Seeking and Gaining a Right Way
C. E. Hocking, Cardiff
PRAISE TO GOD FOR OPENING THE WAY, chapter 7, is followed by the proving of God throughout the course of the expedition, chapter 8. Dependent on God and obedient to the principles of His eternal Word, Ezra finds occasion to apply his spiritual standards to practical details. The chapter may be outlined as follows :
1. Registration, vv. 1-14.
2. Preparation, vv. 15-30.
3. Journey and arrival, w. 31-36.
Another list of names introduces the chapter, this time recording the men who joined Ezra. Only the heads of the houses are mentioned by name and the positions of honour at the head of the list are given to the priestly and royal houses. Quite a number of priests joined Ezra, v. 24, but only the names of those who represent the two houses are detailed, v. 2. Ezra's name finds no place in the list as the house to which he belonged (Phinehas, 7. 5) is already represented by its chief, Gershom. The phrase ' of the sons of Shechaniah' opening verse 3 belongs to the preceding verse according to 1 Chron. 3. 22 and should be followed by a full stop. David's line is thus represented by the house of Shechaniah, the head of which was Hattush. The chiefs of twelve households (the number 12 symbolizing a united Israel) are then tabled, the list opening with the phrase 'of the sons of Pharosh', v. 3b. The total of 1496 refers to males only but as wives and little ones are to be added to this number, v. 21, the caravan may well have been seven or eight thousand strong. This group led by Ezra was a much smaller one than that headed by Zerubbabel detailed in chapter 2, where nearly 50,000 were involved.
The rendezvous was at one of the many canals in Babylon, where harps had been hung on the willows, Ps. 137, for the period of the exile, when Zion's songs could not be sung, but now another generation sets its face towards Jerusalem. Tents of darkness behind them and the house of God before them, they could sing the songs of Ascents (Pss. 120-134) with spiritual intelligence and joyous enthusiasm.
Difficulties beset the path of all who would walk faithfully, but these afford opportunity for proving God and deepening our faith. One such problem had to be faced when inspection revealed that there were no Levites among the assembled company, v. 15. We have already noted how few of these joined Zerubbabel's company, 2. 40. The demand for sanctified servants far exceeds the supply ! Levites had no inheritance in Israel but were to look to God who had made provision for the meeting of their needs in directing the Israelites to bring the tithe into the house of God for the Levites' portion. There seems to be a two-fold failure revealed in the Scriptures in connection with this. First, a weakness is found in the waxing and waning spirituality of the people of God. A good index of their state before God is to be gathered from their giving for His work; here lack of spirituality resulted in insufficient provision for the meeting of the practical needs of their brethren. Labourers being worthy of their hire is a truth so often ignored ! Hence we read of Levites absent from their proper sphere in the house of God through the people's neglect in the discharge of their responsibilities (see Neh. 13 and Mai. 3). The second failure revealed (and that which seems to underlie the narratives of Ezra) is the unpreparedness of the Levites themselves to launch out in complete dependence on their God. Maybe their eyes were on the channels used of God in their maintenance, rather than on Himself as the source. In the light of cold calculation, the method of support looked a little idealistic and insufficiently practicable. It is for this reason, no doubt, that Ezra urges their privilege and the importance of their work as 'ministers for the house of our God', v. 17.
Despite this difficulty, Ezra would not adopt measures for which he had no authority in the Word of God. The sanctity of the ministry demanded Levites so he commissioned chief men and men of understanding to seek out and bring Levites. Approaching Iddo, who presided over both Levites and Nethinim at Casiphia, the need was unfolded. The response, which indicated the intervention of God in the situation, is noted in verses 18-20. Faithfulness and dependence had its own reward. Among the Levites who joined the caravan was a 'man of understanding', v. 18 (compare v. 16), i.e. one who knowing the truth of God was able to teach others also. These are ever invaluable among the pilgrim people of God!
Servants for the work of God now available, Ezra turns to supplicate the throne of God. Note the turning points of the paragraph, vv. 21-23 ; 'then . . .', v. 21, 'for . . .', v. 22, 'so . . .', v. 23. The occasion of their prayer was 'then', v. 21, i.e. after the roll-call had revealed that the journey could be taken without compromise. The reason for such spiritual exercise is given 'for I was ashamed to require (ask) of the king . . .', v. 22. The consequence, 'so we fasted and besought our God', v. 23.
What intensity marked this leader of the saints. He proclaimed a fast, v. 21, the saints were to afflict themselves, v. 21, and thus 'we fasted', v. 23. We have in this an outward symbol of submission before God and self-abasement. Restraint laid upon physical appetites, they lay hold of God with keener spiritual fervour. Detachment from the outward leads to attachment to the upward! They 'seek of Him a right way . . .', v. 22, they 'besought our God', v. 23. Confidence for the perilous journey was theirs through this spiritual exercise before God and not as a result of asking of the king an armed escort.
THE SAINTS' SUFFICIENCY
To establish the underlying principles of God's Word is of tremendous importance. Precepts arc specific and restricted in their application whilst principles are comprehensive and all embracing. By principles our whole course of conduct is governed and we view life's separate departments in the light of the broad truths which pervade the whole of Scripture. One such principle, that of God's moral government, had been borne in upon Ezra's soul, v. 22, and this he witnessed boldly before the king. Notice his testimony is quite general. 'The hand of our God is upon all them for good that seek Him . . .'. Now, facing the hazards of the enemy-infested way, he must stand by his expressed conviction. The principle of the good and guarding hand of God upon the saint would be denied, he argued, by asking for military protection, and would bring dishonour to God and shame to His servant. He is driven to seek God, in order that what he knew and what had been the subject of his testimony before the king might be experimentally proved in the journey before them. We often express truth which we know in the head, but do we cultivate that spiritual sensitiveness which sees in the differing circumstances of life fresh opportunities to apply what we know ? Such application of truth is a sure safeguard against being ashamed before those to whom we freely have testified.
Their supplicating of the throne of God is followed by a paragraph stressing the stewardship involved until they reached the city of God, vv. 24-30. The stewards were priests and Levites. The Revised Version margin of verse 24 inserts the word 'besides' before the name Sherebiah, indicating that there were twelve of the chiefs of the priests as well as twelve Levites, two of whose names are given. Support for this is found in verse 30, and Nehemiah 12. 24 seems to indicate that Sherebiah was a Levite. These were 'holy unto the Lord', v. 28, and it was to these that Ezra entrusted the silver, gold and vessels. Not only was all carefully weighed at the beginning of the journey (see 'weighing', 'weight' vv. 25, 26, 29, 30), stressing the value of the items (something like £1,000,000 sterling), but the balances of the sanctuary would check the measure of faithfulness to their stewardship at the journey's end, w. 33, 34. Let us stir ourselves as we recall that our Lord has placed in our hands 'talents' and 'pounds' with the strong exhortation to 'occupy until I come'. Moreover, there is that sacred deposit of divine truth given to His servants, concerning which we read, 'the same commit thou to faithful men who shall be able to teach others also'. 'Watch ye', urges Ezra, for the journey would demand vigilance if the course were to be finished, if the faith were to be kept. 'Be vigilant', urges Peter, keep awake, 'because your adversary the devil, as a roaring lion walketh about, seeking whom he may devour', i Pet. 5. 8.
The foundation for this venture of faith was laid on the first day of the first month, 7. 9, corresponding to our March. The preliminary muster of those who joined Ezra took place on the ninth of the same month (cf. 8. 15, 31), and true to their pilgrim character they abode in tents for the three days prior to their journey. After the Levites had been brought, they gave themselves to fasting and prayer. The journey proper was commenced on the twelfth day of the first month after the allocation of responsibilities, 8. 31. As their trek would have been through summer months, the caravan moved in the early morning and the latter part of the day. Some 108 days later, the most probable route involving approximately 900 miles, the saints entered Jerusalem on the first day of the fifth month, 7. 9.
THEY WERE FAVOURED PILGRIMS vv. 31, 32.
The journey itself was a very blessed one. Bearing the heat of the day, with many enemies to beset their pathway, they proved the deliverance of their God, by His good hand upon them, v. 31. Here we strike a keynote of both this chapter and the one preceding it, for the commencement of the whole movement is likewise attributed to this, for 'the king granted all his request according to the good hand of the Lord his God upon him', 7. 6. Dependent as ever, he proved the grace of God when about the initial organizing of the journey, for at the gathering of the chiefs of the houses he records that 'I was strengthened according to the hand of the Lord my God upon me', 7. 28 His faithfulness forbidding resort to a policy of expediency, he was yet again to prove at the bringing of the Levites that it was all 'by the good hand of our God upon us', 8. 18. Voicing the truth that 'the hand of God is upon them for good that seek Him', 8. 22, he sought the face of God that this might be their enjoyed portion throughout the expedition and 'He was entreated of us', 8. 23, and when finally they arrived at their destination he was persuaded that they 'came to Jerusalem according to the good hand of his God upon him', 7. 9. As Stanley remarks 'It is as if he felt the returning touch of those invisible fingers at every stage of the journey'. It is in the pilgrimage of life we have to prove His merciful favour, present guidance and guarding power.
THEY WERE FAITHFUL STEWARD vv. 33, 34-
The treasures had been weighed to them, v. 25, and they were exhorted to watch and keep them until they weighed them before the chiefs, v. 29. At the end of the journey two priests and two Levites were detailed to weigh all again. It was all tested by counting and weighing ('the whole by number and weight', R.V.). There was nothing found wanting, 'all was written at that time', v. 34. It is well for us to be stirred by such example and to be encouraged by this sweet possibility. At the end of life's pilgrimage we are all to appear before the judgment-seat of Christ, where the balances of the sanctuary, v. 33, will be used and our stewardship accurately assessed by our Lord. 'Stewards of the mysteries of God. It is required in stewards that a man be found faithful . . .He that judgeth me is the Lord', 1 Cor. 3. 1-4. What joy it will bring if, all having been weighed, there is heard from His lips 'Well done, thou good and faithful servant'.
THEY BECAME GRATEFUL WORSHIPPERS vv. 35, 36.
They could do no other than rejoice in die greatness and sufficiency of Christ. They consecrated themselves to a new life before their God - 'All was a burnt offering unto the Lord', v. 35. The plans of God were furthered, the king's decree turning the scales in favour of the people and the house of God, v. 36. How sweetly applicable is all this to the experience of the saints when they enter upon the unfolding ages of eternity ! He will show us the glories of our God and make our joys complete. Next issue : A RUDE AWAKENING !
If we are lacking in love we shall never be able to pastor souls.