Welcome to Bible Fiber. I am Shelley Neese, president of The Jerusalem Connection, a Christian organization devoted to sharing the story of the people of Israel, both ancient and modern.
This week we are continuing our study of the book of Ezra, diving into chapter 5. After the plotting and scheming of Judah’s oppositional neighbors, all work on the temple stopped around 535 BCE, still during the reign of Cyrus. The returnees had laid the temple foundations, an event that attracted negative attention from the people of the land, and for the next fifteen years did nothing to move the temple project forward.
On the surface, opposition from the people of the land and interference by Persian administrators was too much to overcome for the returnees. At least, that was the external reasoning for delaying the temple objective, as narrated in the book of Ezra. Internally, however, more was going on. The prophetic books of Haggai and Zechariah offer a peak behind the scenes, exposing the weakened spiritual condition of the restored community.
External reasons for the delay
Chapter 5 picks up the story where it left off in Ezra 4:4-5, before the parenthetical flash forward of events. After Zerubbabel rejected the locals offer to help with the rebuild, the people of the land shot back. They “discouraged the people of Judah and made them afraid to build” by bribing Persian officials “to frustrate their plan” (Ez. 4:4-5). By falsely accusing the Judeans of sedition, they succeeded in throwing cold water on the returnees’ initial zeal. External setbacks gave the community an excuse to forego the very project that should have been their priority.
Internal reasons for the delay
Ezra 5 introduced the prophets Haggai and Zechariah as ordained messengers sent “in the name of the God of Israel who was over them” (Ez. 5:1). We know Haggai and Zechariah were contemporary to the early events recorded in Ezra. Both prophetic books place them in the second year of King Darius (Hag. 1:1; Zech. 1:1; 7:1). All of Haggai’s recorded oracles took place over the course of twenty days. Zechariah’s recorded prophetic career seems to have gone on longer, but he also overlapped the events of the first wave of returnees.
As a historical rather than prophetic text, the narrator of Ezra never gave way to messianic thoughts or eschatological predictions. We only know from Haggai and Zechariah that those ideas heavily impacted the Judeans of that era. The narrator of Ezra also held back details on the actual message of the prophets to the people. He only mentioned their historical proximity and acknowledged their effectiveness in encouraging the remnant to get back to building.
The placing of Haggai and Zechariah in the narrative of the book of Ezra is one of those rare sightings of a prophet in the wild. Knowing the time of Haggai and Zechariah and the challenges faced by the returned remnant is critical in understanding their postexilic prophecies, particularly the more cryptic visions of Zechariah.
In the same way, the prophets are beneficial in seeing between the lines of the narrative text of Ezra. Neither prophet credited the local opposition for frustrating the temple project or expounded on the external threats. The prophets’ job was to analyze what was going on in the hearts and minds of the community. The intervention of neighbors and the empire may have caused the first delay. However, by the time Haggai ministered, the people were procrastinating out of sheer complacency. Haggai sarcastically noted, “These people say the time has not yet come to rebuild the Lord’s house” (Hag. 1:2).
Apparently, while God’s house remained a heaping ruin, the remnant busily constructed their own homes. Haggai asked, “Is it a time for you yourselves to live in your paneled houses, while this house lies in ruins?” (Hag. 1:4). Haggai pointed out all the goals they let take priority over the temple rebuild. How could they claim that it was not yet time to build God’s house, if they had built homes for themselves? Neglecting the building of the temple was not just the fault of Judah’s leaders but it was a failure of the whole community. Their apathy about rebuilding the sanctuary was reflective of an apathy toward Yahweh in general. The temple was meant to be an earthly reflection of the relationship between the returnees and Yahweh. Without a restored temple, they were prone to focus on the minutia of life and not the glory of God.
According to Haggai, the drought and crop failure of the restored community’s early years was a result of Yahweh’s judgement on them. Though they had planted and labored, they did so in vain because God was withholding the rains and the produce. They had not connected their agricultural hardship to their neglect of the sanctuary. Haggai twice warned them, “Consider your ways” (Hag. 1:5). Haggai gave the community exact instructions for how to move forward and right their wrongs.
The narrator of Ezra credited the prophets with stirring Zerubbabel and Jeshua to action. Haggai directly brought the word of the Lord commanding the people to “go up to the hills and bring wood and build the house, so that I may take pleasure in it and be honored” (Hag. 1:8). The community obeyed God’s word and overcame their fifteen-year hiatus. In short order, they “set out to rebuild the house of God in Jerusalem, and with them were the prophets of God, helping them” (Ez. 5:2).
Letter to Darius
News of the temple construction in Jerusalem made its way to Tattenai, a Persian provincial official overseeing affairs from Damascus. In fact, archaeologists found an artifact from 502 BCE which included the name Tattenai, governor Beyond the River.
The narrator did not say how Tattenai knew of the efforts in Jerusalem. Presumably, as soon as the temple work got going again, the upset locals appealed for imperial intervention. Tattenai and his officials visited Jerusalem in person to investigate the situation (Ez. 5:3).
They spoke with the builders and the leaders of the community, asking “Who gave you a decree to build this house and to finish this structure?” (Ez. 5:3). The size of the great stones for the building was suspicious. Without hostility in their tone, the dutiful bureaucrats double-checked who gave the Jews authority to build a monumental structure. This was an ancient version of authorities checking for building permits.
After speaking with the Judean leaders, Tattenai wrote a letter of inquiry to Darius. The letter was different than the manipulative and accusatory letters in Ezra 4 written by Judah’s neighboring enemies. Tattenai essentially asked King Darius if he would like his Persian leaders to investigate further the matter of temple building in Jerusalem.
Tattenai’s letter was complimentary of the temple’s craftmanship which would allay any concerns about the building not being up to Persian code. He wrote, “may it be known to the king that….it is being built of hewn stone, and timber is laid in the walls; this work is being done diligently and prospers in their hands” (Ez. 5:8). Once again, the remnant was building the second temple along the same guidelines as Solomon’s temple, layering heavy stones with alternating rows of timber (1 Kings 6:7; 6:36). Considering the Jerusalem temple rested on an earthquake prone area, the building method made sense.
The letter to Darius relayed the questions and answer conversation between the Persian administrators and Judean elders. The questions showed the Persians had no bias against the Judeans or their project. The answers also demonstrated what must have come up in the conversation. For example, there was an inquiry into who was backing the temple project financially because the elders mentioned Cyrus’s return of the stolen temple vessels from the imperial treasury (Ez. 5:14).
Tattenai, as a provincial official, could not give a directive to the Persian king. Instead, he suggested, “If it seems good to the king, have a search made in the royal archives there in Babylon, to see whether a decree was issued by King Cyrus for the rebuilding of this house of God in Jerusalem” (Ez. 5:17). If a search uncovered proof of Cyrus’s authorization of the Jerusalem temple, it would still be the prerogative of King Darius whether to honor the edict.
In 530 BCE, Cyrus died in the mountains of India after a 30-year reign. He was succeeded by his son, Cambyses II (530-522 BCE) who lacked his father’s military and diplomatic genius. Cyrus’s legacy still loomed large when King Darius violently took the throne from Cyrus’s next legal heir. Darius I worked hard to secure his throne from rivals. Much is known about the reign of Darius I because Greek historians recorded his legendary exploits. Knowing that revolts plagued the first two years of King Darius’s reign, it also makes sense why Persian bureaucrats were hyperalert to any potential stirrings of revolt in the empire.
With the appeal to Darius for an answer on the temple project, the Jewish community could not be sure of his response. Was Darius committed to honoring the goals and achievements of Cyrus as the founder of the Persian empire? Or was he ready to make a firm break with the dynasty and forge his own path for the empire?
At no point did Tattenai or his officials make the Jews stop their temple construction while they waited for Darius’s response or while a Persian court official conducted the search for the edict of Cyrus. The narrator made sure that only God received the credit for the favor shown to the remnant in Jerusalem.
He emphasized that the God of Israel “was over them” and “helping them” (Ezra 5:1, 2). Even in the conversation between the provincial officials and the elders, the narrator wrote “the eye of their God was upon the elders of the Jews” (Ez. 5:5).
The Jewish leaders understood God was over them and carefully protecting them. As God guided their exchange, they answered Tattenai’s questions honestly and not defensively. They introduced themselves to the Persians officials as “the servants of the God of heaven and earth,” a humble reply that was true to their own monotheistic beliefs even if they did not correspond to the Persian religious system (Ez. 5:11).
They were forthcoming in their recounting of their own sin and punishment, telling Tattenai, “because our ancestors had angered the God of heaven, he gave them into the hand of King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon, the Chaldean, who destroyed this house and carried away the people to Babylonia” (Ez. 5:12).
Their explanation was not only honest, and accepting of self-blame, but also careful to allay any Persian fears that the motivation for the reconstruction was political. They downplayed any notion that the reconstruction of the capital was a move toward independence. In the ancient world, destruction of a holy temple often hinted at the powerlessness of a local deity. In the case of Jewish historical recounts, the destruction of the Jerusalem temple displayed the power of Yahweh. He allowed for the overthrow of his temple and city as punishment for their covenant unfaithfulness. Israel’s understanding of history must always take divine providence into account.
I hope what strikes you in the crossover of these three books—Haggai, Zechariah, and Ezra—is the importance of reading scripture broadly with attention to the prophets’ cross referencing of the narratives and vice versa. Devotional study and verse memory are wonderful, but I always advocate for studying the Bible in context, looking for larger patterns and themes.
Thank you for listening and please continue to participate in this Bible Reading Challenge. Next week we are reading Ezra 6. The royal court finds the original decree of Cyrus and it is up to King Darius if he will honor it. For all the Biblical references each week, please see the show transcript on our blog or by signing up for our emails at www.thejerusalemconnection.us/
I do not say all the references in the podcast but they are all in the transcript.
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