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Ezra & Nehemiah

Rebuilding the Temple

Ezra 4-6

Lesson audio

As a preliminary note, the reader should once again examine the timelines in the previous lesson. It can be confusing with regard to kings and dates.

The Opposition Strikes

To avoid copyright restrictions, we will reference the Scripture only in large sections. Please read Ezra 4.

Who Are These People?

The enemies of the Jews described in chapter 4 are not particularly obvious on the face of the Scriptures. We must examine a little history:

2 Kings 17:24-33 NASB  The king of Assyria brought men from Babylon and from Cuthah and from Avva and from Hamath and Sephar-vaim, and settled them in the cities of Samaria in place of the sons of Israel. So they possessed Samaria and lived in its cities.  (25)  At the beginning of their living there, they did not fear the LORD; therefore the LORD sent lions among them which killed some of them.  (26)  So they spoke to the king of Assyria, saying, "The nations whom you have carried away into exile in the cities of Samaria do not know the custom of the god of the land; so he has sent lions among them, and behold, they kill them because they do not know the custom of the god of the land."  (27)  Then the king of Assyria commanded, saying, "Take there one of the priests whom you carried away into exile and let him go and live there; and let him teach them the custom of the god of the land."  (28)  So one of the priests whom they had carried away into exile from Samaria came and lived at Bethel, and taught them how they should fear the LORD.  (29)  But every nation still made gods of its own and put them in the houses of the high places which the people of Samaria had made, every nation in their cities in which they lived.  (30)  The men of Babylon made Succoth-benoth, the men of Cuth made Nergal, the men of Hamath made Ashima,  (31)  and the Avvites made Nibhaz and Tartak; and the Sepharvites burned their children in the fire to Adrammelech and Anammelech the gods of Sepharvaim.  (32)  They also feared the LORD and appointed from among themselves priests of the high places, who acted for them in the houses of the high places.  (33)  They feared the LORD and served their own gods according to the custom of the nations from among whom they had been carried away into exile.

 

It’s not entirely obvious, but the people who were planted in what used to be the northern kingdom of Israel are in fact those people known in the New Testament as Samaritans. That’s right, as in Good Samaritan. It’s not clear whether or not they were sincere in their offer of help to build the temple. There are three possibilities:

·         It’s just possible they are sincere. While they do worship their own gods, they have a worship of Jehovah also. The problem is that they’re not Jewish — they’re not even close.

·         It’s also possible that what they want to do is to co-opt the process of building the temple. Let us help you out, and will make some excellent adjustments along the way. Some of those adjustments would include worshiping other gods — but it doesn’t matter what you believe, as long as you’re sincere, right?

·         It’s also possible that they’re being destructive. They want to take over the process of building so that they can stop it.

Zerubbabel turns them down flat. That might not have been the most politically correct thing to do, but evidently the man thought it was the right thing to do and didn’t mind saying so. He probably appeared to be a pious idiot to the Samaritans.

It brings up a point in contemporary life: why is it that Christians just can’t be reasonable? Let me give you some examples:

·         Why is it that you people are so rigidly stuck on your opposition to abortion? Can’t we reach some reasonable compromise on this and move on?

·         You seem to have the same problem with regard to marriage as well. What on earth is wrong with divorce?

·         Good heavens, Christians, if the government says it’s all right, who are you to disagree?

The people of God often appear to be unreasonable to the rest of the world. This causes problems. It is well to know the distinction between being polite and agreeable on the one hand and agreeing politely on the other.

The Attack of Satan

The methods by which Satan attacks the people of God have changed very little over the years — though the technology has improved quite a bit. We see some examples here.

·         Discouragement is the first technique. We have an example recently of parents in a local school district to object to Eastern mysticism being taught in the form of yoga in the schools. They are unreasonable, of course; everyone knows that yoga is nothing more than exercise. Nothing more, unless you look at it carefully.

·         These folks hired counselors — we would call them lobbyists today — to influence the government of the time. The forces of Satan usually have quite a bit of money; greed is often their objective. If you don’t think so, look into the finances of Planned Parenthood.

·         Then there are the accusations. Some of them are false (like building the walls of Jerusalem, which doesn’t happen until quite a bit later). Others are historical; the Jews did indeed revolt. Of course, we had to look in the history books to find that out. The truth on the ground was something different. But, as is often said, truth is the first casualty of war.

On this occasion, as on so many others, the attack was a success. The Jews were told to stop building the temple.

Jewish Reaction

The reaction of the Jews at this time is interesting to modern Christians. We have been raised on civil disobedience, protest and other forms of self-expression common in our current form of government and therefore would not see the sense of their reaction. To a king of this time however such actions would be viewed as rebellion and met with the sword. So what did they do?

·         First, they were obedient to the civil authorities which God had placed over them. They recognized that the Persians ruled them because God wanted it so — and therefore they were obedient. This is called submission, and it is not a popular thing today. Perhaps we have something to learn.

·         They waited for a new king to take the throne.

That second one is interesting: it shows patience. So many Christian leaders are convinced that if something can’t be done in their lifetime, by their organization, then it cannot be done at all. We sometimes forget that we are members of the church universal, militant and triumphant — and not just our local congregation.

New King

Please read Ezra 5.

Role of Prophecy

Haggai and Zechariah are in fact two prophets among the minor prophets of the Old Testament; their works of prophecy correspond very nicely to the history recorded here and in Nehemiah.  The major concern of their prophecy is with the advent of Christ.  Zechariah, in particular, is a favorite of students of prophecy. It is sufficient for our purposes here to note that there is no contradiction between their prophecies and what is recorded in Ezra and Nehemiah.

The first role of a prophet is forth-telling. The message in this particular case is simple: why haven’t you built the temple yet? This provokes an interesting set of reactions.

·         First, it gives the people a clear sense of God’s timing. We been waiting for a new king; is this the one were looking for? Is he going to approve progress on the temple? The prophets make it clear that God wants it done now.

·         This is interesting because the previous version of the temple was delayed — David was not allowed to build it; Solomon was. It seems that God is not in a hurry, but he does have a timetable for these things. It is well to remember whose universe this is.

·         There is a connection as well to the other side of prophecy. It concerns the reliability of the prophets themselves. If they’re right about the temple, then the rest of their prophecy should be right as well.

The other role prophecy is foretelling. Particularly in Zechariah we have a strong indication of the coming of the Christ. It is beyond the scope of these lessons to go into that. We should, however, note that Zechariah’s words on the temple were fulfilled and thus give greater confidence to the fulfillment of his prophecies concerning the coming of the Christ. As we live in a time past the coming of the Christ, it’s a little easier for us to see. The people of this time, however, wanted to make sure that Zechariah knew what he was talking about.

Tattenai the Governor

It’s tempting to regard all of the officials in the neighborhood as being enemies of the Jews. We should not make that identification automatic, however. Tattenai is a good example of the contrary. He is not their enemy; he is a competent bureaucrat. Look at the steps that he takes and see if you can see that:

·         First, he checks with the boss. He does it in writing. He asks the boss to have the secretary look into the files and see if there is any truth to what these people are saying. I suspect that, in his little heart of hearts, he knew the Jews were telling them the truth. But good bureaucrats don’t take chances on things like that.

·         Next, he waits for a reply without stopping the work. They’re not going to finish it all that rapidly anyway, and if the Jews are right then he doesn’t want to be in the position of having stop something that the king wants continued. It’s the position of minimum risk.

·         Notice please that he praises the caliber of the work. This work is happening in his department, under his stewardship so he might as well get whatever credit for it he can.

If the system is working correctly, even the bureaucrats do what God intends. As long as it doesn’t get risky — ask Pontius Pilate.

Timescale

It’s taken these people eighteen years so far to build this temple; they’ve got another four years or so yet to go. By way of contrast, Solomon’s Temple took a grand total of seven years. Herod built the main temple (or perhaps we build this temple) in about eight years, though the construction went on for quite a bit longer. That might seem like a long time to you, but if your horizon is far enough out it’s not that bad. There are freeways in Los Angeles that took forty years to go from design to concrete.

That’s an example for us. It took William Wilberforce and John Newton over twenty years to get from the abolition of the slave trade to the complete abolition of slavery in the British Empire. All along the way practical people told him this was just not going to work. Newton was an old man when he got the news. Sometimes it happens in your lifetime; sometimes it doesn’t. The modern parallel to this is abortion; I leave it to the reader to decide how long this will take. But right now, everybody knows that abortion is here to stay permanently. It is not wise to reckon without the living God.

Royal Response

Please read Ezra 6.

In the Files

Ecbatana is actually the summer palace of the Persian kings. In those days, without air-conditioning, if you are royalty you migrated in the summer to somebody’s mountainside place with a view — and the lower temperature. Remember that much of this region is extremely hot in the summer. What’s interesting is that they found the document in the files there. That implies two things:

·         First, they must’ve had one heck of a filing system to find it at all.

·         I suspect they looked in the winter palace first, which means that they must’ve been persistent in their search. No doubt the delay was vexing to the Jews, but the results turned out all right.

One incidental fact about this: it gives us an example of the reliability of ancient records. Modern scholars tend to assume that anything before the invention of the computer is not reliable as a historical document. This shows us that the people of the ancient Persian Empire understood their history and relied upon their records implicitly. One might suggest that it is not too great a stretch of the imagination to think that they had good reason to do so. This document, at the time, would’ve been less ancient than the American Declaration of Independence. I leave it to the reader to ponder the proper conclusions from these facts.

Instructions

The first thing that we can understand about Darius from his instructions is that he understood the politics of the local situation. He is ruling over an Empire which had over 100 different tribal kingdoms contained within, so I suspect that he understood quite well how nasty and mudslinging local politics could be. That’s why he told Tattenai to leave the Jews alone.

Next, he went above and beyond what Cyrus had ordered by telling Tattenai that the expenses for the construction of the temple and for the offerings should be taken out of the royal treasury. This brings us to the question why he would do a thing like that. I suspect that Darius had a clear sense of just how much the fate of an empire depended upon what he would’ve called “the will of the gods.” The ancient people had a much clearer sense of how the things that determine empire often seem to be random incidents to us. It would’ve been a first priority to him to placate the local God — in this case Jehovah — and make sure that the local citizens made proper offerings for the benefit of the king and his sons. Kings sought the favor of the gods in what ever way those gods seem to want — for a very good reason. The psalmists understood this as well:

Psalms 20:7 NASB  Some boast in chariots and some in horses, But we will boast in the name of the LORD, our God.

 

Divine Favor

It is interesting that the Jews saw evidence of divine favor in these actions. In particular, there are three things in which the Jews would have seen God’s favor upon their building of the temple.

·         The first is the existence of prophecy. The fact that God chose to send not one but two messengers with the same message tells the Jews that God is watching over them, wants them to build the temple, and therefore they will be successful in doing it.

·         The second is in the heart of the King. The fact that Darius was so inclined to their success as to use tax dollars to support this was quite unexpected, and therefore seen as a sign of divine favor. God must really want this temple built if he gets the king to provide the money.

·         What might surprise you is the rejoicing over Passover. The feast in question occurs at about the time of the completion of the temple, and it reminds the Jews of the first Exodus. It reminds them of the mighty hand of God that brought their ancestors out of Egypt. They took this as a sign of divine favor for this second Exodus; sometimes, timing is everything.

 

Someone building a temple 2500 years ago may not seem particularly important today. But for those of us who have seen the decline and soon-to-be fall of America may need to know how God begins with a people once again.

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