Surely one of the most epic journeys ever undertaken was that of Ezra, and 1,772 other Jews, when they walked from Babylon to Jerusalem in the year 458 BC. They completed their 900-mile trek in four months so, on average, they covered eight or nine miles a day, excluding the Sabbaths. Remarkably, the Biblical account of that tremendous march is very brief:
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. And we came to Jerusalem, and abode there three days (Ezra 8.31-32).
Some 78 years earlier, in 536 BC, the first of three companies of exiles left Babylon to go to Jerusalem. Led by Zerubbabel and Jeshua, about 50,000 Jews undertook the journey, with the purpose "to build the house of the Lord which is in Jerusalem" (1.5). That first return of exiles is the subject of Ezra chapters 1-6. Between chapters 6 and 7 there lies a 57-year period in which the events recorded in the Book of Esther took place. Then chapters 7 and 8 record the second return, led by Ezra, the purpose of which was "to beautify the house of the Lord which is in Jerusalem" (7.27). Fourteen years later, the third and final return of exiles took place under the leadership of Nehemiah, and its purpose was stated by him, to king Artaxerxes: "that thou wouldest send me unto Judah, unto the city of my fathers' sepulchres, that I may build it" (Neh 2.5). As the exile took place in three stages, so did the return to Jerusalem.
Ezra's mission, to beautify the house of the Lord, involved large quantities of precious metals, some supplied by Persian officials, and the rest by Israelites who had decided to remain in Babylon. The gold weighed nearly four tons, as did a quantity of silver vessels. Additionally, there were 650 talents of silver with a combined weight of about 25 tons. Today, the value of that treasure would be £135,000,000, yet Ezra determined not to ask the king to provide an escort for it:
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 … So we fasted and besought our God for this: and he was entreated of us (Ezra 8.22-23).
Natural reasoning might suggest that Ezra was foolhardy to take an unescorted convoy of treasure through hundreds of miles of 'bandit country', but he rested in the assurance that "the hand of our God was upon us" (v 31). However, the greater threat to the work was not from "such as lay in wait by the way" (v 31), but from the reluctance of priestly men to fulfil their duty before God. More than 140 years after the exile began, none of the priests to whom Ezra appealed for help had ever seen Solomon's temple, or officiated at its altar. Sadly, they apparently had no desire to exercise their priestly responsibilities in the new temple either. Only two priests had responded to the call to go up to Jerusalem (v 2), and Ezra had to work hard to encourage others to help. Eventually, 38 Levites from two families, as well as 220 Nethinim (temple servants) volunteered, and the treasure was solemnly entrusted to their stewardship. They would bear responsibility for it until it was all accounted for in Jerusalem.
Ezra understood that the assurance of divine protection did not absolve God's priestly people from their responsibilities. As we bear holy and precious things for the Lord today, with the Judgment Seat of Christ in view, we must remember that their safekeeping depends on two things: "the hand of our God … upon us" (v 31) and, "Watch ye, and keep them, until …" (v 29).