The Book of Ezra: Restoration From Babylon

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The Lord used the sorrow of His servant to reach the consciences of His people who had been guilty of transgressing His commandments, for in truth the sorrow of Ezra was no common sorrow. Every indication is given of the intensity of his grief when he "had prayed, and when he had confessed, weeping and casting himself down before the house of God." By his prayer, his confessions, his tears, and his prostration before God, he had told out his grief for the sins of Israel, and he had done so publicly "before the house of God." It became known therefore to those for whom he had been pleading, and "there assembled unto him out of Israel a very great congregation of men and women and children: for the people wept very sore." v. 1.
It would seem that the tears of the people proceeded either from contrition, or from fear of the consequences of their misdeeds. Ezra was armed with authority (see chap. 7:25, 26), and his zeal for his God was manifested; they therefore knew that he would proceed to separate them from the evil for which he had humbled himself before God. This would entail upon many of them the most bitter consequences. Though they had acted in self-will, in disobedience, their hearts might have been truly upon the wives they had married, and upon their children. To separate from them might thus involve the rending of the most affectionate ties, a prospect which might well cause them to weep. That this is the explanation of their tears seems plain from the fact that women and children were found with the congregation that had gathered about Ezra. How hard it is to retrace the steps of unfaithfulness and sin! And how often the bitter fruits of it remain for the rest of our lives!
There were some, however, who saw the necessity of proceeding at once to act in the matter, at whatever cost, knowing, as they must have done, that Jehovah could not bless them or prosper them in the land as long as they were living in open violation of His commandments. "Shechaniah the son of Jehiel," we read, "one of the sons of Elam, answered and said unto Ezra, We have trespassed against our God, and have taken strange wives of the people of the land: yet now there is hope in Israel concerning this thing. Now therefore let us make a covenant with our God to put away all the wives, and such as are born of them, according to the counsel of my lord, and of those that tremble at the commandment of our God; and let it be done according to the law. Arise; for this matter belongeth unto thee: we also will be with thee: be of good courage, and do it." vv. 2-4.
Several points in this address of Shechaniah may be noticed with profit.
First, it is worthy of attention, as noticed in the last chapter, how the Lord uses the faithful zeal of one to arouse others to the sense of their condition. Before the advent of Ezra, the consciences of all seem to have been deadened. Not even Jeshua or Zerubbabel appear to have been troubled because of the prevailing sin. Ezra was alone, and alone he would be, if necessary, in taking the part of God against the transgression of the people. But it needed courage and a single eye, and both these things Ezra by grace possessed. He had God with him in the part he was taking and now we see the effect. Shechaniah comes forward on behalf of the people, owns their sin, and accepts the necessity of subjection to the Word; besides him there were those who trembled at the commandment of God (those alluded to in chap. 9:4), who had been drawn to the side of Ezra. In times of evil, the only path of blessing-and even of success, in its divine sense-is the path of fidelity.
Second, it may be observed that both wives and those born of them were to be put away. The wives, not being of Israel, were unclean, and the children, the fruit of the mixed marriages, were also regarded as unclean. This was under law, but now under grace all this is reversed. Not that a Christian is at liberty to intermarry with the unconverted, but, as the Apostle teaches, "The unbelieving husband is sanctified by the wife, and the unbelieving wife is sanctified by the husband: else were your children unclean; but now are they holy." 1 Cor. 7-14. That is, if either husbands or wives, perhaps converted after their marriage, find themselves linked up with the unconverted, the above instruction applies to their case.
Under law, as in the scripture before us, the heathen wife and her children were to be sent away, but under grace the unbelieving wife is sanctified by her husband, and the children are holy. It will be readily understood that the sanctification referred to is of an external character, as well as the holiness of the children. The wives and children were dismissed under the law because they were unclean, and as such could not be admitted into the congregation of Israel, but under grace the unconverted wife is sanctified through the husband, and is thus considered as set apart for God with His people on the earth. So also the children are holy and reckoned on earth as belonging to His people. If this holiness is purely external, and carries no saving power with it, as it surely does not-for salvation is ever connected with the personal exercise of faith in the Lord Jesus Christ-it yet bestows the inestimable privilege of being in the place of blessing, the sphere where the Holy Spirit dwells and acts.
Grace could not be confined within the narrow limits of the law, even as our Lord taught when He said, "No man putteth new wine into old bottles; else the new wine will burst the bottles, and be spilled, and the bottles shall perish." Luke 5:3737And no man putteth new wine into old bottles; else the new wine will burst the bottles, and be spilled, and the bottles shall perish. (Luke 5:37). And how precious to us to learn that the heart of God is interested in all who are linked up by natural ties with His people on the earth.
It may also be pointed out that Shechaniah owns the authority of the Word. "Let it be done," he says, "according to the law." The restoration of the authority of the law over the ways, if not over the hearts and consciences, of the people was the object of Ezra's mission (chap. 7:10), and God had now provided him with a helper in Shechaniah. There is, in truth, no other way of reformation among God's people.
In the course of time, as may be seen in every dispensation, customs, human maxims, traditions, etc., are adopted to the neglect of the written Word (see Matt. 15; 1 Tim. 4, etc.), all of which are the fruitful cause of corruption both in heart and life as well as in the government of God's house. The only remedy therefore in times of departure is the rigid application of that Word which is living and powerful, and sharper than any two-edged sword, and the refusal of all which it condemns. Thereby also the people themselves are brought into the presence of God and His claims, and are encouraged to hear what "the Spirit saith unto the churches."
Individual consciences are aroused and enlightened, and, acted upon by the Spirit of God, all who tremble at the word of the Lord (chap. 9:4) are drawn together in the common desire that the Lord's name may be vindicated and His supremacy be restored. Shechaniah's counsel was thus of God, and sprang from a true perception of the cause of Israel's sins, and what was due to Him whose name had been profaned by the transgressions of His people.
Finally he urges Ezra forward. "Arise;" he said, "for this matter belongeth unto thee: be of good courage, and do it." How encouraging these words must have been to the burdened heart of Ezra! And doubtless he would see in them the interposition of God in answer to his prayers. He had indeed learned the source of all wisdom and strength, and thus he turned to the Lord before he sought to rectify the abuses which were prevalent in the midst of Israel. Hence the Lord went before him, prepared the way, and inclined the people to confess and put away their sin.
It is an immense thing to learn, as Ezra had done, that nothing can be accomplished for God by human energy; that it is only as He gives wisdom and strength, discernment and opportunity, that anything can be accomplished.
Ezra redeemed the opportunity which the Lord had thus made for him, and he "made the chief priests, the Levites, and all Israel, to swear that they should do according to this word. And they sware." v. 5. He thus bound them by a solemn oath to do what they had promised. One is struck with the spiritual power thus exhibited by one man. The secret of it was that he was in communion with the mind of God, was standing in faithfulness for God in the midst of common unfaithfulness, and thus God was, and wrought, with His servant. To the outward eye Ezra was almost alone, but the truth is, it was God and Ezra, and thus it came to pass that the hearts of the people were bowed before him. What a difference it makes when God is brought in! Many a servant might well be daunted when he views the opposition and difficulties by which he is confronted, but the moment he raises his eyes to the Lord, he measures everything by what He is, and immediately the obstacles he deplored become to his faith but occasions for the display of His power in whom he was trusting. Our only concern therefore should be to see that, like Ezra, we are working with God.
The work, however, was not yet done, and the sorrow of Ezra continued as long as the sin remained, for he felt in his inmost soul the dishonor done to the name of his God. He then, we read, "rose up from before the house of God, and went into the chamber of Johanan the son of Eliashib: and when he came thither, he did eat no bread, nor drink water: for he mourned because of the transgression of them that had been carried away." v. 6. Ezra felt the sin of his people according to God, and it was in this way God qualified him to separate His people from their sin. When the Lord came down from the mount and cast out the demon from the afflicted lad, His disciples asked, "Why could not we cast him out?" The answer was, "Because of your unbelief," and then, after declaring the efficacy of faith to remove mountains, He added, "Howbeit this kind goeth not out but by prayer and fasting." Surely we may say that an unclean spirit had entered into Israel at this time, and it was precisely because Ezra had been before God with prayer and fasting that he could be used to cast him out. Yes, is it not the secret of all spiritual power-to be thus alone with God? There is indeed no power without it, and hence the want of it betrays the fact that we have been so little like Ezra in this scripture.
Proclamation was thereon made "throughout Judah and Jerusalem" that all the children of the captivity should come within three days to Jerusalem, under the penalty for disobedience of the forfeiture of their substance, and excision from the congregation (vv. 7, 8). All came, "all the men of Judah and Benjamin," in the ninth month, on the twentieth day of the month. It must have been a striking scene, one easily recalled, as here described-"And all the people sat in the street of the house of God, trembling because of this matter, and for the great rain." Their bodily discomfort only added to the sorrow within.
Ezra rose and addressed them. First, he charged them with their sin (v. 10), and then urged them to confess "unto the Lord God of your fathers, and do His pleasure: and separate yourselves from the people of the land, and from the strange wives." v. 11. His first thought was concerning what was due to Jehovah, but if they confessed to Him they must submit themselves to His will.
Too often the soul deceives itself even by confession-confession without judging the sin. Ezra was too well instructed in the Word and in the ways of God to permit this, and hence there must be self-judgment and separation from the evil as well as its confession. The order of the separation too is most instructive-"From the people of the land, and from the strange wives." As marrying the strange wives had been sin, it might be thought that these might be mentioned first. But what had led to these marriages? Association with the people of the land. This was the root of the mischief, and Ezra thus deals first with it. So in all departures from God, until the root is discovered nothing is gained, and restoration is impossible.
The Lord Himself has given a perfect illustration of this in His dealing with Peter. Not until He had asked him three times, "Lovest thou Me?" (once, "Lovest thou Me more than these?" for confidence in his own love to Christ-a love, as he affirmed, greater than that of the rest-was the cause of his fall) did He effect his restoration. It was on this same principle that Ezra acted when he demanded separation, first of all, from the people of the land.
The power of God was still manifestly with His servant. The people assented to his demands, for they had been made to feel that "the fierce wrath" of their God was upon them because of their sins. They answered, "As thou hast said, so must we do." They only pleaded that the work could not be carried out there and then; for they said, "The people are many, and it is a time of much rain, and we are not able to stand without, neither is this a work of one day or two: for we are many that have transgressed in this thing. Let now our rulers of all the congregation stand, and let all them which have taken strange wives in our cities come at appointed times, and with them the elders of every city, and the judges thereof, until the fierce wrath of our God for this matter be turned from us." vv. 12-14.
The plea and counsel of the people were accepted, and we have in the next place the names of those who were employed about the matter (v. 15). (It is not clear whether those named in verse 15 were not rather opposing the suggestion of the people. One translation gives, "Stood up against this matter." Certainly Ezra and the chief of the fathers did the work [v. 16].) Further we are told that "Ezra the priest, with certain chief of the fathers, after the house of their fathers, and all of them by their names, were separated [that is, set apart for this work], and sat down in the first day of the tenth month to examine the matter. And they made an end with all the men that had taken strange wives by the first day of the first month." Thus in two months the work was completed. Thereafter is given a list of the names of those who had transgressed, concerning which there are two or three remarks to be made.
First, the names of the priests who had fallen into sin are recorded, and these are divided into two classes. In verse 18 there are "the sons of Jeshua the son of Jozadak, and his brethren;" and in verses 20-22, other priests. (See chap. 2:37-40.) The former were held, it would seem, to be the more culpable, and with reason, for Jeshua had been associated, in the grace of God, with Zerubbabel, as the leaders of His people in building His house. "The priest's lips should keep knowledge, and they [the people] should seek the law at his mouth: for he is the messenger of the Lord of hosts," but in this case the priests had corrupted the people by their evil ways. But now being dealt with, "they gave their hands that they would put away their wives; and being guilty, they offered a ram of the flock for their trespass." This, it will be observed, is only said of the kindred of Jeshua. The names of the rest, priests, Levites, singers, porters, and Israel are singly given.
This leads to our second observation-that nothing escapes the eye of God. By Him all our actions are weighed and recorded, one day to be produced either to magnify His grace, or (if we include unbelievers) as the ground of righteous judgment. "We must all," says the Apostle, "appear before the judgment seat of Christ; that every one may receive the things done in his body, according to that he hath done, whether it be good or bad." 2 Cor. 5:1010For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ; that every one may receive the things done in his body, according to that he hath done, whether it be good or bad. (2 Corinthians 5:10).
Finally, it may be pointed out that while Ezra, as may be seen from Nehemiah (chap. 8:1), continued to labor in the midst of his people, he no longer appears as the prominent figure-as the leader. Together with this chapter his special work was done, and he discerns it. For this, great grace is needed. The temptation when the Lord uses one of His servants for some particular and public service, is to think that he must continue in a foremost place. If he yield to the temptation, it brings sorrow to himself, and failure for the people. The Lord who uses one today, may send another tomorrow, and blessed is that servant who can recognize, as Ezra did, when his special mission is ended, and who is willing, like John the Baptist, to be anything or nothing if so be his Lord may be exalted.
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