A Study of Ezra 8:22
“The hand of our God is upon all them for good that seek Him.”
In attempting to teach from these words, praying for the help of God, praying for a teachable spirit, I venture to bring before you instruction for the church of God collectively and believers individually even today.
It may be helpful, and I trust profitable, if we spend just a little while considering the historical background at this time. God’s purposes, God’s promise will always be fulfilled. In the days of Isaiah, God said that He would raise up a man, a king called Cyrus – even his name is given – a heathen king who would give permission and make a way for the Jews in captivity to return to Jerusalem. (See Isaiah chapters 44-45.) And so it was (I think I am right in saying one-hundred-and-eighty years had passed by) King Cyrus gave permission for all that were willing to return to go back to Jerusalem to rebuild the house of God. The way thus being opened, many of the Jews returned from Babylon to Jerusalem. Before they commenced building, they built the altar to offer sacrifices before God according to the Word of God. Before this work was commenced, there was this solemn act of worship, setting forth the sense of the need of the forgiving love of God and prayer for God’s help and blessing.
You will remember that the foundation of the temple was laid, and when completed, the people gathered together to praise God for His great goodness. They sang this chorus in praising and giving thanks unto the LORD: “He is good, for His mercy endureth for ever toward Israel” (Ezra 3:11). All the people shouted with a great shout when they praised the LORD because the foundation of the house of God was laid, but there were those older Jews that remembered the first temple and though the foundation of this second temple was laid, it was nothing to be compared in their eyes to the first temple, and so they wept. They “wept with a loud voice” (Ezra 3:12). There was this mingled emotion, those weeping aloud and those shouting aloud for joy. It does just lead us to this – the mingled cup, mingled experience; times of sorrow, times of joy; and the two so closely intertwined together; when you have been in times of sorrow, trial, trouble and distress, and yet in it there has been a blessing, sorrow in our hearts and thanksgiving to God for His mercies.
What took place after the foundation was laid? Enemies! Ever remember when God’s work is being accomplished, the devil will oppose it, man will oppose it, and so it was at this time. So much so that authority was given by the king at the request of the enemies of the Jews, that the work should cease. And the work ceased. There was the temple foundation laid, and then all ceased, all came to a stop.
It was at this time that God raised up Haggai and Zechariah – prophets of God – and these two men, with the Word of God, encouraged the Jews to return. The Jews after a period of twelve years or more now had got into a state of indifference and unconcern – cast down, felt the opposition was too great, they were too weak to continue the work, but God spake to them, and God bade them to go back to the work. If you look at the short prophecy of Haggai, you will find in the space of three months and twenty-four days, five times the word of the LORD came; it came with the power of the Spirit. The transformation! The people were aroused from their lethargy, their indifference, their unconcern, and with a mind to work, and with the promise that God would be with them and His Spirit remain among them, although there were obstacles, as Zechariah said, “Who art thou, O thou great mountain? before Zerubbabel thou shalt become a plain” (Zechariah 4:7). The Jews then returned.
Just a point here. There are times when God’s people, get very discouraged and very cast down. “Who hath believed our report?” (Isaiah 53:1). “Master, we have toiled all the night, and have taken nothing: nevertheless at Thy word I will let down the net” (Luke 5:5). Now I have often observed, and I name it in passing, Jesus said, “Let down your nets” with an “s” on it. No wonder it broke! But my friends, here is our encouragement:
“Jesus Christ, your Father’s Son,
Bids you undismayed go on.”
This reminds us too in passing of Elijah under the juniper tree. How tenderly the LORD dealt with him! With what compassion that angel touched him and touched him for the second time! “The journey is too great for thee” (1st Kings 19:7). There were the demonstrations of God’s power – the wind that brake in pieces the rocks; the earthquake and the fire – demonstrations of the power of God, but the power of God was felt by Elijah in a still small voice (1st Kings 19:11-13). We sometimes fear that it is only, as it were, by outstanding judgments from heaven that God will work, but sometimes He uses gentle means, but they are just as powerful. God said to Elijah, “Go, return,” go back Elijah, there is a work still for you to do.
So then the temple was built, and the people gave thanks for it. Years after, the king Artaxerxes gave Ezra a commission, Ezra who had prepared his heart to seek the law of the LORD, and we pray for this in the ministry of the word, not only to seek it, but to do it, and to teach it. Seek it! Do it! Teach it! Not only those who labour in the teaching of the word of God – all who fear God. Our younger friends – and I hope you fear God – that you may seek the law of God, that you may pray for grace to do it and to teach it. You may say, “I have no ability to speak of the Bible.” You will find that you are a witness, even a silent witness, if you have a clear distinction from a world that lies in wickedness.
We read here and so often in the Book of Ezra, as we do in the Book of Nehemiah, of the hand of God. We read, “They strengthened their hands in the work of the house of God, the God of Israel.” (Nehemiah 2:18)
This king, as we read, made all provision, all that was needful for the sacrifices, for the temple services and for Ezra to go with them and set in authority magistrates and judges that would fear God and would teach the laws of God. Wouldn’t this be wonderful if this was found in our land today!
Now coming particularly to the chapter from which our text is taken, Ezra with the people gathered together. They were to prepare for the long journey from Babylon to Jerusalem. About nine hundred miles – a long journey! Now this people would be carrying with them much of value: “vessels of silver, with gold, with goods … and with precious things” (Ezra 1:6). What a journey. Think of the perils, think of the robbers, think of the dangers, think of the defenceless Jews carrying rich treasure.
As Ezra is preparing to return, he finds that whilst there is a good number of Jews with him, there were none of the sons of Levi. This greatly concerned him. He did not feel that they should venture without them. So he sent to enquire as to whether there would be those that would be willing to unite with them on this dangerous journey, to be spiritual guides and to direct them, and we read that “By the good hand of our God upon us they brought us a man of understanding.” (Ezra 8:18)
I want you to observe this: “by the good hand of our God.” Just in passing here, how one would desire to view this in the assembly, particularly with the provision of shepherds of Christ’s flock. “The good hand of our God,” to bring men of spiritual understanding, not that within ourselves, but praying to be taught of God to teach others. It is a wonderful provision that God makes – the under shepherds of the flock.
So then there were these men that were brought together, the Nethinims, that did the lesser work in the temple, as you doubtless will know. So they are now preparing, they are nearly ready to return to Jerusalem. We read that before they moved away, this dear man “proclaimed a fast there, at the river of Ahava” where they gathered together ready to set out on their journey, “that we might afflict ourselves before our God.” (Ezra 8:21)
What do we understand by this fasting and afflicting ourselves before our God?
I believe that this means – not to abstain entirely from eating or drinking, but I do consider this, that when our spirit is burdened, when we are deeply concerned over what to do, how to do it, what path to take, or when under the burden of sin and needing a revival, we may abstain from all that is unnecessary and devote ourselves to reading and prayer and confession of our sin before our God. I believe that such spiritual fasting, godly sorrow for sin, repentance before God, with the work of the Spirit in the heart, would be a forerunner of a revival in our midst. O how one prays for it!
Do we feel to need it personally?
What was their concern?
It was “to seek of Him a right way for us, and for our little ones, and for all our substance.”
What is our concern?
Doubtless many concerns.
“Dare to be a Daniel!
Dare to stand alone!
Dare to say the Bible’s true!
Dare to make it known!”
There is future employment. Certain gifts, certain talents are bestowed. How we need a way to be opened, a way to be made clear. How are we going to do it? How are the young people going to do it? I hope and pray that those of you who are younger will seek of God that right way. God can open the door or close the door. It may be that something is very attractive, something that looks just right. There is something about it that you are not happy about. Does it take you away from a cause of truth?
Lot, righteous Lot, lifted up his eyes and looked at the well-watered plains of Sodom and Gomorrah. It was “even as the garden of the LORD, like the land of Egypt” (Genesis 13:10), and he went that way; he did not pray about it. I know God was with him. I know that God delivered him, but O the trouble that man went through! May our dear young friends be helped to seek that right way. It may even call for sacrifice. You may say, “If I give that other one up, then I won’t earn so much money.” You will never be the loser, never!
“Them that honour Me I will honour.” (1st Samuel 2:30)
Then what about marriage? When you seek a husband or a wife, how do you go about it? I like that young man or that young woman; she is very attractive – is that all? Here we have to seek of Him the right way, to pray your way along, to pray that you will be directed to a husband or a wife that you can walk together with, not only with natural affection and love, but united in the things of God, your hearts knit together in love and praise to God, heirs together of the grace of God. “A right way for us.”
Then in life’s journey as you get older, parents have their perplexities, grandparents too. Decisions have to be made to seek a right way, to pray, “Show me what I have to do; keep us from choosing our own path. Help me and give me grace to know and to do Thy will in all things.” I have said about younger friends. O the prayers of parents – how they will enter very feelingly into this, to seek of God “a right way for us, and for our little ones.” O the prayers for that infant as God gives you a little child.
“And for all our substance.” Now says the dear man, “I was ashamed to require of the king a band of soldiers and horsemen.” “Seek of Him a right way for us … and for all our substance. For I was ashamed to require of the king a band of soldiers and horsemen to help us against the enemy in the way: because we had spoken unto the king, saying, The hand of our God is upon all them for good that seek Him.”
So the dear man says, “I have professed this, I acknowledge this, I believe this, I believe that the hand of our God is upon all them that seek Him.” The king would have given a convoy to protect them, but Ezra here says, “No.” Our God is a wall of fire round about us; our God will watch over us; our God will take care of us. We go forth in faith; we go forth trusting in our God, because we testify that, “The hand of our God is upon all them for good that seek Him.”
Now I know there is a very narrow line between faith and presumption. Here I believe the dear man had a complete, unreserved trust in God that He would honour his testimony. It does not mean that we should be careless, or tempt God, or be indifferent, or fail in some cases to take lawful steps. Let me just say this. Paul on one occasion said, “Neither count I my life dear unto myself” (Acts 20:24), meaning that his one concern was to preach Christ – as we read, “Ye present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable unto God, which is your reasonable service” (Romans 12:1). But he took it very seriously to preserve his life. There is a right balance, but why I am naming it is this: I believe that if a Christian is led to take a step in faith, it will not be careless. It will not be, “O well, I believe God; therefore everything will be alright.” It will be after much exercise of soul, waiting upon God in prayer for that faith to be strengthened, that grace to go forward. There are times when we venture forth when there is none to help; we venture forth in faith upon our God. We read it in the closing portion of our reading, that they departed on the twelfth day of the first month and their comfort by faith, was: “The hand of our God was upon us” (verse 31). They did not say, “Look, we just set a watch and it was alright.” They saw it was the hand of God that preserved them, and no enemy was permitted to attack them, to molest them or to do them harm, or to rob them. It was the unseen shield.
A very dear friend of mine years ago worked for the gas board. On one occasion, and this was some years ago, so the amount of money then was tremendous which he had to take to the bank – I think it was about £30,000. Somebody in the office said, “I wouldn’t be in your shoes.” This made him think, almost fear, but he said, “Do you know what came? ‘A sovereign Protector I have, unseen, yet for ever at hand’” (H. 346).
He did not say that lightly, friends. It was in faith; it was trusting in God. I do hope that I have made this clear. We are not to take any rash or foolish steps in life. We are to take all the care that we can, but there are times when there is a real venturing in faith and trusting in God.
Just one more thought here. When the Jews got back after counting everything out, they ensured that nothing was missing, and this is to teach us, the church of God, that we are accountable for every penny in our income, to teach us in our daily life in the fear of God to act honourably and trustworthily in all our transactions. I have in a little way spoken of this clause: “The hand of” – I like it – “our God.” I look upon you all. Are you under this: “Our God”? It is a great word isn’t it?
Do you remember when Daniel was in the den of lions and the king said to Daniel, “Is thy God, whom thou servest continually, able to deliver thee from the lions?” (Daniel 6:20). You see, Darius could not say, “My God.” Darius could not say, “Our God.” He could only say, “Thy God.” We can look at others and say, “I know that they are God’s people. Am I one?” “Our God.” Daniel could say, “My God hath sent His angel, and hath shut the lions’ mouths.”
“The hand of our God.” We know God is a Spirit, but He is pleased to make Himself known and understood by using these human terms. How solemn, when we think of the finger of God, if that is against you. The magicians, when they could not perform what Moses had performed, said, “This is the finger of God” (Exodus 8:19). Jesus said, “If I with the finger of God cast out devils” (Luke 11:20). The power of that hand! This hand that upheld all things, the hand that formed the world, the earth, the sky, the sea, the hand once nailed at Calvary, that hand is holding me. The hand that provides, the hand that protects, the hand that guides, the hand that chastens, the hand that in love takes away sometimes, that hand that brings you into the valley of the shadow of death and supports you in it – the hand of our God. As we think of His hand, “Even there shall Thy hand lead me, and Thy right hand shall hold me” (Psalm 139:10). Not only lead me, but hold me. He will supply my every need. He will support me when I begin to sink and faint. “He giveth power to the faint; and to them that have no might He increaseth strength” (Isaiah 40:29). Even there, “I the LORD thy God will hold thy right hand, saying unto thee, Fear not; I will help thee” (Isaiah 41:13).
It is a wonderful thing when you perhaps cannot express a word and you are in trouble; you cannot express anything, and then there is from a friend the warmth of a handshake! A word is not uttered, but a feeling sense of sympathy, of love and prayer and compassion in that hand, and just like a child afraid, and yet as soon as its mother’s or father’s hand is there, that fear is removed.
This hand. “They shall never perish, neither shall any man pluck them out of My hand” (John 10:28) – what a precious word that is!
Though sometimes we begin to sink, as with Peter the hand of Jesus is stretched forth. “The eternal God is thy refuge, and underneath are the everlasting arms” (Deuteronomy 33:27). “The hand of God.” We think of the hands of Jesus that took little children and blessed them, the hand that touched the leper, and the hand that brake the bread, the hands crucified on the cross. You are graven upon the palms of His hands (see Isaiah 49:16).
“O Israel, thou shalt not be forgotten of Me” (Isaiah 44:21).
“The hand of our God is upon all them for good that seek Him.” The seeking soul, the coming sinner – sinner, I perhaps have stressed the providential aspect, but is that all you ask for? What will you ask God for? What about your sin? What about salvation? What about your soul? What about eternity? Is there a seeking of the Saviour? Is there a confession of your sin? Is there a longing for the blessing of His love, to know this Jesus as your Saviour and your Friend?
“Seek ye the LORD while He may be found, call ye upon Him while He is near: let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts: and let him return unto the LORD, and He will have mercy upon him; and to our God, for He will abundantly pardon” (Isaiah 55:6-7).
“The hand of our God is upon all them for good.” You may not see it, you cannot see good in that bitter cup, you cannot see good in that thorn in the flesh, you cannot see good in that painful affliction, you cannot see good in that path of great trial, that bereavement, that increased burden of sin, but the LORD can support and you will prove it – yes, for good. Dear Joseph said, “Ye thought evil against me; but God meant it unto good” (Genesis 50:20). The Lord bless His word. Amen.