The Sovereignty and the Works of God. God is "the God of heaven and earth" ( 5:11 ). He raises up kings and grants to them their authority ( 1:2 ). He is able to stir up their hearts so they will do his bidding ( 1:1 ). Mighty Artaxerxes, the king of kings, cannot refuse any request of a lowly scribe who has God's hand on him ( Ezra 7:6 Ezra 7:12 ). Satraps, nobles, governors, and sworn opponents are quietly turned into active assistants in Yahweh's program for the restoration of his people.
It is not enough that monarchs step aside to allow the plan of God to unfold; they themselves must become agents in bringing about the sovereign purpose of God. Cyrus the great, with world powers at his feet, first issues the great commission to return and build the temple ( 1:1-4 ). It is insufficient that the "king of kings" allow Yahweh's temple to be built. He must endow it with glory, subsidize its sacrifices, and put the entire resources of the province at its disposal ( 7:12-18 ). Artaxerxes must not only tolerate the Torah, but he also will command that whatever the Holy One commands must be done with zeal. He will authorize strict judgment on those who will not observe God's law ( 7:25-26 Ezra 25-26 ).
There are no flamboyant, dramatic miracles in this book. Israel's God goes about quietly changing the hearts of all men, great and small. There is no mighty pharaoh to be humbled with great plagues. The great Creator silently steps to one side and allows his adversaries do the best they can to thwart his sovereign purpose (chaps. 4 and 5). When success seems hopeless, suddenly these enemies are not only commanded to leave the work alone; they must use their tax money to pay all the expenses ( 6:6-7 ). Ministers will be tax-exempt ( 7:24 ). Those who tried to stop the work must now be its patrons. Everything needed has to be provided without fail. Anyone who hinders the work will be impaled on a beam from his own house ( 6:11 ). From the least to the greatest the sovereign grace of God is irresistible.
No one sees him but God is at work. Golden vessels taken from his temple by Nebuchadnezzar are to be taken back. There is, however, no golden idol in this procession. The Cyrus cylinder informs us that various nationalities returned to their homeland and many idols were returned to their temples. The return of these lowly Judeans was unique in that they transported no graven image but only visible tokens of the sovereign power of their God.
The Immanence of God. God is not only God of heaven but is also "God of our fathers" ( 7:27 ). He not only stirs up the hearts of kings, but heads of Jewish families were stirred by the same Spirit to return and rebuild. In fact, God's hand is favorably disposed to all who seek him ( 8:22 ). His hand is over his people to deliver them from ambushes and hidden dangers. Thus they are able to refuse the king's armed escort ( 8:31 ). Ezra was strengthened to do his work and was brought to Jerusalem by the good hand of God ( 7:9 ; 8:17-18 ).
The Grace and Holiness of God. God is a righteous God before whom no impure person can stand ( 9:15 ). Israel's guilt has grown so large it reaches to the skies ( 9:6 ). In a brief moment of grace her dry bones came to life. Slaves in bondage were shown great favor in the presence of Persian royalty. A peg was given them in God's holy place. A nation without walls entered the fold of God's protection ( 9:8-9 ). In the midst of disobedience they were given hope in spite of it ( 10:2 ). Out of great guilt, they were given amazing, unmerited favor ( 9:13 ).
Scripture. God gave his Torah (instruction) to Israel by Moses, the man of God ( 3:2 ). Thus it may also be called Moses' Torah ( 7:6 ). It is not only spoken but written ( 3:2 ). Ezra not only sets his heart to study the Word; he also practices it ( 7:10 ). It is taught to others so that they may do the same. It must be obeyed or severe consequences ensue.
The People of God. The small group in the Book of Ezra are more than just a group of refugees. They are a holy remnant with a mission. Their great commission has been given by God through no less than the very king of the biblical world, Cyrus the great, God's anointed ( Ezra 1:1-4 ; Isa 45:1 ). His words are even introduced in the familiar style of prophetic communication ("thus saith").
As often in biblical commissions, this is followed by two imperatives. The Israelites are to go up and build the house of the Lord. Even though given by Cyrus, this was not a purely secular commission. The people who responded were everyone "whose heart God had moved to go up and build the house of the Lord" ( 1:5 ). Those Jews who did not wish to return, with the authority of Cyrus, assisted them with their material goods (v. 6).
These were, perhaps, the "holy seed, " the remnant, spoken of in Isaiah 6:12-13. The way they respond to the Torah and the words of their ordained, godly leaders will decide the shape of Judaism for centuries to come. In a sense, what they do will decide whether the biblical, Mosaic faith will survive into the New Testament era.
They are not an anonymous crowd. They are real, living people designated by name ( Ezr 8:20 ). They have genealogical roots that connect them with all the people of God since the days of the exodus. The listing of the heads of households give not only numbers but identity (chap. 2; 8:1-14). Who they are is important. Family solidarity is crucial. They are a people with a destiny.
God has laid his hand on them ( 8:22 ). They have been ordained with a sacred mission. In a sense the future of God's redemptive purpose has been placed in their hands. This is why they must be a "separate" people. They are a holy race and cannot intermingle with foreign abominations. In 9:1 they are contrasted with the people who have filled the land with impurity from one end to another.
They have been promised the special favor of God if they seek him. They have been warned, however, that his power and his anger are against all those who forsake him ( 8:22 ). Unfaithfulness has brought the nation to the brink of destruction. Now a moment of God's saving grace has brought them from servitude and given them a second chance for survival.
All depends on their faithfulness. If they are true to their God, he will enable them to eat of the good of the land. He will also empower them to pass the land on to their ancestors ( 9:12 ). They are not only rooted in the past but grounded in the future. What they do will affect the well-being of their ancestors for generations to come.
Had they not held fast to the faith of their fathers, there would have been no Maccabbean patriots to oppose the Greek religion Antiochus IV tried to force on the nation. The disciples of Christ would have been born into a land overshadowed by the temple of Zeus.
The people of God in Ezra are a people of the covenant. They are those who tremble at the commandments of God ( 10:3 ). They are a nation that says to its leaders, "We will support you, so take courage and do it" ( 10:3 ). When confronted by their leaders with unpleasant decisions they say, "You are right! We must do as you say" ( 10:12 ). They are not like the people before Mount Sinai who made a great profession but sank immediately in worship of the golden calf ( Exod 24:3 ). Their response to their leaders is encapsulated in the terse notation, "the exiles did as was proposed" ( Ezr 10:16 ).
The Means of Grace. The first recorded act of the pilgrims is that they gathered together "as one man" ( 3:1 ). They knew well the essentiality of unity and public worship. They repeat the same example of their father Abraham. The first thing they built in the land was an altar ( 3:2 ).
Even before the foundation of the temple was laid, they began celebrating the Festival of Booths (Tabernacles). God gave this feast to remind them of Israel's transient wilderness existence and the fragility of life ( 3:4 ). Their worship was accompanied by music, praise, and congregational singing ( 3:10-11 ). Their liturgy celebrated the timeless, eternal grace of God that had brought them out of servitude ( 3:11 ).
There was undoubtedly a bonding of this congregation at the special moment of laying the foundation of the temple. During this unique service they collectively shared their joy and sorrow ( 3:12-13 ). It would have been easy for them to have delayed worship until the temple was fully built. These pilgrims, however, knew that worship and piety come before public buildings.
Ezra's tiny flock was surrounded by powerful, predatory enemies. Therefore he would not allow them to start their journey without prayer and fasting ( 8:21 ). He had boasted to the king of the great providence of God. Together they sought the Lord for his protection. The text notes the efficacy of these resources by stating " [God] answered our prayer" ( 8:23 ). Ezra learned that not only does God stretch out his hand to his people, but they too are able, in times of need, to stretch forth their hand in prayer to him ( 9:5 ).
In addition to public worship the preaching of the Word proved itself invaluable to this new congregation. When their resolution to accomplish their mission faltered, the prophets Haggai and Zechariah arose. These men spoke in the name of the God of Israel who was over them ( 5:1 ). The people responded by rising up and resuming their divinely appointed task ( 5:2 ). The prophets stood by them and supported them with the anointed proclamation of the Word.
Leadership and Ministry. Ezra knew the importance of good leaders. He would not set out on his journey to the land until perceptive, sensible men had joined them ( 8:16-18 ). Knowledge and information were not the only qualifications for leadership. Ministers would have to submit themselves to a rigid system of accountability. Treasures of the congregation were carefully weighed out and then weighed and counted again upon arrival ( 8:25-34 ) in Jerusalem.
Leaders were expected to be examples to the flock. Ezra was totally devastated upon learning that the leaders had been foremost in taking foreign wives ( 9:2 ). Such leaders were not only removed from office but the book closes with a list of their names preserved as a warning for future generations ( 10:18-44 ).
The Jewish Talmud considers Ezra a second Moses. Biblically there is much to be said for this comparison. This man was not a mere legalist who gave excessive attention to the letter of the law. He was, in a sense, a second father to biblical Judaism, presiding over its rebirth and restoration. He gave to his people a solidarity and spiritual unity that kept the faith alive until the coming of Christ.
Like Moses, he was a skilled scribe who had set his heart to the study of God's law ( Ezra 7:6 Ezra 7:10 ). As with Moses he takes his people on a dangerous journey from a foreign land. He gathers up free will offerings for God's place of worship. He sets apart leaders to assist him in this task. His style of leadership is similar to Moses'. When confronted with a congregational crisis he falls down before the Lord ( Num 16:4 ; Ezra 9:5 ).
Ethics and Congregational Polity. At first glance the breaking up of foreign marriages in the last two chapters appears very cruel and extreme. It must be remembered that desperate times require desperate measures. Mingling with impurity had brought the congregation to the brink of destruction ( 9:14 ). The future of the biblical faith would hang on the way in which this problem was handled.
Divorce is a serious matter. It is not, however, more serious than the redemption of humankind. It should be pointed out that marital bliss could never grow out of such unions. When they had first come to the land, foreigners had come saying, "Let us help you build because we, like you, seek your God" ( 4:2 ). Everyone must have somehow heard of the reply of their leaders who said, "You have nothing in common with us." Marriage based on partners sharing no common interests, especially in sacred areas, are not likely to last in any case.
It should be noted that all marriages were not capriciously dissolved without any forethought. Leaders were appointed to judge each case separately ( 10:14 ). Doubtless there was room to decide whether a certain mate had been absorbed into the faith and could hence no longer be considered a foreigner.
Excommunication seems to be an extreme step. Nevertheless it must be remembered that the raison d' être of this congregation was to build God's house. People who could no longer be true to this central goal should not want to be involved in a group that based its entire existence on this foundation.
Bibliography. J. Bright, History of Israel; B. Childs, Introduction of the Old Testament as Scripture; F. C. Fensham, Ezra and Nehemiah; D. Kidner, Ezra and Nehemiah; J. Myers, Ezra-Nehemiah; H. G. Williamson, Ezra-Nehemiah.
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