The Pagan Sends a Priest

Posted: March 10, 2011 in Ezra

Ezra 7-8, “The Pagan Sends the Priest”

When watching the news reports, it’s easy to wonder of government is capable of doing anything right.  Regardless of which party is in control of the capitol, it seems that as a whole, the government is constantly moving away from the values of God, never toward them.  It’s always surprising to see a godly move from a politician – and if it’s rare now, consider what it would have been like to see such a move from a king of Persia!

57 years pass from the conclusion of Ezra 6 to the beginning of Ezra 7.  An entire reign of a Persian king lies between the chapters (Xerxes/Asaheurus, who’s not mentioned here, but is the subject of Esther), and it may have seemed like the 50,000 Jews that went with Zerubbabel were the only ones that were going to go back to Israel.  Not true!  God had first sent a political leader, and during what seemed to be years of silence was actually time for God to raise up a spiritual leader in Ezra (as well as protect the Jewish people back in Persia).  Ezra would take a 2nd wave of refugees back along with a royal commission to reinstate the law of God among the people of God.  What’s ironic about it all is that God uses a pagan king to get it all started!  The real question is: will the people of God demonstrate at least as much faith (if not more) than their pagan emperor?

Ezra 7 (NKJV)
1 Now after these things, in the reign of Artaxerxes king of Persia, Ezra the son of Seraiah, the son of Azariah, the son of Hilkiah, [vss. 2-5 state his genealogy] 5 the son of Abishua, the son of Phinehas, the son of Eleazar, the son of Aaron the chief priest—6 this Ezra came up from Babylon; and he was a skilled scribe in the Law of Moses, which the Lord God of Israel had given. The king granted him all his request, according to the hand of the Lord his God upon him.

  1. Ezra traces his lineage among the high priests.  Seraiah was the last high priest in the kingdom of Judah (2 Kings 25:18), and Aaron was obviously the 1st.  The temple had already been rebuilt, but now the people needed spiritual instruction on how to worship correctly in order not to make the same mistakes as the past.  God sent them someone eminently qualified as a priest.
  2. Yet Ezra was more than a priest…he was also a “scribe.”  Prior to the exile, a scribe mainly copied the words of the OT, & recorded the words of priests, prophets, and kings.  Yet during the exile when almost all these positions were silenced, the position of someone who knew the Scriptures rose dramatically in the eyes of the people.  This is the position that eventually became the “rabbi.”  Of course Ezra wasn’t just any scribe; he was a “skilled scribe in the Law of Moses.”  IOW, he was an expert in the Scriptures…just the way he ought to have been.  The people in Israel (as we’ll see in Ch 9-10) were in dire need of good teaching & fell into sin because of a lack of it.  God sent them a skilled teacher in order to help equip His people with His word & keep them from falling into the same sin as their fathers before them.
    1. Regarding teachers today, the standard is no different.  Paul exhorts Timothy to ensure that elders who teach labor in the word (1 Tim 5:17), and that Timothy himself should always be a student of the Scriptures. 2 Timothy 2:15  Be diligent to present yourself approved to God, a worker who does not need to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth. []  Why?  Because God’s people need to hear the word of God!  It’s our daily bread – it’s the living word – it’s the sword of the Spirit – we are washed & cleansed by it.  What is it that will most quickly take us to the feet of our Savior?  The Scriptures.  It’s imperative that teachers TEACH – and they ought to teach skillfully.
  3. Ezra is going to be shown to be obedient, but keep in mind who it is that receives all of the credit & glory of Ezra’s work: God.  The only reason Artaxerxes is going to bless Ezra as much as he does is because “hand of the Lord” was upon Ezra.

7 Some of the children of Israel, the priests, the Levites, the singers, the gatekeepers, and the Nethinim came up to Jerusalem in the seventh year of King Artaxerxes. 8 And Ezra came to Jerusalem in the fifth month, which was in the seventh year of the king.

  1. Chapter 8 will detail the journey; this gives the summary of it.  It took 4 months and 900 miles to travel from Babylon to Jerusalem.  Slow going, but considering Ezra was leading men, women, children, and elderly on foot (along with livestock), the slow pace is understandable.

 

9 On the first day of the first month he began his journey from Babylon, and on the first day of the fifth month he came to Jerusalem, according to the good hand of his God upon him. 10 For Ezra had prepared his heart to seek the Law of the Lord, and to do it, and to teach statutes and ordinances in Israel.

  1. Why was Ezra blessed by God?  Because Ezra was submitted to God.  He was:
    1. Prepared to personally seek God.  Understand that when Ezra was seeking the Law of the Lord, it’s not that he was simply studying Scripture solely to gain scholarly knowledge.  When we study Scripture, we’re ultimately studying the heart of God because we’re studying the very word of God.  One of the very best ways to seek God is by getting the Bible into our hearts & minds.
    2. Prepared to personally obey God.  It’s one thing to know the Scripture; it’s another thing to apply it.  A godly leader does both – and that’s exactly what Ezra was doing.  He wasn’t going to teach the people to do something he wasn’t personally prepared to follow. [] Likewise with us – regardless if we consider ourselves teachers or not, we need to live out what it is we read.  The world will know the difference…
    3. Prepared to teach God’s people.  This was obviously his calling, and he was prepared to follow through on it.  He didn’t take his responsibilities lightly, and he prepared himself to do the best he possibly could.
  2. That makes sense for a scribe/rabbi (or a pastor), but what about everyone else?  Nothing changes.  ALL of us are to seek God by searching the Scriptures – to obey the word of the Lord – and to pass it along to others in our influence (maybe just our own families).  Those who do the same are also going to experience the blessings of God, if nothing else simply by experiencing the blessed fellowship of walking with our Lord Jesus Christ.

11 This is a copy of the letter that King Artaxerxes gave Ezra the priest, the scribe, expert in the words of the commandments of the Lord, and of His statutes to Israel:  12 Artaxerxes, king of kings, To Ezra the priest, a scribe of the Law of the God of heaven: Perfect peace, and so forth.

  1. It’s a copy because the original was generally kept in the palace.  This is still official royal correspondence, and Ezra would have guarded it carefully.  If he was stopped or questioned by any of the king’s people along the way, this would be his official documentation.  (Written in Aramaic, like the letters from Cyrus & Darius)
  2. Artaxerxes, king of kings” – obviously this is a title that truly belongs to Jesus Christ.  The fact that Scripture records this is not to endorse Artaxerxes as the king of kings, but merely to accurately record the title Artaxerxes claimed for himself as a ruler over many kings in his empire.  Even Artaxerxes will one day bow the knee to the TRUE King of Kings when Jesus is revealed in all of His glory in heaven!

13 I issue a decree that all those of the people of Israel and the priests and Levites in my realm, who volunteer to go up to Jerusalem, may go with you.

  1. Notice who was included in this decree: everyone!  Anyone of Israel – any of the priests – any of the Levites…anyone who had originally been taken into captivity by the Babylonians (and the Assyrians, for that matter) were released by the Persian king to go back home.  Nearly 50,000 had returned with Zerubbabel (King Cyrus didn’t have any restrictions on that return either).  Here’s a 2nd chance for any who want to return to their homeland to actually return.  Keep this in mind for Ch 8 when we get a listing of who actually goes home.

14 And whereas you are being sent by the king and his seven counselors to inquire concerning Judah and Jerusalem, with regard to the Law of your God which is in your hand; 15 and whereas you are to carry the silver and gold which the king and his counselors have freely offered to the God of Israel, whose dwelling is in Jerusalem; 16 and whereas all the silver and gold that you may find in all the province of Babylon, along with the freewill offering of the people and the priests, are to be freely offered for the house of their God in Jerusalem—

  1. Artaxerxes was sending Ezra back under 3 premises.  (1) Ezra was to inquire of God regarding the king… (2) Ezra was to take an offering of the king to God. (3) Ezra was to take an offering of the Jews who remained in Babylon to God.
  2. The idea here isn’t so much that Artaxerxes is a believer in the Lord, but rather seeking favor with the various “gods” within in his empire.  Apparently, he acted similarly with other people groups that he restored to their lands.  In his mind, happy subjects were loyal subjects – and it didn’t hurt if their gods were happy with him, too.
  3. What Artaxerxes likely didn’t realize was that he was acting exactly in accordance with the will of God! 

17 now therefore, be careful to buy with this money bulls, rams, and lambs, with their grain offerings and their drink offerings, and offer them on the altar of the house of your God in Jerusalem. 18 And whatever seems good to you and your brethren to do with the rest of the silver and the gold, do it according to the will of your God. 19 Also the articles that are given to you for the service of the house of your God, deliver in full before the God of Jerusalem.

  1. Makes it clear that the money being donated was designated for a specific purpose.  Ezra was to offer the right sacrifices for the king with the funds, and use the rest according to the will of God.

20 And whatever more may be needed for the house of your God, which you may have occasion to provide, pay for it from the king’s treasury.

  1. Basically gives Ezra carte blanche…

21 And I, even I, Artaxerxes the king, issue a decree to all the treasurers who are in the region beyond the River, that whatever Ezra the priest, the scribe of the Law of the God of heaven, may require of you, let it be done diligently, 22 up to one hundred talents of silver, one hundred kors of wheat, one hundred baths of wine, one hundred baths of oil, and salt without prescribed limit. 23 Whatever is commanded by the God of heaven, let it diligently be done for the house of the God of heaven. For why should there be wrath against the realm of the king and his sons?

  1. Don’t miss the significance here.  Not only does the king of Persia give Ezra whatever is needed to worship God & inquire of on behalf of the king, but he puts his royal authority on the rest of the lands that surround Israel – in order that they would do the same.  Basically, he commands the lands of the MidEast to support & help Ezra!  (Imagine a command going out from Mahmoud Ahmadinejad for the nations of Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, and others to support Israel!)
  2. What a change from the way things were prior to the captivity!

24 Also we inform you that it shall not be lawful to impose tax, tribute, or custom on any of the priests, Levites, singers, gatekeepers, Nethinim, or servants of this house of God.

  1. All the priests & Levites would be exempt from taxes.  Basically demonstrating that nothing was to interfere with the Levite’s service unto God.  (Which from Artaxerxes’ point of view meant that more Levites would be praying on behalf of the king.)

25 And you, Ezra, according to your God-given wisdom, set magistrates and judges who may judge all the people who are in the region beyond the River, all such as know the laws of your God; and teach those who do not know them. 26 Whoever will not observe the law of your God and the law of the king, let judgment be executed speedily on him, whether it be death, or banishment, or confiscation of goods, or imprisonment.

  1. To top off the blessing, Artaxerxes commands that the law of God be reinstated in Israel, under Ezra’s guidance and teaching.  Anyone who disobeyed the law of God would come under the penalty of death.
  2. Keep in mind we never saw such enforcement of the Law under the kings of Israel & Judah!  It took a pagan king to command & enforce that God’s people would obey the word of God as it was written.
    1. Shame on the Church when the rest of the unbelieving world sets a moral standard that is better than the people of God.

27 Blessed be the Lord God of our fathers, who has put such a thing as this in the king’s heart, to beautify the house of the Lord which is in Jerusalem, 28 and has extended mercy to me before the king and his counselors, and before all the king’s mighty princes. So I was encouraged, as the hand of the Lord my God was upon me; and I gathered leading men of Israel to go up with me.

  1. The letter from Artaxerxes ends, and Ezra picks up the narrative with the 1st person.
  2. Ezra is understandably happy with the king, but it is God who gets all of the praise.

Ezra 8 (NKJV)
1 These are the heads of their fathers’ houses, and this is the genealogy of those who went up with me from Babylon, in the reign of King Artaxerxes:

  1. Vss. 2-14 list the families that came with Ezra.  Around 1500 males, not including women & children – likely over 5000 people total.
  2. Although even a minimum number of 1500 is a lot, contrast this with the 1st wave of return under Zerubbabel (50,000), and the decree of Artaxerxes that was open to the entire empire.  In the grand scheme of things, 1500 men is a drop in the bucket.  Everyone was free to return to Israel to follow God, but few were actually willing.  They had gotten comfortable in their lives in Babylon – things were relatively easy for them in the Persian empire.  To go back to Israel meant they had to leave behind houses & land & strike off into the unknown.  Many chose to stay where it was comfortable.
  3. Stepping out in faith is rarely (if ever) comfortable.  When God gives us an opportunity to follow Christ in faith, generally it requires stepping outside of our comfort zone & trusting God with what is unknown.  (Not that it would be unexpected – steps of true faith are grounded in the word of God.  If you believe God is calling to you do something that does not have a foundation in Scripture, it’s a fairly clear indication God isn’t the one calling you to do it!)  Yet it can be (and most often IS) uncomfortable. [Jesus walking on water, then Peter]  Matthew 14:28-31 (28) And Peter answered Him and said, “Lord, if it is You, command me to come to You on the water.” (29) So He said, “Come.” And when Peter had come down out of the boat, he walked on the water to go to Jesus. (30) But when he saw that the wind was boisterous, he was afraid; and beginning to sink he cried out, saying, “Lord, save me!” (31) And immediately Jesus stretched out His hand and caught him, and said to him, “O you of little faith, why did you doubt?” []When things are too comfortable, we end up relying upon our own strength; it’s only when things seem too big & beyond us that we truly end up relying upon the Lord God.
    1. Sometimes we talk ourselves into paralysis from obedience when we wait upon the so-called “right” feeling.  If we’re waiting upon a “feeling,” we’ll never step out on faith!  Peter didn’t wait for a feeling; he was walking to Jesus.  We need to walk in obedience to God’s calling & God’s word in the power of God’s Spirit.  When we do so, we’ll experience the blessed discomfort of walking in faith & we’ll see the hand of God at work!

15 Now I gathered them by the river that flows to Ahava, and we camped there three days. And I looked among the people and the priests, and found none of the sons of Levi there.

  1. There’s a bit of difficulty here, in that how could Ezra look among priests & not find Levites?  Ezra doesn’t even include himself among the Levites.  In addition, in the listing of families, it specifically names the sons of Phinehas & Gershon (both of the tribe of Levi).  It’s possible that the listing in vss. 2-14 include the Levites that Ch 8 will go on to discuss.  It’s also possible that what Ezra required here was a specific kind of Levite – not more priests, but those who would serve in the non-priestly roles at the temple & in preparation of the sacrifices.  The people already among Ezra’s number simply weren’t qualified for the tasks needed – even if they were already priests.
  2. There’s a great lesson for us here within the body of Christ!  Obviously we’re all a royal priesthood of believers, but sometimes Christians have a tendency to elevate one role within the church above other roles.  Obviously a pastor is someone entrusted with a special role of teaching & leadership – but it’s not as if the “pastorate” is the only special or important role within the body of Christ.  The pastor is just another member of the body like anyone else.  EVERY role within the body of Christ is important!  That was Paul’s point in 1 Cor 12 regarding the gifts. (1 Cor 12:20-22)

 

16 Then I sent for Eliezer, Ariel, Shemaiah, Elnathan, Jarib, Elnathan, Nathan, Zechariah, and Meshullam, leaders; also for Joiarib and Elnathan, men of understanding. 17 And I gave them a command for Iddo the chief man at the place Casiphia, and I told them what they should say to Iddo and his brethren the Nethinim at the place Casiphia—that they should bring us servants for the house of our God.

  1. The lack of appropriate Levites didn’t stop Ezra (though it did delay him a few days), he sent for “men of understanding” to seek out Levites for the journey.  Keep in mind this was a high task.  The group is ready to go, and they’re asking for Levites not to travel just for a week’s mission trip; but to permanently leave their Babylonian home to move to Israel – and this decision needed to be made in a matter of days.

18 Then, by the good hand of our God upon us, they brought us a man of understanding, of the sons of Mahli the son of Levi, the son of Israel, namely Sherebiah, with his sons and brothers, eighteen men; 19 and Hashabiah, and with him Jeshaiah of the sons of Merari, his brothers and their sons, twenty men; 20 also of the Nethinim, whom David and the leaders had appointed for the service of the Levites, two hundred and twenty Nethinim. All of them were designated by name.

  1. God met their need & sent Sherebiah, along with 240 others.  This wasn’t a huge number, but considering the timeframe that they had to assemble, it was a wonderful answer to prayer!  Finally they had enough qualified Levites for the journey.
  2. Note Sherebiah was a “man of understanding,” just like the men who went to go seek him.  Basically saying they had insight to what the word of God required & they were able to proclaim it to others.  That’s exactly the type of men that the people of God require in leadership! 

21 Then I proclaimed a fast there at the river of Ahava, that we might humble ourselves before our God, to seek from Him the right way for us and our little ones and all our possessions. 22 For I was ashamed to request of the king an escort of soldiers and horsemen to help us against the enemy on the road, because we had spoken to the king, saying, “The hand of our God is upon all those for good who seek Him, but His power and His wrath are against all those who forsake Him.” 23 So we fasted and entreated our God for this, and He answered our prayer.

  1. There’s one more delay prior to heading out on their journey – they took time to seek the Lord.  Ezra had declared to the king that he had faith that God would get them safely to Jerusalem – but now he needed to act upon that faith.  Keep in mind that they were carrying (literally) tons of precious metals & valuables.  They had the equivalent of millions of dollars in their possession, and they were headed off into a 900 mile journey with women & children.  There’s been no mention of soldiers among them; just people returning to their home in the promised land.  They would be sitting ducks for raiding parties along the way.  This was a huge concern & something definitely worth taking to the Lord in prayer!
  2. Question: was this an unreasonable boast on the part of Ezra?  Not at all!  Obviously an armed guard isn’t bad (Nehemiah will receive an armed escort for his own journey), but what Ezra told Artaxerxes is absolutely true: the hand of God IS upon those who seek Him.  Jesus told us exactly the same thing: seek first the kingdom of God & all the rest of the things we need (provision) will be given unto us (Mt 6:33).  Ezra did not give an unreasonable boast – but he did step out in uncomfortable faith.  And as he did so, he stepped out in prayer & fasting.
  3. Fasting tends to get a bad reputation today among the Church.  It’s either seen as a meaningless ritual that everyone does – or it’s proclaimed as a method for the “truly spiritual people” to get what we want from God in prayer.  In reality, it’s neither.  Fasting IS a good practice for the people of God today.  Jesus did not discourage fasting in the least; He simply gave guidelines how to go about it. [“When you fast”…don’t be like the hypocrites; do wash your face – Mt 6:16-17]  The Bible shows us that it is something we’re to do – not ritualistically, but with sincerity.  In addition, fasting does not manipulate God (perish the thought!), it does as Ezra modeled here:
    1. Fasting humbles us…
    2. Fasting helps us seek God…
    3. In short, fasting is a way in which we can step out in faith.  Ezra was stepping out in faith here & wanted to ensure that he was doing so in the strength of God & not in the strength of his own ambition or the political power of the king – and fasting helped him demonstrate that.

24 And I separated twelve of the leaders of the priests—Sherebiah, Hashabiah, and ten of their brethren with them— 25 and weighed out to them the silver, the gold, and the articles, the offering for the house of our God which the king and his counselors and his princes, and all Israel who were present, had offered. 26 I weighed into their hand six hundred and fifty talents of silver, silver articles weighing one hundred talents, one hundred talents of gold, 27 twenty gold basins worth a thousand drachmas, and two vessels of fine polished bronze, precious as gold.

  1. That’s a lot of valuables!  25 tons of silver & 3.75 tons of gold.  All of it delivered to the priests for safekeeping during their journey.

28 And I said to them, “You are holy to the Lord; the articles are holy also; and the silver and the gold are a freewill offering to the Lord God of your fathers. 29 Watch and keep them until you weigh them before the leaders of the priests and the Levites and heads of the fathers’ houses of Israel in Jerusalem, in the chambers of the house of the Lord.” 30 So the priests and the Levites received the silver and the gold and the articles by weight, to bring them to Jerusalem to the house of our God.

  1. The money was given to the priests, but it didn’t belong to the priests.  The priests were simply to be stewards of what had been given to them.  Artaxerxes had given this money to Ezra specifically to be used as offering unto the Lord, and the priests had a responsibility to see that it was used only for that purpose.
    1. Churches have a huge responsibility when it comes to the financial gifts of God’s people.  It is to be used for the work of the Lord alone & the leadership of a local congregation ought to be accountable with the way the money is handled.  Ultimately, that money is not given to the church; it’s given to the Lord!
  2. There’s a similar principle here when it comes to our own personal finances.  None of us truly are “owners” of what is in our bank account (or anything in our care); ultimately we’re just stewards of what God owns & has entrusted to us. [Parable of the talents]  We’re to take what He’s given us & use it for His glory.

31 Then we departed from the river of Ahava on the twelfth day of the first month, to go to Jerusalem. And the hand of our God was upon us, and He delivered us from the hand of the enemy and from ambush along the road.

  1. Ezra’s prayers were answered – God kept them safe during the four month journey.  It’s possible that there were indeed attacks along the way in which God protected His people, but the actual text is unclear here.  It simply states that God delivered them from the hand of the enemy & from ambush – that could have just as easily been the case if God prevented ambushes from occurring.  (Either scenario is a miraculous blessing considering the journey was a slow walk for 4 months!)

32 So we came to Jerusalem, and stayed there three days. 33 Now on the fourth day the silver and the gold and the articles were weighed in the house of our God by the hand of Meremoth the son of Uriah the priest, and with him was Eleazar the son of Phinehas; with them were the Levites, Jozabad the son of Jeshua and Noadiah the son of Binnui, 34 with the number and weight of everything. All the weight was written down at that time.

  1. Upon arriving in Jerusalem, the money is taken to the temple & accounted for.  If it seems like there’s undue attention given to the finances, keep in mind this was the official account of Ezra regarding the royal treasury.  Ezra would have been personally held to account by the king regarding the gifts of offering; he’s simply doing everything “by the book.”

35 The children of those who had been carried away captive, who had come from the captivity, offered burnt offerings to the God of Israel: twelve bulls for all Israel, ninety-six rams, seventy-seven lambs, and twelve male goats as a sin offering. All this was a burnt offering to the Lord. 36 And they delivered the king’s orders to the king’s satraps and the governors in the region beyond the River. So they gave support to the people and the house of God.

  1. Not only did the king provide an offering; the people did as well.  A representative sacrifice was provided for the returning people as a burnt offering to the Lord.
  2. In addition, the lands surrounding Israel saw the orders of the king & gave assistance as needed.  Quite a change from a few years prior in the time of Zerubbabel.  At that time, the surrounding people attempted to work against Israel & the rebuilding of the temple; now they’re commanded by the king to give support!

Conclusion:

There’s something truly astounding in how God uses pagan kings for His own glory.  Because of the idolatry & spiritual adultery of the people who claimed to be His own, God used a pagan king to bring discipline & take Israel into captivity.  But yet after the discipline is complete, God uses a pagan king to bring Israel back into the land of promise – and beyond that, He uses a pagan king to provide sacrifices, finances, priests, and even institute the Holy Law of God upon His people again.  What an amazing opportunity for the people of God!

Yet so many wasted it.  Instead of stepping out in faith, they chose to stay in the comforts of Babylon and Persia.  They could have walked in the promises of God & experienced the blessing and the hand of God, but they chose what they were most familiar with & (in a sense) acted no different than their fathers before them.

Praise God that there was a remnant who did differently.  Ezra led a people who stepped out in faith.  Was it scary?  Sure.  Was it uncertain?  Of course.  Yet these were people who were grounded in the word of God, which equipped them to step boldly out in faith for God – and they saw the results when they walked back into the city of Jerusalem.

What’s stopping you from stepping out in faith?  It’s an interesting state of affairs when the pagans act more like Christ than Christians do.  May that never be said of us!  May we be those who take every opportunity that the Lord gives us to walk by faith & trust Him.

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