Ezra chapter two is a very specific and detailed record of the names, numbers and (in some cases) occupations of those who returned from Babylon in the first repatriation to Jerusalem under Zerubbabel.
It is precisely the kind of passage that we are inclined to skip over in our quiet times and avoid reading in public.
Considering this, it is a good thing that we were not asked to edit this biblical manuscript for publication! Our inclination would be to omit this passage altogether, as a tedious list of unpronounceable names with little, if any, edifying value.
Profit for our souls
Of course, Ezra is one of the historical books of the Bible, and as a historical record it is of enormous value. One might consider it important, but only to the historian, particularly the biblical historian. But this would indeed be a poor way of looking at this chapter. Undoubtedly, it does have historical significance. But if we believe (as we profess) that this is God’s Word, then it must also be profitable to our souls – for ‘all Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work’ (2 Timothy 3:16-17).
How can such passages, and this passage in particular, benefit us spiritually?
Preserved by the Spirit
The Holy Spirit chose to preserve this passage as part of his inspired word. As a chronicle it shows that God keeps detailed and specific records.
More often than not, secular history is based on sketchy material, with only fragments of documents and incomplete records.
By contrast, this text (dating back to the fifth century BC) preserves the most specific detail. The providential hand of God has kept it down the centuries – and what a marvellous account it is!
Perhaps you have tried to trace your ancestry with a view to producing a family tree. Many people who engage in such a project find themselves frustrated by poor parish records of marriages, births and deaths. More modern records are frequently lost, damaged or destroyed.
But, after two and a half millennia, Ezra’s list is both comprehensive and precise, leaving no room for imagination or speculation. Such minutiae may appear irrelevant, but the Holy Spirit has been careful to attend to detail.
This, therefore, is not trivial. Rather, it is the Lord’s list – recorded not only on earth but also in heaven! Rather than a tedious catalogue, it is a scroll of honour!
Scroll of honour
Our world celebrates achievement by erecting monuments and plaques to commemorate heroic deeds or outstanding merit. Medals and trophies are awarded for athletic prowess and acts of valour.
Each community has its scroll of honour, and sometimes its heroes are eulogised in song and story. To be remembered is important.
Ezra chapter two is something like a scroll of honour. It is, however, a sacred rather than a secular list. God delivered a remnant from captivity, and each name is a trophy of grace – a testimony to his faithful love, saving grace and providential care.
The list demonstrates that the Lord’s redemptive purposes are still in place and that the promised Messiah would come in the fulness of time.
These people are not just remembered for posterity, they are remembered for eternity! Their names are known on earth and in heaven. They are not recorded by mistake, for it was God’s intention to commemorate each name and family.
Such a chapter demonstrates the historicity of the Bible. The Holy Spirit inspired Ezra to record these names – real people experiencing real events, yet with their names etched in eternity.
God said, ‘Put their names in my book’, and so it came to pass. He knows them, as he knows all his own, by name.
Preserved by grace
They were a remnant preserved by grace. God has always graciously preserved a remnant for himself. Thus the apostle Paul says, ‘God did not reject his people, whom he foreknew. Don’t you know what the Scripture says in the passage about Elijah … how he appealed to God against Israel: “Lord, they have killed your prophets and torn down your altars; I am the only one left, and they are trying to kill me”?
‘And what was God’s answer to him? “I have reserved for myself seven thousand who have not bowed the knee to Baal”. So too, at the present time there is a remnant chosen by grace…’ (Romans 11:2-6).
Whether in the time of Elijah, at the return from Babylon, in the days of Paul, or today – in every generation God faithfully preserves a remnant by his grace. And what amazing grace it is!
A cynic might point out that this is the same nation that provoked God to punish them in the first place. True. But now, ‘under grace’, they are presented as the remnant rescued from Babylon.
They had left captivity behind them and set their faces towards Jerusalem.
They were committed to seeing the honour of God restored, and through them the work of God would be revived. They committed themselves to rebuild the temple, which pictures the church whose cornerstone is Christ, the temple of the living God.
May our names also be found on such a list – people grounded in Christ and engaged in building for eternity!
A vision for the future
So here we have a list of determined people who believed God and had a vision for the future. They desired to cast off the shackles of captivity and enter the blessing God had prepared.
They had come to their senses and would rather be governed by God than by a foreign power. And when the opportunity was presented to them, they seized it eagerly.
We too are presented, time and time again, with opportunities to turn our backs on the powers that hold us captive and cleave instead to Christ.
Cyrus was a king of kings (an emperor) whose spirit was stirred by God to issue a decree granting liberty to the captives. But Christ is the King of kings who, from the cross, issued the greatest decree of all – he declared ‘It is finished’, and lesser powers were robbed of their dominion (Colossians 2:13-15).
Here is a list of people who desired to rediscover their spiritual identity and forsake all that prevented them from worshipping their God. It was a realised spiritual dream, and they were prepared to work to bring it to fruition.
Content in Babylon?
Oh, how we need to give more than lip service to the ‘heavenly vision’ that God sets before us in Christ! How we should set ourselves to the work to which we say we have been called by his Great Commission!
Many Christians today are not so much ‘at ease in Zion’ as content in Babylon. These were a people who were discontented in Babylon. Hear their complaint in their former state:
‘By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept when we remembered Zion. There on the poplars we hung our harps, for there our captors asked us for songs, our tormentors demanded songs of joy; they said, “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”
‘How can we sing the songs of the Lord while in a foreign land? If I forget you, O Jerusalem, may my right hand forget its skill. May my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth if I do not remember you, if I do not consider Jerusalem’ (Psalm 137:1-6).
Thirsting for God
Their hearts were heavy with sorrow and they wept on the banks of the Tigris and the Euphrates. They longed to be repatriated. Their hearts ached to be restored to a place where they could worship their God with joy.
Their sentiments are well expressed by the psalmist: ‘As the deer pants for streams of water, so my soul pants for you, O God. My soul thirsts for God, for the living God. When can I go and meet with God?’ (Psalm 42:1-4).
How many of us long to worship God and his Christ with this kind of intensity? Such people’s names are worth recording, for they rebuke our own spiritual lassitude and declension.
May the Lord graciously stir us up – just as he stirred them – to hunger and thirst for the living God.