Ezra the Odd: A Lesson in Fidelity?
The book of Ezra has to be one of the more unusual in the Old Testament. The first several times I read the Bible, I didn’t really notice it, but this time I did. That’s one of the arguments for reading the Bible again and again. Still, Ezra is decidedly odd, both book and man.
The first six chapters are a third-person narrative of the events initiated by King Cyrus of Persia which led to the resettlement of Jerusalem, the rebuilding of the Temple, the resistance which forced the work to stop, and the resumption of the work on reconsideration by King Darius.
Then, at the beginning of chapter 7, in the reign of Artaxerxes, a descendant of Aaron named Ezra, who was skilled in the law of Moses, requested and received the support of the King to take a party to Jerusalem so he could teach the statutes and ordinances of Israel there. His request was granted, and at the end of the chapter, the book suddenly changes to the first person:
Blessed be the Lord, the God of our fathers, who put such a thing as this into the heart of the king, to beautify the house of the Lord which is in Jerusalem, and who extended to me his merciful love before the king and his counselors, and before all the king’s mighty officers. I took courage for the hand of the Lord my God was upon me, and I gathered leading men from Israel to go with me. [Ez 7:27-28]
Upon his arrival in Jerusalem, however, Ezra encountered a serious scandal: The Jews who were already there had taken wives from among the pagans in the region, in clear violation of the law God had given them to prevent apostasy. Knowing that this sin justly deserved the wrath of God, Ezra fell to the ground in the sight of all. There he wept and prayed for a long time. In truth, he was beside himself. He did not know what to do.
But this alarmed those who saw him. Therefore, some of the leading men came to him, admitting they had broken faith with God. They asked Ezra to make a covenant with God by which they would willingly “put away all these wives and their children, according to the counsel of my lord and of those who tremble at the commandment of our God; and let it be done according to the Law” (Ez 10:3).
“Arise, for it is your task,” they said, “and we are with you; be strong and do it” (Ez 10:4). Thus fortified, Ezra arose and did as they asked.
And that’s it. The book ends with an accounting of all the men who separated from their foreign wives.
For this, Ezra the man is famous; and Ezra the book is part of the inspired Word of God. As I said, it is a strange business. All Ezra really did on his own was recognize the sin and fall into a chronic state of lamentation and prayer. Surely this seems a trifle obnoxious by our standards. We might mutter something about spilt milk!
So why is this important?
Perhaps it teaches that fidelity to God’s will is the most important thing. This is what draws God’s grace and allows God to act. It is far better even than great deeds undertaken according to our own lights and under our own powers.
Question: How does God’s power work in us?
Answer: Through that radical openness to God which we call fidelity.
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