Scripture Reading: Ezra 5
Background Reading: Haggai 1–2
1. Chronology is important to a correct reading of the Bible, since God gives us specific dates and times on which to hang events. How much time has elapsed between the end of Ezra 4 and the beginning of Ezra 5? How much time has elapsed since the rebuilding began? (See Note 5:1.)
2. Who is it that stirs the people to action so that the rebuilding of the temple is once again put in motion? How does that illustrate the primary theme of the book? (See Note 5:2.1.)
3. What roles do Zerubbabel and Jeshua play in this unfolding drama? Are they leaders, or are they followers? (See Note 5:2.2.)
4. Compare the actions of Tattenai and his associates with that of the Samaritans in Ezra 4. Were they more honest and just than were the Samaritans, or just as evil? Were their demands just? (See Note 5:3.)
5. How did the people of God respond to these demands? Were their responses righteous and just? Did they stop the building process? Why? (See Note 5:4.)
6. Is the letter that Tattenai and his associates addressed to King Darius an honest, fair representation of the facts? Were these men trying to do their civic duty, or were they enemies of the gospel? (See Note 5:9.)
7. What is the political status of Judah at this point in history? Do they have to get permission from the king of Persia for a permit to construct their church building? (See Note 5:8.)
8. How do the Israelites respond to the demands of Tattenai and his associates? Did they have to confess their past sins to these civil authorities? What kind of witness did they offer to the world by making such a response? (See Note 5:11.)
9. Evaluate the Israelites’ appeal to the historical record. Was this a wise and just request on their part? Are we justified in making appeals to the historical past in our countries? Name some instances in recent memory where our religious leaders have made appeals to our history.
Text Notes on Discussion Starters
For those who need a refresher, we will need to give a refresher of the events thus far. Remember the theme: God is sovereign and uses His agents (e.g., the kings of Persia) to do His will and to advance His kingdom. God has been working in the hearts of Cyrus and of His people so that approximately fifty thousand Jews have returned to Jerusalem and began the rebuilding of the temple. This small remnant begins the work in earnest, starting reconstruction in 536 b.c., under orders from King Cyrus.
God’s people have been obedient and have tried to worship God exactly as He had outlined for Moses in the Law. The Samaritan people, who have been assigned to live in northern Palestine, are syncretists who want to play a major role in rebuilding the temple. The Jews, knowing that God is a jealous God, rebuffed them. The Samaritans then become enemies of the church. They have used lawyers and falsehoods (see Lesson 7, “The Devil’s Distortions”) to stop the work of rebuilding. They got an edict from King Artaxerxes to put a halt to the rebuilding of the temple and used force to compel the Jews to stop (Ezra 4:23).
[5:1] We know that “the work on the house of God in Jerusalem came to a standstill until the second year of the reign of Darius king of Persia” (4:24). We know, too, that it was Artaxerxes’ letter to Rehum and Shimshai that brought the work to a halt (4:23). How much time elapsed between 4:23 and 5:1 is uncertain. Matthew Henry calculates that there were fifteen years where nothing was being done, but it is more probable that the work stopped in 530 B.C., when Cambyses (Ahasuerus) ascended to the throne (see 4:6, 23). Standard chronological calculations for the Persian Empire place Darius on the throne from 522 to 486 B.C. Since we are told that the work was stopped until the second year of his reign, we can assume that the work was begun again in 520 B.C. This is reinforced by Haggai 1:1, where we are told that on the first day of the sixth month of the second year of Darius’s reign, things began to change. The original zeal of the Israelites had cooled considerably. Wilting under the efforts of the Samaritans, they allowed themselves to be intimidated by the unfriendliness of their Samaritan neighbors. Love is replaced by languor and laziness. Nothing is being done! The temple lies in ruins, while the people concentrate on putting paneling in their family rooms, new cupboards in their kitchens, and swimming pools in their back yards. In the words of Haggai, they needed to ask, “Is it a time for you yourselves to be living in your paneled houses, while this house remains a ruin?” (Hag.1:4). Instead of eagerly watching for an opportunity of commencing the great work to which God had called them and seizing the first opportunity that offered itself, the people had come to acquiesce in the indefinite postponement and said among themselves, “The time is not come, the time that the Lord’s house should be built” (Hag. 1:2).
[5:2.1] Ezra tells us that Haggai and Zechariah “prophesied . . . in the name of the God of Israel” (5:1), seemingly putting the spotlight on these two ministers (prophets) of God. Haggai himself takes none of the credit, though, and makes it plain that “in the second year of King Darius, in the sixth month, on the first day of the month, the word of the Lord came” (Hag. 1:1). He later adds, “On the twenty-first day of the seventh month, the word of the Lord came through the prophet Haggai” (Hag. 2:1). God is at work again. God has taken note of the fact that His people have been forced, against their wishes, to stop the work on His temple. He goes on to assert the same idea a third time when he writes, “On the twenty-fourth day of the ninth month, in the second year of Darius, the word of the Lord came to the prophet Haggai” (Hag. 2:10). It is not the prophets who are taking the initiative, nor can that be ascribed to the secular authorities. The temple of God is not to be built by secular force or by civic power, but it must be done by the Word of God. As Christians the weapons of our warfare are not carnal but spiritual. It is not the people who are taking the initiative, but it is God who creates activity. God had moved the heart of Cyrus, and He had moved the hearts of those fifty thousand people to pack their belongings and to make the long trek to Jerusalem. Now God is again the one who initiates, this time through His prophets. At approximately the same time, but on different days and in different months, God is also using Zechariah to bring the same message. It is almost as though God is providing mutual support for these prophets who have to stir a lethargic church to action. The first vision to Zechariah occurs “in the eighth month of the second year of Darius, when the word of the Lord came to the prophet” (Zech. 1:1). This message comes just two months after the first one God directed to Haggai and midway between the second and third messages of Haggai. God is obviously serious about getting the rebuilding started again and is not stymied in any way by the fact that King Artaxerxes has issued a stop order. Whereas Cyrus had done what God had wanted him to do, Xerxes and Artaxerxes were unfaithful servants who stood in opposition to God.
[5:2.2] Even though Zerubbabel and Jeshua are God’s chosen leaders, the righteous remnant must have been confused and discouraged with their situation. They had tried diligently to honor God and to live according to His law. They had finally overcome their spirit of rebellion and had learned obedience. But now they are confronted with conflicting demands coming from the civil government, both of which could be construed as having the sanctions of God on their side. King Cyrus had told them to go back and rebuild the temple, but King Artaxerxes had told them to stop. Whom should they obey? The old decree of Cyrus, or the later decree of Artaxerxes? When Jesus addresses a similar situation with the Pharisees and they ask whether or not it “is lawful to pay a poll-tax to Caesar, or not” (Matt. 22:17), Jesus tells them that they should “render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s; and to God the things that are God’s” (v. 21). It is the business of God’s prophets to stir up God’s people to that which is good, and to help them in it and to assist them. In response to the preaching of God’s prophets, the leaders of Israel once again take up the work of rebuilding the temple. It is important to note here that the work starts up again, not in response to some decree from Darius but in obedient response to the preaching of the Word.
[5:3] No sooner did the Spirit of God stir up the leaders of the church than the evil spirits of Satan stirred up its enemies against it. As long as the people of the church were preoccupied with the building of their own homes, Satan paid no attention to them. As soon as they take up the work of the church, however, the enemies once again stir themselves to action. Satan becomes alarmed when people begin to devote their lives to the kingdom of God and immediately moved his own agents to hinder them. All the enemies of God are not equally wicked and unreasonable, however. Tattenai, Shethar-Bozenai, and their associates are not as vile and dishonest as were the Samaritans before them. These men come with their interrogations and insinuations, asking, “Who authorized you to rebuild this temple and restore its structure?” (v. 3). But God is watching over His people and will not let the work be stopped. The enemies cannot overcome that power of God, even if they had wanted to, for God’s power is always greater than that of Satan. Instead of coming with lies and accusations, the governor comes with questions: “Who authorized you to rebuild this temple and restore this structure?” (v. 3). “What are the names of the men constructing this building?” (v. 4). In the earlier confrontations, the Samaritans had come with flagrant lies, accusing the people of still being rebellious and insisting that the people were rebuilding the walls of the city when they were only trying to rebuild the walls of the temple. These later people are honest enough to tell Darius that it is just the walls of the temple that are being rebuilt. God is obviously watching over His people and will not allow the civil rulers to hinder His church again. God so works in their hearts that they listen carefully to the defense of the Israelites and follow their suggestion that they search the archives so that they might find the edict of Cyrus and thereby have the protection of the empire.
[5:4] The people of Israel promptly gave them the “names of the men who were constructing this building” (v. 4), not trying to hide their identity and not being disrespectful in any fashion. They don’t retort with hostility or with deception, or tell the governor to butt out. The interesting thing about their response is the kind of reaction that it got from the governor. When the governor sends his letter to Darius, he doesn’t give the king a long list of names, but he describes them as having said, “We are the servants of the God of heaven and earth” (v. 11).
[5:8] Judah is now a part of the Persian Empire, a province in the region called Trans-Euphrates, or the land beyond the river. As a province of Persia, they have no independent status and must conform to the laws of the empire.
[5:9] The letter from Tattenai and his associates (vv. 7–17) seems to be an honest, straightforward appeal for confirmation of the Jews’ claims. They do not twist and distort the facts as did the others, but they recognize the work is limited to the rebuilding of the temple and is being blessed with success. The contents of the letter are such that the reputation of the Israelites is being enhanced and not denigrated.
[5:11] Without any apparent prodding from the prophets or from the Samaritans, the people of Israel readily confess their guilt and take full responsibility for the destruction of the temple. It was, they say, for our sins that we were punished and because of our own fathers’ sin that we were sent into captivity in Babylon. God used Nebuchadnezzar to destroy this temple as part of our punishment. They don’t blame God; they don’t blame Nebuchadnezzar, and they don’t give any credit to the idol gods of the peoples around them. The only ones responsible for the destruction of the temple were themselves. What a wonderful, necessary confession. What a picture of humble obedience!
Dr. Norman De Jong is a semi-retired pastor in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church.