The Jews spent 70 years in Babylon and were told to make a life for themselves while in exile for their sins. At the end of that time, God faithfully stirred up both the king of Persia and many Jews to return under the leadership of a guy named Zerubabbel (who in Persia was named Sheshbazar) with the wealth of the nations to rebuild the temple.
It was another Exodus in which God moved over the history of individuals in order to alter the history of a nation.
It is a time of great hope mingled with uncertainty. They are returning to a place many had never been to build a temple that many had never seen. Who are they? We might as well admit it, Ezra chapter two doesn’t exactly give us a warm glow inside. It’s a roll call of returnees and their clans.
However, as we snoop the church roll, we will find it very instructive and of great encouragement to God’s people today, who often feel they are living in uncertain times.
Now these are the people of the province who came up from the captivity of the exiles carried away to Babylon by Nebuchadnezzar its king. They returned to Jerusalem and Judah, each to his own town. (Ezra 2:1)
In Ezra 2:2-35 we have the tallies of the ordinary people. Then in Ezra 2:36-39, we have the tallies of the four clans of priests. A quick calculation tells us that one in ten returnees was a priest.
In Ezra 2:40-42 we have the list of Levites. 74 of them returned with the people. That’s one Levite to every fifty-eight priests. That’s precious few Levites to do all of the behind-the-scenes temple tasks.
In Ezra 2:43-58 there are two sections: The temple servants and the sons of Solomons’ servants. According to Ezra 8:20, David hired these servants to assist the Levites.
If the Levitical tasks were menial, then these were more so. No accolades or thank-you’s here. No medal of honour or recognition for this group, who are basically temple slaves.
Many of these names mean nothing to us, yet to a discerning Jew, they would be very instructive. More than half of the names listed here are foreign names. Many of these would have been descendants of prisoners of war captured during David’s time. They had stayed on with the Jews from generation to generation, even going into exile with them. Now, they are among those Jews who are returning to Jerusalem.
In Ezra 2:59-63 we have three ordinary families and three priestly families that cannot prove their descent. This is not to say that they are not Israelites, only that, not surprisingly, the records aren’t available to prove it.
These sought their registration among those enrolled in the genealogies, but they were not found there, and so they were excluded from the priesthood as unclean. The governor told them that they were not to partake of the most holy food, until there should be a priest to consult Urim and Thummim. (Ezra 2:62-63)
They were certainly free to join the list of returnees, but the lack of paperwork meant that they could not serve as temple priests until more light was shed on their ancestry through the use of the Urim and the Thummim.
In Ezra 2:68-69 we have a quick tally of the gold and silver that was freely offered for the temple building. It amounts to over 600kg of gold and 2,500kg of silver. Now, What should we make of all of this detail?
Why so many Priests? No doubt they longed to serve at the temple, something they could not do in exile. They desired to rebuild the temple and the altar and re-institute the public worship they were born and called to do. Their attitude must have been like the Sons of Korah in Psalm 84,
How lovely is your dwelling place, o Lord of Hosts. My soul longs, yes, faints for the courts of the Lord. (Psalm 84:1)
As God’s people, these are the passions that should rule us.
Does the worship of God hold your affection. Does worship have this kind of grip on you?
The next question we might ask is, why so few Levites? There was plenty of work for them but very little recognition. A good bit of Christian work is pretty plain and basic – not much flair. And rightly so.
We are not called to make the Christian “All-Star” team. Yet, an assisting role – playing second fiddle – does not appeal to our pride. It is often the case that the status and recognition we hope for eludes us. There is no great visible incentive for these Levites to return. Yet here are 74 that did. Here are 74 who were ready to go.
What is your attitude toward service among God’s people? Is God stirring you to serve regardless of the applause? How does your attitude compare with that of the temple servants who had once been pressed into slavery and were now willing to go back to Jerusalem to serve in the lowest place?
Thirdly, there is a wonderful providence in this next section. more than half of the lowest of the low temple servants were not even related to the tribes of Israel. Now, these men and women of pagan ancestry are listed among the covenant community.
Having endured 70 years of Israel’s captivity, they are now among those whom God has stirred to return to the place of their captivity.
Think about it. It might have seemed an unfortunate chance occurrence. An ancestor had been captured in war years ago and brought into Israel to work as a slave around the first temple.
But that placed them in the very sanctuary of truth where they might see the Gospel of Atonement in the daily sacrifices. Where they would hear the teaching of the God of Israel. Somewhere in the passing of generations, the truth took hold, and these “foriegners” came to be numbered among God’s people.
Tragedy, under providence, had brought the gospel into their lives. It had brought them face to face with the one true God.
Perhaps you know something about this sort of thing? A disappointment, a crisis that radically altered your circumstances – yet, it proved to be the means by which the gospel came into your life.
This is a beautiful reminder, to Israel then and us now, of the providence of God that leads us throughout our lives, even in times of great uncertainty.
And there are times when our place in this world can be very uncertain.
Here, in Ezra 2:59-63 are six families who can’t show that they really do belong to God’s covenant people. They did not have the credentials, but that did not stop them from coming up.
There is a rough analogy here for those who lack assurance. Perhaps you know someone – or you are someone who lacks assurance. The desire is there, but you don’t see the evidence.
What should you do? Stay. Keep walking with God’s people until God sheds more light on the subject for you. This is the grace that should overshadow us as a community.
Finally, we have the generosity that should follow us as God’s people.
The gifts given of gold and silver are part of the free will offering. They are over and above the tithe. Just as Israel had done at the building of the Tabernacle in their Exodus wanderings, so now. God had enlarged their hearts to give towards the building of the Temple.
This is particularly important. They are heading off to a land that many had never even known. Times were, like today, very uncertain. just like the first journey into the promised land, this place wasn’t empty. People had moved in, and who knows what might lie ahead for this gaggle of God’s people?
And yet, despite the uncertain times and with far less wealth than we have, they gave generously.
Here is the sacrifice. The clear proof that Mammon – money – is not king.
To this end, where might our generosity be directed? Should it not be directed to the building up of God’s kingdom also?
Ezra 2 is only a church roll call with names, numbers and a few addresses. It’s not overly exciting to read, but we could do a lot worse than be like this church. Here are a people whose only security is a promise, and yet…
They have a passion for worship. They don’t mind that they won’t get recognition from other men.
They can look back at the twists and sometimes tragic turns of life and now see the hand of God at work in bringing them to Himself.
Here is a people who have a place for the uncertain and the fearful members of the flock and who are willing to affirm their allegiance by their generosity.
Life in Persia would have been pretty good with all the security and comforts of the modern world. The tension for many would have been, Do I stay or go? This is a tension that we all face daily. Do I step toward God or away from Him in my everyday decisions? Do I hang in with this doubtful mob of believers, or do I jump ship?
It is only in the gospel that this tension is overcome. In the gospel, the temple comes to me: God comes to me, My credentials, once uncertain, are now affirmed in Christ, and I am welcomed into His house, given a seat at His table, and invited to enjoy His banquet without fear.