Ok, let’s begin with a little quiz to see if you’ve been listening.
Have a glance (you don’t even need to read it all) at Ezra chapters 2, 8 and 10. So which stream of writing does this book belong to? That’s right – it’s those boring Priests again with their lists of funny names and tedious attention to detail. We’re going to find the same in our next book, Nehemiah, in chapters 7, 10 and 12, so that looks like a priestly work too. These two books tell a complimentary story of what happened when the exiles returned from Babylon to Jerusalem, and much scholarly dispute has raged about the exact chronology of the two books and the relationship between them, not least as the character of Ezra plays a major part in the book of Nehemiah. But leaving that aside, the two books are basically about rebuilding, Nehemiah, as we’ll see next week, with the city walls of Jerusalem, and Ezra with the worship and right ordering of society.
Ezra was a priest and a teacher of the law, so when King Cyrus, who had conquered Babylon right at the end of 2 Chronicles, allowed the Jews to return to Jerusalem, he was sent along to help them rediscover the Law’s teachings, which had been so long neglected, even before the exile. This necessitated the rebuilding of the Temple, so that the right sacrifices could once again be offered. This work went ahead, and soon the altar was functioning again, although it was not long before subterfuge and opposition from ‘the enemies of Judah and Benjamin’, almost certainly Samaritans, remnants of the old Northern Kingdom who had become tainted by their syncretistic religion and intermarriage, halted the work. Finally, with royal help from King Darius of Persia, the Temple is completed and rededicated, and the Passover is celebrated. Once the physical building had been completed Ezra is sent to rebuild the spiritual life of the nation, but he soon discovers what he believes is the root cause of a major problem: the people had intermarried with the surrounding nations, a concern, you’ll remember, of the Deuteronomic historians. When you took a foreign wife you almost always took her foreign gods too, so all kinds of practices contrary to Yahweh’s Law had become part and parcel of their lives.
Ezra turns to prayer, and confesses to God the people’s infidelity, and as he does so, using, interestingly, the first person, the people catch his broken heartedness and join in with the confession. Eventually the foreign wives are sent packing, but not before the careful chronicler has written down a list of all the guilty parties.
We can read this book as being about the primacy of worship, about the need for integrity as we worship, and the opposition which will surely come as we seek to live with that integrity. We’re going to see a load more opposition next week, and some pretty dirty tactics, and I am reminded that in a church where political correctness has removed most of the language of spiritual warfare from our liturgy and hymnody, we can easily lose sight of the battle which rages all around us. But then as Keyser Soze said: ‘The greatest trick the Devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist.’
I personally love the idea that what the community really needed, perhaps more than it needed carpenters and stonemasons, was Bible teachers. In the next book we’re going to see the power of the teaching ministry in action, but I find it interesting that for all their concern about the right ordering of worship the Priests have written up not the story of a superstar worship-leader but a humble scribe. Maybe today’s church could listen to that a bit more.