The Man of God's Faithfulness
Scripture: Ezra 7:1–28
One of the main themes of the book of Ezra is the faithfulness of God to his covenant with his people and to his promises to return them to the land, to true covenant worship of him in the temple where he made his presence known, and to the true knowledge and practice of his Law. Undergirding this theme is the providence of God in fulfilling this quest. And the chapter we are looking at today stands as a hinge in this story as we witness God’s faithfulness to his covenant, the man he raises to fulfill his promise, and the need to be faithful to keep the Law of God.
Introduction and historical context
It is in this vein that our story kicks off. It’s been almost 60 years since the events of chapter 6 – 57 years to be exact. The year now is 458 B.C. Between the events of last week’s sermon and today’s, the whole book of Esther took place. King Xerxes (or Ahasuerus) who married Esther is no more. We are now in the reign of his son Artaxerxes. The Israelites had been exiled in two waves into Babylon more than a century earlier, beginning in 612 B.C. and culminating in the disaster of 586 B.C when the temple that Solomon had built was destroyed. The place where God had made his presence known was no more.
Then God worked in the heart of king Cyrus to decree the return of the first wave of Israelites from exile 80 years before this chapter’s events, in the year 538 B.C. They started to rebuild the temple but then stopped under the opposition we saw in chapter 4, then resumed the work in chapter 5 under the decree of king Darius, finishing the temple in chapter 6 and celebrating the Passover in the year 516 B.C., exactly 70 years after the first temple was destroyed, just as Jeremiah had prophesied (in Jer 25:11 and 29:10) that God would begin to return his people from exile after 70 years. God was faithful to his promises to his people. He has never been found faithless to any of his promises.
In today’s passage, the people have now been back in the land nearly as long as they had been in exile. The temple had been rebuilt but not fully beautified. The first wave of returned Jews had settled back in the land for nearly 6 decades. We do not know much about this intervening period, but it seems there was no particular leader on the scene to guide the people to the true worship of God and to keeping his statutes. We know of these transgressions later in Ezra and also in Nehemiah as we hear that the people had faltered in their worship and had intermarried with non-Israelites, taking on some of their idolatrous customs. At the same time, there was still a large cohort living back in Persian lands, particularly in Babylon where many had prospered, having listened to Jeremiah’s call (Jer 29:7) to seek the welfare of the city they were in, yet maybe having glanced over the prophesy of Zechariah (2:6-7) to flee the land of the north and escape to Zion.
History often tells us of such times of national confusion, of tragedy, of distress where there does not seem to be a leader, one who can guide the people and the nation to a safe haven, to victory over its enemies, or out of the slum of its degraded practices. And the study of history reveals that every now and then, someone rises to lead the people into renewal and reform, into victory and prosperity. Every now and then comes a George Washington, or a Winston Churchill, a Moses, or an Ezra.
It is in light of this that the protagonist of this book, after six chapters, finally shows up on the scene. You may have been wondering: the book we are studying is called Ezra, but we have not heard of him yet at all! And in this aspect this book is unique: most other prophetic books quickly introduce their subjects. But Ezra shows up 60% into the book, 57 years after the events of last chapter, around 458 B.C. The context is set. Now let us look at the man.
So who was this Ezra?
His name means the LORD HAS HELPED. In 1 Samuel 7:12, after God defeats the Philistines who were attacking Israel, Samuel sets a stone of remembrance and calls it Ebenezer, which means “Till now the Lord has helped us.” We sing this word in the hymn “Come Thou Fount,” when we say here I raise my Ebenezer here by Thy great help I’ve come. The suffix EZER means help and you can see the similarity between Ezra and Ebenezer and the theme of God’s providential help that has been on clear display in history and especially in this chapter.
This Ezra was a man who was likely born, raised and lived his entire life in exile in Babylon. He had never been to Jerusalem but probably heard about it in stories or prophesies. It seems he had prospered to a certain degree and like Daniel and Nehemiah, he had become well educated and achieved a high position where he had direct access to the king and favor in his sight.
He was a scribe which means he was a serious student and a keeper of the revelation, committed to learning and preserving the Law of God. By the time of Jesus there were many scribes who had degenerated from their role of preserving, teaching and administering the Law to the point of opposing Jesus himself. And that is very unfortunate because after the events of Ezra, Nehemiah and Malachi which are chronologically the last books of the Old Testament, the Jews who returned from exile struggled to find their identity within this new context, and they worked hard to redefine their worship. Their efforts eventually resulted in the birth of the Scribes, Sadducees and Pharisees that ultimately missed the spirit of the Law. But Jesus whom they opposed learned the Law, fulfilled it, and taught his disciples and us how we should walk before him in the new covenant.
Ezra was not the type of scribe Jesus encountered. In fact, he was a priest. The short genealogy we have about him contains very important names. Some may be obscure to us, but one of the names is Zadok the priest who had helped king David during his son Absalom’s revolt, and later anointed Solomon as king. Another important name is Aaron, the first high priest. So according to the old covenant, our protagonist has the birthright to be one of the high priests of the people of God. He had in fact been appointed by Artaxerxes to be in his court as a sort of secretary of religious affairs and institutions, and was now being commissioned to return to Jerusalem and teach the people the Law of God. Having studied the Law of Moses, he was particularly positioned to know the Law, establish it, interpret it and introduce reforms.
But why were reforms needed? During the 57 years since they celebrated the Passover in ch.6, the exiles who had returned had mingled with the people of the land, assimilating some of their religious customs and even intermarrying with them as we learn later in chapter 9. Even the leaders of the people had sinned in that way, and entered adulterous relationships with the people of the land, and in so doing, adulterated the worship of God. It was true back then as it is true today – part and parcel of human nature regardless of the historical era – that those who want acceptance by the surrounding culture will eventually compromise. In an effort to be overtly sensitive, truth had been bent and reshaped in a way that became utterly unrecognizable. That happened in Babylon; it also happened in Jerusalem, and Samaria, and modern-day name-the-city-you-want. Truly, without guidance, a people falls (Proverbs 11:14). Without a shepherd, sheep go astray. Without a discipler, the issue is not that people will not be discipled at all, but they will be discipled by what’s around them. And the surrounding culture is a very efficient discipler.
The faithfulness of Ezra, the man of God
It is in light of this that our passage directs us to examine the faithfulness of Ezra, the man of God. He was truly a Levite and so according to the Law he could be set apart for the ministry of the Law and the temple. He was a scribe - a student and a keeper of the revelation, committed to preserving the Law of God. But genealogy alone is not sufficient for our faithfulness to God.
If we look at v.10 we see that Ezra made a conscious decision to study the Law of God. He did not do it for mere intellectual curiosity, nor for personal enlightenment, nor to become elevated and separate from the people he lived among. As Proverbs 2:2 and 23:21 say, he applied his heart to the understanding of the Law – TO DO IT! You see: study without practice is sterile. When one sets his heart on the Law of God, he sets his whole mind on understanding it and his whole being on practicing it. Yet the heart needs preparation through the commitment of our intention. And v.10 tells us he had intentionally set his heart to the following 3 practices:
- First, to study the Law of the Lord. This means he spent time, effort, and possibly finances to search, learn and examine the Pentateuch, the Law of Moses. No time was wasted on matters of mindless knowledge. As Psalm 1 says, his delight was in the law of the Lord, and on his law he meditated day and night. This should remind us of the child Jesus who at 12 years old was able to argue with the teachers of the Law, and that is because the truly human Jesus from his childhood had committed himself to know the things of God. So I ask you today: are you committed to study the word of God? Have you set your heart on it? Even if you don’t feel like it, are you commanding your soul like the Psalmist did to run after the knowledge of God? Can you say: Oh how I love your Law – it is my meditation all the day long! (Psalm 119:97) I will meditate on your precepts and fix my eyes on your ways (Psalm 119:15). Do you find him worthy of such devotion? I love when we share the word with one another, we encourage one another and rejoice in what God is instructing us through his gospel. And I love when we submit our lives to the word as it transforms us more into his likeness.
- The second thing Ezra set his heart on was to do the Law, to observe it by obeying the God of Israel and keeping the decrees he had commanded. Ezra knew that the only true theology is applied theology. Or as we’ve heard said from this pulpit before: all theology is practical. You see once we know the truth and what is the right thing to do, our conscience should oblige us to do it, otherwise it would be sin according to James 4:17 (Whoever knows the right thing to do and fails to do it, to him it is sin). And James also says in 1:22 that we ought to be doers not just hearers of the word. James’ brother – Jesus – taught in John 13:17 saying: if you know these things, blessed are you if you do them. Ezra did not find it a burden to obey God and to do what he commanded. On the other hand, he was burdened by the fact that people did not know or obey the Law. So brother and sister: do you feel it burdensome to obey what God has commanded? Do your preferences and opinions trump the clear teachings and instructions of the word of God? Or do you delight in obeying him out of sheer joy and thanksgiving for who he is as our eternal, magnificent, holy and awesome God, and for what Christ has done for us as our Savior? Can you tell him: your statutes are my delight? Let us stir one another to obedience and good deeds. We do not obey him to gain favor. We obey him because he first loved us, and to love him is to do what he commanded.
- The third thing Ezra fixed his heart on was to teach his statutes and rules in Israel. In Nehemiah 8:8 we learn that Ezra read the Law to the people, and explained it. This is what faithful gospel ministry looks like. It is not only reading the word but explaining it so that people can understand and obey. Here’s the mark of a true disciple: it is making disciples. He learned, he did, and then he taught others to do likewise. A true disciple does not hoard; does not merely taste and see; but a disciple who has tasted of the goodness of God overflows with a desire to tell others what God has done, what he has commanded, exhorting them to obey all his commands. Do you see the foreshadowing of the great commission? God’s plan did not change: it has always been that his people would learn his gospel well, obey him, and then tell others to do likewise. In my work, I find so much joy and satisfaction as I teach students, residents and fellows and see how with time they grow in their knowledge and skills and do like I taught them, on their own, without my help, and the best thing is when I see them searching for knowledge and teaching others. They don’t need me anymore! I can go on to teach another group! Now they have the knowledge, they are doing the work, and they are teaching others and sharing the knowledge with them. And this is what we have been commanded to do: learn, obey and then teach others so that they can obey and go on to teach others themselves. Imagine if each and every one of us did this in our homes, our families, our workplaces, our neighborhoods, our circles of friends! Does it sound like the great commission? Remember the words of Christ: teach them to obey all that I have commanded you.
Oh believers what transformation would take place if the people of God were to be faithful to our part of the covenant. Ezra’s faithfulness toward God was striking and clear in his inner being and his outer practice. He lived with integrity. He loved the Lord his God with his mind, soul and strength. He did not loosen his covenantal relationship with the Lord nor did he weaken his faithfulness to him in order to achieve a position or secure a gain or blend in. Like Joseph in Egypt, Daniel in Babylon and Nehemiah in Susa, he honored the Lord at all times and did not falter in his obedience. All that was made possible by the grace of God on his people. As his name means: the Lord was faithful in helping him.
The faithfulness of God
In fact, if you look with me at v.6, 9 and 28, you will see a clear demonstration of God’s faithfulness toward his covenant people and Ezra. Three times God’s providence is mentioned:
- In v.6: The King granted him all that he asked, for the hand of the Lord his God was on him. We will look more at this king shortly, but there is no confusion here, just like we saw in 6:14, the decree was that of God. Our Lord’s favor was behind all these events.
- In v.9: Ezra takes the journey from Babylon to Jerusalem and arrives relatively quickly and without issues, for the good hand of his God was on him. More details on this journey will be mentioned in the following chapter. But Babylon would be located today about 60 miles south of Baghdad in Iraq. A direct journey from Babylon west to Jerusalem, would have been somewhere around 500-600 miles. But Ezra’s journey would have typically gone north through Iraq, west through northern Syria toward the Mediterranean, and down through Lebanon along the coast to get to Jerusalem after nearly 1000 miles. This path would allow proximity to rivers and bypass of mountains. The journey took about 4 months and God was faithful to protect Ezra and the nearly two thousand people with him on this journey and he arrived in Jerusalem on August 4, 458 B.C.
- In v.28: Ezra praises God for his favor as he acknowledges that the hand of the Lord my God was on me. Ezra knew fully well that all his scribing, meditating, studying, doing, teaching, asking and journeying, though great feats in and of themselves, were but the manifestation of God’s providence and the work of his faithfulness. He did not boast – all that he had or did was from the good hand of his Lord. It is good to give praise to the Lord in all things, especially our achievements. Believer: there is nothing you and I have achieved, studied, built or labored for that is not without the good favor of our good God. Our value is not in our achievements; it is in living in grace, by the merits of Jesus Christ – the faithful One.
God’s providence manifested in stirring the heart of the king
Indeed, God’s gracious faithfulness is the engine behind all these events. Do you believe that God is able to put thoughts and decisions in people’s minds, including kings? If you recall Darrell’s sermon from chapters 1 and 2, God had stirred both the spirit of king Cyrus and that of Jewish leaders to initiate this return from exile. Remember Proverbs 21:1 which came in my pastoral prayer last week and in Ben’s sermon: The king’s heart is a stream of water in the hand of the Lord, he turns it wherever he will. In the book of Exodus, God stirred Pharaoh’s heart by hardening it so that his glory might be revealed among the Egyptians, so that they may know that there is a God in the land. He stirred Nebuchadnezzar’s heart to take the people into exile as judgment. He stirred the heart of Cyrus to initiate the return. And he stirred the heart of Artaxerxes and the heart of Ezra to continue the process of rebuilding Jerusalem, and very importantly, to purify the land, reestablish the worship of God and the teaching of the Law.
The Law of God
God’s hand of favor prepped the way for all this. For Artaxerxes to initiate a decree of return. For him to choose Ezra to lead it. For him to issue the typical Persian threat that any who opposes will be dealt with severely. For him to grant Ezra latitude in expenses. For his seven counselors to all be on board with this plan. For them to give free gifts to the temple and expensive provisions. For Artaxerxes to decree that priests, Levites, singers, gatekeepers and temple servants return to Jerusalem – all those needed for orderly practice of temple worship. For him to order Ezra to present sacrifices according to the Law of Moses. And very importantly, for him to ordain Ezra to instruct the people with all diligence in the matters of the Law of God. God basically stirred Artaxerxes’ heart to make the Law of God the law of the land – all the land beyond the river, and as mentioned in v.25, to teach it to even those who do not know it! Brothers and sisters: do you see the sovereignty of God in this? We are seeing here the fulfilment of prophesies by Haggai, Zechariah, Jeremiah and Isaiah in the return of the people, the beautification of the temple, and the teaching of the Law. And we also remember that God’s plan from the beginning included proclaiming his name and his Law to those who do not know him. What the people had longed for and wept for at the rivers of Babylon is now being fulfilled through a pagan king! We see the reestablishment of this Israeli theocracy where priests, judges and magistrates are ordained to reestablish the covenant community under God and his Law.
It is true that Artaxerxes might be doing it for his own reasons. It is true a peaceable Jerusalem will be a good buffer against Egypt that was threatening to revolt. It is true Artaxerxes would benefit from friends in Jerusalem on the road he would take to go down to Egypt to quelch the resistance. It is true he had a policy of allowing conquered people to semi-autonomously self-govern; is it true he wanted conquered peoples to pray to their own gods for his wellbeing. But you see folks: our God specializes in turning what people intend for their own ends to his glorious purposes, for his name’s sake.
I am a bit amused by how Artaxerxes refers to God. On one hand, he calls himself king of kings which was a common practice of Persian monarchs to name themselves like that since they had conquered other kings and their domains. So, he had authority over other kings. But on the other hand, he refers to God in the following ways:
- The God of Israel, whose dwelling is in Jerusalem
- The God that is in Jerusalem
- Your God that is in Jerusalem
- The God of Jerusalem
Folks: our God made the world and everything in it. He is not a mere local deity in this or that city. Artaxerxes may have thought of him that way, but Jerusalem was not his real dwelling place. He does not live in temples made by man nor is he served by human hands as though he needed anything, for he himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything (Acts 17). Yet he made his presence among his people known to the nations at the temple in Jerusalem. He is Lord of heaven and earth! Yet he made his knowledge accessible in a unique way. I want to draw your attention to a very important point, in how the king refers to the Law in v.25 as he is addressing Ezra: the wisdom of your God that is in your hand. It was probably fascinating to the kings of old that the Law of God had been revealed in such away that it was written down so that people could read it, learn it, remember it, obey it and teach it. That is the magnificence of the revealed word of the God of heaven we worship, in that he has given us his word in writing. It is not mere customs, practices or oral traditions, but a written word that has been preserved from one generation to another by the power of the Holy Spirit, inerrant, God-breathed, and profitable.
Ezra knew all of this. We see him exalt the name of God in v.27, recognizing that God put this in the heart of the king, and giving Ezra his favor, his hesed, his steadfast love, for the hand of the sovereign Lord was on him.
Jesus is our temple
Brothers and sisters: faithfulness is one of the main themes of this book. God is faithful to the covenant he has made with his people. He is as faithful as he is holy. He does not change. This means his faithfulness does not falter. He had made a dwelling place for his name among his people. He had judged them and chastised them for disobeying him. He had led them into exile. Yet not without hope. He made a promise to return them from exile and to make his dwelling place among them once again. He raised a man of faithfulness to lead them. He fulfilled his promise of returning them and rebuilding the temple. The establishment of this second temple was very important. As pastor and theologian Phil Ryken says: it meant the covenant community would resume covenant worship of their covenant God in the covenant city. And the teaching of the Law by Ezra would be an act of purification and reformation, returning the people to covenant living and covenant practice.
While Ezra could trace his lineage to Aaron, his genealogy alone was not sufficient. He had set his heart on studying the word of God, obeying it, and teaching it. He was both called and equipped to serve as Israel’s priest. He had the will and the conviction to lead. He also had a heart for holiness. And the people followed his practice later in their repentance of sin. Ezra was considered by the rabbis as second only to Moses in regards to his knowledge and teaching of the Law.
Friends: unlike the people at the time of Moses and Ezra, we have not come to a mountain, to a tent, to a temple made of stone. Like them, you and I were exiled from the presence of God, strangers, alienated from a covenant with him. But we have seen the fulfilment of God’s greater promise: that one day, he would raise a king who would reign in righteousness, a prophet who would proclaim freedom, a priest who would minister forever, a child who would be born, a servant who would suffer, a lamb who would be slain. The first temple is no more. The second temple is no more. There will be no more temple. There is no temple in heaven, in the new city, in the new Jerusalem, for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb (Rev 21:22).
This Lamb – Jesus – our eternal high priest is greater than Moses and greater than Ezra. He has come after long wait and expectation to set his people free. He has put an end to our exile. He has given us a new covenant by his blood. He has made us members of a living body. He has ushered us once for all into the holy place. God has made his dwelling place with us – his people – through his Holy Spirit which has been given to us. We are members of a new covenant, not by birthright but by the new birth; not by genealogy but by being grafted into the vine. We have become the covenant people of God, and ministers of this new covenant. All of this because the good hand of the Lord our God was on us. Do you see his faithfulness in pursuing you?
So I ask you: are you rejoicing that your exile is over? Or are you cherishing some of what Babylon offered choosing to linger there rather than run to Jesus? As a member of the covenant community, are you fully committed to covenant worship? Have you intended to set your heart on studying the word of God? On doing it? On teaching it? These are not themes in Ezra alone. These are themes of the new covenant: go and tell; make disciples of all nations; teach them to obey all that I have commanded you; preserve the faith once for all delivered to the saints; guard the good teaching which I have entrusted to you; implore the world to be reconciled to God.
God called Ezra and equipped him; Ezra believed God, set his heart on holiness, and lived with conviction. He took courage because the hand of God was on him. Friends: children of God, redeemed by the precious blood of our Savior, heirs of the promise, members of Christ’s community, ministers of the new covenant: take courage for the hand of Yahweh your God is with you. He will surely fulfill his promise. He has called you. He will equip you. Believe him! Trust him! Submit your will to his purpose! Renew your mind by his truth! Commit all your ways to him! Proclaim his name! And embrace him with all your being, for he is worthy of the full worship of our hearts. He is faithful. He will surely keep his covenant.