Book of Ezra Chapter Four Commentary by
Pastor Ron Beckham
One of the surprising things about coming to the Lord is that it's not about joining a religion. Scripture defines it as, "the mystery which has been hidden from ages and from generations, but now has been revealed to His saints... which is Christ in you, the hope of glory" (Colossians 1:26-27). The Lord Himself comes into the center of the being of the one willing to have faith and makes us His. Our part is to trust in Him and what He has done. Israel's part in all this was to be not only to be an historical people that God loves, but also a parable, a velvet setting, if you will, on which the Messiah would be revealed like a diamond in exquisite detail. Israel the nation was to become and remain pure, which sends a message that we as God's people are to be pure. I'm sure that you will meet, as I have met, many nice Buddhists and friendly Muslims, but that does not mean we somehow blend religions with others in the process of becoming friends. God's people were surrounded by those who acknowledged Jehovah-Yahweh, but who also served many other so-called "gods" as well. 2 Kings 17:29-41 says about them: They "feared the Lord, yet served their carved images." The blended people of the land were already being called "Samaritans," by the way, a descriptive term in common usage at the time when Jesus walked this earth (John 4).
Verses 1-2: "Now when the enemies of Judah and Benjamin heard that the people of the exile were building a temple to the Lord God of Israel, 2 they approached Zerubbabel and the heads of fathers’ households, and said to them, 'Let us build with you, for we, like you, seek your God; and we have been sacrificing to Him since the days of Esarhaddon king of Assyria, who brought us up here.'" When you trust in the Lord, you will find brethren, great friends, and you will also acquire enemies. Israel knew who their enemies were, as we should, and to their credit, members of the tribes of Judah and Benjamin did not attack their neighbors, but neither would they blend cultures and religions with them, as in Verse 3: "But Zerubbabel and Jeshua and the rest of the heads of fathers’ households of Israel said to them, 'You have nothing in common with us in building a house to our God; but we ourselves will together build to the Lord God of Israel, as King Cyrus, the king of Persia has commanded us.'" And note here that Satan's opposition to God's work through us may be direct or it may initially be subtle as in this instance. The enemy wants his people to join the church and participate with us if we allow it. And we should NOT allow it to happen.
In Verses 4-5, we find that any subtlety was now gone: "Then the people of the land discouraged the people of Judah, and frightened them from building, 5 and hired counselors against them to frustrate their counsel all the days of Cyrus king of Persia, even until the reign of Darius king of Persia." Cyrus died in 529 BC. He was succeeded by his son, Cambyses, who was followed by Smerdis, a usurper who took the throne, and then was succeeded by Darius, who took power in 521 BC, but dated his rule from 529 when Cyrus died. The hiring of "counselors" likely meant that the "people of the land" bribed lesser officials of the Persian Empire into seeing things their way.
The opposition continued for some time, as in Verses 6-7: "Now in the reign of Ahasuerus, in the beginning of his reign, they wrote an accusation against the inhabitants of Judah and Jerusalem. 7 And in the days of Artaxerxes, Bishlam, Mithredath, Tabeel and the rest of his colleagues wrote to Artaxerxes king of Persia; and the text of the letter was written in Aramaic and translated from Aramaic." The word "Ahasuerus" of Verse 6 simply meant "king" and he was probably the "Cambyses" who succeeded Cyrus, which would mean this "Artaxerxes" of Verse 7 was the Smerdis who preceded Darius. Then, as now, it was common to have or adopt more than one name. And as soon as someone new came into power, the Samaritans sent more letters that maligned the Jews, being careful to write both in the local Aramaic and in the proper Persian court language.
There is an enemy of the Lord and of humanity who wants to destroy us and the ministries we are called to serve. The scary written and verbal attacks reflected here are not unusual and are designed to cause God's people to be discouraged, deny His Name and stop serving Him. Verses 8-10: "Rehum the commander and Shimshai the scribe wrote a letter against Jerusalem to King Artaxerxes, as follows— 9 then wrote Rehum the commander and Shimshai the scribe and the rest of their colleagues, the judges and the lesser governors, the officials, the secretaries, the men of Erech, the Babylonians, the men of Susa, that is, the Elamites, 10 and the rest of the nations which the great and honorable Osnappar deported and settled in the city of Samaria, and in the rest of the region beyond the River." Notice the completeness of the attacks upon the Jews, or as they were beginning to be called once more: Israel. It would have felt like "everyone" of any significance was against them.
Verses 11-13: "Now this is the copy of the letter which they sent to him: 'To King Artaxerxes: Your servants, the men in the region beyond the River, and now 12 let it be known to the king that the Jews who came up from you have come to us at Jerusalem; they are rebuilding the rebellious and evil city and are finishing the walls and repairing the foundations. 13 Now let it be known to the king, that if that city is rebuilt and the walls are finished, they will not pay tribute, custom or toll, and it will damage the revenue of the kings." Notice that Satan's attacks against God's people and His work through them, will contain elements of truth within a great lie. The mention of rebellion in the letter included references to actual historical Jewish attempts to throw off the rule of King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon; attempts that ended in the destruction of Jerusalem some years before (2 Kings 24 & 25). The truth was that the current Jewish governor of the area of Jerusalem was Zerubbabel, who was loyal to the Persian Empire and did not promote rebellion of any kind.
The Samaritan tribal leaders had two intentions: 1) to poison the reputation of the Jews, God's chosen people, and 2) make themselves seem, by comparison, like dear, loyal subjects of Persia. Verses 14-16: "Now because we are in the service of the palace, and it is not fitting for us to see the king’s dishonor, therefore we have sent and informed the king, 15 so that a search may be made in the record books of your fathers. And you will discover in the record books and learn that that city is a rebellious city and damaging to kings and provinces, and that they have incited revolt within it in past days; therefore that city was laid waste. 16 We inform the king that if that city is rebuilt and the walls finished, as a result you will have no possession in the province beyond the River.'" The "city" here is Jerusalem, and "the River" is possibly the Jordan, but more likely it is the famous Euphrates, the great river in the far west of the Persian Empire but to the east of Jerusalem.
What happens when something untrue is said about you and everybody believes it? Or what if you are accused of a crime, didn't do it, but are found guilty in court? What if you are called to some ministry by God Himself, but then are disgraced and stopped from doing it? That's how these Hebrew leaders and people felt as they learned of the Persian king's answer in Verses 17-22: "Then the king sent an answer to Rehum the commander, to Shimshai the scribe, and to the rest of their colleagues who live in Samaria and in the rest of the provinces beyond the River: 'Peace. And now 18 the document which you sent to us has been translated and read before me. 19 A decree has been issued by me, and a search has been made and it has been discovered that that city has risen up against the kings in past days, that rebellion and revolt have been perpetrated in it, 20 that mighty kings have ruled over Jerusalem, governing all the provinces beyond the River, and that tribute, custom and toll were paid to them. 21 So, now issue a decree to make these men stop work, that this city may not be rebuilt until a decree is issued by me. 22 Beware of being negligent in carrying out this matter; why should damage increase to the detriment of the kings?'" God had miraculously returned His people to the land, the Temple foundation had been laid, evening and morning sacrifices had resumed, the Temple was ready to be completed, and now the work was—stopped.
And more than mere loss of reputation for the Jews, their lives were threatened as well. Verses 23-24: "Then as soon as the copy of King Artaxerxes’ document was read before Rehum and Shimshai the scribe and their colleagues, they went in haste to Jerusalem to the Jews and stopped them by force of arms. 24 Then work on the house of God in Jerusalem ceased, and it was stopped until the second year of the reign of Darius king of Persia." Don't worry unnecessarily if something like this happens to you. God will complete His perfect work even when we are discouraged and too frightened to do it. We are merely human, but He is God. When you are afraid—pray.
Lord, I think I have been called, but I get tired, there is opposition, and I'm not sure I can do it. Please help me to complete what You have called me to do. I want to to serve God and finish well. I love You, Lord. Please help me. In Jesus Name. Amen.