I. 4:1-3 The source of the opposition
(There seems to be a repeated pattern in chapters 4 and 5: Encounter (4:1-5; 5:1-5), Request (4:6-16; 5:6-17), Decree (4:17-22; 5:1-12), and Enactment (4:23-24; 5:13-15). See Stefan C. Matzal, “The Structure of Ezra IV-VI,” in VT 50/4 (2000): 566-568)
4:1-2 Now when the adversaries of Judah and Benjamin heard that the returned exiles were building a temple to the LORD, the God of Israel, 2 they approached Zerubbabel and the heads of fathers’ houses and said to them, "Let us build with you, for we worship your God as you do, and we have been sacrificing to him ever since the days of Esarhaddon king of Assyria who brought us here."
The adversaries identify themselves as those who were brought to Israel by Esarhaddon, king of Assyria, the youngest son of Sennacherib (2 Kings 19:37 and Isaiah 37:38 recount the assassination of Sennacherib and the beginning of the reign of Esarhaddon). Esarhaddon ruled Assyria from 681-669 BC and repopulated the land after many were taken into exile. Such repopulations were not so unusual since other Assyrian kings such as Sargon II (722-705 BC) and Ashurbanipal (669-633 BC) did it during their respective reigns. The request of the adversaries seems innocent, “Let us build with you,” and seems to have the right motivation, “for we worship your God as you do.” The adversaries suggest that they are converts to Judaism since they have been worshipping Yahweh since arriving in the land. However, the Chronicler clarifies that these adversaries were not monotheistic, but rather syncretistic in their worship, “So they feared the LORD but also served their own gods, after the manner of the nations from among whom they had been carried away” (2 Kings 17:33). Batten suggests that the adversaries are Samaritans (Batten, Ezra and Nehemiah, 127), although many scholars reject that hypothesis, calling it anachronistic (See Williamson, Ezra/Nehemiah, 49; Blenkisopp, Ezra-Nehemiah, 107).
4:3 But Zerubbabel, Jeshua, and the rest of the heads of fathers’ houses in Israel said to them, "You have nothing to do with us in building a house to our God; but we alone will build to the LORD, the God of Israel, as King Cyrus the king of Persia has commanded us.
In today’s world, the leaders would certainly be called exclusivists, and probably culturally insensitive as well. However, it is important to note that they were concerned with the purity of the people and not concerned about their popularity index. The leaders were expected “to maintain the integrity of the Jewish community” and thus continue God’s “plan of redemption" (Brenemen, Ezra, Nehemiah, Esther, 97). They also make reference to Cyrus’ edict (1:2-4), thus giving their adversaries both a spiritual and a political reason for not accepting their help.
II. 4:4-5 The persistence of the opposition
4:4-5 Then the people of the land discouraged the people of Judah and made them afraid to build 5 and bribed counselors against them to frustrate their purpose, all the days of Cyrus king of Persia, even until the reign of Darius king of Persia.
The opposition’s first weapon is discouragement, which then led to fear. This fear was supposed to paralyze the people of God, and in some respects it did, but only for a while (4:24). Corruption was alive and well even then, and the opposition found corrupt counselors to carry out their plan. Blenkinsopp suggests that these counselors were “officials in the imperial bureaucracy” (Blenkinsopp, Ezra-Nehemiah, 108). The people of God had a divinely-appointed purpose which the opposition tried to frustrate. We are reminded that opposition is not necessarily a sign that we’re doing something wrong, but it can be a sign that we’re doing something right. The Chronicler shows the opposition as being constant and continuing throughout Cyrus’ reign (559-530 BC), until the reign of Darius (522-486 BC).
III. 4:6-22 The many faces of opposition
4:6 And in the reign of Ahasuerus, in the beginning of his reign, they wrote an accusation against the inhabitants of Judah and Jerusalem.
While verses 5 and 24 relate information from the reign of Darius, verses 6-23 are from later times, namely, the reigns of Xerxes (486-465 BC) and Artaxerxes I (465-424 BC). It is clear that the main concern of the author is not to give us a chronological line of events, but rather he wants to stress the theme of persistent opposition that spanned more than a century. The adversaries take the political route of addressing their grievance to the king himself. Ahasuerus is identified with Xerxes, although we are not told the content of the letter addressed to the king. Rabbinic tradition asserts that the adversaries ask the king to stop the work of rebuilding the temple (Rosenberg, Daniel, Ezra, Nehemiah, 131).
4:7 In the days of Artaxerxes, Bishlam and Mithredath and Tabeel and the rest of their associates wrote to Artaxerxes king of Persia. The letter was written in Aramaic and translated.
Ezra 4:8-6:18 is written in Aramaic, the “diplomatic lingua franca of the Persian empire, and translated into Persian" (Blenkinsopp, Ezra-Nehemiah, 112). The Hebrew employed suggests that Bishlam “was the leader of the group – the group of archivists whose report is the source of the Aramaic letters in Ezra 4:8-6:12" (Richard C. Steiner, “Why Bishlam (Ezra 4:7) Cannot Rest ‘In Peace’” in JBL 126/2 (2007), 401).
4:8-16 Rehum the commander and Shimshai the scribe wrote a letter against Jerusalem to Artaxerxes the king as follows: 9 Rehum the commander, Shimshai the scribe, and the rest of their associates, the judges, the governors, the officials, the Persians, the men of Erech, the Babylonians, the men of Susa, that is, the Elamites, 10 and the rest of the nations whom the great and noble Osnappar deported and settled in the cities of Samaria and in the rest of the province Beyond the River. 11 (This is a copy of the letter that they sent.) "To Artaxerxes the king: Your servants, the men of the province Beyond the River, send greeting. And now 12 be it known to the king that the Jews who came up from you to us have gone to Jerusalem. They are rebuilding that rebellious and wicked city. They are finishing the walls and repairing the foundations. 13 Now be it known to the king that if this city is rebuilt and the walls finished, they will not pay tribute, custom, or toll, and the royal revenue will be impaired. 14 Now because we eat the salt of the palace and it is not fitting for us to witness the king’s dishonor, therefore we send and inform the king, 15 in order that search may be made in the book of the records of your fathers. You will find in the book of the records and learn that this city is a rebellious city, hurtful to kings and provinces, and that sedition was stirred up in it from of old. That was why this city was laid waste. 16 We make known to the king that if this city is rebuilt and its walls finished, you will then have no possession in the province Beyond the River."
Those who address Artaxerxes are identified not as lower class citizens, but rather scribes, commanders, judges, governors, and officials who were foreigners deported to Judah by Osnappar, who is probably Asshurbanipal (668-627 BC). The opposition’s hatred is evident in their referral to Jerusalem as “that rebellious and wicked city.” The adversaries suggest that the future looks bleak for the Persian court if Jerusalem is rebuilt. They imply that the Jews will then stop paying their taxes and the royal bank of Persia will thus be depleted of funds. Yamauchi indicates that the tax “has been estimated that between $20 million and $35 million in taxes were collected annually by the Persian king" (Edwin Yamauchi, “Archaeological Backgrounds of the Exilic and Postexilic Era, part 3,” BSac137/547(1980), 201).
4:17-22 The king sent an answer: "To 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, greeting. And now 18 the letter that you sent to us has been plainly read before me. 19 And I made a decree, and search has been made, and it has been found that this city from of old has risen against kings, and that rebellion and sedition have been made in it. 20 And mighty kings have been over Jerusalem, who ruled over the whole province Beyond the River, to whom tribute, custom, and toll were paid. 21 Therefore make a decree that these men be made to cease, and that this city be not rebuilt, until a decree is made by me. 22 And take care not to be slack in this matter. Why should damage grow to the hurt of the king?"
The king’s research revealed that indeed Judah’s kings had a history of revolt. It could be that Hezekiah’s revolt against the Assyrian king Sennacherib was chronicled (2 Kings 18:7). However, there had also been other kings who rebelled against their oppressors. Both Jehoiakim and Zedekiah rebelled against Nebuchadnezzar (2 Kings 24:1, 20), and both suffered the consequences. The adversaries’ letter was deemed credible and the king’s decree -motivated by personal reasons – was clear; the work was to stop and it had to stop immediately.
IV. 4:23-24 The consequences of opposition
4:23-24 Then, when the copy of King Artaxerxes’ letter was read before Rehum and Shimshai the scribe and their associates, they went in haste to the Jews at Jerusalem and by force and power made them cease. 24 Then the work on the house of God that is in Jerusalem stopped, and it ceased until the second year of the reign of Darius king of Persia.
The narrative switches from the time of Artaxerxes (465-424/3) back to the time of Darius (522-486). This is “the first chronological anomaly that occurs in the book of Ezra…To this point the narrative has followed a strictly chronological line despite the numerous gaps left in the history" (A. Philip Brown II, “Chronological Anomalies in the Book of Ezra,” in BSac 162/645 (2005), 38). Ezra tells the story out of order to remind the reader that, in spite of opposition, King Darius supported the work of reconstruction. Indeed, under Darius “the Persian Empire reached its greatest power and splendor" (Brenemen, Ezra, Nehemiah, Esther, 106).
Israel’s enemies carried out King Artaxerxes’ ruling “in haste” and used force to bring to a standstill their work of reconstruction. Verse 24 goes with verse 5, with verses 6-23 as parenthetical. Fensham concurs that chapter 4 “is not meant to be in chronological sequence; rather, it supplies us with a logical thought pattern wherein the most important actions of the Samaritans against the Jews are enumerated" (Fensham, Ezra and Nehemiah, 77). Darius I ruled Persia from 522-486 BC and under his rule “the Persian Empire reached its greatest power and splendor" (Brenemen, Ezra, Nehemiah, Esther, 106). The condition of the city wall at this stage is the condition of which Nehemiah hears (Neh 1:3). Even though the adversaries won this battle, they will eventually lose the war since the wall will be reconstructed in spite of persistent, malevolent opposition.
Opposition to God’s work did not originate, nor did it cease with Ezra and Nehemiah. While this opposition was accompanied by lies, pressures, and persecutions, God’s work succeeded because it was of God and not of man. This truth should be a great comfort and encouragement to Christians in all times and all places when confronted with opposition to God’s work. Even so, today’s Christian leaders should always be on guard, being ready to deal with opposition, being mindful that the Christian does not spend his/her life on a playground, but rather on a battlefield.