Having just again finished reading the book of Ezra, I was struck by how many deep theological truths and spiritual gems are found in this short book. While only 10 chapters long, it contains so many great principles and lessons for believers today. There are too many to deal with in one article, so let me highlight four of the profound biblical truths found here.
One. God is sovereign, and he is able to use pagan rulers to serve his purposes. This is made perfectly clear in the following passages where we read about God stirring their spirits to do his work:
Ezra 1:1-2 In the first year of Cyrus king of Persia, that the word of the Lord by the mouth of Jeremiah might be fulfilled, the Lord stirred up the spirit of Cyrus king of Persia, so that he made a proclamation throughout all his kingdom and also put it in writing: “Thus says Cyrus king of Persia: The Lord, the God of heaven, has given me all the kingdoms of the earth, and he has charged me to build him a house at Jerusalem, which is in Judah.
Ezra 6:22 For seven days they celebrated with joy the Festival of Unleavened Bread, because the Lord had filled them with joy by changing the attitude of the king of Assyria so that he assisted them in the work on the house of God, the God of Israel. NIV
Ezra 6:22 And they kept the Feast of Unleavened Bread seven days with joy, for the Lord had made them joyful and had turned the heart of the king of Assyria to them, so that he aided them in the work of the house of God, the God of Israel. ESV
Ezra 7:27 Praise be to the LORD, the God of our ancestors, who has put it into the king’s heart to bring honor to the house of the LORD in Jerusalem in this way.
Without getting into a big discussion about the relationship between divine sovereignty and human freedom, we do see here God effectively moving these pagan leaders to accomplish his will. And it was not just pagan rulers that God moved upon, but God’s people as well, as we read here:
Ezra 1:5 Then the family heads of Judah and Benjamin, and the priests and Levites—everyone whose heart God had moved—prepared to go up and build the house of the Lord in Jerusalem.
A personal lesson is this: While we all have a role to play and we need to respond in obedience to what God asks of us, we also can say that when we do that which is right and pleasing to God, he really should get the credit for it. A helpful principle might be this: when we sin, we are responsible; when we obey and do good, God is ultimately responsible.
And a bigger picture lesson is the truth that ultimately it is God who is in control of the nations. As James Hamilton comments:
What Proverbs 21:1 says is true: “A king’s heart is like streams of water in the LORD’s hand: He directs it wherever He chooses.” Are you worried about recent political developments? About what your government is doing? Do you believe Proverbs 21:1? This world is God’s stage. The bad guys have their strongholds, but they remain God’s characters. This is God’s cosmic drama. He will have His way.
Or as Christopher Wright comments, “God has a way with human hearts – especially the hearts of those in power, as Pharaoh learned to his ultimate destruction. Human beings make their choices and declare their plans. But God ensures that sooner or later it is God’s will that is done on earth as it is in heaven.”
Two. There will always be opposition to the work of God. Any Christian leader knows this, and Ezra certainly knew all about it:
Ezra 4:4-5 Then the peoples around them set out to discourage the people of Judah and make them afraid to go on building. They bribed officials to work against them and frustrate their plans during the entire reign of Cyrus king of Persia and down to the reign of Darius king of Persia.
Whenever God asks you to do something for him, you can expect both friends and foes to rise up against you, give you a hard time, and seek to deter you from doing what you are meant to do. This is one of the clear lessons of both Scripture and church history. But we must ignore the critics and opposition and keep doing what we are called to do.
Robert Fyall offers these thoughts on this truth:
What we have in Ezra 4 is one of the most significant biblical pictures of how opposition to God’s work arises and apparently triumphs. . . . Building for God will never be easy and enjoy uninterrupted progress and setbacks will often come to test our commitment….
We have here the impression of a war of attrition where people’s nerves are worn down. It is not so much an all-out brutal attack as a steady wearing down of resistant which results in a weakening of resolve and a state of apathy such as is implied in Haggai 1. A remarkable comment on this soul-destroying apathy occurs in a commentary on Zephaniah by George Adam Smith: “The great causes of God and Humanity are not defeated by the hot assaults of the Devil, but by the slow, crushing, glacier-like masses of thousands and thousands of indifferent nobodies.”
And that comment by Smith goes on to say this: “God’s causes are never destroyed by being blown up, but by being sat upon.” Yep – simply try to do something great for God and watch all the critics and naysayers flock your way, telling you that this is wrong, or it won’t work, or you are being overly spiritual, etc.
Three. God honours those who put him first. When we seek to obey and serve the Lord, he will acknowledge that and bless:
Ezra 7:9-10 The gracious hand of his God was on him. For Ezra had devoted himself to the study and observance of the Law of the Lord, and to teaching its decrees and laws in Israel.
God was with Ezra because Ezra was with God. He put God first and sought to teach others to do the same. And for that God blessed Ezra and used him mightily for his purposes. We all need to keep this important lesson in mind. It is a vital spiritual truth. As Peter Adam remarks:
Ezra was skilled in Bible ministry, and this ministry came out of his devotion to study the bible and put it into practice in his own life. Ezra followed God’s law, and taught it. He saw this as his main ministry, and devoted himself to the preparation for his ministry: to living what he learned, and to teaching what he had learned. He was no selfish student, who learned merely for his own benefit. He was no hypocrite, who knew and taught all the right things, but did not practise them. And he was not selfish, for that which he learned and practised, he wanted to teach others.
Four. Those who are close to their Lord will grieve with a godly grief. We serve a God who grieves and aches for his wayward people. A true person of God shares this heartbeat:
Ezra 9:5-6 Then, at the evening sacrifice, I rose from my self-abasement, with my tunic and cloak torn, and fell on my knees with my hands spread out to the Lord my God and prayed: “I am too ashamed and disgraced, my God, to lift up my face to you, because our sins are higher than our heads and our guilt has reached to the heavens.”
Ezra 10:6 Then Ezra withdrew from before the house of God and went to the room of Jehohanan son of Eliashib. While he was there, he ate no food and drank no water, because he continued to mourn over the unfaithfulness of the exiles.
The true man of God weeps over what God weeps over. The true man of God agonises over sin – be it his own or the people of God’s. The true man of God has a broken and contrite heart, and seeks for God’s holiness to rule among God’s people.
Commenting on Ezra’s prayer in Ezra 9, Derek Kidner comments:
Something of the devotion and insight of the man praying can be sensed in this confession. His involvement with those for whom he spoke comes through at once, in the swift transition from ‘I’, in the first sentence, to ‘our’ and ‘we’ for the rest of the prayer. Ezra could have protested his innocence, but like the servant in Isaiah 53:12 he was impelled to reckon himself ‘numbered with the transgressors’, more deeply ashamed of the national guilt than any of them, and thus more fit to be their spokesman in confession.
Secondly, he could not forget the havoc they had suffered – and deserved (7). . . . In other words, he had a high sense of the glory they had betrayed, and he could not be reconciled to what they had become, But thirdly, he was acutely conscious of God’s mercy. The very fact that any remnant had survived was proof of it (8), for even their punishment has been mercifully light (11).
Or as F. Charles Fensham remarks:
In these verses we have Ezra’s striking confession of sin, pictured with strong metaphors. . . . Ezra wants to express his solidarity with his people. He not only intercedes for his people, but also identifies himself with them. The iniquities which have mounted up in ancient times, but especially since the last days of the kings of Judah, and which have caused the exile, are also the responsibility of the later generations. It is as if Ezra has realized that immediately in front of him are all the cumulative iniquities which have heaped up through history. What an extraordinary view of sin!
Bonus nugget. Because I dealt with this passage just the other day, let me simply mention it now:
Ezra 3:11-13 And all the people gave a great shout of praise to the LORD, because the foundation of the house of the LORD was laid. But many of the older priests and Levites and family heads, who had seen the former temple, wept aloud when they saw the foundation of this temple being laid, while many others shouted for joy. No one could distinguish the sound of the shouts of joy from the sound of weeping, because the people made so much noise. And the sound was heard far away.
See my comments on this here: billmuehlenberg.com/2019/05/24/killing-a-culture-by-killing-its-history/
Ezra is an amazing book. If you have not yet read it, you really need to. The spiritual truths and theological lessons found there are vitally important for every Christian.