“Ezra” series: (post #13)
Now after these things, in the reign of Artaxerxes king of Persia, Ezra the son of Seraiah, the son of Azariah, the son of Hilkiah…..this Ezra came up from Babylon; and he was a skilled scribe in the Law of Moses, which the Lord God of Israel had given. The king granted him all his request, according to the hand of the Lord his God upon him. Some of the children of Israel, the priests, the Levites, the singers, the gatekeepers, and the Nethinim came up to Jerusalem in the seventh year of King Artaxerxes. And Ezra came to Jerusalem in the fifth month, which was in the seventh year of the king. On the first day of the month he began his journey from Babylon, and on the first day of the fifth month he came to Jerusalem, according to the good hand of his God upon him. For Ezra had prepared his heart to seek the Law of the Lord, and to do it, and to teach statutes and ordinances in Israel. (Ezra 7:1,6-10, N.K.J.V.)
Moses, the great leader of Israel’s exodus out of Egypt, has died. David, the man who had the vision to build Israel’s first temple, has passed away. Elijah, the miracle-working prophet who took on the wicked King Ahab and Queen Jezebel, has been taken up into heaven by way of a chariot of fire. Jesus, in His resurrection body, has ascended back up to heaven. A faithful pastor, who has led his church for more than thirty years, has retired. In each of these cases, what is needed if God’s work is to continue? Answer: fresh help.
Here’s what fresh help looks like:
- Joshua followed Moses as Israel’s leader.
- Solomon ran with David’s vision and made it a reality.
- Elisha picked up Elijah’s mantle for ministry.
- The apostles, each one empowered by the baptism of the Holy Spirit, carried Jesus’ ministry into all the known world.
- A new pastor takes over the reigns of the church whose pastor retired.
There is a gap of approximately 58 years between the close of Ezra chapter 6 and the opening of chapter 7. (The story of the Bible’s book of Esther actually takes place inside that gap of time). Those 58 years saw the deaths of Zerubbabel, Jeshua, and the other leaders who built the second temple in Jerusalem. So, even as the priests in Jerusalem continued to employ the second temple’s altar to offer up the sacrifices required by the Mosaic law, and even as the other temple workers (Levites, singers, gatekeepers, etc.) continued to do their jobs, an infusion of fresh spiritual help was needed. Also, the protective walls that had once surrounded Jerusalem still needed to be rebuilt (4:12). That meant that an infusion of fresh manual labor was needed as well.
Here, then, is where we are finally introduced to the man Ezra. Have you noticed that we are over halfway through his book and he hasn’t entered the storyline yet? That autobiographical oddity gets fixed with the opening verse of chapter 7 as Ezra walks onto the stage. Not only will he himself make the long trip from his home in Babylon to Jerusalem and become Judah’s new leader, he will take a second group of fellow exiles with him. And when he and his group arrive in Jerusalem, they will be carrying with them money, supplies, energy, zeal, and a new decree from the ruler of the empire. Perhaps most importantly, Ezra will be carrying a holy burden to teach the people how to keep the totality of the Mosaic law, not just the parts that had to do with the temple and offering up sacrifices.
So, who exactly was Ezra and what made him qualified to play such a role in Judah? First, he was a direct descendent of Aaron (Moses’ brother and Israel’s original High Priest). That made him not just a priest but a member of the High Priestly line (7:1-5,11-12). How’s that for a spiritual heritage? Second, he was also a scribe (7:6,11-12). The scribes were experts at teaching the Mosaic law. Unlike the prophets, they didn’t receive new revelations from God, but they did help the people understand and apply the old ones. What all this means, of course, is that Ezra, was a man whose life centered around God’s word. The moment he hit town in Jerusalem, school went into session, and the coursework was that extensive body of law that God had long ago given to Moses as a way of creating Israel’s national network of moral law, civil law, and ritual law.
Despite the fact that Ezra was born in Babylon, he was brought up studying the Jewish scriptures. He was able to do that because the Jewish priests and scribes who were deported from Judah to Babylon when the Babylonians conquered Judah carried their scrolls along with them to Babylon. Since there was no Jewish temple in Babylon, the priests had no way there of doing the jobs for which they had been trained. Apparently, that was what prompted Ezra to lay the priestly calling of his life aside and focus instead upon the scribal calling of it. To use an old cliche, he took the lemons that life gave him and used them to make lemonade. As our text says:
For Ezra had prepared his heart to seek the Law of the Lord, and to do it, and to teach statutes and ordinances in Israel. (7:10, N.K.J.V.)
At this point, it is worth noting that God’s work usually takes place in ordered stages. Before there was a new temple and a new priesthood in Jerusalem, there wasn’t much need for a scholarly scribe such as Ezra to go there. He could have talked to the people of Judah all day long about the intricacies of the Mosaic law, but if there was no temple or priesthood by which the law’s required sacrifices, rites, and rituals could be performed, his teachings would have been in vain. For this reason, Zerubbabel and Jeshua had to first finish the jobs of building a new temple and establishing a new priesthood before the work was ready to be lifted to the next level by Ezra.
It is also worth noting that it was Ezra who took the initiative to assemble a new group of Jews to relocate from Babylon to Jerusalem. As our text passage says, the Medo-Persian king (Artaxerxes Longimanus) granted him all his request (7:6). Evidently, Ezra approached Artaxerxes and respectfully asked his permission to lead a group to Jerusalem. You’ll recall that with that first group that had made the trip, Cyrus the Great — at the stirring of God (1:1) and perhaps in compliance with the counsel of the elderly Jewish prophet Daniel — began the whole operation by issuing a decree stating that any Jew who wanted to go to Judah and help build a new temple in Jerusalem could do so.
After having been granted permission by Artaxerxes, Ezra and his group departed from Babylon in 458 B.C. Ezra carried with him an official decree from Artaxerxes. In terms of the historical lineage of Artaxerxes, he had succeeded Xerxes (Ahasuerus), who had succeeded the Darius who plays such a prominent role in the previous chapter. As for what the decree from Artaxerxes said, Ezra provides us with a copy of it (7:11-26). Here are ten highlights from the document:
- Any Jew who wanted to travel to Jerusalem with Ezra could do so. This included any priests and Levites. (7:11-13)
- Ezra was being sent as a way of conducting an inquiry as to how well the citizens of Judah at large and the citizens of Jerusalem in particular were keeping the Mosaic law. (7:14)
- Artaxerxes and his ruling council of seven gave Ezra a generous monetary offering of silver and gold. (7:15)
- Ezra’s fellow Jews, whether they chose to remain in Babylon or make the trip to Judah, were allowed to contribute silver and gold to the cause. (7:16)
- Ezra and his group were to use the money to buy bulls, rams, lambs, and other items necessary to offer sacrifices upon the altar of the temple in Jerusalem. (7:17)
- Whatever money was left over from the purchasing of those items could be used at the group’s discretion as long as the expenditure was in keeping with God’s will. (7:18)
- Artaxerxes gave Ezra the remaining items from Solomon’s temple that hadn’t been carried back to Jerusalem by Zerubbabel as part of the first trip. (7:19; 1:7-11)
- If Ezra encountered any further monetary needs, the Medo-Persian treasuries that lay west of the Euphrates river were to grant him whatever amount he needed up to 7.500 pounds of silver, 500 bushels of wheat, 550 gallons of wine, 550 gallons of olive oil, and an unlimited supply of salt. (7:20-22)
- Those from Ezra’s group who would serve in the temple in any capacity (priests, singers, Levites, gatekeepers, or any other type of temple workers) would be exempt from paying taxes to the Medo-Persian government. (7:24)
- Once Ezra arrived in Jerusalem, he was authorized to appoint magistrates and judges to serve as judges over the people who lived in Medo-Persian territory west of the Euphrates river. (7:25)
Such a magnanimous decree toward Ezra and his group was clear evidence that God was still working in the hearts of the rulers of Medo-Persia to get them to bestow great blessings upon the Jews. The current of favor that had begun with Cyrus the Great and had flowed through Darius was still continuing to flow through Artaxerxes. Ezra, for his part, could not help but sing God’s praises for the letter of authorization that he carried with him. In the closing two verses of the chapter, he says:
Blessed be the Lord God of our fathers, who has put such a thing as this in the king’s heart, to beautify the house of the Lord which is in Jerusalem, and has extended mercy to me before the king and his counselors, and before all the king’s mighty princes. So I was encouraged as the hand of the Lord my God was upon me, and I gathered leading men of Israel to go up with me. (7:27-28, N.K.J.V.)
Please don’t miss that phrase in verse 28: “the hand of the Lord my God was upon me.” Ezra also uses it (or something similar to it) in verses 6 and 9 of the chapter. Then he uses it again in verses 18 and 22 of the next chapter. Clearly, he viewed the protective hand of God’s favor as being the cause of his success. For that matter, you and I would do well to follow his example. Acts 17:28 says that it is in God that we live and move and have our being (N.K.J.V.). That means that not one of us can take a next breath without God’s help. Keep this in mind anytime you are getting a lot done, people are going out of their way to support you, and prosperity is flowing your way. Remember that God is the ultimate source of all that good favor, and you should sing His praises for it just as Ezra did.