When talk show hosts and hostesses ask successful people the “secret” of their great achievements, the answers they get are varied and sometimes contradictory. Some successful people will give credit to their sobriety and personal discipline, while others will boast that they lived just the way they pleased whether anybody liked it or not. “I always maintain my integrity” is counterbalanced by “I pushed my way to the top no matter who got stepped on.”
But if we had interviewed Ezra and asked him the secret of his successful life, he would have said humbly, “The good hand of the Lord was upon me,” a phrase that’s found six times in Ezra 7 and 8 (7:6, 9, 28; 8:18, 22, 31). Nothing but the blessing of God can explain how an obscure Jewish priest and scholar, born in Babylonian Captivity, could accomplish so much for God and Israel when so much was working against him.
That God’s good hand was upon this man doesn’t minimize the importance of his personal piety or his great ability as a scholar, nor does it ignore the great help King Artaxerxes gave him. God uses all kinds of people to accomplish His will, but if God’s hand isn’t at work in us and through us, nothing will be accomplished. It’s the principle Jesus taught His disciples, “Without Me you can do nothing” (John 15:5, NKJV). What did God do for the people of Israel during those difficult days after the Babylonian Captivity?
It was the year 458 and Artaxerxes I was King of Persia (465–424). Nearly sixty years had passed since the completion of the temple in Jerusalem, and the Jewish remnant was having a very difficult time. It was then that God raised up Ezra to lead a second group of refugees from Babylon to Judah to bring financial and spiritual support to the work and to help rebuild the city.
Every person is important to God and God’s work; but, as Dr. Lee Roberson has often said, “Everything rises and falls with leadership.” When God wanted to deliver Israel from Egypt, He raised up Moses and Aaron. When Israel was divided and defeated, He called Samuel to teach the Word and David to serve as king. Richard Nixon was right when he said that leaders are people who “make a difference,” and Ezra was that kind of man.
When God wants to judge a nation, He sends them inferior leaders (Isa. 3:1–8); but when He wants to bless them, He sends them men like Ezra.
There were some priests in the Jewish remnant who couldn’t prove their ancestry (2:61–63), but Ezra wasn’t among them. He had the best of credentials and could prove his lineage all the way back to Aaron, the first high priest. Some famous spiritual leaders are named in this genealogy, men like Hilkiah, Zadok, and Phineas. Of course, being blessed with godly ancestors is no guarantee of success for their descendants, but it’s a good beginning. God promises to bless the descendants of the godly (Deut. 4:40; Ps. 128). “I don’t know who my grandfather was,” said Abraham Lincoln; “I am much more concerned what his grandson will be.” Ezra knew the names of his ancestors and what these men had done, and he made the most of his heritage. He didn’t squander the rich spiritual legacy they had entrusted to him but used it to honor the Lord and serve His people. What a tragedy it is when the descendants of godly families turn away from the Lord and lead lives of disobedience and rebellion (Judg. 2:10–15).
You wouldn’t expect a priest and scholar like Ezra to dare to approach a mighty king and ask for permission to take a group of Jewish exiles to Jerusalem. Most scholars are retiring by nature, happy with their books and thoughts, and unwilling to get involved in the everyday affairs of life. The American poet and professor Archibald MacLeish wrote, “The scholar digs his ivory cellar in the ruins of the past and lets the present sicken as it will.” But not Ezra!
Ezra’s careful study of the Word of God had increased his faith (Rom. 10:17) and helped him understand God’s plans for the Jewish remnant, and he wanted to be a part of those plans. Certainly as he studied the Old Testament Scriptures, he prayed for God to help His people; and God answered that prayer by calling him to go to Jerusalem. He gave Ezra the boldness to approach the king and the king a desire to cooperate with Ezra’s requests.
When the first group of Jews left for Jerusalem in 537, it was because God moved upon the heart of Cyrus (Ezra 1:1–4); but now it was a lowly priest whom God used to touch the heart of King Artaxerxes.
When you recall that Ezra was born in Babylon, you can better appreciate his achievement as a skilled student of the Jewish Scriptures. Undoubtedly, some of the priests had brought copies of the Old Testament scrolls with them to Babylon, and these became very precious to the exiled spiritual leaders of the nation. There was no Jewish temple in Babylon, so the priests and Levites weren’t obligated to minister, but some of them, like Ezra, devoted themselves to the study and teaching of the Word of God.
When it comes to our relationship to the Word of God, Ezra is a good example for us to follow. He was a man with a prepared heart, devoted to the study of the Scriptures. “For Ezra had set his heart to study the law of the Lord” (v. 10, NASB). He would have agreed with the psalmist who wrote, “Oh, how I love Your law! It is my meditation all the day” (Ps. 119:97, NKJV). Even the king recognized and affirmed Ezra’s great knowledge of the Scriptures (Ezra 7:11–14).
But Ezra did more than study the Word of God; he also practiced it in his daily life. It’s in the obeying of the Word that we experience the blessing, not in the reading or the hearing of it (James 1:22–25). “This one is blessed in what he does” (v. 25, NKJV, italics added), not in what he thinks he knows. If our knowledge of the truth doesn’t result in obedience, then we end up with a big head instead of a burning heart (1 Cor. 8:1; Luke 24:32); and truth becomes a toy to play with, not a tool to build with. Instead of building our Christian character, we only deceive ourselves and try to deceive others (1 John 1:5–10).
Ezra not only studied and obeyed the Word of God, but he also taught it to others. The priests and Levites were commanded by God to be teachers in Israel (Lev. 10:8–11; Deut. 33:10; Mal. 2:7), because that was the only way the people could learn God’s truth. The common people couldn’t afford to own scrolls of the Law, so it was up to the priests and Levites to read and explain the Scriptures to the people. “So they read in the book in the law of God distinctly, and gave the sense, and caused them to understand the reading” (Neh. 8:8). What a model for all preachers and teachers of the Bible to follow!
Each generation needs to discover the precious treasure of the Word of God, but that can’t happen unless previous generations are faithful to learn the Word, guard it, obey it, and teach it. “And the things you have heard me say in the presence of many witnesses entrust to reliable men who will also be qualified to teach others” (2 Tim. 2:2, NIV).
Warren W. Wiersbe