The clouds ye so much dread / Are big with mercy. . .
—William Cowper, “God Moves in a Mysterious Way” (1774)
Men are always prone to put religion off with scraps and leavings,
and serve God with what costs them nothing.
—T. V. Moore, Commentary on Haggai (1856)
Once the elders of Israel had rebuffed the Samaritan leaders, the leaders immediately turned on them. They worked locally and at the imperial capital to frustrate the work of rebuilding Jerusalem and its Temple. We have a record of one of their letters addressed to the Persian emperor:
“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” (Ezra 4:13, NKJV).
The letter calls Jerusalem “rebellious” and “wicked” and claims that in former times it had been a source of insurrection, rebellion, and sedition. The letter asks the emperor to confirm these claims through a search of the imperial records.
The emperor complied and found that Jerusalem did indeed have an unsavory past. Even more, it had once been a great city whose kings had reigned over a large kingdom. The emperor issued a temporary decree to stop the building. The Samaritans saw to it that the emperor’s decree was put into immediate effect.
And so God’s people gave up on building the city, which is what the decree actually required. They stopped all work on the Temple as well.
Reallocation of Resources
Of course, life went on in Jerusalem. Its inhabitants set about building their own houses and living their lives. (They even borrowed from the materials that had been gathered for rebuilding the Temple.) Their discouragement led them to abandon their calling, pilfering holy things, and adopting an eschatology of defeat. “It’s not the right time to build the LORD’s house!” (Hag. 1:2).
Despite the decree of Cyrus that had let them come home, despite the great treasures he had provided for the work of rebuilding the Temple, despite the prophecies that had foretold this time and commanded this work, God’s people pushed their assigned work off on a future generation and settled down to look after their own comforts.
At this point, God raised up the prophet Haggai. His first sermon was a harsh indictment of the people’s priorities. “Is it a time for you yourselves to dwell in your paneled houses, while this house lies in ruins?” (Hag. 1:4, ESV). Nothing in the imperial edict had forbidden work on the Temple. But when they were faced with opposition from the State, they got soft and shifted priorities. God wasn’t impressed.
In fact, God had already demonstrated His displeasure.
You have sown much, and harvested little. You eat, but you never have enough; you drink, but you never have your fill. You clothe yourselves, but no one is warm. And he who earns wages does so to put them into a bag with holes (v. 6, ESV).
God condemned their autonomy. Even the simple comforts of life would end up “uncomfortable.”
The solution was simple: Get back to work. “Go up to the mountain, and bring wood, and build the House; and I will take pleasure in it, and I will be glorified, says the LORD” (v. 8).
Obedience and Its Consequences
The people obeyed. They came and did the work God had set before them. Then imperial officials showed up. “Who has commanded you to build this House?” they asked. They wanted to see the permits, paperwork and proper forms.
The elders of Jerusalem appealed to the authority of the God of heaven and to the earthly decree of King Cyrus. That is, they claimed the favor and command of almighty God and their rights and privileges as citizens of the empire. The officials weren’t ready to accept their word, and so they appealed the matter up to Darius. “Did Cyrus really make such a decree?” they wanted to know, for edicts issued by a Persian emperor couldn’t be overturned. Again Darius ordered a search of the imperial archives.
The search began at Babylon. It ended at Ecbatana (Achmetha), the summer capital. There the researchers found a scroll that contained Cyrus’s original decree. On the basis of its intent and wording, Darius told the imperial officials to back off and leave the builders alone.
More than that, Darius ordered that funds for building the Temple were to come from the royal treasury. So were the Temple’s daily operating expenses. The money was to come from the tribute raised in the district governed by the very officials who lodged the complaint. Darius’s reasons and specifications are remarkable:
. . .That they may offer sacrifices of sweet savours unto the God of heaven, and pray for the life of the king, and of his sons. Also I have made a decree, that whosoever shall alter this word, let timber be pulled down from his house, and being set up, let him be hanged thereon; and let his house be made a dunghill for this. And the God that hath caused his name to dwell there destroy all kings and people, that shall put to their hand to alter and to destroy this house of God which is at Jerusalem. I Darius have made a decree; let it be done with speed (Ezra 6:10-12).
The governor and his henchmen did what they were told — with great speed.
There are a number of practical lessons that arise out of this historical and prophetic narrative.
- The worship of God and the testimony of the Gospel have the first claim on our time, wealth, and energies. God is not particularly concerned about our comforts — what Schaeffer called our “personal peace and affluence.” Jesus calls us to deny ourselves, take up our cross, and follow Him (Matt. 16:24; Luke 9:23).
- We must not let our desire for comfort rewrite our hermeneutic and eschatology. We can, far too easily, convince ourselves that Scripture couldn’t possibly require anything that would alter our standard of living or push us out of our comfort zone. If we aren’t careful, we will find it easier to believe that Christ’s kingdom fails “in our generation” than to admit that we have the wrong priorities.
- God rules in the created order and in the governments of men. His actions in both spheres are covenantal: He blesses the obedience of faith and chastens the lazy and worldliness that arises from unbelief. But He does so on His terms and on His schedule.
- We too quickly cower before kings and bureaucrats. We see them as implacable enemies. We really don’t believe that God can use them, whether in their own unbelief or by subduing their hearts to the Gospel. But God is greater than our enemies and greater than our fears.
- Our first appeal must always be to the God of heaven. We must not “fear to own His cause, or blush to speak His name.” At the same time, God would have us use our political rights and privileges for the sake of the Gospel. That means we have to actually know what they are.
- Darius funded the work of the Temple, but he never tried to control it. Under such circumstances, God had and has no problem using the emperors, kings, and governors of this world to finance His kingdom. Quite the contrary, it fact (Rev. 21:24-26; Ps. 72:10-11; Isa. 60).
The Restoration Era was a time when God withdrew His miracles and required His people to walk by faith in terms of His written word. They had to learn to believe God’s promises, obey His law, and trust His providence. In the end, they finally did, and God smiled on their obedience. Much to learn from this part of the Bible. Much indeed.
For Further Reading:
Thomas V. Moore, A Commentary on Haggai and Malachi (Edinburgh: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1960 ).
Derek Kidner, Ezra and Nehemiah, An Introduction and Commentary (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1979).