Ezra the Scribe

This Ezra went up from Babylon: and he was a ready scribe in the law of Moses, which the LORD, the God of Israel, had given; and the king granted him all his request, according to the hand of the LORD his God upon him (Ezra 7:6).

Ezra proves to be a pivotal person in the history of Israel.

Ezra is a priest descended from Aaron through Zadok (cf. Ezra 7:1-5), but that is not touted as his claim to fame. Instead, it is his role as a “scribe skilled in the Law of Moses” which is prominently featured in his career (Ezra 7:6). He devoted his life to studying the Law of the LORD so that he could teach it to his fellow Israelites (Ezra 7:10); it was for this purpose that Artaxerxes king of Persia sent him to Jerusalem (cf. Ezra 7:11-28). The community of returned exiles recognizes this authority granted to Ezra and proves willing to change their behavior on account of his teachings and pleadings (cf. Ezra 9:1-10:44). The Israelites are listening to and heeding the message of the Law of Moses as read and taught by Ezra the scribe (cf. also Nehemiah 8:1-8). What is astounding is that such is the first recorded instance of such behavior since the days of Joshua; Ezra is the first person described in the Old Testament as a “scribe skilled in the Law of Moses.” How can that be?

Does this mean that there were no scribes skilled in the Law of Moses before Ezra? This is unlikely; there probably were some such scribes in Israel before the exile. For whatever reason they did not gain sufficient prominence to be noted in the text. They also were likely in the minority; even though God commanded the Levites to continually read the Law before the kings of the land (Deuteronomy 17:18-20) and before all the people at the Feast of Booths every seven years (Deuteronomy 31:10-13), the prophets condemned the priests for their negligence in teaching the people (e.g. Hosea 4:4-10). If priests were reading the Law, it certainly was not being reflected in the behavior of the kings or the people!

Perhaps because the Law was not being read as it should, or perhaps for other reasons, the prophets feature prominently in the days between Joshua and Ezra. God speaks directly to the kings and to the people through the prophets; the prophets were held in somewhat high esteem even though the people often did not heed their messages. God spoke through the prophets throughout the days of the kings, through the exile, and even after some of the people returned to the land. But even then there is a difference: certain questions are put aside until a priest should arrive with Urim and Thummim (cf. Ezra 2:63). The prophets Haggai and Zechariah exhort the people to finish the (second) Temple in 520 BCE; Malachi prophesies to the people at some point afterward. Otherwise we have no other recorded messages from any prophets at this time; by the second century BCE there is admission that there are no prophets in the land.

Ezra stands at this major juncture in Israelite history. The hand of the LORD is upon him in his diligence in studying the Law of Moses to teach the people. He is often reckoned to be the author of 1 and 2 Chronicles and Ezra; if he himself did not write them, someone very much like him or associated with him did. As such, he is one of the final “prophets” of the Old Testament period, yet one whose authority is vested in his understanding and explanation of the Law of Moses. From this point on the prophets fade; in their place come the lawyers and the scribes. Such figures feature prominently in the Gospels; Jesus chides and condemns them for their hypocrisy, their arrogance, and their inconsistencies, but never denigrates the profession itself or considers it unnecessary or unworthy (cf. Matthew 23:1-35). In fact, Jesus and the Apostles validate the role of the text and its interpreters; they are filled with the Holy Spirit, can prophesy, and yet their arguments and discussions throughout are based on texts and the proper interpretation of those texts. Consider any of the messages of the prophets by the “word of the LORD” compared to, say, Peter’s preaching in Acts 2:14-36, or even Paul in Acts 17:16-32. Texts and their interpretation feature much more prominently than they did during the days of the kings.

Ezra’s example should provide us with encouragement today. We also live during a time when there is no prophet in the land (cf. 1 Corinthians 13:8-10). We have not been granted new revelation since the end of the first century, and we have no reason to expect any new revelation until the Lord returns (cf. 2 Timothy 3:16-17, Jude 1:3). Yet, as with Israel in the fifth century BCE, so with us today: it is not as if God has left us without guidance or a way forward. We have the revelations regarding God and His purposes for mankind in the Bible; we can set our hearts to seek to know the will of God as revealed through Jesus Christ and His Apostles (cf. 2 Timothy 2:15, 3:16-17). We do not need a prophet to tell us the will of God for us today; we have that will already revealed in the Scriptures. It has been sufficient, is sufficient, and will continue to be sufficient to equip God’s people to conform to the image of Jesus to the glory and honor of God the Father until Jesus returns in triumph. It is for us to learn from the Good Book and seek to live what it says.

It is good to learn the message of the Bible, to seek to properly interpret it, and then put it into practice in life. Let us, like Ezra, set our hearts to understand the will of God, always seeking His wisdom and guidance, so that the hand of God may be upon us for good and that we may live so as to give glory to His name!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Rejecting God’s Words

And Samuel said, “Hath the LORD as great delight in burnt-offerings and sacrifices, as in obeying the voice of the LORD? Behold, to obey is better than sacrifice, and to hearken than the fat of rams. For rebellion is as the sin of witchcraft, and stubbornness is as idolatry and teraphim. Because thou hast rejected the word of the LORD, he hath also rejected thee from being king” (1 Samuel 15:22-23).

The time was right.

The Amalekites were a foul stench in the nostrils of the LORD. While He was trying to lead His people Israel to His mountain, the Amalekites presumed to attack Israel (Exodus 17:8). While Israel was victorious, God made sure that this indignity would not be forgotten (Exodus 17:9-14). It was decreed that day that Amalek would be utterly destroyed (Exodus 17:14-16).

It would take about four hundred years before the day would come when the LORD would fulfill this promise. After Saul the king had defeated the Philistines and many other enemies of Israel (cf. 1 Samuel 14), God told Samuel His will for Saul.

And Samuel said unto Saul, “The LORD sent me to anoint thee to be king over his people, over Israel: now therefore hearken thou unto the voice of the words of the LORD. Thus saith the LORD of hosts, I have marked that which Amalek did to Israel, how he set himself against him in the way, when he came up out of Egypt. Now go and smite Amalek, and utterly destroy all that they have, and spare them not; but slay both man and woman, infant and suckling, ox and sheep, camel and ass” (1 Samuel 15:1-3).

The command, as disturbing as it may seem to modern ears, is quite clear: utterly destroy Amalek. Men, women, children, and animals. Spare nothing.

So Saul went forth and began to carry out the command. He fought with Amalek and defeated them (1 Samuel 15:4-8). Yet, as it is written,

But Saul and the people spared Agag, and the best of the sheep, and of the oxen, and of the fatlings, and the lambs, and all that was good, and would not utterly destroy them: but everything that was vile and refuse, that they destroyed utterly (1 Samuel 15:9).

God was not pleased at all. He was sorry that Saul was made king, and Saul would pay dearly for this offense (1 Samuel 15:10-12). And yet what does Saul continue to say?

And Samuel came to Saul; and Saul said unto him, “Blessed be thou of the LORD: I have performed the commandment of the LORD” (1 Samuel 15:13).

And Saul said unto Samuel, “Yea, I have obeyed the voice of the LORD, and have gone the way which the LORD sent me, and have brought Agag the king of Amalek, and have utterly destroyed the Amalekites. But the people took of the spoil, sheep and oxen, the chief of the devoted things, to sacrifice unto the LORD thy God in Gilgal” (1 Samuel 15:20-21).

It sounds so holy and pious, and in the eyes of Saul, it was. Saul had gone out plenty of times to fight battles, and when he returned, he would devote all the best things to the LORD. Apparently, in his mind, however rebelliously intentioned or not, “to devote to destruction” meant “destroy the unworthy people and animals, and devote the rest of the spoil and animals to God at the Tabernacle.” Or, perhaps, Saul understood God’s command, but the people assumed that they were to take the best back to God, and Saul did not bother correcting them. Nevertheless, Saul was still convinced that he had done the will of the LORD.

Samuel devastates this view with 1 Samuel 15:22-23. Sacrifices offered in disobedience to God’s commands are vain. God would much rather have obedience than sacrifice. Rebelliousness is just as bad as witchcraft and idolatry. And, in the end, Saul had rejected God’s word. Therefore, Saul and his line were rejected for the kingship.

Yet this seems overly harsh. Rejecting the word of God? Did Saul not go out and fight the Amalekites because God said to do so? Had he not devoted to destruction all the unworthy things because God said to do so? Yes indeed. But God had commanded Saul to devote everything to destruction. By adapting God’s words Saul had invalidated the whole message. By adapting God’s words Saul had really rejected God’s words.

And this is the powerful lesson that we need to consider. It is very easy, when confronted with a difficult command or example, or when a given command seems like other commands but is not exactly the same, to adapt things a bit. It is easier to do all things consistently. When things get tough, and especially when God’s words are in direct opposition to the highly esteemed values and “virtues” of our society and culture, we find it easier to modify or mollify what God has said.

In doing so we may not think much of it. We may still feel that we are obeying the commandment of God. After all, it may be mostly like what He said. It might just be a “little different.” It is just “updated” to fit “our culture” and “our way of doing things.” No matter; it very likely is, in the eyes of God, a wholesale rejection of His Word.

We do well to remember that if we start adding parenthetical comments or force a passage to say something other than what it says to fit our view of other passages, we might very well be entirely changing God’s words. When God’s words get changed, they are no longer God’s words. The serpent in the Garden added one word to God’s two words, and they were no longer God’s words at all– they were a temptation, a snare, and death (cf. Genesis 3:3-4).

God’s words are powerful– they provide life (cf. Deuteronomy 8:3) and are the basis of the creation (Hebrews 11:3). We do well to respect God’s words and not attempt to modify them explicitly or through interpretation. We just might find ourselves in Saul’s position– rejected by God because we, in truth, rejected His words. Let us understand God’s will and not seek to adapt God’s will!

Ethan R. Longhenry