Hand of God

I have some good news for me this week; I’m done traveling for a while, I hope. There’s no place like home, there’s no place like home. I had some difficulty on this trip; there were last minute changes to the agenda by the client who scheduled me for 8:00am meetings that he couldn’t make, and at the last moment he tried to send me two days early. I came into the office early to take care of some last minute items and a queue formed at my door for brand new issues. When I finally escaped to have lunch with my wife on the way out of town, all packed and dressed to go, I spilled some oriental sauce down the front of my shirt. I went home to change, and good thing I did because I had forgotten to put on a belt earlier and didn’t even know it. When I got to the airport lounge, they didn’t have an internet connection so I couldn’t take my email to go. And then my watch stopped.

Travel can be difficult. I don’t know how many times as a kid I’d hear, “We can turn this car around right now!” Today we’re going to study someone who traveled but with more planning and a whole lot more protection. Let’s turn to Ezra chapter 7, where Ezra finally makes his appearance in the book named after him.

We’re going to cover 4 chapters of Ezra today so we won’t be able to study them verse by verse and get out of class before lunch or even Christmas, so we’re going to study just some key verses. Fred did a terrific job last week summarizing the history and putting the book of Ezra in perspective; this is the second journey from Babylon to Jerusalem which Ezra will lead. It wasn’t as large as the first group but it was a fine selection of leaders and priests. Let’s meet Ezra; the first 5 verses introduce the lineage of Ezra, and if you’ll remember from our study of Hebrews before Jesus became our priest in the order of Melchizadek, priests were required by Mosaic law to be descended from Aaron the Levite, so if you’ll look at the last name of verse 5, whose name is listed there? Aaron. Ezra was a Levitical priest, and if we continue to verse 10 we also see that Ezra also devoted himself to the study, the practice, and the teaching of the Mosaic laws. Dr. Ezra Young, maybe.

Ezra uses the phrase “the hand of God” several times as he describes his journey, and it summarized the faith that Ezra placed in the Lord. Ezra used the phrase frequently to show that Ezra was following God and any credit for success would also go to God. What sort of person was Ezra that the hand of God should be upon him? The answers are in a very short verse:

Ezra 7:10
For Ezra had devoted himself to the study and observance of the Law of the LORD, and to teaching its decrees and laws in Israel.

Let’s pick this verse apart like the last pieces of white meat off that Thanksgiving turkey.

“For Ezra had devoted himself.” Ezra had a cause for the Lord that drove his life. Ezra was committed to serving the Lord and had made a decision that drove all other decisions; any decision or action in the future had to be in line with Ezra’s devotion and dedication.

“to the study.” Ezra wanted to know what God says and devoted himself to the study of the scriptures. Acts 17:11 says,

Now the Berean Jews were of more noble character than those in Thessalonica, for they received the message with great eagerness and examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true.

Studying the law with great eagerness and examining the scriptures to find the truth. If you want to know what the Lord wants for you, you have to study.

“and observance of the Law of the LORD” Luke 6:46, Jesus says, “Why do you call me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ and do not do what I say?” It is not enough to study the Word, but you must obey. Otherwise, is Jesus really the Lord in your life?

“and to teaching its decrees and laws in Israel.” Notice that Ezra devoted himself, studied for himself, and applied the law to himself first. The next step is to share it with others. Ezra taught the law, he was putting into practice the spiritual gift the Lord had provided. What is your gift? Mercy? Hospitality? Giving? Praying? Evangelism? Your gift is not for you alone, but for you to share with others.

When you are knowledgeable about God’s will, devoted to study, practice, and sharing God’s word as Ezra was, then the Hand of God will be upon you.

Verse 11 through 26 of Ezra 7 is a letter from King Artaxerxes not only giving Ezra permission to travel from Babylon to Jerusalem, but offering Ezra assistance and authority. The king gives Ezra silver and gold for Ezra to use for sacrifices and for whatever other purpose Ezra so desires, and if Ezra needs anything else, he may help himself from the royal treasury. And if that’s not enough, when Ezra arrives in Jerusalem, the local treasurers are supposed to provide him even more stuff – silver, wheat, wine, olive oil, and salt without limit. Ezra was not only a very learned man, but very trusted by the king. Why did the king do this? Let’s look at the second half of

Ezra 7:6
“The king had granted him everything he asked, for the hand of the LORD his God was on him.”

From this one sentence, “The king had granted him everything he asked, for the hand of the LORD his God was on him,” what does the Hand of God provide? (Giving, blessings, everything you need).

This phrase shows up again 4 verses later in Ezra 7:9 when Ezra’s journey is completed successfully.

Ezra 7:9
He had begun his journey from Babylon on the first day of the first month, and he arrived in Jerusalem on the first day of the fifth month, for the gracious hand of his God was on him.

Besides the blessings from the hand of God, when you are in the hand of God, God is … gracious. God granted Ezra a successful journey, and God receives the glory.

Let’s go to the end of the king’s letter, to Ezra 7:25. The king charges Ezra to keep the law of God and king.

Ezra 7:25-26
And you, Ezra, in accordance with the wisdom of your God, which you possess, appoint magistrates and judges to administer justice to all the people of Trans-Euphrates—all who know the laws of your God. And you are to teach any who do not know them. Whoever does not obey the law of your God and the law of the king must surely be punished by death, banishment, confiscation of property, or imprisonment.

Ezra was charged to uphold the laws of God and to teach those who did not know the law. Punishment could be severe for those who would not obey.

At this point in the book of Ezra, he switches to first person.

Ezra 7:27-28
Praise be to the LORD, the God of our fathers, who has put it into the king’s heart to bring honor to the house of the LORD in Jerusalem in this way and who has extended his good favor to me before the king and his advisers and all the king’s powerful officials. Because the hand of the LORD my God was on me, I took courage and gathered leading men from Israel to go up with me.

Ezra recognized that the Lord was in charge and Dr. Ezra Young was fully learned in what God will was. Ezra was doing the Lord’s will, and so he knew the Lord’s hand was upon him. What did the hand of the Lord provide Ezra? Ok, that was a gimme. Courage. What makes a king out of a slave? Courage. What makes the flag on the mast to wave? Courage. What makes the elephant charge his tusk in the misty mist, or the dusky dusk? What makes the muskrat guard his musk? Courage.

Let’s have the courage, then, to move forward. In Chapter 8, Ezra tells us details about his journey, who the family members were, and then in verse 15, Ezra discovers there are no Levites among the travelers. Levites were necessary because the Mosaic law said that only Levites could carry temple items used in worship, and they had all these temple items. They needed some Levites to accompany them, so they sent word that they needed help.

Ezra 8:18
Since the gracious hand of our God was on us, they sent us a man named Sherebiah, along with eighteen of his sons and brothers. He was a very astute man and a descendant of Mahli, who was a descendant of Levi son of Israel.

We can’t use “gracious” since we already did that, so let’s focus on what God provided. He provided an astute man, a man of insight; some versions use “capable.” What did the gracious hand of God provide? (Wisdom, guidance, … ) and then in verse 21,

Ezra 8:21-23
There, by the Ahava Canal, I proclaimed a fast, so that we might humble ourselves before our God and ask him for a safe journey for us and our children, with all our possessions. I was ashamed to ask the king for soldiers and horsemen to protect us from enemies on the road, because we had told the king, “The gracious hand of our God is on everyone who looks to him, but his great anger is against all who forsake him.” So we fasted and petitioned our God about this, and he answered our prayer.

The gracious hand of God provided … protection. Ezra was quite concerned about the success of this journey, it was roughly 800 miles and they would be carrying a significant amount of gold and silver and relics. And they had already boasted to the king how great God is. Ezra was ashamed to ask for protection. I’m not so sure this was the wisest move – God certainly expects us to depend on each other, and Ezra had already accepted help from the king in a financial way, but no doubt Ezra as a Levitical priest who studied and taught every day and has a book in the bible named after him might have a better understanding of God than I do. So the hand of Lord on Ezra brought him safely to Jerusalem with all the temple articles intact.

When they arrived at Jerusalem, they counted and weighed all the silver and gold and found it was all present and accounted for, so they sacrificed burnt offerings to the Lord, and everybody lived happily ever after. Well, at least until Book 9.

In Book 9 of Ezra, Ezra discovers the people of Israel had been unfaithful to the Lord. Before I cover this part of Ezra, remember what Dr. Young – Ed Young, not Ezra Young – taught this past autumn about claiming God’s promises? When you study the Word of God, you must be careful to see if the Word applies to you, to a particular person, to a particular time. Sometimes the bible teaches us about God through scripture that applies to a specific place and time. When God told Moses to use his staff to part the waters of the Red Sea and then lead Israel does not mean that you should get a staff and part the waters of Lake Conroe and then the greater Houston area will follow you. The scripture applied to a particular place and time. We can learn from such scripture – in the case of Moses, we can learn about obedience, faith, fear, and so on, but not necessarily about flood control.

In Book 9, Ezra is approached by the leaders of Jerusalem with bad news.

Ezra 9:1-2
After these things had been done, the leaders came to me and said, “The people of Israel, including the priests and the Levites, have not kept themselves separate from the neighboring peoples with their detestable practices, like those of the Canaanites, Hittites, Perizzites, Jebusites, Ammonites, Moabites, Egyptians and Amorites. They have taken some of their daughters as wives for themselves and their sons, and have mingled the holy race with the peoples around them. And the leaders and officials have led the way in this unfaithfulness.”

Israel is special to the Lord. Israel is the Lord’s holy people. And the accusation here is very specific – the men and priests and Levites had not separated themselves and kept their nation holy as God had commanded. The problem here is not one of marriage – while Exodus 34:11-16 and Deuteronomy 7:1-4 prohibited foreign marriages, Joseph and Moses married foreign wives and God did not condemn them. Rahab and Ruth were not only foreign wives that God praised, they’re also listed in the genealogy of Jesus. Clearly it is not the fact that the women were foreign.

No, the problem here is who they married. There are eight neighboring people listed here that had what? Detestable practices. The Hebrew word for doing these “detestable practices” is “tow’ebah” (to-ay-baw’) which means a disgusting, wicked ritual abomination. The Lord God was thoroughly repulsed that His chosen people were marrying pagan women, and the husbands were casually accepting and tolerating the worship of false Gods in their homes. When God says “Thou shalt have no other God before me,” it’s not a polite request, it’s a commandment.

What’s worse, it wasn’t just the men of Israel marrying women who were religiously unclean, but it was the priests and Levites marrying them, too. These were the men responsible for maintaining the holiness of Israel, and instead they were leading the abominations. Instead of remaining holy, Israel was becoming indistinguishable from its pagan neighbors.

The word holy means “set apart”. The church sanctuary is holy; it is set apart for the use of God. My car, even though I drive it to church, is not holy since I drive it to work and the movies and so forth. Marriage is holy matrimony; the relationship we have with our spouses are unique. I have a relationship with Diane that is blessed by God; it is unique and set apart.

Paul says in Ephesians 5:22

“Wives, submit yourselves to your own husbands as you do to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Savior.”

Wives, think about just the last week. How did you treat your husband? What words have you said to him? Did you treat your husband the way the Lord should be treated? Your marriage is holy. Do you seek the Lord’s will daily through study and prayer and treat your husband the way the Lord requires? Let’s pause just a moment to think about that.

Husbands, your turn. Paul says in Ephesians 5:25-27,

Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless.

Husbands, do you give yourself up for your wife? Christ loved the church so much He died on the cross for us. What do you give up for your wife? Do you have selfish needs or habits that annoy your wife? Or do you cleanse her with the word of God? Do you forgive her daily the way Christ forgives you? When you look at her, is she without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish? Do you see her as holy and blameless? Let’s pause for a moment to think about that, but not as long because we husbands don’t have that sort of attention span.

Holy things are set apart for the glory of God. Israel as God’s chosen people were to remain holy, yet they participated in acts abhorrent to God. If you thought of something about your holy marriage that abhorred you, you can understand Ezra’s response. The first thing Ezra did in verse 9:3 was to tear his clothes and pull out the hair from his head and beard and sit down appalled. Convicted of sin. Devastated. The Hebrew word is “shamem” (shaw-mame’) which is the same word used after a locust plague devours a field. Ezra had spent his life in devotion, study, and application of God’s word, only to find that God’s holy people had defiled themselves.

Ezra was a true man of God, though, and even in his desolation, he continued to do God’s will. Ezra was convicted of his sin. The fact that it was his people sinning and not him specifically didn’t matter; Ezra included himself in the conviction of sin. Verse 4 says “everyone who trembled at the words of the God of Israel gathered around me because of this unfaithfulness.” It was a sudden realization of their sin, a realization that they had been living a lie. Telling themselves that their little sin was ok, but it grew into a big societal sin that permeated even the religious leaders. As a society, we have tolerated a little sin in each other that has grown into a much larger sin that permeates even the religious leaders of some churches, have we not? I sometimes wonder if we’ve truly learned God’s lessons 2500 years after Ezra.

Not everybody gathered around Ezra; only those that trembled at God’s word. Ungodly people do not tremble at God’s word; ungodly people do not become convicted of their sin and gather around religious leaders. They may have trembled also because if you remember, the king told Ezra that Ezra was to teach and uphold the law and execute his people that didn’t.

That evening, still with torn clothes and hair, Ezra fell on his knees and prayed. The word used implies falling not just once but repeatedly. This was the second thing Ezra did after his conviction. I wish we had time to read Ezra’s prayer slowly and dissect it. It begins with confession, “I am too ashamed and disgraced, my God, to lift up my face to you, because our sins are higher than our heads and our guilt has reached to the heavens.” Consider this your homework this week to read Ezra’s prayer in chapter 9 to see how a godly man with the hand of God upon him prays to his maker. First the confession, then praise and thanks, calling the Lord “gracious” for the relief from bondage and for giving them another chance to build a temple to worship Him. Ezra acknowledge specifically their sin; the command from the Lord in Deuteronomy, Isaiah, and Ezekial were to enter the promised land, not to even seek a friendship with their detestable neighbors, and instead they married their daughters. Then Ezra acknowledges God’s sovereignty and wisdom, that God has every right to destroy them all and not even leave a remnant this time, but also acknowledging that God’s grace has punished them less than they deserved. The third thing Ezra did was to repent of the sin.

The fourth thing that Ezra did after his conviction was to correct the error. After conviction of sin and then praying, action must follow or it is not true repentance. If the people of Israel are to be holy and set apart, then all impurities must be eliminated. This is true in your marriage, too. If your marriage is to be holy and set apart, then any impurities must be removed. In Ezra 10, the holy people of Israel realized that to be pure in God’s sight, they must send the foreign women away. They interpreted Deuteronomy 24:1-4 that a husband was to write a “divorce certificate” and place it in her hand if the there was “something improper about her.”

Now the word “divorce” is very rare in the Old Testament and it’s not used here in Ezra; the word is that the foreign wives were “sent away” with custody of their children. Now here is where we say this does not apply specifically to us. Even if your wife is pagan and worshipping idols, you don’t send her away. You are not the people of Israel and part of God’s chosen people and to be kept apart and holy. You are a Christian spouse. There was plenty of confusion about Deuteronomy’s rules; “something improper” could mean she snores too loud. In the 10th book of Mark, Jesus says it was because of Israel’s hard hearts that Moses wrote that law, but under the new covenant the rules were clarified. Paul clarified it some more in 1 Corinthians 10:16-17; the unbelieving wife or husband is sanctified through his or her spouse. So if your husband leaves the socks on the floor yet again, sending him back to Egypt is not an option, ok? Just want to be clear on that.

Ezra 10:12 says the whole assembly responded in a loud voice, “You are right, but not now, it’s raining!” They realized that unraveling the sin was going to take both time and accountability, so they spent several days appointing leaders for accountability and to investigate all the marriages in Jerusalem and to make proper arrangements to send the foreign women back to their pagan societies. And all of those guilty had their names written down here in Ezra 10:18 for us to see 2500 years later. Each of the men listed repented of their sin and offered sacrifices for their guilt. OK, now they all lived happily ever after, at least until we turn to the book of Nehemiah next month.

So let’s summarize what we’ve learned today. This is the type of person that God will put his hand on:

• One who is devoted to the Lord;
• One who studies the Word;
• One who obeys the Word;
• One who applies the Word in service to others.

This is what the hand of the Lord provides;
• Blessings
• Grace
• Success
• Courage
• Wisdom, guidance
• Protection

When sin is in our lives, we
• Are convicted
• Repent
• Pray
• Act

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