Ezra 4 – The Samaritan Attempts to Stop the Work
“From this point onwards right to the end of Nehemiah there is conflict. Nothing that is attempted for God will now go unchallenged, and scarcely a tactic be unexplored by the opposition.” (Derek Kidner)
A. The offer of a dangerous alliance.
1. (1-2) Adversaries try to join the work of building the temple.
Now when the adversaries of Judah and Benjamin heard that the descendants of the captivity were building the temple of the Lord God of Israel, they came to Zerubbabel and the heads of the fathers’ houses, and said to them, “Let us build with you, for we seek your God as you do; and we have sacrificed to Him since the days of Esarhaddon king of Assyria, who brought us here.”
a. Now when the adversaries: Judea was not completely empty of inhabitants in the two generations of when much of the Jewish population of Judah was exiled in Babylon. There was a remnant descended from the lowest and poorest of the land that was left behind in the exile (Jeremiah 39:10), combined with the few who had drifted into the largely desolate area. These people were not happy that Judah and Benjamin had come back to Judea and therefore they were their adversaries.
i. Those who drifted into Judea were related to the Samaritans, those brought into the lands of the former kingdom of Israel after its fall to the Assyrians (733 B.C.), who intermarried with those left behind after the exile. In the two generations of exile after the fall of the kingdom of Judah, they had also expanded somewhat into the lands of Judah.
ii. The Samaritans continued as a people into New Testament times. Because the Samaritans had some historical connection to the people of Israel, their faith was a combination of regulations and ritual from the Law of Moses and various superstitions. Most Jews in Jesus’ time despised the Samaritans, often more than the Gentiles because they were (religiously speaking) “half-breeds” who were thought to have an eclectic, mongrel faith. This context is essential in understanding the parable of the good Samaritan in Luke 10:25-37.
iii. 2 Kings 17:33 tells the attitude of the Samaritans: They feared the Lord, yet served their own gods; according to the rituals of the nations from among whom they were carried away.
b. Heard that the descendants of the captivity were building the temple of the Lord God of Israel: The noise from the dedication ceremony at the end of Ezra 3 got the attention of these scattered peoples, alerting them that the returning Jews were serious about re-establishing a permanent presence in Judea.
c. Let us build with you, for we seek your God as you do: They wanted to become partners in the building work, yet they were still adversaries. They wanted to partner in the work either to ruin it or to influence it to their benefit.
i. “Their subsequent conduct was so bitterly ill-natured that we are driven to think that they must have had some selfish aims from the first.” (Adeney)
ii. “The proposal to unite in building the Temple was a political move; for, in old-world ideas, co-operation in Temple-building was incorporation in national unity. The calculation, no doubt, was that if the returning exiles could be united with the much more numerous Samaritans, they would soon be absorbed in them.” (Maclaren)
iii. They did this on the claim that we seek your God as you do. They probably said this with all sincerity; they genuinely believed that they sought the same God in the same way. Yet they also added, “and we have sacrificed to Him since the days of Esarhaddon king of Assyria.” This means they sacrificed without either a temple or a priesthood, which was obviously against the commandment of God. This completely contradicted their claim, “we seek your God as you do.”
iv. To the Samaritans, Yahweh was one of many powerful gods. Their idolatry represented a grave danger because Israel was exiled for their idolatry. This was a dangerous partnership for the returned exiles.
v. “There may seem to be great loss and needless sacrifice in dispensing with the help of Rehum and Shimshai; but if once we accepted their help, we should discover to our cost that they were adversaries still, and that their only desire was to retard our efforts.” (Meyer)
2. (3) Zerubbabel rightly refuses their offer.
But Zerubbabel and Jeshua and the rest of the heads of the fathers’ houses of Israel said to them, “You may do nothing with us to build a house for our God; but we alone will build to the Lord God of Israel, as King Cyrus the king of Persia has commanded us.”
a. Zerubbabel and Jeshua and the rest of the heads of the fathers’ houses of Israel said to them: Importantly, their response was unified. All the returned exiles were agreed upon this answer to the Samaritans.
b. You may do nothing with us to build a house for our God: With one voice, they refused the help of the Samaritans. They did this knowing they had the permission (even the command) of King Cyrus, and knowing they lacked both human and financial resources.
i. It was an important step of faith to refuse a partnership that might have seemed helpful. We can imagine that there were a few pragmatists among them who said, “We need any help we can get. We can guard ourselves against ungodly influences they may bring.” In weak or early circumstances of a building work there is often a serious temptation to take any help and to ignore the dangers of unwise and ungodly partnerships.
ii. “The Samaritans did not worship Jehovah as the Jews, but along with their own gods (2 Kings 17:25-41). To divide His dominion with others was to dethrone Him altogether. It therefore became an act of faithfulness to Jehovah to reject the entangling alliance.” (Maclaren)
iii. “If they had taken an active share and labour and sacrifice of the construction of the temple, they could not have been excluded afterwards from taking part in the temple worship.” (Adeney)
iv. “Men of faith have often fallen into this blunder, and have associated with themselves those not sharing their faith, and therefore in the deepest sense opposed to their enterprises. These leaders were not deceived. They detected the peril.” (Morgan)
v. “Such inclusion of the unyielded is, moreover, a wrong done to them, as it gives them a false sense of security.” (Morgan)
B. The broad outline of Samaritan resistance to the work in Jerusalem.
1. (4-5) The resistance under the reign of Cyrus [539-530 B.C.].
Then the people of the land tried to discourage the people of Judah. They troubled them in building, and hired counselors against them to frustrate their purpose all the days of Cyrus king of Persia, even until the reign of Darius king of Persia.
a. Then the people of the land tried to discourage the people of Judah: This response to the refusal of partnership revealed their evil intent. If they could not attack the work through a subversive partnership, they would then attack the work by discouraging the workers, troubling the builders, and lobbying against them in the court of King Cyrus.
i. “‘To discourage’ is literally ‘to weaken the hands,’ a Hebrew idiom (cf. Jeremiah 38:4).” (Yamauchi)
b. All the days of Cyrus king of Persia, even until the reign of Darius king of Persia: This section (Ezra 4:4-23) is a broad overview of Samaritan resistance to the work of rebuilding the temple and the city of Jerusalem, extending into the days of Nehemiah. It is a section in itself, somewhat interrupting the flow of the text in chapter 4.
i. By taking out this section and simply reading Ezra 4:3 followed by Ezra 4:24, we see that the work of building the temple was interrupted for several years during the reigns of Cyrus king of Persia, even until the reign of Darius king of Persia.
ii. There are two other kings described in this chapter: Ahasuerus (Xerxes, who reigned between 485 and 465 B.C.) and Artaxerxes I (who reigned between 464 and 424 B.C.). Even after the temple was finished under Zerubbabel, the Samaritans continued to oppose the work of rebuilding the city of Jerusalem, and this ongoing resistance is briefly chronicled in this section of Ezra 4:4-23.
2. (6) The resistance under the reign of Ahasuerus [485-465 B.C.].
In the reign of Ahasuerus, in the beginning of his reign, they wrote an accusation against the inhabitants of Judah and Jerusalem.
a. In the reign of Ahasuerus…they wrote an accusation: The Samaritan adversaries against the people of Judah sought to stop the work in this way through influencing the king against the builders.
b. In the beginning of his reign: This showed a true enterprising spirit among the adversaries of God’s people. They were wrong, but they were energetic and enterprising in the work they did.
i. “Ahasuerus, familiar to us from the book of Esther…. The mention of him here marks simply the passage of time, which had still not cooled the enemy’s antagonism. But evidently nothing came of this attempt.” (Kidner)
3. (7-16) The resistance under the reign of Artaxerxes I [464-424 B.C.].
In the days of Artaxerxes also, Bishlam, Mithredath, Tabel, and the rest of their companions wrote to Artaxerxes king of Persia; and the letter was written in Aramaic script, and translated into the Aramaic language. Rehum the commander and Shimshai the scribe wrote a letter against Jerusalem to King Artaxerxes in this fashion:
From Rehum the commander, Shimshai the scribe, and the rest of their companions; representatives of the Dinaites, the Apharsathchites, the Tarpelites, the people of Persia and Erech and Babylon and Shushan, the Dehavites, the Elamites, and the rest of the nations whom the great and noble Osnapper took captive and settled in the cities of Samaria and the remainder beyond the River; and so forth.
(This is a copy of the letter that they sent him)
To King Artaxerxes from your servants, the men of the region beyond the River, and so forth: Let it be known to the king that the Jews who came up from you have come to us at Jerusalem, and are building the rebellious and evil city, and are finishing its walls and repairing the foundations. Let it now be known to the king that, if this city is built and the walls completed, they will not pay tax, tribute, or custom, and the king’s treasury will be diminished. Now because we receive support from the palace, it was not proper for us to see the king’s dishonor; therefore we have sent and informed the king, that search may be made in the book of the records of your fathers. And you will find in the book of the records and know that this city is a rebellious city, harmful to kings and provinces, and that they have incited sedition within the city in former times, for which cause this city was destroyed. We inform the king that if this city is rebuilt and its walls are completed, the result will be that you will have no dominion beyond the River.
a. And translated into the Aramaic language: Starting at Ezra 4:8 and continuing all the way until Ezra 6:18, everything is written in Aramaic (instead of Hebrew); Ezra 7:12-26 is also in Aramaic.
i. “The letter was probably dictated in Persian to a scribe, who translated it into Aramaic and wrote it down in Aramaic script.” (Yamauchi)
b. And are building the rebellious and evil city, and are finishing its walls and repairing the foundations: This indicates that the work they complained against was not the work of rebuilding the temple, because that work was already completed. This was resistance to the work of rebuilding the city and its walls.
i. We know that the temple was completed sooner rather than later for several reasons. One is that the same Zerubbabel who started the work also saw it finished (Zechariah 4:9). Another is that some of the same people who saw the glory of Solomon’s temple also lived long enough to see Zerubbabel’s temple finished (Haggai 2:3).
ii. “It should hardly need emphasising that the walls and foundations are those of the city, not the Temple; but the two operations are often confused. By the reign of Artaxerxes the new Temple had been standing for half a century.” (Kidner)
c. They will not pay tax, tribute, or custom: This was a lie and a false accusation. They recalled the prior sins of Jerusalem (the rebellious and evil city) and attributed them to these chastened, returned, exiles.
d. It was not proper for us to see the king’s dishonor: They skillfully shaped their words to claim they were supporting and protecting the king.
i. Now because we receive support from the palace: “More literally: Now because at all times we are salted with the salt of the palace; i.e., We live on the king’s bounty, and must be faithful to our benefactor.” (Clarke)
e. This city is a rebellious city, harmful to kings and provinces: Cleverly calling attention to Jerusalem’s sinful past, the Samaritans argued that allowing the building work to continue would make it so that the king of Persia would have no dominion beyond the River.
i. Their attack by letter was a skillful combination of truth and lies. It was true that Jerusalem had a sinful past; yet with these returned exiles, it truly was the past and not the present. However, that truth was completely irrelevant because of the great lie – the lie that the Jews and the builders of Jerusalem had a rebellious intent.
ii. In a similar pattern our adversaries – Satan and his angels, the enemies of our soul – often attack us with a combination of truth and lies. They tell us of our great sin (an accusation that is often true), but they lie about the greater work of Jesus. Since Satan also accuses us before God (Revelation 12:10), he brings his accusing report against us before the Great King.
4. (17-23) The king commands that the work stops until further notice.
The king sent an answer:
To Rehum the commander, to Shimshai the scribe, to the rest of their companions who dwell in Samaria, and to the remainder beyond the River: Peace, and so forth.
The letter which you sent to us has been clearly read before me. And I gave the command, and a search has been made, and it was found that this city in former times has revolted against kings, and rebellion and sedition have been fostered in it. There have also been mighty kings over Jerusalem, who have ruled over all the region beyond the River; and tax, tribute, and custom were paid to them. Now give the command to make these men cease, that this city may not be built until the command is given by me.
Take heed now that you do not fail to do this. Why should damage increase to the hurt of the kings?
Now when the copy of King Artaxerxes’ letter was read before Rehum, Shimshai the scribe, and their companions, they went up in haste to Jerusalem against the Jews, and by force of arms made them cease.
a. It was found that this city in former times has revolted against kings, and rebellion and sedition have been fostered in it: The Samaritan letter to stop the work was a combination of truth and lies, and here the Persian king focused on the truth in the letter – the sinful and tragic past of Jerusalem.
b. There have also been mighty kings over Jerusalem: Artaxerxes I also noted that in times past there were in fact powerful kings of Judah, who had the power to tax and impose tribute on their neighbors. In his mind, it meant that Judah had the potential to return to this powerful past.
i. Who have ruled over all the region beyond the River: “That is, the Euphrates. Both David and Solomon carried their conquests beyond this river. See 2 Samuel 8:3 and following, and 1 Kings 4:21, where it is said, Solomon reigned over all the kingdoms from the river (Euphrates) unto the land of the Philistines; and unto the borders of Egypt.” (Clarke)
c. Now give the command to make these men cease: The letter from the Samaritan adversaries was successful. Artaxerxes king of Persia, perhaps the most powerful man in the world at that time, commanded that the work be stopped.
d. By force of arms made them cease: The adversaries made the most of the decree of Artaxerxes and used it to make the work stop immediately.
5. (24) The previous work of rebuilding the temple in the days of Darius is again considered.
Thus the work of the house of God which is at Jerusalem ceased, and it was discontinued until the second year of the reign of Darius king of Persia.
a. Thus the work of the house of God which is at Jerusalem ceased: Through the kinds of tactics of the Samaritans mentioned in the broad survey of Ezra 4:4-23, these adversaries succeeded in stopping the building work for some 15 years.
i. “The word ‘Then’ [‘Thus’] would at first point us to the verse immediately before this; but it only makes sense if it is picking up the thread of verse 5 which was dropped for the long parenthesis (Ezra 4:6-23). The time is again that of Zerubbabel.” (Kidner)
b. Until the second year of the reign of Darius: This shows us that the work did not stop forever. By their subversive partnership, and with the lies they told the authorities, their adversaries attacked them, and seemed to succeed with their second tactic, they could not succeed forever against God and His people. Their only victory was to delay the work, not to defeat it.