The Hand of God Is Upon Us
Scripture: Ezra 8:1–36
27 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, 28 and who extended to me his steadfast love before the king and his counselors, and before all the king’s mighty officers. I took courage, for the hand of the LORD my God was on me, and I gathered leading men from Israel to go up with me (Ezra 7:27-28).
21 Then I proclaimed a fast there, at the river Ahava, that we might humble ourselves before our God, to seek from him a safe journey for ourselves, our children, and all our goods. 22 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.” 23 So we fasted and implored our God for this, and he listened to our entreaty (Ezra 8:21-23).
Let me begin by asking you a question to ponder for a moment. Are you a courageous person? The answer will depend, of course, on what we understand courage to be. Is it courageous for Jeff Bezos to go into space next month? Was it courageous for Alex Harvill to attempt to set a world record on a motorcycle jump, a jump that ended up fatal for him? Most of us do not think a person has to do something as drastic as blast off into space or attempt a 350 foot motorcycle jump to be courageous. When the thrill of success overcomes the dread of defeat, that is when we tend to see people act courageously.
I’m thinking about courage because that theme resonates throughout Ezra chapters seven and eight. As we pick up here in Ezra 8, we need to get a running start at it by reading again the end of chapter seven. There we were introduced to Ezra himself, the author of the book that bears his name. Chapter seven introduces the second plot we find in this book. The first dealt with the initial return from exile with an aim toward the rebuilding of the temple. The second deals with another group of exiles returning with Ezra, with the aim of building upon the achievements of the first return, beautifying the temple, and rebuilding the rule of God’s laws over the region again. All of this comes under the decree of another Persian king, Artaxerxes, and at the end of chapter seven, Ezra rejoices in the evidence of God’s providence in the decree of the Persian king. He writes:
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. I took courage, for the hand of the LORD my God was on me, and I gathered leading men from Israel to go up with me (Ezra 8:27-28).
For Ezra, so stunning was the favor of this pagan Persian king, that he could not help but notice the real power behind it all. God was at work in this. So, Ezra says he “took courage.”
The verb “took courage” means not just that Ezra was felt encouraged. The emphasis falls on the actions he took in light of his confidence that he had the will of God blowing behind his back. Ezra “showed himself courageous.” Chapter 8 shows us the ways in which he showed his courage.
When you know where God’s favor is found, you can take great risks of faith. That is to say, God calls us to believe in him and his reign over us in such a way that we make choices to live in ways that will seem crazy to the watching world. Here are three examples of this from Ezra, in which we see God’s grace encourage him and others to show courage, the courage to return, to risk, to remain.
The Courage to Return
First, when Ezra saw the evidence of God’s grace, it encouraged him and others to return to Jerusalem. The last sentence in chapter seven says this. Having seen how God moved a pagan king to endorse this second return from exile in Babylon, Ezra declared, “I took courage, for the hand of the Lord my God was on me, and I gathered leading men from Israel to go up with me.” And chapter eight gives us a list of those who went with Ezra to Jerusalem.
A Second Return from Babylon
This second episode in the book of Ezra tells us of a second return of exiles in Babylon to Jerusalem. This return occurs some 80 years after the first one. Like the first one, this return is credited to God’s providential work in the heart of a pagan king. As God had “stirred up the spirit of Cyrus” (Ezra 1:1) in the first return, so now he has “put such a thing as this into the heart of the king” Artaxerxes (Ezra 7:27).
But God’s providence over the pagan kings is meant to have further impact. It is meant to stir God’s people as well. In Ezra 1:5 we read of those Jews in Babylon “whose spirit God had stirred to go up” to Jerusalem, followed by a long chapter detailing the names and numbers of those who went back to Israel. A similar thing happens now.
A List of Those God Had Stirred
Ezra’s theological point can easily be missed in the seemingly insignificant lists of Ezra 2 and Ezra 8. But it is no stretch to see that he does, in fact, have a theological point he is wishing to make.
You see, these two lists demonstrate that the group who returned with Ezra in chapter eight are descendants of the group that returned previously. And it is these who answer the call, it is these whose heart God has stirred, who have the right to call themselves the remnant of the people of God.
From the perspective of the Babylonian captivity, the nation of Israel was divided into three different groups. There were some who never went into captivity in Babylon, the so-called “people of the land,” who are presented as adversaries in Ezra. A second group would be those who went into exile or who are descendants of those who went into exile, but never returned. These, too, are implicitly denied the status of the people of God, according to Jeremiah 24:8-10.
God’s people, as Ezra would have us see it, are those who were chastened by the exile, but then brought back. Jeremiah 24:5-7 says,
Thus says the LORD, the God of Israel: Like these good figs, so I will regard as good the exiles from Judah, whom I have sent away from this place to the land of the Chaldeans. I will set my eyes on them for good, and I will bring them back to this land. I will build them up, and not tear them down; I will plant them, and not pluck them up. I will give them a heart to know that I am the LORD, and they shall be my people and I will be their God, for they shall return to me with their whole heart.
The point is this: God manifests his reign in history, and his people are those who have the courage to respond to his reign and follow his call. The manifestation of God’s reign, the evidence of his acts in redemptive history, is powerful, but it also creates a dividing line. Only those who respond to it are counted among his people. Many simply do not obey and are therefore not part of the fulfillment of God’s prophetic fulfillment in history. “Obedience is a necessary ongoing concomitant of prophecy fulfillment,” says one commentator here.
Obedience to Christ
As Christians, we understand that the great dividing line in God’s redemptive history is Jesus, Israel’s promised Messiah. We believe that Jesus is full of grace; in him we see most clearly the one who has the hand of God upon him. But grace is not a thing, according to Scripture. It does not exist apart from God himself. You can’t have it apart from having Christ. Grace is only found in him.
Thus, the meaning of Israel’s return from exile, told to us twice now in the book of Ezra, is exactly what Jesus means when he calls Israel to repentance in his own ministry. To repent is to return, and it takes a great deal of courage. To be a Christian, to truly repent, means to adhere to and show complete allegiance to Jesus. That means forsaking every other way of seeking the good life we all crave. And Jesus required everyone to repent. Sooner or later, all of us have to consider whether we are truly turning to Jesus or not. What if the way of Jesus is wrong? What if he was a fraud? Then we are not just mistaken, we are wrong! Our faith is futile; we are still in our sins (1 Cor 15:17). We have no hope. As Paul says, “We are of all people most to be pitied” (1 Cor 15:19).
The Courage to Risk
Second, when Ezra saw the evidence of God’s grace, not only did it encourage him and others to return to Jerusalem, it also encouraged him and others to take risks. Two different scenes, in verses 15-23, show us this.
The Missing Levites
In verse 15, the scene shifts to a river or canal outside Babylon, an apparent staging-ground for the group setting out on the journey. Ezra takes inventory of who all are in the group, but he “found there none of the sons of Levi.”
The Levites were the God-ordained ministers in the temple, though only the Levites who were descendants of Aaron could serve as priests. The Levites also served as representatives for the entire nation of Israel (Num 3:41). So Ezra is concerned that not one Levite is found in his group. After all, the whole reason for returning to Jerusalem is for the restoration of the entire nation. If Israel’s exile is truly going to end, then the ministerial tasks of the temple will need to resume. The Levites will be needed.
So Ezra goes into action, showing that he is concerned for the spiritual well-being of Israel. The people of God, while together a “kingdom of priests” (Exod 19:6), still need their God-appointed ministers and servants. It was true in Ezra’s day, and it is true in our day, in the New Testament era. The church needs its pastor-elders, but it also needs its minister-deacons.
In verse 18 we find our familiar phrase, “by the good hand of our God on us.” Ezra got his Levites, but what was the act of courage shown here? What was the risk that was taken? While Ezra does not tell us explicitly, there is enough evidence to make a good guess. Verses 16-17 show that it took quite an effort to persuade them to go. Ezra sends a delegation of “leading men” and “men of insight” with a planned script to convince some Levites to join the team. The Levites seem very reluctant to go back, not just now, but in the first return as well. In chapter two we are told that while over 4,000 priests returned in the initial group, there were only 74 Levites (Ezra 2:36-40). Why such hesitation?
Several commentators have suggested that the Levites may have taken on a priestly status during the Exile and were not so interested in returning to their inferior roles in the temple at Jerusalem. Who would risk taking a demotion for a spiritual cause? Who would counsel anyone to do so? Would you? Would I? It certainly is not the ordinary way we tend to think about such things, is it?
Nevertheless, Ezra makes an effort to persuade some Levites to come with them. His request is in verse 17, “send us ministers for the house of our God.” Oh that God would do the same in our day and send us ministers for the church, vocational or volunteer, men and women who will give their lives to the humble work of ministry in the church on behalf of the entire congregation.
Ezra’s request was answered, “And by the good hand of our God on us,” they succeeded. And the results were better than could have been expected. A “man of discretion” named Sherebiah responded to the call, along with a man named Hashabiah, together with others from their families totaling 38 people, plus 220 “temple servants” who would serve as assistants to the Levites.
God will call his ministers. Is he calling you? To answer the call will be risky, but when you see the evidence of God’s grace, you can take the risk of faith. You can obey God’s call.
The Dangerous Journey
The second scene in this episode is found in verses 21-23. Ezra calls for a fast before they set out on the journey, “that we might humble ourselves before our God, to seek from him a safe journey for ourselves, our children, and all our goods” (v. 21). Now that is understandable. Traveling is dangerous and risky even in our day, but this was especially true in the ancient world. The customary trade routes were filled with bandits seeking to plunder the goods that would accompany travelers making a long journey.
But this journey would be even more risky, because Ezra tells us in verse 22 that he was “ashamed to ask the king for a band of soldiers and horsemen to protect us against the enemy on our way.” He doesn’t say that there would have been anything inherently wrong with doing so; Nehemiah had no problem accepting the protection of the king’s guard when he made his journey (Neh 2:9). We must not over spiritualize here. Often God’s grace comes to us in the form of a civil law or a court ruling or a scientific break-through, like a vaccine that protects against a deadly virus! If anything, the differing responses of Ezra and Nehemiah to the offer of a military escort on a dangerous journey show us once again that Christians can demonstrate their faith in saying “yes” or in saying “no” to an amoral issue.
Ezra did not ask the king for an escort because he had already told him, “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” (v. 22). Ezra understood that this journey to Jerusalem was a moment in redemptive history, a fulfillment of God’s promise to “Restore the fortunes of the land as at first” as Jeremiah (33:11) had prophesied. So, he knew that his obedience to God’s call would be seen through to completion. He could trust God fully. Like Abraham, obeying God’s call to offer up Isaac, he was certain that God would come through.
But still, as verse 23 says, “we fasted and implored our God for this.” There is no hint of triumphalism here. Ezra does not presume upon God’s grace; he asks for it in fasting and prayer. What God has called Ezra to do requires from him a humble yet uncompromising faith. It’s one thing to affirm faith, but God’s people should reflect on whether our actions ever require us to act in faith for, as one commentator asks us to ponder, “Can a faith that is never drafted into service survive?” Does your faith in God ever require you to take a risk that, unless God comes through on his promise, will make you look like a fool?
The Courage to Remain
Finally, the evidence of God’s grace encouraged Ezra and the others joining him in this return from exile to remain, to remain in faith, to endure, to see the mission of faith through to completion. In verses 24-36, we read about the successful journey to Jerusalem with a focus on the mission of getting the money and other valuables safely to the temple.
Guard Them and Keep Them
In verse 24, Ezra sets apart twelve priests and twelve Levites and gives them the responsibility of carrying the silver, gold, and the valuable temple vessels on the journey. The total amount that is stated is tremendous: 650 talents of silver would equal more than 24 tons! Now, who volunteers to carry such a treasure on such a long journey filled with bandits and without any military escort?
Ezra gives his charge to the priests and Levites in verses 28-29. Here is their mission:
You are holy to the LORD, and the vessels are holy, and the silver and the gold are a freewill offering to the LORD, the God of your fathers. Guard them and keep them until you weigh them before the chief priests and the Levites and the heads of fathers’ houses in Israel at Jerusalem, within the chambers of the house of the LORD.
God always gives his people a mission. Paul charged Timothy to “guard the good deposit entrusted to” him (2 Tim 1:14). Timothy was entrusted with something far more precious than silver and gold; the “good deposit” is the gospel of Jesus Christ. This is the pure word of God, the good news for a perishing world. Are we not entrusted with the same?
It is our business, then, as God’s people today to take up the risky business of guarding the gospel from bandits. It is not an easy task, especially since the way to “guard” this valuable gospel is not to hide it “under a basket” but to let it shine before others so that they, too, might give glory to our Father in heaven (Matt 5:15-16).
And He Delivered Us
The journey finally begins in verse 31, a journey that we have already been told took four months to complete (Ezra 7:9). The journey was a success, but it was not as smooth sailing as we might think. Yes, we are told in verse 31 once more that “the hand of our God was on us,” but the evidence of grace was that God “delivered us from the hand of the enemy and from ambushes by the way.” The verb delivered leaves open the possibility that there were attacks and ambushes, but that God saw to it that they were rescued in every case. The journey itself, even if there were no attacks, would have been exhausting, physically and mentally, so, even after arriving in Jerusalem, the group took a three day rest before the mission is brought to conclusion (v. 32).
Christians understand that a life of faithful obedience to God is always an adventure. It’s not smooth sailing. There are troubles and dangers that await us, but the word of the Lord always proves true. Christians are empowered to see, at the end of our faith journey, that God has indeed rescued us, as the Apostle Paul noted, “from every evil deed” and brought us “safely into his heavenly kingdom” (2 Tim 4:18). One day faith will give way to sight, and there will be no doubt that “the hand of our God was on us,” all the way to the end. The reason for the Christian’s successful endurance of faith is still all because of the grace of God. None of us would keep the faith without it.
The Whole Was Counted
The rest of the chapter brings the journey to full completion with the successful delivery of the money and temple vessels. “The whole was counted and weighed, and the weight of everything was recorded” (v. 34). Not one penny was lost. A corporate worship service of thanksgiving (vv. 35-36) brought the journey to a fitting end.
Yes, of course it did! What else would be the proper response to the grace of God? The courage of the Christian does not lead to pride as if we could have done anything on our own. True Christian courage can only end in thanksgiving, praise, and delight in the God who made it all possible.
 Ludwig Koehler, Walter Baumgartner, and Johann Jakob Stamm, “חזק,” The Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament, (HALOT), CD-ROM Edition, trans. M. E. J. Richardson (Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 1994-2000), 304.
 As Derek Kidner (Ezra and Nehemiah: An Introduction and Commentary, vol. 12, Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries [InterVarsity Press, 1979], 73) says, “The interest of this forbidding list of names and numbers lies in the fact that in every case but one these groups are joining, at long last, the descendants of the pioneers from their own family stock, who had been in the first party to return from Babylon eighty years before.”
 A. Philip Brown, Hope Amidst Ruin: A Literary and Theological Analysis of Ezra (Greenville, S.C: Bob Jones University Press, 2009), 215.
 The ESV follows a reading of the manuscripts that suggests that Sherebiah and Hashabiah are priests rather than Levites, but this cannot be correct given what was just stated about them in Ezra 8:18-19. The better reading then is the one followed, for example, by the CSB: “I selected twelve of the leading priests, along with Sherebiah, Hashabiah, and ten of their brothers.” Thus, Ezra selected twelve priests and twelve Levites.