The last time a letter was sent to the king of Persia regarding rebuilding the Temple the Jews’ view was missing. Now a better letter goes before the king.
When the neighbors of Judah first saw them rebuilding the Temple they were angry. The Jews had only been back in the land for two years when the foundation was laid. For the next 20 years the neighbors made building a nightmare! They did everything they could to stop the process. They were able to slow it to a crawl while Cyrus still ruled but when the throne changed hands they put a full stop to the process. They did this through a ‘poison pen letter’ that told the new king that if the Temple were rebuilt he would lose control of the region and lose all income from it too.
Of course the king put the brakes on the rebuilding process with those threats ringing in his ears. And the original letter didn’t mention ANYTHING about the decree of Cyrus to rebuild in the first place. It was one sided and designed to accomplish their purpose. Shame on Artaxerxes for not fully investigating the issue!
For eight years the Temple rebuilding project was at a standstill. Nothing happened on the project but time marched on for both Judah and her neighbors. The reign of Persia changed hands in the end of this period. In our text, the first letter is written to Artaxerxes. In the history of Persia this king’s name is listed as Cambyses II. (I’m convinced it is the same king as the later Artaxerxes comes too late in history to match the narrative.) The second letter is written to Darius. This would be The Great Darius I according to Person history of kings.
During this eight years the reign of the neighbors changed hands too. Maybe not all the neighbors but at least the leaders of the pack. The writers of the first letter were “Rehum the commander and Shimshai the scribe and the rest of their associates who live in Samaria and in the rest of the province Beyond the River” (Ezra 4:17). The second letter comes from “Tattenai the governor of the province Beyond the River and Shethar-bozenai and their associates” (verse 3a). It may be that the original complainers were still around but had lost power or were actually under those who sought the king’s decision this time.
But the BIGGEST difference between the two times was the favor of the Lord. God put His fingerprints on the process from the beginning by influencing Cyrus to send the people home to rebuild. But when they got down to the actual day to day work, they looked at the neighbors and their opinions of them. “Then the people of the land discouraged the people of Judah and made them afraid to build” (Ezra 4:4). This time the prophecies of Haggai and Zechariah have got the people focused on the Lord. And with their renewed focus His favor is on them. The neighbors open ears comes as part of that favor.
The letter written to the king doesn’t spell out the ‘dangers’ of the building project but the ‘authorities’ under which it was first undertaken. First and primary billing as the ‘authority’ is given to God. “We are the servants of the God of Heaven and earth, and are rebuilding the house that was built many years ago” (verse 11b). This House is to replace the one previously built and destroyed. The people take full responsibility for the sins of their fathers which resulted in its destruction.
The second ‘authority’ sited hits closer to home with the king. “In the first year of Cyrus king of Babylon, Cyrus the king made a decree that this House of God should be rebuilt” (verse 13). This authority could be substantiated in the writings of the kingdom. The edicts of the first king of Persia would be honored above the old petty grievances. These were facts and an authority that Darius could stand behind, if he found the words to be true and IF the king chose to bother looking in the first place.
Major difference in tone and message between the two letters. The first was written with malice and partial truths. Yes, the city of Jerusalem had been a stronghold throughout its history. But the people who had been sent back were not the ones who had faced down giants in their lives. They posed no threat to the king or their neighbors, at the time. The second letter was written with awe and a witness for the power of the Lord.
I don’t know how many people were in the original workforce that made it to the second round but Zerubbabel did. He would see the project through, no matter how long it took. But that is a story for another day.
From our story today, I want to take away two things. The first is the difference your focus can make. The second is the attitude shift that comes with the focus. The people’s initial focus was good, but when they started looking at the neighbors it shifted. They replaced the Lord as their primary focus and started focusing on the problems instead. This led to their attitude of fear and doubt. And when they were confronted by the neighbors they had no good answer to send with them.
The renewed group focused exclusively on the Lord and the work He set before them. They didn’t even worry about the neighbors, not even when they were confronted by them. Their attitude was one of confidence and commitment. And they had and answer to give this time. One filled with power and promise.
Another story of ‘lost focus’ is that of Peter when he asked to walk on the water with Jesus. He actually walked on water, until the moment his focus shifted to the storm. Then he began to sink. Can you imagine the story if he would have kept his eyes fixed on Jesus? That’s one story I would love to emulate, until the ending that is.
Father God, help me keep my focus on You. Keep my attitude in the proper range too Father. I wonder how much more I could do for You if my focus was always on ‘target’. I want a right focus and a right attitude God.