If you want to please God then be good as He is good. Be a good employee, a good boss, a good parent, a good student, a good mechanic, a good doctor. In this message Stephen challenges us to demonstrate to a lost world that God doesn't just save lives . . . He changes them as well.
Under God's Good Hand
Ezra 7 & 8
One of the phrases that appeared in Ezra chapter 7 will appear in some fashion in Ezra chapter 8. I simply read over them without commenting, because I wanted to deal with other issues. But I have to tell you that, whenever God uses a phrase over and over again in a brief space of scripture, He is trying to get our attention.
I encourage you to take your highlighter or pencil and underline this phrase that occurs over and over again - 6 times in all - nearly one time for every 10 verses.
The first time is in chapter 7 verse 6b . . .because the hand of the Lord his God was upon him.
v. 9b because the good hand of his God was upon him.
The last verse of chapter 7 - Thus I was strengthened according to the hand of the Lord my God upon me. (v. 28)
By the way, it’s in this paragraph that Ezra begins to refer to himself in the first person - and he will continue to do so for the rest of the Book - that’s one of the ways we know who the author of this Book is.
Then notice in chapter 8 verse 18. And according to the good hand of our
God upon us, they brought us a man of insight…
Again in verse 22 The hand of our God is favorably disposed to all those who seek Him… (literally, The hand of God is upon everyone who seeks Him for the purpose of doing good.)
One more time at the end of chapter 8 in verse 31b the hand of our God was over us, and He delivered us from the hand of the enemy.
You notice the contrast here in Ezra’s memoirs - the hand of the enemy was unsuccessful in stopping us, while the hand of God was successful in leading us.
Now when the Bible refers to God with physical features, or what we call anthropomorphism, we know, of course, that God, who is spirit, doesn’t have hands with five fingers on each hand.
It isn’t until the incarnation that God the Son takes on human form. Before then He, like God the Father and God the spirit are invisible persons, yet one God.
So when Ezra refers to the hand of God, he is referring to, namely, God’s strength - God’s manipulation of events and circumstances - God’s overarching control of circumstances - God’s sovereignty over rulers.
In fact, what I want to do is expound on the 6 uses of God’s hand - uses that lead us to the same conclusion that Ezra concluded - and it was this - God is Good.
1) The goodness of God was seen by Ezra and the people, first of all in His sovereignty over rulers.
That is brought out at least two different times. In verse 6 and in verse 28.
Let’s go back to verse 6. This Ezra went up from Babylon, and he was a scribe skilled in the law of Moses, which the Lord God of Israel had given; and the king granted him all he requested because . . . Ezra was really a sharp man - because Ezra was well respected in the kingdom - because Ezra really did a sales job on Artaxerxes King of Persia - Artaxerxes just couldn’t refuse!
No - the last part of the verse delivers the punch line - “the king granted him all he requested because the hand of the Lord his God was upon him.” Period.
Notice over in verse 27 of chapter 7. “27. Blessed be the
LORD, the God of our fathers, who has put such a thing as this in the king’s heart, to adorn the house of the LORD which is in Jerusalem, 28. and has extended loving kindness to me before the king and his counselors and before all the king’s mighty princes. Thus I was strengthened according to the hand of the LORD my God upon me, and I gathered leading men from Israel to go up with me.
No wonder Ezra was encouraged - chapter 7 preserves for us the Kings letter of approval: look at verse 20. And the rest of the needs for the house of your God, for which you may have occasion to provide, provide for it from the royal treasury.
Talk about a blank check. This is nothing less than miraculous.
Imagine, Governor Hunt saying, “Listen Colonial - forget the pledge campaign - whatever you need, you have the financial assets of the state of North Carolina at your disposal.”
That’s like you giving the checkbook to your wife or daughter and saying, “Go to the mall, and get everything you’d like to have.”
That would be a miracle too.
Well, the King is telling Ezra - whatever you need, you have the financial assets of the Kingdom of Persia at your disposal.
Oh and by the way - when it does come to our pledge campaign, God has already given us all the money we need for the project - now we just have to give it back to Him.
And don’t ever forget, that giving money away, even for the believer, is the miraculous work of God that overrides our human nature.
Now, was Artaxerxes becoming sympathetic toward the Jews? Was he experiencing a moment of religious humility? No - the letter begins back in verse 12, “Artaxerxes, king of kings” . . . no humility here. Why has this king of kings acted with so much generosity and support over the work of Ezra? Because the King of Kings is Sovereign over the circumstances of life.
And the hand of the Lord my God was upon me, Ezra declared.
Secondly, Ezra recognizes the good hand of God not only over the decrees and
decisions of rulers but in the very
2) initiation of God’s work through believers
Notice back in 7:9. For on the first of the first month he began to go up from Babylon; and on the first of the fifth month he came to Jerusalem, because the good hand of his God was upon him.
This statement sort of summarizes Ezra’s feelings and convictions about the entire process
The good hand of God is seen in the goodness worked in and through His willing servants.
Ezra never said or even implied - “I made it all the way from Babylon to Jerusalem because of my faith - instead, he said, “It was because of the goodness of God.”
Ezra never took any of the credit for the work God initiated through him. It was God alone deserving of the praise.
You ever wonder why we’ll one day at the bema seat, take our rewards and give them back to Christ - because the bema seat is simply the place where God rewards His own works - He wills it, He initiates, He performs it through us, He blesses it. The bema seat will be the place where His works are evidenced in and through the lives of believers - it is no wonder that we will respond by giving our rewards back to Him.
There’s more in here - the good hand of God was responsible for the recruiting of additional workers.
In chapter 8 and at
verse 15 Ezra assembles the Jews at the river where they camped for 3 days. During those three days, Ezra is not only cataloging the vessels to be used in the temple, he is taking note of the people who will be serving.
He discovers that Levites had not volunteered to go back. Now, while the law said nothing about this particular situation, Ezra knew what God had prescribed in Numbers chapter 1, 3 and 4 - Levites handled the sacred objects.
So Ezra forms a party of men to go and recruit servants for the work of God.
I can tell you that one of the critical needs in any ministry at any time - is the need for volunteers.
In this ministry, 300 volunteers are serving every month.
It is a crying need. Question is, to whom do we cry? Jesus Christ knew the great need the church would have for workers and volunteers; and so He gave the solution to His disciples when He said, The harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few. Therefore beseech the Lord of the harvest to send out workers into His harvest.
Imagine that - beg the Lord; pray to the Lord for helpers.
And would you notice what God did? Look at verse 18. And according to the good recruiting methods of the team??? No - According to the good hand of our God upon us, they brought us a man of insight of the sons of Mahli, the son of Levi, the son of Israel, namely the son of Sherebiah, and his sons and brothers - 18 men.
18 fresh volunteers from the tribe of Levi to oversee the sacred vessels of God’s temple.
Thank God for his provision of help, at just the right time.
Now I want you to notice a very transparent notation from the quill of Ezra. Verse 21 Then I proclaimed a fast there at the river of Ahava, that we might humble ourselves before our God to seek from Him a safe journey for us, our little ones, and all our possessions. 22. For I was ashamed to request from the king troops and horsemen to protect us from the enemy on the way, because we had said to the king, “The hand of our God is favorably disposed to all those who seek Him, but His power and His anger are against all those who forsake Him.”
This is the fifth use of the phrase. The good hand of God was observed in His promise of protection over evil doers.
I love Ezra’s openness - “I told the King that God was able to keep us safe - now how could I ask for an escort from the King?!” But man, was I scared.
Courage is not the absence of fear - it is faithfulness to God in the face of fear.
Now, if you calculated the amount of gold and silver Ezra was taking to Jerusalem, you might better appreciate why he fully expected raiding bandits and thieves to swoop down upon them.
They are carryingin today’s economy somewhere around 5 million dollars worth of gold and silver.
Without any armed guards.
They might as well carry a sign that said, “Over here - free money.”
Ezra and his company were sitting ducks. But Ezra just couldn’t bring himself to ask for the king’s help because he had already said The King would help them.
But do you get what Ezra’s priorities were?
Ezra was more afraid of losing his testimony than he was in losing his life.
His back was against the wall - he’d either cave in and tell the King - “Aw okay - I need some protection after all.” Or, no - he’d take his convictions with him, to the grave if necessary.
Go back to verse 21 and feel his concern. Then I proclaimed a fast there at the river of Ahava, that we might humble ourselves before our God to seek from Him a safe journey for us, for our little ones, and all our possessions.
Now notice the good hand of God was seen in the completion of the journey. Verse 31. Then we journeyed from the river Ahava on the twelfth of the first month to go to Jerusalem; and the hand of our God was over us, and He delivered us from the hand of the enemy and the ambushes by the way. 32 Thus we came to Jerusalem and remained there three days.
They made it. I can just hear the cheering crowds as Ezra and his band of followers made their way up to the temple - v. 33 and following record their deposit of all the gold and silver into the temple vaults.
What more could they do than celebrate through offerings unto God - and how had they made it - verse 31, in case anyone dared to miss it - the hand of our God was over us.
Over us, around us, underneath us, in front and behind us and upon us.
By the goodness of God - they made it!
I happen to believe that I will spend a good deal of time at the outset of eternity jumping up and down for joy and saying things like - I can’t believe I’m actually here - I really made it . . . wow!
You say, “Now that doesn’t sound very spiritual - I would have expected more out of you. . .” Well, let me illustrate it this way. Have you ever wanted to go somewhere and when you finally arrived - you say to your friend, your wife, your husband, I can’t believe we’re actually here!
I said that to my wife when we cashed in our special gift from the church to go anywhere in the world as a 10 year anniversary present. My wife went to the library and checked out books on Switzerland - we looked at pictures - we looked at maps - we talked to people who’d been there before - we emailed friends in Europe with questions. Finally, there we were, in Switzerland - Interlachen to be exact - a beautiful village in a lush valley surrounded by snow capped mountains. Sitting at a sidewalk café - sipping coffee - which interpreted means 10 gallons of caffeine compressed into one little cup. We said to each other several times, “Can you believe we’re actually here?”
Every graduate will feel that way, standing in line this month or next. They made it. Some of them don’t deserve to be there . . . it’s a miracle some of them are in that line . . . others have studied hard . . . but they all feel somewhat the same - I can’t believe I’m here.
You get to the end of the journey - some milestone in your spiritual life - ultimately, the new heaven and the new earth and you will say, “We made it - oh the good hand of God was upon us.”
The goodness of God may at times be a mystery.
When we say that God is good, we mean that He cannot be improved upon. God will never have to learn to be good - He is good. And whatever God is, He is infinitely.
God is infinitely good. He will never have to work on His personality, improve His character, erase any flaws. God is good.
You say, but haven’t you read the newspapers - look at all the bad things happening to people. If God is good, why do bad things happen?
That’s a sermon in itself, but let me answer that quickly with two statements:
a) Bad things happen in the world, not because God isn’t good, but because the people are bad.
It amazes me how God rarely gets the credit when society is flourishing, but He always gets blamed when things go wrong. “Look what God did; why didn’t God stop that.”
Well, there are a lot of things in our world that are happening that are not good, but it’s not because God is not good, it’s because man is not good. And God has allowed mankind to act out in sin ever since the fall.
But this second point is critically important:
b) Bad things happen in the world, but for the believer, bad things don’t have the last word.
Even when your world is falling apart - the story is not over, because God is steering and shaping it to your ultimate good.
Joseph was sold into slavery and when reunited with his brothers he said, “You meant it for evil, but God meant it for good.”
Frankly, one of the tragedies of not belonging to God as his child, is that the bad things of this world do have the last word - but for the believer, God who is good can take that which is bad and out of it shape that which is eternally good. A good God promised that in Romans chapter 8.
So, while the goodness of God may at times be a mystery, for the believer, 2) The goodness of God will at all times be a model.
Have you ever thought about the fact that you are to be good, to do good, to be thought of as a good person - not so you’ll be accepted by God, but so that you will remind people of the God to whom you claim to belong?
So then, while we have opportunity, let us do good to all men, and especially to those who are of the household of the faith. (Galatians 6:10)
With good will render service, as to the Lord, and not to men, knowing that whatever good thing each one does, this he will receive back from the Lord. (Ephesians 6:7)
That you may walk in a manner worthy of the Lord, to please Him in al respects, bearing fruit in every good work. (Colossians 1:10)
If you want to please God; furthermore if you want to be like God, then be good; be a good employee; be a good boss; be a good father and a good mother, a good student, a good mechanic, a good doctor - just simply be a good person to be around.
It reflects the attribute of your infinitely good God.
Two closing exercises:
1) Reflect on the goodness of God - as one of His attributes; as the operative word in His actions. God is good!
2) Remember to say thank you!
You’ve probably taught your children to say those words, right? Did you teach them to say thank you once a week - once a month, whenever they feel like it? No, you are teaching them to say thank you as a way of life.
May we say the same - we also happen to live under the good hand of God.