I. 5:1-2 The rebuilding of the temple starts again
5:1-2 Now the prophets, Haggai and Zechariah the son of Iddo, prophesied to the Jews who were in Judah and Jerusalem, in the name of the God of Israel who was over them. 2 Then Zerubbabel the son of Shealtiel and Jeshua the son of Jozadak arose and began to rebuild the house of God that is in Jerusalem, and the prophets of God were with them, supporting them.
After sixteen years of the reconstruction work being at a standstill, it is the Word of the LORD that jumpstarts the process anew. The prophetic office did not die during the Babylonian exile and God’s prophets did not become extinct. A prophet was an intermediary who communicated God’s message to His people, and during this time of crisis God uses Haggai and Zechariah to reinvigorate His people. The book of Haggai focuses on the necessity of rebuilding the temple while Zechariah focuses on God’s sovereignty and human responsibility. Both Haggai and Zechariah speak “in the name of the God of Israel” who was “over them.” God was over both the prophets and the people, and believing that He is sovereingly in control gives the leaders incentive to resume the work of rebuilding. Zerubbabel is identified as “governor of Judah” by Haggai, and he plays an important role both in Ezra and Nehemiah. Jeshua (Joshua) is identified by Haggai as a high priest, so Zerubbabel and Jeshua served both as civic and spiritual leaders (Haggai 1:1 — Some people assume that Zerubbabel is not mentioned again because he was removed from office due to seditious activity, but that argumentum e silentio is pure conjecture). The prophets continue to offer support to the leaders and the people as the rebuilding continues – both spiritual and material help – illustrating the concept of teamwork being characteristic of doing God’s work.
II. 5:3-5 The rebuilding of the temple is challenged again
5:3-5 At the same time Tattenai the governor of the province Beyond the River and Shethar-bozenai and their associates came to them and spoke to them thus, "Who gave you a decree to build this house and to finish this structure?" 4 They also asked them this: "What are the names of the men who are building this building?" 5 But the eye of their God was on the elders of the Jews, and they did not stop them until the report should reach Darius and then an answer be returned by letter concerning it.
Tattenai appears as “governor of across the river” in a Babylonian document dating back to June 5, 502 BC (Myers, Ezra/Nehemiah, 44). As representative of the Persian Empire he wanted to make sure that the Jews are not revolting against the establishment. Furthermore, he asks a most logical question, “Who is in charge here?” Unlike previous times, the work is not stopped, the clear reason being that “the eye of their God was on the elders of the Jews.” When something is “under the eye of God” in the Old Testament, it is under His watch (Judges 18:6; Psalm 33:18; Zechariah 9:1). Thus, what gives the people of God success is not their skill but God’s protection and providence.
III. 5:6-17 The rebuilding of the temple is reported to Darius
5:6-10 This is a copy of the letter that Tattenai the governor of the province Beyond the River and Shethar-bozenai and his associates the governors who were in the province Beyond the River sent to Darius the king. 7 They sent him a report, in which was written as follows: "To Darius the king, all peace. 8 Be it known to the king that we went to the province of Judah, to the house of the great God. It is being built with huge stones, and timber is laid in the walls. This work goes on diligently and prospers in their hands. 9 Then we asked those elders and spoke to them thus, ‘Who gave you a decree to build this house and to finish this structure?’ 10 We also asked them their names, for your information, that we might write down the names of their leaders.
Tattenai and the other officials were “imperial troubleshooters, armed with powers of punishment” (David J.A. Clines, Ezra, Nehemiah, Esther, NCB (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1984), 85-86). They were considered the king’s eyes and ears and were part of the king’s elaborate spying system. The region “Beyond the River” is the Trans-Euphrates region, west of the Euphrates River that included Israel (Outside of Ezra-Nehemiah, the expression “Beyond the River” also occurs in Joshua 24:3, 14-15 and Isaiah 7:20). The report includes 1) an evaluation of the construction, 2) a conversation with the Jewish leaders regarding the construction, and 3) a request of inquiry into the historical archives regarding the decree of Cyrus the Great. It is fascinating that these officials refer to the Jerusalem temple as “the house of the great God” (The phrase can also be translated “the great house of God” but it would be unlikely that these Persians would be monotheists worshiping the One True God, Yahweh). Have they concluded that Yahweh is indeed a great God, or are they just offering “a token of reverence for the God of this territory” (Fensham, Ezra and Nehemiah, 82)? It is certain though that these officials recognize that the Jews are diligent in their work, and moreover, that the work is prospering. Even so, Tattenai and the other officials want to know whether the Jews have the proverbial work permit , and also the names of their leaders. It could be that Tattenai was impressed with the massive structure and thought it looked “more like a fortress than a sanctuary" (Warren Wiersbe, The Bible Exposition Commentary: History (Colorado Springs: Victor, 2003), 614)!
5:11-12 And this was their reply to us: ‘We are the servants of the God of heaven and earth, and we are rebuilding the house that was built many years ago, which a great king of Israel built and finished. 12 But because our fathers had angered the God of heaven, he gave them into the hand of Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon, the Chaldean, who destroyed this house and carried away the people to Babylonia.
The Jews introduce themselves as “the servants of the God of heaven and earth,” thus exalting God as the Creator God, a notion that was novel to the Persians who worshiped Zarathustra. The Jews give Tattenai a compressed history lesson dating back to Solomon, who is declared “a great king of Israel.” Their historical account is complete in the sense that it does not omit the sins of the people which caused their loss of country and temple. Breneman correctly points out that “the Jews, understanding the theological reasons for their calamity, did not hesitate to tell their neighbors why they had suffered that exile” (Breneman, Ezra, Nehemiah, Esther, 111).
5:13-17 However, in the first year of Cyrus king of Babylon, Cyrus the king made a decree that this house of God should be rebuilt. 14 And the gold and silver vessels of the house of God, which Nebuchadnezzar had taken out of the temple that was in Jerusalem and brought into the temple of Babylon, these Cyrus the king took out of the temple of Babylon, and they were delivered to one whose name was Sheshbazzar, whom he had made governor; 15 and he said to him, "Take these vessels, go and put them in the temple that is in Jerusalem, and let the house of God be rebuilt on its site." 16 Then this Sheshbazzar came and laid the foundations of the house of God that is in Jerusalem, and from that time until now it has been in building, and it is not yet finished.’ 17 Therefore, if it seems good to the king, let search be made in the royal archives there in Babylon, to see whether a decree was issued by Cyrus the king for the rebuilding of this house of God in Jerusalem. And let the king send us his pleasure in this matter."
Ten times in the Old Testament Cyrus is called “king of Persia,” yet here he is presented as “king of Babylon.” Indeed, on the Cyrus cylinder are the following words, “I am Cyrus, king of the world, great king, legitimate king, king of Babylon, king of Sumer and Akkad” (ANET, 316). Since the Persians have defeated the Babylonians, Cyrus became also the king of Babylon when it became a part of the Persian Empire.
Tattenai’s letter to Darius relates the Jews’ account of Cyrus’ edict (1:1-4), the return of the vessels taken from the temple, and the appointment of Sheshbazzar as governor (1:8, 11) (an appointment which affirms that during this time “governing authority was separated from religious authority” — Sean E. McEvenue, “The Political Structure in Judah from Cyrus to Nehemiah,” in CBQ 43 (1981): 353). However, even though Sheshbazzar started the work on the foundation of the temple, it was Zerubbabel who completed it (3:10). A period of 16 years has passed between the original attempt to rebuild in 536 BC and the resumption of the work under Darius in 520 BC. Since a regime change has taken place, Tattenai advises Darius to check the historical records and verify the authenticity of Cyrus’ decree. Williamson suggests that “the formula ‘if it pleases X’ is another standard feature in official Aramaic epistolography” (Williamson, Ezra, Nehemiah, 80).
Since the temple was the symbol of God’s presence with His people, it had to play a crucial role in the life of the Israelites. Even though the church building has not replaced the temple, the principle of the importance of God’s presence remains. While human obstacles are ever present, Christ’s followers need to always seek and rely on God’s presence which is one’s source of strength and solace.