The Lord's Day Evening
June 15, 2008
“Road Trip to Jerusalem”
Dr. Derek W. H. Thomas
Now turn with me if you would to the book of Ezra…the book of Ezra once again. We come tonight to chapter eight, and we will pick up the reading at verse 21. We’ll be reading through to the end of the chapter.
We have been preparing now for a number of weeks for this journey that took Ezra and 5,000 men and women along with him back to Jerusalem…on this four-month journey that followed the course initially of the Euphrates River, and eventually down to Jerusalem. Before we read the passage together, let's look to God in prayer. Let us all pray.
Father, we once again desire to know and understand and love and obey the Scriptures. It is Your word — every jot and tittle of it. We pray tonight as we go back two-and-a-half thousand years to a band of people making a journey of a thousand miles to Jerusalem, we want to go with them, and we want to engage with them and listen to them. But more than that, we want to hear You; and as we read the Scriptures, we know that we do hear You, because every word of it is from You. So bless us, we pray. We ask it all in Jesus' name. Amen.
This is God's holy and inerrant word:
“Then I proclaimed a fast there, at the river Ahava, that we might humble ourselves before our God, to seek from Him a safe journey for ourselves, our children, and all our goods. For I was ashamed to ask the king for a band of soldiers and horsemen to protect us against the enemy on our way, since we had told the king, ‘The hand of our God is for good on all who seek Him, and the power of His wrath is against all who forsake Him.’ So we fasted and implored our God for this, and He listened to our entreaty.
“Then I set apart twelve of the leading priests: Sherebiah, Hashabiah, and ten of their kinsmen with them. And I weighed out to them the silver and the gold and the vessels, the offering for the house of our God that the king and his counselors and his lords and all Israel there present had offered. I weighed out into their hand 650 talents of silver, and silver vessels worth 200 talents, and 100 talents of gold, 20 bowls of gold worth 1,000 darics, and two vessels of fine bright bronze as precious as gold. And I said to them, ‘You are holy to the Lord, and the vessels are holy, and the silver and the gold are a freewill offering to the Lord, the God of your fathers. Guard them and keep them until you weigh them before the chief priests and the Levites and the heads of fathers’ houses in Israel at Jerusalem, within the chambers of the house of the Lord. So the priests and the Levites took over the weight of the silver and the gold and the vessels, to bring them to Jerusalem, to the house of our God.
“Then we departed from the river Ahava on the twelfth day of the first month, to go to Jerusalem. The hand of our God was on us, and He delivered us from the hand of the enemy and from ambushes by the way. We came to Jerusalem, and there we remained three days. On the fourth day, within the house of our God, the silver and the gold and the vessels were weighed into the hands of Meremoth the priest, son of Uriah, and with him was Eleazar the son of Phinehas, and with them were the Levites, Jozabad the son of Jeshua and Noadiah the son of Binnui. The whole was counted and weighed, and the weight of everything was recorded.
“At that time those who had come from captivity, the returned exiles, offered burnt offerings to the God of Israel, twelve bulls for all Israel, ninety-six rams, seventy-seven lambs, and as a sin offering twelve male goats. All this was a burnt offering to the Lord. They also delivered the king's commissions to the king's satraps and to the governors of the province Beyond the River, and they aided the people and the house of God.”
Thus far, God's holy and inerrant word.
Now as we come to this road trip to Jerusalem, I've been trying to put myself into the shoes of Ezra. It's a tall order, of course, putting yourself into the shoes of any of these great men of God in the Scriptures, but I'm trying to walk alongside him at least, and enter into some of the difficulties of the decisions and the consequences of some of the decisions that he has now made. Because he is self-evidently trusting God. There's no doubt about that. He trusts the Lord. He's a man of great faith. He's a man of extraordinary faith. He's a model of great faith and faithfulness in the Scriptures. But he is responsible not just for himself, but he's also responsible for thousands of people, men and women and children, and that makes whatever decision we make (those who are leaders) even more difficult.
One of the interesting features is the contrast between a decision that Ezra makes here and a decision that Nehemiah will make in fourteen or fifteen years from now. Ezra decides not to ask for a military escort back to Jerusalem. Nehemiah gets a military escort…asks for one. Ezra would have been entitled to one; he is after all an emissary, an ambassador, of King Artaxerxes I in that part of the Persian Empire, namely Jerusalem. It would have been within his rights to ask for a military escort, but he doesn't.
And for a second or two before we look at the passage, I want to reflect a little on that: that two men of God, Ezra and Nehemiah, can come to opposite conclusions about whether it was right to ask the king for a secular military escort back to Jerusalem. It says something to us, I think, that men of God who love God and who love His word, and who are deeply saturated in the Scriptures as both Ezra and Nehemiah were…they were men of prayer, they were men of consecration. You wouldn't begin to doubt the godliness or the consecration of Ezra or Nehemiah. But in this matter, both of them seek the will of God and they come down in opposite places. Ezra concludes it would be wrong to ask for the king's help. Nehemiah sees no problem and asks for a military escort. I think it says something to us about certain decisions that godly men can sometimes make.
Paul addresses this very thing in I Corinthians 8, for example…in Romans 14, for example.
It's about an issue that none of us ever think about. We don't have to think about it, but New Testament Christians had to think about it. Meat: a piece of lamb or a piece of beef that had been offered for a sacrifice in the local pagan temple at two o’clock that afternoon is now at five o’clock being sold in the local market at knock-down prices before the flies eat it, and you see a bargain. You ask no questions for conscience sake; you buy the meat, you cook it, you have a wonderful dinner. But your neighbor went by the market, saw the meat, and understood that this meat had been offered in a pagan temple for sacrifice just hours before. That person's conscience would condemn him or her, and Paul addresses that. Is it right or wrong?
Now I don't have time to go into the in's and out's of meat offered to idols, you understand, but it does, I think, reflect that sometimes godly men and women can immerse themselves in the Scriptures and be prayerful and seek the mind of God in guidance and direction, and come down in opposite places. This is not the doctrine of the atonement, you understand! This is not justification by faith! This is a secondary or a tertiary issue. This is way off being a central issue (whether it's right to have a military escort back to Jerusalem), but it does, I think, beg of us not to jump too quickly to judgmental attitudes about decisions that people make about difficult issues…complex issues, issues involving ethics and morals where the situation may be highly complex.
Well, all that is an aside, and we’ll come back to it later in the year when we look at Nehemiah, who goes gladly with a military escort to Jerusalem.
Now this is tale of faith. It's an adventure story. This is a road trip! And it's a road trip of faith, and I want us to look at it along–[horrors! Look at the clock!]–along five lines of thought. [This is going to be a quick road trip to Jerusalem!] [Laughter] Let me get into fast gear here.
I. The setting in which faith is expressed.
First of all, I want us to see the setting in which faith is expressed. This is a journey of faith. Ezra, five thousand men, women, children…they’re saying their farewells. They've got a thousand-mile journey at a walking pace in the heat of a Near Eastern summer. It's going to take them four months. They’re carrying enormous amounts of wealth in terms of goods, gold and silver. It's a situation of great nervousness. I wonder what's going through their minds as they camp by the river Ahava on the outskirts of Babylon. They’re facing a life-changing scenario.
Some of you are facing life-changing scenarios. You’re contemplating a career move, you’re contemplating moving to another city. You’re contemplating marriage, or college. Financial security is at stake. Family cohesion is at stake, and you need reassurance, and you want to know above everything else that God is in this. And this is the context where faith now is going to be expressed.
II. The assurance that faith asserts.
Secondly, I want us to see the assurance which faith asserts. I'm thinking about what Ezra said to King Artaxerxes. You see it there in verse 22:
“I was ashamed to ask the king for a band of soldiers and horsemen to protect us on our way, since we had told the king…”
[This is what he said, and it sounds like a liturgical formula. It sounds like one of those verses that he knew all too well, and in a moment he just cites this.]
“…‘The hand of our God is for good on all who seek Him, and the power of His wrath is against all who forsake Him.’”
You can imagine that's like a verse that he knew. It has all kinds of allusions to verses that you might find in the first five books of the Old Testament. It sounds like something you’d find, for example, in the book of Deuteronomy. It's not exactly a quote from Deuteronomy. I think it's something that he was fond of saying, that God will bless His own and God will curse those who are not His own. And in a moment of…well, it's a moment of crisis. You can imagine. He's talking to the king, and perhaps he's witnessing to the king. One imagines it was a scenario of apologetics. He's talking about the God of Israel. He's talking about the God of the Jews. He's talking about the only God there is, as far as Ezra is concerned. Artaxerxes believes in many gods, but Ezra wants to demonstrate and perhaps to say to him (and these are bold words that he's using here about blessing and wrath)…and perhaps the king had said to him, ‘Well, do you need some help? Because this is a dangerous journey. You’re making this journey in the belief in the importance of this journey, and you have my blessing to go back to Jerusalem. When you get there, pray for me and for my sons.’ That's the sort of thing that King Artaxerxes may well have said to Ezra. And Ezra says, ‘No, I don't need any help. God will protect us.’
And then you can imagine he's saying, ‘Should I have said that? I mean, really, should I have said that?’ Perhaps Ezra is saying, you see, in these three days camped by the river, ‘Lord, You know I made that statement in faith. You know I made that statement as though I was full of the Spirit: I don't need any help from the king; You will protect us. But, Lord, maybe I was hasty. Maybe I should have asked for help. It's going to be a dangerous journey. I've got women and children to look after. It's too late now, I've said it! I can't go back now. It would make You look foolish, so You've got to defend yourself.’ I'm sure Ezra would have put it more eloquently than I'm putting it now, but you can imagine some of those thoughts now going through his head, and it is in that context where he has made this assertion, this assurance, “The hand of our God is for good on all who seek Him.”
Well, you believe that. You believe that… that God's hand is for good to those who seek Him. You believe that. You wouldn't be here if you didn't believe that. But, oh, the places where that statement is going to be called into question! It's one thing, you know, to say it in here, and to sing it in here, and to say “Amen” to the prayer that we heard this evening. And then as you’re driving home and those trials and those problems and those scenarios come weighing down upon you, that “Amen” seems so far away.
You've got to admire Ezra. You've got to admire him for saying that before the king. You've got to admire his assurance in the power of God. He believes God is powerful. He believes God is sovereign. He's carrying this great burden of responsibility and he's saying before the king, God is going to protect us all the way.
I love the story H.L. Ellison tells. He says there are times when we reject all human help and trust in God alone. He talks about a lady. She's on a ship and caught in a storm. It looks bad, and she's terrified. And she goes to the Captain, and she says to the Captain, ‘Is there any hope?’ And he says, ‘The only hope we have is in God,’ and she says, ‘Is it really that bad?’ [You've got to be following what I'm saying, now!] You've got to trust in God…and she said, ‘Is it really that bad?’ You've got to trust in God, the God who made everything, the God who created everything, the God who upholds everything. Of course we trust in God!
III. The source from which faith is strengthened.
And, thirdly, I want us to see the source from which faith is strengthened. I'm referring now to the way in which Ezra calls upon them in the three days of preparation before they leave. He calls them to prayer and fasting. The prayer we understand; we do everything by prayer and supplication. Whatever it is that we do, we commit it to the Lord in prayer. We understand that. Christians pray. It's one of the first signs that Saul of Tarsus has been indwelt by the Spirit and his heart has been quickened and regenerated: “Behold, he prays.”
But they also fasted. We need to pause a little on this. You know we live in the land of the golden arches and pizza temples, and fasting seems a long, long way away. But you know, in the Bible there's a great deal about fasting in the Old Testament and in the New Testament. They fasted in times of war, or the threat of war. They fasted when someone was sick or had died. They fasted when they were seeking forgiveness for some terrible sin. They fasted when they faced danger. It's what's happening here; this is a crucial moment. When the church in Antioch were about to send out missionaries to Cyprus and beyond — the first missionary journey — the church met, prayed, and fasted. They fasted. Jesus, in the Sermon on the Mount, to be sure rebukes the Pharisees, ‘Don't go about telling people that you’re on a 38-day fast.’ Jesus says, ‘You’re not to do that. Don't draw attention to yourself. But when you fast, do it this way,’ Jesus says. But the point is that Christians do fast–at least, they’re supposed to.
There's an incident in Matthew 9. John the Baptist's disciples are upset that Jesus is in the house of Matthew the tax collector, and He's eating. It's a feast. Matthew has come to Christ. He's come to a knowledge of the Savior. He's holding a party! And John the Baptist's disciples were like John the Baptist — they fasted a whole lot. They can't understand what Jesus is doing. You remember Jesus has replied to the servants, the disciples of John the Baptist, that when the bridegroom is with you, you don't fast. But when the bridegroom is gone, then you fast.
It might be something that you might want to do. You’re a candidate for officer election…maybe you should consider a period of fasting. You’re deeply upset (as some of you are) about the election of a President. It may be something that you should consider, fasting. Sometimes it's on a private basis, sometimes it's on a collective church basis. When the elders decide that there's a momentous issue at stake in the life of the church, in the community of the church, and we need a concentrated period where we can devote ourselves, fasting puts an edge on prayer. Fasting does. Calvin says that whenever men are to pray to God concerning any great matter, it would be expedient to appoint fasting along with prayer.
Well, the source from which faith is strengthened, because it strengthened their faith. It was a preparation for the journey. They prayed and fasted. They devoted themselves to the Lord.
I wonder if it's a part of our Christian testimony at all. How Western we've become; how so much like the world we have become.
IV. The victory of faith.
Fourthly, the victory of faith. You know there's a beautiful, beautiful statement in verse 32: “We came to Jerusalem….” There it is: “We came to Jerusalem.” We want to know…tell us about the journey! And the only thing about the journey is at the end of verse 31:
“The hand of our God was on us, as He delivered us from the hand of the enemy and from ambushes along the way.”
Ah! But tell us more! Ambushes along the way, and you don't tell us about them? What kind of ambushes? Who were they?
Isn't that so much like the Bible, that so often the Bible just wants us to know the main story? And the main story is the story of God's redemption. It's the fact that God delivers His people and gets them to Jerusalem, because that's the center of God's activity at this point in the history of redemption.
God answered Ezra's prayer. You know, in verse 23 when he says, “We fasted and implored our God for this, and He listened to our entreaty,” you understand he's writing after the fact. At the time he may well have been nervous. He may well have been second-guessing what he had said to the king. But after the fact, when he writes his memoirs (and a lot of Ezra is full of his memoirs, you understand), he's saying ‘God heard our prayer! God delivered us! There were dangerous moments along this journey, there were ambushes along this journey–bandits, marauders, thieves.’ And it looks as though everyone got there. No one was killed. No one was injured. What a blessing that is!
V. The gratitude of faith.
And, fifthly, the gratitude of faith. The setting of faith, the assurance of faith, the strengthening of faith, the victory of faith, and the gratitude of faith.
When they get there, they have three days’ rest. It may be to reflect the three days at the beginning of the journey, and it may be that they arrived on a Friday before the Sabbath began on Friday evening. And in the Jewish way of counting things, Friday-Saturday-Sunday morning, that would be three days.
There are huge amounts of gold and silver here. Now you didn't blink an eye as I read about talents and darics, as if you understood exactly what I was talking about, and the best of commentators have disagreed about conversion tables from talents and darics to pounds and tons. Let me give you what it means. There were 7,500 pounds (or 3 ѕ tons) of gold. That's a lot of gold. Now there were 49,000 pounds of silver; that's 25 tons of silver.
One otherwise conservative commentator says those figures are just incredible, and he suggests that there's been some transmission error in the copying of these manuscripts, so that the Bible we have now can't be trusted at this point. Well, you know…no! Everything about this story seems to reflect that there was nervousness on the part of Ezra, and relief when God answered his prayer. And one of the reasons was the sheer amount and quantity of gold and silver that's being taken — given by the king, given by the Persian Empire, and given by the exiled Jews still in Babylon — for the purposes of the temple in Jerusalem.
You notice, he's a civil servant. And that means he's accountable for everything. He counts it out in the presence of the priest, the priest Meremoth. He counts it out before he goes, and he counts it out when he gets there. You notice what he said to the priests:
“You are holy to the Lord, and the vessels are holy, and the silver and the gold are freewill offerings to the Lord…guard them and keep them until you weigh them before the chief priests…in the houses in Israel at Jerusalem.”
In other words, touch this and you’re dead! That's the code language here. This was the Lord's money, and you must guard it with your life.
And then they worshiped. They worshiped. They offered sacrifices. The number twelve is deeply significant in the numbers of bulls and so on that are being offered. They are a representative of Israel. They have come back in a sense as part of the true Israel of God, and they’re offering burnt offerings. Burnt offerings had many things, but one of the things about a burnt offering was total consecration. The Hebrew for burnt offering is olah which means to go up. And the sense of a burnt offering was not only for atonement, and not only for acceptance by God, but also for consecration. These men and women and houses and families were giving themselves to the Lord. They had come back for one purpose, and for one purpose only: to serve the Lord with all of their hearts…with all of their hearts.
Have you ever had one of those moments when you want to give everything there is of you–your whole life, your heart, your affections, your thoughts, your future–you want to put it into the hands of the Lord? “I want You to have everything there is of me.” Have you ever felt that? I put it to you, that's what these men and women are doing here when they come back to Jerusalem. Remember, they've never seen Jerusalem. They've never offered burnt offerings before, not in a temple. This is a first for them. They must have been filled with extraordinary emotion. And they give themselves, at least for now, wholly to the Lord.
You know, that's what God wants from us, you and me, that we be in the Lord's service moment by moment, as [you] were singing earlier.
Let's pray together.
Father, we thank You again for the Scriptures. We thank You for the way they touch our hearts. We thank You for the way they call us out of ourselves, out of the shabbiness of our lives to the glory and blessedness of serving You. We thank You, O Lord, that we're not slaves to an earthly master any more. We’re not slaves to Satan. We are the children of God. Take all there is of us: have our hearts; have our very lives; and may they be lived out and out for You. For Jesus’ sake we ask it. 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.
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© 2019 First Presbyterian Church.
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.