It comes at us even though we have no desire for it. It is no respecter of age, race, nationality, economic status, or gender. It comes as frequently to the followers of Jesus as it does to those who proudly profess that they believe in nothing but themselves. It can come from those who are closest to us, those we work with, live around, or those who are complete strangers. It can come as a result of a decision we make, words we speak, a group we align ourselves with, and even when we remain quiet and uncommitted to any cause. When it comes it can shake us to our core, cause our hearts to race, drop us to our knees, cause our hands to hang limp, or move us to cry out to God. What is “it?” What is this pervasive power that roams throughout the world? What is this formidable force that has the power to paralyze us? What is this agent of agitation that possesses the capability to rob us of joy and lead us to lose our hope? “It” is opposition. You may have had no idea what I was referring to before you heard the word, but once you heard it you immediately could relate to every description I set before us. Opposition is unavoidable and yet opposition can drain us and drop us into the pit of despair.
Do you know Elijah? God’s prophet experienced one of the greatest victories recorded in the Bible, the showdown on Mount Carmel recorded in 1 Kings 18. Yet, in the very next chapter of 1 Kings we learn that when Elijah heard that Queen Jezebel had determined to kill him, we read,
3 Elijah was afraid and ran for his life. When he came to Beersheba in Judah, he left his servant there, 4 while he himself went a day’s journey into the desert. He came to a broom tree, sat down under it and prayed that he might die. “I have had enough, LORD,” he said. “Take my life; I am no better than my ancestors.” (1 Kings 19:3-4 NIVO)
God raised up Moses to lead the Hebrew slaves out of bondage in Egypt and into the Promised Land, yet Moses soon found out it wasn’t going to be that easy. The people were hard to lead, they grumbled and fussed, and their discontent was evident before they even crossed the border heading out of Egypt. In Numbers 11, we read where God provided manna for the people to eat, but they wanted filet mignon, new york strips, and rib eyes! It was more than Moses could bear. He cried out to God in his discouragement.
13 Where can I get meat for all these people? They keep wailing to me, ‘Give us meat to eat!’ 14 I cannot carry all these people by myself; the burden is too heavy for me. 15 If this is how you are going to treat me, put me to death right now– if I have found favor in your eyes– and do not let me face my own ruin.” (Number 11:13-15 NIVO)
Oh, I could go on and on and on with the stories of opposition and discouragement from the pages of God’s Word, but let’s get to our story of opposition found in our Scripture for today. Please turn with me to Ezra 4.
1 When the enemies of Judah and Benjamin heard that the exiles were building a temple for the LORD, the God of Israel, 2 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.” 3 But Zerubbabel, Jeshua 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.” 4 Then the peoples around them set out to discourage the people of Judah and make them afraid to go on building. 5 They hired counselors 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. …24 Thus the work on the house of God in Jerusalem came to a standstill until the second year of the reign of Darius king of Persia. (Ezra 4:1-5; 24 NIVO)
I’m sure you noticed that we skipped verses 6-23. There’s a reason for that and we’ll get to it in just a minute, but first, let’s get an overview of the Scripture we just read. If you will remember our last look at Ezra, Ezra 3, then you’ll remember the people were celebrating the laying of the foundation of the temple that had been destroyed by Nebuchadnezzar many years earlier. Everyone was celebrating except for the older folks who had seen the glory of Solomon’s temple before they were carried back to Babylon by Nebuchadnezzar’s men in 586 B.C., more than 50 years earlier.
After the altar was set in place and the foundation of the temple was laid, the people waited until the supplies came from the men of Sidon and Tyre who were bringing cedar logs from Lebanon. After all of the supplies arrived on site, the exiles who had returned to Jerusalem began to build. Then we read in verse 1 that when the “enemies of Benjamin and Judah heard that the exiles were building a temple for the LORD, the God of Israel,” they went to the leaders and said, “We want to help out.” They doubled down by letting the leaders know that they worshipped the same God as the Israelites. There was no negotiation, no “tell-me-more,” no discussion. Zerubbabel, Jeshua the priest, and other heads of the families said,
3 But Zerubbabel, Jeshua 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 NIVO)
I’m sure some of you, most of you are probably thinking, “That’s harsh. They just wanted to help out. Why be so mean!” It does appear that way doesn’t it? You would think the more hands swinging hammers the better. There were probably some really good carpenters and craftsmen in that group that Zerubbabel and Jeshua called “enemies.” And herein lies the danger of not knowing the full story.
We get a hint as to who this crowd of willing volunteers were in verse 2 when they let Zerubbabel and Jeshua know they had been brought into the land years earlier by the king of Assyria. This hint takes us back to 721 B.C. when the Northern Kingdom of Israel fell to the Assyrians. The king of Assyria deported many of those who lived in Samaria, the capital of the Northern Kingdom of Israel, while at the same time he resettled people from Babylon, Cuthah, Avva, Hamath, and Sepharvaim in Samaria (2 Kings 17:24). These people brought their own gods and practiced their own religions. It was not a good situation. We read, in 2 Kings 17:27-29,
27 Then the king of Assyria gave this order: “Have one of the priests you took captive from Samaria go back to live there and teach the people what the god of the land requires.” 28 So one of the priests who had been exiled from Samaria came to live in Bethel and taught them how to worship the LORD. 29 Nevertheless, each national group made its own gods in the several towns where they settled, and set them up in the shrines the people of Samaria had made at the high places. (2 Kings 17:27-29 NIVO)
They didn’t know any better to begin with, but then a man of God came for the express purpose of teaching them how to worship YHWH, he discipled them, and yet they chose to continue to worship as they wanted. We read just four verses later,
33 They worshiped the LORD, but they also served their own gods in accordance with the customs of the nations from which they had been brought. (2 Kings 17:33 NIVO)
Sounds like life in modern-day America doesn’t it? They, like us, gave God a spot on the shelf right next to all of their other gods. God will not share your heart or my heart with anything or anyone else my friend.
I’ve read teachers this past week who have come down hard on Zerubbabel and Jeshua for being so narrow-minded. Before we jump to the same conclusion I’d encourage you to remember the history Zerubbabel and Jeshua were working from at this point. It was idolatry and disobedience that had landed the Jews in Babylon. God had sent His prophets to urge His people to turn away from their idolatry and serve Him with their whole hearts, but they wouldn’t listen. The price they paid was exile for more than 50 years in a strange land, away from their homeland. Now they were finally back home, given a second chance, and they wanted to serve God like they had never served Him before. They were not going to take any chances this time. They were going to dot every “i” and cross every “t.” We know this is true because we’ve already witnessed it in the first three chapters of Ezra.
And what about those who said they only wanted to help? Well, they proved to be the greatest hindrance to the building of the temple and city walls. In Ezra 4:4-5 we learn that these same people who offered to help set out to “discourage the people” and to “make them afraid to go on building.” Let’s read these verses together.
4 Then the peoples around them set out to discourage the people of Judah and make them afraid to go on building. 5 They hired counselors 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 4:4-5 NIVO)
The Hebrew word for “discourage” is “raphah” and it paints such a vivid picture for us of what they were doing to Zerubbabel, Jeshua, and the people. Literally, the word means, “to weaken the hands” or “to sink, be disheartened.” Let me show you some other places in the Hebrew Bible where this same word appears. In Nehemiah, Sanballat and Tobiah were troubling the workers. Nehemiah writes,
9 They were all trying to frighten us, thinking, “Their hands will get too weak for the work, and it will not be completed.” But I prayed, “Now strengthen my hands.” (Nehemiah 6:9 NIVO)
In Isaiah 35, God gave the prophet Isaiah a message to deliver to those whose hands had gone weak and limp because of discouragement. Read along with me from Isaiah 35:3-4.
3 Strengthen the feeble hands, steady the knees that give way; 4 say to those with fearful hearts, “Be strong, do not fear; your God will come, he will come with vengeance; with divine retribution he will come to save you.” (Isaiah 35:3-4 NIVO)
I would say the true colors of those who said they had only come to help were showing through. They were not intending to help, their goal was to hinder the work of God, to discourage the people of God, to terrify anyone who was committed to the rebuilding of the temple. And if you will turn to Ezra 4:24 with me you will see that their plan worked. Let’s read together.
24 Thus the work on the house of God in Jerusalem came to a standstill until the second year of the reign of Darius king of Persia. (Ezra 4:24 NIVO)
In 536 B.C. the work on the temple was stopped and the work wouldn’t resume until 520 B.C., under the reign of Darius. It would be sixteen years before God’s people would return to doing what God had called them to do. Opposition can so easily lead to discouragement and discouragement can so easily foster apathy and lethargy. Have you ever experienced the negative effects of opposition in your own life? Has the grind of opposition in your home, with your husband, wife, or kids, or in the workplace with a supervisor or co-worker ever sucked the life out of you and made you want to throw in the towel?
Now, I want to show you that this wasn’t simply a momentary opposition, but instead it went on for years. Ezra tells us those who opposed the work hired counselors, professionals, to help them out in Ezra 4:5. Read it with me.
5 They hired counselors 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 NIVO)
The exiles returned to Jerusalem under King Cyrus in 536 B.C.. Darius reigned as king of Persia from 522-486 B.C. So, just from this one verse we know the opposition applied the pressure for at least 14 years. 14 long, discouraging, tension-filled, years. But wait, there’s more.
Remember those verses I had us skip in the beginning? Let’s go back to Ezra 4:6-23 now. We’re not going to read the entire section of Scripture, but I will give you a Cliff Notes version of the text. What we’ve been studying, the Jews arriving in Jerusalem, setting the altar in place, laying the foundation of the temple, and gathering supplies to rebuild the temple has all taken place with a year of the Jews returning to Jerusalem. The year 536 B.C. was a big year for the Jews back in their homeland, but the books of Ezra and Nehemiah weren’t written until about a century later, about 440 B.C. This is important to know because when we come to Ezra 4:6-23 we find Ezra taking us almost 100 years into the future to show us the persistent opposition faced by God’s people.
Verses 6-23 describes for us a series of letters written by the hired guns, political operatives of the opposition to two different kings of Persia.
First of all, in verse 6, we learn about a complaint written to King Xerxes I, who succeeded Darius on the throne. Xerxes reigned from 486-465 B.C. Then, in verse 7, we learn about another letter written to King Artaxerxes who reigned from 464-423 B.C. So, let’s do a little math. If the opposition began in 536 B.C. and it was ongoing through Xerxes and Artaxerxes’ reigns that means that the Jews faced opposition for the better part of 100 years.
One hundred years of opposition. One hundred years of struggle. And yet, it was not that God was inactive during that 100 years. King Xerxes was the Persian king who married a jewish girl named Esther. God used Esther to rescue the Jewish people living in the capital city of Susan when Haman had planned a holocaust of the Jewish people. How about King Artaxerxes? We will get to the book of Nehemiah in just a few weeks and we will learn that Nehemiah was the cupbearer to King Artaxerxes. It was Artaxerxes who gave Nehemiah permission to go back to Jerusalem and rebuild the walls. God is never inactive my friend. He is always working.
Let’s get back to those who were writing the letters to the kings. We learn about Bishlam, Mithredath, Tabeel and the rest of his associates who sent a letter to Artaxerxes. Rehum “the commanding officer” and Shimshai “the secretary” also wrote a letter, together with judges and officials over the men of Tripolis, Persia, Erech, Babylon, the Elamites of Su (Ezra 4:7-9). We don’t have all of the letters they wrote, but we do have one, in verses 11-16. We learn in verse 11 that this letter has nothing to do with the rebuilding of the temple, the temple was completed in 520 B.C., but it has everything to do with the rebuilding of the city and the walls surrounding the city.
In the letter they have a list of accusations as to why the Jews are a threat and as to why the king must stop them immediately. Those who wrote the letters were politicians to the nth degree. In verse 13 they wrote,
13 Furthermore, the king should know that if this city is built and its walls are restored, no more taxes, tribute or duty will be paid, and the royal revenues will suffer. (Ezra 4:13 NIVO)
That would catch any politicians attention! They went on to call Jerusalem a “rebellious city,” “troublesome to kings and provinces,” and a “place of rebellion from ancient times.” I have to admit that learning this has provided some level of comfort to me. I was beginning to believe that our present-day politicians have reached a new low. After reading this it dawned on me that our politicians are cut from the same bolt of cloth as those in Ezra and Nehemiah’s day. With all of the accusations leveled at the exiles, who had returned to Jerusalem, is it any wonder that King Artaxerxes ordered all building on the wall and the city to stop?
Those who first read Ezra/Nehemiah were given a strong dose of reality. As they read about their ancestors coming back from Babylon, building the temple, rebuilding the city and the wall, they were reminded that there was opposition at every turn. This is not just the story of Zerubbabel, Ezra, and Nehemiah–it’s the story of humanity and it’s certainly the story of the followers of Jesus.
Our Promise Keepers Men’s Bible study has been studying the book of Acts for the last several weeks. The first two chapters of Acts are unbelievable! Jesus appears to His disciples and tells them to wait in Jerusalem until the Holy Spirit comes. In Acts 2, at the Feast of Pentecost, the Holy Spirit came, Peter preached a powerful sermon, and 3,000 people accepted Jesus as Savior. What could happen next? A world tour? Breaking ground on the Jerusalem mega-church? A tv ministry? How about opposition, Peter and John being thrown in jail, threats of death, beatings, being run out of town, and the list goes on.
The difference between the exiles who returned to Jerusalem and the early followers of Jesus is that opposition fueled Jesus’ disciples. In Acts 5:41-42 we read about what happened after Peter and John were beaten and threatened with death. Read it with me.
41 The apostles left the Sanhedrin, rejoicing because they had been counted worthy of suffering disgrace for the Name. 42 Day after day, in the temple courts and from house to house, they never stopped teaching and proclaiming the good news that Jesus is the Christ. (Acts 5:41-42 NIVO)
They left the Sanhedrin “rejoicing because they had been counted worthy of suffering disgrace for the Name.” What name? The name of Jesus, the One who had suffered for them. Have you been facing opposition? They’re talking about you. They’re spreading rumors about you? They’re trying to do you in, move you out of the way? Keep your eyes on the One who suffered on your behalf and watch Him strengthen you so that you can stand strong in the face of opposition. You and I cannot escape opposition, but we do not have to allow it to lead us into discouragement. It’s not a mind over matter equation. It’s a set-your-mind-on-Jesus solution. The writer of Hebrews tells us,
2 Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. 3 Consider him who endured such opposition from sinful men, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart. (Hebrews 12:2-3 NIVO)
Before you can ever fix your eyes on Jesus, but you must first surrender your heart to Jesus. Won’t you do that this morning?
Britton Christian Church
922 NW 91st
OKC, OK. 73114
October 13, 2019