02 Ezra 4-6 The Exiles Build God’s TempleEzra, Nehemiah, & Esther: Restore, Rebuild, & Redeem
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Once again, I have extensively used and copied from the Truth for Today Commentary on Ezra, Nehemiah, and Esther, written by my friend and former colleague at Heritage Christian University, Coy D. Roper, Ph.D. I highly recommend it!
On the title slide is a photo of the ruins of Ecbatana in ancient Babylon (now Iran). It was in this city that King Cyrus of Persia archived important documents. Ezra 6:2
Ezra 4-6 The Exiles Build God’s Temple
Ezra 4 – Temple Construction Interrupted
4:1-4 Cyrus’ Proclamation to the Jews in Exile
It was such a promising beginning. The altar of burnt offering and the temple’s foundation were now in place. Things ought to take off at this point for sure. Yet, due to the opposition from the people of the land which followed, the Jews stopped working on the project for fifteen or sixteen years. It was during the reign of the Persian king Darius that they resumed. During the reigns of other kings, Judah’s neighbors made other attempts to end the work as well.
What may seem odd, to modern readers at least, is the brief noting of future antagonist efforts under other kings and then returning to the immediate situation in the time of Cyrus. The point seems to be that the Jews’ enemies persisted in trying to stop them for about ninety years!
Here are the Persian kings that ruled during this period.
|Darius I||522-486 BC|
|Xerxes I (Ahasuerus)||486-465 BC|
|Artaxerxes I||465-424 BC|
4:1-5 Opposition During the Reign of Cyrus
The people already living in the land when the Jews arrived had come there during the days of Esarhaddon, who ruled Assyria from 681-669 BC. The Assyrian policy of moving the Israelites from their homeland into exile and replacing them with Gentiles from other places had also been practiced previously by Sargon II, who had begun displacing the Jews about 722 BC. Some of these transplanted people in Israel intermarried with the Jews who remained there. The resulting mixed-blood offspring came to be known as “Samaritans.” Perhaps through the remaining Jews’ influence these non-Jews had begun sacrificing to Yahweh already, or at least so they said.
Whether they were already “enemies” of the two remaining tribes, Judah and Benjamin, or whether they were genuine initially in their offer to help, the Jewish leaders refused their assistance. Why? For one thing, they were not actually Jews, and Cyrus had specifically authorized only the returning Jews to rebuild the temple. So they said, in effect, “You have no part in this.”
Then apparently these same people turned against the Jews. For the next fifteen years or so, from 535-520 BC during the reign of Darius I, they were able to halt the building of the temple. Perhaps they intimidated and threatened the Jews in order to frighten them. “They hired counselors” may indicate that they bribed officials, hired lobbyists, blocked supplies, etc.
Before the text describes what happened next, in Ezra 4:24, it includes something of a parenthesis. It refers to opposition which took place later than this, during the reigns of two future kings, Xerxes I (Ahasuerus) and Artaxerxes I.
4:6 Opposition During the Reign of Xerxes I (Ahasuerus)
This is the same king who married Esther and ruled during all the events recorded in the book of Esther. This letter of accusation against the Jews would have been written about 480 BC, not long before Esther’s marriage to the king.
The outcome of this accusation is not recorded. Perhaps it contributed in some way to Haman’s anti-Semitism noted in Esther. Here it emphasizes the continuing conflicts that the Jews faced.
4:7-23 Opposition During the Reign of Artaxerxes I
After Xerxes I (Ahasuerus), Artaxerxes I was the next Persian king, and he ruled 465-424 BC. During this time, Aramaic was the international language of diplomacy. While almost all the Old Testament is written in Hebrew, Ezra 4:8-6:18 and Ezra 7:12-26 are in Aramaic.
Verses 7 and 8 may refer to just one letter, which appears in Ezra 4:11b-16, though the text says twice that a letter was written and lists the senders’ names in two separate groups. Or it may be that 4:7 notes one letter, about which nothing else is known, and that 4:8 introduces the second accusation, to which King Artaxerxes I responded.
Note that all the leaders of that entire province (known as “Beyond the River”) with one accord authorized this letter. Also, they claimed to have rights to this land because “the great and honorable Osnappar (probably Assurbanipal, the last great Assyrian king c. 669-631 BC)” had deported and settled them there.
This incident was not connected with the Jews who returned with Zerubbabel but with those who came at a later date (Ezra 8:1-20). At this time, the focus of this opposition was not the temple but the walls and the foundations (Ezra 4:12).
The gist of their appeal included several elements. First they hit the king’s pocketbook! “These Jews, with their city rebuilt and their walls finished, won’t pay you taxes!” Then they went after his pride. “We can’t stand to see our king dishonored!”
Third, they turned to historical evidence. “Search the records! This city was destroyed for its rebellious nature!” Fourth, they exaggerated the worst possible outcome. “You will forfeit Persian control of the entire Beyond-the-River province!” Of course, they feared that they themselves would lose their own possessions, prestige, power, and prosperity.
Artaxerxes I, having confirmed the truth about Israel’s “mighty kings” and revolts that had led to Jerusalem’s destruction, issued a temporary “cease and desist” order on the construction. Since it was not permanent and irrevocable (Est 1:19; 8:8; Dan 6:8, 12, 15), the Persian king could alter it or reverse it in the future.
Those who received the king’s reply lost no time in stopping the Jews from their work, even with the use of armed, probably Persian, forces.
4:24 Work Stoppage During the Reign of Cyrus
The text in Ezra 4:24 picks up the story where Ezra 4:5 left off, in about 535 BC. For the next fifteen or sixteen years, work on the temple was suspended. It would not resume until the second year of the reign of Darius I, about 520 BC.
The lack of chronology in this chapter was no issue for those who initially received it, for they knew their history and the order of these events.
Takeaways from Ezra 4
Opposition – Ezra 4 compiles evidence that the Jews faced resistance and persecution over a ninety-year period! Such hostility led to the crucifixion of Christ and came out in force against His followers as described in the book of Acts. Jesus spoke to this in Matt 5:10-12, and Paul wrote in 2 Ti 3:12, “Indeed, all who desire to live godly in Christ Jesus will be persecuted.”
We see it often today. Lorie Smith is a graphic designer. The state of Colorado has forbidden her from posting a notice on her website stating she is unable to create websites that express messages contrary to her Christian beliefs, including websites that promote abortion services, celebrate same-sex marriages, or advance a transgender ideology.
Opponents of Christianity effectively use the twin tools of fear and discouragement. It may be fear of persecution, fear of isolation, or fear of failure. Discouragement comes when others do not support the Lord’s cause through involvement, attendance, and encouragement. There are nay-sayers whose message is, “That won’t work! You’re wasting your time. Don’t expect me to help.”
By identifying and preparing for opposition in advance, we can meet it head-on with the Lord’s help and persevere.
Compromise – How could the Jews refuse the help, apparently free labor, that the local people offered? Why would they not involve them, perhaps with the intent to win them over to their faith? Well, these people were polytheists and idolaters! Past compromise with such people had influenced Israel away from God and helped lead to the exile. The Jews could not afford to let that happen again.
By refusing to compromise with the world and with religious influences that are false, we can continue doing God’s work in God’s way. He will provide the appropriate resources.
Ezra 5 – Temple Construction Resumed
5:1-2 Encouraged by Haggai and Zechariah
Remember that, though Ezra is here in the “history” section of the Old Testament, and Haggai and Zechariah are in the “minor prophets” category, these books cover the same events and the same time frame.
When people are frightened and discouraged, they need faithful preaching of the Word of God! Haggai went to Zerubbabel and Jeshua in August of 520 BC (Hag 1:1). Due to his powerful preaching, work resumed three weeks later (Hag 1:15). Two months after that, Zechariah was moved by Yahweh to join in this prophetic work (Zech 1:1). While Haggai preached boldly and bluntly, Zechariah saw visions and spoke words of comfort and reassurance (Zech 1:13-17).
5:3-5 Questioned by Persian Officials
This time there’s not a threat from the Jews’ enemies, but rather a fair inquiry from the government. Tattenai and his associates were apparently seeking to preserve the king’s interests in the Beyond-the-River province. The Jews respected and honored this request, and God in His providence prevented another work stoppage.
5:6-17 Investigated by a Letter to Darius I
The letter appears to be truthful, objective, and fair to all concerned. It bears all the traits of effective communication, which have not changed in the past 2500+ years. It is straightforward, clear, and unmistakable in his message.
“We went there in person. We asked the right questions of the right people. We are writing your response verbatim, exactly as they gave it to us. Please check out what they have said and let us know what to do next.”
Takeaways from Ezra 5
Partnership – Haggai and Zechariah demonstrated team ministry at its best. Here were two preachers with two personalities, two styles, and just one goal. One sees no hint of comparison or competition, but only cooperation. Here is an excellent role model for ministers, missionaries, elders, deacons, teachers, and any other Christians who serve together. Unlike the apostles, effective coworkers do not argue over who is greatest in the kingdom!
Preaching – Some today may think that sermons are outdated or overemphasized. Preachers may become discouraged when their best efforts seem less than effective. The devil wants to silence preaching, because faith comes by hearing the word of Christ (Rom 10:17)!
Proof – So many questions can be answered, and so many controversies can be resolved, if all the parties will simply go back to the facts and the documents. As these inquirers ask Darius to look for the words of Cyrus, Christians determine to follow the words of God, without turning to the right or to the left.
Ezra 6 – Temple Construction Completed
6:1-5 Darius’ Discovery of Cyrus’ Decree
The Greek historian Xenophon wrote that Cyrus spent two months each year in Ecbatana, in the height of summer, to enjoy the springlike climate there at that time of year. That’s yet another verification of the accuracy of this text.
The decree from Cyrus, as written here, contains specifics regarding the second temple’s measurements, its funding from the royal treasury, and its replenishment with the utensils that had been taken to Babylon. Since these details were omitted in Ezra 1:2-4, they could be part of an amended document or a second document.
While the height and width are both specified, each being 60 cubits or about 90 feet, the length is not given. How do these dimensions compare with those of Solomon’s (the first) temple? According to 1 Kgs 6:2, that earlier temple was 60 cubits or about 90 feet long. However, it was only 30 cubits or about 45 feet high, and its width was only 20 cubits or about 35 feet. Various suggestions have been made as to the particulars given here in Ezra 6, especially with its prescribed height being twice that of the first temple.
The authority of Cyrus’ written word for future generations parallels the authority of God’s written word for the church throughout history. For us, “What did Cyrus say?” is instead, “What did Yahweh say?” It is not our place to innovate or negotiate, but rather to hear and obey.
6:6-12 Darius’ Reply to the Persian Officials
What would happen to anyone who violated Darius’ decree? “… a timber shall be drawn from his house, and he shall be impaled on it and his house shall be made a refuse heap on account of this.” Again, in a similar yet more severe and eternal way, Jesus’ warnings about hell show the severity of the consequences of disobeying His word.
“With all diligence!” means, “Get on it right now, with all your effort and whatever it takes to get it done!” Such is to be the work that the king – and our King – commands.
6:13-18 The Jews’ Completion and Dedication of the Temple
God worked via His providence (His unseen hand, behind the scenes, without miracles) through all the characters named here. Tattenai and his colleagues did as they were commanded, “with all diligence.” Darius I had searched for, found, and enacted the decree given by Cyrus years earlier, that had been archived and preserved. Haggai and Zechariah had preached. Though Artaxerxes I actually reigned after the temple was completed, his later contributions are acknowledged here in advance. He was the third king in God’s providential hands.
Of course, God’s providence also enabled the Jews to get the job done!
The second temple’s construction was completed on March 10, 516 BC. This was almost 70 years after Nebuchadnezzar destroyed the first temple on August 15, 586 BC.
As when Solomon’s temple was dedicated (1 Kgs 8:62-66; 2 Chr 7:4-10), the people celebrated joyously and presented offerings. They did so on a far smaller scale, likely because they were poorer and fewer in number.
By the way, from the Hebrew word for “dedication” in Ezra 6:17 comes the word “Hanukkah.” Of course, that term today designates a later occasion, the celebration of the rededication of this same second temple when the Jews reclaimed and purified it in 164 BC. That’s another story for another time.
They did all that they did “as it is written in the book of Moses.” Again and again we see that, at least so far, they had learned the cost of disobedience and the necessity of adhering strictly and completely to the written Word of God.
6:19-22 The People’s Observance of the Passover
Beginning here, the text returns from the Aramaic language (Ezra 4:8-6:18) to Hebrew.
How fitting it is that they observed the two feasts that commemorated their previous deliverance from Egypt. These were the Passover and the Feast of Unleavened Bread (Ex 11:1-12:51). They did so right on schedule, as prescribed in the law of Moses.
Gentile proselytes (converts) celebrated along with the Jews. They were welcome, if they met certain conditions. They had to have “separated themselves from the impurity of the nations of the land to join them, to seek the Lord God of Israel.”
It’s surprising that Darius I, the king of Persia, is here designated as the king of Assyria. The Assyrian Empire had fallen to the Babylonians almost a century earlier, in 612 BC! There is no error in Scripture, and no one originally recording this history could have thought Darius was the king of Assyria! So how can we account for this? Perhaps a copyist mistakenly wrote “Assyria” instead of “Persia.” Another option is that Darius was in fact the king of the territory that had been Assyria. The United States President today is the President of “Mexican Texas” in the sense that Texas was once part of Mexico.
Takeaways from Ezra 6
Documentation – It has always been vital to prepare and maintain essential records. The keeping of documents and files for future generations has been extremely important for a very long time! No matter the technology, whether clay tablets, paper, or computers, nothing takes the place of being able to secure archived information when necessary.
God has given us His Word in writing, and how thankful we are for its preservation! At the human level, almost anything truly worth saying is worth writing and keeping. Write down for the next generation(s) what you believe and why, how you became a Christian, why and how you were active in the Lord’s church, what you look forward to in heaven, and what you hope to leave behind.
Authorization – There is here the repeated principle of strict adherence to God’s authoritative commands and faithful obedience to ordained civil powers. Ezra 6:14 notes that “they finished building according to the command of the God of Israel and the decree of Cyrus, Darius, and Artaxerxes king of Persia.” Ezra 6:18 says that “they appointed the priests to their divisions and the Levites in their orders for the service of God in Jerusalem, as it is written in the book of Moses.”
Separation – Ezra 6:21 refers to all the Gentiles “who had separated themselves from the impurity of the nations of the land to join them, to seek the LORD God of Israel …” 2 Co 6:14-21 instructs Christians not to be “unequally yoked with unbelievers … Therefore go out from their midst, and be separate from them, says the Lord, and touch no unclean thing; then I will welcome you …”
Celebration – Ezra 6:22 speaks of their observing the feasts “with joy, for the Lord had caused them to rejoice …” Christians need not deny or repress our emotions! While our worship is always to be “with reverence and awe (Heb 12:28),” and we must not be showy or excessive, we are to “rejoice in the Lord always (Phil 4:4)!”