August 04, 2009

Trekking with Ezra

Ezra really intrigues me and I look forward to meeting him someday. He was both an unassuming writer and an unstoppable reformer. He was both a studious bookworm and a serious backpacker when necessary. He’s accredited with writing 1 and 2 Chronicles and Ezra, with establishing synagogue worship during the Israelite exile in Babylon and leading 5,000 exiles through desert lands for four months in order to return to Jerusalem in mid 5C BC. There he helped spark a spiritual revival, helped reestablish worship in the temple and led people back into the study of the Torah.

Where did Ezra get his chutzpah? What made him tick? One verse stands out as a key to understanding his life, Romans 10.17: “So then faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of God.” (NKJV) Looking at his life, Ezra was a guy totally absorbed in the word of God and seemingly filled with faith. He led an “aliyah” to Jerusalem, so that Jews could resettle there but the main thrust of his life was his trekking through the scriptures. The term aliyah literally means “ascent” in Hebrew. The word is derived from the high elevation of Jerusalem and the temporary pilgrimages required there in scripture (Deut 16.16). But it also refers to the immigration of Jews to the homeland in Israel. Similarly, as believers today our “high calling” refers to the temporary mission God has placed before us on earth, the things we do based on our relationship “with God in Jesus Christ” (Phil 3.14) as well as our “heavenly calling” (Heb 3.1) our final journey to our true homeland.

With these things in mind, the chutzpah of Ezra is easily explained because the study of scripture was a central pattern in his life, as the following verse eloquently describes: “For Ezra had prepared his heart to seek the Law of the LORD, and to do it, and to teach statutes and ordinances in Israel.” (Ezr 7.10 NKJV) The New Testament confirms that we are to abide in God's word (Jn 8.31) and grow in it (II Pet 3.18). It's not just information but God's "living word," (Heb 4.12) a real connection to the living God. Ezra was abandoned to God, really dedicated. He realized he was just a stranger on this earth passing through with nothing to gain and nothing to lose. The main goal of his life was to abide in the scriptures and enrich his relationship with God. His second goal was to help other people connect with God and learn about Him. The four steps Ezra described: 1) to prepare one’s heart 2) to study God’s word 3) to apply what is learned 4) and to teach others…these together are really a powerful combination. Ezra broke it down and packed it in tight. It’s tempting to just end the article here. People often don’t like reading long articles on the Internet. But Ezra’s life and writings raise many good points worth going into and meditating on.

Soul searching

Each of the four points Ezra mentioned are important but there’s a tendency to go overboard in one area and totally neglect another area. For example, am I totally absorbed in the study of the word but lacking in worship and spending time in preparing my heart? Or am I absorbed in worship but lacking in the study of the word? Am I teaching anyone the things I am learning in the word? One aspect of learning is the process of writing articles on a weblog and dialogging with people you feel are off in their view of scripture. Another aspect is simply taking the time to ask questions, to do some soul searching. The fourth point “to teach” emphasizes that we are not to be self absorbed and self centered but to be looking to see what others need to learn about, to be “others centered.” This is “soul searching” in a different sense and relates to the big picture of life and God’s heart for the world: “for the Son of Man has come to seek and to save that which was lost.” (Lu 19.10 NKJV)

A very present helper

The name Ezra means “help” or “helper,” which is one of the names Jesus used to describe the Holy Spirit (Jn 15.26). Like the Holy Spirit, Ezra was not interested in doing his own thing but concentrated his life on fulfilling God’s will and leading people to God. He led them to Jerusalem physically and also desired to lead them into “all truth” spiritually (Jn 16.13). It’s clear from the book Ezra that he studied the prophets such as Jeremiah mentioned in the first verse: “Now in the first year of Cyrus king of Persia, that the word of the LORD by the mouth of Jeremiah might be fulfilled, the LORD stirred up the spirit of Cyrus king of Persia...” (Ezr 1.1a) Because of his knowledge of prophecy he was probably aware that Jeremiah had determined a period of seventy years for the captivity as foretold. They would “serve the king of Babylon seventy years" (Jer 29.10-11). The reason for the 70 years captivity was also no secret. According to Leviticus 25:4-5, the land required “a year of rest,” a “Sabbath,” every 7 years. But if they disobeyed, their land would be “laid waste” and their cities would “lie in ruins” that the land would “rest and enjoy its Sabbaths.”(Lev 26:33-35) From the time of King Saul to the Babylonian captivity was 490 years. When you do the math, you see how this prophecy was fulfilled to a T.

Studying the scriptures can build up ones faith as God’s sovereignty is dramatically displayed. God’s Spirit moved people to write prophecy and then he has moved people to perform his will. It says “The LORD stirred up the spirit of Cyrus…” God stirred up Cyrus, a Gentile king, to help the Jewish exiles in Babylon in the first year after he conquered that kingdom. Why would he do such a thing? Well, imagine if you saw your own name in prophecy, written about 150 years before you were born, would that get your attention?

Isaiah 44:28 reads: “who says of Cyrus, 'He is my shepherd and will accomplish all that I please; he will say of Jerusalem, "Let it be rebuilt," and of the temple, "Let its foundations be laid."' (NIV) Jeremiah 50:38 and 51:30-32 prophesied in advance how Cyrus would conquer Babylon by blocking the Euphrates River and entering in a surprise attack in the dried river beds at night. The Cyrus Cylinder in the British Museum confirms the stealth victory: "His widespread troops-their number, like that of the water of a river, which could not be counted, strolled along, their weapons packed away. Without any battle, he made him enter his city Babylon, sparing Babylon any damage.” Cyrus the Great had great awe for the God of Israel because he saw his own name and actions prophesied of in scripture. And for this reason he gave the following proclamation to the Israelites to return to Jerusalem and rebuild the temple:

“Thus says Cyrus king of Persia: All the kingdoms of the earth the LORD God of heaven has given me. And He has commanded me to build Him a house at Jerusalem which is in Judah. Who is among you of all His people? May his God be with him, and let him go up to Jerusalem which is in Judah, and build the house of the LORD God of Israel (He is God), which is in Jerusalem.” (Ezr 1.2-3 NKJV) Even as God “stirred up the spirit of Cyrus” to fulfill His will, God raised up helpers to go by His Spirit to rebuild the temple. (Ezr 1.5) Why was this necessary? It was a big, big problem just getting people to go.

A very present problem

Although Cyrus opened the doors and set the people free to go back and restore the temple as prophesied, not many wanted to go back to Jerusalem and fulfill God’s will. It didn’t seem like an appealing offer: “Free family travel package!... A 900 mile (1,500 km), 4 month, one way backpacking adventure through desert territory with no protection from thieves! Yes, you too can face unknown dangers and hardships and when you arrive… you can work and rebuild the temple and your homes!” It was a hard sell. Out of 2-3 million Jews, only about 50,000, 2-3% were interested. Zerubbabel led the main group of exiles back to rebuild the temple, and then Ezra followed with another group. Hardships weren’t the only problem. Before Babylon the Jews were mainly shepherds, not very lucrative or glamorous. But in Babylon they became merchants and they became so good at it they didn’t really want to stop! They had the Babylon Bloomingdales, the Tigris Target , the Mesopotamian Marks & Spencer, etc. It was in Babylon that the Jews got their training and reputation as shrewd traders. So there was some materialism, but, nevertheless, and amazingly, it says God caused all the people to contribute to the work, either by giving financially or by picking up and moving to do the work required.This was all done by God's Spirit moving in people's hearts, as shown in Ezra 1.5-6.

Open door and open word policy

As in Ezra’s day, God’s word and will have been outlined for us and the doors are open. Jesus gave the “great commission” in his word. Believers are to go into all the world and make disciples for God’s kingdom (Mat 28.19-20). But the response has been lackluster and there have been long gaps in the work. William Carey (1761-1834) is considered the “father of the modern missionary movement” but he was outright rejected in his first attempts to establish a missionary organization. The whole history of missionary work is a chronology of God using weak men and seemingly inadequate resources in the face of incredible odds to further the gospel all by His amazing grace.

In the book of Revelation, Jesus praises two qualities of a model church, among others. In Chapter 3 verse 8 He praised the church with the “open door” mission policy and the “open word” Bible study program. He praised those who he said “kept my word.” Jesus contrasted this with a church weighed down by materialism (Rev 3.17). And so you can see we face the same types of problems in our churches today that Ezra faced then. After Ezra and his band of refugees finally made the trek through the desert to Jerusalem, they was kind of shocked to find the Israelites there involved in idol worship there. What's up?! After the Northern Kingdom was taken by Assyria and the Southern Kingdom by Babylon, and after 70 long years of captivity, you would think...Well, that's just a picture of us all really, stubborn and stiff-necked human nature.

Frustration and grace

After all God had done in setting them free, Ezra was dismayed by the attitude of the people. Upon arriving in Jerusalem, they found the people and leaders had married pagan wives and begun worshiping their false gods (Ezr 9.1-4). He was so grieved he tore his clothes (Ezr 9.5). Because Ezra had a good grounding in God’s word he was able to keep some perspective. He saw God’s incredible grace in allowing a remnant to escape, but he also had faith that God would bring some kind of revival: “And now for a little while grace has been shown from the LORD our God, to leave us a remnant to escape, and to give us a peg in His holy place, that our God may enlighten our eyes and give us a measure of revival in our bondage.” (Ezr 9.8)

Galatians 2.21 also talks about frustration and grace: “I do not frustrate the grace of God: for if righteousness come by the law, then Christ is dead in vain.” (KJV) As believers today, we need to realize we live by grace. God will accomplish His purposes and we don’t need to use “the law” and pressure to try and get people to fulfill His will. His Spirit will raise up people for the necessary work. That's why we are simply to pray that God will send out mission workers (Mat 9.38). The verse proceeding, Galatians 2.20, is a key verse showing the idea that the Christian life mainly about letting Christ live through us: “I am crucified with Christ: nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me: and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me, and gave himself for me.” (KJV) We can do nothing for God’s kingdom on our own, even as Ezra realized he could not have led a mission trip to Israel or seen revival without God’s grace and Spirit working in people’s hearts.

Ezra’s revival

As the book of Ezra comes to a close, in chapter 10 we see Ezra’s hopes materializing. As he is praying and weeping for the people, the Holy Spirit moves and people repent and seek God. In a similar way, in Nehemiah chapter 8, we see a revival occurring as Ezra opens the word of God and simply explains it to the people: “So they read distinctly from the book, in the Law of God; and they gave the sense, and helped them to understand the reading.” (Neh 8.8 NKJV) This second move of God’s Spirit occurred after the wall of Jerusalem had already been built up with the help of Nehemiah’s leadership. It seems there was always a remnant that was sincerely worshiping God. Even before the temple foundation was laid or the city wall was completed, an altar was erected in the temple ruins (Ezra 3.1). Few were interested in leaving Babylon and few maintained their faithfulness after arriving in Jerusalem. But, nevertheless, the joy and blessings of the revival were shared by all (Neh 8.11,17). There’s a principle of God’s kingdom, that those who go out into battle and serve in perhaps more risky or demanding work share equally with those who simply stay by the supplies. This idea was initiated by David in 1 Samuel 30.24-25. Paul showed that those who supported him financially shared in the fruit of his ministry (Phil 4.17).

The main idea is that we are all workers together on the same side, though it may not seem so at times. Everything is ultimately done by God’s grace and no person or group of people can really take the credit. To be used by God is a great honor and privilege and it’s also a source of pleasure because being used by God ultimately entails abiding in His presence and seeing Him do some amazing things. I read that U2 is coming out with a new album "Songs of Ascent" based on the similar name of the 15 Psalms of pilgrimage in the scriptures. When it comes to the theme of pilgrimage, it seems like Ezra stands alongside Abraham as a great example of one committed to following God's will no matter where and no matter what. May we consider his example of holding on lightly to the things of this world and having a willingness to pack up and go wherever and whenever the Lord may lead.

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