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Ezra & Nehemiah

Ezra

Ezra 7-10

Lesson audio

Up from Babylon

It took us six chapters, but we finally get to meet Ezra, the namesake of the book.

Ezra 7:6-28 NASB  This Ezra went up from Babylon, and he was a scribe skilled in the law of Moses, which the LORD God of Israel had given; and the king granted him all he requested because the hand of the LORD his God was upon him.  (7)  Some of the sons of Israel and some of the priests, the Levites, the singers, the gatekeepers and the temple servants went up to Jerusalem in the seventh year of King Artaxerxes.  (8)  He came to Jerusalem in the fifth month, which was in the seventh year of the king.  (9)  For on the first of the first month he began to go up from Babylon; and on the first of the fifth month he came to Jerusalem, because the good hand of his God was upon him.  (10)  For Ezra had set his heart to study the law of the LORD and to practice it, and to teach His statutes and ordinances in Israel.  (11)  Now this is the copy of the decree which King Artaxerxes gave to Ezra the priest, the scribe, learned in the words of the commandments of the LORD and His statutes to Israel:  (12)  "Artaxerxes, king of kings, to Ezra the priest, the scribe of the law of the God of heaven, perfect peace. And now  (13)  I have issued a decree that any of the people of Israel and their priests and the Levites in my kingdom who are willing to go to Jerusalem, may go with you.  (14)  "Forasmuch as you are sent by the king and his seven counselors to inquire concerning Judah and Jerusalem according to the law of your God which is in your hand,  (15)  and to bring the silver and gold, which the king and his counselors have freely offered to the God of Israel, whose dwelling is in Jerusalem,  (16)  with all the silver and gold which you find in the whole province of Babylon, along with the freewill offering of the people and of the priests, who offered willingly for the house of their God which is in Jerusalem;  (17)  with this money, therefore, you shall diligently buy bulls, rams and lambs, with their grain offerings and their drink offerings and offer them on the altar of the house of your God which is in Jerusalem.  (18)  "Whatever seems good to you and to your brothers to do with the rest of the silver and gold, you may do according to the will of your God.  (19)  "Also the utensils which are given to you for the service of the house of your God, deliver in full before the God of Jerusalem.  (20)  "The rest of the needs for the house of your God, for which you may have occasion to provide, provide for it from the royal treasury.  (21)  "I, even I, King Artaxerxes, issue a decree to all the treasurers who are in the provinces beyond the River, that whatever Ezra the priest, the scribe of the law of the God of heaven, may require of you, it shall be done diligently,  (22)  even up to 100 talents of silver, 100 kors of wheat, 100 baths of wine, 100 baths of oil, and salt as needed.  (23)  "Whatever is commanded by the God of heaven, let it be done with zeal for the house of the God of heaven, so that there will not be wrath against the kingdom of the king and his sons.  (24)  "We also inform you that it is not allowed to impose tax, tribute or toll on any of the priests, Levites, singers, doorkeepers, Nethinim or servants of this house of God.  (25)  "You, Ezra, according to the wisdom of your God which is in your hand, appoint magistrates and judges that they may judge all the people who are in the province beyond the River, even all those who know the laws of your God; and you may teach anyone who is ignorant of them.  (26)  "Whoever will not observe the law of your God and the law of the king, let judgment be executed upon him strictly, whether for death or for banishment or for confiscation of goods or for imprisonment."  (27)  Blessed be the LORD, the God of our fathers, who has put such a thing as this in the king's heart, to adorn the house of the LORD which is in Jerusalem,  (28)  and has extended lovingkindness to me before the king and his counselors and before all the king's mighty princes. Thus I was strengthened according to the hand of the LORD my God upon me, and I gathered leading men from Israel to go up with me.

 

Preparation of Ezra

As far as we know, Ezra never performed any miracles. He was also apparently not the most charismatic leaders; as we shall see in chapter 10, he needed some encouragement. So we might ask what prepared this man for the tasks ahead of him. There are two things which are shown in the Scripture which prepare man like Ezra.

·         The first is found in the phrase, “set his heart.” Ezra set his heart on three things:

o   The first is the study of the Law of Moses. It is fashionable (at least in the emerging church) to minimize the study of the Scriptures as being of relatively little importance. This is a fashion which comes and goes; the usual argument is that the study of the Scripture is something reserved only for those who are experts. Ezra has it right; it is reserved for those who set their hearts on it. The love of God’s word is sufficient qualification to study it.

o   The second is the practice of the Law of Moses. There is really no sense in studying the Scriptures if you’re not going to put them into practice; in fact, it’s worse if you do it that way. At least then you don’t have the excuse of ignorance. There is a warning with this; you will be called the legalist. The fact that you know the Scriptures and obey them is not a sin — but it will get you accused of being a legalist. Sometimes, the accusation comes from the pulpit.

o   Perhaps what sets Ezra part is this: he set his heart on teaching the law. It is so precious to him that he cannot bear to keep it to himself, he must share it. In the New Testament, teaching is one of the spiritual gifts. Interestingly, we pay a lot of attention to spiritual gifts which are disfavored (like speaking in tongues, in our particular denomination) or greatly favored, such as preaching. You have to point out the teaching is a spiritual gift for this to be recognized that all.

·         The second is simply this: the hand of the Lord was upon him. Most teachers of the law, or teachers of the Scripture, never get the chance to do what Ezra did. It is the nature of the universe that only a certain number of us can rise to prominence; indeed, it is the definition of prominence that it is rare. But somebody has to do it, and in this instance the somebody is named Ezra. God picked him; and Ezra was ready for the selection.

King and Temple

One of the unique things about the Persian Empire was its tolerance of religion. As long as the religion in question did not advocate overthrow of the Empire, the Persian kings were quite content to let you worship however you liked. Loyalty, not religious unanimity, was the requirement. In this relative freedom of religion, the King is allowing all of the Jews who would like to go back to Jerusalem to do so.

Ezra, on the other hand, has a specific task. He is to “inquire” on behalf of the King — and then set things right. In short, he’s telling Ezra that the problem belongs to the Jews, and he (Ezra) has been tasked with fixing it. The King is not hesitant to put the power of the monarchy behind this order. This, of course, implies that the state is going to extensively support the reforms that Ezra plans to bring — and note that many of those are very much religious reforms. This implies the state has an interest in those religious reforms. This is not as strange as it sounds.

Let me give you a current example: marriage. There is overwhelming evidence that if you want to raise children to become solid citizens, the best way to do so is in the traditional one man, one woman, husband-and-wife type of family. I realize that it is politically incorrect to say so; indeed, the pastor at our church would promptly disagree that any such statement could possibly be made. It’s just that the evidence is overwhelmingly in favor of that fact. That being the case, the state has a definite interest in promoting traditional marriage — because of the results it produces. To what extent the state can promote such marriage, is an interesting question. The fact that the state has an interest in it is not a question. The King in this instance understands that obedience to the law — religious or political — is a state interest. Obedient citizens pay their taxes and don’t revolt. That’s a state interest.

The King has also perceived that the religious establishment must be seen as independent of the monarchy. There’s a simple reason for this too. If the King says that something is morally right, the cynical citizen thinks that it’s either morally right or politically expedient. When the temple makes the same statement, it is seen as divine command because the cynical citizen can’t see any other motive for it. For this reason, the King has prohibited the local authorities from taxing any of the functions of the temple. This is similar to current American law which makes religious institutions tax exempt. The key point for Americans today is to note that the independence of the religious establishment is a key to keeping its authority over its members. We just naturally assume that a state-sponsored church has the best interests of the regime at heart. We just might be right.

Interestingly, the motive that the King has for doing this doesn’t seem to be any of this political thought. He probably understands it, but that’s not what’s motivating them to do it. Like most people of his time, the King is a polytheist. He believes the God of the Jews exists, though he doesn’t believe that he is the God that we understand him to be. He does, however, understand that this God is powerful; therefore, he wants the favor of this God. So therefore he asks the priests of this God to take appropriate steps to secure the favor of this God for the King and his sons — and keep them from getting mad at the monarchy. The Kings of Persia understood that not all things were under the control of the state — an understanding which seems to have been lost lately.

Blessed Be the Lord

Take a look at the last two verses of that passage. You will notice that the author of this book — probably Ezra himself — blesses the Lord for his favor to the Jews. At first reading you might ask just what blessing God gave here; after all, it seems the King did everything. Ezra brings three things to your attention:

·         He thanks God for putting things into the King’s heart which benefit the people of God. Have you prayed recently that God would change the heart of the president?

·         He thanks God for extending “lovingkindness” before the King — that is to say, for granting Ezra favor in the King’s eyes. There are a lot of people competing for the King’s attention; Ezra is grateful that he got it.

·         The combination of these two things, Ezra says, strengthened him. It is very comforting and strengthening to know that the Lord is behind what you are doing.

The Trip

Chapter 8 tells us about the voyage to Jerusalem. It’s mostly about the genealogy of the folks are going and the things they’re carrying with them, but there are three things that we can pull out of this that tell us a little something:

·         In verse twenty-two, we find that Ezra is ashamed to request troops from the King. After all, Ezra has been telling them about the might of this God that the Jews worship; it is inconsistent, therefore, to then say that this God is so weak that he can’t protect the caravan of the Jews crossing the desert. It is at least a logical consistency.

·         In verse twenty-eight, Ezra tells the messengers carrying the items for the temple that they are holy. To be holy is to be separated for God; the fact that you are doing God’s work makes you holy — whether you like it or not.

·         Again we see the careful genealogies and inventories. While it’s not particularly interesting, it does tell us that we are dealing with real people who took a great deal of care in what they did. In other words, we are reading an account which is historically accurate.

Wives and Children

We now come to a most puzzling section of Scripture. In it we find that Ezra feels that the fact that many of the people — including the priests — having intermarried with the local population are in grave sin. This is rather foreign concept to us, and we shall have to take some time to understand it.

Ezra 9:1-15 NASB  Now when these things had been completed, the princes approached me, saying, "The people of Israel and the priests and the Levites have not separated themselves from the peoples of the lands, according to their abominations, those of the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Jebusites, the Ammonites, the Moabites, the Egyptians and the Amorites.  (2)  "For they have taken some of their daughters as wives for themselves and for their sons, so that the holy race has intermingled with the peoples of the lands; indeed, the hands of the princes and the rulers have been foremost in this unfaithfulness."  (3)  When I heard about this matter, I tore my garment and my robe, and pulled some of the hair from my head and my beard, and sat down appalled.  (4)  Then everyone who trembled at the words of the God of Israel on account of the unfaithfulness of the exiles gathered to me, and I sat appalled until the evening offering.  (5)  But at the evening offering I arose from my humiliation, even with my garment and my robe torn, and I fell on my knees and stretched out my hands to the LORD my God;  (6)  and I said, "O my God, I am ashamed and embarrassed to lift up my face to You, my God, for our iniquities have risen above our heads and our guilt has grown even to the heavens.  (7)  "Since the days of our fathers to this day we have been in great guilt, and on account of our iniquities we, our kings and our priests have been given into the hand of the kings of the lands, to the sword, to captivity and to plunder and to open shame, as it is this day.  (8)  "But now for a brief moment grace has been shown from the LORD our God, to leave us an escaped remnant and to give us a peg in His holy place, that our God may enlighten our eyes and grant us a little reviving in our bondage.  (9)  "For we are slaves; yet in our bondage our God has not forsaken us, but has extended lovingkindness to us in the sight of the kings of Persia, to give us reviving to raise up the house of our God, to restore its ruins and to give us a wall in Judah and Jerusalem.  (10)  "Now, our God, what shall we say after this? For we have forsaken Your commandments,  (11)  which You have commanded by Your servants the prophets, saying, 'The land which you are entering to possess is an unclean land with the uncleanness of the peoples of the lands, with their abominations which have filled it from end to end and with their impurity.  (12)  'So now do not give your daughters to their sons nor take their daughters to your sons, and never seek their peace or their prosperity, that you may be strong and eat the good things of the land and leave it as an inheritance to your sons forever.'  (13)  "After all that has come upon us for our evil deeds and our great guilt, since You our God have requited us less than our iniquities deserve, and have given us an escaped remnant as this,  (14)  shall we again break Your commandments and intermarry with the peoples who commit these abominations? Would You not be angry with us to the point of destruction, until there is no remnant nor any who escape?  (15)  "O LORD God of Israel, You are righteous, for we have been left an escaped remnant, as it is this day; behold, we are before You in our guilt, for no one can stand before You because of this."

 

This Is Forbidden

The reaction of the average Christian at this point is one of astonishment. We would want to know why God would forbid marriage to someone of a different race. This is particularly a problem for Americans who have struggled with race relations throughout the life of the country. It is now politically correct to declare that any marriage between any two races is perfectly acceptable. It’s hard for us to imagine a time when that was not the case. It’s even harder for us to imagine that God would command such a thing. We need to examine two things:

·         First, we need to make sure that indeed God did command that.

·         Second, we need an explanation as to why he commanded the Jews not to do this, and why it is acceptable for us to do this today.

We may see the answer to the first in the Scriptures. The specific prohibition is found in Deuteronomy:

Deuteronomy 7:1-6 NASB  "When the LORD your God brings you into the land where you are entering to possess it, and clears away many nations before you, the Hittites and the Girgashites and the Amorites and the Canaanites and the Perizzites and the Hivites and the Jebusites, seven nations greater and stronger than you,  (2)  and when the LORD your God delivers them before you and you defeat them, then you shall utterly destroy them. You shall make no covenant with them and show no favor to them.  (3)  "Furthermore, you shall not intermarry with them; you shall not give your daughters to their sons, nor shall you take their daughters for your sons.  (4)  "For they will turn your sons away from following Me to serve other gods; then the anger of the LORD will be kindled against you and He will quickly destroy you.  (5)  "But thus you shall do to them: you shall tear down their altars, and smash their sacred pillars, and hew down their Asherim, and burn their graven images with fire.  (6)  "For you are a holy people to the LORD your God; the LORD your God has chosen you to be a people for His own possession out of all the peoples who are on the face of the earth.

 

The Jews of Ezra’s time had further motivation: they had an exquisitely good bad example: Solomon.[1] When you consider that the Jews of this time where acutely aware of their national sins, this example would press the point home to them. They knew that what they had done was wrong. Of course, for us, the question is whether or not we have a similar command. We do:

2 Corinthians 6:14 NASB  (14)  Do not be bound together with unbelievers; for what partnership have righteousness and lawlessness, or what fellowship has light with darkness?

 

When I was a child this verse was quoted as a reason why you did not wish to marry someone who was a non-Christian. This has since fallen out of fashion; however, the consequences of marrying a non-Christian still exist. Interestingly, in my experience this is something which greatly affects women but not so much the men. Over the years I have had many people in my classes who are “single on Sunday.” The overwhelming majority of them are women. Perhaps there is some truth to the idea that God has appointed the man the spiritual head of the household. If he follows the Lord, almost always his household will follow him. If he does not, the good example of his Christian wife is most commonly lost. The percentage of Christian wives who convert their husbands is depressingly small.

The key point for us in understanding this passage is that what appears to be a racial prohibition is in fact a religious prohibition. The reason you didn’t marry an Amorite was because of their idolatrous faith. Indeed, in the early days of Israel, God condemned these people so much that he wanted them exterminated. There is such a thing as evil in this world, and we should not be partners with it.

Ezra’s Reaction

Have you ever noticed that biblical characters tend to pull out their hair and tear their robes a lot? Well, it’s an outward sign of distress which was culturally accepted in their culture. Everybody around Ezra knew what he was trying to say by doing this. He is setting an example to them by expressing his shame and humiliation in this way.

Ezra’s Prayer

It is useful to us to analyze the prayer that Ezra makes:

·         First, it is an admission of shame and guilt — personally. This seems a little strange to us, since Ezra wasn’t the guy with the foreign wife. But he is the man in charge, and it happened on his watch.

·         He acknowledges that this is a national sin — a concept which we ignore completely. To the people of this time it was entirely possible for the Jewish nation, as a whole, to sin. Because the whole nation sinned, each individual sin. If you don’t think this possible, consider the attitude the church has today towards sexual matters. A simple look at adultery will convince you that we, collectively, have abandoned the teachings that the Scripture gives us on the subject. Indeed, the pastor in our own church once remarked that “adultery may be harmful to your marriage.”[2] The reaction of the congregation establishes the guilt.

·         Ezra asks for the grace of God despite the sins of the people. In so doing, he acknowledges that God has already been merciful to them by keeping them as a remnant of the people of Israel, and by granting them the favor of the Persian King. His plea is that he knows that God has been merciful to these people, more than they deserve, but he asks for yet even more mercy.

·         He also acknowledges that God warned them of what would happen if they behave the way they did. He then says that God was right; it did happen that way.

·         Finally, he acknowledges the righteousness of God. There is no sense in this prayer that God is somehow to blame for his people’s problems. He warned them that if they misbehave this would be the consequence. He then righteously imposed those consequences. Think about it this way: if your child misbehaves, and you tell him that there will be consequences for that misbehavior, you do so to provoke right behavior. If the child continues to misbehave, is it your fault that the punishment arrives?

Perhaps this might serve as a model for us. We might well ask ourselves whether or not we are blaming God for the things we have provoked.

Separation

If modern Americans have some difficulty in understanding why the ancient Israelite had to be separate from the nations around him, it must be extremely puzzling to note that they repent — to the point of getting rid of their wives and children. Let us examine the facts first.

Ezra 10:1-14 NASB  Now while Ezra was praying and making confession, weeping and prostrating himself before the house of God, a very large assembly, men, women and children, gathered to him from Israel; for the people wept bitterly.  (2)  Shecaniah the son of Jehiel, one of the sons of Elam, said to Ezra, "We have been unfaithful to our God and have married foreign women from the peoples of the land; yet now there is hope for Israel in spite of this.  (3)  "So now let us make a covenant with our God to put away all the wives and their children, according to the counsel of my lord and of those who tremble at the commandment of our God; and let it be done according to the law.  (4)  "Arise! For this matter is your responsibility, but we will be with you; be courageous and act."  (5)  Then Ezra rose and made the leading priests, the Levites and all Israel, take oath that they would do according to this proposal; so they took the oath.  (6)  Then Ezra rose from before the house of God and went into the chamber of Jehohanan the son of Eliashib. Although he went there, he did not eat bread nor drink water, for he was mourning over the unfaithfulness of the exiles.  (7)  They made a proclamation throughout Judah and Jerusalem to all the exiles, that they should assemble at Jerusalem,  (8)  and that whoever would not come within three days, according to the counsel of the leaders and the elders, all his possessions should be forfeited and he himself excluded from the assembly of the exiles.  (9)  So all the men of Judah and Benjamin assembled at Jerusalem within the three days. It was the ninth month on the twentieth of the month, and all the people sat in the open square before the house of God, trembling because of this matter and the heavy rain.  (10)  Then Ezra the priest stood up and said to them, "You have been unfaithful and have married foreign wives adding to the guilt of Israel.  (11)  "Now therefore, make confession to the LORD God of your fathers and do His will; and separate yourselves from the peoples of the land and from the foreign wives."  (12)  Then all the assembly replied with a loud voice, "That's right! As you have said, so it is our duty to do.  (13)  "But there are many people; it is the rainy season and we are not able to stand in the open. Nor can the task be done in one or two days, for we have transgressed greatly in this matter.  (14)  "Let our leaders represent the whole assembly and let all those in our cities who have married foreign wives come at appointed times, together with the elders and judges of each city, until the fierce anger of our God on account of this matter is turned away from us."

 

Modern Difficulties

For the modern Christian, this passage poses some immense difficulties. We cannot imagine what would be like to be told that your wife and children were living, breathing example of your sin and therefore needed to be disposed of. ”How can I get rid of the wife and children I love” would be our response. You don’t just throw away a wife and kids.

To understand how they could feel this way we must first note the nature of authority. In particular, we should see that authority is hierarchical. The particular example I would give you here is this: marriage is sacred, and to be preserved, in accordance with the commandment of God. The authority for marriage, ultimately, is God himself; he established it. If you acknowledge his authority over marriage, then you must acknowledge that he has the authority to outline specific instances in which marriage must be overridden. If you appeal to the authority of marriage, you acknowledge the superior authority of God.

The question occasionally comes up for modern Christians. In some denominations it is taught that when a person divorces their first spouse, and later becomes a Christian, that they need to acknowledge their sin of divorce by divorcing their second spouse and going back to the first one. (The author of this series most emphatically does not agree.) You can see some of the logic. The Christian is taught that marriage is lifelong; with the exception of adultery, divorce is a sin. The real question for us is do we go back and fix it retroactively. Most Christian denominations agree that this is not required — and often is not even a good idea. But the principle that we should not be “unequally yoked” still prevails; we don’t tell our children this anymore, but we should.

The issue is more general than that. The Christian is taught that he is to be “in the world, but not of the world.” There is an ongoing question of how we keep ourselves separate from the worldly ways around us while still continuing to exist in the same physical space. The two extremes are to be avoided. Unless you happen to be a monk in a monastery it’s almost impossible to avoid being in the world. But that does not mean you must follow everything the world does. The Christian is supposed to be different. It comes as a surprise to many Christians today, who have been told that Christianity is always hip, cool and modern. Christianity is taught as being fashionable when it should be taught as being true.

Steps in the Process

So what did the people do about this? We can look at the steps in the process:

·         First, they admitted that they had a problem. They’re not exactly certain what they’re supposed to do about it just yet, but they admit that they’re wrong.

·         Note the next step: they encouraged their leader to take action. Sometimes the man in charge needs to know that he is in charge.

·         There is a certain charming pragmatism about this. The people are perfectly willing to let their leaders work out the details of how they are going to implement the stuff. But at the moment there standing around in the pouring rain, it’s cold, and I suspect it’s rather hard to hear what’s going on. So they appoint their leaders to act for them. This will take about two months.

Ordinary Holiness

You have been waiting around (patiently, thank you) for us to deal with the question of just how the Christian is to be in the world but not of the world. The problem is quite large, but permit me three specific suggestions which I believe apply to all of the Christians in our time.

·         The first is, “render unto Caesar.” You have obligations to the government, and you should fulfill them as much as possible within the context of the Christian conscience. Do not look for occasions to quarrel with the government. As much as it is possible within you, be obedient. Be the model citizen — so that those who accuse you of being a weirdo right-wing fundamentalist fanatic will have to battle with the facts rather than you.

·         Remember that you are an ambassador for Christ. That implies you are not a native of this world (ambassadors are never natives of the country to which they are an ambassador) but you do represent your Lord Jesus Christ. As far as it is possible within you, present him as the eminently desirable Savior of the world.

·         You do not live in this world; but you do live in the family of God. On earth, that family is the church. Do not see the church as an extraneous part of your life to which you devote a couple hours a week. Rather, view it as the family of God, totally precious to you. You may not be in God’s building for much time during the week; but you should be in God’s service all week long.



[1] First Kings 11

[2] My wife's response to this was to remark that in my case it would not be harmful — it would be fatal to my body.

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