Ezra 4: Into the buffers

Sun, 24/02/2019 - 10:30 -- James Oakley

If someone is going to oppose you, you want to know how they think. How they will act. Be one step ahead of them.

Sports professionals spend hours watching replays of the teams they are due to face. How does that striker line up for a goal? How does that tennis player respond if you hit a ball into that corner?

I mentioned in the autumn I’ve been enjoying Bernard Cornwell’s novel, The Last Kingdom, set in 9th century England. Its hero is a man called Uhtred, born a Saxon, but then raised by the Danes, before returning to his English roots. Here’s a man who was very useful to Alfred the Great. He fought for Wessex, but he’d also fought for the Danes. He knew their tactics, their thinking. He could anticipate them, and therefore beat them.

We Christians have an ancient enemy, the Devil. Forget the Halloween costumes. He first appears in the Bible in the Garden of Eden, and ever since then he’s been opposing God and his kingdom. His aim is to destroy God’s purposes, to make God’s people trip up and fall, to hurt and destroy everything good in this world. The New Testament letter of 1 Peter says he prowls around like a roaring lion, looking for someone to devour.

We don’t want him to devour us, so we need to learn to think like him. To anticipate his moves.

The author and Oxford English professor, CS Lewis, wrote a book called the Screwtape Letters. It imagines a senior devil writing letters to a junior devil to guide him seeking to trip up a new Christian. It’s a work of fiction, but it helps us become aware of the Devil’s schemes.

What if we actually had an example of the devil’s strategy? A real letter to undermine God’s work? It would be gold dust to help us prepare for what he may try to do to us, or to our church.

Well, happily, we do.

Because Ezra chapter 4 is preserved as just such an example.

Chapter 3 ended on a note of euphoria. God’s city and temple had been destroyed. God’s people had been exiled to Babylon. But now the Persians have conquered the Babylonian empire, and King Cyrus has allowed God’s people to return home. The foundations of the new temple have been laid, The noise of the party could be heard from far away.

And then, chapter 4, we crash into the buffers. Verse 1: “When the enemies of Judah and Benjamin heard that the exiles were building a temple for the Lord, the God of Israel, …”

Yes, they had enemies. There was opposition, and we’re about to meet it.

Let’s watch and learn. See how the devil works, because he hasn’t changed his methods. I’ll show us the 3 tactics that he uses here, and then I’ll make two more general points to see how this applies today.

So then, how did their enemies try to stop them building?


Number 1: Compromise. They invited compromise.

You’d have thought they were glad of all the help they could get to build this temple. But in verses 2 and 3 they turn down an offer of help.

“They came to Zerubbabel and to the heads of the families and said, ‘Let us help you build because, like you, we seek your God and have been sacrificing to him since the time of Esarhaddon king of Assyria, who brought us here.’ But Zerubbabel, Joshua and the rest of the heads of the families of Israel answered, ‘You have no part with us in building a temple to our God. We alone will build it for the Lord, the God of Israel, as King Cyrus, the king of Persia, commanded us.’”

These people claim to worship the same God as the Jews who have returned, and so they want to help build.

The narrator helps us see the problem. In verse 1, he calls them the enemies of Judah and Benjamin. They come on the stage wearing black costumes.

Zerubbabel and the others can see through them. They say, “We seek your God”. Not “our God”. Zerubbabel picks up on this in verse 3: “You have no part with us in building the temple to our God. We alone will build it for the Lord,” in capital letters, the special name that identifies the God of Israel.

These enemies claim to seek God. But he is not their God. They don’t exclusively worship him. They don’t address him by name.

They give the game away when they say that they were brought there by Esarhaddon king of Assyria. You can read about these folk in 2 Kings 17. The kingdom had split in two by this point. The northern kingdom of Israel was destroyed by Assyria in the year 722, 130 years before Babylon destroyed the southern kingdom of Judah. After the Assyrians destroyed the northern kingdom, they resettled the land with other conquered peoples, who mixed and intermarried with the Israelites who were left behind.

2 Kings 17, verses 29 to 41 is the passage, if you want to look at it later. Here are two verses from that passage: “They worshipped the Lord, but they also appointed all sorts of their own people to officiate for them as priests in the shrines at the high places. They worshipped the Lord, but they also served their own gods in accordance with the customs of the nations from which they had been brought.”

These were the people who offer to help in Ezra chapter 4. They claim to worship the same God as the Israelites. But they don’t. The one true God tells us to worship only him. They mix and match their worship with other so-called gods.

And so they won’t work with these people. Not in the important business of building the temple. The reason they were taken into exile in the first place was because they were not exclusively loyal to God. To partner with this offer of help would be a fatal compromise.

If their loyalty to the Lord is compromised, the whole temple project has failed. The reason they’re building the temple is to worship the one true God in the way he asks.

So this is the first tactic the enemy uses to stop their project. Compromise. It’s to send people who say: “We’re all in this together”. And yet, whilst those people claim to worship the true and living God, they in fact worship another god entirely.

This is so relevant for us today. As we’ve worked through Ezra, we’ve said a number of times that we’re not building a temple. Now that Jesus has come, we don’t need a stone building. We have him. But as we spread the good news and invite others to join us following him, we’re building a living temple.

In some ways, it is a tragedy that there are so many different churches in our land today, all with different labels and badges. But we need to be clear: Some of these differences are real differences. There are churches, denominations even, where they may also claim to worship someone called Jesus. But when you find out about the Jesus they worship, it becomes clear it’s not the Jesus we worship. It’s not the God of the Bible.

And at that point, we need to resist the pressure to say: “We’re all in this together”. Sure, we build friendships from one church to the next. Sure, we work together to campaign for political reform, to feed the hungry, to shelter the homeless, and many other things too. But the Big Work of building the spiritual temple, the kingdom of the Lord Jesus Christ, is not one we can share with those who don’t worship the same God.

We mustn’t, because if we compromise our loyalty to God the whole project has failed.

Strategy number 1: Invite compromise.

Attacked Courage

Strategy number 2: Courage. Attack their courage.

The true colours of these so-called helpers now become clear.

Verses 4 and 5: “Then the peoples around them set out to discourage the people of Judah and make them afraid to go on building. They bribed officials to work against them and frustrate their plans during the entire reign of Cyrus king of Persia and down to the reign of Darius king of Persia.”

“If we can’t help you, we’re going to obstruct you.” It becomes clear that it was never about their desire to see a temple to the glory of God. It was really all about them.

So they work against them. Their first attack, to invite compromise, was focussed on the leaders. This time, they go for the people themselves. They simply try to discourage them. Make it so that there seems little point building this temple. They’re never going to make any progress.

It’s striking that they go for the people having failed to drag down the leaders. If Satan can get church leaders to compromise, he’ll go for that first. It’s an efficient way to stop a church from spreading the good news. But if that doesn’t work, he’ll go for church members. It’s much more crude, but it also works. If we can be discouraged, we’ll take our foot off the pedal, and stop building the temple of the Lord Jesus.

How easily we get discouraged. You invite a friend to join you at the Christmas carol service, and they’re not at all interested. You bring a friend to church, and they come for a month or two, then stop. You offer to read the Bible with a neighbour, and they don’t want to know.

And before you know it, it’s getting harder to keep doing those kinds of things. “It never works,” you think to yourself. “People today don’t want to know about Jesus. It’s not worth telling them.”

And so the discouragement sets in.

That’s the second tactic. Attack their courage.

Compromise. Courage.

Complained to the Authorities

Number 3: Complain. Complain to the authorities.

As you read through chapter 4, time speeds up when you get to verse 6. Ezra will return to the people building their temple at the end of the chapter. But first he keeps following the theme of opposition. What happens to opposition over the next 80 or so years.

There are actually 3 further examples here. Verse 6, an accusation during the reign of Xerxes. Verse 7, Bishlam and others wrote a letter during the reign of Artaxerxes. We’re not told what was in their letter. Then verse 8, Rehum and Shimshai write another letter during the reign of Artaxerxes. And that letter is reproduced in full in verses 9 to 16.

It’s a wicked letter. The people may not even have known it was being sent. They certainly had no chance to reply its scandalous accusations. They were powerless, as their opponents lodged an official complaint to the authorities, and a letter comes back ordering them to stop work. It’s so unfair!

I once heard someone tell how they’d been disciplined at work. A complaint was filed against them. To begin with, they weren’t even allowed to know this had happened. Then they had to stop work while the claims were investigated. They were told that a complaint was being looked into, but not what they were accused of. They had no chance to put their side of the story, while other people determined their future. The most frustrating part was the utter powerlessness they felt.

That’s what happens here.

The letter totally misrepresents things. These are tactics still used today by opponents of the gospel. Let me show you 5 lies in this letter.

Number 1: Wide support. In verses 9 and 10 they claim to be speaking for a huge group across the Persian empire. This may have been a bit more than them and their mates, but it was certainly nowhere as big as this. Today, when people complain about a church or its ministry, you often hear that “people are concerned”, which really just means the person complaining making it sound bigger.

Number 2: Negative language. Verse 12 should colour how the king sees Jerusalem. It’s a “rebellious and wicked city”. “Far be it from us to lead a witness. Draw your own conclusions, O king.” You read a report in the newspaper about a church, and we’re told it has a long history of causing trouble, with no evidence supplied.

Number 3: Exaggerated effect. Verse 13: If this building goes on, you’ll lose income tax and VAT completely from a huge area. Verse 16: If this happens, the king will be left with nothing across the whole of Trans-Euphrates, a great swathe of the Persian empire. Jerusalem’s influence was never that big. And so today, you get arguments about the slippery slope. Let this church continue, who knows where it might end?

Number 4: Total loyalty. Look at them fawning. Verse 11: “your servants”. Verse 14: “Since we are under obligation to the palace, and it is not proper for us to see the king diminished.” Their prime loyalty is to the king. Suddenly, they’re all into citizenship and the common good, if that gets their complaint taken seriously

And number 5: Biased report. Verse 15: “Check the archives, but lest you look in the wrong place you’re looking for evidence of trouble. Don’t look for Daniel the Jew who served successive kings loyally and with great ability. Don’t look for Esther and her cousin Mordecai who foiled a plot on the king’s life. Just look at the negatives.” And so complaints today will never mention the enormous amount of good that a church does every day – only the problem in question.

It’s a hideously dishonest letter, and the people are powerless to stop it. And the same tactics are at work today.

Three strategies to stop what they’re doing: Invite compromise. Attack their courage. Complain to the authorities.


Such is the opposition they face rebuilding the temple.

But how does this link to the opposition we might face as we build the living temple, as we spread the good news of Jesus and invite others to join us in following him?

There are two things that need to be said.

Firstly, opposition is inevitable. It’s inevitable.

I’ve shown you how Ezra records 4 pieces of opposition spanning over 80 years. He’s still writing about the temple during the time of Cyrus. Look how the chapter ends, verse 24: “Thus the work on the house of God in Jerusalem came to a standstill until the second year of the reign of Darius king of Persia.”

This is how the work came to a standstill. How? With the kind of opposition he’s just recorded, 80 years’ worth. The trouble that Zerubbabel faced in verses 2 and 3 was not a one-off bad day. It has always been thus. When God’s people seek to build his kingdom, that work will be opposed.

And so we carry the story on. Take Jesus himself. As a toddler, his life was threatened when the wise men told Herod a new king was born. Satan tempted him in the garden. The disciples lost courage and fled. The religious leaders suddenly became the most loyal Roman subjects, complaining to the authorities. They spoke only of the threat Jesus was, and ignoring everything good. If this continues, they said, the Romans will come and take away our temple. It’s a slippery slope. Look huge crowds are crying out for him to be crucified.

It has always been thus. Jesus said this, John chapter 15, verse 18: If the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated me first. Sure enough, read the book of Acts: the same tactics were used to try and stop the good news from spreading.

And the same today. If we want to tell other people about Jesus, and see his church grow, then Satan will want to stop that. He’ll invite our leaders to compromise, undermine our courage, and get people to work with the civil authorities against us.

The ways we experience that opposition may be mild compared to some parts of the world, where the intimidation and threats are on a whole different level. We know what to expect, and we know how to pray for others where it’s fierce.

Opposition is inevitable.


Second, opposition is successful.

Sorry to end on such a negative note, but it’s the note our chapter ends on. Opposition works.

Verse 5: frustrated “their plans during the entire reign of Cyrus king of Persia and down to the reign of Darius.” Verse 23: “They went immediately to the Jews in Jerusalem and compelled them by force to stop.” Verse 24: “Thus the work on the house of God in Jerusalem came to a standstill.”

Opposition actually does work. That’s the message of this chapter.

How tempting it is to move quickly to chapter 5 and the fact they eventually got the temple built. Just like it’s tempting to move quickly from Good Friday to Easter Sunday. Jesus’ death was not the end of the story, but he did die. The opposition did not have the last word, but the opposition did happen and was successful.

This is not a chapter to slip over glibly. It would be lovely to say that Satan may try his hardest but he won’t succeed because Jesus reigns. The reality is, the work stops for 16 years. 16 years!

Satan will try his hardest. Not just he might. He will. And sometimes his opposition will succeed.

We have work to do. The Lord Jesus died to purchase us as his own. He calls us to live for him, and to spread the good news, to call others to follow him too. And as we do his work, we have an enemy who is not just theoretical. He’s real.

So we need to be aware of his schemes. We need to be one step ahead of him. He’ll invite compromise, he’ll attack our courage, he’ll get people to lie to the authorities.

And once we’ve learnt that we have a real enemy whose schemes succeed, we’ll know how to spot his tricks. Fully prepared, we get on with the work.

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