Ezra: Model of a Pastor
Kevin G. Smith
When preachers want a model of good leadership, they often turn to the book of Nehemiah, since Nehemiah models many outstanding qualities of godly leadership. Few are aware of another equally good model of pastoral leadership—Ezra. The books of Ezra and Nehemiah are twin volumes, since Nehemiah is the sequel to Ezra. In fact, Ezra and Nehemiah were co-labourers; their ministries in Jerusalem overlapped.
Because Israel was unfaithful to God, he sent the Babylonians to punish them. Jerusalem was destroyed in 586 bc , and most of the Jews were taken into exile in Babylon. In 538 bc , after the Persians conquered Babylon, the Persian king, Cyrus, allowed the Jews to return home. The first six chapters of the book of Ezra record how the first group of exiles returned and rebuilt the temple in Jerusalem; this covers 538-515 bc . The book then skips 57 years, to 458 bc when a second group of exiles return to Jerusalem under the leadership of Ezra. Ezra himself was a priest and a scribe (the first great Bible scholar and teacher). He returned with the goal of restoring true worship of the Lord in Jerusalem and teaching the Jewish people the Law of the Lord.
Ezra’s story is told in Ezra 7–10. It makes a great case study for pastors, since Ezra embodies and models many of the leadership traits and skills that we would expect to find in a good New Testament pastor. I want to draw your attention to seven ways in which Ezra can be a model for pastors. 1
1. Ezra counted the cost of God’s call
Ezra had direct access to the king of Persia. We are not told how or why he had such access, but it seems likely that he was one of the leaders of the Jews in exile. Perhaps he represented the Jewish people before the king of Persia. He clearly commanded the king’s trust and respect, which would mean he was a man of considerable power and influence. Persia was the dominant power in the Ancient Near East, and King Artaxerxes arguably the most powerful man in the world at the time (see Figure 1 for an illustration of the scope of his empire). 2
He asked King Artaxerxes for permission to return to Jerusalem, ‘and the king granted him all that he asked’ (Ezra 7:6). He gave up a position of power and influence in the secular world to serve the Lord’s purposes. Why did he make such a ‘silly’ request? I can only speculate that he was responding to God’s call. Then he counted the cost of the call—he left Babylonia and returned to Jerusalem. He made sacrifices to embrace God’s work. He left the most influential city in the Empire to go to a remote and forgotten outpost in ‘the Province Beyond the River’, the Persian name for the province west of the Euphrates. Jerusalem was not even a major city in the Province Beyond the River; it was a small town in a state of disrepair, a town that did not even have a defensive wall.
Imagine a modern day equivalent. The advisor to President Barak Obama, who represents Christianity and offers a Christian perspective on matters relating to the government of the United States, receives a call from God to serve as a missionary in a remote part of the Amazon. He could respond, ‘No thank you, Lord. I can do so much more for you here in Washington, where I can represent you and influence powerful world leaders for the kingdom.’ Instead, he humbly submits to God’s greater wisdom: ‘Yes, Lord. I will go where you send me, and serve where you need me.’ He leaves the comfort, security, prestige, and affluence of his lifestyle in Washington, and undertakes the arduous task to which God has called him. That is exactly what Ezra did.
We are so apt to seek positions of influence and power, the most high-profile and high-paying ministry posts. In a recent conversation with Abel Ndjerareou, the former President of a leading seminary in Africa, he mused that when churches in Chad send pastors to train in the Central African Republic, God seldom ‘calls’ them to stay in the CAR. However, when churches send them to study in London or Chicago, God regularly ‘calls’ them to stay. ‘Why is it’, a friend once asked, ‘that pastors are so seldom called to lower-paying ministries than they already have?’
Ezra was an established leader in a position of great influence, yet he was sensitive enough to hear God’s call and courageous enough to respond to it. He was willing to count the cost of the call. It is worth noting that he did not only count the cost as a young man; he counted it as an older, senior leader who already had a track record of success in God’s service. Often we count the cost as young zealots on fire for God. We are willing to go anywhere he says and do whatever he asks. Through that obedience, we become established leaders. Once we are established leaders and we have counted the cost, we consider ourselves to have ‘paid our dues’. We view counting the cost as the price of getting started, as a one-off sacrifice. Ezra viewed it as an on-going part of walking intimately and obediently with the Lord.
2. Ezra set his heart to study, do, and teach the word of God
Ezra was a man of the word. Scripture describes him as ‘skilled in the Law of Moses that the LORD, the God of Israel, had given’ (7:6). Even the pagan king, Artaxerxes, recognised him as a ‘the scribe of the Law of the God of heaven’ (7:12). He was saturated with scripture! How did he become skilled in the scriptures? The word of God tells us his secret:
For Ezra had set his heart to study the Law of the LORD, and to do it and to teach his statutes and rules in Israel (7:10, italics mine).
This is a powerful verse worth committing to memory. Ezra set his heart to study, do, and teach God’s word. There were no shortcuts; his expertise was the fruit of a lifetime of diligent labour in the scriptures. Like modern biblical scholars, Ezra set his heart to study the scriptures; the word translated ‘study’ implies searching, investigating, examining, and interpreting. However, unlike many modern scholars, Ezra did not just set his heart to study the scriptures. He did not view knowledge as an end in itself. He also set his heart to do and to teach—in that order. He studied the word of God so that he could do the will of God. His study of God’s word guided and inspired his devotion to the Lord; it did not undermine it. Why? Because he positioned himself under the scriptures, not above them. He studied with a heart of faith and an attitude of submission; modern Bible scholars often approach scripture with a proud and cold heart, and they give the serious study of God’s word a reputation for undermining a living faith and personal relationship with God. Because Ezra set his heart on doing what God taught in the word, his study enriched his faith. He also carried a burden to teach the will and ways of God. In other words, Ezra studied the Bible with the twin goals of enriching his own relationship with God (‘to do’) and helping others to do the same (‘to teach’).
Like Ezra, pastors should overflow with God’s word. Like Ezra, they need to set their hearts to study, do, and teach the scriptures. This is a commitment to lifelong learning. We live in an instant society; we want to know, but we do not like to learn. Our yardstick for doing research is to Google a question for instant answers. Painstaking study of the word is foreign to our culture, but without it we will never learn God’s word. Are you really studying the word? If so, are you doing it with an attitude of submission, placing yourself under the authority of the word in faith, with a hunger to obey God? Are you studying it with a deep desire to use your findings to help others grow in their walk with Christ?
3. Ezra was a man of prayer and faith
He truly believed that ‘the hand of our God is for good on all who seek him’ (8:22). Instead of asking the king for a military escort to guard the returning exiles, Ezra sought the Lord for protection. He organised a fast, ‘that we might humble ourselves before our God, to seek from him a safe journey’ (8:21). They prayed passionately. Ezra recorded, ‘we fasted and implored our God for this, and he listened to our entreaty’ (8:23). He would later testify that ‘the hand of our God was on us, and he delivered us from the hand of the enemy and from ambushes by the way’ (8:31). They prayed passionately, and then moved in faith.
There is a great lesson in this for today’s church. Modern pastors are obsessed with management methods and leadership skills to grow their churches. Pastors flock to seminars oriented towards the ‘how to’ aspects of ministry, but by their prayerlessness they show that they are really trusting in human methods rather than God’s power to grow their churches. Many years ago, E. M. Bounds wrote:
What the Church needs to-day is not more machinery or better, not new organizations or more and novel methods, but men whom the Holy Ghost can use—men of prayer, men mighty in prayer. The Holy Ghost does not flow through methods, but through men. He does not come on machinery, but on men. He does not anoint plans, but men—men of prayer. 3
These words are more relevant today than they were 100 years ago. More than any previous generation, our generation is obsessed with methods, skills, and technologies. I suspect we are also less prayerful than most previous generations of Christian leaders. We are over-stimulated and hyper-active, and we find the discipline of quiet, meditative prayer difficult. To echo Bounds’s sentiments, we need better men, not better methods. We become better men in the prayer closet, where we commune with the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. There are no short-cuts; there is no five-step path to better character. Fruit grows in our lives as we abide in Christ.
A word of caution: we need to beware of viewing prayer as a means to an end. Prayer is not a technology for achieving ministry goals; it is intimate communion with God, during which the man of prayer is formed into the image of the Lord Jesus Christ and empowered to serve him. If we practice prayer as a method of church growth, we are wasting our time.
4. Ezra was cautious in his financial management
The king of Persia gave generously towards Ezra’s vision of restoring the true worship of the Lord in the Jerusalem temple. The exiles returned with 3.4 tons of gold and 22 tons of silver. 4 Ezra ‘set apart twelve of the leading priests’ (8:24) to look after the money. Every cent was carefully counted 5 and recorded before they departed. When they arrived in Jerusalem, the money was handed over to the temple priests. Once again, ‘The whole was counted and weighed, and the weight of everything was recorded’ (8:34).
Although King Artaxerxes gave him permission to use the money according to his discretion in the service of the house of God,6 Ezra was careful to be a trustworthy steward of the money. He took pains to ensure that the money was handled with complete integrity and that he was absolutely blameless in his management of it. He did not take a cut for himself, but handed over all the money, having accounted for every cent.
I personally knew a pastor whose attitude was that God had called him to run the church with the Bible in one hand and the chequebook in the other. He lacked the financial know-how to manage the finances well, and he had a careless attitude towards his responsibility to do so. He failed to appoint competent and trustworthy men to manage the finances. He also neglected to implement measures to ensure that the money was properly counted and recorded. As a result, suspicions arose that the finances were being mismanaged. The pastor’s integrity was seriously questioned, his credibility as a minister undermined, and many members left his church. Did he steal from the church? Nobody knows. He was certainly guilty of careless financial management, and it almost shipwrecked his ministry.
Ezra was personally authorised by King Artaxerxes to spend the money; he could have taken a domineering, I-am-in-charge approach. As the leading scribe and priest in Israel, he could have adopted the attitude, ‘I am the man of God, so just trust me.’ Instead, he took every precaution to be blameless and transparent with the Lord’s money. He appointed the best men and implemented a system of checks and balances to ensure that the money was properly managed.
If you are in ministry, do you have trustworthy and financially-astute people overseeing the finances? Are there reliable systems in place to ensure that every cent is counted and recorded? Even the suspicion of dishonesty can harm your ministry, so it is wise to take every precaution.
5. Ezra mourned over the sins of his people
Soon after Ezra’s group of exiles arrived back in Jerusalem, he heard that the priests and people of Israel had been intermarrying with the idol-worshipping people of the surrounding regions. This was the very same sin that caused the exile, and Ezra feared that God’s next judgement could be the end of Israel. Even without divine judgement, the natural result of merging with other peoples threatened to bring an end to Israel as God’s people.
This was Ezra’s response to the news: ‘As soon as I heard this, I tore my garment and my cloak and pulled hair from my head and beard and sat appalled’ (9:3, italics mine). He ‘sat appalled until the evening sacrifice’ (9:4), when he fell on his knees and spread out his hands before God (at the temple). Then he prayed one of the Bible’s great prayers of repentance on behalf of his people. What we have in chapter 9 is a short summary of his confession. It must have been an extended prayer, because people gathered around him when they saw the intensity of his prayers, and they ‘wept bitterly’ (10:1). After this, he withdrew to a private place, and spent the night ‘neither eating bread nor drinking water, for he was mourning over the faithlessness of the exiles’ (10:6).
Sin grieved Ezra deeply. There was nothing contrived or put on about his response. As a student of scripture, he understood that Israel’s unfaithfulness to the Lord brought exile upon the nation. As a man of prayer, he had a personal appreciation for the holiness of God and the horrors of sin. In short, Ezra had a God-centred perspective on sin. Only those who walk intimately with God can appreciate how heinous sin is; only they can truly grieve and mourn over it; only they can grasp his grace in pardoning sinners. If our relationship with God is not intimate, we tend to have a man-centred view of sin. We downplay its seriousness and defend its servants. When confronted with sin in the community, we choose a pragmatic course of action—how can we protect the image of the church and avoid losing members? We defend our soft line on sin under the guise of ‘grace’, when often it reveals a failure to grasp God’s holiness rather than a deep revelation of his mercy.
6. Ezra was a strong leader surrounded by strong leaders
We see around Ezra a team of strong leaders, whom the scripture describes as ‘men of insight’ (8:16). He surrounded himself with wise, learned men, themselves students are God’s word and ways. He was not threatened by them. In fact, he actively sought them out. In 7:28, he notes his strategy: ‘I gathered leading men from Israel to go up with me.’ We have a good example of this in 8:15 20. While making final preparations for the journey to Jerusalem, Ezra ‘reviewed the people and the priests’ (8:15). He discovered that there were no Levites amongst them, so he sent a group of his most able leaders to recruit some. They brought back 38 Levites, including a key leader, Sherebiah, described as ‘a man of discretion’ (8:18).
When Ezra arrived in Jerusalem, he faced a major test of his leadership. He was confronted by a problem that threatened the existence of the Jewish nation—they were intermarrying with the surrounding peoples. While Ezra was crying out to God, one of the leaders of the community approached him with a proposed course of action to solve the problem. He listened to the man, and followed his counsel (see 10:1 5). Ezra was secure enough to surround himself with strong men, and also humble and teachable enough to listen to them.
The man’s proposal was a radical one—the Israelites would make a covenant with God to put away the foreign wives.7 This is what he said:
We have broken faith with our God and have married foreign women from the peoples of the land, but even now there is hope for Israel in spite of this. Therefore let us make a covenant with our God to put away all these wives and their children (10:2 3).
After making his proposal, the man charged Ezra: ‘Arise, for it is your task, and we are with you; be strong and do it’ (10:4, italics mine). The words would have reminded Ezra of God’s charge to Joshua, ‘Be strong and courageous’ (Josh. 1:5-9). Although the proposed solution did not originate from Ezra, he recognised it was the best course of action. He took immediate action to implement the plan. The next verse reads, ‘Then Ezra arose and made the leading priests and Levites and all Israel take oath that they would do as had been said. So they took the oath.’ (10:5). He took decisive action in difficult circumstances. Within three days he assembled ‘all the men of Judah and Benjamin’ (10:9). They devised a strategy to implement the agreed course of action, and appointed responsible people to carry it out. Despite some opposition, it took three months to carry out the plan.
In those times of crisis, Ezra modelled many of the principles of leadership and management that we find in modern textbooks. He was secure enough to surround himself with strong leaders, and humble enough to listen to their advice. When he had decided on a course of action, he acted quickly and decisively, but not impulsively. He delegated responsibility to trustworthy leaders, and gave them time and freedom to carry out the plan properly. He was not deterred by voices of dissent.
If you are a pastor, you will definitely find value in reading management and leadership books. They will supplement and reinforce what you learn from studying the lives of good leaders, such as Ezra and Nehemiah. But please be cautious of focusing too much on the ‘how to’ aspects of pastoral leadership, and neglecting the spiritual aspects such as obeying God’s call, studying the word, praying, trusting God, mourning over sin, and acknowledging God as sovereign in all of life.
7. Ezra acknowledged the sovereignty of God
Ezra did many things well. He was clearly a talented man and a skilled leader. Nevertheless, he recognised that his actions were not the primary cause of his successes. At every turn, he acknowledged that his successes were due to God’s favour upon him. One of the recurring phrases in his memoirs is ‘the hand of the Lord was upon us’.
• King Artaxerxes granted all Ezra’s requests, ‘for the hand of the LORD his God was on him’ (7:6).
• Ezra arrived safely in Jerusalem, despite many dangers, ‘for the good hand of his God was on him’ (7:9).
• Ezra spoke boldly before the king, ‘for the hand of the LORD my God was on me’ (7:28).
• When he realised that there was a dearth of Levites amongst the returning exiles, Ezra sent men to recruit some Levites. The succeeded ‘by the good hand of our God on us’ (8:18).
• Ezra boldly told the king that ‘the hand of our God is for good on all who seek him’ (8:22). Ezra modelled his faith in this truth by not requesting a military escort for the journey. This witness probably explains the king’s generosity towards the exiles.
• The returning exiles, carrying a fortune in gold and silver, were delivered from enemies and ambushes, because ‘hand of our God was on us’ (8:31).
God worked with, for, and through Ezra—and Ezra acknowledged the hand of God in every success. As a man of prayer and the word, he was sensitive to the Lord’s hand at work. He used every opportunity to give God credit and praise for his blessings. Here is an example of Ezra directing the glory towards God:
Blessed be the LORD, the God of our fathers, who put such a thing as this into the heart of the king, to beautify the house of the LORD that is in Jerusalem, and who extended to me his steadfast love before the king and his counsellors, and before all the king’s mighty officers (7:27-28).
A wise man reputedly said, ‘The world has yet to see what God can do through a man who is not concerned about getting the credit for it.’ He was exaggerating, but the point is well made, and the New Testament repeatedly reminds us that God is the only one who deserves credit for our ministry impact. For example, James 1:17 declares, ‘Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights’. Paul rebuked the Corinthians for being proud about their spiritual gifts: ‘What do you have that you did not receive? If then you received it, why do you boast as if you did not receive it?’ (1 Cor. 4:7). Ezra constantly reminded himself and others of this fundamental truth. We need to do the same. The greater our victories, the more we need to remind ourselves that God is ‘all in all’ (1 Cor. 15:28).
The Old Testament presents Ezra as the ideal priest. He remains an outstanding model for New Testament pastors to follow, because he embodied the values and priorities that God seeks in pastors. His life and ministry were shaped by two over-arching commitments, namely, (a) the fact that he had set his heart to study, do, and teach God’s word, and (b) the manner in which he related to God in intimate and passionate prayer. Out of these chief commitments flowed three inspiring qualities: his discernment of God’s call and his willingness to pay the price of obeying it; his understanding of God’s holiness and his deep grief over his people’s sins; and his ability to see God’s sovereign hand behind all his victories and give God all the glory. He also modelled two practical skills that every pastor needs—good financial management and strong team leadership.
1: All scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Standard Bible Society, 2001). Scripture citations not including an indication of the Bible book are all from the Book of Ezra; e.g. 7:1-5 means Ezra 7:1-5.
6:King Artaxerxes prescribed how some of the money was to be used, namely, to restored worship and sacrifices at the house of God in Jerusalem. The king trusted Ezra to use the rest of the money as he deemed best, saying, ‘Whatever seems good to you and your brothers to do with the rest of the silver and gold, you may do, according to the will of your God’ (7:18).
7: It is clear from Ezra 6:21 that foreigners who turned to the Lord were welcome amongst the Jewish community. Everyone who separated himself from the uncleanness (i.e. idolatry and its related evils) of the surrounding peoples and joined themselves to the people of God to worship the Lord, the God of Israel, was welcome. The problem in chapters 9 10 was that the Israelites were marrying ‘the peoples of the lands with their abominations’ (9:1, italics mine), i.e. they were marrying idol-worshippers who had no intention of turning to the Lord.
The plural here suggests that Shecaniah was speaking on behalf of the people, as their spokesperson.
Breneman, Mervin. Ezra, Nehemiah, Esther. New American Commentary 10. Nashville, TN: Broadman and Holman, 2001. Electronic edition: Logos Library System.
Bounds, Edward M. Power through Prayer. Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems, 1999.
Kelly, Brian E. ‘1 and 2 Chronicles’. Pages 697-798 of The ESV Study Bible. Edited by Lane T. Dennis, Wayne Grudem, and J. I. Packer. Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2008.
McConville, J. Gordon. ‘Ezra’. Pages 799-820 of The ESV Study Bible. Edited by Lane T. Dennis, Wayne Grudem, and J. I. Packer. Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2008.
McConville, J. Gordon. ‘Nehemiah’. Pages 821-848 of The ESV Study Bible. Edited by Lane T. Dennis, Wayne Grudem, and J. I. Packer. Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2008.
Roberts, Mark, and Ogilvie, Lloyd J. Ezra, Nehemiah, Esther. The Preacher’s Commentary Series 11. Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 1993.
Smith, James E. The Books of History. Joplin, MO: College Press, 1995.
Willamson, H. G. M. Ezra-Nehemiah. Word Biblical Commentary 16. Dallas, TX: Word, 2002.