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

Ezra the Scribe

Reading with Understanding

And they read in the book, in the law of God, distinctly; and they gave the sense, so that they understood the reading (Nehemiah 8:8).

Christianity is designed to be about Jesus the Christ, the means by which a person can become more like Him (Romans 8:29, Galatians 2:20, 1 John 2:6). Yet our knowledge regarding Jesus comes from the revelations given within the New Testament (John 20:30-31, John 21:24-25, 2 Timothy 3:16-17). Our understanding of the context of who Jesus was, why He came, and the story of God’s people before Jesus comes from the revelations contained within the Old Testament (Romans 15:4, Galatians 3:19-25, 2 Peter 1:19-21). Therefore, while our faith must be in Jesus the Christ, we must work diligently to understand the revelations contained in both the Old and New Testaments so that we may know what we believe and be better equipped to accomplish the will of our Lord (2 Timothy 2:15, 3:16-17, 2 Peter 3:18)!

An important part of our faith, therefore, involves reading the Bible. Yet, as is made evident in the days of Nehemiah, it is not enough just to read the Bible. The message of the Bible must also be understood and applied to the reader’s day!

About a thousand years had passed between Moses’ receiving the Law from God and Ezra’s reading of the Law before the assembled congregation of Israel. In those intervening years Israel had entered the land of Canaan, lived under judges and kings, were exiled from the land, and had returned to it. While we do not know the extent of the differences, there is little doubt that the precise language and terminology of the 1000-year-old law would be somewhat unfamiliar to its “new” audience, just as 500 and 1000 year old books use words and terminology unfamiliar to us.

Therefore, according to the commandment, the Law was read before the people (Deuteronomy 30:10-11). Yet, in order for the people to completely understand what was written, Ezra and his associates gave the sense of the reading (Nehemiah 8:7-8). Unclear words would be explained. Contexts would be clarified. Direct applications might have been provided. Thanks to the hard work of Ezra and his associates, the people were able to walk away with a better understanding of what God commanded than they had before!

We believe that God provided the message of the Bible for people of all generations and nations to understand what He has accomplished in His eternal plan regarding Jesus Christ (Romans 10:17, 1 Corinthians 2:6-16, Ephesians 3:11). Yet the Bible is a book written between 1900-3500 years ago describing events that happened between 1900 and at least 8000 years ago in languages different from what we speak and in vastly different cultures than our own.

Therefore, the question of the eunuch remains apt: how can I understand what I read, except some one shall guide me? (Acts 8:30-31). In order to understand the Scriptures, we must understand a little bit about the people and places regarding whom and to whom they are written. Some must spend much time learning and studying the original languages to provide meaningful and acceptable translations of the texts, rendering them in the language of people today so that it can be understood. Much can be gained from the diligent study of others who have gained insights regarding the contexts, cultures, languages, and other circumstances that frame the Biblical world.

In all these matters, as before, the text of Scripture must stand above all others. In the end, the Bible reveals the words of God, and the commentaries and studies of men remain uninspired (2 Timothy 3:16-17). Nevertheless, it is a good work to not just read the Scriptures, but to diligently strive to understand the meaning and to apply the message appropriately to the present day. Let us learn more of Jesus Christ and of God’s people in the Scriptures so that we can become better disciples of Christ and citizens of His Kingdom!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Reading with Understanding