We saw in Ezra 1 how some of the exiles from the land of Judah returned to the Promised Land, just as the Lord promised they would. And in chapter 2, the family names of those who returned from exile were listed. And then, in chapter 3, we read how they rebuilt the altar; and they laid the foundation for the temple; and they began once again to offer sacrifices to the Lord in accordance with what was written in the law of Moses.
And do you remember the mixed reaction when they laid the foundation fo the temple? Some of them shouted for joy to the Lord, because they were so pleased that at long last the temple was being rebuilt. But others wept. The older ones — who had seen the old temple before it had been destroyed — wept, because they realised that this new temple they were building did not match the magnificence of the previous temple. Furthermore, God had promised them so much more; he had promised them a glorious future. And so, while some of the people shouted for joy, others wept, because they were disappointed.
And I said that that mixture of joy and weeping sums up the believer’s life here on earth. We rejoice because of the good things we have already received from the Lord, because he has indeed blessed us in Christ Jesus with one spiritual blessing after another. So, we rejoice in what we already have, but we know that the Lord has better things in store for all who trust in his Son, because when Christ comes again, all the sorrow and sadness and the troubles and trials and the weeping of this life will have passed away, and there will only be everlasting joy in the presence of the Lord in a new heaven and earth for those who trust in Christ. And so, while we rejoice in God’s goodness to us already, we’re looking forward to something even better which has not yet appeared.
But, of course, in order to receive God’s spiritual blessings in this life and in order to enter the glory of the life to come you must turn from your sins in repentance and you must believe in the Lord Jesus Christ who died for sinners in order to bring us to God in the life to come. Because we’re sinners, we deserve to be condemned and to be sent out of the presence of the Lord forever to be punished for our sins. But all who repent and believe in Christ the Saviour are pardoned by God for all that they have done wrong and they receive the free gift of eternal life and the hope of entering God’s glorious presence in the life to come. And so, you must repent and believe, which means you should ask God to forgive you for the sake of Christ who died for sinners; and you must ask him to enable you to give up your sins and to live a life of obedience. Since the whole of the Bible — from beginning to end — is about Jesus Christ the only Saviour and the good news of how he rescues all who believe in him from their sin and misery in this fallen world to live with him forever in the glory to come, then we all need to repent and believe in him.
Today we turn to Ezra 4 which is about how the returning exiles faced trouble and opposition when they tried to rebuild the temple and the walls of the city. And through this passage the Lord is revealing how an unbelieving world will always oppose and persecute his church here on earth. And so, let’s turn to the passage now which can be divided into three main parts: there’s verses 1 to 5 which tells us about the opposition the returning exiles faced when rebuilding the temple; then there’s verses 6 to 23 which tells us about the opposition they faced years later when rebuilding the city; and then there’s verse 24 which takes us back to the time when they were rebuilding the temple. So, when they first returned from exile, they wanted to rebuild the temple; verses 1 to 5 and verse 24 are about that time. Then, once the temple was rebuilt, they wanted to rebuild the walls of the city; verses 6 to 23 are about that time. And so, we’re travelling back and forth in time in this chapter.
Verses 1 to 5
Let’s turn to verses 1 to 5 which introduce us to these people who were regarded as the enemies of Judah and Benjamin.
Back in chapter 1 we learned that most of the returning exiles were from the tribes of Judah and Benjamin. And now we learn that when they began to rebuild the temple, their enemies saw what was happening and what did they do? Well, according to verse 2 they offered to help. They went to Zerubbabel and to the other leaders of the returning exiles and they offered to help, because, they said,
like you, we seek your God and have been sacrificing to him since the time of the king of Assyria, who brought us here.
You might think the returning exiles would be glad of their help. ‘Many hands make light work’ and all that. But, in fact, the returning exiles did not want their help. According to verse 3, Zerubbabel and Jeshua the priest and the rest of the leaders said to them that they were not to take part in rebuilding the temple. They said:
We alone will build it for the Lord, the God of Israel, as King Cyrus, the king of Persia commanded us.
So, you’re not to help us. We’ll do the work ourselves. And that’s what King Cyrus said.
So, who are these people who are called the enemies of Judah and Benjamin? And why were they considered enemies when they apparently wanted to help? Well, 2 Kings 17 is helpful here, because in 2 Kings 17 we read about the time when the Israelites were exiled from the land of Israel. Now, the land of Israel was divided into two: the northern part kept the name Israel, while the southern part became known as Judah. The capital of the northern part was Samaria, while the capital of the southern part was Jerusalem. The Lord sent the people from both parts into exile because of their sin and rebellion. However, the people of the northern part were taken away into exile first. They were conquered by the Assyrians; then, years later, the people of the southern part were taken into exile by the Babylonians.
In 2 Kings 17 we read how the king of Assyria invaded the northern part of the land and captured Samaria and deported the Israelites to Assyria. Then the king of Assyria brought people from other countries and settled them in Israel. They took over Samaria and lived in the towns around it. Since they were foreigners, they didn’t worship the Lord. However, the king of Assyria sent them an Israelite priest to teach them about the Lord so that they would worship him. And they did worship the Lord. However, they continued to worship their own idols as well. And so we read in 2 Kings 17:
They worshiped the Lord, but they also served their own gods in accordance with the customs of the nations from which they had been brought. To this day they persist in their former practices.
So, although they worshipped the Lord, they also served their idols.
That’s the background to Ezra 4, because the enemies of Judah and Benjamin which we read about in Ezra 4 are those foreigners whom the kings of Assyria had brought to Israel. While they did indeed worship the Lord, they did not worship him exclusively and they continued to worship their idols. So, they weren’t true believers, because they did not worship the Lord alone, but served idols and false gods as well.
And that’s probably the reason why the returning exiles refused their offer of help. After all, one of the reasons the Lord was angry with the people of Judah and sent them into exile was because they had begun to worship idols. Now that the Lord had pardoned them and allowed them to return to the Promised Land, they wanted to be careful not to sin like that again. They had to stay faithful to the Lord who had rescued them once again. And so, they wanted nothing to do with those who might lead them astray.
And, of course, from what we read in verses 4 and 5, it became clear that these people really were enemies, and not allies. In these verses we read that these people set out to discourage the returning exiles. They even hired counsellors — presumably Persian officials — to work against them and to frustrate their plans. And this went on during the entire reign of Cyrus until the reign of Darius.
Now — and this is really only an aside — but if you heard me preach on Daniel on Sunday evenings, you’ll have heard me say that Cyrus and Darius were one and the same person. In Daniel 6, for instance, we read about Darius the Mede; he was the one who threw Daniel to the lions. And we also read in Daniel about King Cyrus; and I said that they’re one and the same person. However, there was more than one Darius in the ancient world. So, there was King Cyrus who was also known as Darius the Mede. Then, years later, there was another King of Persia who was known as Darius I. In fact, there was also Darius II and Darius III. So, there were lots of kings called Darius. And the one mentioned here in Ezra 4 was Darius I.
And the point Ezra is making is that the enemies of Judah and Benjamin opposed and persecuted the Lord’s people for many, many years. They continued to make things difficult for them for several generations.
Verses 6 to 23
And that leads us to verses 6 to 23 which records what happened under later kings. So, verse 6 transports us forward in time to the reign of Xerxes. He’s the king who features in the book of Esther and he ruled after Darius I. And, according to verse 6, during the reign of Xerxes, the enemies of God’s people lodged an accusation against them. Then, according to verse 7, during the reign of Artaxerxes — who became king after Xerxes — they did the same again. And then, according to verse 8, they did the same again. And the letter containing that accusation appears in verses 9 to 16. The author of the letter — Rehum — wrote to tell the king that the returning exiles were rebuilding the city; and that Jerusalem had always been a rebellious and wicked city. In other words, he was saying to the king that if you let them rebuild the city, they’ll only cause you problems. He then suggested that the returning exiles would stop paying taxes to Persia; and so the royal revenue would suffer. And he said that if the king checked the records, he’d discover that what he was saying was true.
And we have the king’s reply in verses 17 to 22. He says that he searched the records; and he discovered that Jerusalem had a long history of revolt and rebellion. Furthermore, it had always been a good source of income for the Empire because of the taxes paid by it to Persia. And so, he commanded that an order be issued to stop the work on the city.
And as soon as Rehum received the king’s letter, he rushed to put the order into effect. By force, he compelled the returning exiles to stop working on the walls of the city.
That was when Artaxerxes was king of the Persian Empire. Verse 24 takes us back in time to the days of Cyrus when the returning exiles were trying to rebuild the temple. Because of the opposition they faced in their day, work on the temple stopped until the second year of the reign of Darius I.
And so, life for the returning exiles was not easy. Even though Cyrus the King had issued a decree allowing them to return to Jerusalem to rebuild the temple, the returning exiles continually faced opposition from their enemies. When they tried to rebuild the temple, their enemies stopped them. When they tried to rebuild the city walls, their enemies stopped them. So, what lesson can we learn from this?
What we read here is typical of the type of opposition which the church has always faced. Right back in the beginning, in the Garden of Eden, after Adam and Eve sinned against the Lord, the Lord spoke to the serpent and said that he — the Lord — will put enmity between the serpent — and the serpent, of course, was the Devil in disguise — and the woman. And he — the Lord — will put enmity between the serpent’s offspring and the woman’s offspring. And by saying those words, the Lord was revealing that throughout the generations there would always be two — and only two — lines of people: there would be those who belong to the Lord; and there would be those who belong to the Devil. In other words, there would be the church and there would be the unbelieving world. And these two would always stand in opposition to one another, because the church must never become like the unbelieving world; and the unbelieving world is always hostile to the church of Jesus Christ.
And we see this opposition right throughout the Bible. We see it when Cain killed righteous Abel. We see it when Ishmael laughed at Isaac, the child of promise. We see it when Esau hated his brother Jacob, who was loved by the Lord. We see it when the Egyptians abused and mistreated the people of Israel and killed their sons. We see it in the days of the Judges and the Kings when God’s people were attacked by the Philistines and by other nations again and again. And we see it here, in Ezra 4, when the people of the land — who represent the unbelieving world — did everything they could to oppose God’s people when they wanted to rebuild the temple and the walls of the city.
And, of course, it didn’t stop in those days, because we see it most clearly in the gospels and in the way King Herod did everything he could to kill the infant Saviour. And we see it in the way the Pharisees and Sadducees and the teachers of the law came and argued with the Lord instead of submitting to him as their King. We see it in the way they plotted against him and made all kinds of false accusations about him to Pilate. We see it in the way Pilate sentenced him to death and in the way the soldiers beat him and crucified him. And even then it didn’t stop, because we see it in the book of Acts when the Apostles and the early believers were persecuted for their faith in Christ by those who did not believe. And we still see it today, in countries around the world where believers are persecuted for their faith and must worship the Lord in secret; and we see it in our own country in the way Christians are criticised and despised because of what we believe about the Lord and about how he wants us to live. We’re now despised because we believe in the truth of God’s word.
Because of their faithfulness to the Lord, the people of God in Ezra 4 faced opposition. Their enemies plotted against them. Their enemies falsely accused them. Their enemies compelled them to stop what they were doing by force. And it’s the same in every generation. Ever since the Garden of Eden there have been these two lines of people: those who belong to the Devil and those who belong to the Lord; those who belong to an unbelieving world and those who are the church of Jesus Christ. And when the church is faithful to the Lord, and when it refuses to conform to the ways of the world, then it invariably faces opposition and persecution from the world. And, of course, behind all the hostility which the Lord’s people face in the world, there’s the Devil himself, who stirs up all this opposition and persecution against the church, because the Devil has always hated the Lord and his people.
And so, in Ephesians 6, the Apostle Paul warned the Lord’s people about how we need to wear the armour of the Lord in order to protect ourselves from the wicked schemes of the Devil. Our struggle is not against flesh and blood, Paul said, because it’s against the rulers and authorities and the powers of this dark world and the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realm. Our real enemy is Satan, who works through this unbelieving world to try to crush the church and to destroy our faith and to cause us to stumble away from Christ.
But the good news is that while the Devil is a strong man, the Lord Jesus is even stronger. In fact, he has bound the Devil so that the Devil’s ability to hurt the church is limited. And the Lord promises to be with his people in every generation to help us; and he works through the preaching of his word and through the sacraments to strengthen the faith of his people to keep us from falling. He reassures us of his love and faithfulness and helps us by his Spirit. And as we’ll see, the work in the temple and the work to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem was completed despite the best efforts of their enemies to prevent them. And despite the best efforts of Satan to destroy Christ’s kingdom, he will never succeed; and Christ will continue to build his kingdom on the earth.
And here’s the thing: the Lord promises all those who have not yet believed and who are still ensnared by the Devil and who are still part of this unbelieving world that if you confess your sins to him and ask him for forgiveness, he will gladly rescue you from Satan’s grip and bring you into Christ’s kingdom where there is forgiveness and peace and joy and the hope of eternal life. So, while there are two — and only two — lines of people in every generation — those who belong to the Devil and those who belong to Christ; those who belong to the unbelieving world and those who belong to the church — the good news is that Christ the King is able to rescue those who belong to Satan and he’s able to bring them into his kingdom and into the church. So, believe in the Lord Jesus Christ, because he’s the only one who is able to rescue you from Satan’s tyranny and from an unbelieving world which is destined to perish. Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ and he will bring you into his church and into his kingdom, which is an everlasting kingdom where you will live forever.
And that leads me to the final point. The opposition and hostility the returning exiles experienced was another reminder for them that although they were back in the Promised Land of Canaan, which was a great joy for them, nevertheless the Lord still had something even better in store for them and for all his people. They were to look beyond the Promised Land of Canaan to a better land where they would enjoy perfect peace and rest in a renewed creation. They were to look beyond the earthly city of Jerusalem to the heavenly Jerusalem where God’s people would enjoy the presence of the Lord forever and ever and where there would be no one to hurt or harm them. Although the Lord had brought them back to Canaan, the land of Canaan, nevertheless the city of Jerusalem, the altar and the temple were only a shadow of the good things to come.
And it’s the same even for us, because while we’re able to gather together like this on Sundays to hear God’s word and to give thanks to him in our prayers and praise, we’re waiting for the time when we will come into God’s presence in the new creation where we will dwell with him forever. When that day comes, the Devil will never again attack us; an unbelieving world will never again hurt us; we’ll not have to fight against sin and temptation anymore; there will be nothing to cause us sorrow or to make us weep. We’re waiting for that day. In fact, all the troubles and trials we face in this life make us yearn for it even more. And so, the Lord is teaching us not to set out hearts on earthly things, but to set our hearts and minds on heavenly things and to wait for Christ our Saviour to come again.