No turning back

The Persian Empire stretched from Ethiopia to India and consisted of one hundred twenty seven provinces with varied languages and customs. One of the ways the king of Persia managed communication in his kingdom was to make his laws irrevocable. Once a decree was sent out, there was no turning back. In order to avoid any confusion or mistrust among his magistrates, the king could not repeal a law once it was established. This meant that Haman the Agagites’s order to kill all the Jews would still be carried out even though he had been hanged on the gallows he had built for Esther’s uncle, Mordecai.

King Ahasuerus’ remedy for the situation was to allow the Jews to defend themselves.  It says in Esther 8:11, “Whereas the king granted the Jews which were in every city to gather themselves together, and to stand for their life, to destroy, to slay, and to cause to perish, all the power of the people and providence that would assault them, both the little ones and women, and to take the spoil of them for a prey.” It might seem like self-defense was a natural solution to their problem, but the Jews status (exiled) in the kingdom of Persia prevented them from fighting against their captors.

An unintended, but advantageous outcome of the Jews obtaining permission to fight against the people that wanted to kill them was the destruction of the Amalekites. God had commanded Israel’s king, Saul to utterly destroy the people of Amalek hundreds of years earlier (1 Samuel 15:3), but Saul disobeyed and let some of the household of Agag, the king of Amalek, escape. Due to his mistake, Haman the Agagite was able to threaten the Jews existence. But, after the tables were turned, the Jews finally accomplished a long overdue objective, the elimination of their fiercest enemy.

 

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Spiritual insight

The prophet Zachariah could be the most fortunate of all the Old Testament prophets because he was given an extremely close and in-depth look at God’s plan of salvation. There are numerous prophecies contained within Zachariah’s book that show without a doubt that Jesus was the Messiah. Although Zachariah was a contemporary of Haggai and was called to preach at almost the exact same time, the messages of these two men were very different. Haggai spoke in a very practical way about the need for God’s temple to be rebuilt, while Zachariah focused on the bigger picture and shared the spiritual insight he gained from eight visions he was given of God’s transformation of his earthly kingdom. The first thing Zachariah pointed out was that God was not finished with the Jews. They would be restored to his favor and would eventually triumph over their enemies.

Zachariah’s first interactive experience in the spiritual realm involved an interpreting angel that enabled him to understand the activities he was witnessing. The initial scene appeared to be a spiritual outpost where God’s messengers gathered to report their findings on earth. The messengers reported to a man identified as “the angel of the LORD” (Zachariah 1:11). “Traditional Christian interpretation has held that this ‘angel’ was a preincarnate manifestation of Christ as God’s Messenger-Servant” (note on Genesis 16:7). Zachariah 1:11 states, “And they answered the angel of the LORD that stood among the myrtle trees, and said, We have walked to and fro through the earth, and behold, all the earth sitteth still and is at rest.” Looking at Zachariah’s eight night visions as a progressive unfolding of future events, it is likely that the messengers’ report of stillness and rest referred to the period of time when the Medo-Persian Empire existed. For the most part, God’s people were allowed to do what they wanted to during the reigns of  kings Cyrus, Darius, Ahasuerus, and Artaxerxes (538 – 432 B.C.).

Zachariah’s second vision showed that the temporary rest God’s people enjoyed would come to an end when God began to restructure the kingdoms that existed on earth. Daniel’s prophecy revealed that the Medo-Persian Empire that had conquered the Babylonians would be replaced by the Greek Empire, and then, the Roman Empire would be established (Daniel 7:4-7). Each of these kingdoms would become more terrifying than the first, until finally, God would cut-off the Gentile kingdoms (Zachariah 1:21). Zachariah’s third vision revealed that God’s people would flood the borders of Jerusalem at the time of Christ’s birth (Zachariah 2:4-5). Apparently, God would supernaturally enable people to return to the Promised Land that had not previously done so (Zachariah 2:9). According to Zachariah’s prophecy, God’s eternal kingdom would begin to be established on earth during the ministry of Jesus; the evidence being a voluntary joining of all the nations into a single spiritual kingdom. It says in Zachariah 2:11, “And many nations shall be joined to the LORD in that day, and shall be my people: and I will dwell in the midst of thee, and thou shalt know that the LORD of hosts hath sent me unto thee.”

A second chance

The remnant of God’s people that returned to the Promised Land after their release from captivity in Babylon were given a second chance to be a part of the work that God was doing to save the world. The rebuilding of God’s temple in Jerusalem was just the first step in getting his plan back on track. God wanted to completely restore his relationship with his people, but in order to do that, the Messiah had to be born. The prophet Haggai was sent to tell the people that things would get better if they would do what God told them to. Their first priority had to be God’s work (Haggai 1:9). In response to his message, it says in Haggai 1:12, “Then Zerubbabel the son of Shealtiel, and Joshua the son Josedech the high priest, with the remnant of the people, obeyed the voice of the LORD their God, and the words of Haggai the prophet, as the LORD their God had sent him, and the people did fear before the LORD.”

The significance of the people’s response was twofold. First, they took action. “They came and did work in the house of the LORD of hosts, their God” (Haggai 1:14). Work on the rebuilding project had probably been stopped for more than a decade. The only things that were in place were the temple’s foundation and an altar for making sacrifices (Ezra 3:3,11). If the people didn’t do something, the temple would never be completed. So, they started working again. Secondly, the people adjusted their attitudes. When it says “the people did fear before the LORD” (Haggai 1:12), it means that the people recognized the power and position of God and rendered him proper respect (3372). Another way of saying it would be that the people realized God was angry with them and they admitted that they were in the wrong. The people began to take responsibility for their future and do what was expected of them.

Something God’s people needed to understand was that it wasn’t enough for them to just live in the Promised Land. They had to cooperate with God in executing his plan of salvation. Whereas before, they could expect God to bless them because they were his people, now there were stipulations to God’s covenant. The second chance God was giving them did not entitle them to his blessing, but guaranteed they would receive it, if they did what he told them to. The guarantee being the birth of Jesus Christ, their Messiah. God told his people, “from this day will I bless you” (Haggai 2:19). Then he placed his seal, perhaps the Holy Spirit, upon Zerubbabel, who was a descendant of King David and likely the rightful heir to his throne. What we know from the genealogy of Jesus is that Zerubbabel was the missing link that reconnected the Messiah back to Abraham after the captivity in Babylon (Matthew 1:12).

A time for reflection

The prophet Haggai’s short messages to the remnant of Jews that returned to the Promised Land after their exile in Babylon were more personal and to the point than other messages God had sent his people in the past. Haggai’s brief ministry lasted only four months and specific dates were given for his messages, so that it was completely clear, exactly when they were delivered. The first message was delivered on August 29, 520 B.C., approximately eighteen years after king Cyrus had decreed that God’s temple should be rebuilt. In a nutshell, the first message Haggai delivered was about the people of God taking some time to reflect on their current situation. After their return to the Promised Land, the Jews immediately set out to rebuild their homes and plant crops. Obviously, they needed a roof over their heads and food to sustain them, but their effort was inconsistent with the mission they had been tasked with, which was to rebuild God’s temple. King Cyrus’ decree specifically stated that the reason the Jews were to return to their homeland was to build God’s temple (Ezra 1:2-3).

Haggai’s message opened with an important question, “Is it time for you, O ye, to dwell in your ceiled houses, and this house lie waste? (Haggai 1:4). God wanted to know why the peoples’ houses were finished, but his was not. The use of the Hebrew word ‘eth, which is translated time in this verse, was meant to be an indicator of the purpose of their return to the land. ‘Eth means appointed time or proper time. “Basically this noun connotes ‘time’ conceived as an opportunity or season” (6256). The Jews would not have returned to the Promised Land if it weren’t for Cyrus’ decree to rebuild the temple, and yet, eighteen years later, the work that was completed was minimal. The only things finished were the foundation and the altar for sacrifices. God said to his people, “Consider your ways. Ye have sown much, and bring in little; ye eat, but ye have not enough; ye drink, but ye are not filled with drink; ye clothe you, but there is none warm; and he that earneth wages earneth wages to put it into bags with holes. Thus saith the LORD of hosts; Consider your ways” (Haggai 1:5-7).

The Hebrew phrase translated “consider your ways” (Haggai 1:5,7) or siym (seem) lebab (lay – bawb´) derek (deh´- rek) means to place or put something on one’s heart about his behavior (7760/3824/1870). The way we might think of this today is to feel convicted about our sins or being led by God’s spirit to repent. The people that lived before Jesus could not be born again, but there was a process for them to receive God’s blessing. God wanted his people to take some time to reflect on their behavior and see that what they were doing wasn’t getting them anywhere. He pointed out to them that they were expending a lot of energy trying to sustain themselves and were still struggling financially (Haggai 1:7). In order for them to be blessed, God’s people had to listen to him and obey his commandments. After hearing Haggai’s message, it says the people “obeyed the voice of the LORD their God…and the people did fear before the LORD” (Haggai 1:12). In other words, the peoples’ relationship with the LORD was restored.

God’s time-table

The reconstructed temple in Jerusalem was finished on March 12, 586 B.C., almost 70 years after its destruction (note on Ezra 6:15). Darius the king of Persia was primarily responsible for this accomplishment because of a decree he made to help the Jews.  He said to Tatnai, governor beyond the river, Shethar-boznai, and his companions  the Apharsachites, who were making trouble for the Jews, “Moreover I make a decree what ye shall do to the elders of these Jews for the building of this house of God: that of the king’s goods, even of the tribute beyond the river, forthwith expences be given unto these men, that they be not hindered” (Ezra 6:8). The Aramaic word translated hindered, betel (bet – ale´) means to stop (989). This word corresponds to the Hebrew word batel (baw – tale´)  which means to desist from labor (988). Basically, Darius was commanding that resources be given to the Jews so that their work could be continuous until the temple was completed. In other words, he expected the men to work night and day or around the clock until they were finished.

God’s time-table for the Jews’ captivity appears to have been based on the destruction of his temple in 586 B.C. and the finish of the temple’s reconstruction in 516 B.C., seventy years later. These events were probably meant to be noticeable milestones that would alert the Jews to their status with respect to God’s predetermined period for their captivity. The reason God chose to use the temple’s destruction and rebuilding as markers on his time-table was most likely its connection to his presence among his people. An interesting thing to note about the second temple was the most holy place remained empty after its reconstruction “because the ark of the covenant had been lost through the Babylonian conquest” (note on Ezra 6:15). Although the absence of the ark didn’t seem to keep the Jews from conducting their normal worship services, they may have wondered if God really was there with them because there is no indication that God’s glory ever returned to the temple after it departed during Ezekiel’s ministry (Ezekiel 10:19).

According to Ezekiel’s prophecy, the glory of the Lord would return at a future date (Ezekiel 43:4). It can only be assumed that God’s time-table for complete restoration of his relationship with his people still included future events. After the Jews returned from their captivity, there was evidently a lack of interaction between God and his people. Unlike the first dedication, when Solomon brought the ark into the temple and offered a prayer to God and blessed the people (1 Kings 8), it says in Ezra 6:17 that the children of Israel merely made an offering to God and set the priests in their positions. The only positive outcome as a result of the temple’s completion seemed to be a joyfulness that the Jews were able to celebrate their feasts again (Ezra 6:22).

God is watching

Sometime between the start of construction in 536 B.C. and 520 B.C., work on rebuilding God’s temple stopped completely (Ezra 4:24). More than likely, it was shortly after the foundation was laid that people began to lose interest in the project. Due to the continual harassment they received and disruptions to their work, the remnant of people that returned from exile in Babylon were unable to keep their momentum going. Beginning on August 29, 520 B.C., and continuing until December 18 (Hag 2:1,10,20), “the prophet Haggai delivered a series of messages to stir up the people to resume work on the temple. Two months after Haggai’s first speech, Zachariah joined him (Zech 1:1)” (Note on Ezra 5:1). As a result of their exhortation, it says in Ezra 5:2, “Then rose up Zerubbabel the son of Shealtiel, and Jeshua the son of Jozadak, and began to build the house of God which is at Jerusalem: and with them were the prophets of God helping them.”

The prophets of God were not engaged in building the temple. The help they provided was most likely intercessory prayer, a spiritual intervention that no doubt caused their enemies to seek a different method of delay. At this point, a change occurred that was critical to the building project’s success. In response to their accusers’ threats to notify king Darius of their actions, it says in Ezra 5:5, “But the eye of their God was upon the elders of the Jews, that they could not cause them to cease, till the matter came to Darius: and then they returned the answer by letter concerning the matter.” In other words, God came to his peoples’ rescue and prevented the troublemakers from once again stopping their progress. In fact, God caused Darius to pay close attention to what was going on and made it possible for the Jews to receive additional resources to complete their project (Ezra 6:8).

The Chaldean phrase translated “the eye of their God was upon the elders of the Jews” (Ezra 5:5) corresponds to a Hebrew expression found in Deuteronomy 32:10, “he kept him as the apple of his eye,” which refers to the pupil, a delicate part of the eye that is essential for vision (note on Deut 32:10). In other words, God began watching his people again and his desire to be with them was restored. As the designated seventy year period of their exile drew to a close, God’s affection for his people made him to want to be a part of their lives again. He took an interest in what they were doing and wanted to help them be successful in their attempt to rebuild his temple. Another way of looking at the situation would be to say that God cared how things turned out and therefore, did everything he could to make sure the Jews were successful in rebuilding the temple in Jerusalem.

Troublemakers

Reconstruction of the temple in Jerusalem was not a quick or easy task. The original temple that was built by king Solomon took seven years to construct (1 Kings 7:38). Ezra recorded that construction of the second temple was started in 536 B.C., but not completed until 516 B.C. (Ezra 6:15). The primary reason for the delay was the harassment the builders received from troublemakers living in the area surrounding Jerusalem. Ezra stated, “Then the people of the land weakened the hands of the people of Judah, and troubled them in building, and hired counsellers against them to frustrate the purpose, all the days of Cyrus king of Persia, even until the reign of Darius king of Persia” (Ezra 4:4-5). The phrases “weakened the hands of the people” and “troubled them in building” may also be translated as discouraged them and made them afraid to build (ESV). The idea being that the people were unproductive because of the harassment they received.

At the very least, the builders of the temple were distracted by the troublemakers that wanted to join with them in their effort (Ezra 4:2). One of the tactics used against the temple builders was what we might refer to today as tattle telling. A report was sent to king Darius, the successor to Cyrus king of Persia, indicating that the people that had returned to Jerusalem from captivity in Babylon were trying to rebuild their temple. They said, “Be it known to the king that we went into the province of Judea, to the house of the great God, which is builded with great stones, and timber is laid in the walls, and this work goeth fast on, and prospereth in their hands…and yet it is not finished” (Ezra 5:8,16). The troublemakers went on to say that they were told by the leaders in Jerusalem that Cyrus had made a decree to build the house of God and they wanted the records to be searched to find out if that was actually true (Ezra 5:13,17). Fortunately, king Darius ordered a search of the records and Cyrus’ decree was found (Ezra 6:3).

In spite of the corroboration of their story, the leaders of Jerusalem continued to face opposition for another fifty plus years. After king Darius was replaced by king Ahasurerus in 486 B.C., another letter was sent with an accusation against the people of Judah and Jerusalem (Ezra 4:7). Then, sometime during the reign of king Artaxerxes (465 B.C. – 424 B.C), a final attempt was made to stop the work in Jerusalem. The letter to Artaxerxes went to greater lengths by suggesting that a plot to overthrow his kingdom was in progress (Ezra 4:11-16). As a result of their intervention, Artaxeres I ordered that the Jews stop rebuilding the walls of Jerusalem (Nehemiah 1:3) until around 445 B.C. when Nehemiah came to Jerusalem and successful rebuilt the walls in fifty two days.