8 Oct 2021

First Esdras: Worship, Eating and Unity

Author: Bobby Valentine | Filed under: Apocrypha, Christian hope, Grace, Jewish Backgrounds, Lord's Supper, Septuagint, Unity, Worship
Worship Unites People at the Table

Many of you read through the Bible in a year and I do the same. I comment on the daily Psalm reading (the Psalms are read every month) more frequently. But today’s reading has occupied my mind for a while since reading during lunch.

My Bible has the “Middle Testament” (the Apocrypha as Protestants call it). But I learned several years ago that if I read three and a third pages every day I can read the Hebrew Bible, Middle Testament and the New Testament easily in a year. That did not seem too burdensome, so I have hung with it over the years. I reflect on this today because I finished reading First Esdras today.

First Esdras (Esdras = Ezra) covers the same basic ground as the ending of 2 Chronicles, Ezra 1-5 and Nehemiah 7-8. It is nine chapters long and I read chapters 8-9 today. The book was used by Josephus instead of the version of Ezra-Nehemiah of the Hebrew Bible in his Jewish Antiquities. Alexander Campbell quoted from 4.35 on the masthead of the Millennial Harbinger for many years, “Great is the truth and stronger than all things.”

Usually known only for the epic battle of wits between the three bodyguards in chapters 3-4, the whole book gives us a unique window on the worship, especially corporate worship, of God’s people during the centuries leading up to Jesus. That is where my interest lies today. In chapters 8-9 there is a great assembly in which Ezra leads the people in confession of sin, prayer before God, the reading of the Bible (the Law) that culminates in a great feast at the table. The prayer mingles amazing faith in God’s grace and mercy, as well as a call to repentance. It ends with a covenant meal and the sharing of that meal with those who have none. Worship binds all God’s people together as equals at God’s table. So Ezra prays,

And now in some measure of mercy has come to us from you, O Lord, to leave us a root and a name in your holy place, and to uncover a light for us in the house of the Lord our God, and to give us food in the time of our servitude. Even in our bondage we were not forsaken by our Lord but he brought us into favor with the kings of the Persians, so that they have given us food, and glorified the temple of our Lord, and raised Zion from desolation, to give us a stronghold in Judea and Jerusalem.” (8.78-81).

The Lord has “lifted the burden of our sins” (v.86).

What Good News!

The people gather with Ezra for the Festival of Trumpets, as the book closes. A pulpit was made of wood and Ezra climbed it to read the “law of Moses” from early in the morning till mid-day. He was joined by others who either interpreted or translated the law for the people. The crowd lifted their hands in the air and then fell down and worshiped the Lord shouting “Amen” as the Bible was read to them.

Because the day was “holy to the Lord” (9.50) the crowd is forbidden to be sorrowful. The recognition of sin was not to lead to despondency. For the reading of Moses was not to produce condemnation but reveal God’s grace to them. Rather the goal is to be filled with “great rejoicing.” Rejoicing comes from the experience of grace. Joy flows from communion with God in worship.

The Word of God was heard. Then the people sat and ate in the joy of the Lord. Such a day can only be shared with those who are less fortunate: the poor.

This day is holy; do not be sorrowful.

Then they all went their way to eat and drink and enjoy themselves, and to give portions to those who had none, and to make great rejoicing; because they had been inspired by the words which had been taught.” (9.54-55).

The Word of God leads to the Table of God, and that my beloved friends, leads to the unity of God’s people. First Esdras literally ends with this note,

And they came together.” (9.55).

That is pretty good theology. God’s word certainly makes us aware of our sin. But the word makes clear that God has been merciful even as we have been faithless. We have seriously misrepresented God’s word if we do not come away awed that Grace is greater than sin.

God’s word “inspires” us by bringing us to God’s grace.

God’s table is spread for those who know they have been graced.

When we know we have been graced, we share the riches of God’s table.

God’s word and God’s table bring us to unity in the joy of the Lord.

Yes, that is pretty good theology.

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