Building up Without Compromise or Fear
So far in our series we've concentrated our lessons on the people of Ezra/Nehemiah. Our thoughts and teaching points have largely dealt with how people reacted, or the qualities that people had during this period.
In my lesson this time, I'd like to look at the general process for this project evolved and how it affected the Jewish people. You see, the basis for the story in Ezra/Nehemiah is the rebuilding of the city, wall, and especially the temple in Jerusalem. This is the backdrop against which the characters, their lives, and their decisions are played out for good or evil. Therefore, let's work our way through the different "stages" of the re-building process and see what happened to the people who were involved in it.
In the Bible, from managing the garden to establishing the church, God molds and shapes people's lives as they work out some process of His design.
Stage 1 – Beginning – Ezra 3:1-13
1Now when the seventh month came, and the sons of Israel were in the cities, the people gathered together as one person to Jerusalem. 2Then Jeshua the son of Jozadak and his brothers the priests, and Zerubbabel the son of Shealtiel and his brothers, rose up and built the altar of the God of Israel to offer burnt offerings on it, as it is written in the Law of Moses, the man of God.
- Ezra 3:1-2
It is 516 B.C. and after researching those who could return as well as priests and Levites who could legitimately serve, the men are gathered to begin the work in Jerusalem. This work is led by Jeshua the son of a priestly line and Zerubbabel the son of a kingly line. The excitement of the beginning is a clear vision of what is to be! We see in our mind's eye the glory of the finish line and what it will mean for us.
For these Jews, being freely released from forced exile and returned to their homeland by the order of a pagan king who would underwrite their travel and cost of rebuilding their holy temple, was nothing short of miraculous!
For those who agreed to return (because many chose to stay in comfortable exile) and rebuild not only the temple, but their homes and society, this meant that after many generations of silence, God was with them again! They were truly His people again! And more importantly, He would accept their worship offered according to the Law of Moses at God's true temple. This was an exciting start!
We also learn that they start by organizing the Levites (temple servants) so they could begin the actual construction of the temple on the foundation that they initially laid. The chapter ends with the scene of rejoicing as the people are moved when they see the outline of the temple in the foundation. (Like building plans or drawings). Their joy is mixed with sadness, however, at the thought that this temple when finally finished will still not be able to match the grandeur of Solomon's temple which they remember from the past. Although they were afraid of their enemies, they suffered no interference yet, but as with all new beginnings, this next stage was soon to appear.
Stage 2 – Opposition – Ezra 4:1-24
Like all projects, it wasn't long until the first of many obstacles would derail the process.
1Now when the enemies of Judah and Benjamin heard that the people of the exile were building a temple to the Lord God of Israel, 2they approached Zerubbabel and the heads of fathers' households, and said to them, "Let us build with you, for like you, we seek your God; and we have been sacrificing to Him since the days of Esarhaddon king of Assyria, who brought us up here."
- Ezra 4:1-2
The "enemies" that are spoken of here are those who would later be referred to as Samaritans. They claimed to also be legitimate worshippers of God, but their historical reference is the king Esarhaddon who was the son of the Assyrian king Sennacherib (the one who destroyed the Northern Kingdom and dispersed the people to foreign lands). The Assyrian policy was to dilute their nationalistic fervor and fidelity by mixing them with other nations.
The Babylonians, who succeeded them in world domination, had a different policy. Their approach was to retrain and immerse the leaders of defeated nations in Babylonian culture, art, and politics and then return them to their former lands to govern under Babylonian control.
These two systems produced the different results we read about in Ezra/Nehemiah.
A. The Assyrians, under Sennacherib and later his son, Esarhaddon sent a people back who were no longer Jewish. They had not only been mixed culturally, because they had been forced to take foreign wives and husbands but were mixed religiously because they had also adopted the gods of their pagan spouses. In approaching Zerubbabel and other Jewish leaders, they could claim some historical connection, but their bloodline and religion had been compromised in such a way that they would no longer be allowed to participate in temple worship.
B. The Babylonians, on the other hand, had permitted the Jews they captured to maintain their cultural and religious integrity. When they permitted them to return there were still many Jews who had not married outside their nation and had maintained their religious heritage. The result was a people who had the historical, religious, and cultural resources to actually restore their nation and their religious practice to its original form.
This explains why Zerubbabel refuses the offer of his neighbors to participate in the building (and by extension) the leadership of temple worship (vs. 3). This was not pride or selfishness on the part of Zerubbabel and the others, it was a matter of obedience to God and procedure.
The reason that Judah had fallen to the Babylonians in the first place was that nations fall into adultery by the mixing of people and religions together. This time they take no chances and refuse from the outset to mix with foreign peoples and their gods. They resist the temptation to trade peace and security for religious purity – they refuse to compromise.
4Then the people of the land discouraged the people of Judah, and frightened them from building, 5and bribed advisers against them to frustrate their advice all the days of Cyrus king of Persia, even until the reign of Darius king of Persia. 6Now in the reign of Ahasuerus, in the beginning of his reign, they wrote an accusation against the inhabitants of Judah and Jerusalem. 7And in the days of Artaxerxes, Bishlam, Mithredath, Tabeel, and the rest of his colleagues wrote to Artaxerxes king of Persia; and the text of the letter was written in Aramaic and translated from Aramaic.
- Ezra 4:4-7
The opposition then begins as public pressure. Negative talk and social pressure are used to stop what they are doing because it is offensive, or could cause war, etc.
It becomes political when the enemies begin to lobby successive kings to stop permitting the work. Peer pressure and threats don't work so they appeal to the king with a false accusation.
In verses 8-16 Ezra provides the details of the letter sent to the king, in which the Jews are accused of rebuilding their city and temple as a first step to rebelling against the king and claim independence. The enemies claim that the Jews end game is to refuse taxation and conquer neighboring nations as they had done in the past. They encourage the king to verify Judah (and Israel's) history to confirm their accusations. Their argument is summarized in a neat equation – rebuilding the temple = independence.
In that era, pagans believed that the defeat of a nation meant that your own gods were more powerful than the gods of your defeated enemy. This is why victorious armies would tear down temples and carry off images and vessels to their own temples as "trophies".
When the king read of Israel's past glory and power, he did not want to risk allowing the God of the Jews to be re-established. For him, this simple equation made sense. Stop rebuilding the temple of the God of the Jews = stop the God of the Jews = stop the power of the Jews.
Of course, this letter and attack only confirmed how unsuitable these men were to share in the building of the temple in the first place. So, the king writes back to order a halt to the reconstruction.
23Then as soon as the copy of King Artaxerxes' decree was read before Rehum and Shimshai the scribe and their colleagues, they went in a hurry to Jerusalem to the Jews and stopped them by military force. 24Then work on the house of God in Jerusalem was discontinued, and it was stopped until the second year of the reign of Darius king of Persia.
- Ezra 4:23-24
Note that Rehum and Shimshai only have the courage to use force once they have the backing of the king for their scheme. For about twenty years, the construction was stopped until the Lord stirred up the prophets to signal a new beginning.
Stage 3 – Renewal – Ezra 5:1-17
What we know about the downtime in the rebuilding effort we learn from Haggai's preaching.
1In the second year of Darius the king, on the first day of the sixth month, the word of the Lord came by the prophet Haggai to Zerubbabel the son of Shealtiel, governor of Judah, and to Joshua the son of Jehozadak, the high priest, saying, 2"This is what the Lord of armies says: 'This people says, "The time has not come, the time for the house of the Lord to be rebuilt."'" 3Then the word of the Lord came by Haggai the prophet, saying, 4"Is it time for you yourselves to live in your paneled houses while this house remains desolate?" 5Now then, the Lord of armies says this: "Consider your ways! 6You have sown much, only to harvest little; you eat, but there is not enough to be satisfied; you drink, but there is not enough to become drunk; you put on clothing, but there is not enough for anyone to get warm; and the one who earns, earns wages to put into a money bag full of holes." 7The Lord of armies says this: "Consider your ways! 8Go up to the mountains, bring wood, and rebuild the temple, that I may be pleased with it and be honored," says the Lord. 9"You start an ambitious project, but behold, it comes to little; when you bring it home, I blow it away. Why?" declares the Lord of armies. "It is because of My house which remains desolate, while each of you runs to his own house.
- Haggai 1:1-9
The Jews did what comes naturally to human beings – they took the path of least resistance. Once the king's decree came, they stopped. They knew that what was written was not true, was out of context, but they didn't appeal to it. It was easier to give in to their fear and pursue the lesser dream of simply rebuilding their homes and their lives and avoid trouble with their neighbors. And yet, they did not prosper as they should have.
Now that they didn't have the time and effort to invest in the rebuilding of the temple, you'd think that all this extra energy, time, and money would help them make a better life for themselves, but it didn't! God asks them to evaluate the last 20 years – are they really ahead? Are they really better off? The answer, of course, is no. They are not better off because God has not permitted them to prosper.
He has not permitted them to prosper because they've neglected to do the work they were originally sent to do. At the first obstacle they reverted to their own plan instead of trying to figure out another way to accomplish God's plan.
Haggai's preaching works a tremendous result on the people because in two short weeks. Verse 1 says he started on the first day of the sixth month to preach; and in verse 15 it says that on the twenty-fourth day of the same month the people took action. In two short weeks the people responded to his preaching.
Now, in describing the restoration of the building Ezra mentions what was at stake here.
1When the prophets, Haggai the prophet and Zechariah the son of Iddo, prophesied to the Jews who were in Judah and Jerusalem in the name of the God of Israel, who was over them, 2then Zerubbabel the son of Shealtiel and Jeshua the son of Jozadak rose up and began to rebuild the house of God which is in Jerusalem; and the prophets of God were with them, supporting them. 3At that time Tattenai, the governor of the province beyond the Euphrates River, and Shethar-bozenai and their colleagues came to them and spoke to them as follows: "Who issued you a decree to rebuild this temple and to finish this structure?" 4Then we told them accordingly what the names of the men were who were reconstructing this building. 5But the eye of their God was on the elders of the Jews, and they did not stop them until the report could reach Darius, and then the decree concerning it could be sent back.
- Ezra 5:1-5
So, they began rebuilding and the obvious happens, the officials show up and demanded to know what is going on. Who gave you permission? Note that in verses 3b-4 the officials take the names of the leaders. The reason they did this is to make sure they knew who to execute if the king refused to permit the rebuilding once again. The Jews decide to do what they should have done twenty years before – fight for their project, respond to the accusations.
In the meantime, someone had to take responsibility in case it didn't work . In verses 6-17, Ezra provides the details of the letters sent by the officials renewing their accusations against the Jews; and the letter the Jews send in defense of their work. The Jews letter summarizes the story of their exile, their return to Jerusalem and the permission they received from Cyprus to rebuild their city temple.
It's interesting to note that in their letter, the Jews make no reference to the accusations against them, no defense of their actions, no counter charges against their enemies. Their letter is simply a witness of their faith in God, their own history, and an appeal to the king to verify their claims. God's prophets energized the people, not only to renew their original tasks, but also ignited their original faith and dependance on God for success.
In this lesson we see examples forecasted in the sub-title, "Building without compromise or fear."
1. Beginnings – like the start of any communal project, personal improvement, or spiritual growth effort starts with high hopes and enthusiasm. Why?
- Because we see the goal clearly.
- Because we understand the benefits of achieving the goal, whether that be improved ability, function, or comfort (for projects), or increased faith, spiritual power and offering to God something holy and blessed.
- A third reason for our optimism at this stage – no opposition or suffering – yet! Which brings us inevitably and surely, in efforts like these, to stage #2.
2. Opposition – The anguish, anxiety, or frustration we experience in every instance of "up" or "on" which is shorthand that refers to build up, grow up, carry on , or push on – is opposition of some kind. It takes on so many different forms.
From obscure building regulation and lack of critical trades, people, or supplies, to that universal spiritual growth killer, weakness of the flesh, not to mention the discouragement of worldly non-believers, especially when they are among those we love and/or respect.
3. Now we can either stumble or crumble at this stage:
A. Crumble – We fall apart. We die inside, we have no answer to the criticism and opposition. We have no courage to fight, struggle or die trying, accepting martyrdom, so that others can continue in our place instead of saving ourselves at the cost of denying our own dream, plan, project, or belief. You see, to crumble is like a knock-out in boxing. You are out, unconscious or deemed so damaged by the referee that you're not allowed to continue (less embarrassing for the loser, but still a defeat).
B. Stumble – A stumble, on the other hand, is like a "knock-down" – not a knock-out. In a knock-down, the breath is knocked out of you for a moment, or your opponent hits you with a punch where you lose your balance and fall down. Here, the referee does a mandatory eight count to make sure you can continue the match and talks to you to confirm you are fully conscience. You lose points from the judges because of a knock-down, but you don't automatically lose the match – you can still come back and win the fight if you're able to get back up and box.
In the crumble/stumble stage a decision needs to be made – is this a knock-out punch that ends everything for good? Or is it a knock-down, a stumble where I have to accept a temporary set-back, take the time for an 8 count so I can:
- Reassess my plans, approach, team, and resources before carrying on or
- Seek God's guidance and help in prayer or find a fellow believer who can walk with me through this difficult moment.
- Either way, the strategy to avoiding the knock-out, or crumbling is to expect opposition right from the start.
- Boxers train hard in order to come back from the occasional knock-down that all boxers experience.
- As Christians, we also must always expect and prepare for stumbles.
- I have all the resources to "get back up" when I'm knocked down or stumble.
When sin knocks me down, I have the blood of Christ to forgive me every time.
7but if we walk in the Light as He Himself is in the Light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus His Son cleanses us from all sin. 8If we say that we have no sin, we are deceiving ourselves and the truth is not in us. 9If we confess our sins, He is faithful and righteous, so that He will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.
- I John 1:7-9
When discouraged by opposition, doubt, or criticism I have the assurances of the Holy Spirit and His Word that strengthens me.
6Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and pleading with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. 7And the peace of God, which surpasses all comprehension, will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.
- Philippians 4:6-7
When I am weakened by the length of the match and the power of the opposition, I have the comfort and encouragement of the church, which is the embodiment of Christ here on earth.
For I have had great joy and comfort in your love, because the hearts of the saints have been refreshed through you, brother.
- Philemon 1:7
Knowing, expecting, and having these resources fully enables me/you/any brother or sister to overcome any and every stumble that will surely come our way whether we are trying to build up the church in some way, or build ourselves up in order to better reflect Christ in this dark world.
One last note about my boxing analogy. In regular non-championship matches, there is the "three knock-down rule." This means that if a boxer is knocked-down three times in a single round, he automatically loses – even if he gets up and is able and willing to continue – this type of loss is called a TKO – technical knockout.
However, in a championship fight, where who will be the champion is decided, there is no 3 knock-down rule. So long as you can get up after a knock-down and are willing and able to continue – you can keep fighting. You see, in a championship fight they not only test for speed and boxing ability, they also measure what they call a fighter's heart…does he have the heart to be a champion?! Here's the point, in this life each one of us are in a championship match. No 3 knock-down rule. It's a long and grueling fight with lots of opposition from beginning to end, and it takes many forms.
- Illness that goes on and on
- Death of loved ones
- Disappointments, frustrations, loss
- Endless suggestions, to just quit
Each can be a potential knock-out shot, however if we train properly (regular prayer, Bible reading and study, worship, service in the name of Christ, conscience attempts to grow spiritually in various ways) we can avoid a clear knock-out and reduce the attacks to glancing blows or at worse a knock-down or "stumble" that we can recover from in order to carry on – after all ours is a championship fight for the crown of eternal life!
Thanks be to God that He has promised us the victory so long as we get back up to fight after every stumble. Remember, it doesn't matter how many knockdowns you suffer – the crown goes to the one who is still fighting when the Lord comes for us in death or the end of the world.
15For we say this to you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive and remain until the coming of the Lord will not precede those who have fallen asleep. 16For the Lord Himself will descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. 17Then we who are alive, who remain, will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we will always be with the Lord. 18Therefore, comfort one another with these words.
- I Thessalonians 4:15-18