Our church is 9 days into the second year of a two year Bible reading plan. In two years, this plan will have taken us through the Old Testament in two years and through the New Testament twice.
This second year is a little creative. We picked up our Old Testament reading with Ezra 1. Our second time through the New Testament began with Acts 1. In 2020, we begin the New Testament in Acts, keep reading all the way through Revelation and then finish the year reading the four Gospels.
But it is Ezra that has me…refreshed. I have read it a few times before. But I think the difference this time is that I am reading it prayerfully. I did not intend to read it prayerfully, but doing so has been one of those wonderful, providential surprises.
It begins with God stirring up the heart of the king of Persia. A few verses later, the collective heart of God’s people is, too, stirred up (cf. Ezra 1:1; 5). This helped me to pray for me and our church. Stir up means to have the eyes opened. The context here is about something God wants done. So my prayer has been to have our collective heart stirred up to what God wants done and then to do it.
The book is about God’s house, the temple in Jerusalem, being rebuilt. It is being done by the order of this foreign king and his blessing. After a couple of years, adversaries of Israel take notice of this rebuild. A new king of Persia is in place and these adversaries write a letter imploring him to have this rebuilding stopped. In their view, when this project is finished, the people of Israel will become strong and be a force to be reckoned with; “look at their history,” these adversaries implore (cf. Ezra 4:7-16).
The king orders then that the rebuilding cease, but God’s people do not cease. Instead, they tell him to check the records. By decree of the previous king, this rebuilding is to be done and not stopped. He checks the records, rescinds his own order and then orders these adversaries of Ezra 4 to pitch in with monies to help the completion of this great work! (cf. Ezra 6:1-12).
Then in Ezra 7 we get introduced to…Ezra. The hand of God was upon this man. And why? “For Ezra had set his heart to study the Law of the LORD, and to do it and to teach his statutes and rules in Israel” (7:6; 9-10; 28). What does this mean for own Bible study; gathering together each Sunday to hear Bible teaching; and, do not miss this, applying God’s Word to our lives?
Ezra is basically commissioned by the king to go to Jerusalem to get this job done with all the provisions he needs. Whatever Ezra asks for from anyone, he is to receive (Ezra 7:21-26). There is just one thing Ezra did not ask of the king: safety. He never asked the king to provide soldiers to protect Ezra and all with him as they made their way to Jerusalem. Listen to why: “For I was ashamed to ask the king for a band of soldiers and horsemen to protect us against the enemy on our way, since we had told the king, ‘The hand of our God is for good on all who seek him, and the power of his wrath is against all who forsake him'” (Ezra 8:22). He had told the king that God was with them and even in this confidence, Ezra led all with him to humble themselves before God and entreat him for his help all the way (Ezra 8:23). This humility and reliance upon God, reminding others of this reliance and to entreat God, seems to be absolutely necessary for leadership. What does this mean for our pastors, in caring for and leading local churches?
Then comes Ezra 9. It is really about repentance. God’s people enjoying once again God’s provision and care and grace, are once again sliding into the temptations of sin. What does Ezra do? He repents. But listen to this repentance. “O LORD, the God of Israel, you are just, for we are left a remnant that has escaped, as it is today. Behold, we are before you in our guilt, for none can stand before you because of this” (Ezra 9:15). Notice that Ezra says “our guilt.” Ezra has done nothing wrong. Yet, he does not pray that the people repent. He does not point the finger. Instead, he humbles himself and calls their guilt, our guilt. When their is sin in a local church, how should a pastor pray? How should a pastor be praying for the church he pastors?
I have seen these 9 chapters as 9 ways to start the new year.