A SECOND GROUP RETURNS Ezra 7–10“Ezra had devoted himself to the study and observance of the Law of the Lord, and to teaching its decrees and laws in Israel” (Ezra 7:10).Some 80 years after the first group returned, Ezra led a smaller contingent home. Ezra’s return was significant. This man who was dedicated to God’s Law called the people of Judah back to their original commitment to God.
An exciting revolution took place in Babylon. The Jewish people, shaken by the loss of their land and temple, turned to Scripture in a desperate search for hope. They met together weekly to pray and to discuss the Scriptures—and thus the synagogue was born. Some men devoted themselves to study, to do, and to teach God’s Word—and the scribal movement was born. From the Babylonian Captivity onward the Jews, cleansed at last of idolatry, would be a people of the Book. Ezra is the most famous representative of this group of scribes, and perhaps its founder. His ministry in Judah is a beautiful illustration of the purpose of Jewish scholarship, and of the important role generations of rabbis played in encouraging faithfulness to the Lord.
Ezra’s journey from Babylon was summarized (7:1–10). Ezra recorded his commission from Artaxerxes (vv. 11–28), listed his companions (8:1–14), and gave details of the journey (vv. 15–36). In Judah, Ezra’s prayer confessing Judah’s intermarriage with foreigners (9:1–15) brought repentance, and the foreign wives were divorced (10:1–44).
Understanding the Text
“This Ezra came up from Babylon” Ezra 7:1–10. Ezra had had no opportunity to minister as a priest in Babylon. The temple rested in a faraway land. Though Ezra was uniquely equipped by his lineage to serve God as a priest, his circumstances made this impossible. But Ezra did have the Scriptures, and determined to serve God by studying them. Ezra’s problem, and his solution, have application to us today. For instance, some churches limit women to certain roles, even when they are equipped for other ministries. Ezra reminds us that a person who is determined to serve the Lord will find a way—and possibly have an even greater impact in that role than in the role he or she is denied! “Now I decree” Ezra 7:11–28. The Persian ruler Artaxerxes I issued this decree in 458B.C, and Ezra began the 900-mile journey the first of Nisan (March/April). The decree explains the purpose of the expedition: Ezra was to bring offerings from the Jews in Babylon to the temple, and offerings from the king himself. Levites and priests who accompanied Ezra were exempted from taxes. Most significant, Ezra was authorized to see that God’s Law served officially as the “law of the land,” and to appoint judges to administer that law. Ezra’s authority in Jewish affairs was thus absolute: “Whoever does not obey the law of your God and the law of the king must surely be punished by death, banishment, confiscation of property, or imprisonment.” Judah was no longer an independent kingdom. But under the enlightened rule of Persia, God’s Old Testament Law would be better enforced than under many of Judah’s own kings! “I was ashamed to ask the king for soldiers” Ezra 8:15–36. It’s clear that Ezra had represented the Lord as all-powerful to the rulers of Persia. How could he then ask to be protected on the long, dangerous journey by a guard of soldiers? Rather than turn to the king, Ezra turned to God. He called his company to join him in prayer and fasting. Ezra acted in what some might call a foolish way. He had announced that his God helps “everyone who looks to Him.” Now Ezra had to “put up, or shut up.” Sometimes we hesitate to make claims about what God can do. What if we make some claim, and God doesn’t come through? Ezra reminds us that God can and will care for His own. Speaking out about who God is and what He can do for those who love Him is not foolishness, but faith. Balance Scales. Ezra 8:24–30 records the weights of gifts donated for transport to God’s house. Many archeological finds demonstrate how carefully royal archivists weighed and recorded gold, silver, and commodities. “While Ezra was praying and confessing” Ezra 10:1–44. On arriving, Ezra discovered that many in Judah had married foreign wives and had children by them, in clear violation of Old Testament Law. Ezra’s anguished confession moved the people of Judah. Soon a large crowd was weeping and praying with him. As the spirit of conviction spread, all Judah assembled in Jerusalem. Ezra confronted them with God’s prohibition against such marriages. The people confessed their sin, set up an investigating commission, and forced all who had married foreign wives to “send away all these women and their children.” The event suggests a number of lessons for you and me. First, we are more likely to move others to confession by taking sin to heart, and weeping over it, than by being judgmental. Second, while it may have been painful to break up families, it was necessary. God’s people were to retain their racial purity. Third, the pain of separation could have been avoided by keeping God’s Law in the first place. If the men named had not married foreign wives, no breakup of families would have followed. Let’s remember, when we are moved by sympathy for those who suffer pain as a consequence of some sin, that the pain could have been avoided.
Pointing the Finger (Ezra 9:1–10:4)
It’s tempting, when someone we know sins, to come down hard on him. After all, we’re to discipline erring brothers, aren’t we? The more blatant the sin, the more justified we feel confronting or criticizing. Yet Ezra reminds us that it’s not appropriate to point the finger of judgment. What is appropriate when others sin is tears. Not tears for them. Tears that we have let God down. Tears that we, the people of God, have failed. When Ezra arrived in Judah, he learned that many Jews had taken foreign wives. This was a clear violation of Old Testament Law, and Ezra was appalled. But rather than strike out angrily at those who had sinned, Ezra identified himself with the sinners and confessed to the Lord. He did not speak of “their” guilt, but of “our guilt” (9:7). He did not condemn “their” disregard for God’s laws, but cried out that “we have disregarded the commands” (v. 10). Rather than stand self-righteously in judgment, Ezra cried, “Not one of us can stand in Your presence” (v. 15). Ezra’s heart was broken by the sin he found, and he accepted partial responsibility for the failure of men he had never even met. We can’t read Ezra’s prayer of confession in this chapter without sensing the depth of this godly man’s sense of anguish and shame. He was deeply hurt by the sins of his people: hurt for them, and for God. The reality of Ezra’s hurt, expressed openly in weeping, prayer, and confession, moved the men and women of Judah to confess as well—and to purge the sin from their lives. So next time you or I see sin in the body of Christ, let’s not point the finger. Let’s realize that if the church was what God called it to be, and if we were the Christians God called us to be, our brother or sister might not have fallen. Rather than judge, we need to let our hearts be broken, that through confession of our responsibility for one another God might purge the church as He did Judah in Ezra’s time.
We are to grieve over other’s sins as well as over our own.