The Lord's Day Evening
May 18, 2008
“Ezra — Entering Halfway Through the Book”
Dr. Derek W. H. Thomas
Now turn with me once again, if you would, to the book of Ezra, and we come this evening to the first ten verses of chapter seven…Ezra 7:1-10. Before we read the passage together, let's look to God in prayer.
Lord, once again, this is Your word. You caused it to be written, and we ask now that by Your Spirit You would come and help us to read, and mark, and learn, and inwardly digest, and all for Jesus’ sake. Amen.
This is God's word:
“Now after this, in the reign of Artaxerxes king of Persia, Ezra the son of Seraiah, son of Azariah, son of Hilkiah, son of Shallum, son of Zadok, son of Ahitub, son of Amariah, son of Azariah, son of Meraioth, son of Zerahiah, son of Uzzi, son of Bukki, son of Abishua, son of Phinehas, son of Eleazar, son of Aaron the chief priest–this Ezra went up from Babylonia. He was a scribe skilled in the Law of Moses that the Lord, the God of Israel, had given, and the king granted him all that he asked, for the hand of the Lord his God was on him.
“And there went up also to Jerusalem, in the seventh year of Artaxerxes the king, some of the people of Israel, and some of the priests and Levites, the singers and gatekeepers, and the temple servants. And Ezra came to Jerusalem in the fifth month, which was in the seventh year of the king. For on the first day of the first month he began to go up from Babylonia, and on the first day of the fifth month he came to Jerusalem, for the good hand of his God was on him. For Ezra had set his heart to study the Law of the Lord, and to do it and to teach His statutes and rules in Israel.”
Amen. And may God bless to us that reading from His holy, inerrant word.
Many of you, I'm sure, are familiar with Alexander Whyte's famous book — actually two books — Bible Characters of the Old Testament, and Bible Characters of the New Testament. And on Ezra he says that Ezra was a great student, a great statesman, a great reformer, and a great preacher.
But where is he? We’re halfway through this book…actually, we're more than halfway through this book, and Ezra hasn't even appeared yet. He now appears here in chapter seven. So far we have followed the story from the return of the exiles from Babylon in 537 BC, and we've been following them down through the laying of the foundations of the temple, down to the preaching of Zechariah and Haggai, down to the beginning of the building in earnest of the second temple (round about 520 BC) to the dedication of the temple and the Passover celebration that followed a month later in the year 516 BC. They have been back from Babylon twenty-one years.
And now, somewhat euphemistically at the beginning of chapter seven, the author of this book says, “Now after this…” and we've jumped ahead 58 years. Almost sixty years we've jumped ahead, to the year 458 BC. You understand that in doing so a lot of the folks who are alive at the time of the dedication of the temple and who celebrated that first Passover have probably now died. This is an entirely new generation of people. And we're not in Jerusalem…at least, not yet in Jerusalem. We’re actually back in Babylon, and we're being introduced to this man, this great figure, Ezra. Chapters 7 and 8 are going to be about the return of Ezra to Jerusalem. He's going to describe that in the verses that we have before us in a general way this evening, and then he's going to describe that in a very particular way, describing some of the journey itself back to Jerusalem. And then…well, I wonder if you've ever taken a sneak peek as to what's lying ahead in chapters 9 and 10. Ezra is a reformer and Ezra is a preacher, and he's going to meddle and meddle a great deal in the lives of the people in Jerusalem. He's going to talk very particularly about marriage and about intermarriage, and it's all going to get very painful.
But now this evening we're going to concentrate on Ezra and who he is, and what he was. We've jumped ahead that sixty years or so to 458 BC. Ezra and many others with him — temple officials in the main, priests and Levites and temple singers and temple servants, and temple gatekeepers make this journey back to Jerusalem. You may be asking yourselves why haven't they made the journey before now. You may be asking why didn't they make the journey back in 537. Well, the answer to that is they weren't alive at that time. They probably weren't alive, either, at the time of the dedication of the temple in 516 BC.
A more pertinent question might be, “Why did their parents not return to Jerusalem?” The answer to that is difficult to ascertain. We can surmise a few possible answers. There would have been a need for some of the priests and some of the Levites, some of the instructors of the Jewish religion and faith, to stay with those people who decided for whatever reason… and for some, they were incapable of making the journey back to Jerusalem. It would have been necessary for some to stay in order to minister and help, and instruct them and keep the faith alive. One thinks of Daniel, for example. At the time of the decree of Cyrus back in 537 BC., Daniel was still alive. He would have been in his mid-eighties, probably, at that time, and probably — and forgive me, now — but probably far too old to make this four-month arduous trek from Susa in Babylon all the way to Jerusalem.
We’re told this journey took — and Ezra's a youthful man at this point — it took him four months. It was a difficult journey. He describes some of the difficulties that it involved. They were beset probably by bandits and marauders along the way, particularly since they were known to be taking along with them family heirlooms and gold and silver and so on. (We’ll be coming to that in a few weeks’ time.) Some of the very best of Old Testament saints were evidently not in Jerusalem, but still in Babylon. And if Ezra is typical of them, and shortly, Nehemiah (some twenty years ahead again)…Nehemiah will return to Jerusalem. He's the cupbearer to this king, king Artaxerxes. Some of the godliest men, some of the finest men and women of faith are actually not in Jerusalem, but in Babylon.
Well, let's look at Ezra this evening. I want us from this passage to pull out a few things…five things about Ezra as he is described to us.
I. Ezra was a priest.
The first thing that we learn about Ezra is that he was a priest. We learn that in the first verse. He's a priest. He's the son of a priest. He is in the genetic line of the priesthood. We’re given what looks a fairly boring genealogy in the opening verse. But, you understand, they didn't know who Ezra was in Jerusalem. Communication between Jerusalem and Susa a thousand miles away would have been minimal. There were obviously some merchants who made their way from Jerusalem to Babylon. That's the opening chapter, chapters one and two of the book of Nehemiah. It's a man by the name of Hanani, possibly the brother in the genetic sense but certainly a brother in the spiritual sense, of Nehemiah who tells Nehemiah that things are not good in Jerusalem.
Ezra needs to present his credentials–and what credentials they actually are, because his lineage is now being traced all the way back through the Zadokite line of priests, through Zadok the priest, an important figure in the line of priesthood, all the way back to Aaron the high priest. Now you don't get better credentials than that. You are proud of your genetic lineage, because you tell me so all the time! But these credentials are impeccable. No one could argue with these credentials. This was like a passport right to…he's not the high priest, but he has access to where the priests would minister. You understand that ordinary folk…forget about Gentiles, but ordinary Jewish folk wouldn't have access to certain parts of the temple structure. Only the priests could go there, and that in itself would create barriers, and it would create difficulties. Well, Ezra could walk right across those barriers because he was a priest. He was more than a priest, as we shall see in a minute, but he was a priest.
II. Ezra was an important man.
The second thing we learn about him is that he was an important man. Presenting genealogies like this in the Old Testament and in the ancient Near East generally is a way of saying ‘Take heed of this man. This man is important. This man has clout. This man's an official.’
Now this of course is written after the fact. This is written later, when Ezra certainly was an important man and everybody knew him to be an important man. So this is being given not just for the people in Jerusalem, but it's being given for you and me. It's saying ‘Take note of this man. Here's a man who's as near as possible a figure to Daniel as you could possibly get. A youthful figure, to be sure; a man of great skill; a man of great learning; a man of great practice; a man who claimed, in verse 6, authority of King Artaxerxes. He's come as a representative, an official, of the Persian king Artaxerxes. Remember, Jerusalem is still under the dominion of the Persian Empire. Cyrus is gone, Darius is gone, several others have come and gone, but Artaxerxes [and it's probably Artaxerxes I…there’ll be a second some fifty years down the line]…Artaxerxes I is the king of Persia, and Ezra has come with credentials from the king. Next week. God willing, we’ll be looking at the letter that King Artaxerxes sent along with Ezra that gave him the authority to do what he's doing in terms of reform and change within the city of Jerusalem.
Ezra is an important man. Take note of him. He comes on official business. He comes on the king's business. Yes, he's come to engage in spiritual reforms, many of which King Artaxerxes wouldn't have understood at all, but this Persian king wanted stability in Jerusalem, and who best to send to Jerusalem but somebody who understands Jerusalem and understands the laws of Jerusalem? And in the strange and wonderful and extraordinary providence of God — and what a providence it is — this heathen King Artaxerxes sends as his official representative and delegate this godly man, Ezra.
III. Ezra is a scribe.
The third thing that we learn about him is that he is a scribe. He's described in verse 6: “He went up from Babylonia…he was a scribe.”
Now, we shouldn't, I think, at this point think of the gospels where we frequently read of the scribes and the Pharisees. The scribes by that time have taken on a distinct notion, a distinct caliber of their own. But 450 years before that, what did the text mean when it describes Ezra as a scribe? Well, it can mean a whole host of things. The word can be associated with a state secretary…a secretary of state, a royal private secretary, perhaps. We know that this word was used by the Jews in the Elephantine region of the Nile in Egypt as the treasurer of the province. It's an official term, having prerogatives of state (in this case, the Persian Empire), of political office; a political emissary of King Artaxerxes, sent with the highest professional qualifications for the task that is set before him.
But we're also, of course, given here an explanation in the text itself: “He was a scribe, skilled in the Law of Moses that the Lord, the God of Israel had given….” He was somebody who understood the Law of Moses. He was somebody who understood the Old Testament. He was someone who had spent hours and hours and hours poring over the books of Exodus and Leviticus and Numbers, and Genesis, and Deuteronomy.
Now it's fascinating that these books are called here “the Law of Moses.” It's not the Decalogue. It's not a reference here to the Ten Commandments. It's a reference to the Pentateuch, it's a reference to the five books of Moses. It's interesting because for about 150 years now, maybe a little longer than that, the Church has been bedeviled by liberal scholarship that has attributed the first five books of Moses to the pen of a redactor that comes from the time of Ezra, and many believe that Ezra himself was responsible for rewriting the first five books of the Old Testament in order that it conform to how history actually developed. You can't pick up a book on the Old Testament from any liberal publisher today that doesn't believe that Ezra or somebody like Ezra was responsible for rewriting and re-editing the first five books of Moses. If you go to college, that's probably what they’re going to teach you. If you go off to university somewhere and take a Bible course in the Old Testament, that's probably what you’re going to get — the enormous influence of that period after the exile in going back and rewriting history.
Well, Ezra didn't know anything about it! Ezra himself is saying these are the books of Moses, which the Lord God had given. You remember perhaps that story — I think I've told it before. You remember in Jesus’ temptations in the wilderness…you remember when Satan tempted Him, He quoted from the Law of Moses. He quoted from the book of Deuteronomy…from Deuteronomy 6 and Deuteronomy 8. And you remember how He would preface that quotation. He would say to Satan, “It is written…it is written…it is written.” Spurgeon, in the late nineteenth century, when this view was prevalent about a post-exilic redactor rewriting the first five books of Moses, Spurgeon suggested that it was Satan getting his own back. That Jesus had said about the Law of Moses, “It is written…” and Satan had replied in the nineteenth century, ‘Yes, that's true, but by whom?’ And here's Ezra here saying to us, ‘It was written by the hand of God…by the hand of God.’ He was a scribe skilled in the Scriptures.
IV. Ezra was a man of courageous faith.
But a fourth thing about him is that he was a man of courageous faith. You notice we are told that he had asked the king, and that the king had granted him [end of verse 6] “all that he asked.” The king had granted him all that he had asked. You might pass that by without giving it a second thought. But you remember that twenty years later when Nehemiah is the cupbearer to the king, and he's heard three months before from someone called Hanani (who may be his physical brother) that things are not going well in Jerusalem, you remember that the text in Nehemiah says that he was sad.
Now you understand a cupbearer to a Persian king had one job, and that was to ensure that the contents of that cup wasn't poisoned. He was there not to look sad; he was there to look happy and say, yes, everything is okay! To look sad in the presence of a Persian king could mean your life. And you remember he had the presence of mind when the king asked him why was he looking sad, that he prayed an arrow-like prayer and told the king what was on his heart: that his heart was heavy because of his brothers according to the flesh in Jerusalem. And the king grants him, sends him as an emissary like he sends Ezra, to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem.
Well, Ezra had done something similar. His heart was burdened, but he had asked the king, and the king had sent him on this dangerous journey, this arduous journey to Jerusalem.
V. Ezra was a model reformer.
But fifthly, and probably most important, he was a model reformer. He was a model reformer.
You know, we associate Geneva with Calvin. You can't think of Geneva and you can't but think of Calvin because of the enormous effect he had on that city. You can't think of Edinburgh without thinking of John Knox. And you can't think of Jerusalem without thinking of Ezra. To this day, in Judaism, Ezra is regarded as one of the great heroic figures that saved Jerusalem in its time of moral decadence.
We’re going to have to look in coming weeks at the decadence, the immorality that now pervaded the city of Jerusalem. It's hard to believe, isn't it? They’d been in exile for 70 years; God has brought them back. God has been merciful and gracious to them, but seventy years later they’re committing the same sins as that which got them into exile in the first place. Their religion is empty and void. They’re going through the motions of religion as they were in the time of Jeremiah, but in their hearts they are far from the Lord.
You notice in verse 6 and again in verse 8, we're told that “the hand of the Lord his God was on him.” The hand of the Lord his God was upon him…it's a phrase that's going to occur again in the book of Nehemiah…the hand of God was upon him. “And the hand of God was upon him because …” [and you notice in verse 10] “…for Ezra had set his heart…” The hand of his God was upon him [end of verse 9] “because…” [verse 10]. This is the reason why the hand of his God was upon him: because “Ezra had set his heart to study the Law of the Lord.” God set His hand upon him because the intentions of this man were good intentions. He had God-like intentions, and God blessed him. He set his heart to study the law of the Lord.
You know the motto of RTS — “A heart for God and a mind for truth.” Now you can misconstrue that motto all too easily and suggest that the mind for truth has nothing to do with God, but the motto is intended to suggest that we need both of those things. We need the mind. We need to study God's word. We need to know what it is that God is teaching us, but we also need the engagement of the heart. The engagement of the mind, but the engagement of the affections, so that we run in the way of God's commandments.
What about Ezra? He not only had a mind that grasped the things of God and that loved to study the Bible, but his affections ran in the direction of the Lord. He loved God. And there was no dichotomy for Ezra. Loving the Bible and loving the Lord were not two contradictory things, they were the same thing. Because the Bible was God's word.
He's meant to be a model for us. He's a model first of all for preachers, of course. This is a great text for preachers. It would be a great text for a graduation ceremony for RTS or any other seminary when students are graduating and at the onset of ministry, to be like Ezra here: that he not only loved God's word, but he practiced God's word. He did God's word. He exemplified God's word. There was no dichotomy between what he said and what he was. He walked in the truth that he proclaimed. He demonstrated his godliness whenever he preached and proclaimed.
It's a word to you elders. Many of you elders here tonight, it's a word for you. It's what Paul said, perhaps thinking at the time it would be the last words he would ever say to these elders on the beach at Miletus…the Ephesian elders:
“Take heed to yourselves and to the flock of God, over the which God has made you to be overseers.”
Take heed to yourselves. Before you can feed others, before you can be a shepherd to the flock of God, you must be a shepherd to your own hearts. You must be like Ezra, because there's something Jesus-like about Ezra. There's something Jesus-like about Ezra, because Ezra is just a tiny little spark in comparison to the light that shines in the face of Jesus Christ, who loved God's word and lived God's word.
He's a model reformer. He's a model preacher. He's come to proclaim hard truths, truths that are going to upset people. He's going to talk about marriage. He's going to talk about sin, and what's missing in Jerusalem. They may have their temple and they may have their sacrifices, and they may now be celebrating some of the great feasts, but their hearts are not engaged. The truth is, they weren't converted. The truth is that many of those who had come back to Jerusalem were probably not converted; and Ezra has come to preach God's Law because by the Law is the knowledge of sin, and before the gospel can come as the balm of God they need to be told about their sins. There's something Knox-like about Ezra. There's something Calvin-like about Ezra. He was a model reformer.
Well, we're going to have to learn more about this great man in the coming weeks. Let's look to God in prayer.
Lord our God, we thank You once again for the Scriptures. Thank You for this portrait of Ezra in these verses tonight. We do pray for ourselves, those of us who are preachers, those of us who are elders in particular: that we might take heed unto ourselves; that we might demonstrate those very truths that we find so dear to proclaim to others. And bless us, we pray, and forgive us all of our sins for Jesus’ sake. Amen.
Please stand. Receive the Lord's benediction.
Grace, mercy, and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ be with you all.
[Congregation sings Stanza 4, O Word of God Incarnate.]