The Hand of the Lord
God moves in history through His appointed means. But although some of His means are inscrutable to us (Dt. 29:29), in many other cases, He describes for us what it is like when He is working. In this instance, we see how God determined to give favor to the Jews by placing favor upon Ezra.
Now after these things, in the reign of Artaxerxes king of Persia, Ezra the son of Seraiah, the son of Azariah, the son of Hilkiah . . . (Ezra 7:1-28).
We now come to the entry of Ezra into the story (v. 1). The first thing we learn about Ezra is his ancestry (vv. 1b-5). It is not insignificant that he is descended from Phineas, whose zeal for the holiness of God was so greatly commended (Ps. 106:30-31). Ezra was a ready scribe, and the king granted his request because the hand of the Lord was upon him (v. 6). The trip to Jerusalem took four full months (vv. 7-9). Ezra had done three things: to seek the law, to do the law, and to teach the law (v. 10). We are then given the contents of the letter Artaxerxes gave to Ezra (v. 11). First there are salutations (v. 12). The first decree is that any Jews, and any priests and Levites, had his blessing to return to Jerusalem (v. 13). Ezra was sent by the king and his cabinet to check out conformity to the law of God (v. 14), and to deliver the silver and gold that was a free-will offering from the king and his counselors (v. 15). In addition, Ezra was also bringing a free will offering from the Jews at large in exile (v. 16). He could use this money for purchasing both meat and drink offerings (v. 17). The remainder they could spend as seemed best to them (v. 18). Additional vessels were given for the Temple (v. 19). In addition, Ezra was given an expense account from the king’s treasure house (v. 20). The treasuries in question would be those from “beyond the river,” run by the provincial governors (v. 21). The amounts that he could draw were then given (v. 22). Whatever God commanded to have done there, that is what Artaxerxes wanted done (v. 23). All the workers in God’s house were granted tax exemption (v. 24). Ezra was then given authority to set up a civil government under the law of God for the governance of the Jews (v. 25), and this authority included the right of levying civil penalties (v. 26). The chapter then ends with a blessing pronounced on the God of their fathers, who put all this in the king’s heart (v. 27). He had done this through the instrumentality of Ezra, for which Ezra gave appropriate thanks (v. 28).
Favor At the First:
God’s way is to have men learn their vocation, and as they do this, it is a matter of, as we say, “paying our dues.” We are not to think like those who were born on third base, and think they hit a triple. Now what happens when this is done? God’s Word is plain. “Seest thou a man diligent in his business? he shall stand before kings; he shall not stand before mean men” (Prov. 22:29). The countless hours sanding planks paid off—he is a finish carpenter who is not summoned to stand before contemptible men.
The same thing is true for those who are vocationally called to labor in the word and doctrine (1 Tim. 5:17). And this is what Ezra was like. He was a ready scribe (v. 6). The word here is mahir. Ezra was quick, prompt, diligent. He had the truths of God, given in Scripture, at his finger tips. It was as though the entire body of the law was laid out on the table before him. Not only this, but we learn in v. 10 that this was not an accident. Ezra had set his heart to pursue three things. He set himself to learn the law, to exegete it (v. 10). The second thing was that he had resolved to do what it said (v. 10). The third was to teach it (v. 10). Too often we have glib and ready teachers, who learn what they are to say, and they rush to the third thing, which is teaching. But Ezra’s moral authority came from this. He learned, he obeyed, he taught. He did not skip over the second step. This is why Ezra the scribe was like the Lord Jesus, who was not like the scribes (Matt. 7:29), teaching as he did with authority. There are many sermons that are so dry you could use them to wipe up kitchen spills. What is missing? At a fundamental level, obedience is missing.
Ezra did not study because he was a mousy little pencil-neck who liked studying in his cozy library. Ezra studied the Word of God so that he would be equipped to change the world. He studied because he was going to stand before kings and princes. In that study, he was not providing the fire; he was chopping and stacking a cord of hard wood that would burn for a long time. This kind of steady study burns differently than a pile of sand (i.e. not at all) or a haystack of Kleenex soaked in lighter fluid.
Favor At the Last:
The results of this (God-given) preparation are seen at three places in this chapter. Three times we are told that the hand of the Lord was with Ezra. The first was when he presented his case to the emperor and his cabinet (v. 6). That presentation went well, according to the hand of the Lord his God upon him. The king granted all his request. The second was in the travel from Persia back to Israel. In the four months of travel (with much gold and silver), they arrived safely, according to the good hand of his God upon him (v. 9). It is mentioned again in Ezra’s thanksgiving at the end of the chapter. God showed him mercy when he had to talk to the king and his counselors, and all the mighty princes. He said, “The hand of the Lord my God was upon me,” and as a result he not only got the favorable decree, he was able to assemble chief men of the Jews to go with him (v. 28). Unless the Lord builds the house, they labor in vain who build it. At the end of the day, the issue is not giftedness, brains, talent, or resources. At the end of the day, everything reduces to God’s blessing.
Why This Is Necessary:
We know that the returning exiles faced opposition from the pagan or syncretistic “left.” That is what much of this book is about. But how hard would it be to assemble (on paper) an objection to Ezra’s project from the over-scrupulous “right”? Not very hard at all. “Taking money from pagans, agreeing to pray for the health of pagan kings,” and so forth. But in discussions or debates like this, we need to recognize that they are not resolved by a scientific point system. And there are no neutral judges in the world to administer such a system. These debates are resolved by God, and the results can be seen in His blessing, which in this case was a dispensing of authority. The hard-headed can deny it, and deny it they will. But Ezra was still the one with authority to persuade and lead, given to him by God. And as God did what God determined to do, Ezra’s adversaries just stood there with their hands full of arguments and their mouths full of teeth.
The World Belongs to Jesus:
Many times kings and emperors forget that they are under authority. They are God’s deacons, as Paul put it in Rom. 13. They are not ultimately in charge. Sometimes they assert that they are charge in a dogmatic way, and this is nothing but tyranny. But often they grant that they are not really in charge, but the confession is vague, compromised, confused—polytheistic or generically idolatrous. The duty here is for believers to refuse to participate in polytheism themselves, which is not the same thing as demanding (right now) that the confused civil ruler come to a complete understanding right away. I have no doubt that Ezra wanted this, but it was necessary for the house of God to be put back in order first.