Chapter 4, which we studied last week, was about the opposition the returning exiles faced when they tried to rebuild the temple and the walls of Jerusalem. That opposition went on for many years.
However, chapters 5 and 6 are about how the temple was finally rebuilt. Despite the best efforts of their enemies, the Lord enabled his people to rebuild the temple so that they could gather there to worship him And today’s passage can be divided into four parts. First of all, in verses 1 to 5 of chapter 5, the work of the temple resumes. Then, in verses 6 to 17 of chapter 5, we have a letter sent to King Darius who was the king of the Persian Empire and who ruled over the land of Israel at that time. Then in verses 1 to 12 of chapter 6 we have Darius’s reply. And finally, in verses 13 to 22 of chapter 6, we read how the work was completed, and the temple was dedicated and the Passover was celebrated.
Verses 1 to 5
According to the last verse of chapter 4, the work on the house of God came to a standstill until, that is, the second reign of King Darius. Remember this is not the King Darius who features in the book of Daniel, but is a later king, also called Darius. And so, what happened in the second year of his reign? Well, according to verse 1 of chapter 5 the prophets Haggai and Zechariah prophesied to the Jews in Judah and Jerusalem in the name of the God of Israel. In other words, the Lord sent them preachers to declare to them the word of the Lord. You can read some of the things they said in the books of Haggai and Zechariah which are part of the Old Testament. Haggai’s book is only two chapters, and it begins by telling us that in the second year of the reign of Darius, the word of the Lord came through Haggai to Zerubbabel and to Joshua, saying:
Is it a time for you yourselves to dwell in your paneled houses, while this house lies in ruins?
And then the Lord said:
Go up to the hills and bring wood and build the house, that I may take pleasure in it and that I may be glorified, says the LORD.
So, the Lord commanded them through the prophet Haggai to get to work on his temple. The book of Zechariah begins by telling us that in the second year of the reign of Darius the word of the Lord came to Zechariah. And in chapter 1, the Lord announced the following. He said:
Therefore, thus says the LORD, I have returned to Jerusalem with mercy; my house shall be built in it…. My cities shall again overflow with prosperity, and the LORD will again comfort Zion and again choose Jerusalem.
And the Lord spoke through Zechariah about the future glory of Jerusalem. And so, God sent Zechariah to encourage his people in those days. And it’s clear from verse 2 of Ezra 5 that those who heard the prophets Haggai and Zechariah received their message, not as the words of men only, but as the word of God which they had to receive and believe and obey. And so, they set to work on the temple. After neglecting it for so long, they once again began to rebuild the house of God. And, of course, it’s called ‘the house of God’, because it’s the place where God promised to dwell among his people. Though he is the Almighty God who dwells in a high and holy place, far above all that he has made, yet he promised to dwell among his people in the temple in Jerusalem. And we read at the end of verse 2 that the prophets helped them. That probably means that they helped them by preaching to them a message to stir them up to obedience and to encourage them.
But, what happened next? Well, according to verse 3, this man called Tattenai — who was the governor of that part of the Persian Empire, and some other officials — went to the Jews in Jerusalem and inquired from them:
Who authorised you to rebuild this temple? And what are the names of them who are constructing this building?
He wants to know if they have permission to do what they’re doing; or are they lawbreakers? Are they troublemakers? Is this the beginning of a revolt? And if it is, he wants their names to know who to blame.
Since he was the governor, he could easily have ordered them to stop their work immediately until he had checked with Darius. But verse 5 tells us that the eye of the Lord was watching over his people. He’s the Good Shepherd who watches over his people at all times to help them. And on this occasion, he made sure that his people were not prevented from working on the temple, but could continue with the work while Tattenai made his enquiries.
Verses 6 to 17
While the work continued, Tattenai wrote to the king; and a copy of his letter appears in verses 6 to 17. In his letter, he informed the king that the people in Jerusalem were rebuilding the temple with large stones and timber. And they’re making rapid progress, he said. He then informed the king that he made inquiries about who authorised the work and what their names were. And then he related to the king what the returning exiles said. And this is what they said: They are servants of the God of heaven and earth; and they’re rebuilding the temple which Solomon built. However, because their forefathers sinned against the Lord and angered him, the Lord handed them over to Nebuchadnezzar, king of the Babylonians, who destroyed the temple and deported the people. But, in the first year of King Cyrus, Cyrus decreed that they could return and rebuild the temple. Cyrus even returned into their possession the holy things which Nebuchadnezzar had taken from the temple. According to verse 15, Cyrus commanded that the temple should be rebuilt on its original site. And so, they told Tattenai, the foundations were laid immediately. But since then, the work had not been completed.
And having related to the king what the returning exiles had told him, Tattenai asked the king to check the archives to see if this was true. And what should he do now?
Verses 1 to 12
And the king’s reply to Tattenai’s letter appears in verses 1 to 12 of chapter 6. He searched the archives and discovered that what they said about Cyrus’s decree was true. More than that, he discovered that Cyrus had given orders about the size of the temple and that the cost to rebuild the temple should be paid by the royal treasury. That was what Cyrus had decreed.
Darius could have disregarded what Cyrus had decreed. After all, Cyrus was now dead; and, as far as we know, Darius was under no obligation to honour Cyrus’s wishes. However, the historians tell us that he held Cyrus in high esteem; and so, he wanted to honour Cyrus and to ensure that his decree was carried out in full. And so, according to verse 6 he ordered Tattenai and his fellow officials to stay away from the temple and not to interfere with the work. Let the returning exiles rebuild the house of God on its original site. Moreover — the king wrote in verse 8 — the expenses for the work are to be paid out of the royal treasury. Whatever it cost, the king would pay for it. Furthermore, whatever they needed for their daily sacrifices must be given to them without fail, so that they might offer sacrifices and pray for the well-being of the king and his sons. Whatever they needed — be it bulls or rams or lambs for burnt offerings; and wheat or salt or wine or oil for grain offerings — whatever they needed should be provided to them. And the king’s letter ends with the threat of death on anyone who changes his order; and he pronounced a curse on anyone who lifts a hand to change his decree or to destroy the temple in Jerusalem.
Verses 13 to 22
And so, we read in verses 13 to 22 how Tattenai and his fellow officials complied with the king’s letter in full. According to verse 14, the elders of the people continued to build and to prosper under the preaching of Haggai and Zechariah. And the temple was rebuilt according, it says, to the command of the God of Israel and the decrees of Cyrus and Darius and also Artaxerxes. Of course, Artaxerxes would not become king for many years after the temple was complete. But it seems that Ezra names him here, because Artaxerxes was the king who ordered the rebuilding of the walls of Jerusalem many years later. And the point Ezra is making is that the Lord God — who rules over all things from his throne in heaven — worked through each one of these kings: he worked through Cyrus to release his people from exile; and he worked through Darius to rebuild the temple; and he worked through Artaxerxes to rebuild the city. Through they were pagan kings, who did not worship the Lord, the Lord was able to work through them to accomplish his purposes here on earth.
And after the temple was completed, the people dedicated it to the Lord with joy. They brought their gifts and offerings to him. Although most of the returning exiles were from the tribes of Judah and Benjamin, nevertheless, according to verse 17, they offered sacrifices to the Lord on behalf of all twelve tribes of Israel. And, then, on the fourteenth day of the first month of the new year, they celebrated the Passover and the Feast of Unleavened Bread to remember and to give thanks to the Lord for the way he had delivered them from Egypt all those years ago in the days of Moses.
But then, according to verse 22, they also gave thanks to the Lord for the way he had turned the heart of the king so that he assisted them in the work of rebuilding the house of God. Darius is called the king of Assyria in verse 22. He was really the king of the Persian Empire. However, because he had conquered Assyria, he was also known as the king of Assyria. And one last thing to note is that there were two groups of people who celebrated the Passover: the returning exiles celebrated it; but, according to verse 21, there were also others who had separated themselves from the unclean practices of their Gentile neighbours, in order to seek the Lord. It’s not altogether clear who this second group of people was, but it’s seems likely that Ezra is referring to Gentiles, foreigners, who had turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God. They had become convinced that the Lord, the God of Israel, is the true God; and they had committed themselves to worshipping him and him alone. And so, in the rebuilt temple, you had believing Jews and Gentiles, united together to worship the Lord.
That’s what happened in these two chapters. And there are at least three lessons for us to learn from these two chapters. First of all, we learn something about God’s works of providence. And by God’s works of providence, I mean the way the Lord preserves and controls all his creatures and all their actions. He not only preserves all things, but he controls all things.
And we see this in a number of ways. We see it in the way he worked through the preaching of Haggai and Zechariah and moved the hearts of the people to get to work on the temple once again.
And then, look at verse 5 of chapter 5 where it says that the eye of God was watching over the elders of the Jews. Tattenai had come and had begun to question them. He wasn’t sure if they were doing something illegal; and so he wanted to check it out with the king. Since he was the governor of that part of the empire, he could have insisted that they put down their tools and wait until he received word from the king. And verse 5 implies that he would have done so, if it were not for the Lord who had his eye on his people to help them. And so, the Lord controlled Tattenai and his actions so that he did not hinder them.
We see God’s works of providence in the things the Jews told Tattenai about their history and how the Lord was angry with their forefathers and handed them over to Nebuchadnezzar. In other words, the Lord worked through Nebuchadnezzar to punish his people for their sins. Nebuchadnezzar, no doubt, was unaware of all of this, and presumably believed that, when he attacked Jerusalem, it was all part of his own plan to expand his empire. But the truth is that the Lord was directing Nebuchadnezzar so that the king accomplished what the Lord wanted him to do. And, of course, we’ve already seen from chapter 1, that when Cyrus issued his decree to allow the Jews to return from exile, he did so because the Lord moved his heart to make that proclamation. If the Lord hadn’t moved his heart, the Jews would have remained in exile. But the Lord — who controls all his creatures, including the king — directed the thoughts and plans of Cyrus so that he made that decree.
And though the text doesn’t say anything about it, we believe — don’t we? — that the reason Darius had a high opinion of Cyrus and wanted to comply with his wishes is because of the Lord, who is able to turn the heart of the king in whichever way he wants.
In verse 11 of chapter 5, the returning exiles said to Tattenai that they were servants of ‘the God of heaven and earth’. And that’s precisely who he is, because he made the heaven and the earth; and he rules over the heaven and the earth and over everything in them. We make our plans, the things we want to do. It seems to us that we’re in charge of our lives and what we do. But the truth of the matter is — as God’s word reveals to us — that behind all that we plan and behind all that we do, there’s the Lord who preserves and controls all his creatures and all their actions. He’s the Lord God Almighty who rules over all. And therefore we ought to bow before him and worship him.
And we ought to give thanks to him. We ought to give thanks to him, because he preserves and controls all his creatures and all their actions for the good of his people. That’s the second lesson today.
Do you remember how the Apostle Paul put it in Romans 8? He wrote:
And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good….
God works together all things for the good of his people who love him. And so, on this occasion, the Lord moved the hearts of his people to resume the work on the temple. But how were they going to pay for it? Who would supply the materials they needed? The stones? The timber? The silver and gold? Everything else they needed to build a temple, fitting for the Lord? How could they pay for it?
Along comes Tattenai with his questions. And it must have seemed to the returning exiles that here was another official who had come to make things difficult for them. Here was another official, interfering with their work. They must have thought that, no doubt, he’d make them stop, as happened in the past. But not on this occasion. On this occasion, the king wrote back and said they could continue with the work. No one was to stop them. More than that: the king was willing to pay for the work. All the costs should be paid from the royal treasury.
Do you see? It seemed that Tattenai was getting in their way. But the Lord was able to use Tattenai’s letter for good; and now they had all the money they needed to rebuild the temple. And that’s what God does. He’s able to work all things together for our good. Even when bad things happen to us, even when terrible things happen to us, and our world is turned upside down, and we wonder why this terrible thing had to happen to me, God works it out for our good. We may not understand how, because his ways are so much higher and greater than our ways. But we believe that our loving heavenly Father rules and reigns over all, and that he controls all his creatures and all their actions; and he will work together all things, all things, for our good.
And in case we need further proof of this, all we have to do is think of the cross of Christ. The Lord’s enemies hated him so much that they plotted together how to kill him. And they succeeded in doing what they wanted, because the Lord was arrested and tried and beaten and crucified. And his enemies must have been so pleased, because they got what they wanted. The Devil must have been so pleased, because the Lord Jesus had been beaten by death.
But though they meant it for evil, the Lord our God meant it all for good, because Christ’s death on the cross meant salvation for all who trust in him, because by his death he paid the ransom to set us free from condemnation; and by his blood we are cleansed. Christ’s enemies did something wicked: they put to death the Son of God. But God the Almighty worked it together for our good.
And so, we should always trust in the Lord, who works all things together for our good; and we ought to give thanks to him, because he preserves and controls all his creatures and all their actions for the good of his people.
And finally, let’s remember that when the temple was rebuilt, the people celebrated the Passover and Feast of Unleavened Bread and they offered sacrifices to the Lord. And here we see why is was necessary to rebuild the temple. They had to rebuild the temple, because the temple was the means by which the Lord proclaimed the hope of the gospel to the world at that time.
You see, every time they offered a sacrifice in the temple, it pointed forward to the time when the Lord himself would provide his people with the perfect sacrifice for sins. They understood that the blood of bulls and goats could not take away their guilt. But they believed that the Lord himself would provide them with the perfect sacrifice to take away their sin and guilt for good. And the temple in Jerusalem on Mt Zion — where God had chosen to dwell among his people at that time — was a foretaste of the time to come when God’s people would dwell in peace on God’s holy mountain forever and forever in the new heaven and earth.
So, there they were, in this man-made temple, which spoke to them of how all of God’s people will dwell in the presence of God forever in glory. And there they were, offering sacrifices for their sins, which spoke to them of the true sacrifice for sins. And the true sacrifice for sins is the Lord Jesus Christ, because he laid down his life as the ransom to set us free from the condemnation we deserve for our sins and to cleanse us from all our guilt, so that we can live with God forever and ever in glory. That’s why the temple had to be rebuilt. It had to be rebuilt because it was the means by which the Lord proclaimed the gospel to the world at that time.
Now, God’s people don’t meet in a temple any more; and we don’t offer animal sacrifices any more, now that Christ has offered himself as the perfect sacrifice for sins. But we meet together as a church, don’t we? And when the church gathers together in the name of Christ, we proclaim the hope of the gospel and how Jesus Christ the Saviour laid down his life for sinners; and he was raised to give us life; and whoever believes in him, the only Saviour of the world, receives forgiveness from God and the hope of everlasting life.
And so, we ought to pray to the Lord to enable his church to be built up in our day just as he enabled his temple to be built up in Ezra’s day. We ought to pray to him to overcome the Devil who wants to destroy the church and to keep people from coming to know the true God and his salvation. And we ought to plead with the Lord to move the hearts of people around the world so that they might join us in church where the hope of the gospel is proclaimed, which is the forgiveness of sins and everlasting life in God’s presence through Christ the only Saviour. And so, will you pray and keeping praying for the Lord God Almighty to build his church in our day, so that throughout the world men and women and children will come to know and serve and worship the God of heaven and earth and Jesus Christ his Son?