God Commands Obedience

And Gives grace

to “grant us a little reviving in our slavery.” [Ezra 9:8]

Introduction:  Just over fifty years after the completion of the Temple and the restoration of the Passover, Ezra, a descendent of Aaron, led a second wave of exiles in their return to Jerusalem (ca 458 BC). Though authorship of Ezra-Nehemiah is uncertain, the most compelling possibility, in my opinion, is that Ezra wrote both of the books using the sources from the archives of Persia (and Babylon) and material furnished by Nehemiah. If this is so, it is likely that the Chronicles are also his composition. The languages utilized, both the Hebrew and the Aramaic, are consistent with fifth-century style and vocabulary. The style of changing from first person to third person is explicable in terms of sources used and the style employed in other Hebrew literature and non-Hebrew contemporary literature. Ezra’s straightforward and undeviating purpose included several related issues. He justified the ways of God and demonstrated his faithfulness; he showed the confluence of human agency and divine sovereignty in earthly events; He illustrated the theme of chastening, purifying, and fixing the identity and the worship of the Jewish people. These purposes are strong and pursued virtually without distraction in the entire corpus.

I. The Identity of Ezra – 7:1-6

A.  Ezra’s genealogy – 7:1-5: Ezra traced his ancestry back for fourteen generations to Aaron. This is important for Ezra’s purpose as he is determined that no disqualification for service should taint the reinstitution of pure worship. See this theme repeated in 8:1-20, 9:14; 11:2, 3, 10-11, 18

B. He was a man of Scripture – 7:6a: 

1. “Went up from Babylonia” – Though born and grown in Babylonia, Ezra had given himself to his required calling as a priest of God, that is, the study of the Scripture. He was not detracted by a foreign and pagan environment from a confident and firm attachment to the truth that God had chosen his people for the purpose that holiness and righteousness would be exhibited in the world

2. “He was a scribe”

His occupation was the constant study and copying of the manuscripts of those writings that the Jews considered inspired. The Law of Moses is mentioned in particular, but it cannot be doubted that he was thoroughly conversant with the prophets at least as far as Jeremiah I (2 Chronicles 36:21).

Not only did he copy, but he took to heart the teachings of the books over which he constantly pored. He was “skilled” in synthesis of the leading themes and interpretation of the text. This sense of skill is reaffirmed in verse 10. We see from Nehemiah 8:8 Ezra’s gift in this calling.

“That the Lord God of Israel had given” – He harbored no doubts or reservations about the inspiration of the text of Scripture. He knew that its descriptions and narratives were true, its judgments holy and just, its disclosures edifying, salutary, and vivifying. He knew without reservation what Paul claimed in 2 Timothy 3:16, “All Scripture is given by inspiration of God and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction and for instruction in righteousness.” Though with less clarity and without the full light of completion in Christ, Ezra would affirm Paul’s claim that the sacred writings are able to “make one wise unto salvation.”

C. He was a man of Providence – 7:6b

1. “The king granted him all that he asked” – Ezra, in these writings, had the purpose of pointing to Yahweh’s control of even the pagan nations and their leaders. Clearly, chapter 1:2 and following show this theme. The exchanges of letters and the investigations of archival material in search of the royal authority for rebuilding the temple in chapters 3-6 show Ezra’s conviction of God’s sovereignty over the minute details of human events. We see it just as clearly in 2 Chronicles 36:17, where God (even as he had revealed to Habakkuk – 1:6) arranged for the Chaldeans to be his instruments of punishment and purification.

2. “for the hand of the Lord was upon him” – Though all events occur as a result of divine decree (Ephesians 1:11), some are more clearly identified as events of judgment or of surprising mercy—“And it came to pass in those days that there went out a decree . . .” (Luke 2:1) “And the child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom. And the favor of God was upon him” (Luke 2:40).Jesus in his humanity had the favor of God resting on him and guiding him. Cf Luke 4:1 Even so, the task set before Ezra by divine providence would be accomplished through the immediate operations of grace in the heart and guidance in the events of Ezra’s life. (See 8:21-23, 31)

II. The Purpose of Ezra – 7:7-10

A. Among those that went up with Ezra were people that would give aid in restoring purity, beauty, and proper form to the worship of Israel (7:27).

B. The journey took four full months, from the first day of the first month of the seventh year of the reign of Artaxerxes until the first day of the fifth month. Ezra viewed the success of this journey as an evidence of God’s favor on him for this purpose – “for the good hand of his God was on him.”

C. Ezra’s purpose finds its complete manifestation in the connection of his life and mind to Scripture.

1. He had “set his heart to study the Law of the Lord” – He had a transformative commitment to the Law of God—the entire corpus of revealed truth as received at that time—as the pure truth concerning life, knowledge of God, the interaction of God with humans in general and his elect people in particular. He saw, from the prophetic intent of Scripture, that God had a people through whom he would bring about his purpose of righteousness and it was incumbent on those people to honor God’s purpose in setting them aside (10:3). He saw also, from the moral texture of Scripture, that holiness meant not only a partitioning of things, persons, and days for ritual activities but included an expectation of conformity to the divine character. For the Jewish nation this would involve a real conscientious pursuit of internal renewal and external behavior consistent with moral, ceremonial, and civil law.

2. “and to do it” – God’s law was not simply an external advantage that made Israel a “peculiar people,” but constituted the reversal of the moral effects of the fall. The doing of the law would be righteousness. Privilege in having the law would be only a reason for greater judgment if it did not result in repentance from sin [see Ezra 9:6, 7, 13-15] and approval of the perfect righteousness of the law as the only standard for the bestowing of eternal life (“For it is not the hearers of the law who are righteous before God, but the doers of the law who will be justified” (Romans 2:6-8, 13). The failure of all to keep this law means that all are under a curse until such a perfect righteousness is provided them in the obedience of another (Galatians 3:10-14; Philippians 3:9).

3. “and to teach his statutes and rules in Israel.” – to this task in particular Ezra was committed. For reformation of life and for sincerity and purity of worship, knowledge of revealed truth was essential. Again, Paul said that Scripture is profitable for “instruction in righteousness” that the man of God might be mature and thoroughly supplied with all the concepts and motivations he needs for doing good works. See Ezra’s strong fulfillment of this: 10:10, 11 also in the decree of Artaxerxes 7:25. See also how Ezra functioned in Nehemiah 8:1-3, 8 13, 18.

III. The Procedures of Ezra – 7:11- 10:44

A. Ezra pointed to God’s purpose in providence as seen in the decree of Artaxerxes – 7:1-26. Ezra shows the divine intent in this decree in verses 27, 28.

B. Ezra would use for reformation only those qualified according to the word of God – 8:1-20.

C. Ezra would show his personal dependence on God’s leadership and his confidence in God’s protection on their journey and his gratitude for this merciful intervention – 8:21-36

D. Upon discovering the nature and level of the faithlessness of the earlier returnees, Ezra first of all submits himself to God and his word in prayer and confession – 9:1-15.

E. Ezra’s humble submission to God brought about repentance and submission on the part of the people. Even though this would be difficult and would involve undoing some very complicated situations in order to make a retroactive commitment to obedience as a separated people, they encouraged Ezra to get on with the task – chapter 10 – see especially 10:2-5.

V. Brief Statement of some lessons

A. It is impossible to please God without faith, and it is impossible to know the object and content of faith without Scripture.

B. Knowledge of disobedience should bring about sincere and fervent remorse for sin and purposeful movement toward genuine repentance—shifting one’s thinking and actions to conform to God’s revealed truth.

C. In pursuit of his purpose, God operates within the persons and events of history mediating his will within the intricate web of human relations to demonstrate both the freedom of their agency and the sovereignty of his disposal of all things.

D. Within the events thus ordered, God shows his justice, righteousness, holiness, patience, immense mercy, and eternal lovingkindness.

Tom has most recently served as the Professor of Historical Theology at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He previously taught at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School where he was Professor of Church History and Chair of the Department of Church History. Prior to that, he taught at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and Mid-America Baptist Theological Seminary. Along with numerous journal articles and scholarly papers, Dr. Nettles is the author and editor of fifteen books. Among his books are By His Grace and For His Glory; Baptists and the Bible, James Petigru Boyce: A Southern Baptist Statesman, and Living by Revealed Truth: The Life and Pastoral Theology of Charles H. Spurgeon.
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