The second Temple has been in operation for over 100 years when Ezra comes to Jerusalem to teach the Law of God. The king of Persia himself sent him on his way.
It’s hard to imagine the favor in which the king held Ezra. I wonder how it developed over time. Was Ezra one of the king’s scribes? As a Levite he learned how to read and write. He also learned of the Laws of the Lord. He may have served the king in a similar manner as Daniel. And through his associations with the king, Artaxerxes came to care deeply about Ezra and his people AND their God.
Somehow, during all the time the Israelites, Judah in particular, were in captivity, they maintained their identity and kept at least one copy of the Law handed down through Moses. Ezra apparently had open access to it for he studied it and knew it well. He also made it part of his life; he had a personal relationship with the Lord. This relationship garnered him favor with God which translated to favor with the king and others in authority.
Ezra’s heart’s desire was to see the people following their God. He wanted for them the same kind of relationship he had with the Lord. One based in obedience with understanding. Any other kind of obedience will wane at some point. Without knowing the ‘why’ behind what we do, it’s hard to maintain a commitment. And knowing the ‘why’ requires knowing ‘Who’ you are committing to.
The king of Persia and his commanders knew of God even if they didn’t know Him personally. Even though Israel was captive they still feared or revered Israel’s God. Artaxerxes told those “beyond the river” that they had better help Ezra in whatever way he required. “Whatever is decreed by the God of Heaven, let it be done in full for the House of the God of Heaven, lest His wrath be against the realm of the king and his sons” (verse 23). Artaxerxes did NOT want trouble with Israel’s God!
Let’s take a closer look at our story by joining in it with Ezra. We will see where the Holy Spirit takes us from there.
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Ezra spent much of his childhood wrapped in study. From before he could even walk he was introduced to the scrolls. He was not permitted to touch them for MANY years as his fingers had not yet learned the art of being careful with papers. These lessons would come with time. It was time spent under the tutelage of the most learned of the Levites. Ezra LOVED hearing the stories of his God and his people. His heart sang with the telling of each miracle and plummeted with the stories of Israel’s sins and judgments.
By the time he was considered a man he knew full well that Israel’s time in Babylon was due to their own sins. He also knew that God was a just God and if the people followed His commandments they would enjoy His blessings. The most recent stories of God’s favor on Israel with the rebuilding of the Temple in Jerusalem were personally encouraging to Ezra.
The fact that Israel’s God would use foreign kings to bring about the rebuilding of Israel was exciting and challenging. The possibilities were endless in what the Lord could accomplish IF the people followed Him. But the consequences of sin and disobedience were just as real as they were the day Judah fell into the hands of Nebuchadnezzar. Ezra’s heart LONGED to shout this from the rooftops to his people.
Ezra started sharing his message where he was by living it out in his own life. He was a scribe of the king of Persia. He wasn’t even the chief scribe but one of a handful who was called upon as the need arose. He was faithful in everything he did. His character shone through and he grew in favor with those in authority over him.
Through the years Ezra rose in responsibility due in large part to the fact that he was known for his well-reasoned answers to problems presented to him. He had sound judgment and knew how to offer advice with humility. The king turned to him more and more throughout the years.
As Ezra’s favor with the king grew he found opportunities to speak with him about the God of Israel. To tell him of the Lord’s works on Israel’s behalf. To confide in him about what led to Israel’s captivity. And to explain the Laws of the Lord.
Artaxerxes found these talks with Ezra both illuminating and soul piercing. He began to truly respect the God Ezra served even if he did not fully understand Him. He also began to have a desire to serve Ezra’s God in some capacity.
One morning Ezra awoke with a burning desire to return to the home of his people and see the Temple of his God. He wanted even more than that to be allowed to stay in Jerusalem and teach the people. He had heard stories brought back by travelers that Israel had once again started to wander from the Lord. He feared for their lives. If they didn’t turn again to the Lord, He might once again turn His back on them. THIS DAY he would stand before the king and ask permission to ‘rescue’ his people.
Ezra dressed carefully. He wanted every hair on his head to be in order and even his robes to speak of reverence for the king. He would be asking for the greatest favor imaginable; freedom to return home. He had lived a life without want as the king’s favored scribe but he was still a slave in a foreign land and subject to the king’s will. Knowing this he also petitioned his God as he readied for the task. He would truly need the Lord’s favor today as his request could get him killed.
Ezra arrived at his post early. He organized all his scrolls for the day, ensured his quills were sharp and filled his ink pots. This was a daily task that settled Ezra’s mind each morning for the work ahead. Today it also settled his nerves as he waited to be called before the king to record the daily reporting of the commanders.
While he waited he planned the best time to present the king with his request. “It will not do to interrupt the king’s routine. This would make him angry and more inclined to refuse my request” thought Ezra. “Best to wait until the commanders leave and all orders for the day have been issued.”
The morning proceeded as usual and Ezra forced his mind to attend sharply to his tasks. It would not do for the king to catch him with his mind wandering, thinking about his own needs instead of tending to the tasks set before him.
It was hours before all the morning tasks were completed. The king had noticed Ezra’s intense focus on his tasks. It both pleased him and caused him concern. When all was complete he called Ezra to himself.
“Ezra, tell me what is on your heart.”
Ezra is surprised at the king’s command. Never before has he said these words to him with such concern. They often spoke candidly with one another, usually regarding Ezra’s God, but never had the king posed such a personal question. Did the king know Ezra had a special request?
Ezra lowered his head slightly in respect before speaking. “My king, you are wise beyond all other kings as you have indeed surmised that there is something weighing on my heart. If it pleases the king, I would like to return to the land of my people. I desire to see the Temple built for my God through the generosity of the great kings of Persia. I wish to teach my brothers the Laws of our God so that we never again become a people thrown into captivity by our own sins.”
Artaxerxes sits back on his throne and ponders Ezra’s request. “Are you unhappy with your station at my side?”
“No my king” Ezra quickly answers. “It is my honor to serve you. But I feel the pull of my God to serve my people; His people.”
“I understand this desire. I too feel the pull to serve your God in some fashion. Let me think on this matter. I will have an answer for you in the morning. For today, return to your home and pray to your God for me. That I make the right decisions concerning this matter.”
Ezra is MORE than willing to pray for the king as he contemplates the future of Ezra and his people. “As you command my king. It will be done and it is my pleasure to pray for the Lord’s favor on the king.”
Ezra rushes home and sets out his matt by the window facing the direction of Jerusalem. He spends the rest of the day in prayer.
Back in the palace, Artaxerxes calls a second scribe and dictates several letters. The first is to his seven commanders. The second is to the Jewish captives. And the third is to Ezra himself.
The first letter begins with greetings to the seven commanders in the normal fashion. Then it turns to the matter of support for Ezra’s God. “You know of the God who lives in Jerusalem and how I have long wished to honor Him. An opportunity to do so has presented itself in the form of my scribe Ezra. His wish is to travel to Jerusalem to teach his people. He will also be able to bring a tribute from my hand unto his God. Who can say what favor this may bring from One whose stories of blessings astound the mind. Beyond tribute from the king’s purse I also desire to send all those who would freely serve Him along with Ezra on his journey. Be it priest, singer, gatekeeper, servant, Levite, or any member of the people, give them leave to return to Jerusalem. Any personal tribute you desire to send of your own freewill will also be placed in Ezra’s hands to present before his God, with the certainty that your name will surely be spoken in His presence.”
The second letter was directed at any of the Jews who wanted to accompany Ezra back to his ancestral land. “To the Jews throughout the land of Babylon; I, Artaxerxes greet you in the name of your God. I am granting Ezra, my esteemed scribe, permission to lead as many of you as have a desire to serve your God back to the land of your fathers. You are to assemble and be ready within seven days to accompany him on his journey.”
The final letter the king planned to place in the hands of Ezra himself the next morning. It was more than just permission to go. It was a letter of authority to all the kings or leaders he might encounter on his way. It opened all the treasuries for Ezra and His God for whatever he may have need of, especially for sacrifices. It identified the gifts given by Artaxerxes and his Counselors and Ezra’s responsibility for those gifts. It was also a letter of protection from tributes and authority to set up a government that met with his God’s standards. In short, it was a letter of love and protection for Ezra.
“Artaxerxes, king of kings, to Ezra the priest, the scribe of the Law of the God of heaven. Peace. And now I make a decree that anyone of the people of Israel or their priests or Levites in my kingdom, who freely offers to go to Jerusalem, may go with you. For you are sent by the king and his seven counselors to make inquiries about Judah and Jerusalem according to the Law of your God, which is in your hand, and also to carry the silver and gold that the king and his counselors have freely offered to the God of Israel, whose dwelling is in Jerusalem, with all the silver and gold that you shall find in the whole province of Babylonia, and with the freewill offerings of the people and the priests, vowed willingly for the house of their God that is in Jerusalem. With this money, then, you shall with all diligence buy bulls, rams, and lambs, with their grain offerings and their drink offerings, and you shall offer them on the altar of the house of your God that is in Jerusalem. Whatever seems good to you and your brothers to do with the rest of the silver and gold, you may do, according to the will of your God. The vessels that have been given you for the service of the house of your God, you shall deliver before the God of Jerusalem. And whatever else is required for the house of your God, which it falls to you to provide, you may provide it out of the king’s treasury.
And I, Artaxerxes the king, make a decree to all the treasurers in the province Beyond the River: Whatever Ezra the priest, the scribe of the Law of the God of heaven, requires of you, let it be done with all diligence, up to 100 talents[c] of silver, 100 cors[d] of wheat, 100 baths[e] of wine, 100 baths of oil, and salt without prescribing how much. Whatever is decreed by the God of heaven, let it be done in full for the house of the God of heaven, lest his wrath be against the realm of the king and his sons. We also notify you that it shall not be lawful to impose tribute, custom, or toll on anyone of the priests, the Levites, the singers, the doorkeepers, the temple servants, or other servants of this house of God’
And you, Ezra, according to the wisdom of your God that is in your hand, appoint magistrates and judges who may judge all the people in the province Beyond the River, all such as know the laws of your God. And those who do not know them, you shall teach. Whoever will not obey the law of your God and the law of the king, let judgment be strictly executed on him, whether for death or for banishment or for confiscation of his goods or for imprisonment” (verses 12-26).
Ezra continued to pray for his king long into the night. When morning broke he was up and dressed in no time. He took great care with his appearance again this morning but his excitement moved the tasks along like water pouring from a tipped jug. He was at his post as soon as the guard opened the gate.
Artaxerxes was also early this morning. He was almost as excited as Ezra. He had news he knew Ezra desperately longed for. He also longed to see what his actions would mean to Ezra’s God. Would Ezra’s God show favor on Artaxerxes’ own thrown? That was certainly his hope but he had no idea how that favor would be demonstrated. One thing he was certain of is that Ezra’s God would not be angry with his answer so he need not fear retribution.
When Ezra entered the throne room the king called him to his side, as was his custom. Before any of the commanders presented their reports though Artaxerxes spoke directly to Ezra.
“I have considered your request and have an answer for you.” As he spoke he placed the scroll with his carefully written letter to Ezra into Ezra’s hands.
Ezra was not expecting a letter. He was stunned and looked to the king for instructions. The king smiled and nodded his head. “Read it” spoke the king in a kind voice.
Ezra broke the seal and began reading the letter. Tears filled his eyes as he made his way through the provisions in the letter, each bringing greater joy than the one before it. By the time he reached the end of the letter his beard was filled with the tears that flowed from his eyes. At last he looked up at the face of his king for confirmation.
Artaxerxes smiled again and nodded. After a moment he schooled his face into one of all business and spoke the day into order. “We are ready to proceed. Scribe, take down the report.”
Ezra quickly rerolled the scroll, wiped his face with this sleve, and took out his quill and scroll for the daily reports. He wrote each report with care and precision. Once all the commanders had departed Artaxerxes turned again to Ezra.
“I have dispatched letters to the Jews informing them of my decision and giving them seven days to decide if they will accompany you on your journey. My Counselors will be delivering whatever freewill gifts they choose by that time. Is there anything more that you should require for your journey?”
“My king has been more than generous. My God will see to any needs we have along the way. He will watch over us and guide us on our journey.”
“Then this, my friend, is your final day as my scribe. You will require time to speak with your people and personally present your case. Go in peace and may your God be with you on your journey.”
Ezra completed his final day as scribe to King Artaxerxes with joy and just a touch of sadness. He had grown very fond of the king and would miss seeing him. But his joy at seeing his homeland kept his spirit flying.
He spent the next four days speaking with every leader of Israel he could find. Some thought him foolish as their captivity was not so harsh as to propel escape. Some thought the king’s words might be a trick and were afraid to commit to such a ‘risky play.’ Others welcomed his ideas and took the king at his word. These last men would be the ones who would make the journey with Ezra and see what the Lord held in store for them. It was agreed that they would meet at the river that runs to Ahava and wait until all had assembled.
(to be continued)
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Father God, thank You for Your stories and for allowing me to enter into them with You. I don’t know if these were the actual words and attitudes of that day but they let me see Your hand at work. I would like to meet Ezra some day and ask him about this event. How he got so close to the king. If the king became a believer in You. And I would like to know if either Cyrus, Darius I, or Artaxerxes are in Heaven.
I look forward to continuing the story with You. Please continue to take me on that journey to Jerusalem with Ezra.