I hope you were praying for me this week. I always need your prayers so that God will help me to preach to you. But I especially needed your prayers this week, because not only did I have to read all those names, but now I have to preach on all those names, which is no easy task.
Now, when I looked at this chapter, there was the temptation to skip over it and to move on to chapter 3, because, after all, our immediate reaction when we see long lists of names like this one is to wonder what’s the point in reading this, let alone studying it, and what benefit can we possibly get from this list of names? Now, I know that lots of parents are now naming their children with names from the Old Testament. And so, here’s a long list of potential names to give to a child who is born. Barzillai in verse 61 might make a good name for a boy, because Barzillai means ‘Iron Man’; and I can imagine that lots of little boys would like a name like that. But other than being a source for new names for children, can this chapter help us in other ways?
It’s at times like this that we need to remember and believe what we read in 2 Timothy 3 that all Scripture is breathed out by God. All Scripture is breathed out or inspired by God; and is profitable for teaching and for reproof and for correction and for training in righteousness. That’s what God has said to us about his word. He tells us that all of it — including Ezra chapter 2 — was written under his inspiration. And he tells us that all of it is profitable for us: all of it is useful for us; and it’s for our benefit. So, as we approach Ezra 2, and other chapters that contain a long list of names, we need to remember and believe that this chapter is useful for us: it’s useful for teaching us and for reproving us and for correcting us and for training us in righteousness. That’s what God has said; and we need to believe everything the Lord has said, because he always knows best.
And as a measure of the importance of this chapter we should note that the entire list of names — with minor modifications — is repeated in Nehemiah chapter 7. So, this list doesn’t appear in the Bible only once, but it appears twice. God inspired both Ezra and Nehemiah to include this long list of names in both their books. And so, it must be important.
But before we turn to the list, let’s remember what we learned last week, in case any of you were missing or in case you’ve forgotten. Hundreds of years before, in the days of Moses, God delivered his people from their slavery in Egypt and brought them to the Promised Land of Canaan, an Eden-like land, flowing with milk and honey. He gave them prophets to make his will known; he gave them priests to offer up sacrifices to atone for their sins; and he gave them kings to lead and protect them; and he filled their lives with good things. However, the people rebelled against the Lord again and again and ignored all his warnings. So eventually the Lord allowed their enemies, the Babylonians, to invade the land; and they destroyed Jerusalem and took many of God’s people into exile.
However, the Lord announced through the prophet Jeremiah that eventually Babylon will be destroyed; and his people will be able to return to the Promised Land. And sure enough, when the time was right, the Persians under Cyrus the Great defeated the Babylonians and Cyrus issued a decree that any of the Lord’s people could return to Jerusalem and rebuild the temple of the Lord. Ezra refers to Cyrus’s decree in chapter 1 and makes clear that it was issued to fulfil the word of the Lord. And as we read in verse 5 of chapter 1, the family heads of Judah and Benjamin, along with the priests and Levites, prepared to go up to Jerusalem. Furthermore, they didn’t leave empty-handed, because many of their neighbours gave them articles of silver and gold and goods and livestock and more to help them. And Cyrus handed over to them the holy objects which belonged in the temple, but which Nebuchadnezzar the King of Babylon had taken.
That’s the background to Ezra. If we turn now to the chapter, you’ll see it begins in verses 1 and 2 with a kind of title for what follows. According to this title, this chapter contains a list of the people of the province who came up from the exile. The commentators disagree over what Ezra means when he refers to ‘the province’, but it’s likely he’s referring to the land of Judah, which was the southern part of the land of Israel and which was at that time regarded as a province of the mighty Persian Empire. So, here are the names of those who returned from the exile to the land of Judah. And the list of eleven names in verse 2 are the leaders of the people at that time. First in the list is Zerubbabel and second is Jeshua. According to 1 Chronicles 3 Zerubbabel was a descendant of King David. And according to the book of Haggai, he became the governor of Judah. Meanwhile Jeshua — who was also known as Joshua, but we mustn’t mistake him from the Joshua who took over from Moses as leader of God’s people — was a priest. These two men — one descended from a king, the other descended from a high priest — are usually mentioned together. The third name in this list is Nehemiah, but it’s unlikely that this Nehemiah is the same as the one who features in the book of Nehemiah, because that Nehemiah didn’t return to Jerusalem until much later. You might recognise the name Mordecai from the book of Esther, but the commentators again think that this Mordecai is not the same one.
So Ezra lists the names of eleven leaders. Interestingly, in Nehemiah’s version of this chapter, he lists twelve leaders, which suggests to the commentators that we’re to regard these returning exiles as the latest embodiment of the people of Israel. So, the people of Israel were originally descended from the twelve sons of Jacob. Now, the people of Israel are made up of all those people who returned from exile under the leadership of these men.
After listing the leaders, Ezra divides the rest of his list into various sections. So, in verses 3 to 35 he lists the lay people. You’ll see, of course, that he does it family by family, or clan by clan, naming the family or clan first and then the number of people in it. So, the family of Parosh in verse 3 comprised 2,172 individuals. However, between verses 21 and 35, it changes slightly, because Ezra refers, not to families or clans, but to place names. In other words, according to verse 21, 123 of the returning exiles were from the town of Bethlehem. It’s not clear why some of the names are listed by family or clan and others by where the people came from. And we don’t know anything about the people named.
In verses 36 to 39 Ezra lists the priests and in verses 40 to 42 he lists the Levites. In the book of Numbers we learn how the Lord chose the Levites to assist the priests in the temple. You’ll see from verse 40 that not many Levites decided to return. He lists the singers in verse 41 and the name of Asaph is familiar to us from the Psalms. After that we have the gatekeepers whose job is was to lock and unlock the gates of the temple and to watch over the treasury. Ezra then lists the temple servants and those who were descended from the servants of Solomon. It’s believed that these two groups were descended from people who had been taken captive by the Israelites and put to work as servants. In Joshua 9 we read about the Gibeonites who were put to work as servants when the Israelites first entered the Promised Land; and some commentators think the servants mentioned in Ezra 2 are related to those Gibeonites.
Each of the people listed so far were able to demonstrate beyond doubt that they were part of the people of God. Perhaps they had all kept a genealogical record — something like a birth certificate — and were able to point to it to prove that they were descended from Jacob. However, there was a question mark over the people listed in verses 59 to 63. The first group are lay people, and the second group are people who claimed to be descended from priests. Verse 42 tells us that they searched for their family records, but couldn’t find them; and so they were excluded from the priesthood as unclean. If you’re familiar with the book of Numbers, you’ll understand why this was the case, because in the book of Numbers the Lord made clear that no one must approach him in his sanctuary apart from the priests. Any lay person who tried to approach him would die. And so, excluding these people who could not prove that they belonged to the priesthood was for their own good, because if they were mistaken, and tried to approach the Lord in the newly built temple, they would surely die. Furthermore, only the priests could eat the most holy food which was given to the priests to eat. And so, these men were not allowed to eat this food until their status was clarified. Ezra refers to the Urim and Thummim which was a device used in those days to ascertain the will of the Lord.
If you’re very good at mental arithmetic, you’ll notice that the numbers listed in these verses don’t add up to the total figure which appears in verse 64. So, if you add up the totals it comes to 29,818 and not 42,360. Some commentators suggest that the total in verse 64 includes women and children or other Israelites, not from the tribes of Judah or Benjamin. Other commentators suggest that some scribe who was copying God’s word wrote down the wrong number. As I said last week, we believe that God’s word, when it was written originally, was written under his inspiration and is true and free from error. However, as God’s word was copied, minor textual mistakes were introduced. We shouldn’t be overly concerned however, because whatever textual mistakes there are — and there aren’t many of them — are very, very minor.
From verses 68 and 69 we read that when they came to Jerusalem, the family heads gave freewill offerings towards the rebuilding of the temple. They didn’t give sparingly, but each one gave according to his ability. And the chapter ends with Ezra telling us how they settled in their own towns. After many years in exile, God’s people has returned to the land, just as the Lord said they would.
That’s the list. What should we make of it? Well, I mentioned last week that there was at least one sign in chapter 1 that we should regard the return from exile as a second exodus. The first exodus was when the Lord rescued his people from their captivity in Egypt where they were slaves in order to lead them to the Promised Land. In those days, when they left Egypt, they didn’t leave empty-handed, because the Lord made the Egyptians look with favour on them so that they gave them whatever silver and gold they asked for. And when the returning exiles left Babylon, they didn’t leave empty-handed, but laden with silver and gold which their neighbours gave them. And that tells us that we’re to regard the return from exile as a second exodus.
And sure enough, there are two signs in chapter 2 that we should regard the return from exile as a second exodus. You see, after the Israelites left Egypt, the Lord brought them to Mount Sinai and he commanded Moses to conduct a census of the people and to count the number of men aged over 20 who could serve in the army and the number of Levites who would serve in the Tabernacle. So, all the Israelites who left Egypt were counted. And that’s what we have here as well: all the Israelites who left Babylon were counted. The return from exile is a second exodus. Furthermore, when the people of Israel left Egypt and gathered at Mount Sinai, the family heads brought offerings to be used for the work of the Tabernacle. And that’s what we have here as well: the family heads of those who left Babylon brought offerings to be used for the building of the Temple. The return from exile is a second exodus.
And as we saw last week, that’s important, because just as the Lord rescued the Israelites from Egypt, and just as he rescued them from Babylon, so he rescues his people in every generation from our sin and misery in this fallen world. When they were slaves in Egypt, he appointed Moses to rescue them. When they were exiles in Babylon, he appointed Cyrus to rescue them. But more importantly, he appointed his one and only Son, Jesus Christ, to rescue sinners from our sin and misery. And so, the Lord Jesus came into the world to rescue us by giving up his life on the cross as the ransom to set us free from condemnation and by shedding his blood to wash and cleanse us from all our sin and guilt.
And just as all who responded to Cyrus’s decree were going to their true home, so all who believe in the Lord Jesus Christ can look forward to coming to our true home, which is in the presence of the Lord in the new heaven and earth, where we will dwell with him forever and forever in glory.
And so, even though the names we read here mean nothing to us, nevertheless their story is also your story, because what happened to these people points forward to what God has planned for you, if you believe in his Son, because his Son is the Saviour of the world; and he’s the one who rescues sinners from their sin and misery in this fallen world and who gives them everlasting life in his everlasting kingdom.
Lamb’s Book of Life
And, of course, in this chapter we have a list of names. Now, in the Presbyterian Church, we like lists; and we try to keep a careful record of all those who are members of the church and of their children. We keep a careful record and we try to update it as people join and as people leave or die. We like lists. And in the book of Revelation at the end of the Bible, we learn that the Lord is also a keeper of lists. That shouldn’t surprise us, because the Bible contains lots of lists and genealogies. But in the book of Revelation we learn that the Lord is a keeper of lists, because in the book of Revelation we read about the Lamb’s Book of Life.
The Lamb, of course, is the Lord Jesus, who, like a lamb, was offered up to God as the perfect sacrifice for sins. So the Lamb is the Lord Jesus. And the Lord Jesus has a book called the Book of Life. And according to Revelation 21 whoever’s name is written in the Lamb’s Book of Life will be allowed to enter the heavenly city, the new Jerusalem, which is the church in glory. In other words, whoever’s name is written in the Lamb’s Book of Life will receive eternal life; and will live with the Lord forever and ever in that perfect world to come, where all the sorrow and sadness and the trouble and pain of this world will have passed away; and there will only be perfect peace and rest and joy. Whoever’s name is not in the Book of Life will be thrown into the lake of fire to be punished forever for their sin. But whoever’s name is in the Book of Life will live with the Lord forever.
And so, just as the names of all those who were delivered from Egypt were listed, and just as the names of all those who were delivered from Babylon were listed, so the names of all those who will be delivered from our sin and misery in this fallen world and who will enter eternal life are listed; they’re listed in the Lamb’s Book of Life.
And who are they? Who are these people whose names are written in the Lamb’s Book of Life? Well, I’ll tell you who they are: they are all of the people God the Father gave to his Son before the creation of world; and God the Father gave them to his Son so that he might not lose them, but save them and raise them up to everlasting life. And in order to save them, the Lord Jesus came into this fallen world as one of us in order to give up his life as the ransom to rescue his people from condemnation and to wash them from the guilt of their sins. And now, from his throne in heaven, he sends his Spirit to his people to enable them trust in him as the only Saviour of the world. And by believing in him, they’re pardoned by God for all that they’re done wrong; and they receive the hope of everlasting life in the world to come.
In other words, the Lamb’s Book of Life lists the names of all those in every generation who believe in the Lord Jesus and who trust in him as the only Saviour of the world. And so, will you believe in him? Will you trust in him as the only Saviour of the world and as your Saviour? Whoever believes in him and has their name written in the Lamb’s Book of Life will be allowed to enter the heavenly city, the new Jerusalem, which is the church in glory, where there is perfect peace and rest and joy forevermore. And so, will you believe in him? He’s the only one who can rescue you from this present, evil age; he’s the only one who can rescue you from sin and misery in this fallen world. He’s the only one who can bring you to the new Jerusalem in the new heaven and earth, where God’s people will dwell with him forever. And so, will you believe in him? — because he’s the only Saviour and everyone is commanded to repent and to believe in him.
But before we finish today, notice again how the heads of the families gave freewill offerings to support the rebuilding of the Temple. As I’ve said, that recalls what happened after the exodus when the heads of families brought gifts for the work of the Tabernacle.
Well, every Sunday we bring our freewill offerings to the Lord, which are used for the work of the church. The offerings you bring are your grateful response to the Lord for his kindness towards you, because after all, hasn’t he filled your life with good things to enjoy? And didn’t he send his Son to save you? Hasn’t he promised to pardon your sins and to give you everlasting life? Hasn’t he promised to meet with you when we gather here for worship? Hasn’t he promised to help you to persevere in the faith? And so, out of gratitude for what he has done for you, you bring him your freewill offerings. And hopefully you do what the Israelites did, because in verse 69 we’re told that each of them gave according to their ability. So, whoever could afford to give more, gave more; and whoever could afford less, gave less. But each one gave according to their ability.
But — as I pray most weeks when I dedicate the offering in our service of worship — we not only bring him our money, but we bring him ourselves. The Apostle Paul in Romans 12 teaches believers to offer themselves to the Lord as living sacrifices. In other words, you’re to dedicate yourself to the Lord: to love and serve him every day of your life, obeying his commands and doing his will with a glad and cheerful heart. But to dedicate yourself to him should not be a hardship and it’s not something you should resent, because the Lord who commands our obedience has been good to you. And surely you want to show him by your obedience that you love him?
And so, just as the Israelites brought gifts for the rebuilding of the Temple, so you’re to offer the Lord whatever financial gifts you can afford; but more importantly, you’re to offer the Lord yourself, to love and serve him always, because he’s the one who sent his Son to deliver you from sin and misery in this fallen world and to bring you at last into his presence in the new heaven and earth, which is our Promised Land.