Lecture on Ezra 3-5

Ezra 3‑5  •  22 min. read  •  grade level: 8
But now in the third chapter there is a principle of very great beauty that comes before us. When the remnant did return, and when they showed this care in not being lax as to those who took the place of nearness to God, what is the first mark of that? What gave them their character before God? In this we find they were united, “they set the altar upon his bases, for fear was upon them because of the people of those countries” (3:2). How beautiful! It is not that they began with the wall. It is the more remarkable because there is another book which is devoted to the building of the wall, namely, the book of Nehemiah; but they began with God and not with themselves. They began with the great expression of acceptance before God. The altar was the link between God and His people was the point of contact, so to speak, between them—was the place where they made their offerings. Their thank-offerings, their burnt offerings—all were brought to the altar. It was, in short, therefore, what showed that the first thought of their hearts was God's worship according to their measure, and not merely their own skill or their own prowess against their enemies, and this the more strikingly because the reason given is that fear was upon them, and that fear led them to God and not to themselves or to other men. It is not a petition to the king-to Cyrus, nor is it even the lacking, the ways and means of erecting a defense against their enemies.
The first thing they did was to “set the altar upon his bases,” and to offer offerings unto God. “And they offered burnt offerings thereon unto Jehovah, even burnt offerings morning and evening.” And, further, it is expressly stated that this was done on the part of “Jeshua the son of Jozadak, and his brethren the priests, and Zerubbabel the son of Shealtiel, and his brethren,” who “builded the altar of the God of Israel to offer burnt offerings thereon, as it is written in the law of Moses, the man of God. And they set the altar upon his bases; for fear was upon them because of the people of those countries: and they offered burnt offerings thereon unto Jehovah, even burnt offerings morning and evening. They kept also the feast of tabernacles as it is written” (vers. 2, 3).
What, then, marked them was this—jealousy for the word of God—but the word of God used with a single eye. For it is not taking up such parts of the word of God as would bear upon their own doings for themselves; but rather what they owed to such a God. In short, it is a beautiful sample of the faith of the remnant. The first thought of their heart was God, and so much the more because they were really afraid of the enemies round about; but that fear was expressed, not in human measures to guard against that which they dreaded, but in drawing near to God, to own Him, to praise Him. “They kept also the feast of tabernacles, as it is written.” Therefore we find their jealous care for the word of God. It was not one thing only, but the authority of the word filled their hearts. So, at any rate, it is that God speaks of it—that God presents them to us. We find, alas! their failure; but this is the way that they began on returning from captivity. “They kept also the feast of tabernacles as it is written, and offered the daily burnt offerings by number, according to the custom, as the duty of every day required; aid afterward offered the continual burnt offering.” So that there was no weariness of it: it was no transient act. There was the daily offering. This is a very important thing.
It is always to me a very unhappy circumstance, beloved brethren, to see God's children merely putting in an appearance on the Lord's Day morning—the mere keeping up an outward link with the Lord and with His people. I admit that there may be circumstances where it cannot but be so—extreme sickness, or there may be positive duties of the most peremptory kind. I am not alluding to them, and we ought to be slow, therefore, to judge in any individual case until we know the facts; but I do say as a general rule now, that the same faith which makes us value the coming together to meet the Lord at His own table ought to make us rejoice to meet the Lord on every occasion, and further, to provide by every means for growing in the truth. For that is one great source of our weakness in worship? It is because we are not growing in spiritual intelligence. If we were using the truth of God and growing up unto Christ in all things there would be a greater fullness in worship and, allow me to add, greater simplicity. There would not be merely the continual use of the same thing, but we should have fresh thoughts without even thinking about them—without an effort, because our hearts would be filled day by day with His truth, and, therefore, it is of so much importance to avail ourselves of every hour.
The early church evidently felt this, for they used to break bread every day. They used to meet together daily; and that did not satisfy them. There were other times. They went up even to the temple. It is a mistake to suppose that freshness and fullness of joy depends on a great deal of knowledge, for this was not the case in the church at Jerusalem. They were still very much affected by the old state of things in Israel. They went up to the temple, therefore, for some time afterward. A great number of the priests were turned to the faith, and, for aught I know, they may have offered their bullocks and their rams still; but yet they had got hold of the true sacrifice. They had got hold of the truth of Christ, and, as sure as they had, the day would come when they would have done with their bullocks and rams; but the day would never come when they would have done with Christ. They would learn much better, and believe more fully.
And God may give us the truth, the effects of which we never realized when we received it; but the effect of that truth will be to drive from our souls, whatever is alien to it, because it is alien, to God's will. Therefore it is that you must give people time to grow. You need to be patient with them. You should seek to strengthen them and cheer them and encourage them to receive the truth. Instead of expecting the consequences all at once, leave room for growth. It is very easy, and it is a human thing to get a quantum of truth into the mind; but that is not life, that is not power, that is not growth. What is divine lives, and what lives must have a root and must grow, and for this time must be given. It is not the sign of growth to expand all in a moment. A human mind may take things in. If a man is bright he may take things in very quickly; but that is worth nothing. What shines out so brightly may go out just as fast, whereas what is of God will live and abide.
We see, then, that the word had a great place in their souls-authority over their consciences, and this from the first, and it formed them not only for that special feast, but for the daily one-the burnt offering-the daily burnt offering. Of course, I am speaking of this now as regards the Jews. But then it has a voice for us as well.
“From the first day of the seventh month began they to offer burnt offerings unto Jehovah. But” it is added, “the foundation of the temple of Jehovah was not yet laid"(ver. 6). Thus, you see, there was progress there. No remnant that was ever called out by grace arrived all at once, at the, truth that God is going to give them? It is a matter of growth as a whole, not only individual growth. But they did not arrive at the understanding of His mind and of His word, and they are not able to do at the beginning what they may understand, and have power for, another day. “The foundation of the temple of Jehovah was not yet laid.” But we find in the midst of this state of things that “in the second year of their coming unto the house of God at Jerusalem, in the second month, began Zerubbabel the son of Shealtiel, and Jeshua the son of Jozadak, and the remnant of their brethren the priests and the Levites, and all they that were come out of the captivity unto Jerusalem; and appointed the Levites, from twenty years old and upward, to set forward the work of the house of Jehovah.” This is noteworthy. They had no thought that all the work was done because they simply got to Jerusalem—that they were simply there owned as Israelites. There was what concerned Jehovah's glory.
This is most important; because many souls at the present time seem to think that the only blessedness and the only thing that is to be called work is the conversion of sinners-the bringing them to God. Never was a greater mistake. Now, I can thank God for it that in the present very low condition of Christendom even the weakest of saints feels the importance of a soul being born to God. Instead of being offended at that I rejoice at it. I rejoice that there are even Roman Catholics who really seek conversions, and I remember hearing of a child of one of our own brothers in Germany that was brought to the Lord by the labors of a young Roman Catholic man. He had received a mortal wound in battle at the time of one of the campaigns of his country. He was a foolish, giddy young man who had heard the truth; but he did it not till death was before his eyes and the judgment of God; but the person employed for his conversion was a Roman Catholic. This was a great rebuke, undoubtedly. It was a person who evidently followed the Lord and who loved the Lord, though in great darkness. Thus the Lord may employ, and not without a reason—a humiliating reason—one in a system of grossest spiritual darkness to be the means of pointing to the light and life of God one who ought to have known incomparably better. Well, then, God is sovereign, and He does these things; and therefore I am never surprised if they tell me that God has employed this person or that in circumstances of the most painful kind. Yet God looks for and uses fidelity. He will always bless those that go forth in the name of the Lord Jesus to win sinners, seeking their conversion. And He will give them their conversion.
But still there is another work. And allow me to say that this is a special work for the people of God—not merely the going up of the Israelites, and the recognizing of the priests and the Levites; but work is done for the house of Jehovah, the great corporate work of gathering round the name of Jehovah. That is what we find was so peculiarly dear to Israel, and this is the thing which they set about when they got to Jerusalem—when they were, each individual, in their proper place. What brings them together as a matter of work was the carrying on that work, and what kept them together was the using this central place of the name of Jehovah as that which had a divine claim on their consciences and on their hearts.
Now, it is this of which I want to see a little more, beloved brethren, and I believe that the Lord wants to see more of it. It is the all-important thing for us—not less care for souls, not less concern for their conversion, but—a far deeper, stronger sense of what concerns the glory of the Lord in His own people. And it is the more important because, where is it cared for? Who feels about it? You may find persons-Arminians, Calvinists, Dissenters, Churchmen, occupied about conversion where they are godly; but you will find none of them that enters into the glory of the Lord in His church; and, therefore, I am persuaded that we are the more responsible who have been made to feel in some measure what the church is. On us, poor and weak as we are, devolves very specially the responsibility of giving expression to that truth. That is our heart's care and desire for the good of the church of God—for that which concerns the name of the Lord committed to the trust of man here below.
And when we find the Israelites here together with this view, a remarkable difference appears among them. “When the builders laid the foundation o: the temple of Jehovah, they set the priests in their apparel with trumpets, and the Levites the sons of Asaph with cymbals, to praise Jehovah after the ordinance of David, king of Israel. And they sang together by course in praising, and giving thanks unto Jehovah; because he is good, for his mercy endureth forever toward Israel. And all the people shouted with a great shout when they praised Jehovah, because the foundation of the house of Jehovah was laid. But many of the priests and Levites and chief of the fathers, who were ancient men that had seen the first house, when the foundation of this house was laid before their eyes, wept with a loud voice; and many shouted aloud for joy” (vers. 10-12). Strange, at first sight, that the self-same thing should be the source of joy to the one and of tears to the other.
Why so? It was the cause of tears to the elder men because they felt how poor was the present expression of Jehovah's glory in their midst compared with what they had once seen—a source of joy to the others because they had only known the utter prostration of the name of the Lord upon the earth, and now their hearts were glad that at any rate there was a distinct and decided confession of that name as entitled to gather together His people, even though it were but a remnant here below. They were both right; and yet the expression of their hearts, how different! But of the two, surely, beloved brethren, it was not that the elder men did not feel the joy of the foundation being laid; but still the sense of sorrow and of humiliation for His name exceeded it. There was, therefore, a more chastened feeling with the elder men. Both were led, and led of the Lord, but in very different measures. And I am persuaded that, of the two, the elder men had the deeper sense of God's glory.
But there never is a blessing of God upon the earth without drawing out the wiles and enmity of the devil; and so we find On this occasion. There were persons who “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; and we do sacrifice unto him since the days of Esar-haddon king of Assur, which brought us up hither” (4:2). How kind it seemed! how fair, that now at least, instead of the old antagonism, their neighbors were going to be so friendly—to help them to build and to worship and to serve the same Lord as they!
Surely Israel ought to rejoice! Nay, beloved brethren, in this world we have always to judge. We must take care how we judge, but nevertheless, we have to judge. We have to prove all things and hold fast that which is good; and so they did on this occasion. Zerubbabel and Jeshua were not taken in in these later days, as were Joshua and the princes on a somewhat similar occasion long before, when the Gibeonites came up in their pilgrim guise. “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; but we ourselves together will build unto Jehovah God of Israel, as king Cyrus, the king of Persia, hath commanded us.” No doubt it was a state of weakness, a state of humiliation, for why mention king Cyrus? What had he to do? What a strange position that he should be commanding Israel! But so it was. They were really humbled, and humbled publicly in the earth, and they were not taken out of that state of humiliation. But while indebted to the powers that then were for their protection and that measure of good government which they enjoyed, still they maintained rigorously the word of God for the special place of Israel. They are as distinct at least, if not more so, than they were in the days of Moses, or David, or any other. Never was there a deeper sense in Israel of the special place of Israel than when they were thus low and feeble.
What a lesson for us! We are not to give up the peculiar place of the church of God because we are only a remnant. We are not to give up the principle that none but those who are members of that body-accepted as such-have their place of responsibility in the work of the Lord. We are not to yield to the spirit of the times that is around us. So, at any rate, Zerubbabel and Joshua decided, and they were right. Then the people of the land weakened their hands. Now they showed what they really were—not friends, but adversaries. And mark, beloved friends, they were adversaries, though they were worshipping the Lord God of Israel—adversaries, though they were not idolators, as far as we know, at this time. That is not what is said, but they were not Israel. That was enough. The adversaries of Judah and Benjamin heard that the children of Israel were building the temple, and therefore it was that they came. They came under the garb of Israel; but it was really to hinder. Such was Satan's object; but he was foiled. Nevertheless, it is said that they “weakened the hands of the people of Judah, and troubled them in building; and hired counselors against them, to frustrate their purpose, all the days of Cyrus king of Persia, even unto the reign of Darius king of Persia” (vers. 4, 5).
Here there is a considerable lapse. Several kings reigned between these two, and they are given in the rest of the chapter which is a parenthesis (vers. 6-23) to explain what took place between those two points. “And in the reign of Ahasuerus, in the beginning of his reign, wrote they unto him an accusation against the inhabitants of Judah and Jerusalem. And in the days of Artaxerxes wrote Bishlam, Mithredath, &c.” All this took place, and the consequence was that their pretentious opposition at least did take effect and troubled the Israelites, and they ceased from the work. But mark this—and it is a very important thing—God does not attribute the ceasing of the work to the command of the king, although the king did give in at last, and did yield to their importunate begging of him to stop the Israelites; but the Israelites began to stop before the authority of the king. It was want of faith, and not the king's authority that stopped the work; and, beloved friends, as a rule, is it not always so? The cessation of blessing among God's people is really never the work of the enemy without the want of faith, and, consequently, of faithfulness within. This is all-important for us to bear in mind, because we are so apt to lay the blame on circumstances. They might well do it here. They were wrong. God would have been with them had their faith looked up to Him, and He would have preserved them from ceasing that work. But inasmuch as they were too much occupied with what people said and did, outside them, instead of looking to God according to that good beginning when they set the altar upon its base-instead of crying to Him they listened to the adversary, and stopped their work, and the adversary managed to get the king's authority to seal what they had already done.
There is another thing, too, of exceeding interest, and that is, that the way that God set this to right was not by the king's authority, opening the door again, but the direct intervention of His own power—the power of the Spirit of God by the prophets (chap. 5.). It is by the prophets, not by the king—not by Darius. “Then the prophets, Haggai the prophet, and Zechariah the son of Iddo, prophesied unto the Jews that were in Judah and Jerusalem in the name of the God of Israel, even unto them. Then rose up Zerubbabel the son of Shealtiel, and Jeshua the son of Jozadak, and began to build” (vers. 1, 2). How bold faith is! And God justifies the faith that He gives, for although this looked as though it was a want of deference to the royal authority, the fact is that they had, at least, as good an authority for going on with the work. For, in point of fact, if Artaxerxes here stops the building of the house, Cyrus had previously authorized the building of it. They did what was quite right. They regarded as an accident what Artaxerxes brought in. They regarded it as a thing merely brought about by circumstances. They viewed it as a commandment, not of Persia, but of himself. They go back to what Cyrus, had commanded. They knew well that it was one of the great maxims of the Persian kingdom that the laws of the Medes and Persians did not change. It was Artaxerxes that had changed.
Had Artaxerxes forbidden the building of the temple at the beginning, they might have been rather in a difficulty. There would have been the direct claim of God on the one hand, against that of the kingdom on the other, and the principle that we must obey God rather than men. But in point of fact, it was really, you see, between two kings, with this only difference, and a very great one, that the first and the greatest king, the founder of the Persian monarchy was the very one that had commanded the building of the temple. They were right, therefore in acting upon his edict. The other had merely come in influenced by temporary circumstances, and he had indeed passed away. They were quite justified in falling back upon the word of Cyrus, but the truth of it is, that the grand thing that influenced their souls was that it was the word of God—through the prophets. I point out this to show how beautifully God can give, along with the word of the prophet, the justification of what His people did; and this is the more important because, as you know, this very thing is alluded to in the prophets. The prophet Isaiah particularly names, in connection with Cyrus, the building of the house of Jehovah. It is distinctly connected with him—not only the destruction of Babylon, but the building of Jehovah's house, so that the children of the captivity were amply justified, as God always gives faith His full protection as well as guidance.
So, then, the prophets began to stir up the hearts of the people, and the people went forward according to the word of the Lord, and God took care of the king. God took care that although influence had been brought out against the people through the wickedness of the Samaritan instigators, and Artaxerxes had been influenced to see that Israel, and the. Jews, and Jerusalem particularly, had been a rebellious city, now comes a new search. Darius looks into the matter, and it is a well-known fact in history, as we find it exactly in this book, that Darius was always disposed to act upon what Cyrus had done. He had the greatest regard and reverence for Cyrus as the founder of the empire. He had a desire to be a restitutor of all the institutions of Cyrus. Hence, therefore, we can see the beautiful appropriateness, and Darius. does not care in the least for Artaxerxes or anybody else. He goes back to Cyrus, and he finds that Cyrus fully authorized what the Jews wished, against their adversaries. Thus God knows how to divert and suit everything. Our business is not to be setting one king against another, but to go forward in the name of the Lord—to take His word as our full warrant, perfectly sure that as we seek to be guided by God, it is God's part to guide all men and all circumstances. That is His work, not ours. Our part, in short, is to go on in faith. He knows how to deal with those that oppose us.
[W.K.]