LIKE the earlier pilgrimage of Zerubbabel and his companions, Ezra’s great expedition was carried out under a commission from the Persian monarch of his day. The chronicler simply calls this king "Artaxerxes" (Artahshashta), a name borne by three kings of Persia, but there can be no reasonable doubt that his reference is to the son and successor of Xerxes - known by the Greeks as "Macrocheir," and by the Romans as "Longimanus"-Artaxerxes "of the long hand." for this Artaxerxes alone enjoyed a sufficiently extended reign to include both the commencement of Ezra’s public work and the later scenes in the life of Nehemiah which the chronicler associates with the same king. Artaxerxes was but a boy when he ascended the throne, and the mission of Ezra took place in his earlier years, while the generous enthusiasm of the kindly sovereign-whose gentleness has become historic-had not yet been crushed by the cares of empire. In accordance with the usual style of our narrative, we have his decree concerning the Jews preserved and transcribed in full; and yet here, as in other cases, we must make some allowance either for the literary freedom of the chronicler, or for the Jewish sympathies of the translator; for it cannot be supposed that a heathen, such as Artaxerxes undoubtedly was, would have shown the knowledge of the Hebrew religion, or have owned the faith in it, which the edict as we now have it suggests. Nevertheless, here again, there is no reason to doubt the substantial accuracy of the document, for it is quite in accord with the policy of the previous kings Cyrus and Darius. and in its special features it entirely agrees with the circumstances of the history.
This edict of Longimanus goes beyond any of its predecessors in favoring the Jews, especially with regard to their religion. It is directly and personally addressed to Ezra. whom the king may have known as an earnest, zealous leader of the Hebrew community at Babylon, and through him it grants to all Jewish exiles who wish to go up to Jerusalem liberty to return to the home of their fathers, it may be objected that after the decree of Cyrus any such fresh sanction should not have been needed. But two generations had passed away since the pilgrimage of the first body of returning captives, and during this long time many things had happened to check the free action of the Jews and to cast reproach upon their movements. For a great expedition to start now without any orders from the reigning monarch might excite his displeasure, and a subject people who were dependent for their very existence on the good-will of an absolute sovereign would naturally hesitate before they ventured to rouse his suspicions by undertaking any considerable migration on their own account.
But Artaxerxes does much more than sanction the journey to Jerusalem; he furthers the object of this journey with royal bounty, and he lays a very important commission on Ezra, a commission which carries with it the power, if not the name, of a provincial magistrate. In the first place, the edict authorises a state endowment of the Jewish religion. Ezra is to carry great stores to the poverty-stricken community at Jerusalem. These are made up in part of contributions from the Babylonian Jews, in part of generous gifts from their friendly neighbours, and in part of grants from the royal treasury. The temple has been rebuilt, and the funds now accumulated are not like the bulk of those collected in the reign of Cyrus for a definite object, the cost of which might be set down to the "Capital Account" in the restoration of the Jews; they are destined in some measure for improvements to the structure, but they are also to be employed in maintenance charges, especially in supporting the costly services of the temple. Thus the actual performance of the daily ritual at the Jerusalem sanctuary is to be kept up by means of the revenues of the Persian Empire. Then, the edict proceeds to favour the priesthood by freeing that order from the burden of taxation. This "clerical immunity," which suggests an analogy with the privileges the Christian clergy prized so highly in the Middle Ages, is an indirect form of increased endowment, but the manner in which the endowment is granted calls especial attention to the privileged status of the order that enjoys it. Thus the growing importance of the Jerusalem hierarchy is openly fostered by the Persian king. Still further, Artaxerxes adds to his endowment of the Jewish religion a direct legal establishment. Ezra is charged to see that the law of his God is observed throughout the whole region extending up from the Euphrates to Jerusalem. This can only be meant to apply to the Jews who were scattered over the wide area, especially those of Syria. Still the mandate is startling enough, especially when we take into account the heavy sanctions with which it is weighted, for Ezra has authority given him to enforce obedience by excommunication, by fine, by imprisonment, and even by the death-penalty. "The law of his God" is named side by side with "the law of the king," [Ezra 7:26] and the two are to be obeyed equally. Fortunately, owing to the unsettled condition of the country as well as to Ezra’s own somewhat unpractical disposition, the reformer never seems to have put his great powers fully to the test.
Now, as in the previous cases of Cyrus and Darius, we are confronted with the question, How came the Persian king to issue such a decree? It has been suggested that as Egypt was in revolt at the time, he desired to strengthen the friendly colony at Jerusalem as a western bulwark. But, as we have seen in the case of Cyrus, the Jews were too few and feeble to be taken much account of among the gigantic forces of the vast empire; and, moreover, it was not the military fortification of Jerusalem-certainly a valuable stronghold when well maintained-but the religious services of the temple and the observance of The Law that this edict aimed at aiding and encouraging. No doubt in times of unsettlement the king would behave most favourably towards a loyal section of his people. Still, more must be assigned as an adequate motive for his action. Ezra is charged as a special commissioner to investigate the condition of the Jews in Palestine. He is to "inquire concerning Judah and Jerusalem." [Ezra 7:14] Inasmuch as it was customary for the Persian monarchs to send out inspectors from time to time to examine and report on the condition of the more remote districts of their extensive empire, it has been plausibly suggested that Ezra may have been similarly employed. But in the chronicler’s report of the edict we read, immediately after the injunction to make the investigation, an important addition describing how this was to be done, viz., "According to the law of thy God which is in thine hand," [Ezra 7:14] which shows that Ezra’s inquiry was to be of a religious character, and as a preliminary to the exaction of obedience to the Jewish law. It may be said that this clause was not a part of the original decree, but the drift of the edict is religious throughout rather than political, and therefore the clause in question is fully in harmony with its character. There is one sentence which is of the deepest significance, if only we can believe that it embodies an original utterance of the king himself-"Whatsoever is commanded by the God of heaven, let it be done exactly for the house of the God of heaven: for why should there be wrath against the realm of the king and his sons?" [Ezra 7:23] While his empire was threatened by dangerous revolts, Artaxerxes seems to have desired to conciliate the God whom the most devout of his people regarded with supreme awe.
What is more clear and at the same time more important is the great truth detected by Ezra and recorded by him in a grateful burst of praise. Without any warning the chronicler suddenly breaks off his own narrative, written in the third person, to insert a narrative written by Ezra himself in the first person-beginning at Ezra 7:27 and continued down to Ezra 10:1-44. The scribe opens by blessing God "the Lord God of our fathers," who had "put such a thing in the king’s heart as to beautify the house of the Lord which is in Jerusalem." [Ezra 7:27] This, then, was a Divine movement. It can only be accounted for by ascribing the original impulse to God. Natural motives of policy or of superstition may have been providentially manipulated, but the hand that used them was the hand of God. The man who can perceive this immense fact at the very outset of his career is fit for any enterprise. His transcendent faith will carry him through difficulties that would be insuperable to the worldly schemer.
Passing from the thought of the Divine influence on Artaxerxes. Ezra further praises God because he has himself received "mercy before the king and his counsellors, and before all the king’s mighty princes." [Ezra 7:28] This personal thanksgiving is evidently called forth by the scribe’s consideration of the part assigned to him in the royal edict. There was enough in that edict to make the head of a self-seeking, ambitious man swim with vanity. But we can see from the first that Ezra is of a higher character. The burning passion that consumes him has not a particle of hunger for self-aggrandisement, it is wholly generated by devotion to the law of his God. In the narrowness and bigotry that characterise his later conduct as a reformer, some may suspect the action of that subtle self-will which creeps unawares into the conduct of some of the noblest men. Still the last thing that Ezra seeks, and the last thing that he cares for when it is thrust upon him, is the glory of earthly greatness.
Ezra’s aim in leading the expedition may be gathered from the reflection of it in the royal edict, since that edict was doubtless drawn up with the express purpose of furthering the project of the favoured Jew. Ezra puts the beautifying of the temple in the front of his grateful words of praise to God. But the personal commission entrusted to Ezra goes much further. The decree significantly recognises the fact that he is to carry up to Jerusalem a copy of the Sacred Law. It refers to "the law of thy God which is in thine hand." [Ezra 7:14] We shall hear more of this hereafter. Meanwhile it is important to see that the law, obedience to which Ezra is empowered to exact, is to be conveyed by him to Jerusalem. Thus he is both to introduce it to the notice of the people, and to see that it does not remain a dead letter among them. He is to teach it to those who do not know it. [Ezra 7:25] At the same time these people are distinctly separated from others, who are expressly described as "all such as know the laws of thy God." [Ezra 7:25] This plainly implies that both the Jerusalem Jews, and those west of the Euphrates generally, were not all of them ignorant of the Divine Torah. Some of them, at all events, knew the laws they were to be made to obey. Still they may not have possessed them in any written form. The plural term "laws" is here used, while the written compilation which Ezra carried up with him is described in the singular as "The Law." Ezra, then, having searched out The Law and ‘tested it in his own experience, is now eager to take it up to Jerusalem, and get it executed among his fellow-countrymen at the religious metropolis as well as among the scattered Jews of the provincial districts. His great purpose is to make what he believes to be the will of God known, and to see that it is obeyed. The very idea of a Torah implies a Divine will in religion. It presses upon our notice the often-forgotten fact that God has something to say to us about our conduct, that when we are serving Him it is not enough to be zealous, that we must also be obedient. Obedience is the keynote of Judaism. It is not less prominent in Christianity. The only difference is that Christians are freed from the shackles of a literal law in order that they may carry out "the law of liberty," by doing the will of God from the heart as loyal disciples of Jesus Christ, so that for us, as for the Jews, obedience is the most fundamental fact of religion. We can walk by faith in the freedom of sons, but that implies that we have "the obedience of faith." The ruling principle of our Lord’s life is expressed in the words "I delight to do Thy will, O My God," and this must be the ruling principle in the life of every true Christian.
Equipped with a royal edict, provided with rich contributions, inspired with a great religious purpose, confident that the hand of his God was upon him, Ezra collected his volunteers, and proceeded to carry out his commission with all practicable speed. In his record of the journey, he first sets down a list of the families that accompanied him. It is interesting to notice names that had occurred in the earlier list of the followers of Zerubbabel, showing that some of the descendants of those who refused to go on the first expedition took part in the second. They remind us of Christiana and her children, who would not join the Pilgrim when he set out from the City of Destruction, but who subsequently followed in his footsteps.
But there was little at Jerusalem to attract a new expedition, for the glamour which had surrounded the first return, with a son of David at its head, had faded in grievous disappointments, and the second series of pilgrims had to carry with them the torch with which to rekindle the flames of devotion.
Ezra states that when he had marshalled his forces he spent three days with them by a river called the "Ahava." apparently because it flowed by a town of that name. The exact site of the camp cannot be determined, although it could not have been far from Babylon, and the river must have been either one of the tributaries of the Euphrates or a canal cut through its alluvial plain. The only plausible conjecture of a definite site settles upon a place now known as Hit, in the neighbourhood of some bitumen springs, and the interest of this place may be found in the fact that here the usual caravan route leaves the fertile Valley of the Euphrates and plunges into the waterless desert. Even if Ezra decided to avoid the difficult desert track, and to take his heavy caravan round through Northern Syria by way of Aleppo and the Valley of the Orontes-an extended journey which would account for the three months spent on the road-it would still be natural for him to pause at the parting of the ways and review the gathering host. One result of this review was the startling discovery that there were no Levites in the whole company. We were struck with the fact that but a very small and disproportionate number of these officials accompanied the earlier pilgrimage of Zerubbabel, and we saw the probable explanation in the disappointment if not the disaffection of the Levites at their degradation by Ezekiel. The more rigid arrangement of Ezra’s edition of The Law, which gave them a definite and permanent place in a second rank, below the priesthood, was not likely to encourage them to volunteer for the new expedition. Nothing is more difficult than self-effacement, even in the service of God.
There was a community of Levites at a place called "Casiphia," under the direction of a leader named Iddo. It would be interesting to think that this community was really a sort of Levitical college, a school of students of the Torah, but we have no data to go upon in forming an opinion. One thing is certain. We cannot suppose that the new edition of The Law had been drawn up in this community of the Levites, because Ezra had started with it in his hand as the charter of his great enterprise; nor, indeed, in any other Levitical college, because it was not at all according to the mind of the Levites.
After completing his company by the addition of "the Levites," Ezra made a solemn religious preparation for his journey. Like the Israelites after the defeat at Gibeah in their retributive war with Benjamin; [ 20:26] like the penitent people at Mizpeh, in the days of Samuel, when they put away their idols; [1 Samuel 7:6] like Jehoshaphat and his subjects when rumours of a threatened invasion filled them with apprehension, [2 Chronicles 20:3] -Ezra and his followers fasted and humbled themselves before God in view of their hazardous undertaking. The fasting was a natural sign of the humiliation, and this prostration before God was at once a confession of sin and an admission of absolute dependence on His mercy. Thus the people reveal themselves as the "poor in spirit" to whom our Lord directs His first beatitude. They are those who humble themselves, and therefore those whom God will exalt.
We must not confound this state of self-humiliation before God with the totally different condition of abject fear which shrinks from danger in contemptible cowardice. The very opposite to that is the attitude of these humble pilgrims. Like the Puritan soldiers who became bold as lions before man in the day of battle, just because they had spent the night in fasting and tears and self-abasement before God, Ezra and his people rose from their penitential fast, calmly prepared to face all dangers in the invincible might of God. There seems to have been some enemy whom Ezra knew to be threatening his path, for when he got safely to the end of his journey he gave thanks for God’s protection from this foe, [Ezra 8:31] and, in any case, so wealthy a caravan as his was would provoke the cupidity of the roving hordes of Bedouin that infested the Syrian wastes. Ezra’s first thought was to ask for an escort, but he tells us that he was ashamed to do so, as this would imply distrust in God. [Ezra 8:22] Whatever we may think of his logic, we must be struck by his splendid faith, and the loyalty which would run a great risk rather than suffer what might seem like dishonour to his God. Here was one of God’s heroes. We cannot but connect the preliminary fast with this courageous attitude of Ezra’s. So in tales of chivalry we read how knights were braced by prayer and fast and vigil to enter the most terrible conflicts with talismans of victory. In an age of rushing activity it is hard to find the hidden springs of strength in their calm retreats. The glare of publicity starts us on the wrong track, by tempting us to advertise our own excellences, instead of abasing ourselves in the dust before God. Yet is it not now as true as ever that no boasted might of man can be in any way comparable to the Divine strength which takes possession of those who completely surrender their wills to God? Happy are they who have the grace to walk in the valley of humiliation, for this leads to the armoury of supernatural power!
EZRA THE SCRIBE
ALTHOUGH the seventh chapter of Ezra begins with no other indication of time than the vague phrase "Now after these things," nearly sixty years had elapsed between the events recorded in the previous chapter and the mission of Ezra here described. We have no history of this long period. Zerubbabel passed into obscurity without leaving any trace of his later years. He had accomplished his work, the temple had been built; but the brilliant Messianic anticipations that had clustered about him at the outset of his career were to await their fulfilment in a greater Son of David, and people could afford to neglect the memory of the man who had only been a sort of temporary trustee of the hope of Israel. We shall come across indications of the effects of social trouble and religious decadence in the state of Jerusalem as she appeared at the opening of this new chapter in her history. She had not recovered a vestige of her ancient civic splendour; the puritan rigour with which the returned exiles had founded a Church among the ruins of her political greatness had been relaxed, so that the one distinguishing feature of the humble colony was in danger of melting away in easy and friendly associations with neighboring peoples. When it came, the revival of zeal did not originate in the Holy City. It sprang up among the Jews at Babylon. The earlier movement in the reign of Cyrus had arisen in the same quarter. The best of Judaism was no product of the soil of Palestine; it was an exotic. The elementary "Torah" of Moses emerged from the desert, with the learning of Egypt as its background, long before it was cultivated at Jerusalem to blossom in the reformation of Josiah. The final edition of The Law was shaped in the Valley of the Euphrates, with the literature and science of Babylon to train its editors for their great task, though it may have received its finishing touches in Jerusalem. These facts by no means obscure the glory of the inspiration and Divine character of The Law. In its theology, in its ethics, in its whole spirit and character, the Pentateuch is no more a product of Babylonian than of Egyptian ideas. Its purity and elevation of character speak all the more emphatically for its Divine origin when we take into account its corrupt surroundings; it was like a white lily growing on a dung-heap.
Still it is important to notice that the great religious revival of Ezra’s time sprang up on the plains of Babylon, not among the hills of Judah. This involves two very different facts-the peculiar spiritual experience with which it commenced, and the special literary and scientific culture in the midst of which it was shaped.
First, it originated in the experience of the captivity, in humiliation and loss, and after long brooding over the meaning of the great chastisement. The exiles were like poets who "learn in suffering what they teach in song." This is apparent in the pathetic psalms of the same period, and in the writings of the visionary of Chebar, who contributed a large share to the new movement in view of the re-establishment of religious worship at Jerusalem.
Thus Jerusalem was loved by the exiles, the temple pictured in detail to the imagination of men who never trod its sacred courts, and the sacrificial system most carefully studied by people who had no means of putting it in practice. No doubt The Law now represented an intellectual rather than a concrete form of religion. It was an ideal. So long as the real is with us, it tends to depress the ideal by its material bulk and weight. The ideal is elevated in the absence of the real. Therefore the pauses of life are invaluable; by breaking through the iron routine of habit, they give us scope for the growth of larger ideas that may lead to better attainments.
Secondly, this religious revival appeared in a centre of scientific and literary culture. The Babylonians "had cultivated arithmetic, astronomy, history, chronology, geography, comparative philology, and grammar." In astronomy they were so advanced that they had mapped out the heavens, catalogued the fixed stars, calculated eclipses, and accounted for them correctly. Their enormous libraries of terra-cotta, only now being unearthed, testify to their literary activity. The Jews brought back from Babylon the names of the months, the new form of letters used in writing their books, and many other products of the learning and science of the Euphrates. Internally the religion of Israel is solitary, pure, Divine. Externally the literary form of it, and the physical conception of the universe which it embodies, owe not a little to the light which God had bestowed upon the people of Babylon; just as Christianity, in soul and essence the religion of Jesus of Nazareth, was shaped in theory by the thought, and in discipline by the law and order, with which God had endowed the two great European races of Greece and Rome.
The chronicler introduces Ezra with a brief sketch of his origin and a bare outline of his expedition to Jerusalem. [Ezra 7:7-9] He then next transcribes a copy of the edict of Artaxerxes which authorised the expedition. [Ezra 7:11-26] After this he inserts a detailed account of the expedition from the pen of Ezra himself, so that here the narrative proceeds in the first person-though, in the abrupt manner of the whole book, without a word of warning that this is to be the case. [Ezra 7:1-10]
In the opening verses of Ezra 7:1-28. the chronicler gives an epitome of the genealogy of Ezra, passing over several generations, but leading up to Aaron. Ezra, then, could claim a high birth. He was a born priest of the select family of Zadok, but not of the later house of high-priests. Therefore the privileges which are assigned to that house in the Pentateuch cannot be accounted for by ascribing ignoble motives of nepotism to its publisher. Though Ezra is named "The Priest," he is more familiarly known to us as "The Scribe." The chronicler calls him "a ready scribe" (or, a scribe skilful) "in the law of Moses, which the Lord God of Israel had given." Originally the title "Scribe" was used for town recorders and registrars of the census. Under the later kings of Judah, persons bearing this name were attached to the court as the writers and custodians of state documents. But these are all quite distinct from the scribes who appeared after the exile. The scribes of later days were guardians and interpreters of the written Torah, the sacred law. They appeared with the publication and adoption of the Pentateuch. They not only studied and taught this complete law; they interpreted and applied its precepts. In so doing they had to pronounce judgments of their own. Inasmuch as changing circumstances necessarily required modifications in rules of justice, while The Law could not be altered after Ezra’s day, great ingenuity was required to reconcile the old law with the new decisions. Thus arose sophistical casuistry. Then in "fencing" The Law the scribes added precepts of their own to prevent men from coming near the danger of transgression.
Scribism was one of the most remarkable features of the later days of Israel. Its existence in so much prominence showed that religion had passed into a new phase, that it had assumed a literary aspect. The art of writing was known, indeed, in Egypt and Babylon before the exodus; it was even practised in Palestine among the Hittites as early as Abraham. But at first in their religious life the Jews did not give much heed to literary documents. Priestism was regulated by traditional usages rather than by written directions, and justice was administered under the kings according to custom, precedent, and equity. Quite apart from the discussion concerning the antiquity of the Pentateuch, it is certain that its precepts were neither used nor known in the time of Josiah, when the reading of the roll discovered in the temple was listened to with amazement. Still less did prophetism rely on literary resources. What need was there of a book when the Spirit of God was speaking through the audible voice of a living man? At first the prophets were men of action. In more cultivated times they became orators, and then their speeches were sometimes preserved-as the speeches of Demosthenes were preserved-for future reference, after their primary end had been served. Jeremiah found it necessary to have a scribe, Baruch, to write down his utterances. This was a further step in the direction of literature, and Ezekiel was almost entirely literary, for his prophecies were most of them written in the first instance. Still they were prophecies, i.e., they were original utterances, drawn directly from the wells of inspiration. The function of the scribes was more humble-to collect the sayings and traditions of earlier ages; to arrange and edit the literary fragments of more original minds. Their own originality was almost confined to their explanations of difficult passages, or their adaptation of what they received to new needs and new circumstances. Thus we see theology passing into the reflective stage; it is becoming historical; it is being transformed into a branch of archaeology. Ezra the Scribe is nervously anxious to claim the authority of Moses for what he teaches. The robust spirit of Isaiah was troubled with no such scruple. Scribism rose when prophecy declined. It was a melancholy confession that the fountains of living water were drying up. It was like an aqueduct laboriously constructed in order to convey stored water to a thirsty people from distant reservoirs. The reservoirs may be full, the aqueduct may be sound, still who would not rather drink of the sparkling stream as it springs from the rock? Moreover scribism degenerated into rabbinism, the scholasticism of the Jews. We may see its counterpart in the Catholic scholasticism which drew supplies from patristic tradition, and again in Protestant scholasticism-which came nearer to the source of inspiration in the Bible, and yet which stiffened into a traditional interpretation of Scripture, confining its waters to iron pipes of orthodoxy.
But some men refuse to be thus tied to antiquarianism. They dare to believe that the Spirit of God is still in the world, whispering in the fancy of little children, soothing weary souls, thundering in the conscience of stoners, enlightening honest inquirers, guiding perplexed men of faith. Nevertheless we are always in danger of one or other of the two extremes of formal scholasticism and indefinite mysticism. The good side of the scribes’ function is suggestive of much that is valuable. If God did indeed speak to men of old "by divers portions and in divers manners," [Hebrews 1:1] what He said must be of the greatest value to us, for truth in its essence is eternal. We Christians have the solid foundation of a historical faith to build upon, and we cannot dispense with our gospel narratives and doctrinal epistles. What Christ was, what Christ did, and the meaning of all this, is of vital importance to us, but it is chiefly important because it enables us to see what He is today-a Priest ever living to make intercession for us, a Deliverer who is even now able to save unto the uttermost all who come unto God by Him, a present Lord who claims the active loyalty of every fresh generation of the men and women for whom He died in the far-off past. We have to combine the concrete historical religion with the inward, living, spiritual religion to reach a faith that shall be true both objectively and subjectively-true to the facts of the universe, and true to personal experience.
Ezra accomplished his great work, to a large extent, because he ventured to be more than a scribe. Even when he was relying on the authority of antiquity, the inspiration which was in him saved him from a pedantic adherence to the letter of the Torah as he had received it. The modification of The Law when it was reissued by the great scribe, which is so perplexing to some modern readers, is a proof that the religion of Israel had not yet lost vitality and settled down into a fossil condition. It was living, therefore it was growing, and in growing it was casting its old shell and evolving a new vesture better adapted to its changed environment. Is not this just a signal proof that God had not deserted His people?
Ezra is presented to us as a man of a deeply devout nature. He cultivated his own personal religion before he attempted to influence his compatriots. The chronicler tells us that he had prepared (directed) his heart, to seek the law of the Lord and to do it. With our haste to obtain "results" in Christian service, there is danger lest the need of personal preparation should be neglected. But work is feeble and fruitless if the worker is inefficient, and he must be quite as inefficient if he has not the necessary graces as if he had not the requisite gifts. Over and above the preparatory intellectual culture-never more needed than in our own day-there is the all-essential spiritual training. We cannot effectually win others to that truth which has no place in our own hearts. Enthusiasm is kindled by enthusiasm. The fire must be first burning within the preacher himself if he would light it in the breasts of other men. Here lies the secret of the tremendous influence Ezra exerted when he came to Jerusalem. He was an enthusiast for the law he so zealously advocated. Now enthusiasm is not the creation of a moment’s thought; it is the outgrowth of long meditation, inspired by deep, passionate love. It shows itself in the experience expressed by the Psalmist when he said, "While I mused the fire burned." [Psalms 39:3] Ours is not an age of musing. But if we have no time to meditate over the great verities of our faith, the flames will not be kindled, and in place of the glowing fire of enthusiasm we shall have the gritty ashes of officialism.
Ezra turned his thoughts to the law of his God; he took this for the subject of his daily meditation, brooding over it until it became a part of his own thinking. This is the way a character is made. Men have larger power over their thoughts than they are inclined to admit, and the greatness or the meanness, the purity or the corruption of their character depends on the way in which that power is used. Evil thoughts may come unbidden to the purest mind for Christ was tempted by the devil, but such thoughts can be resisted, and treated as unwelcome intruders. The thoughts that are welcomed and cherished, nourished in meditation, and sedulously cultivated-these bosom friends of the inner man determine what he himself is to become. To allow one’s mind to he treated as the plaything of every idle reverie-like a boat drifting at the mercy of wind and current with.-out a hand at the helm-is to court intellectual and moral shipwreck. The first condition of achieving success in self-culture is to direct the course of the thinking aright. St. Paul enumerated a list of good and honourable subjects to bid us "think on" such things. [Philippians 4:8]
The aim of Ezra’s meditation was three-old. First, he would "seek the law of the Lord," for the teacher must begin with understanding the truth, and this may involve much anxious searching. Possibly Ezra had to pursue a literary inquiry, hunting up documents, comparing data, arranging and harmonising scattered fragments. But the most important part of his seeking was his effort to find the real meaning and purpose of The Law. It was in regard to this that he would have to exercise his mind most earnestly Secondly, his aim was "to do it." He would not attempt to preach what he had not tried to perform, he would test the effect of his doctrine on himself before venturing to prescribe it for others. Thus he would be most sure of escaping a subtle snare which too often entraps the preacher. When the godly man of business reads his Bible, it is just to find light and food for his own soul, but when the preacher turns the pages of the sacred book, he is haunted by the anxiety to light upon suitable subjects for his sermons. Every man who handles religious truths in the course of his work is in danger of coming to regard those truths as the tools of his trade. If he succumbs to this danger it will be to his own personal loss, and then even as instruments in his work the degraded truths will be blunt and inefficient, because a man can never know the doctrine until he has begun to obey the commandment. If religious teaching is not to be pedantic and unreal, it must be interpreted by experience. The most vivid teaching is a transcript from life. Thirdly, Ezra would "teach in Israel statutes and judgments." This necessarily comes last-after the meditation, after the experience.
But it is of great significance as the crown and finish of the rest. Ezra is to be his nation’s instructor. In the new order the first place is not to be reserved for a king; it is assigned to a schoolmaster.
This will be increasingly the case as knowledge is allowed to prevail, and as truth is permitted to sway the lives of men and fashion the history of communities.
So far we have Ezra’s own character and culture. But there was another side to his preparation for his great life-work of which the chronicler took note, and which he described in a favorite phrase of Ezra’s, a phrase so often used by the scribe that the later writer adopted it quite naturally. Ezra’s request to he permitted to go up to Jerusalem with a new expedition is said to have been granted him by the king "according to the hand of the Lord his God upon him." [Ezra 7:6] Thus the chronicler here acknowledges the Divine hand in the whole business, as he has the inspired insight to do again and again in the course of his narrative. The special phrase thus borrowed from Ezra is rich in meaning. In an earlier passage the chronicler noticed that "the eye of their God was upon the elders of the Jews." [Ezra 5:5] Now, in Ezra’s phrase, it is the hand of his God that is on Ezra. The expression gives us a distinct indication of the Divine activity. God works, and, so to speak, uses His hand. It also suggests the nearness of God. The hand of God is not only moving and acting; it is upon Ezra. God touches the man, holds him, directs him, impels him; and, as he shows elsewhere, Ezra is conscious of the influence, if not immediately, yet by means of a devout study of the providential results. This Divine power even goes so far as to move the Persian monarch. The chronicler ascribes the conduct of successive kings of Persia to the immediate action of God. But here it is connected with God’s hand being on Ezra. When God is holding and directing His servants, even external circumstances are found to work for their good, and even other men are induced to further the same end. This brings us to the kernel, the very essence of religion. That was not found in Ezra’s wisely chosen meditations, nor was it to be seen in his devout practices. Behind and beneath the man’s earnest piety was the unseen but mighty action of God, and here, in the hand of his God resting upon him, was the root of all his religious life. In experience the human and the Divine elements of religion are inextricably blended together; but the vital element, that which originates and dominates the whole, is the Divine. There is no real, living religion without it. It is the secret of energy and the assurance of victory. The man of true religion is he who has the hand of God resting upon him, he whose thought and action are inspired and swayed by the mystic touch of the Unseen.
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Nicoll, William R. "Commentary on Ezra 7". "Expositor's Bible Commentary". https://www.studylight.org/
the Second Week after Epiphany