Ezra, the Priest and Scribe
About seventy years after the return of the first company of exiles
under Zerubbabel and Joshua, Artaxerxes Longimanus came to the throne of
Medo-Persia. The name of this king is connected with sacred history by a
series of remarkable providences. It was during his reign that Ezra and
Nehemiah lived and labored. He is the one who in 457 B.C. issued the
third and final decree for the restoration of Jerusalem. His reign saw
the return of a company of Jews under Ezra, the completion of the walls
of Jerusalem by Nehemiah and his associates, the reorganization of the
temple services, and the great religious reformations instituted by Ezra
and Nehemiah. During his long rule he often showed favor to God's
people, and in his trusted and well-beloved Jewish friends, Ezra and
Nehemiah, he recognized men of God's appointment, raised up for a
The experience of Ezra while living among the Jews who remained in
Babylon was so unusual that it attracted the favorable notice of King
Artaxerxes, with whom he talked freely regarding the power of the God of
heaven, and the divine purpose in restoring the Jews to Jerusalem.
Born of the sons of Aaron, Ezra had been given a priestly training;
and in addition to this he had acquired a familiarity with the writings
of the magicians, the astrologers, and the wise men of the Medo-Persian
realm. But he was not satisfied with his spiritual condition. He longed
to be in full harmony with God; he longed for wisdom to carry out the
divine will. And so he "prepared his heart to seek the law of the
Lord, and to do it." Ezra 7:10. This led him to apply himself
diligently to a study of the history of God's people, as recorded in the
writings of prophets and kings. He searched the historical and poetical
books of the Bible to learn why the Lord had permitted Jerusalem to be
destroyed and His people carried captive into a heathen land.
To the experiences of Israel from the time the promise was made to
Abraham, Ezra gave special thought. He studied the instruction given at
Mount Sinai and through the long period of wilderness wandering. As he
learned more and still more concerning God's dealings with His children,
and comprehended the sacredness of the law given at Sinai, Ezra's heart
was stirred. He experienced a new and thorough conversion and determined
to master the records of sacred history, that he might use this
knowledge to bring blessing and light to his people.
Ezra endeavored to gain a heart preparation for the work he believed
was before him. He sought God earnestly, that he might be a wise teacher
in Israel. As he learned to yield mind and will to divine control, there
were brought into his life the principles of true sanctification, which,
in later years, had a molding influence, not only upon the youth who
sought his instruction, but upon all others associated with him.
God chose Ezra to be an instrument of good to Israel, that He might
put honor upon the priesthood, the glory of which had been greatly
eclipsed during the captivity. Ezra developed into a man of
extraordinary learning and became "a ready scribe in the law of
Moses." Verse 6. These qualifications made him an eminent man in
the Medo-Persian kingdom.
Ezra became a mouthpiece for God, educating those about him in the
principles that govern heaven. During the remaining years of his life,
whether near the court of the king of Medo-Persia or at Jerusalem, his
principal work was that of a teacher. As he communicated to others the
truths he learned, his capacity for labor increased. He became a man of
piety and zeal. He was the Lord's witness to the world of power of Bible
truth to ennoble the daily life.
The efforts of Ezra to revive an interest in the study of the
Scriptures were given permanency by his painstaking, lifelong work of
preserving and multiplying the Sacred Writings. He gathered all the
copies of the law that he could find and had these transcribed and
distributed. The pure word, thus multiplied and placed in the hands of
many people, gave knowledge that was of inestimable value.
Ezra's faith that God would do a mighty work for His people, led him
to tell Artaxerxes of his desire to return to Jerusalem to revive an
interest in the study of God's word and to assist his brethren in
restoring the Holy City. As Ezra declared his perfect trust in the God
of Israel as one abundantly able to protect and care for His people, the
king was deeply impressed. He well understood that the Israelites were
returning to Jerusalem that they might serve Jehovah; yet so great was
the king's confidence in the integrity of Ezra that he showed him marked
favor, granting his request and bestowing on him rich gifts for the
temple service. He made him a special representative of the Medo-Persian
kingdom and conferred on him extensive powers for the carrying out of
the purposes that were in his heart.
The decree of Artaxerxes Longimanus for the restoring and building of
Jerusalem, the third issued since the close of the seventy years'
captivity, is remarkable for its expressions regarding the God of
heaven, for its recognition of the attainments of Ezra, and for the
liberality of the grants made to the remnant people of God. Artaxerxes
refers to Ezra as "the priest, the scribe, even a scribe of the
words of the commandments of the Lord, and of His statutes to
Israel;" "a scribe of the law of the God of heaven." The
king united with his counselors in offering freely "unto the God of
Israel, whose habitation is in Jerusalem;" and in addition he made
provision for meeting many heavy expenses by ordering that they be paid
"out of the king's treasure house." Verses 11, 12, 15, 20.
"Thou art sent of the king, and of his seven counselors,"
Artaxerxes declared to Ezra, "to inquire concerning Judah and
Jerusalem, according to the law of thy God which is in thine hand."
And he further decreed: "Whatsoever is commanded by the God of
heaven, let it be diligently done for the house of the God of heaven:
for why should there be wrath against the realm of the king and his
sons?" Verses 14, 23.
In giving permission to the Israelites to return, Artaxerxes arranged
for the restoration of the members of the priesthood to their ancient
rites and privileges. "We certify you," he declared,
"that touching any of the priests and Levites, singers, porters,
Nethinims, or ministers of this house of God, it shall not be lawful to
impose toll, tribute, or custom, upon them." He also arranged for
the appointment of civil officers to govern the people justly in
accordance with the Jewish code of laws. "Thou, Ezra, after the
wisdom of thy God, that is in thine hand," he directed, "set
magistrates and judges, which may judge all the people that are beyond
the river, all such as know the laws of thy God; and teach ye them that
know them not. And whosoever will not do the law of thy God, and the law
of the king, let judgment be executed speedily upon him, whether it be
unto death, or to banishment, or to confiscation of goods, or to
imprisonment." Verses 24-26.
Thus, "according to the good hand of his God upon him,"
Ezra had persuaded the king to make abundant provision for the return of
all the people of Israel and of the priests and Levites in the Medo-Persian
realm, who were minded "of their own free will to go up to
Jerusalem." Verses 9, 13. Thus again the children of the dispersion
were given opportunity to return to the land with the possession of
which were linked the promises to the house of Israel.
This decree brought great rejoicing to those who had been uniting
with Ezra in a study of God's purposes concerning His people.
"Blessed be the Lord God of our fathers," Ezra exclaimed,
"which hath put such a thing as this in the king's heart, to
beautify the house of the Lord which is in Jerusalem: and hath extended
mercy unto me before the king, and his counselors, and before all the
king's mighty princes." Verses 27, 28.
In the issuing of this decree by Artaxerxes, God's providence was
manifest. Some discerned this and gladly took advantage of the privilege
of returning under circumstances so favorable. A general place of
meeting was named, and at the appointed time those who were desirous of
going to Jerusalem assembled for the long journey. "I gathered them
together to the river that runneth to Ahava," Ezra says, "and
there abode we in tents three days." Ezra 8:15.
Ezra had expected that a large number would return to Jerusalem, but
the number who responded to the call was disappointingly small. Many who
had acquired houses and lands had no desire to sacrifice these
possessions. They loved ease and comfort and were well satisfied to
remain. Their example proved a hindrance to others who otherwise might
have chosen to cast in their lot with those who were advancing by faith.
As Ezra looked over the company assembled, he was surprised to find
none of the sons of Levi. Where were the members of the tribe that had
been set apart for the sacred service of the temple? To the call, Who is
on the Lord's side? the Levites should have been the first to respond.
During the captivity, and afterward, they had been granted many
privileges. They had enjoyed the fullest liberty to minister to the
spiritual needs of their brethren in exile. Synagogues had been built,
in which the priests conducted the worship of God and instructed the
people. The observance of the Sabbath, and the performance of the sacred
rites peculiar to the Jewish faith, had been freely allowed.
But with the passing of the years after the close of the captivity,
conditions changed, and many new responsibilities rested upon the
leaders in Israel. The temple at Jerusalem had been rebuilt and
dedicated, and more priests were needed to carry on its services. There
was pressing need of men of God to act as teachers of the people. And
besides, the Jews remaining in Babylon were in danger of having their
religious liberty restricted. Through the prophet Zechariah, as well as
by their recent experience during the troublous times of Esther and
Mordecai, the Jews in Medo-Persia had been plainly warned to return to
their own land. The time had come when it was perilous for them to dwell
longer in the midst of heathen influences. In view of these changed
conditions, the priests in Babylon should have been quick to discern in
the issuance of the decree a special call to them to return to
The king and his princes had done more than their part in opening the
way for the return. They had provided abundant means, but where were the
men? The sons of Levi failed at a time when the influence of a decision
to accompany their brethren would have led others to follow their
example. Their strange indifference is a sad revelation of the attitude
of the Israelites in Babylon toward God's purpose for His people.
Once more Ezra appealed to the Levites, sending them an urgent
invitation to unite with his company. To emphasize the importance of
quick action, he sent with his written plea several of his "chief
men" and "men of understanding." Ezra 7:28,8:16.
While the travelers tarried with Ezra, these trusted messengers
hastened back with the plea, "Bring unto us ministers for the house
of our God." Ezra 8:17. The appeal was heeded; some who had been
halting, made final decision to return. In all, about forty priests and
two hundred and twenty Nethinim--men upon whom Ezra could rely as wise
ministers and good teachers and helpers--were brought to the camp.
All were now ready to set forth. Before them was a journey that would
occupy several months. The men were taking with them their wives and
children, and their substance, besides large treasure for the temple and
its service. Ezra was aware that enemies lay in wait by the way, ready
to plunder and destroy him and his company; yet he had asked from the
king no armed force for protection. "I was ashamed," he has
explained, "to require of the king a band of soldiers and horsemen
to help us against the enemy in the way: because we had spoken unto the
king, saying, The hand of our God is upon all them for good that seek
Him; but His power and His wrath is against all them that forsake
Him." Verse 22.
In this matter, Ezra and his companions saw an opportunity to magnify
the name of God before the heathen. Faith in the power of the living God
would be strengthened if the Israelites themselves should now reveal
implicit faith in their divine Leader. They therefore determined to put
their trust wholly in Him. They would ask for no guard of soldiers. They
would give the heathen no occasion to ascribe to the strength of man the
glory that belongs to God alone. They could not afford to arouse in the
minds of their heathen friends one doubt as to the sincerity of their
dependence on God as His people. Strength would be gained, not through
wealth, not through the power and influence of idolatrous men, but
through the favor of God. Only by keeping the law of the Lord before
them, and striving to obey it, would they be protected.
This knowledge of the conditions under which they would continue to
enjoy the prospering hand of God, lent more than ordinary solemnity to
the consecration service that was held by Ezra and his company of
faithful souls just before their departure. "I proclaimed a fast
there, at the river of Ahava," Ezra has declared of this
experience, "that we might afflict ourselves before our God, to
seek of Him a right way for us, and for our little ones, and for all our
substance." "So we fasted and besought our God for this: and
He was entreated of us." Verses 21, 23.
The blessing of God, however, did not make unnecessary the exercise
of prudence and forethought. As a special precaution in safeguarding the
treasure, Ezra "separated twelve of the chief of the
priests"--men whose faithfulness and fidelity had been
proved--"and weighed unto them the silver, and the gold, and the
vessels, even the offering of the house of our God, which the king, and
his counselors, and his lords, and all Israel there present, had
offered." These men were solemnly charged to act as vigilant
stewards over the treasure entrusted to their care. "Ye are holy
unto the Lord," Ezra declared; "the vessels are holy also; and
the silver and the gold are a freewill offering unto the Lord God of
your fathers. Watch ye, and keep them, until ye weigh them before the
chief of the priests and the Levites, and chief of the fathers of
Israel, at Jerusalem, in the chambers of the house of the Lord."
The care exercised by Ezra in providing for the transportation and
safety of the Lord's treasure, teaches a lesson worthy of thoughtful
study. Only those whose trustworthiness had been proved were chosen, and
they were instructed plainly regarding the responsibility resting on
them. In the appointment of faithful officers to act as treasures of the
Lord's goods, Ezra recognized the necessity and value of order and
organization in connection with the work of God.
During the few days that the Israelites tarried at the river, every
provision was completed for the long journey. "We departed,"
Ezra writes, "on the twelfth day of the first month, to go unto
Jerusalem: and the hand of our God was upon us, and He delivered us from
the hand of the enemy, and of such as lay in wait by the way."
Verse 31. About four months were occupied on the journey, the multitude
that accompanied Ezra, several thousand in all, including women and
children, necessitating slow progress. But all were preserved in safety.
Their enemies were restrained from harming them. Their journey was a
prosperous one, and on the first day of the fifth month, in the seventh
year of Artaxerxes, they reached Jerusalem.
[ Back ] [ Up ] [ Next ]