The Fifth in a Series of Sermons on Ezra-Nehemiah
The Jews in Jerusalem are discouraged. Hauled-off into captivity to the city of Babylon some seventy years earlier, only to have their Babylonian captors defeated by the Persians, the Persian king, Cyrus, then ordered their resettlement back in their original homeland, even giving them the funding to rebuild their temple, and their capital city of Jerusalem. Absent from the area around Jerusalem for these seventy-years, and with the city and the temple desolate, Israel’s neighbors to the north are relieved. The Jews, who were both a religious and military power, are no longer a threat. But these same neighbors are quite disconcerted to hear that the Jews have returned to their land to rebuild, with both the funding and the blessing of the Persian king. Upon their return, the Jews begin rebuilding the altar and foundation of their temple, they have begun offering sacrifices to YHWH, and celebrating the feasts required by the law of Moses. At first, their neighbors to the north–the people of the land–offer to help. When the leaders of the now-returned exiles, Jeshua (Joshua) and Zerubbabel, see through their ruse, and reject their offer, the people of the land begin an eighty-year long period of hassling the Jews, threatening them, bribing local officials, and doing everything in their power to stop the Jews from rebuilding. As a consequence, the people of Israel have become discouraged, and work on the temple has come to a halt. But God will send two prophets to encourage his people, and remind them of his promise that the temple will be rebuilt, and the walls of the city restored. Meanwhile, the people of the land, are determine to stop the Jews, and a local official, perhaps unknowingly, will take up their cause.
We left off last time in 520 BC, when the work of rebuilding the temple ceased. In the last verse of chapter 4 (v. 24), Ezra told us that “then [i.e., in 520 BC] the work on the house of God that is in Jerusalem stopped, and it ceased until the second year of the reign of Darius king of Persia.” Cyrus’ decree, which returned the Jews to the land and funded the temple had been issued in 538. There had been two years of good progress, until things slowed down, and the work finally stopped in 536. The rebuilding of the temple stopped because of reasons recounted by Ezra in verses 4-5 of chapter 4. “Then the people of the land discouraged the people of Judah and made them afraid to build and bribed counselors against them to frustrate their purpose, all the days of Cyrus king of Persia, even until the reign of Darius king of Persia.” After the foundation of the temple was laid and the alter rebuilt in 536 BC–a time of great joy–the Israelites grew very discouraged. According to Ezra, it was about this time that Israel’s neighbors to the north began their non-stop campaign of harassment, bribery, as well as inciting political intrigue among their Persian landlords, putting great pressure on the Jews to stop rebuilding both the temple and the city of Jerusalem. The Jews grew discouraged and the work ceased.
As we saw last time, the Jews became discouraged because of two related factors. First, as for Israel’s neighbors to the north–the people of the land–they are troubled by the rebuilding of the temple, in so far as such a temple was dedicated exclusively to YHWH according to the dictates of the law of Moses. The people of the land who hassle the Israelites were a mix of Canaanite locals, apostate Jews who remained behind during the time of captivity, as well as Assyrian exiles transplanted to Samaria from areas captured by the Babylonians. Now the entire region was under Persian political and military jurisdiction.
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