The Lord's Day Evening
June 1, 2008
“More Names – Returnees”
Dr. Derek W. H. Thomas
Turn with me now if you would to the book of Ezra, chapter 8, and shortly we’ll be reading together the opening fourteen verses of Ezra 8.
A couple of weeks ago we made a transition from chapter 6 of Ezra into chapter 7 of Ezra, and in doing so we jumped forward sixty years from the period of the erection of the second temple in 516 B.C., down to roughly 445 B.C., roughly four and half centuries before the birth of Jesus. But we also changed locations. We moved from Jerusalem back to Babylon again, and we were introduced for the first time (though we're half way through the book) to Ezra himself — Ezra the scribe, Ezra the priest, Ezra the reformer, Ezra the civil servant, the dutiful servant of King Artaxerxes I.
And in the second half of chapter 7, we were given a glimpse of Ezra's godliness, his commitment to Scripture: we read in particular in verse 10 that “Ezra had set his heart to study the Law of the Lord, and to do it, and to teach His statutes and rules in Israel.” This godly man who had set his heart to study the Law and to do the Law and to teach the Law.
Well, now we come to chapter 8, and it's one of those occasions when you wish you hadn't embarked on the study of the book of Ezra! And I knew that the only way I could get you to come this evening for this text was to have all these missionaries here who have to be here, and their families! [Laughter] Well, actually those of you who have been here from the start of our studies on Ezra, if you turn back and just glance very quickly at Ezra 2, you’ll remember there was another longer list of names in Ezra 2 than is going to be the case here this evening. This is a second wave of returnees. The first returnees came back from Babylon in 537, in response to the decree of King Cyrus. We are now 445 B.C., eighty years and perhaps then some into the future, and this is a second wave of returnees led by this godly man, Ezra. There’ll be another wave of returnees when we come to the book of Nehemiah. That's about twenty years down the line–twenty years in the story of Ezra and Nehemiah, you understand, not twenty years in our exposition of Ezra and Nehemiah! [Laughter]
Now this is a list of names. As we read this section of God's word together we need to remind ourselves that this is God's word. We may be puzzled by it; we may find it a little odd; we may wonder why it's in the Scripture; but all of those, of course, are not thoughts we really ought to have. It's our duty and it's our delight to be submissive to the word of God as God has given it to us. There are reasons why this particular section of Scripture is here, and, God willing, if the Spirit is gracious to us this evening, we might just see what some of those reasons are.
Now let's read God's word. Before we do, let's look to Him in prayer.
Our Father in heaven, we thank You for the Bible. We thank You for the luxury that is ours to possess a Bible in our own native language, one that we can readily read and understand. We thank You for all of those teachers down the years who have taught us the Scripture. We think of faithful Sunday School teachers. We think of elders in this congregation. We think of godly mothers and fathers. We think of RUF campus ministers. We think of books and literature by ministers and teachers who have long since died, and yet they still teach us. And tonight again, O Lord, as we come before Your word, as we read it together, we are in need of being taught, and we need Your instruction, and we need the help of Your Spirit. So come and grant illumination, we pray, that we might read, learn, mark, and inwardly digest, and all for Jesus’ sake. Amen.
This is God's word.
“These are the heads of their fathers’ houses, and this is the genealogy of those who went up with me from Babylonia, in the reign of Artaxerxes the king: Of the sons of Phinehas, Gershom. Of the sons of Ithamar, Daniel. Of the sons of David, Hattush. Of the sons of Shecaniah, who was of the sons of Parosh, Zechariah, with whom were registered 150 men. Of the sons of Pahath-moab, Eliehoenai the son of Zerahiah, and with him 200 men. Of the sons of Zattu, Shecaniah the son of Jahaziel, and with him 300 men. Of the sons of Adin, Ebed the son of Jonathan, and with him 50 men. Of the sons of Elam, Jeshaiah the son of Athaliah, and with him 70 men. Of the sons of Shephatiah, Zebadiah the son of Michael, and with him 80 men. Of the sons of Joab, Obadiah the son of Jehiel, and with him 218 men. Of the sons of Bani, Shelomith the son of Josiphiah, and with him 160 men. Of the sons of Bebai, Zechariah, the son of Babai, and with him 28 men. Of the sons of Azgad, Johanan the son of Hakkatan, and with him 110 men. Of the sons of Adonikam, those who came later, their names being Eliphelet, Jeuel, and Shemaiah, and with them 60 men. Of the sons of Bigvai, Uthai and Zaccur, and with them 70 men.”
So far God's holy and inerrant word.
Now this past week I was away wearing one of my other hats. As a professor at Reformed Theological Seminary, I was away in Atlanta at a faculty retreat. Take retreat out of it, and you’ll understand what it's all about! I had one of these conversations…I've had them before. The wife of one of the board members came up to me and the conversation went something like this:
“Dr. Thomas, it's wonderful to see you again. How are the dear folks at First Presbyterian Church?”
And I said, “They’re all doing just fine.”
And then she turned to me, and she said, “And how is dear Jane doing?”
[It wasn't “Jane” — I made that name up. And I made a note to myself: “Be very careful how you answer this question.”]
I said, “You’re related to Jane, aren't you?”
And she said, “Yes, she is the second daughter of Aunt Dixie, who was the daughter of Billy Bob III.” [Laughter]…or something like that!
Names and family connections are important. They’re important to you dear folk here in this congregation. I can't tell you the number of times I've had conversations with people just in the past few weeks that I never knew were related. I just assume now that you’re all related to each other! [Laughter] Well, it's crucially important in this particular passage tonight, and I think that Southerners like you are in a unique position to understand something of the subtle nuances of this passage.
We are in the fifth century BC, around the year 445 BC, in a culture where, particularly among the Jews, names and family connections, clans, are very, very important. You understand that. It's been eighty years since the first wave of returnees, and what we're going to discover in looking at this passage together is that that initial return from exile divided families. Some family members went, and some family members stayed behind. Some of those who stayed behind… eighty years later, the ones who went eighty years before are probably now dead. But some of those who remained behind are now going to make the trek — a thousand miles, four months in the hot summer — through a Middle Eastern summer — to Jerusalem.
My maternal grandmother was one of thirteen children. I can barely believe it myself, but she was one of thirteen children. Somewhere around 1910-1914, just before the first World War, three of the older sisters immigrated together to Australia. They never came back. I have lots of cousins — first cousins, second cousins, cousins removed by an nth degree — all living in western Australia somewhere. Some of them I've met. Maybe two, maybe three, I've met in my life. Whenever I meet, as I did this week… RTS has just hired a professor who comes from Australia, and you know, I asked the dumb question: “Do you know such-and-such in western Australia?” It's a thousand miles away from where this man grew up, but I still want to ask the question just in case, because I'd love to go and meet them.
There was probably a lot of that going on here. News of Jerusalem would come back to Babylon. It would come by traders and merchants. Perhaps they wrote some news; perhaps it was more conveyed through an oral message of some kind. But there must have been kept alive in Babylon, particularly among the godly but not exclusively among the godly…family connections can be tight even amongst the ungodly, and you can imagine many an evening in Babylon when the children are asking about Great-great-uncle Shlomoe who went to Jerusalem eighty years ago…who may have got married…who may have had sixteen children, all of whom are married…all of whom now have children. And there's this family. Some of you come up to staff members here in the church on a regular basis — two of you did this to me this morning — told me about a member of your family I've never met. They don't live in this state, but they’re having surgery, or there's a problem, or there's a difficulty. There's a family connection, and it's here.
You notice at the end of chapter 7, in verse 28, Ezra appeals to the heads of families: “I gathered leading men from Israel to go up with me.” He appeals to leading figures. Now, those leading figures are named — we’ll come to this next week — but those leading figures are named. Just have a quick look at verse 16 of chapter 8. You’ll see the names — about seven, eight, or nine names there in verse 16. Those are the “leading men” that went up with Ezra to Jerusalem.
Now I want us to see as we look at this passage two or three things.
I. The Bible and numbers.
The first thing I want us to see is the Bible and numbers….the Bible and numbers. We were told, for example, back in chapter 2 on the first wave of returnees from Babylon, that 42,360 returned, plus 7,337 servants. Roughly 50,000. Commentators are divided as to whether that represents just men, or whether that represents men and women — in which case the men outnumbered the women by 2-1, which is somewhat problematic, but…50,000. On this occasion it's about 5,000 — one-seventh of the figure that returned eighty years before. Among the leading men in verse 16 are two “men of insight”… men who understood the Scriptures, men who understood the Law. Like Ezra, teachers of the Law.
Last week we saw the fascination of chapter 7 with gold — quantities of gold, quantities of silver, quantities of temple utensils. Tonight we've got a list of names, and very specific numbers. You might be tempted to think that some of these numbers are rounded up: 150, 100, 300, 70…and then in verse 9… 218. That's pretty precise. In verse 11…28.
Imagine you’re coming to the Bible for the first time. What would you be expecting? I remember reading the Bible for the first time when I was eighteen. I'd never read the Bible before. It wasn't what I was expecting. I was expecting the sort of prophecies that are somewhat strange and mystical that you find, say, in Zechariah, but I wasn't expecting some of the things that you find in the Bible. The Bible is written over a period of a thousand years or more, in three different languages, in several cultures, and it contains all kinds of things. It contains law and proverb, and history and love poetry, and philosophical poetry. It contains architects’ drawings — described architects’ drawings. It contains letters. It contains statistical figures and lists of names, and genealogies and rubrics and inventories, and prayers. And a whole lot more.
Did you notice, by the way? As we read the passage, in verse 1:
“These are the heads of their father's houses, and this is the genealogy of those who went up with me…”
It's become personal, all of a sudden. It's no longer in the third person. It's in the first person now, and from the end of chapter 7 all the way through to the end of chapter 9, it's all in the first person. This is Ezra talking. You know what's happened. It's what Danny Story was telling us to do as he was meeting with the Peru team. We’re meant to keep a diary. We’re meant to keep a record. We’re meant to keep a log, a journal…a blog!…of our visit to wherever it is we're going. Ezra is an official civil servant. He is there at the behest of King Artaxerxes, the Persian king. He's got to keep records, but there are personal records, too. And one imagines when this book was put together — and Ezra is the author of the book of Ezra — you can imagine him pulling down his diaries, his log entries, and here at this point he inserts something from his own personal diary. Yes, there are things in the Bible that are taken from people's personal diaries — all Scripture, however, is
“…given by inspiration of God and is profitable for doctrine, and reproof, and correction, and instruction in the way of righteousness, that the man of God might be thoroughly furnished unto every good work.”
All Scripture, including this list of names. The Bible and numbers.
II. The Bible and inerrancy.
Secondly, I want us to see something about the Bible and inerrancy.
John Wesley, in his diary, just a few weeks after that skirmish in 1776 [stay with me!]…John Wesley made a very, very famous statement about the Bible. He wrote in his diary:
“If there be any mistake in the Bible, there might as well be a thousand.
If there is one falsehood, it does not come from the God of truth.”
Do you believe that? If there is one mistake in the Bible, there might as well be a thousand. If there's one falsehood in the Bible, it doesn't come from the God of truth.
Well, there are some problems in this passage. They’re very technical problems. I've spent a good part of this week trying to understand what the problem actually was, and some of them I think I understood and, frankly, a couple of them I'm not sure that I understood what the problem actually was.
You’ll notice, for example, in verse 3, “ Of the sons of Shecaniah…” Now if you’re not reading in the ESV, you might not have understood why I read it the way that I have. The ESV has smoothed it out a little because it looks as though there's a word missing. It looks as if a name has dropped out. The ESV has decided that it hasn't dropped out, and it's changed something of the grammar of that verse. But if you’re reading in a different version, there's something of a problem. The same occurs in verse 5 and in verse 10. Some — in fact, many — Hebrew manuscripts that we have don't have the names Zattu and Bani, for example, but yet they do appear elsewhere, particularly in the Greek translation of the Old Testament.
There are all kinds of discussions about the number 42,360 returnees in chapter 2, and there are similar discussions about the exact numbers recorded here. Are they numbers of men, or are they numbers of men plus women? Are they numbers of men plus women plus children, for example?
And then there are other issues. If you look at the list of names in verse 16, only two of those names appear in verses 1-14. In other words, of the leading men, only two of them were heads of families. That's a problem to some. It's not a problem to me, but it's a problem to some. My response to that is yes, yes, there were only two leading men who were heads of families. That says something about the relative importance or unimportance after the exile of heads of families within Jewish society, that there were leading men who could be singled out and named who actually weren't heads of families.
And then, the name Elnathan in verse 16-17 occurs three times. What do we say? Well, let me say a few things.
First of all, there are problems in the Bible. I freely admit it. There are discrepancies in the Bible. They look as though they are discrepancies. They appear as though they conflict with each other. But this is where our doctrine of Scripture must be governed not by the problem, but by the clear assertion of what the Bible says about itself. Paul could say (and remember he's talking about the Old Testament…there was no New Testament when Paul wrote these words)…he was talking about the Old Testament, including the book of Ezra and including Ezra 8, that all Scripture — not some Scripture…not the Scripture without discrepancies, not Scripture without problems, not the clear bits as opposed to the unclear bits…but all of Scripture is
“…given by inspiration of God, and profitable for doctrine, and reproof, and correction, and instruction in the way of righteousness.”
So whatever we do with the problems — and we freely admit that there are some parts of Scripture that we haven't yet fully solved — but we don't alter our doctrine of Scripture because we find a discrepancy or a problem here or there.
We looked at these problems I've just mentioned. Only two of the leading men were heads of families. Well, the answer to that is there were only two leading men who were heads of families! Yes, it might be a little strange. It might be not what we were expecting, but there it is. We accept it because the Bible is true. There were three leading men by the name of Elnathan.
Well, I did a little research (that's what you pay me for), and I got out the First Presbyterian Church membership book. Did you know that five of our elders have the name William? And three of our elders have the name John? Now I didn't spend a lot of time on that research, and I may not have got that absolutely accurate, but the fact that there were three Elnathan's who were leading men…so what? If you have a mind to seeing problems in the Bible, you will see problems in the Bible — and anywhere else, for that matter. But if you’re governed first by the principle, this is Scripture; this comes from the God of truth; if there's a problem, there must be some solution; and pray for the Holy Spirit's illumination. Thank God for teachers and instructors today and in the past who have opened up certain areas of Scripture that once were problematic and now we see what the solution actually is.
III. The Bible and families.
The third thing I want us to see here is not just the Bible and numbers, or not just the Bible and inerrancy, but the Bible and families. There are twelve leading families here. Well, of course there should be something going off now in your head — ding ding ding! Twelve. Yes. It's probably not an accident that Ezra singles out twelve leading families. Twelve tribes, twelve disciples, twelve minor prophets — twelve was a significant number. It was perhaps a way of Ezra saying there was an extraordinary element of blessing on these 5,000-plus who came back from twelve leading families. It makes perfect sense, doesn't it, that Ezra would call on heads of families and address heads of families to come with him? Heads of families would be in a position to influence others.
It may appear somewhat antiquated to you and to me…heads of families. Imagine if the list of members of First Presbyterian Church were under heads of families. But we've turned everything upside down, haven't we? It's what David Wells calls in his book, The Loss of Virtue, the problem with the American church. It's actually the problem of the western church, because the most important person in our church is not the head of family, it's the youth. I don't mean any disrespect. I don't mean to bend anybody out of shape. I don't mean to be offensive in any way–especially not to Justin, because I don't want your job! [Laughter] But it says something, doesn't it, about our society? Not just the church, but our society has adopted a cult of youth. Try getting a job when you’re 55, and you've been let go. Try arguing that you’re wiser and mature, and you've got experience. Many a church has adopted as its principal strategy “whatever pleases the youth.” Thank God that's not the strategy here. Thank God for the elders who have kept this church from adopting that particular strategy. But you see what a cultural shift there is between Ezra 8 and our own society. We may balk at this “leading men…heads of families.” It shows, I think, how much we've drifted from the norm that God established within His covenant community under the Old Testament.
In every case but one, all the names that appear here are names that actually appear in Ezra 2. Now, it would take far too long, and I'm not sure that I could even do it, but we could demonstrate that. Will you just take it from me that that is so? That all the names but one appear in the list of names of those who had returned eighty years in the past? In other words, the vast majority of those who are returning this time with Ezra have family in Jerusalem. I don't know what the folks in Jerusalem thought when the family turned up on the doorstep with no home and no job. No doubt they brought with them means. No doubt they were well off in Babylon. We have to understand that. They brought with them help for their family members, members that they’d never seen.
I want you just to have a look at one of them, in verse 2. “Of the sons of David, Hattush.” Now it's fascinating that Ezra doesn't make much of this. Remember all of the promises made about the coming Messiah, about the future of Jerusalem, about the future of Israel revolved around the house of David. The promise in II Samuel 7, the promise that Ezekiel had spoken on the eve of exile in chapters 34-35-36, are promises of a covenant of peace with the house of Israel. Zechariah, some sixty years before Ezra 8, when they were finishing that second temple… Zechariah was preaching in Jerusalem, and in the final chapter of Zechariah, he makes this extraordinary statement:
“On that day a fountain will be opened for the inhabitants of Jerusalem, and it's a fountain for the house of David, a fountain for cleansing from sin and uncleanness.”
That's where we get that hymn from —
“There is a fountain filled with blood,
Drawn from Emmanuel's veins,
And sinners plunged beneath that flood
Lose all their guilty stains.”
It's based on that prophecy of Zechariah, but the prophecy was made to the house of David. There has been no king of the line of David in Judah since Zedekiah, 150 years in the past, just before the exile. There was no king in Jerusalem. They were under the dominion of the Persian Empire. They will be under the dominion of a Greek Empire. They’ll be under the dominion of a Roman Empire. But the promise — do you see? — there's a little light here. It's a light that's flashing. It's only flashing ever so faintly. It's almost as though you have to put the house lights down in order to see this little light that's flashing here. There's this man, Hattush. He's of the line of David. Who else is going to be of the line of David? Jesus. Whether you follow the genealogy of Luke or whether you follow the genealogy of Matthew, as one traces it perhaps through Joseph and another traces it through Mary, the line goes back to Zerubbabel and to David. And Zerubbabel was Hattush's great-great-grandfather. What an extraordinary piece of providence here!
“God moves in a mysterious way,
His wonders to perform.
He plants His footsteps in the sea
And rides upon the storm.
Deep in unfathomable mines
Of never-failing skill,
He treasures up His bright designs
And works His sovereign will.”
These were dark days. The clouds are gathered. Many of the people of God were wondering what the future of Jerusalem was going to be. Where is the promise of Messiah? Where is the promise of a king after the order of David? And here it is, here. God hasn't forgotten His covenant. He hasn't forgotten what His purpose is in all of this, that a seed of the woman will come and crush the head of Satan. And He’ll come from the lineage of David. God is in total and absolute control of the details…of the little details.
You might read this and think there's nothing here. But in the little details of this table of names is the little flicker of the promise of God that will remain only a flicker for the next four hundred years, in the darkest period of Jewish history, until one day a young woman called Mary will give birth to a son and they will call His name Jesus, for He will save His people from their sins.
Bless God! Bless God! What a wonderful God we have!
Let's pray together.
Our Father, we are in awe of the way You weave history together. We pray as You worked out in the small details of a returning band of people to Jerusalem the embodiment of a promise made to Your people to send Your Son, so help us in the details of our lives to remember that You are the same God yesterday, today, and forever. And we ask it in Jesus' name. Amen.
Please stand. Receive the Lord's benediction.
Grace, mercy, and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ be with you all.
[Congregational hymn: O God, Our Help in Ages Past]
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This transcribed message has been lightly edited and formatted for the Web site. No attempt has been made, however, to alter the basic extemporaneous delivery style, or to produce a grammatically accurate, publication-ready manuscript conforming to an established style template.
Should there be questions regarding grammar or theological content, the reader should presume any website error to be with the webmaster/transcriber/editor rather than with the original speaker. For full copyright, reproduction and permission information, please visit the First Presbyterian Church Copyright, Reproduction & Permission statement.