“Ezra” series: (post #9)
Now when the adversaries of Judah and Benjamin heard that the descendants of the captivity were building the temple of the Lord God of Israel, they came to Zerubbabel and the heads of the fathers’ houses, and said to them, “Let us build with you, for we seek your God as you do; and we have sacrificed to Him since the days of Esarhaddon king of Assyria, who brought us here.” But Zerubbabel and Jeshua and the rest of the heads of the fathers’ houses of Israel said to them, “You may do nothing with us to build a house for our God; but we alone will build to the Lord God of Israel, as King Cyrus the king of Persia has commanded us.” (Ezra 4:1-3, N.K.J.V.)
Have you learned yet that this world is filled with people who set themselves against God’s will and try to prevent it from being done? And, tragically, most of the time they succeed in doing so. Usually these people are lost unbelievers, but I’d be lying if I said that Christians don’t factor into this problem as well. The truth is that Christians who are either too spiritually immature to recognize God’s will or too backslidden to want it done can do every bit as much damage as lost people can when it comes to these matters.
Zerubbabel, Jeshua, and the rest of the formerly exiled Jews had scarcely gotten the foundation laid for the new temple when trouble came to town. The opening verse of our text leaves no doubt that these troublemakers were the adversaries of Judah. These enemies came from the areas that surrounded Judah, first and foremost the area of Samaria to Judah’s immediate north.
Rather than invade Jerusalem with soldiers, the enemy group came in charmingly and asked for a sit-down meeting with Zerubbabel, Jeshua, and the heads of the Jewish families. At that meeting, the enemy group said, “Let us help you build this temple. We serve the same God you do and have been offering our sacrifices to Him ever since Esarhaddon, the king of Assyria, settled us here after conquering our lands and deporting us from them.” Were these people lying about all this? No, not completely, but the issue wasn’t so cut and dried either.
The British Museum houses a large cylinder that dates back to the days of ancient Assyria. Inscribed on the cylinder are the exploits of King Esarhaddon, who ruled Assyria from 681 B.C. to 669 B.C. The Assyrians, you might recall, were the nation who conquered Israel’s northern kingdom. That northern kingdom had been formed when Israel’s ten northern tribes had broken away from the two southern tribes during the reign of Solomon’s son Rehoboam. The northern kingdom came to be known as “Israel” while the southern kingdom was commonly referred to as “Judah.” Jerusalem, which had been the capital city of the entire nation prior to the split, continued to serve as the capital of Judah, but the northern kingdom’s capital was first at Shechem and then later at Samaria. The kings of Judah perpetuated the line of King David and made Judah the more godly of the two kingdoms even though several of Judah’s kings were not godly men. The northern kingdom, on the other hand, complete with its separate line of kings, was well known for its idolatry.
In the decades that followed the Assyrians conquering the northern kingdom, they deported many thousands of the Jews from that kingdom. Most of those Jews were resettled in the upper Tigris-Euphrates valley. In turn, the Assyrians repopulated the northern kingdom’s territory with deportees from their other military conquests. According to 2 Kings 17:24, they brought people from Babylon, Cuthah, Ava, Hamath, and Sepharvaim into the territory. Over the course of time, these Gentile foreigners intermarried with the remaining Jews who had been left there. and these marriages produced a hybrid Gentile/Jewish race of people called the Samaritans.
Continuing on with the story, when all those foreigners first arrived in Samaria, they had no reverence whatsoever for Israel’s God. All that changed, however, when God sent lions among them, lions that killed some of the people (2 Kings 17:25). At that point, those foreigners sent word to the Assyrian king that they needed help to learn how to worship the God of the land so that the lion attacks would cease (2 Kings 17:26). In response, the Assyrian king sent one of the captured priests from Samaria to do the job (2 Kings 17:27). That priest took up residence in Bethel, another one of the former kingdom’s major cities, and taught the people how to worship Israel’s God (2 Kings 17:28). But the worship that was produced from the training was not pure worship. The Bible says the people did fear the Lord but they also continued to worship their false gods (2 Kings 17:29-41).
You say, “Okay, Russell, but what does all this have to do with the story in Ezra?” The answer is, that group of people who came to Jerusalem and offered to help build the new temple were the descendants of that mixed race of people. As such, they weren’t blatantly lying about having long offered sacrifices to the God of Israel. By no means, though, was their bloodline pure, and by no means was their worship of Israel’s God pure. Undoubtedly, Zerubbabel, Jeshua, and those heads of the Jewish families knew all of this history, but nevertheless they still had a big decision to make. Should they accept the offer of help or not?
The way the passage reads, they didn’t have to think very long about the decision. There isn’t even any mention made of them praying and asking God what they should do. It is as if they knew going into the meeting what God’s will was. So, they told the enemy group, “You may do nothing with us to build a house for our God; but we alone will build to the Lord God of Israel, as King Cyrus the king of Persia has commanded us (4:3).”
I wish we could know what tone those leaders of Judah used in conveying that answer. Perhaps they were quite cordial to the enemy group. Then again, maybe the tone was more like, “Don’t let the door hit you in the rear on your way out.” At any rate, whatever the mood of the meeting was, the message was clear: “We’re not about to let you people help us build our new temple.”
By way of modern application, this passage serves as a vivid illustration of the importance of refusing to compromise when the will of God is at stake. The temptation to shave a corner, cut a deal, or even do God’s will but do it in a way that isn’t pleasing to Him still presents itself to saved believers today. Perhaps you are facing such a temptation right now. God has told you to do a certain thing, but now an opportunity has arisen that will make the accomplishing quicker and easier. The only problem is, you just aren’t sure that God wants you to take that quicker, easier way.
If any of this describes you, consider yourself warned about pursuing that path of compromise. Just stick with God, His will, and the original plan He gave you by which to get His will done. Even if that means that you completing the assignment will take more time and effort, you won’t be sorry in the end. As we are going to learn in the next post, the answer that Zerubbabel and those other leaders of Judah gave to that enemy group would quickly produce dire consequences regarding the building of the temple. Still, though, the answer was the right one, and may you and I follow the good example those Jews set as we strive to not only do God’s will but do it in the way that is pleasing to Him.