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Ezra vii. 1-10.

Although the seventh chapter of "Ezra" begins with no other indication of time than the vague phrase "Now after these things," nearly sixty years had elapsed between the events recorded in the previous chapter and the mission of Ezra here described. We have no history of this long period. Zerubbabel passed into obscurity without leaving any trace of his later years. He had accomplished his work; the temple had been built; but the brilliant Messianic anticipations that had clustered about him at the outset of his career were to await their fulfilment in a greater Son of David, and people could afford to neglect the memory of the man who had only been a sort of temporary trustee of the hope of Israel. We shall come across indications of the effects of social trouble and religious decadence in the state of Jerusalem as she appeared at the opening of this new chapter in her history. She had not recovered a vestige of her ancient civic splendour; the puritan rigour with which the returned exiles had founded a Church among the ruins of her political greatness had been relaxed, so that the one distinguishing feature of the humble colony was in danger of melting away in easy and friendly associations108 with neighbouring peoples. When it came, the revival of zeal did not originate in the Holy City. It sprang up among the Jews at Babylon. The earlier movement in the reign of Cyrus had arisen in the same quarter. The best of Judaism was no product of the soil of Palestine: it was an exotic. The elementary "Torah" of Moses emerged from the desert, with the learning of Egypt as its background, long before it was cultivated at Jerusalem to blossom in the reformation of Josiah. The final edition of The Law was shaped in the Valley of the Euphrates, with the literature and science of Babylon to train its editors for their great task, though it may have received its finishing touches in Jerusalem. These facts by no means obscure the glory of the inspiration and Divine character of The Law. In its theology, in its ethics, in its whole spirit and character, the Pentateuch is no more a product of Babylonian than of Egyptian ideas. Its purity and elevation of character speak all the more emphatically for its Divine origin when we take into account its corrupt surroundings; it was like a white lily growing on a dung-heap.

Still it is important to notice that the great religious revival of Ezra's time sprang up on the plains of Babylon, not among the hills of Judah. This involves two very different facts—the peculiar spiritual experience with which it commenced, and the special literary and scientific culture in the midst of which it was shaped.

First, it originated in the experience of the captivity, in humiliation and loss, and after long brooding over the meaning of the great chastisement. The exiles were like poets who "learn in sorrow what they teach in song." This is apparent in the pathetic psalms of the same period, and in the writings of the visionary of109 Chebar, who contributed a large share to the new movement in view of the re-establishment of religious worship at Jerusalem.

Thus Jerusalem was loved by the exiles, the temple pictured in detail to the imagination of men who never trod its sacred courts, and the sacrificial system most carefully studied by people who had no means of putting it in practice. No doubt The Law now represented an intellectual rather than a concrete form of religion. It was an ideal. So long as the real is with us, it tends to depress the ideal by its material bulk and weight. The ideal is elevated in the absence of the real. Therefore the pauses of life are invaluable; by breaking through the iron routine of habit, they give us scope for the growth of larger ideas that may lead to better attainments.

Secondly, this religious revival appeared in a centre of scientific and literary culture. The Babylonians "had cultivated arithmetic, astronomy, history, chronology, geography, comparative philology, and grammar."7272   Rawlinson, "Ezra and Nehemiah," p. 2. In astronomy they were so advanced that they had mapped out the heavens, catalogued the fixed stars, calculated eclipses, and accounted for them correctly. Their enormous libraries of terra-cotta, only now being unearthed, testify to their literary activity. The Jews brought back from Babylon the names of the months, the new form of letters used in writing their books, and many other products of the learning and science of the Euphrates. Internally the religion of Israel is solitary, pure, Divine. Externally the literary form of it, and the physical conception of the universe which it embodies, owe not a little to the light which110 God had bestowed upon the people of Babylon; just as Christianity, in soul and essence the religion of Jesus of Nazareth, was shaped in theory by the thought, and in discipline by the law and order, with which God had endowed the two great European races of Greece and Rome.

The chronicler introduces Ezra with a brief sketch of his origin and a bare outline of his expedition to Jerusalem.7373   Ezra vii. 1-10. He then next transcribes a copy of the edict of Artaxerxes which authorised the expedition.7474   Ezra vii. 11-26. After this he inserts a detailed account of the expedition from the pen of Ezra himself, so that here the narrative proceeds in the first person—though, in the abrupt manner of the whole book, without a word of warning that this is to be the case.7575   Ezra vii. 27-ix.

In the opening verses of Ezra vii. the chronicler gives an epitome of the genealogy of Ezra, passing over several generations, but leading up to Aaron. Ezra, then, could claim a high birth. He was a born priest of the select family of Zadok, but not of the later house of high-priests. Therefore the privileges which are assigned to that house in the Pentateuch cannot be accounted for by ascribing ignoble motives of nepotism to its publisher. Though Ezra is named "The Priest," he is more familiarly known to us as "The Scribe." The chronicler calls him "a ready scribe" (or, a scribe skilful) "in the law of Moses, which the Lord God of Israel had given." Originally the title "Scribe" was used for town recorders and registrars of the census. Under the later kings of Judah, persons bearing this name were attached to the court as the111 writers and custodians of state documents. But these are all quite distinct from the scribes who appeared after the exile. The scribes of later days were guardians and interpreters of the written Torah, the sacred law. They appeared with the publication and adoption of the Pentateuch. They not only studied and taught this complete law; they interpreted and applied its precepts. In so doing they had to pronounce judgments of their own. Inasmuch as changing circumstances necessarily required modifications in rules of justice, while The Law could not be altered after Ezra's day, great ingenuity was required to reconcile the old law with the new decisions. Thus arose sophistical casuistry. Then in "fencing" The Law the scribes added precepts of their own to prevent men from coming near the danger of transgression.

Scribism was one of the most remarkable features of the later days of Israel. Its existence in so much prominence showed that religion had passed into a new phase, that it had assumed a literary aspect. The art of writing was known, indeed, in Egypt and Babylon before the exodus; it was even practised in Palestine among the Hittites as early as Abraham. But at first in their religious life the Jews did not give much heed to literary documents. Priestism was regulated by traditional usages rather than by written directions, and justice was administered under the kings according to custom, precedent, and equity. Quite apart from the discussion concerning the antiquity of the Pentateuch, it is certain that its precepts were neither used nor known in the time of Josiah, when the reading of the roll discovered in the temple was listened to with amazement. Still less did prophetism rely on literary resources. What need was there of a book when the112 Spirit of God was speaking through the audible voice of a living man? At first the prophets were men of action. In more cultivated times they became orators, and then their speeches were sometimes preserved—as the speeches of Demosthenes were preserved—for future reference, after their primary end had been served. Jeremiah found it necessary to have a scribe, Baruch, to write down his utterances. This was a further step in the direction of literature; and Ezekiel was almost entirely literary, for his prophecies were most of them written in the first instance. Still they were prophecies; i.e., they were original utterances, drawn directly from the wells of inspiration. The function of the scribes was more humble—to collect the sayings and traditions of earlier ages; to arrange and edit the literary fragments of more original minds. Their own originality was almost confined to their explanations of difficult passages, or their adaptation of what they received to new needs and new circumstances. Thus we see theology passing into the reflective stage: it is becoming historical; it is being transformed into a branch of archæology. Ezra the Scribe is nervously anxious to claim the authority of Moses for what he teaches. The robust spirit of Isaiah was troubled with no such scruple. Scribism rose when prophecy declined. It was a melancholy confession that the fountains of living water were drying up. It was like an aqueduct laboriously constructed in order to convey stored water to a thirsty people from distant reservoirs. The reservoirs may be full, the aqueduct may be sound; still who would not rather drink of the sparkling stream as it springs from the rock? Moreover scribism degenerated into rabbinism, the scholasticism of the Jews. We may see its counterpart in the Catholic scholasticism which drew supplies113 from patristic tradition, and again in Protestant scholasticism—which came nearer to the source of inspiration in the Bible, and yet which stiffened into a traditional interpretation of Scripture, confining its waters to iron pipes of orthodoxy.

But some men refuse to be thus tied to antiquarianism. They dare to believe that the Spirit of God is still in the world, whispering in the fancy of little children, soothing weary souls, thundering in the conscience of sinners, enlightening honest inquirers, guiding perplexed men of faith. Nevertheless we are always in danger of one or other of the two extremes of formal scholasticism and indefinite mysticism. The good side of the scribes' function is suggestive of much that is valuable. If God did indeed speak to men of old "in divers portions and in divers manners,"7676   Heb. i. 1. what He said must be of the greatest value to us, for truth in its essence is eternal. We Christians have the solid foundation of a historical faith to build upon, and we cannot dispense with our gospel narratives and doctrinal epistles. What Christ was, what Christ did, and the meaning of all this, is of vital importance to us; but it is chiefly important because it enables us to see what He is to-day—a Priest ever living to make intercession for us, a Deliverer who is even now able to save unto the uttermost all who come unto God by Him, a present Lord who claims the active loyalty of every fresh generation of the men and women for whom He died in the far-off past. We have to combine the concrete historical religion with the inward, living, spiritual religion to reach a faith that shall be true both objectively and subjectively—true to the facts of the universe, and true to personal experience.

114 Ezra accomplished his great work, to a large extent, because he ventured to be more than a scribe. Even when he was relying on the authority of antiquity, the inspiration which was in him saved him from a pedantic adherence to the letter of the Torah as he had received it. The modification of The Law when it was reissued by the great scribe, which is so perplexing to some modern readers, is a proof that the religion of Israel had not yet lost vitality and settled down into a fossil condition. It was living; therefore it was growing, and in growing it was casting its old shell and evolving a new vesture better adapted to its changed environment. Is not this just a signal proof that God had not deserted His people?

Ezra is presented to us as a man of a deeply devout nature. He cultivated his own personal religion before he attempted to influence his compatriots. The chronicler tells us that he had prepared (directed) his heart, to seek the law of the Lord and to do it. With our haste to obtain "results" in Christian service, there is danger lest the need of personal preparation should be neglected. But work is feeble and fruitless if the worker is inefficient, and he must be quite as inefficient if he has not the necessary graces as if he had not the requisite gifts. Over and above the preparatory intellectual culture—never more needed than in our own day—there is the all-essential spiritual training. We cannot effectually win others to that truth which has no place in our own hearts. Enthusiasm is kindled by enthusiasm. The fire must be first burning within the preacher himself if he would light it in the breasts of other men. Here lies the secret of the tremendous influence Ezra exerted when he came to Jerusalem. He was an enthusiast for the law he so zealously advocated.115 Now enthusiasm is not the creation of a moment's thought; it is the outgrowth of long meditation, inspired by deep, passionate love. It shows itself in the experience expressed by the Psalmist when he said, "While I mused the fire burned."7777   Psalm xxxix. 3. Ours is not an age of musing. But if we have no time to meditate over the great verities of our faith, the flames will not be kindled, and in place of the glowing fire of enthusiasm we shall have the gritty ashes of officialism.

Ezra turned his thoughts to the law of his God; he took this for the subject of his daily meditation, brooding over it until it became a part of his own thinking. This is the way a character is made. Men have larger power over their thoughts than they are inclined to admit; and the greatness or the meanness, the purity or the corruption of their character depends on the way in which that power is used. Evil thoughts may come unbidden to the purest mind—for Christ was tempted by the devil; but such thoughts can be resisted, and treated as unwelcome intruders. The thoughts that are welcomed and cherished, nourished in meditation, and sedulously cultivated—these bosom friends of the inner man determine what he himself is to become. To allow one's mind to be treated as the plaything of every idle reverie—like a boat drifting at the mercy of wind and current without a hand at the helm—is to court intellectual and moral shipwreck. The first condition of achieving success in self-culture is to direct the course of the thinking aright. St. Paul enumerated a list of good and honourable subjects to bid us "think on" such things.7878   Phil. iv. 8.

The aim of Ezra's meditation was threefold. First, he would "seek the law of the Lord," for the teacher116 must begin with understanding the truth, and this may involve much anxious searching. Possibly Ezra had to pursue a literary inquiry, hunting up documents, comparing data, arranging and harmonising scattered fragments. But the most important part of his seeking was his effort to find the real meaning and purpose of The Law. It was in regard to this that he would have to exercise his mind most earnestly. Secondly, his aim was "to do it." He would not attempt to preach what he had not tried to perform. He would test the effect of his doctrine on himself before venturing to prescribe it for others. Thus he would be most sure of escaping a subtle snare which too often entraps the preacher. When the godly man of business reads his Bible, it is just to find light and food for his own soul; but when the preacher turns the pages of the sacred book, he is haunted by the anxiety to light upon suitable subjects for his sermons. Every man who handles religious truths in the course of his work is in danger of coming to regard those truths as the tools of his trade. If he succumbs to this danger it will be to his own personal loss, and then even as instruments in his work the degraded truths will be blunt and inefficient, because a man can never know the doctrine until he has begun to obey the commandment. If religious teaching is not to be pedantic and unreal, it must be interpreted by experience. The most vivid teaching is a transcript from life. Thirdly, Ezra would "teach in Israel statutes and judgments." This necessarily comes last—after the meditation, after the experience. But it is of great significance as the crown and finish of the rest. Ezra is to be his nation's instructor. In the new order the first place is not to be reserved for a king; it is assigned to a schoolmaster.

117This will be increasingly the case as knowledge is allowed to prevail, and as truth is permitted to sway the lives of men and fashion the history of communities.

So far we have Ezra's own character and culture. But there was another side to his preparation for his great life-work of which the chronicler took note, and which he described in a favourite phrase of Ezra's, a phrase so often used by the scribe that the later writer adopted it quite naturally. Ezra's request to be permitted to go up to Jerusalem with a new expedition is said to have been granted him by the king "according to the hand of the Lord his God upon him."7979   Ezra vii. 6. Thus the chronicler here acknowledges the Divine hand in the whole business, as he has the inspired insight to do again and again in the course of his narrative. The special phrase thus borrowed from Ezra is rich in meaning. In an earlier passage the chronicler noticed that "the eye of their God was upon the elders of the Jews."8080   Ezra v. 5. Now, in Ezra's phrase, it is the hand of his God that is on Ezra. The expression gives us a distinct indication of the Divine activity. God works, and, so to speak, uses His hand. It also suggests the nearness of God. The hand of God is not only moving and acting; it is upon Ezra. God touches the man, holds him, directs him, impels him; and, as he shows elsewhere, Ezra is conscious of the influence, if not immediately, yet by means of a devout study of the providential results. This Divine power even goes so far as to move the Persian monarch. The chronicler ascribes the conduct of successive kings of Persia to the immediate action of God. But here it is connected118 with God's hand being on Ezra. When God is holding and directing His servants, even external circumstances are found to work for their good, and even other men are induced to further the same end. This brings us to the kernel, the very essence of religion. That was not found in Ezra's wisely chosen meditations; nor was it to be seen in his devout practices. Behind and beneath the man's earnest piety was the unseen but mighty action of God; and here, in the hand of his God resting upon him, was the root of all his religious life. In experience the human and the Divine elements of religion are inextricably blended together; but the vital element, that which originates and dominates the whole, is the Divine. There is no real, living religion without it. It is the secret of energy and the assurance of victory. The man of true religion is he who has the hand of God resting upon him, he whose thought and action are inspired and swayed by the mystic touch of the Unseen.

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