Opposition Encountered - Chapter 4
C. E. Hocking, Cardiff
If in our service for Christ, we leave out of account the wiles of the devil we run the risk of being badly deceived.
No GOOD WORK is allowed to proceed unchallenged! The methods of the devil take different forms so that we have ever to be on our guard against him. The chapter before us has two main sections :
Amalgamation, vv. 1-3.
Suggested, vv. 1, 2.
Rejected, v. 3. Retaliation, vv. 4-24.
Its commencement and course, vv. 4-22.
Its consummation, vv. 23, 24.
The opening and conclusion of the chapter correspond. In verses 1 and 2 we read " Now when . . . then . . . ". Here the phrases thus introduced refer to the effect that work on God's house had produced upon the adversaries of the people of God who, in the garb of piety, offer a patronizing support to the holy work on God's house. Their suggestion, w. 1, 2, was unanimously rejected by the leaders of those who had returned out of captivity. This first line of attack was a subtle one. The noble aim of ' unity in the work of God' had, superficially, much to favour it. Point blank refusal of their offer might look like mere bigotry, a narrow, exclusive outlook. However, on closer examination the attitude adopted is seen to have been God-honouring. Amalgamation does not help the ungodly and it certainly hinders the godly.
Unity at the expense of faithfulness to God and His Word is not a scriptural unity at all!
The conclusion of the chapter repeats the introductory clauses of verses i and 2 (see vv. 23, 24, " Now when . . . then . . . "). Only here the subject, introduced by these words, indicates the triumph of the adversaries. Consequent upon receiving the king's letter the Jews were made to cease work on God's house by force and power, v. 23. Patronage had failed! Persistent opposition prevailed! It has been well said that it is easier to gain a victory than to use it! Constant opposition in its many forms indicated throughout the chapter " weakened the hands of the people ", v. 4. Thus Satan's dupes had won the day. The wiles of the devil in appearing first as an angel of light, and then as a roaring lion, had undermined the confidence of the saints in God. Here, the work ceasing on the house of God, v. 24, indicates a sad breakdown in faith on the part of God's people.
The godless are clearly delineated with a few bold strokes in this chapter. Their character is made manifest by the Spirit from the first. " Now when the adversaries heard ", v. 1. Observe, too, the cunning of the foe. They did not lie nakedly but wore a rag of truth indicated in the phrases " for we seek your God as ye do ", v. 2, and " we do sacrifice unto him since the days of Esar-haddon ", v. 2. They had tradition behind them !
(The background of these peoples is detailed in 2 Kings 17. 24, where the first colonization by the Assyrian monarchs is recorded. They had been placed in the cities of Samaria, the name given to the territory of the northern kingdom, " instead of the children of Israel", v. 24. To seek to appease the god of the land whose displeasure they had incurred through idolatry, one of the priests of the. transplanted Israelites was returned to them to teach them " how they should fear the Lord ", v. 28. The fruit of his ministry was seen in the development of a mingled superstitious cult, the tenets of which are embraced by the phrase " so they feared the Lord . . . and served their own gods, after the manner of the nations from among whom they had been carried away ", vv. 32, 33. Not all the citizens of the northern kingdom's ten tribes were deported, and intermarriages no doubt took place with the new settlers, so that in Ezra's time the race was a thoroughly mixed one. Subsequently they were found claiming Jewish descent, John 4. 12. They came to be designated " Samaritans ". The enmity which existed between them and the Jews stemmed from the curt refusal of their assistance by Zerubbabel, Ezra 4. 3. Their opposition is seen also in Nehemiah. The gospel narratives indicate something of the bitterness that still existed at the tune of Christ. " The Jews have no dealings with the Samaritans ", John 4. 9, are the words used to sum up the situation. Here then we have the Old Testament equivalent to those of whom Paul says " having a form of godliness but denying the power thereof". Not only is it impossible to serve God and mammon but true fear of the Lord is incompatible with serving one's own gods.)
The provocative career of these opponents of God's people is given in some detail. They " weakened the hands of the people ", and " troubled " them, v. 4. Difficulty in carrying out the work and the atmosphere of uncertainty and fear slowed down the project considerably. They "hired counsellors" and, through the instrumentality of these bribed officials, they persistently sought to frustrate the work by unsubstantiated charges. The kings' reigns mentioned in verse 5 embrace the whole period as the phrase " even until the reign of Darius king of Persia " indicates (see v. 24 and 5. 1, 2).
For something like 15 years a systematic course of opposition was adopted. The substance of the written accusations recorded from verses 7 to 16 indicates their craft. The last thing in which these peoples were interested was " the revenue of the kings ", v. 13, " the ensuring of his portion from the whole area ", v. 16, " the king's honour ", v. 14. This line of argument, however, would surely encourage the interest of the king and cause him to support them in bringing the work of the saints to a halt, whereas to inform the king that these who had returned were engaged on the building of a Temple would hardly be likely to cause disturbance at court! Another feature of the letter, therefore, was the gross misrepresentation of the work being done by the people of God. They constantly refer to " the city " but never to the construction of the house of God. It was " a rebellious and bad city ", v. 12, they were rearing ; " if this city be builded " it would endanger the king's interests, vv. 13,16 ; the king should know " that this city is a rebellious city ... for which cause was this city destroyed ", v. 15, in the past when Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon had razed it to the ground. To add insult to injury, these antagonists brought out into full light the dark past of the city and its kings in its palmy history. It had been " hurtful unto kings and provinces ", v. 15, within its walls from time immemorial " they have moved sedition ", v. 15.
Their methods proved successful, as the king's reply shows, vv. 17-22. It is of interest to note that in Ezra we have the text of letters recorded. The general superscriptions, however, are not given in full and the phrase " at such a time ", vv. 10, 17, should be translated " and so forth " as in the Revised Version, or, as we would say " et cetera, et cetera". Their craft had beguiled the usurper then seeking to establish his throne, the misrepresentations of the work on the city being reflected in his reply, vv. 19, 21. Search in the arcliives had brought to light the rebellious past of the city, v. 19. The work should be stopped by force and power, and they were given the necessary authority to put into motion their evil designs. The possibility of rescinding the decision made was inferred, however, in the " until " of verse 21.
Consequent upon receipt of the letter, the aim of these opponents is unmasked. They hastened to Jerusalem not to bring to a halt the work on the city but to cause to cease the labour of love of the saints on the house of God, v. 24. In actual fact it seems as though they went beyond their authority in doing this, but their conscience was hardly susceptible to such things.
The character of the godly is revealed also. Spiritual discernment marked the leaders among them. They realized that separation was essential if the service for God was to continue for His pleasure. To enter into an unequal yoke in any of its many aspects in life and service robs God of His portion and the saint of the enjoyed presence and 'power of God, 2 Cor. 6. 2 - 7. i. In any age, leaders should be exemplarily not only in godliness, energy and zeal, but also in their evident scriptural discrimination. The balancing influence of those who wait upon God and seek to apply the principles and precepts of His Word in corporate efforts for God, is needed more than ever today. Disciplined, discriminating service for God with a zeal which is according to knowledge will be owned by Him both here and before the judgment-seat of Christ. It would seem that the saints were happy to follow the lead given. The " younger were subject to the elder ", chiefs of the fathers. Living in a world where the spirit of lawlessness is characteristic, we all need to be encouraged to come frequently to the laver to cleanse away the defilements contracted in passing through this world. Although the standards of our God do not constrain the masses we must seek grace to live up to them. We shall not be as those who go down to the pit if we know them which labour among us, and are over us in the Lord, and esteem them very highly in love for their work's sake, 1 Thess. 5. 12.
How unworthy of the saints was the spirit of fearfulness in their hearts as they faced the machinations of the foe ! Had the vows made at the altar, ch. 3, been too hasty ? The spirit of a noble enthusiasm often marks us in the initial stages of a work for God, but how few have that quiet confidence which finds in difficulties further opportunities of proving God. " God hath not given us the spirit of fear ; but of power, and of love, and of a sound mind ". Throughout the phases of hostility and opposition, character is deepened and all experiences produce " the peaceable fruit of righteousness unto them which are exercised thereby ". Let us heed the exhortation to " consider him . . . lest ye be wearied and faint in your minds ". Their lack of faith at tins period resulted in cessation of the work. It is as we look off to Him, the Author and Finisher of faith, that we are encouraged to continue in a path with God. It is only in proportion as we see Him that we continue with the work for Him !
(In next issue, D.V., "OPPOSITION MASTERED").