Scripture Reading: Ezra 8
Background Reading: Deuteronomy 28:1–20
1. What are some possible reasons why Ezra would include the names and numbers of the men who accompanied him on his trip from Babylon to Jerusalem? Were you desirous of reading the list, or did you skip over most of the names? (Review Note 2:1 in Lesson 4.)
2. What differences and similarities do you notice between this list and that given in Ezra 2? Did only men accompany him, or did the group also include women and children? Give reasons for your answer. (See Note 8:1.)
3. Describe the first part of Ezra’s journey. What details does God give us concerning the trip? How long had they traveled before they camped “by the river that flows to Ahava”? (See Note 8:15.)
4. How does Ezra plan to solve the problem of not having any Levites in his entourage? (See Note 8:16.)
5. Who is Iddo? How many men did he supply? (See Note 8:17.)
6. Why did Ezra not request of the king an escort of soldiers and horsemen? (See Note 8:21.)
7. How much wealth were Ezra and his people carrying with them from Babylon to Jerusalem? What was the source of all that wealth? (See Note 8:25.)
8. Does Ezra exhibit complete trust in the people, or does he take steps to ensure the safety of the wealth they are carrying? What lessons could our churches learn from the way Ezra managed their finances? (See Note 8:26.)
9. What happened on the trip when they left the river of Ahava? How much trouble did they experience? Who is given the credit? (See Note 8:31.)
Text Notes on Discussion Starters
[8:1] At first blush one might want to pass over all these strange names with their numbers of men who were registered with Ezra and came up with him from Babylon during the reign of King Artaxerxes. What can one possibly learn from them? As soon as the reader notes that most of these names also had appeared in Ezra 2, there are significant implications. With the exception of three new family names not included in the earlier chapter, all the others had appeared earlier. The numbers are smaller now, by an average of approximately 10 percent, so not as many people have volunteered to go on the trip as had done so under Zerubbabel. This journey is set to begin in 458 B.C., whereas the first pilgrimage under Zerubbabel had been undertaken in 538 B.C., giving us a time lag of approximately eighty years. In 538 B.C., when King Cyrus had issued his proclamation, there were a number of prominent families that said yes to the invitation to go back to Jerusalem to worship God in his special place. Now, eighty years later, many of those families again send large numbers of family members to make the journey and to resettle permanently in Jerusalem. Here, then, is evidence that God will maintain his blessings on those families that honor his name and that strive to do his will. Notice that the chapter begins with the assertion that “These are the heads of their fathers’ houses,” reminding us that the head of the household represents the entire family. Ezra later informs us that they needed God’s protecting care “for us and our little ones” (v. 21). How many persons comprised the group is then left to conjecture, but it is certainly greater than the 1,773 men who are enumerated. If there were equal numbers of women and children, the total would exceed 4,000.
[8:15] Notice the time sequence given. Ezra and all of the 1,515 families began their march to Jerusalem from Babylon (7:6) on the first day of the first month of the seventh year of King Artaxerxes (7:8–9), which would be 458 B.C. on our calendar. After traveling for nine days, Ezra “assembled them at the canal, . . . and camped there three days” (8:15). Ezra then tells us, “Then we departed from the river of Ahava on the twelfth day of the first month” (8:31), leading us to the conclusion that the first part of the trip must have lasted nine days. What caused them to stop and camp after being on the road for only nine days? Why stop so soon? Ezra gives us the answer in that same verse: “When I checked among the people and the priests, I found no Levites there” (8:15). He told us already in the previous chapter that it was the stated purpose for going to Jerusalem “to inquire about Judah and Jerusalem with regard to the Law of your God” (7:14). But Ezra knew that it wasn’t merely to inquire about the Law, but to do something about the situation if they found that the Law was not being taught and not being carefully obeyed. Should that be the case, and there was ample reason to believe that it was, Ezra had “devoted himself to the study and observance of the Law of the Lord” (7:10), so he must have gotten reports from the travelers to Jerusalem as to the existing situation. When he realizes his oversight, he recognizes that he does not have any Levites in the entourage, even though there are a number of priests like himself. He knows full well that the duty of Levites is to be teachers of the Law, and that they would be essential to the success of his trip.
[8:16] What all went through Ezra’s mind can only be speculated, because the text does not tell us much. But it does tell us that he summoned Eliezer, Ariel, and others, all of whom “were leaders” (v. 16), and “sent them to Iddo, the leader in Casiphia” (v. 17). On very short notice, Ezra has to recruit a number of Levites (preachers, in our terminology) to leave their employment, to walk away from their homes, to pack all their earthly possessions on their donkeys or camels or horses, and to move to Jerusalem. The opportunities are announced on short notice, so time is of the essence.
[8:17] Where would you go for ministers who might be willing to pack up and go with you, never to return again? Ezra goes to Iddo, the leader in Casiphia. Iddo is a well-known Levite who was the grandfather of the prophet Zechariah (Zech. 1:1, 7; Ezra 5:1; 6:14), but he is also a famous historian who has written histories of the reigns of King Solomon, Rehoboam, and Ahijah (2 Chron. 9:29; 12:15; 13:22). Casiphia is the center for Iddo’s ministry and probably a seminary where Levites were trained for their work of teaching the Law. On such short notice, we would humanly wonder if any success would be possible. Would anyone be willing to drop everything for the sake of the gospel? The answer is a resounding yes, for Sherebiah, along with seventeen sons and brothers, as well as Hashabiah, along with nineteen men and “220 of the temple servants,” all packed their bags and made ready to join the march. In all, 258 Levites dropped everything and joined with Ezra at the Ahava Canal in order to go to Jerusalem in order to preach and teach the Law of God. What an answer to prayer!
[8:21] After being on the trip for nine days with this troop of some 1,515 men, plus their wives and children, Ezra “proclaimed a fast, so that we might humble ourselves before our God, to seek from him the right way for us and our little ones.” There is no mention of such fasting and prayer earlier in the chapter, suggesting to the reader that it took a little while for Ezra to realize that he was setting out on a dangerous venture. Now, after nine days of travel, he decides that it is time to pray. Now, it seems, he wishes that he had a military escort, or at least some bodyguards and cavalry to protect this rather large entourage. Ezra’s problem, though, was that he had told the king, “The hand of our God is upon all those for good who seek him, but his power and his wrath are against all who forsake him” (v. 22). Ezra has had opportunity to witness to the king about God’s covenant promises and has been telling him about covenant theology. Ezra had been preaching a message of the covenant, that God would bless and protect and care for all of those who obeyed his commands, but that God would show great anger “against all who forsake him” (v. 22). After making such claims for God, Ezra could not turn around and ask King Artaxerxes for protection in the form of soldiers or guards. Ezra is going to have to trust God. But he knows the potential hazards of the journey, and his faith seems to waver. But he does the right thing: He calls a fast and goes to God in prayer. He humbles himself and asks all of his fellow travelers to do the same.
The insurance debates of earlier generations were symptoms of similar problems for Christians during the 1930s and 1940s. Christians were criticized and sometimes disciplined by their churches for buying insurance policies. The argument was the same as Ezra’s. If you preach that God will take care of and bless his people, then you ought not to buy insurance policies in case he doesn’t fulfill his promise. To buy insurance was an act of unbelief, a demonstration of doubt rather than faith. That is also Ezra’s challenge. If he believed in the covenant promises, then he ought to demonstrate that belief by his behavior. He could easily have requested as much help as he wanted from King Artaxerxes, but he knew that such a request would compromise the gospel of the covenant that he had been preaching. After proclaiming a fast, humbling themselves before God, and asking God for a safe journey, Ezra and all the people set out on their nine-hundred-mile trip, literally carrying tons of gold and silver and “polished bronze, as precious as gold” (8:27).
[8:25] In the first migration there were some fifty thousand people, but rather paltry amounts of material gifts for the construction of the temple. Now, in the second migration, there are only about 10 percent of the people, but far larger amounts of gold and silver and bronze. In 538 b.c. they carried only about 1,100 pounds of gold and 3 tons of silver; now, some eighty years later, they are carrying 25 tons of silver, plus 3 3/4 tons of silver articles and 3 3/4 tons of gold. God has provided them with far more wealth now, with all of it “consecrated to the Lord” (8:28).
[8:26] When you consider the nature of this undertaking and what transpired over this four-month trip, you can appreciate the fears that Ezra had expressed and the inclination on his part to request the king to provide soldiers and horsemen to protect them on the trip. Traveling with thousands of unarmed people, including many women and children, but having no soldiers and no bodyguards, while carrying 25 tons of silver, 3 3/4 tons of gold, plus all these other articles of gold and bronze, would have been to invite trouble. When we add to the picture the fact that this part of the Persian Empire had been engaged in heavy warfare just prior to this, the risk factors could be multiplied significantly. If we did something like that today, people would call us foolish, insane, or irresponsible. To guarantee that his own people would not be tempted to embezzle any of the wealth, Ezra carefully appoints responsible men to be responsible for the wealth they are transporting. Ezra knew that the human heart, even of believers, is inclined toward all manner of evil.
[8:31] Ezra could come to only one conclusion when they arrived in Jerusalem after their four-month journey: “The hand of our God was on us, and he protected us from enemies and bandits along the way” (8:31; cf. 7:6, 9, 28; 8:18, 22). This becomes one of the themes of Ezra and is a testimony to the fact that God was truly watching over his people and protecting them from robbers, wild animals, and enemies on the road. After resting for three days, they weighed out all the silver, gold, and sacred articles and found that “everything was accounted for by number and weight” (v. 34). God had truly watched over them. They could not visually see or feel the hand of God, but they knew it was there. The immortal, invisible God of heaven and earth had truly blessed them because they had trusted in him. Ezra shows that he was not only concerned about external threats to their safety from robbers, bandits, and enemy troops along the journey. He was also concerned about internal threats from embezzlement or thievery by the people who had been placed in charge. Ezra is meticulous in setting up a complete inventory and accounting system to make certain that nothing was stolen or embezzled along the way. That, too, shows that not one item is missing or in any way compromised. Aware of how wonderfully God had blessed them and protected them on the way, the exiles who had returned from captivity sacrificed burnt offerings to the God of Israel (v. 35). They had to give thanks for his traveling mercies and for the marvelous way he cared for them.
Dr. Norman De Jong is a semi-retired pastor in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church.