THE KEY TO SUCCESS IN SERVING GOD IS ALWAYS GOD’S HAND OF BLESSING
There is a lot of talk about the “IT” factor when it comes to leadership in any realm. In sports or in politics or in business, you might describe the characteristics of an individual and then conclude with whether or not that person has that key defining element of success = the “IT” factor. For success in spiritual service, that key element is God’s hand of blessing and favor.
McConville: What makes the Jews’ restoration so remarkable is not simply that they should return, but that kings should supply their needs in relation to worship (cf. 7:27). It is this that makes the ‘new exodus’ so evidently an act of God’s salvation.
Alexander Whyte: Ezra was a great student, a great statesman, a great reformer, and a great preacher.
Derek Kidner: This letter, like the others in the book, is given in Aramaic (12–26), the language of official correspondence. It authorized Ezra, accompanied by any of his people who so wished (13), to go to Jerusalem to ensure the proper observance of the divine law (14, 25ff.). It also dealt with two matters of supply: first, a grant towards the cost of sacrifices (15–18), and an issue of Temple vessels (19); secondly, an order to the provincial treasurers, empowering Ezra to claim certain extra supplies (21–23), also exempting Temple officials of every grade from tax (24). Its final paragraph (25f.) called on Ezra to set up a judicial system with full powers of punishment, but also to see that people were not left in ignorance of the law.
I. (:1-10) GOD’S HAND OF BLESSING ON HIS CHOSEN LEADER EMPOWERED BY THE WORD OF GOD
A. (:1-6) Evidence of God’s Hand of Blessing Qualifying Ezra as a Leader
1. (:1-5) Qualified to Lead Due to His Priestly Pedigree
“Now after these things, in the reign of Artaxerxes king of Persia, there went up Ezra son of Seraiah, son of Azariah, son of Hilkiah, 2 son of Shallum, son of Zadok, son of Ahitub, 3 son of Amariah, son of Azariah, son of Meraioth, 4 son of Zerahiah, son of Uzzi, son of Bukki, 5 son of Abishua, son of Phinehas, son of Eleazar, son of Aaron the chief priest.”
Loken: The phrase “now after these things” introduces a significant shift in the narrative, effectively separating the events of chaps. 7–10 from those of 1–6. The events of these chapters take place during the reign of Artaxerxes, almost 58 years after the events of chap. 6. In the meantime, the events of the book of Esther have taken place in Susa. It is unknown how many, if any, returns took place in these intervening years.
Life during this intervening period seems to have been rough on the returned remnant. From the accounts of Ezra and Nehemiah it can be assumed that they were constantly threatened by their enemies (cf. 4:6–23; Neh 4; 6). There is no doubt that the vast majority of the remnant was poor (cf. Neh 5:1–5; Mal 2:9; 3:14). These poor were even being mistreated and abused by their fellow Jews (cf. Neh 5:1–5; Mal 3:5). Many of the sons of Israel had forsaken the Law of Moses and had married foreign women (cf. 9:1–2; Mal 2:11). Even the religious leaders were failing their God-given responsibilities (cf. Mal 1:6–8; 2:7–8). As a result, the Lord was afflicting His people, allowing them to suffer because of the presence of sin in the community. The nation needed to reform its ways. The nation needed the help of the Lord. The nation needed Ezra.
Derek Thomas: Artaxerxes the Long-armed, he was known as. His nickname was Artaxerxes the Long-armed. Plutarch, the historian, describes how Artaxerxes apparently had one arm…his right arm was longer than his left arm.
Constable: Ezra’s genealogy (vv. 1-5) shows that he was a man of importance whom his fellow Jews would have respected. His name is a shortened form of “Azariah,” meaning “Yahweh Helps.” He was a descendant of Aaron, the first high priest of Israel (v. 5). There are gaps in this genealogy (cf. 1 Chron. 6:3-15). “Son of” occasionally means “descendant of,” as elsewhere in the Old Testament. The purpose of this linear genealogy was not to record all of Ezra’s ancestors but to trace his lineage from Aaron.
Fensham: The point the author wants to make is that Ezra is a direct descendant of Aaron and thus has the right to act as a priest and to introduce certain reforms.
Guzik: ‘Zadok’ was a priest under David whom Solomon appointed chief priest in place of Abiathar, who supported the rebel Adonijah (1 Kings 1:7-8; 2:35). Ezekiel regarded the Zadokites as free from idolatry (Ezekiel 44:15-16). Zadokites held the office of high priest till 171 b.c. The Sadducees were named after Zadok, and the Qumran community looked for the restoration of the Zadokite priesthood. (Yamauchi)
Rata: This is also the first time the name of Ezra appears in the book. Ezra is the Aramaic form of the Hebrew Azariah and means “Yahweh helps/has helped.” His lineage traces back to Aaron, the brother of Moses, who is introduced here as “the chief priest.” Ezra is not presented in the Bible as a high priest, although there are some who suggest that Ezra “came to Jerusalem as the real high priest of the family of Aaron.” His ancestor Seraiah was killed by Nebuchadnezzar about 130 years before (2 Kings 25:18–21), so the genealogy presented here skips a couple of generations. Ezra is introduced as a “scribe skilled in the Law of Moses,” but according to the genealogy given, it is certain that he was both priest and scribe. Schaeder postulates that “Ezra was secretary for Jewish affairs in the Persian government.” We cannot dispute the fact that he held an important position in the Persian Empire since the king entrusted him with an important mission. Ezra’s status when he comes from Babylon suggests that the Jews prospered even in the Babylonian exile and that God even allowed them to be educated. Again it is emphasized that Ezra’s success was not due to his own strength, intelligence, or connections, but rather because “the hand of the Lord his God was on him.”
2. (:6a) Qualified to Lead Due to His Skill in the Revealed Word of God
“This Ezra went up from Babylon, and he was a scribe skilled in the law of Moses, which the LORD God of Israel had given;”
David Guzik: To us a scribe sounds like a glorified secretary, someone who simply writes. That is not the idea of this description of Ezra. For the Jewish culture of that day, a skilled scribe was an expert in the Law of Moses, someone who was like a highly trained lawyer in the word of God.
i. “In his case it is emphasized by the word skilled, or literally ‘rapid’ (cf. Psalm 45:1) – suggesting a quickness of grasp and ease of movement amid this complex material which was the fruit of the devoted study described in verse 10.” (Kidner)
ii. Scribes were important and influential, and one might say that they had three main duties: to preserve the Word of God, to teach the Word of God, and to administrate the Word of God (in the sense of interpreting and applying it).
iii. By the time of Jesus there were many scribes and they were respected as lawyers of the law of God among most of the Jews of that time. However, they had degenerated greatly from the ideal originally established by Ezra, so much so that they were active opponents of Jesus and His ministry and targets of His rebukes (Matthew 7:29; Matthew 23).
iv. “As messengers of the will of God, they took the place of the prophets, with this difference: instead of receiving new revelations, they explained and applied the old. Of this new order, Ezra was at once the founder and type.” (Morgan)
Loken: The primary duties of a scribe were threefold.
– First, they served as the copyists of the law. This duty also involved the interpretation of the law. When the law did not speak to a specific case, then the scribes created precedent. As a result, they in effect became legislators creating new law.
– Second, they served as the teachers of the law. It was their duty to make sure that every Israelite was acquainted with the rules and regulations of the law.
– Third, they served in a judicial capacity, passing sentence in the court of justice. Their knowledge of and skill in interpreting the law made them ideal candidates for the position of judge. Scribes were routinely found among the ranks of the Sanhedrin.
3. (:6b) Qualified to Lead Due to His Reputation Before the King – as Granted by God’s Favor
“and the king granted him all he requested
because the hand of the LORD his God was upon him.”
Derek Thomas: Ezra is an important man. Take note of him. He comes on official business. He comes on the king’s business. Yes, he’s come to engage in spiritual reforms, many of which King Artaxerxes wouldn’t have understood at all, but this Persian king wanted stability in Jerusalem, and who best to send to Jerusalem but somebody who understands Jerusalem and understands the laws of Jerusalem? And in the strange and wonderful and extraordinary providence of God — and what a providence it is — this heathen King Artaxerxes sends as his official representative and delegate this godly man, Ezra.
B. (:7-9) Enablement of God’s Hand of Blessing Returns Ezra and Key Worship Leaders Safely to Jerusalem
1. (:7) Key Worship Leaders Return to Jerusalem
“And some of the sons of Israel and some of the priests, the Levites, the singers, the gatekeepers, and the temple servants went up to Jerusalem in the seventh year of King Artaxerxes.”
Derek Thomas: We’re told this journey took — and Ezra’s a youthful man at this point — it took him four months. It was a difficult journey. He describes some of the difficulties that it involved. They were beset probably by bandits and marauders along the way, particularly since they were known to be taking along with them family heirlooms and gold and silver and so on. Some of the very best of Old Testament saints were evidently not in Jerusalem, but still in Babylon. And if Ezra is typical of them, and shortly, Nehemiah (some twenty years ahead again)…Nehemiah will return to Jerusalem. He’s the cupbearer to this king, king Artaxerxes. Some of the godliest men, some of the finest men and women of faith are actually not in Jerusalem, but in Babylon.
2. (:8-9) Key Leader Ezra Arrives Safely in Jerusalem
“And he came to Jerusalem in the fifth month, which was in the seventh year of the king. 9 For on the first of the first month he began to go up from Babylon; and on the first of the fifth month he came to Jerusalem, because the good hand of his God was upon him.”
Guzik: “came to Jerusalem” — Though the direct distance between Babylon and Jerusalem is about five hundred miles, the travelers would have had to traverse nine hundred miles, going northwest along the Euphrates River and then south. (Yamauchi)
C. (:10) Essence of God’s Hand of Blessing = Connected to His Commitment to the Word of God
1. Commitment to Study the Word of God
“For Ezra had set his heart to study the law of the LORD,”
2. Commitment to Apply (Obey) the Word of God
“and to practice it,”
3. Commitment to Teach the Word of God
“and to teach His statutes and ordinances in Israel.”
Constable: Ezra’s personal resolve provides an excellent example for every believer (v. 10). He first purposed to study (lit. seek) the law (Heb. torah) of God, then to apply that teaching to his own life, and then to teach others the revealed will of God. This was the key to Ezra’s impact.
Loken: First, Ezra “set his heart.” The scribe determined within his heart that he would faithfully and resolutely commit himself to the habits detailed in the rest of the verse. Second, Ezra studied the law of the Lord. The scribe devoted his life to the reading and analysis of God’s Word. Third, Ezra practiced the law of the Lord. The scribe’s examination of the Scriptures was not simply a growth of knowledge. He applied that knowledge to his life. And fourth, Ezra taught the law throughout Israel. The scribe did not keep the things he learned to himself. He taught them to others.
Kidner: He is a model reformer in that what he taught he had first lived, and what he lived he had first made sure of in the Scriptures. With study, conduct and teaching put deliberately in this right order, each of these was able to function properly at its best: study was saved from unreality, conduct from uncertainty, and teaching from insincerity and shallowness.
Breneman: We can be thankful that Ezra’s influence helped the Jewish community maintain its biblical “worldview.” The scribal tradition became too legalistic, however, and ended up in a pharisaism that missed the spirit of the law. In fact, the Jewish leaders took pride in their theological correctness and meticulous observance of outward ritual so that they did not even recognize their Messiah when he came. How does the church in any generation maintain the correct balance? The other extreme—assimilation or syncretism with a “pagan” worldview—also loses the biblical message. This latter appears to be the greatest danger in our time. Few people think “Christianly” in our modern Western world. All religion, even Christianity, is evaluated from the viewpoint of “scientific naturalism” when a biblical perspective demands that the reverse be true.
II. (:11-26) GOD’S HAND OF BLESSING ON HIS CHOSEN LEADER ENABLED BY THE AUTHORITY AND APPROVAL OF THE PAGAN PERSIAN KING
A. (:11-12) Authority of the Pagan Persian King Reflecting God’s Blessing on Ezra
1. (:11) Reputation of Ezra (Priest/Scribe) Shown in the Issuing of the Decree
“Now this is the copy of the decree which King Artaxerxes gave to Ezra the priest, the scribe, learned in the words of the commandments of the LORD and His statutes to Israel:”
Fensham: This verse is written in Hebrew while the letter of Artaxerxes (7:12–26) is written in Aramaic. Verse 11 is to be regarded as an introduction, stating to whom the letter was given. The term used for letter can also mean “a diplomatic note.” This is not an ordinary letter, but a letter with certain remarks on the official function of Ezra as well as commands to be carried out.
2. (:12) Reputation of Ezra (Priest/Scribe) Shown in the Initial Greeting
a. Author of the Decree
“Artaxerxes, king of kings,”
b. Subject of the Decree
“to Ezra the priest, the scribe of the law of the God of heaven,”
c. Greeting of the Decree
B. (:13-20) Approval of the Pagan Persian King Reflecting God’s Blessing on Ezra
1. (:13) Approval of the King in Granting Permission for the Rebuilding Mission
“And now 13 I have issued a decree that any of the people of Israel and their priests and the Levites in my kingdom who are willing to go to Jerusalem, may go with you.”
2. (:14) Approval of the King Confirmed by Investigative Mission of 7 Civil Servants
“Forasmuch as you are sent by the king and his seven counselors
to inquire concerning Judah and Jerusalem
according to the law of your God which is in your hand,”
Derek Thomas: Ezra is given investigative powers. Now he comes with a privy council. We know from outside of Scripture, from our studies of the Persian Empire, that Persian kings had a habit of sending seven counselors — seven civil servants, if you like — to various cities. It was like a privy council, and Ezra came with these seven official (and no doubt Persian) counselors to investigate what’s going on in Jerusalem, to investigate what’s going on in the lower parts, perhaps, of Judea…those parts of Judea heading in the direction of Egypt, no doubt.
What’s going on not so much from a religious point of view, although I think Artaxerxes was in favor of the Jews complying with every command that their God had given to them, but from a civil point of view. Was there civil disobedience? Was there civil unrest? Were there signs perhaps of rebellion? Were there signs of disorder and anarchy within the society? And they’re given powers now to investigate, and investigate they will.
Fensham: For the Persian king, in the circumstances described above, it was a necessity that peace should prevail in Judah, a territory which was always easily influenced by Egypt.
3. (:15-18) Approval of the King Shown by Donations of Silver and Gold
a. (:15-16) Donations Sourced from both Babylon and Jewish Offerings
1) (:15-16a) From Babylon Offerings
“and to bring the silver and gold, which the king and his counselors have freely offered to the God of Israel,
whose dwelling is in Jerusalem, with all the silver and gold which you shall find in the whole province of Babylon,”
2) (:16b) From Jewish Offerings
“along with the freewill offering of the people and of the priests, who offered willingly for the house of their God which is in Jerusalem;”
b. (:17) Donations Targeted for Sacrificial System Expenses
“with this money, therefore, you shall diligently buy bulls, rams, and lambs, with their grain offerings and their libations and offer them on the altar of the house of your God which is in Jerusalem.”
Guzik: Ezra carried with him government money that was meant to advance the interests of Artaxerxes. This money was to be spent on sacrificial animals and the promotion of temple worship at the rebuilt temple in Jerusalem. Ezra was commanded to be careful, but also given latitude to make his own decisions about how to best spend the money he came with.
c. (:18) Donations to be Used at the Discretion of Jewish Leaders
“And whatever seems good to you and to your brothers to do with the rest of the silver and gold, you may do according to the will of your God.”
4. (:19) Approval of the King Shown by Donations of Temple Utensils
“Also the utensils which are given to you for the service of the house of your God, deliver in full before the God of Jerusalem.”
Fensham: The vessels. These could not have been the vessels removed by Nebuchadnezzar, because they had been restored long ago. It might have been vessels provided by the king and the Jews in exile (cf. 8:25–27).
Derek Kidner: The vessels may have been some which had been overlooked when the captured vessels were restored by Cyrus (1:7ff.), but it is just as likely that they were a goodwill gift, newly presented.
5. (:20) Approval of the King Shown by Ongoing Financial Support for Temple Needs
“And the rest of the needs for the house of your God, for which you may have occasion to provide, provide for it from the royal treasury.”
Constable: Artaxerxes’ decree promised provisions for the temple worship (vv. 14- 20), authorized Ezra to withdraw funds from the provincial treasury (vv. 21-23; cf. 4:12), and permitted him to establish judicial and educational systems in Judah (vv. 24-26). The reason Artaxerxes permitted all this was evidently so there would be peace and good will among his Jewish subjects, and so he might appease Yahweh’s wrath (v. 23). The king’s seven counselors (v. 14) evidently constituted the supreme court of the land (cf. Esth. 1:14).
C. (:21-24) Approval of the King of Additional Needed Resources
1. (:21-22) Authorization of Requisition of Needed Resources Within Limits
a. (:21) Decree to Outlying Provinces
“And I, even I King Artaxerxes, issue a decree to all the treasurers who are in the provinces beyond the River, that whatever Ezra the priest, the scribe of the law of the God of heaven, may require of you, it shall be done diligently,”
Derek Thomas: It was written to give permission: permission to Ezra to give him authority for what he had come to do. His Aaronic descent in the priestly line of Aaron gave him much-needed credentials, but the letter from the Persian king gave him all the clout that he would ever need in Jerusalem.
b. (:22) Designation of Requisition Limits
“even up to 100 talents of silver, 100 kors of wheat,
100 baths of wine, 100 baths of oil, and salt as needed.”
Loken: Ezra’s rights of requisition were considerable but not unlimited, the king having provided a ceiling on each item except for the salt, a very cheap commodity in Israel. The amount of silver is enormous. A Babylonian talent weighed approximately 75 pounds (ca. 34 kg.). Therefore, 100 talents of silver would have weighed almost four tons. Herodotus informs us that the annual income from the entire satrapy was 350 talents (Hist. 3.91). Therefore, the amount provided Ezra is almost one-third of the annual income of the entire province. As a result, Clines (104) suggests the possibility of a transmission error for “minas,” one-sixtieth the weight.
2. (:23) Motivation of Appeasement of the God of Heaven
“Whatever is commanded by the God of heaven, let it be done with zeal for the house of the God of heaven, lest there be wrath against the kingdom of the king and his sons.”
Derek Thomas: [Goal of king = Appeasement.] Artaxerxes was a pluralist. He believed that there was truth to be found in many religions. All forms of religion, even if they contradicted one another there was still truth to be found there, and better to “bet” on the safe side than to find oneself incurring the wrath of a god who might just be a true god.
John Martin: In return for granting these privileges the king was to receive some benefits from the expedition. He wanted to avoid uprisings or feelings of anger against him (v. 23) and to have order in that part of his empire (vv. 25-26).
3. (:24) Exemption of Temple Officials from Taxation
“We also inform you that it is not allowed to impose tax, tribute or toll on any of the priests, Levites, singers, doorkeepers, Nethinim, or servants of this house of God.”
Derek Thomas: How best to gain the support and compliance of a group of people who could make life very difficult for the king than to give a tax break to a “faith-based initiative” in Jerusalem! It’s a brilliant…you have to put it to the king, this Persian king. That was one stroke of genius!
D. (:25-26) Authority for Judgment and Enforcement Delegated to Ezra and His Appointees
1. (:25) Authority for Judgment
“And you, Ezra, according to the wisdom of your God which is in your hand, appoint magistrates and judges that they may judge all the people who are in the province beyond the River, even all those who know the laws of your God; and you may teach anyone who is ignorant of them.”
Derek Thomas: Ezra has come to enforce Judaic law, Bible law, and Persian law. He’s come to impose the rule of law within Jerusalem and within Judea, and Ezra is a faithful, loyal, civil servant, like Joseph in Egypt. Like Joseph working for Pharaoh, Ezra is working for King Artaxerxes.
2. (:26) Authority for Enforcement
“And whoever will not observe the law of your God and the law of the king, let judgment be executed upon him strictly, whether for death or for banishment or for confiscation of goods or for imprisonment.”
Loken: Ezra and his judges are given permission to punish lawbreakers in four ways.
– First, the judges were permitted to execute those who refuse to follow the law.
– Second, they could banish evildoers from the province.
– Third, they were allowed to confiscate the offender’s possessions.
– And fourth, the judges were able to imprison those who were found guilty.
Williamson (105) notes that “the passive construction suggests that Ezra himself may not have been empowered to enact the punishments, but rather that the Persian authorities were to support his work with the force of law (note especially imprisonment, which was not a typically Jewish penalty).”
(:27-28) THANKSGIVING TO GOD FOR SUPPORTING AND STRENGTHENING EZRA
A. (:27-28a) Thanksgiving to God for Supporting Him via the Pagan Officials
1. (:27) Support of the King
“Blessed be the LORD, the God of our fathers,
who has put such a thing as this in the king’s heart,
to adorn the house of the LORD which is in Jerusalem,”
Derek Kidner: We are suddenly aware of Ezra the man, his own voice breaking into the narrative with a grateful delight which time has done nothing to diminish. He will take up the history himself to the end of chapter 9; and Nehemiah, like him, will do most of his own narrating in the next book, sprinkling his story with even more vivid interjections and asides.
Whitcomb: The beautifying of the Temple was the chief cause for thanksgiving, for the re-establishment of divine worship was the key to revival.
Fensham: Although the king was instrumental in the adornment of the temple, it was actually God who did it. He is the real subject of the verb “adorn.” It is not clear what is meant by adorn. Does it refer to the offerings in the temple, or to the renovation of the temple? One may be tempted to think of the latter possibility in the light of Isa. 60:13, where the wood of the Lebanon is mentioned, but the letter of Artaxerxes mentions nothing of such a venture. Or must we accept that not all the orders of Artaxerxes were given in his quoted letter? At the same time we must keep in mind that in Isa. 60:7 the adornment of the temple is associated with offerings. We are thus not able to reach any definite conclusion in the light of Isaiah. Because both possibilities are open, it is better to accept that the adornment must be connected with the offerings, as also in the light of the letter of Artaxerxes.
Rata: The credit for the things that are being accomplished does not go to Ezra or to the Persian king. Rather, the credit goes to the Lord, the God of the exiles, the God of those who lived during the monarchy, the God of those who lived in the time of the Judges, the God of those who conquered Jericho and settled the Promised Land, the God of those who wandered in the wilderness, and the God of the patriarchs. It is the Lord who directed the heart of the king to rule in favor of His people. The expression “Blessed be the Lord, the God of our fathers,” appears only here in the Old Testament, although the expression “Blessed be the Lord,” appears twenty-seven times. “Blessed be the Lord” introduces a prayer or doxology, which emphasizes the sovereignty of God along with His steadfast love (ḥeseḏ). “I took courage” is better translated with the Hebrew passive “I was strengthened,” because Ezra’s strength came from God and it was not something that came from within himself. The strength that he received from the Lord led him to encourage and motivate others to go with him, thus proving himself to be a true leader. Verse 27 resumes the Hebrew portion of the book and here Ezra speaks in the first person, prompting some to suggest that this is the beginning of the so-called Ezra memoir.
2. (:28a) Support of the King’s Officials
“and has extended lovingkindness to me before the king
and his counselors and before all the king’s mighty princes.”
Williamson: God’s grace is to be seen in the measure of freedom and responsibility entrusted to Ezra for the regulation of both cultic and wider, social affairs concerning his people in the land.
Loken: Ezra also thanked the Lord for his הֶסֶד “lovingkindness” to him personally in the midst of the Persian courts. Here, the word may simply mean “benevolence” or “goodwill.” However, the word often carries the inherent meaning of “loyal lovingkindness” in the OT, especially when applied to the Lord keeping His covenant (cf. Neh 1:5; 9:32; Dan 9:4). This may be a further indication of the fact that Ezra believed that his return was a partial fulfillment of the promises of the Lord to regather His people (Mic 2:12; Zeph 3:20; Zech 10:10). The final fulfillment of these promises awaits the institution of the Millennial Kingdom following the Second Coming of the Messiah.
B. (:28b) Thanksgiving to God for Strengthening Him — both Personally and Nationally
1. Personal Strengthening
“Thus I was strengthened according to the hand of the LORD my God upon me,”
All credit must go to God.
2. National Strengthening
“and I gathered leading men from Israel to go up with me.”
Breneman: Ezra recognized God’s goodness to him and God’s work on his behalf. He also realized that his work was in accordance with God’s promise. Furthermore, he chose leaders and shared the responsibility in God’s work.