Some Emphases of the Book of Ezra
C. E. Hocking, Cardiff
IN THIS CONCLUDING ARTICLE we shall consider the treatment of the following subjects throughout the book:
1. The goodness and severity of God.
2. Living to the glory of God.
4. The spiritual order and significance.
1. THE GOODNESS AND SEVERITY OF GOD
There is a beautifully balanced appreciation of the character of God developed through the book before us. We have all tasted and proved the goodness of God. Ezra records much which establishes this from the experience of an earlier generation and of his own. What but His goodness and grace made possible the return from Babylon? i. i, 5. That the governor could not put a stop to their renewed zeal in building God's house was the result of the eye of God being upon them,
5. 5. With the temple completed at last, the Lord made them joyful, having turned the king's heart to further His purposes,
6. 22. God goes on to prove His unchangeableness to Ezra and his company too. The journey undertaken by them was one in which the guiding and guarding hand of God was enjoyed, 7. 6, 9, 10, 27, 28; 8. 18, 22, 31. For us, too, there is the joy of proving that Jesus Christ who was all that those of a previous generation needed yesterday, is the same for us today, and shall be unto the ages, Heb. 13. 8. Yet running through these pages there is also reference made to the chastening hand of God. As the Father of our spirits His dealings with us arc always designed for our profit as the fruit resulting from His dealings with His people of old indicates. Failure in Zerubbabel's generation demanded God's smiting, calling for a drought, blowing upon their meagre resources until they had all but been carried away, Hag. 1. Ezra reminds those to whom he ministered of God's ways with the nation (sec chapter 9 and especially verse 14). 'Behold therefore the goodness and the severity of God', Rom. 11. 22.
II. LIVING TO THE GLORY OF GOD
Here is a book which begins, continues and ends with God. 'Deprived of almost everything, Israel was not deprived of the loving kindness of her God.' Note throughout, the references to God, his God, your God, our God, their God; the Lord; the Lord the God of heaven; the Lord, the God of Israel; the God of heaven; the God of heaven and earth; the God of Israel; the great God. Constant reference to His titles, character and ways indicates His presence as having been manifested and precious to His people. May we not find encouragement for ourselves in this? Although there is much evidence of failure in Ezra's day, yet, along with this, there is a genuine desire to submit to the will of God in the Word. How God delights to reveal Himself in such ways as would deepen their enjoyment of Himself. What a contrast to this is found in Esther where His Name is not recorded once! Where expediency had caused many to avoid the hardships, reproach and other consequences of following the Word of God, He was not able to manifest Himself openly, but could only over-rule in their affairs to further His purposes in the light of the coming of Christ.
As Augustine has remarked, 'the chief end of man is to glorify God and to enjoy Him forever'. Such indeed was the object in the return of the people to the land of promise. Chapter 1 teaches us that saints must respond to the stirring of the Spirit of God (e.g. verse 5) whose ministries ensure that God has His portion as in His sovereignty and grace He revives His work in the midst of the years. Then those who would give pleasure to God must be prepared to hazard and forsake all to be where God would have them, 2. 1, in the place where He had set His Name. Past sin and idolatry had resulted in captivity. Present grace opened the way. What a joy to see their eagerness to start afresh and get back to the place of God's choosing. If the New Testament had been owned as the authoritative guide for us in all things, church life and witness as well as individual consecration and testi¬mony, much of the division and confusion of our times would have been averted. Yet amidst the confusion and mixture of error of these last days, God still encourages His people through His Word to share in His pattern corporate witness, the simple, spiritual and scriptural local assembly. Chapter 3 in its recording of the setting up of the altar and the commencement of the work on God's house, stresses that God's portion should be thought of first and given to Him, and that spiritual supervision and direction is needed in the building of His house. This portion is surely His due. Then chapter 4 teaches that God is robbed of glory if the inevitable outward opposition of foes causes His work to be hindered and eventually stopped. Not only the interests of God but His sovereignty and grace in raising and thrusting forth such gifted prophets as Haggai and Zechariah are revealed in chapter 5. Surely, being what we arc, we, too, need men of vision who reprove, correct, encourage and instruct us. Chapter 6 indicates that to commence is not enough but that finished projects bring pleasure to God and consequently joy to His people. In chapter 7 we are shown by Ezra's example the secret of God-glorifying and saint-edifying ministry -preparation of heart in the secret place over the Word of God followed by adjustment of life in accord with the precepts and principles learned. Out of this came his Spirit-directed and empowered ministry. Chapter 8 encourages all to prove God's good hand through life that our lips may be filled with His praise, and our ears hear the 'well done' at the end of the journey. Then chapter 9 whilst revealing a sad lapse in the spiritual standards of living which grieved God, as surely emphasizes that deep exercise before God with desires for His glory are stepping stones to the righting of conditions again. Chapter 10 blends together both prayer and action, exercise and energy, in the re-establishing of moral and spiritual conditions which are to God's praise and lead the people into the enjoyment of Himself afresh. No doubt if God is to be glorified through us to-day we shall need special grace to review and re-adjust our lives and take to heart some of these points illuminated by the pages of Ezra.
The book also lays stress on the positive and negative aspects of separation. We read in chapter 6. 21 of 'such as had separated themselves unto them (the people of Israel who had come out of captivity) from the filthiness of the heathen of the land, to seek the Lord God of Israel'. What a tragedy when God's people become like those who go down to the pit, and behave themselves 'as ordinary men'. Here, the saints come out of Babylon and go up to Jerusalem, chapters 1 and 2. They refuse the world's strength and aid, chapter 4, and ultimately rest in the ability of God for the building of the temple. Knowing their slowness of heart to believe, the Lord encouraged them when the picture looked blackest, by the voice of Zechariah, 'Not by might, nor by power but by my Spirit, saith the Lord of hosts', Zech. 4. 6. Our spirits are chastened as we see the necessity for God to intervene and urge them to the renunciation of the ways of ease and procrastination, Hag. 1; Ezra 4. However, there is response to the word and we find them set apart to the work of the house afresh, with godly zeal and spiritual vigour, 5. 8. A withdrawal from the filthiness of the heathen of the land is the consequence of a deep desire to seek the Lord, 6. 21, and issues in the keeping of the feast with joy, 6. 22.
What noble example we have in Ezra himself whose mind and heart were given to the study of God's Word rather than the wisdom and learning of Babylon. Thus when the hazards of the journey were to be faced he turns from the appeal to the arm of die flesh, 8. 21-23, to dependence upon the good and guarding hand of God, 7. 6, 9, 28; 8. 18, 22, 31. On arrival he directs the saints from unthinking light-heartedness, chapters 9 and 10, to the exercise of humility, confession and repentance. Consequently we read of their separation from the sinful and contaminating unequal yoke caused through marriage alliance with the heathen surrounding them. Let us feel the present challenge of this emphasis given to God's requirement of His people. To come out from them and to be separate is the command of the Lord to-day. The full sevenfold blessedness enjoyed positively through response to His call is recorded in 2 Cor. 6. 16-18. (1) I will dwell in them; (2) and walk in them; (3) and I will be their God; (4) and they shall be my people; (5) and I will receive you; (6) and will be a Father unto you; (7) and ye shall be my sons and daughters, saith the Lord Almighty. 'Having therefore these promises, dearly beloved, let us cleanse ourselves from all filthiness of the flesh and spirit, perfecting holiness in the fear of God', 2 Cor. 7. 1.
IV. THE SPIRITUAL ORDER AND SIGNIFICANCE
Let us note again the illuminating order of subject develop¬ment. Separation from Babylon, chapter 1, followed by the establishment of the altar at Jerusalem, chapter 3, the building of the house of God, chapters 4-6, and finally the bringing of the spiritual and moral standards of the people into line with the position they had taken, chapters 7-10. The teaching of Paul in the opening chapters of I Corinthians is at least illustrated by these phases in the experience of the saints in Ezra. The Babel of voices and party clamourings, the confusion evidencing worldly wisdom in church ministry and life was causing havoc at Corinth. The apostle is quick to denounce this work of the devil destroying the unity of the saints and directs them rather to the enjoyment of the fulness of all that God has provided for them. How clearly Paul had set forth the work of Christ when first he had come to that dark city. He had been determined to know nothing among them save Jesus Christ and Him crucified - the counterpart of which had been the raising of the altar among the heathen in Jerusalem, Ezra 3. When fruit resulted from the ministry of the gospel, the apostle planted the church at Corinth. What a sure foundation was laid by this master-workman; 'other foundation can no man lay than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ'. Meanwhile the work was continuing on the house, the church at Corinth, through the ministry of others. Failure was manifest in this as in the work of the saints in Ezra. Yet, despite this, the glorious truth is revealed that 'ye (as a company of saints at Corinth) are the temple of God and the Spirit of God dwelleth in you', 3. 16, and 'the temple of God is holy, which temple ye arc', 3. 17. Oh, that we all might exercise our varied ministries con¬strained by the wonder of these phrases! The local church as God's sanctuary, the sphere of special ministries of the Spirit of God! Should not this revelation encourage us to work only in gold, silver and costly stone? The corporate witness having been thus introduced, the apostle then directs attention to the need for the adjustment of life that the saints might be conformed morally and spiritually to the testimony for God, of which they formed part. This is crystallized by Paul when he urges another momentous truth upon them by saying '. . . your body is die temple of the Holy Ghost which is in you . . . therefore glorify God in your body . . .', 6. 19, 20. Surely there is hardly a nobler conception than this, and application of the truth of it must result in our lives reflecting the standards of God represented in the assembly. When our private fives are motivated by the truth we may rest assured that the corporate witness of the local assembly will cause those who come under its influence to acknowledge that God is among us of a truth.
Such are some of the truths illumined by Ezra, a book throughout which 'the place and power of the Word of God in the religious, social and civil life of His people' is demonstrated, 3. 2, 4, 10; 5. 1, 2; 6. 14-18; 7. 6, 10, 11, 12, 14, 18, 21, 25, 26; 9. 4, 11; 10. 3. As the Scriptures speak so fully of Christ, may His Spirit continue to develop in us a love for the Word, grace to apply it to ourselves and continue to profit our spirits from its exposition, 7. 10, that we may grow in grace and in the knowledge of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.