The People's Bible by Joseph Parker
Now when the adversaries of Judah and Benjamin heard that the children of the captivity builded the temple unto the LORD God of Israel;Ezra 4
1. Now when the adversaries [Samaritans] of Judah and Benjamin heard that the children of the captivity builded the temple unto the Lord God of Israel;
2. Then they came to Zerubbabel, and to the chief of the fathers, and said unto them, Let us build with you: for we seek your God as ye do [hypocrisy]; and we do sacrifice unto him since the days of Esar-haddon king of Assur [he ended his reign b.c. 668], which brought us up hither.
3. But Zerubbabel, and Jeshua, and the rest of the chief of the fathers of Israel, said unto them, Ye have nothing to do with us to build an house unto our God [this is not intolerance but obedience]; but we ourselves together will build unto the Lord God of Israel, as king Cyrus the king of Persia hath commanded us.
4. Then the people of the land weakened the hands of the people of Judah, and troubled them in building,
5. And hired counsellors against them, to frustrate their purpose, all the days of Cyrus king of Persia, even until the reign of Darius king of Persia [this systematic opposition continued for eight years, viz., until b.c. 529].
6. And the reign of Ahasuerus [he reigned seven years], in the beginning of his reign, wrote they unto him an accusation against the inhabitants of Judah and Jerusalem.
7. And in the days of Artaxerxes [king of Persia, who reigned only seven months] wrote Bishlam, Mithredath, Tabeel, and the rest of their companions, unto Artaxerxes king of Persia; and the writing of the letter was written in the Syrian tongue, and interpreted in the Syrian tongue [this explains the transition to another language at this point].
8. Rehum the chancellor [the lord of judgment] and Shimshai the scribe [the royal secretary] wrote a letter against Jerusalem to Artaxerxes the king in this sort:
9. Then wrote Rehum the chancellor, and Shimshai the scribe, and the rest of their companions; the Dinaites, the Apharsathchites, the Tarpelites, the Apharsites, the Archevites, the Babylonians, the Susanchites, the Dehavites, and the Elamites,
10. And the rest of the nations whom the great and noble Asnapper brought over, and set in the cities of Samaria, and the rest that are on this side the river, and at such a time.
11. This is the copy of the letter that they sent unto him, even unto Artaxerxes the king: Thy servants the men on this side the river [Euphrates], and at such a time.
12. Be it known unto the king, that the Jews which came up from thee to us are come unto Jerusalem, building the rebellious and the bad city, and have set up the walls thereof, and joined the foundations.
13. Be it known now unto the king, that, if this city be builded, and the walls set up again, then will they not pay toll, tribute, and custom, and so thou shalt endamage the revenue of the kings [lit. and at length damage will be done to the kings].
14. Now because we have maintenance from the king's palace [lit. we eat the salt of the palace], and it was not meet for us to see the king's dishonour, therefore have we sent and certified the king;
15. That search may be made in the book of the records of thy fathers [extending to the remote antiquity of the Median dynasty]: so shalt thou find in the book of the records, and know that this city is a rebellious city, and hurtful unto kings and provinces, and that they have moved sedition within the same of old time: for which cause was this city destroyed.
16. We certify the king that, if this city be builded again, and the walls thereof set up, by this means thou shalt have no portion on this side the river.
17. Then sent the king an answer unto Rehum the chancellor, and to Shimshai the scribe, and to the rest of their companions that dwell in Samaria, and unto the rest beyond the river, Peace, and at such a time.
18. The letter which ye sent unto us hath been plainly read before me.
19. And I commanded, and search hath been made, and it is found that this city of old time hath made insurrection against kings, and that rebellion and sedition have been made therein.
20. There have been mighty kings also over Jerusalem, which have ruled over all countries beyond the river; and toll, tribute, and custom was paid unto them.
21. Give ye now commandment to cause these men to cease, and that this city be not builded, until another commandment shall be given from me.
22. Take heed now that ye fail not to do this: why should damage grow to the hurt of the kings?
23. Now when the copy of king Artaxerxes' letter was read before Rehum, and Shimshai the scribe, and their companions, they went up in haste to Jerusalem unto the Jews, and made them to cease by force and power.
24. Then ceased the work of the house of God which is at Jerusalem [but the altar as the centre of worship remained]. So it ceased unto the second year of the reign of Darius king of Persia.
Builders and Adversaries
WHY not regard the building of Jerusalem, of the altar, of any portion of the house of God, as typical of the life-building in which we are all engaged? We cannot but be builders: we are building a personal life; we are assisting to put up a social edifice; day by day in proportion as we are in earnest are we putting things together and giving life-shape and commodiousness. Let us think of good men, and great building; of good souls purified as it were with fire, trying to put up a life-house worthy of God's own conception of life. The figure would be beautiful and graphic, nor would it strain the imagination, for we are all more or less conscious that in proportion as we are in earnest do we give shape and purpose and high and solemn meaning to all that we put our hands to.
How does the work go on? Is it all easy, smooth, delightful? Are all circumstances conducive to its prosecution and its ultimate and enduring success? How is the weather with us? How do the winds treat our building? And is the society in the midst of which we are putting up our life-house sympathetic and fraternal? Here we come upon the experience of the first verse:—
"Now when the adversaries of Judah and Benjamin heard." (Ezra 4:1).
We cannot build without the adversaries hearing. There is little secret building in life. For a time we may proceed almost silently, with all the enjoyment of security from the prying and unsympathetic curiosity of enemies; but as the walls rise people stop, and look, and wonder, and interrogate. If those who stop are friends they will say, God bless the builders and their building! may it be roofed in during the summer weather, and may no harm come to so shapely an edifice! But there are many adversaries. The adversary is a man who seeks to discover flaws, disadvantages, mistakes; a man who magnifies all that is unworthy until he makes a great sore and wound of it, so as to offend as many as possible: he knows how the work could have been better done: he sees where every mistake has been committed; and under his breath, or above it, as circumstances may suggest, he curses the builders and their building, and thinks that such an edifice built by such men is but an incubus which the earth is doomed to bear. Regard the criticism of adversaries as inevitable. If we think of it only as incidental, occasional, characteristic of a moment's experience, we shall treat it too lightly: the adversary is an abiding quantity in life; he hates all goodness; he dreads all prayer; he is against every soul that has an upward look. "Resist the devil, and he will flee from you." The devil is a thousand strong; he is not located here or there nor confined to a particular province; he seems to fill the air, and to strike us from every point of the atmosphere. Be sober; be vigilant; take unto you the whole armour of God: there is no excess of panoply; every piece of the armour is essential.
How subtle the adversary is; how smooth-tongued; how lithe in his motions; how accommodating to the peculiarities of the mould through which he must pass in order to reach and secure his object!
"Then they came to Zerubbabel, and to the chief of the fathers, and said unto them, Let us build with you: for we seek your God, as ye do" (Ezra 4:2).
Were the men who went up to build Jerusalem in earnest? Did Zerubbabel and Jeshua and the rest of the chief of the fathers of Israel speak in the same tone? Did they say, Here is unexpected help; we did not look for this assistance: yea, surely come and help us; the more the builders the sooner will the city be lifted up in its ancient beauty? Leaders must be critical. The man who has little responsibility can soon achieve a reputation for energy. Leaders must halt hesitate balance, and compare things, and come to conclusions supported by the largest inferences. There are men who would take a short and ready method in accomplishing their purpose; there are men of rude strength, of undisciplined and unsanctified force. But Zerubbabel and Jeshua must look at all the offers of assistance, and ask what their real value is; they must go into the sanctuary of motive, into the arcana of purpose and under-meanings. Zerubbabel and Jeshua—men who could undertake to build a city—were men who had mental penetration; they could see into other men. They saw into the Samaritan adversaries, and said,
"Ye have nothing to do with us to build an house unto our God" (Ezra 4:3).
That was not a friendly reply to a sympathetic approach; it was unmistakable, it was direct, it was complete. "Ye have nothing to do with us." That is the answer that we must make to men who want to co-operate with us externally before they have co-operated with us spiritually and sacrificially. That is the answer to infidels. When they would assist us in our works of benevolence and in spreading some particular practical aspect of religion, our reply should be, "Ye have nothing to do with us to build an house unto our God." The Church will take money from anybody; the whole Christian Church in all her ramifications and communions cheats herself into the persuasion that she can take the money of bad men and turn it to good uses. Grander would be the Church, more virgin in her beauty and loveliness, more snow-like in her incorruptibleness, if she could say to every bad man who offers her assistance, Ye have nothing to do with us in building the house of our God: the windows shall remain unglazed, and the roof-beams unstated, before we will touch money made by the sale of poison, or by practices that are marked by the utmost corruption and evil.
Thus we can learn from the Old Testament a good deal that would bear immediate modern application. This is the right answer to all doubtful Christians as well as to all unbelievers. We should say to them, So long as you are doubtful you are not helpful: your character is gone on one side, and therefore it is ineffective on the other. But would not this class of discipline and scope of criticism shear down the congregations? Certainly. Would God they were shorn down. Every doubtful man amongst us is a loss, a source of weakness, a point of perplexity and vexation. We are only unanimous when we are one in moral faith and consent. The critic will do us no good; the clever man who sees our metaphysical error will keep us back: only the soul that has given itself to Christ out and out, in an unbargaining surrender, can really stand fire in the great war, and build through all weathers, and hope even in the midst of darkness. We may have too many people round about us; we may be overburdened and obstructed by numbers. The Church owes not a little of its strength to the purity of its discipline. But when a man comes forward and says he will assist us as far as he can; he cannot adopt our principles and doctrines, but he can do something towards helping us in external matters, should we not receive his help? Better, a thousand times better, if we could say to him, No, we are poor and few and socially of no account, but this is a holy work, and the hand that builds this house should be a hand wounded like its Master's. Beware of all approaches from the adversary. Let us never co-operate with men in doing anything for the Church, or for benevolent objects, who deny our Lord. We cannot work with the infidel for any great ecclesiastico-political object; his purpose and ours are not the same, and to ally ourselves with him would be to present a false aspect to the Christian public, and to Christ himself.
How did the adversaries take this rebuke? They took it as we might have anticipated—
"Then the people of the land weakened the hands of the people of Judah, and troubled them in building" (Ezra 4:4).
All bad men can do work of that kind. What is so easy as to weaken a good man's hands? Nothing of a positively hostile nature need be done, but a look, a tone, an intimation that can neither be reported nor quoted nor set forth in type,—these may all tend to the purpose of enfeeblement. Who cannot trouble another man in his life-purpose? Ask a question about him, write an anonymous letter concerning him—and the man may be troubled, weakened, fretted, discomfited, and discouraged. Only in proportion as he sees God can he proceed with his work. Many a time the good man has said, Were not this work divine, I should gladly retire from it; were not this preaching the Gospel a divine ordinance and a personal inspiration, I would rather cleanse the public streets than be associated with its official service, considering how many there are who oppose and vex and trouble the ministers of Christ. But we must look up and look on, and toil ever as in the great Taskmaster's eye. To thee, thou wounded, enthroned Christ, is this whole service rendered! We are not employed by one another; we are called to this blessed servitude, this gracious heavenly slavery, by him who will help us in every exigency and deliver us in every trouble. Even the weak have power to hinder. There lives not a cripple on all God's earth that cannot at least shake his crutch in the face of the good man. We must not be deterred thereby. We must have long secret interviews with God, and then go forth, saying, Come weal, come woe, there shall be no break in my testimony, there shall be no division in my consecrated love.
What more did the Samaritans do? They appealed to an illegitimate king. The work was done "in the days of Artaxerxes." Let us be just to the men who bear this illustrious name. There were at least three of them; first, this man who was no king at all, but a Magian priest, who personated the son of the dead king, and came to the throne for something less than eight months. The historian says "in the days of Artaxerxes," not, "in the reign of." We know there are some men nominally kings who are not really royal. There are some men on all thrones who are personating other men. There are bastards even in the apostolic succession. Then there is an Artaxerxes of the seventh chapter of this book, a man quite of another temper and quality of mind. Then there is a third Artaxerxes in Nehemiah, gracious and kindly to the Jews. But the Samaritans, knowing probably that this Magian priest had put on the royal purple, and was sitting there king without any right to be there; and knowing, perhaps, that they could strip his purple rags from his shoulders, and send him out a beggar into the world, communicated with him, and received a letter from him. A copy of the letter sent to Artaxerxes is given here, and this is the base policy—
"Be it known now unto the king, that, if this city be builded, and the walls set up again, then will they not pay toll, tribute, and custom and so thou shalt endamage the revenue of the kings " (Ezra 4:13).
These were the men who offered in the second verse to assist in the building of this very city! How double some men are! How infinitely plural are other men! How many faces have some persons—more faces than there are days in the year! Who could have supposed that the second and thirteenth verses could have been in the same chapter? Who can estimate the vagaries of inconsistency, or trace the policy of venality, turpitude, and self-seeking? Was this appeal ever made again in sacred history? Can we recall an instance in the New Testament kindred to this? There should be no difficulty in quoting such an instance. Surely this is it: "If thou let this man go, thou art not Caesar's friend"; and an appeal of that kind to a priest who only simulates his royalty, or to a procurator who has no knowledge of the real points in dispute, is likely to tell: the king says, I must be careful about toll, tribute, and custom; and particularly careful as other kings are coming after me, and I must not impoverish them;—and the procurator would say, Caesar must be honoured whoever goes down: crucify as many people as you please, only do not accuse me of disloyalty or high treason: I am Caesar's friend; you can take what course you like. Such talk is even now in vogue. Anybody may go down, provided we keep up one particular phase of loyalty and consistency. Men are appealing to us saying, If this be done your sectarianism will be put an end to: if this action be completed, then all the devils in perdition will be let loose upon the land, and nothing but black ruin will stare the nation in the face; if you pursue this policy or that, then you are not Caesar's friend. No matter how the appeal comes, it does come; we cannot always say, It will come in this form or come in that; but it would seem as if there was always a force at the heart, saying, If you do this, you will be disloyal, untrue; you will give false impressions to other people, and you will be involved in large collateral mischief. Always there comes from the blackness a messenger tapping at the door of our fear and saying, Let me in to tell thee that if thou dost thus, or so, or otherwise, great issues of an unpleasant character will certainly eventuate. What is the cure for all this? Inward conviction; solid purpose; a mind made up at the altar: then go straight forward, never being turned back by thunder, lightning, and rain, or by any form and measure of tempest, always pressing the waves, defying the enemy, and singing as we toil up the mountain.
For a time the bad Samaritans and the simulating priest succeeded. In the twenty-third verse we find that the men who went up to build the house of God were made "to cease by force and power." A pitiable record! Has it come, then, to a mere question of competitive muscle? The men were not made to cease because their convictions changed; they were overpowered, they were outnumbered; it was a triumph of brute strength. They never gave in so long as they could lift a hand, but when the foe was too many and too strong, then for some two years they ceased to build. But they were building all the time in their hearts; the purpose of building was never surrendered. So it must be with us: our trade has gone down, our friends have cooled, the patronage that used to encourage us has been withdrawn, the enemy is very strong, the competition is overwhelming, and for a time we must give up: but, blessed be God, only for a time: Haggai the prophet is soon coming, and Zechariah, and when the right prophets come mind will triumph over matter, a sound doctrine will depose a rotten policy, and holy consecrated speech shall make men's blood tingle with unexpected and uncalculated life, which, being properly regulated and set to work, shall yet see the house of God reared, roofed, completed, and shining like a light at midnight. Blessed are they who have part in such services! The discouragements are very many; sometimes our tears blind us; sometimes our hearts grow cold within us through very discouragement, and we say we have been victimised by a fanaticism, we have mistaken our vocation, we were not called to this ministry at all. The Holy Book seems to be inverted when we read it, so that we cannot make coherence or poetry of it; and the very altar seems to dissolve in ashes when we bow before it that we may pray; bad men have all their own way; the devil succeeds, he is rich, and he seems to lay his avaricious hands upon all things: let us give up. Then comes a voice, saying, No: ye have not yet resisted unto blood, striving against sin; look unto Jesus, the author and finisher of faith; put your trust in the living God; they that be for you are more than all that can be against you,—wait; sorrow may endure for a night, but joy cometh in the morning: men go forth sowing, bearing precious seed, and they come again bearing sheaves, rejoicing and shouting for very gladness of heart—hope: night cometh truly, but also the morning. What a morning when heaven dawns!