God's hand provides for His People
When I was a teacher I used to teach poetry. I had a year 10 class who I think it's fair to say didn't naturally love poetry. It didn't come naturally picking out the techniques poets use to communicate. One day we were looking at a poem. We were looking at the use of repetition in the poem. I said, "Why do you think the poet repeats the same word again and again?" I remember some of the boys saying, "That's just random Mr Popplewell. It doesn't mean anything!" I would say to them, "No, no, no. It really means something!"
In the last two chapters of Ezra there's a phrase that keeps repeating again and again. It's not random. The writer chose it to make his point. It really means something. It pops up three times in chapter 7, and three times in chapter 8. Look with at Ezra chapter 7, verse 6
"this Ezra came up from Babylon. He was a teacher well versed in the Law of Moses, which the LORD, the God of Israel, had given. The king had granted him everything he asked, for the hand of the LORD his God was on him."
The hand of the Lord is on Ezra. That's the repeated phrase. It means Ezra experiences God's ongoing providence. God provides for Ezra and his people. As we look at Ezra 8 we'll see that God's Hand provides for His people. Over the last few weeks we've seen that God is the hero of Ezra. Tonight we'll see how God's hand provides for his people.
The first way God provides is through his people. That's my first point: God provides through his people. In chapter 7, King Artaxerxes under God's hand allows Ezra to return to Jerusalem. Ezra is to teach the law, to take gold and silver to the temple as well as a team of Levites and priests to serve in there. So chapter verse 28 finishes with Ezra's praise for God's hand in all of this. He says:
"Because the hand of the LORD my God was on me, I took courage and gathered leading men from Israel to go up with me."
So Ezra needs a team to return to Jerusalem. Because God's hand was on him he turns to God's people for help. He gathers the leading men of Israel together to help him. So in verses 1-14 we have a list of the families Ezra takes with him. God provides through his people.
It's worth just pausing a bit and reflecting on a few things here. Ezra needs a team so he goes to the family heads, the men. They used their leadership to ensure their families were going to Jerusalem with Ezra. Men have an important role in spiritually leading and influencing their families. I'm sure the leading men must have impressed the importance of the temple – the place where God dwelled – on their families. Men, there are lots of things we can hold up as important to our families: passing GCSEs; being a regular in the football team; the importance of looking after our homes. But will we hold out Jesus – the person who brings us to God – as more important? Let's put Jesus top of the agenda. How about asking your family over dinner, one thing that encouraged them from the Sunday sermon? Wives will you support your husbands in that task. And for those of us without children, remember our church kids grow up in a church family. You too have a role play pointing our kids to the value of Jesus as they grow up in the church family.
It's also worth noting that many of the families that make up the second wave of exiles with Ezra, are the same as those that made up the first wave of exiles during the time of Cyrus. It seems there was a line of faithful believers in these families. We musn't trust in genetics. Being born into a church family doesn't make you a believer. You can't be born a Christian. We must not despise genetics either. Under God's sovereign grace faith is often transmitted within the family. I'm reminded of a friend of mine who saw her dad go outside and read his Bible and pray everyday. It was noisy in the house. And quiet in the garden! I was just struck by how influential, under God, that the dad's example had been in his daughter's life - probably unknowingly most of the time. What does the daughter do now? She reads the bible with her children!
So if you're a parent or are involved in the lives of children – which is virtually all of us in some way be encouraged. Keep praying for them – even when they've left the home. Keep reading the bible to them even though they may seem more interested in their cornflakes over breakfast. Keep modelling to them what it looks like to be committed to the church family. Going to home group, serving in church speaks a million words to our children. It says Jesus is more important than anything else.
Ezra has a team to go to Jerusalem with him. But there's a problem. There are no Levites, those who served in the temple. So what does Ezra do? Look with me at verse 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, 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 gathers a crack team of recruiters and sends them to Casiphia. We're not entirely sure where that was. But it seems it was some kind of Judean study centre or holy place where there were Levites. There is a need for Levites. And It's the hero of Ezra who provides again. Look with me at verse 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, men; and Hashabiah, together with Jeshaiah from the descendants of Merari, and his brothers and nephews, 20 men. 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".
God provides through his people. The hand of God was seen in the provision of Levites and temple servants. The Levites were an expression of God's hand to Ezra and the returning exiles.
Let's just think this through a bit. God provides for his people through his people. If you are following Jesus, then you too can be an expression of God's providence to His people. We often experience God's care for us through God's people. If you're following Jesus you are an expression of God's providential care. That happens most effectively when we commit to meeting with God's people. That's why gathering as God's people on Sunday is really important. That's why gathering together on Wednesday nights for home group is so significant. That's why working at friendships with brothers and sisters is so vital.
Let's just take the example of home group. When you go to home group you encourage the others just by being there wanting to study God's word. When you discuss God's word you're helping apply it each other's lives. When you pluck up the courage to pray aloud for a brother or sister, they leave knowing someone has lifted up their concerns to the God of heaven and earth. When you stick at those relationships, there is the blessing of following Jesus with others. Yes there's an awkwardness of getting to know folks. Yes, relationships take time. Yes, it's hard after a long day. But there is the joy of expressing God's providential care to others. If you're trusting in Jesus you are an expression of God's gracious hand.
It's worth also noting that for those leaving Casiphia for Jersusalem, life was likely going to be harder. There was likely a level of comfort for the exiles in Babylon. Serving in the temple would mean strict routines. Service comes at a cost. The Apostle Paul knew that too. He says in 2 Timothy 2 verse 3:
"Suffer hardship with me, as a good soldier of Jesus Christ."
Paul says following Jesus is like being a soldier. There is a cost.
There's an advert for the Royal Marines that sums up the life of a soldier. It shows some Marines on a mission in a jungle. The voiceover says, "My brothers will lay down their lives for me as I will for them. Royal Marines's Commando – it's a state of mind." What is that state of mind? It's about serving others. Even at a cost.
We too need to cultivate 'a good soldier of Jesus Christ' state of mind. Doing a reading at the front may make us feel nervous, but it's serving others. Helping out at Holiday Sunday School may be out of our comfort zone, but it's serving others. Going to Home Group on a cold March night after a long day may feel like hard work, but it's service. It's service. But it's a privilege! God provides for his people through his people. What grace that God would use you to express his care for others. What a thrill!
So we've seen that God provides through his people. But we see too in Ezra 8 that God provides through prayer. That's my second point. Ezra is about to set of to Jerusalem with the exiles and all their possessions. It's going to be a 900 mile journey. They're travelling through foreign lands with their children, and all the gold and silver they've been entrusted with for the temple. In other words they're easy pickings for robbers. Ezra isn't stupid. Ezra prays for God's hand. Look with me at verse 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. 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." So we fasted and petitioned our God about this, and he answered our prayer."
Ezra prays. He could have asked the king for an escort but he feels he cannot. Why? Because he had told the king that God's hand provides for his people. Let's look again at what Ezra has told Artaxerxes in verse 22
"The gracious hand of our God is on everyone who looks to him, but his great anger is against all who forsake him."
God's providential care is experienced when we look to him. Looking to God means depending on God for our needs. How does Ezra express his confidence in God to provide? He prays. Prayer is the ultimate expression of our dependence on God. Or to put it the other way, when we fail to pray we're functionally saying, "I don't really depend on God. I can sort myself out thanks!" Prayer is the turning away from ourselves to God in the confidence that he will provide what we need.
Think of it a bit like this. Suppose you are paralysed and can do nothing but talk. Suppose a strong and reliable friend promised to live with you to help you. How would you show your confidence in your friend if a stranger came to visit you?
Would you show your confidence in your friend by trying to get out of bed yourself?
No! You would say, "Friend, please lift me and put a pillow behind me so I can see my guest. Please would you put my glasses on for me?"
So your visitor would learn from your requests that you are helpless but your friend is strong and kind. You show your confidence in your friend by needing him and asking him for help. That is precisely what Ezra is doing here by praying to God for safety. To accept an escort from the king would be to show no confidence in the God that provides. Prayer shows Ezra's helplessness, but also his confidence in God to provide.
In verse 31 we see the wonderfully understated response to Ezra's prayer:
"On the twelfth day of the first month we set out from the Ahava Canal to go to Jerusalem. The hand of our God was on us, and he protected us from enemies and bandits along the way. 32 So we arrived in Jerusalem, where we rested three days."
God's hand provided for God's people – again! We would do well to learn from Ezra's reliance upon God. But does that mean we should reject human help like Ezra did? It seems there are certain times when it is right to turn down human help like Ezra did. Not all the time, but there may be certain times when it is right to reject human help. Ezra had a choice – rely upon God for protection or pursue an escort for protection. So how did he know his decision was faith and not folly? When we are faced by similar decisions how will we know the difference? A good question to ask is: 'am I acting in good sense or unbelief?'
A friend of mine has just taken a career break to go on a 6 month mission trip with an eye to exploring the long term future. He and his wife have been praying about it for a good period of time. My friend asked his employees for a sabbatical. He knew they were well within their rights to say, 'No!' Ultimately he was prepared to leave that job if it would stop him from going abroad. His employer has not promised to give him a job on his return but they've said they want to give him a job on his return. That is an answer to prayer, but he was willing to walk away from it if it meant he could not go. It's worth saying his wife's job is being held for her so they had other means. Now his friends at work have been saying, "I think it's great what you're doing – but I can't understand why you're potentially giving up a career like this." For them their career underpins their security. For my friend, God underpins his security. I think by being able to walk away from his job if it came to it demonstrates where his security lies. For Ezra, his decision showed the king where his security really lied. It's not wrong to save. It's not wrong to have a career. It's good sense! But it is wrong to put our ultimate security in these things.
The principal behind this is to ask what am I communicating about God? Am I showing in my actions I am confident in him? Am I showing in my actions I am dependent on him? Practically how do we do that? We give away our money to show we do not depend on it. We use our time on things other than leisure and career to show there's something greater than the here and now. We pray! And we should expect people to say to us at times, "I just don't get it." When they do, we along with Ezra can say, "Let me tell you about the gracious hand of God that is on everyone who looks to him." God's hand provides for his people.
But God's gracious hand is best expressed through his promised king. And this is my final point: God provides through his promised king. God had promised King David in 2 Samuel 7 verses 12-13 that:
"When your days are over and you rest with your fathers, I will raise up your offspring to succeed you, who will come from your own body, and I will establish his kingdom. He is the one who will build a house for my Name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever."
This king in David's line will build a house or a temple. This king's throne will be established forever. David's son Solomon does build a temple, but his throne is not established forever. Because this promise is fulfilled in Jesus. In Ezra's day there is no king in the line of David. But David's line continues. Look with me at verse 1 again:
"These are the family heads and those registered with them who came up with me from Babylon during the reign of King Artaxerxes: of the descendants of Phinehas, Gershom; of the descendants of Ithamar, Daniel; of the descendants of David, Hattush."
Under God's gracious hand the line of David continues. It's muted. But it's there. The line of David is like a quiet subplot in a TV drama that bubbles away in the background to explode later on. God's king will come in Jesus. We see another connected subplot bubbling away at the end of the chapter. The exiles have made it to Jerusalem. What do they do? Look with me at verse 35:
"Then the exiles who had returned from captivity sacrificed burnt offerings to the God of Israel: twelve bulls for all Israel, ninety-six rams, seventy-seven male lambs and, as a sin offering, twelve male goats. All this was a burnt offering to the LORD."
They make a sin offering of twelve male goats. Sin is the offensive desire to be independent of the God that we are so utterly dependent on. The Israelites had to offer sacrifices for their sin if God was to dwell amongst them. God's anger was turned away from the Israelites onto a sacrifice. But these sacrifices never dealt with sin once and for all.
It's interesting to see how sacrifice often punctuates the chapters of Ezra, and the Old Testament. In some ways these sin offerings are a like training exercise. Think back to when you were at school. When you had fire drills. There was no fire but you all had to troop outside so that when it was the real deal you knew what to do.
The training exercise shows us that God deals with sin by people trusting in a sin offering. So when Jesus comes along, the lamb of God, we should know what to do. We trust in his sacrificial death for forgiveness. As we read in Hebrews chapter 10 verse 12 earlier, Jesus is the one who:
"offered for all time one sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God. 13 Since that time he waits for his enemies to be made his footstool, because by one sacrifice he has made perfect forever those who are being made holy."
God's gracious hand is best expressed in his son. The promised king. The priest who offers himself: the ultimate sacrifice for sin. It's in Jesus that the plotlines of the king and temple are fulfilled and explode on the storyline of the Bible. The Old Testament is a training exercise for trusting in Jesus. If you want to experience God's gracious hand in your life, all you need to do is look to Jesus. Depend on him for forgiveness of sin and make him your king. But if you continue to forsake him, you will face God's great anger.
God's hand provides for his people. Will you accept it? Yes God provides through his people. Yes, he provides through prayer. But ultimately he provides through his Son. So let us look to God's gracious hand to provide. Let us look to Jesus.