Now after this, in the reign of Artaxerxes king of Persia, . . . this Ezra went up from Babylonia. He was a scribe skilled in the Law of Moses that the LORD the God of Israel had given, and the king granted him all that he asked, for the hand of the LORD his God was on him. [Ezra 7:1, 6 ESV]
For Ezra had set his heart to study the Law of the LORD, and to do it and to teach his statutes and rules in Israel. [Ezra 7:10 ESV]
Ezra, a direct descendant of Aaron, Moses’ brother, the first chief priest, diligently followed the pattern of those in his lineage. Today, most people will not care of his lineage, for the ancestors of a person do not make the person. This is not how the ancients thought. Each generation carefully followed those who had come before. They were trained to take seriously the work of their fathers, the reputation of their family, even the honor of their country.
Ezra was a priest, one of the exiles, who may have been born in exile. Being an exile did not extinguish the passion his family had for God, for Israel, the Law of God, or any of the traditions. Exile refined those thoughts and attitudes, purging all that brought about God’s wrath and displeasure. Ezra took seriously his place in Israel, God’s chosen. Scripture states he had “set his heart to study the Law of the LORD, and to do it and to teach his statutes and rules to Israel” [Ezra 7:10 ESV]. He had taken time needed to become intimately familiar with the Law of the LORD. But, he did not simply study the law. He did the law, applying it to every part of his life. Finally, he was dedicated to teaching the law to those chosen by God.
One of the major attitudes of a teacher throughout time is not the desire to stand before people and teach but the passion to study and learn, to ponder and apply. In many ways it is the teacher who thoughtfully tests truth, bringing truth before his students so they might be further tested and refined. Those who wish to control their students, churning out smaller replicas of themselves, may have the personality of a teacher but do not have the heart. Teachers want to know the truth and be able to explain truth to others so they may know. True teachers want to live the truth even more than being able to explain it to others. If Ezra had never returned to Jerusalem he would still have passionately studied God’s Word. And done it. And taught it.
God prepared Ezra, setting him apart for Himself from before birth for the time when he would be sent by a pagan king to the land of his ancestors and the city of his fathers to teach God’s Word. “And you, Ezra, according to the wisdom of your God that is in your hand, appoint magistrates and judges who may judge all the people in the province Beyond the River, all such as know the laws of your God. And those who do not know them, you shall teach” [Ezra 7:25 ESV]. If they didn’t know the laws of God, Ezra was to teach them. Teaching people about God was not only his job or work but also his passion and desire.
Ezra gathered together those he would need from the exiles and they returned to Jerusalem. Even in the confidence of a well-thought through theology sinful man will continue to fear. Ezra is no different. God had not finished His work of preparing Ezra to go and teach. He continued working on and preparing the whole person who was Ezra for the immediate task and the eternal position which was his. It is the whole person who follows God and it is the whole person God leads and draws to Himself. All of the kings resources were at Ezra’s disposal and the full power of the kings authority behind his actions. Yet, Ezra saw the difference between the authority of a mere king and the omnipotence of the King of all kings. Where the earthly king could try to protect Ezra and his entourage with force the Eternal King would change the momentary circumstances of the universe to protect Ezra, His servant.
Then I proclaimed a fast there, at the river Ahava, that we might humble ourselves before our God, to seek from him a safe journey for ourselves, our children, and all our goods. For I was ashamed to ask the king for a band of soldiers and horsemen to protect us against the enemy on our way, since we had told the king, “The hand of our God is for good on all who seek him, and the power of his wrath is against all who forsake him.” So we fasted and implored our God for this, and he listened to our entreaty. [Ezra 8:21-23 ESV]
God set apart Ezra for Himself and for His service and nothing would hinder God completing what He started. Ezra faced his fear of the world with an intimate knowledge of God.
Those who hunger and thirst for righteousness are the teachers of God’s Word. Their desire is for God’s righteousness, not their own. For anyone who thinks for even a moment at the direction of the Holy Spirit will see their own sin and its consequences and know imposing their personal, sinful set of laws on others will bring anarchy. God’s moral Law is freedom from sin while the individuals arbitrary code entraps and enslaves. Ezra set his heart to know God and His Word not man’s philosophy and his rambling excuses.
Almost as soon as he arrived in Jerusalem a grievous sin was brought to his attention. It was the sin of Solomon. God’s people who had been left in the area of Israel and Judah after the exile had mingled with other peoples and compromised their integrity before God being influenced by paganism. It does not say explicitly they worshiped other gods but there can be no other result. His chosen people were not pursuing righteousness.
After these things had been done, the officials approached me and said, “The people of Israel and the priests and the Levites have not separated themselves from the peoples of the lands with their abominations, from the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Jebusites, the Ammonites, the Moabites, the Egyptians, and the Amorites. For they have taken some of their daughters to be wives for themselves and for their sons, so that the holy race has mixed itself with the peoples of the lands. And in this faithlessness the hand of the officials and chief men has been foremost.” As soon as I heard this, I tore my garment and my cloak and pulled hair from my head and beard and sat appalled. [Ezra 9:1-3 ESV]
Had they not been experiencing the punishment of God for their disobedience? Was not the exile, the overrunning of Israel, the destruction of Jerusalem, enough to convince them God demands obedience for all His words? Yet the influence of pagan thinking and feeling crept into every facet of their life, a subtle assault upon the calling and setting apart to God with excuses of selfishness. Sin must be hated. The consequences of sin must be felt. Control of self must be relinquished. God will purge sin from those who are His.
Modern, or post-modern reasoning, will look at Ezra chapters 9 and 10 and see something worse than the purging of people by execution when God commanded His people to enter the land He was giving them. How can a loving God rip families apart? Sin rips families apart. God hates sin. Those whom He has set apart for Himself are told, not asked, to purge all sin from their lives. Christians are told to hate sin and love God; to mourn over sin; and to turn themselves completely over to God. When anything comes in contact with us which will bring us to sin then we are to war against it. “If your right hand causes you to sin” or “if your right eye causes you to sin” Jesus tells us to cut it off or pluck it out (see Matthew 5:29-30). While I will not take these words literally, I will take them spiritually and temporally. We, like the Israelites, are commanded to place God before anything and everything in the world, even ourselves.
Ezra’s decision to rip apart families is controversial and I struggle with it. But, we are alive now, not then, and God is speaking to me through His Word now. Imposing modern thinking upon an ancient people is a subterfuge to ignore or rationalize away the command and authority of God over those who are His. Those who hunger and thirst after righteousness do not lust after unrighteousness. They fight unrighteousness with every ounce of their whole person and every sacrifice of temporal stuff which hinders and distracts and leads away from God. Those who hunger and thirst for righteousness are those who God covers and fills with righteousness