Scripture Reading: Ezra 3:7–4:5
Background Reading: 2 Chronicles 5; 7:1–6; 2 Kings 17:24–41
1. After the Feast of Tabernacles was finished, what did the Israelites immediately undertake? Did they confine their activities to the community of believers, or did they also work closely with nonbelievers? (See note 6:7.1.)
2. Was it wrong for the Israelites to sign cooperative work agreements with the people of Sidon and Tyre? (See note 6:7.2.)
3. In a cooperative agreement, the high priest (Jeshua) and the governor (Zerubbabel) appoint the Levites to oversee the work of rebuilding the temple. What lessons can be learned from this example that might guide our building of churches today? (See note 6.8.)
4. What principles governed the laying of the foundation of the temple? Why did they create so much fuss and celebrate so vigorously on this occasion? (See note 6.10.)
5. What are the reactions of God’s people to the laying of the foundation? Why did some of the people weep “with a loud voice”? What saddened them? Why did others “shout aloud for joy”? (See note 6.12.)
6. What request did the “adversaries of Judah and Benjamin” present to Zerubbabel and the heads of the families? Was this an honest request? Should it have been granted? (Read the background passage from 2 Kings 17 and see note 6.1.)
7. Why did Zerubbabel and the Israelites refuse to grant the request? What argument did they use in defense of their decision? How would you justify their actions? (See note 6.3.)
8. How did the people of Samaria react to the rejection of their request? Were they justified in their frustrations? Does this incident help to explain the relationship between the Jews and the Samaritans during Jesus’ time? (See note 6.4.)
Text Notes on Discussion Starters
6.7.1. After the people of God had finished celebrating the Feast of the Tabernacles, they next took up the work of building the temple. They immediately “gave money to the masons and carpenters, and gave food and drink and oil to the people of Sidon and Tyre.” Those who had returned from exile knew why they had come home. In obedience to God’s leading, they were eager to restore the worship of God in Jerusalem.
6.7.2. From all indications, the people of Sidon and Tyre are not God-worshippers but are pagans who have their own idols and false gods. This doesn’t bother the Israelites, for they remembered that David and Solomon had worked out similar agreements with these same people at the construction of the first temple (cf. 1 Kings 5). They also knew the language of Cyrus’s proclamation, and his declaration that “the people of any place where survivors may now be living are to provide him with silver and gold, with goods and livestock, and with freewill offerings for the temple of God in Jerusalem” (1:4). God was not above accepting the gifts of money or animals or freewill offerings from those who did not know Him as Lord, but had so “moved the heart of Cyrus to make a proclamation throughout his realm and to put it into writing” (1:1). In response to that proclamation, the Israelites are willing to accept various gifts from the neighboring people and to subcontract with them for materials needed to build God’s house. Buying lumber from nonbelievers was not an issue.
6.8. The Levites were God’s appointed agents to oversee the construction of the tabernacle and the first temple in Jerusalem. They were schooled in the Law of God, including His specific demands for the temple furnishings and for the manner of worship required by God. While they were still captive in Babylon, the prophet Ezekiel had been instructed by God to “describe the temple to the house of Israel . . . and let them measure the pattern. . . . Make known to them the design of the temple and its arrangement, . . . its entire design and all its ordinances” (Ezek. 43:10–11). Earlier, God had given to David specific instructions and plans for building the temple, which he in turn passed on to his son Solomon (1 Chron. 29:11–13). The Levites were the keepers of these plans or blueprints, so they were assigned to oversee the construction.
6.10. Following the instructions earlier given by King David (1 Chron. 6:31; 16:4–6; 25:1–8), Jeshua and Zerubbabel arranged for a dedication ceremony with the priests clothed in their colorful robes and vestments playing the trumpets, and the Levites playing the cymbals. The Old Testament church was known for its singing, for its music, and for its instruments of praise. David had made detailed provision for that, and Solomon had carried it forward. At the dedication of the first temple, there were 120 trumpeters leading the people in worship (2 Chron. 5:12–14). Their purpose was to “praise the Lord,” to give all the credit for their return and for this occasion to the Lord: “for He is good; His love to Israel endures forever,” singing the same song, the same words as were sung when Solomon dedicated the first temple (2 Chron. 5:13; 7:3).
6.12. Here is a blend of praise, thanksgiving, and weeping. We have here a dedication ceremony that is colorful, noisy, and appropriate. No more touching and pathetic picture can be found in the Bible than the scene recorded for us in the closing verses of this chapter. Here was an occasion to call forth the fullest joy and at the same time the most tender grief. Once more, on the ruins of the great temple which Solomon had built, the new temple was about to rise. This was the hour from which a new era in their nation’s history should date. But there are two reactions to this ceremony of laying the foundation for the temple. The first recorded for us is that of the older generation, the ones that we might call the senior citizens. When the aged fathers, the ancient men, remembered the perished glories of the temple on which the eyes of their youth once rested with such pride and joy, they wept with a loud voice.” Solomon’s temple was not destroyed by King Nebuchadnezzar until 588 B.C., some sixteen or seventeen years after Daniel and his friends had been brought to Babylon. With the foundation of the temple being laid “in the second month of the second year” (Ezra 3:8), it is quite possible that the older people, especially the older Levites and priests, would have well remembered the glory and splendor of Solomon’s temple. According to the prophet Haggai, some of them were still living in the second year of Darius. Haggai the prophet asks them, “Who of you is left who saw this house in its former glory? How does it look to you now? Does it not seem to you like nothing?” (Hag. 2:3). The answer of the older people is loud weeping. The miserable circumstances under which the foundations of the new temple were laid produced such an overwhelmingly negative impression that they broke into loud weeping! But there were also shouts of joy. The overriding reaction, however, to this event of laying the foundation of the house of the Lord, this “laying of the cornerstone,” was one of tremendous joy. These people “gave a great shout of praise to the Lord” (v. 11), so great that the sounds of rejoicing and weeping could not be distinguished from each other. What excitement! What high, mixed emotion! There is probably not a dry eye around! Some are weeping with disappointment and sadness, while others are crying tears of joy and gladness! Truly a day to mark on the calendar of the church of Jesus Christ.
6.1. Already in 3:3 we are alerted to the fact that there were people living in the area around Jerusalem who were not cooperating with the return of God’s people to Judah and Jerusalem. We are told there that “fear had come upon them because of the people of those countries.” This fear was not so great as to deter the Israelites from rebuilding the altar and going forward with the worship that was required. The Israelites feared their neighbors, but they feared God even more. They had the courage to rebuild the altar and to lay the foundation of the temple, but their courage was going to be sorely tested. We learn from 2 Kings 17 that it was the practice of the Assyrian kings, after they had captured the ten northern tribes (Israel), to take all of the Israelites captive into Assyria and to replace them with other peoples, whom they imported from distant parts of the Assyrian empire. These people who had been transplanted into the northern part of Canaan, who live in what was then called Samaria, are deeply religious people. They know intuitively that there is some power in the universe that is greater than themselves. They know that there is a god or gods or God who is more powerful than all of them combined and that somehow that God has a standard for behavior which they cannot violate with impunity. They know that if they live and practice contrary to the standard of that God, that they will suffer the consequences. The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob is just such a God, who was angry with Israel because of their idolatry, because they insisted on worshipping golden calves at both Dan and Bethel, because they put anyone they wanted into the office of priest, because they opened the office of Levite to anyone who needed or wanted a job. God had sent all of His prophets to warn them of their sins, but they refused to listen. They tried to kill Jeremiah; they would not listen to Isaiah or any of the others. Then, true to His righteous character, God had finally run out of patience with His people and had sent them permanently into exile in the land of Assyria. When these “people from Babylon, Cuthah, Avva, Hamath and Sepharvaim . . . settled in the towns of Samaria to replace the Israelites” (2 Kings 17:24), they came with the innate knowledge that there is truly a God who had standards and expectations for their lives. But they had suppressed that truth in unrighteousness (Rom. 1:18) and had distorted their minds to such an extent that they believed that there were some unknown, multiple gods living in the hills of Samaria whom they would have to appease. When God in His anger sent “lions among them and killed some of the people” (2 Kings 17:25), they became very superstitious and admitted that they did “not know what the god of that country requires” (v. 26). All men, women, and children are religious. Every atheist is religious. There are no irreligious people. We are all incurably religious and have a deep-seated awareness in our souls that there is a God who rules our lives. Somehow we must appease Him.
6.3.1. These neighbors claim to be worshipping the Lord! To put it into contemporary language, these people are emphatic in their claim that they are Christians. Donald Trump, Barack Obama, Mitt Romney, and Bill Clinton would probably make the same kind of claim, but they have no use for “the religious right,” the fanatical people who would not let a woman control her own body, who would not let consenting adults commit acts that are so despicable and unnatural as to incur the wrath of God. These people refused to obey the first commandment, because they refused to fear the Lord, the God of heaven and earth, who had revealed Himself so powerfully to Pharaoh, to Moses, to Joshua, and to David. Of them it is said repeatedly, “They worshipped the Lord, but they also served their own gods” (2 Kings 17:32, 33, 41). This type of worship is called syncretism, which means that they claim to worship the Lord and put on all the trappings of the Christian faith, but they have multiple gods besides and worship the false gods right alongside the true God. Ahab and Jezebel were syncretists who incurred God’s wrath because they wanted to worship both God and their idols. These religious folks whom we can now call Samaritans come with their request: “Let us help you build because, like you, we seek your God and have been sacrificing to him since the time of Esarhaddon.” They had learned something of the sacrificial ceremonies that Moses had received from God on Mount Sinai and had been going through the rituals. They had high places throughout the land, just like the ten tribes had, and they had a caste of priests who were assigned to perform the sacrifices, just like Israel had. They brought sacrifices, but their hearts were not right. The difference between these Samaritans and the people of God is that the true Israelites did “according as it was written in the Word of God,” while the Samaritans did as the former, rebellious Israelites had been doing. The Samaritans got their worship instructions from a sinful, rebellious priest rather than from the God who was to be worshipped. Instead of adopting the regulative principle, these Samaritans did a survey of neighboring churches.
6.3.2. The people of Israel wisely and correctly refuse the offer and insist, “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.” The leaders of God’s people know that cooperation with the world has its limits, that there are times when you can cooperate with your non-Christian neighbors around you, but there are also times and occasions when you have to refuse their cooperation. They know full well that God had given the first commandment, that He was to be worshipped alone, that He was truly jealous for His people, and that He could not be put on a par with some piece of wood or stone. To worship God alongside of some stupid idol that could do nothing was an intolerable insult to God. They know that the friendship of the world is enmity against God. Their first line of defense is a religious one, because they know that God will not permit such desecration, such a sharing of His honor and His glory. They do not articulate that, though, in the text, and say nothing about that to the Samaritans. What they do appeal to publicly is a legal argument, citing the fact that “we alone will build it . . . as King Cyrus, the king of Persia, commanded us” (v. 3). The appeal to the decree of Cyrus forms a strong argument for the sole agency of Jews in building the temple, inasmuch as Cyrus had invited only those who were Jehovah’s people (Ezra 1:3). Only those “of His people among you . . . may go up to Jerusalem . . . and build the temple of the Lord.” The people of God, therefore, are using a legal argument and relying on the protection of the state, knowing that Cyrus, like Barack Obama, is an agent in the hand of the sovereign God.
6.4. What Israel encountered on this occasion and what we encounter today is truly a spiritual war, a war with the powers of darkness and evil, disguised, though, as angels of light. Pretending to want to help the Israelites, the Samaritans are really trying to assert themselves so that their brand of religion will become the accepted one, the theology of choice. In this world, whenever a good work is begun, some kind of opposition is certain to show itself. Satan will not sit idly by while the church prospers. Satan will not ever become a cheerleader for the church but will always line up his henchmen to stop it. They may be of two types: those who are hypocrites and who feign cooperation, or those who openly oppose the church and seek to destroy it. These Samaritans are guilty of lying, of trying to delude the Israelites by shading the truth.
Dr. Norman De Jong is a semi-retired pastor in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church.