Ezra 4

Ezra 4

SERIES: The Providence of God

The Many Faces of Opposition

Introduction:  Life can be tough.  Just the ordinary responsibilities of making a living, developing family relationships, putting a kid through college, and keeping two cars running can leave you exhausted at the end of the day.  And if you have a high‑stress job, a child who’s difficult, high balances on your credit cards, and elderly parents who need lots of attention, you may feel at times that you can hardly cope.  But when you add to all that the active opposition of someone who seems out to get you, is there any hope at all?  Some of you know exactly what I’m talking about, because you have faced the normal pressures of life along with opposition from a boss, a spouse, a fellow‑student who has it in for you, perhaps even from a fellow‑Christian.

Our text today from Ezra, chapter 4, informs us that we’re not the first to face opposition; not only that, it tells us that God is aware of it and has His ways of protecting us (though they may not be the ways we would choose).  My approach to this passage is going to be a bit different.  Instead of outlining Ezra 4, I have charted it.  And then I have taken a sermon from the prophet Haggai, which was preached at the very time these events were going on and will use that to demonstrate how God protects us from opposition.

You will remember from Brad’s message last Sunday that after the Israelites were granted permission by Cyrus, King of Persia, to return to Palestine and re‑establish their worship and culture, they wasted no time building an altar, celebrating the Feast of Tabernacles, and then laying the foundation of the temple.  Everyone gave a great shout of praise when the foundation was completed, but since the outline of it on the ground made it obvious that this temple would never rival in beauty or grandeur the great temple of Solomon, which had been destroyed by Nebuchadnezzar just 50 years earlier, some of the older people couldn’t help crying.  

Frankly, even more people would probably have been crying if they knew what lay just ahead of them, for the very next verse tells of the mobilizing of the enemies of Judah and Benjamin.  Let’s read Ezra 4:1-5 and then verse 24:

When the enemies of Judah and Benjamin heard that the exiles were building a temple for the Lord, the God of Israel, 2 they came to Zerubbabel and to the heads of the families and said, “Let us help you build because, like you, we seek your God and have been sacrificing to him since the time of Esarhaddon king of Assyria, who brought us here.”

3 But Zerubbabel, Joshua and the rest of the heads of the families of Israel answered, “You have no part with us in building a temple to our God. We alone will build it for the Lord, the God of Israel, as King Cyrus, the king of Persia, commanded us.”

4 Then the peoples around them set out to discourage the people of Judah and make them afraid to go on building.[a] They bribed officials to work against them and frustrate their plans during the entire reign of Cyrus king of Persia and down to the reign of Darius king of Persia….

24 Thus the work on the house of God in Jerusalem came to a standstill until the second year of the reign of Darius king of Persia.

Ezra 4 talks about three distinct kinds of opposition the Jewish people faced after they completed the foundation of the temple.  The first kind—infiltration and assimilation—began immediately.  The second kind—discouragement and fear—followed hard on the heels of the first, and it was actually a response to the Jews’ refusal to bow to the first.  The third kind—accusation and distortion—begins in verse 6 and deserves some explanation, for verses 6‑23 are out of order chronologically.  

My Student Bible calls these verses a “flash‑forward” as opposed to a “flash‑back,” and that is exactly what they are.  Since he is speaking of ways the enemy attacks, the author (writing this history many years later) opts to stick with the theme rather than with the chronology, so he traces opposition into the future another 80 years.  His point for us is that opposition continues for the people of God and they will never outlive it.  One of the ways you can keep the chronology straight is to put a large parenthesis in your Bible around verses 6‑23, because verse 24 follows chronologically after verse 5.  

With the hope all is clear, I want to begin by examining the first kind of opposition—from infiltration and assimilation. 

How the Enemy attacks

             Infiltration & assimilation.  The enemies of the people of God come to Zerubbabel and the Jewish leaders and very diplomatically offer to help with the temple:  “Let us help you build because, like you, we seek your God and have been sacrificing to him since we were brought here over a century ago.”  Now our first reaction might be, “Look at how God is providing help!  What a generous offer!  How could it be refused?”  But it is refused.  With an apparent total lack of appreciation and gratefulness, the Israelites answer, “You have no part with us in building a temple to our God.  We alone will build it for the Lord.”  Why do they respond this way?

The answer lies in an understanding of who these people offering help are.  They are clearly identified as “enemies” in verse 1, which should lead us to suspect that any offer of help was less than genuine.  Secondly, they identify themselves as products of the forced migration of one of the great Assyrian kings.  Just as fifty years ago the Russians sent their own people into Ukraine, the Baltic states, and other eastern European countries to ensure governments loyal to the Communist state, so the Assyrian kings sent tens of thousands of their own people into Palestine after the northern kingdom of Israel fell.  These people intermarried with the remnant of Israelites left, and when the southern kingdom fell to Nebuchadnezzar, further intermarriage occurred.  

Yes, it is probably true these people had a certain amount of respect for the God of Israel, but they also had other gods they had brought from Assyria.  The situation would not be unlike what we see in much of Central and South America today, where the people are nominally Catholic but maintain a strong allegiance to spiritism, fetishism, voodoo, and other tribal religious practices.  And that’s why Zerubbabel refuses their help and responds with a policy of separation.  He understands their motivation.

Unfortunately, many in the Christian church today fail to see the need for purity of doctrine and practice, and they take the position that it’s OK to join hands with anyone who calls himself a Christian.  Yes, on some things that’s probably alright.  For example, in an abortion protest I think it’s fine to work side by side with people of all faiths who are concerned about the killing of innocent children.  But when it comes to the practice of worship, I draw the line.  I personally don’t attend interfaith prayer meetings or interfaith worship services (interdenominational, yes, definitely, so long as the people involved accept the fundamental beliefs of Christianity; but interfaith, no).  Prayer and worship to me are intensely spiritual exercises, and I cannot pray or praise God with people who give no evidence of being born again.

Infiltration and assimilation is one of the Enemy’s common attacks.  Again and again, the NT Epistles warn us to guard the good deposit that was entrusted to us and to be wary of those who have sneaked in to spy out our liberty.  We must recognize, however, that holding to our convictions in these matters will almost always result in further opposition, as it did for the Jewish exiles, only this time the tactic changes; this time the enemies take the gloves off and attack openly with twin weapons.

             Discouragement and fear (4:4,5). Verse 4:  “Then the peoples around them set out to discourage the people of Judah and make them afraid to go on building.  They hired counselors to work against them and frustrate their plans during the entire reign of Cyrus king of Persia down to the reign of Darius king of Persia.”  In other words, for 15 years this kind of opposition continued.

I wish we knew more about what was going on here.  The enemies apparently adopted the philosophy, “If you can’t join ’em, beat ’em.”  The discouragement may have taken the form of ridicule and contempt.  Some 80 years later when the Jews were rebuilding the wall under the leadership of Nehemiah, the descendants of these same enemies did use ridicule.  They are quoted in Neh. 4:3 as saying, “What are they building—if even a fox climbed up on it, he would break down their wall of stones!”  Or the discouragement may have taken the form of economic sanctions—refusing to sell produce and materials to the Jews.  Or it could have taken the form of threats or even vandalism.  Perhaps stones laid during the day were knocked off the foundation at night.  

One tactic specifically mentioned in verse 5 is the hiring of counselors to work against the exiles.  Some scholars suggest that these were Persian officials bribed to frustrate the plans of the exiles.  Whatever the means the enemies used, it works, for the response of the Jews is frustration (according to verse 5), and frustration produces paralysis.  That’s exactly what happens here, for in the last verse of chapter 4, which follows chronologically after verse 5, it says that “the work on the house of God in Jerusalem came to a standstill until the second year of the reign of Darius king of Persia.”  

For 15 years the project just sat there.  I suspect that if you were there during this time and asked one of the Jews, “Why is the temple foundation just lying there and no building going on?” they might tell you, “We tried, but there’s too much opposition.”  Or, “We’d like to complete it, but we can’t afford to.”  Or, “We need houses too, you know.  As soon as we get our own homes in order, we’ll get back to building the temple.”  As we’ll see in a little while, every one of these excuses was actually used.  

Have you experienced discouragement and fear lately?  Has the Enemy succeeded in paralyzing you and getting you to stop a ministry you were involved in because of criticism or frustration or fear?  The Jews capitulated, but they didn’t have to—there is another avenue.  We can return to the conviction that we were called by God and view the opposition for what it is—the effort of the Enemy of our souls to divert us from pursuing God’s will.  We can choose to take heart in the fact that God is with us and move ahead fearlessly.  There is a third method the enemies of the Jews use:

             Accusation and distortion.  As we have already noted, starting in verse 6 the author gives us a flash‑forward to show that opposition is not limited to any one place or any one time.  “At the beginning of the reign of Xerxes (i.e., about 485 B.C.), they lodged an accusation against the people of Judah and Jerusalem.”  Then in verse 7 we read, “And in the days of Artaxerxes king of Persia (i.e., about 465 B.C.), these enemies wrote a letter to Artaxerxes,” apparently again to make accusation against the Jews.  And in verse 8 we read about a third accusation:  “Rehum the commanding officer and Shimshai the secretary wrote a letter against Jerusalem to Artaxerxes the king.”  Its content is found in 11-16:

11 (This is a copy of the letter they sent him.)

To King Artaxerxes,

From your servants in Trans-Euphrates:

12 The king should know that the people who came up to us from you have gone to Jerusalem and are rebuilding that rebellious and wicked city. They are restoring the walls and repairing the foundations.

13 Furthermore, the king should know that if this city is built and its walls are restored, no more taxes, tribute or duty will be paid, and eventually the royal revenues will suffer. 14 Now since we are under obligation to the palace and it is not proper for us to see the king dishonored, we are sending this message to inform the king, 15 so that a search may be made in the archives of your predecessors. In these records you will find that this city is a rebellious city, troublesome to kings and provinces, a place with a long history of sedition. That is why this city was destroyed. 16 We inform the king that if this city is built and its walls are restored, you will be left with nothing in Trans-Euphrates.

You can see from the contents of this letter that it is very political, grossly distorting the truth to paint the Jews in the worst possible light.  There is just enough truth to make it appear reasonable to an insecure monarch like Artaxerxes, so that he issues an order to stop the work.  

Have you suffered recently from accusations and distortions, particularly in written form?  Cowards tend to use letters to blow other people out of the water because they don’t have the courage to say what they want to say face to face.  

There are times when we will be viciously attacked through accusation and distortion.  I’ve experienced it and so will you.  The question is, how will we respond?  The Jews respond with spiritual apathy, as we will see in later chapters of Ezra.  And the result is procrastination regarding the task God gave them to rebuild the Holy City.  

So far we have seen how the Enemy attacks—through infiltration and assimilation.  If that doesn’t work, he will often try discouragement and fear.  And if that doesn’t work, he may graduate to accusation and distortion, perhaps even violence.  But there is a second important point in our text today, and that is how God protects.

How God protects

It’s not how you might wish, at least in this case.  After all, if you were one of the Jewish exiles called by God to go back and rebuild the temple, you might expect God to step in and zap these enemies, perform a miracle of deliverance, and sovereignly see to it that the temple is finished.  But instead, God sends two preachers to deliver challenging messages—not to the enemies but to the Jews themselves.  You see, the real problem is not the Enemy, or rather, the imagined enemy is not the real enemy.  As Pogo observed, “We have found the Enemy and they are us” (If you’re not over 60, that allusion will probably go over your head!).

Look at Ezra, chapter 5, verse 1, and remember, no construction has been done on the temple foundation for about 15 years.  “Now Haggai, the prophet and Zechariah the prophet, a descendant of Iddo, prophesied to the Jews in Judah and Jerusalem in the name of the God of Israel, who was over them.”  

If we had time, this would be the appropriate place to interrupt our series on Ezra and Nehemiah and spend several months preaching from Haggai and Zechariah, for their books fit right here between verses 1 and 2 of Ezra 5.  I have chosen not to do that, but instead to take only a sample passage from Haggai—the first sermon he preached—and demonstrate the impact it had on the exiles.  So turn with me to Haggai 1 (the third to last book of the OT).  

First, I should comment on the title I have given to Haggai’s sermon.  I grew up attending Old Orchard Chapel, a small church in Webster Groves.  There was a man in that church named Bill Minshall, whose favorite saying was, “Off and on.”  When we played baseball, he would yell to the team on the bench, “All right, you guys, off and on, rattle those bats.”  When we went on overnights he was always up at dawn, torturing us with his familiar cry, “Off and on, breakfast in 15 minutes.”  And on those many occasions when I was over at his house watching TV with one of his boys (we didn’t have a TV), we would often hear him say, “OK you bums, off and on.  Get outdoors and get some exercise.”  

Well, if you haven’t figured out what “off and on” means, it means, “Off your seat (or something similar) and on your feet!”  And inasmuch as I was known for keeping a low profile (i.e., keeping my posterior as close as possible to a chair, a bed, or the floor), I suppose I heard him say “off and on” more often than most.

As I was reading this first chapter of Haggai, I was reminded of my old friend’s saying, for it seems to me that the prophet is saying exactly that to his people:  “Off and on—you’ve got a job to do.”  Let’s read the first four verses.

In the second year of King Darius, on the first day of the sixth month, the word of the Lord came through the prophet Haggai to Zerubbabel son of Shealtiel, governor of Judah, and to Joshua son of Jozadak, the high priest:

This is what the Lord Almighty says: “These people say, ‘The time has not yet come to rebuild the Lord’s house.’”

Then the word of the Lord came through the prophet Haggai: “Is it a time for you yourselves to be living in your paneled houses, while this house remains a ruin?”

The first thing we see in this chapter is that 

God’s people are rebuked for their procrastination.  (1‑4)

Haggai rebukes them for two things:  indifference to God, and self‑indulgence.

             They are indifferent to God.  The people’s indifference is shown in their excuse that “the time has not yet come.”  Ever heard the saying, “The time is not ripe”?  Ever said it?  Francis Cornford writes, 

“There is only one argument for doing something; all other arguments are for doing nothing.  One of these is the argument that ‘the time is not ripe.’ ‘ The Principle of Unripe Time’ is that people should not do at the present moment what they think right at that moment, because the moment at which they think it right has not yet arrived….  Time, by the way, is like the papaya; it has a trick of going rotten before it is ripe.”[i]

We think up so many excuses for not doing God’s work in God’s time.  

             “There’s so much opposition; this must not be God’s will after all.”

             “This church isn’t the way I’d like it to be.”

             “I’ll start getting involved when I get things situated at the office.”

             “I’ll start giving when I get my debts paid off.”  

Interestingly, indifference to God usually occurs in direct conjunction with the second problem for which the Jews are rebuked:

             They are indulgent of themselves.   The time is not ripe for obeying God, but it does seem to be ripe for indulging their own desires.  The key to verse 4 seems to lie in the word “paneled,”inferring expensive tastes.  The only other times the word is used in the OT is to describe the Solomonic temple and King Jehoiakim’s luxurious palace.  The people are sparing little for their own comfort while God’s house continues to lie in ruins.  

You can perhaps see why preachers often appeal to Haggai when they are trying to finance a building program.  Questions like, “Why do we buy bigger homes and fancy furniture and new carpet when we’re worshipping in a gym on folding chairs?” are able to produce enough guilt to go around several times.  But frankly, I believe there are other applications of this lesson on misplaced priorities that are every bit as important.  Why will we break our necks to put our kids through the best college possible, but when they ask to go on a summer mission trip, we tell them we can’t afford it?  Why do we make sure they get to school on time every day of the week, but don’t worry if they get to Sunday School 20 or 30 minutes late, as happens with several dozen children every Sunday morning?  Why will men who have a perfect record of attendance at work year after year but use every excuse in the book to stay home from church?  Frankly, there are many ways in which we show both indifference to God and indulgence of ourselves.  

God’s people are chastised for their procrastination.

Let’s read verses 5‑11:

5 Now this is what the Lord Almighty says: “Give careful thought to your ways. 6 You have planted much, but harvested little. You eat, but never have enough. You drink, but never have your fill. You put on clothes, but are not warm. You earn wages, only to put them in a purse with holes in it.”

7 This is what the Lord Almighty says: “Give careful thought to your ways. 8 Go up into the mountains and bring down timber and build my house, so that I may take pleasure in it and be honored,” says the Lord. 9 “You expected much, but see, it turned out to be little. What you brought home, I blew away. Why?” declares the Lord Almighty. “Because of my house, which remains a ruin, while each of you is busy with your own house. 10 Therefore, because of you the heavens have withheld their dew and the earth its crops. 11 I called for a drought on the fields and the mountains, on the grain, the new wine, the olive oil and everything else the ground produces, on people and livestock, and on all the labor of your hands.”

The chastisement God brings upon them is poverty.  Try as they might they are unable to get ahead. No sooner do they save up a little and the transmission goes out.  Know the feeling?  What Haggai tells them is that

             Their poverty is not just circumstantial.  It may appear to them that they’ve had lots of bad luck with the weather and therefore the crops haven’t come in, but the fact is God has withheld the rain because of their screwed-up priorities.  It may appear that high prices and inflation are doing a number on them, but s God has upset their economic equilibrium because of sin.  Now I think we have to be careful here.  Haggai is not giving us a universal principle here.  It’s not the case that every time there’s a drought or a financial problem or sickness, there’s a specific failure on the part of God’s people to account for it.  But that is the case sometimes! 

             Their poverty is unnecessary.  (7‑11). The implication of verse 7 is that their poverty will cease if and when they start being obedient in building God’s house.  “This is what the Lord Almighty says:  ‘Give careful thought to your ways.  Go up into the mountains and bring down timber and build the house, so that I may take pleasure in it and be honored,’ says the Lord.”  If a problem we’re experiencing is the result of chastisement, the only way to deal with it is through repentance and obedience.  And that’s exactly how the people respond to Haggai’s sermon, as we discover in verses 12‑14.

God’s people repent of their procrastination.  (12‑14)

The following words describe their reaction:

             Obedience.  They obey, first, the voice of the Lord, and second, the message of the prophet, because the Lord sent him.  God commissioned Haggai to preach to these people and it is not possible for them to honor God without respecting God’s servant.  

             Reverence.  At the end of verse 12 it says, “And the people feared the Lord.”  It’s possible to obey with a bad attitude, to obey without submission.  But how much better to obey out of a proper motive—the recognition that you are dealing with the Lord God of the universe!  God’s response to their reverence is to give them increased assurance.  Verse 13 says, “Then Haggai, the Lord’s messenger, gave this message of the Lord to the people:  ‘I am with you,’ declares the Lord.”  Isn’t it just like the Lord to offer positive reinforcement?  When we resolve to deal with sin He almost always endorses and strengthens our resolve. 

             Enthusiasm.  Look at verse 14:  “So the Lord stirred up the spirit of Zerubbabel son of Shealtiel, governor of Judah, and the spirit of Joshua son of Jehozadak, the high priest, and the spirit of the whole remnant of the people.  They came and began to work on the house of the Lord Almighty, their God, on the twenty‑fourth day of the sixth month in the second year of King Darius.”  If you check the dates, it is less than a month after Haggai preaches his first message that the people enthusiastically restart the construction.  I wish all my sermons received such a positive response!  But then I wish all my sermons were sufficiently powerful that the Lord could use them to stir hearts!  The important truth to remember is that the effective answer to opposition is the bold proclamation of the Word of God.

One might expect to see at the end of Haggai’s message a postscript to the effect that, having begun the temple again, the rains suddenly fall, the harvest improves, and the bank accounts bulge.  No, the truth Haggai wants to get across to us is not primarily that if you want to get rich, put God’s work first, but rather, “Put God’s work first, no matter what.” 

Now for just a brief moment I invite you to turn back to Ezra 5, where we read in verse 2, “Then Zerubbabel son of Shealtiel and Jeshua son of Jozadak set to work to rebuild the house of God in Jerusalem.  And the prophets of God were with them, helping them.”  Haggai and Zechariah are preachers, but they are also workers.  They do not simply rebuke while remaining detached.  Rather we find them standing alongside the builders helping them.  There is no elitism among the people of God.  We are all servants together.

Conclusion.  So what is the principal message we want to take home with us today?  I think it is this:  Opposition comes in many forms—sometimes external, at other times internal—but it does not excuse us from our responsibility to be busy about our Father’s business. The Apostle Paul wrote in 1 Cor. 16:9, “I will stay on at Ephesus because a great door for effective work has opened to me, and there are many who oppose me.”  At first that sounds like a contradiction—“a great door has opened and there are many who oppose me.”  We tend to think that an open door means no opposition.  No, it simply means that God wants to show us that by His power we can triumph even in the face of opposition.  

DATE:  May 10, 1992







[i]Francis Cornford, Microcosmographia Academica. Being a Guide for the Young Academic Politician.

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