Topics in the Q&A: The Ezrahites; joy in failed plans; cremation.
Psalms 88 and 89 mention Heman and Ethan the Ezrahites. What do we know about the Ezrahites and are they related to the Ezra in the book of Ezra and Nehemiah?
Getting to know the lesser known characters in Scripture is always a great exercise in realising that, to be a faithful believer, one does not need to be some key figure in God’s revealed plan for history. There are countless faithful followers of God in every era who are mere faces in the Biblical crowd—not to mention the many who are never even named.
Heman and Ethan, both authors of a Biblical “maskil” Psalm each, and both described as Ezrahites, are two of the lesser known faces in the Biblical crowd. We really do not know much about these two men at all.
There are two sons of Zerah in 1 Chronicles 2:6 named Ethan and Heman, and some think that perhaps Zerah is just another form of Ezra(h). This would make them grandsons of Judah, and place them between the time of Gen 50 and Exodus 1.
Then, in 1 Kings 4:30, there is also an Ethan and Heman in the time of David and Solomon, known for their exception wisdom which was surpassed by King Solomon. Ethan is specifically called an Ezrahite. In 1 Chronicles 15:19, Heman, Ethan, and the more famous Asaph are listed as the prominent singers appointed by King David to play the cymbals. By the other references to this trio, we learn that Asaph was perhaps the head of the tabernacle, and later temple, worship during the days of King David and King Solomon. It is most likely then this Ethan and Heman who are the authors of Psalm 88 and Psalm 89.
Remember as you read the Bible, that it is the part of world history that God wants every believer to know about. Some key individuals at the time are not even mentioned in the Biblical record while other more obscure individuals are. Be it King David as the start of the Messianic Dynasty and author of many Psalms, or be it prominent Ethan and Heman with only one Psalm each and known only by the lists (this is why you read the list of names in the Bible!), or be it you and me living in a time that the Bible merely mentions as “the time of the Gentiles”, we are called and gifted by God to worship Him, and whether we eat or drink or compose songs and play the cymbals, all is to be done for God’s glory (1 Cor 10:31).
How can we rejoice in the Lord when things don’t go according to our plans?
That question’s answer is really “That is exactly why we rejoice “in the Lord!”, for our circumstances are often less than rejoice-worthy—even in spite of wise planning.
We grumble and complain and worry when our plans fail because we think too highly of our plans. But if we think higher of God’s plans than our plans, then we rejoice that when our plans doing work out, at least God’s plan is still in place. James 4:13-17 warns us of thinking that just because we made the plan that the plan must work out. Instead, we need to preface our plans with “if the Lord wills”. Then, when our plans fail, we can rejoice nonetheless because of something greater and better that took the place of our plans.
Job 42:2-23 asserts that God’s knowledge and wisdom is far superior to our own. Job himself illustrates how the greatest interruption in our plans for our lives (read chapter 1 and 2 to see how Job’s plan was interrupted!) is merely an occasion to continue in the godliness and faith that we have in God.
Joseph is another man who had all the paths to success paved for him by his family connections, but ended up in the most dramatic sets of ups-and-downs in all of Scripture! At the end of his life he testified that God’s plan included much more good than any other plan (Gen 50:20).
The Apostle Paul speaks on a more theological level, and affirms that everything in our lives is ordained by God to bring us to salvation, sanctification and glorification (Rom 8:28-30). Truly that is something to rejoice in even if we are to limited to perceive all the details!
Corrie Ten Boom, who survived the WW II Jewish concentration camps, tells of how her sister Betsy would give thanks for the fleas in their sleeping quarters. Betsy believed she needs to give thanks in all circumstances and knew that God had some purpose in it. Only later did they realise that, because of the fleas, the guards never came inside. Because of that, they were spared some of the abuse common in the camps, and they were also able to hold prayer meetings there freely. We might not always get to see those details as Corrie and Betsy eventually did, but they are nonetheless true. God’s plans are never frustrated, and even our best plans need to be flexible.
We can rejoice when our plans don’t always work out as planned, because we know someone wiser than us intervened.
What does the Bible say about cremation? Is it a heathen practise, or can Christians consider cremation as an option for how their post-mortem bodies are to be handled? How does the reality of the resurrection influence what happens to our bodies after death?
In questions like this we need to work through Scripture in the way Scripture addresses this topic. Although it mentions the concept of cremation a few times, there are no clear commands or prohibitions regarding cremation. Something like cremation (burning to death) was a form of judgment for overtly sinful abominations (Sodom and Gomorrah; Lev 10:1-2 “strange fire”; Lev 20:14 gross sexual perversion; Lev 21:9 prostitution (cf Gen 38:24); Josh 7:15 disobedience to the ‘devote to destruction command’; Rev 18:8 immoral Babylon). There is also certainly a hellish element to death by burning that Hell is intended to display (Rev 21:8).
However, none of these make any statement on postmortem cremation as something inherently dishonourable. Quite the contrary, cremation of an already-dead body was performed on Saul and his sons as a form of preserving them from further dishonour because of the way their bodies had been mutilated (1 Sam. 31:11-12). Also, many believers have died by burning, and we would be hard-pressed to say it was a form of dishonour (cf. Heb 11:35-38).
First and foremost then, Scripture does not require, nor forbid, the cremation of the body of a person who had died.
Next we ask ourselves what actually happens to our bodies when we die, especially in light of the resurrection, and Scripture has much to say about that. First, your resurrected body is not your earthly body (1 Cor 15:40-49). The earthly body returns to dust (Eccl 12:7), the resurrected body is brand-new—as Job said, the resurrection is very physical (flesh, eyes, etc), but not the same body which will be destroyed (Job 19:25-27). Burial has traditionally been a Christian practise because we know that our physical bodies are also part of our worship, not just our souls (1 Cor 6:19-20). But that is merely a tradition from a Biblical value-system. It is not a required tradition, nor does something like cremation contradict or oppose such a value-system. When we die, our spirit goes to the Lord, but our body decomposes to nothing one way or another. When we are raised, we receive a new body that, though recognisable in some way, has a completely different make-up to the body that had decomposed.
Scripture does not attach a morality to postmortem, not does the doctrine of the resurrection prefer a particular decomposition of the earthly body. Therefore the matter of cremation is often more a matter of personal preference, traditional customs, family sensitivities, finances, and logistics. In larger cities burial is becoming increasingly impractical and expensive. With various government regulations on the handling of dead bodies, poorer families often cannot afford even a basic cremation, not to mention a service and ‘proper’ burial. Without clear Scriptural teaching on the matter, we cannot therefore promote or prohibit cremation as a Christian, or non-Christian, practise.
Suggested Sermon on the topic of God’s preservation of us after death: Psalm 16 and Acts 2, “Safe from Death“