Ezra 8-10

Ezra 8-10…Fasting.

Our passage today records a fast Ezra the scribe once mandated. The setting is the Persian Empire, which in Ezra’s day had recently overthrown Babylon, the kingdom that destroyed Jerusalem in 586 BC and took captive the people of God (2 Kings 25). As it did with other people groups, Persia allowed the Israelites to go back to their homeland, and Ezra went back to enact various religious reforms. Traveling on the roads was not very safe back then. Thieves and bandits often waited to ambush caravans, and in the particular case of the Jews, there were neighbors who would have been all too happy to assault Ezra and his band of returning exiles (see Neh. 4:7–8). This put Ezra and his caravan in a precarious position, especially since no royal guard accompanied them back. So Ezra proclaimed a fast, and the Lord answered, giving the people a safe journey to Jerusalem (Ezra 8:21–23).

Why the fast? In the first place, it was due to the desperate situation in which the people found themselves and their need to show their dependence on God’s kindness. Going without food put the people in a state of helplessness that helped them understand how they had to rely on His grace in every situation. This fast further aided them to implore the Lord for help with all their hearts. This is not to say that their fasting guaranteed God would respond favorably, for fasting is not done in hopes of binding the Lord to a certain course of action. John Piper explains: “[Fasting] is not first offered to God that we might be paid back because of it. It is first given by God that we might benefit from it and that he might be glorified through it” (A Hunger for God, p. 177). Fasting reminds us of our creatureliness and moves us to learn better what it means to depend on our Creator, thereby glorifying His name.

The Lord may not give us precisely what we request each time we fast, as we may not ask according to God’s will. Nevertheless, Piper says, “God is committed to rewarding those acts of the human heart that signify human helplessness and hope in God” (p. 178). If we humbly seek Him as we fast, the Lord will certainly bless us.

Ezra 5-7

Ezra 5-7…God’s people must be shaped by God’s word.

With the people of God back in the land of Palestine after their sojourn as exiles in Babylon, there was a desperate need for religious education and reform if the Jews were to be fully restored to their vocation as God’s nation of priests (Ex. 19:1–6). Ezra, the scribe from the tribe of Levi, was an ideal figure to lead this renewal. Having “set his heart to study the law of the Lord, and to do it and to teach his statutes and rules in Israel” (Ezra 7:10), Ezra was prepared to provide the guidance needed to restructure the covenant community according to the Word of God.

Every period of reformation in history begins with a return to sacred Scripture, and this was as true in Ezra’s day as it was in the Protestant Reformation. For reformation to have lasting effects, this return must be a living reality — the church must be willing not only to learn biblical content but also to put it into practice. In preparing himself to do and to teach God’s law, Ezra is a model for how the church should study Scripture and apply it in a way that fosters reformation.

Of course, the first step is to know what the Lord says in His Word. Matthew Henry comments regarding God’s will that Ezra “made it his business to inquire into it, searched the scriptures, and sought the knowledge of God, of his mind and will, in the scriptures, which is to be found there, but not without seeking.” The information in the Bible does us no good if it merely stays on the printed page; rather, we must diligently inquire into its depths and draw out the meaning the Spirit has placed there. As we are able, let us study the Bible wholeheartedly with the aim to rightly handle the “word of truth” (2 Tim. 2:15). That way, we will be prepared to serve God rightly.

Ezra 1-4

Ezra 1-4…God is always watching and working.

King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon controlled a vast empire and enriched his capital with captive peoples and looted treasure. He had been warned in a dream, interpreted by Daniel, to repent of his sins, but instead he proclaimed: “Is this not the great Babylon I have built as the royal residence, by my mighty power and for the glory of my majesty?” God responded with judgment for his pride. Only after his extraordinary humiliation did Nebuchadnezzar respond: “Then I praised the Most High; I honored and glorified him who lives forever” (see Dan. 4:28-37).

The Babylonian kingdom was soon overtaken by the Persian Empire (see Dan. 5:28). In contrast to Nebuchadnezzar, King Cyrus of Persia exhibited a measure of humility about his position. Here in the opening chapters of the book of Ezra, we see a key theme emerge: Leaders are important—but only if they allow God to work through them.

Notice throughout today’s reading how often the text describes God working in the hearts of leaders. First, the LORD moved the heart of Cyrus in order to fulfill His promise. Historians have said that the Persians, particularly Cyrus, were interested in encouraging their conquered peoples to retain their native religion, assuming that this would keep them happier and less likely to revolt. Scripture provides us with the behind-the-scenes peek, however—whatever political motives Cyrus might have had, it was the work of God that prompted him to make the proclamation to initiate the return of Jewish exiles to Jerusalem (see Isa. 44:28).

God worked through Cyrus to fulfill His promise, and He also moved the hearts of the tribal leaders, priests, and Levites to desire to return to rebuild the temple. Remember that the people had been exiled for several generations; many of them had extended families, good jobs, and comfortable lives throughout the empire. A spiritual prompting made them willing to embrace the arduous task of repairing their decimated spiritual center of worship.

The various lists we see throughout Ezra is very telling of what God is like. We might be tempted to skim or disregard the lists as irrelevant to our contemporary devotional life. But it reminds us that the Lord cares about details, and He provided for the practical needs to accomplish this task. He restored some of the treasure to His people and equipped them for their journey. When the Lord calls you, He will also equip you to obey Him.