The time is about 60 years after the first return from Babylon, and in this chapter, we finally meet Ezra.
There is a pattern of thought repeated throughout these chapters. In Ezra 4:4, the opposition toward God’s people causes their “hands to drop”. In Ezra 6:22, God, through His prophets, had made their “hands strong”.
This element carries on now into chapters 7 and 8. But this time, the emphasis is on the hand of God.
At the beginning of chapter 7, Ezra gets all that he needs from the King – Artaxerxes – to go to Jerusalem because “the good hand of God was upon Him” ( Ezra 7:6).
At the end of Chapter 8, Ezra arrives safely, being delivered from all enemies because, again, “the hand of God was upon Him.” (Ezra 8:31).
The second element is that the action begins to move from the restoration of the temple to the reformation of life.
Zerrubabel was skilled in the bricks and mortar and of organised worship, while Ezra was skilled in the law of God.
Ezra went up from Babylonia. He was a scribe skilled in the Law of Moses that the Lord, the God of Israel, had given (Ezra 7:6)
We also have an order of realities that parallels creation. In other words, Ezra’s appearance on the scene is a sign of a new creation. A new start for God’s people.
A reformation of the heart always means a re-creation or re-ordering of the people (Ezra 7:10). God must speak, He must guide, and man must respond.
This is always God’s way with man. “…In the beginning was the word. God speaks, and it came to pass.”. So, why is God’s good hand upon Ezra? Because God spoke, and Ezra has said “yes”.
This is a warning to us against sloth and laziness and a sloppy view of grace. Grace does not cause a man to put down his tools; it strengthens him to use them.
Ezra’s ministry was focused. It set his affections. As a result, Ezra was committed to action (to do) and committed to imparting it (to teach).
This is a Christian life that is not content with a little fiddling and fooling around at the edges. The good hand of God is upon Ezra to stir his heart to devoted study, service and discipleship.
And so we might surmise that where there is a lack of zeal in devotion, there follows a lack of zeal in serving.
It is the word of God that stirs. If you’ve gone lumpy and lazy in service through lack of stirring, perhaps it’s because you’ve not devoted your heart to studying and learning.
So, God wakes Ezra up from the dead, and stirs him to return to Jerusalem, and Ezra responds in faith. With a decree from Artaxerxes, he gathers a group of exiles still living in Persia, and they set out for the journey.
Again we find that the kings of this world are under God’s sway just as much as the rest of us. Artaxerxes offers supplies in order to maintain the worship of God. According to Ezra 7:22, ongoing worship needs about 3 ¾ tonnes of silver!
Artaxerxes also decrees a tax break on temple workers and allows the returnees to appoint a godly government in order to establish and maintain their own community.
In all of this, Artexerxes is simply echoing God’s decree. The people of God are a distinct community with their own laws, rituals and customs. Blessing from God means freedom to live as His people. To be disciplined is to be hindered.
This helps us interpret our own day. Are we under chastisement or blessing? If we are being hindered, why? Well, what has been our response to God’s word? Have we responded with action like Ezra?
In response to God’s providence, Ezra gives praise.
Blessed be the Lord, the God of our fathers, who put such a thing as this into the heart of the king, to beautify the house of the Lord that is in Jerusalem, and who extended to me his steadfast love before the king and his counselors, and before all the king’s mighty officers (Ezra 7:27)
The God of the Bible is always a God with a track record, with a history in which He has proven faithful to those He has made promises.
The Sovereignty of God is sometimes subtle. He puts his purposes quietly into the hearts of men in high places. There is a King behind the king, and to this King does Ezra attribute some amazing goodness.
All the biggies of the Persian empire (kings, counsellors and princes) are being moved to heed the voice of God through this little Jewish man named Ezra.
Ezra delights in the fact that God would command the powers and principalities of this world to submit to the wants of an apparent nobody! And Ezra acknowledges that all of this is the result of the hand of God.
Here we have a personal God. A God with hands and feet who moves and sustains us, who even causes kings to step aside for us so that we can serve Him freely in whatever way He has called us to serve
Moving into chapter eight, two things are tucked into the opening genealogy.
The first is the little reminder that the promises are still alive. In Ezra 8:3, we read that the descendants of David are among the returnees. Secondly, a close look at Ezra 2 and this genealogy in chapter 8, shows that those who came back in this second return tended to be from families who had come back with the first returnees under Zerrubabel.
What do you make of that? The message seems to be that while we don’t put our trust in family bloodlines, we shouldn’t despise them either. Covenant faithfulness tends to run in families.
There’s a word of encouragement in that for us. Rather than make us idle, it makes us all the more diligent in raising our children with a knowledge of God and in living godly lives before them.
You ask, what can I do for the kingdom of God? The answer, educate your children. Don’t shy away from the idea of deliberate and sustained instruction for your children. And don’t think that they will simply fall into line.
Your kids will be indoctrinated or immersed in something. Either you will teach them to love the Lord or someone else is going to teach them to love other things more.
Finally, Ezra sets out, packed to the hilt with enough loot to start his own small empire.
He sets guards from among the returnees around the stash. It’s practical and necessary, but he knows that this is not going to be enough.
The Israelites are walking targets. They are making a very public 1500km journey. Reaching the river Ahava, Ezra brings everyone to a halt and calls for fasting and prayers (Ezra 8:21-23).
There are times when your faith must take on flesh. It must be conscious, deliberate and obedient. There are also times when the right thing to do is to say no to the thought of running elsewhere for your security.
Then I proclaimed a fast… that we might humble ourselves before our God, to seek from him a safe journey for ourselves, our children, and all our goods. For I was ashamed to ask the king for a band of soldiers and horsemen to protect us against the enemy on our way, since we had told the king,
“The hand of our God is for good on all who seek Him, and the power of His wrath is against all who forsake Him.” So we fasted and implored our God for this, and He listened to our entreaty (Ezra 8:22-23)
Ezra accepted everything that Artaxerxes offered, but that is quite different to putting your hand out and expecting the kings of this world to fill it.
The question is not, “which is the safe path?” but, “which is the faithful path?”.
This is an idolatry that cripples so many believers today. Looking to man and mammon for our security rather than God.
How many of the Christians you know are currently receiving some form of government handout? Are you?
Now, some will say that receiving money doesn’t necessarily equal idolatry, and that is true.
But before you set out to cut off everybody else’s oxygen supply, that is, before you start telling people they need to separate themselves from the world and put their faith in Jesus, you might need to spend a little time disconnecting yourself.
You may say it’s not idolatry to lean on Caesar’s purse, but are you willing to give it up?
Again, Ezra had no problem receiving Persian wealth as a gift, but that is quite different to receiving it as an entitlement, motivated by fear or greed.
That’s the thought that seems to have occurred to Ezra here in Ezra 8:22 – and so he says that he was ashamed.
Perhaps Ezra was tempted to put his hand in the till for just that little bit of extra Persian security. But he’s convicted, says no to the idea, and instead, he looks to God alone.
Our faith must take on flesh. If it exists at all, it must surface in concrete ways.
All of life’s temptations, trials and decisions come down to this, “Which King and which Kingdom?” And, like Ezra, it calls for a sincere study of the word of God, a humility to live it and a willingness to speak it into other people’s lives.
God is a personal God, with hands large enough to guide, govern and guard those who look to Him – and not to the world – for their survival.