Ezra 7

Ezra 7

SERIES: The Providence of God

A Man of the Word

Introduction:  One of the highest compliments one can receive is for someone to say you are a person of your word—that you will do exactly what you say.  Or if you sign a document, you will fulfill the obligations listed in that document.  People who can’t write generally have someone else print their name and then they add an “x”.  Originally the “X” was an imitation of the cross of Christ, and to make that sign was the same as saying, “As a Christian I promise on my sacred honor, to ….” We’ve long ago forgotten that an “X” is really a cross, and unfortunately many have also forgotten what a promise means.  I heard of a parent who said about his son, “He’s a very promising young man.  He promises to clean his room, he promises to feed the dog, and he promises to behave in church, but he rarely does.”  More than anyone else believers ought to be people of their word.

There is, however, something equally important as being a person of our word, and that is being a person of the Word.  That is what I want to talk about today.  We are two-thirds of the way through the book of Ezra, and we finally meet the main character.  Fifty-eight years have transpired between the dedication of the temple, which we noted briefly last Sunday in chapters 6, and the beginning of chapter 7.  One can fill in some the intervening history by reading the book of Esther, but little else is known about this period.

The single most important practical truth for us that surfaces in these last four chapters of the book of Ezra may be this:  building a house of worship is not a panacea to the spiritual problems of God’s people.  It never has been, and it never will be.  A building will not prevent sin or produce holiness or transform apathetic, self-centered believers into spiritual dynamos.  If anything, it may actually cause them to rest on their laurels and take their relationship with God for granted in a way they would not be tempted to do otherwise.

As we have seen in recent weeks, the Jewish temple was completed due to the motivating preaching of Haggai and Zechariah, and the people began immediately to observe the religious feasts and to praise God with joy.  But by the time Ezra appears on the scene there is little evidence of this spiritual vitality.  Materialism and spiritual compromise are rampant, and the Law of Moses has fallen into disuse.  Ezra’s calling from God is to bring revival to a people who have allowed themselves to become more and more assimilated into the culture around them.  

Revival is a term Christians talk a lot about but concerning which we have very fuzzy notions.  Most of us have never experienced one and may even fear the stereotype revival we have heard about.  But revival doesn’t have to mean sackcloth and ashes, all-night prayer meetings, and going to church every day of the week.  Revival simply means a re-energizing of our relationship with God.  It has three essential ingredients:  a renewed commitment to the Word of God, persistence in prayer, and confession of sin.  Wherever these three elements are present to an unusual degree there is going to be revival, and all three are much in evidence in these last four chapters of Ezra.  The element chapter 7 focuses upon is commitment to the Word of God.

Let’s begin with a look at Ezra’s background.

Ezra’s background (1-6) 

It is provided for us in some detail beginning in verse 1.  First, Ezra is living during the reign of Artaxerxes king of Persia.  To put the secular history alongside the biblical story, it helps to remember that for 100 years beginning with the ministries of Haggai and Zechariah there were only three kings of Persia:  Darius came to the throne in 522 and reigned for 37 years; Xerxes became king in 485 and reigned for 21 years; and Artaxerxes succeeded him in 465 and remained king for 41 years.  

The principal biblical event connected with the reign of Darius is, as we saw last Sunday, the completion of the temple near the beginning of his reign.  The only biblical event during Xerxes’ reign is the choice of Esther as his queen.  Artaxerxes, on the other hand, is the ruling monarch during the remainder of the book of Ezra and the entire book of Nehemiah.  Ezra returns to Palestine seven years into the reign of Artaxerxes, and 14 years later Nehemiah will return.  

This is not the first time we have met Artaxerxes.  You will recall from chapter 4 that the author took a flash-forward into the future to inform us that opposition to the people of God was not just a temporary thing in the time of Zerubbabel but a continual phenomenon.  We learned that when Artaxerxes succeeded Xerxes, two local troublemakers near Jerusalem, named Rehum and Shimshai, took advantage of the king’s youth and insecurity to write a distorted accusation against the Jews in an effort to halt their rebuilding of the city of Jerusalem.  Artaxerxes took the bait and ordered an immediate halt to all building.  By his seventh year, however, he has changed his attitude and commissions Ezra to return to Palestine with 5,000 other exiles—not to build but to teach the people the Law of God.  Three reasons for this partial reversal of policy are given us in our text today.

First, God is certainly involved, for Ezra says in verse 27, “Praise be to the Lord, the God of our fathers, who has put it into the king’s heart to bring honor to the house of the Lord in Jerusalem in this way and who has extended his good favor to me before the king and his advisers and all the king’s powerful officials.”  Second, Ezra himself plays a part in this happy development, because he apparently has a good reputation with the king and, in addition, has the boldness to ask for the privilege of leading a rescue operation to Palestine.  

In addition, thirdly, the king has some self-interest in allowing this expedition.  He only hints at this in verse 23 when he asks, “Why should there be wrath against the realm of the king and of his sons?”  He is here exhibiting a certain respect and fear of the God of the Jews, and wants to keep Him on his side, not abnormal for one who believed in many gods.  So once again we see God’s providence moving and massaging events and people, almost imperceptibly, in order to accomplish His purposes.

The author takes pains to inform us not only about the historical context, but also about Ezra’s personal lineage.  He is a priest who can trace his ancestry directly back to Aaron, the chief priest and brother of Moses.  This is important because it gives him the recognized authority to speak to the people on the subject of God’s law.  But many other priests could trace their ancestry back to Aaron; why is Ezra unique? 

Ezra’s training  (6)

In verse 6 we read that he is “a teacher well versed in the Law of Moses, which the Lord, the God of Israel, had given.”  The term “well-versed” means literally, “highly skilled,” with an emphasis on speed and quickness.  Ezra has so disciplined himself in the study of the Law that he could grasp the same truth as others in half the time.  This is very important for one who is a professional teacher or preacher.  Some people have the fallacious notion that going to Seminary and getting ordained gives one secret methods and skills that enable one to understand truths the average layman can’t lay his hands on.  They tend to compare Bible knowledge with computer knowledge, and their attitude is that “some people understand computers and some don’t.  If you’re one that ‘don’t’, there’s nothing you can do about it.” 

That is simply not how we ought to view Bible knowledge.  In my preparation for a typical Sunday morning, I do nothing, read nothing, and study nothing that any one of you couldn’t do, read, or study.  But after doing it for 20 years I can probably do it faster than you can.  If I use Greek or Hebrew, it’s not because I can discover truths unavailable any other way, but rather because it’s quicker.  I don’t have a different level of understanding, simply a different level of skill.  

And I say all that to say this:  the Bible is an open book for anyone who is willing to give himself to the careful study of it.  You don’t need Seminary; you just need discipline and confidence.  Now perhaps I shouldn’t have told you that; you may decide you don’t need a preaching pastor after all.  But my purpose is not to denigrate skill—rather to put it into perspective.  Ezra is a priest who has surpassed his peers in his handling of God’s Word.

One further comment.  What’s the big deal about being well versed in the Scripture?  We have people well-versed in the poetry of Shakespeare, in the music of Mozart, in the theology of Aquinas.  You study anything long enough and you will become an expert in it.  Why does this skill make Ezra special?  Verse 6 tells us why—”he was a teacher well versed in the Law of Moses, which the Lord, the God of Israel, had given.”  There is no higher achievement than becoming skillful in the Scriptures, because they constitute divine revelation.  God has given us in His Word all we need to know to live happy, meaningful, godly lives.  That’s what motivated Ezra to become an expert.  

I’m not suggesting that God requires every one of us to become as gifted in the Scripture as Ezra was.  But I do believe He expects all of us to be conversant with its great themes, with its great characters, and most of all, with the Gospel it presents as the way of salvation.  Of course, the more we know, the greater will be our effectiveness as servants of the Lord. 

Ezra’s accomplishment (6-9)

Verse 6 tells us that Ezra, while he was still back in Babylon, made a number of requests of the king, and they were granted because the hand of the Lord his God was on him.  I wish we knew how he managed to receive an audience with King Artaxerxes, but we can only conjecture.  It seems fairly clear that he had a reputation for being an outstanding priest and teacher of the Law in the Jewish community.  Perhaps he used his standing as a representative of that community to petition the king for the privilege of emigrating to Palestine.  I would also suppose that his motivation for doing so can be found in reports that came back from Jerusalem to the effect that the Jews there were in a sad state, spiritually speaking.  

Occasionally God lays it on the heart of an individual to risk his career, and perhaps even his life, for the spiritual good of people who are out of sight and out of mind for most of us.  I think of Dave and Evelyn Nelson and the staff at World Impact.  I think of Ellen Dykas, who has been called by God to give herself to the people of Romania.  I think of Dr. Kurt Rascher, who is serving as a Christian optometrist to the Muslims of Mombassa, Kenya.  I wouldn’t for a moment suggest that God is calling all of us to do what they are doing, but we should rejoice when some are called, and we should pray for them and help support them.  

But don’t ever think that if you don’t help, God’s hands will be tied.  He is perfectly capable of spoiling Egypt, so to speak.  Right here He extracts from the Persian King all the resources needed for Ezra’s trip, for the operation of the temple, and for setting up the machinery for teaching the Law.  Any funds left over become a slush fund for Ezra and his compatriots to do with as they wish.  Look at the letter, as it is recorded beginning in verse 12:

                   Artaxerxes, king of kings,

To Ezra the priest, teacher of the Law of the God of heaven:


13 Now I decree that any of the Israelites in my kingdom, including priests and Levites, who volunteer to go to Jerusalem with you, may go. 14 You are sent by the king and his seven advisers to inquire about Judah and Jerusalem with regard to the Law of your God, which is in your hand. 15 Moreover, you are to take with you the silver and gold that the king and his advisers have freely given to the God of Israel, whose dwelling is in Jerusalem, 16 together with all the silver and gold you may obtain from the province of Babylon, as well as the freewill offerings of the people and priests for the temple of their God in Jerusalem. 17 With this money be sure to buy bulls, rams and male lambs, together with their grain offerings and drink offerings, and sacrifice them on the altar of the temple of your God in Jerusalem.

18 You and your fellow Israelites may then do whatever seems best with the rest of the silver and gold, in accordance with the will of your God. 19 Deliver to the God of Jerusalem all the articles entrusted to you for worship in the temple of your God. 20 And anything else needed for the temple of your God that you are responsible to supply, you may provide from the royal treasury.

21 Now I, King Artaxerxes, decree that all the treasurers of Trans-Euphrates are to provide with diligence whatever Ezra the priest, the teacher of the Law of the God of heaven, may ask of you— 22 up to a hundred talents of silver, a hundred cors of wheat, a hundred baths[c] of wine, a hundred baths of olive oil, and salt without limit. 23 Whatever the God of heaven has prescribed, let it be done with diligence for the temple of the God of heaven. Why should his wrath fall on the realm of the king and of his sons? 24 You are also to know that you have no authority to impose taxes, tribute or duty on any of the priests, Levites, musicians, gatekeepers, temple servants or other workers at this house of God.

25 And you, Ezra, in accordance with the wisdom of your God, which you possess, appoint magistrates and judges to administer justice to all the people of Trans-Euphrates—all who know the laws of your God. And you are to teach any who do not know them. 26 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.

While we will have to wait until next week and chapter 8 to see the details of Ezra’s trip, verse 8 of chapter 7 indicates that after a four-month journey Ezra arrives in Jerusalem, “for the gracious hand of his God was on him.”  That statement, in turn, is explained in verse 10:  “The gracious hand of his God was on him, for 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’s commitment (10)

This, more than any other factor, explains the greatness of this man.  He was devoted to—the term means “he set his heart firmly” or “was inwardly determined”—he was devoted to the study of the Word, the living of the Word, and the teaching of the Word.  Please note the order—it is critical.  You can’t teach the truth effectively unless you live it, and you can’t live it unless you know it.  

We have already talked briefly about the study of the Word, but allow me to comment a little further regarding Ezra’s commitment. 

             To study the Word.  What is involved for the average Christian in studying the Bible?  It’s not as complicated as you might think, and it’s not something you have to fear.  It starts with reading.  In fact, reading all by itself can be a form of study, though it can also be just a way of passing time.  The way to turn Bible reading into study is to think carefully as you read and to ask lots of questions.  Like, who is this talking about?  What is the theme?  Why did the character do that and not this?  Why is that repeated?  How does this apply to my life?  Obviously, reading for meaning in this way is more time consuming that reading for mere pleasure, but it is also far more profitable.  

Writing is a second important tool in the study of the Bible.  Unless you have a photographic memory, the study you do while you’re reading will be in vain unless you write down what you have gleaned.  Many people profit from keeping some kind of a Bible study journal.  Significant insights are recorded for later meditation.  Repetitions, contrasts, and comparisons are noted as one searches for the main thrust of the passage.  And perhaps most importantly, personal applications are recorded for accountability.  Things that come to mind needing prayer are also noted in the journal.

A third important tool of study besides reading and writing is organizing.  Most of the Bible consists of one of three types of literature:  narrative, didactic, or poetic.  That is, it tells a story, argues a viewpoint, or expresses an attitude of the heart.  Most of the OT and the Gospels is the first kind–it tells a story.  The bulk of the NT epistles are the second type—it argues a viewpoint.  The issue may be sin or right living or the plan of salvation or the nature of man or the character of God, but if you examine it carefully you will discover that the thoughts are organized in a logical way.  The Psalms, the Proverbs, and much of the prophets are poetry.  

I believe it’s important, particularly in those portions of Scripture that are arguing a viewpoint, to look for the structure and organization of the author.  Nearly always reasons are given, evidence is explained, and conclusions are drawn.  As we search out these things the intent of the passage becomes much clearer.  (This can also be done with narrative and to a lesser extent with poetry).  The book of Proverbs, for example, is a kind of poetry, and while it is almost impossible to outline, it is possible to find structure.  A person can organize all Proverbs says about the fear of the Lord or the character of a godly woman or right ways to rear a child.  In fact, allow me to read just a few verses from Proverbs 2, which speak to the very topic we are dealing with here—how to study God’s Word.  Let’s read Proverbs 2:1-6.

My son, if you accept my words
    and store up my commands within you,
turning your ear to wisdom
    and applying your heart to understanding—
indeed, if you call out for insight
    and cry aloud for understanding,
and if you look for it as for silver
    and search for it as for hidden treasure,
then you will understand the fear of the Lord
    and find the knowledge of God.
For the Lord gives wisdom;
    from his mouth come knowledge and understanding.

Reading, writing, and organizing the thoughts—if that’s all you do, you can still become a significant student of the Bible, as Ezra was.  Of course, we have available all kinds of additional helps in books and in groups like BSF, CBS, Precepts, home Bible studies, etc.  But the second part of Ezra’s commitment is even more important.  Not only was he devoted to the study of the Word, but also to the observance of it, the living of it.

             To live the Word.  There are many full-time students of the Bible—pastors, teachers, scholars, and leaders of Christian organizations—who have failed miserably at this point.  Maybe you’ve wondered how it is possible for someone who spends hours a day studying the Bible to fail to live it. Oswald Chambers offers valuable insight when he writes, “The Bible characters never fell on their weak points but on their strong ones; unguarded strength is double weakness.”  Peter declared with vehemence, “Though everyone else falls away, I never will.”  And before that very night was over, he had denied Christ 3 times.  

Military experts say the Soviets during the 70’s and 80’s developed and positioned the most effective anti-aircraft system in all the world.  Powerful radars probed the air above major Soviet cities, and missiles were posed to bring down enemy aircraft at any altitude.  None of their cities was more heavily defended than Moscow and its famous Red Square just outside the Kremlin.  But as you may recall, a young German teenager piloting a small single-engine plane rented from Denmark, flew into Soviet territory five years ago last Friday and buzzed the Kremlin before landing in Red Square.  Before he was arrested, he managed to greet some surprised Muscovites who just happened to be in the area and even signed a few autographs.  He was elated (temporarily); the Soviet government was embarrassed; a couple of top generals were abruptly sacked; and the world laughed.  

But isn’t that incident an apt parable of the lives of many great believers down through the centuries?  Just as Russian air defenses were not ready for the sort of invasion Mathias Rust unleashed on them, so Moses and Samaon and David and Jonah and Peter and Gordon MacDonald and Frank Tillapaugh and scores of others weren’t prepared for the invasions which hit them at their point of strength.  Even the Apostle Paul recognized the possibility that he could be in that category.  At the end of 1 Cor. 9, he used the Olympic games as an illustration of the Christian life. 

    “Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize?  Run in such a way as to get the prize.  Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training.  They do it to get a crown that will not last; but we do it to get a crown that will last forever.  Therefore I do not run like a man running aimlessly; I do not fight like a man beating the air.  No, I discipline my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize.”

It’s never enough to have head knowledge.  Heart knowledge is what changes lives and motivates the church and wins the lost to Christ.  We have seen that Ezra devoted himself to the study of the Word and the living of the Word.  Thirdly, he was also committed to the teaching of the Word.  

             To teach the Word.  Ezra was not satisfied to attain a certain level of skill in Bible study or even attain a certain level of obedience just for his own sake.  He was concerned about the thousands upon thousands of people around him who were ignorant of God’s Word.  Some were lost and ignorant; others were saved and ignorant.  But all needed to be confronted with the revealed will of God, and as a result become potential recipients of the enormous blessings available to the mature believer.  

I want to share a little secret with you.  One of the best ways to learn the Scripture is to teach it.  I went through four years of Bible College and four years of Seminary, emerging with file cabinets full of notes and maps and graphs and outlines on the Bible.  These files were my most precious possession, I thought.  But in my first full year of teaching, I learned more than I did in all those eight years put together.  In fact, I soon realized that those reams of notes were pretty well worthless to me because they were someone else’s knowledge.  It wasn’t until I personally studied to the point that I could communicate the passage to someone else that I felt I really had a grasp of God’s Word.  

The privilege of teaching the Bible has to be one of the great highs attainable anywhere. Whether it be from a pulpit or a class lectern or a home Bible study or a BSF class or one-on-one in a discipleship relationship, there’s nothing quite so satisfying or profitable as teaching the Word.  Of course, not everyone has the gift of teaching and therefore not everyone should try to do it vocationally or before large groups, but I’m convinced that there are very few who couldn’t find some avenue of teaching that would help them, plus the ones being taught, to grow significantly in their spiritual walk.  

Studying the Word, living it, communicating it to others—that’s an unbeatable combination and a definite recipe for revival.  

Conclusion:  Derek Kidner writes of Ezra, “His name stands very high in Jewish tradition, where he came to be regarded as a second Moses; and indeed it was he, more than any other man, who stamped Israel with its lasting character as the people of a book.”[i]  I can think of no greater epitaph a pastor could receive:  he stamped his congregation with lasting character as a people of the Book.  Or no greater epitaph a father could receive than that he stamped his family with the lasting character as a family of the Book.

There’s a song I want us to sing both as a conclusion to this message and as a preparation for the Lord’s Table.  It’s the song, “Break Thou the Bread of Life.”  Bread is a symbol of both the written Word, the Bible, and the Living Word, Jesus Christ.  The Bible tells us that God’s Word is truth and God’s Son said, “I am the truth.”  As God’s Word is without error, so God’s son is without sin.  As God’s Word will endure forever, so God’s Son will live forever. 

Small wonder, then, that when Jesus gathered with His disciples for the Last Supper, He used a symbol that would tie the living and the written Word of God together in their minds.  “When He had given thanks He took bread and said, ‘This is My body.'”  I want us to sing Hymn 30 and to listen to the words carefully as we sing.

DATE: May 31, 1992




Study of the Word

[i] Derek Kidner, Ezra & Nehemiah, 62.

Ezra 8
Ezra 4