Ezra & Nehemiahby Robert M. Solomon
Today’s passage brings out two important lessons for us to consider. Firstly, we can fail to do God’s bidding because of the fear of losing our present comfort or suffering inconveniences. The journey from Babylon to Jerusalem is about 1,600 km and takes four months. Along the way, the returnees camp near a place where they have to cross a canal (Ezra 8:15). There, an important discovery is made: there are no Levites among them (v. 15)! Not a single Levite has volunteered to return to Jerusalem. In the first group that returned with Zerubbabel, there had been very few Levites—only 74 out of about 50,000 men (2:40). This time, there are none.
Why is this the case? Perhaps the Levites are quite comfortable in Babylon. To return to Jerusalem and not inherit any land (Deuteronomy 18:1–2), and to exercise discipline and commitment in serving at the temple, would have seemed a daunting prospect. There is much to learn here as we remember missionary Jim Elliot’s famous saying, “He is no fool who gives up what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose.”
Troubled that there are no Levites in the group, Ezra decides to take action. How could the temple services proceed without an adequate number of Levites? Though Artaxerxes had specifically permitted priests and Levites to return, there are no Levitical volunteers. Ezra chooses some wise men of learning and sends them to Iddo, a leader in Kasiphia, a place where there are temple servants (Ezra 8:17). Ezra must have waited with concern for them to return. He realises that the gracious hand of God is still with him, because they return with 38 Levites and 220 temple servants, with a good leader, Sherebiah, among them (vv. 18–20).
The second key lesson is that we can trust God to protect us by praying to Him. Ezra, not taking things for granted, calls for a fast and prayer to ask God for a safe journey (v. 21). He feels that it would not be right to ask the king for a military escort, even though they are carrying large amounts of gold and silver. How could he, having told the king that God is with His people to protect them (v. 22)? God honours the prayers of the people (v. 23).
Ezra then distributes the gold, silver, and temple articles among the priests and Levites for safekeeping till they reach Jerusalem. To spread out the risk and share responsibility is a wise move. Ezra reminds them that they and the offerings are consecrated and belong to God (v. 28). They are to guard the offerings carefully (v. 29). Even as we trust God to protect us, we are to take precautions and use wisdom to guard that which God has entrusted to us.
Ezra refused to request a military escort as he thought it would show a lack of faith in God. Nehemiah, however, accepted a military escort (Nehemiah 2:9). Did Nehemiah have less faith? In both cases, prayer was central. How should a Christian assess the right thing to do in such circumstances?
Reflect on the principles of sharing responsibility for the things that belong to God (e.g., church money and resources). What personal implications are there for you?