“Now Ezra had prepared his heart to study the law of the Lord, to do it, and to teaching statute and ordinance in Israel” (v. 10)
I find myself turning to Ezra 7 again and again. The treasure and influence of a very godly man is set before us in the life of Ezra. During the restoration of Israel from her Babylonian exile (586 B.C.), he played a crucial role. Yet for all his virtue Ezra was but a sinful man. Thanks be to God that Ezra points to another teacher.
Ezra’s life directs our gaze to Christ. He is what we would call a type of Christ. Types in Scripture demonstrate that Old Testament events, individuals, and institutions (the types) often looked beyond themselves for their ultimate fulfillment and interpretation in the antitypes (i.e., the things they pointed forward to). In other words, the Old Testament types prefigured in shadowy form things to come. For example, Ezra is a type—his teachings pointed forward to the ultimate teacher of God’s people: Jesus Christ.
The subject of the genealogy in Ezra 7:1-5 is picked up in verse 6 with “this Ezra.” The text goes on to say that he “came up from Babylon. He was a teacher well versed in the Law of Moses.” The real emphasis of the Semitic word, “well versed,” here in this context is to be skilled, which includes both an element of speed and knowledge.
There are three things I want you to take note of in verse 10: Ezra studied the law of God; Ezra practiced the law of God; and finally, Ezra taught the law of God. First, one must study! Ezra needed to know what the Word said, what it taught, and what principles it stated. First, Ezra needed to know God’s word.
This is also the minister’s first great task. It will not be an easy one in the midst of all the pressures of ministry. Nevertheless, the minister must do it, he must do it with all his energy, and the congregation must encourage him to do it. In short, the minister is called to be a student of Holy Scripture, a man principally of one book.
Secondly, notice that the minister is to practice God’s law. Ezra didn’t hold the great and sublime verities of God’s truth suspended in his mind with no consequences bearing upon his own soul. No, he practiced what he studied. He allowed his own conscience to be smitten before he was willing to let the life-changing Word haunt the souls of those over whom he was given charge. What he studied would become incumbent upon him to apply it to his own life before he applied it to others.
Since Ezra had studied the law of God and practiced it himself, he was ready to teach its statutes and ordinances to others. This is the third element that this verse prioritizes: teaching. By keeping this right order (when called for) the minister saves himself and others from error and injury. Here in the Old Testament—in Ezra’s work and ministry—is an order for ministers to follow: first study, then observance (i.e., practice), followed by teaching. As one British scholar has so adroitly commented, “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.” (1)
We began by focusing upon the life and instruction of Ezra. Having examined this, I’d like briefly to stand back and look at the context with respect to the book as a whole.
If you read through the book of Ezra, you may notice a lot of concentration on legal precision and conscription (e.g., Ezra 3 & 10). However, this was not an end in and of itself. Rather, there is here a second-exodus motif working towards cleansing the land and the temple. Let me explain.
During this period in Israel’s history, Judah had been banished from the Promised Land and lived in exile under foreign rule. The prophets often borrowed the language and imagery from the first exodus (Ex 14-15) and spoke of a future exodus (e.g., Isa 40:3-5; 43:14-21; 55:12-13; Jer 50:33-38 etc…). They declared that God would lead the Israelites out of bondage again, this time from the captivity of Babylon. As a result, when Ezra comes on the scene and leads Judah’s restoration in the Promised Land, we realize that we have a partial fulfillment of those prophetic expectations.
The purpose of Ezra’s teaching, however, was not merely to reestablish the theocracy in Judah after returning from Babylon as some historians argue. The book’s emphasis is not on suppressing the previously mentioned prophetic hopes. In fact a close reading of the text demonstrates that Ezra does not simply look back to the glory of Solomon’s kingdom but also points forward.
For example, observe the edict in Ezra 7:12 ff. as a starting point. The language concerns the house or dwelling of God which is in Jerusalem. Here is the desire for pure and effective worship among the Jewish people over and against the worship of foreign gods. There is a return to the religion of old; but there is something more. For example, holiness is no longer merely restricted to some special place such as the temple; rather, holiness is expanded and extends beyond the temple itself. (2) This anticipates something greater to come (e.g. Jn 4:21; Eph 2:19-22).
Furthermore, if you take a close look at the prayers in the book of Ezra (e.g., Ezra 9:8), you will notice, in the midst of reflections on the past, another forward-looking emphasis. The time references (e.g., God gives a “little relief” in our bondage) shows that relief has not come in its fullness. It’s only temporary. In addition, the reference to a “a secure place,” (literally “a tent peg”) is meant to connote a firm anchor of stability for the community; however, the notion also alludes to something that is transient since it probably refers to the nomadic practice of staking a tent. There is no final satisfaction here that these Israelite travelers have indeed arrived at their final destination, for this rebuilt temple is not the final temple. Rather, there is in the book of Ezra the recognition that believers are aliens and strangers here on earth: pilgrims pressing towards a heavenly city “whose architect and builder is God” (Heb 11:10).
Ezra has set forth some fine points for ministers and teachers in the days to come.
Ezra has beautifully set the right prioritization of duties: first study, then practice, and then—and only then—teaching it to others. The book of Ezra also reminds us that he respected the forward-looking nature of God’s plan. In other words, the Scriptures look forward to another place, another time, and especially another man.
You know that Ezra was only a man. He was sinful. Yet, there was another man, not a mere man, that Ezra’s life and theology ultimately point forward to. He is Christ. This Christ is a man unlike the Pharisees. This is one, who when he taught, caused the people to marvel at his teaching and say, “Here is one who teaches with authority, not like the other Scribes and Pharisees.”
Surely here was a teacher who practiced what he preached. Surely here was a preacher who never laid upon people’s conscience an untimely spoken word. Here was a teacher who spoke only truth and never, ever, did a false word issue forth from his lips. Here was a teacher who never failed to practice everything perfectly which he had steeled himself to study in Holy Scripture.
“Who is sufficient for these things?” we cry out with the Apostle. Not us. Only Christ. However, may God grant to all ministers in our Churches, the ability to trust in and depend upon this Divine-human teacher, in whom all their shortcomings in their own study, practice, and teaching are washed away. Christ is our penalty payer and our probation keeper. May God grant to all ministers in our Churches the grace to constantly lay hold of that alien righteousness, which Ezra merely shadows and points forward to, which alone can cover all of their deficits and demerits.
May God grant ministers this grace so that they may proclaim with the apostle Paul, “We proclaim him, admonishing and teaching everyone with all wisdom, so that we may present everyone perfect in Christ. To this end I labor, struggling with all his energy, which so powerfully works in me” (Col 1:28, NIV).
2 For a development of this theme and others, see Tamara Cohn Eskenazi, In An Age of Prose: A Literary Approach to Ezra-Nehemiah (SBLMS 36; Atlanta, Georgia: Scholars Press, 1988).[back to text]
First published in Evangelium, Vol. 2, Issue 3, May/June 2004
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