Alright, because it has been so long since we covered the first half of Ezra, I think a quick recap is in order.
We previously covered the first six chapters of Ezra over the course of two weeks.
Those first six chapters tell the story of the first big migration of the Jews from the land of Babylon, where they were in exile, back to the land of their ancestors, the land of Judah, and in particular the city of Jerusalem.
The city had been destroyed by Babylon by Nebuchadnezzar, and the majority of Jews living in Jerusalem had been taken away from their homes to live in Babylon.
Fast-forward 80 years, and Babylon had been conquered by Media-Persia, and King Cyrus of Persia issued a decree that allowed the Jews living in Babylon to “return” to their homeland. Of course, other than some of the older folks, most of them had grown up in Babylon so it was really a “return” to a place they had never in their lives been able to call home.
Remember that in this first return, in Ezra 1-6 we were introduced to a few key characters, none of whom were Ezra! The main two leaders worth mentioning were Zerubbabel, a descendant of king David, and Jeshua, a descendant of Aaron the high priest.
Their mission, first and foremost when they returned, was to rebuild the temple so they could reestablish their worship of Yahweh and renew their covenant vows with him there.
So, they set out to do that, but they ran into some roadblocks, some opposition from their neighbors, and so the building of the temple was delayed. But ultimately it was finished, and in chapter 6 the new, second temple was dedicated, ushering a new era for the Jews, a period we now refer to as the “second temple” period.
And then there’s almost a 60 year gap from the end of chapter 6 to the beginning of chapter 7, and that’s almost an 80 year gap from the beginning of the book of Ezra to where we pick up in chapter 7.
In the meantime, at somewhere in the middle is where the story of Esther falls, which is why we kind of “inserted” the book of Esther between Ezra 6 and Ezra 7.
But now we’re back to Ezra, and here we are at chapter 7. Realize that, with that 80-year gap, Ezra probably wasn’t even born yet during the first return, which explains why he wasn’t mentioned in the first part of the story. He would have been born and raised in Babylon at some point in between chapters 6 and 7.
So we haven’t seen the person of Ezra in the book of Ezra, but here in chapter 7 he is finally introduced, and it’s a pretty long introduction, which makes sense because he’s going to play a major role in the rest of the story.
Ezra 7:1–10 CSB
1 After these events, during the reign of King Artaxerxes of Persia, Ezra— Seraiah’s son, Azariah’s son, Hilkiah’s son, 2 Shallum’s son, Zadok’s son, Ahitub’s son, 3 Amariah’s son, Azariah’s son, Meraioth’s son, 4 Zerahiah’s son, Uzzi’s son, Bukki’s son, 5 Abishua’s son, Phinehas’s son, Eleazar’s son, the chief priest Aaron’s son 6 —came up from Babylon. He was a scribe skilled in the law of Moses, which the Lord, the God of Israel, had given. The king had granted him everything he requested because the hand of the Lord his God was on him. 7 Some of the Israelites, priests, Levites, singers, gatekeepers, and temple servants accompanied him to Jerusalem in the seventh year of King Artaxerxes. 8 Ezra came to Jerusalem in the fifth month, during the seventh year of the king. 9 He began the journey from Babylon on the first day of the first month and arrived in Jerusalem on the first day of the fifth month since the gracious hand of his God was on him. 10 Now Ezra had determined in his heart to study the law of the Lord, obey it, and teach its statutes and ordinances in Israel.
First of all, the phrase “after these events” can really throw you off if you’re not paying really close attention to the timeline of events. You can go right from chapter 6 into chapter 7 and miss that 80-year gap, which is why I wanted to really emphasize that point. Most translations use a pretty literal translation like “after these events” or “after these things” or just “after this.” The NLT makes an interpretative leap and instead says “many years later.” That’s not a literal translation, but does help you accurately understand the story. Just a quick example of how comparing different translations can be super helpful in studying scripture.
Alright, so Ezra has been introduced, and I just want to point out a couple things about how he’s introduced.
The first is just a fun piece of trivia: the name “Ezra” in Hebrew means “Yahweh has helped,” which is fitting, because he comes on the scene during this time when Yahweh had “helped” Israel by allowing them to return from Exile.
The second is that he’s introduced with this mini genealogy. Why is that? Why bother with this?
If you count the number of names in this list, you’ll notice that it’s not long enough to be a complete genealogy, but it makes enough important connections to show that his lineage traces back to Aaron the high priest.
This lineage gives him some importance in the Jewish community, and this is similar to what we saw earlier in the book with Zerubabbel’s tie to David and Jeshua’s tie to Aaron. We now are introduced to a different descendant of Aaron.
Ezra is also introduced as a scribe. This means a couple of things. First, as is also made evident by the ensuing narrative, Ezra holds an official position of significant rank in the Persian administration. It’s a secretary type of position, detail oriented, and requires significant education and skill.
But, more importantly, verse 6 points out that he is also skilled specifically in the law of Moses. That is, the torah. He’s a torah expert! In today’s terms, I would call him a Bible nerd! I think this is a really cool fact about Ezra, and we’ll come back to it later on.
Right on the heels of this introduction to the person of Ezra, verses 7-9 give a quick little summary of his whole story, saying basically that he led a group of people on a journey to Jerusalem, successfully, by the grace of God. That summarizes the whole rest of chapter 7 and 8, right there.
But before moving on, this introduction to Ezra is concluded by this one incredible statement in verse 10:
Ezra 7:10 CSB
10 Now Ezra had determined in his heart to study the law of the Lord, obey it, and teach its statutes and ordinances in Israel.
This one verse captures the most crucial essence of Ezra’s character, which becomes an undercurrent, moving through the rest of his story and the rest of this book.
Ezra was committed to do three things:
He allowed God’s word to transform his character and behavior, to the ultimate benefit of others.
Keep this in mind as we continue reading through the story.
Verse 11 picks up with this:
Ezra 7:11–26 CSB
11 This is the text of the letter King Artaxerxes gave to Ezra the priest and scribe, an expert in matters of the Lord’s commands and statutes for Israel: 12 Artaxerxes, king of kings, to Ezra the priest, an expert in the law of the God of the heavens: Greetings. 13 I issue a decree that any of the Israelites in my kingdom, including their priests and Levites, who want to go to Jerusalem, may go with you. 14 You are sent by the king and his seven counselors to evaluate Judah and Jerusalem according to the law of your God, which is in your possession. 15 You are also to bring the silver and gold the king and his counselors have willingly given to the God of Israel, whose dwelling is in Jerusalem, 16 and all the silver and gold you receive throughout the province of Babylon, together with the freewill offerings given by the people and the priests to the house of their God in Jerusalem. 17 Then you are to be diligent to buy with this money bulls, rams, and lambs, along with their grain and drink offerings, and offer them on the altar at the house of your God in Jerusalem. 18 You may do whatever seems best to you and your brothers with the rest of the silver and gold, according to the will of your God. 19 Deliver to the God of Jerusalem all the articles given to you for the service of the house of your God. 20 You may use the royal treasury to pay for anything else needed for the house of your God. 21 I, King Artaxerxes, issue a decree to all the treasurers in the region west of the Euphrates River: Whatever Ezra the priest, an expert in the law of the God of the heavens, asks of you must be provided in full, 22 up to 7,500 pounds of silver, 500 bushels of wheat, 550 gallons of wine, 550 gallons of oil, and salt without limit. 23 Whatever is commanded by the God of the heavens must be done diligently for the house of the God of the heavens, so that wrath will not fall on the realm of the king and his sons. 24 Be advised that you do not have authority to impose tribute, duty, and land tax on any priests, Levites, singers, doorkeepers, temple servants, or other servants of this house of God. 25 And you, Ezra, according to God’s wisdom that you possess, appoint magistrates and judges to judge all the people in the region west of the Euphrates who know the laws of your God and to teach anyone who does not know them. 26 Anyone who does not keep the law of your God and the law of the king, let the appropriate judgment be executed against him, whether death, banishment, confiscation of property, or imprisonment.
Alright, so this is a letter issued by Artaxerxes, the son of Xerxes, king of the Persian empire.
Did anyone notice the title that he goes by in verse 12?
“King of Kings” was a pretty common title for Persian kings, but for most of us we are probably more familiar with that title being used in the New Testament to refer to God and/or Christ.
When the New Testament writers ascribe that title to God, it’s to intentionally assert his authority over even the greatest of human kings.
Notice that even within the book of Ezra, though Artaxerxes gets to use that title of “king of kings,” God’s authority is still ultimately given credit for the actions that earthly kings take, whether it’s Cyrus or Darius or Artaxerxes.
Now, to summarize some of the main points of the letter, the letter granted Ezra the power and authority to:
According to my commentaries, the quantities of supplies listed would have been more than sufficient for at least 2 years worth of daily sacrifices. It was a LOT of supplies!
Also, notice that anyone who wants to return can return! The invitation extends to all who are willing, which means that those who remained in exile were also doing so willingly.
It is also interesting that whereas at the beginning of the book, Cyrus sent the first group with the primary mission of building a building. The temple. Now, Artaxerxes is more concerned that the temple actually functions the way it was intended to, with the purpose of bringing spiritual health and revival to the Jewish community in Jerusalem.
Which brings me to a question. Why? What was in it for him? Why would a Persian king go to such great lengths to restore sacrificial worship in the Jewish temple in Jerusalem? Well, he actually makes his own motives pretty transparent, first in verse 23:
Ezra 7:23 CSB
23 Whatever is commanded by the God of the heavens must be done diligently for the house of the God of the heavens, so that wrath will not fall on the realm of the king and his sons.
And then again in verse 26:
Ezra 7:26 CSB
26 Anyone who does not keep the law of your God and the law of the king, let the appropriate judgment be executed against him, whether death, banishment, confiscation of property, or imprisonment.
Artaxerxes is looking for spiritual protection, in his mind by appeasing the local gods of the peoples over whom he rules. And he’s also expecting his own law to be enforced within his political territories as a result of this agreement.
The agent he chooses to accomplish this mission in Jerusalem is Ezra.
Ezra, through this letter, is commissioned as both a civil and spiritual leader for the newly returning Jews and for those already living there.
After the conclusion of the letter the writing switches into first person, which is highly unusual for Old Testament narrative. It switches into first person, with Ezra as the speaker, and chapter 7 ends with him praising God for this turn of events:
Ezra 7:27–28 CSB
27 Blessed be the Lord, the God of our ancestors, who has put it into the king’s mind to glorify the house of the Lord in Jerusalem, 28 and who has shown favor to me before the king, his counselors, and all his powerful officers. So I took courage because I was strengthened by the hand of the Lord my God, and I gathered Israelite leaders to return with me.
After presenting the contents of the royal letter, he immediately presents a personal response, which, rather than glorifies or boasts in himself and the great honor and responsibility he just received, no he glorifies and praises Yahweh, God of his ancestors, and gives him full credit for the king’s decision.
There’s one word I’d like to point out in verse 8, and depending on your translation it might be two words. Ezra says that Yahweh has shown him favor or “steadfast love” or “unfailing love” or “loyal love.” The reason you’ll find so many different translations is because it’s one Hebrew word that’s really difficult to translate and distill into one or two English words. The Hebrew word is khesed חֶ֗סֶד and it's a beautiful word with a depth that can submerse you for hours if you ever want to do a word study on it. It means favor, and grace, and love, and loyalty, and kindness, and mercy, all kind of interlocking in a way only God can really demonstrate. You find this word a LOT in the Psalms. Ultimately, it refers to God’s covenant love for Israel, and Ezra is praising God for extending that chesed to him, and subsequently to Israel.
That’s how chapter 7 ends. When we get to chapter 8, we’re hit with another genealogy, a long list of names.
There are fifteen different families represented in this list, and I’m not going to read through all these names, but there are a couple things I want to point out. The list is here for a reason. Why is it? Why does it matter?
Well, besides the practical benefits of keeping records, which we know was one of Ezra’s strengths, this list again shows direct links to Aaron and to David, which was obviously important to the Jewish community at that time.
Also, if you compare the numbers in this list to those in the first, you’ll notice that this is a much smaller group than the first. It’s still a lot of people, roughly four or five thousand, but compared to forty or fifty thousand, it was about ten times fewer, the amount of people who went on this journey.
And this journey hit a snag, almost before it even began.
Ezra 8:15–20 CSB
15 I gathered them at the river that flows to Ahava, and we camped there for three days. I searched among the people and priests, but found no Levites there. 16 Then I summoned the leaders: Eliezer, Ariel, Shemaiah, Elnathan, Jarib, Elnathan, Nathan, Zechariah, and Meshullam, as well as the teachers Joiarib and Elnathan. 17 I sent them to Iddo, the leader at Casiphia, with a message for him and his brothers, the temple servants at Casiphia, that they should bring us ministers for the house of our God. 18 Since the gracious hand of our God was on us, they brought us Sherebiah—a man of insight from the descendants of Mahli, a descendant of Levi son of Israel—along with his sons and brothers, 18 men, 19 plus Hashabiah, along with Jeshaiah, from the descendants of Merari, and his brothers and their sons, 20 men. 20 There were also 220 of the temple servants, who had been appointed by David and the leaders for the work of the Levites. All were identified by name.
Verse 15 says there wasn’t a single Levite! Recall that back in Ezra 2:40 there weren’t many Levites who went back with Sheshbazzar either. It’s unclear why there was such a shortage of Levites volunteering to go back. So Ezra sent some guys who had some pull, some influence, to go recruit some Levites. In the end, the recruitment is a success! But notice how Ezra again gives God the credit, in verse 18.
They needed extra hands for the journey, and those hands were provided by God’s “gracious hand.”
Having enough priests and Levites was one matter of preparation Ezra took care of before leaving, the other was to ask God for protection on their journey:
Ezra 8:21–23 CSB
21 I proclaimed a fast by the Ahava River, so that we might humble ourselves before our God and ask him for a safe journey for us, our dependents, and all our possessions. 22 I did this because I was ashamed to ask the king for infantry and cavalry to protect us from enemies during the journey, since we had told him, “The hand of our God is gracious to all who seek him, but his fierce anger is against all who abandon him.” 23 So we fasted and pleaded with our God about this, and he was receptive to our prayer.
They were traveling with a HUGE amount of wealth! The exact numbers for some of the items recorded are debated, but no matter what number you land on, it was a LOT of money and other valuable goods. Traveling with that much wealth was a HUGE risk! I probably would have been nervous even with an escort from the king, let alone without one! And yet, Ezra is committed to fully relying on God to protect them, because he is also committed to upholding Yahweh’s reputation, which he has publicly and boldly announced, not only to his fellow Jews but to the king of Persia himself.
So they humbled themselves, fasted, and prayed to ask God for a safe journey, and he granted it to them.
It does not matter HOW MUCH you study, obey and teach the Word of God, there will be times of uncertainly that will require faith if you are going to follow God! Remember, God wants us to TRUST IN HIM - one of the main lessons of the greater narrative.
In verse 31, they finally set out from the Ahava River, on the twelfth day of the first month, which is what we would call April 19th. If you compare that with the original plan, which was to leave on the first day of the month, or April 8th, you realize that all of this preparation meant they were delayed 12 days. But in this case, doing things the right way, getting enough priests and Levites, and seeking God’s favor, was far more important than sticking to the plan and meeting deadlines.
About this journey, the trip itself was pretty massive. It was ~900miles, and took them 14 weeks altogether.
So, they arrived nearly four months later, in early August.
It’s funny how that timeline actually lines up to where we are on the year right now. Imagine getting ready for a trip right now, and leaving next week, and being on the road, walking and riding camels and donkeys, until the first week of August.
That’s nearly the whole summer, especially up here! And that is the main reason they would have timed it that way, leaving in the spring when the weather is good and there’s water available along the way.
Between the length of the journey and the risks involved, I suppose it’s not that shocking that not everyone signed up at once to make the trip.
Chapter 8 ends with the Jews who returned from exile finally arriving in Jerusalem and offering burnt offerings to the God of Israel.
From the New Living Translation Study Bible
For many of the Jews who came to Jerusalem with Ezra, this was probably the first sacrifice they had ever offered. It would have been a moving spiritual experience for them to confess their sins and dedicate their lives to God in this way.
Next week, we will talk more about the power of confession and repentance as we wrap up the book of Ezra.
For today, I want to circle back to the description of Ezra in chapter 7, verse 10:
Ezra 7:10 CSB
10 Now Ezra had determined in his heart to study the law of the Lord, obey it, and teach its statutes and ordinances in Israel.
If you view the narrative of these two chapters through the lens of this statement, it really makes a lot of sense, and becomes very applicable.
Again, by committing to these three things, Ezra allowed God’s word to transform his character and behavior, to the ultimate benefit of others.
That is the most applicable point I think you could ever find in a narrative! It speaks to a fundamental motivating priority, which impacts and overflows into every other aspect of life.
Let’s quickly break down each of those three things:
Ezra was determined to study God’s word. As I put it earlier, Ezra was a Bible nerd! His knowledge of God and the decisions he made ultimately came from spending time studying scripture.
That’s exactly what scripture was given for! To study and to meditate on it.
Joshua 1:8 CSB
8 This book of instruction must not depart from your mouth; you are to meditate on it day and night so that you may carefully observe everything written in it. For then you will prosper and succeed in whatever you do.
You find this concept in Psalm, with verses like:
Psalm 119:11 CSB
11 I have treasured your word in my heart so that I may not sin against you.
Psalm 119:105 CSB
105 Your word is a lamp for my feet and a light on my path.
Friends, let us not take the treasure of scripture for granted! We live in unprecedented times of access to scripture, through various translations, hundreds of study tools and every medium of consumption.
Now, am I saying that everyone should be a Bible nerd?
Well, yes and no. There is definitely a scale of nerdiness when it comes to the Bible, and very few people ever come close to maxing it out. I’m sure I never will. And that’s OK! God happened to design the church in a really cool way: it works as a body and uses all kinds of different parts. So, when I say that everyone should be a Bible nerd, I don’t mean that everyone needs to devote years of their life to studying biblical languages and doing research and getting doctorate degrees. A very small percentage of the church’s population can realistically do that, and I’m thankful for those people! But they’re not most people.
But everyone should be a Bible nerd in the sense that everyone should take personal responsibility for their relationship with God, and that starts by spending time in his word, and making the Bible a priority in your life and in the lives of your families.
The next step is to actually put it into practice, right? And that gets tangibly more challenging. Making time in God’s word a priority is already a challenge for many of us, I get that! But it’s one thing to know the truth, it’s another to act on it.
James 1:22 CSB
22 But be doers of the word and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves.
Ezra was committed not only to study God’s word, but to obey it.
What does it mean to obey God’s word? That’s a pretty broad question isn’t it?
Well, one particularly clever Bible nerd asked essentially that exact question to Jesus:
Matthew 22:36–40 CSB
36 “Teacher, which command in the law is the greatest?” 37 He said to him, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. 38 This is the greatest and most important command. 39 The second is like it: Love your neighbor as yourself. 40 All the Law and the Prophets depend on these two commands.”
So that’s it! The basic, fundamental application of the WHOLE BIBLE to any human at any point in history is to Love God and Love others.
If you’ve committed your life to Jesus, you’ve committed to his creed: Love God. Love your Neighbor.
Obviously, the exact details of how we live that out are unique in any given moment, but every action and thought that is obedient to God is obedient to that imperative. Love God. Love others.
Finally, Ezra was committed to teaching others. It wasn’t enough just to be dedicated to knowing and obeying scripture himself, he was determined to spread that resolve. Of course, this third commitment really springs out of the first two naturally. If you love God and love others, then naturally a part of that for us will be sharing Jesus.
Now, I want to offer a caveat with this point in the same way that I did with the first. Just like not everyone needs a doctorate to be a faithful Christian, not everyone needs to be a professor of theology, or a “teaching pastor” or any kind of teacher in a formal, official capacity to be a faithful Christian.
However, with anything we love and are passionate about in life, we naturally become accustomed to talking about that thing with other people, and “teaching” simply by telling people our story. Think about how we do this with relationships: whether it’s something I did with a friend, or how I met my wife, or something to do with parenthood. We do it with possessions: whether it’s projects on a house, or cars, or clothes, or technology. We do it with entertainment: movies, books, video games, etc. We do it with sports, we do it with food, when you have even an ounce of passion for something, the natural desire is to share that passion with others.
Let me tell you, if we are not passionate about God, or passionate about our neighbors, then we are not loving God nor are we loving our neighbors.
Psalm 96:3 CSB
3 Declare his glory among the nations, his wondrous works among all peoples.
Mark 16:15 CSB
15 Then he said to them, “Go into all the world and preach the gospel to all creation.
Ezra determined to study, obey, and teach the torah. That he studied it is evident by his knowledge of it, and by the fact that he was committed to upholding Yahweh’s reputation, the reputation which the torah claimed belonged to Yahweh.
He put his faith into action when he fully relied on that reputation, using his own life as an example to the King and to his fellow Jews.
Our stories are all vastly different from Ezra’s. And even though we have a bit more in common with each other than with Ezra, everyone in this room and online has vastly different stories from each other.
But the underlying principles which governed Ezra’s story are just as applicable to every one of us as they were to him.
Know God’s word. Obey God’s word. Share God’s word.