While the returning exiles continued work on the temple, the natives took notice of their new neighbors’ plans and offered help to Zerubbabel and Co.
When the enemies of Judah and Benjamin heard that the exiles were building a temple for the Lord, the God of Israel, they came to Zerubbabel and to the heads of the families and said, “Let us help you build because, like you, we seek your God and have been sacrificing to him since the time of Esarhaddon king of Assyria, who brought us here.”Ezra 4:1-2
Although there is a bias in the tone of the author, as this was written in hindsight knowing the disruptions this group had caused, we cannot ascertain the motives behind this sudden interest to build the temple by the natives. They claimed that they worshiped the same God and gave sacrifices on the now demolished altar.
These people were brought here during Esarhaddon’s reign more than a century ago. They had intermarried people that worshiped other gods and they themselves worshiped several gods, one of them being the God of Israel.
Did they really want to help or was this a ploy to cause disruption from the inside?
But Zerubbabel, Joshua and the rest of the heads of the families of Israel answered, “You have no part with us in building a temple to our God. We alone will build it for the Lord, the God of Israel, as King Cyrus, the king of Persia, commanded us.”Ezra 4:3
Zerubbabel’s response was straight forward that the natives did not have any part in the temple building process as they were commanded by Cyrus to carry out the construction. However, when speaking about the temple, their contemporary prophets spoke about a temple of inclusion where all nations would be welcomed, with God ruling over them all (Isaiah 2). But the leaders perhaps wanted to preserve the purity of the temple and did not see fit for the ‘impure’ race to defile the new temple.
Interestingly, Zerubbabel and the elders did not mention what God had commanded them but rather sincerely followed the kings orders. Sometimes, we are so engrossed in our task that we forget who is in control over everything.
The Israelites claimed that they were working under the authority of Cyrus but it was God who moved the King’s heart. If we depend on our political heads or bosses to curry favor to us we will never grow in Christ. We need to start depending completely on God.
Then the peoples around them set out to discourage the people of Judah and make them afraid to go on building. They bribed officials to work against them and frustrate their plans during the entire reign of Cyrus king of Persia and down to the reign of Darius king of Persia.Ezra 4:5
Based on their response to the rejection, we can assume that the natives never had good intentions when they offered to help the returning exiles in the temple rebuilding process. If they had truly noble intentions then they would not have sought to cause hindrance in the rebuilding of the temple of God Almighty.
In this chapter, the author is highlighting different time periods under different rulers when the natives caused disruptions in the rebuilding activity.
The first five verses are speaking about the current opposition that the exiles faced from the natives during the temple rebuilding phase. However, in the second half, we have the copy of the letter that was written to a later king during the period when the exiles were trying to fortify the city of Jerusalem by rebuilding its walls.
The author is giving us further evidence to reveal the motives of the natives by giving the account of an incident which takes us about fifty to eighty years forward, when the natives got together with the local authorities (that they were bribing) and wrote a letter to the then King of Persia, Artaxerxes.
They asked him to check the records that his predecessors maintained to bring to his attention how rebellious the city of Jerusalem had been towards its foreign rulers in the past. The charge of sedition that the natives were laying on the inhabitants of Jerusalem was somewhat valid, as Jerusalem had long been known to be outspoken, especially when it came to the topic of tax (Matthew 22:15–21). Probably because they already paid a lot in terms of their own tithes and offerings, Jerusalem had a habit of nagging to its different rulers on the burdens of taxes.
Oftentimes, we see that people use our past mistakes to demean our character. But unlike human beings, God does not care about our past but is looking forward to our walk with Him.
The exiles kept getting derailed from the plan of God, either by themselves or by the mischievous acts of their neighbors. The temple building came to a standstill for more than ten years due to this latest hiccup. Let us not dwell on our past mistakes and miss out on the opportunity that God is giving us to make his residence in us.