The Restoration From Babylon: Ezra 2

Ezra 2  •  14 min. read  •  grade level: 10
We have in this chapter a register of "the children of the province that went up out of the captivity, of those which had been carried away, whom Nebuchadnezzar the king of Babylon had carried away unto Babylon, and came again unto Jerusalem and Judah, every one unto his city." v. 1. There are several interesting particulars to be noticed in the record; the first is that the fact of its existence shows how precious to God was the response which His grace had produced in the hearts of His people, however feebly they may have entered into His thoughts in regard to His house. On this account He has caused this list to be preserved, in evidence that He beholds with joy the smallest fruits of His Spirit's work, and that the very names of His people are known and proclaimed as an encouragement to all to walk in His ways, to be identified with His interests, and to maintain fidelity in times of corruption and apostasy. (Compare Luke 12:88Also I say unto you, Whosoever shall confess me before men, him shall the Son of man also confess before the angels of God: (Luke 12:8) and Rev. 3:55He that overcometh, the same shall be clothed in white raiment; and I will not blot out his name out of the book of life, but I will confess his name before my Father, and before his angels. (Revelation 3:5).) In verse 2 the names of the leaders are given, and then the people are classified according to their family descent.
Examining this catalog a little more closely, a fourfold division will be found. Down to the end of verse 42, those who were undoubtedly of Israel, of Judah, Benjamin, or of Levi (among the last both singers and porters), are described. Then follow two other classes-the Nethinim and the servants of Solomon, concerning whom a few words will be necessary.
First, the Nethinim (vv. 4358). The question is raised whether these were of Jewish descent. The word would seem to mean "those that are given"; and it has been concluded that they, from the place in which their names occur in the chapter (see also 1 Chron. 9:22Now the first inhabitants that dwelt in their possessions in their cities were, the Israelites, the priests, Levites, and the Nethinims. (1 Chronicles 9:2)), were of another race, but had been given originally to the Levites for their service, even as the Levites-only these by divine command, and in the place of the first-born of Israel (see Num. 8)-had been given to Aaron for the Lord's service in His tabernacle. And traces of such are found in two scriptures. In Numbers we read respecting the spoil taken from the Midianites, "Of the children of Israel's half, Moses took one portion of fifty, both of man and of beast, and gave them unto the Levites, which kept the charge of the tabernacle of the LORD; as the LORD commanded Moses." Chap. 31: 47. We also find that Joshua said to the Gibeonites, "There shall none of you be freed from being bondmen, and hewers of wood and drawers of water for the house of my God." Josh. 9:2323Now therefore ye are cursed, and there shall none of you be freed from being bondmen, and hewers of wood and drawers of water for the house of my God. (Joshua 9:23). (Compare Ezra 8:2020Also of the Nethinims, whom David and the princes had appointed for the service of the Levites, two hundred and twenty Nethinims: all of them were expressed by name. (Ezra 8:20).)
It is here, therefore, that we probably find the origin of the Nethinim-those who were spared from the just judgment of God—and if reduced to servile bondage, it was bondage in His mercy in connection with His house, whereby the very curse that rested on them (see Josh. 9:2323Now therefore ye are cursed, and there shall none of you be freed from being bondmen, and hewers of wood and drawers of water for the house of my God. (Joshua 9:23)) was turned into a blessing. For what do we find? That instead of being destroyed with the sword of the Lord's host, they were rescued; and now, after the lapse of centuries, they are found in honorable association with the Lord's people, and with a heart too for the Lord's house, inasmuch as they returned from Babylon with their fellow captives at this special moment. They are surely thus no mean foreshadowing of the objects of grace even in this dispensation.
Second, Solomon's servants. Of these the information is less distinct. But we read that Solomon levied "a tribute of bond-service unto this day" of the children of the Amorites, etc., that were left in the land, whom the children of Israel also were not able utterly to destroy (1 Kings 9:19-2119And all the cities of store that Solomon had, and cities for his chariots, and cities for his horsemen, and that which Solomon desired to build in Jerusalem, and in Lebanon, and in all the land of his dominion. 20And all the people that were left of the Amorites, Hittites, Perizzites, Hivites, and Jebusites, which were not of the children of Israel, 21Their children that were left after them in the land, whom the children of Israel also were not able utterly to destroy, upon those did Solomon levy a tribute of bondservice unto this day. (1 Kings 9:19‑21)); and it might have been the descendants of these who received the designation of "Solomon's servants." However this might have been, the lesson already drawn is again significant, that the least connection with the Lord's people and the Lord's things becomes a means of blessing-if not always, as it surely does not, of spiritual, yet almost ever of temporal blessing, even though it may be sometimes limited, through sin and unbelief, to length of days and earthly comfort. But with "the servants of Solomon," as with the Nethinim, there must have been more than this; for through grace they had returned of their own desire to aid in building the house of God at Jerusalem. The number of these two classes was three hundred and ninety-two.
We have in the next place two other classes occupying a peculiar and, in a sense, a most mournful position. There were some—the children of Dalaiah, the children of Tobiah, the children of Nekoda, six hundred fifty and two-who could not show their father's house and their seed, whether they were of Israel; and besides these, of the children of the priests, the children of Habaiah, the children of Koz, the children of Barzillai, etc. -"These sought their register among those that were reckoned by genealogy, but they were not found: therefore were they, as polluted, put from the priesthood." (vv. 59-62.)
In the land of their exile the same care as to title and qualification had not been exercised. Babylon represents the corruption to which God's people are in bondage through their sins, and hence the period of their captivity was a time of carelessness, a time indeed when they were suffering under the hand of their God, but still a time of confusion and disorder; and necessarily so, inasmuch as they were without a temple, without sacrifices, and without Jehovah's presence. But now that, through the mercy of their God, there had been a recovery-a partial recovery, it is true, but one that contained within itself a distinct action of the Spirit of God-and now that Jehovah's house was once more to become their center, they were properly exercised concerning the title of all who had returned from Babylon.
If any could not show their genealogy, they had no claim to take part in the work to which they had been called; and in the case of the priests, the consequence was still more grave. These—if they could not find their register-were, as polluted, put from the priesthood. They were not told that they were not priests; the ground taken was that their claim was not proven. It might be at a future time; and hence, "The Tirshatha said unto them, that they should not eat of the most holy things, till there stood up a priest with Urim and with Thummim " When that time arrived, the priest, who should be once more endowed with divine intelligence and discernment through the light and perfection of God (Urim and Thummim), might adjudge them to be truly priests; but meanwhile their claim was forfeited. Grace could restore what was lost under law, only for this they must patiently wait.
A precisely similar thing in principle was seen during the past century. It is not too much to say that at its commencement the Church of God in this land was completely under the domination of the world power. The life of God's people was sustained through the ministry of a few faithful men here and there, and through the study of the Word of God; but the Church as a whole was enslaved, and had been enslaved, in Babylonish captivity. Soon after, a recovery took place. God wrought in the hearts of many in different places, producing great exercise of soul; and a movement was initiated which resulted in the deliverance of numbers in many parts of the country.
The charter of their deliverance from captivity was the Word of God. To it they turned day and night, and there they found both light and life. By it they judged themselves and their ways; by it they discovered the true character of their past bondage; and from it they obtained also guidance for the future. Listening to its teachings, they once again spread the Lord's table in all its simplicity. They learned that the Holy Ghost dwelt in the house of God, and that the Lord had promised to come quickly to receive His people to Himself. Thereon they were immediately confronted with the difficulty found in this chapter-the difficulty of title and qualification to break bread at the Lord's table. In the past every good citizen might do so, and all such were often exhorted to come. No one who claimed to be a Christian was ever denied, while very many whose lives contradicted their profession were received wit h o u t question. Could such practices be continued?
Then the answer was found that only such as could "show their father's house" or could find "their register," had the scriptural qualification for a place at the table of the Lord. In other words, unless we have peace with God, unless we know that we are children of God through the possession of the Spirit, and can thus show our Father's house, and trace our genealogy, we have not the divine title required. Profession is not enough. In a day like this, a day of restoration from captivity, there must be the ability to verify our profession from the sure Word of God; for, as the Apostle says, "The cup of blessing which we bless, is it not the communion of the blood of Christ? The bread which we break, is it not the communion of the body of Christ? For we being many are one bread, and one body: for we are all partakers of that one bread." 1 Cor. 10:16, 1716The cup of blessing which we bless, is it not the communion of the blood of Christ? The bread which we break, is it not the communion of the body of Christ? 17For we being many are one bread, and one body: for we are all partakers of that one bread. (1 Corinthians 10:16‑17).
But, it is objected, Do you not constitute yourselves judges of others? By no means. As indeed the governor said in effect to t h e priests in this chapter who were put away, "You may be really priests, only you cannot produce your title. It must be left over therefore until a priest arises with the Urim and Thummim-one who can judge according to God." So now the burden of proof lies upon the one who desires to come to the Lord's table, and to be thus identified with His people. If he fail to produce it, he is not excluded by those who have to do with him, but by his inability to declare his genealogy, and if he be really a member of the body of Christ, his title, albeit all is of grace, will be fully acknowledged in a future day by the Lord Himself. It is needful that this scriptural principle should be both understood and enforced.
The question of the priests goes still further. These, as we have seen, were put out from their office, the functions of which were to minister before the Lord, and to teach the people (see Exod. 28; Lev. 10:9-119Do not drink wine nor strong drink, thou, nor thy sons with thee, when ye go into the tabernacle of the congregation, lest ye die: it shall be a statute for ever throughout your generations: 10And that ye may put difference between holy and unholy, and between unclean and clean; 11And that ye may teach the children of Israel all the statutes which the Lord hath spoken unto them by the hand of Moses. (Leviticus 10:9‑11); Deut. 10:88At that time the Lord separated the tribe of Levi, to bear the ark of the covenant of the Lord, to stand before the Lord to minister unto him, and to bless in his name, unto this day. (Deuteronomy 10:8); Mal. 2:5-75My covenant was with him of life and peace; and I gave them to him for the fear wherewith he feared me, and was afraid before my name. 6The law of truth was in his mouth, and iniquity was not found in his lips: he walked with me in peace and equity, and did turn many away from iniquity. 7For the priest's lips should keep knowledge, and they should seek the law at his mouth: for he is the messenger of the Lord of hosts. (Malachi 2:5‑7)); and they were also forbidden, owing to their inability to find their register, to eat of the holy things. (Compare on this subject Lev. 22:1-161And the Lord spake unto Moses, saying, 2Speak unto Aaron and to his sons, that they separate themselves from the holy things of the children of Israel, and that they profane not my holy name in those things which they hallow unto me: I am the Lord. 3Say unto them, Whosoever he be of all your seed among your generations, that goeth unto the holy things, which the children of Israel hallow unto the Lord, having his uncleanness upon him, that soul shall be cut off from my presence: I am the Lord. 4What man soever of the seed of Aaron is a leper, or hath a running issue; he shall not eat of the holy things, until he be clean. And whoso toucheth any thing that is unclean by the dead, or a man whose seed goeth from him; 5Or whosoever toucheth any creeping thing, whereby he may be made unclean, or a man of whom he may take uncleanness, whatsoever uncleanness he hath; 6The soul which hath touched any such shall be unclean until even, and shall not eat of the holy things, unless he wash his flesh with water. 7And when the sun is down, he shall be clean, and shall afterward eat of the holy things; because it is his food. 8That which dieth of itself, or is torn with beasts, he shall not eat to defile himself therewith: I am the Lord. 9They shall therefore keep mine ordinance, lest they bear sin for it, and die therefore, if they profane it: I the Lord do sanctify them. 10There shall no stranger eat of the holy thing: a sojourner of the priest, or an hired servant, shall not eat of the holy thing. 11But if the priest buy any soul with his money, he shall eat of it, and he that is born in his house: they shall eat of his meat. 12If the priest's daughter also be married unto a stranger, she may not eat of an offering of the holy things. 13But if the priest's daughter be a widow, or divorced, and have no child, and is returned unto her father's house, as in her youth, she shall eat of her father's meat: but there shall no stranger eat thereof. 14And if a man eat of the holy thing unwittingly, then he shall put the fifth part thereof unto it, and shall give it unto the priest with the holy thing. 15And they shall not profane the holy things of the children of Israel, which they offer unto the Lord; 16Or suffer them to bear the iniquity of trespass, when they eat their holy things: for I the Lord do sanctify them. (Leviticus 22:1‑16).) What a solemn commentary on the practices that have obtained for centuries in Christendom! Forgetful or ignorant of the truth that all true believers, and no others, are priests (1 Pet. 2), they have devised a way of making priests-of filling their "holy" offices by a human ordination. And such, when thus appointed, arrogate to themselves the exclusive right of approach to God, as well as that of interpreting the Scriptures. It is a small thing to say that these practices are a denial of Christianity—they are worse, for they set aside the efficacy of the work of Christ, and deny His authority, as well as ignore the sovereign action of the Holy Ghost. God alone makes priests, and every one who is washed with water (born again), is brought under the value of the one sacrifice of Christ, is sprinkled with His precious blood, as also with the anointing oil (the unction of the Holy Spirit), is set apart by Him for this office. (Read Exod. 29; Heb. 10.) Such, and such alone, can find their register among those who are reckoned by genealogy, and have "boldness to enter into the holiest by the blood of Jesus, by a new and living way, which He hath consecrated for us, through the veil, that is to say, His flesh" (Heb. 10:19, 2019Having therefore, brethren, boldness to enter into the holiest by the blood of Jesus, 20By a new and living way, which he hath consecrated for us, through the veil, that is to say, his flesh; (Hebrews 10:19‑20)); where, by the grace of God, they are permitted to feast on the holy things -the various aspects of Christ as symbolized by these—in communion with God in His own presence.
The number of the whole congregation, we are now told, was forty and two thousand three hundred and sixty. Besides these were their servants and maids, amounting to seven thousand three hundred thirty and seven; among them two hundred singing men and singing women. There were also seven hundred thirty and six horses, two hundred forty and five mules, four hundred thirty and five camels, and six thousand seven hundred and twenty asses (vv. 65-67).
Such was the large company or caravan that traveled from Babylon to Judah and Jerusalem with their hearts set upon the holy enterprise to which they had been divinely called. But a narrower inspection of the elements of which this multitude was composed will discover the sure precursors of decline and decay. What had these pilgrims to do, for example, with singing men and singing women? Their land was desolate, their sanctuary had been consumed with fire, and was lying waste, and they themselves were but a feeble remnant just emancipated from the yoke of captivity. Surely it was no time for mirth and song! (Compare Psalm 137.) Alas! every action of the Spirit of God producing a revival in the hearts of His people is speedily limited by man, and by his own thoughts and desires. Even the first response to His mighty power gathers with those who are really under His influence those also who will corrupt the movement and ensure its outward failure. How remarkably this is exemplified in the book of Judges, and has been so in every age of the Church!
Arrived at their destination, we read that some of the chief of the fathers, when they came to the house of the Lord at Jerusalem, offered freely for the house of God to set it up in its place. They gave after their ability unto the treasure of the work threescore and one thousand drams of gold, and five thousand pounds of silver, and one hundred priests' garments (vv. 68, 69).
It is interesting to notice the form of the statement- "When they came to the house of the LORD which is at Jerusalem"—showing that the house, whatever its outward condition, and razed to the ground as it had been, still existed before the eye of God. Thus, though there were three different houses until the time of the Lord, it was always the same house in the mind of God. Haggai, on this account, says, as it should be rendered, "The latter glory of this house shall be greater than the former." Chap. 2. There is undoubtedly another reason for this form of words in Ezra. God would seem to have used the desolations of His sanctuary to touch the hearts of these chief of the fathers.
When they came to Jehovah's house-when they saw, as it were, its condition-they were moved, and they "offered freely" of their substance; and, as the Spirit of God is careful to notice, thus setting the seal of His approval upon the act, "they gave after their ability." In this they are surely examples for all time for those of the Lord's people who have the privilege of ministering to the Lord, whether in having fellowship with His necessitous saints, or with the needs of His service.
The chapter closes with the statement, "So the priests, and the Levites, and some of the people, and the singers, and the porters, and the Nethinim, dwelt in their cities." v. 70. It is open to the spiritual reader to question whether this record -especially when read in the light of what took place afterward, as related in Haggai 1- is not symptomatic of the decay of their first energy, whether it does not reveal the tendency to think of themselves and their own houses before the interests of the Lord's house. Solomon spent thirteen years in building his own house, while he occupied but seven upon the temple; and knowing what man is, it is not surprising if the restored remnant began by first minding their own things. But if so, the next chapter will show that the word of God was still energetic in their souls, to the praise of Him who had redeemed them from captivity, and associated them with Himself in the thoughts of His heart toward Jerusalem, and toward His temple.