Today we pick up Ezra again as he leads a group of more than 1500 Jews to Jerusalem in a “second wave” of resettlement in 458 BC. They are given the blessing and support of the new king Artaxerxes. Not only does he provide financial support, but he also makes a decree that none of the priests, temple servants, or workers in the house of God will be taxed or made to pay tribute, and places on Ezra the responsibility to teach the people the laws of God.
I’m always fascinated by the numbers when we read stories like these. This was not about buying plane tickets or renting a fleet of buses or semi-tractor trailers to move them. All their possessions were loaded up on camels and donkeys and carts (I suppose). The 900-mile journey from Babylon to Jerusalem took 4 months! They were carrying a lot of stuff, particularly silver and gold coins and articles for the temple treasury. I ran the numbers based on the current price of silver and gold per ounce. They left Babylon with $15.5 million in silver and $181 million in gold by today’s standard.
The journey back to Jerusalem would have taken them through territories occupied by other nations as well as places where thieves and bandits roamed. Before they leave Babylon, Ezra calls the people to 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.” (8:21) We often pray for “safe travels” for one another, and we don’t think much about it, but Ezra took this very seriously. Not only did he know the dangers they could potentially face, he also had another, more pressing reason, to seek God’s protection.
“I was ashamed to request from the king troops and horsemen to protect us from the enemy on the way, because we had said to the king, ‘The hand of our God is favorably disposed to all those who seek Him, but His power and His anger are against all those who forsake Him.’ So we fasted and sought our God concerning this matter, and He listened to our entreaty.” (8:22-23)
Ezra’s faith was in God, not the king. He asked for God’s protection because it was God’s reputation and name at stake. He had told this heathen king about his God, and he wanted God to get all the credit and glory for their safe arrival in Jerusalem.
What’s the takeaway? Do we have faith like Ezra, to make our way across a hostile desert, loaded with treasures that our enemies would love to steal, trusting only in God to protect us? Or have we told everyone around us how big our God is, but are trusting in other things to get us through? What do we rely on when we’re afraid, or stressed, or tired, or overwhelmed? Do we turn to God, or to other people or things to fix it? What do we do when God calls us to step out in faith? Wait until we have everything we need around us to make us feel safe and able to accomplish the task? Or do we load up the treasures He’s blessed us with, climb on our donkey, and set out in the confidence that His hand is upon us?
Where did Ezra’s confidence come from? How did he have such courage? He had not found it in himself, nor is the king’s affirmation his support. Instead, his confidence was rooted in the truth of God’s word, “for Ezra had set his heart to study the law of the Lord and to practice it, and to teach His statutes and ordinances in Israel.” (7:10) Ezra did not step out in blind faith but in full assurance of the Word of God which had guided his life already. Did God come through? Yes, He did. And He will come through for us, too, as we build our lives on His Word, and live by faith in it. When we surrender our lives to its truth, we can confidently say with Ezra, “the good hand of our God is upon us.” (7:9)