the Fifth Week of Lent
Whyte's Dictionary of Bible Characters
EZRA was a great student, he was a great statesman, he was a great reformer, and he was a great preacher. Ezra was born in Babylon. Ezra was a child of the Captivity. But all that only made his heart break all the more for the longing he had to see the land of his fathers, and to do what in him lay fully to turn back again the captivity of Judah and completely to rebuild and restore Jerusalem. Ezra was as near as possible Daniel over again, only in other circumstances. For Ezra also was a youth in whom was no blemish, but well-favoured, and skilful in all wisdom, and cunning in knowledge, and understanding science. But Ezra was all the time essentially himself. He was the slavish copy of no man over again-no, not even of Daniel, Ezra was what no man had ever been before him. He was the first scribe in Israel, whatever that was, and he was the first Scriptural preacher, as we say, and his original principle in preaching lasts on to this day, as it will last on and will grow in power and in fruitfulness till the last day. Ezra was full of originality and of distinction of mind, and his originality and his distinction of mind had their roots deep down in a heart and in a character of the very foremost and the very rarest order. For he was 'a ready scribe in the law of Moses, which the Lord God of Israel had given. Because Ezra had prepared his heart to seek the law of the Lord, and to do it, and to teach in Israel the divine statutes and the divine judgments'-a noble introduction, truly, to a noble life.
We are not told why it was that Ezra had not gone up out of Babylon along with the first body of returning exiles. 'The chaff came out of Babylon, but the wheat remained behind,' is a pungent saying of the Jews to this day about the first return of their forefathers from the Babylonian captivity. But, just as our own forefathers had a reformation in Scotland, and then a second reformation, so there was a return and a second return of the children of Judah from their captivity in Babylon. For when the new Jerusalem was in the very greatest straits from her enemies round about, and still more from the slackened faith and the corrupt life of her first return, Ezra rose up and came from Babylon, and was the salvation of Jerusalem. Happily for us, Ezra has embodied in his autobiography the remarkable letter that King Artaxerxes gave to him, and by which the Chaldean scribe was made nothing less than the king's viceroy in Jerusalem. Here are some sentences out of that royal edict: 'Artaxerxes, king of kings, unto Ezra the priest, a scribe of the law of the God of heaven, perfect peace, and at such a time. I make a decree, that all they of the people of Israel, and of the priests and Levites, in my realm, which are minded of their own free will to go up to Jerusalem, go with thee. And I, even I, Artaxerxes the king, do make a decree to all the treasurers that are beyond the river, that whatever Ezra the priest, the scribe of the law of the God of heaven, shall require of you, it be done speedily. And thou, Ezra, after the wisdom of thy God that is in thine hand, set magistrates and judges, which may judge all the people that are beyond the river, all such as know the law of thy God; and teach ye them that know them not.' And so on. A remarkable glimpse into the mind and heart of Artaxerxes, and a remarkable tribute, from a remarkable quarter, to the ability, and to the worth, and to the immense influence of Ezra.
Before Ezra had time to rest himself from the fatigue of his long journey, he was plunged into a perfect sea of trouble in Jerusalem. Ever since the death of the two great leaders of the first return, the social and the religious life of the new Jerusalem had been fast going down to moral corruption and death. And had Ezra not come to her deliverance, Jerusalem would soon have become again what she had so often been before-as Sodom, and like unto Gomorrah. The complete and even scrupulous separation of Israel from the absolute brutishness of the nations round about her,-this was the first law of Israel's life as a nation and as a church. There was no reason why Jehovah, at such a cost, so to speak, should continue to preserve Israel alive on the earth, unless she was to be a people pure and holy, and separated to the Lord, till the time should come when she would be able to be the salt of the whole earth and the light of the whole world. How Jerusalem could have fallen so suddenly and so low the history does not tell us; it leaves us to read all that in our own hearts. But, to his absolute consternation, Ezra found that already every wall of separation had been broken down between Israel and the Canaanites round about, till both the domestic life and the public life of Jerusalem was in nothing but in name to be distinguished from the abominations of the nations that their fathers had been brought out of Egypt to avenge and to root out. It was only then that Ezra saw how good the providence of God had been to him in having provided him with an instrument of such absolute authority as the king's letter was. For it needed all the authority of this autograph letter, and all the courage and resolution of Erza to boot, in order to deal with the terrible disorders that everywhere faced him as he went about in Jerusalem. Those who are well enough read to remember how John Calvin ruled Geneva, and how John Knox and his colleagues did their best to rule Edinburgh-they will best understand and appreciate the rule of Ezra in Jerusalem. So far as those great men could do it, Jerusalem and Geneva and Edinburgh were for the time true theocracies: cities of God, that is; governed as Artaxerxes decreed that Jerusalem should be governed, by the law of the God of heaven. Not perfectly; not without many mistakes and infirmities of temper, and even crimes. But withal, both Ezra and Calvin and Knox made most able and most fearless efforts to set up the Kingdom of God in those three famous cities. So like, indeed, were those three statesmen and churchmen to one another that the modern historians of Israel are fain to come to Edinburgh for their best parallels and illustrations when they are engaged in writing about the Jerusalem of Ezra's day. Our Reformation, our Congregation, our First and Second Books of Discipline, our Solemn League and Covenant, and our Edinburgh pulpit-without those illustrations, taken from our own city, some of the most brilliant pages of Ewald, and Milman, and Stanley, and Plumptre, and our own Robertson Smith, would never have been written.
Ezra, while yet a young man in Babylon, had become 'a ready scribe in the law of Moses; in that law which the Lord God of Israel had given.' In the words of the 45th Psalm, Ezra's was already the 'pen of a ready writer.' By his high birth Ezra was by office a priest; when he cared to do it he could trace his unbroken and unblemished descent back to Aaron himself. But what of that, when there was neither temple, nor altar, nor mercyseat, nor anything else of all the temple apparatus in Babylon? And had Ezra not discovered other and better work for himself: had Ezra not adapted himself to his new circumstances, and fitted himself into his new world, his would have been an idle and a lost and an embittered life in Babylon. But Ezra had the humilty and the insight, the genius and the grace, to see that the future seat of spiritual worship, and the true source of spiritual life on earth was not to be a building any more, but a book. Ages and ages before books became what they now are, Ezra was a believer in books, and in the Book of books. You who make a truly evangelical use of your Bible, and thus have a truly evangelical and a truly intelligent love for your Bible, must not forget what you owe to Ezra; for it was in Babylon, and it was under Ezra's so scholarly and so spiritual hands, that your Bible first began to take on its shape and solidity. When all the other priests and Levites were moping about, not knowing what to do with themselves because they had no traditional altar at which to minister, Ezra struck out a new kind of priesthood and ministry in Israel which has outlasted all the temples and priesthoods in Israel, and which will last till the end of time. We can easily see what a splendid time the young priestscribe must have spent in Babylon when we imaginatively construct to ourselves those eloquent and epoch-making words: 'Ezra prepared his heart to seek the law of the Lord, and to do it; and to teach in Israel statutes and judgments.' Ezra's true successors among ourselves; and, especially, those who, like Ezra, are still in their opportune youth and with their life in Jerusalem all before them-they will not fail to take note that Ezra's studies began and were carried on in his own heart. Having no temple precincts made with hands in which to dwell with God, Ezra dwelt all the more with God in the New Testament temple of his own heart. All other studies may more or less prosper independently of the state of the student's heart-language, law, medicine, science, philosophy even,-but not divinity. Divinity, and the great Ezrahite text-book of divinity, absolutely demand a devout, a humble, a penitent and a clean heart. And Ezra, the father of all our expository and experimental preachers, has this testimony, that he prepared his heart to seek the law of the Lord, and to do it. Ezra was of Luther's mind, so long before Luther's day, that it is the clean heart even more than the clear head that makes the theologian. Let all our intending preachers examine themselves, and so let them enter on their ever venerable, ever fresh, and ever vacant office.
A distinguished critic has claimed for Jonathan Edwards that his favourite and most frequently recurring word is 'sweetness.' At the same time, I see that a truly Catholic and Episcopal Professor holds that the word 'light,' even more than sweetness, is Edwards's characteristic word. Had I been suddenly asked that about Edwards, I would have said 'beauty.' You are safe to take all the three. John's favourite utterance is 'love,' as all the world knows; while Paul's peculiar mark and sure token in every epistle of his is 'grace.' Now, what is Ezra's most frequent and most often-recurring utterance in his autobiography? Well, it is not taxes nor tithes, though he was a great civil and ecclesiastical administrator. It is nothing technical to masons or carpenters, though he has armies of such workmen engaged in the temple and on the walls of Jerusalem. It is not even the words that we would look for in a ready writer. Ezra's peculiar and characteristic expression is 'The hand of the Lord,' 'The hand of the Lord,' 'The hand of the Lord.' The hand of the Lord is constantly upon Ezra. When anything prospers with Ezra it is again, not Artaxerxes, nor himself, but 'The hand of the Lord.' He introduces himself to his readers as a man in all things under the hand of the Lord. The king granted him all his requests according to the hand of the Lord his God upon him. And upon the first day of the first month began he to go up out of Babylon, and on the first day of the fifth month came he to Jerusalem according to the good hand of his God upon him. And I was strengthened as the hand of the Lord my God was upon me, and I gathered together out of Israel chief men to go with me. And as soon as he secured a suitable colleague to assist him in his immense work, 'by the good hand of God upon us, they brought me a man of understanding.' Just as he had refused an armed convoy with these same words, The hand of our God is upon all them that seek Him. 'And from the river Ahava to Jerusalem the hand of our God was upon us to deliver us out of the hand of the enemy.' Our learned men are able to trace and detect the authorship and the authenticity of anonymous and pseudonymous books and manuscripts by the peculiar words and phrases and constructions that occur in them. I think we might almost let the higher critics assert that if there is any page of personal narrative, and no acknowledgment of the hand of God in it, whoever may have written that self-sufficient page it cannot have been Ezra.
Have you discovered and appropriated to yourself Ezra's great prayer? Bishop Andrewes discovered and appropriated it bodily. For that, as you know, was Andrewes's famous and fruitful way with himself. Whenever he came in his reading on any prayer, or psalm, or verse, or even a single word that first spoke to his heart from God, and then uttered his heart to God, he straightway took it down till his Private Devotions became the extraordinary treasure-house that it is. I do not remember another such intercession and suretyship prayer in all the Bible as Ezra's prayer was in the temple of the new, but already backsliding, Jerusalem. How this true priest makes himself one with the great transgressors for whom he prays! As you listen you would think that Ezra had been a very ringleader in all those utter abominations that he blushes to have to name. Ezra confesses Jerusalem's sin with an agony such as if all that sin had all been his own. Ezra's spirit in public prayer, his attitude, and his utterances are enough to scandalise all hard and dry and meagre-hearted men. But Ezra's prayer, whether in his own book, or borrowed into another book, or assimilated into another praying heart, will always carry captive all tender, and generous, and deep, and holy hearts around it. And thus it was that day that a kindred spirit in that congregation named Shechaniah broke in upon Ezra's prayer and declared that he and his fellow-elders could stand such praying no longer. If Ezra would only stop they would do anything he was pleased to command them. It is always so. If you would move me with your preaching, or with your praying, or with your singing, first be moved yourself. Only, where have we the chance of such commanding and contagious prayer as that was which made all Jerusalem take such sudden fire that day? There had been a long-laid and a daily-built-up altar-fire in Ezra's own heart ever since that early day in Babylon when he first began to prepare his heart to seek the law of the Lord. A life like Ezra's life, first in Babylon and then in Jerusalem,-that is the real secret of every sudden and all-prevailing outburst of prayer both with God and with man.
But, with all that, such is my immense and ever-growing appreciation of the pulpit that I look on all that-Ezra's birth in Babylon, his suspension from his priesthood, his great and original work upon the law of Moses, his summons to Jerusalem, his hourly and unceasing experience under the hand of the Lord, his extraordinary exercises both in personal and in intercessory prayer,-as but so much providential preparation for Ezra's expository and experimental pulpit. It is a grand picture-who will worthily paint it?-and it is only the first of a multitude of such grand pictures. Ezra, standing in his pulpit of wood, with his thirteen elders standing supporting him, six on his right hand and seven on his left. And Ezra opened the book in the sight of all the people, and he and his colleagues caused the people to understand the law and the people stood in their place. So Ezra read in the book in the law of God distinctly, and gave the sense, and caused the people to understand the reading. That is delightfully described, is it not? And that is the very first original and most ancient type and pattern of our best pulpit work to this day. And that type and that pattern has been kept up with splendid success down to this day. To name some of the very masters of pulpit exposition-we have Chrysostom, and Augustine, and Calvin, and Matthew Henry, and, the richest of them all to me, that masterly exegete of the Puritan pulpit, an interpreter, one of a thousand, Thomas Goodwin. And, because he is still alive, and not two hundred years dead, is that a right reason why I should not here name Goodwin's direct successor in his incomparable pulpit-Dr. Joseph Parker? An expositor and a commentator quite worthy to be written in that shining roll. If you have not enough brotherly love to believe that, just borrow, if you will not buy, say the tenth volume of the People's Bible, and read what Dr. Parker says about Ezra, and then be honest enough to agree with me and to thank me. All those men laid out their pulpit life on Ezra's exact plan. That is to say, not so much preaching trite and hackneyed sermons, on trite and hackneyed texts; but reading in the law of God consecutively, giving the sense, and causing the people to understand the reading. That exactly describes our own Scottish habit of 'lecturing,' as we call it. And it was to that pulpit practice, in no small degree, that our forefathers owed it that they came to know their Bible so well, till they were, and are, so ill to please with the pulpit work of their preachers. It is a noble tradition and a perfect method; only, to do it well demands very hard labour, and very wide reading, and very deep thinking, as well as an early and a life-long preparation of the preacher's heart. But he who sets to himself this noblest of all possible tasks, and perseveres to the end in it, ever learning in it, ever improving in it, ever adding to his treasures of exposition and illustration, ever putting himself into his lecture, and ever keeping himself out of it, he will never grow old, he will never become worked out, he will never weary out his people, but he will to old age bring forth his fruit in his season, and his leaf will not wither. And, then, both to him and to his happy people, will be fulfilled every new Sabbath morning some of the most blessed promises in all the Word of God. 'For I will bring you to Zion, saith the Lord, and I will give you pastors after mine own heart, which shall feed you with knowledge and understanding, till we all come in the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, unto a perfect man, unto the measure of the stature of the fulness of Christ.'
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Whyte, Alexander. Entry for 'Ezra'. Alexander Whyte's Dictionary of Bible Characters. https://www.studylight.org/​dictionaries/​eng/​wbc/​e/ezra.html. 1901.