Following Godly Spiritual Leaders

Explore the Bible Series

December 17, 2006

 

Background Passage: Ezra 7:1-10:44

Lesson Passage: Ezra 7:8-10; 9:1-2; 10:1-5

 

Introduction:

Some years ago I came across a little paperback book that looked very interesting.  I purchased the small volume and began to read the meditations and pastoral observations of a Nineteenth-Century, Nonconformist minister named Octavius Winslow.  This splendid pastor wrote Personal Declension and the Revival of Religion in the Soul, in 1841, and the book has, in recent years, been republished by the Banner of Truth.  Winslow’s first chapter summarizes well one of the central themes of our present lesson text.

 

Even a cursory reading of the Old Testament leaves any honest Bible student with a sinking despair about the morbid tendency of mankind to wander away from the vital principles of saving religion.  The revivalist hymn writer had it right when he observed the disposition of the best of men in the following words.

 

            Prone to wander, Lord I feel it;

            Prone to leave the God I love.

 

Winslow entitled his first Chapter, “Incipient Declension.”  By “incipient’ Winslow meant that tendency to drift away from God is a secret, internal impulse.  This tendency can be masked by the charade of outward religiosity, but Winslow addresses the impulses of heart.  While true grace remains indestructible in the hearts of God’s people, the enjoyment and exercise of grace may be greatly injured. A careful tracing of the outline of the Old Testament demonstrated this alarming impulse to stray from the Living God, and we cannot miss this central message in the Book of Ezra.

 

By the time we finish this lesson, our outlines will have carried us through ten chapters of the Book of Ezra.  The story of this book covers a lengthy period of time.  It begins with a reminder of the disgraceful exile of the Jews to Babylon and Persia.  The history books of the Old Testament give mind-numbing evidence of centuries of spiritual decline among God’s people.  Finally, God wearied of the cycle of decay and revival, and he chose to bring a grave consequence (the Babylonian Captivity) to the years of indifference, idolatry, and oppression of the poor. As the Prophet Jeremiah predicted, this captivity lasted for seventy years; then, in God’s gracious timing, King Cyrus allowed and enabled the Jews to return to Jerusalem.  Approximately 50,000 people came back to the Holy Land to reconstruct the Temple of God; however, shortly after the exiles entered the city, they yielded to the carnal pressures of the Samaritans, and work on the Temple ceased for sixteen years.  Ultimately, God enabled the Jews to rebuild the Temple, but the glorious reconstruction was followed by many years of spiritual compromise and apathy.  When Ezra arrived in Jerusalem, he found a backslidden people.  The record of all of this breaks the heart.

 

Sadly, the stories of the Old Testament pinpoint our own need for a revival in spiritual earnestness.  Friend, is your record any better than the ebb and flow of spiritual life you find in the Old Testament?  I observe these valuable lessons from the study of Ezra.

 

  1. Law-keeping does not bring internal change to the human heart.  The Jews received, through the labors of Moses, the holy Law of God; yet, this precious possession did not affect change in men’s hearts. The law is perfect and holy, but it does not have the capacity to bring life.  It can demand conformity, but it cannot produce conformity. A person may have a deep appreciation for the law, and, indeed, may hold an elevated view of his own compliance with the demands of the Mosaic legal system; nevertheless, history’s stubborn lesson teaches that men have no natural, enduring impulse or inclination to obey the Law of God. Legal privilege cannot produce or sustain a living relationship with God.
  2. Liturgy does not produce life-changing effects in the heart.  During times of revival, the Jews reinstituted long-neglected Old Testament liturgical practices.  We find this tendency in the Book of Ezra. I do not, as such, have a problem with liturgical forms of worship, but it is foolhardy to believe that the observance of a calendar of worship can sustain life in the soul of man.  If the heart remains unchanged, the careful observance of liturgy will quickly degenerate into mindless ritual and, eventually, the rituals will be abandoned.
  3. Preaching does not produce change in the hearts of people.  This point pains me, but I am convinced that some people have erected a false idol at this point.  The recalcitrant people of the Old Testament did not spiral into disobedience because they did not have good preachers. Believe me, I hold preaching in high regard; indeed, I have devoted much of my adult life to the public proclamation of the Bible.  However, I have concluded that preaching, in and of itself, has no life-giving power.  Some churches take great pride that hey alone preach the word of God, and they peer down at the “other churches” with self-righteous distain; bloated, self-congratulatory, arrogant. In many other churches disillusioned preachers have teetered on the brink of despair because they have poured out their souls to an unhearing and unheeding people.  The proclamations of Haggai, Zechariah, and Ezra seemed to produce temporary impressions on their hearers, but the old patterns quickly resurfaced.  Surely, these preachers sought God in prayer, studied the holy writings of old, and were filled with the Holy Spirit; yet, to large measure, their labors had few lasting effects.
  4. One thing is needful: broken, fallen men need Jesus!  We are all sinners in need of a Savior.  Men may conceal the inclinations of their sinful hearts through academic achievement, cultural respectability, religious posturing, separatistic moralism, or frenzied religious activity; however, honest people must acknowledge the damning evidence of our universal tendency to spiritual decline.  What hope have we?  We must, again and again, cast ourselves upon a gracious Savior.  We need him no less today that when we first begun!  Look to him for your encouragement, forgiveness, and consolation.  Fear you that men will learn of your imperfection?  Plunge the knife of mortification into your concern for the approval of men, and seek Christ.  Like Christian, in The Pilgrim’s Progress, put your fingers in your ears, and flee to the cross. Make it your habit to find your consolation in Christ alone; for he alone is sufficient. Find your delight and help in him.

 

Please forgive the lengthy “introduction” to this lesson.  As you may discern, there’s a great deal of blood and tears mixed with these words. These studies in the Old Testament have helped me greatly.  For many years, I did only micro-study of the Scriptures, and I missed the “forest for the trees.”    There is, of course, a vital place for detailed micro-exegesis; nevertheless, this macro-study has helped me better grasp the overarching themes of the Old Testament.  In its own way, the Old Testament Scriptures consistently point us to Christ.  We readily see this in the various types and prophecies of the Old Covenant; however, the most important theme of the Scriptures center on the utter moral and spiritual helplessness of mankind.  At every point and at every time, I need Christ as a sufficient Savior.  At no time can I rest in myself and take comfort in my own resources.  O that we might all better understand the great principle of Christian living, “Christ in me, the hope of glory.” 

 

Brief Outline of the Lesson Passage:

 

I.                    The Ministry of the Scribe and Levite Ezra (7:1-28): The events in these last four chapters occurred about sixty years after the historical events recorded in Chapters Five and Six.

A.     Ezra’s identity and qualifications for the work of reform (vv. 1-6)

1.      His pedigree (vv. 1-5): The writer takes great care in establishing the familial integrity of Ezra.

2.      His skill as a scribe (v. 2a):  Ezra possessed impressive credentials and training as an Old Testament scholar.

3.      His legal authority (v. 2b): Artaxerxes granted Ezra sweeping authority to go to Jerusalem to oversee the reestablishment of valid worship in the holy city.

4.      His divine authority (v. 2c): above all, God’s hand rested on Ezra (a favorite phrase in this section of the Book of Ezra). 

B.     Preparations for the journey to Jerusalem (vv. 7-10): This paragraph gives chronological information that helps scholars date this migration.  Most believe this journey occurred in 458 B.C.  The shortest route to Jerusalem led through the desert and extended for five hundred miles.  It is entirely possible that the sojourners took another, longer route in order to avoid the hardships of travel through the barren wilderness. 

C.     The letter of King Artaxerxes (vv. 11-26): This letter gave Ezra sweeping authority over this expedition to Jerusalem. Artaxerxes decreed that anyone could accompany Ezra and made ample provision for the needs of the travelers.  He also exempted the Jewish religious leaders from paying taxes or tribute, and he gave authority to Ezra to appoint magistrates and judges.

D.     A brief hymn of praise (vv. 27-28): The Book of Ezra takes a very personal turn as the scribe apparently recorded these reflections in his own words.

 

II.                 Additional Provisions and Plans for the Journey (8:1-31)

A.     Genealogy of the returning families (vv. 1-14)

B.     An enlistment of more Levites to make the journey (vv. 15-20): Ezra camped along the Banks of the Ahava River fro three days.  We have no external record of this river, and, in all probability, it was a canal of the Euphrates.  Whatever the case, the absence of Levites troubled Ezra, and he enlisted a good number to accompany him.

C.     Prayer for a good journey (vv. 21-23): Ezra refused to ask the king for a military detail to attend the Jews on their journey.  He wanted all of Babylon to know that Jehovah would protect the travelers.  They fasted and prayed for God’s protection, and the Lord heard their prayers (See also v. 31).

D.     The gold and silver treasures entrusted to the care of the leading Levites (vv. 24-31)

 

III.               The Exiles’ Arrival in Jerusalem (8:32-10:44)

A.     Initial rejoicing and worship upon arrival in Jerusalem (8:32-36): The travelers arrived safely, and they delivered the treasures of gold and silver to hands of the priests. After a time of sacrifice and worship, they delivered the letters of authority to the king’s satraps and governors.

B.     Ezra’s concern about the issue of intermarriage (9:1-10:44)

1.      The moral situation in Jerusalem appalled Ezra (9:1-15).  He was struck by the unfaithfulness of the people as indicated by their pervasive intermarriage with the idolatrous people of the land.  Had these people not learned anything from the years of exile?  Like their fathers before them, the Jews had refused to hear the testimonies of the prophets and heed the unmistakable warnings of the Captivity.  Unbelievably, they stood at the very threshold of returning to the sins of their fathers.  Understand, Ezra’s indictment was not an ancient form of racism; rather, he was appalled at the spiritual compromises of the Jews that grew from taking idolatrous spouses. To his credit, Ezra humbled himself in prayer and fasting for the sins of the people; then, he straightforwardly rebuked the people for their spiritual insensitivity and indiscretion.  

2.      The agreement of the Jews to put away their foreign wives (10:1-17): After a sharp rebuke from Ezra, the people agreed to put away their foreign wives.  The term “put away” is not the normal word for divorce.  This passage indicates that these were illegitimate marriages that had no validity before God.  These repatriate Jews were greatly outnumbered by the inhabitants of the land; thus, their survival, as a people, depended on strict adherence to divine law.

3.      A list of the families that had broken the covenant by marrying foreign wives (10:18-44)