Soccer fans will never forget it: the notorious ‘hand of God’ incident in the 1986 Football World Cup in Mexico City. England were playing Argentina in the quarter-final. Diego Maradona jumped for the ball and deflected it into the net, not with his head but with the back of his left hand—as TV later confirmed. The Tunisian referee let it stand. Years later, when a journalist asked Maradona if it was true that his hand had sent the ball into the net, he famously replied, ‘It was the hand of God.’

I question whether God really nudged Argentina to a win on that occasion, especially by means of a foul, but there’s no doubting that his hand is active in other ways. The book of Ezra, in fact, mentions ‘the hand of God’ six times. So what exactly does the phrase mean?

It is, of course, an anthropomorphism. God in his essential nature is spirit and, as such, has no hands, but it makes sense for him, when dealing with human beings, to use terminology meaningful to them. Because the hand is the main manipulative part of our bodies, enabling us to do many useful things, it is a symbol of power. So ‘the hand of God’ is the power of God, and when Scripture says that his hand is upon someone it means he is exercising his power for that person’s benefit. Ezra himself recorded that ‘the gracious hand of our God was on us’,[1] indicating that God was exercising his power to protect and bless him and his colleagues.

Let’s just pause to put Ezra in context. The people of Judah had been in exile in Babylon for seventy years. During that time the Persians had conquered the Babylonian Empire, which was therefore now the Persian Empire, and the new leadership had opened the way, as Jeremiah had prophesied,[2] for a ‘remnant’ of the Jews[3] to return to their own land. And that’s what they did, making the 900-mile return trip to Judah and the city of Jerusalem, an area that remained part of the Persian Empire and was called the Trans-Euphrates Province.

It is worth noting at this point that the Jews of that period have a lesson to teach us: there is always a way back for the people of God when our failure has led us astray, but the choice is ours. He will not force us.

The Jews who chose to return did so in three waves, led by three leaders: Zerubbabel, Ezra and Nehemiah. The book of Ezra describes the first two waves and the book of Nehemiah the third. The first group gave priority to rebuilding the Temple and re-establishing its worship. But it was not until eighty years after them that Ezra himself made the trip, primarily to sort out some of the people’s social and moral issues. We will focus on his account of that expedition, which is where he describes his experiences of ‘the hand of God’.

Ezra first experienced the hand of God on him in finding favour with high officials.

In wanting to return to Jerusalem to sort out the Jewish community, Ezra was in a weak position. As far as we know, he held no court post in Babylon and had no influence at all with King Artaxerxes or the Persian authorities.[4] He was just an ordinary Jew—though a priest and a great student of God’s law.[5] Hearing that his fellow-Jews in Jerusalem were in a spiritual and moral mess, he longed to lead a new group back there to help put things right. To do this, he would have to apply to the king for permission, and this was a daunting prospect, knowing as he did how capricious and ruthless eastern kings at that time could be.

He no doubt prayed long and hard before making his approach. And it bore fruit: ‘The king…granted him everything he asked, for the hand of the LORD his God was on him.’[6] When we see what that ‘everything’ included we realise what a miracle it was. He got permission to lead back to Jerusalem as many Jews as wanted to go with him. He was granted powers to do an official survey of the religious situation back there. He was given substantial funds from the Persian treasury for the benefit of the Jerusalem Temple and its worship. Some of this had to be spent on sacrifices, but he was given a free hand in the disbursement of the rest. He was given a blank cheque at the Persian food warehouses to obtain all the supplies needed for the journey. He was charged with appointing magistrates and judges in Jerusalem, and was himself given the job of teaching the law of the LORD to all the people there. No wonder he concluded: ‘Because the hand of the LORD my God was on me, I took courage and gathered leaders from Israel to go up with me.’[7]

Most of us have to deal with powerful officials at some time. Few of them, if any, will be more exalted than King Artaxerxes. So be encouraged: if your approach is right and in the timing of God you can look to him, as Ezra did, to give you favour with officialdom. Like him, you should pray about your approach and act in line with the Holy Spirit’s promptings. Notice that Ezra himself had a vital part to play in this episode. The king’s bounty didn’t fall into his lap unasked for. He had to use the proper approach of deference and tact, and he had to state clearly what he was asking for. You can find courage to do the same.

Another way in which Ezra experienced the hand of God upon him was in getting the right people for the job.

There was a big job to do in Jerusalem. The previous batch of returnees had successfully rebuilt the ruined Temple and reinstated its worship, but the regular programme of Temple services had been allowed to slip somewhat. Even more seriously, the teaching of God’s law was no longer a regular feature and many Jews were transgressing that law as much through ignorance as through defiance.

Both problems may have stemmed in part from a shortage of Levites, who served as administrators of the Temple worship and as teachers of the law. Of the 50,000 original returnees less than 1.5 per cent had been Levites, so these were seriously stretched. That’s why Ezra hoped for a good number of Levites living in Babylon to volunteer to return with his party. Imagine, then, his dismay when he checked among the people gathering for the journey at the base camp near the Ahava Canal, about a hundred miles from Babylon: there were ‘no Levites there’![8] He reacted by sending some leaders to certain districts to try and recruit some. And the result? ‘Because the gracious hand of our God was on us, they brought us…’ 38 Levites and 220 Temple servants.[9]

Again, notice that Ezra took practical steps to get the required people. Even though he knew it would delay the party’s departure, he put in a request to the right quarters and was specific about the kind of person he wanted. You may have to tackle your own problems and frustrations this way. Don’t just pray and wait for it to happen. Cromwell once wisely advised his troops, ‘Trust in God, and keep your powder dry.’ ‘Do everything that you yourselves can do, he was saying, then you can trust God with the rest.’ It’s both/and, not either/or.

You might be an employer or a head of department at your place of work, or you may just be needing, say, to find the right person to do a few hours cleaning a week, or whatever. But let Ezra’s experience encourage you to believe that, as you act practically and sensibly and, at the same time, take it to God, you can know his hand upon you, providing you with just the right personnel.

Next, once he got the return convoy underway, Ezra could look to God’s hand being upon him to provide protection from harm.

To travel 900 miles on foot is no light undertaking. Animals would carry the baggage, of course, but it’s no surprise to learn that the journey took four months.[10] Not only was the trip long and arduous, it was also dangerous: bandits roamed the remote caravan route, and the Jews were carrying great wealth in the form of the gifts for the Temple donated by both Persian officials and non-returning Jews. One commentary summarises the situation thus:

‘[These gifts] included 25 tons of silver, silver articles weighing 3¾ tons, 3¾ tons of gold, 20 bowls of gold that weighed about 19 pounds, and two expensive bronze objects. All this would be valued at millions of dollars today. No wonder Ezra was concerned about the people’s safety.’[11]

To his credit, Ezra was also concerned about the LORD’s reputation in the eyes of the Persian king: he wanted Artaxerxes to see that the LORD could be trusted to care for his own. So, for the safety of his party and the reputation of his God’s, Ezra called a fast at the base camp, praying for ‘a safe journey for us and our children, with all our possessions’. He added, ‘I was ashamed to ask the king for soldiers and horsemen to protect us from enemies on the road, because we had told the king, “The gracious hand of our God is on everyone who looks to him.”’[12]

Notice once again how his trust in God went hand in hand with practical action. He had a part to play in calling the people to fast and pray in view of the seriousness of the situation. And God took notice of their prayers: ‘The hand of our God was on us’ he reported, ‘and he protected us from enemies and bandits along the way. So we arrived in Jerusalem…’[13]

Do you regularly seek God’s protection? Make it your practice to commit yourself and your loved ones to him for his protection and safety. When my wife and I, for instance, set out in the car on a long journey, or leave the house for some time, we normally ask God’s blessing on both ourselves and the property. Not that you should let his become a legalistic exercise. It would be a mistake to reach a mindset that thinks, ‘If I don’t pray every time I go out something dreadful might happen.’ Not every regular practice need be a legalistic one.

So ask for God’s protection but, at the same time, be sensible about the practicalities. Don’t flirt with danger for the sake of it. Avoid being alone in lonely places, especially after dark. Take commonsense security steps in the increasingly unsafe society in which we live today. Keep your door locked. Consider an alarm system. I knew one couple who felt that such a system showed a lack of faith. ‘We just ask the Lord to keep the place safe—it’s a lot cheaper,’ the husband told me. Soon after this conversation their house got burgled. Not surprisingly, they found the money to get an alarm system installed! So do what you can do, then relax in expecting the hand of God to be upon you to protect you.

Ezra’s experience of the hand of God was altogether positive, and so can yours be. God loves to bless his people. And he does so in the most practical of ways. There was nothing spooky about Ezra’s reliance on God’s hand of blessing: it was to deal with officialdom, to find the right people for a particular job, and to seek protection from harm on a journey. Godliness is a practical business. The hand of God is for everyday experience, not just Sunday services.

Does all this mean that your life will be problem-free? Not necessarily! It is often through the challenges of problems and setbacks that you grow and learn to lean more on the Lord. On the other hand, you should not go looking for trouble. You can trust him to filter your circumstances so that you ‘know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.’[14] If that house you so much want gets sold to somebody else, it is only so that he can provide you with a better one.

God is for you, not against you. And, as Paul observed, ‘If God is for us, who can be against us?’[15] The Lord who helped Ezra is happy for his hand to be on you, too, to help and bless you. Let this little hymn written by Joseph Hart in the eighteenth century encourage you to believe that today:

How good is the God we adore,
Our faithful, unchangeable Friend,
Whose love is as great as his power
And knows neither measure nor end.

Tis Jesus, the First and the Last,
Whose Spirit shall guide us safe home.
We’ll praise him for all that is past
And trust him for all that’s to come.

Copyright © David Matthew 2009


The Hand Of God


This is one essay in the Windows On The Word series. Click the Next and Previous buttons to move through the series, and Up to go to the list. Footnotes appear in the right-hand column. Hover over Bible references to see the text.



The gist of this article

Six times Ezra uses the expression, ‘The gracious hand of our God was upon us.’ What exactly did he mean? We look at the blessing and help it was for him and encourage ourselves that God’s hand can be upon us, too!

1. Ezra 8:18

2. Jeremiah 29:10-11

3. Only about 2.5% of them. The rest chose to stay in Babylon (Persia).

4. Unlike Nehemiah, who had a job at court.

5. Ezra 7:10

6. Ezra 7:6

7. See Ezra 7:12-28

8. Ezra 8:15

9. See Ezra 8:16-20

10. Ezra 7:9

11. Walvoord, J. F., Zuck, R. B., & Dallas Theological Seminary. (1983-c1985). The Bible Knowledge Commentary : An exposition of the Scriptures (1:668). Wheaton, IL: Victor Books.

12. Ezra 8:21-22

13. Ezra 8:31-32

14. Romans 8:28

15. Romans 8:31