Seeking to Know God
We seek to understand our lives through His Word, not define the Word by our lives.
An Online Bible Study
When: As Chapter 3 ended, the Israelites were laying the foundation of the Temple. Many of the people were praising God; however, some of the older Israelites were weeping. Nonetheless, it was all worship, born out of thankfulness for the God who judges and who offers gracious mercy. The sound of their worship, Ezra told us, was heard far away. Chapter 4 picks up directly thereafter and we learn who was listening to the Israelites; “when the enemies of Judah and Benjamin heard that the people of the exile were building a temple to the Lord God of Israel, they approached Zerubbabel” (4:1, 2a).
The timeline at the beginning of Ezra 4 (v. 1-5), is the same as the end of Ezra 3, the Spring of 537BC. Nevertheless, an interesting twist takes place in Ezra 4. Though the account described in verses 1-5 takes place as the Israelites are rebuilding the Temple under the reign of Cyrus, the events beginning at verse 6 take place many decades later, during the reign of Xerxes (Ahasuerus), and those events in verses 7-23 actually occurred even later, during the reign of Artaxerxes. Ezra then returns, at verse 24, to the events that concerned the temple-builders, back to the reign of Darius. It's an odd twist, but I believe Ezra had a plan by jumping back and forth this way. We'll talk about that later.
Who: Several characters are mentioned in Ezra 4, including numerous kings. The events Ezra described in verses 6-23 when Xerxes and Artaxerxes were rulers over Persia, jump us way ahead in our timeline and will need to be interpreted separate and apart for the events transpiring at the beginning of Ezra 4.
What: The chapter deals with the opposition faced as the people began rebuilding the Temple and the city walls. These events aren’t listed chronologically; however, it seems apparent that “the author’s interest here was more thematic than chronological” (Breneman). Whatever the time frame, the nearby officials were vehemently opposed to rebuilding the walls around Jerusalem (as they were about rebuilding the Temple) and sought the help of the Persian king to stop it. Although no other mention is made of this endeavor in the remainder of Ezra, the book of Nehemiah completes the story of the erection of the city walls. We will discuss Nehemiah’s book after we finish the interpretation of Ezra 4.
Read Chapter Four and make your lists`.
My notes after reading Ezra 4:
The enemies’ first tactic was subtle deception.
The enemies’ second tactic was emotional.
The enemies’ third tactic was a direct accusation.
The enemies’ fourth tactic was dishonest exaggeration.
No matter the tactic, the catalyst was always the same: the enemy feared Israel’s restoration because they feared Israel's God.
How did the Israelites respond when the inhabitants of the land offered their help? Why do you think they rejected their help?
1. The enemies’ first tactic (4:2) was subtle deception:When “people of the land” (4:4) offered their assistance to rebuild the Temple, the Israelites quickly discerned their offer was inauthentic. They knew these people did not have a right relationship with God. Who were these "people of the land" offering help?
Notice their claim, “Let us help you build because, like you, we seek your God; and we have been sacrificing to Him since the days of Esarhaddon king of Assyria” (v. 2).
Soon after the Assyrians conquered the Northern Kingdom,“the king of Assyria brought people from Babylon, Cutah, Avva, Hamath and Sepharvaim and settled them in the towns of Samaria to replace the Israelites” (2 Kings 17:24). They worshiped the Lord, but they also served their own gods in accordance with the customs of the nations from which they had been brought” (17:29, 33). How could it be that they have been offering sacrifices "to Him" in a land without a Temple? The Torah specifically prohibited that (Deut. 12:13-14). If they were offering sacrifices, they were doing so disobediently. Maybe they did “seek God;” however, they did it in the context of compromise, worshiping not only Yahweh, but other gods as well.
How did Zerubbabel answer? "You have nothing in common with us in building a house to our God; but we ourselves will together build for the Lord God of Israel" (4:3). He realized these people had nothing in common with a group of people who had one allegiance; compromise and faithfulness have nothing in common. The survival of God’s people depended upon their response to this shrewd offer. Thankfully, they were prepared for the challenge. However, this enemy would prove persistent; they were not resigned to stop at Plan A.
Compromise and faithfulness have nothing in common.
What was Plan B? "Then the people of the land discouraged the people of Judah, and frightened them from building, and bribed advisers against them to frustrate their advice all the days of Cyrus king of Persia, even until the reign of Darius king of Persia (4:4-5).
2. The enemies second attack (4:4) was emotional: Apparently, Zerubbabel was correct; the first offer to help was not authentic. Once it was rejected, the enemy’s genuine self-interests showed through as they set out to discourage, frighten, and frustrate the Israelites. Had the Israelites accepted the offer of help, it would be a first step toward embracing the other religious practices of the Samaritans, and they were wise for rejecting it. Nonetheless, faithfulness is not without its challenges.
At this point in your reading, the context changes a few times.
3. The enemies’ third tactic (4:6) was a direct accusation: Verse 6 tells us someone "wrote an accusation" to Ahasuerus, the king of Persia. Remember, we were originally talking about events that happened directly after the exiles' returned from Babylon in 537BC when Cyrus was king. Ahasuerus came to rule in 486, so these events were around 50 years later. Evidently, the Israelites continued facing opposition.
4. The enemies’ fourth tactic (4:7) was dishonest exaggeration: Ezra’s fourth mention of opposition takes place many years later, "in the days of Artaxerxes" when "Rehum the commander and Shimshai the scribe wrote a letter against Jerusalem." King Cyrus was followed by Cambyses II (529-522), Darius I (522-486), and then Xerxes I or Ahasuerus (486-465) and then Artaxerxes (465-425 ). Because of information we can derive from the book of Nehemiah, we know this event happened in the 20th year of Artaxerxes' reign (445BC). Therefore, this event was over 90 years after the captives returned to Jerusalem.
According to Rehum’s letter, everyone living in the vicinity of Jerusalem was afraid of the Israelites rebuilding (4:8-10). He contended that if the city was secured by walls, the Jews would refuse to pay taxes to the Persians. He also appealed to the king’s pride (4:14); “it was a typical lie, clad in the clothes of “genuine’ anxiety for the case of the king - a method of approach not unknown in our own time” (Fensham). If the loss of power or money didn’t motivate the king, he concluded addressing his arrogance surely would. Clever, but desperate.
Rehum suggested the king make a search in the nation’s record books where he would find Israel’s history as a “rebellious city damaging to kings and provinces” (4:15). Out of fear of what might happen if Israel became strong again, he desperately sought to ignite the king's concern with threats not based in current reality; “we inform the king that if this city is built and its walls are restored, you will be left with nothing in Trans-Euphrates” (4:16). They wanted the king to think Israel’s attempt to rebuild the walls was born out of rebellion. These accusations were obviously an exaggeration of what was truly in the hearts of the Israelites; nonetheless, truth-seeking would not advance Rehum’s agenda. King Artaxerxes took Rehum’s concerns seriously and, out of fear of what the Israelites might accomplish, issued a decree ordering them to stop their work. Rehum and the others went “in haste” to Jerusalem to stop them by force (4:23).
Why do you think Ezra added this information that had little to do with the exiles returning to rebuild the Temple? Or did it?
Placing these two periods of opposition (4:1-5 and 4:6-23) alongside each other, Ezra does not seem concerned with time-lines, but with addressing the continuing battles Israel endured after their return to Jerusalem. More importantly, as we will later see, Ezra is also showing us how our response to opposition makes a difference. Everything was surely not the picture of perfection the Israelites might have had in mind when they finally returned home. Is anything in life perfect - even when God's hand in directing us? We will soon see, however, how Nehemiah and Zerubbabel handled their opposition and how their attitudes affected their outcomes.
Ezra returns, in verse 24, to the events we read about at the beginning of this chapter, "then work on the house of God in Jerusalem was discontinued, and it was stopped until the second year of the reign of Darius king of Persia." Unfortunately, the emotional attacks against Zerubbabel worked. Not military force, not the king's decree, only Zerubbabel's mental and emotional battles caused him to stop work on the rebuilding operation. For nearly two decades (537-521BC), the Israelites stopped work on the Temple - their primary purpose for returning to Israel.
To get a better idea of what Ezra was trying to tell us, we will need to take a look at what happened when the dishonest letter was written to King Artaxerxes against Nehemiah. But first, let's familiarize ourselves with the book of Nehemiah.
Ezra Chapter Four
The Book of Nehemiah
Who: Nehemiah, the cupbearer to the king, remained in Susa following the release of the captives by King Cyrus. As the one entrusted to taste the king’s drink before it crossed his lips, the cupbearer had the explicit confidence of the king.
Where: Susa was one of the most important ancient cities in Cyrus’ Persian Empire. Today, it is situated in very close proximity to Shush, an Iranian city. It is approximately 900 miles from Jerusalem and was nearly twice that distance from Babylon. It is also the city where the book of Esther takes place.
When: In the 20th year of the reign of King Artaxerxes, Nehemiah was informed that “those who survived the exile and are back in the province are in great trouble and disgrace. The wall of Jerusalem is broken down, and its gates have been burned with fire” (1:3).
What: Although Nehemiah likely lived his entire life in exile, upon hearing anew of the destruction of his homeland, his heart was overwhelmingly burdened. With a repentant heart, Nehemiah “mourned, fasted and prayed before the God of heaven” (Neh. 1:4.). Confessing his sins as well as the sins of all the Israelites, he then asked God for favor as he approached the king seeking permission to return to Israel. Four months later, Nehemiah approached the king and was granted permission to return to the Promised Land. (Remember this is over 90 years after Cyrus released the original group of exiles to return and the nation was still struggling terribly.)
Upon arriving in Jerusalem, “Sanballat the Horonite, Tobiah the Ammonite, and Geshem the Arab … mocked and ridiculed” Nebuchadnezzar and accused him of rebelling against Persia (Neh. 2:19). Nehemiah felt no need to debate with his enemies. He simply replied, “The God of heaven will give us success” (2:20).
Nehemiah faced even more personal attacks from Sanballat and Tobiah, who “spoke in the presence of his brothers and the wealthy men of Samaria and said, ‘What are these feeble Jews doing? Are they going to restore it for themselves … Can they revive the stones from the dusty rubble even the burned ones?’ … and he said, ‘if a fox should jump on it, he would break their stone wall down!'” (Neh. 4:2, 3). What was Nehemiah's reply this time?
Nehemiah immediately cried out to God, “Hear, O our God, how we are despised! Return their reproach on their own heads” (Neh. 4:4). And then he continued to work. After "Sanballat, Tobiah, the Arabs, the Ammonites, and the Ashdodites heard that the repair of the walls of Jerusalem went on, and that the breaches began to be closed, they were very angry. So all of them conspired together to come to fight against Jerusalem and to cause confusion in it" (Neh. 4:7,8) So how did Nehemiah respond to these personal attacks this time?
"We prayed to our God, and because of them we set up a guard against them day and night" (Neh. 4:9). On each occasion, dating back to the day he first heard of the crumbling walls, Nehemiah looked to God as evidenced by his constant dependence on prayer. Though the people were still burdened by fear, they kept working - "When I saw their fear, I stood and said to the nobles, the officials, and the rest of the people: “Do not be afraid of them; remember the Lord who is great and awesome, and fight for your brothers, your sons, your daughters, your wives, and your houses... And I said to the nobles, the officials, and the rest of the people, “The work is great and extensive, and we are separated on the wall far from one another. At whatever place you hear the sound of the trumpet, assemble to us there. Our God will fight for us. So we carried on the work" (4:14-21).
And what was the result of Nehemiah's prayers to God and encouragement to his people?
"With God's protection, the wall was completed in fifty-two days” (Neh. 6:15). And what would become of Nehemiah’s enemies? “When all our enemies heard about this, all the surrounding nations were afraid and lost their self-confidence, because they realized that this work had been done with the help of our God” (6:16). Even their enemies knew that everything Nehemiah and Israel accomplished was because of and through God.
Standing on his identity as a child of God, the confidence Nehemiah expressed was always in God. He first acknowledged God’s authority and humbled himself in repentance (Neh. 1:7). He then reminded God that these were His people in trouble - His people upon whom He placed His name (1:8,9). Nehemiah continued, “they are Your servants and Your people whom You redeemed by Your great power and by Your strong hand… May Your ear be attentive to the prayer of Your servant and the prayer of Your servants who delight to revere Your name and make Your servant successful today and grant him compassion before this man” (1:10-11).
Note how he ended his prayer - “grant [me] compassion before this man.” The expression “this man at the end of the prayer…shows the big difference between his reverence for his God and his conception of his master, the Persian king. In the eyes of the world Artaxerxes was an important person, a man with influence who could decide on life or death. In the eyes of Nehemiah … Artaxerxes was just a man like any other man" (Ch. Fensham). His confidence never rested in his king - nor in himself; his confidence was in God because Nehemiah knew God owned these battles because God owned His people.
When Zerubbabel was approached by the surrounding people offering to help, the Israelites were actively returning to God in obedience and worship. They began the Temple project by restoring the altar where they could offer sacrifices in worship. Maybe this posture increased their confidence and when their enemy asked to participate with them in their special work, they were quick to reject them - “you have nothing in common with us,” they replied, “we ourselves will build it for God just as King Cyrus, the king of Persia, has commanded” (4:3).
However, maybe their words display a level of self-confidence, not confidence in God - “immediately after the rebuilders boldly proclaim that “we alone” [will build it] …, they [quickly] learn that the success of their labor will not be due to their own strength,” (Levering). They quickly succumbed to the pressure of their enemies. An enemy will only attack when he considers it is to his advantage; sometimes that advantage is directly following a victory. Ezra’s message was not that the strong win battles and the weak lose. Ezra is making it very clear that those who find their confidence in God - not self, not an army, and not a king - always find victory. God is undefeated.
Which leads us to our final point in Ezra chapter four...
Ezra Chapter 4, continued...
4. No matter the tactic, the catalyst was always the same: the enemies feared Israel’s restoration because they feared Israel's God. By identifying themselves as the people of God, the Israelites invited their enemy’s aggression. Nonetheless, their identity was also where protection was found. God’s people have a claim to Him as their Father and an inheritance of His eternal promises. Nehemiah understood this; Zerubbabel, however, failed to lean on prayer and God. He could not lead his people to be faithful when his heart was not centered on God's faithfulness. Unfortunately, his leadership failed and the work on the Temple stopped for nearly two decades!
Knowing who Israel worshiped and what He had done in the past, their enemies considered Israel a detriment to their kingdom. They brought attacks from all sides and often, until Zerubbabel's confidence in God was surrendered to man. Though he surrendered, God would not. He had a plan to redeem a people and He would provide what they needed, both now and later, to fight any battle to stop His plan. We will pick that theme back up next week.
Both Nehemiah and Zerubbabel are weak, but only one of these leaders acknowledged their weakness by depending on God. Remember Nehemiah’s first response to his enemies, “The God of heaven will give us success” (Neh 2:20). Nehemiah got it. He knew the work was about God and therefore, it was His battle. From the beginning, He was dependent on God. Heck, Nehemiah even reminded God to remember (Neh. 1:8)!
Not long after I began a new journey with God, I was spending time reading the Word when I came across a particular verse that surely stirred my spirit. That verse is from Rehum’s letter to King Artaxerxes and has never left my soul. “Be careful not to neglect this matter,” he told the king. “Why let this threat grow to the detriment of the royal interests?” Immediately upon reading that verse, I heard the Spirit of the Lord say to me, “the more you grow, Deborah, the greater threat you are to your enemy’s interests.” This is a fallen world and dark forces fight to hinder God’s plan by trying to hinder God’s people. When we tell others about the Gospel of Jesus Christ, we are advancing God’s Kingdom. We advance His plan, as well, when we present a beautiful image of our Father to a world in need of His deliverance. The more we grow and mature in our walk with Christ, the greater works we accomplish in the Kingdom of God, and the greater threat we become to the kingdom of darkness. This is not self-centered growth; this is growth with eternal purpose.
Israel’s enemies’ attacks were four-fold: subtle deception, emotional bullying, direct accusations, and dishonest exaggerations. Our enemy uses the same tactics; he hasn’t changed much. Sometimes he comes against us with subtle lies that are so close to truth we don't recognize the fine line. Remember when the serpent said to Eve, "did God really say..."? Sometimes he brings emotional attacks causing us to doubt, worry, submit to anger, or live in fear. At times he brings spiritual accusations. Have you ever thought you will never be "good enough" to be accepted by God, or if the church knew how many mistakes you've made, they would outright reject you? Yeah - that's your enemy the "accuser." How do you know? God forgives; Satan condemns. Finally, at times, our enemy uses downright manipulative dishonesty against us, using others to gossip and slander us. No matter the tactic, the catalyst is always the same: the enemy fears your growth because he knows who God is and he knows what a fully engaged follower of Christ can do to destroy his kingdom.
It wasn’t a physical battle that stopped the temple-builders; it was emotional - discouragement, fear, and frustration (4:5, 6). Zerubbabel and the Israelites allowed their enemy to discourage them to the point that they lost confidence and the Temple remained unfinished for nearly two decades. Still today, one of his greatest weapons against us doesn't involve what others say about us. Our self-thoughts and emotions can often be our greatest battles; our minds are where our enemy brings many of his most subtle attacks against us. "The greatest spiritual battle of our generation is being fought between our ears” (Jennie Allen), and we often don’t even realize it is our enemy’s attack. (We will learn in the next chapter that Zerubbabel and the people blamed their delays on waiting for the ‘right time.’)
Even though we are born again children of God who are rooted “in Christ,” at salvation, God does not hit some “shields up” button that renders our minds incapable of being infiltrated by deception and sin’s logic. God wants us to participate in the process of the renewal of our minds. This is an offensive battle - “We are destroying speculations and every lofty thing raised up against the knowledge of God, and we are taking every thought captive to the obedience of Christ (2 Cor. 10:5). We must think about what we are thinking about; how do we do that?
Test every thought against the Word and make sure that what you are allowing to enter your mind has been filtered through the truth of God’s Word. As we grow in the knowledge of God’s Word, we learn to detect lies by being more intimate with Truth. That is why learning to read the Word helps us fight battles. When we learn to read the Bible and understand God’s message more clearly, we enjoy it more thoroughly. When we find joy by spending time in the Word, we can better take negative thoughts captive.
Therefore, we need to keep truth ever before us. Ezra teaches us two truths in chapter four. One: As we are maturing in our walk with God, we may feel like we have a bulls-eye on our backs. God’s enemy fears restored people and he wants to hinder our growth because He knows a fully engaged daughter or son of God is a detriment to his kingdom.
Two: It’s ok if you are feeling weak in your battles; we have been offered a great exchange - our weakness for God’s strength. His power is made perfect in our weakness (2 Cor. 12:9). Whatever battle you might be fighting right now may have left you weak, confused, lost, or feeling alone, and certainly not filled with the joy of progress. Don’t measure the possibility of a victory with any measure other than Christ’s power. When Paul said he “delighted” in weaknesses, insults, and difficulties (2 Cor. 12), he was expressing his inadequacy. Paul understood that every inadequacy gave way for God’s surpassing power to work in him. And each time God’s strength prevailed in his weakness, God was glorified. In that, we can all “boast the more gladly.”
The goal is not to stop having battles; the goal is to allow our battles to honor God and give Him glory in victory. Our strengths, achievements, or abilities might entice us to look away from Christ’s sufficiency and seek self-glory. However, each time we admit we can’t defeat our enemy without the power of God, He is glorified, and He is perfecting us by making us more aware of His grace. Our weaknesses don’t matter - fear doesn’t matter, frustration, discouragement - none of the tactics of our enemy matter - when our greatest desire is to glorify God. When we see every battle as an opportunity to display the glory of God, we learn to rest in His power, not our own. We also learn to trust in His perseverance, not our own.
If you begin growing in your relationship with God, and rather than finding joy in that, you feel like there is a target on your back, don’t forget, you also have a seal on your heart – a seal of ownership. You belong to God and Satan has no idea the depth of that miracle - because he doesn’t understand grace or mercy. Anything your enemy has to say about you has not been filtered through the heart of our Lord. Nothing - reject it all. It is our responsibility to filter every thought through the Truth of the Word. Don’t dare let Satan’s lies, especially the lie that you are all alone or defeated on this journey, take you off the journey of growing in Christ. If Satan is coming against you, it is because he fears you - you are a detriment to his kingdom. Take great joy in that; Christ is transforming “our lowly condition into conformity with His glorious body.” One day at a time, one battle at a time, one victory at a time. Don’t give up on God’s victory; He certainly has not given up on you!
Do not be grieved, for the joy of the Lord is your strength. (Neh. 8:10)
When the prophets, Haggai the prophet and Zechariah the son of Iddo, prophesied to the Jews who were in Judah and Jerusalem in the name of the God of Israel, who was over them, then Zerubbabel the son of Shealtiel and Jeshua the son of Jozadak rose up and began to rebuild the house of God which is in Jerusalem Ezra 5:1, 2