The set heart of Ezra


The return of the Jews from captivity

For Ezra had set his heart to study the law of the LORD and to practice it, and to teach His statutes and ordinances in Israel.”

Ezra 7:10

The Old Testament book of Ezra chronicles the return of Jews to their homeland in Canaan from Babylonian captivity, the first group under the leadership of Zerubbabel in 538 BC, and then later a second group under Ezra the scribe. Ezra in particular called the people, who had lived under secular Babylonian culture for over 70 years, to a renewal of holiness and submission to God’s law.

Ezra was described as “skilled in the Law of Moses” (7:6). And his heart for the people is told to us in 7:10 – “For Ezra had set his heart to study the law of the LORD and to practice it, and to teach His statutes and ordinances in Israel.” What Ezra was returning to accomplish for the Lord and his people consumed him. He set his heart on this. There are three infinitives here to tell us what captured his soul, and what ought to capture ours.

1 To study

It was Ezra’s devotion, first of all, to study the law of the Lord. As a scribe, this was to be expected, to not only reverently copy the manuscripts by hand but to become utterly versed in their content. By the time of Jesus, the scribes (along with the Pharisees and Sadducees) were highly thought of in Israel. And though our Lord regularly railed against the hypocrisy of these groups, Ezra rather supplies us with a noble example.

We live in a time that needs more Ezras, men and women who are not afraid to do the hard work of studying the Bible, who are willing to go deep and tackle theological issues. Unfortunately, our time is more characterized Amos’ prophecy – “’Behold, the days are coming,’ declares the Lord GOD, ‘when I will send a famine on the land— not a famine of bread, nor a thirst for water, but of hearing the words of the LORD'” (Amos 8:11). Has there ever been a time of more opportunity to study God’s Word and less actual biblical understanding?

2 To practice

Ezra’s second passion was to put the truth of God into practice. Indeed, to know God’s word and not obey it was the hypocrisy of the Scribes and Pharisees of Jesus’ day. But Ezra, as an early example, was of more noble character.

All too often, we are content to have an interest in the things of God, but it is superficial. When the commands of Scripture come to us, we choose to obey the ones that don’t shatter our comfort levels; others we ignore or explain away. Study after study shows that professing Christians have no discernable difference with non-believers in areas like divorce, attitudes toward honesty, and sexual behavior. Shouldn’t we be noticably different than the world?

3 To teach

Finally, Ezra had a fervor to teach the Word in Israel. This was a great need as the Jews had been in captivity in a secular society for over 70 years. They would have forgotten much of the statutes and commands of the Law. And just as during the time of the end of the Exodus (Deuteronomy, the “second reading of the Law”), the people needed to hear again from the Lord.

This happened as recorded in Nehemiah 8, where we find that Ezra read from the Law from “monring until midday” (Neh. 8:3), and the people were attentive. Then Ezra and a numbger of the Levites “helped the people to understand the Law, while the people remained in their places. They read from the book, from the Law of God, clearly, and they gave the sense, so that the people understood the reading” (8:7-8). In other words, they held Sunday School!

Many believers don’t think of themselves as teachers. But we are all enjoined to teaching, whether it’s our children, younger believers, or even the church at large. The readers of Hebrews were chastised – “though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you again the basic principles” (Heb. 5:12). How many of us feel inadequate to teach because we haven’t done our own study?

Where is your heart set regarding the Bible? I pray that we will be people who are known…for our studying, for our practice, for our teaching.

Why I don’t often ask myself, how do I apply this?

Read any Bible study guide, or any book on how to study the Bible, and you’ll invariably see a directive to ask, how do I apply this passage to my life?

I’m going to go a little counter-cultural here and admit that when I study the Bible, I rarely ask that question of myself.

It’s not that I don’t think the Bible has a practical application; it’s not that I don’t try to apply the truths to my life. I just don’t rush to answer that question. Here’s why –

1 I want to grasp the meaning of the text.

If we rush to the practical application, we can short-change the interpretation stage. This is perhaps the most important step in your Bible study. If you don’t determine what the text says and what it means, then any application you may come up with could be misguided at best, or just plain wrong at worst.

Understanding the text takes work and it takes time. There’s the observation of the text – making note of which words and phrases are repeated or emphasized, seeing the flow of thought in the text, determining word meanings, comparing the passage to others in the Bible. All of this is a concentrated endeavor and is not to be rushed. It can take multiple sessions with a text.

2 I want to savor the richness of the text.

Sometimes, it is in the repeated mulling over of the text that a deeper understanding comes. This is called meditation, and it is commended to us throughout Scripture, most notably in Psalm 1:2 – “his delight is in the law of the Lord, and on his law he meditates day and night.” Meditating on the Word, the over-and-over rehearsing of the text in your mind, can open up connections and implications that a quick once-over just cannot do.

A number of years ago, I was memorizing long passages in Ephesians. As I would repeat the text, each day adding a new verse, connections from one part of the epistle to another became clear. For example, in chapter 1 we read that God was “making known to us the mystery of his will, according to his purpose, which he set forth in Christ, as a plan for the fulness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth” (1:9-10).

Later in chapter 3, Paul speaks of the “mystery [that] was made known to me by revelation” (3:3). He continues, “This mystery is that the Gentiles are fellow heirs, members of the same body, and partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel” (3:6). As I contemplated this later passage, I was able to make the connection to chapter 1 and have a greater understanding of what it means for all things to be united in Christ. This only came after extended meditation on the text.

3 The Bible is a much better applier of truth than I am.

For me to assume that I am the determining factor of whether or not my study and meditation of the Bible will affect my life is seriously short-changing the power of the Word of God. “For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart” (Hebrews 4:12). The Bible is not passive as I read; it is “living and active.” Reading and studying the Bible can cause me to say, “Did not our hearts burn within us while he talked to us on the road, while he opened to us the Scriptures?” (Luke 24:32) To feed on the Word and then to ask how I might apply it is like eating a 4-course meal and then asking how I might get the proteins and nutrients into my system.

It is the Scripture (coupled with the ministry of the indwelling Holy Spirit) that will convict me of my sin and instruct me in the way I should go. This happens as I store up the Word in my mind and heart. It may be that in that moment, the weight and import of that passage may not resonate. I don’t sweat that. In time, the Spirit will bring it to remembrance and bring it to bear on my situation. I know this is so because the Bible teaches that this is the ministry of the Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 2:11b-12), and I know this to be so because I’ve seen it happen time and again in my life.

I fully understand that it is possible that I might become a student of the Bible and miss seeing Christ. But as I pray, “Open my eyes, that I may behold wondrous things out of your law” (Psalm 119:18), the Bible itself is its own best instructor in how to apply its truths to my life.

When we see it…

Grand Prismatic Spring
Grand Prismatic Spring, Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming, 44.5250489°N 110.83819°W

A meditation…

On our way down from this overlook and incredible view, we heard a mother encourage her young, weary son with these words, “When we see it, it will be worth it.”

How true this is of life and suffering and heaven and glory.  When we see it, it will be worth it.

Keep reminding yourself that “the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed to us.” (Rom. 8:18) I could have turned to that young boy and said, “Yes! Your mother is right. It WILL be worth it. I know, for I have seen it.”

Oh, that we might look with faith upon those who have gone before us, who would be saying to us now, “Don’t give up! It will be worth it!” And most of all, “let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith .” (Heb. 12:2)

How often do we set our gaze on the here and now, the sufferings we must go through, and try to bear it on our own. We need to keep an eternal perspective, reminding ourselves that it will be worth it. For therein lies the strength to carry on.