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Ezra and Nehemiah: Ezra 4:17-24

Ezra and Nehemiah: Ezra 4:17-24

17 The king sent this reply:

To Rehum the commanding officer, Shimshai the secretary and the rest of their associates living in Samaria and elsewhere in Trans-Euphrates:

Greetings.

18 The letter you sent us has been read and translated in my presence. 19 I issued an order and a search was made, and it was found that this city has a long history of revolt against kings and has been a place of rebellion and sedition. 20 Jerusalem has had powerful kings ruling over the whole of Trans-Euphrates, and taxes, tribute and duty were paid to them. 21 Now issue an order to these men to stop work, so that this city will not be rebuilt until I so order. 22 Be careful not to neglect this matter. Why let this threat grow, to the detriment of the royal interests?

23 As soon as the copy of the letter of King Artaxerxes was read to Rehum and Shimshai the secretary and their associates, they went immediately to the Jews in Jerusalem and compelled them by force to stop.

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.

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When we come to the last verse in this chapter (v. 24), we are back with Zerubbabel and Jeshua, and the opposition of the Samaritans to the building of the temple. Their continued harassment and correspondence with the Persian king had the desired effect. ‘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.’

This work stoppage, which lasted about sixteen years, would have been a great blow to the Jews, and they must have wondered in themselves if God’s purpose had been defeated. Had all their work and sacrifice been in vain? Had Satan won after all? Well, not quite. But we must look at this disturbing situation a little more closely.

To begin with, we have to accept the unpleasant fact that Satan does have his victories. But we can take great comfort from the fact that Satan can only frustrate is in the short term. That is to say he can, and does, win a battle here and there, but he can never win the war itself. God is always in ultimate control. That is brought out very clearly in the book of Job. Satan could only do to Job what God’s permissive will allowed him to do. ‘And the Lord said to Satan, “The LORD said to Satan, “Very well, then, everything he has is in your hands, but on the man himself do not lay a finger.” Then Satan went out from the presence of the LORD. (Job 1:12).

This tells us that all the devil’s plans to put a stop to God’s work in the world always fail in the long run. Through his servant Isaiah God says, ‘My purpose will stand, and I will do all that I please.’ (Isa. 46:10). In the matter of building the temple, therefore, the opposition of the Samaritans, or the command of the Persian king to halt the work, or the sixteen years when nothing was done, would not determine the final outcome; only God himself would.

This will come out very clearly in our next chapter when, at the end of the sixteen years, when Darius I came to the Persian throne, he commanded that the work on God’s house should be resumed and it was finally brought to completion. Unlike us, what God begins he always finishes. That surely is the central truth underlying Christ’s death on the cross. To all outward appearances it seemed as if God’s purpose in his Son was defeated, and the agents of evil had won the day. Even Christ’s own followers on the Emmaus road thought it was the end of all their hopes: ‘But we had hoped that he was the one who was going to redeem Israel’ (Luke 24:21). And then came Easter day and the resurrection, and God showed who was in control. The last word is never with men but with God.

The important thing is that we should neither overestimate Satan’s power, as if he were equal with God, nor underestimate his power and ability to manipulate people like the Samaritans to hinder God’s work in the world. He watches us closely, assessing our strengths and weaknesses as he weighs up the best form of attack.

But for all his sinister power and cunning, he is a created being and therefore no match for the sovereign God who created him. Unlike us, God does not work in fits and starts, beginning a project, like building the temple, only to change his purpose and abandon his project further along the line. His purpose stands, and nothing that Satan can do can ever prevent it from coming to completion.