GOD’S ENEMIES USE FAMILIAR TACTICS TO OPPOSE GOD’S WORK AND ACHIEVE TEMPORARY VICTORIES
When God’s people respond to the call to focus on God’s work, the enemy will quickly rise up in opposition. Fortunately, their tactics can be easily recognized and combated as long as one has the discernment and conviction to stand on biblical convictions. But that does not mean that the road will be easy or painless. Quite the opposite. There will be temporary short-lived victories by the enemy that are designed to discourage God’s people and distract them from persevering from the task at hand. We are called to do battle with the enemy, trusting in the faithfulness of our conquering God.
Loken: With the progress of the rebuilding project comes the antagonism of those who had previously controlled the land of Israel. This section builds on the previous chapter by detailing the response of the neighbors to the efforts of the Jews. One might anticipate that the foreigners of the land would be hostile to the growing Jewish influence in the province. By this time, they had lived in the province of Judah for decades, many perhaps being born in the land of Israel. Now, a group they currently regarded as “foreigners” was taking their land and influence away.
Williamson: Finally, at this point, when the community seems to be making progress in restoration, the first ominous note of opposition is struck, and it is one that will dominate much of the rest of these books. The message is made clear from the outset: however attractive the offer of help might seem, the work can only proceed on the basis of God’s revealed will, expressed in this case through the decree of Cyrus. Individuals might certainly join the community by their complete identification with it, but the community cannot conversely jeopardize its identity by merging with other groups as such. Time and again, the sequel is to show that this seemingly unattractive stance was nevertheless the correct one.
Rata: Opposition to God’s work did not originate, nor did it cease with Ezra and Nehemiah. While this opposition was accompanied by lies, pressures, and persecutions, God’s work succeeded because it was of God and not of man. This truth should be a great comfort and encouragement to Christians in all times and all places when confronted with opposition to God’s work. Even so, today’s Christian leaders should always be on guard, being ready to deal with opposition, being mindful that the Christian does not spend his/her life on a playground, but rather on a battlefield.
I. (:1-5) GOD’S ENEMIES USE FAMILIAR TACTICS TO OPPOSE GOD’S WORK
A. (:1-2) Deception Offers Cooperation that Really Leads to Compromise
1. (:1) God’s Work Stirs Up Opposition from God’s Enemies
“Now when the enemies of Judah and Benjamin heard that the people of the exile were building a temple to the LORD God of Israel,”
Whitcomb: These two tribes are mentioned in particular because they now constituted the majority of the nation, and it was in their old territories that the remnant now lived.
Loken: The foreign policy of the Assyrians involved the exile of vanquished nations and the transplantation of foreigners into the conquered territories. This was done in hopes of preventing rebellions throughout their vast empire. The mixture of different cultures, languages, and religions made a unified rebellion nearly impossible. It must be remembered that at this time victorious nations did not have the resources to leave a standing army in each of the regions they conquered. As a result, they had to resort to other measures in an effort to control their subjects. Deportation served as the most severe of these techniques.
The foreign policy of the Assyrians, and subsequently the Babylonians, would eventually have a dramatic effect on the ethnic and religious population of the land of Israel. The foreigners transplanted to Israel intermarried with the Jews who had remained in the land. Although most of the Jews had been deported, and still more had journeyed to Egypt under Johanan, there was still a significant number of Jews who were left in the land. It has been estimated that the remnant of Jews who remained in Judah during the Babylonian exile numbered about twenty thousand souls. This remnant managed to eke out a meager existence as farmers and herdsmen.
The offspring that resulted from the union of unfaithful Jews and heathen colonists became known as the Samaritans, a mixed breed in both race and religion. The religion of the Samaritans was a syncretistic blend of the Hebrew form of Yahwism instituted by Jeroboam I and the pagan mysticism brought in by the colonists. This syncretistic form of worship was denounced by Ezra and Nehemiah with the result that the Samaritans were excluded from the worship activities performed in the temple. The Samaritans, led by Sanballat, erected a sanctuary on Mount Gerizim (near the ancient town of Shechem) in 409 b.c. following the expulsion of Manasseh from Jerusalem by Nehemiah. They also instituted their own priesthood (most of the Levites remained in Jerusalem) and regarded the Pentateuch alone as authoritative. The rift between the Jews and the Samaritans continued throughout the intertestamental period. During the time of Christ, the Jews and Samaritans had little social and commercial contact (cf. John 4:4–9).
2. (:2) God’s Enemies Like to Disguise Themselves as God’s Friends
a. Sly Approach
“they approached Zerubbabel
and the heads of fathers’ households,”
b. Seductive Appeal
“and said to them, ‘Let us build with you,’”
c. Seamless Aspirations
“for we, like you, seek your God;”
d. Shameless Argumentation
“and we have been sacrificing to Him since the days of Esarhaddon king of Assyria, who brought us up here.’”
Rata: Esarhaddon ruled Assyria from 681–669 bc and repopulated the land after many were taken into exile. Such repopulations were not so unusual since other Assyrian kings such as Sargon II (722–705 bc) and Ashurbanipal (669–633 bc) did it during their respective reigns.
B. (:3) Discernment Reinforces the Conviction of Separation in God’s Work
1. Making Distinctions that Necessitate Separation in God’s Work
“But Zerubbabel and Jeshua and the rest of the heads of fathers’ households of Israel said to them, ‘You have nothing in common with us in building a house to our God;’”
Derek Thomas: And you’re shocked by the suddenness, the outright, no holes barred rejection. What is the motivation? And the motivation, you see, is perfectly clear ― that these people of the land were pluralists, they were syncretists, to be sure they worshiped the God Israel, but they worshiped several other gods as well. And there’ve been excavations of this period in the region of Samaria giving evidence of the multiplicity of gods that were worshiped by these people. They are saying “no” to this offer because it’s an offer that coming from syncretists and pluralists.
2. Maintaining Solidarity to Stay on Mission
“but we ourselves will together build to the LORD God of Israel,”
3. Mandating Conformity to Their Mission Authorization
“as King Cyrus, the king of Persia has commanded us.”
Gary Smith: There were two rationales for this decision:
(1) In contrast to their neighbors’ claim, the Jewish leaders believed that they did not worship the same God. Thus, there was no basis for cooperation.
(2) A literal interpretation of the decree of Cyrus indicated that authorization to rebuild the Temple was granted only to the Jews who returned from Babylon. Both points naturally lead to the conclusion that Israel’s neighbors could not be allowed to join in the rebuilding project.
C. (:4-5) Deployment of Familiar Tactics
“Then the people of the land discouraged the people of Judah,”
Derek Thomas: One of Satan’s stratagems, you know, Satan doesn’t have many stratagems. Some of us are dull enough to fall for the same one time after time after time. And as C. S. Lewis so eloquently pointed out in Screwtape Letters when an older demon is teaching one of his apprentices, saying to his apprentice, “Have you tried discouragement because it always works?” And that’s the very stratagem that Satan is employing here.
Rata: The opposition’s first weapon is discouragement, which then led to fear. This fear was supposed to paralyze the people of God, and in some respects it did, but only for a while (4:24). Corruption was alive and well even then, and the opposition found corrupt counselors to carry out their plan. Blenkinsopp suggests that these counselors were “officials in the imperial bureaucracy.” The people of God had a divinely appointed purpose which the opposition tried to frustrate. We are reminded that opposition is not necessarily a sign that we’re doing something wrong, but it can be a sign that we’re doing something right. The Chronicler shows the opposition as being constant and continuing throughout Cyrus’ reign (559–530 bc), until the reign of Darius (522–486 bc).
“and frightened them from building,”
“and hired counselors against them to frustrate their counsel all the days of Cyrus king of Persia, even until the reign of Darius king of Persia.”
Fensham: It is not expressly stated what had disheartened and frightened the people of Judah. If we take counsellors as referring to the Persian governors, the whole issue becomes clear. The Persian officials were bribed to frustrate the plans of the returnees. Bribery as a practice was well known in Persian times.8 This lasted from … Darius king of the Persians. This phrase shows that the author had a correct view of the historical sequel. Through the reign of Cambyses up to the time of Darius the enemies of Judah9 succeeded in stopping the building operations.
Derek Kidner: The resulting campaign of harassment by the local people had the double force of persistence (the Heb. has a string of participles: they kept doing these things) and of variety. Discouragement (4a) relies on the subtle weapons of suggestion and sneers; intimidation (4b) and threats. Not content with these, they must get their victims discredited and on the wrong side of the authorities—and they were prepared to buy professional help (5) to achieve this.
It is small wonder that they succeeded. The supply-lines from Lebanon (3:7) were long and vulnerable, the new community felt exposed and surrounded; besides, as Haggai’s preaching was to reveal, the excuse to postpone something as expensive and burdensome as building the house of God was rather tempting (cf. Hag. 1:2ff.). For about sixteen years, to 520 bc, the pressure against them was kept up, and as verse 24 will show, it was wholly effective.
Gary Smith: By bribing Persian officials on the provincial and national level, permission to cut and haul wood could be delayed, Persian financial assistance could be cut off for a time, and an atmosphere of distrust and suspicion could develop.
II. (:6-23) HISTORICAL PARENTHESIS – FLASH FORWARD –
GOD’S ENEMIES CAN ACHIEVE TEMPORARY VICTORIES –
STOPPING THE JEWISH BUILDING ACTIVITIES OF THE CITY WALLS
A. (:6-10) Context of the Letter of Accusation Addressed to King Artaxerxes
1. (:6-7) Historical Timeframe for the Composition of the Letter
a. (:6) Complaint Originating in Reign of Ahasuerus
“Now in the reign of Ahasuerus, in the beginning of his reign, they wrote an accusation against the inhabitants of Judah and Jerusalem.”
b. (:7) Letter Written to Artaxerxes in Aramaic
“And in the days of Artaxerxes, Bishlam, Mithredath, Tabeel, and the rest of his colleagues, wrote to Artaxerxes king of Persia; and the text of the letter was written in Aramaic and translated from Aramaic.”
Whitcomb: Probably Samaritans who hired two high Persian officials – Rehum the chancellor and Shimshai the scribe (v. 8) – to write the letter of 4:11-16 to Artaxerxes accusing the Jews of rebuilding the walls of Jerusalem.
Derek Thomas: So, in the space from verse 5 to verse 7, we’ve jumped ahead almost 100 years. We’ve gone from 537 to 520. We’ve gone to the reign of Xerxes and now we’ve gone to the reign of Artaxerxes. And again during Artaxerxes’ reign there’s another opposition, there’s another stratagem attempting to bring the work of God to a halt. The work of God that’s being brought to a halt in verses 7 and following is a different work from the work that was being referred to in verse 5.
In verse 5 what is being brought to a halt is the rebuilding of the temple. Now, that temple was actually built again, but in verse 7 and following what is being brought to a halt is not the rebuilding of the temple, it’s the rebuilding of the city and the city walls. What Nehemiah, the book of Nehemiah is largely concerned with. It’s crucial to understand that because from verse 23 we jump all the way back 100 years. In verse 23, the reference to the stoppage, they made haste by force and power and made them cease–that’s the rebuilding of the walls of Jerusalem in the time of Artaxerxes.
Now, in verse 24, we’ve gone all the way back to where we were in verse 5 and where the plot line and story of the book of Ezra is in the rebuilding of the temple. Then the work of house of God, the temple of God that is in Jerusalem stopped.
2. (:8-10) Historical Figures Composing the Letter
“Rehum the commander and Shimshai the scribe wrote a letter against Jerusalem to King Artaxerxes, as follows– 9 then wrote Rehum the commander and Shimshai the scribe and the rest of their colleagues, the judges and the lesser governors, the officials, the secretaries, the men of Erech, the Babylonians, the men of Susa, that is, the Elamites, 10 and the rest of the nations which the great and honorable Osnappar deported and settled in the city of Samaria, and in the rest of the region beyond the River.”
Loken: There is an obvious reason for most of the Aramaic in Ezra. It is mainly composed of copies of official correspondence, for which Aramaic was the customary language. Fifty-two of the sixty-seven verses fall into this category. The other fifteen verses serve as connecting passages. There are two main views as to the reason for this occurrence. First, the Aramaic material may be extracted from an Aramaic history of the period. In this case, the entire section would have been copied from a single source document. Second, since the original readers of Ezra obviously knew Aramaic, the author simply keeps the connecting passages in Aramaic to avoid transitioning from one language to another. As Allen notes, “The extensive quotation in the following verses from four letters written in Aramaic led the narrator to pen framing and bridging material in that language. Such linguistic attraction also occurs in the Mishnah.” Either view is equally plausible.
B. (:11-16) Content of the Letter of Accusation Addressed to King Artaxerxes
1. (:11) Personal Address
“And now this is the copy of the letter which they sent to him: ‘To King Artaxerxes: Your servants, the men in the region beyond the River,’”
2. (:12) Primary Accusation
“and now let it be known to the king, that the Jews who came up from you have come to us at Jerusalem; they are rebuilding the rebellious and evil city, and are finishing the walls and repairing the foundations.”
Constable: Artaxerxes was the successor of Ahasuerus (Xerxes) and ruled the Persian Empire from 464 to 424 B.C. Clearly the incident reported in these verses took place long after the temple was complete. It really involved the attempt by Israel’s enemies to halt the rebuilding of Jerusalem’s wall in the days of Nehemiah. It evidently took place about 446 B.C. (cf. 4:21-23; Neh. 1:1-3). The writer’s purpose in inserting this incident in the text was evidently to show the continued antagonism of Israel’s enemies and the faithfulness of God in giving the Jews victory over them.
3. (:13) Potentially Damaging Consequences
“Now let it be known to the king, that if that city is rebuilt and the walls are finished, they will not pay tribute, custom, or toll, and it will damage the revenue of the kings.”
4. (:14-15) Praiseworthy Motivation
a. (:14) Concerned for the King’s Honor
“Now because we are in the service of the palace,
and it is not fitting for us to see the king’s dishonor,
therefore we have sent and informed the king,”
Fensham: The second consequence, couched in a metaphor, refers to the fact that such a rebellion will put the king to shame. In v. 14 the close relationship between the officials and the king is expressed by a metaphor, “we eat the salt of the palace” or “we salted with the salt of the palace.” The king put to shame. In Aramaic, “we do not want to see the shame of the king.” Verse 14 shows that the Samaritans were also interested in their own future. There is a strong egoistic tendency in what they wrote. Did they believe in what they wrote? 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.
Breneman: Salt was often used to seal covenants; thus it implies loyalty (cf. Lev 2:13; Num 18:19; 2 Chr 13:5). “Eating the salt of” came to be an idiomatic expression for “being in the service of” or “receiving a salary from.” Our word “salary” is derived from Latin salarium, “salt money.” A pretense of loyalty and concern for the king’s honor is used with no mention of the true motives of personal gain.
b. (:15) Calling for Historical Research
“so that a search may be made in the record books of your fathers. And you will discover in the record books, and learn that that city is a rebellious city and damaging to kings and provinces, and that they have incited revolt within it in past days; therefore that city was laid waste.”
5. (:16) Pessimistic Outcome
“We inform the king that, if that city is rebuilt and the walls finished, as
a result you will have no possession in the province beyond the River.”
Presenting the worst case scenario; exaggerating the potential loss of dominion
Constable: Israel’s enemies presented three reasons Artaxerxes should withdraw the Jews’ building permit. They warned that the Jews would stop paying taxes when their fortifications were complete (v. 13), and the consequent decline in revenue would hurt the king’s reputation (v. 14). Moreover, if the Jews continued to rebuild a city that had a reputation for rebellion, their actions might encourage other peoples in other parts of the empire to revolt (vv. 15-16).
Fensham: In v. 16 a typical example of the exaggeration of the Samaritans occurs. They wanted the king to believe that the rebuilding of the wall of Jerusalem would create such a dangerous position in the province of the Trans-Euphrates that at the end nothing would be left for the king. This could only happen if a rebellion in Jerusalem could spread over the whole province. It is obviously an exaggeration of the real circumstances.
C. (:17-23) Response of King Artaxerxes
1. (:17a) Targeted Recipients of the Response
“Then the king sent an answer to Rehum the commander, to Shimshai the scribe, and to the rest of their colleagues who live in Samaria and in the rest of the provinces beyond the River:”
2. (:17b-20) Testimony of Due Diligence
a. (:17b) Polite Blessing
b. (:18) Document Receipt
“And now the document which you sent to us
has been translated and read before me.”
c. (:19-20) Detailed Responses
1) (:19a) Issuing of a Decree
“And a decree has been issued by me,”
2) (:19b-20) Investigating the Historical Background
“and a search has been made and it has been discovered that that city has risen up against the kings in past days, that rebellion and revolt have been perpetrated in it, 20 that mighty kings have ruled over Jerusalem, governing all the provinces beyond the River, and that tribute, custom, and toll were paid to them.”
Loken: Artaxerxes next described the steps he took upon hearing the interpretation of the letter. To his credit, Artaxerxes carefully researched the claims of Rehum. After a thorough search of the Assyrian and Babylonian annals, the king discovered that Jerusalem did indeed have a long history of rebelling against its suzerains. He also discovered that some of Jerusalem’s kings had been quite powerful, even to the point of receiving tribute. This seems to be a reference to David and Solomon (and perhaps even to Uzziah and Hezekiah). If Jerusalem had been that powerful in the past, it could certainly rise to prominence again in the future, thereby posing a threat to the Persian Empire and Artaxerxes himself.
Gary Smith: This raises questions about the basis and objectivity of the king’s decision, for it seems to be based on a limited amount of information and not the full history of Israel. Was it a political move made out of fear, or a reasoned response based on factual information about the behavior of the people who now lived in Judah?
Breneman: The sentence begins, “Powerful kings were over Jerusalem.” The phrase is ambiguous and can be taken as powerful kings of Jerusalem, such as David and Solomon, who ruled a large area; or it could refer to other powerful kings who ruled over Jerusalem and received taxes from Jerusalem. There is more irony at the end of Artaxerxes’ reply when he ordered the Samarian officials not to neglect the very thing they wanted to do in the first place.
3. (:21-23) Tackling the Main Accusation Head-On
a. (:21-22) Sending Out the Stop Work Decree
1) (:21) Careful Order
“So, now issue a decree to make these men stop work,
that the city may not be rebuilt until a decree is issued by me.”
Whitcomb: This final clause left the door open for the king to change his mind, as we find in Nehemiah 2! Truly this was providential, for the laws of the Medes and the Persians changed not!
2) (:22) Urgent Execution
“And beware of being negligent in carrying out this matter;
why should damage increase to the detriment of the kings?”
b. (:23) Stopping the Jewish Building Activities of the City Walls
“Then as soon as the copy of King Artaxerxes’ document was read before Rehum and Shimshai the scribe and their colleagues, they went in haste to Jerusalem to the Jews and stopped them by force of arms.”
Fensham: After the Samaritan officials received the letter of the king, they hurried to Jerusalem to stop building activities. By force of arms quite probably refers to a contingent of soldiers they took with them. This was a day of great shame to the Jewish population because their honest endeavor was thwarted by their archenemies, the Samaritans, and it was forced on them by Samaritan soldiers.
Gary Smith: What we learn from this section is that opposition to God’s people, God’s holy place, and the worship of God takes many forms. Persecution can involve threatening God’s people to discourage them (4:4) or slyly influencing political authorities to frustrate believers so that some will eventually stop following God’s divine plan (4:5). Persecution often happens when those who hate God’s work gather their friends together to make a concerted effort to oppose what God is doing (4:7–9). This oppression can involve false statements or exaggerated claims that paint believers with false generalizations or raise unfounded fears (4:13–16). Those who persecute believers may be motivated by the desire for greater political power or any number of prideful or revengeful attitudes. Believers throughout the ages have faced opposition like this, and the Bible indicates that those who put their faith in Christ will continue to face the hatred of the world (John 15:18–19; 17:14–17). Jesus encouraged his followers by telling them that those who suffered persecution would be blessed (Matt 5:10), while Peter encouraged his readers to expect persecution, for Christ also suffered for things he did not do (1 Pet 3:13–18).
III. (:24) RESUMPTION OF THE NARRATIVE –
GOD’S ENEMIES CAN ACHIEVE TEMPORARY VICTORIES –
STOPPING THE JEWISH BUILDING ACTIVITIES OF THE HOUSE OF GOD
“Then work on the house of God in Jerusalem ceased, and it was stopped until the second year of the reign of Darius king of Persia.”
Fensham: Thus ch. 4 is not meant to be in chronological sequence; rather it supplies us with a logical thought pattern wherein the most important actions of the Samaritans against the Jews are enumerated. In v. 24 the author comes back to his chronological sequence, interrupted by 4:6–23.
Wiersbe: The king ordered the Jews to stop rebuilding the city. In fact, it’s likely that the Persians wrecked the work the Jews had already completed, and the report that Nehemiah received from his brother described what the Persians had done, not what the Babylonians had done (Neh. 1:1-3). It wasn’t until the arrival of Nehemiah in 445 that the work was resumed and the walls were finished and the gates restored.
Breneman: The author so skillfully crafted his account that v. 24 appears to logically follow v. 23. The connection, however, is with v. 5. As noted earlier, vv. 6–23 are a parenthesis to show the real attitude of those who offered help in v. 2 and to show the continuity of the opposition to the Jews even after the period of temple construction. The surrounding peoples obstructed the rebuilding of the temple, and later they would obstruct the rebuilding of the city.
Darius I (522–486) took over the Persian Empire after the civil war following the death of Cambyses (see Introduction). As often happens in such times of uncertainty, the empire was threatened with dissolution. There were revolts in every direction. But by Darius’s second year (520 b.c.), he had put down the rebellions and stabilized the empire (except for trouble in Egypt in 518–519). Under his rule the Persian Empire reached its greatest power and splendor.