Last week we learnt about the opposition to the Jews and the abandonment of rebuilding the Jerusalem Temple under King Artaxerxes.
And years passed, a new Persian King, Darius I (522-486), took over the Persian Empire after the civil war. As often happens in such times of uncertainty, the empire was threatened with dissolution. There were revolts in every direction. But by Darius’s second year (520 B.C), he had put down the rebellions and stabilised the empire. Under his rule, the Persian Empire reached its greatest power and splendour.
But the work on the Temple had been stopped for a long time. After sixteen years of abandonment of the project, a new beginning was needed.
1) Temple reconstruction restarted
In chapter 5, verse 1, we learnt that God has raised up two prophets, Haggai and Zechariah. They prophesied to the Jews in Judah and Jerusalem in the name of God. Everything began with a word from the Lord. At this time, the returned Jews had given in to their fear and discouragement because of the opposition of their neighbours surrounding them. They also had concerned themselves with trying to meet their own physical needs. There was a drought that plagued the area; life was tough in those years. The spiritual needs of the community and the work God had called them to do in rebuilding the Temple had been set aside. In this time of needs, God sent his messengers Haggai and Zechariah to say words of rebuke, exhortation, encouragement, and assurance to the restored community. Their mission was to bring about spiritual renewal and to motivate the people to restore the proper worship of the Lord. God of Israel was over them. The whole community was subject to God’s will.
In Haggai and Zechariah’s prophetic messages, the two people Zerubbabel and Joshua, have been mentioned many times. As I mentioned a few weeks earlier, Zerubbabel was from the line of King David. Joshua was from the high priest family of Aaron. God used the prophets to motivate and encourage the people and support Zerubbabel and Joshua’s rebuilding work. Verse 2 says, “The prophets of God were with them and helped them”. God sometimes sends prophets to encourage and strengthen his people. To accomplish this, Haggai and Zechariah not only preached but also got involved in the labour. Similarly, in the church today, God appoints prophetic voices to help us with our work. As Apostle Paul says in Ephesians 4:11-13, “So Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, 12 to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up 13 until we all reach unity in the faith and the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.”
Just like in those days, when God sent prophets Haggai and Zechariah to encourage his people to rebuild the Temple at Jerusalem, God also sent his servants to encourage and strengthen us doing God’s work for his Kingdom, building us up to worship Him. In turn, we should encourage those who bring God’s words to us and encourage one another in the church until we all reach unity in the faith and the knowledge of Christ, being mature in Christ, filling with the Holy Spirit, being ready for Christ’s return.
2) The governor’s investigation
Back to the story, in verse 3 and 4, we learnt that about the same time as the Jews began their work, Tattenai, a Persian official governing over the area beyond the river, Shethar-Bozenai the secretary and their associates were official inspectors who made periodic checks throughout the empire in the interest of the king. They were the new king Darius’s eyes and ears, and they came to Jerusalem on a routine inspection. So they asked the Jewish leaders: “Who authorised you to rebuild this temple and to finish it?” 4 They also asked, “What are the names of those who are constructing this building? 5 But the eye of their God was watching over the elders of the Jews, and they were not stopped until a report could go to Darius and his written reply be received.” (Ezra 5:3b-5)
“The eye of God” in verse 5 refers to God’s watchful providence. Like the Persian kings had their spies and inspectors, which the Persians called the King’s Eyes or the King’s Ears. But God’s people could be assured that God’s watchful eyes are not only more efficient than any kings’ network, but he is omniscient, that is, all-knowing. Nothing can hide from God. And it was only through God-given acts that the reestablishment of the covenant community could continue. God so guided Tattenai’s attitude that he allowed the Jews to continue the construction until he could check with King Darius. He could stop the project until he had the report back, but he didn’t use his authority because of God’s intervention. Nothing is hindering the reconstruction of the Temple. In this story, we can see that to fulfil his purpose, God used and coordinated the preaching of the prophets, the leaders’ work, the determination of the whole Jewish community, and foreign government officials’ decisions. Our God is in control, and he is able to use anyone around you to purpose his will.
Similarly, when we are doing God’s work, others may try to delay, confuse, or frustrate us. Still, we can proceed confidently in faith in Christ. God will accomplish his purposes in our world, no matter who attempts to block them.
Just like God who watched over the Jewish leaders rebuild the Temple in Jerusalem, your parents’ generation had also experienced such divine favour from the Lord a few years ago. At that time, Rev Samson Chu was the main pastor of this church. I remember Rev Chu said that at the beginning when the church tried to purchase the current church building, it was only a warehouse with no kitchen or other facilities for church functions. The pastors and executive committee of that time logged an application to the local government council, requesting to use this building for religious services, but there was much opposition arose in the neighbourhood. People were complaining about the possible noise and streets full of cars parking on Sundays near their homes. Many local residents who live nearby had banded up together and submitted a complaint letter to the government. Since then, the leaders of our church in the Chinese Congregation had been praying for deliverance. Without the government’s approval, Campsie Chinese Congregational Church cannot use it for weekly religious gatherings. But give thanks to God, by his will and providence, after three years of legal battles and development application approval, the local council has moved hearts and finally allowed us to use this current building for worship in 2012. God is indeed gracious to our church.
Just as God watched over the Jewish elders, he watches over us. Concentrate on God’s purpose, and don’t be side-tracked by intrigues or slander.
3) Tattenai the governor’s letter to King Darius
Moving on to verse 6 to 17, it recorded Tattenai, the governor and his associates’ formal letter to King Darius. Tattenai reported to the king that the Jews identified themselves as servants of God of heaven and earth. That means they claimed that God was not simply a local or nationalistic deity. In the Ancient Near East, each place or nation has its own deity. But our God is different; he is Lord Almighty, the Creator and sustainer of heavens and earth. God rules over all the created order. Because of this, he deserved a temple. A great king of Israel created it, King Solomon, as we read 2 Kings in the Old Testament. By including this historical link, they maintained continuity with the former Temple. The Jewish community understood that the ruins at their feet came from their own unfaithfulness and disobedience to God. This sin allowed Nebuchadnezzar the Chaldean, king of Babylon, to destroy the Temple and deport the people to Babylon. By identifying their relatives as deportees, the Jews identified themselves as returned exiles. They gave a good testimony. They did not hide their allegiance to God. Here the Jewish people saw themselves as continuing something that was done nearly five hundred years before King Solomon.
This is important because the Jews identify themselves as God’s people. They were deported to Babylon because of their unfaithfulness to God, not seeing themselves as like other tribes and people in Babylonia. To those who believe in Jesus Christ, we should also identify ourselves as citizens of God’s Kingdom rather than people living in this world; this world is the New Babylon as the Scripture calls it in the Book of Revelation. Being God’s people under the headship of Christ is essential to every Christian regarding our identity in Jesus. We are not the same with other people, races, or nations of this world, but we are the followers of Christ, servants of God, who were born of the Spirit and made to worship our God, the Creator of Heaven and Earth. We need to be bold about who we are as God’s people when people ask us because it is our identity as citizens in heaven. Like the Israelites who confessed and made a testimony to Tattenai about their past sins and the sins of their ancestors. When the Persia-appointed governor, demanding to know who gave their construction project permission, it could have been intimidating, but as the Jewish people proclaimed, “We are the servants of the God and heaven and earth.”
You know, we too are living in similar situations in everyday life. It is not always easy to speak up for our faith in Christ in an unbelieving world, but we must. The way to deal with pressure and intimidation is to recognise that we are workers for God. Our allegiance is to God first, people second. When we anticipate the reactions and criticisms of hostile people, we can become paralysed with fear. If we try to offend no one or to please everyone, we won’t be effective. God is our leader, and his rewards are most important. So don’t be intimidated. Let others know by your words and actions whom you really serve. You are a Christian. You service Christ and his Father, the God of heavens and all the earth.
Like the Jews who have confessed their sin and their ancestors’ sin and unfaithfulness against God, their repentance and confession confirm their admission of guilt and an acknowledged need for change; it always precedes salvation.
In the same way, when people ask about your faith or circumstances in your life, answer truthfully, even acknowledging difficulties and failures when appropriate. Be faithful to Jesus Christ and his Father until the end. Please don’t give in to fear or being timid when it is the best time to give your testimony about Christ in your life. When you realise you have offended another person or recognised sin in your life, confess the wrong. In this way, you rescue the situation and build stronger relationships.
Like the Jewish people who remembered their past, both good and bad time with God, from the time King Solomon built God’s Temple to the destruction of the Temple by the Babylonian because of their ancestors’ unfaithfulness; We should remember our past, from the first day we met Christ to now, Remember how Christ has saved us and how God has forgiven our sins through Jesus’ death and resurrection, remember how the Holy Spirit guides us, looking after us and transforming us, renewing our spiritual life day by day. Always remember God’s faithfulness in our lives, and be faithful to Him.
Back to the passage, then in verse 13 onward, Tattenai the governor recalls the decree of King Cyrus the Great in chapter 1. As I preached a few weeks ago, under King Cyrus’s administration after he had conquered Babylon, in the first year of his kingship, he had issued a decree to rebuild the house of God with Persian support. Cyrus was committed to the Temple’s restoration. He proved it by returning all the gold and silver articles of God’s house that Nebuchadnezzar, the Babylonian king, had taken from Jerusalem.
But this reconstruction project has been neglected and not yet completed. Therefore Tattenai requested King Darius to search the royal achieves of Babylon to see if King Cyrus did, in fact, issue a decree, and he concluded, let the king send them his decision in this matter.
The words “King Cyrus issued a decree” was the Jews’ most important argument. They had legal backing, and Cyrus was still honoured as the great founder of the Persian Empire. King Darius consciously tried to follow the policies Cyrus had used. Therefore, Tattenai’s report of Cyrus’ decree to rebuild the house of God will influence the king’s decision after the search of Babylonian achieves of the decree has proven the legitimacy of rebuilding the Jerusalem Temple.
Next week, we will continue the story to learn about Darius’s reply and the Temple’s completion.
But before that, let us recap the summary of today’s sermon:
- God faithfully pursues his creation and covenant to his people; sometimes, he uses his messengers to encourage and strengthen his people while they are discouraged.
- Confession is an admission of guilt and an acknowledged need for change; it always precedes salvation.
- Nations, rulers, and the world, in general, express themselves in ways consistent with their natures, some for good and some for evil, but God determines their limits. God is still sovereign in everything that happens in the world.
Therefore, don’t give in to despair or retreat when we are faced with hardship. God sets limits on the powers of this world. Be faithful. And Remember your past. Remember God’s faithfulness in your life. God does not change. He will provide for us and keep his promises to us, including salvation and eternal life for each of us through his one and only Son. No power in this world can change his plan. So let us give thanks to God for his faithfulness.
1. Discuss ways in which the questions of unbelievers can be gateways for presenting the gospel.
2. Is confession always necessary for salvation or the restoration of a broken relationship?
3. Investigate the Gospels and find instances when Jesus asked questions. What did he ask? How would you answer his questions today?