The Jews who returned to their homeland after the captivity understood that genuine commitment to following the Lord means making worship a priority. They soon discovered that such a commitment not only produces glory to God but also stirs up satanic opposition.
It’s not often that a team wins a championship two years in a row. Whether it’s the Super Bowl or a golf tournament, holding that championship trophy in your hand, year after year, is highly unlikely.
A lot of it has to do with the added pressure of expectations, a sense of overconfidence, and especially the determination of other athletes to make sure you don’t win again. There is always opposition, and there are no guarantees.
The same can be said of those who follow the Lord. Life can be very difficult at times, but then, we have never been guaranteed a smooth path in life. It has often been said that there is no such thing as opportunity without opposition. Indeed, they are both part of the Christian’s life.
That is also the experience of the Jewish captives who have been freed by King Cyrus. They have returned to Judah and Jerusalem after seventy years of captivity. In the months and years that follow, they will experience opportunities and successes, as well as opposition and disappointments.
We are now in the third chapter of Ezra, and the Jewish exiles have been back in the land about three months. Verse 1 tells us, “The people gathered as one man to Jerusalem.” In other words, there is a real sense of national unity and fellowship.
And the first order of business is building the altar of burnt offering so that sacrifices can be presented according to the law. The worship of God is their priority—even over providing for their own personal safety by rebuilding Jerusalem.
So, even though they are afraid of the people living around Jerusalem, they focus on setting the altar in place and observing the Feast of Booths, or Tabernacles. This feast was a time of thanksgiving as they remembered how God had led them out of Egypt and through the wilderness.
Still, their worship is limited, so to speak, because the temple in Jerusalem had been destroyed by the Babylonians. As verse 6 explains, “The foundation of the temple of the Lord was not yet laid.” So, to remedy this, they join together in a capital campaign for the temple reconstruction. Verse 7 tells us:
They gave money to the masons and the carpenters, and food, drink, and oil to the Sidonians and the Tyrians to bring cedar trees from Lebanon to the sea, to Joppa, according to the grant that they had from Cyrus king of Persia.
It takes another seven months to plan this building project. Then Zerubbabel and the priest Jeshua appoint Levites as supervisors of the work (verses 8-9), and the construction begins. It’s not long before the foundation is completed, and the people stop to celebrate.
With the priests and Levites taking the lead, verse 11 says:
They sang responsively, praising and giving thanks to the Lord, “For he is good, for his steadfast love endures forever toward Israel.” And all the people shouted with a great shout when they praised the Lord, because the foundation of the house of the Lord was laid.
Can you imagine the difference here between these people and their forefathers who were taken into captivity seventy years earlier? That rebellious, idolatrous nation has now become a humble, grateful people who now worship the one true and living God.
Keep in mind, they are not celebrating a finished project. Only the foundation has been laid—that’s all. But they are not going to wait till everything is finished perfectly before they stop and thank God—and by the way, neither should we.
Thanksgiving should not be just one afternoon around one turkey dinner with some pumpkin pie. Times of thanksgiving ought to happen often––even when things are not completed perfectly and everything in life isn’t working out smoothly.
Now there are certain people present who are not in the mood to sing quite as loudly. Verse 12 says:
But many of the . . . old men who had seen the first [temple], wept with a loud voice when they saw the foundation of this house being laid.
There are some old folks here who can remember Solomon’s temple. They had seen it. And they can tell this new temple is not going to be anything as grand and glorious as Solomon’s. These are genuine tears as they remember what they lost.
Nevertheless, they all eventually dry their tears and get back to this building project, which is necessary for the full reestablishment of their worship of the Lord. Now, it is clear that in these early months, the people have experienced amazing success: they have built the altar, resumed sacrificial worship, and completed the foundation of the new temple. But all these successes in chapter 3 are about to meet up with opposition in chapter 4.
Their thanksgiving singing and shouting praise to God apparently reaches the ears of their neighbors, described here in verse 1 of chapter 4 as “adversaries.” These adversaries are the Samaritans, descendants of Israelites in the north who had escaped the Assyrian deportation, stayed in the land, and married foreigners the Assyrians brought into the region. They don’t want the Jewish people back in Jerusalem, and they don’t want a competing religion in the land.
Even though they offer to help rebuild the temple, Zerubbabel and the other leaders recognize their true motives, and they deny the Samaritans’ request. They respond to them in verse 3:
“You have nothing to do with us in building a house to our God; but we alone will build to the Lord, the God of Israel.”
Sure enough, the Samaritans show their true colors as they now attempt to stop the rebuilding of this temple. Verse 4 tells us they discourage the workers; verse 5 tells us that they bribe people to become “counselors against them to frustrate their purpose.”
In verse 6, Ezra, the author, points to a time fifty years into the future when the Samaritans write a letter to the Persian king Ahasuerus—a man we are going to meet close up in the book of Esther.
And in this letter, the Samaritans make all kinds of accusations. Look at their words to the king in verses 12-13:
They are rebuilding that rebellious and wicked city. They are finishing the walls and repairing the foundations . . . if this city is rebuilt . . . they will not pay tribute . . . and the royal revenue will be impaired.
In other words, “Oh King Ahasuerus, these people are going to steal your money and make your life miserable.” You can imagine how this letter gets his attention!
This future reference here in chapter 4 is given by Ezra to emphasize the persistent opposition the Jewish people faced throughout the years as they sought to reestablish themselves in the land.
Verse 24 then returns us to the present time, picking up the account from verse 5 and informing us that the people become so discouraged by these false counselors and the implied threats of their enemies that their work on the temple grinds to a halt. For the next fifteen years, nothing will be done—the end of verse 24 says—“until the second year of the reign of Darius king of Persia.”
Let me tell you, a discouraging word can stop a believer from serving the Lord just as easily as open persecution. That is a good reminder for us today to stick together and stay at the work God has given us to do.
Frankly, the church family ought to be a place where we hear encouraging words. We are surrounded by a hostile and discouraging world, and the church should serve as a storm shelter, so to speak—a place of refuge where we encourage one another as we serve our true and living Lord.