Scripture Reading: Ezra 6
Background Reading: Zechariah 1
1. What was the response of King Darius to the request he had received from Tattenai and Shethar-Boznai? What did their research uncover? (See Note 6:1.)
2. Compare the text of the decree found in 6:3–5 with that found in 1:2–4. Are they identical? What differences do you note? What additional information does this decree convey? Are the two compatible with each other, or are they contradictory? (See Note 6:3.)
3. How were the expenses of temple construction to be met? At whose instigation were these financial arrangements made? Is that unusual? Is such instruction contradictory to the separation of church and state? (See Note 6:4.)
4. Was Darius sympathetic to the complaints of the Samaritans? Was he willing to compromise in order to pacify them? (See Note 6:6.)
5. When Darius issues his edict requiring the people of Samaria to provide the Levites with “bulls, rams, and lambs for the burnt offerings,” was he committing a sin? Do you think such sacrifices would be pleasing and acceptable in God’s sight? Was King Darius participating in a priestly function and thus violating the separation of duties which God had established? (See Note 6:9.)
6. What additional decree does King Darius issue in order to ensure that his commands will be obeyed? Is the threat of punishment necessary to good government? (See Note 6:11.)
7. What kind of message does the prophet Zechariah present to the Jews who have been delayed in their rebuilding of the temple? What effect does the prophesying of Haggai and Zechariah have on the people? (Read Zechariah 1; see also Note 6:14.)
8. How much time had elapsed before the temple was finally finished? Why do you suppose that God gives us such precise chronology in the text of Scripture? Are dates and events important to him? (See Note 6:15.)
9. What kind of activities did the Jews organize as a way of celebrating the completion of the temple? What did they use as guidelines for planning and carrying out these celebrations? Is it proper for us to organize dedication feasts upon the completion of our churches and schools?
10. On what specific day did they celebrate the Passover? Why was that day chosen? Whom did they permit to eat the Passover lamb with them? (See Note 6:19.)
Text Notes on Discussion Starters
[6:1] Note that the search was first conducted in the archives or library in the city of Babylon, but the discovery was made at Achmetha, aka Ecbatana, the ancient capital of Media, a city located almost three hundred miles northeast of Babylon. There may have been other copies extant, but this is where Darius’s researchers found that for which they were looking. The Lord preserved a copy of Cyrus’s proclamation in order that his plan might be accomplished. The Lord’s work is not to be stymied by the clever machinations of some Samaritans. God is in control not only of history but also of historical record keeping.
[6:3] What we have in this chapter is probably a copy of the minutes kept as an official record of what King Cyrus had done. In this version we have specific instructions as to the size and character of the temple building to be constructed, along with instructions as to how the costs were to be met. In the earlier version we have the proclamation that was sent throughout the empire, calling the Jews to respond to his invitation to let them go back to Jerusalem. There is no conflict between them.
[6:4] The costs are to be paid by the royal treasury. This is reminiscent of the Northwest Ordinance, passed by the United States Congress in 1787, in which every township in all of the newly formed states were required to set aside section 29 “for the purposes of religion, i.e., for the building of churches and the payment of ministers’ salaries” (De Jong, Separation of Church and State, 90). “Let the cost be paid at the king’s expense from taxes on the region beyond the River, this is to be given immediately to these men” (6:8). Here is a royal edict, first enunciated by Cyrus, the anointed of God, and now repeated by Darius, requiring payment of the salaries of the priests and the Levites, the ones who are specifically assigned to build and oversee this project, out of the royal treasury! In keeping with this divinely motivated instruction, it would be perfectly legitimate to continue the practices of the Northwest Ordinance and to pay for the construction of church buildings and the payment of ministers’ salaries from the local tax base. Such might be unthinkable in the twenty-first century in the United States, but we must always be reminded that our culture does not determine truth or falsehood. King Darius is acting here in complete harmony with the explicit command of God and is reproducing and endorsing the proclamation of Cyrus, which God the Holy Spirit had worked in Cyrus. If we are not careful and thorough in studying the books of Ezra and Nehemiah, we might deduce that we have here the source of confusion within the church on the matter of the relationship between the church and the state. In contrast to these disparate views, the language of the Belgic Confession still seems to be most in harmony with the teachings of God’s Holy Word. Kings and princes and governors are truly appointed by God to do his will, just as Nebuchadnezzar and Cyrus and Darius were all put in positions of power at a particular moment in history to carry forward the plans of God for his people.
[6:6] Darius makes his sympathies abundantly clear. “Stay away from there. Do not interfere with the work on this temple of God. . . . Let the governor . . . and the Jewish elders rebuild this house of God on its site” (vv. 6–7). God is telling us, through the instructions and edict of Darius, that one of the tasks of the state is truly that of protecting the churches of the land and preventing any kind of opposition to them. In the words of the Belgic Confession again, the magistrates must “protect the sacred ministry, that the kingdom of Christ may thus be promoted” (Art. 36). This is not a conflict between religious and irreligious people but between competing religions, between people who had quite different religious views, each one wanting to see his religious perspective dominate. During the time of the return from exile we saw that the Israelites had been commanded by God, through his agent, Cyrus, to take on the project of rebuilding the temple in Jerusalem. In his proclamation, Cyrus had commanded the people of the region, that is, the Samaritans, to support this project with their gifts and contributions (1:4). They had to help pay for this project. After contributing financially, they also wanted to participate in the building project itself. That is where the people of God drew the line, however, and insisted that only those who worshipped God according to the dictates of his Word could participate. That precipitated the fight, the hostility toward the church. That began the campaign of legal harassment, lies and propaganda and distortions, which culminated in King Artaxerxes’s stop-work order (4:21). Darius now reverses the situation and compels them, under threat of severe punishment, to stop interfering and to start contributing.
[6:9] Both King Cyrus and King Darius seem to have an understanding of what was involved in God-pleasing worship. “Whatever is needed—young bulls, rams, male lambs for burnt offerings to the God of heaven, and wheat, salt, wine and oil, as requested by the priests in Jerusalem—must be given them daily without fail” (v. 9). They knew that these offerings and sacrifices were not one-time affairs but required on a daily basis. Darius also knows that the offerings and sacrifices must be pleasing to God, that they must produce “sacrifices of sweet aromas to the God of heaven” (v. 10). The source of the animals was not the overriding concern of Darius or of the Jews, but the need for a “broken and contrite heart” (Ps. 51:17; 34:18; Isa. 66:2). In fitting conclusion, Darius asks the remnant to pray “to the God of heaven” for him and for his sons. Darius seems to have the same kind of reverence for God as that demonstrated by King Cyrus. He calls him “the God of heaven” (6:10), suggesting that he has a high reverence for God and has come to fear him. Paul gives similar commands to Timothy: “I urge then, first of all, that requests, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for everyone—for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness” (1 Tim. 1:1–2).
[6:11] Darius throws the entire weight of the Medo-Persian empire behind his decree, promising to punish anyone who interferes by pulling a beam from the house of that person, impaling the offender on it, and making his house “a pile of rubble” (6:11). Darius knows, too, that God is sovereign and can “overthrow any king or people who lifts a hand to change this decree or to destroy this temple in Jerusalem” (v. 12). Darius, for one, has come to recognize and confess that the “Most High is sovereign over the kingdoms of men and gives them to anyone He wishes” (Dan. 4:17, 25, 32). The threat of punishment is often necessary to instill fear into the hearts of those who are naturally inclined to disobedience. Darius’s decree is reminiscent of those issued by King Nebuchadnezzar, but the intent is significantly different (Dan. 2:5–6). The entire covenant theme of Scripture is predicated on the consequences of disobedience, with God threatening his people with dire consequences if they refused to obey his law (Deut. 27; 28; 29; 30; 31:16–21). Idle threats are non-productive of desired behavior, but the enforcement of righteous threats produces the peaceable fruit of righteousness (Heb. 12:11).
[6:14] God is powerfully at work. Through the decrees of God’s servant King Darius, Tattenai, Shethar-Boznai, and their allies are persuaded to stop the persecution of the Jews and to contribute to their needs, just as the king had commanded. God also uses his prophets Haggai and Zechariah to stir the people to renewed dedication and effort. Zechariah forcefully reminds the people why they had been sent into exile and then pleads with them not to imitate the sins of their fathers (Zech. 1:1–6). The call to repentance brings desired results and is reinforced with the vision of the Angel of the Lord riding a red horse among the myrtle trees in the hollow. The vision occurs at night (Zech. 1:8); is set in a grove of dark trees in a ravine (v. 8); and represents the foreboding scene in which the Jews find themselves. In their time of despair, the Angel of the Lord comes with a wonderful outburst of jealous love (vv. 13–14), promising that “My house shall be built in [Jerusalem]” (v. 16) and “My cities shall again spread out through prosperity” (v. 17).
[6:15] God is not at all happy with the fact that work on his house has come to a standstill. He has sent his prophets Haggai and Zechariah to preach to the people and to spur them on to action. God initiates action by coming to Haggai and to Zechariah with visions and a call to get back to work. The Lord says, “Give careful thought to your ways. Go up into the mountains and bring down timber and build the house, so that I may take pleasure in it and be honored” (Hag. 1:7–8). “So the Lord stirred up the spirit of Zerubbabel . . . and the spirit of Joshua . . . and the spirit of the whole remnant of the people” (Hag.1:14). In response to the working of the Holy Spirit, “they came and began to work on the house of the Lord Almighty, their God” (v. 14). The original work on the temple began under the reign of Cyrus, in 536 b.c. Then, “in the beginning of the reign of Artaxerxes” (Ezra 4:6), the work was halted “by force of arms” (v. 23). The work stoppage continued for sixteen years, “until the second year of the reign of Darius” (Ezra 4:24; cf. Hag. 1:1; Zech. 1:1), when the work was allowed to continue (520 b.c.). Finally, the temple was completed on the third day of Adar, in the sixth year of the reign of Darius, in the year 515 b.c. Since the work had originally been started, twenty-one years have passed. No wonder God had become displeased and the Jews had become discouraged.
[6:19] God had specified, through Moses, that the Passover was to be celebrated in the first month of the year, with the lamb chosen on the tenth day and slaughtered on the fourteenth day (Exod. 12:2, 3, 6). In obedience to God’s commands, the Jews want to do everything “as it is written in the Book of Moses” (v. 18). Keenly aware of the holiness of God, they only permit those to participate who are “ritually clean” (v. 20) and “all who had separated themselves from the filth of the nations” (v. 21). Paul reinforces this need for holiness when he reminds the Corinthians to examine themselves, lest they eat and drink “in an unworthy manner” and thus bring judgment upon themselves (1 Cor. 11:27–29).