Seeking to Know God
We seek to understand our lives through His Word, not define the Word by our lives.
An Online Bible Study
Ezra Chapters 7 and 8
Who: Ezra is finally introduced as a scribe skilled in the Law and a descendant of Aaron, who was Moses' brother and the first priest to the Israelites. The king of Persia is now Artaxerxes who served from 465-425 BC. He was the successor of Xerxes (486-465) who succeeded Darius I (522-486permitted Nehemiahts of Ezra 6. He was also the king who granted Nehemiah permission to return to Jerusalem.
What: Chapters 7 and 8 reveal and explain the call of yet another individual specifically charged to carry out God's plans. From the beginning of his book, Ezra credits God with taking the initiative to restore His relationship with Israel. Though restoration is always at God's initiative, He chooses to do His work through the "strong" hands of humanity.
When: Sixty years elapse between the end of Ezra 6 and the opening of Ezra 7. Ezra 6 concludes with an account of the celebrations marking the completion and dedication of the Temple in 516 BC and Ezra 7 opens in 458 BC as the second wave of exiles return to Jerusalem.
Read Ezra Chapter 7. What notes did you make? See any repetitions?
Consider these questions as you read:
Why does Ezra skip almost 60 years of activity in Jerusalem in this narrative?
What was Ezra's purpose for coming to Jerusalem at this time?
Who sent Ezra to Jerusalem?
What part did Artaxerxes play in Ezra returning?
What part did God play in Ezra's return?
1. Twice now Ezra has lef16-year periods of time unaddressed in his book. First, the 16-year gap during which the exiles left God's house unfinished. Here, from chapters 6 to 7, he jumps ahead nearly 60 years. As we have stated earlier, disregarding large portions of Israel's history is evidence that Ezra was not writing a straightforward chronological account of the returning exiles. He clearly set out to document specific “turning events" God was orchestrating in Jerusalem. These events, however, center around the stories of the people God used to facilitate His activity, and in the following chapters, that person is Ezra.
2. If God was restoring His nation, He wanted the people to be a reflection of Him. The Torah could be the only guide. (We will discuss in the next chapter precisely what was happening in Israel that required Ezra's attention). Ezra defined himself as a scribe (7:6, 11). Originally, scribes were government officials who “acted as secretaries of state who prepared and issued decrees in the name of the king” "Easton's Bible Dictionary). Therefore, Ezra most likely held a position of authority within King Artaxerxes' administration - he may have even written Artaxerxes' letter we read in the previous chapter. Undoubtedly, he held some level of authority given his ability to approach the king (as Nehemiah did).
However, when we think of scribes, we probably first think of the New Testament scribes who are often mentioned alongside the Pharisees who question and argue with Jesus. The responsibility to faithfully copy scrolls allowed scribes to become very familiar with the Law and that familiarity often led the scribes to become more and more familiar with the letter of the Law, they disconnected from the spirit of the Law. By the time of Christ, he described them as “whitewashed tombs which on the outside appear beautiful, but inside they are full of dead men's bones” Matt. 23:27). At Ezra's time, however, the office of the scribe was highly honored, and Ezra's qualifications were highly regarded.
Ezra also identified himself as a teacher who was “firmly resolved to study the Law of the Lord and to practice it, and to teach” "7:10). As we will see, God chose Ezra because He knew Israel needed a teacher who was not only intimately close to the Law but who was obedient to it as well. The people did not only need to know the Torah; they needed to know the Author. Ezra had shown himself to be someone God could trust in knowledge and obedience.
3. From Ezra's account, it seems that he requested (like Nehemiah) permission from the king to leave his position in Babylon to travel to Jerusalem. He never specifically tells us in these 2 chapters that God sent him to Jerusalem. He gives a rather extensive account, however, of king Artaxerxes' actions to facilitate his move. Ezra told us Persia's king: v. 6: granted him all he requested; v:13: issued a decree that any people of Israel, including priests and the Levites, could go with Ezra; v. 14, 15: sent him to inquire about Judah and Jerusalem and to bring the silver and gold, which the king voluntarily gave to God; v. 21: issued a decree to all the treasurers that whatever Ezra required, it should be given; v. 24: informed the treasurers they were not allowed to impose tax, tribute, or toll on any of the priests, Levites, singers, doorkeepers, or temple servants; gave Ezra authority to - v. 25: appoint magistrates and judges so that they may judge all the people, and teach anyone who is ignorant of the Law of God; and decreed that - v. 26: whoever did not comply with the Law of God and the law of the king, judgment should be executed upon him, including, death, banishment, confiscation of property, or imprisonment. At first reading, it sounds like the king was the essential driving force behind Ezra's return to Jerusalem - unless you read what Ezra had to say about God's activity.
4. Ezra makes it very clear that God's providential care drove every action of King Artaxerxes. Though, "the king granted him all he requested" it was only "because the hand of the Lord his God was upon him" (v. 6). When Ezra arrived safely in Jerusalem, it was only, according to Ezra, "because the good hand of his God was upon him" (v 9). And, as Ezra is certain to point out, all the financial benefits, protection, and favor he received from King Artaxerxes could only be credited to God "who has put such a thing as this in the king’s heart." He ends chapter 7 with his testimony to God's guidance, "So I was strengthened according to the hand of the Lord my God that was upon me" (v. 28).
Ezra consistently acknowledges the theme of God's providential care throughout his book and continues here in Ezra 7 and 8 as well. God stirred the heart of Cyrus to issue his decree and the spirit of the people to travel up to Jerusalem (1:1, 5). God sent the prophets to encourage the Israelites and set his eye upon the temple builders so they could complete the work (5:1, 5). God changed the heart of Persia’s kings (6:14), and God placed his hand on Ezra that the king would grant everything he requested (7:6). God made certain his trip to Jerusalem was a safe journey (7:9; 8:22, 31), and God strengthened Ezra’s resolve to return to Jerusalem (7:28). As Ezra has made clear since the beginning of this narrative, all things concerning the redemption and restoration of Israel is at God's initiative. God has a plan for Israel - for the entire creation - and, though He is using humanity to carry forth His plans, He is not leaving His plan only in the hands of mankind. God's hands are actively involved in the nation and in the lives of the individuals He uses.
Read Ezra, chapter 8, and consider the following questions:
1. What similarities do you see between chapter 8 and a previous chapter?
2. Why did Ezra refuse the king's help concerning sending his army for protection?
1. Chapter 8 is very similar to earlier chapters. Just as he had in chapter 2, Ezra lists the names of the exiles who returned with him, not as individual names, but as family names. He is still asserting the importance of spiritual lineage to be counted among true Israelites. One interesting fact that could be overlooked unless you pay close attention to what seems like a monotonous list is is the repetition of names from chapter two. Along with the sons of Parosh, Shephatiah, Pahath-moab, Joab, Elam, Zattu, Bani, and Bebai - all who returned some 80 years earlier - came more of their families to Israel. From this list of names we see that, a generation later, more of the families who returned with Zerubbabel made the journey from Babylon to Israel with Ezra and that can't be coincidental. Our decisions matter; not only today but for generations to come for our faith is a faith of generations. God chose Abraham “so that he may command his children and his household after him to keep the way of the Lord” (Gen. 18:19). God is the God of Abraham, and Isaac, and Jacob; He is the God of generations.
Ezra noticed, however, that there were very few Levites among his group. (The original group had the same problem-2:40.) Unlike Zerubabel, Ezra would not settle for that. All together, only a small percentage of the Jewish people left Babylon to journey back to Israel; possibly their lives were too comfortable in Babylon to go back to a place where life would be anything but comfortable for some time. That's sad and incredibly short-sighted, but it is even more unfortunate that the Levites were not willing to go back to duties their ancestors held for generations. Even though the king had given him the money and the authority for the journey, Ezra did not have the right men, and, therefore, would not begin his journey without making this right. Ezra was an authority on the Law and God had specific commands concerning temple treasures ("And you shall appoint the Levites over the tabernacle of the testimony, and over all its furnishings and over everything that belongs to it. They shall carry the tabernacle and all its furnishings, and they shall take care of it - Num. 1:50). Therefore, Ezra delayed his journey until he was able to locate enough Levites to carry God’s treasures back to Jerusalem. "And as the good hand of God was upon" Ezra, he found a "man of insight" to care for God's treasures (8:18) during this four month journey to Israel.
2. But he wasn't ready to begin the journey just yet. Eighty years before, the exiles constructed the spiritual foundation of the Temple at the altar before addressing the physical foundation. Likewise, Ezra focused on spiritual preparations for his journey before addressing the physical requirements (8:21). Ezra had expressed confidence in God, even given him credit for everything the king had done; consequently, he would not rely on the king's army for protection (8:22). Even knowing the journey set before them would not be easy, would even be quite dangerous, Ezra “had more anxiety for the glory of God than for his own personal safety” (Clarke) and therefore, refused the king's offer of protection.
We would assume the king would demand that Ezra use his army to protect the massive amount of treasures he was carrying with him, despite Ezra’s wishes. After all, much of the gold and silver came from Persia’s treasury. Nonetheless, Ezra’s deep confidence that God’s hand was on his life and leading him in this work gave him faith that superseded a king’s objections. That confidence, however, also compelled Ezra to dedicate himself and his sojourners to God before they set out. Ezra and his group humbled themselves before God, and after arriving in Jerusalem, went directly to the temple to take the temple treasures and, once again, drew near to God with the burnt offering.
God’s Book is silent about large periods of time in history. Other than the possible billions of years between Genesis 1:1 and 2:1, God was silent for nearly 2000 years between the accounts of Cain/Able and Noah (Gen. 5:5-32), for 400 years between Genesis 11 and 12, for hundreds of years while the Hebrew people were slaves in Egypt, and there is 400 years of silence between Malachi and the New Testament. Why would God’s Word be silent for so long?
As said earlier, God’s Word is not wholly silent about the years between Ezra six and seven. If you read the book of Esther, events that were transpiring during the 60 year break, you’ll notice there is not a single mention of God’s name and God never speaks in Esther’s book. However, Mordecai asked his niece, “And who knows whether you have not attained royalty for such a time as this?” (4:14).
Mordecai understood a valuable truth - God’s silence does not equate to His inactivity. Mordecai believed in the doctrine of concurrence (God and humans act at the same time to ensure the Lord's plans are fulfilled; nevertheless, our choices are truly our choices). God is not "making" us make our choices, but He is often using our choices to see to it that His will is accomplished. In the book of Esther, we witness God ensuring a young Jewish orphan girl would move into and find favor in the Persian royal palace. God did not cause Artaxerxes to mistreat his wife, nor did he encourage Vashti’s rebellion that led to Artaxerxes' "beauty pagaent;" nonetheless, He used their decisions to ensure His will was done. God may have been silent during periods of time in His book, He was, however, fully engaged in the lives of His people - because He knew His people needed a redeemer.
Throughout the Old Testament God was always busy preparing a redeemer. The silence after Cain? He was walking with Noah and creating in Him a heart of righteousness (Gen. 6:9). In the seemingly silent years between Genesis 11 and 12, He was preparing Abraham to hear His voice, a voice of a God he knew not of (Josh. 24:2). While the Hebrew people were unjustly enslaved in Egypt? He was preparing a place in Pharaoh’s home for Moses (Ex. 2). The 400 years between Malachi and the New Testament? He was making preparations to dwell with us and “when the time was fulfilled,” He sent the Redeemer of the world (Mk 1:15).
God has never been silent at any point in the history of humanity. Even here, during the 60 year period between Ezra chapters 6 and 7, He was speaking into the heart of Ezra, active in increasing his knowledge and progressing his faith. For the sake of Israel, who God knew was in need of a priest and a teacher with a heart of obedience, He intervened in the life of an exile and called him home. With a deeply-rooted revelation of God (acquired through the study of the Law), Ezra was called to Israel for the restoration of a nation.
At the end of our lives, each of us will have found our greatest purpose and greatest joy in standing alongside God in His work of restoration. When we encounter our Lord in the Word, we experience His love. When His love restores meaning to our lives, we find joy in growing with Him. As we become more like Him, we become an effective witness for redemption. It will not only be teachers, preachers, and priests whom God greets in eternity with the precious welcome, “‘Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master’s joy!’ (Mat. 25:21).
God uses whom He pleases, however he pleases, for the purpose of redemption. He will use our faithfulness; however, He even uses disobedience and failure. Often times we allow the shame we experience over our sins to torment our minds and discourage our growth. And, undoubtedly, Satan is a liar par excellence and, after emboldening us to believe his lies, shames us for actually falling for them. But not Jesus; he redeems instead. Ask Peter. He told Christ he would never deny him, but Christ knew better. That is precisely why the Lord said to him, “I have prayed for you, that your faith may not fail; and you, when once you have turned again, strengthen your brothers” (Lk. 22:32). You will fail, Jesus told Peter, and when you do, just turn back to me again and use that failure as a lesson to strengthen your brothers. Yes, God redeems every mistake we make, even redeeming those failures and building rocks of strength for the redemption of the world. And in that we share in Christ’s joy!
I think we all would agree, however, we would much rather offer God more victories than failures for His purposes. That is why becoming a more dedicated student of His Word is important. When we spend time with God in His Word, it encourages us to become more like Him. We begin to consider our words, our behaviors, and our decisions more thoughtfully. Because when we know our Father more intimately, we truly desire to image Him more beautifully. Just like falling more in love with a spouse encourages us to honor that relationship by remaining faithful, so too does falling more in love with our Savior.
The most glorious restoration is always found in a maturing personal relationship with God and His Word. Jesus prayed that we would be “sanctified by truth and [God’s} word is truth (Jn 17:16-19). He’s invested in us experiencing the full life he died to provide, understanding that our joy will increase to the extent we know Him. However, growing in Christ is also a means by which God can and will use us for greater purpose. Our joy is made most full when we image our Lord for the purpose of His redeeming promises; “thus I was strengthened according to the hand of the Lord my God upon me, and I gathered leading men from Israel to go up with me” (Ezra 7:27). Our time in God’s Word increases our joy because it increases the joy of those who journey home with us. Welcome home, good and faithful servant!
“For the joy set before him,” Christ endured death on a cross (Heb. 12:2). Joy? Why did the writer of Hebrews connect joy with the Cross; why wouldn’t he say that for the love set before him he endured the cross? From before time began, God’s plan was that the Son of God would die to redeem you and me from the bondage of sin and set our hearts free from the effects of sin because of His love for you and me.
If we question talking about Christ’s joy when facing the Cross, then maybe we’ve mistaken joy for happy. Experiencing joy and being happy are not the same thing. Christ was overwhelmed in Gethsemane when confronting his death, to the point his sweat turned to blood. He was not happy, but he had joy despite the unrestrained oppression of death on a Cross.
Why? For love, Christ loved us; his death was the manifestation of his love for us. Thus, the joy set before him was the knowledge that his beloved would be redeemed through his sacrifice. Christ “emptied himself” of what could have been and endured the cross for the joy of making salvation available to us. Christ’s joy set before Him was that the life He died to provide us, and through his death, he invites us into the same joy He knew in his relationship with God.
So that’s the joy God has set before us; the redemption and restoration of our relationship draws us nearer and nearer to Him and offers us the same joy the Father and Son know in their relationship. Christ did not die only that we would find redemption from sin; He wants us to find complete and total restoration from the effects of that sin. That is not only a promise for our eternity; that is His blessing for our journey to eternity. He’s not interested in making us happy; that’s positively too weak of a concern for an Eternal God. Joy inexpressible and full of glory is God’s plan.
Ezra's life is a wonderful example of concurrence.