Last week we were finally introduced to Ezra, the man for whom the book is named. After six chapters and so much having taken place in Jerusalem, we met Ezra. In the first six chapters we witnessed the journey to Jerusalem of approximately 43,000 Jews who were living in Babylon under Cyrus’ reign. We heard the sound of hammers rebuilding the temple which had been destroyed followed by silence when opposition arose. We were introduced to God’s thundering prophets, Haggai and Zechariah, who stirred a renewed devotion in the hearts of God’s people to finish the rebuilding of the temple. Then came a new king, King Darius, who sent orders to Jerusalem saying he wanted to contribute anything the Jews needed to finish their work on the temple and he warned everyone to leave them alone, do not disrupt their work. The Jews finished the work and celebrated the first Passover since the Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar had destroyed the temple. The close of Ezra 6 was a seven day feast that none of God’s people would ever forget. And then…and then we met Ezra for the very first time.
Ezra didn’t let us know there’s a 57 year gap between the pages of Ezra 6 and Ezra 7, we know this because of the new king, King Artaxerxes. Ezra did tell us that “the gracious hand of his God was on him” (Ezra 7:9 NIVO) and the letter King Artaxerxes gave Ezra is evidence that Ezra was so right, “the gracious hand of his God was on him.” King Artaxerxes gave Ezra lots of gold and silver to supply everything the priests needed to supply the worship of God at the temple. The king also told Ezra to teach God’s Word to the people of Jerusalem who didn’t know the Word of God. Such an amazing request for a pagan king! Ezra and about 5,000 people left Babylon on April 8, 458 B.C. and arrived in Jerusalem on August 4, 458 B.C.
When we turn the page to Ezra 8 we find a more detailed explanation of how it all took place, what Ezra did to organize the people as they set out and journeyed to Jerusalem. If you will take a look at Ezra 8 in your Bible you will see that the first fourteen verses are made up of another list of names. This list falls into three categories: In verse 2 we have the descendants of the priests Phinehas and Ithamar. Also in verse 2 we find a descendant of the royal line of David, the family from which the Messiah would come one day, a man named Huttush. Then, in verses 3-14, we have the names of 12 Jewish families, not royal, not priestly, but every name except one, the descendants of Joab, had relatives who returned with Zerubbabel in the first wave of returnees to Jerusalem. When you add all of the names together, add in a guesstimate of the women and children, you can come up with about, maybe 5,000 people. No where near the 43,000 people who made the first trip some eighty years earlier.
Ezra provides us with some great insights from his journal beginning in Ezra 8:15. Let’s turn there and read together.
15 I assembled them at the canal that flows toward Ahava, and we camped there three days. When I checked among the people and the priests, I found no Levites there. 16 So I summoned Eliezer, Ariel, Shemaiah, Elnathan, Jarib, Elnathan, Nathan, Zechariah and Meshullam, who were leaders, and Joiarib and Elnathan, who were men of learning, 17 and I sent them to Iddo, the leader in Casiphia. I told them what to say to Iddo and his kinsmen, the temple servants in Casiphia, so that they might bring attendants to us for the house of our God. 18 Because the gracious hand of our God was on us, they brought us Sherebiah, a capable man, from the descendants of Mahli son of Levi, the son of Israel, and Sherebiah’s sons and brothers, 18 men; 19 and Hashabiah, together with Jeshaiah from the descendants of Merari, and his brothers and nephews, 20 men. 20 They also brought 220 of the temple servants– a body that David and the officials had established to assist the Levites. All were registered by name. 21 There, by the Ahava Canal, I proclaimed a fast, so that we might humble ourselves before our God and ask him for a safe journey for us and our children, with all our possessions. 22 I was ashamed to ask the king for soldiers and horsemen to protect us from enemies on the road, because we had told the king, “The gracious hand of our God is on everyone who looks to him, but his great anger is against all who forsake him.” 23 So we fasted and petitioned our God about this, and he answered our prayer. (Ezra 8:15-23 NIVO)
You can imagine that when Ezra decided on the day he would leave Babylon for Jerusalem, he spread the word that anyone who wanted to make the trip with him should meet him at a certain time and at a certain place. They met at a canal that flowed towards Ahava. Once all of the people came together, Ezra put together a roster of everyone’s name. That makes perfect sense doesn’t it?
I’m getting ready to make a trip to Branson in a few weeks with a busload of our wonderful seniors. You better believe I’ll have a list and I’ll check my list each time we get on and off the bus. In addition to my list, everyone will have a “buddy,” and our group will chant, “Leave no buddy behind!” every time we get off the bus. Why will we go to all the trouble? I don’t want to lose anyone. Why did Ezra have a list? Well, I’m certain Ezra was keeping a record of the Jewish families for the historical record, but he also didn’t want to lose anyone along the way. There were about 5,000 people making the 900 mile journey through rough desert terrain. There were children, people of all ages, and Ezra didn’t want to lose one single person.
As Ezra was making his list, he discovered a problem–there were no Levites on the list. The Levites were indispensable for worship at the temple, but Ezra couldn’t find one single Levite on the roster. We learn this from Ezra 8:15. Read it with me.
15 I assembled them at the canal that flows toward Ahava, and we camped there three days. When I checked among the people and the priests, I found no Levites there. (Ezra 8:15 NIVO)
The Levites were the assistants of the priests. They kept everything in the temple clean and orderly, they guarded the temple gates, and they slaughtered some of the temple sacrifices. Under King David, the Levites were put in charge of music at the temple. Levites were on duty for one week at a time, from one Sabbath to the next. Levites weren’t as highly regarded as priests, they were the only Israelite tribe not allowed to own any land, and oftentimes their work was seen as menial servant work, but their work was important for the priests to be able to do their job. Ezra needed Levites for the temple in Jerusalem and yet not one single Levite signed-up to make the trip. What would he do? Well, we can find out in verses 16-17.
16 So I summoned Eliezer, Ariel, Shemaiah, Elnathan, Jarib, Elnathan, Nathan, Zechariah and Meshullam, who were leaders, and Joiarib and Elnathan, who were men of learning, 17 and I sent them to Iddo, the leader in Casiphia. I told them what to say to Iddo and his kinsmen, the temple servants in Casiphia, so that they might bring attendants to us for the house of our God. (Ezra 8:16-17 NIVO)
Ezra went around and found some key leaders as well as two men, Joiarib and Elnathan, who were “men of learning.” Some translate the phrase, “men of learning,” as “interpreters of the law,” “men of insight,” or “teachers.” These would have been the guys who would have been able to quote God’s Word about God’s call on the lives of the Levites. They may have quoted Jeremiah 33 where God promised that after He brought His people back to Jerusalem, He would never lack Levites to stand before Him and make offerings. The men Ezra sent may have quoted this verse and said, “You are that man we are counting on! You are the man that God has called!” Their going back to work at the temple was not optional, God was calling them to go and do His work. Did the leaders move the hearts of the Levites? Well, it depends. Yes, there were 38 Levites who responded to the call, but most Bible teachers believe that is a pathetically small number considering there was probably a seminary type school for Levites in Casiphia led by a man named Iddo.
Why were so few willing to make the long, hot, difficult journey back to Jerusalem? Why were so few willing to stop their studies in Babylon and get to work in Jerusalem? It’s not really that difficult to understand. Many, if not all of these Levites had been born in Babylon. The Jews did well in Babylon. They were able to own land, businesses, and do quite well for themselves. They had become comfortable in Babylon, they had fallen into their routines in Babylon, and life was quite good, thank you very much. Why in the world would anyone want to uproot their families, give up their property and their comfortable lives, and make a tough 900 mile journey only to become a servant at God’s House? They had the best of both worlds in Babylon. They could study the Torah with Iddo, fellowship with other Levites, and still continue to build their comfortable lives. Go back to Jerusalem to clean the temple, slaughter sacrifices, sing some songs, and live off the tithes of other people…no thanks.
We read that Ezra told the men who went to Casiphia what to say to Iddo and the Levites. If I had to guess the message Ezra gave them to deliver I bet it wasn’t promises of a cushy life, a “better” life than what they had in Babylon. I bet it was more along the lines of “God has called us to go, to serve Him, and to lead His people. It will be a long, dangerous journey with many risks, but God has called us to go so we must go. Will you go with us?”
This past week, as I’ve been studying this chapter of Ezra, I thought about an experience I had last week at the Walk Thru The Bible seminar. Dr. Larry Dinkins was born in Shawnee, he went to OU, and was a member of a fraternity on campus. While in college the Lord touched Larry’s heart. He gave him a passion to serve Him and that passion led Larry to Thailand where he has spent the last 40 years of his life. He told us last Saturday that .7% of the Thai people are Christians. Larry said every time he comes home to the US he is reminded of how easy Christians have it here, how comfortable life is for Christians in America. Then he said something that grabbed me. Larry said, “I’m so excited about going back to Thailand because I know that every day there the Lord will stretch me. Every day back home in Thailand I will have opportunities to share Jesus with people who do not know him.” Did you hear that? Larry told us he was excited about being uncomfortable, being stretched and challenged by the Lord. Larry understands Jesus’ call to all of His followers. In Luke 9:23-25, Jesus told them,
23 Then he said to them all: “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. 24 For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will save it. 25 What good is it for a man to gain the whole world, and yet lose or forfeit his very self? (Luke 9:23-25 NIVO)
The early followers of Jesus understood His words crystal clear. Our Promise Keepers men have been studying the book of Acts this semester. Right after Pentecost and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, we find Peter and John being arrested and threatened because they are followers of Jesus. When they were eventually released they went back to the other followers of Jesus and prayed. Do you know what they prayed? “Lord, why are you letting this happen to us?” “Lord, won’t you make them stop?” No, that’s not what they prayed. Listen to this:
29 Now, Lord, consider their threats and enable your servants to speak your word with great boldness. 30 Stretch out your hand to heal and perform miraculous signs and wonders through the name of your holy servant Jesus.” (Acts 4:29-30 NIVO)
“Lord, give us greater boldness! Lord, keep doing what only You can do through us so that we can declare the mighty name of Jesus!” Next week in Promise Keepers we’ll learn about the conversion of a young radical named Saul of Tarsus. A young radical passionate about wiping out the followers of Jesus who became the greatest, most radical missionary for Jesus in the history of the world. Later in his ministry he wrote,
24 Five times I received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one. 25 Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was stoned, three times I was shipwrecked, I spent a night and a day in the open sea, 26 I have been constantly on the move. I have been in danger from rivers, in danger from bandits, in danger from my own countrymen, in danger from Gentiles; in danger in the city, in danger in the country, in danger at sea; and in danger from false brothers. 27 I have labored and toiled and have often gone without sleep; I have known hunger and thirst and have often gone without food; I have been cold and naked. 28 Besides everything else, I face daily the pressure of my concern for all the churches. 29 Who is weak, and I do not feel weak? Who is led into sin, and I do not inwardly burn? 30 If I must boast, I will boast of the things that show my weakness. (2 Corinthians 11:24-30 NIVO)
Maybe we need to stop putting so much effort into reaching the nice, respectable, well-mannered people who live in our city and begin praying for and reaching out to the hardcore thugs, campus radicals, and biker enforcers who need to know Jesus.
Most of the Levites didn’t respond to Ezra’s call because they were comfortable and they didn’t want to give up their cushy lives to venture into the unknown. Most of those who call themselves Christians in our community today are quite comfortable in filling a pew for an hour on Sunday, but they have no intention of venturing into the unknown to serve the Lord.
How did Ezra respond when he only saw only 38 Levites coming down the road with the men he had sent to recruit Levites? Was he disappointed that so few Levites had responded to the invitation? I’m sure he was, but there was a truth that trumped any disappointment Ezra might have been feeling. Let me show you what I’m talking about. Ezra says,
18 Because the gracious hand of our God was on us, they brought us Sherebiah, a capable man, from the descendants of Mahli son of Levi, the son of Israel, and Sherebiah’s sons and brothers, 18 men; 19 and Hashabiah, together with Jeshaiah from the descendants of Merari, and his brothers and nephews, 20 men. (Ezra 8:18-19 NIVO)
How did the 38 Levites find the strength and courage to stop what they were doing and commit to leaving everything they knew, the life they enjoyed behind? It was because of the gracious hand of God. Ezra knew he needed Levites, he formulated a plan to recruit Levites, but he knew it was God and God alone who would bring the Levites he needed. What a great lesson for us as a church. God will provide us with everything we need to do what He has given us to do if we will simply rely upon Him, seek Him, and trust Him.
There’s one more thing that I want to share with all of you before we leave here today. Before Ezra and the others set out for Jerusalem, they fasted and prayed. Let’s read together from Ezra 8:21-23.
21 There, by the Ahava Canal, I proclaimed a fast, so that we might humble ourselves before our God and ask him for a safe journey for us and our children, with all our possessions. 22 I was ashamed to ask the king for soldiers and horsemen to protect us from enemies on the road, because we had told the king, “The gracious hand of our God is on everyone who looks to him, but his great anger is against all who forsake him.” 23 So we fasted and petitioned our God about this, and he answered our prayer. (Ezra 8:21-23 NIVO)
Ezra had made out his plan and then he had gone over it again and again. He had mapped out the route to Jerusalem. He had put together a roster and then checked it again to make sure everyone was accounted for before they set out on the journey. The king had given Ezra a huge amount of gold and silver and Ezra had chosen those who would carry it. He weighed out the gold and recorded the weight. He told the men they were “holy” unto the Lord and the provisions from the king were “holy” unto the Lord. They would be weighed again once they arrived in Jerusalem to keep everyone accountable. Ezra had gone to great lengths to make sure every “i” was dotted and every “t” crossed, but he knew his meticulous plan wouldn’t be enough to get them safely to Jerusalem. It would be a long, difficult, and dangerous journey. There would be bandits along the way, enemies who were looking to take advantage of a ragtag group of travelers. Ezra could have asked for a military escort from King Artaxerxes, but he didn’t. We’ll learn, when we begin our study of Nehemiah that he did ask for a military escort from this same king and he was given one. Why didn’t Ezra ask for help? Look at Ezra 8:22 and we can find the answer.
22 I was ashamed to ask the king for soldiers and horsemen to protect us from enemies on the road, because we had told the king, “The gracious hand of our God is on everyone who looks to him, but his great anger is against all who forsake him.” (Ezra 8:22 NIVO)
Evidently the subject had been brought up during Ezra’s conversation with King Artaxerxes and Ezra had declined the help. Evidently Ezra didn’t just say, “Thanks for your offer King Artaxerxes, but we’ll be alright.” Ezra told the king, “The gracious hand of our God is on everyone who looks to him, but his great anger is against all who forsake him.” Ezra had testified to the king about his faith in God’s protective care for the long and dangerous journey. How would it look if he went back to the King and said, “You know, I’ve been thinking. We’re going to have lots of women and little ones with us on our trip…and with all of the gold and silver you’ve given us…maybe I should take you up on your offer to help us out. I’ve put together a list of what might be helpful. How about a few tanks, some .50 caliber machine guns mounted on our wagons, two Blackhawk helicopters, three Predator drones equipped with missiles, and enough special forces to insure our safe travels?” Ezra knew he couldn’t do that so instead, he writes,
23 So we fasted and petitioned our God about this, and he answered our prayer. (Ezra 8:23 NIVO)
It’s easy to talk about how much we trust God sitting in Bible study isn’t it? It’s a piece of cake to theorize about threatening situations we might face and talk about how God is able, but when the rubber meets the road, when what-could-happen turns into what-is-happening, then we find out if we really trust God. While standing in the king’s presence Ezra had said, “God is able. He will protect us!” When the people had assembled and Ezra was reminded of the potential threats that awaited him and the 5,000 who would travel with him, he had to have had second thoughts. Instead of going back to the king, Ezra turned to God and he led the people in fasting and praying for God’s help. Ezra said they prayed to the Lord about their situation and He answered their prayer. And He will answer yours as well.
I’m so grateful for this study of Ezra we’ve been learning from for the past several weeks. We can learn from Ezra to plan and pray. We can also learn from the Levites not to settle. Never settle for comfort when serving the King is right before us, just one decision away my friend. How about you? Have you settled in to your routine? Have you settled in to your comfortable lifestyle and don’t want to be bothered with the unknown of stepping out in faith and saying, “I’m in Lord. Use me however you want to use, whenever you want to use me Lord.” I want to give you that opportunity this very morning.
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November 17, 2019