One year ago we started a study of Isaiah and Jeremiah. We went through the part of the Holy history where both the nations of Israel and Judah were destroyed, the temple was destroyed and looted, and the best and brightest were removed and settled somewhere else. Last year we studied the fall of Judea and the Babylonian captivity and we read the prophets who looked forward to a restoration.
At this point over 70 years passed since Jerusalem and the temple were destroyed. The kingdom of Babylon has fallen, and Medes and the Persians have taken over the land that the Babylonian and Assyrian empires once held. The Persian Empire decides that Judea is to be re-populated and the temple that was destroyed and looted by the Babylonian empire is to be rebuilt, and the treasures of the temple are to be returned.
We start Ezra with the characters Zurubbable and Joshua. Ezra is a scribe who is tradition says wrote I and II Chronicles, Ezra and Nehemiah. Zurubbable is the appointed governor of the Persian province of Judea. I have no doubt that the Persian empire appointed Zurubbable because his grandfather was king in Jerusalem just before the Babylonian captivity.
When those in captivity return to Judea, they have control of the land where they once lived, they have a high priest to restore temple worship, and they are governed by a descendant of David who would sit on the throne himself if he did not answer to a Persian king. Things look good for Judah. The Babylonian captivity is over!
You notice that I didn’t name the Persian king — the names of several Media-Persian rulers are given in this process: Cyrus, Artaxerxes, and Darius. The final words of II Chronicles tell us that King Cyrus of the Persians commanded that Judea be repopulated, and that a temple be built in Jerusalem. The first chapter of Ezra gives a longer version of the edict, including an order that their neighbors give them gifts for the journey, which turned out to be pretty significant. This group that returned to resettle Judea was, according to Ezra, about 50,000 people.
If you think fifty thousand is a small number, you need to remember two things: First, that this order to repopulate Jerusalem was voluntary. Those who made a home in Babylon, and did not wish to leave were not kicked out, and there remained a Jewish population in the East. The second thing we need to remember is that there was a remnant left in Judea, so when these 50,000 people returned, there was a group of people to greet them.
This is the first thing that stands out in the story: There is an argument between the repatriated people and those who live in the region. There was an argument about who would be involved in building the temple, and when Zurubbable made it clear that only the people who came to resettle Judea would have a place to worship God at the temple, whether or not the temple and Jerusalem should be restored at all. The people who lived in the area wrote to king Artaxerxes, saying that the people who resettled Jerusalem have a habit of being rebellious, and should not be trusted; with the result that the work stopped until Darius became King. For those who are paying attention, Zurubbable just created Samaritans as a distinct, and hostile people group. Before this, they were the remnant of Israel — with some integrated foreigners.
At this point, we reach our readings for today — Chapter 5 of Ezra and the prophecy of Haggai. Something like 16 years had passed from the original expedition to rebuild Jerusalem and when they were allowed to continue. Haggai gives a rather unique prophetic oracle; if you want to know how unique, Haggai is the only prophet who calls for the temple to be built; most of the prophets call for justice, and insist things such as “Obedience is better than sacrifice.”
This, however, is a unique situation. As Haggai writes: “Is it right for you to live in richly paneled houses, while my temple is in ruins?” The situation is that a group of people were moved to Jerusalem, with gold, silver, supplies, and those contents of the old Temple that were still available in order to rebuild the temple and Jerusalem. When the high priest Joshua and Zurubbable arrived, and were offered help with the words: “Let us help you build, like you we seek God and have been sacrificing to Him,” (Ezra 4:2) the response was to tell them they had no right to help with the restoration of the temple.
Zurubbable and Joshua had no excuse to live in luxurious houses while the temple was still in ruins. They came to rebuild the temple and Jerusalem, not to build an impressive mansions for the provincial governor and chief priest. They received gold, silver, the contents of the old temple in order to rebuild it. They were offered aid in rebuilding the temple by the local population. Where they could have had allies, they made enemies of the Samaritans. Haggai was speaking to leaders who did not even attempt to keep up appearances of worshiping God, let alone practicing justice.
The family of David did not hold onto the power that the Persians gave them. While it appears that the province of Judah might have become a vassal-kingdom, with a hereditary king that paid tribute to the Persian empire, this did not happen; instead, the governorship was eventually given to a priest. For 1500 years, everybody would know pretender to David’s throne was — but, no descendant of David would sit on the throne nor govern again.
When I read this story, I don’t see an example of great leadership, nor people to emulate. I see something where a couple of people were given all the tools they needed for the job: Money, supplies, labor, and a population that welcomed the building project, and who managed to only build for themselves and then live in luxury while their people suffered famine. I see somebody given every opportunity to re-establish the throne of David, and then throwing it away by failing at the one task he was given. When the prophet Haggai spoke of luxury and richly paneled houses while the temple lay in ruins — it is pretty clear to me who’s mansion he was talking about, it was the people who received the materials to build a richly paneled temple, not those struggling to survive when their crops failed.
The hard thing about preaching a sermon based on a narrative is that unless the moral of the story is spelled out, I get to decide what I learned from the experience of those characters in the story; and then everybody else gets to argue the lessons they learned.
Now the most common lesson that people learn, based on sermon’s I’ve heard on the first part of Ezra, is that God keeps promises. When the Jews were taken into the Babylonian captivity, and the temple was destroyed, they were given a promise that in 70 years, they would be able to return and rebuild; there would again be a Judah and a Jerusalem. God’s faithfulness is a good lesson to learn — and, I think it is good to point out that God’s faithfulness is not dependent upon our own. God is always faithful, even if we are not.
The lessons I learn from the book of Ezra, in general, are lessons on how things should be done differently. First place where I would suggest doing something differently is that it would have been better if Zurubbable made peace with his neighbors. Making the Samaritans into enemies caused the temple-project to stop, along with the project to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem, and caused a rather unfortunate legal battle, where the position given to the people of Judea was reviewed.
I think that it is important that whatever we do, we do our best to be good neighbors. No matter what project we engage in, we should respect the people around us. We should not fight with them, or make it clear that they are unwelcome — but, instead we should be inviting. We should be the type of church where our neighbors thank God that Raysville Friends is here.
The second place I think Zurubbable should have behaved differently is the place from the Haggai reading. In the passage I read, the prophet condemned Zurubbable and the priest Joshua for living in “richly paneled houses”. These leaders collected donations, both in Persia and in Judea, in order to rebuild the temple. During a 16 year period when the temple lay in ruins, they build themselves richly paneled mansions. Quite bluntly, they raised money to build a temple, and instead built a governor’s palace and a High Priest’s mansion. If we raise money for a project, things will go better if we actually do the project we raised money for instead of finding an alternative one.
As a church we must be careful to honor the wishes of those who donate. The behavior we see here is the type of behavior that destroys reputations, and makes it so people are less generous in the future. In cases where I’ve seen churches that raised money for one thing and spent it on something else, I’ve seen them lose members, including those who were previously generous supporters. Out of all the destructive things that can happen to a community, the loss of trust is pretty high on the list.
The final thing that I will observe is that Haggai told Zurubbable and Joshua that Judea was being punished because they neglected the temple. They were given materials, money, and offered help to rebuild the temple but they let it sit while they had their own mansions built. If they had done the right thing, the temple would be built. Construction on the temple started when a prophet let them know that they, and those under their rule were being punished for their personal negligence and apparent misappropriation. Judah suffering because their leaders embezzle is a reoccurring theme in post-exilic literature — and there is the promise that things will get better when leadership changes their behavior.
What we read is a passage about Zurubbable and Joshua doing the right thing and starting construction on the temple — but it took them 16 years to do this. A prophet Haggai came and condemned them for their negligence, pointed to the hardship that Judah was facing, and told them that it came from their behavior. It took the desire to escape punishment them to finally go and do the right thing. I believe that good leadership is doing the right thing without the threat or experience of divine punishment. If they were good leaders, they would be doing the right thing from the beginning.
The principles of leadership that I learn from the failures of Zurubbable are as follows: First, I should live at peace with my neighbors, and lead in a way that maintains peace. Second, I should not put luxury ahead of my vocation, and third I should do the right thing, even without the threat of punishment.