Saturday, July 18, 2015

EZRA+—An Illustrated Summary of Life Applications from Every Chapter of the Bible by G. Campbell Morgan

"On every page of the God-breathed writings are many thoughts that stretch out like long, clear arms of light across the darkness, discovering things otherwise hidden and illuminating wider areas than those of the immediate context. They are searchlights. From a multitude of these, I have selected one in each chapter of Scripture, for at least one central thought in every chapter should arrest the mind and affect the life," wrote G. Campbell Morgan, a wise, warm-hearted, careful Bible teacher who conducted a classic 3-year chapter-by-chapter study called Life Applications from Every Chapter of the Bible. Here are the fruits of that timeless study—summarized, illustrated, and amplified—on all 66 books of the Bible (posted one book at a time, cumulatively).

Ezra 1:1 "The Lord stirred up the spirit of Cyrus." To human observation God's purposes often seem delayed. The consistent message of the Bible is they are never abandoned, and from God's perspective, they are not delayed but right on time. The historical books before Ezra tell the story of the complete failure and breakup of a nation chosen by God for His high purposes. That nation had become a people scattered and peeled, having lost national position and power—and even a sense of national consciousness. Nevertheless, God still moved on toward His ultimate purpose of redemption, not only of the Jewish people, but of the human race through them by the Jewish Messiah. Through 70 years of captivity, by the very processes of suffering, He prepared a remnant to return, rebuild, and essentially hold the fort until the Messiah, the true Seed and Servant, would come at the perfect time. The history of this return to Jerusalem sets forth clearly the truth of God's supreme rule over all. He compelled the most unlikely instruments to accomplish His will. Babylon had carried away His people into captivity, and by so doing had fulfilled His purpose. They, however, treated the conquered nation with undue severity so in process of time, and in fulfillment of the distinct prophecy from Isaiah well over 100 years before, Cyrus the Persian broke the power of Babylon. In Ezra 1 we see Cyrus as chosen and commissioned by God to restore the Jewish people to their own land. Cyrus himself had an obvious sense of that reality. How constantly in human history God has compelled kings and rulers to carry out His sovereign will!

Ezra 2:70 "Now the priests and the Levites, some of the people, the singers, the gatekeepers and the temple servants lived in their cities, and all Israel in their cities." These words summarize the lengthy chapter that they close. It contains the register of those who, taking advantage of Cyrus's decree, turned their faces toward their homeland. The list proceeds in a definite order from the leaders downward. First the names are given of those immediately associated with Zerubbabel, a direct descendant of David and ancestor of the Greater David (verses 1-2). Then follow the names and numbers of families (3-35), the names of members of the priesthood (36-39), the list and numbers of the Levites (40-42), the temple servants (55-58, commonly believed to have descended from the Gibeonite con), the children of Solomon's servants (55-58), a number who had lost track of their genealogical ties (59-63), and finally the surprisingly paltry total of the people (under 50,000) and livestock. It is an interesting record, showing the mixed and representative nature of the returning remnant. The people thus returning are distinctly spoken of as "the men of the people of Israel" (verse 2). That reference clearly is not to the Northern Kingdom only, for it was the Southern Kingdom that Nebuchadnezzar had carried away. It apparently means that representatives of tribes from the Northern Kingdom also returned. Noticeable also is that relatively few Levites are named; 10 times as many priests compared to Levites returned.

Ezra 3:12 "The old men who had seen the first Temple wept with a loud voice when the foundation of this house was laid before their eyes, while many shouted aloud for joy." The leaders in this great movement of return were conscious of what really mattered in the life of the people. This chapter begins by telling us that as soon as they briefly settled in their cities, "the people gathered together as one man to Jerusalem" (verse 1). The first thing they did was establish the altar and observe the Feast of Tabernacles, the most joyful of all the feasts. Then they established all the other feasts and the divinely appointed order of daily worship. Notice their mysterious motivation: "for they were terrified because of the peoples of the lands" (verse 3). Different interpretations have been suggested, but the one that seems to suit the situation best is they were painfully aware of how much trouble their people got into before by neglecting the altar and adopting the idolatrous practices of surrounding peoples. To prevent a repetition of such failure, they immediately set up the true altar. (To their credit, the Jewish people have never returned to idolatry after the Babylonian Captivity.) The next step was rebuilding the Temple. The foundations were laid in the second year of their return, commemorated with fitting ceremonies and celebration. Then it was that the lamentations of the old men broke out, highlighted above. They realized that this Temple would be smaller and less magnificent than the Temple they remembered. We can sympathize with their feelings, but should recognize the danger. Regrets over the past that paralyze work in the present are always wrong. The backward look that discounts present activity blinds the eyes to the true value and significance of the present, which always take time and patience to discern.

Ezra 4:3 "You have no part with us in building a Temple to our God." This chapter tells about opposition to the Temple work by the neighboring Samaritans. It proved successful for a time. The first method of opposition was an offer of cooperation. Zerubbabel was asked to admit into partnership those who really were enemies of the work. It was a subtle peril. Human reasoning, acting on the level of policy merely, might be inclined to think there could be no harm, but only advantage in gaining help from any source. Men and women of faith have often fallen into that blunder by associating themselves closely with people who do not share their faith, and are therefore in the deepest sense opposed to their priorities. Zerubbabel and company were not deceived. They detected the peril at once and gave the well-reasoned response highlighted above. Those words reveal a principle of perpetual application and persistent urgency. God must be our God before we can build a House for Him. People who do not submit to Him can have no part in doing His work. It would be an affront to God and does injury to them by giving them a false sense of security. To have done many works for the King is of no value if, as Jesus concluded in the Sermon on the Mount, the King is obliged to say, "I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness" (Matthew 7:21-23).

Ezra 5:2 "With them were the prophets of God, helping them." This chapter sheds light on the true relationship between prophetic ministry and national life. The good work of building the Temple stopped for 16 years because of local opposition, so God led the prophets Haggai and Zechariah to tell the leaders and the people to press on with finishing the Temple. Judged by human standards, Zerubabbel and Joshua the High Priest were tempted to plead the difficulties of their situation and their need to obey the edict of the reigning king. Judged by the divine standard, they had no right to cease the work God called them to do. That is the special contribution the prophets of God are called to make to national life. They introduce into human thinking eternal realities that are all too easily forgotten: in this case that national strength consists in recognizing God's reign and relating rightly to it. Any government that forgets God is powerless to realize the highest conditions for its people. When all aspects of life are considered in the light of His revealed will and wisdom, they assume their proper proportions. Under the inspiration they received from Haggai's and Zechariah's biblical instruction, Zerubbabel and Joshua took up their work again on the new Temple and carried it through to completion. The opposition did not stop, but the prophets' ministry renewed the people's awareness of God's will,  and they went forward in spite of challenges from their enemies. A nation's moral life reaches the highest degree of strength when its people are rightly related to God and His purposes.

Ezra 6:14 "According to the commandment of the God of Israel, and according to the decree of Cyrus, Darius, and Artaxerxes, kings of Persia." The right to rebuild the Temple came directly from King Cyrus. The governor Tattenai, who was leading the opposition against the Temple work, either did not believe that Cyrus ever gave such a decree or thought it was long enough by now with a new king on the scene that the decree would be lost or buried in obscure records. The elders of the Jews, the eye of their God being upon them, persisted in the Temple reconstruction. Tattenai appealed to King Darius that a search for Cyrus's decree should be made and Darius agreed, rather than merely ruling immediately one way or another. He proved to be an instrument of God in the same way Cyrus was, for the search he authorized was thorough. We know that because we are told where Cyrus's decree was found. The search naturally began in the archives at Babylon, but it was not there. It was eventually found in a fortress town. Imagine how easily the search could have been abandoned! But under divine compulsion the search continued until Cyrus's decree was found, vindicating the Jewish elders. Later, another royal decree from the following Persian king, Artaxerxes, made possible the coming of Ezra and the beginning of a new spiritual movement in Israel.

Ezra 7:6 "A skilled scribe." This phrase, descriptive of Ezra, is connected with a new order in the life of the nation. Under Israel's united kingdom, a scribe was a royal secretary. Under the divided kingdom, the scribes had become men whose business it was to copy and to study the laws of the nation. With Ezra a new order began. The scribes now had as their chief business interpreting the Law of God and applying it to all the changing conditions of life in Israel, for new circumstances were constantly arising. As messengers of the will of God, they eventually took the place of the prophets, for Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi (who preached during Ezra's time) were the last prophets until the New Testament era 400 years later. The scribes did not receive new revelations, but instead explained and applied the old. Of this new order, Ezra was the founder and example. The word "skilled" highlighted above does not refer to Ezra's pen but to his mind. He was an expert in the exposition and application of God's Word. Notice Ezra's qualifications in verse 10: he "set his heart to study the Law of the Lord, to practice it, and to teach." Those were the priorities then, and they are the priorities now for Bible teachers explaining and applying "the Faith that the Lord has once for all entrusted to His people" (Jude 1:30).

Ezra 8:22 "I was ashamed to ask the king." Those words reveal the quiet strength and true greatness of Ezra. The journey before him and those who were about to accompany him was full of peril. Ezra was keenly aware of those potential problems, yet would not ask for help from an earthly king, however well-inclined that king might be. He said he was ashamed to do so because he had boasted to King Artaxerxes about the strength of the Lord God Almighty. That boast was by no means an empty one. To Ezra the matter of supreme importance was the honor of God in the mind of the king. The voluntary gifts of the king were welcome. They were expressions of the king's sense of the greatness of the God Ezra faithfully told him about. It would have been another matter if he asked the king to help him do what he had declared God was able to do for him. To ask for soldiers would have been to make a tacit confession of doubt in his own heart of God's ability or willingness to protect his enterprise. Ezra had no doubt so he made no such request. This is a good illustration of the dependence and independence of those who put their confidence in God. God never fails those who act in full dependence on Him, and so in complete independence of all others.

Ezra 9:4 "I sat there appalled until the evening offering." On Ezra's arrival in Jerusalem, officials there acquainted him with the failure and sin of the people. During the 80 or so years that elapsed since the return under Zerubbabel, there had been no return to idols, but there had been something close to it in the willful breaking of God's Law against intermarriage with the peoples of the land. The chief offenders had been the rulers themselves! When Ezra heard, he was filled with righteous indignation and profound grief. As the storm of his emotions subsided, in which he tore his garments and plucked at his beard, he settled into silent astonishment until the evening offering. Then he fell upon his knees before God and poured out his soul in prayer. That prayer is recorded in this chapter. Ezra identified himself with the people as he spoke of "our sins...our guilt." He reviewed the nation's history in contemplation as knelt before God, and saw it had been one long story of failure and consequent disaster. He then remembered and spoke of God's grace in making possible the return of the remnant through the favor of the Persian kings. Then the surging sorrow of his heart concerning the future and repeating past mistakes found expression in free and full confession. At last, without any petition for deliverance, he cast himself and the people upon God, recognizing His righteousness and their inability to stand before Him. This is a revelation of the only attitude in which a man may become a mediator: he must first have a biblical sense of sin, which is the outcome a deeper sense of the righteousness and grace of God. It finds expression in a confession of sin in which he identifies himself with the sinners.

Ezra 10:4 "Be of good courage and do it." The sincerity and passion of Ezra's vicarious repentance produced immediate results. The people had gathered about him during the long hours of the day, and became painfully aware of the enormity of their sin as they saw this godly man so deeply affected by it. At last one of their number, Shecaniah, spoke to Ezra, acknowledging the sin and suggesting the remedy. Using the words highlighted above, he urged Ezra to courageous action. It was true advice Ezra had been waiting for. He immediately responded, first calling them into a sacred covenant that they would stop their evil practice and carry out their covenant with fair and impartial justice. All the marriages contracted with the women of the land were annulled. They were legally declared invalid because the men had no right to enter into them. God's Law protected the Messianic line, but once the Messiah came, the New Testament or Covenant declared a new Law. One example of the difference the Gospel makes is "the unbelieving husband is sanctified through his wife, and the unbelieving wife is sanctified through her believing husband; for otherwise your children are unclean, but now they are holy" (1 Corinthians 7:14). That does not mean unbelieving spouses and children automatically become believers, but it reassures believers that they are not in a defiling situation like the people Ezra was ministering to. By following through on their covenant, those people were brought back into the place of separation. How widespread their sin was may be gathered from the list of the names that close this chapter. Priests, Levites, rulers, and people in general had been guilty. None was exempt from the reformation, which was carried out with complete thoroughness. Such action is the only satisfactory expression of sorrow over sin. The man who sets "his heart to study the Law of the Lord, to practice it, and to teach" (Ezra 7:10) will invariably bring himself into places where sorrow enters his heart, and intrepid courage is the only remedy for all concerned.

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