Ezra-Nehemiah, week 3: Ezra
Ezra, chapter 3
This talk was given by Paul Wintle on as part of our worship service as Main Street Community Church over the Internet. The talk, including the reading of Ezra chapter 7, is long.
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… this Ezra came up from Babylon. He was a teacher well versed in the Law of Moses, which the LORD, the God of Israel, had given. The king had granted him everything he asked, for the hand of the LORD his God was on him. Some of the Israelites, including priests, Levites, singers, gatekeepers and temple servants, also came up to Jerusalem in the seventh year of King Artaxerxes.
Ezra arrived in Jerusalem in the fifth month of the seventh year of the king. He had begun his journey from Babylon on the first day of the first month, and he arrived in Jerusalem on the first day of the fifth month, for the gracious hand of his God was on him. For Ezra had devoted himself to the study and observance of the Law of the LORD, and to teaching its decrees and laws in Israel.
King Artaxerxes’ Letter to Ezra
This is a copy of the letter King Artaxerxes had given to Ezra the priest and teacher, a man learned in matters concerning the commands and decrees of the LORD for Israel:
Artaxerxes, king of kings,
To Ezra the priest, a teacher of the Law of the God of heaven:
Now I decree that any of the Israelites in my kingdom, including priests and Levites, who wish to go to Jerusalem with you, may go. You are sent by the king and his seven advisers to inquire about Judah and Jerusalem with regard to the Law of your God, which is in your hand. Moreover, you are to take with you the silver and gold that the king and his advisers have freely given to the God of Israel, whose dwelling is in Jerusalem, together with all the silver and gold you may obtain from the province of Babylon, as well as the freewill offerings of the people and priests for the temple of their God in Jerusalem.
Verses 27, 28
Praise be to the LORD, the God of our fathers, who has put it into the king’s heart to bring honour to the house of the LORD in Jerusalem in this way and who has extended his good favour to me before the king and his advisers and all the king’s powerful officials. Because the hand of the LORD my God was on me, I took courage and gathered leading men from Israel to go up with me.
Fabulous. Thank you so much, Sue. Sorry, to interrupt you there. We are going through a mini-series if you like, of looking at three particular characters in the book of Ezra and Nehemiah. As you may know, following the Tuesday prayer meetings and the group that meets there, it’s often best to start with prayer. We’re planning to reopen in due course the church building for a couple of midweek groups. Again, this week, I met with the leaders of the Friday Friendship Group. I’ve chatted with those wanting to restart a small New Horizons Bereavement program.
These little groups existed lockdown to help people befriend one another and have space to connect, and for those leading them to overtly show God’s love. The other thing that I’ve been keen to do as we reopen our buildings is to make the front porch look more attractive to passers-by, rather than the building looking like an empty blank shell. I’m grateful that Ishbel and Gill have been putting together little displays along with Moira, one in a series of late on Mondays and Tuesdays. If you haven’t seen it recently, then there’s a small display in the window, do go and have a look.
On Mondays and Tuesdays over the last three or four weeks, I’ve been in the porch or on the front benches outside the church on the high street there, meeting with folk from the community, just saying hello as they’ve gone along. Do you know, I’ve really, really enjoyed my time. I’ve met new people, had some great chats, and have begun again to do what I really sense is part of my calling, to make the community livable again. These words are borrowed from the message version of Isaiah 58:12, which many of you will know it’s the soundtrack I think to my work and life.
It’s what really makes me come alive, building the best kind of community, showing the example of Jesus as the best form of community for everyone forever. Being in and around the town, whether it’s at the bench for a natter, being amongst the market traders and locals on a Thursday, being in church on a Sunday for worship, or helping those little groups that are beginning again. All are to do with building communities and making them livable again. I hope and trust that none of the congregation feels left out, and that the pastoral care within our fellowship has continued during the pandemic, and that it continues as we feel our way out of it. People are at different stages in their lives.
I’m convinced that our role as a church to be a worshipping community in its widest sense, covering all sorts of conversations, care, hospitality, and more. We’re worshipping, yes, in the way that is familiar to us on a Sunday through Bible teaching, through prayer, and hopefully, again, soon, some worship, but also, to be amongst people that we live around individually and corporately in the workplace, within our families, where we socialise, and within our fellowship. All this shows a whole lifestyle of worship, where we show God’s love by being our best selves. In all sorts of different ways, we make a difference and make the community livable again.
That’s exactly what’s happening here in the book of Ezra. Last week, we looked at Zerubbabel whose job it was to come back from captivity in Babylon with a whole bunch of people. They wanted to rebuild the Temple, and after a few false starts managed to do it. That was only part of the restoration of God’s people to Israel and to Jerusalem where the Temple of God was. The Temple needed committed people. Although Zerubbabel had a passion for the place of worship, building the altar, and the Temple itself, more needed doing to make the whole community livable again.
This week, we explore a little more and look at Ezra, the man himself. What his character and personality did to make this particular community livable once more. The book of Ezra continues from where 2 Chronicles ends with Cyrus the King of Persia, now Iraq, issuing a decree that permitted the Jews of his kingdom to return to Jerusalem after 70 years of captivity. When the Babylonians had captured Jerusalem and overthrown the nation of Judah, they took the Jews into captivity away into Babylon. Not all of them but a number of them. Then the Medes and the Persians later overthrew the Babylonians and began a policy of allowing the Jews to return home. A bit of history there.
God is universally sovereign. He can make and He can use non-God believing kings of Persia to make possible his people’s release. He used Artaxerxes, that king that Sue mentioned in the reading, to authorize and finance the trip. God is willing and able to use difficult circumstances and also non-believers to accomplish good. That’s also how we can sum up the book of Esther, which is often attributed to Ezra as the author. Now it should be no surprise because elsewhere in the Bible, we’re told that God rules over the affairs of nations, that He raises up kings and casts kings down.
God’s toolbox then, the tools that He can use to accomplish His purpose, includes everything. Everything is in God’s toolbox, including bad stuff and bad people like the bad kings. What do we see happen here in the book of Ezra? We see God’s law being read again. We see worship happening again. We see life again for the people of God. All because the bad kings have let the people go and had actually paid for some of this to happen. Absolutely miraculous, captivity was not the end of the story.
Ezra is God’s man of the moment to help to restore, to put the heart back into worship, to put God’s people back on an even keel with God, and to have the whole area under God’s rule as much as it depended on Him. It needed someone with an exceptional skill set to do so. When Ezra returns to Jerusalem 60 years after Zerubbabel, he uses authority to challenge the people to serve God firstly in purity. He came back from captivity in Babylon expecting the people serving the Lord with gladness, but upon his return, he found the opposite. They hadn’t re-established worship at the Temple.
The priestly people weren’t doing their jobs and a number of folk had disobeyed the Law of Moses in all sorts of ways, not least by marrying into other cultures from the surrounding territories, which was tantamount to huge sin of God’s people in the time. Ezra was frustrated and sorrowful. His heart ached, and yet, he still trusted that God could make things right. He wanted to change the situation and blamed himself for not being able to change the people’s hearts. He wanted the people to know how important and essential God’s laws were.
Nothing must supersede worship of God, and obedience was not optional. Even when his plan seemed to be interrupted, as with the rebuilding of Jerusalem, God steps in at the appropriate time to continue his plan. Ezra was an encouragement to God’s people to magnify worship as their top priority, to emphasize the need for and use of the Old Testament as the guide for living, and to be concerned about the image God’s people show to the world. To continue our whistle-stop tour of these three characters in the books of Ezra and Nehemiah today, we will look at Ezra himself.
An incredible man of God that he was, that had nothing to do with bringing back people from exile, but rather rebuilding the spiritual community, spiritual, worshipping community, a community that in spite of difficulty made things livable again. As a scribe, Ezra spent years studying the Law of Moses. Basically, he had PhDs in Theology. Scribes would be expected to be able to answer questions relating to the law and how it applied to daily life. According to tradition, Ezra had memorized the entire Law of Moses, those first five books of the Bible as we have it today and apparently, could write it down from memory. We don’t know if this is true or not, but we do know that he had his heart set on studying the law.
Ezra is also believed by many Biblical scholars to be the author of 1 and 2 Chronicles, and maybe some of the Psalms, including Psalm 119, which is the longest chapter in the Bible, and talks about how he loves the law of God. Ezra is also in the lineage of Aaron the priest, showing us that he was qualified to be and sometimes called the priest. No wonder he was so distraught on his return to discover that the people had ignored the Temple worship. Ezra was an administrator and reformer. He led relatively small group of about 2,000 people from Babylon to Jerusalem in peace and safety.
There he established himself as a leader of the people and set about the work of reforming the worship at the newly built Temple, by establishing the right people to do the right jobs. He also ensured that the people who had disobeyed God’s command of marrying beyond their own people was weirdly set right. Chapters 9 and 10 talk about that. It’s a very odd situation. Trying to resolve this must have caused such huge upsets. They’re not really recorded in the writings. I would encourage you to read Ezra particularly 7, 8, and 9 just to get an idea about who Ezra really was. In Ezra Chapter 8, he gathers those who have been shown themselves eager and willing to return to Jerusalem at a camp by a local river.
He conducts a register, a roll call. The review shows up the fact that there are no Levites. There are no ministers for the House of God among those returning. A word is sent to a nearby Jewish community and soon 38 Levites joined the group. After a period of fasting and prayer for a safe journey, the company then set out for Jerusalem. Ezra prays to begin. He always has the worship of God at the start of everything. Ezra shows himself to be the example on trusting God and holy living in all sorts of ways.
It’s estimated by some commentators that the money in the treasure that Sue mentioned in that reading, in that letter from the King, Artaxerxes, all of that money and that treasure that Ezra carried from Babylon to Jerusalem was worth, perhaps about a million pounds. In Ezra 8:22-23, he decides after that prayer and fasting to trust God for protection on this 900-mile journey from Babylon to Jerusalem, not even asking the king for a military escort. Ezra wisely decides to have all those treasures in his possession weighed before and after the journey. That’s lessening the possibility of any false accusations being made against him, should he incur the wrath of those who might be against his spiritual reforms.
Ezra is an administrator. He tries to reform stuff. He’s also an intercessor. He stands in the gap between his people and his God when he sees how much they have messed up after they’ve come home. In Ezra chapter 9, we have him so upset that this community hasn’t lived up to its best standards. There is specific sin. Upon his arrival in Jerusalem, Ezra learns that his fellow countrymen have become involved in this mixed marriage scenario with women who weren’t part of the pure Jewish race. This is also being practised by some of the priests and the Levites, the people that should be guiding everybody else.
This news causes him considerable concern. He shows his grief in a customary manner of those days, by tearing his garments and plucking out the hair of his head and his beard. It’s difficult for us to appreciate the real depth of how this mixed up the Jewish world. In simple terms, the people knew that they were God’s chosen ones. To marry from another culture was a certain no, no, for it would somehow spoil the purity of the Jewish people and would certainly make it difficult for the original tribes of Israel to fulfil their particular roles, and particularly the Levites who had a specialist priestly role.
If the priests and the Levites had intermarried, they wouldn’t keep the whole of God’s law and it would be watered down. In short, God and His ways that had been set for the chosen people could be wrecked. Ezra saw this as a huge sin. As a result, he pours out before God a prayer of confession and intercession. Even though he himself had not be part of the problem. He identifies with the sin of his people, an act which can be observed in many Old Testament prophets. Examine Ezra’s prayer in Ezra 9, and you’ll find words such as guilt and sins, ashamed and disgraced. Such is the depth of feeling that he brings to God.
We often don’t use those words in church nowadays, yet there are people who pray like Ezra, who will identify themselves with the sin of the nation and will cry to God in fervent prayer for restoration. Next, Ezra is a reformer. Look at Ezra Chapter 10, a large group gathers around Ezra, as he weeps, and he prays and, he tears out his hair. As they observe his grief, they too weep bitterly. Shecaniah, one of the group, acts as the spokesman and openly confesses their sin, that intermarriage that was forbidden was forbidden. Expressing at the same time, hoping God’s mercy as they promised to put things right. I’m not sure exactly how they do that.
Ezra calls upon the people to make a vow that they will rid themselves of their sin and bring their life into line with God’s law once again. After a night of further prayer and fasting, a proclamation is made calling for a national assembly, where a decision is made to let local officials handle these details. Those who have intermarried beyond the Israelite ways are required to formally put away their spouses and children. The whole thing is a massive muddle as God teaches it elsewhere, that He doesn’t like divorce. The ending of Ezra has a whole list of those who had married into other groups. It’s all most confusing, I must say.
I don’t really know what to make of it, other than, the people seem to have recognized their sin by this intermarrying outside their clans and now want to make recompense. The problem was, how could it be done? The overarching reform for Ezra is that people recognize the sin themselves and try to make amends. Lastly, Ezra was a preacher and perhaps we’ll touch on this a little bit more next week when we look at Nehemiah. Ezra appears in Nehemiah as well. Soon after the rebuilding of Jerusalem’s walls is completed in Nehemiah, the people are gathered together to rededicate themselves to God.
Ezra, is the chief expositor of the law, and reads, and preaches from a wooden platform assisted by 13 Levites in Nehemiah chapter 8. The readings continue through seven days of the feast, punctuated by comments and explanations by Ezra. The effect of the reading of the law on the people is remarkable. They break out again into weeping as they realize in many ways that they’ve broken God’s commandments. Thus, the whole of Ezra’s life was to secure the worship of God free from contamination.
In this the community becomes livable again. If ever there was a secret to Ezra’s life, it comes from the mantra that we see at least four times in the book of Ezra, “The hand of the Lord, his God was upon him.” As we close, may it be our prayer that as we discover what it is to be people that make the community livable again, that we know the gracious hand of God upon us, as we go to make a community livable again.
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