A RISING OPPOSITION

EZRA 4

 

Whenever you start doing something for the Lord, it will not be long before opposition rears its ugly head. More often than not, such opposition will come, not from your enemies, but from those who claim to be your friends. That is the case as we come to the fourth chapter of Ezra.

 

AN ALLIANCE OF ENEMIES

Now when the enemies of Judah and Benjamin heard that the people of the exile were building a temple to the LORD God of Israel, 2 they approached Zerubbabel and the heads of fathers' households, and said to them, "Let us build with you, for we, like you, seek your God; and we have been sacrificing to Him since the days of Esarhaddon king of Assyria, who brought us up here." (Ezra 4:1-2).

The inhabitants of Israel had long since ceased to be Israelite. Israel had come to be a united kingdom under the kingship of Saul, David and Solomon. But following Solomonís death, the kingdom had divided. The north had seceded from the south and two separate nations had resulted. The ten northern tribes continued to be known as Israel while the two southern tribes were known collectively as Judah.

Two hundred years later, the Assyrians swept down against both Israel and Judah. The southern kingdom of Judah managed to weather the storm, but the northern kingdom was swept away in the onslaught. Those who survived were deported to other lands in the east while other similar refugees were transported to settle in the lands which had belonged to Israel.

Thus as this chapter opens, there are people living in the land who have come to worship Yahweh, the One whom they perceive to be the God of that land. As they learn that a Temple is being built to Yahweh, they come and offer their services. After all, they are all worshiping the same God. It seems only right that they pool their resources in a true ecumenical effort.

 

A FITTING REJECTION

But Zerubbabel and Jeshua and the rest of the heads of fathersí households of Israel said to them, "You have nothing in common with us in building a house to our God; but we ourselves will together build to the LORD God of Israel, as King Cyrus, the king of Persia has commanded us." (Ezra 4:3).

The offered assistance from their neighbors is coldly refused. This brings up a question. Were the Jews correct in refusing the aid that was offered? In the previous chapter they actively sought such aid in the form of building supplies from the Phoenician cities of Tyre and Sidon. Solomon had used Phoenician craftsmen in the work of constructing the Temple. Could this not have been an opportunity to take these worshipers of God and to lead them more correctly in the worship of the Lord? There are several answers:

1. The Fickleness of False Friends.

Josephus (Antiq. 11:19:2:1 and 11:19:4:5) describes these opponents explicitly as Cuthaeans or Samaritans. In the latter passage the Jews declined their cooperation "since none but themselves had been commanded to build the temple.... They would, however, allow them to worship there."

This offer of friendship would quickly turn to hatred. Why? Because the offer was a false offer. These neighboring people had their own agenda.

Here is the principle. False friends will continue to pretend friendship as long as it means that they can get what they want from you.

2. The Fabrication of False Fidelity.

The claim of these foreigners was that they had been worshiping the same God as the God of the Israelites. They reasoned that, since they were all worshiping the same God, then they ought to get together and hold hands and sing "Kumbaya" together around a campfire.

But we know that theirís was a false fidelity. They worshiped a god of their own making. They had heard that Yahweh was the God of this land, so they said, "Letís take all of our previous idolatry and we will just change the names. Instead of Baal, we will worship Yahweh."

They even went so far as to accept the Pentateuch. But because they didnít like certain portions of it, they took it and they rewrote it to be more culturally acceptable.

3. The Fable of Formulaic Fellowship.

We live in the age of syncretism - when the only sin over which society is intolerant is the sin of intolerance.

There are times when Christians SHOULD get together and cross denominational lines. But that does not mean that we automatically join in fellowship with every single person that says something nice about God. The Bible warns against the acceptance of heretics.

Reject a factious man after a first and second warning, 11 knowing that such a man is perverted and is sinning, being self-condemned. (Titus 3:10-11).

A factious man describes one who makes divisions where there should be none. There are some people who delight in starting arguments. They should not be permitted to remain in the church and sow their seeds of discontent.

 

A COLD WAR

Then the people of the land discouraged the people of Judah, and frightened them from building, 5 and hired counselors against them to frustrate their counsel all the days of Cyrus king of Persia, even until the reign of Darius king of Persia. (Ezra 4:4-5).

"To discourage" is literally "to weaken the hands," a Hebrew idiom (Jeremiah 38:4). As a participle, the verb rapah indicates a continuing process. The opposite idiom is "to strengthen the hands" (Ezra 6:22; Nehemiah 6:9; Isaiah 35:3; Jeremiah 23:14).

This is a blanket statement which covers the history of the reigns of Cyrus, Cambyses and finally Darius. Some Bible scholars see in verse 6 a primarily a parenthetical statement regarding the rebuilding of the wall around Jerusalem, which takes place later on in time, and then picks up again with verse 24 about the rebuilding of the temple.

I donít believe this to be the case. The problem is that there were three different Persian kings as well as a governor by the name of Darius. The second problem is the use of Ahasuerus in verse 6. We are used to seeing it used in the book of Esther where it refers to Xerxes, but it is not a name, it is merely a title and can refer to any of the Persian kings.

The summary statement is made in verse 5 that the Jews had construction problems from the days of Cyrus to the days of Darius. The line of kings for this period was as follows:

King

Date of Reign

Actions Taken

Cyrus

539-530

Granted permission for the Jews to return and rebuild Jerusalem and the Temple

Cambyses

530-522

Put a stop to the reconstruction

Smerdis

522

He was a pretender to the throne and quickly overturned

Darius

522-486

Granted permission for the reconstruction of the Temple to continue

Xerxes

486-464

He was the King who elevated Esther

Artaxerxes

464-423

Granted permission for Nehemiah to return and rebuild the walls of Jerusalem.

What has thrown Bible students astray is the mention of "Artaxerxes." The name translated "Artaxerxes" here in Ezra 4-6 is spelled slightly different than the Artaxerxes found in Nehemiah 7-8 (the difference is the kind of "s" used). I would suggest that the "Artaxerxes" mentioned here in Ezra is really a reference to the ruler which we know as Cambyses. Thus, it was under Cambyses that the building of the Temple was halted, contrary to the previous orders of his father, Cyrus.

 

A SLANDEROUS ACCUSATION

Now in the reign of Ahasuerus, in the beginning of his reign, they wrote an accusation against the inhabitants of Judah and Jerusalem.

And in the days of Artaxerxes, Bishlam, Mithredath, Tabeel and the rest of his colleagues wrote to Artaxerxes king of Persia; and the text of the letter was written in Aramaic and translated from Aramaic.

Rehum the commander and Shimshai the scribe wrote a letter against Jerusalem to King Artaxerxes, as follows 9 then wrote Rehum the commander and Shimshai the scribe and the rest of their colleagues, the judges and the lesser governors, the officials, the secretaries, the men of Erech, the Babylonians, the men of Susa, that is, the Elamites, 10 and the rest of the nations which the great and honorable Osnappar deported and settled in the city of Samaria, and in the rest of the region beyond the River. Now 11 this is the copy of the letter which they sent to him: "To King Artaxerxes: Your servants, the men in the region beyond the River, and now 12 let it be known to the king that the Jews who came up from you have come to us at Jerusalem; they are rebuilding the rebellious and evil city and are finishing the walls and repairing the foundations.

"Now let it be known to the king, that if that city is rebuilt and the walls are finished, they will not pay tribute, custom or toll, and it will damage the revenue of the kings.

The phrase, we are in the service of the palace in verse 14 is literally, "we eat the salt of the palace." Salt was used in the ratification of covenants. Even today we speak of someone who is "not worth his salt."

"Now because we are in the service of the palace, and it is not fitting for us to see the kingís dishonor, therefore we have sent and informed the king, 15 so that a search may be made in the record books of your fathers. And you will discover in the record books and learn that that city is a rebellious city and damaging to kings and provinces, and that they have incited revolt within it in past days; therefore that city was laid waste.

"We inform the king that if that city is rebuilt and the walls finished, as a result you will have no possession in the province beyond the River." (Ezra 4:6-16).

Have you ever been falsely accused? It cuts to the quick when someone says an untruth about you. What is even worse is when there is a little truth mixed in with the lie. That is the case here.

The city of Jerusalem HAD been a rebellious city. Against the advice of Jeremiah, the people had revolted against Nebuchadnezzar on at least three different occasions. It was for this reason that the city had been destroyed.

What was not true was the charge that the Jews were preparing to do it again. Their motivation in rebuilding the city and the Temple was so that they could worship God, not so that they could rebel against Persia. The remaining history of the Jews shows that, when they were finally allowed to complete the work of rebuilding the Temple and the walls of the city, they did not return to their rebellious ways. To the contrary, they continued as faithful subjects of Persia even when Alexander the Great marched into Palestine as a self-proclaimed liberator from the Persian Empire.

 

AN INOPPORTUNE EDICT

Then the king sent an answer to Rehum the commander, to Shimshai the scribe, and to the rest of their colleagues who live in Samaria and in the rest of the provinces beyond the River: "Peace. And now 18 the document which you sent to us has been translated and read before me.

"A decree has been issued by me, and a search has been made and it has been discovered that that city has risen up against the kings in past days, that rebellion and revolt have been perpetrated in it, 20 that mighty kings have ruled over Jerusalem, governing all the provinces beyond the River, and that tribute, custom and toll were paid to them.

"So, now issue a decree to make these men stop work, that this city may not be rebuilt until a decree is issued by me.

"Beware of being negligent in carrying out this matter; why should damage increase to the detriment of the kings?"

Then as soon as the copy of King Artaxerxes' document was read before Rehum and Shimshai the scribe and their colleagues, they went in haste to Jerusalem to the Jews and stopped them by force of arms.

Then work on the house of God in Jerusalem ceased, and it was stopped until the second year of the reign of Darius king of Persia. (Ezra 4:17-24).

The king believed the report of the enemies of Israel. He did some initial checking into the historical archives of Persia and learned that Jerusalem did indeed have a history of rebellion. Therefore he issued an edict to stop the rebuilding of the city.

There is a lesson here. It is that your past often follows you into the future. A past is a difficult thing to live down. You are branded by your deeds and they affect the way that people view you. While we can rest in the assurance that God forgives, that does not mean that sin does not have lasting consequences.

In this case, it was the children who were bearing the penalty for the actions committed by their fathers. Very few of the Jews who were living in this day had participated in the sinful actions which led to the destruction of Jerusalem. In the last chapter we noted that there were some very old people who looked at the Temple and who remembered the past glories of what it had been. But the majority of the people now returned were of a younger generation. They had been born into the Babylonian Captivity. And now they are reaping some of the consequences sowed by the previous generation.

Here is the principle. Sin ALWAYS leaves consequences. It is a fundamental rule of life, as natural as sowing and reaping.

In this case, it resulted in the work of rebuilding the Temple and the city of Jerusalem being halted. The construction would sit unfinished for several years until a new king was seated upon the throne of Persia. And at that time, the construction was recommence, not because of an edict of the king, but through the preaching of two prophetic witnesses - Haggai and Zechariah.


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