Here the second part of the book begins. The first part is about the rebuilding of the altar and the temple. The second part is about the mission and the work of Ezra personally. After the service of Jeshua and Zerubbabel for the building, now the service of Ezra is needed. His concern is for the “adornment” of the house of the LORD (verse 27). For this it is necessary that the Word of God be laid upon the heart and conscience of the people. That is what Ezra is going to do.
We are here about sixty years after the dedication of the temple in Ezra 6 and about eighty years after the proclamation of Cyrus in Ezra 1. We are in the midst of a new generation. Here begins a new awakening. God stirs the spirits of a number of Israelites who have stayed in Babylon until now and fills their hearts with the desire to go to Jerusalem. Ezra is their leader as a direct descendant from the line of Pinehas, to whom an eternal priesthood has been promised. Ezra is proof of this (Num 25:7-13).
There are two parts in the history of Ezra. The first part describes his journey from Babylon (Ezra 7-8). The second part is about his work in Jerusalem (Ezra 9-10). The circumstances under which he travels and works are normal. He is not accompanied by miracles. We see no unfolding of strength. His sources are the same as we have: the Word of God and the presence of God.
1 - 10 Ezra Goes Up to Jerusalem
1 Now after these things, in the reign of Artaxerxes king of Persia, [there went up] Ezra son of Seraiah, son of Azariah, son of Hilkiah, 2 son of Shallum, son of Zadok, son of Ahitub, 3 son of Amariah, son of Azariah, son of Meraioth, 4 son of Zerahiah, son of Uzzi, son of Bukki, 5 son of Abishua, son of Phinehas, son of Eleazar, son of Aaron the chief priest. 6 This Ezra went up from Babylon, and he was a scribe skilled in the law of Moses, which the LORD God of Israel had given; and the king granted him all he requested because the hand of the LORD his God [was] upon him. 7 Some of the sons of Israel and some of the priests, the Levites, the singers, the gatekeepers and the temple servants went up to Jerusalem in the seventh year of King Artaxerxes. 8 He came to Jerusalem in the fifth month, which was in the seventh year of the king. 9 For on the first of the first month he began to go up from Babylon; and on the first of the fifth month he came to Jerusalem, because the good hand of his God [was] upon him. 10 For Ezra had set his heart to study the law of the LORD and to practice [it], and to teach [His] statutes and ordinances in Israel.
The chapter begins with “now after these things” (verse 1). These are the things that happened in connection with the completion and dedication of the temple in the previous chapter. The book of Ezra does not end with Ezra 6. Darius, who is mentioned in Ezra 5-6, was succeeded by his son Ahasuerus. This is the Ahasuerus of the book of Esther. Ahasuerus was succeeded again by his son Artaxerxes. We also meet him in Nehemiah 2, about thirteen years later (Neh 2:1).
God continues in His goodness to watch over His people in spite of their unfaithfulness and failure. He does so even if they are only a small remnant that has escaped decay by His grace, but forgets that grace and becomes unfaithful again. He gives Ezra in his heart to think of the remnant in Jerusalem. The people have no need of power, for that power has been given by God to others. They need the knowledge of His will and ordinances, of His thoughts in His Word (verse 25).
The genealogy of Ezra, with its length of sixteen ancestors, is unique in the Old Testament. A number of names are known from the history of Israel. “Zadok” (verse 2) is praised for his faithfulness, “Pinehas” (verse 5) for his zeal. “Aaron” (verse 5) is a type of Christ, the source of true service.
This Ezra (meaning ‘help’), whose genealogy shows that he is a priest, goes up from Babylon (verse 6). Apart from being a priest – which he is by birth – he is also “a scribe skilled in the law of Moses”. This is not by birth, but by diligent study of the Scriptures. He is skilled in the law of Moses, from which the people have deviated. The law must now be brought back into the light. His study of the Scriptures has awakened in him the desire to serve God’s people with it.
Ezra has asked the king to go to Jerusalem. With this he has acknowledged the authority of the king as given to him by God. The fact that God has laid down the authority there is also evident from the year counting. There is counted according to the gentile rulers of God’s people. They go up “in the seventh year of King Artaxerxes” (verse 7; verse 8). It affirms that Israel lives in “the times of the Gentiles” (Lk 21:24) that came when God gave Nebuchadnezzar dominion over the world (Dan 2:37-38).
The king has allowed Ezra to go to Israel, for God has worked his heart because Ezra’s desire matches His desires. It is good to entrust ourselves to God’s hands. We tend to jump over barriers placed by people on our way. We must learn to wait for God to take away those barriers. The king doesn’t just give him permission to go, but everything he has asked for – see the decree the king gives to Ezra (verses 11-26).
Ezra is not alone in going up from Babylon. There are other members of God’s people going with him. They are “some of the sons of Israel and some of the priests, the Levites, the singers, the gatekeepers and the temple servants” (verse 7). This group longs for the land and the city and the house of God. It is possible that through the teaching of Ezra from the Scriptures they have all gotten this longing. They will have become aware by God’s Spirit that in Babylon they cannot be what they are in God’s eyes: His people whom He has chosen to serve Him in the land and in the place He has chosen.
The journey to Jerusalem takes four months (verses 8-9). That Ezra arrives safely in Jerusalem is thanks to “the good hand of his God upon him” (verse 9). To this only he attributes every step he is allowed to take forward. This is mentioned a few more times (verse 28; Ezra 8:18,22,31).
Then we see a beautiful and instructive order for being busy with God’s Word (verse 10). Bible study is not an intellectual, mental activity, but a personal study for one’s own life and to teach the church:
1. It begins in the heart. Ezra has first of all “set his heart to study the law of the LORD”. Setting his heart on it means that he knows spiritual exercise, like a Timothy (1Tim 4:16).
2. The second is that he also directed his heart “to practice [it]”. What we have learned from God’s Word, we must first put into practice ourselves.
3. Only then can the third come: “To teach [God’s] statutes and ordinances in Israel”. A good teacher should always be able to point to his own example, as Paul does several times (Acts 20:20,35; Phil 3:17; 1Thes 1:5-6).
Ezra’s service is a service that the returnees need right now. He is not an intellectual investigator of the Scriptures. He is not one who teaches what has not touched his own heart and does not determine his own ways. For example, we can talk about the coming of the Lord without our own lives being shaped by it. Or we may speak of the unity of the body of Christ while in practice acting in a sectarian manner.
11 - 26 The Decree of King Artaxerxes
11 Now this is the copy of the decree which King Artaxerxes gave to Ezra the priest, the scribe, learned in the words of the commandments of the LORD and His statutes to Israel: 12 “Artaxerxes, king of kings, to Ezra the priest, the scribe of the law of the God of heaven, perfect [peace]. And now 13 I have issued a decree that any of the people of Israel and their priests and the Levites in my kingdom who are willing to go to Jerusalem, may go with you. 14 Forasmuch as you are sent by the king and his seven counselors to inquire concerning Judah and Jerusalem according to the law of your God which is in your hand, 15 and to bring the silver and gold, which the king and his counselors have freely offered to the God of Israel, whose dwelling is in Jerusalem, 16 with all the silver and gold which you find in the whole province of Babylon, along with the freewill offering of the people and of the priests, who offered willingly for the house of their God which is in Jerusalem; 17 with this money, therefore, you shall diligently buy bulls, rams and lambs, with their grain offerings and their drink offerings and offer them on the altar of the house of your God which is in Jerusalem. 18 Whatever seems good to you and to your brothers to do with the rest of the silver and gold, you may do according to the will of your God. 19 Also the utensils which are given to you for the service of the house of your God, deliver in full before the God of Jerusalem. 20 The rest of the needs for the house of your God, for which you may have occasion to provide, provide [for it] from the royal treasury. 21 “I, even I, King Artaxerxes, issue a decree to all the treasurers who are [in the provinces] beyond the River, that whatever Ezra the priest, the scribe of the law of the God of heaven, may require of you, it shall be done diligently, 22 [even] up to 100 talents of silver, 100 kors of wheat, 100 baths of wine, 100 baths of oil, and salt as needed. 23 Whatever is commanded by the God of heaven, let it be done with zeal for the house of the God of heaven, so that there will not be wrath against the kingdom of the king and his sons. 24 We also inform you that it is not allowed to impose tax, tribute or toll [on] any of the priests, Levites, singers, doorkeepers, Nethinim or servants of this house of God. 25 “You, Ezra, according to the wisdom of your God which is in your hand, appoint magistrates and judges that they may judge all the people who are in [the province] beyond the River, [even] all those who know the laws of your God; and you may teach anyone who is ignorant [of them]. 26 Whoever will not observe the law of your God and the law of the king, let judgment be executed upon him strictly, whether for death or for banishment or for confiscation of goods or for imprisonment.”
The king gives a decree to Ezra (verse 11). It will open the necessary doors for Ezra in Israel to do his service. As an introduction to the decree we read the testimony of the Holy Spirit about Ezra. The Holy Spirit testifies that Ezra has a thorough knowledge of God’s Word. God’s Word is indicated here in two ways. They are “the words of the commandments of the LORD” and they are “His statutes to Israel”. The first emphasizes Him from Whom the words originate and that they are commandments, which requires obedience. The second indicates what their purpose is and for whom they are meant. They are statutes or rules for life given for the good of Israel.
After the testimony of the Holy Spirit the king gives a similar testimony in the opening of his decree (verse 12). This shows what kind of testimony Ezra has gone out in the midst of the heathen world (cf. 1Thes 4:12a; Col 4:5). This is how the king knows him. Artaxerxes seems to have a certain knowledge of God. He calls Him “the God of heaven” (verses 12,21,23), “your God”, i.e. the God of Ezra (verses 14,25,26), “the God of Israel” (verse 15) and “the God of Jerusalem” (verse 19).
Ezra is granted the same kind of favor (verse 13) as before by Cyrus to God’s people in Babylon (Ezra 1:1-4). In this way the Spirit of God once more works a deliverance from a number of members of His people. Here, too, everyone is allowed to go to Jerusalem voluntarily. Whoever wishes to do so, may know that he or she is supported by a command of the king, through which no one will dare to raise obstacles for anyone who wants to go. The opportunity to go is offered, while there is also protection for everyone who goes.
Arthahsasta then turns to Ezra. He points out to Ezra that he and his “seven counselors” (cf. Est 1:14) send him to Jerusalem “to inquire concerning Judah and Jerusalem according to the law of your God” (verse 14). Ezra does not go to Judea and Jerusalem to see whether things there correspond to his ideas, but whether the people live in accordance with God’s Word. That Word “is in his hand” and he can hold that up to the people as the norm. How important it is for us that we test everything in God’s church against God’s Word that we possess. Having it in our possession is something else than applying it to all situations of our own life and the life of the church.
The king and his counselors also voluntarily give Ezra silver and gold (verse 15). They give it to Ezra, but it is meant for “the God of Israel, whose dwelling is in Jerusalem”. In addition, Ezra has to add all the silver and gold he can find in the whole region of Babylon, along with the voluntary gifts of the people and the priests (verse 16). It is all intended “for the house of their God which is in Jerusalem”. It is remarkable how often is spoken about their acting voluntarily in these verses. Any thought of coercion is absent here (cf. 2Cor 9:5-7).
Artaxerxes tells Ezra what to do with the money. He must buy various kinds of offerings for that money “and offer them on the altar of the house of your God which is in Jerusalem” (verse 17; cf. Deu 14:24-26). Each time it is emphasized that God desires His people to offer Him offerings in His house. These are now spiritual sacrifices, sacrifices of praise and thanks of which Christ and His work are the contents and which are brought to Him in His spiritual home, the church.
In addition to the prescribed destination of money for offerings, Ezra is free to do with the rest of the money as he sees fit (verse 18). This does not mean that he can act outside the will of God, for the king adds that it must be “according to the will of your God”. Nor is it prescribed for us in all cases how we should serve God. General rules are given, while there is often individual freedom to give thanks and perform our service after spiritual exercise and testing against God’s Word.
Ezra also has to ensure that everything that has been given to him for the service of God’s house actually ends up there (verse 19). It determines that what has been given to us is meant to serve God in His house. Our whole life with all that we possess belongs to Him. Everything is available to Him and the service in His house.
It is good to be reminded of this in our time of individualism, in which everyone does what is right in his own eyes. The importance of the house of God, the church of God, must again be seen by us. If the house of God becomes important to us again, we may call upon the unlimited supplies of “royal treasury”. This speaks to us of Christ, “in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge” (Col 2:3). In Him we find everything we need for our service in the house of God, the church of the living God.
Artaxerxes further commands all treasurers in the decree that they must “diligently” do everything Ezra asks of them (verse 21). He makes clear to the treasurers what kind of man Ezra is by presenting him to them as “Ezra the priest, the scribe of the law of the God of heaven”. Also, Artaxerxes indicates what means and in what quantities can be delivered to him at the request of Ezra (verse 22).
Artaxerxes tells why everything he has prescribed must be done (verse 23). For there is a God of heaven Who has a home on earth. Everything that the God of heaven commands with respect to His house must be done accurately. Remarkably, Artaxerxes calls the house of God “the house of the God of heaven”. He thereby acknowledges the exaltedness of God Who dwells on earth. By taking Him into account and honoring Him he ensures “that there will not be wrath against the kingdom of the king and his sons”. If we do as God pleases, God will not only withhold His wrath, but He will bless us.
The king also forbids all those involved in the service in God’s house to “impose tax, tribute or toll” (verse 24). This means that he makes them protectors of His throne. All that the servants of the house of God receive for their sustenance, the tithes they receive from God’s people, is tax-free. It is entirely for them.
Finally the king says to Ezra that he must “appoint magistrates and judges “ (verse 25). They are to judge “judge all the people ... [even] all those who know the laws of your God”. This means so much that the whole people of God are supposed to know God’s laws. The same is true for God’s people now, for they are also supposed to know God’s Word. God’s Word must be revealed to those who do not know it.
Although the people are supposed to know God’s Word, situations may occur that are contrary to God’s Word. Then justice must be done and an explanation must be given as to why something is contrary to God’s Word. In fact, it is the task of every believer to judge when he sees that something is happening that is contrary to what God has said (cf. 1Cor 6:1-7).
In addition to God’s law, there is also the law of the king (verse 26). The people not only owe obedience to God, but also to the government placed over them by God on earth. This also applies to us: Every person is to be in subjection to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those which exist are established by God” (Rom 13:1). Government is also set to exercise punishment when one does not keep the law. Artaxerxes points this out to Ezra and Paul points it out to us (Rom 13:2-4).
27 - 28 Ezra’s Reaction
27 Blessed be the LORD, the God of our fathers, who has put [such a thing] as this in the king’s heart, to adorn the house of the LORD which is in Jerusalem, 28 and has extended lovingkindness to me before the king and his counselors and before all the king’s mighty princes. 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.
What the king wrote in the decree fills the heart of Ezra with worship (verse 27). He is impressed that God shows Himself the faithful God, both in the past – He is “the God of our fathers” – and in the present in relation to His house. God has so worked the heart of Artaxerxes (Pro 21:1), that he wants to contribute to the “adornment”, the splendor, the glory of “the house of the LORD which is in Jerusalem”. We hear in the thanksgiving a man who is not satisfied that the house of the LORD has been rebuilt and that its appearance is in order. He is concerned about Him Whom this house belongs to and why He had this house built.
We can apply this to the church, God’s house at this time. Are we satisfied that we come together as a church? Maybe we admit that it is not always as it should be. But what does an outer form say if the hearts are not close to the Lord? All service of the Word should be aimed “to adorn” the house of God or making it glorious, adorning it, increasing the service in it. Spiritual struggles that have arisen, difficulties that have arisen, have given rise to an increase in the knowledge of God, and that decorates His house and supports the service in it.
Ezra is aware that everything comes from God. God has worked the heart of the king (verse 27) and He has “extended lovingkindness to” Ezra “before the king and his counselors and before all the king’s mighty princes” (verse 28). It is impossible for so many hearts to be influenced by a political lobby. No, God works mightily for His people and uses whomever He wills for that purpose.
After these encouragements Ezra takes courage. He sees “the hand of the LORD my God” upon him. That brings him into action. He calls the heads of the family together to go up with him. What these men say and do will be decisive for the families of which they are the heads. If they go up, their families will also go up. We will hear more about them in the next chapter, where they are mentioned by name.