We went into the province of Judaea. It has been supposed, on the strength of a doubtful passage in Nehemiah ( Nehemiah 3:7 ), that Tatnai ordinarily resided at Jernsalem. But this expression indicates the contrary. Most probably the satrap of Syria held his court at Damascus. The house of the great God is a remarkable expression in the mouth of a heathen. It has some parallels, e.g. the expressions of Cyrus in Ezra 1:2 , Ezra 1:3 , and of Nebuchadnezzar in Daniel 2:47 and Daniel 3:29 ; but they were persons who had been brought to the knowledge that Jehovah was the one true God, under very peculiar and miraculous circumstances. Tatnai, on the other hand, represents the mere ordinary Persian official; and his acknowledgment of the God of the Jews as "the great God" must be held to indicate the general belief of the Persians on the subject (see the comment on Ezra 1:2 ). Which is builded . Rather, "being builded." With great stones. Literally, "stones of rolling," which is commonly explained as stones so large that they had to be rolled along the ground. But the squared stones used in building neither were, nor could be, rolled; they are always represented as dragged, generally on a rough sledge. And it is not at all probable that in the "day of small things" ( Zechariah 4:10 ) the Jews were building with very large stones. The LXX . translate "choice stones;" the Vulgate "unpolished'' or "rough stone." Some of the Jewish expositors suggest "marble." And timber is laid . A good deal of timber had been employed in the old temple, but chiefly for the floors of chambers ( 1 Kings 6:10 ), for the internal lining of the walls ( 1 Kings 6:9 , 1 Kings 6:15 ), and probably for the roofing. In the new temple, timber seems to have been employed also as the main material of the party-walls. Here again we have a trace of the economy necessary in the "day of small things."
We have in these verses a twofold account of two different things. In Ezra 5:3 , Ezra 5:4 , in the first place, we have the historian's account of the revived opposition called out by the revival of the work of temple-building on the part of the Jews. In Ezra 5:6-10 we have an almost identical but slightly fuller account of the same matter in the letter sent by the opponents themselves to Darius. In Ezra 5:5 , in the next place, we have the historian's account of the amount of success to which that revived opposition attained, viz; to obtaining the consent of the builders, whilst still justifying and continuing their operations, to refer the whole subject to King Darius. In Ezra 5:11-17 that same letter of the same opponents to Darius gives us a fuller account of this point also. Altogether, we cannot help seeing how very marked is the difference, so far as the question of result is concerned, between this attempt and that made before. In that other case, while the appeal was pending, the work on the spot almost expired of itself ( Ezra 4:4 ). In this case, although the appeal is consented to, the work on the spot, meanwhile, thrives to perfection ( Ezra 5:5 , Ezra 5:8 ). What are the reasons of this striking difference? So far as second causes go, they will be found, we believe, in two things, viz; I. In comparatively greater moderation on the part of the attack; and, II . In comparatively greater vigour on the part of the defence. Let us proceed to see how the whole story illustrates these two points.
I. A WEAKER ATTACK . For example, it was
II. A STRONGER DEFENCE . The answer of the Jewish elders was a good one—
1. On the score of principle. "We are the servants of the God of heaven and earth" ( Ezra 4:11 ). In other words, "Do you ask our names? We are named after the great God (see Ezra 4:8 ), the God of heaven and earth. Do you ask why we are thus labouring? Because in doing so we serve him" (comp. Acts 27:23 ). It was well for them to put this first, like soldiers displaying the flag they fight under on entering into the battle. "Before all things we wish you to understand that this is a question with us of religion."
2. On the score of precedent. This was no novel idea that they were engaged in promoting. They were not beginning, but restoring, the temple. Many successive centuries (though these officials were perhaps not aware of it) a glorious temple to the great God had stood on that place. Not only so, the man who had originally "built" and "set it up" had been one of the greatest of their kings. This was also a wise line to adopt. If they were permitted to be Jews at all (as they certainly were), they might not only be allowed to worship their own God (as already touched on), but also to worship him according to so long-established and truly national a manner.
3. On the score of necessity. Their national welfare and even existence depended on the work they were engaged on. Long experience and heavy affliction had brought home this truth to their hearts. Why had their fathers gone into captivity? Why had the original house been destroyed? Because their "fathers" had "provoked the God of heaven" for years in connection with the worship of that house ( Ezra 4:12 ; also 2 Chronicles 36:14-20 ; Jeremiah 7:1-15 , Jeremiah 7:30 ). On the restoration, therefore, of the true worship of Jehovah, and, as a first step towards that, on the restoration of this his house, depended, nationally, their very life. The very permission, in fact, to rebuild it at all was a kind of token of restored animation which it would be double death to neglect.
4. On the score of authority. In all this they were acting, furthermore, as good subjects of Persia. One of the first decrees of that king of Persia who conquered "Babylon" and became its "king" (see Ezra 4:13 ) was a decree to rebuild this house. Also, one of his first appointments the appointment by name ( Ezra 4:14 ) of a Jewish "governor" to see to this work. Also, one of his first actions the very significant action of restoring the temple vessels.
5. In the way of conclusion. All these things being so, was it to be wondered at that "the same Sheshbazzar," thus empowered and equipped, had come to Jerusalem and begun the work? Was it not rather to be wondered at that a work of such amazing importance should have remained on hand for so long ( Ezra 4:16 )? Even " yet it is not finished!" What a master-stroke was that to end with. "You ask why we have done so much. As Persian officials, speaking to us as Jews, rather ask why we have done so little." Observe, in all this—
1. The secret of spiritual deliverance. God delivers his people sometimes by restraining their adversaries ( Psalms 76:10 ; Proverbs 16:7 ); sometimes by giving themselves special wisdom and courage ( Luke 21:15 ; Acts 6:10 ); sometimes, as here, by doing both. How comparatively tame these adversaries. How bold and wise these defenders. How complete, therefore, even so far, the deliverance granted (comp. Acts 4:8-14 , Acts 4:21 ).
2. The secret of spiritual courage. Why is it we fear man so much? Because, as a rule, we fear God too little ( Luke 12:4 , Luke 12:5 ). How different the case when, as here, we feel the "eye of our God" to be "upon" us ( Ezra 4:5 ). See also, in case previously referred to, Acts 4:19 , and Acts 5:29 ; also Isaiah 51:12 , Isaiah 51:13 . Many feel a difficulty in speaking for Christ. If they were more often in the habit of speaking with him the difficulty would greatly diminish. Possibly it might even be found on the opposite side (see once more Acts 4:20 ).
3. The secret of dealing with honest doubt ; viz.,
(a) listen to it, do not repel it;
(b) confront it, do not avoid it;
(c) enlighten it, do not despise it.
The reason why many are "sceptics"— i.e. (if they are so honestly) merely "inquirers"—is because they do not know the strength of the believer's position. If you know it, as the true strength of their position was known by the Jews before us, and can make it known in turn to such "inquirers" with like courage and wisdom, you will at least obtain their respect. It may also please God to cause your effort to do even more (see 2 Timothy 2:24 , 2 Timothy 2:25 ).
Wisdom in trial.
Hardly had the Jews recommenced their work, when they again found themselves subjected to a—
I. TRIAL OF FAITH . "At the same time," etc. ( Ezra 5:3 ). Again their unfriendly neighbours came to the attack. They challenged their right to build up the walls: "Who hath commanded you to build?" "By whose authority do ye these things?" The names of the leading men were demanded ( Ezra 5:4 ), with a view of sending them on to the Persian court. Pressure was evidently to be brought to bear on them to compel them to desist. Accusations would certainly be made against them; ill feeling would inevitably be fostered; prohibition would probably be issued; and, not unlikely, there would be forfeiture of privileges if not loss of goods, perchance of liberty. What, now, should they do? Should they again lay down the saw and the trowel, leave the woodwork and the walls till a more favoured time, and content themselves with using the altar they had reared, as hitherto? They were enjoying freedom in their own land, with liberty to worship the Lord according to their ancient law; perhaps they would lose everything by striving after more than they had. Should they yield to these alarms presenting themselves in the form of prudence? or should they dismiss them as cowardly fears, and go on with their work, confiding in the help of Jehovah? Such distractions must have agitated and perplexed their minds. Such trials of faith we may expect when we have entered the path of piety or the field of Christian work. Inexperience might imagine that in a path so sacred and Divine the adversary would not be allowed to enter. But experience knows that it is not so; that "there are many adversaries" we must expect to encounter. Not only from "them that are without," but also from those that are within the Church do obstacles, hindrances, discouragements arise. We may look for sympathy, help, success, victory; and, behold l there meets us conflict, disappointment, defeat. Shall we, we ask ourselves, retire as unfitted for what we have undertaken? or shall we hold on our way, still grasp our weapon, trusting that the insufficiency which is of man will he more than made up by the sufficiency which is of God? But in this trial of faith we have, as they had—
II. A TWOFOLD INCENTIVE . "The eye of their God was upon the elders of the Jews, that they could not cause them to cease" ( Ezra 5:5 ). Here was
III. A TIME OF SUSPENSE ( Ezra 5:13-17 ). Their adversaries now laid their case before the Persian authorities. They gave a fair representation of the answer of the Jews to the royal court, and begged that steps should be taken to confirm or disprove this their reply. "Now therefore, if it seem good to the king, let there be search made in the king's treasure house … whether it be so" ( Ezra 5:17 ). We may presume that the Jews knew the tenor of this communication. We can picture to ourselves their anxiety to know the result of the appeal. What if the record should not be found in the Persian archives I What if some ignorant librarian failed to know where it was kept l What if some venal officer should be bribed to get at it and destroy it I etc; etc. Should they win or lose their case? It might, after all, go ill with them and their work. It was a time of suspense. A very hard time to go through. Souls that can endure all else know not how to he tranquil then. Then is the time to trust in God, to cast ourselves on him. When we can do nothing else, we can look up to heaven and wait the issue calmly, because all issues are in the hands of the holy and the mighty One. "What time I am afraid I will trust in thee" ( Psalms 56:3 ).—C.
The letter to Darius.
The occasion of this letter was the resumption of the work of rebuilding the temple of the Lord at Jerusalem after an interval of sixteen years. The authors of it are Tatnai, the governor, probably of all the provinces west of the Euphrates, and Shethar-boznai, who may have been the scribe or secretary associated with him, as Shimshai was with Rehum (see Ezra 4:8 ). Or possibly Shethar-boznai was the leading man of the Apharsachites; for these are mentioned as more particularly "his companions." The Apharsachites probably called the attention of Tatnai to the matter, who attended to it in a spirit of fairness which favourably contrasts with the conduct of the former leaders of these instigators (see Ezra 4:1-24 .). Having authenticated the letter, the writers proceed to state—
I. WHAT THEY DID .
1. They surveyed the building.
2. They interrogated the elders.
II. WHAT THEY LEARNED .
1. That the builders professed themselves servants of the God of heaven and earth.
2. That they were engaged in no novel business.
3. That its ruin was occasioned by the rebellion of their fathers.
4. That the building is in process of restoration.
5. The prominent place occupied by Sheshbazzar.
III. THE RECOMMENDATION .
1. To test the question as to whether Cyrus authorised the work as alleged. Nothing to object to the fairness of this. It could only prejudice the Jews if found untrue.
2. To signify the king ' s pleasure to his servants that they might carry it out. It were well if all who oppose God's people were as reasonable as Tatnai. Opponents so honest and free from prejudice may have the honour, like Tatnai, of promoting the work of God (see Ezra 6:13 ).—J.A.M.