Taking Courage in the Hand of God (Ezra 7:11-28)

FPCNorwayEzra: Building the House of God, Sermons

Ezra’s courage is rooted in God’s covenantal promise to glorify himself through the temple. God’s commitment to his glory is a consistent promise in the Bible. His higher goal is the exaltation of his majesty through the beauty of his temple, and he will use anything to do it, even pagan kings. But what is the ultimate temple?

Taking Courage in the Hand of God

Rev. Matthew J. Stanghelle
March 29, 2020

Where do we find courage in the day of crisis? This pandemic that we are living through is shaking the entire world. The amount of uncertainty regarding the state of the global economy, job security, and our health are enough to sink us into a paralysis of gloom. So, where do we find the courage to go on? We must find it in God’s providential control. God is the Lord of creation and providence. He is our creator and sustainer, and he holds our days in the palm of his hand. Every one of our days was numbered and planned before we were born. Therefore, we will find courage for the present trial when we rest in the sovereign hand of our heavenly Father.

This morning we are going to see how the hand of God was on Ezra to bring about a season of revival and reform in Jerusalem. God’s providential care for his people through a pagan king gave Ezra tremendous courage. As we study this passage, I pray that you will find ample recourse to take courage in the sovereign hand of God, even during a global crisis.

We will study our passage through the framework of Ezra’s closing words in verses 27-28.

Blessed be the Lord, the God of our fathers, who put such a thing as this into the heart of the king, to beautify the house of the Lord that is in Jerusalem, and who extended to me his steadfast love before the king and his counselors, and before all the king’s mighty officers. I took courage, for the hand of the Lord my God was on me, and I gathered leading men from Israel to go up with me.           

—Ezra 7:27-28

The hand of God is with Ezra, and to see how that hand is with us still, we will unpack our passage in two parts: (1) the greatest need, and (2) the greater goal.

1. The Greatest Need

The greatest need in Ezra’s day was not freedom from foreign powers. Nor was it for physical health and prosperity. What God’s people need more than anything is to be reformed by the Law of God. We saw last week that God’s people are in desperate need of teachers to show them the ways of God. Israel’s pandemic is a famine for the Word of the Lord.

On top of this, God’s people had been experiencing persecution again. Ezra 4 shows us that continuous opposition fills the time between King Darius’s death and King Artaxerxes’s commission to Ezra. The 30 years leading up to Ezra was a time of significant discouragement. But now, the hand of God is with Ezra to lift his people out of the mire. He is about to bring them into a season of revival and reform.

God is with Ezra because he has a burning passion for the Law of God—a desire to “study the Law of the Lord, and to do it and to teach his statutes and rules in Israel” (Ezra 7:10). Out of dark adversity, God is raising a man to rescue his people. God is blessing his people by putting it into the heart of a pagan king to send Ezra to Jerusalem.

King Artaxerxes sends Ezra to Jerusalem to make ‘inquiries about Judah and Jerusalem according to the Law of God’ (7:14). Isn’t it remarkable that a pagan king wants to make sure that Israel is following God’s Law? The Law is mentioned again and again in this letter. The king gives Ezra substantial financial resources. The only requirement is that Ezra uses it ‘according to the will of God’ (7:18). Likewise, the king commands the treasurers to give ‘whatever Ezra the priest, the scribe of the Law of the God of heaven, requires’ (7:21). ‘Whatever is decreed by the God of heaven’ is to be given in full (7:23). The king is demanding that the Law of God dictate the use of the resources offered for worship.

Moreover, Artaxerxes demands that God’s Law reign in Israel. He is sending Ezra to appoint magistrates and judges over the people. He requires that these men know the laws of God, and if they don’t, Ezra is to teach them (7:25). Israel is in desperate need of leaders who will show them the ways of God, and it is astounding that God put it into the heart of this pagan king to send Ezra to do just that.

Indeed, the king means business. He gives a solemn warning at the end of his letter: 

Whoever will not obey the law of your God and the law of the king, let judgment be strictly executed on him, whether for death or for banishment or for confiscation of his goods or for imprisonment.”      

—Ezra 4:26

The king reflects the heart of God at this moment. Remember that it was Israel’s persistent rebellion against God’s law that got them kicked out of the land in the first place. Now Artaxerxes is uttering the same warning.

When we see civil magistrates that support the worship of God, according to the Word of God, we should marvel at this providence. It is undoubtedly a rare occasion when a pagan magistrate overtly supports the Word of God. But when they do, we should stand in wonder at the grace of God. Now, we looked at the role of civil magistrates in chapter six, but here we can simply stand in amazement, with Ezra, that God put it into the heart of the king to see to it that God’s Word governs God’s people.

We should pray for this, and we should praise God when it happens. Do not take for granted the freedom that we have to worship God according to his Word. The freedom to live according to God’s Word is not a given in many parts of the world. Civil leaders persecute Christians around the world for standing on God’s Word. But as God gives us favor before human magistrates to live and worship by the Word, may we never cease to praise God. And may we never stop taking courage in God’s providential control over pagan rulers.

Moreover, as we think about the global pandemic, take courage in the fact that God has given you favor to worship him in sickness or health freely. You are free to worship him according to the Bible. Our health will come and go, but the greatest need of all is our salvation and sanctification by the Word. God has given us the freedom to study his Word, and to practice it, and to teach it. It’s easy to be discouraged when health and wealth give way, but take courage in the glorious reality that God has given us the civil freedom to gain spiritual prosperity by the Word of the Lord.

Therefore, let’s keep our eyes on the greatest need. More than anything, we need to be revived, reformed, and governed by the Word of God. It is that word that saves us. It is that word that sanctifies us. And it is that word that preserves us in the days of our exile until we go to our eternal home before the presence and glory of God.

2. The Greater Goal

We need courage right now, perhaps more than most of us have ever needed before. Courage comes from seeing God’s hand in providential control over the affairs of men. But courage also arises when we see the greater goal. That is when we know what God is doing. There is a higher goal that God is working towards, and that goal is the beauty of his house (7:27).

God is glorifying himself through the beauty of his temple in Jerusalem. All of the people and the resources that he is giving to Ezra is for that purpose. We are talking about massive quantities of money for the mere purpose of making the temple more glorious. We are also talking about the droves of animals for the sacrifices. Also, the king is giving tax-exempt status to any priest or Levite who wants to return with Ezra (7:13). All of these provisions serve the greater goal of beautifying the house of God.

Now, in the day of crisis, it seems excessive, perhaps even irresponsible, to think about spending vast amounts of money and human resources to make the temple more beautiful. Wouldn’t a simple building suffice? Is spending all of these resources on beautifying the temple, good stewardship? But God’s principle concern is the glory of his house. It is his chief goal. Ezra sees this, and it gives him great courage. Indeed, this phrase in verse 27, ‘to beautify the house of the Lord,’ is a clue that points us to Ezra’s way of thinking. Indeed, this phrase is likely an allusion to Isaiah 60, which refers to the future glory of Israel. Ezra sees God’s work in his day connected to God’s greater goal for all time.

Arise, shine, for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you. For behold, darkness shall cover the earth, and thick darkness the peoples; but the Lord will arise upon you, and his glory will be seen upon you. And nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your rising…All the flocks of Kedar shall be gathered to you; the rams of Nebaioth shall minister to you; they shall come up with acceptance on my altar, and I will beautify my beautiful house. 

—Isaiah 60:1-3, 7

Please do not miss this point. Ezra’s courage is rooted in God’s covenantal promise to glorify himself through the temple. God’s commitment to his glory is a consistent promise in the Bible. His higher goal is the exaltation of his majesty through the beauty of his temple, and he will use anything to do it, even pagan kings. But what is the ultimate temple? We know from the Bible that the beauty of a physical temple building is not God’s ultimate goal. God will be glorified in a greater temple. But what is that temple? That temple is Jesus Christ.

The temple represents God’s dwelling place on earth. By his incarnation, Jesus shows us that he is the greater temple. John says that “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:14). That word, ‘dwelt’ means to tabernacle. It alludes to God’s presence among his people in the tabernacle and the temple. Jesus ‘tabernacled’ among us. Jesus is the ultimate manifestation of God’s presence with us.

Jesus told the Jews, “Destroy this temple, and in three days, I will raise it up.” They said to him, “It has taken forty-six years to build this temple, and will you raise it up in three days” They had no idea that he was talking about the temple of his body (John 2:19-21). By his life, death, and resurrection, Jesus was glorifying the greater temple. In his high priestly prayer, Jesus tells the Father, “And now, Father, glorify me in your own presence with the glory that I had with you before the world existed” (John 17:5). This is the glory that we will behold at the end of days when it says in the Book of Revelation, “And I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb” (Rev. 21:22).

Because God is committed to his glory in his son, there is no need to worry about calamities or disasters. And this is all the more true when we remember God’s commitment to us. Jesus has promised to share his glory with us. In that same high priestly prayer, Jesus goes on to tell the Father, “The glory that you have given me I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that you sent me and loved them even as you loved me. Father, I desire that they also, whom you have given me, may be with me where I am, to see my glory that you have given me because you loved me before the foundation of the world” (John 17:22-24).

By our union with Christ, we, too, are the temple of God. By the grace of Christ, we are being built into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit (Eph. 2:22). Jesus shares his glory with us, and he will see us safely to the Father’s side. Sharing in the glory of God is his promise to us. Perhaps, there is no better place to remember that promise than Ephesians 3:20-21.

Now to him who is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think, according to the power at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, forever and ever. Amen.

—Ephesians 3:20-21

God has committed his glory to the church and his son. Therefore, whether it be persecution or a pandemic, take courage in the fact that God’s greater goal is his glory and yours in Christ.

Therefore, come what may let us praise God and take courage in the fact that the providential hand of God is with us to beautify his house. God is in control. God is always pursuing our good, even when he brings us through plagues and pandemics.

As we meditate on these glorious promises, let’s not live in contradiction by spending our days in anxiety and doubt. Joseph Hall puts it well when he writes,

How shall I depend on Him for raising my body from the dust and saving my soul at last; if I distrust Him for a crust of bread toward my preservation?   
 
—Joseph Hall, Meditations and Vows

In life and death, we are in God’s hand. He is with us, and he will lead his church to greater glory at the end of days. Nothing can stop that. Not a pagan king, nor a pandemic—and God will use both as he sees fit. Therefore, beloved, take courage in the hand of God.