Opposition to the Rebuilding (4:1–5)
1–5 When the exiles returned to Judah, they found some people already living there who opposed the rebuilding of Jerusalem and its temple. In verse 1, these people are called enemies; in verse 4, they are called the peoples around them. They were primarily Samaritans from Samaria (the former northern kingdom of Israel); they were mostly non Israelite people who had been sent by the Assyrians to settle the land after the fall of the northern kingdom. When the inhabitants of Judah were driven into exile, some of these people moved south and settled on their land; understandably they were not pleased to see the original landowners return!
Initially these Samaritan settlers pretended to be friendly toward the returned exiles and offered to help build the temple15 (verse 2). But Zerubbabel and the other Jewish leaders wisely refused their help (verse 3); they realized that if these people became part of the Jewish community they would gradually undermine the community’s purity and unity. Enemies within are far more dangerous than enemies without!
After being rebuffed, these outside people became even more hostile to the JEWS and sought every means to oppose their work on the temple (verses 4–5). Indeed, they succeeded in delaying the construction of the temple for about fifteen years (verse 24). Their opposition continued throughout the reign of Cyrus (559–530 B.C.) and even into the reign of Darius (522–486 B.C.).
Later Opposition Under Xerxes and Artaxerxes (4:6–24)
6–7 This section, up to verse 23, deals with some later opposition during the reigns of Darius’ son Xerxes16 (486–465 B.C.) and his grandson Artaxerxes (465424 B.C.). Then in verse 24, the writer resumes his narrative of the building of the temple.
Most of this section consists of two letters: one written to King Artaxerxes by the opponents of the Jews (verses 8–16); and the other, his reply to them (verses 1722). The letters were written in the Aramaic language (verse 7), which was the international diplomatic language of the Middle East during that period.17
8–16 The first letter was written by two officials who represented the non-Israelite settlers who had been forced to settle in Samaria and elsewhere in the Trans-Euphrates18 by Ashurbanipal, the last king of Assyria (verse 10). In the letter, they called the Jews rebellious and wicked, and they stated that if King Artaxerxes allowed them to rebuild Jerusalem and its walls, the Jews would no longer pay tribute to him and he would end up losing everything in Trans-Euphrates (verses 12–13). Although the people of Judah had had a long history of rebelling against the former empires of Assyria and Babylon, the letter was clearly overstated—all in the hope of spurring Artaxerxes to take action against the Jews.
17–23 The letter achieved the desired effect. Anxious not to lose the taxes, tribute and duty that Jerusalem had been paying to the powerful kings—Cyrus, Darius and Xerxes—who had ruled over Trans Euphrates before him (verse 20), Artaxerxes ordered that further work on rebuilding the city be stopped.
24 Here Ezra returns to the original op position to building the temple (verses 1–5), and continues from where verse 5 left off.
Modern readers might wonder what relevance these matters have to them and to the church of Christ. The relevance lies in this: whenever believers embark upon a work of God, Satan will raise up people to oppose it. We can even say that if our work does not provoke opposition from nonbelievers, we need to question whether we are truly engaged in a work of God. But we must be sure that our opponents are opposing God and not some sin or weakness in ourselves. Many Christians encounter opposition and believe they are being opposed for Christ’s sake; the truth is, however, it is they themselves who have provoked the opposition. When opposition comes, let us search our own hearts first to see if the cause might not be in us.