belonging to His people. If this holiness is purely external, and carries no saving power with it, as it surely does not - for salvation is ever connected with the personal exercise of faith in the Lord Jesus Christ - it yet bestows the inestimable privilege of being in the place of blessing, the sphere where the Holy Spirit dwells and acts.
*There is a difference between the sanctified wife or husband and the holiness of the children. That of the former is relative, while that of the latter is absolute.
Grace could not be confined within the narrow limits of the law, even as our Lord taught when He said, "No man putteth new wine into old bottles; else the new wine will burst the bottles, and be spilled, and the bottles shall perish." (Luke 5: 37.) And how precious to us to learn that the heart of God is interested in all who are linked up by natural ties with His people on the earth!
It may also be pointed out that Shechaniah owns the authority of the Word. "Let it be done," he says, "according to the law." The restoration of the authority of the law over the ways, if not over the hearts and consciences, of the people was the object of Ezra's mission (Ezra 7: 10), and God had now provided him with a helper in Shechaniah. There is, in truth, no other way of reformation amongst God's people.
In the course of time, as may be seen in every dispensation, customs, human maxims, traditions, etc., are adopted to the neglect of the written Word (see Matt. 15; 1 Tim. 4 etc.), all of which are the fruitful cause of corruption, both in heart and life as well as in the government of God's house. The only remedy therefore in times of departure is the rigid application. of that Word which is living and powerful, and sharper than any two-edged sword, and the refusal of all which it condemns. Thereby also the people themselves are brought into the presence of God and His claims, and are encouraged to hear what "the Spirit saith unto the churches."
Individual consciences are aroused and enlightened, and, acted upon by the Spirit of God, all who tremble at the word of the Lord (Ezra 9: 4) are drawn together in the common desire that the Lord's name may be vindicated and His supremacy be restored. Shechaniah's counsel was thus of God, and sprang from a true perception of the cause of Israel's sins, and what was due to Him whose name had been profaned by the transgressions of His people.
Finally, he urges Ezra forward. "Arise," he said; "for this matter belongeth unto thee: we also will be with thee: be of good courage, and do it." How grateful these words must have been to the burdened heart of Ezra! And doubtless he would see in them the interposition of God in answer to his prayers. He had indeed learned the source of all wisdom and strength; and thus he turned to the Lord before he sought to rectify the abuses which were prevalent in the midst of Israel. Hence the Lord went before him, prepared the way and inclined the people to confess and put away their sin.
It is an immense thing to learn, as Ezra had done, that nothing can be accomplished for God by human energy, that it is only as He gives wisdom and strength, discernment and opportunity, that anything can be accomplished.
Ezra redeemed the opportunity which the Lord had thus made for him, and he "made the chief priests, the Levites, and all Israel, to swear that they should do according to this word. And they sware." (v. 5.) He thus bound them by a solemn oath to do what they had promised. One cannot but be struck with the spiritual power thus exhibited by one man. The secret of it was, that he was in communion with the mind of God, was standing in faithfulness for God in the midst of common unfaithfulness; and thus God was, and wrought, with His servant. To the outward eye, Ezra was almost alone; but the truth is, it was God and Ezra; and thus it came to pass that the hearts of the people were bowed before him. What a difference it makes when God is brought in! Many a servant might well be daunted when he views the opposition and difficulties by which he is confronted; but the moment he raises his eyes to the Lord, he measures everything by what He is, and immediately the obstacles he deplored become to his faith but occasions for the display of His power in whom he was trusting. Our only concern therefore should be - to see that, like Jonathan, we are working with God.
The work, however, was not yet done, and the sorrow of Ezra continued as long as the sin remained; for he felt in his inmost soul the dishonour done to the name of his God. He then, we read, "rose up from before the house of God, and went into the chamber of Johanan the son of Eliashib: and when he came thither, he did eat no bread, nor drink water: for he mourned because of the transgression of them that had been carried away." (v. 6.) Ezra felt the sin of his people according to God, and it was in this way God qualified him to separate His people from their sin. When the Lord came down from the mount, and cast out the demon from the afflicted lad, His disciples asked, "Why could not we cast him out?" The answer was, "Because of your unbelief;" and then, after declaring the efficacy of faith to remove mountains, He added, "Howbeit, this kind goeth not out but by prayer and fasting." And surely we may say that an unclean spirit had entered into Israel at this time, and it was precisely because Ezra had been before God with prayer and fasting that he could be used to cast him out. Yea, is it not the secret of all spiritual power - to be thus alone with God? There is indeed no power without it, and hence the want of it betrays the fact that we have been so little like Ezra in this scripture.
Proclamation was thereon made "throughout Judah and Jerusalem" that all the children of the captivity should come within three days to Jerusalem, under the penalty for disobedience of the forfeiture of their substance and excision from the congregation. (vv. 7, 8.) All came, "all the men of Judah and Benjamin," in the ninth month, on the twentieth day of the month. It must have been a striking scene, one easily recalled, as here described - "And all the people sat in the street of the house of God, trembling because of this matter, and for the great rain." Their bodily discomfort did but add to the sorrow within.
Ezra rose and addressed them. First, he charged them with their sin (v. 10), and then urged them to confess "unto the Lord God of your fathers, and do His pleasure: and separate yourselves from the people of the land, and from the strange wives." (v. 11) His first thought therefore was concerning what was due to Jehovah, but if they confessed to Him they must submit themselves to His will.
Too often the soul deceives itself even by confession - confession without judging the sin. Ezra was too well instructed in the word and in the ways of God to permit this; and hence there must be self-judgment and separation from the evil as well as its confession. The order of the separation too is most instructive - "From the people of the land, and from the strange wives." As marrying the strange wives had been the sin, it might be thought that these would be mentioned first. But what had led to these marriages? Association with the people of the land. This was the root of the mischief, and Ezra thus deals first with it. So in all departures from God, until the root is discovered nothing is gained, and restoration is impossible.
The Lord Himself has given a perfect illustration of this in His dealing with Peter. Not until He had asked him three times, "Lovest thou me?" (once, "Lovest thou me more than these?" for confidence in his own love to Christ - a love, as he affirmed, greater than that of the rest - was the cause of his fall) did He effect his restoration. It was on this same principle that Ezra acted when he demanded separation, first of all, from the people of the land.
The power of God was still manifestly with His servant. The people assented to his demands, for they had been made to feel that "the fierce wrath of their God" was upon them because of their sins. They answered, "As thou hast said, so must we do." They only pleaded that the work could not be carried our there and then; for they said, "The people are, many, and it is a time of much rain, and we are not able to stand without, neither is this a work of one day or two: for we are many that have transgressed in this thing. Let now our rulers of all the congregation stand, and let all them which have taken strange wives in our cities come at appointed times, and with them the elders of every city, and the judges thereof, until the fierce wrath of our God for this matter be turned from us." (vv. 12-14.)
The plea and counsel of the people were accepted, and we have in the next place the names of those who were employed about the matter.* (v. 15) Further we are told that "Ezra the priest, with certain chief of the fathers, after the house of their fathers, and all of them by their names, were separated [i.e., set apart for this work], and sat down in the first day of the tenth month to examine the matter. And they made an end with all the men that had taken strange wives by the first day of the first month." Thus in two months the work was completed. Thereafter is given a list of the names of those who had transgressed, concerning which there are two or three remarks to be made.
*It is not clear whether those named in verse 15 were not rather opposing the suggestion of the people. One translation gives, "Stood up against this matter." Certainly Ezra and the chief of the fathers did the work. (v. 16.)
First, the names of the priests who had fallen into sin are recorded, and these are divided into two classes. In verse 18 there are "the sons of Jeshua the son of Jozadak, and his brethren;" and in verses 20-22 other priests. (See Ezra 2: 37-40.) The former were held, it would seem, to be the more culpable, and with reason; for Jeshua had been associated, in the grace of God, with Zerubbabel, as the leaders of His people in building His house. It shows how that all conscience had been lost as to the character of their sin. "The priest's lips should keep knowledge, and they [the people] should seek the law at his mouth: for he is the messenger of the Lord of hosts;" but in this case the priests had corrupted the people by their evil ways. But now being dealt with "they gave their hands that they would put away their wives; and being guilty, they offered a ram of the flock for their trespass." This, it will be observed, is only said of the kindred of Jeshua. The names of the rest, priests, Levites, singers, porters, and Israel are singly given.
This leads to our second observation - that nothing escapes the eye of God. By Him all our actions are weighed and recorded, one day to be produced either to magnify His grace, or (if we include unbelievers) as the ground of righteous judgment. "We must all," says the apostle, "appear before the judgment-seat of Christ; that every one may receive the things done in his body, according to that he hath done, whether it be good or bad." (2 Cor. 5: 10)
Finally, it may be pointed out that while Ezra, as may he seen from Nehemiah (Neh. 8: 1), continued to labour in the midst of his people, he no longer appears as the prominent figure - as the leader. Together with this chapter his special work was done, and he discerns it. For this great grace is needed. The temptation, when the Lord uses one of His servants for some particular and public service, is to think that he must continue in a foremost place. If he yield to the temptation, it brings sorrow to himself, and failure for the people. The Lord who uses one today, may send another tomorrow; and blessed is that servant who can recognize, as Ezra did, when his special mission is ended, and who is willing, like John the Baptist, to be anything or nothing if so be his Lord may be exalted.