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How You Can Imitate Ezra, the Scribe

“…Ezra had set his heart to study the Law of YHWH, and to do it, and to teach his statutes and rules in Israel.” (Ezra 7:10)

So many young pastors and students, smitten with the beauty and wonder of God’s self-revelation in Scripture, have waded into academic waters in which certain currents pull with riptide force in a number of hazardous directions. One of the most dangerous (mis)directions one could take would be down a course that abstracts the subject matter. Post-Enlightenment theological/biblical study can come with the temptation to professionally distance oneself from the potent content of the lessons and lectures. This casual (and often unconscious) aloofness has led to much of the anti-intellectualism so strong in American religious life.

Ezra provides us an alternative model.

With an enormous sigh of a national relief, the Persian king Artaxerxes permitted him to return to Jerusalem, its walls freshly rebuilt, its ghost-town status recently annulled. Out of the dust and ash of Solomon’s revered Temple, a new one had been constructed. In Ezra 7:7, we read that out of Babylon came “singers” who had had no songs to sing (Ps. 137), “gatekeepers” who had had no gates to keep, and “temple servants” who had had no holy temple to serve. They followed behind Ezra, known by Artaxerxes as “the scribe of the Law of the God of heaven.” (Ezra 7.12, 21)

What had he been up to during all those years of exile in Babylon? We know he had been studying. Studying hard. In a foreign land, there were surely late nights and early mornings spent before whatever scrolls had survived Nebuchadnezzar’s flames. Work both wearisome and toilsome… and charged with the emotional pain of loss and remorse. The man was pouring over the words of the Law, which Israel had discarded and had in turn been discarded (seemingly) as a people, forcibly ejected out of their land. We have little access (in the canon) to Ezra’s exilic life before taking on leadership in Jerusalem. But we know this:

“…Ezra had set his heart to study the Law of YHWH, and to do it, and to teach his statutes and rules in Israel.” (Ezra 7:10)

So there had to have been years of painstaking work in those precious, old texts.

But let’s notice that Scripture provides an interesting verbal order in this verse, an order to emulate for any of us who would presume to crack open our Bibles for the purpose of study and teaching. Study – do – teach.

Many of us want to communicate God’s Word. We want to feel the edge of that pulpit or lectern in hand. Many of us like a mic positioned before our lips. But before teaching the Word of God come preliminary disciplines.

Study. Every now and then, someone will preface their message to a congregation with something like this: “I think I just need to throw out my notes. I’m just going to follow the Spirit.” The Spirit of God will indeed guide us at times to make alterations. I have no qualms with that. But we have to admit that there is a strong tendency in evangelical circles for us to assign a superior status to un-manuscripted messages, as if an extemporaneous thus-sayeth-the-Lord message is more “spiritual” than a message that has risen from unseen hours of painful, arduous study. Relying on the Spirit at the moment of teaching/preaching has become for some of us a spiritualized excuse for sloth in prayerful study. If the Spirit is leading at the extemporaneous moment, is He not also leading us in the secret place of early morning and late night study? Before Ezra stood before the people to teach them at a monumental turning point of Israel’s history, he had set his heart to study.

Do. But Ezra was not just an intellectual bookworm more suited for a library than the marketplace. Before he presumed to teach the Law, he performed the Law. Study, do…then teach. The anti-intellectualism in the evangelical church, though misguided, has some really solid grounds. So many young men and women have left the workforce or the family farm for the seminary, only to return with impressive, esoteric verbiage on their lips with very little to demonstrate with their actions. Study, yes. Study late into the night. Rush to the text before the sunlight creeps out of the east. But then do. Perform the Scriptures as you ready yourself to teach the Scriptures.

Teach. The need for vibrant, grounded teachers is always so dire. But if I go to some foreign land, placing myself in some sort of an academic exile experience, yet I fail to embody Ezra’s example, then my teaching will be of little service to the church. Teach, yes. But not without serious studying and serious doing.

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Andrew is the author of "Faith Without Illusions: Following Jesus as a Cynic-Saint" (IVP). He blogs at Hopeful Realism and is about to begin a PhD in New Testament at Durham University (England)