He also never fails to surprise me.
Ezra comes onto the ancient timeline at a critical point. The Jewish exiles in Babylon have been released to return to Jerusalem by the decree of Cyrus the Great (Ezra 1:1-4). The king commands the people to give those who choose to travel home whatever they need, whether it’s gold or silver or livestock. He also returns all the precious articles of the Temple, the ones that Nebuchadnezzar had stolen (1:7-11).
Under the leadership of Sheshbazzar, they set out.
Utter destruction and chaos await them.
The saga is told across Ezra, Nehemiah, Haggai and Zechariah. We get an intimate peek into this part of history though letters to kings, narratives about opposition and bravery (Ezra 3:3 is a great example of this), descriptions of construction, and encouragement from God through His prophets. The colors splash across the four books to form a beautiful and unique portrait of a humbled people, a people who strive to work together and restore their city.
There are many things that could easily grab my attention in the story of Ezra, but my soul is arrested by a single word.
The Given Ones
Beginning in Ezra 2:43, the names of the Nethinim, the “given ones,” are listed. They were a distinct group of men whose lives were given over to service in the Temple. Their focus was on the behind-the-scenes, often laborious tasks that kept the Temple functioning and enabled the priests to perform their duties. This term and office first applied to the Levites who were not of the line of Aaron, but eventually non-Jewish captives, taken in conquest and given to the Levites, came to fill this role.
Okay, did you catch that?
This grips me. God specifically chose the people of Israel to be His nation, and part of their task was to be a light to the world (the origins of this are found all the way back in Genesis 12:1-3). They were not to bar anyone who sought God from joining their company (Exodus 12:48-49). These captives, these non-Jewish men, got an up-close-and-personal view of what it meant to worship the Lord. They knew how the Temple worked. No doubt they asked questions and learned about what it all meant. Along the way, they came to embrace the true God (Nehemiah 10:28).
Centuries before Christ and long before Paul’s mission to the Gentiles, we see God reaching out to gather to Himself all who would follow Him. We see the truth that “the eyes of the Lord run to and fro throughout the whole earth, to show Himself strong on behalf of those whose heart is loyal to Him” (2 Chronicles 16:9a). No caveats about ethnicity, class, gender or any other kind of background.
Yet this is not all that causes me to dwell on this single word.
The Nethinim were not the superstars. They weren’t the ones leading worship. They didn’t get to bless the people. They were the support team. In our terms, they were the ones who cleaned the toilets and kept the chairs in good repair. They mopped floors, fixed windows, repaired broken doors. They unclogged stinking toilets and made runs to the trash heap. They had the dirty jobs.
They lived out the words of the psalmist, “For a day in Your courts is better than a thousand elsewhere. I would rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God than dwell in the tents of wickedness” (Psalm 84:10).
Does this encourage you? I hope it does! The Temple system would not have worked without the Nethinim. Neither can our churches, the Body of Christ around the world, work without those who do the thankless tasks. There really isn’t any such thing as a non-vital role.
Ah, but there’s more!
In learning about the Nethinim, it occurred to me that these men understood what it meant to be humble. You can’t exactly be scrubbing floors all day and have your nose in the air. They never knew what it was to receive the applause. Yet I doubt that they were self-loathing. We tend to assume that humility means just that, hating oneself, but it doesn’t. Humility is acknowledging and accepting reality. It is to have a correct estimation of self and abilities. For a Christian, humility extends to accepting the relation of self to God and knowing that He is King.
One of the Greek New Testament words for humility is tapeinos, a terms that carries within its definition the phrase “not rising far from the ground.” This is what the Nethinim experienced on a daily basis both in a literal and a figurative sense. Their jobs brought them low. They spent time cleaning and scrubbing and serving, all for the Lord.
Christ Got Low
Tapienos is a term used in descriptions of Christ.
Let that settle on you.
Christ got low.
All of this comes together in one simple sentence: I must get low. We see this in Scripture time and time again; God is always higher, always the ruler. “He must increase, I must decrease” (John 3:30). We must serve as the Nethinim served, content to do whatever job is placed before us, seeing it as a way of worshiping and serving the Lord. We can know that He honors whatever is done in wholehearted obedience to His command.
If you are like me, a modern-day Nethinim who doesn’t have the spotlight, I encourage you to revel in your status. You have been chosen for the tough jobs, the jobs that God alone sees – and that is special. That is honorable. Whatever your hand finds to do in service to Him and others, do it with joy. Know that He smiles upon your efforts.
Do it with a heart of worship. Do it out of a desire to praise the King.
Do it because you are a “given one,” consecrated and set apart to His service.
For this is not about our glory or gain. It’s all about Him.