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Ezra: A Man Worth His Salt

For Ezra had prepared his heart to seek the Law of the Lord, and to do it, and to teach statutes and ordinances in Israel. ( Ezra 7:10)

Are you worth your salt as a Christian? Have you prepared your heart to seek the Lord, to do his law, and to teach others His statutes and ordinances? Ezra the priest and scribe was a man worth his salt for he remained true to God during the prolonged captivity in Babylon. Although many had fallen away and conformed to the pagan worship of their captors, Ezra continued to seek the Lord. He is thus precisely yet magnanimously described as a “skilled scribe in the law of Moses, which the Lord of Israel had given.”( Ezra 7:6). Ezra, due to his diligence, found favour with man and God; he was given a commission by the King of Babylon, Artaxerxes, to return to Jerusalem to refurbish the temple built by Zerubbabel. His task was twofold: to reinstate civil order and also to bring people back to the law of God. Although the task was daunting, Ezra was able to rise to the challenge because he “had prepared his heart to seek the Law of the Lord, and to do it, and to teach statutes and ordinances in Israel.” ( Ezra 7:10)

How had Ezra prepared his heart to seek the law of the Lord? We can glean the answer from the fact that severally we are told in the book of Ezra that he was “a skilled scribe”. In the former days, the work of scribes had been to make copies of the law for those who wanted to read it, but in post exilic days they became teachers of the law. To teach the law of Moses, the five books of Moses, called the Pentateuch, one had to be perspicacious. The thoroughness and the rigour with which Ezra must have sought the Lord is evidenced in the books of the Bible that are accredited to him: 1st and 2nd Chronicles, Ezra, Nehemiah and Psalm 119. To write such a corpus of work, Ezra must have applied himself to study the books previously written to understand divine statutes and ordinances before he could pen his own work. In Psalm 119, what might be considered to be a canticle to the law of God, Ezra expresses his love for the law of the Lord and his earnest pursuit of it:
With all my heart I have sought You;
Do not let me wander from Your commandments.
Your word I have treasured in my heart,
That I may not sin against You. Psalm 119:10-11

Ezra’s heartbeat was for the law of God. He sought it with all his heart, treasured it, and above all else, he joyfully obeyed it. He understood, from his study of former days that God was more interested in how much we obeyed than how much divine knowledge we gained- obedience is better than sacrifice. Saint James reiterated these same sentiments to the the New Testament Church with a similar exhortation: “But prove yourselves doers of the word and not merely hearers who delude themselves.” (James 1:22) In the life of Ezra we see this commitment to obedience when he was confronted with the problem of mixed marriages. Ezra knew that God had commanded Israel in the past: “So do not give your daughters to their sons nor take their daughters to your sons, and never seek their peace or their prosperity, that you may be strong and eat the things of the land and leave it as an inheritance to your sons forever.” ( Ezra 9:12) But over time Israel had forgotten and disobeyed God’s command by not only taking pagan wives, but also having children with them.

Ezra’s first response to Israel’s transgression in marrying pagan wives was that of extreme grief and shame: “When I heard about this matter, I tore my garment and my robe, and pulled some of the hair from my head and my beard, and sat down appalled.” ( Ezra 9:3) After that He turned to God and confessed on behalf of his people, “I fell on my knees and stretched out may hands to the Lord my God.” ( Ezra 9:5) And it was as Ezra was praying, confessing and prostrating before God that a very large assembly of men, women and children came to him weeping and confessed their sin: “We have been unfaithful to our God and have married foreign women…. So let us make a covenant with our God to put away all the wives and their children.” (Ezra 10:3). At this point it might have been easy for Ezra to make compromise and preserve unity at the expense of obedience. But Ezra acted judiciously as one who feared the Lord and trembled at his ordinances by announcing before the assembly of Israel that they should get rid of their foreign wives. He also appointed officials to oversee the work of ensuring that people obeyed. The whole exercise took three months and was not without opposition. To be worth our salt as christians, we like Ezra must decisively and conclusively deal with issues of sin. Obedience is better than sacrifice.

“Do as I say, and not as I do” seems to be the mantra coming from many Christian circles. We preach water and drink wine, we preach the word and yet live as if it were not true. Ezra was not such a double minded man but preached the word of God not only by words, but also by His way way of life. We teach people more by what we are than what we say- Ezra knew this. He therefore practically showed people how to depend on God absolutely. We can see this at River Ahava and later on in the problem of the mixed marriages, Ezra always put God first. When he was granted a commission to return to Jerusalem, the first thing he did was to seek God’s and not man’s favour, through prayer and fasting:
“I proclaimed a fast a the river Ahava that we might humble ourselves before our God to seek from Him a safe journey for us and our little ones, and all our possessions. For I was ashamed to request the king troops and horsemen to protect us on the way, because we had said to the king, “The hand of God is favourably disposed to those who seek Him, but his power and his anger are against those who forsake Him.” ( Ezra 8: 22)

Ezra set the right precedents for those He was leading by seeking God. God honoured their humility at Ahava and listened to their prayer by safely bringing them back to Jerusalem without any hitches. Ezra consistently followed the principle of prayer and fasting before making any decisions and we do see that the people quickly caught on this matter. For example when he was mourning the sin of mixed marriages, “Everyone who trembled at the words of the God of Israel on account of the faithfulness of the exiles” gathered to him. Thus Ezra taught and influenced people by who he was: a deeply pious man who trembled at the words of the Lord. As result his followers began to emulate him and walk in his godly convictions.

Ezra not only taught by his good example, but he, having learned well, also taught what was written. In fact when he was commissioned to take the exiles to Jerusalem, King Artaxerxes had instructed Ezra to “set magistrates and judges… as know the law of your God; and to teach those who do not know them.” The people needed to know what was written so that like Ezra “they might not sin against God” . Knowledge of the the Holy one is what leads to understanding and a life of obedience and peace with God. However, a lack of it leads to death as was prophesied by the prophets Hosea, “my people perish for lack of knowledge.” After rebuilding the wall of Jerusalem, when Nehemiah was governor, we see Ezra bridging the knowledge gap of the people by reading the law and explaining it to them. The result was repentance. This is a reminder that the more we prepare ourselves to seek the law of the Lord, the more God will give us opportunities to teach others. For one can only teach well what one has learned well.

Ezra, though a rather obscure character to many Christians, compared to the likes of Moses and Joshua, is a shining example of a man who feared the Lord and trembled at His word. Due to his high regard for the statutes and ordinances of the Lord: he studied to prove himself a workman unashamed; he obeyed unwaveringly and taught others to do as He did. Ezra is as relevant today as he was thousands of years ago. Anyone who wants to be “worth their salt” as a Christian, can learn much from this and also seek to follow his example, so that if any chronicler were to write about your life they might say that like Ezra he “prepared his heart to seek the Law of the Lord, and to do it, and to teach statutes and ordinances”.