The exiles, with the permission and support of the Persian kings, returned to the Promised Land in phases. In accord with his predecessors Cyrus and Darius, Artaxerxes displayed great benevolence toward the Jews. Ezra was God’s man for the moment—and Artaxerxes knew it. It was in the Persian king’s self-interest to allow the various people groups under his domain at least some freedom of religion. Artaxerxes even gave Ezra silver and gold to purchase animals for sacrifice, and any surplus was to be used at Ezra’s discretion (Ezra 7:16-18). He charged Ezra the priest to regulate life west of the Euphrates according to the law of Moses, appointing judges over those who knew it and teaching those who did not. The punishment for ignorance was severe: “Anyone who does not keep the law of your God and the law of the king, let a fair judgment be executed against him, whether death, banishment, confiscation of property, or imprisonment” (Ezra 7:26). Ezra gathered a number of family leaders to return with him, including Levites and temple servants (Ezra 7:27-8.20); he confessed that all these joined him because “the gracious hand of our God was upon us” (Ezra 8:18).
Ezra 7-8 reads like an autobiography. Ezra presented himself as a man dedicated to the law of Moses. The law is mentioned nine times in the book, seven of them in Ezra 7. Ezra was “a scribe skilled in the law of Moses, which the LORD, the God of Israel, had given” (Ezra 7:6); a man who “had determined in his heart to study the law of the LORD, obey it, and teach its statutes and ordinances in Israel” (Ezra 7:10); and “an expert in matters of the LORD’s commandments and statutes for Israel” (Ezra 7:11). King Artaxerxes’s letter was replete with references to Ezra as a man of the law (Ezra 7:12, 14, 21, 26). Why this emphasis? This was not primarily so that Ezra would have honor among the people as an expert teacher but so that the people themselves would be mindful of the law. If the Hebrews were going to have any success in Jerusalem, Ezra knew it would only be a result of faithfulness to the law.
The concept of the law of God is a central element for understanding the storyline of Scripture.
(1) Early in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus announced that He came not to destroy the law or the prophets, but to fulfill them (Matt 5:17-18). As the New Testament progresses, it becomes clear that the purpose of the law and the prophets was to point to Jesus, who would institute for His followers a law of love. The evening before Jesus was crucified, just after He washed His disciples’ feet, Jesus said, “I give you a new commandment: love one another. Just as I have loved you, you must also love one another. By this all people will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:34-35).
(2) Paul’s understanding of the law reflected the teaching and sacrifice of Jesus. Paul encouraged the Corinthians to follow his example of unselfishness, which he displayed as one “under the law of Christ” (1 Cor 9:21). Paul wrote that he was free to evangelize Jews by living as a Jew and free to evangelize Gentiles by living as a Gentile. Paul likewise challenged the Galatians—some of whom were submitting to life under the law of Moses and needed compassionate care from those stronger in faith among them—to “carry one another’s burdens; in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ” (Gal 6:2). It may in fact be the case that Paul understood Christians to be freed from the specifics of the law of Moses so that they could fulfill the law of love in Christ. Paul continued, “For you are called to freedom, brothers; only don’t use this freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but serve one another through love. For the entire law is fulfilled in one statement: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself’” (Gal 5:13-14). Similarly, Paul wrote to the Romans, “The commandments: You shall not commit adultery, you shall not murder, you shall not steal, you shall not covet,’ and if there is any other commandment—all are summed up by this: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself’” (Rom 13:9).