Scripture: Ezra 4:1–24
1 Now when the adversaries of Judah and Benjamin heard that the returned exiles were building a temple to the LORD, the God of Israel, 2 they approached Zerubbabel and the heads of fathers’ houses and said to them, “Let us build with you, for we worship your God as you do, and we have been sacrificing to him ever since the days of Esarhaddon king of Assyria who brought us here.” 3 But Zerubbabel, Jeshua, and the rest of the heads of fathers’ houses in Israel said to them, “You have nothing to do with us in building a house to our God; but we alone will build to the LORD, the God of Israel, as King Cyrus the king of Persia has commanded us.”
4 Then the people of the land discouraged the people of Judah and made them afraid to build 5 and bribed counselors against them to frustrate their purpose, all the days of Cyrus king of Persia, even until the reign of Darius king of Persia. (Ezra 4:1-5)
The book of Ezra is part of the historical literature in the Bible. Like any story, there are different episodes in the plot. Episode one, the first two chapters, tells of Israel’s return from exile in Babylon, coming back to their homeland. We began episode two last week, the third chapter telling of Israel prioritizing restoration of corporate worship. We learned that one of the reasons that corporate worship matters for the people of God is because it is about remembering our identity as God’s redeemed people.
But like any good story, there has to be conflict. There has to be frustration, tension. That’s what we find in chapter four. At the intersection of God’s providence over all history and the frustration that comes in the story of God for his people, there is a critical lesson to be learned about the Bible, God, his purposes, and his gospel. So we have to pause in the story long enough to see the message and to learn the lesson when God’s people face conflict. The people of God will always face resistance when they are devoted to God and his kingdom above all else. Ezra instructs us in this lesson as he tells us about the adversaries, the threat, and the hope for God’s people.
First, the adversaries. We ended chapter three with a mixed response to the corporate worship. There was joyful celebration and there was loud lament, and “the sound was heard far away” (Ezra 3:13). Now the scene shifts to that “far away” place as we begin reading in chapter four, “Now when the adversaries of Judah and Benjamin heard that the returned exiles were building a temple to the LORD, the God of Israel...” Here we encounter what chapter three called, “the peoples of the lands” (3:3), the cause of Israel’s fear in the previous chapter, the whole reason they had to prioritize some semblance of worship in the chaotic moments of their arrival back in Jerusalem. Every story has to have an antagonist, the perpetrators of conflict for the protagonist. These are some of the most important elements of a story, whether fiction or non-fiction.
Good Guys and Bad Guys
These are also some of the most important elements of meaning as we seek to interpret and apply the scriptures to our lives. We need to know who the “good guys” are and who the “bad guys” are. We need to know how they are defined, the issues over which there is conflict. And we need to grapple with how we should respond to the story in light all this.
Looking back on the story, it is easy to see the distinction between the good guys and bad guys. We are even told right away that the people we meet in Ezra 4 are “the adversaries” of these returned exiles, who are called the “sons of the captivity.” We brace ourselves for what is about to come, knowing they are up to no good.
But Ezra is not interested here in only telling us about the story of what happened in this particular time. He will do that, but it becomes clear in chapter four he has a much longer story in mind.
The Long History of Opposition
The story Ezra tells in chapter four is about the opposition God’s people encounter as they seek to return from exile. But this opposition comes in different forms, and it comes for a very long time. You can see this in verses 4-5. The adversaries of the sons of the exile discouraged them and made them afraid to build “all the days of Cyrus king of Persia, even until the reign of Darius king of Persia.” That’s a period of about 15 years. Let me give us a sense of the time by saying, “The church was afraid to pursue the kingdom of God all the days of President George W. Bush’s second term, even until the election of Joe Biden as president.
But verse six takes us even further ahead into the future, to the time of the reign of Ahasuerus who succeeded Darius in 486 BC. That’s about 50 years later than the time in which chapter 4 begins. And then in verse 7, we are taken to “the days of Artaxerxes,” who started his reign in 464 BC, so we are now more than 70 years in the future from the time referenced in verse 1. We are now taken to the time in which the second plot of Ezra begins in chapter 7, the very days of Ezra and Nehemiah, long after the temple has been built and the topic of plot one has been brought to completion. Again, we could say, “The church was afraid to pursue the kingdom of God from the days of President Harry Truman. But in the days of the administration of Joe Biden…”
So Ezra 4:6-23 is like a big parenthesis in the retelling of the story. The last verse of chapter 4 (v. 24) picks up where verse 5 left off, and we have to ask why Ezra tells this story this way.
And the answer is that the “bad guys” in his day were of the same cloth as the ones seven decades earlier. True, there are different individuals on the scene, but here’s the important point being made. What Israel is now doing, rebuilding a temple and restoring obedience to the Mosaic Law, is no small thing, and this is made plain by the “unremitting antagonism” that continues to come against them.
The Way Forward
As with so many other Old Testament texts, it is not obvious how the story Ezra is telling is meaningful for us today. Forget 70 years; we live about 2500 years later! Of course we experience conflict and opposition, but can we claim the same kind as that which confronted Ezra and the other sons of the exile? Can we be so sure that we are the “good guys” and everyone who seems to come against us is a “bad guy”? It simply won’t do to try to turn this story into a moral tale of how to overcome your adversaries, whoever they may be to you.
What is the way forward, then, in understanding Ezra’s message for Christians? It is to understand the significance of the event at hand, the rebuilding of the temple. This event is the only event of postexilic history that is addressed three different times in Scripture, here as well as in Haggai and Zechariah. We have to understand the significance of the event in the biblical story before we can see the relevance of the story for our day, and certainly before we can rightly identify the good guys and the bad guys.
So what is the significance of this event, the rebuilding of the temple? The adversaries of Israel must perceive a threat by this activity. What’s the big deal?
Israel and the People of God
Well, we know of course that the Bible tells a story of constant opposition to the Jews, to the people of Israel. We are not surprised to find God’s chosen people facing conflict at any point. Ever since Genesis 12 and God’s selection of Abraham, this is one of the most consistent themes in the pages of Scripture.
However, it is a mistake to say that the nation of Israel and every ethnic Jew are always the “good guys” in the biblical story. Romans 9:6 says that “not all who are descended from Israel belong to Israel.” Verse 8 clarifies that “it is not the children of the flesh who are the children of God, but the children of the promise are counted as offspring.” One becomes a true child of God only through faith in God’s promises.
So the “good guys” in the biblical story are not any particular race of people, and certainly not the citizens of some particular nation. It is loyalty to Israel’s God, not loyalty to Israel, that matters. And here’s another way to say it: the protagonist in the biblical story is not Israel but Israel’s God.
The story is about him and those whom he saves through faith in him.
So what we should expect to see as the perceived threat by the antagonist is faith in the creator God and any hint of complete loyalty to him. And we would expect to see the antagonist doing anything possible to frustrate that devotion.
So when the adversaries of the returned exiles approach the leaders of the exile and say, “Let us build with you, for we worship your God as you do” (v. 2), we should be suspicious. Remember, the readers of Ezra are reading history from at least 70 years prior. They know, when they read that these people “have been sacrificing to [Israel’s God] ever since the days of Esarhaddon king of Assyria who brough us here”—they know who these people are.
Second Kings 17 tells us that the northern kingdom of Israel was taken into exile by the Assyrian empire, years before Judah was exiled to Babylon. The Assyrians resettled people from other nations in the land and sent one of Israel’s priests to teach them “the law of the god of the land” (v. 27). The result, we are told, is that the people “feared the LORD but also served their own gods” (v. 33). That’s who these adversaries are. They are the forerunners of the Samaritans in the New Testament.
And one of the ways the antagonist in the biblical story seeks to counteract the God of Israel is by watering down total loyalty to him. You can worship your God—the antagonist will even assist you in doing so—but the true people of God can make no compromise with idols. That is one of the antagonist’s primary ways of frustrating God’s plans in his world. Let us learn the lesson and watch out for the temptation of a divided loyalty to God. Look, the antagonist will join you, he will be on your side, he will affirm your morals, pass the legislation you like—anything to keep your loyalty divided, to keep you from undiluted faith in God’s promise. The enemy often shows up on your side of the political aisle.
Of course, if you won’t compromise with idols, the antagonist will not hesitate to turn against you. Verses 4-23 describe the long history of political pressure meant to “frustrate their purpose” (v. 5). But here’s an important point. Loyalty to Israel’s God is no private affair. It is a threat to the kingdoms of this world.
If you’re faith in God is all about private devotion and merely a way to get to heaven when you die, then it will easily be assimilated into the ways of the world, whether conservate or liberal. Republican or Democrat, your faith in God can easily be coopted by the political powers, if your faith in God is not earthly in its perspective. If your hope is in a disembodied heaven rather than in a resurrected immortal life on earth in the new creation, in the kingdom of God that has already come.
The Real Adversary
See then what is really happening in our story in Ezra 4. The real conflict is spiritual, but it is not therefore irrelevant to real life. Quite the opposite.
In verse 6, the adversaries “wrote an accusation against the inhabitants of Judah and Jerusalem.” The Hebrew word translated “accusation” is sitnah, coming from the same root as the word Satan. Spiritual resistance is always present whenever God is at work. Here is the real antagonist in the biblical story.
And the real threat he sees is the intrusion of God’s kingdom on earth. This is what the enemy will oppose at every turn.
We will have to wait until next week and our next chapter to see what happens, although of course the readers of Ezra already know that the “good guys” will win. We, too, can read this historical narrative with fresh perspective, with new hope, given our place in history, looking back on the story with Christian eyes.
Kept in Exile
First, we can see that what the antagonist is up to is opposing the advance of God’s kingdom and, essentially, keeping God’s people in exile. Verses 4-5 describe the effect the enemies’ tactics had on Israel: they were discouraged, afraid, and frustrated. These are three common experiences for God’s people when they succumb to the tactics of Satan.
It is discouraging to face opposition in the pursuit of God’s kingdom. Today and tomorrow marks the 100th anniversary of the Tulsa Race Massacre. The kingdom of God, we know, is a kingdom of justice; the Psalmist notes that “righteousness and justice are the foundation” of God’s throne (Psa 89:14). So when 107-year-old survivor of the massacre, Viola Fletcher, came before congress almost two weeks ago, saying, “I’m here seeking justice, and I’m asking my country to acknowledge what happened in Tulsa in 1921,” Christians should be the first to stand with her.
But many are afraid. Afraid of being called a liberal, or a Marxist, or a proponent of Critical Race Theory. Afraid of being identified with a “social justice movement” that some influential Christians are calling the most dangerous threat to the gospel so far.
And so the people of God remain in exile, their purposes frustrated, the kingdom of God seeming to make no progress. We don’t even know who God’s people are any more, eyeing each other in the church with suspicion that maybe they are the enemy.
What can we do?
The Prodigal’s Return
We can find ourselves in the story by considering another story, one of Jesus’s most famous stories, that echoes this one. The story of the Prodigal Son is a clear echo of this story. As one commentator points out, we have here
a son who goes off in disgrace into a far country and then comes back, only to find the welcome challenged by another son who has stayed put. The overtones are so strong that we surely cannot ignore them. This is the story of Israel, in particular of exile and restoration. It corresponds more or less exactly to the narrative grammar which underlies the exilic prophets, and the books of Ezra and Nehemiah, and a good deal of subsequent Jewish literature, and which must therefore be seen as formative for second-Temple Judaism. The exodus itself is the ultimate backdrop: Israel goes off into a pagan country, becomes a slave, and then is brought back to her own land. But exile and restoration is the main theme. This is what the parable is about.
If you cannot put yourself in Ezra’s story, can you put yourself in this story? Which of the two sons are you?
Jesus tells this story in order to retell Israel’s story, in order to identify the true people of God. And what does he say? He says that he is bringing about the true return from exile, he is inaugurating the kingdom of God on earth. But if you see yourself as waiting for this salvation, and yet you stumble over Jesus, then you “are cast in the role of” those who oppose those who are returning. You “are, in effect, virtually” a Samaritan.
Jesus told that story against the Pharisees. To identify a Pharisee with a Samaritan is to speak about as infuriating as you can imagine. No wonder the Pharisees hated Jesus!
But again, which of the two sons are you?
Who Is on the Lord’s Side?
Do you read the story of Ezra and identify yourself with the “good guys”? Do you, like the Pharisees, see the enemy as “those people” out there while assuming you are on the “right side” of God’s justice?
Jesus, of course, doesn’t say that the younger son who ran off and squandered the father’s inheritance as the “good guy” either. Instead, Jesus tells the story of Israel in such a way that makes it plain that he alone, finally, is bringing Israel out of exile. Only he can usher in the kingdom of God.
And he calls all of us to repent and to follow him with unswerving loyalty. He calls us to recognize that the problem that lurked in the hearts of the 500 or so white “special deputies” of the Tulsa police department, who were deputized to “get a gun and get a n—”, that same evil lurks in my own heart. If you don’t recognize it, if you think you are better than they, that you don’t need any repentance, then Jesus will mean nothing to you.
Do you think you are above such evil, such atrocity, as what happened on May 30—June 1, 1921 in Tulsa, Oklahoma? Do you think those white rioters and ethnic cleansers were worse sinners than you? “No,” Jesus says, “I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish” (Lk 13:3).
What is repentance but a turning back to the Lord, to trusting in him alone to bring you back from the pigsty, to bring you out of exile, to give you, by grace, the kingdom of God?
Every plan of humanity will ultimately be frustrated. But God’s kingdom, his agenda for his creation, cannot be thwarted. Because the one who has brought us out of exile, the one who proclaimed the dawning of the kingdom of God on earth, that one was opposed by the great adversary, but he disarmed him on the cross, and vanquished him on Easter Sunday.
And he promises to all who will receive him the inheritance of his eternal kingdom, now and forever.
 A. Philip Brown, Hope amidst Ruin: A Literary and Theological Analysis of Ezra (Greenville, S.C: Bob Jones University Press, 2009), 74.
 John Macarthur, “Social Injustice and the Gospel,” Grace to You, accessed May 30, 2021, www.gty.org/library/blog/ B180813/social-injustice-and-the-gospel.
 Joe Carter, “9 Things You Should Know About the Tulsa Race Massacre,” The Gospel Coalition, accessed May 30, 2021, www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/tulsa-race-massacre.