There’s much we can learn from Ezra’s example, summarised here in four lines.
First he ‘set his heart’ on something. It’s easy to drift aimlessly, tossed about by whims. However, it’s also possible to be fired up, working hard, yet aiming in the wrong direction. The apostle Paul warned, it’s ‘good to be zealous’(Galatians 4:18), but with the important caveat ‘in a good cause’(Galatians 4:18). Ezra and Paul both recognised the ultimate source behind all good causes: God. Paul urged the Romans to be ‘fervent in spirit; serving the Lord’(Romans 12:11). Likewise, Ezra had ‘set his heart’ to seek the Lord God. He would have known of Jeremiah’s letter to the Jewish exiles in Babylon, from where he emerged, which read, ‘when you shall search for me with all your heart. I will be found by you’(Jeremiah 29:13-14). He’d obviously taken that very seriously, and became ‘a ready scribe in the law of Moses, which Yahweh, the God of Israel, had given’(Ezra 7:6). In Ezra’s time God was especially revealed through ‘the law of Yahweh’, the Old Testament core, a revelation of God’s mind and his dealings with humanity – ‘God-breathed’(2 Timothy 3:16). The longest Psalm in the Bible is all about it, and begins ‘Blessed are those… who walk according to Yahweh’s law… who seek him with their whole heart’(Psalm 119:1-2).
Interestingly, however, Ezra lived quite a long time after the law books were given to the ancient Israelites. Emerging from Babylon, he was called to the post exilic Persian ruled province of Judea. Ezra had to discern how to interpret and apply God’s law in that new situation, as with all of us who come afterwards. Nevertheless, in essence God’s law stands ‘“forever”’(Isaiah 41:8; 1 Peter 1:25), even now, for those of us living under its new expression: ‘the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus’(Romans 8:2). He came to ‘“fulfill”’(Matthew 5:17) the law, as described in the Sermon on the Mount that follows, explained by Paul in the Romans passage (chapter 8), and prophesied by Jeremiah: ‘says Yahweh: I will put my law in their inward parts, and in their heart will I write it’(Jeremiah 31:33).
These passages emphasize an important thing, prominent in this study verse from Ezra too: ‘do it’. The Sermon on the Mount is a very challenging example of that. Likewise in Galatians chapter 5 (a parallel passage to Romans 8) Paul elaborates this fulfilled way further, explaining its expression is found in, ‘the fruit of the Spirit… love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faith(fullness), gentleness, and self-control’(Galatians 5:22-23). Under the ‘Spirit’(1 Corinthians 2:14)’s guiding eye, this God-breathed Scripture, which now includes the New Testament ‘Scriptures’(2 Peter 3:16), is ‘for instruction in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work’(2 Timothy 3:16-17).
Emphasizing doing is also part of Jesus’ great commission, ‘“teaching them to observe all things that I commanded you”’(Matthew 28:20), which brings us to Ezra’s next good example for us, ‘to teach’. Importantly doing comes before teaching: see, do, teach, in that order! Obviously this doesn’t mean that we have to be perfect before we can teach, but experience in doing (perhaps including how difficult it can be) is required. Nevertheless, Paul taught Timothy, ‘Pay attention to yourself, and to your teaching’(1 Timothy 4:16) – they should match, one demonstrating the other. Of course we’re not all public speakers like Ezra, Paul or Timothy, but we are called to ‘be teachers’(Hebrews 5:12) to ‘teach’(Deuteronomy 6:7) and ‘teaching’(Colossians 3:16) as we go about our lives, ‘building up as the need may be’(Ephesians 4:29) and ‘ready to give an answer’(1 Peter 3:15). Interestingly, one of Ezra’s roles seems to have been priming other Levites to help the people to ‘understand the law… they gave the sense, so that they understood the reading’(Nehemiah 8:7-8).
And the effect is conscientious, passionate, ‘transformed’(Romans 12:2) living, described in the books of Ezra and Nehemiah, invigorated by Jesus’ in the Sermon on the Mount, further elaborated in Paul’s life and teaching (and that of the other New Testament writers), then lived out and proclaimed by many similar examples in history since. We should ‘note those who walk in this way’(Philippians 3:17).
It’s a wonderful way, in which the gracious ‘hand’(Ezra 7:6,9&28, 8:18,22&31) of God is at work, with ‘“those who seek him”’(Ezra 8:22), as Ezra’s story shows. Of course that doesn’t mean we won’t face opposition at times, as the returnees from Babylon experienced, but ultimately ‘If God is for us, who can be against us?’(Romans 8:31).