In yesterday’s reading the only real tension was produced by the old men, who wept at the memory of Solomon’s temple. This is a moving scene: the feelings of grief and loss and fulfilled hope grinding together as the foundation for the new temple is laid.
Unfortunately, grief of another form is on the horizon. In chapter 4, we find that Judah is not empty: those whom Assyria had resettled in Israel a century-and-a-half ago had crept southward, and now seek an alliance. These adversaries – in the author’s description – assure the exiles that “we worship God as you do.” We know from 2 Kings that this is not true, for these nations feared the LORD and also served their carved images.
This presents Zerubbabel and the heads of fathers’ houses with an awesome dilemma: allow the locals to help and they could be drawn into apostate religious practices; refuse their help and risk a showdown. Imagine a scene of disruption: Zerubbabel is responsible for the safety of over 40,000 returning exiles, most of whom are seeing Judah for the first time. The people of Samaria, who had filled the void Judah left behind, would have had protective interests as well. In between, a ruined, contested city of tremendous historical significance.
The question hinges not only on the promises of the LORD and His prophets, but also on the strength and integrity of the Persian king. I’ll let you complete the story, but keep in mind that about 20 years pass between Cyrus’s decree and the end of chapter 6.
One literary note is in order: chapter 4 contains a parenthetical concerning letters to Ahasuerus and his son Artaxerxes. The correspondence with Artaxerxes is especially revealing about both the local governors and the king, a brilliant bit of politics. However, chronologically these stories are difficult; most likely they are inserted based on theme, rather than chronology, as both these kings reign after Darius. We’ve seen this before, notably in Judges and Jeremiah, and is another illustration of ancient technique.
Our verses for this week are Proverbs 3:5-6: Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make straight your paths.
Ezra 4 through 6. Now let’s read it!
Trust in the LORD with all your heart,
and do not lean on your own understanding.
In all your ways acknowledge him,
and he will make straight your paths.