Both Ezra and Nehemiah faced great danger on their long trips to Judah (Ezra traveling from Babylon, and Nehemiah traveling from Susa). Both Ezra and Nehemiah were offered military protection from the king. Yet despite very similar situations, and despite both men having faith in God for their protection, Ezra and Nehemiah responded differently to the prospect of military protection on their journey.
Nehemiah was guarded by an army escort as he traveled (Neh. 2.9). Thirteen years earlier, Ezra refused to ask for such an escort, choosing rather to place his faith in God (Ezra 8.22). By examining these texts it can be seen that both attitudes can be defended as faithful. It can also be seen that while Ezra and Nehemiah both had different opinions about whether or not to accept military protection, both Ezra and Nehemiah fully understood that their protection came from the hand of God, not from the hand of the king.
The Faith of Ezra
As Ezra prepared to lead a group of Jews back to Jerusalem, he first directed the group to pray together for a safe journey.
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. 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 anger are against all those who forsake Him.” So we fasted and sought our God concerning this matter, and He listened to our entreaty. – Ezra 8.21-23
Ezra refused to ask for help from the Persian army. He did not refuse their help because he was in any way naive about the reality of the dangers they would soon be facing. He understood that they would likely be threatened by thieves and their children and their possessions would be in danger.
His reason for refusing military protection is because he was “ashamed” to request their help. Ezra had continually announced that God would protect them on their journey. To publicly place so much confidence in God, and then turn around and ask for protection from a pagan military force would have likely appeared to others that Ezra really didn’t have the confidence in God He had so often preached. Ezra was a man with deep faith and dependence on God.
The Faith of Nehemiah
About thirteen years later, Nehemiah would see the matter differently. After hearing the disturbing news that Jerusalem’s walls had been broken down, and its gates and been burned with fire, Nehemiah, the king’s cupbearer, spent time fasting and praying (Neh. 1.3-11). After King Artaxerxes asked Nehemiah about the reasons for his grief, the king granted Nehemiah permission to return to Jerusalem to rebuild the city walls.
So it pleased the king to send me, and I gave him a definite time. And I said to the king, “If it please the king, let letters be given me for the governors of the provinces beyond the River, that they may allow me to pass through until I come to Judah, and a letter to Asaph the keeper of the kings’ forest, that he may give me timber to make beams for the gates of the fortress which is by the temple, for the wall of the city and for the house to which I will go.” And the king granted them to me because the good hand of my God was on me.
Then I came to the governors of the provinces beyond the River and gave them the king’s letters. Now the king had sent with me officers of the army and horsemen. – Nehemiah 2.6b-9
Nehemiah asked for the support of the king on his journey and was granted that request. Yet Nehemiah understood that God was the one deserved credit for his protection. He understood that the opportunity to return and the safety he would be assured on his journey was because “the good hand of my God was on me.”
Artaxerxes was a pagan king who did not know God. He would have had his own reasons for approving Nehemiah’s journey and using his military to ensure Nehemiah’s safety. But regardless of Artaxerxes’ reasons, Nehemiah understood that God was in charge. If Nehemiah was enjoying the favor and protection of the king, it was because God had allowed it to be so. Like Ezra, Nehemiah was also a man of deep faith and dependence on God.
Lessons We Can Learn
- God can protect His people by using pagan kings and their armies as His ministers
All throughout the Scriptures we read of God using pagan kings as His ministers to accomplish His will for the good of His children. God used Assyria as His rod (Is. 10.5-7), Nebuchadnezzar as His servant (Jer. 25.8-10), and Cyrus as His shepherd (Is. 44.28-45.6). God used Nero, and continues to use all governing authorities as His ministers (Rom. 13.1-6). This is true in spite of the fact that these were pagan rulers, who did not know God, nor submitted to Him willingly. (I’ve written more extensively on this here.)
Like Nehemiah, we must recognize that God is in charge.
“It is He who changes the times and the epochs;
He removes kings and establishes kings;
He gives wisdom to wise men
And knowledge to men of understanding” – Daniel 2.21
We need to understand, like Nehemiah did, that when pagan kings and their armies act in the best interest of God’s people, they are doing so as ministers of God. God ultimately deserves the credit for the protection they offer. We must recognize their favor and protection as “The hand of God upon us”.
- God’s people are not obligated to seek pagan protection or help
Christians are obligated to pray for kings and for those in authority (1 Tim. 2.1-2), but nothing in scripture indicates that we are obligated to actively seek out the help and protection of pagan kings and their armies. Ezra refused to seek the king’s protection as an act of faith and dependence on God, and he was protected in response to this act of faith, indicating that God was pleased with Ezra’s request for protection.
It is important to realize, like Ezra did, that God does not need the help of kings or armies to protect his people. One of the greatest examples of this was when Israel was trapped between the army of the Egyptians and the Red Sea (Ex. 14-15). God miraculously divided the waters and saved His children, and single handedly destroyed the horses and chariots of the Egyptians. He won this victory without the help of a single sword, or a single fighting man. God won the victory and protected His people all by Himself.
There are many other examples given in scripture of God fighting in this same way, such as in 2 Chronicles 20, when Ammonites and Moabites were defeated and Israel did not even have to fight, or in 2 Chronicles 32 when the armies of Sennacherib were defeated in a very similar way.
In the New Testament, the church faced great opposition and persecution, and yet they continued to grow rapidly during a time when pagan kings and their armies were opposed to their growth. Perhaps the greatest example of God’s victory being won without the help of armies would be the resurrection of Jesus. His resurrection from the dead is the ultimate sign that God’s children do not need the protection of armies to gain life. Those who are faithful to God will gain eternal life, even when their life is taken.
Ezra understood that those who faithfully trust and obey God are those who will win.
The king is not saved by a mighty army;
A warrior is not delivered by great strength.
A horse is a false hope for victory;
Nor does it deliver anyone by its great strength. – Ps. 33.16-17
- We must not shame those who choose to solely trust in God
The reason Ezra gave for refusing the protection of armed forces was that of shame. He was “ashamed” to ask for their help, because he had publicly declared his faith and confidence in the protection of God. Ezra had bragged on God, and this was an opportunity to show the protection and providence of the LORD.
When Christians refuse to bear arms, refuse to call the police, or refuse to seek government protection, they must not be shamed. Regardless of whether we agree with them or not, they are choosing to trust in God for their protection. To shame those who refuse outside help is to shame the them for relying on God. To shame those who rely on God is to shame the help and providence of God. We must not berate them as naive or foolish. Rather we should join in prayer and fasting for them, trusting that God can and will give His disciples the victory with or without outside help.
- What matters more than government help is God’s help
Both Ezra and Nehemiah acted in faith, and both of their decisions were defensible. Even though Nehemiah viewed military protection as a blessing from God, he ultimately gave God the credit for His protection. But both Ezra and Nehemiah agreed that what God’s people need is God’s support. Whatever task we are seeking to accomplish, we need the help of God on our side more than we need the help of man. Neither Ezra nor Nehemiah took matters into their own hands. Neither placed their trust in chariots or horses. Neither placed their faith in the protection that only man can provide. Both understood that God would be the one who would protect them if they were faithful to Him.
Christians may differ on the extent to which it is appropriate to ask for government support or protection, and that’s okay (Rom. 14.6), but we must never place our trust in man rather than in God. As we pass through enemy territory, we must remember that without the help and favor of God, we have nothing. Far more important than gaining the favor and protection of the king is gaining the favor and protection of the King of Kings. If we will seek His protection, we will surely be able to say, as Ezra said, “He listened to our entreaty.”