I explained last week that the book of Ezra is in two parts and the second part is — in a sense — a repetition of the first part. In the first part, we have a decree by a king to let the exiles return to the Promised Land. The family names of the returning exiles are then listed. And then Ezra recounts the trouble the returning exiles encountered at that time whenever they tried to rebuild the temple in Jerusalem. That’s the first part. The second part begins with a decree by a king to let more exiles return to the Promised Land. It’s a different king this time, because the events of the second half of the book take place many years after the events of the first half. Then, in today’s chapter, the family names of the returning exiles are listed. And then, in the remaining two chapters, we read about the trouble the returning exiles encountered that time.
But do you remember the difference? In the first part, the trouble they encountered originated with their enemies who did everything they could to prevent them from rebuilding the temple. In the second part, however, the trouble they encountered originated with themselves, because Ezra discovered that many of them were sinning against the Lord by disregarding his commandments. And so, they were in danger of provoking the Lord’s wrath once again and of being sent away into exile once again.
So, the trouble they faced in the second half of the book was different from the trouble they faced in the first half of the book. Nevertheless, the second half is in a sense a repetition of the first half. And since Ezra depicted the return from exile in the first half of the book as a kind of second exodus, then that means that the return from exile in the second half of the book should also be regarded as a kind of second exodus.
Second Exodus 1
You remember the exodus, don’t you? God’s people were slaves in Egypt; and the Egyptians made their life miserable because of the hard work they were forced to do. And because the people were multiplying greatly and the Pharaoh was worried they would take over the land, he ordered that any sons who were born to them should be killed by being thrown into the River Nile. And so, they used to groan because of their misery; and their groans went up to the Lord; and so, the Lord sent them Moses to be their leader and to lead them from out of the land of their captivity to return to the Promised Land. And do you remember? On the night they left, they didn’t leave empty-handed, because the Lord made the Egyptians look with favour on them, so that they gave the Israelites whatever silver and hold they asked for.
And years later, in the days of Cyrus, when the first group of returning exiles left Babylon, they didn’t leave empty-handed, but laden with silver and gold which their neighbours gave them. That’s what we read in Ezra 1. And what did we find last week and in today’s reading as well? Last week we read that King Artaxerxes decreed that Ezra was to take the silver and gold which the king and his advisors had freely given to the God of Israel. Ezra was to take silver and gold from other sources as well. Furthermore, the king ordered the treasurers to give Ezra whatever else he needed. That’s what we read last week. And this week, we read in verses 24 and 25 about the people Ezra set apart in order to take care of the silver and gold they had received from the king. And when the returning exiles arrived in Jerusalem, they were able to unpack and weigh out the silver and gold and sacred articles they have been given for the temple. In other words, when this group of returning exiles left Babylon to return to Jerusalem, in the days of Artaxerxes, they didn’t leave empty-handed, but laden down with silver and gold. So once again, we’re to regard the return from exile as a kind of second exile.
Second Exodus 2
And think back to the Exodus again. What happened after the Israelites left Egypt and crossed the Red Sea? Do you remember? They gathered before the Lord at Mount Sinai; and the Lord instructed Moses to take a census of the people and to count the number of men aged 20 and over who could serve in the army. So, all the Israelites who left Egypt were counted.
Years later, in the days of Cyrus, all the Israelites who left Babylon in that first return from exile were counted and their names were listed in Ezra 2. And here, in Ezra 8, the names of Israelites who left Babylon in the second return from exile are counted and their names are listed in verses 1 to 14. Now, there’s nothing especially remarkable about the list of names, apart from the fact that all the family names listed here appeared in the list of family names in chapter 2. In other words, the people in this second group of returning exiles came from the same families as the people in the first group of returning exiles. And, of course, the number of exiles who returned in the time of Artaxerxes is much fewer than the number who returned in the time of Cyrus. Although there’s a person named Daniel in verse 2, this is not the same person as the person who features in the book of Daniel.
But there’s nothing very remarkable about this list of names. The main point to notice, though, is that just as the Israelites who left Egypt in the time of Moses were counted, and just as the exiles who left Babylon in the time of Cyrus were counted, so the exiles who left Babylon in the time of Artaxerxes were also counted. It’s another sign that we’re to regard the return from exile as a kind of second exile.
Second Exodus 3
Let me mention one more connection. Whenever the Israelites left Egypt in the days of Moses and gathered at Mount Sinai, the Lord not only commanded Moses to count the men who could serve in the army, but he also commanded Moses to count the men who could serve as Levites. Men from the tribe of Levi were set apart by the Lord to serve him in the tabernacle and to help the priests with their work. In general, they were responsible for transporting the tabernacle from place to place on their journey to the Promised Land; and for putting up the tabernacle when it was time to camp; and for taking it down; when it was time to move on. There were three groups of Levites; and each groups was assigned a special task: one group was responsible for transporting the holy things like the ark of the covenant and the table of presence and so on; another group was responsible for transporting the curtains and coverings; another group was responsible for transporting the frame of the tabernacle, the crossbars and posts and so on. And not only were they responsible for transporting these things, and for putting up and taking down the tabernacle, but they were responsible for guarding the tabernacle in order to prevent any unauthorised person from coming too near, because no unholy person was allowed to enter the sanctuary.
In the list of returning exiles in chapter 2, 74 Levites were listed. So, 74 Levites returned to Jerusalem at the time of Cyrus to help the priests with the work of the temple. However, look at verse 15 of chapter 8. Ezra had assembled this new group of returning exiles at this river. And they camped there for three days. And during those three days, as he made preparations for the journey, he discovered that there were no Levites; no Levites had volunteered to return. Well, this was unacceptable to Ezra; and so, we read in the following verses how he summoned a number of leaders and two men of learning; and sent them to this man Id-do and his kinsmen with a request for them to send the people they needed. And Ezra tells us in verse 18 that — because the gracious hand of the Lord was on them — they sent 38 Levites — 18 from one group and 20 from another — plus 220 temple servants who would help the Levites.
Then, according to verse 24, when they were setting off from Babylon, Ezra set apart 12 of the leading priests and She-re-bi-ah and Ha-sha-bi-ah — who were Levites — as well as 10 of their brothers, who were presumably also Levites. In other words, he set apart 12 priests and 12 Levites. And he set them apart to do what? Well, according to verse 29 they were set apart to guard the sacred articles and silver and gold which were freewill offerings to the Lord. They were to guard them carefully until they reached Jerusalem. And, of course, the reason he asked the priests and Levites to guard the sacred articles and silver and gold was because, at the time of the Exodus, in the days of Moses, the Lord appointed the priests and Levites to guard the tabernacle and everything it contained. So, just as Levites were set apart to guard the tabernacle in the days of Moses, so Levites were set apart to guard the sacred articles in the days of Ezra. It’s another sign that we’re to regard this return from exile as a kind of second exodus.
Purpose of Second Exodus
But why does it matter? Why does it matter whether or not we regard the return from exile as a second exodus? Well, it matters because it helps us to see the significance of the return from exile for us and for believers in every generation. When God rescued his people from their slavery in Egypt in the days of Moses, and when he rescued his people from their captivity in Babylon in the days of Cyrus and Artaxerxes, he was revealing his great covenant of grace in which he promises to rescue his people in every generation from our sin and misery in this present, evil age. God saw the misery of his people in Egypt where they were slaves. He saw the misery of his people in Babylon, where they were held captive. And God, who is rich in mercy, recused his people from their misery in order to lead them to the Promised Land, where they would enjoy the presence of the Lord, because the Lord had promised to dwell among them in the temple in Jerusalem. And God, who is rich in mercy, promises to rescue his people in every generation from our sin and misery in order to lead us not to the land of Canaan, but to a better land than that; and not to the city of Jerusalem, but to a better city than that. He promises to lead us to the new heaven and earth and to the new Jerusalem, the holy city, which is the church in glory, where God will dwell in the midst of his people for ever and for ever.
And, of course, at the time of the Exodus, God delivered his people by the hand of Moses. And at the time of the return from exile, God delivered his people by the hand of Cyrus and Artaxerxes, who were kings, and by the hand of Ezra, who was a priest and a teacher. And he delivers his people in every generation from our sin and misery by the hand of Jesus Christ his Son, who is both our priest and our king, as well as our prophet. As our priest, he offered himself as the perfect sacrifice for sins so that all who believe in him have peace with God forever, because he gave his life as the ransom to set us free from condemnation; and by his blood we are cleansed from all our guilt. And as our king, he broke the power of Satan and he brings us into his own kingdom of grace. And, of course, as our great prophet, he teaches us through his word and by his Spirit. And so, just as God recused his people by the hand of Moses and Cyrus and Artaxerxes and Ezra, so he rescues his people in every generation from our sin and misery by the hand of his Son, Jesus Christ.
And look: according to verses 35 and 36, whenever the people arrived at Jerusalem, they sacrificed burnt offerings to the God of Israel. In other words, they worshipped him. And when we come into the new heaven and earth, when we come at last into the presence of the Lord in glory, we will worship him, won’t we? Not with burnt offerings, because there’s no more need for burnt offerings now that Christ has offered himself as the perfect sacrifice for sins. But we’ll worship him for ever and for ever, offering him ceaseless praise for all that he has done for us to deliver us from our sin and misery and to bring us to glory.
Second Exodus 4
And so, the return from exile is a kind of second exodus. And as such, it reveals to us God’s great covenant of grace by which he promises to deliver his people from our sin and misery in order to bring us into his presence in glory. And so, all of us must trust in Jesus Christ the Saviour, because he’s the only Saviour of the world: the only one who is able to deliver you from sin and misery in this present, evil age; and the only one who is able to bring you to God in glory. So, if you have not already done so, will you trust in him? Confess your sins to God. Ask him to pardon you for the sake of Christ who died for sinners. And ask him to bring you into his presence in the new heaven and earth.
However, there’s one more connection which I need to mention, before we finish. Turn with me to verses 21 to 23 where we read that Ezra proclaimed a fast so that the returning exiles might humble themselves before the Lord and ask him for a safe journey. After all, they had a long journey to make: well over 500 miles, depending on the route they took. And they had with them their children and all their possessions. Furthermore, Ezra had declined help from the king, believing that the hand of God would be on them to protect them. So, they fasted before the Lord and prayed to him for his help.
And what does it say at the end of verse 23? It says that the Lord answered their prayer. The Lord kept them safe. And so, jump down now to verse 31. They set off on their journey; and the hand of the Lord was on them. He protected them from their enemies and from bandits on the way. So, there they were: a group of men with their wives and children and all their possessions. They also had all this silver and gold from the king and from other sources. They had no armed guards with them; no soldiers to defend them from enemies and bandits. But the Lord rescued them and brought them safely to Jerusalem. It’s not altogether clear whether Ezra means that God saved them whenever they were attacked; or whether God prevented them from being attacked. Whichever it was, God kept them safe and brought them safely to the Promised Land.
And, of course, in the days of Moses, when the Israelites left Egypt in order to make their way to the Promised Land, they faced all kinds of dangers on the way. Sometimes they didn’t have enough food. Sometimes they didn’t have enough to drink. Sometimes they faced enemy armies. In fact, in Exodus 16 and 17, we read that right after leaving Egypt, they faced all three problems. They arrived at a pool of water, but the water was too bitter to drink. The food they brought with them from Egypt had run out and they had nothing to eat. And then the Amalekites came and attacked them. But the Lord helped them on each occasion and kept them safe and well. So, he told Moses how to make the bitter water sweet. He provided them with manna and quail to eat. And he gave them the victory over their enemies.
Whenever the Lord’s people were travelling through the wilderness on the way to the Promised Land in the days of Moses, the Lord kept them safe, so long as they trusted in him. Often they complained; and talked about returning to Egypt. And when they complained and doubted, the Lord punished them. But whenever they trusted in him, they discovered his steadfast love never ceases; and his mercies never end; they are new every morning. The Lord kept them safe.
And when the returning exiles were travelling to the Promised Land in the days of Ezra, the Lord kept them safe. He protected them and saved them from enemies and bandits. And by keeping them safe the Lord was revealing how he will keep his people in every generation as we make our way to the new heaven and earth which is our Promised Land. We are a pilgrim people, because although the Lord has already rescued us by faith in his Son from this present, evil age, we have not yet reached our final destination. We’re still pilgrims on the way to eternal life in the presence of the Lord, where we will enjoy perfect peace and rest.
And as pilgrims on the way, we will face many dangers and trials and snares, because not only do we have to endure all the troubles and trials and sorrows and sadness of this life, but we also have to contend with the Devil who comes at us with his wicked schemes; and who stirs up an unbelieving world to oppose and to persecute the church of Jesus Christ. And so, on our way to the Promised Land, we have to cope with all kinds of everyday problems. Trouble at home with the family. Trouble at work with our colleagues. Trouble at church with our fellow believers. Trouble with our health and the health of our family. We have all the sorrow and sadness of a bereavement; and all the problems that come our way as we get older and frailer. And on our way to the Promised Land, we have to fight against sin and temptation, and stand firm against the Devil’s wicked schemes, and suffer the derision and the hatred of an unbelieving world. There are many dangers and trials and snares on the way. There will be much that makes us weep.
But just as Ezra and the people humbled themselves before the Lord, and asked him for help, and trusted in him to help them, so we can trust in the Lord and seek from him all the help we need to endure all things and to stand firm in the faith. He’s the Shepherd who promises to provide for his people; and to refresh our tired and weary souls; and to lead us along the right paths; and to protect us, so that even when we walk through the valley of the shadow of death, we don’t need to be afraid, because he is with us. And he promises — doesn’t he? — to lead us home. Or think of the pilgrim’s psalm:
I lift up my eyes to the hills. From where does my help come? My help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth.
He will not let your foot be moved. He doesn’t slumber nor sleep, but all through the day and all through the night, he’s watching over his people to keep us. The Lord God Almighty — who sent his Son to save us — has promised to keep us and to lead us home.
And so, why should you be afraid? Why should you be anxious? Why would you worry about anything in this life, because your Father in heaven loves you and has promised to keep you. And Saviour Jesus Christ has promised that he will not let anyone snatch you from his hands. Just as the shepherd holds his lambs in his arms to protect them from danger, so the Lord Jesus is holding you in his arms. The Devil might be pulling at you and poking you. But if you’re a believer, then you’re in the arms of the Good Shepherd, and he will not let anyone snatch you from his hands and destroy you. So, why should you be afraid? Why should you be anxious? Why should you be worried about anything? Instead you should trust in the Lord to protect you on the way to the Promised Land. The Lord kept the Israelites in the wilderness in the days of Moses when they trusted in him. The Lord kept the returning exiles on their journey in the days of Ezra. And you can count on him, you can rely on him, to protect you as you make your way to the presence of the Lord in glory. So, if you’ve been anxious and afraid, confess your unbelief to the Lord. Ask him to pardon you for the sake of Christ who died for sinners. And pray that he will help you to trust him more and more; and to rely on his fatherly goodness, because he has promised to keep his people for ever.