Pulpit Commentary Homiletics
I. A PROFFERED ALLIANCE (vers. 1, 2). Their neighbours, the Samaritans, a mixed people, composed in part of the remnant of the ten tribes and in part of the Assyrians deported by Esar-haddon from their own country and planted there, made offers of alliance. Moved by jealousy, thinking that the name and fame of a temple at Jerusalem would eclipse anything of the kind they had, perhaps fearing lest it should win the hearts of the people away from the "mongrel religion" which they had adopted - a miserable compromise between pure religion and gross superstition - they came proposing to make common cause with the returned Israelites. "Let us unite our forces," they said. "We will build together; this temple, erected by our joint labours, shall be common property: we worship the same God whom you worship, and there need not be any separation between us." Thus impurity approaches purity; thus error seeks alliance with truth; thus worldliness addresses piety. "Let us walk together," it says. "We will sink our differences; we will keep unpleasant divergencies of conviction in abeyance, and stroll together in sweet communion along the path of life." Here was -
II. A POWERFUL TEMPTATION. Jeshua - and still more Zerubbabel, who was answerable for the peace and order of the community - may well have thought that it was a time for conciliation. The little state was not yet fairly established. It was still in its very infancy, and might well shrink from the field of contention. It was a time when they might excusably go far in the direction of peace. Would it not be wrong, by any churlishness or obstinacy on small points or narrowness of view, to plunge the infant Church into strife, perhaps mortal strife, with those who had so much in common with them, and whom charity might consider brethren? What a pity to endanger the work in hand and, it might be, bring everything to failure when the prospects of success were so bright, if, by entering on an alliance with these men, they could insure the consummation of their hopes! Perchance, too, they might win these men to a purer faith; the sight of the temple on its old site, the performance of the old rites, the singing of the old psalms, etc. might purge their hearts of the evil leaven that had crept in, etc. Thus their minds may have been agitated by doubt and distraction, questioning whether they should have a perilous alliance or a defiant and dangerous isolation. So purity, truth, piety find themselves courted by those who are their adversaries, but who speak with the voice and use the language of friendship. And often do they find themselves greatly tempted to make peace and enter into alliance. Sometimes they do, and disastrous is the' result. Like the Rhone and the Arve outside Geneva, the pure blue waters of the one flow for some time side by side, without mingling, with the muddy and earth-discoloured waters of the other; but farther down they intermix, and the blueness and the purity are gone! But here we have -
III. A STOUT-HEARTED REFUSAL (ver. 3). Zerubbabel and Jeshua peremptorily declined the offered alliance. "Ye have nothing to do with us." "We ourselves will build," etc. (ver. 3). Whatever inward conflict there might have been, there was no vagueness or hesitancy in their answer. It was explicit and downright, as an answer should be to a deceitful offer. It was seen to be their duty to keep apart from men whose association would too probably have ended in corruption, and they dared all consequences. First purity, then peace (James 3:17). Let there be no compromise when the maintenance of principle is at stake. There is far more to lose than to gain in having the help of those who are not really and heartily at one with us. Mere matters of detail are things for arrangement, and it is often wise and Christian to forego our preferences for the sake of brotherly accord. But when great and vital truths are at stake, truths on which human hearts live, truths which heal and save and sanctify the soul, truths for the purity and integrity of which we exist to testify, then let us put our foot firmly down, and, risking misrepresentation and attack, say, "Ye have nothing to do with us." We must walk apart. - C.
I. SLACKNESS. "Then ceased the work," etc. (ver. 24). We have here the great advantage of being able to compare one book of Scripture with another, and (what is more) a historical with a prophetical book. Comparing Haggai 1. with Ezra 5., we conclude that, under the pressure from without, the first zeal of the liberated captives cooled, and that they allowed themselves to be too much affected by the unfriendliness of their neighbours. If it was really necessary - as perhaps it was - to lay down their weapons at the first, they might have resumed them much sooner than they did. They permitted nearly two years to pass without venturing to take up that which they laid down. Meantime the first ardour abated, and priests and people, taking their tone from the governor and the high priest, settled down into satisfaction when they should have been filled with eagerness and anxiety. A noble aspiration was rapidly giving way to an ignoble contentment. This is but too frequently recurring a page in the history of human goodness. First an all-consuming ardour, an intensity of heat which promises to shine with utmost brilliance and burn up everything which is impure; then, after a while, the light dies down, the spirit cools, and only a few sparks, with a little smoke, are left. First devotion, which thinks the hours of worship all too short; zeal which longs to multiply its labours; consecration which prefers the post of danger and the field of difficulty. Then languor, laziness, love of ease; the hours of worship are too long; the duties too heavy; the perils too great. The sanctuary is passed by, the vineyard deserted, the enterprise abandoned.
II. REPROOF (ver. 1). "Then the prophets... prophesied," etc. How vigorously, after the manner of a Hebrew prophet, Haggai reproved and incited Zerubbabel and Jeshua, we may read in both chapters of that book of prophecy. "Is it time for you to dwell in your cieled houses, and this house lie waste?" is the burden of the Lord which Haggai delivered. These men of God - for he was joined by Zechariah - must have sought the praise of God rather than that of man; their one care was to be faithful to him in whose name they spoke, and so to "deliver their soul." They did not "prophesy smooth things," but rough, hard, trying things. Not only those whose chief vocation and profession it is to speak for God, but all who fear his name and call themselves his disciples, must be ready, on occasion, to declare the "burden of the Lord," to speak the word which is unpalatable, which wounds and troubles the soul. Sometimes it is our duty, like the Master, to send men away "sorrowful" (Matthew 19:22). Sometimes we must receive in grief rather than anger the reproaches of our friends. "Faithful are the wounds of a friend."
III. RECOVERY. "Then rose up Zerubbabel and Jeshua, and began to build" (ver. 2). The Jewish leaders hearkened to the voice of God speaking to them through the prophets, and they regained their lost devotedness. "Then they rose up, and began to build." They heeded the admonitions given, and cheerfully co-operated with those who gave them. They had the wisdom to perceive that they were wrong; they frankly owned it, and they promptly and energetically set themselves to rectify their ways. Here is true manliness as well as wisdom. It is a weak and foolish thing for a man to go on in a false course when he sees that he is in the wrong. There is nothing which more
(1) honours our manhood than to submit at once to the known will of God, whether by pursuing our path, or by returning in our way, or by holding our hand. There is nothing which more
(2) conduces to our own spiritual elevation and dignity. Before honour is humility; if we humble ourselves, when wrong, we begin at once to enter the path which leads to true exaltation. There is nothing which more
(3) conducts to lasting usefulness and joy. If Zerubbabel had rejected the counsel of the Lord, he would certainly have suffered. As it was, he was honoured and enriched of heaven. - C.
I. A sinful alliance SOUGHT. "Let us build with you" (ver. 2).
1. The people. "The adversaries of Judah and Benjamin" (ver. 1). These were a mixed race, partly Israelitish but chiefly foreign. The more dangerous because the more nearly related to Israel; error is more dangerous when allied with truth.
2. The pretext.
(1) Utility. "Let us build." They would help in the enterprise of Israel. Sinful alliances always seem advantageous.
(2) Religion. "For we seek your God" (ver. 2). Those who seek sinful alliances often assume the garb of piety; they come as angels of light.
(3) Community of interest. The Samaritans wanted to make a common cause with Israel; what fellowship hath light with darkness?
3. The plan.
(1) Secret, and not open. They concealed their real intentions. Suspect the world.
(2) Friendly, and not hostile. They came not as warriors, but as helpers. Be not deluded by the smiles of sin.
(3) Dangerous, and not safe. The kiss of sin is perilous; the dagger is behind.
II. A sinful alliance REJECTED. "Ye have nothing to do with us" (ver. 3).
1. Wisdom. The hypocrisy was detected by the leaders of Israel. We need spiritual discernment in dealing with the world; we must try the spirits. Be wise as serpents.
2. Independence. "But we ourselves together will build" (ver. 3).. The Church can do its own work; it needs not the aid of the unholy. God requires the good man to be independent of carnal helpers and of worldly compacts; dare to reject apparent advantage.
3. Determination. A most decided reply was given to the proposed allies, and Israel was prepared to brave the result. Hesitation would have been fatal.
4. Disaster. The professed friends soon reveal their enmity: reject the world, and it will soon "trouble you in building." The enmity of sin is better than its friendship; sin triumphs for a time. - E.
Ephesians 5:8; 1 Thessalonians 5:4-8; 1 John 3:10). There is no intermediate class (see Matthew 12:30). Between these classes genuine sympathy is impossible. The syren voice of "charity" must not be heeded here; it is treachery to Christ. "The friendship of the world," however this may be taken, "is enmity against God." Selfishness and hypocrisy often guide the policy of malignity. Hence -
I. THE FRIENDSHIP OF THE WORLD IS PROFFERED TO THE GODLY IN THEIR PROSPERITY.
1. The world is cold to them in their adversity.
(1) No sympathy came to Israel from the Samaritans when nothing apparently was to he gained. They were only "children of the captivity" - born in captivity, scarcely emerging from bondage, impoverished by a four months' march; comparatively few, 50,000 persons, scattered over the south, and likely to be absorbed into the mass of "the people of the land."
(2) There were even signs of hostility. For the elders of Israel did not venture to build the altar of the Lord until encouraged by the demonstration of strength in the universal response to their summons to the convocation (see 3:1-3). Lesson - It is folly to look to the wicked for help. Even Rabshakeh spoke truly (2 Kings 18:21; comp. Ezekiel 29:6, 7).
2. But when prosperity comes this policy is changed.
(1) The "children of the captivity" had made rapid progress towards national consolidation. Not content to become gradually absorbed in other nationalities, they have raised a national altar, and laid the foundations of their national temple. Note - Religion is the strongest bond of national union. It touches the deepest sympathies of our nature (see Proverbs 14:31).
(2) This made its impression upon "the people of the land." They discerned in Israel the elements of future greatness. By the laws of association the value of the patronage of Cyrus would gain in importance, and the traditions of the ancient greatness of Israel would revive.
(3) Therefore they now volunteered their friendship. They said, "Let us build with you." Let us share your labours and the charges, and we will reap with you also. "We seek your God as you do." "Do not hesitate to trust us." "We do sacrifice to him since the days of Esarhaddon king of Assur, which brought us hither." "We will not cause you embarrassment by any disagreement with your worship." Lesson - First, be aware of worldly plausibility. Why was not all this pleaded earlier? Secondly, discern the selfishness which guides the policy of worldly friendship. Thirdly, never lose sight of the nature of the carnal mind (Romans 8:7).
II. WHEN THE POLICY OF THE WORLD'S FRIENDSHIP IS FRUSTRATED, MALICE WILL DISCOVER ITS HYPOCRISY.
1. The reply discovered to the Samaritans that they were comprehended (ver. 3).
(1) "Ye have nothing to do with us to build an house unto our God." You say, "We seek your God as ye do." This we do not accept. You say, "We do sacrifice to him," etc. This also we dispute. We have too good reason to do so (see 2 Kings 17:34-38). Note,
(a) The true God is not worshipped at all if other gods are worshipped along with him (see also John 4:22). Note,
(b) No sacrifice to God is true that is associated with spurious sacrifices. Query - Is not the sacrifice of Christ "made of none effect" to those who associate with it the sacrifice of the mass and works of supererogation?
(2) Therefore "we ourselves together," in a unity of faith and love which we would not have interrupted by your heresy and malignity, "will build unto the Lord God of Israel," our own covenant God, "as king Cyrus the king of Persia hath commanded us." So, take notice that in thus serving God we are countenanced by the pleasure of the king. Note, here, the lawful mingling of the wisdom of the serpent with the harmlessness of the dove.
2. They now appear as the "adversaries of Judah and Benjamin. They have now no policy of selfishness to restrain their malignity. So
(1) the people of the land weakened the hands of the people of Judah." They stirred up dissension. Their proposition would be variously viewed by the people; worldly men would no doubt think that the Samaritans' offer should have been accepted by the chiefs, who with advancing years were grown too conservative and narrow. Note - Dissension in sentiment is a weakening of the hands.
(2) "They troubled them in the building." This would be the effect of dissension. They would aggravate the embarrassment by ridicule, etc.
(3) "They hired counsellors against them to frustrate their purpose." Some of these would operate upon the workmen; others in the Persian court.
(4) This was continued "all the days of Cyrus." To what extremities will the malignity of the wicked carry them! Reflect - The worst enemies of Judah and Benjamin were those "who said they were Jews and were not" (Revelation 3:9). Let those who discourage a good work consider whose example they follow. - J.A.M.
4., and are illustrated in the Persian history of the time. There crept over the people a growing indifference to the work; they became unready for the self-denial which it demanded; their spiritual unfitness for it was increased by the presence of the external obstacles: to understand this we must turn to the prophecies of Haggai and Zechariah. This is the right way to study all history. The issue of events cannot be understood apart from the moral condition of the men who are affected by them; men's moral condition, again, and their actions are profoundly affected by circumstances. The Divine Providence ordains and permits events; in the use we make of them our character reveals itself, here our responsibility lies. The letter of Artaxerxes effectually prevented the progress of the building: "then ceased the work of the house of God which is at Jerusalem." No prophet rebuked the people during this period; rebukes of inaction, when activity is impossible, only fret and wear out the soul. There is "a time to keep silence," as well as "a time to speak." With the accession of Darius, work, though it might be arduous, became possible; and then Haggai and Zechariah did not spare their words. God gives us men as well as times and seasons. He gives also men of different qualifications according to different needs: the preacher as well as the workman; him who has insight into the springs of human conduct as well as him who can lend activity. Haggai and Zechariah are henceforth joined with Zerubbabel and Jeshua as builders of the temple (Ezra 5:2; Ezra 6:14).
I. THE OUTWARD HINDRANCES.
(a) The jealousy of the surrounding heathen (Ezra 4:1-3). These were the people mentioned in 2 Kings 17:24-41, sent to occupy the northern kingdom when the Israelites were carried away into Assyria. They were superstitious (2 Kings 17:26), followers of the lustful and cruel worship, to contend against which the Hebrew nation was raised up (vers. 29 -31). They had no conception of Deity but that of polytheism (vers. 26, 32, 33, 41). It was impossible for the Jews to admit their partnership in building the temple. It would have been treason to the object for which Cyrus had sent them back; it would have been a denial of their own faith; it would have been a new provocation of God. Our age, which understands that truth is one and indivisible, ought to be able to see that not intolerance, but fidelity, prompted their refusal. These people, from whom the leaders of the Jews expected trouble at the first, (Ezra 3:3), and whom they counted "adversaries" (Ezra 4:1) directly opposed them and intrigued against them at the court of Persia.
(b) No direct appeal was made to cyrus to countermand the proclamation which was the charter of the Jews' return. "The law of the Medes and Persians altereth not." But no protection was afforded them. The history of the later years of Cyrus is obscure. "The warlike prince," says Rawlinson, "who conquered the Persian empire did little to organise it." He was pursuing schemes of conquest to the last. The Jews were left in their feebleness to execute his original decree in their favour as best they could.
(c) The troubled history of Cambyses, the Ahasuerus of Ezra, enables us to understand why he too was indifferent to a local quarrel in a distant province. His jealousy of his brother was his first engrossing care. Then came his schemes of conquest, necessitating his absence from his capital; and, finally, the revolution which placed the Pseudo-Smerdis (Artaxerxes) on the throne. We can understand the indecisive character of Ezra 4:6.
(d) The whole character of the Persian rule was changed on the accession of Artaxerxes. A usurper, he had no loyalty to the purpose of Cyrus. A "Magian," he was out of sympathy with the Zoroastrianism of his great predecessor. Appeal was made to political jealousy alone; the history of the Jews had shown they were too strong to be tolerated (vers. 12-16). The appeal was successful: "then ceased the work of the house of God which is at Jerusalem."
II. THE MORAL HINDRANCES. The people were reluctant to resume work when the accession of Darius made it possible. Darius was a second Cyrus; "the greatest of the Persian monarchs." He was a strong man, a conqueror. He knew the need of good government, and organised his empire. He abolished tributary kingships, and placed in every district an officer directly responsible to the supreme authority. Such a man would not tolerate petty local jealousies; he was worthy of trust. Hence Haggai and Zechariah began to urge on the work of building; and Zerubbabel and Jeshua began to build. Then appeared the old vices of the people, testified against by many a prophet; they were also demoralised by their enforced inaction.
(a) They were dispirited. Haggai urges them "be strong." God is with them: "my spirit remaineth among you, fear ye not." All resources are his, "the silver and the gold? He can make all nations serve them. "The glory of this latter house shall be greater than of the former" (Haggai 2:1-9). Zechariah's prophecy glows with encouragement and hope. God loves his people (Zechariah 1:14-17; Zechariah 2:8, 10-12). Jeshua and Zerubbabel are his chosen servants (chs. 2., 3.). The prosperity of Jerusalem is assured (Ezra 8:1-8).
(b) They were worldly. The force of character native to the Jews, diverted from the work of building, had found a channel in agriculture and trade. Some were rich, dwelling in "celled houses" (Haggai 1:4); they were very active (Haggai 1:6). And they were hypocritical, making professed regard for God's word an excuse for their unreadiness. They had begun too soon; the "seventy years" of Jeremiah were not completed: "the time is not come, the time that the Lord's house should be built."
(c) They were selfish. The old sins of oppression were rife (Zechariah 7:8-10), side by side with sanctimoniousness (vers. 1-7). They were careless of justice and truth (Ezra 8:16, 17). They were dishonest and perjured (v. 4). These are the very vices that a time of adversity is likely to foster. One of the perils against which we ought to be on our guard when a check is imposed on our prosperity, and we find ourselves unable, for a time, to execute a noble purpose, is that we drop into an altogether lower mood. A few men can mould circumstances; there are more, but still few, who are indifferent to them; most men are profoundly affected by them. Practical lessons: -
1. Since circumstances so intimately affect our moral and spiritual life, the sphere of circumstance is a sphere for prayer. "Give me neither poverty nor riches." To limit the use of prayer to personal character is impossible; for among the influences affecting personal character are the order of nature, and the course of events.
2. Let all circumstances be rightly used by us. There are virtues, as well as vices, fostered by special seasons. Prosperity may nourish the generous virtues; a liberal habit acquired in prosperity may help to preserve us from a craven, niggardly spirit in times of care. Adversity may give us an opportunity for patience, meekness, and faith; and, by teaching us to be indifferent to personal ease, may fit us to consecrate returning prosperity to God and our fellows.
3. Our responsibility for the use we make of varying circumstances. These may master us or we may master them. Our ability to read the "signs of the times" is an indication of our moral character. Contrast the Jews' perversion of the "seventy years'" prophecy (Haggai 1:2) with the prophets' quick perception, so soon as the second year of Darius, that here was a man on whom they could rely, and that the time was come to resume work. Compare also our Lord's solemn denunciations of the Pharisees (Matthew 16:1-4). It is thus, by events working upon and revealing character, that time is preparing our eternity. - M.
I. ITS BLINDNESS. Like all cruelty, and indeed like all sin, "it knew not what it did." It thought it was only indulging in a natural and proper resentment; in truth it was lifting up its hand against the people of God, and was doing its best (which was indeed its worst) to undermine and bring to nought the good work of God. Anger is always blind. It does not see its own hideousness; nor does it perceive the end of its doing. Its eye is darkened or discoloured, and its hand is a suicidal, a self-injuring hand.
II. ITS DELIBERATENESS. These men deliberately set themselves to undo what their neighbours had begun. No mere outflash of indignation theirs, but deep, steady, well-cherished purpose to be avenged. Nothing was left undone, no stone unturned, that these new-comers might feel the full weight of their wrath. They found means to hinder them in their work, and they got up all the evidence they could collect of past excitements and disturbances in Jerusalem, and "hired counsellors" to represent them at the court of Babylon (ver. 5), that they might frustrate and overthrow the purpose of Israel. There is no more painful-sight in this world, and no more saddening evidence and consequence of sin, than the fact of men cherishing and nursing a rancorous hatred in their hearts against their fellows, and plotting and scheming, month after month, to do them injury, to break their schemes, to disappoint their hopes.
III. THE MISCHIEF WHICH IT WORKS (ver. 4). These angry interferers had all too much success. They did weaken the hands of those whom they sought to hinder; "they troubled them in building;" they succeeded in gaining the ear and winning the support of Cyrus, and ultimately they caused the work of building the temple to cease. There is a prevalent belief that persecution defeats its own ends - and this is true. We say that "the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church" - and often it is. The fires it lights are often, if not always, purifying, cleansing the gold of its dross, and making the vessels of the Lord more "meet for the Master's use." Yet, on the other hand, it often works most serious mischief to the Church and the world, from which they painfully and only gradually recover. History shows that human rage against the truth and cause of God has done injury on a large scale, and doubtless it is continually making its evil power felt on a small one: it is "weakening the hands" (ver. 4) of the people of God; it is troubling them in building up his kingdom; it is causing "the work to cease; it is "hindering the gospel." This instance of unrighteous anger, like all other illustrations of it, reminds us of -
IV. ITS ESSENTIAL UNNATURALNESS. No doubt it seemed natural enough to these Samaritans to indulge in this bitter wrath and to take these vindictive measures. One of the greatest of the Romans, writing only a few years before Christ, declared that "war was the natural relation between neighbouring nations." But how really and essentially unnatural it is for one human heart, made to be the home of love and kindness and compassion, made to be the spring and source of beneficence and generosity, to be harbouring hatreds, to be finding pleasure in another's pain, to be rejoicing in the humiliation and disappointment of another human heart! What blank contradiction to the will of our Creator! What a wretched departure from his design! How utterly unbeautiful, how infinitely repugnant to his eye! - C.
I. THAT IT OFTEN SEEKS TO HINDER USEFUL ENTERPRISE, These Samaritans sought to "trouble them in building" (ver. 4). As Israel was employed in rebuilding the ruined temple, so the Church is engaged in erecting a great spiritual temple; this noble enterprise is hindered by the varied enmity of the world. The moral building is hindered as well by the pleasures as by the enmity of men: how sinful to hinder the work of God.
II. THAT IT COMBINES A VARIED AGENCY.
1. Costly. "And hired counsellors against them" (ver. 5). The world often expends much time and money in its opposition to the work of God; it always has "counsellors" ready to take its unprofitable pay. The Church opposes with the unsearchable riches of Christ.
2. Numerous. The enemies of the Church are legion; but more are for it than all that can be against it.
3. Competent. The men here named were capable of the most effective method of obtaining their end; the enemies of the Church are often socially great and mentally gifted. Learning is sometimes arrayed against the Church. But God hath chosen the weak things of the earth to confound the mighty.
4. Influential. These men have influence with the king, and stay the work of Israel. But a faithful Israel has power with God, and shall prevail. Strange are the intellectual and social elements allied against the Church.
III. THAT IT TAKES ADVANTAGE OF POLITICAL CHANGES. "And in the reign of Ahasuerus" (ver. 6). During the former reign the Samaritan enmity did not obtain much favour; but it is more successful with the new king. This opposition is -
1. Persistent. Kings may die, but it continues.
2. Vigilant. It is ever on the outlook for new opportunity.
3. Flattering. Thus it seeks to win its way with the new monarch. The Church must remember that Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, to-day, and ever; his purpose standeth sure.
4. An appeal to self-interest. "En-damage the revenue of the kings" (ver. 13)."
IV. THAT IT MAKES A CUNNING USE OF MISREPRESENTATION. "They will not pay toll" (ver. 13). The worldly opposition represents the Church of God as injurious to the state.
1. Rebellious. "Building the rebellious" (ver. 12). That the Church will obey God rather than the king; true if their laws come into collision; but are not Christians the most law-abiding subjects?
2. Defrauding. "They will not pay toll." But does not the Church render unto God the things that are his, and to Caesar the things that are Caesar's?
3. Hypocritical. They build not the walls of Jerusalem for God, but to shut out the king.
4. Wicked. They designate Jerusalem a "bad city." Thus the world maligns the Church; it spoke evil of Christ; it will undervalue his followers.
V. THAT IT MAKES THE PRETENCE OF A DISINTERESTED MOTIVE. "It was not meet for us to see the king's dishonour" (ver. 14). The world will not allow that its opposition is angry or jealous. The most wicked plans seek the aid of righteous pleas. This opposition appears -
1. Disinterested. It does not seek its own, but the king's welfare.
2. Loyal. They had "the king's maintenance," and therefore inform the king of his peril.
3. Open. They will tell the king plainly of the matter, and he can decide. Thus would the world conceal its hatred to the Church.
VI. THAT IT PUTS A FALSE INTERPRETATION UPON NATIONAL HISTORY. "That search may be made in the book of the records of thy fathers" (ver. 15).
1. The historical record. The history of the Church is blended with the history of the world; the Divine and human records move together.
2. The historical argument.
3. The historical perversion. History, rightly interpreted, is on the side of the Church.
4. The historical vindication. We justify Israel now and condemn the Samaritans; time will surely vindicate the Church. - E.
I. THAT MEN MAY TAKE AN IMMENSITY OF TROUBLE TO DO OTHER PEOPLE HARM AND MAKE THEMSELVES INFAMOUS. These men, "in the days of Artaxerxes" (ver. 7), secured the sympathy and co-operation of the Persian "chancellor" and "scribe" (ver. 8); also of their "companions," various Persian colonists then living in Samaria (ver. 9), with "the rest of the nations" whom "Asnapper brought over and set in their cities" (ver. 10): with their aid and through their medium they gained access to King Artaxerxes, and induced him to listen to a long statement of complaint. They had a momentary success, as the king granted their prayer and arrested the work; but in the end their evil designs were defeated, and those against whom they plotted gained their end. All that these malignant Samaritans did was to annoy and delay without defeating their neighbours, while they have earned for themselves a most unenviable immortality. This document is only read now by those who will condemn their conduct. How often do we see men putting forth patient energy, expending great ingenuity and labour, to compass that in which it is best for them to fail, of which they will live to be ashamed. If there be a sense in which "all labour is profit" (Proverbs 14:23), it is also painfully true that thousands of men are laboriously engaged in doing work which will perish, and had better perish; in making a name and repute which they would be glad afterwards to hide. Well for those who are doing that which really serves, that which will stand, that for which other generations will not rebuke but bless them.
II. THAT A TIME OF SPECIAL ACTIVITY WILL PROBABLY PROVE A TIME OF UNUSUAL ENDURANCE (vers. 12-16). The Jews at this time were actively engaged in building - not merely in erecting stone walls, but in rebuilding a nation, in relaying the foundations of the kingdom and cause of God. Thus employed, they found themselves exposed to bitter hostility and deadly machination. Their nearest neighbours were plotting against them; and now they were doing that which is always found very difficult to endure - they were misrepresenting and maligning them; they were reporting them to the king as a "rebellious and bad city" (ver. 12), bent on refusing to "pay toll, tribute, and custom" (ver. 13), "hurtful unto kings and provinces," intending to break off their allegiance, so that the king "would have no portion on this side the river." Though not incapable of turbulence, and not indisposed to throw off a foreign yoke when that should be possible, the Jews were not cherishing any purpose of this kind; they had been faithful subjects when in Persia, and they had honourable and loyal intentions now. This "accusation" (ver. 6) was essentially false; it was a malignant misrepresentation. When men are actively engaged in building the kingdom of Christ, they may expect Samaritan misrepresentations. Things will be said-by the ill-disposed which, as here, may have a colouring of truth, but which are essentially false. We must not mind misrepresentation when we are doing earnest and faithful work. The very excellency of our effort will bring down the hatred and opposition of those who are enemies of the truth, and our work and ourselves will be slandered; we may find ourselves members of a "sect everywhere spoken against." We shall not, then, forget who it was that was charged with sedition, and so far from being surprised that "the disciple is not above his master," we shall rejoice that we are counted worthy to "partake of the sufferings of Christ." No truly great work has ever been wrought which has not been covered at times with black clouds of misrepresentation.
III. THAT SELFISHNESS AND JUSTICE ARE SELDOM ASSOCIATED TOGETHER. The king listened to those who seemed so desirous of serving him; he was inclined to believe those that were anxious his "revenue should not be endamaged" (ver. 13), who did not wish to "see the king's dishonour" (ver. 14), and who took measures that he should not lose his "portion on one side the river" (ver. 16). And search being made, it was easy to find some incidents which might be construed in the sense of these complainants: the city "of old time had made insurrection," etc. (ver. 19); there had been "mighty kings" to whom "toll, tribute, and custom" had been paid, etc. - there might be some possible danger too in the future; let the work cease for the present (ver. 21), for "why should damage grow to the hurt of the kings?" (ver. 22). Rather send bitter disappointment to the holiest hopes of a province than endanger the prosperity of kings. Thus does self-interest pervert justice. To save themselves from slight, remote, and contingent harm, men will cause much present and certain injury to their fellows. Selfishness is unfair and often cruel. To be true and just one must be disinterested. - C.
I. THAT MEN ARE CAPABLE OF HINDERING THE WORK OF GOD. "Give ye now commandment to cause these men to cease, and that this city be not builded" (ver. 21).
1. Presumptuous. "Then ceased the work of the house of God." How could presumption be greater than to stop the work of God; let men pluck the stars from the heavens, but let them not injure the Church of Christ.
2. Perplexing. Is it not a mystery that the Eternal will allow frail and sinful men to impede the work of his people?
3. Prejudicial. The walls of Jerusalem required restoration. The temple must be built and the old worship restored. This hindrance is injurious to the Jewish commonwealth. How do men prejudice great interests by staying the beneficent ministries of the Church.
4. Permitted. These hindrances were allowed for a time, that new energy might be stimulated, that the mercy of God might be seen in the aid given to the dejected workers, and his glory in the final defeat of all enemies.
5. Preparatory. To greater success; the pent-up stream will soon flow on more rapidly.
6. Patient. The work of the Church is patient; it will outlive all enmity.
II. THE METHODS WHICH ARE MOST CALCULATED TO HINDER THE WORK OF GOD. The letter to the king caused the work to cease. The impediments to Church work are -
1. External. The political may hinder the moral; unjust law, civil persecution, and the force of circumstances may sometimes cause the work of God to cease
(2) Force (ver. 23).
2. Internal. The work of God is more often hindered by a low spiritual condition, by a quarrelsome temper, by a critical spirit, by the thoughtless word; it is indeed sad to cause moral work to cease from within. See the responsibility of conduct, when a word may, like this letter to the king, stay the work of God.
III. THE CONSEQUENCES WHICH FOLLOW WHEN THE WORK OF GOD IS HINDERED.
1. Disappointment. After the generous edict of Cyrus how disappointing this order to cease work. How often is the Church disappointed in her best efforts.
2. Complaint. No doubt many Israelites would indulge a complaining spirit. The Church should not grumble when its work is hindered, but pray.
3. Sorrow. That the good work should be unfinished.
4. Hope. That God will yet undertake their cause. - E.