Ezra 7:9, 10
For on the first day of the first month began he to go up from Babylon, and on the first day of the fifth month came he to Jerusalem…
Two generations had elapsed between the close of Ezra 6. and the events with which the final chapters of the book are concerned. The prophetic voice was silent; Haggai and Zechariah had long since passed away. Zerubbabel, the last representative of the house of David, in whose person some had looked for a restoration of the Jewish kingdom, was dead. The high priesthood, which had been filled by the saintly Jeshua, was occupied by Eliashib, who became connected by marriage with two conspicuous enemies of the faith of Israel. His grandson married a daughter of Sanballat the Horonite; he himself "was allied unto Tobiab," to whom he gave a residence "in the courts of the house of God" (Nehemiah 13:4-7, 28). Darius had been succeeded by Xerxes, the story of whose pride, lasciviousness, passion, and feebleness is one of the most ignoble of the records of classic history. He was the Ahasuerus of the book of Esther. We may judge from the book of Esther how unfavourable the times were for carrying on the national and spiritual restoration of Israel. The full extent of the debasement of the settlers in Palestine was not known in Babylon; it broke on both Ezra and Nehemiah with painful surprise (Ezra 9.; Nehemiah 13.). But enough was known to awaken concern; he desired "to teach in Israel statutes and judgments." Filled with this pious desire, he obtained permission to go up to Jerusalem.
I. THE CHARACTER OF EZRA. He was a priest, but he was still more a scribe; tradition assigns to him a leading part in the formation of the canon of Jewish Scriptures. The beginning of the study of Hebrew literature belongs to this period; the dignity of the pursuit invested the name "scribe" with honour, changed the mere registrar of documents and chronicler of events into the scholar and teacher. The change of language consequent on the deportation of the Hebrews into Babylon rendered it necessary that some should draw the inspiring record of the past from the obscurity of a dead or dying language, and make the people acquainted with their Divine- mission and the duties that mission imposed upon them. Above all, the law of the Lord was the object of Ezra's reverence; he was "a ready scribe in the law of Moses, which the Lord God of Israel had given;" he "had prepared his heart to seek the law of the Lord, and to do and teach it." The character of Ezra was intimately associated with his vocation: his were the habits of the student; his virtues were not those of the statesman, the warrior, or the priest, but the virtues of the scholar; it was his not to give, but to interpret, laws.
1. The profound piety of the man first strikes us. The precepts of the law were to him "the words of God;" behind the writings he saw the august personal authority of the ever-living Ruler of his people. He lived in awe of his will; he had a deep conviction of the evil of sin against him, so deep that it impressed itself on others; they who sympathised with his purpose were those who "trembled at the words of the God of Israel" (Ezra 9:4; Ezra 10:3). He had a vivid consciousness of his mission, and the nearness of God to him in its fulfilment; again and again he refers his success to "the good hand of his God upon him."
2. Ezra had courage, but it was the courage of the student; not impulsive, but meditative. He knew and feared the dangers of the way; but he knew how to conquer fear (Ezra 8:21-23). He needed to be aroused to effort, and when he was called to action he prepared himself for it by consecration (Ezra 10:4, 5). There is a physical, and there is also a moral, courage; that is the most enduring bravery which knowing of dangers, faces them, trembles but advances, which supplies the lack of impulse by resolve. The "fear of the Lord" casts out all other fear.
3. The sensitive conscience and tender sympathy of the recluse are also his. Contrast his manifestation of feeling with that of Nehemiah when confronted with glaring impiety (ch. 9.; Nehemiah 13.). Nehemiah is indignant, Ezra is overwhelmed. Nehemiah "contends," Ezra weeps. Nehemiah curses the transgressors, and smites them, and plucks off their hair, and "makes them" amend; Ezra is prostrate from morning until evening, solemnly intercedes with God on their behalf, and wins the people to concern and repentance. This is the sacrificial spirit, feeling and confessing the sins of others as our own, bearing their transgressions, and recovering them by suffering; it is the lesson of the cross, the Christian spirit.
4. The firmness, even ruthlessness, with which he commands the separation of the husbands from their wives and children also bespeak the man of the study. None have shewn themselves more able to rise above family ties, none have more imperiously demanded this sacrifice from others, than those whose lofty ideal, cherished in the cell, has known none of the abatement which we learn to make in social intercourse. There is room for such men in history, and a work sometimes which none can do so well as they. Here are, unquestionably, the elements of a noble character. Not the only noble type, nor need we inquire if the noblest; enough that his was the character required for the reforms he inaugurated. Nehemiah was not called to do over again the work Ezra did. The style of Nehemiah's record (Nehemiah 13:23-28) indicates a very different state of things from that which Ezra found. This is the true test of the value of a man's character, that he is fit for the work he has to do; the test of his worth is that he does it effectually.
II. THE REFORMATION EZRA WROUGHT. He went up on a twofold errand. His own object was to teach the people "the words of the commandment of the Lord, and of his statutes to Israel." Disobedience of these had always been the crying sin of the nation, and had entailed on it its woes (Ezra 9:7); the new favour God had extended to them would be forfeited if they disregarded his laws (Ezra 9:14). And the disobedience that would provoke God might be through ignorance as well as through presumption. A nation perishes through ignorance; the violation of the Divine order brings social disorganisation and rain, it needs not that the violation be wilful. In the sacrifice offered on his arrival, together with the renewal of consecration - the burnt offering, and the feast of thanksgiving - the peace-offering, there occurs again the touching sin-offering, twelve he-goats are sacrificed to acknowledge and ask pardon for sins of ignorance. In the disordered state of the times it was certain there must have been many defects in the people's service, many errors, many transgressions of which they were not conscious, and these must be confessed. Then he was charged with a double mission from Artaxerxes, the gentle prince at that time reigning over Persia. The furnishing of the temple was to be proceeded with; he was laden with gifts for this purpose (Ezra 8:25-27); he was charged to attend to its service, and empowered to draw from the royal revenues what was needed for a stately ritual (Ezra 7:16, 17, 22). He was also commissioned to set magistrates and judges over the people charged with the administration of Jewish law, and he was empowered to execute it (Ezra 7:25, 26). Artaxerxes knew that the law of the Lord was more than a mere ritual, that it prescribed social customs and regulated the life of the people, and he sympathised with Nehemiah's desire to re-establish its rule. One great reform, however, overshadows all other works of Ezra; when this is-recorded the book abruptly closes, as if Ezra's work was done. The story of Ezra's dismay at hearing of the marriages of the Jews with the heathen, and his prompt dissolution of the marriages, is so far removed from the tolerant spirit of modern Christendom that it needs some special observations.
1. These were idolatrous heathen, not monotheistic heathen like the Persians; they were the heathen of Syria, whose worship was fouled with lust and blood. The term "abominations," as applied to their customs, is no mere outburst of Jewish arrogance; the tolerant modern spirit is revolted by the record. Intermarriage with them meant sharing in their festivals, and exposed the Jews to the utmost peril (cf. Nehemiah 13:26). The past sufferings of the people should have warned them against this new folly; it seemed like provoking God, so soon to forget the past (Ezra 9:6-15). The inter- marriage of the people, and especially of the priests, with idolatrous women was unfaithfulness to the purpose for which they had been restored from Babylon; a betrayal of the confidence reposed in them by Cyrus and his successors; a denial of the testimony of Zerubbabel and Jeshua (Ezra 4:3); it argued indifference to their national position, contempt of their Divine calling.
2. The demand for divorce seems inconsistent with Paul's counsel (1 Corinthians 7:14), and the hopeful charity on which it is based; with many of Christ's words, and the spirit of Christ's life; it seems to argue the terror of the separatist rather than the confidence of the strong believer. We must not, however, argue the question from a Christian, but from a Jewish, stand- point; it is as foolish to look into the Old Testament for modern ethics as for modern science. The immense moral force of the gospel renders possible a genial and tolerant spirit which was not possible to an earnest Jew. As a matter of fact, the seductions of idolatry had always proved stronger than the attraction of Judaism; the heathen corrupted the Hebrew, the Hebrew did not convert the heathen. Judaism, with all its signal merits, was not a missionary faith; its office was protest, not evangelisation; the spiritual power of the gospel was not in it - the cross, and resurrection, and the gift of the Holy Spirit. The presence of these forces in Christianity is the reason of its tolerant spirit; it moves freely in a world which it has power to change and sanctify; its work is not to protest, but to reclaim; the Son of man came not to judge the world, but to save the world. Some practical lessons: -
1. A lesson of wisdom. Force of character is needed as well as a pure religious faith to render Christian intercourse with the world a safe thing. The stronger will draw the weaker; and it is not always the Christian who is the stronger. "All things are lawful for me, but all things are not expedient. All things are lawful, but all things edify not. All things are lawful, but I will not be brought under the power of any."
2. No sacrifice is too great which is needed that we may preserve our spiritual integrity. Natural tastes and faculties - the eye, and hand, and foot; the tenderest ties - father and mother, sister and brother, wife and husband.
3. The true object of toleration. It is that the noblest, holiest influence may prevail. Christian tolerance is not indifference to truth and falsehood, evil and good; it is not a passive grace, a mere easy disposition; it is an intensely active, a missionary grace. It is bent on overcoming evil with good. If it were otherwise, it would neither be fidelity to God nor charity to man. - M.
Parallel VersesKJV: For upon the first day of the first month began he to go up from Babylon, and on the first day of the fifth month came he to Jerusalem, according to the good hand of his God upon him.