by Samuel James McBride, England
THE LAWS OF THE MEDES AND THE PERSIANS
WHAT IS THE HOUSE OF GOD TODAY?
PRAYER FOR THE EMPEROR AND THE ROYAL FAMILY
THE RESPONSE TO A GREAT MORAL CRISIS
In Morrish’s Concise Bible Dictionaryprayer is "described as the intercourse of a dependent one with God. It may take the form of communion in one brought nigh, or it may be the making of requests for oneself or for others."
HISTORICAL BACKGROUND OF EZRA
All the events of Ezra are set in the period of the Persian empire. This corresponds with the second element of Nebuchadnezzar’s dream image, the silver phase of the world empire system. All four successive systems occupy the time frame known as "the times of the Gentiles".
This time period has seen the demise of the Hebrew monarchy, the disappearance of the Ark of the Covenant, the Urim and Thummim, the visible Shekinah glory-cloud, and the Jewish nation being the "tail", as opposed to the "head", which is its future glorious destiny among the nations. Nevertheless, God in His grace saw fit to ensure that Divine testimony on earth continued throughout this period. When the seventy years of captivity prophesied by Jeremiah reached their conclusion, God fulfilled His Word and the restoration of the nation of Israel to their land commenced precisely on time. King Cyrus, having united under his rule the Medes and Persians, conquered Babylon, and within a year had issued a remarkable decree which triggered the return of the Jews to Judea to rebuild the temple, followed some years later by completion of the city walls under Nehemiah’s leadership, in the reign of a later emperor, Artaxerxes.
Prayer is not explicitly mentioned frequently in the book of Ezra. There is only one prayer of Ezra’s that is explicitly recorded and that is in chapter 9. Other references may be inferred. However, in a book whose entire subject matter focuses on the rebuilding of the temple of God for the "God of Heaven", and that taking place in circumstances of such adversity, prayerful thought and action are not far from the surface in any section.
The remnant who returned were subject to much disadvantage1. It made no economic sense to return to Jerusalem. The taxation system was very harsh. While officially there was full religious liberty for the Jews, in practice the central authority of the imperial palace was some four months journey away (though expedited communications could proceed through official couriers at a much faster rate2). Local officials could do much to render the imperial policy of permission for Jewish restoration efforts unenforceable. Well-placed lobbyists and opinion formers were hired to thwart the remnant’s progress in the rebuilding programme. No doubt such expenditure by local satraps was in itself a diversion of funds from their proper use. What was to be done? Was the remnant to respond in kind?
- 1 This is made explicit in the prayer of Nehemiah chapter 9.
2 Ahasuerus’ couriers and postal system were used to alert Jewish communities of the need for self-defence against Haman’s genocidal plot.
Some decided to pause in their efforts and, naturally speaking, settled for the more rewarding task of building their own houses to as high a standard as possible, Hag.1.2. At least they might have argued they were maintaining their skills as builders for future use in God’s house when the time would be right. Perhaps a chronological mix-up was involved, with a tendency to compute the 70 years from the final desolation by Nebuchadnezzar rather than the start of the captivity in the reign of Jehoiakim, by which earlier reckoning the seventy years had already been fulfilled3. Certainly they had overemphasised the final desolation by holding annual commemorative ceremonies that savoured more of self-pity than faith or devotion to the Lord. (See Zechariah chapter 7 for God’s critique of this practice.) The prophets Haggai and Zechariah both stirred up the people with a ministry of encouragement and admonition. It had the desired effect, for there was prompt resumption of the building of the temple, and it was duly finished in the 6th year of Darius.
- 3 “The Post-Captivity Prophets, or The Effect of the Word of God”, anonymous article in W. Reid, ed., “The Bible Witness and Review” Vol.3, 1882, London. Office of Publication. (This article is attributed to C.E. Stuart).
THE LAWS OF THE MEDES AND THE PERSIANS
From the Scriptures we learn that the legal system of the Medes and Persians was characterised by unusual inflexibility. The laws once enacted could not be repealed. Surely it could have been argued that the decree of Cyrus was not subject to abrogation or reinterpretation by his successors? Yet that is what happened, and it caused the work to cease, Ezra chapter 4.
The fact that the prophets Haggai and Zechariah stimulated the people to recommence the work prior to the favourable response of Darius, would be suggestive that the lapse in building was not legally necessary as far as the imperial law was concerned, and that a contradictory imperial decree of cessation, issued in ignorance of an earlier decree of permission ought not to stand.
There is surely a lesson here for Christians today. In a country where religious liberty is assured by law, and where many Christian values remain embedded in the statutes and institutions of the country and its constitution, believers may face much obstruction by bureaucracy, whether from local government or quangos. If Christians today are minded to seek excuses for paralysis in promoting Divine testimony, many bureaucratic obstacles could be cited. Surely it is better for an assembly with dependent faith to proceed unobtrusively in the work of God, being mindful of His sovereignty and our blessed heritage of religious liberty in this land, rather than fearfully anticipating the caprice of an official agency. We can move quietly, while still being Scripturally subject to the powers that be and rendering to Caesar what is Caesar’s.
WHAT IS THE HOUSE OF GOD TODAY?
In reading Ezra, Nehemiah and the contemporary prophets, Haggai, Zechariah and Malachi we surely identify with the struggle of the remnant to build the house of God and maintain its testimony in spite of all the multi-faceted difficulties facing them. Throughout the course of Bible history, the house of God has always been characterised by a unique fact in its design and governance, i.e. that it is God’s house, hence its design is revealed to us, not synthesised by our wisdom, and its governance is revealed and set up on Divine principles, not the miry foundation of human expediency. Human responsibility in the construction of God’s house must always be "according to the pattern" Heb.8.5. This was true for the tabernacle and for the temple. The pattern was God’s, and He revealed it to men. Does this principle hold good in the present dispensation? Is there a Divine pattern for us with respect to the house of God in our day? If so, then we must strive to adhere to it. If not, then it becomes open season for human expediency, para-church committees, charitable foundations, pressure groups and the influence of academics, intellectuals and tycoons to deliver a culturally relevant notion of the house of God as they see it. Let the reader pause to reflect, "What is my conviction about the identity of the house of God today, and my responsibility to it?"
For many associated with assemblies of Christians gathered to the Lord’s name the truth of God’s house is expressed in the local assembly, also known as "[the] church of [the] living God" 1Tim.3.15, and the pattern for it is revealed in the New Testament. How God’s people behave in relation to the truth of God’s house has sadly been characterised by episodes of failure and departure. As Scripture records these incidents we may study them profitably as they were written for our learning. This view was widely taught in earlier days in the 19th and 20th centuries and held dear among assemblies. One of the most notable stalwarts for this truth, John Ritchie stated, "But the pattern given by the Lord, according to which His saints are to be builded together, as His house, His dwelling-place, His assembly upon earth, remains unrepealed, and is the only guide for church organisation, fellowship, worship, ministry, and order, which is according to God." While deploring the fact that genuine children of God remain in the denominations, he pointed out "that it would be utterly impossible to give effect to the Word of the Lord in regard to the ordering of His house in any of the denominations. In most of them the world predominates, the unconverted rule, and their constitution provides that such shall be. It cannot be altered: the standards of the denomination are the rule, not the Word of God."4
- 4 Ritchie, J. “The Church, The House of God, its Divine Pattern and Human Imitations”. J. Ritchie Ltd, Kilmarnock. No date.
A generation or so later, it had become acceptable in some quarters to deny this. "It has been assumed and by some indeed openly taught that the Scriptures lay down a pattern of church worship and order much as God showed Moses a pattern of the tabernacle and warned him ‘see that thou make all things according to the pattern showed thee in the Mount’. But is this so? Has God set forth a pattern of a Christian church?" The author of this excerpt went on to answer his questions in flat denial that a Divine pattern for assemblies is found in the New Testament and is incumbent on us to follow. Warming to his theme he propounded the theses that "The Scripture teaching concerning separation has been misapplied" and "The objections to association with the organized churches have been overstressed." The discourse was astonishingly deficient in Scripture to support his interdenominationalism, but bristled with sentimental rhetoric for example: "Were Luther, Bunyan, Wesley, Spurgeon and Moody wilfully disobedient or insincere?"5
- 5 Goodman, Montague. “An Urgent Call to Christian Unity”. Paternoster Press, London, 1948. This discourse was quite consistent with Mr Goodman’s principles, but what shocked many at that time was that a cohort of 35 leading brethren from across the UK signed a foreword urging acceptance of the Goodman recommendations as setting “out clearly the basis that should be adopted by all assemblies” and that “unless such action be taken speedily it may prove too late”. To further this intermingling agenda the High Leigh Conferences (continued by the Swanwick Conferences) of Brethren soon got underway, with grievous consequences.
A study of Ezra should be of keen interest for any who are interested in the reviving of collective testimony in connection with the local assembly in an age of adversity.
Samuel Blow6 on Ezra chapter 2, stated it is "Typical of believers separating themselves from corrupt, professing Christendom and gathering together into the name of the Lord Jesus in obedience to the Word, Rev.18. 4,5; 2Tim.2.19-26; Matt.18.20."
- 6 Blow, Samuel. “Genesis to Revelation: Notes and Outlines on all the books of the Bible.” J. Ritchie Ltd, Kilmarnock. No date. Samuel Blow was a true pioneer in gospel labours in the late 19th Century and very faithful in his adherence to New Testament assembly truth.
PRAYER FOR THE EMPEROR AND THE ROYAL FAMILY
The letters from the Persian kings to Jerusalem show that the king wanted the religious leaders in Judea to pray regularly for the king and royal household. The letter from Darius to Tatnai in Ezra 6.3-12, promises imperial subsidy for the daily offerings, with the stipulation that there be prayer made for the king and his sons. Darius actually specifies a particular class of offering "that they may offer sacrifices of sweet savours unto the God of heaven, and pray for the life of the king and of his sons" Ezra 6.10. It is interesting that he mentions these offerings in language that indicates some familiarity with Levitical terminology. How would he have known about the "sweet savour offerings"? The presence of godly Jewish officials in the Persian court is well attested in Scripture. We have Daniel and Mordecai as two specific examples. The influence of such men (and indeed of queen Esther) must have been considerable, and the fact of God’s faithful witnesses in such special circumstances illustrates God’s "mysterious ways" in carrying out His sovereign purposes.7
- 7 If the Ahasuerus of Esther is Darius Hystapes this means of influence is clear. (See the very learned Archbishop Ussher’s Chronology in “The Annals of the World, revised and updated by Larry and Marion Pierce, Master Books 2003, and “Bible Chronology: The two great divides” by J.A. Moorman, The Bible for Today, 2010).
In our own time, we are given clear instructions regarding prayer for the powers that be. "I exhort therefore, that, first of all, supplications, prayers, intercessions, and giving of thanks, be made for all men; For kings, and for all that are in authority; that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and honesty." 1Tim.2.1,2. While we are in a different dispensation from the days of Ezra, in terms of global governance, the age known as "the times of the Gentiles" covers both, and the people of God then as now are subject to the ruling systems of gentile overlords. During the "times of the Gentiles" it is not the business of God’s people to involve themselves in seeking political place in the world system. The destiny of Nebuchadnezzar’s four-part image is to be smashed by the Stone cut out without hands. Knowing this, it is inappropriate for believers who are "in Christ" to seek to form part of the image, when we are linked with the Stone.
EZRA THE MAN
Ezra was a man of priestly family. He was the son of Seriah, who was the last High Priest of Jerusalem, slain upon the destruction of the Temple by Nebuchadnezzar. He was a ready scribe in the law of Moses. His formative years were spent in Babylonian exile, but he had not let the time go to waste. "For Ezra had prepared his heart to seek the law of the LORD, and to do it, and to teach in Israel statutes and judgments" 7.10. This was no self-projection into the limelight. The order in this verse is instructive. Seek; Do; Teach. If the opportunity to teach had never come along, Ezra was still going to seek the law of the LORD and do it. He was a man of life-long heartfelt preparation. When the opportunity to serve publicly came, he was ready. J. G. Bellett has well summarised Ezra’s career: "Service is, if done and rendered according to the written word, for the glory of the God of Israel, and in the spirit of worship and communion. It is but a sample of what service with us at this day might be, and, as we may add, ought to be. Ezra, throughout, does not listen to expediency, or yield to a difficulty, or refuse diligence and toil; he maintains principles, and carries the Word of God through every hindrance".8
- 8 Bellett, J.G. “Witnesses for God in Dark and Evil Times”. Accessed on www.stempublishing.com.
Thirteen years before Nehemiah went up to Jerusalem to rebuild the city wall, Ezra went up, with full support from Artaxerxes the king and additional vessels and treasures for the temple. He had delegated authority from the king to use force to carry out his commission, but he did not utilise force, as we shall see.
PRAYER FOR PROTECTION
On the eve of Ezra’s journey to Jerusalem in chapter 8, he organised prayer and fasting for the protection of the group against the dangers of the long journey. Bearing in mind that he was perfectly aware of his entitlement to an armed escort of imperial cavalry, he chose to forego any such appeal to the king. He was very alert to the incongruous message that could be projected to the king and the imperial officials, and to the people of the lands included in the itinerary as well as the impression that would be made on the Jews already in and around Jerusalem.
Ezra had earlier assured the king of God’s goodness towards those who seek Him, and the company of returnees were understood to fit the category of those benefiting from this Divine protection. Shame is a powerful motivator, and this is what Ezra felt as he thought over the inconsistency of asking the king for a military escort.
This act of collective self-abasement before God in the context of fasting is not something that we see nowadays. Self-denial in order to concentrate on seeking God’s guidance and leading was proof that Ezra was not reliant upon fleshly wisdom or initiative. It may well be that the danger they felt for the forthcoming journey had worsened because of Ezra’s unscheduled delay as he waited for a group of Levites to join the original party. A large group of people laden with gold and other treasures would soon become common knowledge and of interest to bandits, and the longer they waited, the greater the concern about safety. The godly attitude of Ezra and his reluctance to involve the Gentile military to protect the sacred vessels of the Lord is challenging to our own often indifferent attitude to Divine things. Ezra preferred to wait to get Levites, than to call in the armed forces. This shows the prayerful and thankful nature of this man of faith.
"Blessed be the LORD God of our fathers, which hath put such a thing as this in the king’s heart, to beautify the house of the LORD which is in Jerusalem: and hath extended mercy unto me before the king, and his counsellors, and before all the king’s mighty princes" 7.27,28. This short impromptu utterance is a doxology, in which there is not direct second person address to God, but it is an ascription of blessing and thankfulness to God for His remarkable intervention in granting Ezra such a rich portfolio of rights and privileges for using the Persian monarch’s power in the LORD’S service and for restoring the Divine testimony in Jerusalem.
PRAYER FOR PUBLIC BIBLE STUDY
A further example of Ezra’s recourse to prayer is found in Nehemiah chapter 8. This chapter narrates the great open-air meeting for Scripture reading when the law of God was publicly read and explained. "And Ezra opened the book in the sight of all the people; (for he was above all the people;) and when he opened it, all the people stood up: and Ezra blessed the LORD, the great God. And all the people answered, Amen, Amen, with lifting up their hands: and they bowed their heads, and worshipped the LORD with their faces to the ground" vv.5,6.
Of note is the fact that in connection with the public handling of God’s Word, Ezra prayed and while we do not know the verbatim content of this prayer, it states "Ezra blessed the LORD, the great God". The effect of this prayer on the large audience was dramatic. It evoked an immediate outbreak of devout and profound worship. Surely it is appropriate to ask whether in our own experience the public prayer, which is associated with the reading of God’s Word in our meetings, has anything like this effect upon the audience. Would that it did!
This single prayer of Ezra’s (how we wish that we had the exact words he spoke) illustrates powerfully the kind of man he was. A prayer of that impact could only come from a man who was thoroughly steeped in the Word, and whose entire mission in life was to bring it to bear on every facet of the remnant’s experience, both individual and community aspects. His worldview started with "the great God". His prayer was to God and about God’s greatness, and in blessing the Lord, the Triune God, Jehovah, he knew that true blessing was to found in a correct relationship to God. In our own day, we may think of our own blessings in the gospel as comprised in "the glorious gospel of the blessed God". As J. L. Harris put it, "the more it is known, the more must it be delighted in." 9
- 9 Harris, J. L. “Law and Grace : being Notes of Lectures on the Epistle to the Galatians”. (accessed on www.stempublishing.com).
Furthermore, the tone and atmosphere was reverential. This is apparent from the attitude of Ezra and his associates and the wider audience towards the Word of God. An attitude of humility and reverence to the Word of God in public gatherings of God’s people will be associated with reverential awe when it comes to public address to God in prayer. In our own era of sloppy thinking and casual attitudes, the example of Ezra shows how far we often fall short. The casual use of the theologically and grammatically unsound "you" rather than "thee" in address to God has become ever more widespread.10 In public prayer the brother addressing God audibly occupies a responsible position, for he leads the company, and the "amen" of all is expected. God is not addressed using plural pronouns in either the Old or New Testaments. In this, the Authorised Version and JND’s New Translation faithfully reflect the Hebrew and Greek text by rendering the singular pronoun as "Thou/Thee". The plural pronoun is "you". The essential unity of God is a core aspect of Old Testament theology, and its importance emphasised by the Lord Jesus Christ Himself in Mk.12.29: "The Lord thy God is One Lord". The singular pronoun "Thou" in addressing God is essential, to use the plural "you" betokens ignorance or irreverence inappropriate for any brother aspiring to lead the assembly in public prayer. We do not worship a plurality of gods, as do the heathen.
- 10 See the helpful pamphlet issued by the Bible League Trust: “Archaic or Accurate?” edited by J.P. Thackway. Of particular importance are two articles by John Heading, “Singular and Plural – A Warning Against Confusion” and “Thou and You in Bible Translations”; also “Addressing God in Prayer and Worship” by T.E. Wilson. These can accessed online at http://www.bibleleaguetrust.org/articles/archaic_or_accurate.pdf
In addition, practitioners of this casual approach to public prayer often infest it with the word "just" as a trivialising adverb, e.g. "we just ask that you would just help us" etc. Such language and demeanour conveys a whiff of insouciance and illustrates a lack of dignity, both as to the need for reverence in approaching "the great God", and in apprehension of the dignified position that is ours as sons of God in this dispensation. A heartfelt appreciation of who we are before God and the position of unique privilege that He has put us into throughout this dispensation of grace, would surely result in prayer that sounds vastly different from the vapid, shallow and theologically dubious content of many public prayers. To aspire to greater dignity and reverence in public prayer must not be misrepresented as lack of encouragement or nurturing of the new convert as he grows in grace, whose first public utterings in prayer will naturally lack maturity.
THE RESPONSE TO A GREAT MORAL CRISIS
Upon hearing of the intermingling of the remnant with the people of the land, Ezra was overcome with disappointment and humiliation before God at the magnitude of this departure from the Divine standard. Deeply imbued with Scripture as he was, no one had a better grasp of just how serious a threat this was to the whole existence of the post-exilic community in Judea, and how it made a mockery of the devout project to re-establish the house of God in Jerusalem. He sat down astonied. There he remained in deep heaviness of heart until the time of the evening sacrifice.
Meantime, there assembled unto Ezra "every one that trembled at the words of the God of Israel, because of the transgression of those that had been carried away …".11 Had v.4 said that they "trembled at the Word of the God of Israel", that would have been quite appropriate. But the statement goes further than that. It emphasises the "words" of the God of Israel, i.e. the written revelation of God, and this is what is central to Ezra’s thoughts, and is prominent in his prayer.
- 11 A reference to the older cohort of transgressors who had, when much younger, been carried away captive from Jerusalem and Judea. This is an incidental strand of evidence in favour of an early date for Ezra’s ministry in Jerusalem. Certainly it could not be applied to those who had just returned with Ezra.
His heaviness would have been the more grievous as the transgressors consisted of "those that had been carried away". These would be the older generation, who when very young, had been carried off captive to Babylon. They had tasted at first hand the keen edge of God’s disciplinary dealings for this very same problem. Now, after all those years of captivity and exile, they were back in the land, thanks to God’s mercy and gracious dealings. It was inconceivable to Ezra how they could so rapidly revert to the age-old sin of amalgamation with the idolatrous peoples surrounding them.
Not only so, but these elderly transgressors encouraged their sons to get involved as well. This would be especially hard for Ezra to bear. It is quite bad enough for a person who professes to be gathered to the Lord’s name, and who is professedly committed to the local assembly to transgress against God’s clear instructions regarding separation from moral and religious corruption in this world, but to compound the sin of personal transgression by encouraging the next generation to do likewise represents a new level of guilt. It is one thing to blame young Christians for various kinds of departure, but that they should be inveigled into it by older Christians is sad indeed. One thinks of the tragic career of the old prophet in 1Kings chapter 13.
THE HOLY SEED
Right at the core of Ezra’s concern in chapter 9, is the matter of the holy seed and the threat to its purity and continuance posed by the intermingling with the surrounding peoples. We are not told of any earlier reference by Ezra to the "holy seed", and it is noteworthy that the subject is broached by "lay" leaders (princes) of the Jewish community, i.e. neither priest, Levite nor prophet. These un-named persons were burdened and expressed their concern in theological language that is very interesting.
The use of the term "holy seed" reveals these princes viewed the issue as of the greatest theological importance. Furthermore, they were exercised about their present situation in view of the prospect of a prophetic hope that depended on the integrity and propagation of this "holy seed". The intermingling was seen as an evil attack on the "holy seed". To make matters worse, it was not merely an external foe, but an outbreak of moral decay within the ranks of God’s people. The Scriptural history of the "holy seed" is an interesting study. The term is first used in Isa.6.13, when the Lord answers Isaiah’s question, "Lord, How long?" His answer likens the returning remnant thus: "as a teil tree, and as an oak, whose substance is in them, when they cast their leaves: so the holy seed shall be the substance thereof." It is encouraging to see how the princes had faith in God’s prophetic Word. The notion of "holy seed" though is not merely a throw-back to the days of Isaiah, but a vital link with the idea of a future restoration of the nation, of which the post-captivity return under the Persian monarchs was but a partial fulfilment. Malachi’s ministry is highly relevant to this. He speaks of a "godly seed", which is sought by God, despite the misbehaviour of the Judean community in his day, Mal.2.15. There is no doubt that the holy seed and the godly seed are similar ideas, and both carry forward the hope of Israel’s full, glorious restoration in the Messiah’s kingdom upon earth.
The leaders evidenced a grasp, perhaps feeble, but vital nonetheless, that present behaviour must be governed by truth that linked their present age with the prophetic programme of God’s revealed will. In so phrasing their complaint to Ezra, they would have at once triggered within his memory a cascade of Scriptural associations and references to the history of the earthly vicissitudes of the promised seed down through the centuries and all the manifold attacks of Satan thereon. No wonder he sat astonied. The danger to Sarah and Rebecca from Pharaoh and Abimelech, the Egyptian attempt to drown the Hebrew male neonates, the malicious guile of Balaam’s doctrine of intermingling, the blood-soaked treachery of Athaliah, all this and more would have loomed before him as a panorama of weakness, failure and disaster, salvaged only by God’s supervening grace.
The timing of this prayer coincided with the evening sacrifice. This was a burnt offering, Lev.6.9; Ex.29.41-43, and was the Divine basis of God’s meeting with His people, and their acceptance. Elijah’s public sacrifice on mount Carmel took place at the time of the evening sacrifice, 1Kgs.18.36, when it was clear to all that with no answer forthcoming for the prophets of Baal by that time, there wasn’t going to be any. Daniel’s prayer was swiftly answered at the time of the evening sacrifice, Dan.9.21. Ezra no doubt had a lively appreciation of what the evening sacrifice meant, and was somewhat in the spiritual good of the burnt offering, albeit limited, as it anticipated the typological explanation in Eph.5.2: "Christ also hath loved us, and hath given Himself for us an offering and a sacrifice to God for a sweetsmelling savour." Paul did not merely value this doctrine as an abstract precious thought in pietistic isolation from real-life practical issues and crises, and it would appear that Ezra appreciated something of this practical import. Consider Eph.5.3, which has the very next phrase after "sweetsmelling savour" as "But fornication and all uncleanness, or covetousness, let it not be once named among you as becometh saints." This linkage of the burnt offering and acceptance in Christ with purity of life, is the basis for the separatist call to be not partakers with the children of disobedience, and to "have no fellowship with the unfruitful works of darkness" vv.3-11. What can be more practical than this? Yet it is based not on party slogans, or Pharisaical self-righteousness, but on a heart-felt appreciation of the abiding and ever-fresh value of the great sacrifice of the Lord Jesus Christ for us, in Whom alone we are accepted by God. It seems the Jews of Ezra’s day did not appreciate the implications of holiness that the sacrifices demanded, or the departure in morals and separation would not have occurred. This coincides with the moral order of the issues dealt with by Malachi’s prophecy. The loss of appreciation for the value of the sacrifice in worship preceded the decay in personal and family morals. There is a great lesson here. Separation is not chiefly presented as a negative truth. Clearly the abnegation of evil and uncleanness is the negative aspect, and inescapable for saints in every age, but the attractive aspect of the doctrine of separation as linked with the truth of the altar of our worship and the local assembly is paramount, Heb.13.10-15.
The tone and language of Ezra’s prayer have parallels with the great prayer of Daniel chapter 9. Indeed some of the phrases used by Ezra are the same, or very similar: for example, "confusion of face" for Israel, and forsaking "Thy commandments, which Thou hast commanded by Thy servants the prophets" and the reference to "our fathers" as equally burdened with guilt. It is with good reason therefore that Bishop Wordsworth in his Commentary in loco points to such evidence as demonstrating that Ezra was intimate with and influenced by Daniel’s prayer, and that the book of Ezra thus is an incidental testimony to the contemporaneous existence of the book of Daniel. This prayer shows great reverence for God and the Holy Scriptures. Ezra here showed a deep and fluent familiarity with Scripture in bringing together so many Scriptural allusions and quotations in a discourse to God as he expressed himself in a Scripture-saturated idiom. This is to be commended and looked up to as a most worthy example of public prayer in a time of departure.
Sad to say, there are now those who would scorn this sort of public prayer. Over 30 years ago the late A.M.S. Gooding sounded the alarm concerning elements within assemblies gathered to the Lord’s name who seek to deconstruct every scriptural component of assembly function and worship. Concerning prayer and worship these avant-garde thinkers want to see the end of tradition and "no prayers steeped in the Levitical offerings or intricate typology or profound expositions of Scripture".12 You can be sure they would regard Ezra with a jaundiced eye.
- 12 Gooding, A.M.S. “Editor’s Review of the Swanwick Conference of Brethren” in Assembly Testimony: July/August 1979.
The whole emphasis of this prayer is that of confession to God and full acknowledgement of the extent of national guilt. The seriousness of the problem was compounded by the fact that God had so graciously restored them to the land, (though not to national sovereignty). Two key phrases from the concluding verse of his prayer are worth noting. "Thou art righteous" and "we cannot stand before Thee because of this". This is not a prayer for forgiveness. It is a full confession of guilt, as a prelude to action to root out the sin that has incurred God’s displeasure. The people cannot be justified (i.e. "stand") before God in His righteousness under these circumstances.
ASSERTING HIS AUTHORITY
Ezra, as we have noted, was furnished by the emperor with draconian powers to enforce observance of God’s law and the king’s rights. But he did not use these coercive measures, just as he had earlier declined to utilise a military escort on the long and dangerous journey to Jerusalem. Faced with the moral meltdown of chapter 9, we might have expected him to issue decrees and writs to end the intermingling with foreign women and punish those involved. But he did not do this. Rather, we find him rending his clothes, tearing his hair and sitting in overwhelming bewilderment and grief at the situation. Then at the time of the evening sacrifice, he arose and prayed his famous public prayer of confession and humiliation. After this the actions of those around him seem spontaneously to gain momentum and a great movement of recovery from the departure ensued.
In this mode of approach he rather resembles the approach of the apostle Paul. Paul had special apostolic authority that he mentioned in his epistles, especially to the Corinthians. However, although he had such rights he refrained from using them. He felt that if he were to come to Corinth in person he would be obliged to use "the rod" with detrimental consequences for those in Corinth who had sinned. Therefore he avoided a visit, and even such a gracious gesture was misinterpreted by his adversaries, when they ought to have been thankful. Paul’s preferred method was to exercise the consciences of his audience by applying the Word of God to them, and appealing to them on the ground of their Christian blessings and privileges in Christ to behave in a way consistent with their profession and high calling.
In our own day, this is the key to successful outcomes in matters requiring disciplinary action in an assembly. J.N. Darby, a man often depicted adversely by historians as an overbearing division-maker amongst assemblies in the 19th century, was predominantly concerned to arouse the conscience of an assembly and of individuals as to their loyalty to Christ and their responsibility to separate from moral and doctrinal evil out of love to Him, rather than coercing the saints by party feeling or the force of his remarkable personality. It is interesting to see the close parallels with the apostle Paul’s thought reflected repeatedly in J.N.D.’s letters concerning disciplinary issues. Perusal of these letters would yield much profitable food for thought in our own day when in relation to assembly order, it seems too often to be a case of "every man doing that which is right in his own eyes".13
- 13 “I have always objected to brethren going down to settle things for an assembly. A wise and godly brother may counsel from Scripture and seek to arouse the conscience; but nothing is really done if the conscience of the assembly does not act” (excerpt from letter to Wm Reid). “While quite admitting that a brother may give counsel, and most usefully, I dread brethren coming to settle things, because the conscience of the assembly is not set in exercise. Paul did not go, but roused the conscience of the assembly” (from a letter to Christopher McAdam Vol.2 p398). “The action in actual discipline, publicly, must be made by the assembly; for the assembly has to clear itself, and no other way will do. As he [Paul] says, ‘You have proved yourselves clear in this matter.’ Suppose the elders had put a person out rightly, this would not clear the conscience of the assembly. It would only lead ultimately to sorrow that they had to put him out” (Notes of Readings in First Corinthians 10). These excerpts were accessed on www.stempublishing.com.
UNANIMITY OF ACTION
In the immediate aftermath of Ezra’s great prayer, a remarkable consensus emerged about the necessary course of action in dealing with the intermingling crisis. Hearts and consciences were evidently deeply moved. The very great congregation of men, women and children that assembled unto Ezra as he finished praying was impelled by the effect of God’s Word working in their conscience. They wept sore. Their thoughts were expressed by Shechaniah the son of Jehiel. Here was a man prepared to put principle beyond blood-ties. We find in v.26 of this chapter that his father was one of those who had taken strange wives. He was the one who urged Ezra into action. In spite of the dire situation, he had faith to say "Yet now there is hope in Israel concerning this thing" v.2. He suggested a covenant with God to put away the strange wives, something that should be done "according to the law" v.3. No doubt in acknowledging Ezra’s profound knowledge of the law, he said "This is incumbent upon thee" Ezra 10.4, J.N.D. Such an impact of Ezra’s prayer was not due to mere rhetoric or personal charisma. Decisions that might be viewed from the natural standpoint as hard and lacking in humanitarian sympathy were rapidly implemented in the fear of God. There is no doubt that there was personal cost involved, both emotional and probably economic, for those who complied with the Scriptural standard for Divine testimony. Yet the majority went through with it. In our own times such a restoration of God’s people from conditions of departure is often viewed as legalistic and hard-hearted. Such thinking appeals to an emotion-based attitude to Divine things. It is post-theological14 inasmuch as proponents of such views never appeal to "thus saith the Lord"; are not characterised by "they found it written" and rather strive to whip up empathy with evil; something that is tantamount to partaking with the perpetrators of what God’s Word identifies as evil.
- 14 “Post-theological” may be applied to post-modernist infiltration into the thoughts of many evangelical opinion formers nowadays.
In spite of the great movement of repentance and restoration that followed Ezra’s prayer, it seems from 10.15 that there were a few who actively dissented.15 This opposition may be linked with vested interests. Meshullam is mentioned later in v.29 as one of those guilty of wrongful marriage. The minority dissent did not derail the progress of restoration, and Meshullam’s inclusion in v.29 would indicate his later compliance with the purging process, thus showing that he had soon been restored in this matter. Shabbethai the Levite also appears to have been restored, for he features in Nehemiah chapter 8 as one of Ezra’s helpers in the great public Bible reading, and he shared in the "oversight of the outward business of the house of God."16 The commonly heard plea of no action without unanimity in an assembly was not heeded in this Divinely empowered restoration. The clear instructions of God’s Word carried the day in the consciences of the many. "The insisting on the doctrine of unity to prevent the judging of evil, and that by the consciences of the saints, and assuming it into the hands of the rulers, is one of the very worst forms of evil" observed J.N. Darby perceptively in 1845.17
- 15 J.N.D.’s New Translation gives “Only Jonathan the son of Asahel and Jahzeiah the son of Tikvah stood up against this; and Meshullam and Shabbethai the Levite helped them”. The A.V.’s translation “were employed about this matter” is to be understood in an adversarial sense.
16 Neh.11.16. See the valuable comments on Ezra 10 by H.L. Rossier “Meditations on the book of Ezra” (accessed on www.stempublishing.com).
17 “Letter to the saints meeting in Ebrington Street on the circumstances which have recently occurred there”. J. N. Darby: Vol.20, Collected Writings: Ecclesiastical.
Even among the sons of the priests were found some who had taken strange wives. "The priests’ lips should keep knowledge" Mal.2.7, and it is serious when inconsistency of moral conduct by teachers among God’s people occurs. From Ezra chapter 10 we learn that a thorough and speedy investigation with repentance, and repentance in action, not just in word, leading to cessation of the anti-Scriptural relationship was required. In v.11 there are three key elements to Ezra’s instructions to the people:
Confess – "Make confession unto the Lord God of your Fathers"
Obey – "Do His pleasure"
Separate – "Separate yourselves from the people of the land. . .".
There is clearly a moral and logical progression in the order of these three commands. It needs no elaboration. These three commands, if taken seriously by us today as assemblies of God’s people, would have striking results. Here is a challenge to every one of us, individually, and collectively.
The process of restoration in Ezra chapter 10 was individual. The names recorded were of individuals. The collective response was real, but it was achieved at an individual level. How Ezra must have rejoiced when the congregation answered and said with a loud voice "As thou hast said, so must we do". There was no negotiating, or special pleading. How refreshing and God-honouring when such is the response of a Scripturally based challenge to a problem among God’s people. Perhaps above all other incidents in his life, this was the moment on this earth when he felt a sense of reward for all his long life of devoted study and self-disciplined dedication to God’s Word. In true priestly fashion, there was never a hint of self-aggrandisement in Ezra’s ministry. As closely as a man could, he behaved as one "ordained for men in things pertaining to God". May Ezra’s life and prayers be an example and encouragement to each of us.