The book of Ezra — which we’ve been studying for several weeks — is in two parts. The first part is from chapter 1 to chapter 6. The second part is from chapter 7 to chapter 10. And really, the second part is a kind of copy of the first part and mirrors what we read in the first half.
What did we see in the first half? Well, it began in chapter 1 with the decree of Cyrus — the king of the Persian Empire — who decreed that any of the Israelites who wished could return to Jerusalem to rebuild the temple. Chapter 2 contains the family names of all those who returned to Jerusalem at that time. Then in chapters 3 to 6 we read about the trouble which the returning exiles encountered when they tried to rebuild the temple: for several generations, their enemies did everything they could to prevent them from finishing the work. However, as we saw last week, despite the trouble they faced from their enemies, the Lord worked all things together for the good of his people; and they were able to finish the work to rebuild the temple.
That’s what part 1 of Ezra was about. And so, what do we find in part 2? Well, in chapter 7 we have another decree by another king. It’s not Cyrus this time, but it’s Artaxerxes, who ruled over the Persian Empire many years after Cyrus. And in his day, Artaxerxes issued a decree that any Israelite who was still living in his kingdom and who wished could return to Jerusalem along with Ezra. So, chapter 7 matches chapter 1.
Then, in chapter 8, we have the names of those who returned to Jerusalem with Ezra. So, chapter 8 matches chapter 2.
And then chapters 9 and 10 tell us about the trouble Ezra and the returning exiles faced at that time. And so, chapters 9 and 10 match chapters 3 to 6.
However, there’s an important difference. The trouble the returning exiles faced in chapters 3 to 6 was from outsiders: their enemies opposed the work and wrote letters of complaint to the kings of Persia. But the trouble the returning exiles faced in chapters 9 and 10 originated with themselves. If you’ve got your Bible open at the book of Ezra, turn with me for a moment to chapter 9 where it begins:
After these things had been done, the leaders came to me and said, ‘The people of Israel, including the priests and the Levites, have not kept themselves separate from the neighbouring peoples with their detestable practices….’
And then look down to verse 13 of chapter 9, where Ezra is praying to the Lord and where, in verse 13, he confesses to the Lord:
What has happened to us [in the past when they went into exile] is a result of our evil deeds and our great guilt, and yet, our God, you have punished us less than our sins deserved and have given us a remnant like this. Shall we then break your commands again and intermarry with the peoples who commit such detestable practices? Would you not be angry enough with us to destroy us, leaving us no remnant or survivor?
Do you see what he’s saying? He’s saying that the reason they were sent into exile in the first place was because they had sinned against the Lord by disregarding his commandments. But the Lord was merciful to them and he brought them back to the Promised Land. However, here they are again, sinning against the Lord by disregarding his commandments. So, once again, they’re in danger. They’re in danger of provoking the Lord’s wrath once again; and they’re in danger of being sent away into exile once again. Because of their sin and rebellion, they were in danger of being sent away from the presence of the Lord. So, the returning exiles were in trouble. But the trouble did not originate with their enemies this time. The trouble originated with themselves, because of their sin and rebellion.
However, as we’ll see, just as the Lord helped them to overcome their enemies in the first part of Ezra, so he helped them to overcome their own sin and rebellion in the second part of Ezra. The people turned from their wicked ways in repentance and returned to the Lord.
So, that’s what the second half of Ezra is about. And, of course, we too are sinners who — because of our sin and rebellion — deserve to be sent away from the presence of the Lord forever. When the Lord Jesus comes again in glory and with great power, he will gather before his great judgment seat everyone who has ever lived. And those who — in this life — did not repent of their sins or trust in him for forgiveness, will be condemned for their sins and sent away from his presence to be punished forever and forever. But those who turned from their sins in repentance and who trusted in Christ as the only Saviour of the world, will be acquitted when they stand before his judgment seat; and they will be invited to come into the presence of the Lord to enjoy perfect and peace rest with him in the glory to come.
And so, we all need to repent and believe in the Lord Jesus Christ. Like the Israelites in Ezra’s day, we’re sinners who have broken God’s laws and commandments; and we’ve fallen short of doing his will; and we deserve to be condemned and sent away from the Lord forever. But whoever repents and believes in Christ — who died for sinners and who was raised to give us life — receives God’s forgiveness and the hope of everlasting life in his presence in glory. And so, if you have’t already done so, will you now repent and believe? — which means confessing your sins to God in prayer; and it means asking him to forgive you for the sake of Christ who died for sinners; and it means seeking his help to live a new life of obedience to him. Whoever repents and believes receives God’s forgiveness and the hope of everlasting life in God’s presence.
Chapters 7 to 10 match chapters 1 to 6; and both halves reveal to us the glory of the gospel and how Christ came to deliver sinners from our sin and misery in this fallen world; and to bring us to God in glory. And so, let’s turn now to Ezra chapter 7.
Verses 1 to 10
And the chapter begins with verses 1 to 10 where we’re introduced to Ezra who was sent by Artaxerxes to Jerusalem.
‘After these things’, it says in verse 1. It’s referring to the things we read about in chapter 6. The people had finished the temple. They had offered sacrifices to dedicate it. They had celebrated the Passover and Feast of Unleavened Bread. Well, after these things, Ezra came up from Babylon to Jerusalem. A sample of his genealogy appears in verses 1 to 5 and you’ll see that he’s descended from Aaron, who was Moses’s brother and the first High Priest of Israel. So, Ezra is a priest. But according to verse 6 he was also a teacher who was well versed in the Law of Moses, which the Lord had given to his people. So, as well as being a priest, he was an expert in the Scriptures.
And now he was coming up from Babylon to Jerusalem. And according to verse 6, King Artaxerxes had granted him everything he asked. And so, it seems that he had asked the king if he could return to Jerusalem; and he’d asked the king for help; and the king was willing to give him whatever help he needed.
And notice how Ezra — and, of course, we believe Ezra wrote this book — adds that the reason the king gave him everything he needed was because the hand of the Lord was on him. Ezra believed what the Bible reveals: that the Lord controls all his creatures and all their actions; and that even the king’s heart is in the hand of the Lord; and he directs it wherever he pleases. Ezra believed that the Lord God — who rules and reigns over all things as the Great King — was able to direct King Artaxerxes’ heart, so that he looked with favour on Ezra and gave him everything he needed when he went up to Jerusalem. Ezra taught the same lesson in chapter 1, where he said that the Lord moved the heart of Cyrus to issue his decree.
And so, it’s a reminder to us once again that the Lord is over all; and he works through kings and queens and presidents and prime ministers and through all other people in order to accomplish his purposes here on earth. We are, of course, responsible for our own sins and for the things we do which are wrong; and we cannot blame God for the sins we commit. Nevertheless, the Bible is clear that the Lord is able to work through sinners in order to accomplish his purposes. And so, we ought to praise him, because he is so great. And we ought to rest in the knowledge that all things are in his hands; and though we may not understand how he does it, we believe and we take comfort and consolation in the knowledge that in everything that happens, the Lord our God is working out his plans for the world.
According to verse 7, some of the Israelites including other priests and Levites as well as singers and gatekeepers and temple servants also came up to Jerusalem at the same time. They left Babylon on the first month of the seventh year of the king’s reign; and they arrived in the fifth month of the same year. It took four months to reach their destination, because the journey was something like 500 miles or even longer, depending on the route they took. And once again, Ezra ascribes his success in reaching Jerusalem to God’s gracious help. God was with him to help him. And God was willing to help him, because, according to verse 10, Ezra was a man who devoted himself to studying and observing and teaching God’s laws. He studied God’s law; and he kept God’s law; and he taught others God’s law. So, Ezra was a man who was devoted to the Lord.
Verses 11 to 26
I said at the beginning that chapter 7 matches chapter 1, because both chapters contain a decree from a king. In chapter 1, it’s a a decree from Cyrus. In this chapter, it’s a decree from Artaxerxes. And his decree appears in verses 11 to 26 in the form of a letter which he wrote to Ezra before Ezra set off for Jerusalem. And really it contains two decrees. The first is in verse 13; the second is in verse 21.
In the first, he decreed that any of the Israelites who were still living in the Persian Empire could now return to Jerusalem with Ezra. Ezra himself was being sent by the king and his advisers to enquire about Judah and Jerusalem with regard to the law of the Lord. Do you see that in verse 14? The king wanted Ezra to see whether or not the people in Jerusalem were keeping the law of the Lord.
Moreover the king said that Ezra could take silver and gold from various sources in order to buy whatever was needed to offer sacrifices to the Lord in his temple. So bulls, rams, lambs, grain and drink offerings; whatever they needed, they could buy with the supplied silver and gold. Furthermore, the king had also given Ezra certain articles which were to be used in the temple. Presumably these were holy objects and utensils to be used in the worship of the Lord. And, if they needed anything else, it was to be paid for from the king’s treasury.
So, that’s the first decree: go to Jerusalem; check on whether the people are obeying the Lord; and buy whatever you need to worship the Lord. The second decree is in verse 21 and is directed to the treasurers who looked after the royal treasury. They’re commanded to give Ezra whatever he needed with diligence. Furthermore, they’re not to impose taxes on any of the people who work in the temple.
But that’s not the end of the king’s letter. He further commanded Ezra to appoint magistrates and judges to administer justice to all the people in that part of his Empire. And they’re to administer justice according to the law of the Lord. Moreover, if any of these newly appointed magistrates and judges don’t know God’s law, Ezra must teach them. And whoever does not obey God’s law or the law of the king must be punished.
So, Ezra was to see whether the Israelites were obeying the Lord; he was to ensure that the Lord was worshipped properly; and he was to appoint magistrates and judges to administer justice according to the law of the Lord.
Verses 28 and 29
And the chapter ends with a personal note of praise from Ezra to the Lord:
Praise be to the Lord, the God of our fathers.
Praise be to the Lord, because he put it into the king’s heart to honour the Lord’s temple in this way. And praise be to the Lord, because he caused the king and his advisors to appoint Ezra to this work. And because the hand of the Lord was on Ezra, Ezra was encouraged to take other people with him. And so, when he left Babylon to go to Jerusalem, priests and Levites and singers and gatekeepers and temple servants went up with him.
When we read these stories from the Old Testament — or when we read any kind of story — we often identify ourselves with one of the characters in the story, don’t we? We wonder:
What would it be like to be in their shoes? What would I do, if that happened to me? I wish I were more like that person in this story.
And when we read about someone in the Bible, we often think to ourselves:
I should be more like that person.
And so, when we read about Ezra, we’re tempted to think to ourselves that here’s someone I need to be like. He loved the Lord; and he loved the law of the Lord; and so should I. I should try to become like him.
And, of course, it’s good that we should want to become like Ezra, because we all need to love the Lord and to love his law. But let me encourage you to identify yourself not with Ezra, first of all, but with the returning exiles: the people whose family names are listed in chapter 8. Think about them for a moment, because there they were, living in exile for many years, because of their sin and rebellion. And yet the Lord was merciful; and he did not treat them as their sins deserved; and he did not repay them according to their iniquities. Instead, because he is merciful, he moved the heart of the king to appoint Ezra as their leader who would lead them from out of Babylon and back to the Promised Land. And Ezra was a great leader, because he was someone who was wholeheartedly devoted to the Lord. Remember verse 10? The Lord’s hand was on Ezra, because he devoted himself to studying God’s law and to keeping God’s law and to teaching God’s law. He was a leader who was wholeheartedly devoted to doing God’s law and to teaching others to do the same. Later, in chapters 9 and 10, when he discovered that the people were disregarding God’s law, he was appalled and he wept before the Lord and confessed their sins.
By doing these things, Ezra became a type of Christ, because the Lord Jesus Christ is our great leader, our Lord and King. And when he was on the earth, he clearly knew God’s law and he was careful to keep God’s law. He never once sinned against his Father in heaven; and he was obedient to God in all things. And he didn’t just keep God’s moral law — the Ten Commandments — but he was careful to keep all the Old Testament ceremonial laws, so that when he healed lepers, he told them to show themselves to the priest, as required by the ceremonial law. And he not only knew God’s law and kept it himself, but he taught others to keep it too, because wherever he went, he taught the people the will of God.
And just as Ezra was sent to Jerusalem to find out whether or not the Israelites were keeping God’s law, and just as he was appalled to discover that they were not, so the Lord Jesus came to Jerusalem and he was appalled to see that they had turned the temple into a marketplace; and the Lord wept over Jerusalem, because of the sins of the people and the judgment he knew which was going to come on them because of their unbelief.
By sending Ezra to Jerusalem, the Lord was revealing how one day, he would send an even greater teacher to Jerusalem, to teach his people how to live as his people. And the Lord Jesus still teaches us today, doesn’t he? He teaches us through his word and by his Spirit. So, he has given us his word, so that we might know everything we need to know for our salvation and for our edification; everything we need to know in order to be saved from the coming judgment; and everything we need to know in order to grow as believers and to live as God’s people. And he gives us his Spirit to help us to understand and to believe and to obey everything in the Bible. And by his Spirit, he convicts us of our sin and guilt, and he enables us to weep and mourn over our sins; and to confess them to our Father in heaven; and to turn from them; and to strive with all our might to keep his law and to do his will. And, of course, the Lord Jesus sends us preachers to preach his word to us in the power of his Spirit. And by means of these preachers, Christ our Great Teacher speaks to his church today and makes his will known to us.
We should identify ourselves with the returning exiles, who were rescued from exile and who returned to Jerusalem where they were taught by Ezra to obey the Lord. And God has rescued us from our sin and misery in this fallen world so that we might obey him. And that means we need to listen to Christ our Great Teacher and learn from him how to live as God’s people. We need to learn from him to repent of our sin and guilt and to be faithful to the Lord in all things. And so, will you humble yourself before the Lord Jesus; and learn from him how to live as God’s people in the world, relying on his Spirit to help you to obey him in all you say and do?
But then Ezra points us to Christ in another way, doesn’t he? Ezra came to the temple in Jerusalem with sacrifices to offer to God. Artaxerxes gave him all the silver and gold he needed to buy offerings. So, money for bulls and rams and lambs and for grain and drink offerings. And Ezra was to sacrifice them to the Lord.
So, Ezra the priest came to Jerusalem to offer up sacrifices to the Lord in the temple. And when the Lord Jesus was on the earth, he too went up to Jerusalem with an offering for God. But he did not need to offer many sacrifices, because the sacrifice he offered to the Lord was a once-for-all, perfect sacrifice for sins. As the writer to the Hebrews puts it: he was able to offer for all time one sacrifice for sins. And the one sacrifice for sins which he offered for all time was himself, because on the cross, he laid down his life as the ransom to set sinners free from the condemnation we deserve for our sins and to cleanse us from all our guilt. Ezra had to offer many sacrifices. But by means of those many sacrifices which Ezra the Priest offered, the Lord was revealing how one day our Great High Priest would come to Jerusalem to offer himself as the perfect sacrifice for sins. And by trusting in Christ who died for sinners, we are pardoned by God for all that we have done wrong, so that instead of being sent away from the presence of the Lord to be punished forever — which is what we deserve — we can look forward to coming into God’s presence in our Promised Land, which is the new heaven and earth where God will dwell with his people forever.
And so, if Jesus Christ is your Saviour — if you’re trusting in him as your Great High Priest who offered himself as the perfect sacrifice for sins — then you can rejoice in the good news that your guilt has been taken away forever; God will never require from you further payment from your sins; so you have peace with God forever; and forever and forever you will dwell with the Lord in the new heaven and earth when Christ our Savour comes again.