July 21, 2013
Background Scripture: Ezra 8:21-23
Devotional Reading: 2 Chronicles 7:12-18
No, the Background Scripture for today, Ezra 8:21-23, is not a misprint: The interdenominational committee that prepares the outlines for the Uniform Bible Lessons selected just three verses for our study this week.
In the 49 years that I have been writing “The Bible Speaks,” I cannot recall ever being assigned anything close to that brevity. Still, I conclude even these three verses raise a number of issues for those of us who are followers of Jesus Christ.
The setting is Babylon, at the time some Jews were preparing to make the long trek to Jerusalem. Ezra (his name means “help” and in Greek and in Latin is Esdras), a Jewish priest from a high-priestly family, is taking on the reins of leadership, both spiritual and practical.
He has two main tasks: to reestablish the laws of God as the foundation for all Jews, and to lead back to Jerusalem those who want to return and reestablish it as the holy city of God.
This would not be a quick trip, for just drawing a straight line on a map from Baghdad to Jerusalem shows the distance is at least 600 miles. But they would not have been able to travel a direct line, and the possible distance was probably just under 1,000 miles. It was a grueling, dangerous journey of five months, and the odds of completing it would be quite unfavorable.
Ashamed to ask
And then, he made the journey even more dangerous: Instead of asking the Persian king for a military escort to protect them from attacks along the way, he assured the king God would be with the Jews to protect them.
Why did he do that? Was he trying to impress the king that the exiles would be protected because of their special relationship to their God? And did he have second thoughts about this hasty claim?
His own words suggest he might have: “For I was ashamed to ask the king for a band of soldiers and horsemen to protect us against the enemy on our way: since we had told the king, ‘The hand of our God is for good upon all that seek him, and the power of his wrath is against all that forsake him’” (8:22).
Perhaps Ezra believed he had to do this in order to demonstrate God’s special care for His people. This brings us to a difficult problem that is still relevant today: How far shall we test God?
When Jesus was tempted in the wilderness, Satan taunted him. Standing high on the pinnacle of the temple, Satan said: “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here, for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you, to protect you …’”
But Jesus answered: “It is said, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test’” (Lk. 3:9-12). How can we know just how God will respond to our prayers?
When we pray the Lord’s Prayer, we acknowledge: “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done.” God always answers our prayers, but sometimes the answer is not the answer we asked for. Sometimes the answer is: “Request denied.”
In the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus prayed: “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me; yet, not my will but yours be done” (Luke 22:42). Harry Emerson Fosdick suggests “while a man’s outward petition may be denied, his dominant desire, which is his real prayer, may be granted.”
As one who has organized and led tour groups around the world, I tried to put myself in Ezra’s place. I can see myself brashly saying God will take care of my group. But I would find it difficult to turn down anything that would help ensure the safety of my tour members.
Ezra was confident God would bring them through their ordeal and, in fact, they apparently made the hazardous trip without disaster. Perhaps Ezra’s communication with the Lord was of such a higher level than of most of ours. There is no rule that can be cited.
Personally, I would trust God to protect us and also accept the king’s offer of help.
Ezra, goes on to say: “So we fasted and besought our God for this, and he listened to our entreaty” (8:23). The fasting could be interpreted in two ways. Maybe Ezra professed humility in order to influence God’s response.
Although some of us may attempt to pressure the Lord that way, I rather think Ezra was demonstrating the sincerity of his people, signaling not the willfulness of their prayers but sincere humility before the throne of God.
Phillips Brooks says, “Prayer is not conquering God’s reluctance, but taking hold of God’s willingness.”
Ezra 8:23 should cause us all to ask ourselves how we prepare when we confront frightening obstacles or embark upon important tasks. Simply put: how often and how well do we prepare ourselves in prayer when confronted by such a task, tribulation or opportunity? If it goes badly, then we are likely to pray, but how often do we prepare as Ezra wanted the exiles to prepare themselves?
Perhaps you are trying to sell your house and are agonizing over with whether to accept the bid that is made. Do you pray in advance? Knowing I have been asked to perform some daunting service, do I first pray about it? Sometimes I do, but not often enough.
If you are asked to trust a family member and recall their record in the past is not encouraging, do you prepare yourself with prayer – not the words we use, positions we assume, or places where we pray, but a relationship with the Lord?
And does our daily relationship with the Lord help us to be truly “prepared?”
The views and opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of Farm World. Those with questions or comments for Rev. Althouse may write to him in care of this publication.