Walk with God
Week of May 15, 2011
Bible Verses:† Ezra 7:1, 6-10, 25-28; 9:4-6; 10:10-12.
Lesson Focus:† People lead from the essence of who they are. Leading successfully involves walking with God in such a way that both unbelievers and believers recognize the personís integrity and trust the person to lead.
Have a Heart for God:† Ezra 7:1, 6-10.
† Now after this, in the reign of Artaxerxes king of Persia, Ezra the son of Seraiah, son of Azariah, son of Hilkiah, † 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.† [ESV]
INTRODUCTION. The Book of Ezra reveals the providential intervention of the God of heaven on behalf of His people. In Ezra 1 the Lord is sovereign over all kingdoms and moves even the heart of a pagan ruler to fulfill His will. He accomplishes the refining of His people through calamities like the conquest and the Exile. He stirs the heart of His people to respond and raises men of God to lead His people. In Ezra 3 we see that the service of God requires a united effort, leadership, obedience to Godís Word, courage in the face of opposition, offerings and funds, and an organized division of labor. Meeting these requirements would result in a sound foundation for later work, tears and joy, and praise and thanksgiving to the Lord. Ezra 4 teaches that doing the work of God brings opposition: in the guise of proffered cooperation from those who do not share our basic theological convictions to complete work we alone are responsible for, of opposition from those who would discourage and intimidate us, from professional counselors who offer misleading advice, from false accusers, and from secular authorities. Far from being discouraged, however, we need to be alert and vigorous, knowing that by Godís grace we can triumph over all opposition and accomplish His will with rejoicing. Ezra experienced the good hand of God. As a scribe he was more than a scholar; he was an expounder of the Scriptures. He believed that God could guide and protect from misfortune. As an inspired leader he enlisted others and assigned trustworthy men to their tasks. He regarded what he did as a sacred trust. Ezra was above all a man of fervent prayer, deep piety, and humility.
[1-5]† Finally, in chapter 7 we come to the story of Ezra, for whom this book is named. Fifty-seven years had elapsed between the completion of the temple in chapter 6 and Ezraís journey to Jerusalem at the beginning of chapter 7. The author did not pretend to give a complete history of the period; he was concerned with the happenings that had theological significance for the continued existence of the Jewish community. With the genealogy in 7:1-5, the author was primarily interested in showing that Ezra was from the Aaronic-Zadokite high priestly line, although he was not a high priest. The author showed that Ezra had authority both from the Persian king and from his Jewish ancestry as part of the high priestly family.
[6-7]† Ezra came from Babylon where most of the Jewish exiles lived. The Jewish community there continued to worship Yahweh and continued their religious traditions. Verse 7 indicates that distinctions between priests, Levites, singers, gatekeepers, and temple servants were maintained. The fact that Ezra was well versed in the law also shows that the Jews used and studied the Torah. We can assume they also used at least some of the Prophets and other writings. It appears that Ezra had the entire Pentateuch, which already was understood as authoritative by the Jewish community, for Ezra did not need to convince the people of its authority. In addition to being a priest, Ezra was also a scribe skilled in the Law of Moses. At this time a scribe was one who studies, interprets, and copies Scripture. Skilled in the Law means that Ezra knew thoroughly the law of God and how to apply it. Beginning with Ezra, there arose a class of specialists who were teachers of the law; they were scholars who studied, interpreted, and copied the Scriptures. In the New Testament we see that these scribes were greatly revered by the people. Teaching is an important task throughout the Bible. But teaching also carries great responsibility; for if one teaches error, he can lead astray those whom he teaches. The prophets condemned those who handled Scripture but did not know God [Jer. 2:8]. Those who faithfully expound Scripture must do so from a perspective or worldview that is consistent with the Bibleís own point of view. Worldview refers to what one believes about God, about humanity, about nature, and about history. There is not a specific record of exactly what Ezra asked of King Artaxerxes. All we are told is that the king granted him all that he asked. Evidently the letter of Artaxerxes, referred to in 7:12ff, represents these things. This letter then must be in response to requests Ezra had made. The phrase for the hand of the Lord his God was on him is repeated in Ezra 7:9,28; 8:18,22,31; and Nehemiah 2:8,18. The author continually emphasized Godís providential favor upon the restoration. The Jewish community has been preserved because of Godís action.
[8-10]† The seventh year of King Artaxerxes I was 458 BC. The date of Ezraís departure seems to have been set for the first day of Nisan or April 8, 458 BC. Although everything was ready for a departure on that date [8:15], there was a delay while Ezra looked for Levites and persuaded them to go to Jerusalem [8:15-30]. The trip, by way of Carchemish, would have been some eight or nine hundred miles. It was a long, hot, dangerous trip [8:21-22], but it only took the group a little more than three and a half months to travel to Jerusalem, averaging about ten miles a day. Again we have the authorís emphasis on Godís providence in working out all the details and in protecting Ezra and those with him. Verse 10 explains why Godís hand was upon Ezra. He had dedicated all of himself and all his life to the wonderful ministry of the study of the Law of the Lord. In his study, obedience and teaching of the Law, we have the secret of Ezraís impact. He loved Godís Word and Godís people. Ezra was not just an editor; he devoted himself to study Godís revelation, which had been handed down from his ancestors. By His word God created everything, by His word He directs history, and through the inspired word of His prophets He has chosen to reveal Himself. God has seen fit to give special place to His written Word. Ezra also dedicated himself to the observance of the Law of the Lord. Ezra put emphasis on Godís commands, on the legal content. Study is of little value if one does not also obey Godís will, which is made known in His Commandments. The Old Testament does not look upon the law as a heavy weight or something negative but as a guide to a healthy society. It is truthfully the royal law of liberty, a divinely inspired ethical guide. Most of the legal material in the Pentateuch shows the application of these ethical principles to specific life situations. It is in the area of ethics where theology most affects everyday life. To study or seek the law means to determine its implications for daily life. Godís people always need teaching. A great percentage of the work of the church is discipling, nurturing, teaching. More than just the imparting of facts, this involves training in righteousness and motivating believers to love and obey God. It includes learning what a biblical view signifies for practical life today. Study, observe (obey), then teach is the correct order. Godís revelation has for its purpose the ordering of his peopleís lives. There are no easy solutions or quick recipes to solve lifeís problems. God needs men and women who will devote their lives to this ministry. These three aspects of ministry are interdependent. One called by God to teach must also study and obey. Statutes and rules are used together to refer to all the requirements of Godís law. In pre-exilic times the priests were the guardians of the law; the Levites also taught the law. After the exile the scribes became more important. According to Jewish tradition, Ezra marks this transition and sets the pattern for future scribal activity.
Build a Reputation of Integrity:† Ezra 7:25-28.
† "And you, Ezra, according to the wisdom of your God that is in your hand, appoint magistrates and judges who may judge all the people in the province Beyond the River, all such as know the laws of your God. And those who do not know them, you shall teach. † Whoever will not obey the law of your God and the law of the king, let judgment be strictly executed on him, whether for death or for banishment or for confiscation of his goods or for imprisonment." † Blessed be the LORD, the God of our fathers, who put such a thing as this into the heart of the king, to beautify the house of the LORD that is in Jerusalem, † and who extended to me his steadfast love before the king and his counselors, and before all the king's mighty officers. I took courage, for the hand of the LORD my God was on me, and I gathered leading men from Israel to go up with me.† [ESV]
The king recognized that Ezra had good judgment and that the source of his wisdom was Godís word. Because of his wisdom, the king gave him ample authority, although he was not called a governor. His jurisdiction no doubt included authority over Jews who had remained in Palestine during the exile but who had neglected the law and, in some cases, had intermarried with non-Jews. Beyond the River indicates that some of the Jews may have been living outside of Judah. The king was concerned that all the Jews be under the same law. From extra-biblical sources we also have evidence that the Persian kings were concerned that each subject people take seriously their own laws. Verse 26 indicates that the governor and Persian authorities were to back up Ezra with these punishments for anyone not obeying the laws of your God. Ezra, like Joseph many years before, had authority in a foreign government. In Godís providence both were used to fulfill Godís purposes for His people. But depending on a secular government to enforce Christian or biblical principles can be dangerous. When a political government forces on unregenerate people these biblical principles, the inward motivation may be lacking. The results are (1) the development of a people or ďchurchĒ with the inclusion of pagan elements (church history shows this happened after Constantine made Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire) and (2) a reaction against biblical norms and biblical ethics. Christians should be concerned about ethical norms in society as a whole; but we must also remember that only a personal relationship with God can provide genuine motivation for godly living. Ezra emphasized Godís providence and Godís goodness. God works in secular rulers to make provision for His people and for His work. Indicative of Ezraís devotion and sincerity is the fact that he began with praise to God. Ezra recognized Godís goodness to him and Godís work on his behalf. He also realized that his work was in accordance with Godís promise. Furthermore, he chose leaders and shared the responsibility in Godís work.
Identify with the People you Lead:† Ezra 9:4-6; 10:10-12.
† Then all who trembled at the words of the God of Israel, because of the faithlessness of the returned exiles, gathered around me while I sat appalled until the evening sacrifice. † And at the evening sacrifice I rose from my fasting, with my garment and my cloak torn, and fell upon my knees and spread out my hands to the LORD my God, † saying: "O my God, I am ashamed and blush to lift my face to you, my God, for our iniquities have risen higher than our heads, and our guilt has mounted up to the heavens. [10:10]† And Ezra the priest stood up and said to them, "You have broken faith and married foreign women, and so increased the guilt of Israel. † Now then make confession to the LORD, the God of your fathers and do his will. Separate yourselves from the peoples of the land and from the foreign wives." † Then all the assembly answered with a loud voice, "It is so; we must do as you have said.† [ESV]
What should a leader and a community of believers do when an issue arises that threatens the life and effectiveness of the community? That was the problem facing Ezra and the people of Israel on the occasion recounted in chapters 9 and 10. Their solution was to take immediate decisive action. The issue was brought to light by Ezraís teaching of Scripture. Four months had passed between the events of chapters 8 and 9. According to 7:9, Ezra arrived in Jerusalem in the fifth month, and the present episode is dated in the ninth month [10:9]. Ezra was busy teaching the Law from the beginning of his work in Jerusalem. According to these chapters, at last Ezraís teaching of Scripture was bearing fruit. The leaders of the community became concerned about intermarriage and approached Ezra in chapter 9. The Old Testament did not completely forbid intermarriage with foreigners [see Gen. 16:3; 41:45; Exodus 2:21; Num. 12:1; 2 Samuel 3:3]. But when it would involve a compromise of faith or practice, intermarriage with the pagan peoples of Canaan was forbidden [see Deut. 7:3-4]. This command had nothing to do with racial prejudice but only with the peopleís faithful worship of Yahweh. In 9:3 Ezra reacts strongly (I tore my garment and my cloak and pulled hair from my head and beard and sat appalled) because this intermarriage would result in adopting customs of those who did not know God. Righteousness and purity of religion were in question. The term translated faithlessness [9:2,4] refers to a breach of trust and is used everywhere only of persons violating their covenant relationship with God. The New Testament also commands believers not to intermarry with those who do not have faith in Jesus Christ [2 Cor. 6:14]. Any commitment we make that competes with our commitment to Christ amounts to faithlessness. Leadership is a serious responsibility. Leaders are accountable for what they do and what they teach because they affect many people. Here the officials and chief men had led the people wrongly.
[4-6]† The phrase all who trembled at the words of the God of Israel was used, especially in the postexilic community, of those who strictly observed the law. It denotes an attitude of openness to what God says and a readiness to obey. A number of people were concerned about the problem and began gathering around Ezra. They needed a leader to express the problem and take the necessary initiative. Ezra sat there a long time, until the evening sacrifice. Sitting in silence for an extended time also shows grief and mourning. The Bible does not command a special physical posture for prayer. Falling to his knees showed Ezraís attitude of humility before God, and spreading out his hands indicated his need of Godís help. Ezra and Nehemiah constantly turned to God in prayers of worship, confession, praise, petition, and thanksgiving. They show us the importance of an implicit trust in a personal God and that Godís work depends on the prayer of His people. Prayer founded on biblical theology assumes that God is omniscient and hears each prayer. It also assumes that God acts in historical events in response to the prayers of His people. Ezraís prayer gives us insight into his character and his theology. It dealt with (1) a confession of sin [6-7]; (2) punishment for sin ; (3) Godís graciousness in using the Persian kings to restore the remnant [8-9]; (4) another confession of sin, the sin of disobeying Godís command against intermarriage [10-14]; and (5) a doxology recognizing Godís righteousness . Although Ezra was not personally guilty, he identified with the community. He considered himself guilty before God along with the whole community. Ezra teaches us the importance of identification with the community of which we are a part. In one sense each one is responsible for his own faults, but in another sense the whole community is guilty when one member fails. Both emphases are taught throughout the Bible. Ezra had just returned to Jerusalem after years of captivity in Babylon. He recognized that all this came upon his people because they turned away from God.
[10:10-12]† Ezra and the leaders issued a proclamation that all the men of Judah and Benjamin will assemble in Jerusalem in three days. When the people assembled, their distress was twofold: inwardly emotional due to the serious matter and outwardly physical from the heavy rain. Ezra spoke directly to the heart of the matter. He could not forget all Godís punishment in the exile. Now the people were heaping up more guilt by taking to themselves foreign women. He calls upon the people to make confession to the Lord. Genuine repentance is always related to obeying Godís ethical commands, which indicate His will. And only the sinner who truly confesses their sin can praise God and do His will. In 10:12 the people respond in unity that they will do as Ezra commanded them.
Questions for Discussion:
1.†††††††† What do we learn from Ezra concerning the importance of Biblical teaching and the great responsibility teachers of Godís Word have?
2.†††††††† What do we learn about the character of Ezra in 7:10? Note the order of importance expressed in this verse: first, Ezra set his heart to study; then obeyed; then taught Godís Word to others. Why is this order essential for any faithful teacher of Godís Word?
3.†††††††† What should a leader and a community of believers do when an issue arises that threatens the life and effectiveness of the community? How did Ezra handle his situation?
4.†††††††† From these verses, what do we learn about Godís providential activity on behalf of His people? Where do you see Godís providential activity taking place on behalf of your local church?
Ezra, Mervin Breneman, NAC, Broadman.
The Books of Ezra and Nehemiah, F. Charles Fensham, NICOT, Eerdmans.
Ezra, Edwin Yamauchi, EBC, Zondervan.