Ezra: Bureaucratic Meddling

Sermon by Derek Thomas on April 13, 2008

Ezra 5:3-17

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The Lord's Day Evening

April 13, 2008

Ezra 5:3-17

“Bureaucratic Meddling”

Dr. Derek W. H. Thomas

Please be seated. Now turn with me once again to the book of Ezra (Ezra 5), and we're going to read the whole chapter together. Two weeks ago we were looking together at the opening two verses which summarize for us the ministry of two of what we sometimes refer to as the “minor” prophets. I'm not sure when we get to heaven what Haggai and Zechariah will think of that description as being “minor” prophets! Zechariah…in my Sunday School class at the minute, we're studying Zechariah and there are some complicated things in the book of Zechariah.

Following the return from exile, which took place in 537 B.C…. They’d been in exile for seventy years…some fifteen years, sixteen years or so have passed. We are now in 520 B.C. You remember that Haggai had chastised the people because, instead of building the temple, they had been building for themselves houses — and fine houses, and “sealed” (as the King James says) or “paneled” houses, perhaps inferring that the wood drawn from the northern territories beyond Galilee that had been brought for the construction of various parts of the temple building (particularly its roof) had been used for personal use in the construction of their homes. Zechariah had prophesied great visions, some of which had been pronouncements of sin, and others had been visions of a glorious future, a renewed Jerusalem, of peoples streaming into the city of Jerusalem, a new day that would dawn in the apocalyptic language that Zechariah was so fond of using. Well, that more or less summed up the first two verses of Ezra 5, but we’ll read now from the beginning of the chapter to get the sense of it right through to the end of the chapter. Before we do so, let's look to God and ask for His help.

O Lord our God, as we bow now in Your presence before the authority of Scripture, we want to confess again that all Scripture is given by the out-breathing of God and is profitable for doctrine and reproof, and correction and instruction in the way of righteousness, that the man of God might be thoroughly furnished unto every good work. So come, Lord, and help us to read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest, and all for Jesus’ sake. Amen.

This is God's word:

“Now the prophets, Haggai and Zechariah the son of Iddo, prophesied to the Jews who were in Judah and Jerusalem, in the name of the God of Israel who was over them. Then Zerubbabel the son of Shealtiel and Jeshua the son of Jozadak arose and began to rebuild the house of God that is in Jerusalem. And the prophets of God were with them, supporting them.

“At the same time Tattenai the governor of the province Beyond the River and Shetharn-bozenai and their associates came to them and spoke to them thus: ‘Who gave you a decree to build this house and to finish this structure?’ They also asked them this: ‘What are the names of the men who are building this building?’ But the eye of their God was on the elders of the Jews, and they did not stop them until the report should reach Darius and then an answer be returned by letter concerning it.

“This is a copy of the letter that Tattenai the governor of the province Beyond the River and Shethar-bozenai and his associates, the governors who were in the province Beyond the River, sent to Darius the king. They sent him a report, in which was written as follows: ‘To Darius the king, all peace. Be it known to the king that we went to the province of Judah, to the house of the great God. It is being built with huge stones, and timber is laid in the walls. This work goes on diligently and prospers in their hands. Then we asked those elders and spoke to them thus: ‘Who gave you a decree to build this house and to finish this structure?’ We also asked them their names, for your information, that we might write down the names of their leaders. And this was their reply to us: ‘We are the servants of the God of heaven and earth, and we are rebuilding the house that was built many years ago, which a great king of Israel built and finished. But because our fathers had angered the God of heaven, he gave them into the hand of Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon, the Chaldean, who destroyed this house and carried away the people to Babylonia. However, in the first year of Cyrus king of Babylon, Cyrus the king made a decree that this house of God should be rebuilt. And the gold and silver vessels of the house of God, which Nebuchadnezzar had taken out of the temple that was in Jerusalem and brought into the temple of Babylon, these Cyrus the king took out of the temple of Babylon, and they were delivered to one whose name was Sheshbazzar, whom he had made governor; and he said to him, ‘Take these vessels, go and put them in the temple that is in Jerusalem, and let the house of God be rebuilt on its site.’ Then this Sheshbazzar came and laid the foundations of the house of God that is in Jerusalem, and from that time until now it has been in building, and it is not yet finished.’ Therefore, if it seems good to the king, let search be made in the royal archives there in Babylon, to see whether a decree was issued by Cyrus the king for the rebuilding of this house of God in Jerusalem. And let the king send us his pleasure in this matter.’”

So far God's holy and inerrant word. May He add His blessing to the reading of it.

The first couple of years of the reign of king Darius…Darius came to the throne in the year 522 B.C….that was about fourteen or fifteen years or so after their return from Babylon. And the first couple of years or so of Darius’ rule as the king and sovereign of the Persian Empire was a troubled period. His coming to power had been troubled. There had been, as we were recounting a couple of weeks ago, the death of both of Cyrus’ two sons, Cambyses and Smerdes. Their deaths were interesting, to say the least; not least because of the intrigue, the political intrigue, (sometimes even Machiavellian intrigue) that lay in the reigns of the Persian kings.

Well, these skirmishes that Darius knew in the first two years would continue throughout his reign. He would reign for 37 years. There would be attempts from regions in former Babylon. There would be attempts made by the Ionians. There was the famous battle that we all know of, of the Marathon, in the location of Marathon in Greece, when a runner would run the famous distance to Athens. When in this case the Persians lost that battle against an Ionian revolt, the first thing that Darius did on coming to power was to declare his rule throughout the empire. There's a famous pillar or stone, a rock pillar on which the decree was carved. It was carved in Akkadian cuneiform, the language of the peoples at that time. We've heard this week, I think, of the charge of elitism in politics. We won't go into that at all, except to say that Darius was something of an elitist, and he invented a new form of language in which the royal decrees of the king would be issued.

The text begins claiming his rule in the name of Zoroaster. Zoroaster and Zarathustra — you may be familiar with these names — are Persian deities, and the Persian Empire had a sort of polytheistic view of religion. When they conquered various nations and peoples, they took over the deities of those people. That's why in the letter that Tattenai sends to Darius he refers to “the great God” referring to the God of Israel, taking over now as part of the accumulation of the trophies of the Persian Empire this local deity of the Jews.

Various governorships — twenty of them, or more — were established throughout the Persian Empire. One such terrain governorship was the governorship known here in the ESV that we read together here this evening, as Beyond the River. Beyond, that is, the Euphrates River. It's referring to a region established by the Persian king partly in order to secure the taxation policies of the king. It would include Judah, and Jerusalem and it would include maybe some outlying areas, the river in this case of course being the Euphrates River.

Tattenai is the governor of this region in which Judah (and more particularly Jerusalem) is to be found. Tattenai and his perhaps under-secretary Shethar-bozenai and their associates…there's an impressive delegation then that make their way now to Jerusalem. And what is it that they see when they come to Jerusalem? Well, what they see when they come to Jerusalem is a building project. They would have seen what folk on State Street would have seen for eighteen months, two years ago as they drove past during the sanctuary rebuilding: a massive building project roughly the same size as this building– the construction of the second temple. Stones, massive stones…did you pick up in the reading “huge stones” in verse 8?

Some of you have been to Jerusalem. You've gone to the Wailing Wall, perhaps. You've gone to the left of the Wailing Wall, and there's a kind of cave. And you walk into that cave and you look down. They've excavated down and down and down, and way down below with lights shining on them are these massive stones. They are probably in all likelihood the original stones of the second temple, this temple that's being referred to here. It would take quite some doing. I would love to speak to some of you architects and builders, and civil engineers especially, as to what this might entail, simply moving these stones. The stones were probably lying there following its destruction in 586 by the Babylonians, and now the foundation had been laid. It had been laid sixteen years ago, and now they were beginning to erect the walls. This temple was now beginning to take shape. There's even reference in our reading of wooden beams in the walls of the temple. So there's something that looks now like a structure, a building with huge stones. And Tattenai is suspicious. It's like the International Atomic Energy Agency or the equivalent! There is something going on in Jerusalem, and it looks like some military project, perhaps, that would threaten the empire of Persia.

Now three things I want us to see.

I. An act of God's prevention.

The first is an act of God's prevention…an act of God's prevention. I want us to see here in this narrative not so much what God does, but what God prevents from happening. He prevents the work from coming to a stop.

It's an important and encouraging truth that God does things, but He also prevents things. His hand is involved in every aspect, in every detail of our lives. Things happen because God orders them to happen, and He orders them to happen before they happen and in the way that they happen. But He also ensures in the course of providence that certain other things don't happen.

Tattenai the governor has asked what's going on here. And he's asked for names. Now in The New York Times yesterday…. [Don't worry; I don't get The New York Times. I simply looked at it on the internet!] But in yesterday's New York Times there was a chilling story. It's a story we've all heard before. It's the fact that we're now in 2008 and we're still reading these stories. It was a story about a Polish man in his eighties who was being charged with being a collaborator with the Nazis in Poland during the Second World War. The accusation was that of the three million Polish Jews that were exterminated in Nazi holocaust death camps, three hundred thousand of them came from the Lodz ghetto in Poland. And this man, this Polish man in his eighties, was now being charged as being a collaborator. Someone had given this agency his name. The story had a chilling, sobering closing sentence, that “other names are now being investigated.”

Now the Persian Empire cannot possibly be compared to the Nazi regime, for sure, though there are some similarities. But when — and I think we're meant to understand this by the fact that we have an adversative in verse 5 — “But the eye of their God was on the elders of the Jews.” Something sinister is happening here. When Tattenai is asking for names, he's asking for someone to be a collaborator: Tell us the names…so that he might report them to king Darius. Who knows what would happen to those individuals had those names been so given? The whole point of the story is God prevents something from happening here.

A letter has to be written. It's fascinating, isn't it, that in the Bible we have these records of actual letters that were written: one by Tattenai and one the response, the formal response that the Jews gave to Tattenai the governor. One of the things that Darius did — one of the fabulous things that Darius did in the Persian Empire was to construct so-called “royal roads.” There was a road that went all the way from Susa to Sardis in Turkey. It was 1700 miles long, and some of it was paved. It enabled a letter to be taken from Susa all the way to Sardis on horseback in a week. Every fifteen miles there would be a place to change and get fresh horses. No doubt this letter would eventually make its way along that road to Susa. God prevents, because there's no way that Tattenai can do anything if King Cyrus had actually given them instructions to rebuild this temple. While this letter is on its way, and while this letter is coming back with the answer, the work has to go on. The eye of God was upon them. God's preventative providence.

You know, we give thanks, don't we, all the time for things that God does. We’re thankful for this and that and the other…things that we can enumerate…things that God has done in our personal lives, in our family lives, in the life of this church. But there are ten thousand things that God has prevented from happening in your life and mine: accidents that could have occurred; tragedies that could have befallen us; deaths that could have occurred; all kinds of issues that God has intervened in the silent work of His preventative providence. It's something we should consider, something we should thank Him for, something we should worship Him for. What has God prevented from happening in your life?

II. A confession of sin.

The second thing that we see here is a confession of sin… a confession of sin. Why were they in this condition in 520 B.C.? Why are they doing what they’re doing, rebuilding this temple? Why had the exile occurred? For the last century they’d known nothing but trouble and trial and difficulty. And do you notice what they say when they write their responsive letter to Tattenai? They say in verse 12, “Because our fathers had angered the God of heaven….” We are in this condition, we are where we are today because our fathers angered the God of heaven.

Now it's fascinating to me on a number of counts that they should say this. It's fascinating first of all that they should say it in a public letter to a pagan ruler, that the reason we're in the condition we're in is because our fathers sinned. Our fathers broke God's covenant. Our fathers transgressed. Our fathers made God angry. That's their conclusion. It's an open public confession of sin.

Now it's also interesting because of the very language that they use, because we can put it in the form now of a question: Is God ever angry? Does God ever get angry? Some will say that God never gets angry, that it is a sub-Christian idea; that anger in the Bible is only something that's impersonal; it's not so much what God does; it's what God doesn't do. He just lets people, in the words of a famous…well, heretic!…He lets people stew in their own juice.

The trouble with that is that it doesn't do justice to the details of the Bible, because Jesus was angry. When He overturned the tables of the moneychangers in the temple, He was angry. When He healed the man with a withered hand in the synagogue and there were hypocrites who were casting aspersions as to the fact that He had done this on the Sabbath, Mark tells us in his Gospel that He looked on these hypocrites with anger. This is Jesus. Gentle Jesus meek and mild was angry, a righteous indignation, a reflex of His holy character against sin.

Well, you might say, God is angry with the heathen, the people over there in some far-off country. God is angry with murderers and child molesters, and rapists. God is angry with people like that.

But let me ask a much more personal question: Is God ever angry with Christians? Is God ever angry with you? Is God ever angry with the church? That is a much more personal question, isn't it?

We were reading this morning in Psalm 139. Our service was too condensed to even mention it, but in Psalm 139… It was a wonderful Psalm and made us feel all warm and glowing inside as we were reading Psalm 139… and then there was that imprecatory note at the end about hating one's enemies with a perfect hatred. I wanted to stop and explain what that meant. But sometimes not giving an explanation has much more force. It was very forceful. In the middle of a service that was full of Christ, there was this note, wasn't there, in Psalm 139 this morning of an imprecation against the enemies of God. Well, is God ever angry? Well, these Jewish believers in 520 B.C. said “Absolutely!” There are times when God is angry. It's apparent He's angry. And even with His children. He loves them, but He's angry with them because they've transgressed, because they've done something they shouldn't have done.

What does Paul say in Romans 11? “Behold the goodness and severity of God.” There is a goodness to God, but there's a severity to God. Now, He's slow to anger; He's long-suffering. But do you remember what Amos had said (and he was speaking of course to his own people)? “For three transgressions and for four….” Not for one transgression, not for two transgressions, but for three transgressions and for four. In other words, there's a patience with God, but there is also (Amos is saying) when the patience of God runs out. It's a terribly sobering truth, isn't it? The twelfth chapter of Hebrews — “Those whom the Lord loves, He chastens.” You know what Hebrews is quoting when he says that. It's quoting a passage that these believers in 520 B.C. would have known. It's from Proverbs 3, that “whom the Lord loves, He chastens.”

We are in this mess because our fathers had angered God. It's an open confession of their sin. Its a million miles away from modern evangelicalism, isn't it? And here it is right in the Bible: “God is a consuming fire.” That's New Testament. That's the book of Hebrews. It's not the Old Testament, it's the New Testament. “It's a fearful thing to fall into the hands of an angry God.” It's a call, of course, to obedience. It's a call to devotion; it's a call to consecration; it's a call to follow the Lord.

III. A vision of God.

But there's a third thing I want us to see here, and that is a vision of God. A vision of God, and you see it again in verse 11. This was their reply: “We are the servants…” [and do you notice how they put it?] “…we are the servants of the God of heaven and earth.” I love that!

You see, as far as the Persians were concerned, this great God that they refer to is just a local tribal deity. It's the Jewish God. They had respect — you know, what worked for them was fine. But these Jews are saying, no, our God is the God of heaven and earth. He's the God of all creation. He's the God who made all things and sustains all things. He's the God of providence. He's a God who brings things about, and He's a God who prevents things from coming about.

That's why they’re so meticulous about what they’re doing just now. What is their one chief concern? Their chief concern now in 520 BC is not the political entity of Israel. They were in no position to debate and argue the political entity of Israel. There was no political entity of Israel. There never would be — not under the Persians, not under the Greeks, not under the Romans. That entity would disappear. Even what they’re doing, even building this temple would never be quite the same temple again. There was no ark of the covenant. They don't even try to remake the ark of the covenant, to make a new one. Presumably there were no cherubim above the ark. They had also gone under Nebuchadnezzar's pilfering. But they are absolutely determined that this God of heaven and earth is going to be worshiped and He is going to be worshiped in the way that He has established that He should be worshiped. In the same place, on the same spot, and as far as possible using the very same materials.

They’re establishing a line of continuity that goes back not just to King David who built this temple, but as we shall see in chapter six, the form of worship that they will instigate is the form of worship that Moses had laid down. They’re establishing a line of continuity from Moses to David to themselves. They’re the people of God. They’re not a Johnny-come-lately, they’re the people of God! They’re God's covenant people! That's why I think the author here must have had just a little twinkle in his own eye when he wrote verse 5, that the eye of their God was on them. This God of heaven and earth was looking after them, and watching over them and helping them, and supporting them, and encouraging them. And He was to be worshiped, and He was to be glorified.

This was a sad sight in many ways, in comparison to the glories of the days of David and Solomon. There are fifty thousand people that had come back from captivity. Double that number if you want to add those who are already there, perhaps. Let's be generous — a hundred thousand people. That's not even the membership of the PCA! In comparison to the population of the world, this is it!

You want to see the church in the Old Testament — and, yes, I'm going to use the word church — because turn back with me to chapter two and verses 64: “The whole assembly…” Assembly–it's the Hebrew word from which we get our New Testament word church. This is the church, and the church was 42,360, located in Jerusalem. It's pitiful in comparison to the size of the world. It was pitiful! But they were the people of God, and they were worshiping the Lord their God, and they had a great vision of God now that motivated them and drove them to these acts of rebuilding in which their God would be worshiped and their God would be glorified. No doubt many of them were looking ahead, wondering about what Isaiah had said, and Jeremiah had said, and Ezekiel had said before the exile, what Zechariah and Haggai had been saying in the last few months. Great visions and great prophecies of things to come, and all of which brought about by the act of this sovereign God.

You know, it was the sight of that God, the captivation of the greatness of God, that moved the likes of William Carey to say,

“Expect great things from God, and attempt great things for God.”

This isn't just a piece of history. Some of you are fascinated by the ancient history of Persia. I have to say I'm fascinated by it. But this is a word for us, for right now, for 2008, that we might capture this boldness and courage and determination as we see something of the majesty and the glory of the God of heaven and earth. The God of heaven and earth! The only God there is!

May God so grant it. Let's pray together.

Lord our God, as we study this passage of so long ago, its message is so very timely and relevant for our own context here today. We need to capture a great vision of You. We want to see You in all of Your greatness and all of Your glory, as a God who makes and keeps promises. You have promised, O Lord, to build Your kingdom, and the gates of hell will not prevail against it. So grant it, O Lord, and hasten that day when Christ shall come again in power and in glory upon the clouds of heaven, with the angels of God; and the trumpet shall sound, and the dead in Christ shall arise. And those who are alive will be caught up to meet the Lord in the air, and so shall we ever be with the Lord in the new heavens and new earth in which righteousness ilwl grow. Hear us, O Lord, for Jesus’ sake. Amen.

Please stand. Receive the Lord's benediction.

Grace, mercy, and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ be with you all.


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