The Book of Ezra: Restoration From Babylon

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The close connection between this and the preceding chapter will be perceived at once. Chapter 7 closed with the words, "And I gathered together out of Israel chief men to go up with me"; this commences with, "These are now the chief of their fathers, and this is the genealogy of them that went up with me from Babylon, in the reign of Artaxerxes the king." This genealogy reaches to the end of verse 14, and it shows how precious to God were the very names of those who responded to His call at such a moment. The response itself is the fruit of His grace; but in the exercise of that same grace He is pleased to impute to His people that which He Himself had produced in their hearts. It was a goodly company, numbering over fifteen hundred souls, who were thus gathered to return to the land of their fathers-the land of all their traditions, as well as the land of all their hopes.
The first act of Ezra was to assemble them by "the river that runneth to Ahava; and there abode we in tents three days: and I viewed the people, and the priests, and found there none of the sons of Levi." v. 15. There were two, but only two, priests; namely, Gershom, son of Phinehas, and Daniel, son of Ithamar; but of the Levitical family, outside of the priesthood, there was absolutely none. Well might Ezra have been concerned, for it was a sad symptom of the state into which the people had fallen. The priests alone enjoyed access to the holy place of the house of their God, and the Levites alone were the appointed ministers in all that appertained in its service, and yet when the proclamation was made that they might return and once more resume their privileges, they were untouched and indifferent. They had found a home in the very place where their fathers had hung their harps on the willows, and wept when they remembered Zion. And it is the same with God's people now. The moment they are tempted by the enemy to "mind earthly things," they become careless of their spiritual privileges and, if not aroused from their lethargy, may even become "enemies of the cross of Christ." No child of God who understands his heavenly calling could be content to dwell in Babylon.
Nor was Ezra content to leave the Levites behind. Besides, he knew the needs of the Lord's house, and it pained this devoted servant to find them caring for their own things rather than for the courts of Jehovah. He accordingly took measures to reach their consciences, that even yet they might join him in his mission to Jerusalem. To this end he sent for some of their chief men, among whom were Joiarib and Elnathan, "men of understanding." It is well for the people of God when, in times of decay and corruption, there are still men of understanding to be found. It is by these that God preserves His saints from sinking into still deeper depths, and keeps alive what of faith and hope may still remain. Ezra knew where to put his hand on some of these; and his zeal for the work on which his heart was set is expressed in the commission with which he entrusted them.
He says, "And I sent them with commandment unto Iddo, the chief at the place of Casiphia, and I told them what they should say unto Iddo, and to his brethren the Nethinim, at the place Casiphia, that they should bring unto us ministers for the house of our God." v. 17. It is said of the Lord Jesus, or rather, speaking in spirit, He Himself said, "The zeal of Thine house hath eaten Me up" (Psalm 69:99For the zeal of thine house hath eaten me up; and the reproaches of them that reproached thee are fallen upon me. (Psalm 69:9); John 2:1717And his disciples remembered that it was written, The zeal of thine house hath eaten me up. (John 2:17)); and this was because the glory of the Father was ever His supreme object. God's name, God's honor, were ever the delight of His soul. And Ezra in his measure, desired Jehovah's honor in His house, and was therefore in fellowship with the heart of God Himself. This was the secret of his earnestness in seeking to obtain "ministers for the house of our God."
God wrought with him, as he himself confesses, for he says, "By the good hand of our God upon us they brought us a man of understanding, of the sons of Mahli, the son of Levi, the son of Israel; and Sherebiah, with his sons and his brethren, eighteen; and Hashabiah, and with him Jeshaiah of the sons of Merari, his brethren and their sons, twenty; also of the Nethinim, whom David and the princes had appointed for the service of the Levites, two hundred and twenty Nethinim: all of them were expressed by name." vv. 18-20. There were still less than forty Levites, while there were two hundred and twenty Nethinirn. It is another proof that amid the carnal ease of Babylon, the national hopes and privileges of the nation had ceased to exert any practical power upon their minds. By the side of the sloth of the Levites, it is beautiful to notice the number of the Nethinim (probably of an alien race) that obeyed the summons of Ezra.
It may be in reference to this that it is said, "All of them were expressed by name." God notices their faithfulness, and caused it to be recorded.
All was now ready, as far as collecting the people was concerned; but both Ezra and the people needed to prepare for the journey which they had undertaken. Hence he says, "Then I proclaimed a fast there, at the river of Ahava, that we might afflict ourselves before our God, to seek of Him a right way for us, and for our little ones, and for all our substance. For I was ashamed to require of the king a band of soldiers and horsemen to help us against the enemy in the way: because we had spoken unto the king, saying, The hand of our God is upon all them for good that seek Him; but His power and His wrath is against all them that forsake Him. So we fasted and besought our God for this: and He was entreated of us." vv. 21-23.
The work of God is never lightly to be entered upon, and it was with a true discernment both of the character of the work, and of what was due to His glory who had called him to it, that Ezra proclaimed this fast, that he and the people might afflict themselves before their God. The flesh cannot be used in any shape or form in the Lord's service; and it is only when in true separation from all that it might feed upon, and in humiliation in the presence of God, that our motives, aims, and objects are tested and become apparent. Thus among those who had gathered around Ezra, some might have been attracted by other things than the welfare of the house of their God. This is always the case in any action of the Holy Spirit. Ezra, therefore, would have all searched by the light of God's holy presence, that they might learn that nothing would avail to protect and guide them in their journey, and nothing could sustain them by the way or in their after-service but the good hand of their God. Thus it was that he and they together fasted, afflicted their souls, and prayed.
The question may well arise whether in this day our service for God is not often too easily taken up; whether it would not conduce to spiritual power and efficacy if, before we embarked upon anything for God, we were more frequently found in this attitude of Ezra and his companions. Far be it from us to insinuate for one moment that the Lord's servants do not thus seek His face before commencing their service. Our question concerns rather collective waiting upon God, with fasting, before work is entered upon in which the saints at large have a common interest. It was understood in the early Church, for we read: "Now there were in the church that was at Antioch certain prophets.... As they ministered to the Lord, and fasted, the Holy Ghost said, Separate Me now [This word "now," or some such, should be inserted as a translation of the Greek particle, and as showing the connection between the ministering and the fasting, and the command of the Holy Spirit; in fact, the Holy Spirit responded to the prayers of these prophets.] Barnabas and Saul for the work whereunto I have called them." Acts 13:1, 21Now there were in the church that was at Antioch certain prophets and teachers; as Barnabas, and Simeon that was called Niger, and Lucius of Cyrene, and Manaen, which had been brought up with Herod the tetrarch, and Saul. 2As they ministered to the Lord, and fasted, the Holy Ghost said, Separate me Barnabas and Saul for the work whereunto I have called them. (Acts 13:1‑2). If there were but a revival of such a practice in the power of the Holy Ghost (for to imitate it without the power would be worse than useless), far larger results from service in teaching and ministry might be confidently anticipated.
Another reason for this gathering actuated Ezra. He was a man of faith, and he had avowed before the king his confidence in God for protection during his journey, and he would not therefore ask for a military escort. And now, in consistency with his profession, he, together with the people, cast himself on God for guidance for a "right way for us, and for our little ones, and for all our substance." As every believer knows, it is one thing to express trust in God before a difficulty comes, and another thing to maintain that dependence in the presence of, and when passing through the difficulty. Ezra was able to do both, and was able to rest in the assurance that the hand of his God would be upon all them that seek Him for good, and that His power and His wrath would be against all them that forsake Him. All this he doubtless told out before the Lord during this fast, and indeed he had pledged the faithfulness of God before a Gentile monarch, so that the name and honor of Jehovah were concerned in appearing for His servant. Ezra tells us, "So we fasted and besought our God for this: and He was entreated of us." Yes, God delights to respond to the confidence of His people, and to appear for those who testify to what He is for them amid trials and dangers.
The reader should remark that it was no imaginary danger which Ezra had conjured up, for he records afterward to the praise of his God that "He delivered us from the hand of the enemy, and of such as lay in wait by the way." v. 31. Surely God is the refuge and strength of His people, and a very present help for them in trouble, and they would know it more fully if, like Ezra, they did but learn to count upon Him as all-sufficient in all possible circumstances. When Nehemiah made the same journey some years after, he was accompanied by captains of the army and horsemen (Neh. 2:99Then I came to the governors beyond the river, and gave them the king's letters. Now the king had sent captains of the army and horsemen with me. (Nehemiah 2:9)). In him faith was not in such lively exercise, though he had a true heart for the Lord's interests. How much better to trust in the Lord than in a visible arm! And they that wait on Him will, like Ezra, never be ashamed.
In the next place Ezra "separated twelve of the chief of the priests, Sherebiah, Hashabiah, and ten of their brethren," to take charge of the offerings he had received for the house of their God until they should arrive at Jerusalem (vv. 24-30). The ground of the choice was that they were "holy unto the Lord," as also were the vessels (v. 28). As the prophet said, "Be ye clean, that bear the vessels of the Lord." Isa. 52:1111Depart ye, depart ye, go ye out from thence, touch no unclean thing; go ye out of the midst of her; be ye clean, that bear the vessels of the Lord. (Isaiah 52:11). And this we know was according to the divine order, for none but the priests and Levites could touch or carry the holy vessels or furniture of the house of God (see Numb. 4).
Out of a blind misconception of this and of the nature of Christianity, has grown the ecclesiastical custom of setting apart an order of men, the clergy, for ministration in the Church. It is quite true that those who minister in any way from the Lord to His people must needs be set apart for their service; but this must be accomplished, not by the hands of men, but by the sovereign action in the grace of God through the power of the Holy Ghost. Under law there was a distinct class of men -the priests and the Levites-but these were divinely appointed and divinely consecrated; but under grace, while there are still distinctions of gifts and services (1 Cor. 12), all believers alike are priests, and as such have an established title to appear in the holiest in the immediate presence of God.
It was then to the custody of the priests that Ezra committed the holy vessels, and the silver and the gold, which had been given as a free will offering unto the Lord God of their fathers. He enjoined them to watch and keep these things "until ye weigh them before the chief of the priests and the Levites, and the chief of the fathers of Israel, at Jerusalem, in the chambers of the house of the Lord." v. 29. The expression "weigh them" contains a principle of importance. It was not that Ezra doubted the fidelity of the priests he had selected, but even as the Apostle of a later age, he would provide "for honest things, not only in the sight of the Lord, but also in the sight of men." 2 Cor. 8:2121Providing for honest things, not only in the sight of the Lord, but also in the sight of men. (2 Corinthians 8:21). The people might have had full confidence in the integrity of both Ezra and of the priests, but Ezra would remove all occasion for the enemy's work by having the vessels, and the silver and the gold weighed when put into the priest's hands, and again weighed when delivered. He thus proved his and their fidelity. And surely this is a godly, scriptural example to be followed by those who in any way have charge of the offerings of the Lord's people. Such should be careful to render an account of their stewardship, and not to be pressed to give it.
Many difficulties in the Church of God might have been obviated if this practice had been adopted. It may further be noted that on reaching Jerusalem the weighing was done by others than Ezra, "and all the weight was written at that time." (vv. 33, 34.) In modern language, the accounts of Ezra were checked and audited, and this was done on the fourth day after the completion of their journey.
In verse 31 we have a short statement (already alluded to) concerning their journey. It simply records the faithfulness of their God in answer to their prayers. "Then we departed from the river of Ahava on the twelfth day of the first month, to go unto Jerusalem: and the hand of our God was upon us, and He delivered us from the hand of the enemy, and of such as lay in wait by the way. And we came to Jerusalem, and abode there three days." In chapter 7:9 it is said that they began to go up upon the first day of the first month, this being the probable date of gathering the people to the river Ahava (chap. 8:15). The actual journey occupied therefore a little less than four months, and Ezra testifies that God safely guided them through all its perils and dangers, and shielded them from all their foes. Truly, "the name of the Lord is a strong tower: the righteous runneth into it, and is safe." Pro. 18:1010The name of the Lord is a strong tower: the righteous runneth into it, and is safe. (Proverbs 18:10).
Nor were they unmindful of the Lord after the difficulties of their journey were over, for the "children of those that had been carried away, which were come out of the captivity, offered burnt offerings unto the God of Israel, twelve bullocks for all Israel, ninety and six rams, seventy and seven lambs, twelve he goats for a sin offering: all this was a burnt offering unto the Lord."
It is touching in the extreme to see this feeble remnant, as also was the case at the dedication of the house of God (chap. 6:17), embrace in their faith the whole of Israel. They were but few in number, but they could accept no narrower ground than that of the twelve tribes, and to this they testified by the number of their offerings. It is the same now, or should be so, with those who are gathered out to the name of the Lord Jesus Christ on the ground of the one body. They also may be few, feeble, and poor; but if they have any intelligence of the wealthy place into which they have been brought, they will refuse any narrower ground than that of all the members of the one body, and if they hold this truth in power, their sacrifices of praise will bear witness to it in the presence of all. Failing to do so, they degenerate, whatever their profession, into the narrowest sectarianism, than which nothing is more abhorrent to the mind of the Lord.
Others may taunt them with their poverty and broken condition, but if they do but "with all lowliness and meekness, with long-suffering, forbearing one another in love," endeavor to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace, maintaining before God the sense of oneness with all the saints, the Lord will abundantly sustain them with His approbation and blessing.
It will be noticed that there were two kinds of sacrifices-burnt offerings and sin offerings.
From the numbers it would seem that the twelve he goats, as well as the twelve bullocks, were for all Israel, and that the other offerings were individual, the spontaneous expression of grateful hearts for the mercy of Jehovah toward them in bringing them in safety to Jerusalem and to His house.
Having thus put themselves under the efficacy of the sacrifices, and having established their relationships with God on the only possible ground, they proceeded to deliver "the king's commissions unto the king's lieutenants, and to the governors on this side the river: and they furthered the people, and the house of God." v. 36. This order is as instructive as beautiful. They first placed themselves under the favor of God, through their offerings, and then they turned to the king's officers. They gave God their first thoughts and the first place, and they owned thereby that all depended on Him. He answered to His people's confidence by touching the hearts of the lieutenants and governors, and inclining them to favor His people and the object they had in view.
How blessed it is to be wholly dependent on God, and to look to Him alone to further His cause!