March 23, 2008
“Opposition — 2”
Dr. Derek W. H. Thomas
Now turn with me, if you would, to the book of Ezra, the book of Ezra. We are in the 4th chapter of the book of Ezra. We began last Lord's Day evening to examine the first 5 or 6 verses and tonight I want us to continue in our study of this passage, a passage that speaks to us of the opposition that the people of God can expect from the powers of darkness. We’re going to read, I think, from the very first verse again to remind ourselves of the context here as we pick it up this evening in verse 7.
But before we read the passage together, let's once again look to God in prayer:
O Lord, our God, we are thankful to You for the gift of the scriptures, the 66 books of the Bible that holy men of old wrote as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit; that every jot and tittle of it is by inspiration by God and 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. We pray then, Holy Spirit, that You would be our teacher, enlightener, instructor. Come, we pray, and as we read the scriptures together, give us once again that spirit of illumination and we ask it in Jesus' name. Amen.
This is God's holy Word:
“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; for we alone will build to the Lord, the God of Israel, as King Cyrus the 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 in the reign of Ahasuerus, in the beginning of his reign, they wrote an accusation against the inhabitants of Judah and Jerusalem.
In the days of Artaxerxes, Bishlam and Mithredath and Tabeel and the rest of their associates wrote to Artaxerxes king of Persia. The letter was written in Aramaic and translated. Rehum the commander and Shimshai the scribe wrote a letter against Jerusalem to Artaxerxes the king as follows: Rehum the commander, Shimshai the scribe, and the rest of their associates, the judges, the governors, the officials, the Persians, the men of Erech, the Babylonians, the men of Susa, that is, the Elamites, and the rest of the nations whom the great and noble Osnappar deported and settled in the cities of Samaria and in the rest of the province Beyond the River. (This is a copy of the letter that they sent.) “To Artaxerxes the king: Your servants, the men of the province Beyond the River, send greetings. And now be it known to the king that the Jews who came up from you to us have gone to Jerusalem. They are rebuilding that rebellious and wicked city. They are finishing the walls and repairing the foundations. Now be it known to the king that if this city is rebuilt and the walls finished, they will not pay tribute, custom, or toll, and the royal revenue will be impaired. Now because we eat the salt of the palace and it is not fitting for us to witness the king's dishonor, therefore we send and inform the king, in order that search may be made in the book of the records of your fathers. You will find in the book of the records and learn that this city is a rebellious city, hurtful to kings and provinces, and that sedition was stirred up in it from of old. That was why this city was laid waste. We made known to the king that if this city is rebuilt and its walls finished, you will then have no possession in the province Beyond the River.”
The king sent an answer: “To Rehum the commander and Simshai the scribe and the rest of their associates who live in Samaria and in the rest of the province Beyond the River, greeting. And now the letter that you sent to us has been plainly read before me. And I make a decree, and search has been made, and it has been found that this city from of old has risen against kings, and that rebellion and sedition have been made in it. And Mighty kings have been over Jerusalem, who ruled over the whole province Beyond the River, to whom tribute, custom, and toll were paid. Therefore make a decree that these men be made to cease, and that this city be not rebuilt, until a decree is made by me. And take care not to be slack in this matter. Why should damage grow to the hurt of the king?
Then, when the copy of King Artaxerxes’ letter was read before Rehum and Shimshai the scribe and their associates, they went in haste to the Jews at Jerusalem and by force and power made them cease. 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. And may the Lord add His blessing.
Well, they say about real estate that the three most important words are, “Location, location, and location.” Well, the three most important words in the interpretation of scripture are, “Context, context, and context.” And there's a very important context here. There's the context, of course, of the period of history to which this chapter is referring, but there is also the context of the time at which this was written.
And this has been written at least 100 years after the events that are being recorded at the beginning of this chapter. That's important as we shall hopefully see in a moment.
Last Lord's Day evening, we were looking at the first five verses–the opposition that the people of God encountered, opposition to rebuilding the temple. They had returned in 538 B.C. by the decree of Cyrus the king of Persia. They had been back about a month or so when they began to celebrate the Feast of Tabernacles. About six months later in the spring of the following year of 537 B.C., they had begun, you remember, to lay the foundations of the temple.
That is as much has been done to the rebuilding of the temple. Money has been sent, no doubt, up north to Lebanon to acquire some of the materials, particularly the wood that would be necessary for the construction.
But now they have been offered help by these Samaritans–kind of euphemism for the people of the land–a mixture of people that had been repopulated in the region surrounding Jerusalem as far back as the Assyrian dynasty. Mention was made in this chapter of King Esarhaddon who was about 150, 160, 170 years in their past at the time of the Assyrian empire.
These Samaritans were a mixed race of people who worshiped who knows what; a mixture of God's including, no doubt, Jehovah, the God of Israel. Their offer of help was summarily refused. The Jews in Jerusalem were to have no part in a pluralistic venture of multi-faith enterprise which would have been geared, no doubt, to the Persian overlords and may well have been part of their strategy all along.
Hell hath no fury, well. The Samaritans and the people of the land having been turned down now turn to violent persecution. It was a two-pronged persecution–both home and abroad. At home, they begin a persecution of intimidation and threatening. And it was very successful. No doubt, beneath the surface they were also attempting to prevent the materials coming from the north via the Mediterranean Sea and probably the coast near Joppa somewhere, to halt the supply lines necessary for the rebuilding of the temple.
They also hired lobbyists; well maybe I should use another word. (We may have one or two in the congregation.) Let me use a different word. Counselors is the term the ESV employs. These are men who are employed in the very courts of the Persian Empire itself putting pressure on the politicians, the strategists of the Persian Empire warning them of what the Jews may be up to by falsehood, of course, by innuendo, by exaggeration.
Now, this opposition continues. In verse 6 we have an account of a second opposition in the reign of Ahasuerus. This is a king otherwise known as Xerxes, not Artexerxes, but his brother, Xerxes. He's known as Ahasuerus here, in Ezra. He's also known by this name in the book of Esther, in the reign of Ahasuerus, in the beginning of his reign.
And we've jumped forwards now. We've jumped a fair number of years forward, maybe 35 years into the future now. And during the reign of Xerxes, who had succeeded Darius and Cambyses and Cyrus, Persian kings. During the reign of Ahasuerus or Xerxes, they wrote an accusation against the inhabitants of Judah and Jerusalem.
Then, in verse 7, we jump ahead again to the reign of another Persian king, Artexerxes. We've gone ahead, oh, possibly 20 years again. Xerxes was murdered by this figure here, his brother, Artexerxes, and then, Artexerxes is on the throne. He’ll be on the throne for 30, 35 years. He’ll be the king that we’ll meet again during the time of Nehemiah. Nehemiah was cup bearer to Artexerxes I–this Artexerxes here.
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 Artexerxes. And again during Artexerxes’ 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 Artexerxes.
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.
Now, why am I belaboring this point? Well, one is so that we understand what's going on here; otherwise we're going to be at sea. But, secondly–context, context, context, context. Ezra is being written after the event that's recorded in verse 24, which is 100 years down the line. He is addressing [the author of the book of Ezra] is addressing a situation in which the city walls are not being rebuilt and what he's saying to his audiences, “You must understand that this is nothing new. This opposition, this trial, this enmity of evil ones, enemies of the people of God, this has been going of for 60, 70, 80, 90, 100 years. In fact, if you include the Babylonian captivity, opposition and difficulty and trial has been going on for well nigh 200 years.” That's the context, the immediate context in which this chapter is being written.
Let's move away from all of that for a second; actually, for the rest of the evening. Hold all of that together, but I want to say three or four things about opposition, about trial, about difficulties in the kingdom of God.
I. It's tough and it's difficult and there are moments of severe opposition and trial. Through many tribulations we enter kingdom of God.
The first thing is this: What's the author of the book of Ezra doing in chapter 4? He's telling a story and then, all of a sudden in chapter 4, he takes the story 70, 80, 90 years into the future and then comes all the way back again.
Actually, from the point of view of the first readers, he's doing it in reverse. He's bringing the story that was 70, 80, 90 years in the past right down to the present.
It's about realism. He's giving them a dose of reality. He's telling them, “Wake up, children, children of God. You understand that your fathers went through this. Your grandfathers went through this. Two generations have past and there's been opposition from the very moment that we returned from Babylon.”
You remember the lesson that the Apostle Paul said that he learned following his first missionary journey in Cyprus when he's reporting back after going through the area of Galatia and he's coming back to Antioch to base camp? Do you remember the lesson in Acts 14:22? “Through many tribulations, we enter the kingdom of God. Through many tribulations, we enter the kingdom of God.” That's Paul's lesson No. 1 about mission, about evangelism, about life in the kingdom of God. It's not, “Believe in Jesus and you’ll be a wealthy man.” It's not, “Believe in Jesus and you can forget about your health troubles.”
Lesson No. 1 for the Apostle Paul is, “It's tough and it's difficult and there are moments of severe opposition and trial. Through many tribulations we enter kingdom of God.” It's a reality check. It's not glamorous. You know, it's not glitzy. It's not going to pull in the crowds. You know–hold that message outside the door of First Presbyterian Church that every one passing on State Street will read. This is what life in the kingdom of God is going to be like. It's about trials and difficulty and opposition.
No, it's not glamorous, but it is real and I venture to say it's where most of you are tonight. There are times, let's be frank, there are times when everything is just sweet and dandy. You know, there are times like that–“my cup overflows. The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. He makes me to lie down in green pastures.” And Beethoven's pastoral symphony is now beginning and that beautiful music that reminds you of cows and fields and sheep and birds and fishing–that’ll get some of you going. [laughter]
And there are days like that. There've been some days, you look back and, be honest–there've been days when you've said, “God is so good to me.” But I venture to say, that's not where most of you are tonight because there are trials. There are problems in your marriage. There are problems in your home. There are problems with your children. There are problems in your work. There are problems in relationships.
Ezra's giving you a reality check. In the time of Darius, around 520; in the time of Xerxes, around 485 or so; in the time of Artexerxes, around 460 and all the way down, perhaps even as far down as 445 B.C., almost 100 years, it's been trial; it's been opposition; it's been difficult. It's a reality check. That's lesson No. 1. It's a good lesson to learn. It saves us from getting depressed when trial comes.
You know, it's like a parachute. I don't want to ever (do you use a parachute?) I have no desire to jump out of an airplane, none whatsoever, but I'd love to have one if I have to do it. This is lesson No. 1. It's a reality check.
II. Sometimes, in God's providence, several generations may pass before you see strong leadership.
Secondly, there are relatively long periods of time. Let me put it like this. Sometimes, in God's providence, several generations may pass before you see strong leadership. You know, we're studying the book of Ezra, but I hope you haven't missed this, “Where is Ezra? I mean the man, Ezra?” He hasn't appeared yet. It's going to be chapter 7 before we come to the man Ezra. He's 60 years away from where we are at the beginning of chapter 4 of Ezra. Sixty years before a leader emerges.
Do you know during this whole period of time from about the time of Darius to the time of the accession of Artexerxes, do you know that the only thing that the Bible seems to be interested in that entire period of time is Xerxes wife, Esther, in a land far, far away. And it was a time of trouble, too, if you remember when the Jews were almost exterminated entirely.
There are times when entire generations may pass and God doesn't seem to bestow great leadership or renewal or revival in the Bible sense of the term revival, time of extraordinary blessing.
Now, we're going to come to that in the year 444 B.C. The event that's recorded for us in Nehemiah 7 and 8, an extraordinary overwhelming act of God occurred in which renewal came, a burst of enthusiasm and courage and motivation, a love for the things of God, a desire to repent of sin, but you know when Ezra came on to the scene–what did he find?–the temple had been rebuilt of sorts. The city was still in ruins. What did Ezra find?–Mixed marriages for one thing; desecration of the Sabbath, for another; misuse of finance, which will interest you; a lot of sin, a lot of compromise. Despite all the blessings of having been brought back from Babylon, they had made little progress.
That's another reality check, isn't it?–that sometimes an entire generation can pass and God's work seems to be in the doldrums. Knowing that can help us understand what God may be doing in our own time.
III. Trials can make us lose sight of God
There's a third lesson here–that trials can make us lose sight of God. Trials can make us lose sight of God. In verse 23, take a look at verse 23. You know, they've written this letter. It's a fawning, sycophantic kind of letter, isn't it?–full of innuendo and exaggeration and hyperbole about the strength the Jews were. Jerusalem was never that much of a threat, not to the likes of Babylon, not to the likes of Egypt, not to the likes of Assyria, not to the likes of Persia.
And then, in verse 23 when the copy of king Artexerxes’ letter was read before Rehum and Shimshai, the scribe and their associates, they went in haste to the Jews at Jerusalem and by force and power made them cease.
Verse 23 of chapter 4 is almost exactly where the first chapter of Nehemiah begins. When you open up the book of Nehemiah, you are introduced to Nehemiah, the cup bearer–you know, the man who tastes the wine of the king in case it's poisoned–he's the cup bearer to the king. He's a man of extraordinary power and privilege.
Interesting, isn't it, that the king of Persia would hire a Jew to taste his wine. For all the plots and schemes that these Samaritans are accusing the Jews of, of coup de tats and takeover bids and, if you do this you will never have any power on this side of the River Euphrates.
Oh, by the way, that's just code language, not for Jerusalem, not for little Judah. It's code language for Egypt. Now, the Persians did fear Egypt. They had some dealings with Egypt in the time of Xerxes for one thing. And what this letter is saying is threatening is not that Judah was that powerful, not that Jerusalem was ever that powerful. Jerusalem could no more engage in a coup de tat against the Persian Empire than fly to the moon. What this is code for was, “They may make an alliance with Egypt.” Now, that was something to be afraid of.
But you remember when Nehemiah begins? He hears from a brother–it may even be his literal brother in Jerusalem–that the people of God have stopped building the city. And what does Nehemiah do? He begins to confess his sin and he begins to confess the sins of the people of Jerusalem and he's saying, and this is tricky. This is difficult. He's saying, “The reason why we are in the doldrums, the reason why we are not experiencing blessing is because we have sinned.”
Now, that isn't always the case. The book of Job reminds us that that isn't always the case, but sometimes that is the case, that the reason for the poverty, the spiritual lethargy and poverty of the kingdom of God is because the people of God have sinned. It's because the people of God are not listening to what God is saying to them. Because the people of God are not doing what God is telling them to do, it's because they've lost sight of God.
And trials will sometimes do that. Trials can drive you to your knees and they can drive you to God, but they can also drive you to despair and drive you to cynicism and drive you to hardness of heart. It's what Hebrews 12 is warning–“Why are those hands hanging down? Why are those knees growing feeble?” It's because they haven't looked to Jesus. They haven't run with perseverance the race that is set before them, looking unto Jesus. Trials have hardened their hearts.
Now, my friends, that's perhaps one of the most dangerous conditions you can ever find yourself in; that God in His providence has put you in the place of trial and you've grown resentful. Your heart has grown hard and you’re angry with God and you've turned in upon yourself instead of looking to the Lord and crying for mercy and confessing your sin, you’re talking about your rights. You’re talking about your rights!
Trials, you see, can make us lose sight of God. It would take Ezra and even then it would take a decade or more before all of this gets turned around. God would raise up an Ezra and He would raise up a Nehemiah, but in this period of history that we're in now, we're in the spiritual doldrums here where the work keeps coming to a stop–first of all in the temple and then, secondly, in the rebuilding of the walls of Jerusalem.
Now, my friends, here's the question I think that we need to ask ourselves. Is that where we are; individually and corporately as a church? Have we lost sight of the vision? Have we lost sight of God? Have we lost sight of the purpose why we are here? And the purpose why we are here is not that we might not, in the words of Haggai, “Build ourselves houses with paneled walls.” Because that's what they did! They looked to themselves and the work of God was abandoned and forsaken. And they compromised. They didn't abandon religion altogether. They just grew compromised. They had one foot in the world and one foot in the things of God and you can't walk with two opinions.
That's the question that will be forced upon us by the Spirit as we go through these chapters of Ezra. Are you on the Lord's side? Are you fully on the Lord's side and is the reason why we're in the condition that we are in cause of our own sin that we need to confess and need to repent of?
Let's look to God in prayer.
Lord, our God, we find Your Word both encouraging and challenging at the same time convicting of sin in the first place, our own sin, our individual sins and our corporate sins. And we pray tonight for the heart that will be open and honest with You because we want to live lives that are out and out for You. We don't want to live compromised lives. We don't want to be half in the kingdom and half in the world. We want to be out and out for You in everything that we do. So cause a fire to burn within our bones that will set us alight and in the direction of the things of the kingdom of God that we might be enabled to say, “For me to live is Christ.” We ask it 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.”
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