Ezra and Nehemiah
Malcolm C. Davis, Leeds, England
THE PROBLEMS OF THE RESTORATION
These kinds of problems are common in our days also. They can be analysed as arising either from outside the returning Jews or from within their own company. The problems from outside the company were: the temptation to ally themselves with their enemies among the surrounding Gentile nations in the work of God, that is, compromise with the world; legal difficulties with the Persian authorities created by their enemies to stop the work; and the threat of physical violence, especially shown to Nehemiah.
The problems arising from within the company were: simple laziness in building the wall, shown by a few nobles who probably thought the work beneath their dignity; unjust behaviour among the people of God, as mentioned and dealt with in Nehemiah 5; disobedience to the law of God, such as trading on the Sabbath; and most disastrously, mixed marriages between Jews and Gentiles. The unequal yoke in personal relationships, faced both Ezra and Nehemiah within a generation and had to be dealt with promptly and decisively. This latter sin could be one of the most common problems faced by local assembly elders today.
Now let us consider and compare Ezra and Nehemiah as servants of God, very different from each other, yet complementary in the work.
EZRA THE SCRIBE AND PRIEST
He was the Old Testament equivalent of a pastor-teacher in the local New Testament assembly. It is profitable to consider the following features of his character. First, the pre-eminence of the word of God in his life, see Ezra 7. 10. He was a skilled teacher of the law of God. But we should note the order of events in Ezra's life. He first prepared his own heart to seek the word of God, then practised it himself, before ever he taught it to the people.
Then his knowledge of the law of God gave him understanding of the application of the word of God to daily life, see Ezra 8. 16, 18. There was a lack of Levites in the company to minister in the rebuilt temple. 'Men of understanding' were used to find other men of understanding like themselves to fulfil the injunctions of Scripture. And later in Nehemiah chapter 8, Ezra continued to cause the people to understand the leading of the law and act upon its precepts regarding the Feast of Tabernacles. Such men of understanding are much needed today.
Ezra was marked by the simplicity of his faith in dependent prayer to God for a safe journey, see Ezra 8. 21-23. In fact, he had a conscientious objection to asking the Persian king for a military escort in view of what he had told Artaxerxes about his God. In this respect Ezra differed from Nehemiah, who readily accepted a military escort from the same king, and neither servant is criticized for their different decisions.
Again, God's good hand of blessing was very evident in all Ezra did. Today we find that it is the man of God himself, rather than his methods of working, whom the Lord chooses to bless, to the salvation of sinners or the sanctification of believers.
Then, Ezra showed true priestly character in dealing with the sins of the people in the matter of mixed marriages, see Ezra chapters 9 and 10. In these chapters he is always called 'the priest' and not 'the scribe' as elsewhere. Note his heartfelt grief over the people's sins, rather than anger, and his identification with them in confessing their sins as his own in the intercessory prayer of Ezra chapter 9. Also, in chapter 10, while he was putting matters right, his sympathy with their physical discomfort, in spite of their sin, shows his heart concern for them.
Finally, there is the unifying effect of his spiritual life. In some seven out of a total of eleven references in Ezra and Nehemiah to God's people being gathered together, Ezra is the focus of their attention as he spoke to them of his and their God. The effect of the life and ministry of a true pastor-teacher in any assembly is to unite the saints to the Lord, not to divide them by sowing discord among the brethren.
NEHEMIAH THE GOVERNOR
He was the Old Testament equivalent of a good ruling elder in the local assembly today. It is good to note that for some parts of his life he worked harmoniously with Ezra despite the fact that in temperament and background he was very different from him. We see the following salient features of his spiritual life:
(1) his close personal relationship with God. Much of his book is written in the first person; he speaks of God as 'my God', asking Him to remember him for good; and he often turns to God in brief moments of prayer for help and protection in the work.
(2) fear and courage are mingled together in his character. For instance, in Nehemiah chapter 2. 4, 5, he feared the king's wrath, but had the courage of faith to make his request to rebuild Jerusalem. In chapter 5. 15, he refrained from oppressing his fellow-brethren even when he was officially entitled, as the Persian appointed governor, to do so, because he feared God. 'So did not I because of the fear of God'. The reverential fear of God keeps us from the paralysing fear or terror of men, even under the threats of death made by our enemies, as is seen in Nehemiah while he was rebuilding the wall.
(3) there was his anger at sin in God's people. Although anger for selfish reasons is wrong, yet there is a limited place for a controlled righteous anger in the face of sin in the assembly. This must only be because the name of Christ is dishonoured. Ephesians 4. 26 says, 'Be ye angry, and sin not'. This, rather than grief, was Nehemiah's reaction to the problem of mixed marriages in chapter 13. In this way he differed from Ezra.
(4) Nehemiah was an example of practical righteousness in his liberal hospitality to the poor in 5. 17, whether they were his fellow-Jews or believing Gentiles from the district around Jerusalem.
May the Lord be able to use us in His work of local assembly testimony today just as fully as He could Ezra and Nehemiah in their day of corporate spiritual restoration, whichever of them we may be best fitted to emulate.