Supported by the Prophets of God
Scripture: Ezra 5:1–17
1 Now the prophets, Haggai and Zechariah the son of Iddo, prophesied to the Jews who were in Judah and Jerusalem, in the name of the God of Israel who was over them. 2 Then Zerubbabel the son of Shealtiel and Jeshua the son of Jozadak arose and began to rebuild the house of God that is in Jerusalem, and the prophets of God were with them, supporting them.
3 At the same time Tattenai the governor of the province Beyond the River and Shethar-bozenai and their associates came to them and spoke to them thus: “Who gave you a decree to build this house and to finish this structure?” 4 They also asked them this: “What are the names of the men who are building this building?” 5 But the eye of their God was on the elders of the Jews, and they did not stop them until the report should reach Darius and then an answer be returned by letter concerning it. (Ezra 5:1-5)
There are several individuals that are significant to this church, although most of you have never met them. Before Crosstown began, these individuals supported the church in prayer and finances, giving time and money to see that this church was planted. Most of these people have never attended a worship gathering here. But this church would not exist without their support. This is true of our own lives, isn’t it? Behind the scenes, we find many people who have worked to support us and to make us who we are today. And the impact of these supporters in the successes we’ve experienced is significant even though they do not often garner much attention.
Well, when we left off our study of the book of Ezra last week, the work on the temple had begun but opposition had mounted and soon the work had ceased. We were left wondering how the work would resume and be brought to completion. The fifth chapter of Ezra answers that question. The work on the temple resumed and was brought to completion by the support of the prophets of God. And to this day, God uses his prophets—God uses prophecy—to rekindle hope among his people and to advance his kingdom through their faithful obedience to his will.
Whether we know it or not, what God wants to do in our lives will ultimately succeed only by the support of the prophets of God. We can see this play out in Ezra 5 as we consider the role, words, and effects of the prophets of God in the story of the rebuilding of Israel’s second temple.
The Role of the Prophets
First, what is a prophet? We don’t get a definition in the story, just the simple recognition that this is what Haggai and Zechariah were. But we need to have some basic understanding of prophets in order to understand their significance in the story. There’s a few things we can see about them.
Speaking in God’s Name
Verse one tells us that “the prophets, Haggai and Zechariah . . . prophesied to the Jews”—and notice the phrase—“in the name of the God of Israel.” A prophet is someone who speaks on God’s behalf. He or she represents God and his message to the audience before them. It is no small thing to claim to represent God in this way. No one should lightly make this claim for themselves, for the Bible condemns in strong words those who falsely speak on God’s behalf. Jesus warned of the preponderance of false prophets (Matt 24:11, 24). John urges Christians to be careful, for “many false prophets have gone out into the world” (1 Jn 4:1). Jeremiah warned his audience of those who say they represent God but fill people with “vain hopes. “They speak visions of their own minds,” he said, and “not from the mouth of the Lord” (Jer 23:16).
So a prophet, at the very least, is someone who can rightly say, “This is what God says.” When a prophet speaks like that he is prophesying. He is not philosophizing. Do you see the difference? A prophecy is a declaration that what is being said is what God is saying. By the way, this is the reason why many churches like ours observe the tradition of saying, at the conclusion of the public reading of Scripture, “This is the very word of God.” While any number of people can speak true things—convincing things, important things—a prophet is speaking on a different level. He is not giving his thoughts but God’s thoughts, not his words, but God’s words.
If someone comes up to you and tells you they are a prophet, you are probably going to be skeptical. And for good reason. Not only because we’ve been told that there are many false prophets we need to watch out for, but also because we don’t have a cultural recognition of prophets. To say you are a prophet is weird. But that was not the case in Judaism, and once we understand the role of prophets in Israel, they will make a bit more sense in our world, too.
A prophet was not on the scene for no reason. A prophet showed up when significant matters were at stake. In particular, prophets were associated with climactic moments in redemptive history. The prophets were typically speaking into the moment, telling people what they needed to do to align themselves with God and his ways. A prophet was usually on the scene calling the people to repent or face impending doom. Or they were on the scene to lead the people out of bondage and into freedom. Prophets deal with the most significant matters in history.
The occasion here, of course, is significant in Israel’s history. The occasion is the rebuilding of the temple in Jerusalem following the Babylonian captivity and with it the hope that God is restoring his reign on the earth through his people as he had promised.
The God Who Was Over Them
So at the end of verse 1 we read that the prophets prophesied in the name of the God of Israel “who was over them.” That is to say, the prophets represented God in a particular situation in order to express the will of God to the people. The prophets were there to say, “This is the will of the Great King. He not only commands you to do this or that, but his full power and authority is with you to see that it is done.”
What is happening here is that God is imposing his authority into a real-life situation. Verse two says, “Then Zerubbabel the son of Shealtiel and Jeshua the son of Jozadak arose and began to rebuild the house of God that is in Jerusalem, and the prophets of God were with them, supporting them.” These prophets are representing God, speaking on God’s behalf, and insisting that the temple be rebuilt, even though the project had stopped for about fifteen years. It had stopped because of the pressure of Israel’s enemies who had used political force to shut down the effort. So when we read in verse 2 that the work had resumed, we are prepared for the conflict to emerge again.
The Words of the Prophets
And that’s what happens in verse 3. But wait just a minute. What did Haggai and Zechariah say that got the work started up again? Although many years have passed, we’ve still got Zerubbabel and Jeshua leading the charge, the same two individuals who had started the work back in chapter 3 but were shut down. What is it that the prophets said that caused them to restart the building campaign in spite of the imperial threat? We need to consider the words that these prophets spoke.
Call to Action
Ezra wants us to see the prophetic role as applicable to many situations. We recall the chronology of the previous chapter, the “intentional anachronism” that encompasses some seventy years of history past right up to the present. He does this in part to show us that the struggle Israel endured to rebuild their temple in the past is the same kind of struggle that was happening in his own day. And the important role of the prophets then shows us the important role the prophets play now.
The role of the prophets is to summon God’s people to action: Haggai and Zechariah prophesied, then Zerubbabel and Jeshua arose and began to rebuild. The prophets speak, and the people respond. The words of the prophets demonstrate that God is king and that he is active in his kingdom, and his activity is something his people are to respond to.
The Prophecies of Haggai and Zechariah
Not everything a prophet ever said is in our Bibles, but we do have the prophecies of Haggai and Zechariah. They are part of our Scriptures, and their message is important. Haggai tells us that the problem that Israel faces is not conflict from without. The prophecies do not encourage warfare against the Persian Empire because the Persian Empire is not the problem. Ezra 4:4 tells us the “sons of the exile” were discouraged and afraid, and what they needed was not military intervention but the encouragement to believe God and to act accordingly.
The book of Haggai tells us that in the fifteen years since the temple rebuild had begun and then stopped, the people had become content with the situation. They had built their own houses, but not God’s. They were comfortable, but their comfort was short-sighted.
Now, therefore, thus says the LORD of hosts: Consider your ways. You have sown much, and harvested little. You eat, but you never have enough; you drink, but you never have your fill. You clothe yourselves, but no one is warm. And he who earns wages does so to put them into a bag with holes (Hag 1:5-6).
This is what God says about those who seek first their kingdom rather than his. It leads to impoverishment not wealth; oppression, not justice; weakness, not strength. God’s people are ever susceptible to the danger of advancing their own kingdom rather than God’s with disastrous results.
The book of Zechariah is largely about the glorious future found in seeking first the kingdom of God. “Do that,” says Zechariah, “And the LORD will be king over all the earth” (Zech 14:9). The rule of Israel’s God would mean the rule of Israel, with her borders extending to cover the entire earth. This is what God had promised, and this is what God’s people should be aiming for, and nothing less!
The Advance of God’s Kingdom
All throughout the scripture, then, and all throughout redemptive history, from the first glimmer of good news in the Garden of Eden (Gen 3:15), all the way until the consummation of all things when our Lord returns, the aim for God’s people should be the advance of God’s kingdom on earth.
In Ezra’s day, that required the people to build the temple, because Israel’s temple is the place where heaven and earth would meet, where God would intend to dwell with his people and be their God.
In our day, what God requires of us is more or less the same, the advance of God’s kingdom on earth. But we need a prophet like Haggai and Zechariah to help us understand what that ought to look like, and how we ought to live accordingly. Jesus is that prophet for us. Jesus came as a prophet, but we tend to think of him more like a polished theologian. He was more like a politician, a national leader, declaring the right way for Israel to be Israel, to live under the rule of Israel’s true king. He came proclaiming, “The kingdom of God is at hand.” And that meant that God was on the move, reconstituting his people, bringing an end to their exile, forgiving theirs sins, freeing them from subservience to all foreign powers.
Many people in Jesus’s day debated how God would usher in his kingdom, but everyone agreed that this was the goal, this is what would take place one way or another. So if we take Jesus seriously, we should respond to him in a similar way that Israel was expected to respond to her other prophets. And his message should have a similar effect on us that Haggai and Zechariah had on the people in Ezra’s day.
The Effect of the Prophets
Verses 6-17 relate to us Tattenai’s letter to Darius, his report about what was going on in Jerusalem. But verses 11-16 convey the effect that the prophecies of Haggai and Zechariah had on the people. And this is important to us because, if Jesus is a prophet like them, then his prophetic words ought to have a similar effect on us as well.
So notice what the people have said, as reported in verse 11. They said, “We are servants of the God of heaven and earth.” This is a clear expression of monotheism. They are saying, “We have one God, one king. We are his servants, and we bow the knee to no one else.” The words of Jesus should have the same effect on us. We are surrounded by a pagan culture that worships many gods. But we worship no other God but the one true God of heaven and earth.
Additionally we read in verse 11, that the people have said, “We are rebuilding the house that was built many years ago, which a great king of Israel built and finished.” The effect of the prophets was to bring about a renewal movement among God’s people, a constant reformation among God’s people to God’s ways. We know from Haggai’s prophecy that the people had become complacent, but the effect of the prophecy was to remind them of their identity, that they were made for something greater than concern with their own individual welfare.
So the prophets rebuked God’s people for their complacency, but did not crush them. The effect of the prophets was to correct but not to destroy. The prophets brought about a renewal among God’s people to God’s ways.
When we get to verse 16, we read, “Then this Sheshbazzar came and laid the foundations of the house of God that is in Jerusalem, and from that time until now it has been in building, and it is not yet finished.” The people of Israel saw themselves in-between the times; the work had already begun, but it was not yet finished. The effect of the prophets not only renewed them, it also assured them that this was the business to which they should give themselves day by day.
And like them, we find ourselves in-between the times. The kingdom of God is here, but it is not yet fully here. There is work yet to be done, and as the people of God it is our job day by day to be about our Father’s business.
At the end of verse 5 we are told that “the eye of their God was on the elders of the Jews” so that their opponents “did not stop them” while they awaited the reply of King Darius. Because of the ministry of the prophets, the people were assured that God was with them. It reminds me of Jesus’s parting words to his disciples, assuring them that he would be with them always until the end of the age (Matt 28:20). This word should give us the assurance that our business of disciple-making is done with the eye of God upon us. This work is moving forward and cannot fail because we are assured of God’s presence with us in it all.
The last effect the prophets had on the people, and the ultimate effect, was to stir them up to resume the work, to do the will of God, to obey his word. “Then Zerubbabel the son of Shealtiel and Jeshua the son of Jozadak arose and began to rebuild the house of God that is in Jerusalem” (v. 2).
The words of Jesus should have the same effect on us. We live in a day when everyone wants to co-opt Jesus and make him a prophet of their own side. But a prophet doesn’t take sides. A prophet comes to declare who the true king is, the one and only one to whom our allegiance must be. So Jesus cannot be co-opted, not politically or for any other cause. Instead, Jesus speaks the word of the Lord and calls us to his side, to the priority of his kingdom, to obedience of the word of the Lord.
The proper response God’s people must exemplify is devotion to God’s final prophet, Jesus Christ. We must remain loyal to him and his word. We must follow his lead and we must get to work, obeying his call to make disciples, not for our own kingdom, but for his kingdom alone.