TEXT: Ezra chapters 3-5
In fulfilment of prophecy, Cyrus, king of Persia, had issued a decree that the Jews who were in exile should return to Jerusalem to build the temple of God that was destroyed during the reign of Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon (Isaiah 44:28; 2 Chronicles 36:22,23; Ezra 1:1-4). Consequent upon Cyrus’ decree, the children of Israel returned in batches. The first batch, led by Zerubbabel, arrived around 538 BC and began the rebuilding of the temple (Ezra 2:1-70). Many years later, about 458 BC, the second batch came under the leadership of Ezra who carried out great religious reforms and spiritual renewal (Ezra 8:1-14,18-21). The third batch was led by Nehemiah, around 445 BC, to spearhead the rebuilding of the wall of Jerusalem and its gates (Nehemiah 2:1-10).
This study focuses on the activities of the first batch of returnees under the leadership of Zerubbabel. He worked together with Joshua the high priest, under the ministries of Zechariah and Haggai the prophets. Upon their return to Jerusalem, they found that the land was occupied by settlers who did not worship the true God; therefore, they made it a priority to rebuild the temple and restore true worship. Their attempt to rebuild attracted stiff opposition from their adversaries to a point they had to stop the work for a long time. This study challenges believers to be zealous in building God’s kingdom, brace up for oppositions, never give up to temptations and learn to work with others in order to achieve God-given goals.
REBUILDING THE ALTAR AND LAYING THE TEMPLE FOUNDATION (Ezra 3:1-13; Exodus 20:24,25; Numbers 28:1-14; Zechariah 4:6-10)
Shortly after returning to Jerusalem, the children of Israel committed themselves to rebuilding the altar of sacrifice and the temple. This became necessary because the first temple, built by King Solomon, was destroyed by Nebuchadnezzar’s army and the Israelites were taken captive (2 Kings 25:8-10). The returnees set up the brazen altar and commenced the regular sacrifices and festivals, which God commanded through Moses. This step was an indication that they had prepared themselves to restore true worship, which they missed utterly as captives in a strange land (Psalm 137:1-4). At last, they had learnt their lesson not to forget God or worship idols, which was the major cause of their travail. They were willing to lay the foundation of the temple and adhere to the ordinances of sacrifice and worship given by God.
In preparation for the rebuilding of the temple, “They gave money also unto the masons, and to the carpenters; and meat, and drink, and oil, unto them of Zidon, and to them of Tyre, to bring cedar trees from Lebanon to the sea of Joppa, according to the grant that they had of Cyrus king of Persia” (Ezra 3:7). They got materials ready from far and near to ensure the work went according to plan. Besides materials, they also prepared the workmen, with leaders at the forefront, to commence construction. However, when the foundation of the temple was laid, it produced mixed feelings among the returnees. While the younger ones who did not witness the splendour of the first temple shouted for joy, the older men wept because of the apparent inferiority of the new temple.
There are lessons to highlight from the attitude and preoccupation of the returnees. First, there was total unity among them (Ezra 3:1; Nehemiah 8:1). Recall that, before the captivity, they were divided along tribal sentiments and petty considerations. But after their return, they were gathered “as one man” to pursue a common goal. Believers should avoid divisions and unnecessary bickering, but strive for unity (Philippians 2:2; 1 Corinthians 1:10). Second, they had a priority. They had learnt to put first things first by erecting the altar to offer sacrifice to God. Believers must set their priorities right by giving more attention to spiritual things. Worship and service to God should be our priority in life rather than the pursuit of material things. Third, they conformed to the divine pattern as given to Moses. They restored the regular sacrifices, weekly sabbaths and yearly feasts as prescribed in the law.
Fourth, we notice their purity and peculiarity. They rejected the offer of help from the settlers who lived in the land in order to avoid compromise or contamination of their devotion to God. Believers must avoid compromise in all its forms and shades. Fifth, there was simplicity in worship and devotion. Although the temple had not been built, they set up an altar for sacrifice. This way, they demonstrated their heart devotion regardless of their outward circumstances. In places where believers lack the freedom to erect physical places of worship, they can still raise their altar of devotion to God in a spiritual sense. They can worship God in their houses and give of their substance, time and talent to serve Him.
Sixth, they obeyed and cooperated with divinely appointed spiritual and godly leaders. All these ensured that they were not defeated though there were threats resulting in a temporary suspension of the work. When believers work together in unity and submission to spiritual authority, their adversaries cannot overcome them.
RESISTANCE BY THE ADVERSARIES AND STOPPING OF THE BUILDING (Ezra 4:1-24; Nehemiah 4:1-11; Daniel 9:25; Zechariah 3:1; 1 Corinthians 16:9; 2 Timothy 3:12)
After the Israelites had laid the foundation of the temple, the settlers who were brought from different places to live in the land offered to join in the task of rebuilding. These were people who believed in many gods and were syncretic in practice (2 Kings 17:22-33). They believed the God of Israel was just one of the many gods they worshipped and wanted to join in building His house. But the Israelites rejected their offer and chose to remain separate from idolatry and syncretism. This is a worthy example of total separation from false worship. Believers should be discerning and avoid unequal yoke in worship, fellowship and friendship. Not everyone who professes allegiance to God is genuine in spirit and in truth (Proverbs 26:23-26; 2 Corinthians 11:13-15; 6:14-18).
Although the people of the land professed that they worshipped the God of Israel, they turned to be adversaries and raised opposition against the rebuilding project when they were not allowed to join the work. This depicts the usual strategy of Satan in his warfare against God’s people. He first attempts to corrupt the people and the work they do for God; if that fails, he switches to confront and attack them. In Israel, the people of the land opposed the building work by weakening the hands of the builders, hiring counsellors against them and attempting to frustrate their efforts. When these failed, they concocted some false accusations and wrote a letter to that effect, which was sent to Artaxerxes, king of Persia, who commanded that the reconstruction work should stop. This account of the enemy’s opposition against the rebuilding teaches us that Satan will always work against renewal and restoration of God’s people because he wants our lives to remain shattered and in ruins. Besides, there will always be opposition against the work of God in this present evil world. Therefore, believers should neither be surprised nor discouraged when oppositions arise in the course of doing God’s work. As we partner with God to rebuild broken lives and relationships, we must determine to do whatever we can to succeed.
It was unfortunate that Artaxerxes yielded to the mischief-makers and stopped the work of God without finding out the purpose of the reconstruction. Unlike his successor, Darius, who was confronted with the same challenge but ordered that investigations be made to examine the motive of the project, he succumbed to flattery and mischief. People in positions of power should be careful how they respond to reports, rumours and counsels from their subordinates so as not to act outside the will of God.
Believers must avoid the tragedy of being stuck at the foundation level in their spiritual lives (Hebrews 6:1,2; Ecclesiastes 7:8). After laying a good foundation, we must move forward in spite of the challenges we face. Whenever we are faced with obstacles in the work of God, the proper response is to pray and focus on His power to overcome every hindrance (Acts 4:23-31; Psalm 18:3; 50:15). We must reject all doubt and discouragement, stand on the promises of God and take the necessary action (Nehemiah 4:4,5,9).
For a long time, the rebuilding of the new temple was stuck while the people shifted attention to their personal projects. Consequently, they lost the zeal for God’s house and He was not pleased with them. As a result, they suffered financial failure, unproductive labour, unusual losses and fruitlessness in their lives (Haggai 1:7-11).
RECOMMENCEMENT OF BUILDING THE TEMPLE (Ezra 5:1-17; Haggai 1:1-15; 2:4-9; Zechariah 1:1-21)
The children of Israel were forced to stop the rebuilding work due to opposition from the adversaries, albeit, temporarily. During this period, they reasoned that if it was time to rebuild, God would remove all hindrances and move the king to repeal the decree that stopped the work, just as Cyrus commanded at first. But God showed them that it was indeed time to arise and build. “Then the prophets, Haggai the prophet, and Zechariah the son of Iddo, prophesied unto the Jews that were in Judah and Jerusalem in the name of the God of Israel, even unto them. Then rose up Zerubbabel the son of Shealtiel, and Jeshua the son of Jozadak, and began to build the house of God which is at Jerusalem: and with them were the prophets of God helping them” (Ezra 5:1,2).
God moved prophets Haggai and Zechariah to stir up the people in order to recommence the building of the temple. Prophecy is not only about predicting future events, it is more of talking to people for “edification, exhortation, and comfort” (1 Corinthians 14:3). True prophets of God speak so the hearers can take appropriate action. In this particular instance, the prophets rebuked the returnees for abandoning the reconstruction of the temple and urged them to continue from where they stopped (Haggai 1:2-9; Zechariah 1:1; 6:13).
Influenced by the prophecies of Haggai and Zechariah, the leaders of Israel (Zerubbabel and Joshua) rallied the people to recommence the building project. The prophets also stayed around to encourage them. But no sooner that they began the construction again, than the opposition resurfaced. The Israelites responded boldly and truthfully to the inquisition by the new administrative leaders of Jerusalem. One, they began the work again with new zeal and courage, refusing to be intimidated by the decision to send a report to king Darius of Persia. Two, they confessed that it was their backsliding that brought about the destruction of the temple in the first place. Three, they affirmed that it was king Cyrus who authorised them to rebuild the temple. Four, they did not stop the work while awaiting the response to the letter written to the king. Eventually, king Darius commanded that the work should continue and that support be given to the builders from the king’s resources (Ezra 6:6-12). This is a confirmation that sometimes there may be a temporary setback in achieving a goal, our God will work out the solution for us if we do not give up. The Scripture encourages believers: “And in nothing terrified by your adversaries…” (Philippians 1:28). Once we are in the will of God and are law abiding, we must not be intimidated by the strategies of the enemy. Even, if we are experiencing hard times because of our own backsliding, the proper step to take is to repent and receive God’s mercy (Proverbs 28:13). When we own up to our wrongdoing rather than shift blames, we are certain to receive forgiveness and favour from God.
After their restoration, the children of Israel received divine favour and were able to complete the rebuilding of the temple. They were committed to doing God’s will and ready to sacrifice their lives to achieve His revealed purpose. Contemporary believers will likewise succeed if they follow the same principles of sacrificial commitment and trust in God. Our lives will be rebuilt, broken relationships will be mended, sinners will be saved and God’s favour shall be restored to us in every facet of life.