Following Godly Spiritual Leaders
Explore the Bible Series
December 17, 2006
Background Passage: Ezra
Ezra 7:8-10; 9:1-2; 10:1-5
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.
wander, Lord I feel it;
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
identity and qualifications for the work of reform (vv. 1-6)
pedigree (vv. 1-5): The writer takes great care in establishing the familial
integrity of Ezra.
skill as a scribe (v. 2a): Ezra
possessed impressive credentials and training as an Old Testament scholar.
legal authority (v. 2b): Artaxerxes granted Ezra sweeping authority to go to Jerusalem to oversee the
reestablishment of valid worship in the holy city.
divine authority (v. 2c): above all, God’s hand rested on Ezra (a favorite
phrase in this section of the Book of Ezra).
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.
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.
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.
Additional Provisions and Plans for the Journey
of the returning families (vv. 1-14)
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.
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).
gold and silver treasures entrusted to the care of the leading Levites (vv.
The Exiles’ Arrival in Jerusalem (8:32-10:44)
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.
concern about the issue of intermarriage (9:1-10:44)
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
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.
list of the families that had broken the covenant by marrying foreign wives