March 16, 2008
“Opposition — 1”
Dr. Derek W. H. Thomas
Now turn with me, if you would once again, to the book of Ezra. And we come this evening to chapter 4. We've just sung together, “If Thou But Suffer God to Guide Thee”. It's what the people of God needed to do at this point in time that we're about to read here.
The people of God are about to face opposition and difficulty and trials. And as we shall see tonight and next week, they did not look to the Lord. They did not suffer God to guide them. They looked to themselves. They turned inwards upon themselves and became afraid.
It's an old story, isn't it? Before we even read the passage, you know that this is something to do with you and me. Some of the lessons that are hardest to learn are some of the simplest lessons: “If Thou But Suffer God to Guide Thee”.
Well, let's turn to Ezra 4 together and before we read the passage, let's pray.
Lord, our God, we come again into Your holy presence. We come to thank you for the scriptures, for the Word of God, the inerrant Word of God. We come to confess our need of being taught, of being instructed by the Holy Spirit. And so as we read the scriptures together this evening, Holy Spirit, grant us illumination that we might read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest, and all for Jesus’ sake. Amen.
Ezra 4 and beginning at the first verse:
“Now when the adversaries of Judah and Benjamin heard that the returned exiles were building a temple to the Lord, the God of Israel, they approached Zerubbabel and the heads of fathers’ houses and said to them, “Let us build with you, for we worship your God as you do, and we have been sacrificing to him ever since the days of Esarhaddon king of Assyria who brought us here.” But Zerubbabel, Jeshua, and the rest of the heads of fathers’ houses in Israel said to them, “You have nothing to do with us in building a house to our God; but we alone will build to the Lord, the God of Israel, as King Cyrus king of Persia has commanded us.”
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.”
And then, if you’ll just allow yourselves to drop all the way down to verse 24 just so we can catch a glimpse of where all of this is going.
“Then 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.”
Amen. May God add His blessing to the reading of His holy and inerrant Word.
And they returned from exile and rebuilt the temple in Jerusalem and they all lived happily ever after. Isn't that the way it's supposed to go? After all, they've had 70 years to think about this. Seventy years to contemplate what they would do if God would bring them back. The excitement, the encouragement that filled their hearts as they, 43,000 of them, returned to Jerusalem. Within a month, they’re building the altar of burnt offering, hold the Feast of Tabernacles in the fall of that year.
Now it's six months later; it's springtime. It's April and the real work is beginning to rebuild the temple. Money has been sent up north to Phoenicia, Tyre, Sidon, where the trees are. That wood, the infrastructure necessary for rebuilding this temple, has been making its way to Jerusalem. They've had time to resettle. Some no doubt, needed time to know exactly where they were going to live, with whom they were going to live, what jobs they were going to do. Some of them had never lived in Jerusalem before.
And the work begins, but no sooner does the work begin than you see a principle; it's a kingdom principle. It's a principle of opposition that every good work for the Lord will be opposed, that there is an enemy, an archenemy, from Genesis 3 right thru to Matthew 16 when Jesus at Caesarea Philippi says that He will build His church within sight and in the very precincts of enemy occupied territory, promising that the gates of Hell will not prevail against His church.
There's always opposition. Satan seeks every opportunity to destroy the work of God, to rob Him of His glory, to frustrate the plans of God's people, to bring them down.
Satan lives in a grand delusion, you see, that he is not the defeated foe that he is. And he wants us to believe the same.
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.
I. The identity of the discouragers.
I want us to see, first of all, the identity of the delegation that comes. The identity of the delegation, well, we're left in no doubt by the author of the book of Ezra, they are adversaries of Judah and Benjamin, enemies of Israel, enemies of the kingdom of God, enemies of the Lord, no matter what they say, no matter what words they speak. We’re introduced to them right at the very start as enemies.
You’ll see again down in verse 4 that they’re referred to as the people of the land. And then, again, we read at the end of verse 2, “ever since the days of Esarhaddon”. Now Esarhaddon was one of the kings of Assyria; Shalmaneser, Sargon II, Sennacherib, Esarhaddon, and Ashurbanipal, those were the five great kings of Assyria. And this particular king is a king that would have ruled about 150 years in their past.
And you notice what they say, “since the days of Esarhaddon king of Assyria who brought us here.” Now, we know that several of the kings of Assyria engaged in resettlement of various people groups. It was one of the stratagems, of course, of maintaining stability to dislodge them from the environment in which they were familiar and to put them in a strange environment and to break some of those natural cords and ties of family and friendship. And, no doubt, some of these people who are coming are native Samaritans, but, no doubt, many of them, too, are peoples of mixed race; but not just mixed race, but also mixed religion.
These are not Jews. These are not true Jews. They are a mixture of people and they have been here now in Judah, in the region close to Jerusalem for 150 years, and, among other things, they've adopted the worship of the Jews long before the exile had ever taken place when the Assyrian empire was threatening the northern kingdom of Israel and its capital in Samaria. These people in the southern part of Judah had already begun to amalgamate into their lifestyle and into their culture, the worship of the Jews and the worship of Jehovah, the worship of Yahweh. That's who they are. That's their identity.
II. The offer of help and rejection.
And then, secondly, I want us to see the offer of help and its rejection–the offer of help and its rejection. They come and see the Jews beginning this work of rebuilding the temple. It's around the year 536 B.C. The Jews have been back seven months or so from Babylon. They've gathered now in Jerusalem. No doubt, there have been trucks (not with wheels, of course, but pulled by mules or donkeys or something) from the Mediterranean Sea bringing perhaps some of this wood from Lebanon up to Jerusalem and they come, a delegation of these people of the land. They come and offer their help, “We will build with you”, adding, “We worship the same God as you.”
It must have been a timely offer, don't you think?–a generous offer. You can imagine; it's springtime. (I've been dreading the thought of yard work. [laughter] I've been putting it off and I'm just waiting for a 17 year old to knock on the door and say, “Can I do some work for you?” I've got a whole list of things that I can give him because I don't want to do them ― menial tasks.) And wouldn't this have been a useful way to relieve themselves of responsibilities and tasks that they didn't want to do–hauling great stones around.
You imagine the rubble after the destruction of the temple, these huge blocks of stone that were lying now on top of each other. They needed to be moved away, needing beefy men and lots of them to do this menial work ― timely, generous. After all, the sooner this temple is rebuilt the sooner they could get on with their lives. Don't you think that some of them might have thought that way? They could get back to their families; they could get on with business; they could make some money for themselves. After all, this temple building was going to be time away from all of that. And the offer is refused outright. There's no interpretive difficulty here. You don't need 16 commentaries to understand they rejected this offer and they rejected it out of hand. They would have nothing whatsoever to do with these people of the land. They could not take part in rebuilding the temple of the Lord.
You might think it was a gesture of racism on the part of Jews. They were more than capable of showing that. 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.
Now, you can imagine the headline in the Lebanon Gazette – “Racial Intolerance”; Or, “Sectarianism”; Or, “Fundamentalism”; Or “Militant Fundamentalism”; Or, “Narrow-mindedness”; Or, “Pettiness”. You can imagine the epithets that were now going to be cast in the direction of the people of God as they reject this offer from the people of the land.
We live in a very similar day. You wonder what all of this has got to do with us. It's got everything to do with us. You and I understand all too well how these Jews would be responded to for making this refusal. We live in a day when truth has been sacrificed on the altar of expediency, where belief in absolutes is out of fashion. We live in an age of political correctness and religious correctness. You speak about marriage and you’re going to be accused of not being sensitive to sexual preference. You speak about office in the church and you’re going to be charged with a misogynist, of trampling over women's rights. They’re going to call you a fundamentalist if you believe the Bible. If you say, “Jesus is the only way, that there is none other name under heaven given amongst men whereby we must be saved; that the only way of salvation is by faith alone in Jesus Christ alone, the Jesus of the Bible, the Jesus of the Bible as interpreted according to the rules of grammatical, historical exegesis.” If you say that, as we do and are ready to die for it, the world will say we're intolerant, we're narrow-minded, we are fundamentalists, we are guilty of arrogant belligerency because the world in which we live is intolerant of us. Crying out for tolerance, it's tolerant of everything except us, except those who insist that Jesus is the only way.
You see, that's what you have here. It's an example of how to respond to pluralism. This wasn't a piece of civic construction. They weren't building roads. This wasn't a bridge building exercise. No doubt, they’d have used them for that purpose, but this is the building of the temple. This is religion. This is at the very vitals of the faith. In the period of redemptive history that we are considering here, 536 B. C., the building of the temple was at the heart of their religious principles. They’re standing, you see, on principle here. You cannot worship God and mammon. You cannot worship the God of Scripture and the god of Islam. They’re fundamentally different.
You see, pluralism isn't new. It's the trumpet call of the World Council of Churches that we're to be aware now, in the 20th and 21st centuries, of other faiths and because there are other faiths in the world, we cannot be exclusivists when it comes to the person and work of Jesus Christ and His place within Christianity. We cannot do that!
Well, if that were true, if that were true, then Moses and Isaiah and Ezra and Jesus and Paul would have had to say that because pluralism isn't a new thing; other faiths isn't a new thing – it's always been there. And in the face of pluralism, Moses and Isaiah and Jesus and Paul insisted on exclusivity. Jesus could say in the face of the pluralist faith of His own environment, “I am the Way and the Truth and the Life and no man comes unto the Father but by Me.”
I was reading this week in the Spectator, not something I recommend, but I was reading in the Spectator this week of an incident that took place several years ago, four, five, six years ago. It was an accusation being brought against a radio station, Premier Radio. Now, you don't know Premier Radio, but it is the only Christian broadcasting station in London. It broadcasts via satellite, but it has to have a license from the government in order to do so. And they were being complained at and the complaint was upheld. The complaint was being leveled against one of the preachers and this preacher was labeled by the complainant as a Marxist, Maoist, Nazi; that he was guilty of Christian fundamentalism and cultism whose thoughts were xenophobic blasphemy and an impetus for persecution. So what had the preacher said? – that Jesus alone is the true Redeemer, the true Savior, and the only one who can make us whole – that's what he had said. And who were the complainants? – The Mysticism and Occult Federation, and the complaint was upheld.
My friends, what Ezra and what the people of God in this particular time are facing is precisely what you and I are facing every day. And what do you see these people doing?–Standing firm, standing firm against the tyranny of liberalism and there is nothing more tyrannical and oppressive than liberalism.
III. The scorn of the rebuffed.
But the third thing I want us to see is the scorn of the rebuffed. Hell hath no fury, well, hell hath no fury like those who are scorned.
They engage in a two-pronged attack. They engage, first of all, in discouragement. Verse 4: “The people of the land discouraged the people of Judah and made them afraid to build.” This is a stratagem that was in Jerusalem. Perhaps there are veiled threats of violence here as we will see in the time of Nehemiah.
But they also hire counselors, bribe counselors, in the courts in Persia. Cyrus has given them permission to rebuild the temple. He's even given of his own coffers to rebuild the temple, but now, innuendo, lobbyists in Persia are casting aspersion on the motivation of the Jews and saying, perhaps, “If you allow this temple to be built, they will get stronger than you are able to defend.”
And you saw in verse 24 that the work comes grinding to a halt. They infused discouragement. It's perhaps on one level shocking how quickly it worked, how quickly the enthusiasm and the drive and the zeal and the vision just seemed to evaporate. In the face of opposition, in the face of difficulty, in the face of the threat of violence, the work stopped. It came grinding to a halt.
We’re going to look at that aspect of it again next Lord's Day, but tonight I want to ask a more personal question. Are you discouraged? Are you discouraged by the work of the kingdom of God? Are you discouraged about the church in the 21st century? In the face of post modernity, in the face of the so called new hermeneutic, in face of deconstructionism all around us, of calling black white and white black, the evisceration of truth, the evisceration of standards, the evisceration of morality in our society. Are you discouraged? Are you discouraged by what the church is and where the church is going in the 21st century?
Let me suggest three very quick things here as a kind of three-pronged strategy for opposing discouragement and dealing with discouragement – be realistic, my friends, be realistic. There will always be opposition. There will always be difficulty. There will always be Satan's men who do his bidding in every age–in times past, in the present, and in the future. When Jesus was crucified there were a dozen believers, twenty perhaps. Let's be generous, 100 in Jerusalem. Be realistic. Jesus says, “I build My church and I build it in enemy occupied territory.” There will always be opposition. It is nothing new.
But secondly, what's missing here? What's missing from this story?–Prayer. There is no prayer here. There's no mention of it. What do the people of God do when they’re discouraged, when they face discouragement? Have we trials and temptations? Is there trouble anywhere? You should never be discouraged; take it to the Lord in prayer.
It doesn't bode well, I think, for the church in the 21st century because we don't make use of collective prayer as we ought, I think. It's one of my personal discouragements about the church in the 21st century. We have seemed to have lost sight of the value of collective, corporate prayer in coming before the throne of grace and making our wants and needs and petitions known to Almighty God. Learn from that here–the mighty powerful weapon of all prayer.
But, thirdly, be faithful. Exercise faith, faith in God, faith in His Word, faith in His promise, faith in His covenant, faith in the victory of His Son, faith in Easter, faith in the empty tomb, faith in Jesus who sits at God's right hand and who ever lives to make intercession for us.
“And though this world, with devils filled, should threaten to undo us, we will not
Fear, for God hath willed His Truth to triumph through us. The prince of darkness
grim, we tremble not for him; His rage we can endure for, lo! his doom is sure;
one little word shall fell him.”
O, may we learn from that tonight. Maybe on a very personal level, maybe as we are engaged in personal trials in the providence of God, may we see that God has called us to be pilgrims, to be in a war, to fight the good fight of faith, trusting Him, believing Him, with all of our hearts.
Let's pray together.
Father, we thank You for this Word. This incident happened so long ago and yet, it seems to speak of things that are just around the corner from us. And we pray that we might like these Jews resist the temptation of pluralism and syncretism and stand firm, trusting in You, 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. Amen.
[Congregation sings stanza 5 of “If Thou But Suffer God to Guide Thee”]