Lessons From Ezra
For believers today
Ezra means 'help', or 'helper'. There is no doubt that Ezra, personally, was a great help to his people. The account of his mission which is described in the last four chapters of this book proves the point. Not only did He teach the people as a ready scribe but he also humbled himself under their sins and shortcomings (ch.9). This was echoed by a confession of the people and it let to a great restoration.
But the book of Ezra can also be a great 'help' for Christians today. Let me explain why. Ezra gives us a historical account of the return of some of God's people to Jerusalem. Many of the events that happen are fitting illustrations for God's people today. As we go through the book, we will discover many parallels between the time it speaks of and ours. In this sense, Ezra is very up to date and pertinent in relation to many issues we face in our Christian testimony today. This old book sheds so much light on many questions which Christians ask today, such as
- How should Christians gather?
- Can a minority be right?
- The unity of the church, what does it mean for us today?
- What do we do when many turn their back on biblical teaching?
- Separation from evil and the unity of the church, a contradiction?
- How can we recognise a true revival?
The book of Ezra describes a wonderful revival which occurred after 70 of the darkest years of the history of God's people. What had happened? In 722 BC the 10 tribes had been led captive into Assyria (2.Kings 17:6). Over time, they vanished completely, and we still do not know where they are today. Only two tribes, Judah and Benjamin, were left in the country. Just over one hundred years later, in 606 BC, Nebucadnezzar came and took the vessels of the temple, as well as the most promising young people as captives (2 Chron. 36:6.7). A captivity of 70 years followed, just as Jeremiah had predicted (Jer. 25:12 and 29:10). Here they were, far from Jerusalem, without temple, without sacrifices, without their national feasts, and unable to sing the songs of Zion (Psa 137:1-4).
At the end of these 70 years, a Persian king, Cyrus, conquered the Babylonian Empire and founded the Medo-Persion Empire. This new king made a proclamation stating that all the Jews who wished to do so were free to go back to Jerusalem and to build the house of the Lord there.
About 43,000 people responded to this call and went up to Jerusalem. Their experiences are extremely instructive for believers today. Their return to Jerusalem encourages us to return to first principles, that is New Testament teaching, not modified by the ideas of men.
The faith of those who returned, their failure, their work, their 'ups and downs' all speak volumes to the believer today. To the extent that we, similarly, are not satisfied with 'Bablylon' but have a heart for the place God has chosen, we will be able to derive much 'help' from this book of Ezra.
When hearts are stirred up by God.
The very first verse leaves us in no doubt. Something was seriously wrong. The time of events is given as "the first year of Cyrus, king of Persia.", quite different from the books of Kings and Chronicles where the time was given according to the years of the kings of Israel and Judah. Why this change? The throne of God had been removed from Jerusalem (1 Chr. 29:23). The 'times of the Gentiles' had begun (Lk. 21:24), and had been running for 70 years now - and they will continue to run until Israel is restored to the Lord, after the tribulation period.
But God still acts. Through Jeremiah He had told the people in advance that the captivity in Babylon would be limited to 70 years (you will recall that it had a profound effect on Daniel when he read about this and found out that the time of captivity was almost over (see Daniel 9:2ff)). Now that the time was come, God uses a heathen king, Cyrus, as His instrument to bring about the promised return.
King Cyrus is an extremely interesting character. In secular history, he is renowned for his humane way of dealing with those he conquered. His objective was to bring peace to mankind. He set out his policies in a famous decree - which later became known as the 'First charter of Human Rights'. Today, the famous 'Cyrus Cylinder' - made of clay - can be admired in the British Museum in London. Allowing captives to return to their home land was very much in line with his humane policies.
This is the secular, or human, side. God's side is much more interesting. Long before Cyrus was born, Isaiah prophesied about this king, even mentioning him by name! ".that saith of Cyrus, He is my shepherd, and shall perform all my pleasure, even saying to Jerusalem, Thou shalt be built; and to the temple, Thy foundation shall be laid" (Is. 44:28). We are not implying that Cyrus had living faith in God, but God in His sovereignty used him as an instrument. Cyrus had opportunity to read Isaiah's prophecy, and it appears that he was conscious of his mission. Hence he says "The Lord, God of heaven, hath given me., and he hath charged me to build him an house at Jerusalem." (v.2).
It is remarkable how God works. First He 'stirs up the spirit' of this heathen king, so that he passes a decree inviting the Jews to return to Jerusalem. He then stirs up the spirit of those who did so (v.1.5). Whatever men do, a true revival is always a work of God.
So the call goes out "Who is there among you of all his people? His God be with him, and let him go up to Jerusalem... and build the house of the Lord." In a sense, king Cyrus is still alive. The same call still goes out. Who is there among you? Who is there, who is not content with Babylon? Who is there who values Jerusalem? Who is there, who takes an interest in the house of God?
To see the significance of this call, bear in mind that places speak of principles.
- 'Eden' is Paradise
- 'Sodom' is moral depravity
- 'Egypt' speaks of the world in its enslaving power
- 'Sinai' the place of the terror of the law
- 'Jordan' is the river of death
- 'Gilgal' is the judgement of the flesh.
And so on. Many more examples could be given. It is extremely instructive to see the meaning of places in the Bible. So how about Babylon and Jerusalem?
Babylon, if we can identify it with the Babel of Genesis 11, reminds us of two things: firstly confusion, as the languages were confounded there. Secondly, of idolatry (see Zech. 5:5-11). This is very much like Christendom today. There is much confusion, all sorts of teaching, general deviation from the sound doctrine, in fact, as Paul said, people no longer bear sound teaching (2 Ti. 4). All sorts of teaching can be found on prophecy, on the church, and on Christ Himself. There is idolatry as well: worship directed to that which is not God, namely to so-called 'saints', to 'Virgin Mary', etc.. What is the believer to do?
The answer to this question takes us to the meaning of Jerusalem. Jerusalem was the place God had chosen, out of all places. Deuteronomy 12 makes the point again and again, Jerusalem was 'the place which the Lord your God shall choose out of all your tribes to put his name there'. It was only in this place that the temple could be built, the people had to assemble, the national feasts had to be celebrated, the sacrifices had to be given, the offerings had to be brought. And it was in this place that the people would rejoice before the Lord.
Today, there is still a place He has chosen to 'put His name there', to be present in Person. This is, of course, not a geographical place but a spiritual place. The Lord Himself disclosed it. He said to Peter that He would build His church (Mt.16). A little later we read that, where two or three are gathered unto His name, he would be in the midst of them (Mt.18:20). Gathered 'unto' his name is more than 'in His name'. Whatever a believer does, he should do it 'in His name', even eating and drinking (Col.3:17). But when two or three are gathered unto His name, they make Him the centre, they give Him the authority, the attention and focus is on Him. His authority is recognised, His rights are respected, His will is done.
This spiritual Jerusalem still exists today. It is still open, even to small numbers, to enjoy His presence. So how about you? Have you returned from Babylon, the place of confusion and idolatry, to Jerusalem, the place where Christ is honoured and where His rights are recognised, where He is the centre? The proclamation of king Cyrus still goes out today: who is there among you.?
Those whose spirits were raised up, were to go up (v.5), and others who would not go up themselves, are told to support them through material help (v.4) and it is beautiful to read that they did so (v.6).
Even the king contributed, and in a very significant way: "Also Cyrus the king brought forth the vessels of the house of the Lord, which Nebuchadnezzar had brought forth out of Jerusalem, and had put them in the house of his gods" (v.7).
This matter of the vessels is extremely important. There had been three deportations, one in the days of king Jehoiakim (2 Kings 36:6), then in the days of his son Jehoiakin (2 Kings 36:10), and finally in the days of Zedekiah (2 Kings 36:11-21). The last of these three was the most significant one in terms of the damage done. The temple was burnt, and very large numbers led captive. But the 70 years of captivity count from the first, relatively insignificant (we would say), deportation. Why was this first one the important one in God's eyes? Well, it's because of the vessels. Nebuchadnezzar had taken the vessels of the Temple, took them to Babylon, and even put them into the house of his idols. Such a thing had never happened before. True, some kings had taken silver from the treasure and even from the wings of the doors of the temple (Ahas and Hezekiah) to appease the king of Assyria. But the holy vessels had never been touched.
Without vessels, it was impossible to bring sacrifices as prescribed. No vessels, no worship! This is the tragedy. Does it not remind us of the sad fact that the concept of worship, especially collective worship, has been lost in wide parts of Christendom. Meetings for worship have been replaced by concerts, performances, and all manner of things. Do you know a place where you can meet with Christians in full liberty of collective worship to the Father and the Son? This is the one thing the Father 'seeks': worshippers.
This very long chapter mainly consists of lists of names, most of them completely unknown to us. But God is pleased to take account of those who took this great step, those who went up out of the captivity, to Jerusalem (v.1).
No doubt is was a very difficult decision to take. Much spoke against it. Just think about these arguments:
First of all, there was the comfort argument. You might also call it the argument of tradition and custom. It runs as follows:
"We are settled in Babylon. We have been brought up here and, for some of us, our parents have been brought up here. We have got used to things. How can we leave everything behind, just to go to what is a strange place to us?"
But is it comfort and custom that should tip the balance, or should we ask what God's will is?
Then there is the minority argument. This argument is still very popular today, especially in large religious institutions:
"How can a minority be right? When Israel left Egypt, they were 600,000 men plus families. When they entered the land of Canaan, they were about the same number. Since then, the people must have grown. And now there were just 43,000 who think Jerusalem is the place to be".
But faith does not look to the numbers for guidance, but at God's word.
The unity argument sounds particularly spiritual. It runs along the following lines:
"You cannot leave in the name of unity. It is clear that not all will go to Jerusalem, some just can't and some just won't. Therefore, if you leave for Jerusalem you cause a division."
Well, we will see later that the unity of the people of God was expressed at Jerusalem. The first priority is to do God's will. If everybody does, there will be unity. If some don't, then those who are in Jerusalem still take account of the whole people (they offer 12 he-goats for 12 tribes although only two tribes were represented, 6:17 and 8:35). The unity of the people of God is most valuable, but this objective does not justify disobedience to Christ.
The 'why Jerusalem' argument, again, has a voice for our time. This is how it goes:
"After all, what is so special about Jerusalem? Nowadays, it is just a place of ruins, full of rubble. It would be far easier to start from scratch, somewhere on a green field site."
Admittedly, this argument has a lot going for it. It sound so logical and pragmatic. Things have gone badly wrong, so why not start a new church, why not found an organisation that does not suffer from the same shortcomings? But is this the voice of faith? If God has chosen Jerusalem, then faith does not attempt to find something 'better' or 'easier'. Likewise, it may seem easier today to start 'something new'. But God's thoughts are unchanged and all He wants us to do is to return to the old principles first set out by Him, even if there is much 'rubble' in the way.
But for those whose spirits God raised up, all of these arguments were defeated by the faith argument: God has chosen Jerusalem, and that is where we want to be!!!
And God took note carefully of all those who overcame the many counter-arguments and who went up. It is good to see that there were priests among them (v.36), and also Levites (v.40). It is good to see a recovery of priestly activity among the people, as well as of levitical service. But Levites always seem to be in short supply. Here we find just 74 Levites for about 4,000 priests (and we will find an even greater shortage in chapter 8). Those who are willing to be engaged in practical work for the benefit of the people of God are notoriously few. But praise the Lord there are some!
There were also singers (v.41), so that praise could be given to God, and porters (v.42) who would be responsible to keep everything out that would interfere with the Lord's glory.
And God even takes account of those we might have forgotten: the Nethinim (v.43) and Solomon's servants (v.55). These may not have been of Jewish descent, and they were occupied with lowly service. But God is pleased to mention all the names of the fathers of those who went up to Jerusalem. Similarly, in the body of Christ, members have different tasks, duties, and abilities, and the most prominent ones may not be the most important ones (1 Cor. 12).
Then a difficult situation arose. There were priests who sought their registers (v.61) and who were not able to prove their descent. Without genealogies, they were not able to prove that they were entitled to be priests. What was to be done?
First of all, it is important to see that this sort of problem would not have arisen in the early days, the reason being that, back then, everyone knew who the priests and their families were. It is only because the exercise of priestly service had been interrupted for 70 years and because of all the confusion that had come with the Babylonian captivity, that this problem could arise. In other words, it was a consequence of the ruin of the people (and, of course, a certain negligence on the part of these priests - if indeed they were priests - to keep their documents together). An added difficulty was that they no longer possessed the Urim and Thummim, as they used to, which would have allowed them to find out the truth.
It is essential to realise that the church, as far as its practical testimony and state go, is in ruins today. We no longer live in the early days when no 'strange elements' would have dared to try to join themselves to the Christians (Acts 5:13). We no longer live in days were 3,000 are converted by one sermon (Acts 2:41), or in a day where God confirms the message through sign gifts (Heb. 2:4). Under the circumstances, the best course of action is to take account of our weakness and not to pretend to have what we do not have (v.63). It must have been hard to refuse those priests but doing so just demonstrated that they put God first, not human feelings.
It is beautiful to read in verse 68 that "they came to the house of God". What house, one might ask. The temple had been burnt many years ago and nothing had been rebuilt. But they had come to the right place, and in God's eyes this is where His house has to be and is.
And when they got there, "they offered freely" (v.69). This is another feature of this revival. There is a genuine interest in the things of God, in His work. And we read that "they gave after their ability" (v70).
The first day of the 7th month was a significant date. According to Number 29:1, this was the time of the feast of trumpets. In fact, we find three feasts are relevant to this chapter:
- the feast of trumpets (v.1 - compare with Leviticus 23:24)
- the feast of new moons (v.5), and
- the feast of tabernacles (v.4).
It is beautiful to see the significance of these feasts. Wonderful unity is displayed, all the people gather together in Jerusalem on the first day of the seventh month. This is exactly the meaning of the feast of trumpets. It foreshadows a time when the people of Israel, now dispersed all over the globe, will be gathered together again.
Second, there was the feast of the new moon at the beginning of that month. Oh, how the moon of Israel had ceased shining during the 70 years of captivity. What sort of testimony had they given? God had brought them out of Egypt to the Promised Land, and they left Him and gave themselves up to idolatry. But now, we have a new beginning. It is not yet the time of the full moon, but a thin stripe appears on the firmament - the new moon (Ps.81:3).
Finally, the feast of tabernacles is celebrated (v.4). This was a feast of joy. It involved dwelling in huts made of fresh twigs and leaves. It was impossible, of course, to celebrate this feast in the wilderness. Where should they have obtained the fresh branches in the desert? Clearly, it was a feast that was connected with the land of Canaan. And this joy of the land is restored to them. Even today, God wants to grant us a revival of our heavenly position: seated with Christ in heavenly places - are we enjoying the feast of tabernacles in this way?
It is interesting that the first thing the returned remnant did was not to build themselves houses, or to build a big city wall, not even to rebuild the temple. Their very first priority was to rebuild the altar (v. 2). Building the altar speaks of the recovery of worship. How empty their lives must have been in Babylon, without altar, without sacrifices for their God, and without worship. And again, this is a feature of revival, and God wants to restore this today to anyone who has lost the privilege of worship. In Christendom, as noted earlier, many have replaced worship meetings through performances and so forth but it is still possible today to approach the Father, and to speak to Him of the things concerning Christ which we have learned to appreciate.
Note another feature of this revival: the repeated confirmation that everything was done according to the Word of God:
- their aim was to offer burnt offerings 'as it is written' (v.2)
- they celebrated the feast of tabernacles 'as it is written' (v.4)
- they offered daily sacrifices 'according to the ordinance' (v.4)
- and even their worship is conducted according to the old pattern 'after the ordinance of David, king of Israel' (v.10)
What is needed among the people of God today is not so much innovation, but a return to the fundamental principles which were there from the beginning, a return to the Scriptures (although this may well be an innovative idea to us if we have got used to traditions or to types of 'worship' that aim to please people, not God). If there is a genuine revival it will be marked by the discovery of the Scriptures (Josiah, Daniel, Ezra, Nehemiah, etc.). Not that the Scriptures could not have been known before, but through negligence they had been forgotten.
The altar was set 'upon its bases' (v.3). There was only one place where the altar could be, according to the mind of God. It was where Abraham had offered his son Isaac (this is how God viewed it, Heb. 11), the threshing floor of Ornan where the judgement was halted after David's sin (1. Chr. 21: 15-18; 2 Chr. 3:1), and the place where around 550 years after the time of Ezra 3, the ultimate sacrifice would be offered.
Setting up the altar in its place was the right thing to do, but why was it a good defence strategy? It says "they set the altar upon his bases; for fear was upon them because of the people of those countries". The only protection of this weak remnant (without army, city wall, etc.) was full confidence in the God Whom they built the altar.
It is beautiful to see that they began on the very first day with their sacrifices (v.6). There were continual sacrifices and also free will offerings.
The beginning was made. They had an altar, but not yet a temple, not even the foundation. But their generosity extended to the preparations for the building of the house as well (v.7).
At the same time, the remnant humbly relied on the decree made by the heathen king Cyrus.
In the second year, the Levites were appointed, the building work started, and finally the foundation of the Temple was laid. What a recovery God had granted! After 70 years in exile, they had now recovered worship (the altar) and the foundation for the Temple was laid. There was singing, there was praise for God. But at the same time there was weeping. So much so that 'the people could not discern the noise of the shout of joy from the noise of the weeping of the people'.
How could this be, and who was right? The younger ones were shouting for joy because they saw what God had recovered to them. But the older ones, who remembered the magnificence of the Temple of Solomon, were saddened by the comparison of what they saw now with that which had been in the old days.
Are not both feelings justified in their place? Considering the glorious beginning of the church on the day of Pentecost, thinking of the thousands converted then, and the powerful testimony of the early believers (Acts 2-4), are we not saddened by what we see today? On the other hand, we have the right and duty to take account of the things God has recovered to us. There is much ruin, fewness of numbers, etc, but the altar is there (we can worship), the new moon is there (we can give some light), the feast of Tabernacles is there (we have a heavenly position to enjoy), and the foundation of the house of God is there (we can gather to the Lord's name). Truths which had been forgotten about for centuries have been re-discovered from God's Word, e.g.
- the truth of the rapture
- the truth of the unity of the body of Christ
- the distinction between Israel and the church
- the literal interpretation of Old Testament prophecies
Bearing this in mind, there is indeed cause for joy, even today.
Years later, Haggai confirmed the merits of both, weeping and rejoicing. On the one hand, he said regarding the current building in progress 'is it not as nothing before your eyes' (Haggai 2:3). On the other hand, he pointed out that this same house would be filled with greater glory than the first (Haggai 2:7 - New Translation). The millennial glory of the temple would exceed that of Solomon, and in God's eyes there is only one house of God. Likewise, the future glory of the assembly (Rev. 21/22) will exceed its first glory in the days of the Acts. And the weak testimony we see today is identified with this church which Christ will present glorious unto Himself.
When positive work goes on, the opposition of the enemy will never be lacking. At first sight, one wonders why these people are called 'the adversaries of Judah and Benjamin' (v.1). They seem rather friendly and supportive: 'Let us build with you; for we seek your God, as ye do' (v.2). What more could one wish?
However, their next phrase betrays them: 'and we do sacrifice unto him, since the days of Esar-Haddon, king of Assur, which brought us up hither'. A comparison with 2 Kings 17 will show what had happened. The 10 tribes had been deported to Assyria, and the king of Assyria repopulated the land of Samaria with people from Assyria. But God sent lions who killed some of these people. Having taken advice, the king of Assyria sent them a priest to instruct them in Jewish ways, hoping to appease the God of Israel. The result was a strange mixture of the divinely established worship and idolatry.
The kind offer therefore had to be rejected, and so it was. Now the adversaries drop their friendly mask and start 'weakening' and 'troubling' those who were building. They hired counsellors against them, and this went on during the reign of three Persian kings: Cyrus, Ahasuerus, and Darius (v.5.6). In other words, there was constant opposition.
Until today, the work of God must be done by the people of God. If the world offers co-operation we have to refuse. If we do, then those who made the offer will soon show their true colours. But if we don't we will soon spoil the work. We end up being governed by the world's principles in the work we wanted to do for God.
Incidentally: I recently heard of a group of Christians who were offered money from the local Council for their 'good work'. They gladly accepted the contribution. A little later the Council informed them that, to remain eligible for this 'grant' they would have to consent to the Council's policy regarding "same sex marriages". They quickly learned., and returned the grant.
In a measure, the same principle applies to co-operation with believers who do not gather according to Scripture and with whom we cannot have fellowship in the Lord's Supper. If I cannot have fellowship in the Lord's Supper, can I really co-operate with them without running a serious risk of having to compromise the message I bring?
The remainder of the chapter is tragic. We learn that one of these many attacks was fruitful. During the reign of Ahasuerus, a letter is written against the Jews and Jerusalem. As it happens, some negative evidence is found and adduced against them. Now the enemies had full authority, and they used it. They 'made them to cease by force and power' (v. 23).
The consequence was fatal: 'then ceased the work .' (v. 24).
On the face of it, the interruption of the work described in chapter 4 was due to circumstances beyond the builders' powers. What could they do if they were stopped by force, and with authority?
And yet, in the light of the prophecies uttered by the two prophets referred to at the start of chapter 5, especially Haggai, we learn that there were reasons beneath the surface. The people had actually lost interest in the house of God and started concentrating on their own houses. Haggai had to deliver a stern message, addressing the consciences. Only after this could he deliver a message of comfort, assuring the people of God's presence and support (Haggai 1).
So Haggai and Zechariah prophesied (v. 1), and the result was that the building work was resumed (v.2).
This did not mean that opposition would cease. Again, the enemies come, ask questions, require justification for the building work. The leaders of the people give a beautiful answer, stating that
- they served the God of heaven
- they were under God's discipline because their fathers had sinned, and that
- Cyrus had passed a decree entitling them to build.
They were firm but humble. The enemies write another letter, this time to King Darius. What would the result be?
The opponents had written to Darius with the ultimate objective of stopping the building of the temple and of the city. But their strategy backfires. Through God's providence, the old decree of King Cyrus is discovered at Achmetha, somewhere in the province.
This decree also stated that expenses for the project should be paid for out of the king's treasure. As a result of this attack on the work, the work is facilitated. Darius passes a decree strictly prohibiting that anyone should interfere with this work, or hinder it.
Again, verse 14 allows us to look behind the scenes: 'they prospered through the prophesying of Haggai, the prophet, and Zechariah.. And they builded, and finished it'.
The prophets had reached the consciences of the people. A divine work happened in their hearts. And once their hearts were right, God also ensured, governmentally, that the work could not be stopped through the enemies.
If one looks at chapters 4-6 as a whole, an important lesson emerges: where there is no exercise, God may allow circumstances to make the work impossible. Outwardly, it will look as though the work ceased due to "Force Majeure", but the deeper reason is that there was little or no exercise in the hearts of God's people. On the other hand, God intervenes, for instance, by sending prophets who speak to the heart of the people. Then, when hearts turn to God, He will also take care of the circumstances. And then nobody will be able to stop the work, until it is finished, 'according to the commandment of the God of Israel'.
So we come to the moment when the house of God is finished and dedicated to God with sacrifices (v.17). One sacrifice arrests our attention in a special way. They offer 'for a sin offering for all Israel, twelve he goats, according to the number of the tribes of Israel'
There they were, a minority from two tribes out of 12. And yet they are conscious of the whole people. They offer 12 he goats, making the point that the people was composed of 12 tribes and that all the 12 tribes had sinned and that the only way for God to bless and forgive them would be on the basis of the sin offering. The fact that 10 tribes were completely absent and the fact that many who belonged to Judah and Benjamin had remained in Babylon did not prevent them from remembering the whole people before God.
Does this not have a voice for today, does it not give orientation in a time of ruin? We cannot undo the dispersion of God's people, we cannot force everyone to return to the fundamental principles that Jerusalem stands for (although we want to encourage as many as we can to do so). But we can act on the basis that the people of God is one. We do not form churches, introduce memberships etc. but simply take account of the fact that there is one body. When we receive someone for the breaking of the bread, we do not receive him or her because he or she is a member of an organisation, but we do so because (i) he or she is a member of the body of Christ and (ii) not disqualified from this privilege by things that dishonour the Lord.
This latter aspect is also seen in the way they celebrated the Passover here. All of the priests and the Levites were purified (v.20) and those who had separated themselves 'from the filthiness of the heathen of the land, to seek the Lord God of Israel' ate of the Passover. Nothing that dishonours God was to be associated with the feast which reminded them of that night when God spared those who were sheltered by the blood of the Passover lamb (Exodus 12).
No wonder that the feast of the unleavened bread was kept, and was kept with joy (v.22) and the king of Assyria was supportive of the work of the house of God. It is a timeless principle: obedience brings joy and blessing.
The second part of the book of Ezra (i.e. chapters 7-10) deals with Ezra's mission.
To appreciate the significance of Ezra's journey to Jerusalem, we need to bear in mind that 80 years had passed since the first return from Babylon (ch.1-2) and about 60 years since the reconstruction of the temple had been finished. We are now in the days of the reign of King Artaxerxes I (465-424). You may wonder how things were going in Jerusalem among those who had rebuilt the temple and among their families and children. Sad to say, things had not only developed in a positive way.
This is where Ezra's mission comes in. He had been prepared by God as a well suited tool to bring the much needed help to those in Jerusalem. His credentials were excellent:
Ø He was a priest who could prove his genealogy (v.1-6; comp. 2:59-63);
Ø He was a knowledgeable scribe (v.6);
Ø His purpose of heart was to first seek, then do, and then teach the law (v.10).
Sending such a man was a great proof of God's grace towards the Jews in Jerusalem who, meanwhile, had meddled so badly with evil!
And Ezra obeys the call of God. This time, there are only around 1,500 men plus families who went up, not 43,000 as in chapter 2. But it was God's work and His good hand was upon Ezra (7:6.9.28; 8:18.22.31). This was the secret of his success.
The rest of the chapter contains a copy of the king's letter authorising Ezra's mission (verses 11-26) and Ezra's response to it in praise and worship (v.27-28). And we can see why Ezra was overwhelmed by this letter. It gave
Ø Authorization for any Israelite who wanted to accompany Ezra to do so (v.13);
Ø Funding for the sacrifices, the temple instruments and other temple requirements (v.17-23);
Ø Tax exemption in respect of all payments of road tolls and custom duties (v.24); and
Ø Judicial powers including capital punishment in respect of anyone hindering Ezra's mission.
This was in fact more than Ezra might have thought or asked (Eph.3:20) but so it goes with someone who knows 'the good hand of God' upon him (v.28).
The men listed in the first 14 verses, together with their families, went with Ezra. It would have been so much easier for them to settle in Mesopotamia where they had grown up but they return to the place of God's choice (Deut 12) and God is with them.
It may seem strange though, at first sight, that Ezra makes them stop at river Ahava (v.15). But before proceeding to Jerusalem, important preparation had to be made, in at least two ways:
- First, there was a lack of Levites and Ezra sends 11 men to find Levites to come with them. Only 38 are found, and 220 servants (Nethinim), but at lease this small number join Ezra and those with him. There seems to be a chronic shortage of 'Levites', people who take care of the house and people of God (Numbers 3:7) - may many hear the call today!
- Second, Ezra called for fasting, humiliation and prayer (v.21). Instead of relying on the armed escort offered by the heathen king, Ezra wanted to rely on God and to depend on Him.
You see that we do not have a scribe here (in Ezra) who 'knows it all' and goes to 'sort them out' in Jerusalem. His frame of mind is quite different. The time in prayer at the river Ahava was well spent (v.23).
Finally, Ezra entrusts the silver and gold, the vessels for the house of God, to 12 of the chief priests and gives them instruction to look after these treasures. They do so faithfully. Everything is weighed and numbered and, good to see, when they arrive everything is accounted for, nothing has gone missing. May it be so with the things the Lord entrusted to us, whether material or otherwise (1 Tim. 6:20).
The Lord protected them from enemies and robbers (v.31). Arrived in Jerusalem, they offer a sacrifice. Again (compare chapter 6), it is striking that they offered '12 bullocks for all Israel'. Only a minority of only two tribes were present. But they were in the right place and they realised that they were not the people of God but only formed part of it. In their burnt offering as well as in their sin offering (12 he goats) they took account of the whole people of God, 12 tribes.
How must Ezra have felt about the news that reached him right after this! Here he was, a 'ready scribe', well taught in the law and ready to instruct the people in it. But the first thing he learns is that the very law he had come to teach had been disregarded in a blatant way, by not a few, and rulers, respected people, taking a leading role in the matter. They had married Canaanite wives, against God's express command (Deut 7:1-6).
Ezra is devastated. He rends his garments, plucks out his hair and sits down 'overwhelmed'. Only at the time of the evening sacrifice (reminding us of the value of the sacrifice of Christ and that God sees His people in Him) Ezra finds the courage to turn to God, not in accusation of others, but in confession of failure. And in this confession, it is always 'we' have sinned, not 'they'.
Reading Ezra's prayer you get the impression that what disturbed him most was this: the people who had sinned in this way were people who had experienced God's grace in a special way. God had led them back to Jerusalem, granted them help, given them a temple, an altar and sacrifices. But despite of God's grace and mercy with them, they insulted Him in this way (v.8-11).
God's work cannot be done by people who mix with the world. The church has been 'called out' ('ecclesia'). When the church sought the protection of the world (under Constantine) it was the start of a dangerous marriage ('Pergamos', Rev. 2:12). Until today, the Lord is pleased with those who put Him first, who 'keep his word' and 'do not deny His name' (Rev. 3: 8). He does not want a mixture of things that have nothing in common (2 Cor. 6:14-18), whether in marriage or otherwise.
Many arguments may have spoken for linking up with the neighbouring peoples (not enough suitable Jewish women, good peaceful relationships with the Canaanites, etc.) but God had forbidden it and obedience would have been better.
How good to see that Ezra rises to the challenge, and that he does so in a good and humble spirit! His humiliation was the start of restoration for the people. He had been praying, those who trembled before the word of God had joined him (9:4), and in the beginning of chapter 10 we find a 'very great congregation', assembled with Ezra.
Where there is confession of failure there is hope. Shechaniah put it well: "We have trespassed against our God. yet now there is hope in Israel.". I do not think he took it lightly. In fact, his father was among the 'problem cases' (verse 26). He suggests that the confession and prayer should be accompanied by action (v.3), what an encouragement for Ezra (v.4)!
A genuine commitment to implement God's order is required (v.5). A proclamation is made and, within three days, all of Judah and Benjamin assemble together at Jerusalem (v.9). They tremble because of 'this matter' and because of the inclement weather (it was in the middle of the rainy season). Perhaps the heavy rainfalls reminded them of God's judgement, but in any case they certainly added to their discomfort.
Ezra's stern words 'you have transgressed' and 'make confession' are quite appropriate as he had humbled himself and now needs to reach the consciences of all. They have to correct the matter in which they had dishonoured their God, and they agree to do so (v.10-12).
Frequently, it is admitted that things have to be put right, put it is pointed out that (i) this would be a very complex thing to do, and (ii) that doing so would hurt (and, in fact, some voices - even though few - were raised in objection here, too (v.15)).
Well, the matter before Ezra certainly was complex. It could not be 'sorted out' in a day. It took thorough examination (v. 16) three months. So the complexity meant that the matter would take time to resolve, not that it should not be addressed in the first place.
And who would say it did not hurt? Over 100 men had offended in this way, and some of the women had born children (v.44). But it was better to obey God now and to bear the governmental consequences of their sin than to continue in it.
How sad, you may say, that a book of revival should end on such a sombre note! Ezra closes with a list of offenders (v.18-44). It was a matter that split families apart. It was sad indeed that there had been such failure among the remnant, the minority who had returned to the place of God's choice! But on the other hand, we should not overlook that this list contains the names of those who 'offered a ram for their trespass' and 'gave their hand' to put right that which was wrong (v.19). In other words, the book of Ezra ends with a list of people who have been restored! We are reminded of the words of James:
".if any of you do err from the truth, and one convert him; Let him know, that he which converteth the sinner from the error of his way shall save a soul from death, and shall hide a multitude of sins." (James 5:19.20)
What a success for Ezra's mission! It would have been so much easier for him (and those with him) to settle down in Babylon. But he went. And God used him for the blessing and restoration of not a few among His people.
 To see this, compare Numbers 1 with Numbers 26. Some tribes had increased in number, others decreased, but the overall number of the people remained roughly the same.