In The World You Will Have Trouble
In The World You Will Have Trouble30
In The World You Will Have Trouble
Main Idea: God glorifies Himself in the weak who overcome the strong by faith.
- Opposition from the Time of Cyrus to Darius (4:1-5)
- Opposition from the Time of Ahasuerus to Artaxerxes (4:6-7)
- Rehum’s Letter to Artaxerxes (4:8-16)
- The Response of Artaxerxes (4:17-23)
- Return to the Time of Darius (4:24)
Let’s pretend that you have never heard of an acorn, and let’s pretend that you don’t know that oak trees come from acorns. If I took you out and showed you a large, majestic oak tree, then held up an acorn and told you that huge tree came from a little acorn like it, would you believe me?
Let’s pretend that you have never heard that butterflies come from caterpillars. If I took you out and showed you a glorious monarch butterfly, then held up a caterpillar and told you that the butterfly was once like the caterpillar, would you believe me? That colorful, winged flying floater came from that little thing with all those legs?
In some ways the wonder of such marvels doesn’t land on us because we are familiar with them and take them for granted. Has this happened to the way you think about believers enduring through opposition? Do you look at the stories of the saints who endured, trusting God’s promises and clinging to Him through every kind of trial, and think that it’s inevitable? Obvious? Automatic?
It’s a miracle! An acorn becoming an oak tree or caterpillar becoming a butterfly is stupendous! Shocking! Unexpected! Never to be guessed.
And so it is with those who endure through trials.
We need to see God’s power at work in those around us, preserving them through the trouble they have in the world. God is keeping His word, and God is keeping His people. God so works in His people that they choose to do what He says; they choose to set themselves apart for Him; and they remain faithful to Him in spite of the fiery darts of Satan, which come in the form of crafty invitations to compromise and in overt threats. Sometimes Satan’s abuse is subtle insinuation, and sometimes it is outright intimidation. Sometimes troubles come with force of arms. And we need to recognize God’s power at work every time God’s people shine the light on the evil insinuation and show it to be false, every time God’s people stand down bullies, and every time God’s people love not their lives even unto death.
These triumphs are like acorns becoming oaks, like caterpillars becoming butterflies. These triumphs are totally unexpected, against the normal course of things, surprising—and only God can be credited for the victory.
The exiles who returned to the land lived out God keeping His promises. The prophets said that God would save His people through judgment after exile. They said this restoration to the land would be like the exodus from Egypt—better, even. In Ezra 1, Ezra presents the return to the land (ca. 539 bc) as a new exodus. They march onto the land, numbered as in the book of Numbers, in Ezra 2. In Ezra 3 they celebrate the Festival of Booths, worshiping God for His faithfulness to their fathers and for His faithfulness to them.
Do you remember what happened after the first exodus? Israel conquered the land in the book of Joshua, but they failed to put all the Canaanites under the ban. Then in Judges the people became like the Canaanites. Because of this, eventually Israel was driven out of the land.
Now that the promised new exodus has begun to be realized and the people have returned to the land, they face a new challenge from Canaanites. Will they compromise and be defiled by the people of the land as their forefathers were? Or will they maintain purity and holiness, even if it creates difficulty for them?
This chapter is arranged thematically, not chronologically. The first three chapters of Ezra have dealt with events that took place at the first return to the land shortly after 539 bc. Chapter 4 begins at that time, summarizes opposition from later times, includes an example of opposition from a later time, and then returns to the period shortly after the first return.
The Timeline of Ezra 4
The time of Cyrus to Darius
538-530, reign of Cyrus
522-486, reign of Darius
The time of Ahasuerus to Artaxerxes
485-464, reign of Ahasuerus (cf. Esth 1:1)
464-423, reign of Artaxerxes
Rehum’s letter to Artaxerxes
464-423, reign of Artaxerxes
The response of Artaxerxes
Ezra 4:23 could be the setting for the news Nehemiah received in 445 bc (cf. Neh 1:1-3)
Return to the time of Darius
520 bc “second year of ... Darius”
Why has Ezra arranged the material this way? This scheme accomplishes several things:
- This arrangement reflects Ezra’s view that the returnees are a united group on one side, with all the opposition from various periods of time on the other side.
- Ezra’s perspective, also reflected in Ezra 6:14, is that this multi-generational effort, comprising multiple groups of returnees, is one united restoration accomplished by God’s decree.
- Breaking the returnees into these two camps communicates that the opposition faced by Ezra’s own generation will be defeated just as opposition from earlier generations was.
- By putting the opposition from his own time here in chapter 4, Ezra achieves thematic unity to both sections of his book. The difficulty in Ezra 1-6 is from outsiders, and the difficulty 33in Ezra 7-10 arises from unfaithful Israelites—not because things played out that way chronologically but because Ezra has arranged his narrative that way thematically.
Just as Israel came out of Egypt and entered a land whose inhabitants made them seem like grasshoppers in their own eyes (Num 13:33), so Israel now comes out of Babylon into a situation where they have trouble from the inhabitants of the land.
Opposition From The Time Of Cyrus To Darius
Ezra 3 ended with shouts of joy that were “heard far away” (v. 13), and it was perhaps those shouts that drew the attention of the inhabitants of the land. We read in 4:1-2 (my trans.),
Now the enemies of Judah and Benjamin heard that the sons of the exile were building the temple to Yahweh the God of Israel, and they drew near to Zerubbabel and to the heads of the fathers’ houses, and they said to them, “Let us build with you, because like you we seek your God, and to Him we have been sacrificing from the days Esarhaddon king of Assyria caused us to come here.”
Notice how Ezra characterizes these who make the offer to the returnees: he calls them “enemies.” (On characterization in Ezra, see esp. Brown, Hope Amidst Ruin.) They claim to worship Yahweh in verse 2,3 but the story of these people, who were settled in the land by Esarhaddon king of Assyria, is told in 2 Kings 17. Their unacceptable syncretism is evident from the way the leaders of the returned community reject the offer of help in Ezra 4:3.
Before we go on, let’s reflect on the political realities at work in this situation. These returnees are vulnerable. They need to make friends and influence people, right? What they don’t need are hostile neighbors,34 right? As we will see from their response, the returnees evidently think it more important to appease God than to appease their neighbors.
We all face choices like this, don’t we? Do we compromise our principles, or do we offend people who could help us? Whose help is more valuable—man’s or God’s? Do we trust in God and do what He says, or do we do what makes sense in the eyes of the world?
These people offering to help are not worshipers of Yahweh. So if Yahweh really is God, to allow these idolaters to assist in building the temple is going to anger Him. These idolaters will have a stake in any temple they help to build. They will want to influence it.
Imagine a battalion fighting to plant their flag on the hilltop. If they betray everything the flag stands for in the fight to the top of the hill, what have they accomplished when they plant that flag?4 If they adopt all the practices of their enemies in their desperation to win the battle, have they defeated their enemies? This is what is at stake in Ezra 4. If Israel allows these adversaries to build the temple, they might as well not build it at all.
Look at the example these returnees set in verse 3 (my trans.):
And Zerubbabel said to them, along with Jeshua and the rest of the heads of the fathers’ houses in Israel, “Not for you and for us to build the house of our God, because we alone will build for Yahweh God of Israel, just as the king commanded us—Cyrus, king of Persia.”
That’s right! These snakes are trying to intimidate the returnees, but the returnees have the high ground. They owe nothing to the seed of the serpent, and the Persian king has authorized them to rebuild the temple.
Verses 4-5 show us the true intentions of the people of the land. If the offer made in verse 2 had arisen from a genuine desire to worship Yahweh, the inhabitants of the land would have wanted to obey the law of Moses. Fulfilling the law of Moses and worshiping Yahweh in accordance with His commands would be more important to them than their stake in the building of the temple. But that offer in verse 2 wasn’t about wanting to worship Yahweh. That offer was about wanting influence and control. We read in Ezra 4:4-5,
Then the people who were already in the land discouraged the people of Judah and made them afraid to build. They also bribed officials to 35act against them to frustrate their plans throughout the reign of King Cyrus of Persia and until the reign of King Darius of Persia.
From this we see what the inhabitants of the land really wanted. They wanted influence and control. For these people, the temple is about them, not Yahweh.
I wonder whether you see a little bit of yourself in the attitude of these inhabitants of the land? Is what is happening in your church about God or about you? When you don’t get to do what you want to do, do you support the ministry anyway or do you do things that discourage and frustrate the ministry? Do you look at the ministry as a way to become famous and influential or as an opportunity to serve God and His people? Is the opportunity to sing before God’s people about you and your voice, or is it about helping people worship? Is the opportunity to teach a chance for everyone to see how intelligent and eloquent you are, or is it an opportunity to serve God’s people by giving them God’s Word? Is a ministry position at church about you being exalted over others, giving you a title that doesn’t really reflect your character, or is it simply a recognition of the ways that you are already caring for people?
Do you know how you can tell which it is for you? Check your heart when someone else gets a great opportunity. Do you envy opportunities given to others, or do you rejoice with them? When someone else gets invited to teach, to join the staff of a church, to sing a solo, to play the guitar, to lead a Sunday school class, to contribute a chapter to a book, to write a book, or whatever it is, what does your heart do? Does your heart say, “Why didn’t they ask me to do that? I could do it better than him!” Or does your heart say, “Praise God that’s going to be done! It needs to be done. O Lord help this person to do it in a way that will bless us. O Lord bless this person so that he will help me and others see more of you, want more of you, and love you and others more because of the way he does this.”
If you envy, discourage, and frustrate, doesn’t that indicate that you’re more interested in advancing yourself than in seeing the church built up?
The returnees did not allow the inhabitants of the land to build the temple because they were not qualified to do so. There are ways they could have become qualified. There were things they could have done to become part of God’s people. They wouldn’t necessarily have had the influence and control they sought, but they could have supported the work on the temple.
36Could it be that the Lord is using the various opportunities you are not getting to show you that you are not yet qualified? Could it be that the Lord is forcing you to see that your character matters more than opportunities, more than feedback on your efforts, and more than all the blessings that accompany ministry experience? Could the Lord be pushing you to see that what He wants is for you to rejoice in Him and truly love Him and others more than you want the influence and control you think you deserve?
Maybe you’re reading this, and you recognize that because God is holy and because you are sinful, you’re not even qualified to belong to Him, to say nothing of serving Him. N. D. Wilson asks,
Would you go to Heaven? There is a sign you must stand beside where the man with the cigarette takes the tickets. There is a height you must achieve.
You must be wretched. That is your ticket and your only qualification. It is an unexclusive ride, but wild, with weather you’ve never seen, and deafening light. Perhaps unsafe. (Wilson, Notes from the Tilt-A-Whirl, 180)
You must understand that you are wretched so that you will understand that you need Jesus. Christ has taken all the things that disqualify people and paid for them by dying on the cross. Those who trust in Jesus are qualified not because they are not wretched but because they know they are wretched, they know that Jesus is not wretched, and they trust Him. If you would qualify to belong to God, you must trust Jesus.
Ezra 4:5 tells us that the efforts of the inhabitants of the land kept the returnees from rebuilding the temple from the time that they returned shortly after 539 bc until the days of Darius, who came to the throne in 522 bc. Imagine brackets around Ezra 4:6-23, and look at Ezra 4:24: “Now the construction of God’s house in Jerusalem had stopped and remained at a standstill until the second year of the reign of King Darius of Persia.” The prophets Haggai and Zechariah encouraged the returnees to rebuild the temple in the second year of Darius, 520 bc (Hag 1:1), and the rebuilding was completed in 516 bc.
So this is like me pointing at that acorn and then pointing at the oak. You know what is going to happen. The weak little returnees are going to overcome the opposition by faith, but it won’t happen overnight. It might be like that acorn growing into an oak, in that it will take 37years. In fact, some of the faithful Israelites might not live to see the triumph.
Opposition From The Time Of Ahasuerus To Artaxerxes
Why would Ezra insert this material from a later time between Ezra 4:5 and 4:24? Ezra himself returned to the land in 458 bc. Nehemiah joined him 13 years later in 445 bc. This means that Ezra would have known how the earlier opposition to the rebuilding of the temple turned out. In spite of the opposition from the inhabitants of the land, the temple was rebuilt.
The challenge in the time of Ezra and Nehemiah was not to rebuild the temple. That had been done for more than 50 years. The challenge in the time of Ezra and Nehemiah was to rebuild the city and its walls. Bracketing the opposition to the rebuilding of the city and its walls with the account of the opposition to the rebuilding of the temple is a statement of faith. When Ezra arranged the material this way, he communicated his belief that the opposition to the rebuilding of the city and the walls would be overcome just as the opposition to the rebuilding of the temple had been.
We know they were successful, so it looks obvious to us. It seems inevitable to us that Nehemiah would succeed in leading the people to rebuild the walls. But before they got it done it was anything but obvious and inevitable!
So Ezra, from his perspective around 450 bc, begins to fast-forward from the opposition to the rebuilding of the temple in the 530s and 520s bc. In 4:6-7, we read of the opposition in the time of Ahasuerus, who reigned from 485 to 464 bc, and of the opposition in Ezra’s day, the time of Artaxerxes, who reigned from 464 to 423 bc:
At the beginning of the reign of Ahasuerus, the people who were already in the land wrote an accusation against the residents of Judah and Jerusalem. During the time of King Artaxerxes of Persia, Bishlam, Mithredath, Tabeel and the rest of his colleagues wrote to King Artaxerxes. The letter was written in Aramaic and translated.
Before we move on to consider the letter, let the impact of verses 1-7 land on you: the returnees refused to compromise, and it didn’t necessarily look like God blessed them for it. They faced ongoing opposition 38from the time they got back to the land shortly after 539 bc until Nehemiah got the wall rebuilt in 445 bc. In other words, their faithfulness didn’t make the opposition go away immediately.
How do you expect the world to respond to your faithfulness? Make no mistake about it: worldly people hate God. Their opposition will be like what we see here in Ezra 4. They will play nice and offer to collaborate, not because they love God but because they want influence and control. Then if you are faithful to God rather than being faithful to them and their ideas, they will go from veiled opposition to explicit opposition. An offer to help that will lead away from holiness and faithfulness to the Lord is nothing but hidden opposition. It is treachery. If you recognize it for what it is, refuse it, and stand strong for the Lord, they will continue to oppose you; they’ll just take the smiley face off their opposition.
Mark it down: Satan hates you. People who do not worship God and give thanks to Him are rebels. Jesus said you are either for Him or against Him. Don’t be duped by the adversaries, and don’t be surprised if your refusal to be hoodwinked only leads to more opposition. God is glorified when the weak overcome the strong by faith. And no matter how the odds may be stacked against God and His people, all Satan’s triumphs will come to nothing.
Rehum’s Letter To Artaxerxes
In verses 8-16 Ezra focuses in on this letter just mentioned in verse 7. The authors of the letter are identified in 8-10, and then the body of the letter is given in 11-16.
If Zerubbabel’s reply in verse 3 struck you as rude, look at the other set of values on display in this letter. Ezra now has the inhabitants of the land speak for themselves, and they show themselves to be the “enemies” Ezra said they were (v. 1). Zerubbabel answered firmly because he recognized that the inhabitants of the land operated from a worldview at odds with the worldview acceptable to Yahweh.
These worldly inhabitants of the land regard holiness to Yahweh as “rebellious and evil” (v. 12). They warn the king that if Yahweh’s city is built it will result in him losing money (v. 13), and they protest that they love the king more than they care about this Yahweh (v. 14). They urge the king to look into the matter and see for himself that Jerusalem is 39“rebellious,” “harmful,” and a place of “revolts” (v. 15). In passing, note also that this section is concerned with the rebuilding of the city and the walls, not the rebuilding of the temple (vv. 12-13, 16).
It is increasingly clear in our culture that worldly people regard faithfulness to God as rebellion. Faithfulness to God is regarded as wicked. Faithfulness to God is regarded as a threat to the economy. Worldly people think this way because God is nothing to them.
The claims of this letter written against the returnees had a veneer of truth, but that is all. The letter picked up true things about Jerusalem, slanted them, gave them the worldly spin, and convinced the king.
The claims worldly people in our culture make against Christians and Christianity might also have a veneer of truth. These claims often pick up truths, slant them, and spin them, and if the claims are not examined they might be convincing.
Don’t fear doing things that the worldly might spin against you. They can spin everything against you. So go in with guns blazing. Believe the Bible. Act on principle. Love the truth. Be valiant for the truth. Speak the truth in love. Follow Jesus. Don’t worry about the way they will spin your words or your actions against you. Follow Jesus, love people, trust God, and the truth will be vindicated.
Along these lines, don’t let the spin that the wicked put on the truth make you dizzy. Analyze the insinuations and get to the true nature of things. See past the wicked slant some skeptic puts on the truth. Keep looking. Trace out the logic to see if it is sound. Examine the Scriptures. Think!
Some snob with a PhD might snort at the notion that God created the world, that Jesus was God and man, and that trusting Jesus is the only way to be saved. If that snob applied the same logic to the butterfly, he would never believe it came from a caterpillar. God is glorified as the weak overcome the strong by faith.
The Response Of Artaxerxes
Artaxerxes didn’t analyze. He was taken in by the slant and the wicked spin. He found a degree of correspondence between the allegations and what had happened in history (vv. 19-20), and he decreed that the rebuilding stop until he gave permission for it to resume (v. 21). This is the Artaxerxes whom Nehemiah served as cupbearer (Neh 2:1).
40The events of Ezra 4:23—the forceful halt of the work on the city and the walls—were probably the events that led to the report Nehemiah received: “The remnant in the province, who survived the exile, are in great trouble and disgrace. Jerusalem’s wall has been broken down, and its gates have been burned down” (Neh 1:3).
Do you know what this is like? This is like the grain of wheat that falls into the ground and dies, like the acorn seeming to be dead in the ground, like the caterpillar seeming to be dead in that cocoon. These weak returnees to the land obviously could not protect themselves against the forces that came against them to break down the walls and burn the gates. How will they ever rebuild city and wall? I’ll tell you how: God will be glorified as the weak overcome the strong by faith.
Return To The Time Of Darius
As noted previously, in verse 24 Ezra returns from the crisis in his own generation, just described in verse 23, to the suspension of the work on the temple. Ezra 5-6 describe the resumption of the work on the temple and its completion. This declares to Ezra’s generation that God will overcome the opposition to the work on the city and the walls. The weak will overcome the strong by faith, and God will get the glory.
Jesus told His disciples in John 16:33, “You will have suffering in this world. Be courageous! I have conquered the world.” We see this community of returned exiles struggling through opposition. Jesus had His share of trouble from the world, as did Paul, and the church throughout her existence has been slandered and opposed. The early Christians endured all kinds of lies and distortions—claims that they were cannibals because they partook of the Lord’s Supper, claims that they were incestuous because they referred to spouses as “brother” and “sister” in the Lord.
Let me close with some encouraging opposition faced by colonial evangelist George Whitefield. Here again, we think of Whitefield as an oak tree, as a butterfly, and it never occurs to us that he was an acorn or a caterpillar. It never occurs to us that there were times when the sapling 41tree was bent by the winds, that the caterpillar had to search for a suitable place to make his cocoon. Biographer Arnold Dallimore writes,
[D]uring his lifetime Whitefield saw many a minister converted and it was the strong stand against the unconverted in the ministry which God used to that end....
Of course, Whitefield’s denunciations of the clergy brought further controversy raging around him. Many a church in which hardly a vigorous word had been spoken in decades began to resound with strong utterances against him, and his enemies battled with his friends over his person and his doctrine in pamphlets which poured forth from the press. Tyerman lists forty-nine publications which were produced during 1739, of which ten were favourable and all the rest opposed. A later writer, in an exhaustive survey, says, “Of 200 anti-Methodist publications ... during 1739-40, 154 were aimed at Whitefield.” (Dallimore, George Whitefield, 340)
Reflect and Discuss
- Have the enemies of God and His people offered to help your efforts to advance God’s kingdom? How did you respond?
- What are some ways secular agencies claim to help the church in its mission?
- Why would an enemy of God offer to help God’s cause? When someone helps a cause, have they earned the right to influence that cause? Explain.
- If someone truly wants to help and his offers to do so are rebuffed, how might he convince those he wants to help of his sincerity? What would strangers have to say or do to convince you of their sincerity?
- What would an idolater need to do to become a worshiper of Yahweh in the Old Testament? (See Ezra 6:21; Neh 10:28.)
- Are there ways that enemies are opposing your attempts to advance God’s kingdom now? If so, explain.
- Are there ways that you are hindering your church from advancing God’s kingdom? Are there some unwholesome motives that have entered into your heart? If so, how might you change?
- 42Ezra assumes that his audience will know the details of the reigns of the kings he names in Ezra 4. How would you explain the timeline for an adult Sunday school class?
- What indications are there within the book of Ezra that the walls were completed by the time Ezra wrote this book? Can you tell from what we have in Ezra and Nehemiah whether they were written at the same time or one after the other?
- How do the answers to these questions affect our interpretation of a passage like Ezra 4?
The Hebrew scribes seem to have had a little fun with the text at this point. The Hebrew word “not” sounds just like the Hebrew word that means “to him.” The only difference between the two words is one letter, but they sound the same. In the phrase, “and to him we have been sacrificing,” it appears that the scribes changed it from “to him” to “not,” with a note in the margin that “to him” is the correct reading. If this is what happened, the scribes have indicated what they thought of the adversaries’ worship.
I owe this analogy to Douglas Wilson, having read something similar to this on his blog.