The Hand of Our God Was On Us Back to all sermons

Date: May 11, 2014

Speaker: Pastor Cameron Arensen

Category: Sunday

Scripture: Ezra 7:1–8:36

Synopsis: There is a wonderful phrase found in the Bible. It is the phrase “The Hand of Our God Was on Us.” That is the title for this message, taken from Ezra 7-8. As Ezra led a group of Jews back to Jerusalem on a mission from God, Ezra repeatedly states, “The hand of our God was on us.” What did Ezra and the other exiles experience as a result of God hand being on them? What are the conditions we must meet if we desire God’s hand to be on us? And what should we do in response when we experience God’s hand working in and through us?

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There is a wonderful phrase in the Bible. It occurs a number of different times in different contexts. It is the phrase: The hand of our God was on us.

It says so much in just a few words. In all of life – for ourselves, for our families and our children, for our church; “May the hand of our God be on us.” Could we really ask for more? Need we ask for more?

Used 6 times in two chapters (Ezra 7-8) in various forms.

As we explore these two chapters together, I want to consider several questions. What happened as a result of God’s hand being on Ezra? What needs to happen in our lives so that we can experience the hand of God on us? Finally, what should we do when we have experienced God’s hand on us? Those are the questions we want to investigate in this message this evening.

What happened as a result of God’s hand being on Ezra?

First of all, let’s set the stage historically. Summarize first 6 chapters of Ezra and return under Zerubbabel. Ezra 6 concludes with the celebration of the completion of the rebuilding of the temple. Almost 60 years elapses between the end of Ezra 6 and the beginning of Ezra 7. The account in the rest of Ezra tells of the return of another wave of exiles in 458 BC during the rule of a Persian king named Artaxerxes.

In Ezra 7 we meet Ezra for the first time. Ezra is described in verse 8 as a scribe skilled in the Law of Moses that the Lord, the God of Israel, had given. His vision in returning to the land is to ensure that the people of God who have returned to Jerusalem and rebuilt the house of God are also living in accordance with the Law of God.

It is in the course of the record of his return to Jerusalem that he uses the phrase “the hand of God was on me.” What happened as a result of God’s hand being on Ezra? Now, I could go through the story and simply pick out every good thing that happened and say that it was the result of God’s hand being on him. And that would not be wrong. But I have chosen to limit myself only to those events or results in the text that are specifically linked to the hand of God.

1. The king granted his request for help.

6 this Ezra went up from Babylonia. He was a scribe skilled in the Law of Moses that the Lord, the God of Israel, had given, and the king granted him all that he asked, for the hand of the Lord his God was on him.

Did you notice our key phrase, along with the linking word “for.” We are not sure what kind of relationship Ezra had with the king of Persia, or how he won a hearing or was able to present his request. We are not even sure exactly what he asked for. We only know that because the hand of the LORD his God was on him, the king gave him everything he asked for.

In fact, in the last half of chapter 7, Ezra records a copy of the king’s decree. It is an amazing document. Let’s read selectively from it:

“Artaxerxes, king of kings, to Ezra the priest, the scribe of the Law of the God of heaven. Peace. And now 13 I make a decree that anyone of the people of Israel or their priests or Levites in my kingdom, who freely offers to go to Jerusalem, may go with you. 14 For you are sent by the king and his seven counselors to make inquiries about Judah and Jerusalem according to the Law of your God, which is in your hand,15 and also to carry the silver and gold that the king and his counselors have freely offered to the God of Israel, whose dwelling is in Jerusalem, 16 with all the silver and gold that you shall find in the whole province of Babylonia, and with the freewill offerings of the people and the priests, vowed willingly for the house of their God that is in Jerusalem. (verses 12-16)

“And I, Artaxerxes the king, make a decree to all the treasurers in the province Beyond the River: Whatever Ezra the priest, the scribe of the Law of the God of heaven, requires of you, let it be done with all diligence, (verse 21)

“And you, Ezra, according to the wisdom of your God that is in your hand, appoint magistrates and judges who may judge all the people in the province Beyond the River, all such as know the laws of your God. And those who do not know them, you shall teach. (verse 25)

Ezra was given remarkable wealth, resources and authority for his task, all because the hand of God was on him.

2. People followed his leadership.

We see this in the last part of Ezra 7:28: I took courage, for the hand of the Lord my God was on me, and I gathered leading men from Israel to go up with me. When Ezra began to recruit people to join him, there were leading men who were prepared to leave their settled lives in Babylon, uproot their families and return to Jerusalem. Ezra recognized that this happened because God’s hand was on him.

3. The right (qualified) people responded to his appeal.

When Ezra gathered his group together to prepare for the journey, he discovered that there were no Levites among those planning to return. This was devastating to his plans, as he was returning to strengthen the temple worship and the teaching of the Law. According to the Law of God, he could not do that properly without the assistance of the Levites. So he did some urgent recruiting. And because God’s hand was on him, the right people responded. We see this in Ezra 8:18-19

And by the good hand of our God on us, they brought us a man of discretion, of the sons of Mahli the son of Levi, son of Israel, namely Sherebiah with his sons and kinsmen, 18; 19 also Hashabiah, (and so on)

I was struck by this one – because we are currently looking for some good men – for church staff and church plant. We want the good hand of God to be on us.

4. God protected them on their journey.

Now, it’s always a good thing to start a journey with prayer for God’s protection. But it was especially critical in this case. They were about to embark on a journey of almost 900 miles. What’s more, they were carrying with them a fortune of several tons worth of silver and gold and goods for the temple. On top of that, Ezra faced a unique dilemma. He describes it very transparently in Ezra 8:21-23.

Then I proclaimed a fast there, at the river Ahava, that we might humble ourselves before our God, to seek from him a safe journey for ourselves, our children, and all our goods. 22 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 on all who seek him, and the power of his wrath is against all who forsake him.” 23 So we fasted and implored our God for this, and he listened to our entreaty.

I like Ezra because he’s so honest! He would dearly have loved to ask for an armed escort. In all probability, he would have been granted the request. But along the way, in his dealings with the king, he had been declaring that God was able to protect them. Now it’s time to “put his money where his mouth is.” Is God able to protect them, or not?

Look down to the end of the account.

31 On the twelfth day of the first month we set out from the Ahava Canal to go to Jerusalem. The hand of our God was on us, and he protected us from enemies and bandits along the way. 32 So we arrived in Jerusalem, where we rested three days.

That’s a pretty clear link, isn’t it? The hand of our God was on us, and he protected us from enemies and bandits.

So that is a list of what Ezra experienced as a result of God’s hand being on him.

The question I want to consider next is Why was God’s hand on Ezra? Was this just some kind of random selection? Did God toss a coin, or spin a dial, and Ezra’s name came up? Or were there preconditions, prerequisites that Ezra fulfilled that led to his being selected by God? And if there were preconditions for God’s hand being on Ezra, what were they? What preconditions must we fulfill if we desire God’s hand on us?

In studying the text, I found there were some preconditions, and I have summarized them in the form of three principles.

1. The hand of God is on everyone who seeks him.

This is the broad, general principle that is stated very clearly in Ezra 8:22: we had told the king, “The hand of our God is for good on all who seek him, and the power of his wrath is against all who forsake him.” The image of seeking God is everywhere in Scripture. If you want the hand of God upon you and upon your life, you have to seek him. You have to look to him. You have to pursue him and make him the object of your trust and confidence. The Israelites were banished into captivity because they sought and worshipped other gods. Through the prophet Jeremiah, God told them, “I will bring you back to the land when you seek for me with all your hearts.”

The psalmist describes this seeking in Psalm 42:1-2:

As a deer pants for flowing streams,
so pants my soul for you, O God.
2 My soul thirsts for God, for the living God.
When shall I come and appear before God?

We are to seek him. Seek him for himself. Seek him for his favor. Seek him as our source of help and confidence. He knows those who seek him, and the promise of Scripture is “the gracious hand of our God is on everyone who seeks him.” That is the general principle. If you want God’s hand to be on you, you must seek him. (True for individuals, families and as a church).

2. The hand of God is on believers who align themselves with God’s purposes.

To see this one, I would direct our attention to Ezra 7:9-10. In verse 9, we see our phrase given in a kind of summary statement. That God brought him back to Jerusalem through his gracious hand upon him. But the next verse is crucial to our understanding of the preconditions. You will note that it starts with the word “for”, a causal connection. Why was God’s hand on him? “Because…” and he spells it out in the rest of verse 10. And what we have in verse 10 is what I would consider a statement of Ezra’s life purpose or mission.

for the good hand of his God was on him. 10 For Ezra had set his heart to study the Law of the Lord, and to do it and to teach his statutes and rules in Israel.

This is a description of Ezra’s life purpose. This verse is hallowed and familiar ground for me personally, because I adopted this verse as my life verse many years ago as a young pastor. This is God’s calling on my life, as it was on the life of Ezra. When you set your heart on something, you are establishing your bottom line, your non-negotiable. You are saying: “This is the one thing I will do above all others. On this there can be no compromise. This I will do, even if other good things may remain undone.” Ezra had focused his life and his life mission.

Your life mission and purpose may be different. We are not all called to be “scribes” in the same sense that Ezra was. But we are all called to pursue the purpose and will of God in our lives. And God’s hand will be on those whose lives are lined up with that purpose.

3. The hand of God is on believers who petition him intensely and specifically in times of special danger or need.

We see this in Ezra’s preparation for the journey back to Jerusalem. With all the risk that it entailed, and with his resolve not to ask for the king’s help, he recognized this as a time of great danger. Look at what he did.

Then I proclaimed a fast there, at the river Ahava, that we might humble ourselves before our God, to seek from him a safe journey for ourselves, our children, and all our goods. 22 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 on all who seek him, and the power of his wrath is against all who forsake him.” 23 So we fasted and implored our God for this, and he listened to our entreaty.

They specifically asked for God’s protection and help, and he gave it. His hand was on them throughout the journey and so they arrived safely. We also have the privilege of petitioning God in times of special danger or need. In Ezra’s case, their prayer included a time of fasting and humbling themselves before God. While the Bible never specifically commands us to fast, the Scripture is full of examples of people fasting as a way of intensifying their prayers, and showing their seriousness and humility and their dependence on God. It is certainly an appropriate practice for believers today in times of particular danger or need. When we particularly feel the need for God’s hand on us, we can ask for it, intensely and specifically.

Many of you know the story of this Centre, how in early 1991, we were told that we would have to stop all public meetings at our worship center within 30 days. Ten churches were to be left without a place to meet. During those 30 days we called on all the Christians in our church and the other churches to join in special days of fasting and prayer as we petitioned God to meet our need. With just a week to spare, God opened the way for us to have an interview with the private secretary of the Crown Prince. (You know the rest of the story). God’s hand was on us in response to our specific and intense petition.

That story is part of our history as a church. It is part of your story too. But what new chapters does God intend to write, specifically in your congregation? (elaborate)

What was Ezra’s response to experiencing God’s hand on him? This is vitally important.

Answer: He gave God the glory and the credit for what was accomplished.

I want to simply highlight the ones that are in the first person, in Ezra’s own words and recollections.

First of all in Ezra 7:27: Blessed be the Lord, the God of our fathers, who put such a thing as this into the heart of the king, to beautify the house of the Lord that is in Jerusalem,

From the whole story, we know that Ezra must have taken initiative in approaching the king and making requests. At this point he could well have been boasting about his own connections or influence or “wasta”. Instead he gives all the credit to God. “He put it into the king’s heart…”

Then in Ezra 7:28: who extended to me his steadfast love before the king and his counselors, and before all the king's mighty officers. I took courage, for the hand of the Lord my God was on me, and I gathered leading men from Israel to go up with me. Again, how easy it would have been to boast of his leadership skills and his inspirational ability. But instead he credits all to the hand of God.

Look at 8:18: And by the good hand of our God on us, they brought us a man of discretion, of the sons of Mahli the son of Levi, son of Israel, namely Sherebiah with his sons and kinsmen, “God provided the right people,” Ezra proclaimed.

Finally in 8:31: Then we departed from the river Ahava on the twelfth day of the first month, to go to Jerusalem. The hand of our God was on us, and he delivered us from the hand of the enemy and from ambushes by the way. He was quick to give God the credit and to give him thanks for the protection on the journey.

That is one thing God expects, when he puts his gracious hand on us and works through us and for us. He expects us to give him the glory. To say, as Ezra did repeatedly, “It was the hand of God on us who has accomplished this.”

There is a tragic, contrasting story in the Old Testament of a king of Judah who ignored this principle. He was a king by the name of Uzziah. He was a good king who sought the Lord. His story is told in II Chronicles 26, but I will just summarize it here. The text states that, As long as he sought the Lord, God gave him success.

The King James Version masterfully captures the essence of his downfall: For he was marvelously helped till he was strong. But when he was strong, his heart was lifted up to his destruction. (26:15-16)

We seek the hand of God upon our lives and our undertakings. And he desires to put his hand on us and to work in us and through us to accomplish his purpose and to do great and wonderful things. But when we does, let us not make the error that King Uzziah did. Let us, like Ezra, be quick to give credit where credit is due. “This is the hand of God that has done this.” The hand of our God was on us.

Seek him. Align yourself with God’s purposes. Seek him with special intensity in times of need or crisis. And when he has answered and you have seen his hand upon you, give him the glory.