Restoring Civility to the Citizenry
Please read Ezra 7:11-28 in your Bible. I used the NLT to prepare these remarks.
A little over five years ago, a lone gunman walked onto a baseball field in Alexandria, Virginia, and opened fire on politicians who had been practicing for the annual Congressional Baseball Game for Charity. The gunman was James Hodgkinson, a 66-year-old supporter of Bernie Sanders that hated Republicans. Hodgkinson fired 60 rounds into the team of elected officials and lobbyists, wounding five people.
When police officers arrived, they exchanged fire with the gunman, killing him.
The next day, the game was played before nearly 25,000 spectators, with more than $1 million raised for charity. The Democrats won, 11-2.
Thankfully, politics doesn’t usually arouse this kind of violence, but every day uncounted verbal shots are taken by citizens at other citizens. People say the divisive rhetoric is worsened by the use and abuse of social media, although incivility is at least as old as civilization.
I’d like to think tomorrow’s Independence Day will be an occasion where all that will be set aside, but many fear the opposite will be true, that extremists will come out of the woodwork to exploit the day for uncivil purposes.
As believers, our purpose must be to find a better way, to set a higher example, and do all we can to restore civility in our nation. Let’s start with a historical example, a foreign king who came to Israel’s aid.
CONTEXT – King Artaxerxes’ letter authorizing t reconstruction of Jerusalem and the temple. The Jewish people had been conquered by the Babylonian empire seventy years previous. Most of the people were transported to Babylon to serve their conquerors. As God had promised, their time of captivity came to an end. Chapter six relates the results of the first return of the exiles under Kings Cyrus and Darius. Chapter seven relates a second great migration of the Jews from Babylon, which took place 38 years later (7:1 = MANY YEARS LATER). In the meantime, the reconstruction efforts had fizzled, and the people had once again fallen into sin and disarray (v. 25 shows some of the Jews in Judah were unfamiliar with God’s Law). A new generation of reformers was needed.
This edict of the king helped accomplish God’s purpose. This pagan king, Artaxerxes, continued the work of his predecessors, Cyrus and Darius, in facilitating the Israelites’ return to their homeland. In so doing, he provides for us a great example of civility and restoration.
Civility is doing right by others.
1. The king as an example of civility: he authorized generous support of the rebuilding effort. (7:11-26)
Verses eleven and twelve identify Ezra as a PRIEST, SCRIBE, and TEACHER OF THE LAW OF THE GOD OF HEAVEN. The fact that this edict is addressed to Ezra implies he was a man of some importance among the Jewish exiles, a worthy leader. The copy of the edict Ezra took with him would have been his bona fides, his proof of the king’s authority when he requested the money and materials specified in the document.
Verses thirteen and fourteen authorize any Israelites in Artaxerxes’ kingdom to return to Jerusalem. Notice it says ISRAEL, not Judah. This indicates that all the scattered tribes were welcome to return to their ancestral homeland.
Ezra’s commission was to “inquire” about the situation in their homeland. His inquiries were to be based on GOD’S LAW. This edict is an open-handed accommodation by Artaxerxes, who did not worship or pray to Ezra’s God or follow His LAW. The phrase WHICH IS IN YOUR HAND refers to the efforts of Ezra and Nehemiah to codify and formalize the first five books of the Bible. This is a version of the Pentateuch or the “Book of the Law” referred to elsewhere in the Old Testament.
Verses fifteen through twenty-three detail provision of financial resources to be taken from the royal treasury and VOLUNTARY OFFERINGS. Ezra was to use these funds and materiél in any way that fulfilled the will of his God.
Skeptics find it hard to believe that a pagan king would be so generous. To this we reply:
- The empire was well off. They could easily afford to finance this relatively minor expedition.
- They are, in a sense, returning to the Jews what was stolen from them when Judah was conquered 70 years earlier. The reference to the CUPS used in the TEMPLE is evidence of this.
- The generosity of the Persian kings is well-attested to by archaeological evidence.
- This is evidence of the power of God, who could turn the heart of a pagan king to look on God’s people with benevolence and thereby be a means of God keeping His promises to His people
In this document the king showed some theological savvy, but he did not share Ezra’s monotheism. More likely, he was a henotheist, believing in one god or pantheon of gods, but allowing for the existence of other gods. This is a belief shared by many Americans who say things like “all roads lead to god.” Here is a brief examination of the beliefs expressed in the edict:
- Verse fifteen = He saw these contributions as an OFFERING TO THE GOD OF ISRAEL. (However, God does not live in Jerusalem only.)
- Verse seventeen = He identified the various things offered to God ON THE ALTAR OF THE TEMPLE. (But he referred to Him as YOUR GOD.)
- Verse eighteen = He commanded Ezra to use any remaining funds according to THE WILL OF YOUR GOD, as Ezra and his COLLEAGUES were able to determine God’s will.
- Verse nineteen = He understood the CUPS taken from the temple to be sacred objects. They were to be used only in worship of God.
- Verse 23 = He cautions those meeting Ezra’s requests against risking God’s ANGER.
More than 300 travel authorizations like this have survived from this period. While this document is notable because it is recorded in Scripture, it is by no means unique.
Verse 24 exempts the worship leaders in the temple from any kind of tax. This was actually a common practice in ancient cultures, not carried over to the IRS. It also prohibited temple workers from being pressed into forced labor.
Verses 25-26 commission Ezra to teach the Law of God and promises the government will punish offenders. TEACH THE LAW TO ANYONE WHO DOES NOT KNOW IT turned out to be a majority of the Jews who returned from Babylon. This clause permits turning Jewish backsliders back to God.
Disobedience to God’s Law was punishable by the government (the MAGISTRATES and JUDGES Ezra was empowered to appoint). A full range of punishments were available, all with the king’s approval.
This edict is a strange harmony of a pagan king’s purposes and God’s plan. The reestablishment of the nation of Israel would have been a counterweight to the rebellious Egyptians and their obedience to God’s Law would also stabilize the region.
2. Ezra praised the Lord for the king’s support. (7:27-28)
Ezra credited God for Artaxerxes’ supportive attitude. Though the edict came from the king, Ezra knew it came about by God’s hand. Ezra was more of a scholar than an administrator, but God used the king’s edict to get him started. Which is good, because the job before Ezra was enormous.
Encouraged by the sweeping provisions created by the edict, Ezra began the process of restoring the Jews to their homeland. When you look at the events and experiences of your life with the eyes of faith, you will see God’s hand at work. When you see this evidence of God at work, your faith is strengthened.
3. Restoring civility.
Righteous people want to be civil. They are motivated to practice civility because they want to glorify God, obey God, love others, and share salvation with unsaved folks.
Unrighteous people must be motivated by fear of the law, which is where Romans 13:1-7 comes in. Whatever it is that motivates us, the more people practicing civility, the better off we all become.
Civility is doing right by others.
Five years ago, a North Carolina county manager named Earl Mathers wrote an opinion piece titled, “Restore Civility to Save America.” In it he made several common sense suggestions of how to be civil in public discourse. I’ve adapted these and added some advice of my own to come up with the following list of ways to practice and model civility.
1. Listen first and fully, talk second.
2. Refrain from assigning blame. 3. In public discourse especially, confront ideas before groups and groups before individuals. Use increasing caution.
4. Give up on every idea of “winning” that does not include everyone.
5. Speak softly, write softly, and use as few words as possible.
6. Avoid social media generally; entirely avoid social media rants.
7. Communicate the whole truth transparently - avoid manipulation. (A simple way to accomplish this is to avoid the use of adjectives. Adjectives can be manipulative.)
8. Seek, celebrate, and start with the common ground.
9. Media is presented in a way to create drama because drama sells. So, unplug as much as you can. If you can’t unplug, then get your news and views from contradictory sources to help balance what you receive.
10. In all situations, follow rules of etiquette. When you must debate, follow rules of rhetoric.
11. Your chief guidance is the Golden Rule: “Do to others whatever you would like them to do to you.” (Jesus, in Matthew 7:12, NLT)
https://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/james-hodgkinson-shooting-republicans-baseball-game, retrieved on 1 July 22.
The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, Vol. 4, Ezra, 1988, Edwin Yamauchi
The Daily Study Bible Series, Ezra, Nehemiah, and Esther, 1985, J.G. McConville
The One-Volume Illustrated Edition of the Zondervan Bible Commentary, Ezra, 2008, Stephen S. Short
https://icma.org/blog-posts/restore-civility-save-america, retrieved on 30 June 22.