TEXT: Ezra chapters 7-10
The book of Ezra divides naturally into two sections.
Chapters 1-6 record the first return of the Jewish exiles to Jerusalem and the rebuilding of the temple. Although the temple was built with much resistance by the heathen in the land (Ezra 4:24), it was ultimately completed during the reign of Darius (Ezra 6:14-16) around 515 B.C. Chapters 7-10 record the second batch of returnees under the leadership of Ezra and the spiritual reformation and restoration of God’s law to the hearts of the people.
These two themes are instructive. They show that to fully return to fellowship with God, the people needed a proper temple, godly leaders and commitment to live according to God’s word. Ezra’s personality came to limelight during the reign of Artaxerxes king of Persia. “…He was a ready scribe in the law of Moses, which the LORD God of Israel had given: and the king granted him all his request, according to the hand of the LORD his God upon him” (Ezra 7:6). His primary concern as a leader over the people was their spiritual welfare, especially the aspects of heart purity and godly marriage. The clear distinction of a leader raised by God is commitment to divine instruction, teaching divine precepts to ensure believers are conformed to Christ.
EZRA’S PEDIGREE, PREPAREDNESS AND COMMISSION BY ARTAXERXES (Ezra 7:1-28; Joshua 1:8; Malachi 2:5-7; Psalm 1:1-3; 19:7-11; Acts 1:1; 1 Corinthians 9:27; 2 Timothy 3:16,17)
Ezra’s lineage was traced to Aaron the first priest in Israel (Ezra 7:1-5). This priestly line of descent established his authority to teach. Beyond the ministry of teaching, he developed himself through painstaking study of the word of God. This prepared him for spiritual leadership. Though raised in a foreign land in captivity and surrounded by heathen philosophies and cultures, he “prepared his heart to seek the law of the LORD, and to do it, and to teach in Israel statutes and judgments”. His devotion is a model for spiritual leadership. Studying, obeying and teaching the word of God are indispensable attributes of a true leader. Believers are admonished to study the Word (2 Timothy 2:15; John 5:39); obey it (James 1:22); and preach it (2 Timothy 4:2).
With rare devotion and commitment to God’s word, Ezra experienced divine presence and anointing revealed by the hand of the Lord upon him and his ministry (Ezra 7:6,9,28; 8:18,22,31). This brought him into favour with Artaxerxes, the heathen king who gave him permission to lead the covenant people of God back to the Promised Land. He was given authority to initiate the return, gather as many as were willing and assume control over the affairs of the land. The king and his counsellors made generous contributions to purchase items for the daily sacrifices at Jerusalem, and ordered offerings from the king’s treasury to ensure that nothing was lacking for the temple worship. Artaxerxes also excluded the priests and all the ministers from tributes or tax, and conferred on Ezra the authority to effect the law with penalty on defaulters. The lifestyle of Ezra, his confidence in God and spiritual influence on the king teaches Christians in all walks of life to carry their faith with them and “Let [their] light so shine before men, that they may see [their] good works, and glorify [our] Father which is in heaven” (Matthew 5:16).
EZRA’S LEADERSHIP AND THE RETURN OF THE EXILES TO JERUSALEM (Ezra 8:1-36; 1 Corinthians 4:2; Numbers 3:5-8; Psalms 33:16-18; 56:3; 118:8; 146:3)
Ezra proceeded to gather the Jews to go with him to Jerusalem beginning with the recognised leaders and elders, “chief men” of the people. About 1500 people with their numerous family members gathered with him at the river Ahava for the exodus. Ezra, however, observed that no Levite was among the people and he was concerned that such a significant tribe was missing. As a priest, Ezra knew how important the Levites were to temple worship and the promotion of God’s word and purpose in Israel. They were designated to work in the temple and involved in interpreting the Law of Moses to the people (Nehemiah 8:7,8). They were set apart by God to minister with the priest in the tabernacle (Number 3:6; 18:2); to bear the ark of the covenant of the Lord, stand before Him to minister, and bless in His Name (Deuteronomy 10:8); to teach the law and judge the people (Deuteronomy 17:9; 21:5; 31:9); and to minister in songs during worship (2 Chronicles 20:19). He therefore sent selected leaders to persuade this group, whom he called “ministers for the house of God” to join the exodus train. His entreaty yielded positive results as 38 sons of Levi and 220 Nethinims (temple servants) responded to the call. The Lord says, “Pray ye therefore the Lord of the harvest, that he will send forth labourers into his harvest” (Matthew 9:38). While we pray, leaders must rally willing volunteers, and urge idle, distracted, apathetic labourers to join the work of soul harvesting.
As the journey commenced at the river Ahava, Ezra proclaimed a fast. The reasons for the fast were clear. One, to “afflict ourselves before our God”. It was a moment for spiritual cleansing because if they expected God’s presence with them, they must be free from sin (Psalm 66:18). Two, “to seek of him a right way for us…”; they needed divine guidance (Psalm 32:8; Proverbs 3:6). Three, to ask God for protection from the enemies on the way. “So we fasted and besought our God for this: and he was intreated of us” (Ezra 8:23). It is instructive that this journey of about 900 miles was without any incident because God was with them.
Like Ezra, we must trust God and depend on Him absolutely for all things that pertain unto life, godliness and ministry. Observe that while he sought permission from the earthly king, he sought protection from the heavenly King because he knew that God will “shew himself strong in the behalf of them whose heart is perfect toward him” (2 Chronicles 16:9). Believers must avoid the error of taking God’s help for granted. Active seeking of divine guidance and help is necessary for personal, family and ministerial affairs.
Diligent physical preparations were also made. This began with the weighing of the silver, gold and the utensils provided by the king (Ezra 8:25-27). This underlines the need for accountability, proper record keeping and documentation of church properties. On arrival in Jerusalem, the articles were weighed again to confirm that nothing was missing or lost, and the records were properly documented (Ezra 8:33,34). These materials were declared holy because they had been dedicated and set apart for use in the house of God. Thus, they were to be handled and protected by the priests and Levites who were also holy by virtue of their consecration to God and separation from profaneness and defilements. This teaches that all properties, materials and equipment dedicated for use in the house of God are sacred. Therefore, they should not be used indiscriminately for secular engagements.
Ezra’s reform and restoration of true worship (Ezra 9:1-15; 10:1-44; Genesis 15:19-21; Deuteronomy 18:9-12; 20:18: 29:12,18; Malachi 2:10-16; Matthew 5:32; 19:3-9; Mark 10:11,12; Romans 7:2,3; 1 Corinthians 7:39; Daniel 12:1; Malachi 3:16)
Within four weeks of Ezra’s arrival, he received information about how the holy seed (Israelites) had mingled with the degenerate seed (the people of the land) contrary to God’s commandment (Deuteronomy 7:1-6). The Scriptures enjoin believers in Christ not to have intimate fellowship or friendship with unbelievers (2 Corinthians 6:14-18). Leaders are also expected to be examples in upholding these ordinances by being blameless (1 Timothy 3:1,2). The response of Ezra to this anomaly is instructive. The sins of others and the injury done to God’s honour should evoke deep sorrow in a true believer’s heart. Also, sorrow for sin must be great enough to cause emotional heartache similar to mourning the loss of a loved one. Ezra was particularly disturbed about the unequal yoke in marriage. “For they have taken of their daughters for themselves, and for their sons: so that the holy seed have mingled themselves with the people of those lands…” (Ezra 9:2).
The marriage union between a man and a woman was initiated by God. However, He made it clear to Israel not to intermarry with a non-Israelite, as this would pollute the covenant people of God. The same principle is applicable to the redeemed people of God. Blood-washed Christians are holy seeds and should not in any case enter into marriage relationship with unbelievers. This brings contamination and compromise of belief systems. When a Christian goes into marriage with an unbeliever, it has adverse effects on his Christian culture of prayer, faith, dressing, social orientation, family relationship, language, absolute dependence on and right perception of God. Intermarriage with an unbeliever is unfaithfulness to God and will potentially lead to the loss of Christian identity. Ezra, through diligent study of God’s word, had a deep understanding of the sin, guilt and consequences of mixed marriages. This explains why he went into deep mourning when he heard the information.
Ezra’s response to the information he received throws up some lessons. First, it was deeply personal; he expressed shame and deep embarrassment because of the sin and guilt of the people. He acknowledged that it was their corporate disobedience that led to their captivity and brought them under the dominion of heathen kings. Second, he identified with the people’s sins and confessed them to God as corporate malady. Third, he acknowledged that the present favour that opened the door for a remnant to return and build the temple for revival of true worship was a moment of grace and an indication that God has not totally forsaken Israel. Fourth, he regarded the sin of intermarriage with the heathen as great disobedience to God’s law and acknowledged that He would be justified to further punish them for this transgression. Fifth, he prayed with faith and hope in God’s mercies to forgive, cleanse and restore them to true fellowship with Himself. These characteristics, which were evident in the life and ministry of true servants of God like Abraham, Moses, Jeremiah, Paul, etc., are expected in contemporary leaders of God’s people.
While still mourning, confessing and praying, the people came under the influence of his prayer and a large congregation gathered with tears. They had realised the gravity of their sinful engagements and unfaithfulness to God, and were ready to find their ways back to Him. They resolved to make a covenant with God and put away their strange wives with their children in obedience to His law. Genuine repentance is evidenced by the desire to correct past mistakes by making restitution. However, when it involves wrong marriage and other complicated issues, it is necessary to seek proper counselling from leaders to ensure the right thing is done according to the dictates of Scripture.
The concluding chapter of the book of Ezra contains the list identifying the offenders by their names and family lineage. It also highlights those who hold significant positions. The list included seventeen priests (verses 18-22), ten Levites which included a singer and three gatekeepers (23,24), and eighty-six others (verses 25-43). This is a warning to those who indulge in secret sins and atrocities hoping that they would not be discovered. A day of reckoning awaits all those who cover up their sins instead of confessing and turning away from them. Meanwhile, the door of God’s mercy is still open to penitent sinners and backsliders if only they would return to Him before it is too late.