Preaching in the Times of Ezra and Nehemiah
November 17th, 1997
PREACHING IN THE TIMES OF EZRA AND NEHEMIAH
Dr. W. A. Criswell
We are going to shift our approach in a little different direction. We are going to take some time to look at a passage and section of the Bible, and how to preach from it. My counterpart is preaching in the times of Ezra and Nehemiah in the days of the Babylonian Captivity.
Dr. Allen, do you know how many more lessons we have and, then, how much longer we can meet? Three more weeks – all right. I have about eight more lessons. But, actually, we have just three more.
Now, we start off speaking of the times of Ezra and Nehemiah – the days of the Babylonian Captivity. We speak of Ezra first. There are three things that came out of the Babylonian Captivity. And this is one of the most important things that you could ever be introduced to. Three things came out of the Babylonian Captivity. One is monotheism. In the story of the Hebrews, they were constantly going into the worship of many idols. For example, when they got out of Egypt and Moses was up there on the top of the mountain, receiving the Commandments of God. But, the people were down there in the valley, worshiping a golden calf. But, after the Babylonian Captivity, never again were the people ever attempting to worship idols. They were monotheistic from the Babylonian Captivity to this present day.
All right, a second thing that came out of the Captivity was the synagogue. There has never been a synagogue before they were taken captive. But, after the Babylonian Captivity – and beginning in the Babylonian Captivity, they had a synagogue and a pulpit and the worship as you see it today among the Jewish people. And the third thing that came out of the Babylonian Captivity was the Holy Scriptures. It was in Aramaic, but it was the Word of God.
And those three things are some of the most important things that could ever have developed in religion: monotheism, the synagogue and the Holy Bible. All of those things came out of the Babylonian Captivity.
Now, there are three invasions of Nebuchadnezzar into the nation of Israel. In 605, Nebuchadnezzar came and Daniel was taken as a captive. In 598, Nebuchadnezzar came again and Ezekiel was taken as a captive. And in 586, Nebuchadnezzar came the third time and destroyed the nation.
Now, in the three returns – the three stages – in 538, Zerubbabel was the leader of the Jewish people as he returned to the Holy Land. The second return was in 458 and was led by Ezra and his return was encouraged by the prophets Haggai and Zechariah. And the third return was in 445, which was led by Nehemiah and of course, in those days, why, Malachi was a prophet of God. Now, it was Ezra who describes the events from the first two returns. Ezra could have written the books of 1 and 2 Chronicles. And remember that the Book of Esther happened between the sixth and seventh chapters of Ezra.
The purposes of both Ezra and Nehemiah is to describe the restoration of God’s people after the Exile – the Babylonian Captivity. It begins with their rebuilding of the Temple: Ezra chapters 1 to 6. And it continues with Ezra’s reinstitution of the Law, Ezra 7 to10. And it continues further with Nehemiah’s reconstruction of the city walls of Jerusalem, in Nehemiah 1-7. And it climaxes with the reestablishment of Israel as the true people of God. That’s Nehemiah, the eighth chapter. And that eighth chapter is one of the most meaningful of all of the chapters in the Bible to me.
Now, the loss of the Hebrew language was a tragedy. And it was taken over by Aramaic. And I want to tell you: to me, one of the greatest miracles of the Bible came to pass and happened in my day. Jeremiah speaks of the loss of the Hebrew tongue. In the Captivity, Hebrew was never spoken again. And for 2,500 years, Hebrew was a lost language. It was never spoken. But, Jeremiah predicted that Hebrew would be spoken again. And after 2,500 years, when it was a lost language, the Hebrews would begin to come back to the Holy Land. And because they came from so many different nations of the world and spoke so many different tongues, they had to find a common language. And that common language is the Hebrew tongue. And after 2,500 years, the prophecy of Jeremiah came to pass. Hebrew is spoken again.
Now, in the Captivity over there in Babylon, all of the Jews spoke the common language. They spoke Aramaic. And when Jesus came into this world, He spoke Aramaic. You have some examples of that in the Gospels. For example, Mark 5:41: talitha cumi – "Damsel, I say arise." Jesus said that to Jairus, the ruler of the synagogue, when his daughter died. And that is Aramaic. Jesus spoke Aramaic.
In Mark 14:36, in the prayer of Jesus in Gethsemane; and Paul, in Romans 8:15; and Paul, in Galatians 4:6: Abba, "Father." That is Aramaic. They were speaking Aramaic. And in Matthew 27:46: Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani – "My God, my God, why hast Thou forsaken Me?" That is Aramaic. Jesus spoke in Aramaic. The language of the Hebrews I say was lost, never spoken. And Aramaic took its place. Aramaic was the language of commerce and of course, the language of Babylon.
So, the characters that we study in the return of Israel to the Holy Land are three: Zerubbabel, Ezra and Nehemiah. Those men were so interesting. So, we are going to speak for a minute about them.
About Zerubbabel – that personal name means "descendant of Babel." He was the grandson of King Jehoiachin, who was taken to Babylon in the first exile, in 597 by Nebuchadnezzar. And he was the son of Shealtiel, the second son of Jehoiachin. He is named in Ezra 2 verse 2, among the leaders of those who returned from the Exile. The lists in Ezra 2 and Nehemiah 7 probably names people who returned in 539, the first year of the reign of Cyrus the Great, the ruler of the Persian Empire.
So, despite the contention of many American scholars that this list in Ezra 1 belongs to an unmentioned second return led by Zerubbabel in 521, almost certainly he came in the announced time that I have named. According to Ezra 3, Zerubbabel and Joshua the high priest rebuilt the altar and in the second year, they laid the foundation for the Temple but their work was halted by opposition from persons who had remained in Judah during the Exile.
Darius, the Persian emperor after 522, granted the Jews permission to continue rebuilding the Temple. Under the urging of Haggai and Zechariah, Zerubbabel, now the governor, resumes the task, which was completed in 515 B.C. the temple is rebuilt. Zerubbabel, however, disappears from view. He was a Davidic prince. So, it is possible that the Jews tried to crown him king during the civil war surrounding the rise of Darius as emperor. Zechariah 6:9 to14 may reflect the attempt to crown Zerubbabel but, his fate remains unknown. He disappeared from sight after these incidents and dates I have named.
So, we turn to Ezra. Without doubt, Ezra – and I’m not going to say something that isn’t true – Ezra is, actually, to me, the father of the Hebrew nation. If it hadn’t been for him, the nation would have disappeared. It would have been lost in the Captivity. But, he lived in an interesting time. Ezra and Nehemiah and Malachi were contemporaries with Socrates of Greece and Gadama Buddha – of India – and with Confucius of China. Ah, those were pivotally important eras.
Ezra lived during the reign of Artaxerxes, the king of Persia but which Artaxerxes? Artaxerxes Longimanus reigned from 465 to 425. But Artaxerxes Nemon reigned from 404 to 359. So, when he is spoken of as living during the reign of Artaxerxes, was it Longimanus? Then the seventh year of Artaxerxes is 458 B.C. But, if it was Nemon, it was 398 B.C.
Scripture possibly intimates that Nehemiah preceded Ezra to Jerusalem. For example, Ezra prayed as if the walls were already in place in Jerusalem – Ezra 9:9. Yet, they were built by Nehemiah. Also, Nehemiah’s reforms, in Nehemiah 13, seem to have preceded Ezra’s teaching the Law and his reforms. There are real problems either way but, it seems logical to stay with the biblical order and make Ezra’s journey to Jerusalem in 458 B.C.
Ezra was a priest and a scribe. He descended from Aaron through Phinehas and, later, Zadok. That’s Ezra 7 and 1 Chronicles 6. Ezra’s purpose for going to Jerusalem was both "to study the Law of the Lord, and to do it, and to teach the ordinances and statutes in Israel" – Ezra 7:10. He was well-equipped for this task as a priest and a scribe.
Jerusalem needed the Law of God. The permanence of the Jews was threatened by the opposition of the non-Jews and by the Jews’ careless disregard for the things of the Lord. Ezra’s teaching was needed to give solidity and strength to the Jewish community, struggling against pressures to surrender its ethic and its theological identity. That’s just another way of saying that the people of Israel – the state of Israel – were due to the efforts of Ezra.
Ezra was written from this kind of perspective. A variety of sources were used either by Ezra or by another who gave the Book in its present form. Jewish tradition is strong that Ezra was the author of the entire book, as well as Chronicles and Nehemiah. Vivid details and the use of the first person pronouns permit scholars to speak of the "Ezra Memoirs." Read about that in Ezra 7 and Ezra 9. The book has two major stories that of Zerubbabel and the first group of returnees, who rebuilt the Temple. And the other story: that of Ezra, in chapters 7-10, which was completed in Nehemiah 8-10.
Another peculiarity in that story of Ezra is the Aramaic that is used in a part of that Book. This was the used language all over that world of Ezra’s era. It is related to Hebrew and used for the Jews and Gentiles alike. Most of the Book of Ezra is written in Hebrew. But, there are two large sections of Aramaic: Ezra 4:7-6:18 and Ezra 7:12-26. The Aramaic generally deals with official correspondence between Palestine and Persia. The lists in the Aramaic show that the author was determined to use official documents, where possible. Establishing the legitimacy of the Jews was an important objective and these documents helped do that.
Ezra begins with the story of Zerubbabel and the first Jews to return to Jerusalem from captivity in 538 B.C. Their main objective was to rebuild the Temple. The foundation was laid in 536 B.C. Then, there was a long delay. Haggai and Zechariah, in 520 B.C., had encouraged the people to finish the project, which they did, in 515 B.C. "And they celebrated the dedication of the house of God with joy," that is Ezra 6:16. Then, almost 60 years passed before Ezra went to Jerusalem, in 458 B.C. – six decades of silence. Isn’t that amazing! He left Persia with the letter that King Artaxerxes gave unto Ezra and the priests and scribes, giving him unusual power and authority – Ezra 7:12-16.
As he viewed the people and the priests, and as he found there none of the sons of Levi – Ezra 8:15 – these were essential for his teaching program to implement the Law of God in Jerusalem. During a three-day delay, more than 200 ministers for the house of our God – Ezra 8:17 – were enlisted. Four months later, the group of probably less than 2,000 arrived in the holy city.
Soon, Ezra was informed of the most glaring sin of the Jews: inter-marriage with non-Jews, those not in covenant relations with Yahweh. Ezra was greatly upset. He prayed – Ezra 9: 6 to15 – in assembly people reached what must have been a heart-rending decision: "Let us make a covenant with our God to put away all the wives and those born of them." The Book concludes with the carrying out of this decision.
I cannot imagine the heartache of that. Every Jew that had married a Gentile – every Jew that had married a non-Jew – had to destroy his home, destroy his family, put away his wife and be rid of his children. Oh, my! What a tragedy! Ezra’s story reaches its climax in Nehemiah chapters 8 to10. There, Ezra read from the book of the Law of Moses which the Lord had commanded to Israel – Nehemiah 8:1. A great revival resulted. Ezra is not heard of again.
Isn’t that amazing? As I said, I don’t think there’s a more marvelous book – chapter – in all of the Bible than the eighth chapter of the Book of Nehemiah. There, you have Ezra gathering all of those people together and they spoke Aramaic and could not understand Hebrew. So, Ezra stood up there and, opening the Hebrew Bible – the Hebrew Word of God – and he interpreted it in the language that those Jews there could understand: in Aramaic.
And he did it all day long. And the people stood there, in the very presence of God. They were in that place, and Ezra was behind a pulpit and he preached to them all day long. And the people just were enthralled with it. And the next day, they came back with the same thing. Don’t you wish you could have a preaching service like that? Oh, dear!
The greatest contribution of Ezra was his teaching, establishing and implementing the book of the Law of the Lord among the Jews. That’s what Nehemiah 9:3 says.
Ezra evidenced strong theology. He believed in the sovereignty of God, who could use a Cyrus or an Artaxerxes or a Darius to accomplish His purposes. He believed in the faithfulness of God, who brought home as many exiles as he could. He believed in the sacredness and practicality of the Scriptures. He read them to his people and insisted that they be carried out. He was a person of prayer, with long confessional prayers, such as in Ezra 9 and Nehemiah 9. He was a preacher. He used a pulpit – Nehemiah 8:4 – where he read the Scriptures and helped to interpret them to his congregation.
That’s exactly what you are called to do: stand there behind that pulpit, open that Book and deliver its message, powerfully to the people. That is what you’re supposed to do.
The value of the contributions of Ezra to the Jews is immeasurable. What he did probably saved them from disintegration. His efforts helped guarantee the ethnic and theological continuance of the descendants of Abraham. He might not have been the father of Judaism. But, he contributed greatly to saving the Jews’ identity as the people of God. You just can’t emphasize the contribution that Ezra made; you just can’t emphasize the contribution of Ezra too much. It’s just wonderful how he preached these things in the pulpit – the people had never heard of them. They were unacquainted with all that part of the Bible. But, if you will just take these Scriptures, and get it in your soul, and in your head and heart, then proclaim them, up there, to then people – Oh, dear! What a blessing you will be!
The people did not have to be dragged to church – Nehemiah 8:1. Ezra ministered from daybreak till noon and all the people listened attentively – Nehemiah 8:3. The message of Ezra was God-centered and the people related to the Word of the Lord.
So many preachers today talk about fire as though they were sitting on an iceberg. Nothing is more likely to lull people to sleep than a droning call emanating from a passionless face from someone anchored behind a desk. The preacher, often times, appears to be happy and content to stay in his pulpit. And the people are happy to keep him there. The people must be grateful for the Word of the Lord and receive it as a message from God that changes their lives. Making the message clear and giving the meaning were priorities in Ezra’s preaching.
This is the real meaning of the word "exposition." Charles Spurgeon explained it; exposition: "Having nothing to conceal, we have no ambition to be obscure. If the target of preaching is the mind and the emotion and the will of the people, the preacher’s task is to enter the thought patterns of the congregation, so that he will bridge the gap between what is said and what is heard. We are reminded that the word "illustrate" means to illuminate, to throw light upon an otherwise dark object."
Spurgeon, on one occasion, told the people to go home, take a piece of paper and write on it the word "forgiven" or the word "condemned." The preacher shook hands with one of the parishioners and said, "Tonight, you will sleep as either a forgiven sinner or an unforgiven lost man." I tell you preaching like that – good night – is this way. There is no in-between in it. You are either saved or you’re lost.
The day after Ezra and his colleagues held their marathon preaching session, the people went back for more. Ezra did not disappoint them. During the study of the Book, the people discovered that their forefathers had been known to overlook the divine command to celebrate the Feast of Tabernacles. That is Nehemiah 8:10. So, they began doing the things that they read in the book of the Law.
We have lost out on the centrality of biblical and expository preaching. We exalt worship, but not preaching. There are seminaries and courses on drama, dance and the use of audio-visual aids. But, there are rarely courses on the exposition of the Word of God. We’re not conscious, as we ought to be, of the most glorious and marvelous calling that man could ever know. Our foundation for all that we declare is the rock of the Word of God. Any other foundation will ultimately collapse. The heart of all worship must be the preaching and hearing of the infallible Word of God. The preacher ought to be the most happiest when the Word of God comes as the climax of any service.
Our Lord closed the Sermon on the Mount with the parable of the two houses. One of the houses was built on a rock. The other was built on the sand. And the wind and the storm and the water moved it away. Your message ought to be on the Rock. Peter, on the Day of Pentecost, was more than ready when the audience asked him what they should do with their sense of conviction.
The need for systematic preaching is ever present. Hearer and preacher alike should expect each sermon to be an act of God. Ezra, the scribe, preaches and the people responded. There is always a two-way traffic in preaching. The preacher must prepare the people thoroughly. No amount of efficient administration can take the place of waiting upon the Lord.
Paul’s exhortation to Timothy remains the classic challenge: "Peach the Word" – 2 Timothy 4 and 2. Paul reminds Timothy that this it is all the more necessary because of the false teaching that is prevalent. Those of God who love God’s Word and believe in its purity must be bold in its method, standing up there to declare the Word of the Lord. You have a marvelous calling – incomparably pertinent!
I have a little word here about evangelism. Evangelism, in its appeal, must be bold. It must challenge the will along with its content. The whole person must be involved and the use of the gifts for the edification up-building of the saving of the lost.
In ordaining a preacher, the gift to him of a Bible is a reminder of the authority under which he is called to work. That is a part of the marvelous ministry. The true minister must love the people and love the Word. The Word of God is not to be discussed. The Word of God is but to be discussed and obeyed. The preacher, therefore, must have a stern self-discipline. A pulpit is not a place to throw out ideas and theories. The pulpit is there to explain and present the infallible Word of the Lord.
Now, I’m going on about Ezra. Do you have any words you want to say or anything you want to ask, before I go on?
I just hope you are convicted in your heart of what God has called you to do. And I pray that, when you stand in that pulpit – my first church had eighteen members. But, I tell you, I studied and prayed and preached the Word of God as fervently when I had eighteen members as I did at the First Church in Dallas.
I’m asked, so many times: "What is the difference between the days when you preached to eighteen members and the day when you preached to several thousand?" And I say, in all honesty, "No difference at all, none at all, absolutely none." I felt God’s grip in my heart when I had eighteen members. And I studied and preached to those eighteen members the best I knew how. I do the same today and have done for all of these seventy one years of my pulpit. It’s a wonderful day to be moved in your heart to announce and proclaim the Word of the Lord.
Well, we look upon Ezra as an example of effective preaching. When Ezra preached, the amount of action would have pleased Demosthenes, who reputedly said, "The three most important things in oratory are action, action and action." There is little doubt in my mind that, the most active and demonstrative the preacher, the more involved and intrigued are the people. Nothing is more likely to lull people to sleep than a droning talk emanating from an expressionless face.
That is one of the reasons that I got down on my knees, when I began preaching, and I said to the Lord, on my knees, "Dear Lord, I’m not going to preach with notes. I’m going to stand up there with that open Bible and preach the message of God, out of a burning heart. And Lord, you bless my mind and my memory, and help me to do it and not fail; not hesitate."
Well, I do admit to you that in those years and years that passed, there have been times when the next point went out of my mind. And I just died. But, I had prayed God to help me and trusted that the Lord would do it. And as I kept on talking – preaching – the thing came back to my mind – always, it came back. I have never forgotten, in these seventy one plus years, that I have been a preacher and a pastor. And when you preach with your nose down in your outline – your notes – oh, what a let-down from standing up there with your Bible and just boldly, vigorously declaring the Word of the Lord; I commend that way of preaching to you.
One particularly expressive and active preacher had so captivated the attention and interest of one of the younger members of his congregation that the child asked his mother, with some degree of consternation, "What happens if that man gets out of his box?" Making it clear and giving the meaning were priorities in Ezra’s preaching. This, surely, is the real meaning of the word "exposition."
Ezra and his contemporaries knew what it meant to communicate effectively with the people. Their approach was as simple as it was effective. Standing before the people on a high wooden platform, built for the occasion, they read from the book of the Law of God, making it clear and giving the meaning, so that the people could understand what was being read. And that is from that chapter we looked at in Nehemiah.
The effectiveness of the preaching was closely demonstrated by the way the people warmly embraced the message. They gave it their full attention. It changed their attitudes and promptly took appropriate action. What more could a preacher wish for? And what more could a congregation desire?
We cannot, of course, minimize Ezra’s special preparation for the task. He had devoted himself to the study and observance of the law of the Lord and to teaching its decrees and laws in Israel. Neither can we overlook the source and the content of his message. He was committed to "the Book" – the Book. That is in Nehemiah 8:2. Ezra and his friend proclaimed the message of God’s Word.
Preacher and hearer alike should expect each sermon to be an act of God, creatively blending scriptural truth with Scripture experience. Even in Old Testament days, there are parallels, as in Nehemiah chapter 8, where Ezra, the scribe, preaches and the people of Israel respond, aware of their sins and eager to make amends.
I believe people are unconsciously crying for a word from the Lord, and often come to be disappointed – come in vain to worship. The failure for that word to reach people is sometimes because the preacher has lost confidence in Scripture and sometimes because a faithful expositor does not relate the truth of Scriptures to the world of today.
We must be tethered at both ends. Without Scripture, our comments are banal. Without our feet firmly on the ground of contemporary reality, we are merely biblical experts. Our aim is not to produce a congregation that simply knows the Bible, but a congregation who knows the Lord and His Word and obeys Him and it.
Ian McPherson quoted Dr. James Denney as saying: "The man who shoots above the target does not thereby prove that he has superior ammunition. He simply proves that he is not an accurate shot." If the target is the mind, emotion, and will of the people, the preacher’s task is to enter the thought patterns of the congregation and to fill them with the infallible, inspired Word of God.
Well, I hope you are moved in your own heart by that appeal that we stand up there and open this Book and declare its message and then apply it – apply it. I did that yesterday morning, as faithfully as I knew how. I avowed what the Book says – teaches us. And then, on the basis of that, I made appeal to the congregation to learn, to observe, to do what God had revealed in His infallible Word.
Well, I say again, do you have anything that you would like to say, any comment that you want to make? All right, son.
I would not separate them. The preacher is called to be – now, there are preachers that are not pastors you know that. You have executives in the denominations. Up there in Nashville, Tennessee, you’ve got a horde of them. And here in Dallas, there’s a big building down there – right over here on Washington – right there. You have a building over there, filled with people, who are employees of the denomination. But, if you are a pastor, you are a preacher. You just are. And we don’t make a differentiation between them. A preacher is a pastor. And a pastor is a preacher.
Now, I grant you that in large churches, you have the same kind of a development that you have in the denomination. You have assistant pastors who are in what we call in our church a pastoral office. He has the assignment to shepherd the people because the pastor cannot put his arms around everybody. That’s a large church. You have other employed because the pastor can’t do it all.
But, if you are a pastor, you are a preacher. And I just pray God’s blessings upon him as he does both – as he pastors the people and he preaches.
God bless you, fellow. Anybody else have any words you want to say?
Yeah. Well, thank God. Well, I’m glad. I am glad.
That came out of bitter denunciation of me. I wrote that when I was president of the Southern Baptist Convention. There was, for example, an organization of theological professors in the southeastern part of the United States that bitterly attacked me because I was expounding and defending the infallibility of the Word of God and preaching it. And out of that attack, I wrote that book. I’ll never forget. I went to Baylor Hospital over that book. I was writing it, word by word, every word of that book, I wrote out. And in order to get it to them; the Broadman people – I had a deadline – and Saturday night, late at night, I finished the last word of that book. And I couldn’t go to sleep. About 3:00 in the morning, my wife called the hospital. And they came and put me in the hospital. Oh, dear! But, I surely believe every syllable of that book.
Isn’t that the truth?
Well, all of that gave birth to this college. That is where this college came from. And we want to support this school in every way possible. And if we can send preachers to this school, they will be taught the infallible Word of the Lord and how to preach the Word of the Lord and to preach it.
I was President of the Convention in ’68 and ’69. And then, in ’70, I turned it over to my successor.
Well, I love you with all my heart. And oh, how I pray for you, that the power of the glory of God rest upon your ministries.
No, I have never heard that before. And I doubt whether a thing like that ever happened, because I cannot imagine a story like being true and nobody ever heard about it.
No. Rick Warren had gone out of my mind. It’s just all a part of growing old. So many things have grown out of my ministry. Well, I praise God for it. Oh how I thank God!
Let me tell you something that happened yesterday. I have said many, many times, "I have never preached at our church, but that God has given us a harvest." Oh, I’ve said that. I’ve been there 53 years, and I have never preached at the church, but that God has given us a harvest. But, yesterday morning at 8:15, nobody came forward. Nobody came forward.
Then, as I was going to my office there, to rest and getting ready for the next service, several people came up to me and said, "Pastor, when you got through preaching, there was a man" – you know, we have an inquiry room – "there was a man who came to the inquiry room and said that he had listened to you preach and he had given his heart to Jesus and he wanted to be baptized and become a member of our church." So, I still am able to say that. I have never preached there but that God has given us somebody who has been saved by grace.
Well, I love seeing you. And I look forward to it. Do you say that there are just three more?