Ezr 8:22 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." Ezr 8:23 So we fasted and implored our God for this, and he listened to our entreaty.
Neh 2:9 Then I came to the governors of the province Beyond the River and gave them the king's letters. Now the king had sent with me officers of the army and horsemen.
We have here two godly men doing much the same work but doing it a little differently. As I understand it, the books of Ezra and Nehemiah are just one book in the original Hebrew Bible. So on the one hand Ezra feels it would dishonor the Lord to accept a military escort to Jerusalem while Nehemiah decides to accept it. There might be something to learn in all this since they are included in the same book.
We know that under the New Covenant we have no promise from God that just because we are doing his work, his way, he will protect us from physical harm or calamity. Two thousand years of Christian martyrdom proves otherwise. But for Ezra he believes that to accept the escort would give the impression to the world that the Lord was not as mighty as he has evidently told everyone he was. So Ezra backs up his faith and his words with his life; he practices what he preaches.
But we read in the following verse in Ezra that he also holds a prayer meeting for the Lord’s help; he doesn’t presume upon the Lord. There are times when we put ourselves “at risk” for Christ’s sake and we don’t use the usual means we might in order to protect ourselves. Certainly there would be next to no missionary efforts if we only did things when they were safe, humanly speaking.
But we see Nehemiah in a similar situation using the “normal” means of safety and protection. I think as we consider these two courses of action that we are reminded that the Christian life isn’t always laid out for us in black and white in the Bible and we are left to work out our salvation as best as we know how according to the general principles laid out in God’s Word. This means we won’t always know exactly what we are to do but we choose what we do based on what biblically honors the Lord the most and trust God to work out the rest. The fact that we are told that Nehemiah did take a guard when Ezra didn’t might be a deliberate attempt to point out that what is good one time might not be the best option the next time.
Now I know that this generally scares us to death. We want the Lord to spell his will out for us so we don’t have to struggle with decisions or spend a lot of time in prayer. We want it all laid out for us so we can just do it. But that is not New Testament Christianity. Instead, whatever we do, whether we eat or drink or whatever, we are to do all for the glory of God and whatever God does with it we accept from his hand.
I believe the normal pattern is the one Nehemiah took. We trust God while thankfully using the means that He provides. You pray for protection on the highways, but you fasten your seat belt and drive carefully. You pray for healing, but you go to the doctor and take the prescribed medicine. You pray for a job, but you prepare a resume, dress appropriately, and go for job interviews. God normally expects us to use the means He provides, along with faith in Him.
And the reason I say that is because we can sometimes fall into the error that Christians don’t have to live in this world like everyone else. We think we should get a pass with the struggles of life and the hard decisions. But we don’t get to sit back in indifference and laziness while everyone else has to struggle with the effects of sin. We struggle as well but we have the Lord to explain how to live and to give us promises for being faithful. We go through all the same things as the lost do but we glorify the Lord in it instead of living for ourselves.
But sometimes the “normal” means becomes the worldly means which is perhaps what we see with Ezra. Sometimes the Chinese Christian must openly profess Christ because it is the right thing to do even though he knows it will expose him to danger. Sometimes there is nothing left for us to do but to get on our knees and turn it over to the Lord and then just wait. It isn’t always going to be obvious but I think these two passages remind us that sometimes it will be one or the other and that is okay. Sometimes we take precautions and use the normal means and sometimes we put ourselves at risk to let the Lord demonstrate his power.
And then there are times when it is wrong for us to get on our knees and pray for God to supply our needs when we just plan to sit back and not pound the pavement seeking employment. “He who will not work, neither let him eat.” I think often the prayer that God will supply a need without us working or doing the responsible thing is really a prayer that God would supply a need so that I don’t have to work! What we need is balance, we pray because we know that without the Lord nothing will work out right but we work and are responsible because that is the way God has ordained. Ezra and no doubt Nehemiah do both and while it didn’t look the same outwardly, they both are blessed by the Lord in their work.
My last thought is this: Both are blessed because both are serving the Lord and his people. If that isn’t what is motivating everything we do then prayer isn’t going to help because we can be sure we are praying amiss.