What if you had longed for but had not been able to read from the scriptures for many years? And what if it had been even longer since you had been able to listen to or read the talks from general conference?
Now, what if such a spiritual drought were to finally end? How would you feel and what would you do? The story of Ezra shows us how the ancient Jews felt and what they did at the first public discourse on the scriptures in Jerusalem in at least 120 years.
After more than 60 years in Babylonian captivity, the Jews as a people began to return to their beloved Jerusalem. Cyrus, the conqueror of Babylon and founder of the Persian Empire, issued a decree giving them permission to reclaim their homeland and rebuild their temple (see 2 Chron. 36:22–23; Ezra 1:2–3). Cyrus even gave back to them 5,400 gold and silver “vessels of the house of the Lord” that Nebuchadnezzar had taken out of Jerusalem (see Ezra 1:7–11). The first group to journey back to Jerusalem consisted of 42,360 Jews, arriving in 537 B.C. (see Ezra 2). For several more decades, additional groups migrated to help reconstruct the city walls and temple. Led by Zerubbabel, a prince of Judah, and the prophets Haggai and Zechariah, the people joyously dedicated the temple in 516 B.C. (see Ezra 3:1–6:16). The people again offered sacrifices to the Lord in His holy house, and Levitical priests were organized to do their duties according to the law of Moses. They “kept the feast of unleavened bread seven days with joy: for the Lord had made them joyful” (Ezra 6:22). Yet something of eternal import was still missing among them: a knowledge of the scriptures.
To fill such a need, the Lord raised up a Levite, a direct descendant of Aaron, named Ezra (see Ezra 7:1–5). Born in captivity, Ezra was inspired to ask Artaxerxes, king of Persia, for permission to lead another group of Jews back to Jerusalem in 459 B.C. (see Ezra 7:6–7). The king granted him everything he asked, providing him with an impressive letter of introduction and credentials that entitled Ezra to whatever he and his group needed during their journey (see Ezra 7:11–27).
Now, Ezra was no ordinary priest of Aaron, for he was a “ready scribe in the law of Moses … even a scribe of the words of the commandments of the Lord, and of his statutes to Israel” (Ezra 7:6, 11). The word scribe “does not merely signify a speedy writer or an excellent penman, but one who was eminently skilful in expounding the law.”1 Ezra was a teacher, well versed in the scriptures, who had devoted himself to the study and observance of their commands and decrees. Furthermore, he “had prepared his heart to seek the law of the Lord, and to do it” (Ezra 7:10).
Ezra and his group made the difficult journey of about 1,100 miles in just four months, so that Ezra could “teach in Israel statutes and judgments” (Ezra 7:10). Thus the Lord had made ready a man of God to end the long famine “of hearing the words of the Lord” (see Amos 8:11–12). For the rest of our story we must now turn to the book of Nehemiah.
Not long after Ezra arrived in Jerusalem, the people prepared for a special celebration called the Feast of Tabernacles (see Bible Dictionary, “Feasts,” 673). Traditionally it is perhaps the most joyful of all Jewish feasts. Coming in the fall of each year, it is a time of thanksgiving for the harvest and other blessings from the Lord. The people must have been particularly grateful at the feast that year for their newly acquired freedoms, land, and temple. They asked Ezra to be their spiritual leader and to teach them from the scriptures (see Neh. 8:1).
A wooden stand was built for Ezra from which he could speak so that all the people could see and hear. Similar to our conference gatherings, 15 men, including Nehemiah, the governor, occupied the stand, as an assembly of “all that could hear with understanding,” including men, women, and children, anxiously awaited instruction (see Neh. 8:2–4, 9). As Ezra opened the scriptures, all the people simultaneously stood up and remained standing throughout the meeting. Ezra knelt down and offered thanks to the Lord, and all the people answered, “Amen, Amen,” with hands raised to heaven. They then “bowed their heads, and worshipped the Lord with their faces to the ground” (Neh. 8:6).
Ezra, Nehemiah, and several other Levites then instructed the people, reading from the scriptures, giving clear explanations of their meanings so that all the people could understand (see Neh. 8:7–9). The speeches went on for five or six hours (see Neh. 8:3), yet the people listened attentively. This experience affected the people so profoundly they were moved to tears by the words of the scriptures.
“This day is holy unto the Lord your God; mourn not, nor weep,” Ezra told the people. “Go your way, eat the fat, and drink the sweet,” he said, “for this day is holy unto our Lord” (Neh. 8:9–10). Ezra also asked the people to make sure that no one went without plenty of delicious food on this day. So the people went home and made “great mirth, because they had understood the words that were declared unto them” (Neh. 8:12).
The next day the heads of all the families gathered around Ezra to continue their study of the scriptures. To their surprise they discovered instructions written in the law that the people were supposed to celebrate the Feast of Tabernacles while living in booths, or temporary shelters made of branches of trees and shrubs (see Lev. 23:42–43). So they immediately spread word to the people to build their booths and live in them for the remainder of the seven-day feast, a practice that had been lost from this feast for more than 1,000 years! And the people celebrated with “very great gladness” for six more days, gathering each day to hear Ezra read to them from the scriptures. On the last day, there was a great solemn assembly (see Neh. 8:13–18).
As a result of this wonderful occasion, the people fasted, confessed their sins, and continued to study the scriptures. They expressed gratitude to the Lord in a beautiful prayer that recounted the grace and power of Jehovah from the Creation to their return from exile (see Neh. 9:5–37). Through their scripture studies they had come to appreciate the great blessings the Lord had given them. “Thou art a God ready to pardon,” they acknowledged, “gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and of great kindness” (Neh. 9:17). Because their hearts were contrite and their desires were pure, the people made “a sure covenant” with the Lord, put it in writing, and had all the leaders and priests affix their seals to it (see Neh. 9:38). This story contains many remarkable parallels to the story of King Benjamin’s address to his people in the Book of Mormon and their reaction to his message (see Mosiah 2–5).
The prophet Alma taught that the word of the Lord can have a more powerful influence upon people than the sword or anything else (see Alma 31:5). In fact, the preaching of the word enabled the righteous Lamanites to completely destroy the Gadianton robbers from among them (see Hel. 6:37).
A modern-day Ezra, President Ezra Taft Benson, has said: “Often we spend great effort in trying to increase the activity levels in our stakes. We work diligently to raise the percentages of those attending sacrament meetings. We labor to get a higher percentage of our young men on missions. We strive to improve the numbers of those marrying in the temple. All of these are commendable efforts and important to the growth of the kingdom. But when individual members and families immerse themselves in the scriptures regularly and consistently, these other areas of activity will automatically come. Testimonies will increase. Commitment will be strengthened. Families will be fortified. Personal revelation will flow.”2 What happened when the Israelites heard and studied the scriptures is a wonderful example of this great teaching.
The study of the scriptures is often a significant way for us to learn from the Lord what we need to know and do. Elder Boyd K. Packer of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles has taught that if we “are acquainted with the revelations, there is no question—personal or social or political or occupational—that need go unanswered. … Therein we find principles of truth that will resolve every confusion and every problem and every dilemma that will face the human family or any individual in it.”3
A regular and consistent pattern of scripture study is what will be most helpful. Elder Neal A. Maxwell of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles said: “A few little flowers will spring up briefly in the dry gully through which torrents of water pass occasionally. But it is steady streams that bring thick and needed crops. In the agriculture of the soul that has to do with nurturing attributes, flash floods are no substitute for regular irrigation.”4
Ezra and the Jews of his day provide a worthy model showing why and how we should study and teach the scriptures. May we in reverence come to spiritual attention each time we open their pages. May we rely on the words of living apostles and prophets to help us understand their true meanings. May we celebrate with “very great gladness” that the study of the scriptures is our privilege. And may we make and keep our sacred covenants with great diligence and faith, using the scriptures as our guide.
More on this topic: See Timothy L. Carver, “Enjoying the Old Testament,”Ensign, Jan. 2002, 56–60; Richard D. Draper, “Judah between the Testaments,”Ensign, Oct. 1982, 36–41; Edward J. Brandt, “The Exile and First Return of Judah,”Ensign, July 1974, 12–13.