27 Praise be to the Lord, the God of our ancestors, who has put it into the king’s heart to bring honor to the house of the Lord in Jerusalem in this way 28 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 leaders from Israel to go up with me.
8 These are the family heads and those registered with them who came up with me from Babylon during the reign of King Artaxerxes:
2 of the descendants of Phinehas, Gershom;
of the descendants of Ithamar, Daniel;
of the descendants of David, Hattush 3 of the descendants of Shekaniah;
of the descendants of Parosh, Zechariah, and with him were registered 150 men;
4 of the descendants of Pahath-Moab, Eliehoenai son of Zerahiah, and with him 200 men;
5 of the descendants of Zattu, Shekaniah son of Jahaziel, and with him 300 men;
6 of the descendants of Adin, Ebed son of Jonathan, and with him 50 men;
7 of the descendants of Elam, Jeshaiah son of Athaliah, and with him 70 men;
8 of the descendants of Shephatiah, Zebadiah son of Michael, and with him 80 men;
9 of the descendants of Joab, Obadiah son of Jehiel, and with him 218 men;
10 of the descendants of Bani, Shelomith son of Josiphiah, and with him 160 men;
11 of the descendants of Bebai, Zechariah son of Bebai, and with him 28 men;
12 of the descendants of Azgad, Johanan son of Hakkatan, and with him 110 men;
13 of the descendants of Adonikam, the last ones, whose names were Eliphelet, Jeuel and Shemaiah, and with them 60 men;
14 of the descendants of Bigvai, Uthai and Zakkur, and with them 70 men.
15 I assembled them at the canal that flows toward Ahava, and we camped there three days. When I checked among the people and the priests, I found no Levites there. 16 So I summoned Eliezer, Ariel, Shemaiah, Elnathan, Jarib, Elnathan, Nathan, Zechariah and Meshullam, who were leaders, and Joiarib and Elnathan, who were men of learning,17 and I ordered them to go to Iddo, the leader in Kasiphia. I told them what to say to Iddo and his fellow Levites, the temple servants in Kasiphia, so that they might bring attendants to us for the house of our God. 18 Because the gracious hand of our God was on us, they brought us Sherebiah, a capable man, from the descendants of Mahli son of Levi, the son of Israel, and Sherebiah’s sons and brothers, 18 in all; 19 and Hashabiah, together with Jeshaiah from the descendants of Merari, and his brothers and nephews, 20 in all. 20 They also brought 220 of the temple servants—a body that David and the officials had established to assist the Levites. All were registered by name.
(Ezra 7:27-8:10 NIV)
In the last section, we heard King Artaxerxes’ decree and read the letter he sent with Ezra as the Jewish contingent prepared to leave Babylon and go to Jerusalem. Ezra’s training and mission were to teach God’s Law to God’s people and to oversee religious matters among the Jews living in Israel and Judah.
The king had selfish interests in mind, mainly the preservation of his kingdom and his family. Yet, God still used the king’s self-serving interests for His glory and the good of His people, as He prepared the nation for Messiah to come.
Starting with today’s passage, we see Ezra writing as himself, chronicling current events in the first person. The history lesson and background is complete – it’s time to see what God is doing in Ezra’s life and in the lives of those whom God had given him charge over.
In 7:27-28, Ezra’s first words in his own voice are praise and thanksgiving for what God has done and is doing. Ezra felt God’s favor and was moved to worship. Through the worship, Ezra was encouraged and strengthened to do what God had called him to do.
In 8:1-14, Ezra calls out those who volunteer and meets them at a central meeting place, where he takes a quick census of who has come and how many there are in each family unit.
In 8:15-17, Ezra realizes that no Levites are represented in the volunteers, and requests the head of the Levite family to ask for volunteers.
In 8:18-20, the Levite volunteers come forward, along with the temple servants.
So why were there no Levite volunteers in the original group?
Quite possibly, life for the Levites was better in exile than back in Jerusalem. If we look back to the original census of exiles that went from Babylon to Jerusalem with Zerubbabel (Ezra 2:36-42), we see the priests who volunteered far outnumbered the Levite volunteers – more than 12 to 1.
The Levites were subservient to the priests and were dependent on the priests for their food allowance. When the priests were selfish and uncaring about anyone but themselves (remember the priests acting badly from our study of Jeremiah?), the Levites suffered, some to the point of starvation.
God had specifically told the Levites that they did not receive an inheritance of land in the Promised Land (Numbers 18:24); they were entirely dependent on the generosity of the people and the goodness of the priests. When the people and the priests walked with God, they displayed the goodness of God and the Levites were well cared for. When the people turned to themselves, and the priests looked after their own interests, the Levites suffered.
The Levites were a “litmus test” of sorts, showing the heart of the people and of the priests toward the Lord.
Notice how many more temple servants (who were subservient to the Levites) that volunteered than the Levites (8:18-19)! The temple servants clearly understood their role and readily signed up to serve the Lord when asked.
It’s easy to follow our “natural” direction, isn’t it?
And how hard it is to go against “common sense” and the “way of the world” and follow God!
But the narrow way, the hard way, the way of God’s calling is ultimately the right way.
Paul reminds us of this as he tells the Corinthians that the “wisdom” of the world versus the “foolishness” of God are reversed; that God’s “foolishness” (in the world’s eyes) is greater than any “wisdom” the world has to offer (1 Corinthians 1:20-25).
May we lean on the Lord, and not on our own understanding (Proverbs 3:5-6).