Ezra: A Ready Scribe (Part 2)

This smallish group, carrying a fortune in gold and silver, faced a 1500 kilometre journey through treacherous, threatening country, led by a 74 year old scribe. A royal escort was available if Ezra requested it, but he was ashamed to ask the king. What sort of faith would that display? In any case, he chose something much more powerful, much safer. For three days, as they prepared for the ordeal ahead, they fasted and prayed to God. Exactly four months later, with “the hand of our God upon us,” they arrived safely, having been invisibly protected from marauding thieves and murderers lying in wait along the way.

The treasures and goods were faithfully delivered to the Temple, everything carefully accounted for to ensure there was no chance of impropriety. But if Ezra thought the worst was now over, he was in for a rude shock! No sooner had the goods and gold been assigned, we find that the Jewish leaders came to Ezra with a problem that was threatening the very existence of the ecclesia in Jerusalem. The separation of the Jews from the unbelieving world was being severely compromised. The men of Israel had begun forming illicit relationships with the Samaritan women around them. They were living together in immoral relationships, in some cases having children together, and their so-called leaders were at the forefront of it all. After four months of dangerous, exhausting travel, this old man of faith faced one of the greatest challenges of his life. His response reveals a lot about what Ezra was like.

He had permission from the king to do what he liked with these people, but instead of exercising that authority he chose complete humility as the first step toward solving the problem. Imagine their astonishment as this great leader tore his clothes, pulled out some of his hair and beard and sat down in stunned silence before them until the sun began to set on this dramatic scene.

Gradually some recollected their faith, mesmerised by this old man, moved by his meekness, they gathered to see what he would do next. As darkness fell, Ezra fell to his knees and prayed. But in his prayer he didn’t stand above them and call on God for judgment—he kneeled with them and confessed that they were all sinners. God had done so much for them, as a people and as individuals. He had brought them safely back from captivity and they had responded by turning their backs on Him and forsaking Him. Ezra bowed low before Yahweh, God of Israel, and confessed it all. And it was not “they”, but “we”. Like all truly great men and women of faith, the salvation he desired was for “us”, not “me”.

It was an effectual, fervent prayer and it availed much. The interested few turned into a great congregation. Wide-eyed interest turned into flooding tears of repentance as the words of shame and confession dropped from Ezra’s lips. Potential division turned into united determination to put right what was wrong. Instead of what could have been grudging obedience to Ezra’s power came a plea from them for him to “be of courage, and do it”—to do what had to be done.

Having united the people by reminding them of the principle of faithfulness to God and separation from the world, Ezra now prescribed the solution, which almost all of them accepted, though it was painful and difficult, as such solutions often are. He called for all the Jews in the province to assemble in Jerusalem within three days, which most did. It was winter and the cold winds blew and the rain lashed them. But they all agreed as one: “As thou hast said, so must we do.” The immoral relationships were to end and God’s laws to be re-instated. They asked for time and were given three months, by which time the problem had been solved. Ezra the civic servant took over and his work ends with a list of the names of the chief people who had been guilty, but who had repented and obeyed. It was just eight months since he had arrived back in Jerusalem! And that was the end of Ezra’s autobiography: sitting at his desk recording names.

Another decade passed and old age encroached ever more acutely into his life, but Ezra was never a man to sit back and relax, even as he approached 90 years of age. He was one of Bible history’s great reformers and he continued that work until the day he died. According to Jewish tradition, he was the man who did more than any other to compile the books of the Old Testament and arrange them in an orderly manner. The Jews revere him as the man who transitioned them from the prophets to the scribes.

He also put in place many of the rules of transcription that have preserved the Bible in its purity over the centuries. He had dedicated his life to the transition the Israelite ecclesia needed to make, from the temple to the Book. Before the captivity, the temple and its services dominated religious life. But bricks and mortar, though they serve some purpose, ultimately do not contain the living God the ecclesia needed to know and better understand. A replacement temple was built, but it too would pass away eventually, and only the Word would remain. Ezra founded the school of the scribes, which faithfully preserved that Word, though sadly they, too, were eventually tarnished by their own egos. But the foundation he put in place lasted long enough for the Word made flesh, Jesus Christ himself to burst into the pages of human history.  Daniel had provided the chronology, Ezra the curriculum. Those who still love to read and learn from the inspired Old Testament owe a quiet word of thanks to Ezra the scribe, hunched over his desk, studying the book he loved, preserving it for the people he cherished—then and ever since.

But God’s inspired Word wasn’t quite finished with him yet. At the end of that decade another man of faith exploded onto the scene. The temple had been completed, but the Samaritans soon began to hinder the ecclesia again. Elderly Ezra was invigorated to see youthful Nehemiah arrive and electrify the ecclesia. A protective wall was needed and Nehemiah was the man to build it, in just 52 days at that.

Once the wall was finished, however, Nehemiah knew another form of protection was needed for the ecclesia to survive—the Truth. So a week after the wall was finished a Bible School began in a now secure Jerusalem. The ecclesia was united and thirsty for God’s Word. They were parched and ready to drink deeply. On the first morning of the first day, they gathered as one before a raised platform that had been built at the Water Gate. An ancient, bent over figure slowly ascended the stairs. He arrived at the stand and gazed with tenderness over the crowd before him. With shaking hands he opened the scroll of the Bible and placed it in front of him, ready to begin reading.

At that moment, quite an extraordinary response occurred. This crowd, mostly still exhausted from seven weeks of back breaking, hard labour, spontaneously stood as one to hear Ezra read. And they remained standing for around three hours! Listening with wonder to the Words of their God, through the lips of their scribe, voice shaking but crystal clear, giving the sense after every verse.

Afterwards, Ezra divided them into smaller groups and assigned Levites to teach each group in greater detail. Finally, at the end of a long day, he gave them some advice, gleaned from a long life of faith. Something worth listening to still. The people were understandably overcome with the emotion of the occasion and most of them wept, and there is a time for weeping. But not on that day. Ezra, at that moment, wanted them to soak up the sheer pleasure of worshipping a God who, as they would later pray, is ready to pardon, gracious and merciful, slow to anger and of great kindness. He had the perfect phrase to end the day. No tears today, “for the joy of Yahweh is your strength.”

What followed was a month of spiritual celebration, the seventh month, with Ezra reading the Bible to them every day. It culminated on the 24th day with one of Scripture’s greatest prayers in Nehemiah 9, spoken probably by the Levites but written by Ezra. Well worth reading!

In the next few days, they entered into what is described as “a curse and an oath to walk in God’s law,” a kind of binding statement of faith if you like, signed by representatives of every strata of society.  They concluded by all agreeing “we will not forsake the house of God.”

Ezra must have been almost overwhelmed with joy after it was all over. It had been, in many ways, the greatest seventh month since the days of Joshua a thousand years before. The ecclesia was back from exile and ready to face the future.

One more duty remained: the dedication of the walls of Jerusalem. A group of priests, Levites and leaders assembled at the Valley Gate on the south west corner of the newly completed wall. They ascended the steps to the top of the wall, Ezra somehow finding the energy for his last public duty.

At the top they divided into two groups; one turned right, with Ezra leading them; the other turned left, with Nehemiah following. The people watched from the city below as each group slowly walked the wall. Ezra led his group past the Dung Gate on the south side, then headed north overlooking the Kidron Valley and the Mount of Olives, past the Fountain Gate and on to the Water Gate on the east side. Nehemiah’s group circled in the opposite direction and came to the Prison Gate, also on the east side. Between the two groups now lay the East Gate. Did they meet there?

Ezra was around 20 when Ezekiel died, but he remembered every word that great prophet had said: “The glory of Yahweh went up from the city and stood on the east side of the city.” And Ezra had been there, as a child. And what came next? “The spirit brought me into Chaldea, to them of the captivity.” It was the story of most of Ezra’s life. But there’s more! “He brought me to the gate that looketh toward the east. And behold, the glory of the God of Israel came from the way of the east. And behold, the glory of Yahweh filled the house.” And there stood Ezra, above the east gate, an ancient man full of youthful hope. To be sure, the ultimate Prince wasn’t there yet, but Ezra knew he would be, and he knew, in God’s mercy, he’d be there with him.

They descended from the walls and offered great sacrifices and rejoiced, “so that the joy of Jerusalem was heard even afar off.” And that’s the end of the life of Ezra, the ready scribe. He was ready to serve God when his moment came, in his case at 75 years of age. And the reason was summed up very simply, as only a truly great scribe can: “Ezra had prepared his heart to seek the law of Yahweh, and to do it, and to teach in Israel statutes and judgments.”