Ezra Chapter Five
When: In the previous chapter of Ezra, we noted that soon after the exiles completed building the altar and the foundation of the Temple, their efforts came to a “standstill” (4:24) due to the opposition from the Samaritans and other surrounding peoples. When Chapter 5 begins, Darius is now the king of Persia and the date is approximately 521 BC or 16 years after the events transpiring in the first five verses of Ezra 4. Unfortunately, for 16 years, the Israelites did not return to the work on the temple.
Why: Sometimes we have to fail to finally surrender our efforts to God. Re-exerting His ownership of this project, God sent prophets to speak into the life of Zerubbabel. Rebuked and then encouraged, “Zerubbabel . . . set to work to rebuild the house of God in Jerusalem. And the prophets of God were with them, helping them” (5:2).
Who: Ezra makes only a brief mention of the prophets Haggai and Zechariah yet credits their prophecy for encouraging the exiles to return to the rebuilding efforts after so many years of inactivity. While this is all the information Ezra gives us about these two prophets, we can read the full extent of their roles in their own writings. Therefore, before progressing with Ezra chapter 5, I believe our author would need us to be familiar with the words from the prophecies of Haggai and Zechariah.
The Prophet, Haggai
Read Haggai (there are only 38 verses) and make any notes or question you have, and any repetitions you see. As you read, ponder these questions:
How many times did God speak to the Israelites through Haggai?
What was His message each time and to whom was He speaking?
God spoke four times through Haggai. His purpose was different each time: the first prophecy was a word of rebuke. When God spoke through Haggai the second time, He encouraged the exiles. The third time He spoke, God had some questions for the priests. Finally, God spoke once again to encourage Zerubbabel with a promise restored.
What was God's rebuke? He told all the people, "Consider your ways."
Notice in chapter 1 verse 5: “Consider your ways.” And then in verse 7: “The Lord of armies says this, consider your ways.” In chapter 2 and verse 15: “But now, do consider from this day onward.” And, finally, in verses 18 and 19: "Do consider from this day onward, from the twenty-fourth day of the ninth month; from the day when the temple of the Lord was founded, consider: Is the seed still in the barn? Even including the vine, the fig tree, the pomegranate, and the olive tree, it has not produced fruit." When you see a word repeated that many times in a book with only two chapters, place close attention. It is a very important part of the message.
Consider: The Jewish word is "שׂוּם." Pronounced, soom, it means "to put." The Jewish reader would hear, "put your heart on the road." God's point is for the Israelites to take a look at their life and evaluate what is behind and then consider what lies ahead if they keep going on the same path: consider your ways, consider your decisions, consider what is happening, and then tell me where you think that road is headed.
Remember, there is no mention of Zerubbabel being forced to stop work on the Temple. His enemies discouraged, frustrated, and frightened him until he lost the strength or will to continue. But why not begin again at some later point? The Israelites gave a logical reason for not returning to their calling. They claimed that the time "has not come" for them to begin again (Hag. 1:2). Weariness had caused the Israelites to give up, but when year after year passed, they began lending a spiritual slant to their excuse for not beginning again, in effect, saying, “it’s just not God’s timing.” (Sound familiar?)
God saw straight through their excuse. He knew exactly why they never began again. Israel’s failure to attend to the rebuilding of God’s house resulted from their own increasing preoccupation with their personal lives; therefore, God confronted them, “Is it time for you yourselves to dwell in your paneled houses while this house lies desolate?” (Hag 1:4). "Consider your ways,” God said in rebuke. If it's not time to build my house, why is it time for you to build your own house? Four times Haggai delivered the command (1:5, 7; 2:15, 18) - Put your heart on the road or consider why you think it's ok for my house to wait while your house is a priority. Haggai's prophecy reveals that these misplaced priorities were the real reason for the years of ignoring God's house. Consider this, God said, "You have sown much, only to harvest little; you eat, but there is not enough to be satisfied; you drink, but there is not enough to become drunk; you put on clothing, but there is not enough for anyone to get warm; and the one who earns, earns wages to put into a money bag full of holes.”
For nearly two decades, the work on the Temple lay unfinished. Lacking the resolve to complete the work, their eyes turned inward to their personal needs and desires until worshipping God became unimportant to them. Seeing His relationship with His people supplanted by their sense of self-reliance and their devotion to earthly things, God destroyed these earthly things and shattered their self-confidence. God made sure that their harvest was little, that their thirst was never quenched, that their clothes did not keep them warm and that, no matter how much money they earned, it was never enough.
Why was it that no matter how much they worked it was never enough? Because God cursed it: "I called for a drought on the land, on the mountains, on the grain, on the new wine, on the oil, on what the ground produces, on mankind, on cattle, and on all the products of the labor of your hands” (v. 11a)
Every effort will fall short unless God blesses it.
Seeing His relationship with His people supplanted by their devotion to earthly things, God destroyed these earthly things, “Why?” declares the Lord of armies. “because of My house which remains desolate, while each of you runs to his own house” (1:11b).
They put their hand to every work except the one that was most important - God's house. So, in order to get their attention, God withheld His blessings from their hands. By putting their hearts on the road, the Israelites realized their lack of food, wine, and rain was actually an act of grace. The people acknowledged that God was accurate in His assessment of their hearts, and so turned back to what mattered most - "they came and worked on the house of the Lord of armies, their God, on the twenty-fourth day of the sixth month in the second year of Darius the king" (1:14b, 15).
How did God encourage? He told Zerubbabel, Joshua, and all the people, "Take Courage for I am with you"
One month after rebuking the Israelites, God spoke through His prophet again. In Ezra 3, when the Israelites laid the foundation of the Temple, some shouted with joy and others wept. We discussed earlier that they wept over sins that caused the destruction of Solomon's Temple. We learn here that upon seeing the humble beginnings of the new Temple, they wept because they realized their sins had destroyed a Temple full of the glory of the Lord. God knew those concerns still weighed heavily on their hearts and graciously sent Haggai to encourage them saying, "Who is left among you who saw this temple in its former glory? And how do you see it now? Does it not seem to you like nothing in comparison? But now take courage, Zerubbabel,' declares the Lord, 'take courage also, Joshua son of Jehozadak, the high priest, and all you people of the land take courage,’ declares the Lord, ‘and work; for I am with you" (Hag. 2:4).
So, after rebuking them for putting personal desires ahead of His commands, God encouraged the people. Isn't it beautiful that God not only judges and rebukes, He also comforts and encourages. If the Israelites thought that God was only interested in them building Him a Temple like Solomon's, if they thought He rebuked them for spending all their money on their house because God's focus was on the size of His house, they misunderstood God. His concern is always souls. God is revealing His heart to the Israelites in an effort to encourage them in their pursuit of Him - ‘The latter glory of this house will be greater than the former,’ says the Lord of armies, ‘and in this place, I will give peace,’ declares the Lord of armies" (2:9).
The temple derived its value not from gold and silver but from God’s presence and God’s presence provided precisely what the Israelites desired - peace. Oh, what a promise for people tired and discouraged from enemy attacks, so weary from fighting emotional battles. God’s presence was the peace they longed for, but because God's work was bringing so much opposition, they tried to find peace elsewhere. And in some regard they did; their enemies were no longer fighting against them. But nothing else in life was going well either. They built homes to live in, but those homes were "never enough." Therefore, God rebuked them, and then He encouraged them with the promise that He was enough. And not only "just enough;" God is more than enough. The work they were doing for Him meant that one day His glory would abound even more in Jerusalem. God promised, I will be with you and I will be your peace. And that is more than enough to meet your needs.
What questions did God have for the priests?
Two months later, God spoke through Haggai again, this time to the priests who had also put aside rebuilding God's house. They were familiar with the kinds of questions God asked (2:11-13) because they were familiar with the book of Leviticus and, therefore, answered God's inquires accurately: holiness cannot be transmitted, (it is not contagious), but impurity is. God was asking a simple question: can you make someone sick by transmitting germs? Yes, of course. However, you can't make someone well by touching them with healthy hands.
"So is this people. And so is this nation before Me," God said through Haggai. Israel would not be holy simply by rebuilding the Temple or by offering sacrifice. However, they had become unclean because they had done neither. They allowed so many other things to take precedence over God, “the ruined skeleton of the Temple was like a dead body decaying in Jerusalem and making everything contaminated” (Baldwin). It is only that which is built with pure hands that will stand. The choice is yours, God is telling the people, just as Moses and Joshua had once told the Israelites.
As He had earlier, God directed the priests to put their hearts on the road, "consider," God spoke (v. 15, 18). Consider the days before Israel was exiled, when "I struck you and every work of your hands with scorching wind, mildew, and hail; yet you did not come back to Me,’ declares the Lord. Remember when you would go to the wine vat to draw 50 measures of wine, but there were only 20? Just like the Israelites recently, "You looked for much, and it came to little." ZeThat was my judgment, God reminded the priests. Just like I cursed your crops and wine recently, I did that once before, but the people refused to heed my warning. Consider how that turned out, consider how you were exiled from the land when you ignored my judgment. Consider that, God cautioned the priests. This third message doesn't end there, however. For the people who were finally heeding his message, even though the olive trees were not producing fruit today, He promised future blessing, "Yet from this day on I will bless you" (2:19). He is certainly a God of second chances.
What promise did God reestablish in and through Zerubbabel?
God begins His final message through Haggai by first asserting His sovereignty over the nations (2:22). Zerubbabel and the people were back at work on God's house; certainly there would be battles to come even again. This time, God reminded Zerubbabel (who gave up in the midst of "his" battles 16 years earlier) that God's people's battles are His battles and He will fight for His people. To encourage Zerubbabel further, God reminded him that God chose him for "such a time as this." Just as He chose David, He chose Zerubbabel (Hag. 2:23). God is not advocating rebellion against Persia, instead; “Haggai envisions God’s action on behalf of His people and, in particular, his Davidic ruler” (R.A. Taylor). These are not merely momentary promises; these promises are eternal in nature. "God makes the same promise to [Zerubbabel] as he did to David on the like occasion - that he would build him a house, and establish it, even in that day when heaven and earth are shaken" (Matthew Henry).
God once again intervened in the life of His people because He had a plan for the redemption of the world through Israel. Through the prophet Haggai, God reminded the people that the Messiah will one day rule from His throne in Jerusalem and encouraged with the restoration of that promise. God chose Israel and He chose Zerubbabel, and even though they put God aside, He had not changed His mind. God's love and His promises are eternal.
The Prophet Zechariah
Zechariah’s prophesies began in the eight month of the second year of Darius. Therefore, his first prophecy came after the people began to work on the temple again, and in conjunction with Haggai’s prophecies. Even though the work had been re-established, God continued to speak to His people. Haggai confronted the Israelites for putting the work aside and choosing to focus on their own lives and not God’s Temple. However, God’s concern was not merely the physical building; God was concerned about the hearts of His people who had so easily forsaken what He called them to do. God knew that, though the temple needed restoring, so did Joshua and Zerubbabel. God sent Zechariah to address their concerns again.
The book of Zechariah is fourteen chapters long full of visions God gave Zechariah. This is not a Bible study on Zechariah; therefore, we will only focus on a few of the visions God gave him.
Chapter 1: God spoke to the people.
No doubt the years of “little” had worn down the people’s resolve. These were the small remnant of God’s people who chose to leave Babylon and return to His land. They were the faithful, and yet they had dealt with so much hardship since they returned that their hearts became discouraged and their bodies, tired. “Return to me… and I will return to you” (1:3), God promised His people. God reminded the people that he had not only called them to return to the Land or to a building, but to Him.
Chapter 3: God spoke to Joshua
In another of Zechariah’s visions (Zech. 3:1-10), he saw the High Priest Joshua standing before God clad in “filthy clothes,” as one contaminated by sin, idolatry, and disobedience. Satan stood beside him "pointing to [his dirty clothing] and declaring forcefully that Joshua was unfit to stand before the Lord” (Boice).
God’s people, including the priests, had been walking in disobedience for 16 years. Satan’s accusations were not wrongly stated; Joshua was indeed wearing filthy clothing. The Hebrew word, tsow, is defined as “filthy as if excrementitious” (Strong’s); it is “the strongest expression in the Hebrew language for filth” (Feinberg). It is as though Joshua stood before God in clothing covered in fecal matter and beside him stood Satan pointing out his filth. So what did God say?
God did not condemn Joshua; instead, the Lord turned to Satan and rebuked him! “The Lord rebuke you, Satan! The Lord, who has chosen Israel, rebuke you!” (v.2). and then commanded the angel to,“take off his filthy clothes” (v.4); God removed the guilt of Joshua’s sin. He was filthy, but God rose and spoke on His behalf. Although God detested the filthiness of disobedience, He did not reject Joshua. His mercy spoke instead.
And then He graciously spoke directly to Joshua, “If you will walk in obedience to me and keep my requirements, then you will govern my house and have charge of my courts, and I will give you a place among these standing here” (3:8). God’s message to the High Priest was clear; if you follow My word, God told Him, I will continue to anoint you for My purposes. God promised Joshua that He would allow Him to stand among those who met with God in His temple. He promised Joshua the greatest of blessings, access to the Holy Presence of God.
Chapter 4: God spoke to Zerubbabel
‘Not by might nor by power, but by my Spirit,’ says the Lord Almighty. What are you, mighty mountain? Before Zerubbabel you will become level ground. Then he will bring out the capstone to shouts of ‘God bless it! God bless it!’ Then the word of the Lord came to me: “The hands of Zerubbabel have laid the foundation of this temple; his hands will also complete it. Then you will know that the Lord Almighty has sent me to you. (Zechariah 4:6,-9).
God used Zechariah to speak to Zerubbabel who, no doubt, needed a specific word of encouragement. God reminded this Zerubbabel who once said, ‘we alone will do this because King Cyrus told us we could,’ that it did not matter how powerful a man might be, it did not matter how hard Zerubbabel worked, God’s work is only accomplished by God's Spirit. Conversely, God promised Zerubbabel, no matter how much opposition, no matter how big the mountain, no matter how daunting the challenges he would face, because of God's presence, anything can be done.
He knew the shame that must have been in the heart of the High Priest who had not, after nearly two decades, lead the people back to God’s presence in His temple. He knew the self-doubt in Zerubbabel, the man who let emotional battles lead to a delay that was always within his means to correct. God rebuked, but God encouraged. Yes, God is a God of judgment and He is a God of merciful forgiveness, and by His grace, the people set to work on His temple again (Ezra 5:2).
Back to Ezra 5
Ezra began chapter 5 by telling his readers that God sent prophets to rebuke and encourage the Israelites With their help, the building project began again. However, when they began working on God’s house, their enemies immediately came against them; “like every spiritual advance... it was quickly tested and threatened” (Kidner).
Immediately following the resumption of the Temple building project, the surrounding peoples, including Tattenai, governor of Trans-Euphrates and his associates, questioned the exiles, “Who authorized you to rebuild this Temple and restore this structure? We also asked them their names” (5:3).
Now put these two chapters together. First, God rebuked the people for ignoring His Temple for nearly two decades. They heard God's rebuke and immediately started work again. Then God encouraged them with the promise that the Temple was not just any building; the Temple is where His presence would reside - His presence that offered them the peace they so desperately sought. God knew what lay ahead for these builders; their enemies went on the attack again as soon as they started back to work. Therefore, God encouraged and God promised to be protect them with His presence - "don't be afraid" was not a random command.
"Don't be afraid" was God's promise concerning the continued attacks the Persian leaders would bring against them. When God said through Zechariah, ‘I am going to shake the heavens and the earth. And I will overthrow the thrones of kingdoms and destroy the power of the kingdoms of the nations ... overthrow the chariots and their riders" (2:21-22), this was not a promise for some momentary victory over the Persian enemies. This was a promise for an eternal victory of death, hell, and the grave. This was a promise that a Messiah would most assuredly rule in Jerusalem one day. Zerubbabel should not be afraid of Persians; God had a plan to overthrow all kingdoms that rise up against Him.
Despite Tattenai’s objections (5:6-17), Israel’s King continued to watch over their efforts (5:5). Though once again Zerubbabel met opposition that was beyond his control, this time he would meet that opposition with courage. He understood that victory would not come about because of who he was, but based on whose he was - ‘We are the servants of the God of heaven and earth, and are rebuilding the temple" (5:11). Zerubbabel and the people acknowledged they were weak enough to rely on the only power strong enough to overcome their enemy. And, with His eye upon them, they continued to overcome the mountains set before them.
If we only read Ezra 5, we would not realize that it had been at least 16 years since the Israelites worked on the temple. If we only read Ezra 5, we would not understand how important the prophecies of Haggai and Zechariah were to re-establish the rebuilding efforts. Haggai’s prophesies remind us how far God is willing to God to bring His people back to Him. Zechariah's prophecies confirm for us that God has an eternal plan for the redemption and restoration of this world, and He will not let our unfaithfulness change His heart toward us. Zerubbabel's work was never just about a building; it is about the God who will reside in that building.
How much more we gained from reading the whole story; a careful reading of Scripture is so important for us to receive a more beautiful portrait of our God. Yes, He wanted the temple rebuilt; it had eternal purpose. Nonetheless, God did not want a temple built by hands of people not dedicated to Him. Obedience will always outweigh sacrifice in God’s eyes and grace will always overcome His wrath. God went to great extent to both get Israel’s attention through discipline, and to encourage them to victory.
Ezra ends this portion of his book telling us Tattenai wanted to hear what his king had to say on the matter (5:17). It didn’t matter what Satan had to say to Joshua and it was irrelevant what Persia’s king would have to say as well. The Israelites clearly heard the Word of the Lord and they obeyed it. “Whenever things look out of control, behind the scenes is a God who hasn’t surrendered His authority” (Tozer). God is busy at work with His redemptive plan; when we choose to work alongside Him, there is no opinion on earth that matters but the King's.
We must admit, from time to time, each of us has placed priority on temporal things and not on the eternal. We, at one time or another, have compromised our faith, or allowed frustration, discouragement, or fear to cause us to give up on what we know God has called us to do and be. And we all, from time to time, have felt our accuser standing beside us pointing out how much we have failed God.
Like Joshua the high priest, our accuser may be right about us. Our walk with God has been a fitful sequence of starts and stops. Doubt sometimes defines our walk with God more so than faith, and sometimes we fear our enemy more than we fear God, and way too often we believed his lie that temporal things will bring the peace our souls so desperately long for.
Just like the Israelites needed the prophets' rebuke and encouragement, we need to grasp onto their message as well. It is vital to our spiritual growth that we remember not only God's message of judgment, but the love, mercy, and grace He demonstrated toward the Israelites as well.
Growing in our walk with Christ takes courage; it takes perseverance, and it takes a lot of mercy and grace. We all have to deal with opposition - from outside and from within, but our tough choices matter. That was God's message from His prophets to the builders of His Temple - consider your ways and decide if the choices you have been making have brought any increase to your lives. Their unfaithfulness had brought nothing but lack; our unfaithfulness brings the same. No matter how hard we try, nothing outside faith ever produces enough to keep our hearts full of joy and our minds at peace. Therefore, God's message to the builders is still God's message to us - put your heart on the road and evaluate where you are headed - forward or backward - there really is no other direction.
His judgment may seem harsh at times, but He knows what our hearts desire most and He knows that we will never find the peace and joy we seek in anything other than Him. Therefore, He leads us back to Him. It may seem like severe judgment, but it is severe mercy as well. As Martin Luther said, judgment is the “alien work of God” (Lectures on the Psalms). Love is God’s “proper work,” and sometimes His work of love only gives us life by destroying things that carry us away from that love (LW, XIV, 95). Even when life gives us every good reason to doubt God, faith that God is who His Word proclaims Him to be encourages us to trust that His judgment is an expression of His love.
God is renewing this earth, one heart and one decision at a time. Our choices still matter. God may have judged our hearts and found that we have fallen short of His glory. Nonetheless, our Redeemer continues to change us from glory to glory. Even if we have stopped at some point in our journey of growth, we can begin again because we still serve the God of second chances. He gave Israel success and He will give us success as well, not by might or by our power, but by His Spirit because "we are the servants of the God of heaven and earth, and are rebuilding His temple.
Now as for you, Tattenai, governor of the province beyond the Euphrates River, Shethar-bozenai, and your colleagues, the officials of the provinces beyond the River, stay away from there. Leave that work on the house of God alone; let the governor of the Jews and the elders of the Jews rebuild that house of God on its site.
Ezra 6:6, 7