Praying Through the Bible project
Finding Victory Through
Seeking and Following God
(1 Chron 14.10, 14)
Blessed be the LORD, the God of our ancestors, who put such a thing as this into the heart of the king to glorify the house of the LORD in Jerusalem, and who extended to me steadfast love before the king and his counselors, and before all the king’s mighty officers. I took courage, for the hand of the LORD my God was upon me, and I gathered leaders from Israel to go up with me.
The separation of Church and State is written into the U.S. Constitution, a result of modern historical realities. But for believers, the separation—and connections—is found even in the ancient book of Ezra. This prayer gives us some insights into how prayer plays a part in the interaction between the State and our faith.
Following the completion of the Temple, the Jews celebrated the festival of Passover. This first section of the book of Ezra ends there, and the rest of the book is about (or by) Ezra himself. The time between chapter 6 and chapter 7 is almost 60 years.
Ezra was a priest and a descendant of the high priest before the Exile. But he was also a scribe—the people who became more important when there was no Temple, because their focus was on scripture. Ezra is often presented in the Bible as a “second Moses” because of his leading, teaching, and holding the people accountable to God’s ways.
He travels to Jerusalem, commissioned by King Artaxerxes I, to accomplish four things. First, he was to take a group to Jerusalem from Babylon. Second, he was to deliver gifts and money to the Temple and ensure that proper funds flowed to the Temple in the future. Third, he was to make sure that the Temple and the practices were being done properlyaccording to the Jewish law. The final task was to teach the people who lived outside of Jerusalem how to live under the Jewish laws.
All of this was written in a document and signed by the King. Immediately following the words of the King’s declaration, Ezra offers the prayer above, as a response of blessing upon God for His provision of the Temple and their return to worship and live under Him.
The third part of the King’s decree might surprise some, but, as we have noted before, the Persians encouraged the religion of their conquered people. This might be what lies behind the issue of mixed-religion marriages later in the book, for such marriages could bring problems for living under the Jewish law if one spouse was not Jewish.
Ezra’s reaction to the document put forth by the king is to offer a prayer of blessing upon God. While the document is an important one for the history of Persia and especially for the Jewish people, Ezra’s focus is that God has kept his promise by expressing his long-suffering love to his people. Further, it is that the center of worship for God’s people, the Temple, is being provided for and protected. A lot has happened since God called Abram to be the beginning of a nation under God, but he is still the same God, the “the God of our fathers” (v27), who uses a pagan king to continue his promises.
The prayer itself is a blessing-prayer (or a benediction). It is a simple prayer, and resembles many of the prayers of praise found in the Psalms. Like we have seen so often, this blessing on God is a direct response to what God has done for the Jews.
The prayer shows that Ezra is honored and humbled to be called to be part of God’s plan. Yet it also shows that he is aware that this is a historical change—the relationship between State and the religion of the Jews has changed. In the past, the government was either a theocracy, under God, or under a foreign power who was hostile to God. In Ezra’s time, the two are different but work together. This will eventually lead to the message found in the New Testament that all people can be citizens of God’s kingdom, regardless of their citizenship in this world, while at the same time living under a State’s authority and even praying for the secular leaders.
Strikingly, this new partnership between the State and religion in ancient times is not that different from many Western democracies today. The State and the Church are not the same and have different goals, yet the State encourages faith communities. At the same time, a State’s policies can sometimes work against it. As noted in previous studies, God’s people are called to be submissive to the State, which God uses, but also to remember that they are first part of God’s kingdom. What the State does is of little concern.
Do you pray for your secular and governmental leaders? Ezra, Jesus, and the New Testament writers believe you should. Even when you disagree with their policies or philosophy of government, you can pray for their safety and wisdom, for God can use them to further His purposes just as He used King Artaxerxes I.
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