Ezra 3–6 is structured thematically, covering different historical periods of opposition to the rebuilding of the temple. Recognizing this thematic approach will help clarify the overall message.
Ezra is mentioned for the first time by name in Ezra 7:1. With his arrival in 457 b.c., things changed, and the city of Jerusalem with its wall began to be spasmodically rebuilt. Thirteen years later Nehemiah arrived (sent by Artaxerxes in 444 b.c.), and the building of the wall was finally resumed. Although the opposition was intense, the work was completed in 52 days (Neh. 6:15).
Resistance to the work of God is a prevalent theme in the two books of Ezra and Nehemiah; therefore, it is not surprising that rebuilding the temple and Jerusalem incited opposition and persecution. Wherever we turn in today’s world, the work of the Lord is resisted. Satan tries to make sure that the gospel doesn’t spread quickly, as it threatens his dominion. In Ezra and Nehemiah, how did the Jews handle the opposition?
* Study this week’s lesson to prepare for Sabbath, October 26.
On the surface, the request seemed like a kind, neighborly thing to do; so, why turn down the help? In one sense, the answer is found in the text itself. The “adversaries” came to offer them help. Adversaries? That alone gives a powerful hint as to why the Israelites reacted as they did.
Why were the people called “adversaries”? 2 Kings 17:24–41 explains that these people were imported from other nations into Samaria and the surrounding region after the northern kingdom Israelites were deported. The king of Assyria sent them priests, who were to teach them how to worship the God of the land—that is, the God of Israel. However, the resulting religion incorporated the Canaanite gods, as well. Therefore, the remnant Israelites were afraid that this religion would be brought into their temple worship. Hence, the best and smartest thing to do was what they did, which was to say, “No, thank you.”
We have to remember, too, just why all this was happening to begin with. It was their forefathers’ constant compromise with the pagan faiths around them that led to the destruction of the temple, as well as to their exile. Presumably, while in the very process of building the temple anew, the last thing that they would want to do would be to get too closely aligned with the people around them.
Unfortunately, the opposition that the Jews encountered from the surrounding nations, as described in Ezra 4–6, left them afraid and unwilling to work on the temple.
As mentioned before, Ezra 4:6–6:22 is not written in chronological order. Therefore, we will look at chapter 5 before chapter 4.
The Jews had stopped building because they were afraid. But God had sent them to Judah to rebuild the temple and the city, and He had a plan. Since they were afraid, He had to do something in order to encourage them. Therefore, He called two prophets to step in. Human opposition doesn’t stop God; even if the Jews contributed to this opposition by their own actions, God did not abandon them. He worked through the prophets to motivate and propel them into action again.
“The prophets Haggai and Zechariah were raised up to meet the crisis. In stirring testimonies these appointed messengers revealed to the people the cause of their troubles. The lack of temporal prosperity was the result of a neglect to put God’s interests first, the prophets declared. Had the Israelites honored God, had they shown Him due respect and courtesy, by making the building of His house their first work, they would have invited His presence and blessing.”—Ellen G. White, Prophets and Kings, pp. 573, 574.
The “people of the land” wrote letters of accusation against the Jews and their work first to Darius (Ezra 5 and 6), then to King Xerxes (Ahasuerus), as well as Artaxerxes. They were doing everything in their power to stop the work in Jerusalem.
The people of the surrounding nations claimed that if the city were rebuilt, the king would lose his power over it, because Jerusalem had always been a place of rebellion and trouble in the past. Unfortunately, King Artaxerxes was swayed into believing that the Jews were building only because they wanted to gain their independence and therefore incite confrontation. He ordered the work to cease, and the people sent an army to prevent further building of the city. This forceful approach brought the work for God to a halt.
It is apparent that the Jews realized that God had called them to rebuild the city and the temple, but because of the strong opposition, they were afraid. Perhaps they came up with such excuses as “Now must not be the right time,” or “If this were truly what God wanted us to do, He would have provided a way,” or “Maybe we weren’t supposed to come back here at all.” When opposition gets in the way of doing what we believe God calls us to do, we have the tendency to question and doubt God’s guidance. We can easily convince ourselves that we made a mistake. Fear can paralyze our minds, and our thoughts turn to despair and helplessness instead of being focused on the power of God.
Nehemiah Takes Action (444 b.c.)
After starts and stops, the people began working again. The Jews prayed, and then Nehemiah set up an active guard. The people rotated through shifts during the day and nighttime in order to be prepared for any looming attacks. Nehemiah also organized the people around the wall with weapons so that each family was ready to fight. Additionally, he divided his servants into two groups, with one working and the other holding weapons. There also were special provisions for all those who worked on the wall, as they were closest to the danger. Each one of the builders held a sword with one hand and with the other added bricks or stones and mortar to the wall. They were prepared to face the opposition. They did their part; God did the rest. Nehemiah’s faith in God’s protection is inspiring. However, he didn’t sit on the couch and expect God to do everything. They prepared by doing the best of their abilities.
The two passages “Do not be afraid of them. Remember the Lord, great and awesome, and fight for your brethren, your sons, your daughters, your wives, and your houses” (see Neh. 4:13, 14, NKJV) and “Our God will fight for us” (see Neh. 4:19, 20, NKJV) are some of the most inspirational statements found in the Bible.
The Jews could have stopped building once again because of the persistent opposition, but, this time, instead of being overcome by fear, they held on to the promise that God would fight for them. When we encounter opposition to the name of God, to our beliefs, or to what God calls us to do, we should remember that “God will fight for us.” In the end, the Jews realized that the Lord was behind what they were doing, and this gave them the courage to press on ahead.
Chapter 6 describes many attempts on Nehemiah’s life. Sanballat and Geshem kept sending Nehemiah letters in order to get him to come to them under the pretext of a meeting. However, the meeting was in the plain of Ono, which was in enemy territory, and thus gave away the true intent of the invitation. Sanballat, Tobiah, and Geshem see a window of opportunity that will last only until the wall is finished and the gates are shut. The Jews have the protection of the Persian king, and therefore their enemies cannot conquer them through a full-frontal attack.
But if they get rid of the leader, they will stunt the progress or perhaps even stop the Jews forever. They are not giving up. Even if Nehemiah is not responding, they keep trying. It must have been frustrating to Nehemiah to have to deal with opposition at every turn. He responds to them by stating, “I am doing a great work” (Neh. 6:3, NKJV).
By the world’s standards, Nehemiah was doing a great work as a cupbearer for the king, which was a prestigious occupation, one of the highest in the land where he served as an advisor to the king. But building a city that was in ruins, that had no apparent worldly significance? That’s what he calls a great work? Nehemiah considered the work for God as “great” and more important because he realized that the honor of God’s name was at stake in Jerusalem.
Also, when God set up the sanctuary services, He instituted the priesthood. In order to keep the sanctuary holy and special in the minds of the people, He allowed only the priests to perform the duties inside the temple. On our own, we have a hard time seeing the holiness of God; therefore, God made provision to help the Israelites come into the presence of God with reverence. Nehemiah knew that temple courts were for everyone, but not the inner rooms. By his words, about meeting inside the temple, Shemaiah not only shows himself to be a false prophet by suggesting something that was contrary to God’s directive, but he also exposes himself as a traitor.
Further Thought: Read Ellen G. White, “The Builders on the Wall,” “A Rebuke Against Extortion,” and “Heathen Plots,” pp. 635– 660, in Prophets and Kings.
“The opposition and discouragement that the builders in Nehemiah’s day met from open enemies and pretended friends is typical of the experience that those today will have who work for God. Christians are tried, not only by the anger, contempt, and cruelty of enemies, but by the indolence, inconsistency, lukewarmness, and treachery of avowed friends and helpers.”—Ellen G. White, Prophets and Kings, p. 644.
“In Nehemiah’s firm devotion to the work of God, and his equally firm reliance on God, lay the reason of the failure of his enemies to draw him into their power. The soul that is indolent falls an easy prey to temptation; but in the life that has a noble aim, an absorbing purpose, evil finds little foothold. The faith of him who is constantly advancing does not weaken; for above, beneath, beyond, he recognizes Infinite Love, working out all things to accomplish His good purpose. God’s true servants work with a determination that will not fail because the throne of grace is their constant dependence.” —Page 660.