The altar of the Lord has been rebuilt. The majority of the exiles who returned were from two tribes, Judah, and Benjamin. They were worshiping the Lord by bringing offerings and by offering up sacrifices on the new altar. But trouble was brewing. When the northern kingdom had been overrun by the Assyrians, they had settled other people in that land. There were still some Jews left there but their numbers were small. The foreigners who settled in the land learned about the Lord when they entered the land of Israel but had also continued to worship their old gods. These people wanted to ‘help’ the returning exiles in rebuilding the temple because they worshiped the same god. Except they didn’t. With a unified voice, the tribal leaders spoke against the foreigner’s proposal, which would have opened the door for their idolatrous beliefs. These Jews did not want to make the same mistake as their ancestors, who were sent into exile as a result of worshiping the false gods of the Canaanites. Because these foreigners realized they would have no way to influence the Jewish community the foreigners took hostile measures to neutralize the growing political power of the Israelites. Hostilities with the neighboring people were not new. They were just annoying at this point, and they did not want to see either the temple or Jerusalem rebuilt by the Jews. The neighbors are called the people of the land, later referred to as Samaritans. They showed their opposition all the days of Cyrus and even until the days of the rule of Darius. They made threats and perhaps disrupted supply routes making it difficult to get the materials needed to build.
The Jews were determined to continue building although there was a work stoppage between 536-520 B.C. Cyrus began the project and King Darius finally ordered the temple rebuild to be finished. In between the people of the land wrote letters to the Persian king detailing all the things the Jews had done and were about to do. They were rebellious, couldn’t be trusted, and were planning a revolt or uprising. These men who wrote the letter listed their names, professions, and national origins. As we read the letter it is almost like reading one group of kids writing to snitch on another group of kids. The first correspondence brought the work stoppage and hostility. When the kings records were first searched they found confirmation of the Jews rebellion, no doubt referring to the revolts of Jehoiakim, Jehoiachin, and Zedekiah. They also discovered that Jewish kings had ruled over a large region under the reigns of king David and king Solomon. Later correspondence would reveal the Jews were within the law in their rebuilding of the temple of the Lord.
So, a bit about Persian kings. Cyrus was the king who defeated the Babylonians and allowed the Jews to return to Jerusalem and Judah. He reigned from 559-530 B.C. He was followed by Cambyses II who ruled from 530-522 and Bardiya who ruled in 522 B.C. Next up was Darius I the great who ruled from 522-486 B.C. And when he died his son, Ahasuerus took the throne and ruled for 20 years, until 465 B.C. Ahasuerus also had a Greek name, Xerxes. This is the king who appears in the Book of Esther.
Eventually the prophets Haggai and Zechariah came to Jerusalem and Judah and prophesied to the people. Both of these prophets have books with their names on them. Haggai said the people had lost sight of their priority of rebuilding the temple and as a result, the people, under Zerubbabel and Joshua begin the work once again. Zerubbabel was the civil governor and Jeshua was the high priest as they led the people in rebuilding. Tattenai was a regional governor and most likely a powerful man since
there were only 20 regional governors in all of Persia. These men were also known as satraps. Zerubbabel would have been under his jurisdiction. However, the eye of their God was upon the people. In other words, the Lord was watching over his people, the leaders in particular. God was protecting and watching over those who obeyed His command. The fact that Tattenai had to take his case to the king showed he still had to follow protocol despite his own power. He was bound to follow the process of Persian custom and law. The walls Tattenai was speaking of were the walls of the temple, not the city walls. That would come later when Nehemiah arrived. Timber was used for the beams of the temple floor and roof. Most of the temple construction was done with massive stones, but beams and slats were also used. We read that though the Jews acknowledged that Nebuchadnezzar destroyed the first temple, they traced the cause not to his power but to their sin and God’s ultimate judgement. Tattenai eventually asked that a search be made in the kings treasure house to see if King Cyrus really did issue an edict that allowed the Jews to rebuild their temple. A scroll was found and recorded on it was in fact Cyrus’s edict. This allowed King Darius to order Tattenai and others away from the work of rebuilding the temple. And they were ordered to allow the Jews to rebuild this house of God. God was at work in all of this. Not only did the Persians find the decree of Cyrus but king Darius added his own edict to that of Cyrus. The Jews were doing what was legal. Not only could Tattenai not stop reconstruction of the temple, he also had to fund its completion. Any violation of this decree was punishable by death. Death was by hanging except it wasn’t hanging. Hanging here does not mean having a rope placed around your neck. It means being impaled on a sharp pole, sometimes alive, and most often in public as a grim warning to others. This form of public death was not unlike the Roman crosses we will see later. In fact it is recorded that king Darius impaled 3,000 Babylonians when he took the city. Tattenai diligently carried out his orders and there is no indication given that he mistreated the Jews in any way.
The Jews prospered because they were being obedient to the Lord. He blessed His people because they listened to the words of the prophets and the preaching of the Word. Once the temple was completed the people celebrated. Some scholars suggest that Psalms 145-148 were used in this celebration. Just like with the first temple, the celebration involved the offering of many sacrifices. The law laid down the duties of the priests and Levites. But the most holy place was left empty. There was nothing in the Holy of Holies. It appears the ark of the covenant was lost through the Babylonian conquest. With the completion of the temple the Jews can gather to celebrate their feasts and holidays. The first was the Passover. It is interesting to note the slight changes that were made in the Passover over the years. Originally the Passover lamb was killed by the head of each household. (Exodus 12:6) In the days of Hezekiah, the Levites killed the Passover lambs for everyone who was not clean. ( 2 Chronicles 30:17) In the days of Josiah, the Levites killed all of the Passover lambs for everyone. ( 2 Chronicles 35:10-14) And here the priests and Levites had purified themselves so they could perform the duties of their office and they killed the Passover lambs for everyone. You will also note that in this first Passover back in the promised land, anyone who had separated themselves from the filth of the nations was allowed to eat the meal. Now the community was based on faith and not ancestry. Many who had separated themselves were Israelites who had remained in the land after the northern kingdom fell to Assyria in 722 B.C. They were a remnant of faith in the Lord. And the filth spoken of here was the idolatry practiced by the pagans along with their intermarriage with foreigners. Even non Israelites who expressed faith in the Lord and a willingness to follow His laws, commands, and statutes were welcome. This celebration was followed by the seven day Feast of Unleavened Bread.
Finally, there is a reference made to the king of Assyria here. This is actually King Darius. Even though he was actually the king of Persia, Darius could be called the king of Assyria because he was the ruler of the former realm of Assyria. It seems that the Persian kings adopted a variety of titles, much as they accumulated gods. They used the title king of Babylon occasionally as well. The Persians assimilated the best ideas…gods and titles…from the cultures under their domination, adopting what seemed to fit and discarding what did not.
With the temple rebuilt and the people worshiping and serving the Lord, things were looking up for God’s people. The city walls were still in shambles and the neighbors continued to harass the Jews but they were moving forward, one daunting task and then another.
In His Grip
Pastor Matt W