Scripture Reading: Ezra 4:6–24
Background Reading: 2 Chronicles 36:1–21; 2 Kings 25:22–26; Jeremiah 52:1–11
1. What motivated the enemies of Judah and Jerusalem to “frustrate [the] purpose” of the Israelites? Who was there encouraging God’s people? (Read Haggai 1; see Note 4:2.)
2. What specific actions did Israel’s enemies take as soon as Cyrus had died? (See Note 4:6.)
3. How did the enemies of Judah describe themselves in the opening paragraph of their letter? Did they actually represent “the Dinaites, the Apharsathchites, the Tarpelites,” and so on? How would such descriptions of themselves support their efforts to stop the rebuilding of the temple? (See Note 4:9.)
4. In what language was the letter written? Why would this be important to their cause?
5. How do the enemies of the Jews describe the city of Jerusalem? Is that accurate?
6. What horrible predictions do the enemies of Judah present to the king of Persia? Is there validity to their accusations? Is there good foundation for making such predictions? (See Note 4:13.)
7. What did the enemies of Judah hope to prove by having a search made in the archives of earlier Persian kings? Was it reasonable to expect that their hopes might be realized when such a search would be conducted? (See Note 4:15.)
8. What did the search of the archives reveal? Were those findings supported by historical fact? Could the Israelites deny the validity of those findings? Who appears to have won the battle? (See Note 4:18.)
9. What orders or commands did the king issue in response to the search of the archives? Was he justified in stopping the rebuilding of the temple? (See Note 4:23.)
Text Notes on Discussion Starters
[4:2] We have here the efforts of the world to shape religion to fit their own agenda. We saw that the Samaritan peoples around them had tried to assist the Israelites in the rebuilding of the temple, with the blatantly false assertion that “they, too, wanted to sacrifice to Jehovah” (4:2). These idol worshippers knew that a pure worship of God, according to the dictates of the first and second commandments, would be a refutation of their own worship practices and might become a fatal blow to their syncretism and their idolatrous practices. They wanted to feign obedience while working to undermine and destroy the worship of God. They turned against the Israelites when they were denied participation and then hired “counselors” or legal agents to “frustrate their purpose” and to prevent the work from progressing.
[4:6.1] The great antithesis. What we have here in Ezra 4 is a classic demonstration of the prediction that God had made in the garden, after Adam and Eve had violated God’s law and had dragged all of us into sin. In condemning Satan, God had said to him, “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; he will crush your head, and you will strike his heel” (Gen. 3:15). God had decreed then already that there would be a perpetual antithesis, that there would be perpetual warfare between the children of God and the followers of the devil. It might appear for a time that there is relative peace, even that there is a temporary truce, but the conflict will always be there.
[4:6.2] Waiting for the right time. The text tells us that they hired these lawyers to work for them “all the days of Cyrus King of Persia” (4:5), but that they did not write an accusation against the people of Judah and Jerusalem until “the beginning of the reign of Xerxes” (v. 6). These people were smart enough to realize that Cyrus would not listen to them and that he knew what he had said in his proclamation. As soon as Cyrus is gone, though, they make their move. The text tells us that “at the beginning of the reign of Xerxes, they lodged an accusation” (v. 6). It then goes on to say that “in the days of Artaxerxes King of Persia” (v. 7), suggesting that there were two Persian kings in quick succession, which is exactly what happened. There were a number of kings in the history of Persia who had the name of either Xerxes or Artaxerxes, some of whom lived in the next century and are not to be confused with these two men, both of whom ruled for only a very short time between the death of Cyrus and the rise of Darius. This Artaxerxes is also known as Ahasuerus and as Cambyses, causing a great deal of confusion among commentators.
[4:9.1] Notice that “in the days of Artaxerxes Bishlam, Mithredath, Tabeel and the rest of his associates wrote a letter to Artaxerxes, . . . in Aramaic script” (4:7). Who these people are the Bible does not say, except to connect them with the opposition to the temple reconstruction. Without ever giving us any information, the text goes on to tell us, “Rehum the commanding officer and Shimshai the secretary wrote a letter” (4:8). Apparently these latter men, who have far more influence in the capital, take and revise that letter and send it out over their signatures, for they have high standing in the empire. Notice, further, what these enemies of the church do: They make this a class-action lawsuit, filing the letter on behalf of “the rest of their associates—the judges and officials over the men from Tripolis, Persia, Erech, and Babylon.” They simply add the names of all these other peoples, who seemingly come from various parts of the empire, as though all of them had a legitimate stake in it. In fact, these co-signers are simply referring to their original places of birth and implying that all of those regions were concerned about this problem, when in fact they probably knew nothing of it. What a conspiracy! What bold opposition! The powers of evil are ever on the lookout for new opportunity.
[4:9.2] Notice their skillful apology. How can these men in far-off Transjordan get the attention of the royal officers in Susa? By calling attention to a seemingly legitimate threat to the throne and by dressing themselves in professed loyalty. These accusers of the church present themselves as being loyal to the government and greatly concerned for the honor of the king. With politically appropriate appeals to the new king, they say, “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” (v. 14). The enemies of the gospel will not readily admit that their motives are based on anger or on envy but try to couch their hatred in the form of righteous pleas for justice and virtue. They feign disinterest in their own situation, while pretending to be concerned only for the welfare of the country, thus masking their totally selfish motives.
[4:12] Israel’s obedient present. So far in the book of Ezra we have seen the people of Israel, the remnant that had returned from Babylon, only in a positive light. God had moved the hearts of the family heads in many of the families of Judah and Benjamin, plus the hearts of many priests and Levites, to make the long journey back to Jerusalem. Leaving their homes where they had lived for seventy years, along with many of their family members and friends, these people responded with the same kind of obedience and trust that had characterized their ancestor Abraham so many centuries before, when he was called by God to leave the Ur of the Chaldees and to go to a land that God would show him. When these Israelites got to Jerusalem, they did everything that God had required of them: they gave of their wealth and immediately began to set aside funds for the rebuilding of the temple. They consulted the writings of Moses and learned from there, that is, from the Law, exactly how they were to worship Jehovah, the God who had sent them to Babylon for punishment and had now chosen them to restore His kingdom. They came at the appointed time to offer their sacrifices to God. They had their priorities straight and built the altar so that they could celebrate the Feast of Tabernacles, with all of its many sacrifices. In short order they also began to rebuild the temple of God, which was the primary purpose for which God had sent them back, and the express command in Cyrus’s proclamation. These people, like the people during Joshua’s time, had truly repented of their sins and were trying to live godly lives. We see no sign of rebellion or of distrust but only a sweet and obedient, trusting spirit.
[4:13] Israel and Judah, however, had not always been so obedient and so willing to listen to the voice of God. During the time of the prophets Isaiah, Amos, Jonah, Hosea, and Micah, and all during the reign of Jereboam II and his successors, Israel (the ten northern tribes) had been constantly involved in idol worship and had their golden calves at both Dan and Bethel. They had persecuted the prophets God had sent, so God finally sent them into permanent exile. The powerful kings of Assyria had taken them captive and had scattered them throughout the whole of their empire. During the time of Judah and Benjamin, ever since the reign of Manasseh, there had been a steady pattern of evil within the southern kingdom, with the exception of the reign of Josiah, who was a good king (reigned from 639 to 609 b.c.).
[4:15] What these enemies of Israel do is to make a clever appeal to history and then tell the king exactly what to look for. They request of him “that a search may be made in the archives of your predecessors . . . and that in these records you will find that this city is a rebellious city, troublesome to kings and provinces” (v. 15). The last three kings of Judah, who were already under the rule of God’s appointed servant Nebuchadnezzar, were notoriously rebellious and earned for Judah a reputation that found its way into the history books of Babylon and later those of Persia. Jehoiakim, Jehoiachin, and Zedekiah were all trying to rebel against the power of Nebuchadnezzar and refused to accept the prophets’ claims that this king was being sent by God Himself to chastise His people. This horrible reputation comes back to haunt them, even though the people of Israel have truly changed their ways and now are living in beautiful obedience to God. That often happens to us, too. We may have done something that was wrong and wicked twenty years ago, and we may have repented of that sin a dozen times, but we still have it thrown in our faces by those who want to put us down. That is what the Bible refers to when it talks about the sins of the fathers being visited upon the third and fourth generations. Present sins have future consequences.
[4:18] There is enough truth in this claim to make it plausible and to satisfy the casual researcher that their complaints have validity. But this is also very selective history and is deliberately using the past record to condemn the present. This is lying in its most clever form. An example of this type of historical twisting of history comes with the efforts by atheists and humanists to outlaw Bible reading and prayer from the public schools of our land. By going to the Supreme Court in 1947 and subsequent years, and by telling the court exactly what to look for in the historical record, the atheists and humanists called attention to words of Thomas Jefferson in which he expressed his desire that the church and the state be totally separated from each other. This was not the intent of the framers, or even of President Jefferson, but that is what the Supreme Court justices decided, on the grounds that someone had told them what to look for, while deliberately hiding other, contrary information. The accusers knew full well that the Israelites were not now rebellious but had instead demonstrated exceptional citizenship and were some of the most law-abiding subjects in the empire. But they put their claims in the present tense, while digging up historical facts that had been true before the Babylonian captivity. By appealing to their past reputation, they made the claim that “this city is a rebellious city” (v. 15), thus twisting history to their own ends. Given the acceptance of that lie, they can now move on and predict to the king that “no more taxes, tribute or duty will be paid, and the royal revenues will suffer” (v. 13). Such a prognostication is wholly without basis in fact and should be regarded by the king as absurd, but the king swallows the bait because the historical record supports the claim made against them.
[4:23] The greatest lie of all. The Samaritans knew full well that the Israelites were only working on the temple, but they never mention the temple to the king. On the contrary, notice that all of their complaints are about them restoring the walls and repairing the foundations “of the city” (vv. 12, 13, 16). This is grossly false information and cannot be attributed to ignorance. They knew that the king would not have to worry about any threat to national security by the erection of the temple, for there were all kinds of pagan temples throughout the empire, with each people or area allowed to establish its own brand of religion. Knowing that, the Samaritans had to lie as boldly as possible.