Ezra: Pligrims Have Names!

Sermon by Derek Thomas on February 10, 2008

Ezra 2:1-70

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The Lord's Day Evening

February 10, 2008

Ezra 2:1-70

“Pilgrims Have Names!”

Dr. Derek W. H. Thomas

Last Sunday evening we began a brand new series on the books of Ezra and Nehemiah. Originally they were one book in the Hebrew canon. Somewhere in the fourth century A.D., they were separated out into two separate books, but we’ll be looking at these two books together. It will occupy us probably for most of the rest of this year. And we come tonight to chapter two– and one of perhaps half a dozen of the most difficult chapters in the Bible to read, so pray for me!

Before we read this chapter, let's just remind ourselves again that it is the word of God. God took extraordinary pains to ensure that we would be given the Bible. Every jot and every tittle, and every name given by inspiration of God, breathed out by God. And before we read the chapter together, let's look to Him in prayer.

Our Father, You are the most extraordinary God. You love us in ways that go beyond our comprehension. You lavish us with good things, and one of those things is the Bible. We want to love Your word. We want to be men and women of the book. We want to be guided by its principles. We want to immerse ourselves in all that it has to teach us, and we pray now tonight again as we read the Scriptures together, come, Holy Spirit; help us again to read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest, and all for Jesus’ sake. Amen.

This is God's holy and inerrant word:

“Now these were the people of the province who came up out of the captivity of those exiles whom Nebuchadnezzar the king of Babylon had carried captive to Babylonia. They returned to Jerusalem and Judah, each to his own town. They came with Zerubbabel, Jeshua, Nehemiah, Seraiah, Reelaiah, Mordecai, Bilshan, Mispar, Bigvai, Rehum, and Baanah.

“The number of the men of the people of Israel: the sons of Parosh, 2,172. The sons of Shephatiah, 372. The sons of Arah, 775. The sons of Pahath-moab, namely the sons of Jeshua and Joab, 2,812. The sons of Elam, 1,254. The sons of Zattu, 945. The sons of Zaccai, 760. The sons of Bani, 642. The sons of Bebai, 623. The sons of Azgad, 1,222. The sons of Adonikam, 666. The sons of Bigvai, 2.056. The sons of Adin, 454. The sons of Ater, namely of Hezekiah, 98. The sons of Bezai, 323. The sons of Jorah, 112. The sons of Hashum, 223. The sons of Gibbar, 95, the sons of Bethlehem, 123. The men of Netophah, 56. The men of Anathoth, 128. The sons of Azmaveth, 42. The sons of Kiriath-arim, Chephirah, and Beeroth, 743. The sons of Ramah and Geba, 621. The men of Michmas, 122. The men of Bethel and Ai, 223. The sons of Nebo, 52. The sons of Magbish, 156. The sons of the other Elam, 1,254. The sons of Harim, 320. The sons of Lod, Hadid, and Ono, 725. The sons of Jericho, 345. The sons of Senaah, 3,630.

“The priests: the sons of Jedaiah, of the house of Jeshua, 973. The sons of Immer, 1,052. The sons of Pashhur, 1,247. The sons of Harim, 1,017.

“The Levites: the sons of Jeshua and Kadmiel, of the sons of Hodaviah, 74. The singers: the sons of Asaph, 128. The sons of the gatekeepers: the sons of Shallum, the sons of Ater, the sons of Talmon, the sons of Akkub, the sons of Hatita, and the sons of Shobai, in all 139.

“The temple servants: the sons of Ziha, the sons of Hasupha, the sons of Tabbaoth, the sons of Keros, the sons of Siahah, the sons of Padon, the sons of Lebanah, the sons of Hagabah, the sons of Akkub, the sons of Hagab, the sons of Shamlai, the sons of Hanan, the sons of Giddel, the sons of Gehar, the sons of Reaiah, the sons of Rezin, the sons of Nekoda, the sons of Gazzam, the sons of Uzza, the sons of Paseah, the sons of Besai, the sons of Asnah, the sons of

Meunim, the sons of Nephisim, the sons of Bakbuk, the sons of Hakupha, the sons of Harhur,the sons of Bazluth, the sons of Mehida, the sons of Harsha, the sons of Barkos, the sons of Sisera, the sons of Temah, the sons of Neziah, and the sons of Hatipha.

“The sons of Solomon's servants: the sons of Sotai, the sons of Hassophereth, the sons of Peruda, the sons of Jaalah, the sons of Darkon, the sons of Giddel, the sons of Shephatiah, the sons of Hattil, the sons of Pochereth-hazzebaim, and the sons of Ami.

“All the temple servants and the sons of Solomon's servants were 392.

“The following were those who came up from Tel-melah, Tel-harsha, Cherub, Addan, and Immer, though they could not prove their fathers’ houses or their descent, whether they belonged to Israel: the sons of Delaiah, the sons of Tobiah, and the sons of Nekoda, 652. Also, of the sons of the priests: the sons of Habaiah, the sons of Hakkoz, and the sons of Habaiah, the sons of Hakkoz, and the sons of Barzillai (who had taken a wife from the daughters of Barzillai the Gileadite, and was called by their name). These sought their registration among those enrolled in the genealogies, but there were not found there, and so they were excluded from the priesthood as unclean. The governor told them that they were not to partake of the most holy food until there should be a priest to consult Urim and Thummim.

“The whole assembly together was 42,360, besides their male and female servants, of whom there were 7,337, and they had 200 male and female singers. Their horses were 736, their mules were 245, their camels were 435, and their donkeys were 6,720.

“Some of the heads of families, when they came to the house of the Lord that is in Jerusalem, made freewill offerings for the house of God, to erect it on its site. According to their ability they gave to the treasury of the work 61,000 darics of gold, 5,000 minas of silver, and 100 priests’ garments.

“Now the priests, the Levites, some of the people, the singers, the gatekeepers, and the temple servants lived in their towns, and all the rest of Israel in their towns.”

Amen. May God bless to us that reading of His holy and inerrant word.

Well, as you can imagine, I've been consulting all kinds of books to see what I could find on this chapter to compose a sermon! I delved into one fairly recent Old Testament theology compendium of thoughts and ideas culled from Genesis through to Malachi. It's conclusion about Ezra 2 is, “This is a difficult chapter.” I kid you not! There are in fact 125 names here.

Let me take you to Israel tonight. Not to the old capital on what we would have still called Mount Zion, but to the new city of Jerusalem, the modern city of Jerusalem. It's up a little. It looks down on the old capital, the biblical capital of Jerusalem. Let me take you to the museum — a very, very solemn, deeply moving place. It's called Yad Vashem. It was erected by the state of Israel in memory of the six million Jews killed in the Holocaust in the Second World War. As you walk into the Yad Vashem, it's very, very dark…very dark. Barely any light. You follow a corridor that will take you meandering through until you reach the other side. As you walk, pictures in black and white that would move the hardest of souls suddenly light up before you, to your left and to your right. And all the while as you are walking, there is the sound of someone reading…names…names. They are the names of Jews who were killed in the pogroms in Auschwitz and other places during the Second World War. There are I think on record over three million names that are read consecutively, and of course as you walk through this museum you might hear just a hundred, or two hundred, of them. They are the names of men and women, and boys and girls…dear, of course, to the Jews. They are their kith and kin. They are their forefathers. They are martyrs. Their names are honored, and their names are remembered.

Something like that…something like that…is taking place here.

Now you might suspect that someone who gets a warm glow from reading Ezra 2 has too much time on his hands. But of course you’d only think that if you belonged to that class of people for whom history is boring. I have to say, when I was growing up as a young boy history was pretty boring. I was more of a science student and a math student than a history student, I have to say. I've long since changed my mind. Maybe in part it has something to do with age and maturity, when your parents and grandparents and your family connections are more important to you than they once were. Only this week I took down the Bible that belonged to my grandfather, and inside it are the names of my relatives, going back into the nineteenth century: names and dates of when they were born and when they died. And, sometimes, pictures. They are very dear to me. They mean a great deal to me.

I was reading a book this week by Susan Hardman Moor. It's hot off the press. It's called The Pilgrims. I was given it as a birthday present. [I had asked for it, of course. It's the best kind of present always, ones that you ask for!] I'd read a review of it. It fascinated me. It was a story, of course, of the pilgrim fathers, the settlement in New England in the 1630's, but there was a twist in the tale. It wasn't so much about those who went to New England in the 1630's — an estimated perhaps 20,000 left during the 1630's — but it was those who returned, who didn't stay. And the tale is told of what happened in the 1640's and ‘50's, right up to 1660, in that twenty year period, of those who went back to the old country. As I opened the book, fifty pages, fifty pages of this book, is a list of names. A sixth of the entire book is a list of names. Crucial, of course, if you’re going to understand the story that is about to be told, just as this chapter.

And let me warn you in advance that this entire chapter is going to be repeated in Nehemiah 7. We are going to go through all of this one more time. Why? Well, the opening verse tells us why: “These are the people of the province who came up out of the captivity….” These are the men and women who heard Cyrus's decree in 538 B.C. and left Babylon and went on that arduous journey to Jerusalem with one goal, with one incentive: to rebuild the temple of the Lord. These are the people of God. These…by the time Ezra was written, of course, these are the ancestors of the people of God.

I can't tell you the number of times…it happened to me just within the last week again…I can't tell you the number of times people have said to me that they are the fourth or fifth or sixth generation of McDougal, or McGonagall, or McLeod, or whatever, and they tell me with great passion (as though I was interested) that their ancestors are Scottish. I'm not Scottish! I always want to say to them, “I belong to a thousand-generation Thomas that goes back to the murder of Thomas of Eckhart in the twelfth century.” I have no idea, but I always like to think that!

What's this chapter about? Let me suggest to you it's about three things.

I. The God of the people of God.

First of all, it's about the God of the people of God…the God of the people of God. It's always the safest rule in interpreting Scripture to ask the question, “What does this passage teach me about God?” What does this passage teach me about God? And of course what this passage teaches us is that God is faithful. God kept His word. God kept His promise. He had made a promise to Abraham that his seed, the seed of the faithful, would be as numerous as the stars of the night sky and the sand upon the seashore. Now to be sure, as these 42,000 returned home to Jerusalem, the population of — what? — a small town in Mississippi. Forty-two thousand. That's the size of the people of God at this point in history. But it tells us, do you see, amidst all of the confusion, amidst all of the testing, amidst all of the difficulties of life in exile in Babylon…. Some of them, most of them, had been there just for fifty years or so. Some of them had been there for seventy years. Some of them had been there for two generations. Their parents and undoubtedly their grandparents had died. They had been separated from their families, separated from their homes, separated from their jobs…separated from the temple, because the temple was destroyed. It had been razed and burnt to the ground. Jerusalem was destroyed. The walls had come crashing down. It was occupied by foreign forces.

But as these men and women, 42,000 of them, return home, they heed the decree of Cyrus to go. As you watch them, as you listen to them, as you come alongside them and hear them as they talk with one another as they make this long, difficult journey back to Jerusalem from what we might call the center of Iraq…all the way to Jerusalem. A long and difficult journey. Every step…every step would resonate with a conviction that God had not forgotten and abandoned His people. Yes, to be sure there had been judgment. Yes, there had been a winnowing. The people of God had rebelled against Him. They had suffered the just retribution of God in the exile. They were not what they once were, nor were they what they would become; nor were they remotely like some of the promises that some of the prophets like Isaiah and Jeremiah had given prior to the exile. Those days had not yet come. But God had not forgotten His promise.

There were those, I am pretty sure…soothsayers and wannabe historians and cultural commentators of the day who wrote editorials in “The Babylonian Gazette”…who wrote off the people of God, who wrote off the church of God, that the church of God had been utterly and completely destroyed. But it was not so. It was not so. God was faithful to His promise.

You know, on three occasions…and let me just take you to one of them. Turn with me to Ezra 7:27 — “Blessed be the Lord…” and do you notice what He's called? Do you notice what He's called? “The God of our fathers.”

If I were to take you now on a journey…where's the geography of this church? You would go out of this door, and then through to the older building. On your right, there is a room. It used to be just a brown door, but now there's glass in the door and you can see inside even if the door's locked. It's called the room that commemorates the God of our fathers…No! It's called The History Room. It is run by a bevy of women with extraordinary talents that keep everything of any interest whatsoever relating to this church. It is a wonderful, extraordinary monument to what Ezra is doing, because it's saying, “This is the God of our forefathers. This is what God had done in the past. This is God keeping His word. This is God keeping His promise.” This chapter — just a list of names, first of all — introduces us to the God of the people of God.

II. The constitution of the people of God.

Secondly, it introduces us to the constitution of the people of God. Who were they, these 42,000 who returned? Well, we are told in the opening verse. We are given a list, in verse 2, of eleven names. And if you include the name of Sheshbazzar in verse 11 of chapter one, you've got twelve names, twelve leaders.

Twelve. You know — ding ding ding! — your antennae now should be going. Twelve is such an important number. Twelve tribes, twelve apostles. It's not coincidental, I think. It's meant to be a little signal. God is returning once again to His people. He's restoring His people to the land. Twelve tribes have long since been dissipated. The only thing that's left that you can identify is Judah and Benjamin, and perhaps the Levites. The Northern Kingdom of Israel had fallen 150-200 years in the past to the Assyrians, and they have long since gone. But God is still keeping His promise. It looks more like a church now than a nation, doesn't it? You could hardly call these 42,000 who returned a nation anymore. They don't have the trappings of nationhood. They don't have the trappings of statehood. Their monarchy is gone. They’re overpowered now by the Persian Empire. They’re the province of the Persian Empire. But there's a little light here, just a little light that signals this is God's church, this is God's people.

You notice in verses 36-39 there are four clans of priests, numbering 4,289. Ten percent of the total — a large proportion of the 42,000 who returned — ten percent of them were priests. You might understand that, of course. What would the priests have to do in Babylon? Of course you’d expect them to return to rebuild the temple, to be involved in the work that God had called this tribe to be involved in.

In verses 40-42, you have a list of Levites, 74 helpers. They are helpers to the priests, one for every 58 priests. There wouldn't be much for them to do at first; their tasks, menial and thankless. But they’re there.

Did you hear Bill Wymond's heart as we read of the singers? Two hundred of them! Men and women singers who returned. There is no temple; there is no choir; there was no place for them yet to function. The temple would have to be rebuilt before this choir could function in all of its glory, but they’re there.

In verses 43-54, you have temple servants. And then in verses 55, 56, 57, you have Solomon's servants — and half of these names are foreign names. And the suggestion is that half of these servants…these are the lowliest servants of all…that half of them belonged originally to the enslaved peoples brought into Israel during the time of the Solomonic wars. And now they have been converted. Now they identify themselves willingly and voluntarily with the people of God, and they too want to be there. They identify themselves with the cause of God and of truth.

And then in verses 59-63, you have a list of people who cannot prove their pedigree. They cannot prove their identity. Some can't prove their lineage — which tribe, which family clan they belong to. Others can't prove that they’re priests, and certain legislation by the governor is given for the priests. They can't take part in eating holy food until there is a priest, until there is consultation with the Urim and Thummim to give them guidance.

Now I've been thinking about this all week. These people have been displaced. They had their families, perhaps. Some of them may be elderly, and they could remember the time when they were taken from Jerusalem. Some of them had been born in exile, and their parents are the ones who had been brought from Jerusalem. And as they were evicted, some of them managed to take with them papers and certificates and family lineage and genealogy accounts. Isn't that extraordinary? And you have this scene now, and they can't find their papers. It's most extraordinary. And every one of them…every one of them there on a voluntary basis, because not only do you have the God of the people of God, and not only do you have the constitution of the people of God, but you also have here the generosity of the people of God. Because they gave now, “according to their ability,” the text reads.

Paul takes up that phrase, you remember, in I Corinthians 6, when he gives that instruction that the people of God should set aside a portion every week “according to their ability” and present it on the Lord's Day, an offering to the Lord. And we're given meticulous details now of the amounts that they offered for the rebuilding of the temple: 565 pounds of gold and three tons of silver. That's a whole lot from 42,000. Some of them…You know, when you read that there were horses…horses mean that you were wealthy. Donkeys mean that you were poor. There were wealthy folk here. God had been good to them in Babylon, in exile. God had looked after them.

But you notice it says in verse 68, “Some of the heads of families….” Some of the heads of families…. And there, do you see — ah, there's a minor key entering in here, because not everyone apparently gave for the cause of the rebuilding of the temple.

Why had they come back? What was the first purpose in them being returned to Jerusalem? It was in order that they would rebuild the temple. That was the first order of business. Just as in the first exodus God said to them that they were to worship Him on this mountain, so in what is sometimes called the second exodus their goal and their motivation was the worship of God. That's why they had returned. It wasn't that they would make a great name for themselves in Jerusalem. Some of them didn't know what they were going back to. Some of them had no homes to go back to. Some of them had no jobs to go back to. Some of them had no idea what they were going back to, but they were going back because God had made them a promise. And they were going to rebuild this temple, and they were going to worship God in the way and according to the pattern that God had laid down in His word. And some of them caught that vision.

It was above everything else, at least at this point, a vision for the worship of God. They were prepared to sacrifice everything in order that they might worship God. That's how important it was to them. It was everything to them. It was the center of their lives. It was the center of their existence. It was the reason why they were here: to worship God according to the way in which He had laid down in His word.

You know, my friends, I could take you tonight to the fourth chapter of John's Gospel, and the conversation that Jesus has with the woman of Samaria, and words that come from the mouth of our Savior: “God seeks worshipers,” He says to her. God is seeking worshipers. He made us, as we were saying to the little children tonight… He made us in order that we might worship Him. And these people, these names…because Christianity is about people, it's about men and women with names, and every one of them a signal of what we are about, you and I…what we are meant to be about: the worship of Almighty God.

Now we will see as we go on with Ezra and even on into the book of Nehemiah that they lost sight of this vision. But here…here they are captivated by that vision. They are the people of God, whose names are identifiable; and they want to own themselves as those whose names are written in the Lamb's book of life, singing the praises of God with all of their hearts.

Let's pray together.

Father, we thank You for this portion of Scripture. We ask, O Lord, that You would fill our hearts with a vision for the worship of God. Oh, we find it such a blessed thing on the Lord's Day to gather with Your people, to give You praise and glory, anticipating a day when in heaven itself we shall cast our crowns before You and worship You with all of our hearts and all of our minds, and all of our souls. So teach us, O Lord, and challenge us and convict us. And we ask it in Jesus' name. Amen.

Please stand and receive the Lord's benediction.

Grace, mercy, and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ be with each one of you.

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