This is the first in a new series, which takes it's title from the hymn "A Mighty Fortress is Our God" by Martin Luther. In this series, we hope to see in a fresh way what the Bible says about itself. How do you study the Bible? How do you use the Bible? What is the blessing in the Bible? What is the point of the Bible? Hopefully these questions and more will be answered through this series. After all, this book that we hold in our hands is so precious, and make us different from the rest of the world.
We begin with Ezra in the Old Testament. At this point in Israel's history, the people of God are not in the Promised Land. They are in Babylonia, which is ruled by Persia, and are far, far away from Jerusalem. We are introduced to the man Ezra (Ezra 7:1). 4 things are emphasised about him:
A genealogy is provided (Ezra 7:1-5). Most of us don't know how to read genealogies and just gloss over it. But genealogies serve a purpose in the Bible. They give us important background that the reader needs to know. From this, we know that Ezra hails from Aaron the chief priest (Ezra 7:5). He is a Levite, therefore, he is a priest.
He was a scribe (Ezra 7:6a). He was also trained to be a scribe, "skilled in the Law of Moses". What's so special and important? Remember that is a generation before typefacing. Print media began only in the 15th Century. Therefore, scribes were important, because it was their job to copy the scriptures in order to pass it down. Ezra was one who was not only a priest, but also skilled and knowledgeable about the Scripture.
The king (Artaxerxes) granted him all that he asked (Ezra 7:6b). Artaxerxes is the ruler of a great empire, but also grants Ezra permission to go back, and teach returning exiles their Scripture.
Ezra was one who had the favour of the Lord (Ezra 7:6c). Ezra was the kind of man who had moved past being a Sunday Christian, a surface follower of God. He was one who tried to follow the Lord and obey Him, and God put certain blessings in His way.
The first 6 verses of this chapter introduce Ezra to us. We see that Ezra from a certain family, with certain training, sent on a certain mission, with the help of a certain God.
This Ezra went up to Jerusalem in a 4 month journey in the seventh year of Artaxerxes the king, and brought with him some of the people of Israel (Ezra 7:7). We are not told their names, but we are told the specific jobs and functions that they had. The priests and Levites, singers, gatekeepers and temple servants went up with Ezra. Though the physical structure of the temple was already established, the people that were necessary for the function and operation of the temple still needed to be in the temple to run the worship. The temple was not just the building, but the people needed to be there to, in some sense, be the temple. These people were sent back for this reason. The writer of the text repeatedly emphasises the fundamental reason for Ezra's good success. Seen in Ezra 7:6b and Ezra 7:9, we are told that "the good hand of his God was on him".
Why? Ezra 7:10 gives us a clue, and is a key verse in this passage, and in our study. This verse follows from the first 9 verses ("for"). This verse tells us that "Ezra set his heart to study the Law of the Lord ...". What kind of training did Ezra undergo to prepare himself to lead a mission to revive the nation of Israel? What kind of person would you pick to do this executive job? From this passage, we see that God did not choose one with organizational experience or strategic planning. He picked not just a priest, but a "Bible study priest". God put His good hand on a certain kind of man -- one that prepared to be a Bible reader and a Bible teacher.
Let us take a closer look at this verse. What did Ezra set his heart on? He sets his heart on study. It did not merely mean that Ezra decided and planned to study. In the OT, the heart has a slightly different meaning. Today, we think of the heart as the seat of emotion and our mind as the place of cognition and intellect. But the Bible speaks of the heart as the seat of personality, the whole person. For the Bible to say that Ezra set his heart, it meant that Ezra decided to be about the Scriptures and nothing else. He resolved to build his life around it, and be a certain kind of person, one who memorised, meditated, applied and read Scripture inside out.
What was the object of his study? It was the Law of the LORD. The Law is the Law of Moses, but notice that here, the covenantal name of God is used. "LORD" when written in CAPS in our Bibles is the covenantal name of God that His people used. This was the special name of God and it speaks of a personal relationship between the people and this God. Thus, this verse shows us that Ezra was not a lawyer, one who read and studied the Law academically. He studied the Law as one who knew the LORD.
In the last part of Ezra 7:10, we read of how Ezra not only set his heart to study the Law of the Lord, he also resolved to do it and focused on teaching the statues and rules in Israel. The statutes and rules were not just the moral obligations. He did not merely seek to teach the people to be good people, but wanted to teach the people to be a people of God. After all, the Law reveals God's character, and shows how the kind of people that followed this God should live.
If we turn over to Neh 8:1-8, we read of an incident after Ezra returns to Jerusalem. From these verses, we want to see what the Bible teaches us about studying the Bible through the example and experience of Ezra.
|Verse||What can we learn about studying the Bible?|
|"And all the people gathered as one man into the square before the Water Gate. And they told Ezra the scribe to bring the Book of the Law of Moses that the LORD had commanded Israel."
|Bible study is a communal act. It does not mean that you cannot study on your own,because Ezra did study it by himself. Yet in this verse, we read of how the people gathered in a public place and were united around the action of reading Scripture. This was not a symbolic gathering, but they actually gathered in a physical place. The reading of Scripture was the reason that the people gathered "as one man". As pastor Mark Dever said, there is no church, until it is gathered. The people of God only become the people of God when they are gathered. They are scattered for the rest of the time into the world.|
|So Ezra the priest brought the Law before the assembly, both men and women and all who could understand what they heard, won the first day of the seventh month.
|Men and women, and all who could understand gathered to study the Bible. In the OT, we are told that the men and women both gather. Women were not excluded! The only distinguishing feature that the writer wanted to highlight, was comprehension! Even the children could participate, as long as they understood. This was not a gathering to take stock of people, but it was to help people understand the Scripture. They came as people who are ignorant, but were to leave as those who understood.|
|And he read from it facing the square before the Water Gate from early morning until midday, in the presence of the men and the women and those who could understand. And the ears of all the people were attentive to the Book of the Law.
|Ezra just read out the Law. We are also told (to some detail) that he read facing them,from early morning to midday. This was easily six hours of reading, and we are told that these people were attentive. Consider what it would mean for an entire community to come together and pay so much attention to the words that are being read. This was a community that gathered specifically with one aim -- to hear God, as His words are being read. What kind of hearts are represented here? These are hungry hearts, so eager to hear God speak that they're willing to put a stop to their usual schedules, and possibly forgo food. Imagine the kind of joy and excitement!|
|And Ezra the scribe stood on a wooden platform that they had made for the purpose. And beside him stood Mattithiah, Shema, Anaiah, Uriah, Hilkiah, and Maaseiah on his right hand, and Pedaiah, Mishael, Malchijah, Hashum, Hashbaddanah, Zechariah, and Meshullam on his left hand.
|Ezra stood on a wooden platform, with people behind him and on his left and right. Let's not get thrown off by this list of names! We can infer from this that they were definitely taking turns to read Scripture. They also prepared by building a wooden platform ahead of time. There was preparation devoted to this occasion. God's Word always comes with preparation. Do you understand how important His Word is? When we do, we will do the necessary preparation! How often do we come to God's Word so unprepared, without preparing a space in our hearts for it?|
|And Ezra opened the book in the sight of all the people, for he was above all the people, and as he opened it all the people stood.
|When the book was open, the people stood. They responded with reverence to the opening of the Word. Are you reverent to God's Word? Do you respect the God of Scripture?|
|And Ezra blessed the LORD, the great God, and all the people answered, “Amen, Amen,” lifting up their hands. And they bowed their heads and worshiped the LORD with their faces to the ground.
|Ezra blessed the LORD, the great God, and the people answered. Ezra's role was to praise God, and they were meant to echo and agree with what was being said. THey understood what was being said. Their comprehension led them to echo their Amens, and fueled their worship. They were not just stoic and passive listeners, but we are told that they lifted their hands, bowed their hands and worshiped God. Their faces were bowed to the ground with great humility and contrition. And this was corporate worship. The people were not merely engrossed and focused on their own feelings, as we are often inclined to do today. They gathered and were so much about God, not about themselves. Their Bible study was worshipful.|
|Also Jeshua, Bani, Sherebiah, Jamin, Akkub, Shabbethai, Hodiah, Maaseiah, Kelita, Azariah, Jozabad, Hanan, Pelaiah, the Levites, helped the people to understand the Law, while the people remained in their places.
|There were also those who sought to help the people to understand the law. They wentoff the stage, and probably answered questions and explained it in smaller group, in order to help them contextualise and apply.|
|They read from the book, from the Law of God, clearly, and they gave the sense, so that the people understood the reading.
|They read from the Law, with interpretation or paragraph by paragraph (i.e. clearly). They did so so that the people understood the text ("gave the sense"). By reading the text, they presented it in the clearest form, and also gave the essence of the text. Everyone who came therefore, walked away with comprehension and a transformed and renewed mind. There is a change, because they understood something that they did not understand it before. You can read it out loud and word for word, but still miss the sense. The key here is to get the sense of the text, its thesis and main essence. When we do so in our Bible studies, we are merely doing what Ezra did, what Jesus did, and what Christians throughout the world have done.|
From these verses and the life of Ezra, we learn that studying the Bible is setting your heart on God’s word to do it (Ez 7:1-10). What does a life spent with a heart set on studying and obeying God's Word look like? Years ago, there was a man who grew up loving the word. As a child, he loved spending time in the temple, and even his parents could not find Him. This man sought to obey God completely, even when it meant living a life that looked so different from the rest of the world. When he was tempted by Satan, he quoted from the same passage of Scripture not only once, but three times. When he gathered his followers and disciples, he focused on teaching them Scripture. He commonly told his disciples that he came not to abolish the law but to fulfill it. As he hung dying on the cross, he spat out the words of Ps 22. Even when he came back to life, he focused on helping the disciples to understand Scripture.
In the Old Testament, we saw a good example, but that's not the point of this study. We are not meant to merely go away and attempt to be like Ezra. In these verses we see how it points to Jesus, the only man who wholly set his heart on the law of the LORD all the days of His life. He obeyed and fulfilled Josh 1:8. He believed in 2 Tim 3:16, and was the man described in Ps 119. Our study of the Bible bring us to Jesus, for all the Scriptures are about Him.
Do you know what you have in your hands? Does it stir your heart with joy to know that the Bible contains the Word of God, and He desires to speak to us? How precious it is then, that we have these wonderful words of life! May this thought fill us with joy, and stir us on to set our heart on studying, doing and teaching others the words of God.