The Hand of YHWH
Rev. Toh Nee Lim | On 28, May 2019
Scripture Reading: Ezra 7:1-8
‘Now after these things, in the reign of Artaxerxes king of Persia, there went up Ezra son of Seraiah, son of Azariah, son of Hilkiah, son of Shallum, son of Zadok, son of Ahitub, son of Amariah, son of Azariah, son of Meraioth, son of Zerahiah, son of Uzzi, son of Bukki, son of Abishua, son of Phinehas, son of Eleazar, son of Aaron the chief priest. This Ezra went up from Babylon, and he was a scribe skilled in the law of Moses, which the LORD God of Israel had given; and the king granted him all he requested because the hand of the LORD his God was upon him. Some of the sons of Israel and some of the priests, the Levites, the singers, the gatekeepers and the temple servants went up to Jerusalem in the seventh year of King Artaxerxes. He came to Jerusalem in the fifth month, which was in the seventh year of the king.’
The first six chapters of the book of Ezra tells us about the return of the Jews from Babylon to Jerusalem under the leadership of Zerubbabel, the royal line (the seed to the Messiah) and Jeshua, the priestly line. About 50,000 Jews left Babylon at that time. It is a remnant compared to millions who lived there during the Kingdom Period. It was written that during the peak of the Davidic Kingdom there were already at least 1 million solders in Israel: so, a million soldiers have wives, parents, children. The figure is astronomical. But now it is just a remnant. We are always a remnant in this world. How many are truly born-again Christians in this world of 7.6 Billion people? I can only tell you that it is a remnant. We are that remnant that came from Quezon Street to Tabuc Suba. I mean there are at least 700,000 people in this city alone and Etab is just 700 to 800 people. The Jews had gone into captivity because they continually turned to idolatry and God gave them up to Babylon. They probably did not think it was too important. They thought they were getting by with breaking the Law. Many Christians always think that the Law of God is not too important. We always think that we can get by with breaking the Law. I have lived long enough as a Christian to know that it is not true. These 40 years as a Christian I have learned that I cannot think that the Law of God is not too important. I cannot think that I can get by with breaking the Law of God, even as a pastor. Also, the Jews had disobeyed the Mosaic Law in that they had not allowed the land to lie fallow every seventh year. We cannot afford not to rest every Sabbath to come to the house of the LORD. Sabbath means the 7th. You have to rest and come to the house of God on Sunday, the LORD’s day. Many Christian has disobeyed the Law of God in that they had not allowed themselves to rest every 7th day. Then we come to the part of our message this morning. Ezra led a second group back to Jerusalem. I have learned to respect and revere Ezra. Ezra is one of the most neglected characters in the Bible. I do not believe he has received proper recognition by Bible expositors, and certainly not from the church. I wonder if you have ever heard a sermon on the Book of Ezra. Well, it is a book that is easily passed by. But in this message, we are going to get acquainted with Ezra. What can we learn can from this passage of scripture?
1. The Release Involved the Number 7
Ezra 7:7-8: ‘Some of the sons of Israel and some of the priests, the Levites, the singers, the gatekeepers and the temple servants went up to Jerusalem in the seventh year of King Artaxerxes. He came up to Jerusalem in the fifth month, which was in the seventh year of the king.’
Just in these two verses, the number 7 was mentioned twice already. Kindly understand that this message come out of my daily devotion with God. I have a bible study plan which simply put; to try and finish the bible in one year. I have finished Samuels, Kings and Chronicles. The next 3 books is about the return from captivity; Ezra, Nehemiah and Esther. I did not purposely concoct a message on the number 7. On the contrary I feel that God is trying to say something to us this year especially; the 7th years. We are told some of the sons of Israel, some of the priests, the Levites the singers, the gatekeepers and the temple servants came back Jerusalem in the 7th year of the reign of Artaxerxes. Ezra himself led this expedition; around 2000 of them. They came to Jerusalem in the 7th year of the reign of the King. 7 has become such a significant number especially in the book of Ezra and Nehemiah and Esther. Ezra, Nehemiah and Esther are compilation of the release of captivity for the people of God. The year of release has something to do with the release from captivity of our lives; bondages, sins, debts, slavery. It takes 3 books to describe what happen to the people of God in the year of release. 7 will be filled with significant events for Etab because it is also the year of release. The use of the number 7 especially in Esther 1 is recurrent one (repeated, regular, persistent). The Jews started returning after the 70th year of captivity (the number 7). in Ezra 7:7 (again 7:7) in the 7th year of the reign of Artaxerxes, the children of Israel, the Priests, the Levites, the singers (who are the Musicians in the Temple), the porters (who are the gatekeepers) and the Nethinim all came back to Jerusalem. Priests must return to God. Levites, Musicians and Singers must return to God. I want to ask some of you? When are you going to really return to God? The gatekeepers are protectors of the house of God and the body of the church; they are warlike in character. The gatekeepers must return to God. The Nethinim are the temple servants. Those who serve in the house of God: church. The word Nethinim means ‘those set apart’ or ‘dedicated ones’ to the menial work of the sanctuary for the Levites. Tradition tells us they are the Gibeonites who deceived Joshua and were made servants by Joshua, David’s captives from wars and brought to Jerusalem are part of the Nethinim. These people became servants to the Levites. So, the year of release is also for those who serves the church, who serves the leadership of the church. The group of people are from the greatest to the smallest. Release is not only for the great but also for the small. Release is not only for the rich but also for the poor. The 7th month is the Jewish New Year Festival called the Feast of Trumpets and is known as Rosh Ha-Shanah which they celebrated after the return from captivity. Rosh Ha-Shanah means the head of the year, the beginning of the year, the New Year. It signifies the renewal of new covenant for Christians. And apparently seven was a special number for Persians as it was for the Jews in the book of Esther; Esther 1:5,10,14,2:9); details 7 days in the court of the garden of the King’s palace, on the 7th day when the heart of the king was merry, the 7 princes of Persia, 7 maiden that were to be given to Esther. On this 7th year our King’s heart, YHWH is merry. God is happy today especially this year and He wants to release you from your captivity.
2. The Release has an Ezra
Ezra 7:1 ‘Now after these things, in the reign of Artaxerxes King of Persia, there went up Ezra.’
In the 7th year of Artaxerxes, he sent Ezra to Jerusalem. Ezra was the son of Hilkiah, the High Priest under King Josiah. He was of the descendant of Eleazar, the son of Aaron. The bible carefully trace the genealogy of Ezra in Ezra 7:1-5, it was written about nothing but the genealogy of Ezra. Not only the royal line is important (the seed to the messiah). The Levitical lines is equally important. We are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood. His name means ‘help’ which implies that ‘YHWH has helped.’ In the year of release, YHWH has come down to help. I love Ezra. I learned a lot about him recently. He was described as ‘a ready scribe’ in the Law of Moses. Ezra 7:6 tells us that he was ‘a scribe skilled in the Law of Moses’. Ezra is such an important figure in Rabbinical Judaism. He is seen as a compiler and editor of the entire Old Testament, as well as the founder of the great synagogue which historically begins after the captivity. I mean that is 2500 years ago. And there are synagogues everywhere in the world today. There are synagogues in New York, in Singapore, in France, in the Philippines and everywhere. I remembered I passed by a Synagogue in Singapore and I saw Jews coming out of the Synagogue and I cried out ‘YHWH, where are you?’ And YHWH heard me. The church’s origin traces its root to the Synagogue. The chief mechanism of the preservation of the culture, tradition, behavior, customs, even the Jewish people was the local synagogue. The church has a different culture, belief, behavior from the people of the land, the people of this world. The chief mechanism that allowed us to maintain our culture and tradition, our belief, our behavior, we as a Christian, is the church. God loves the church. Recently I realize how much God loves the church. You must never be an instrument to undermine the unity, preservation of the church. He that hurt the church, God will hurt. He who causes division in the church, God will mark him. Ezra is a scribe. The term ‘scribe’ refers to someone who could read and write and who has been trained in particular area. Here it would refer to Hebrew Old Testament literature and its interpretation. The scribe later became the rabbi in Jewish history. One would ask them a question and they would apply the teachings of Scriptures to that issue particularly the writings of Moses. When you say Ezra is ‘skilled’ in the Law of Moses, the term literally means ‘rapid’, which is a metaphor for proficiency or enthusiasm. And for Ezra his skills came about ‘which the LORD God of Israel had given’. It is stating that his skills comes about because of God’s equipping and gifting which is necessary for effective ministry. I feel that if we want to totally experience the year of release there has to be people in the church that is skilled in the word of God, equipped and gifted by God for effective ministry and to expound the Word of God to cause about the year of release. He or she is used by God to start a revival, renewal campaign. The year of Release is also a revival, renewal campaign. And God uses that person. Why is he or she so effective? ‘Because the hand of the LORD his GOD was upon him’ This is another recurrent idiom. Ezra’s effectiveness was a combination of his yieldedness to God’s will and God’s call and equipping for ministry.
Of course, we have to cooperate with God. Ezra 7:10 says, ‘For Ezra had prepared his heart to seek the Law of the LORD, and to do it, and to teach in Israel statutes and judgements.’ We need people especially the leadership to prepare his heart to seek the Law of the LORD. Another translation says, ‘Ezra had set his heart.’ This verb means ‘be resolute’, ‘be firm’, ‘be prepared.’ ‘be committed to’. Ezra responded to God’s call and actively allowed God to equip him. This is actually a covenant concept.
a. God’s initiation and provision
b. Human’s faith response
In this year of release God initiates and provides. Human’s faith has to respond accordingly. YHWH initiates a call to you to seek the Law of God and you respond in faith. I pray that YHWH give me a heart to seek the Law of God and to do it (obey it). And to teach Etab, YHWH’s statutes and judgements and to allow YHWH to equip me. What are we to be proficient in? His precepts, testimonies, statues, laws, commandments and judgments. We are ‘to study, to practice and to teach.’ This is a chronologically appropriate order for studying, practicing and then teaching the truths of God. Knowledge brings responsibility to God; to ourselves and to others.
I am going to say something that is very important and it relates to the year of release. The centrality of the church is the Word of God. The influence of the Word of God transcend the church ritual as the focus of worship. Ezra 8:5 says, ‘Ezra opened the book in the sight of all the people and when he opened it, all the people stood up.’ This is a sign of respect at the reading of God’s word. As 7 is the recurring number in Ezra, Nehemiah and Esther, God’s word is a recurring theme in Ezra and Nehemiah. The word ‘book’ can mean scroll; if so ‘opened’. The Word of God has to be opened in our lives. Ezra the scribe is so important because the Jewish and later the Christian tradition of standing when the word of God is read comes from this verse. As the Old Testament is followed by the New Testament, as God replaced the Old Covenant with the New Covenant, there is a transition from the centrality of the Priesthood (representing the temple) to the leadership of the Prophet (I mean there was no Temple for at least 70 years, so they move from the temple to the prophets). So, the centrality was shifted to the Prophet. Today there is another transition; the influence of the Word of God (scroll of Moses) transcend the temple ritual as the focus of worship. You have to listen carefully; the centrality of the synagogue is the Word of God. The supremacy of the church is the Word of God. The church patterns itself after the synagogue because the synagogue was in existence during the time of Jesus; and the church follows its pattern. What is the centrality of the Synagogue today? They will take out the book of the Torah and read it. Jesus went into the Synagogue and the scroll of Isaiah was handed to him. The influence of the Word of God transcend the temple ritual as the focus of worship. Yes, they still performed the temple rituals, like observance of the Sabbaths, but the study of the Word of God, as seen in the development of the Synagogue and today the church becomes the focus of daily life. The Word of God is a recurrent emphasis in Ezra and in Nehemiah. YHWH does not manifest Himself in the awesome physical ways that He did during the Exodus or Dedication of Solomon’s temple, but His power, promises and presence are fully revealed in His Word (by faith). You want to experience the fullness of the Year of Release. Be skilled in the Word of God. I notice that many of you loves to pattern after Pastor Lily. You love her cooking skills, her oratorical skills, her leadership skills, her charismatic way, her strong leadership. I always wonder, if you really want to be like Pastor Lily, why can’t you pattern your life after her in her prayer life and study of the Word of God? You want to be like Pastor Lily, which I am not saying it is correct, because we are to be like Jesus; but if you really want to be like Pastor Lily, why can’t you be like her in your prayer life and the study of the Word of God. We need Ezra in the church, to see the full release of YHWH; a man skilled in the Law of God. Israel is still a nation. Israel has not lost its culture, faith, behavior and custom in YHWH because of the Synagogue. The Christian will not lose its culture, faith and behavior and custom in Jesus because of the Church. These two entities: the Synagogue and the church traces its origin from one-man: Ezra. And the Centrality of the Synagogue and the Church is the Word of God. The Spirit of the World is trying to change the Law of the land. They have already done a lot of harm. The approval of abortion. Taiwan has become the first Asian country to approve of Gay Marriage. Thailand is trying to legalize Marijuana in its constitution. Singapore is fighting very hard against a small group of people to approve of Marijuana as a medicinal drug and remove the death penalty. Malaysia is trying to remove the death penalty. Philippines under Arroyo has removed the death penalty. I would like to add a practical word which I consider a logical application to our present condition. There are many judges, senators, congressmen, Prime Ministers, Presidents, who feel that capital punishment (death penalty) is brutal, uncivilized and should be abolished. The original purpose of capital punishment was the protection of other human lives. When a guilty person is not executed for his crime, then hundreds have to pay with their lives. Today we are not so safe in our cities because there are no longer executions. Don’t tell me that executions do not deter crime. I have discovered that when a traffic officer writes a ticket it will slow me down on a highway – don’t tell me it does not slow you down. It is a deterrent to crime, and that is its purpose. There was this story in the early days in the West in the United States. A man was asked to say something before he was hanged for a murder he had committed. This was the statement he made: ‘I want you to know that this is going to be a lesson to me’. Well my friend, that was not the purpose of his hanging. It was not to be a lesson to him. It was to protect the men, women and children who were living in that day. Why don’t we face up to the facts in life today? Why can’t we see that we are sacrificing hundreds of lives to protect one criminal? God does not do it that way, because He wants to save human life; and He know how bad the human heart can be. God says, ‘The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked.’
Actually, whatever reasoning you give, I am just going to say that if you are against capital punishment, you are going against God who is the originator of capital punishment. The removal of Capital Punishment is changing the Law of God. The Spirit of Antichrist is trying to change the Law of the Land. Daniel 7:25 says, ‘And he (the antichrist) shall speak great words against the Most High, and shall wear out the saints of the Most High, and think to change times and laws.’
We must not lose our culture, faith, behavior and custom in YHWH. How? The Word. The centrality of the Church is the Word of God. The Word of God is the focus of our worship.
Please understand that Ezra did not start that way. Apparently, Ezra did not feel like returning to Jerusalem with the first delegation. There was no place for him in Jerusalem. Now there is a temple and he decided he has something to do now because he was from the priestly lineage of Aaron. He is going to be a teacher of the Word; and especially skilled at it. Today you have Etab; the church of Jesus Christ. There is something you can do; be skilled in the Word of God.
The bible says Ezra ‘was a ready scribe in the Law of Moses’. Ezra spent time studying the Word of God. Now he is going to be able to use what he has learned. That is the meaning of ‘a ready scribe’. You will find out that Ezra is labelled ‘ a ready scribe’ again and again. How about you?
3. The Release has the good hand of the LORD in it
Ezra 7:6 says, ‘the king granted him all he requested because the hand of the LORD his God was upon him’.
The hand of YHWH was repeated 3 times in chapter 7 and 8 to emphasize its importance. In some version, there is the additional word; the good hand of the LORD. The hand of the LORD is always good. The good hand of the LORD means according to the divine favor or divine care or YHWH arranging events. The good hand of the LORD was upon the year of Release. Kindly understand that the year of release is not concocted by human. It has its origin in YHWH. We just have to cooperate with YHWH and obey the conditions. The bible used Anthropomorphic language, ‘hand’, to describe God, though we know that God is a Spirit and did not take any physical form. These physical metaphors quickly and adequately communicate God’s personhood. God’s hand is a metaphor for His activity in His creation. It is used positively of God’s presence and blessings and even His judgment. I like to call this the unseen hand of God working behind the scene of history especially in the year of release. There is a verse in Esther 2:9 that shows the relationship between the number 7 and the unseen hand of God involved. Esther 2:9 says, ‘And the maiden (Esther) pleased him (Hegai, the Eunuch), and she obtain kindness of him, and he speedily gave her all things for purification, with such things as belong to her, and seven maidens, which were meet to be given her, out of the king’s house: and he preferred her and her maids unto the best place of the house of women. God worked behind the scene. That is the meaning of the unseen hand of God. When it is time for release YHWH worked behind the scene. He planned for Daniel to be assistant to Nebuchadnezzar. He planned for Esther to be Queen to Artaxerxes. He planned for Joseph to be Prime Minister to Pharaoh. He planned for Moses to be son of the Pharaoh’s daughter. He planned for Nehemiah to be Artaxerxes’s cupbearer. He planned for Mordecai to be the king’s gatekeeper (who prevented the assassination of Artaxerxes). And the most beautiful thing about all this planning was all the events took place in the time of the most difficult period of the history of God’s people. Maybe you are in the most difficult period of your life. I have a prophetic download for one of the SOZEEs recently. I saw a gigantic boulder, a huge rock place in the center of a fork road. The boulder is placed just in front of two fork roads. And I saw this SOZEEs prevented from carrying on the road. She tried to remove the boulder but it was so strong, impenetrable, that by just placing her hand on the boulder, she could feel its immense strength. The rock was so strong and whatever strength she uses, the hand bounced back. It would not move even a tiny millimeter. The road is her path of life. The spiritual meaning is she wants to get on in life but was blocked. It was the most difficult period of her life. Then suddenly I saw a small stone that came from the sky and hit the rock and the boulder shattered into pieces. That rock is Jesus and she needs to cooperate with God in her life. YHWH is there all along in the period of our captivity. They all found favor with the most powerful men on earth at their time in history. Esther pleased Hegai, the keeper of women just as Daniel found favor with the Eunuch during Nebuchadnezzar’s time. Hegai is one of Artaxerxes’s eunuchs. Hegai speedily gave her all the things of purification. He gave her 7 maidens. Again, the number 7. He gave her the best place of the house of women. Hegai treated Esther with special favors. The number 7 as I say was special both to the Hebrew, Persians as well as to us Christians. Why did Hegai do all this? Most likely she and Hegai became friends. He saw in Esther the probability of the New Queen and wanted to gain her favor. But most importantly it was the unseen hand of God. Esther has been placed in a special place for God to use at this critical juncture. Esther must choose if she will allow God to work through her life. Some of you are made rich by God. Some are made to hold high position in different institutions. You have to choose if you will allow God to work through you. The most famous verse of Esther is ‘For such a time as this’. It encourages great faith in God’s unseen, but present, care and providence (the unseen, but ever-present hand of God. You have become that channel. The unseen hand of God is involved in the release of favor, from captivity. Let’s look at Esther. The bible says that Esther was taken to the king’s palace. It shows the personal appeal of Esther. Her personality matched her physical beauty. She found favor with the head Eunuch amidst so many other beautiful women. Josephus tells us that there were 400 young ladies when selecting for the next queen. This does not seem impossible since Plutarch the historian mentions that Artaxerxes has 360 concubines. Yet, Esther obtain favor in the sight of all of them that looked upon her. Read this. Esther 2:16, ‘So Esther was taken unto King Ahasuerus into his house royal in the tenth month, which is the month of Tebeth, in the 7th year of his reign. In the 7th year of his reign Esther was made Queen of the Media Persian Empire. The unseen hand of God is involved in the 7th year of release. Esther, most likely is the mother of Artaxerxes, which influenced her son to allow Ezra to return to Jerusalem. The unseen hand of God in the year of release.
Acts 5:29 says, ‘But if God is behind it, you cannot stop it anyway, unless you want to fight against God. Nobody can stop the year of release. The only person is you. Where is your standing with God today? It is the year that God wants to release prisoners, slavery, captivity, debts, bondages and sins. Do you believe? Then call upon God. The unseen hand of YHWH is in this year of release.