“Fasting and Praying”
Lesson Text: Ezra 7:6-10, 8:21-23, 31-32
Background Scripture: Ezra 7:1-8:23
Devotional Reading: 2 Chronicles 7:12-18
Ezra 7:6-10 (KJV)
6 This Ezra went up from Babylon; and he was a ready scribe in the law of Moses, which the Lord God of Israel had given: and the king granted him all his request, according to the hand of the Lord his God upon him.
7 And there went up some of the children of Israel, and of the priests, and the Levites, and the singers, and the porters, and the Nethinims, unto Jerusalem, in the seventh year of Artaxerxes the king.
8 And he came to Jerusalem in the fifth month, which was in the seventh year of the king.
9 For upon the first day of the first month began he to go up from Babylon, and on the first day of the fifth month came he to Jerusalem, according to the good hand of his God upon him.
10 For Ezra had prepared his heart to seek the law of the Lord, and to do it, and to teach in Israel statutes and judgments.
Ezra 8:21-23, 31-32 (KJV)
21 Then I proclaimed a fast there, at the river of Ahava, that we might afflict ourselves before our God, to seek of him a right way for us, and for our little ones, and for all our substance.
22 For I was ashamed to require of the king a band of soldiers and horsemen to help us against the enemy in the way: because we had spoken unto the king, saying, The hand of our God is upon all them for good that seek him; but his power and his wrath is against all them that forsake him.
23 So we fasted and besought our God for this: and he was intreated of us.
31 Then we departed from the river of Ahava on the twelfth day of the first month, to go unto Jerusalem: and the hand of our God was upon us, and he delivered us from the hand of the enemy, and of such as lay in wait by the way.
32 And we came to Jerusalem, and abode there three days.
To know that Ezra was qualified, dedicated, and prepared to lead thousands of people from Babylon to Jerusalem.
To recognize that Ezra’s preparation, including the decision not to request protection (Ezra 8:22), is sometimes the model for Christians to follow.
To live a life that is honoring and committed to God, so that others around you can see your light and come to glorify God (Matthew 5:16).
Time: 458 B.C.
Places: Ahava Canal; Jerusalem
Preparing for a Journey
Each person or family has different approaches to packing for a journey. Some people wait until the last minute, then pack quickly. Others begin packing days ahead of time, perhaps using a checklist to ensure that all important items are included. In some families, it is the mother or wife who packs for everyone. In other families, each person is expected to do his or her own packing.
The items packed for family trips change as the years go by and the family matures. The family that once needed to pack infant formula eventually becomes the family that has to make sure that denture cream and batteries for hearing aids are not forgotten. But one issue of preparation should never change, and it is easy to overlook: prayer for the journey! Many families or church groups have a custom of pausing to pray just before a trip begins. Such prayers are often said after everyone is inside a vehicle. Before the car or van is put in motion, a prayer is offered to God that expresses thanks and requests safety.
The lesson for today provides information about what is termed the second return from Babylon to Israel. This return was more than just one of physical relocation. It was also spiritual in nature. Prayer and fasting played a vital role in that regard before the group began to move toward its destination: Jerusalem.
The previous lesson was about the completion of the new temple in Jerusalem, its dedication on March 12, 515 B.C., observance of Passover on April 21, and celebration of the Feast of Unleavened Bread that immediately followed Passover. The first section of the book of Ezra comes to an end at this point.
Ezra 7 begins the second section of the book, and the date is 458 B.C. Thus there is a gap of 57 years, or about two generations, between the end of chapter 6 and the beginning of chapter 7. The Bible offers information in the account of Esther on some things that happened during that period of time. In January 478 B.C., Esther became the queen for Ahasuerus (also known as Xerxes), king of the Persian Empire (Esther 2:16). Prior to that, however, three famous battles occurred that the Bible does not discuss. These battles, involving the Persians, are considered very important in the history of western civilization.
The first was the battle at Marathon, where the Athenians and their allies defeated the Persian army of Darius the Great in 490 B.C. This is the same Darius who authorized the resumption of construction on the temple in Jerusalem (Ezra 6). This battle demonstrated to the Greeks that the Persians were not invincible, especially if the Greek city-states would unite instead of fighting each other.
The second was the battle at Thermopylae in 480 B.C., where the Persians again confronted the Greeks. The six-month banquet of King Ahasuerus described in Esther 1 is often thought to be the planning of the military action against the Greeks that included this battle. The primary motivation for the Persian invasion may have been to avenge the defeat at Marathon suffered by Darius, father of Ahasuerus. During the ensuing campaign, 300 Spartans heroically defended the pass of Thermopylae for 7 days against a vastly superior Persian force. But through a betrayal, the Persians found the path around the pass and defeated the Spartans and their allies.
Third, and more significant, was the Greek victory at Salamis, which followed shortly after Thermopylae. This was a naval battle in which a heavily outnumbered Greek fleet decisively defeated the Persian fleet. Ahasuerus became discouraged after this reversal. Leaving one of his generals in charge to finish the campaign, he returned to Susa where an ancient historian says he found solace in his harem. The selection of Esther as his queen fits well into the historical reconstruction.
The events associated with the second wave of Jews returning from Babylon are in the final four chapters of the book of Ezra. The year being 458 B.C. means that the events described in today’s text occur just 15 years after the final events of the book of Esther. The Persians are still in charge in Palestine, but their power is on the wane.
Mission Overview (Ezra 7:6-10)
Ezra uses verses 1-5 of chapter 7 in his book to show that he has the priestly credentials to be the leader for the group that is preparing to go to Jerusalem. Giving the more prominent names, Ezra traces his ancestry all the way back to Aaron, the first high priest for the nation of Israel.
Ezra’s Qualifications (Ezra 7:6a)
1. What were some of Ezra’s qualifications as a “scribe” (Ezra 7:6a)?
Ezra further identifies himself as a scribe. The same Hebrew word is used to designate one of the officers or cabinet members for David in 2 Samuel 20:25. Therefore the word indicates a person who merits respect as one who is an intelligent, capable writer. In this case it is the law of Moses in which Ezra has expert knowledge. The reference to this law demonstrates that it (1) is already in existence, (2) is respected as coming from the Lord God of Israel, (3) is being studied, and (4) is being taught. We may assume that at least some of the captives finally understand why they are in Babylon: there has been a disdain for and disobedience of God and His Word.
What Do You Think?
What qualities or qualifications should we look for in church leaders in various circumstances?
Talking Points for Your Discussion
During a financial crisis | During an interpersonal conflict | When beginning a building project | When counseling the bereaved |Other
Ezra’s Request (Ezra 7:6b)
2. Why did king Artaxerxes grant the requests of Ezra so willingly (Ezra 7:6b)?
Ezra’s credentials include receiving approval from Artaxerxes, king of Persia (Ezra 7:1), to lead this return of Jews from Babylon back to Palestine. A key phrase is given as the reason the request of Ezra is granted: this was by the hand of the Lord his God. This and similar phrases are used several times across the books of Ezra and Nehemiah (see Ezra 7:9, 28; 8:18, 22, 31; Nehemiah 2:8, 18). God gets the credit!
The bold action on the part of Ezra leads some to think that he may have a position in the Persian government, perhaps as an official representative for the Jews. However, there are many more likely reasons: As we see in Ezra 7:23, the king feared the wrath of “the God of heaven.” Perhaps Artaxerxes recalls the events in the days of Esther—how Haman and others who opposed the Jews had been annihilated. A good king would want to know about the nations in his domain, and Artaxerxes may have heard from Ezra about the miraculous events in the history of Israel. Some of those accounts show that the enemies of Israel can suffer severe consequences, such as the plagues on the Egyptians as recorded in Exodus. Nevertheless, Ezra’s plan has the full backing of the king according to “the hand of the Lord” (7:6b).
Ezra’s Traveling Companions (Ezra 7:7)
3. What was the purpose of those who took the trip back to Jerusalem (Ezra 7:7)?
Those who will take part in this trip are going to Jerusalem for a dual purpose: (1) to return to the land that God had promised to the patriarchs and (2) to serve God in the activities associated with the temple.
The reference to the Levites has an interesting background that is given in Ezra 8. As Ezra evaluates the composition of the group preparing to travel with him, he does not find any Levites. They are the ones most closely associated with assisting the priests (Ezra 8:15). Ezra therefore sends several trusted men to one community with the task of locating Levites who are willing to make the trip to Jerusalem. They search is successful: 38 Levites are found (8:18, 19) along with 220 others who also can assist (8:20).
The Hebrew behind the word “porters” is also translated “doorkeepers” in 1 Chronicles 15:23, and that helps clarify its meaning. The word Nethinims refers to those who serve in the temple in various ways. The word seems to come from a root that means “give,” and Nethinims may therefore refer to those who give themselves to such service.
“The seventh year of Artaxerxes the king” (Ezra 7:7) calculates as 458 B.C. It has been almost 80 years since the first return (see Ezra 1, 2), and it has been 147 years since Daniel and his companions were taken to Babylon. Several generations undoubtedly have become comfortable in Babylon, so the people who want to return probably have a deep spiritual commitment that prompts them in their decision.
Ezra’s Trip (Ezra 7:8-9)
4. What can we learn about the months and days that it took Ezra and the people to travel to Jerusalem (Ezra 7:8-9)?
The word he refers to Ezra himself. The additional chronological note establishes the year and month of arrival, and verse 9 gives the day. These three pieces of data tell us that Ezra and his companions arrive in Jerusalem on August 4, 458 B.C. The fact that the exact arrival date is given leads us to ask when the journey began. The answer to that comes in verse 9 (next).
The fact that the journey begins on the first day of the first month means that the trip takes exactly four months. The Hebrews use a lunar calendar, and the new moon of the first month is determined to be April 8. The journey begins at the start of the dry season, and that is a good time of the year for travel.
A lunar month is 29.5 days, so the travel time from Babylon to Jerusalem is therefore 118 days. The group does not travel on a Sabbath day, so 18 or 19 days are spent resting along the way. Therefore the people take about 100 days to travel the 880 miles to Jerusalem. Thus we may conclude that the people average about 9 miles per day.
The next section indicates that there is a delay of at least three days at Ahava (Ezra 8:15), so the group does not travel on all non-Sabbath days. The group begins to move out from Ahava on the twelfth of the first month, or April 19 (Ezra 8:31).
All in all, the group seems to travel at a rate of about 1 mile per hour. The standard rate of march for armies on foot is about 2 miles per hour, but Ezra’s group includes animals that need to graze and be watered, children (Ezra 8:21), and lots of heavy cargo (8:24-30). These factors result in a slower rate of travel.
Ezra provides the proper evaluation for the successful trip: the good hand of his God is the reason that the journey goes so well. Ezra may have planned to the last detail, but he understands that God is the source of every blessing ( James 1:17). At the end of the journey, each Israelite probably experiences a special surge of emotion as the city of Jerusalem comes into view.
Ezra’s Dedication (Ezra 7:10)
5. What did Ezra devote himself to do for the Lord (Ezra 7:10)?
This is one of the best-known verses in the book of Ezra. It gives the threefold purpose that Ezra intends to continue governing his life when he reaches Jerusalem: to know the law of the Lord, to obey it, and to instruct others concerning it.
When it comes to our relationship to the Word of God, Ezra is a good example for us to follow. He was a man with a prepared heart, devoted to the study of the Scriptures. “For Ezra had prepared his heart to seek the law of the Lord, and to do it.”
True indeed, Ezra did more than study the Word of God; he also practiced it in his daily life. It's in the obeying of the Word that we experience the blessing, not in the reading or the hearing of it (James 1:22-25). This one is “blessed” in what he does (v. 25), not in what he thinks he knows. If our knowledge of the truth doesn't result in obedience, then we end up with a big head instead of a burning heart (1 Cor. 8:1; Luke 24:32); and truth becomes a toy to play with, not a tool to build with. Instead of building our Christian character, we only deceive ourselves and try to deceive others (1 John 1:5-10).
Ezra knew that before the northern nation of Israel had gone into Assyrian captivity, the Lord had said that His people were being destroyed for rejecting knowledge (Hosea 4:6). The southern nation of Judah did not learn from Israel’s experience, so it went into captivity in Babylon. Now there is a new generation, and Ezra is determined to keep history from being repeated.
What Do You Think?
How would you go about preparing yourself for a new ministry task that you believed God wanted you to do?
Talking Points for Your Discussion
Questions you would ask other believers | Answers you would seek from God’s Word | How you would pray | Other
Gathering Point (Ezra 8:15, 21, 31)
Ezra 8:15, 21, and 31 indicate that a place by the Ahava waterway is a gathering point for the people who were going to Jerusalem. The exact location is not known, but it is assumed that it is near the Euphrates River, not too far north of the city of Babylon. Ezra 8 indicates that fewer than 1,800 male adults make the trip, so the total number in the group may be between 5,000 and 6,000 when we include women and children.
Mission Preparation / Leading the People in Fasting and Prayer (Ezra 8:21-23)
6. Why did Ezra announce a fast (Ezra 8:21)?
Ezra announced at the Ahava canal that there would be a mandatory fast to seek the Lord’s favor. Through this fast the participants would humbly recognize their inability to safeguard their journey from potential dangers. In addition, they would be able to request that God make the trip level and straight (in other words, free from any life-threatening situations). They would ask the Lord to protect their entire group, including their young children and valuable possessions (Ezra 8:21). The priceless items being transported by the group would be an especially tempting target for marauding bandits.
Fasting refers to abstaining from eating for a limited period of time. In the Bible, we can see that God’s people fasted for a variety of reasons: to express grief over the death of a loved one or a leader (see 1 Sam. 31:13), to petition God for a matter of great urgency (see 2 Sam. 12:15-23), to humble oneself before God (see 1 Kings 21:27-29), to seek God’s help (see 2 Chron. 20:1-4), to confess sins (see Neh. 9:1-2), and to prepare oneself spiritually (see Matt. 4:1-2). Fasting was difficult, requiring self-discipline and sacrifice. lt gave God’s people the opportunity to devote more time to spiritual pursuits. It said to God, in effect, that the matter they were bringing before Him was more important than anything else, even eating.
On the fast track
Fasting is one of the most effective, yet least understood or utilized, spiritual disciplines. Fasting is the practice of denying ourselves food, or other things for a period of time in order to draw closer to God. In Matthew 6:16, Jesus affirms the importance of this discipline by saying when you fast, not if.
The human body benefits from some types of fasting, although our stomachs may complain a bit. The key to successful fasting is to know why, how and how long to fast.
There are many reasons why people fast. Some leaders in Biblical times fasted as an act of repentance (as previously mentioned). A contemporary businessman named Howard fasted three days to seek the Lord about a critical decision. A woman named Christine fasted ten days to pray for her failing marriage. A missionary in India once fasted from food for forty days to seek a spiritual breakthrough in reaching his Muslim neighbors. Some believers fast one day a month just to focus their attention on God.
The how of fasting must fit the individual situation. Some fast from all foods; others eliminate “indulgences” like chocolate or sweets. Others eat only vegetables or drink only juices. Some even fast from using the television or the telephone.
The final, critical aspect is to know how long? By asking the Lord, you’ll be equipped with a strong answer when the devil tempts you to quit early.
If you’ve never fasted, ask the Lord and a more mature Christian friend how you can begin this helpful discipline.
FAST TRACK: Isaiah 58:3-8; Joel 1:14; Matthew 6:16-18.
7. Why didn’t Ezra ask king Artaxerxes for a military escort to provide protection on the journey (Ezra 8:22)?
Ezra could have asked for an armed escort, but he felt that a request for protection would dishonor the Lord in the eyes of the pagan king. He had already told Artaxerxes that God's good hand was upon him and the Jews, so how could he then ask for human help? Ezra was relying on God's covenant with Abraham (Gen. 12:1-3). This is a powerful demonstration to the king.
However, fourteen years later, Nehemiah didn't hesitate to request an armed escort from the king (Neh. 2:9); and Paul was glad for the Roman soldiers who protected him during his journey from Jerusalem to Caesarea (Acts 23). Were they less devoted than Ezra? Of course not! Undoubtedly the Lord gave Ezra special faith for this journey because He knew that Ezra's desire was only to glorify God. When you consider the factors involved in this expedition, you can see what great faith Ezra possessed. Here were several thousand Jews, inexperienced in travel and warfare, carrying a fortune in gold and silver, led by a scholar, not a soldier, and planning to travel through dangerous territory that was infested with brigands, and yet their leader didn't want an army to protect them! If anybody deserves the "Great Faith Award," it's Ezra!
Fasting and Prayer Answered (Ezra 8:23, 32-32)
8. How did God answer their petitions (Ezra 8:23, 32-32)?
The fast becomes a reality, and the petitions for protection are genuinely expressed to God. In turn, He graciously answered their petition (v. 23). We see in verses 31-32 that God did indeed protect them from their enemies as they made their way in to Jerusalem. As Ezra pens these words later, he can look back over the days and miles and know that God had indeed protected the group. They arrive safely, and Ezra is ready to begin his special ministry in Jerusalem of studying, obeying, and teaching the law of the Lord (Nehemiah 8:1-8; etc.).
What Do You Think?
What experiences have helped you to learn to depend on God? Explain.
Talking Points for Your Discussion
Looking for a job | Making a major financial decision | Deciding where to attend church |Other
POINTS TO PONDER
1. The Lord enabled Ezra to select capable people to serve with him as leaders in the job he was commissioned to do (Ezra 7:6-10).
2. Fasting and praying with the right motives will always lead us in God’s direction! (Ezra 8:21-23, 31-32).
We have many examples of people in the Bible: Moses (Ex. 34:28) David (2 Sam. 12:16; Psa. 35:13; 69:10; 109:24); Jehoshaphat with all of Israel (2 Chron. 20:3); Ezra with those traveling with him to Israel (Ezra 8:21). Nehemiah (Neh. 1:4); Nehemiah with all of Israel (Neh. 9:1); Esther’s friends (Esther 4:16); Daniel (Dan. 9:3); Josiah with all of Israel (Jer. 36:9); The people of Nineveh (Jonah 3:5); The prophetess Anna (Luke 2:37); Jesus (Mat. 4:1-2); Paul with the leaders in Antioch (Acts 13:3); Paul and Barnabas (Acts 14:23).
Preparing for Your Ministries
During the wilderness wanderings, Moses offered a special prayer each time the ark was moved and when it came to rest (Numbers 10:35, 36). Ezra’s spiritual actions at the beginning of his journey were similar.
Many Christian leaders pray before beginning each task. Those who preach have the responsibility of ministering to hundreds or even thousands who have come for spiritual bread. The person who teaches lessons such as this one may begin the preparation with prayer. These facts lead us to a final thought regarding another direction for prayer: Did the Israelites pray for Ezra? Do your students pray for you, the teacher?
O God, may this day be the day I resolve to know, do, and teach Your Word in my journey toward You. As I pray for my tasks, may I also seek the prayers of others. In Jesus’ name, amen.
THOUGHT TO REMEMBER
Remember to pray for God’s enabling