Many people find this list of names dull. But in other contexts we find lists fascinating. It all depends on whether you have a connection or not.
Some of you will remember listening to the day’s football scores on the radio, before the days of ready internet news. Manchester City, 2; Crystal Palace, nil, expertly read by James Alexander Gordon. People would listen, fascinated, to the whole thing, every week.
Every Remembrance Day, we read out the list of those from Kemsing who gave their lives in the two great wars of the last century. I can assure you that when the practice was first started, those were household names. People knew the individuals, and many were members of their families. Listening to their names was not dull.
I’ve never been to the Menin Gate in Ypres. But I’ve not spoken to one person who has who would describe it as dull. It is profoundly moving. There are 54,395 names inscribed. Each one a story.
For the first readers of Ezra, these people were heroes. If we want to hear this passage speak to us, we need to reconnect with their day.
Let me recap where we are. We’re in the year 539 BC. There’s more of the history in last week’s sermon, which you can listen to on our website. The people of Israel were exiled to Babylon between the years 606 and 586 BC. In 539, the Persian empire defeated the Babylonians, and King Cyrus gave the people permission to return.
The problem was that 50 to 70 years is a long time, and many of the people were comfortable in Babylon. But God wanted his people to return, so chapter 1 verse 5 tells us that all those whose hearts God had moved returned to rebuild the temple in Jerusalem.
They were the heroes who responded to God’s call. And chapter 2 contains a list of those heroes. This is the record of everyone whose heart God had moved.
And the list was recorded to honour these people. To hold them up as examples so that those of a later generation might be inspired to respond to God in a similar way.
So we’re going to look at how these people are portrayed here as examples.
But before we do, let me make an aside. As Christians we believe that the Bible is the word of God. It’s how Jesus taught us to read it. So as we hear what each part is saying, we are listening to something God wants to say to us. It’s why we work through books of the Bible, in order, at an even speed. If that’s our view of the Bible, we can’t hit a chapter like Ezra 2, and decide that this bit’s too dull so we’ll skip it. We may have to work a little harder to see what it says today, but this chapter is the word of God for us, like every other chapter. It’s why I wanted us to have it read, in full, and why we’re about to look at it together.
So then, here are 4 ways these folk are held up as examples, people who should inspire us as we seek to follow God.
Part of God’s historic people
Number 1, they were part of God’s historic people. Part of God’s historic people.
The list is at pains to show that these people were not some brand new beginning. They were God continuing his plan that was centuries old.
Let me show you that in a number of ways, and then explain how this is inspiring for us.
Start with verse 1. This is a reversal of the exile. The people had taken a trip from Jerusalem to Babylon. This is the reversal of that trip. Sure, we’re now talking about the grandchildren of the original exiles, but it’s still God rewinding the story. You know that trick in films where you see a few seconds of something happen, and then you see it rewound, played backwards at speed. That’s what the writer is doing here.
The people who return had some leaders who get listed in verse 2. There’s two things to notice about this list of leaders.
Firstly, the list starts with Zerubbabel and Joshua. The people of Israel were led by two groups that had very distinct roles: they had kings and priests. We learn in Matthew chapter 1 that Zerubbabel was descended from King David himself. He’s not a king, because the Persians are in charge, but God is continuing the line of kings. And Joshua? You guessed it. He’s a priest. He’s called that in chapter 3, verse 2, and in the opening verse of Haggai he’s called a High Priest!
The leaders of those who returned include the two key leaders they had in the old days.
Second, there are 11 names here. There’s a very similar list in Nehemiah chapter 8, where there are 12 names. 12 leaders of the people, just as they originally had 12 tribes each with a leader. Nobody knows why there are only 11 names here. Maybe one got lost from this list fairly early in the copying process. Maybe Ezra deliberately left one out to highlight that there’s more to God’s purposes to come, and this return isn’t everything. Either way: God is rebuilding his ancient people.
Then the list goes on. When God gave Israel their land, each family was given a parcel of land that had to be passed on in their family. The people were disobedient, and the land shrunk, which means that some families lost their ancestral land. So the next bit of the list is in two halves. Some people are identified by the town they came from, others by the name of their ancestor. But in either case, the point is that these are not some new people being given the land. These are the people of Israel, returning to the land of their fathers.
In fact, we get a few people in verse 59 who could not prove that they were descended from those who left the land 50 years earlier. 652 of them. We’re not told what this meant for them, but we are told that this was a bother. It was noticed, and it was a problem of some kind. Because it mattered that there was continuity between those who returned and those who left.
These people were part of God’s historic people.
Why does this matter? If you’re a Christian, you’re not doing something small that matters little. This is not some sideshow for people with nothing better to do on a Sunday. God has had a plan to take a vast multitude of people and bring them into his family, a new humanity living under his blessing. It’s a plan he first announced nearly 4000 years ago. And you are invited to join the biggest story in the history of mankind, the main course, the central act, to be in on the action.
When the history of the human race is being told, the big events that defined us will not be Brexit, the two world wars, the founding of the Americas, or the Magna Carta. The big story will be God establishing a people for himself.
We all hate the feeling that others are enjoying something and we’ve been left out. Watching a group of friends reporting on Facebook about their great night out, only one of them was missing because they hadn’t realised it was happening. We’ve all been that person. But when it comes to the event, not just of the century, but of all of history, we don’t need to miss out. Because the people of God is the people of God. And you are invited. Just come to Jesus Christ.
Part of God’s historic people.
Gave up everything for God’s kingdom
We’re looking at how the people in this list are intended as an inspiration to us.
Number 2: They gave up everything for God’s kingdom. Gave up everything for God’s kingdom.
This doesn’t need much explaining. But let’s chew on it for a moment.
When Israel left Egypt, there were about 2 million of them. Now there are just 42,000.
As we’ve said, these are those whose hearts God had moved. The exiles had settled down in Babylon and made a life for themselves. Things were comfortable, and the idea of leaving all that behind to rebuild your grandparents’ ruins is loopy. Unless God stirs up something deep inside you.
And in this, these returnees are a wonderful example and a challenge for us.
Jesus said that this, Mark chapter 8, verse 34: “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me and for the gospel will save it.”
God’s plan today no longer centres on the city of Jerusalem, but back then Jesus had not come and it did. These people got the fact that God’s plan, God’s purposes, God’s kingdom were not about them enjoying Babylonian life. God was calling them to give up everything. Their homes. Their lands. Their children’s schools. To go and rebuild the temple and city of Jerusalem.
Jesus calls us to give up everything to follow him. For many people, that is too much, and they never start out as Christians. For others of us, we’re fine with it in principle. And at first, Jesus calls us to follow him in exactly the circumstances in which we came to him. But then one day Jesus calls in one of the things we handed over in principle when we became Christians. And then we say, “I’m sorry, that’s too much.”
And yet it was not too much for Jesus himself. He left heaven, and surrendered his own life, so that we might join his family and be with him in glory. He gave up everything, and these people in Ezra 2 are heroes because they were willing to give up everything to build God’s kingdom.
Are you up for this? Are you willing to hand everything over to the risen Jesus. They gave up everything for God’s kingdom.
Gave generously for God’s work
Number 3, this group gave generously for God’s work. Gave generously for God’s work.
Look what happens when they arrive in Jerusalem, verses 68 and 69: “When they arrived at the house of the Lord in Jerusalem, some of the heads of the families gave freewill offerings towards the rebuilding of the house of God on its site. According to their ability they gave to the treasury for this work 61,000 darics of gold, 5,000 minas of silver and 100 priestly garments.”
These were freewill offerings. God commanded the people go give a tithe, a tenth of all they earnt or their land produced. That was what they had to give. This was extra, over, above.
What’s more, the cost of rebuilding the temple was provided in full by the king, and by the people who gave to them as they left Babylon. This was extra, over, above.
And look what it was. How much gold is 61,000 darics? Footnote: 500 kilograms. Today that’s worth 15 million pounds. And silver? 5,000 minas. Or 2.8 metric tons. Another million pounds. This is extraordinary generosity.
And what was it for? They gave it towards the rebuilding of the house of God. They gave to the treasury for this work.
Now, what’s the equivalent today? This is not about paying for the upkeep of church buildings. Nor even is it about the cost of building a church hall, although there are some who wish that it was about that.
The language of temple moves on as we read through the Bible. The first place that “temple” language lands is with Jesus himself. In the John’s gospel he said he would rebuild the temple in three days. The people of his time did not understand, but John records that he was speaking of his own body, raised to life on the third day. In the Old Testament, if you wanted to meet with God, you had to go to the temple, a building. But Jesus’ death and resurrection made it possible for us to know God. Now we don’t need to go to any building, not to a temple, not to church. We just need to go to Jesus.
But then the language of temple keeps reshaping. In the letters of Ephesians and 1 Peter, the temple being built is now the church, the body of all Christian men, women and children – down the ages, around the world. Peter says that we’re being built together into God’s new temple, like living stones.
So we’re building a temple today. But it’s not made of bricks. It’s made of people. Followers of Jesus Christ. We grow numerically, as more people follow Jesus and join his church. We grow in maturity, as we put down deeper roots, and grow to know and love him more.
And doing that costs money.
These folk are an inspiration and an example for us. They had little. But they knew God had blessed them with the privilege of being part of his plan. So they freely chose to give to the work of building his temple, above and beyond what they had to give, above and beyond what was needed.
God has been so generous to us. He’s given us his own son, so that we might become heirs of eternal life. He’s adopted us into his own family, when all we have to pay for it are the debts we run up by our own sin.
That should prompt us to give generously, sacrificially, and regularly towards the building of his new temple, giving to this church, or to other ministries that help people to come to know Jesus for themselves.
They gave generously for God’s work.
Committed to being God’s holy people
Lastly, they were committed to being God’s holy people. Committed to being God’s holy people.
This is the curious detail in verses 61 to 63:
And from among the priests: The descendants of Hobaiah, Hakkoz and Barzillai (a man who had married a daughter of Barzillai the Gileadite and was called by that name). These searched for their family records, but they could not find them and so were excluded from the priesthood as unclean. The governor ordered them not to eat any of the most sacred food until there was a priest ministering with the Urim and Thummim.
Here were three groups of priests who could not prove their ancestry.
Just to explain a bit about priests. Jacob, also known as Israel, had 12 sons, which became the 12 tribes of Israel. One of them was the tribe of Levi. Levi had a descendant name Aaron, who was Moses’ brother. God chose Aaron and his descendants to be the priests for Israel. They alone could go into the inner sanctuary where God lived, and offer sacrifices for the people.
The rest of the tribe of Levi also served in the temple. They had various jobs to help. When the temple was a portable tent, they were in charge of putting it up, packing it away, and carrying it. They had various practical jobs to help the worship run smoothly. But they were not to enter God’s presence to offer sacrifices.
In fact, there were a number of incidents in Old Testament history when various people decided that the priests were being a little selfish keeping all the good jobs for themselves. So they took it on themselves to offer sacrifices that only the priests should offer. And they paid for it with their lives, usually instantly.
God is holy. He is not to be messed with, not to be treated casually. He can be known. He can be approached. But only when sin has been dealt with, and only on his terms.
I saw the most extraordinary photos on the BBC news website this week of some divers off the coast of Hawaii. They were filming tiger sharks feeding on a dead sperm whale, when one of the largest great white sharks in the ocean turned up. The tiger sharks scarpered, but what about the photographers? Nope. They enjoyed the chance to swim alongside, and even to touch the great white, for the rest of the day.
One of the divers said, “I thought my heart was about to explode”. It seems to me that was the least of her problems. And then the news article says this: “Older, pregnant great white sharks were the safest to swim near but cautioned against swimming anywhere where sharks were feeding.” I’ll remember that: Don’t go swimming with great whites when they’re trying to eat.
The reason these descendants were excluded from the priesthood was to protect them. This could save their lives.
By the way, most people think that Urim and Thummim were two gem stones that the high priest kept in his breastpiece to seek the Lord’s will. One said “yes”, and one said “no”. So this would have given a way to ask the Lord whether these families were true priests or not. But for the time being, don’t chance it.
Once again, what for us? We only have one priest today. That’s Jesus. He offered the only sacrifice we ever need, which is himself.
But the whole group in Ezra 2 knew that God was holy, and therefore how God says they should live really matters. We’ll see later on that they don’t stay quite so hot on this throughout the book, but at this stage, they knew that God was holy, and therefore they had to be too.
So they lived God’s way, and they took it seriously. We need to recover a little of this in our own day. We’ve lost site of the fact that our God is holy, unapproachable, utterly bright and perfect. And so we don’t realise how serious it is when God calls us to live by his standards, to adopt his attitudes, his thoughts, his ways. We are now the people of the living, holy God.
They were committed to being God’s holy people.
These people are listed out in full, because they show us what a true response to God’s faithfulness looks like.
Each and every one of them matters. All 42,360 of them.
They were part of God’s historic people. Come and join the main event in world history, if you haven’t already done so.
They gave up everything for God’s kingdom. Jesus gave up everything for you. Is anything he asks of us going to be too much?
They gave generously for God’s work. Building a temple costs money, especially a living one. We serve a generous God, which calls forth our own generosity.
They were committed to being God’s holy people. The unapproachable God has drawn near to us, that we might draw near to him, and be transformed by him.