Book Overview - Ezra
by Joseph Parker
THE Aaronic descent of Ezra is undoubted. In Scripture he is stated to be the son of Seraiah, the son of Prayer of Azariah, and the line goes back to Phinehas, the son of Aaron. We have repeatedly pointed out that in the Bible the word "son" is not to be too literally interpreted, for it sometimes includes the relation of grandson, and relations still more remote. On the official life of Ezra, Josephus gives some useful particulars. From the Bible we learn that Ezra was "a scribe," "a ready scribe of the law of Moses," "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"; and not only a scribe but "a priest"—a fact which must be duly noted in reading the work which bears his name. Josephus says that Ezra was high priest of the Jews that were left in Babylon, and particularly conversant with the laws of Moses. Not only was Ezra a man of great learning and of high official dignity, he was held in great esteem because of his personal character. Everywhere his word was credited, and his authority was acknowledged. The social Ezra was the equal of the official Ezra; the man was greater than the scribe. Implicit confidence was reposed in Ezra by Artaxerxes Longimanus and by the royal counsellors. National crises develop men—they may, indeed, be said to discover men. As necessity is proverbially the mother of invention, so national emergency brings to the front men who have for years been undergoing unconscious preparation for the exercise of profound and beneficent influence. Ezra was the custodian of the almost untold gold and silver which the king and his counsellors contributed or "freely offered unto the God of Israel." Not only Song of Solomon, Ezra was empowered to collect what he could of silver and gold in Babylon, and to carry it along, with the freewill offerings of the people and the priests, for the building of the house of God at Jerusalem. Out of the sum-total of the treasure, Ezra was instructed and directed to lay out whatever he thought necessary for the fulfilment of the law and the maintenance of public worship. Still more, Ezra was empowered to buy vessels "for the house of God in Jerusalem;" and if these gifts and purchases were insufficient, Ezra was at liberty to take from the king"s treasure-house whatever in his discretion he deemed needful. Still farther evidence of Ezra"s great social status is found in the fact that Artaxerxes Longimanus issued a decree to the keepers of the king"s treasure beyond the river to co operate with Ezra in all things, and to supply him liberally with money, corn, wine, oil, and salt. And yet more, Ezra had authority to impose tribute upon any priest, Levite, or other religious or sacerdotal officer.
Here, then, it will be seen we are face to face with a man of affairs, a man of business, emphatically a statesman. It is often thought that in dealing with biblical characters we are dealing with a species of fanatics who had little or no experience of mundane affairs,—-persons who might be sentimentally respected, but who could not be practically trusted. Let us read this history as if we were reading history that is denominated "profane," and let us in that sense be just to Ezra as a man of immense capacity and of statesmanlike perception of the need of his times. Here is the most trusted man of his day going forth upon a certain important errand, and therefore it must be interesting to students of history, viewed simply as such, to trace his course, to note his method of handling affairs, and to learn what may be useful from the practical side of his character. It is important to be able to establish the truth that it is possible to be at once religious and practical. It would seem difficult for this or any other age to believe that a man can both pray and work; that a man can sing hymns and psalms and spiritual tunes, and yet, on the other hand, attend to the dry details of life. Ezra is going out upon a business expedition, and yet he is taking all his religion with him, for his religion was not an ornament or a decoration, a thing which he could take up and lay down at will; it was part of his very soul, it was the main line of what constituted his selfhood. Ezra, as we have said, was well versed in the law of Moses. One of the most interesting incidents in his career is to be found in his standing upon a pulpit or tower of wood, and reading out of the book of the law of Moses. It is further instructive to note that the account which is given by Josephus agrees with that of Nehemiah in all leading particulars, so that we are not dealing with an image of the fancy, a spectre created by some vivid imagination, but with a real and actual historical personage. According to the best authorities, Josephus is cited as stating that Ezra died soon after his appearance before the people as indicated in the Book of Nehemiah, an appearance which was made at the Feast of Tabernacles. It is on record that Ezra was buried at Jerusalem with great magnificence.
Kitto says that according to some Jewish chroniclers Ezra died in the year in which Alexander came to Jerusalem; in the same year, too, in which took place the death of the prophets Haggai,, Zechariah, and Malachi,—a period at which prophecy seems to have become extinct. There is another tradition, which relates that Ezra returned to Babylon, and died there at the age of one hundred and twenty years. With these uncertain matters we have nothing to do: here is the record of an active and energetic career, and we have now to peruse it with a view to spiritual edification.
Almighty God, thou settest everything in order: the very hairs of our head are all numbered; there is not a word in our mouth, there is not a thought in our heart, but, lo, O Lord, thou knowest it altogether. We believe in the minuteness of thy care: we cannot understand it, but we feel how near thou art, and how thou dost take note of all we are and all we need, and how with a great hand of love thou dost give us what our life most sorely wants. We dare not think of this, for we could not explain it: enough that we feel it, that our heart answers it, that every day we put out our love to seek thee again, and say, We dare not walk without God, or go abroad without his light, or attempt to stand without his succour and benediction. Thus have we been trained, and we rejoice in the education: we cannot give it up; the heart goes out after thee, and will find thee, and will not rest until thou hast entered it, and given it all thine own peace. What is there that bears not the sign of thy hand? We cannot look around without seeing thee in thy works everywhere; thou hast written thy name on all things, great and small, enduring and frail; thou hast not hid thyself from any of thy works: behold, we see in them all the image and superscription of God. Jesus Christ thy Son was God manifest in the flesh. We have seen him and heard him speak; we have been near him—his companions, his students, his worshippers; we have wondered at the gracious words which have proceeded out of his mouth; we have said, Never man spake like this man: even when he used our own words he used them with a spirit all his own, and infused into them the mystery of almightiness, the pathos of eternity. May we study him more lovingly, profoundly, sympathetically; and may men take knowledge of us that we have been with Jesus and have learned of him, not only because we repeat his words, but because we breathe his spirit, and are rich with his infinite charity. We bless thee for thy book; it is like none other: for thy house; it sanctifies all dwellings amidst which it stands: for the cross of Christ, that unites and glorifies all the universe which we know. Dwell with us: never leave us! Thou hast not built us up thus far that thou mightest throw us down into destruction: thy purpose runs out towards completion, and thou shalt yet see the finished temple of thine intention. Blessed Jesus, thou shalt see of the travail of thy soul, and shalt be satisfied; and when thou art satisfied thy whole creation will be blessed with unspeakable contentment. Amen.
the First Week after Epiphany