THE PURSUIT OF SPIRITUAL RESTORATION
“A Place for God’s People” Ezra 2
We often see what someone does or hear how they speak or how they may react to a situation and implicitly we understand that because of this they are a believer. We may even, if we do not know them, be convinced enough to ask ‘are you a believer?’ Upon hearing ‘yes’ we shake our heads—I thought so. The way you managed that situation revealed this to me. So we see in Ezra two identifying points, which reveal these exiles as God’s people, as they determine to secure a place for themselves. The chapter begins with a listing of the initial return of exiles. The list records the leaders of the return. Then it includes a list of the returnees. It also reveals the continuity of these exiles with the pre-exilic exiles. This is an important consideration since these exiles need continuity with pre-exilic Israel to insure they are recipients of the promises God had given to her. We will then see that this remnant are characterized as God’s chosen people by their concern for obedience to His word and holiness and eagerness to contribute to the rebuilding of the temple.
1. The historical record of exiles that returned
At one level this listing serves as a historical record of the returning Babylonian exiles. This listing is not a genealogy. Only eleven individuals, who appear to be the leaders of the return, (2:2) are named. All of the other groups are listed either by their family name (2:3-20; 36-63), or by geographical origin (2:21-35). Laymen follow their leaders (2:3-35); then come the priests (36-39), Levites (40); singers (41); gatekeepers (42); temple servants (43-54); descendents of Solomon’s servants (55-58); and those without proof of their descent (59-63); the total number of Returnees (64); and personal servants and animals (65-67). Thus, we have the historical documentation authenticating these as returnees as legitimate descendents of the pre-exilic remnant. Everyone must verify they are of the seed of Israel.
2. This historical record serves to legitimize the exiles
The central concern of Ezra two is ‘who belongs to Israel?’ The idea of Israel is preserved in order to make the point that the returning exiles are the legitimate descendents of old Israel and therefore the covenant community and heirs to God’s promises. These promises are central to the land, to Jerusalem, to the temple, and for the return. No one will be able to sneak in but must have proof they belong to the people of Israel.
3. This historical record provides continuity for the exiles
The list indicates that all groups had given proof of their genealogical continuity with Israel, even those listed by their towns. The return to the land is the most prominent fulfillment of Jeremiah’s prophecy (Jer 29:10; 31:8). The listing in Ezra 2 implicitly points to several aspects of Jeremiah’s restoration prophesy. One of these links the exiles to their fathers and thus to the land of their fathers in fulfillment of the promise ‘I will restore them to the land which I gave to their fathers’ Jer 16:5. The listing of returning exiles is according to family names providing definite connection to their fathers. Instead of just simply stating that the Returnees were all descendents from Israel—which could not authenticate the exiles as legitimate heirs—this listing details family names, localities, and numbers to do so. The Book of Ezra demonstrates that maintaining continuity with the past was the guiding principle of the restoration. But the continuity guaranteed the exiles were legitimate heirs of God’s promises to His people. Everything is documented.
The Returnees take pains to ensure that all of the records would authenticate for posterity that they were legitimate heirs in line with the promises of God to His people. Anyone identified as God’s people can be assured of the promises God has given to them. God’s people can always be confident that God will be faithful to His promises for them. What motivated these exiles were the promises of God. What gave them hope to persevere and then return were the promises God had specifically given to them of a land, a people, and a blessing. Each of these groups, with their own distinctive roles and responsibilities, with all of their differing tribal connections, held onto this hope and were motivated to return.
Believers today can have the same confidence in God’s promises to us in the church age. You can confidently rely upon the promises of God and be hopeful in your life situations with them. Our historical record is the person and work of Jesus Christ. We can point to that as proof we belong to the Father. Your Father will never let you down. He cannot! All of His promises to us concerning life lived here, our spiritual lives, or eternity serve to motivate us to serve and live for him with hope. Jesus Christ provides the historical foundation for that hope by his incarnation, death, and resurrection. So the promises of God are not empty ones.
Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and you will be saved. Cast all of your care on him for he cares for you. Be anxious for nothing…the peace of God shall guard your heart and mind. Walk in the Spirit and you will not fulfill the lust of the flesh. Take them. Rely on them. Believers can be confident on the promises of God.
1. God’s people are characterized by obedience to God’s Word
In 2:59-63 we have two accounts of groups who could not verify their lineage. One group is ‘laity’ and the other ‘priestly’. We have no indication of what action was taken with regard to the lay group but it seems they were still included in the groups of returning exiles. The ‘priest’ group (61-63) who were unable to prove their lineage was regarded as profane and unfit to participate in the priesthood or to eat from the ‘most holy things’. The Law required that priests be from the tribe of Levi and the house of Aaron. This restriction was, however, limited until a priest could announce judgment on their legitimacy using the Urim and Thummim. These were parts of the high priests breastplate, probably two stones used in some way in determining God’s will. The Returnees determine to obey the Word of God.
2. God’s people are characterized by holiness in the priesthood
The priests who were not form the lineage of those whom God had separated unto Himself and sanctified to the ministry of priesthood were not acceptable. In this way the passage links holiness to obedience to God’s Word. Since the priests were at the center of the nation’s spiritual life, that they meet the divine requirement was paramount. The denial of their right to participate in the priesthood also establishes that holiness is more important than one’s livelihood. Israel could not exist without a holy priesthood. The exiles understand this and so determined to set things right at the beginning. Isn’t it interesting that at the outset of this new initiative, a new beginning for the nation, the central concern was not the economy, or a new social compact, or buildup of a military, or rewriting a constitution, or plans for rebuilding. But it is holiness in the priesthood.
3. God’s people are characterized by giving to God’s Work
When the returnees arrived back in the land—at the house of the Lord—that is where it was located, in the city of Jerusalem, they did two things to restore the foundations of the house of God. (1) They gave their possession willingly to rebuild. (2) They gave according to their ability. Apparently, some had great ability (69). They gave large amounts of money and material to begin the restoration temple project. The point is that everyone is on the same page. They all understand the central importance of the priestly work in the nation. So they personally contribute to that work. Our giving should be of the same posture. We should be eager to give to the God’s kingdom work and we should do so willingly—become a willing giver—and we should do so as God has prospered us—according to our ability. We have two things here that mark this remnant out as the people of God: (1) We have their legitimate historical record as heirs of the pre-exilic Israel. (2) We have an implicit record that characterized these as God’s exiled remnant—they want to obey God’s Word, maintain holiness in the priesthood, and give to God’s work. For posterities sake, let the record show that their ancestors are legitimate heirs of the promises given to Abraham. They returned and started well yet again. Here is a record that authenticates these exiles with legal standing, documented by both a historical record and spiritual behavior.
By revealing this, God wants his people to be characterized by obedience to His Word. That is not just simply keeping rules; it is following his heart and mind as applied from His Word. It means not merely being hearers but also doers of it. It means putting out the ‘welcome’ mat for Gods word in our lives. God desires obedience more than sacrifice. This is the basis of our sanctification. Your basic posture with God must be obedience.
God also desires holiness today in his people. Set apart to God. Set apart from the world and its influence. Holiness comes with a price. We have to deny ourselves. We must take up our cross and follow Christ. Holiness must ever be our concern. It is something that is hard but it is necessary if we are going to walk with God in this world.
And giving to the work of the kingdom is still a characteristic of Gods people in the New Testament. Giving is a constant and demands our attention. But our giving must be form the heart—willingly and not grudgingly. It should be voluntary and generous. It should be costly to us no matter our income level. These are the things that characterize one who has the heart of God. Willing compliance; Genuine holiness; Generous giving.
The exiled remnant knows God’s promises to them. They are willing to act on these and push ahead. The journey from Babylon to Israel is nearly 900 miles and took about four months (7:8-9). But Ezra did not state how long the trip took. His focus was not on the people’s hardships but on the legitimate task they now had to rebuild the temple first with rebuilt people! This God could use and they could begin again with His blessing.