4 Reasons You Should Preach Through Ezra
One book that seems to be fairly neglected in both Bible studies and preaching is the book of Ezra. Although the storyline of Ezra is strongly connected to the storyline of Nehemiah, it appears Ezra gets less attention than Nehemiah. Perhaps this is because Nehemiah is often used to launch building projects and develop leadership skills. At any rate, the book of Ezra deserves more study.
Why? Because it tracks the return of a remnant of God’s people from exile in Babylon as they reestablish themselves in the land of Israel. This post-exile era is critical to the overarching story of the Bible, and I believe Ezra emphasizes and powerfully illustrates important theological themes.
Through my preparation, I discovered how necessary it was to do background research. This helped me understand and explain the history, geography, and politics of the time even as it also enriched the story.
But more than anything else, as we worked through the book of Ezra as a congregation, God used it to increase our hope in Jesus. So here are four reasons you should consider preaching through the book as well.
1. The book of Ezra gives a historical record of ways in which God’s mercies were “new every morning.”
To preach this book well, you have to be familiar with its timeline. And as you study the timeline, you’ll see many times and seasons of God’s grace. Ezra doesn’t take place over one day or one week. The story is developed over years, even decades. These years are full of God’s faithfulness, Israel’s failure, and God’s gracious work of revival.
This sounds familiar, doesn’t it? As years turn into decades, life as a believer is hard, but it’s never hopeless. As I preached through Ezra, it became easy to imagine living in the story. It became easy to picture God’s grace coming alive.
For example, so many different people are named in this book (see chapter 2). Far from being just obscure detail, these names clarify Ezra’s immediate relevance. This is more than a generic and timeless moral tale. The people in this story pray, face opposition, and learn to trust God. God answers their prayers, and he cares for his people. These activities form the thrust of the book, just as they shape the basic elements of the Christian life.
2. The book of Ezra reinforces a strong confidence in God’s sovereignty.
God rules over nations. He sets up kings and deposes others. This is important to remember because the book of Ezra is full of foreign kings and government. All the while, it’s clear God is at work. It’s clear he works all things out for his glory and his people’s good.
And yet, God’s sovereignty doesn’t conflict with or counteract man’s responsibility and behavior. The book of Ezra blends God’s mysterious decrees with both the meaningful decisions of empires and the real-time decisions of those who follow him.
3. The book of Ezra magnifies the crucial role that God’s Word and prayer play in the lives of those who submit to him.
God’s Word is highlighted in Ezra 7, but in reality it’s the backdrop for the entire book. At regular intervals, the people in this book turn to God in prayer.
How helpful it is to remind God’s people that prayer is crucial for spiritual survival. Reformation and rebuilding require more than human ambition. Thankfully, God’s Word sets the agenda. And so God’s people must pray, and they ought to respond like Ezra, who uses his influence and position to call people to respond.
4. The book of Ezra leaves you with the sense that more is needed than a rebuilt city and a rebuilt temple.
In some ways, the book of Ezra has an unsatisfying ending. The last few chapters make it clear: people are still sinners. The book doesn’t end with a blessing or a benediction but with a list of guilty sinners.
Ezra’s reformation efforts should encourage us as Christians. And yet, we place our hope in someone far greater than Ezra, and something far greater than any earthly temple. As I preached this book, our people were consistently reminded of how the “hopes and fears of all the years” are only met in Jesus Christ.
Two useful and basic commentaries are J.G. McConville’s Ezra, Nehemiah, and Esther (in The Daily Study Bible Series), and Mervin Breneman’s Ezra, Nehemiah, and Esther (in New American Commentary).
Another commentary that was recommended to me was Phillip Brown’s Hope Amidst Ruin. Brown’s approach is unique but thorough and helpful, and I believe it’s been unfortunately neglected in many lists of commentaries I came across. Also, Robert Bell’s The Theological Messages of the Old Testament Books was helpful in giving an exegetical and textual overview of the book.
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You can read the rest of the articles in this series here.