Posted: 04 Jan 2011 11:00 PM PST
MORE YEARS OF DELAY AND DISAPPOINTMENT go by before God raises up the prophets Haggai and Zechariah (Ezra 5), who encourage the people to restart the building of the temple. The temple's foundations have been laid, but nothing more has been done. Now, under the revitalizing ministry of the two prophets, the building starts again.
This precipitates a new crisis. Tattenai, governor of Trans-Euphrates (from the Persian perspective Trans-Euphrates means everything in the Persian Empire to the west of the Euphrates, including the strip of land we know as Israel), questions the authority of the Jews to engage in this building project. Tattenai writes to Darius, the new king, and in the next chapter Darius responds positively: the Jews are not only permitted to rebuild, but should be supported by the treasury.
One can see why, humanly speaking, imperial policy has reversed itself. For a start, we are dealing with a new emperor. More importantly, a careful reading of Tattenai's letter (Ezra 5:7–17) shows it to be a remarkably even-handed missive, setting out the facts of the case without prejudice and simply wanting to know the right way forward. How different was the remarkably perverse letter of Rehum and Shimshai (Ezra 4:11–16). As Scripture comments, that was really a letter "against Jerusalem" (Ezra 4:8), a nasty piece of work that only the most astute monarch would have penetrated, and Artaxerxes was not that kind of monarch. So in the peculiar providence of God, the letter in Ezra 4 shuts the project down, while the letter in Ezra 5, written by pagans no less than the first, not only wins authorization for the building project, but money as well.
It is important for believers to remember that God sovereignly controls countless elements over which we have little sway. I recall speaking at a Cambridge college chapel more than twenty years ago on the assigned topic of death and judgment. What frightened me was the obligatory discussion that would follow. I preached as simply and as faithfully as I could, and after the meeting we settled down for the discussion. The chaplain was sure there would be "questions arising." In that interesting but mixed crowd, I waited with some trepidation for the first shot. Then a mathematics "don" (a college teacher) I had never met quietly commented, "If we heard more sermons like that, England would not be in her mess." That comment established the tone of the rest of the meeting. Everyone was serious, and I spent the time explaining the Gospel. But the fact that it was that question which set the tone, and not some taunting sneer, was entirely in the hand of God.
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