Ezra: Chapters 1-5

Chapter 1
Separated Vessels

There are seven Old Testament books most intimately linked together;—three historical, three prophetic and one both historical and prophetic. I refer to Ezra, Nehemiah and Esther in the first group, Haggai, Zechariah and Malachi in the second; and Daniel standing alone as the third.1 All have to do largely with a special work of God, subsequent to the close of the seventy years’ captivity predicted by Jeremiah in which the land of Palestine was to make up her lost sabbatic years (Jer. 25:11-14; 2 Chron. 36:21; Dan. 9:2). During this period of desolation her people were in bondage to the king of Babylon first, and after his overthrow, to the king of Persia. Babylon was the fountain-head of idolatry, and in its false worship, demon-inspired, was found in germ every evil teaching that Satanic ingenuity has ever devised for the turning away of unbelieving men from the revelation given by God in His holy Word.

It was to cure the people of Judah of their deeply-rooted love for idolatry that Jehovah gave them up to serve the Chaldeans, “that bitter and hasty nation.” Dwelling in the midst of the heathen, surrounded on all sides by the detestable creations of the human mind energized by wicked spirits, they learned to the full the folly and wretchedness of forsaking “the Guide of their youth” for the “gods many and lords many” of the nations. Their experiences in this stronghold of paganistic corruption cured them effectually of the worship of images, and resulted in a gracious revival under God’s good hand which gave to His word a place of importance in their souls that it had not previously held. Unhappily, this blessed work of God’s Spirit soon lost its power and degenerated into a mere cold intellectual bibliolatry, in which the letter of the Word was clung to tenaciously while the spirit was quite ignored. So devoted were the Pharisaic successors of “the men of the great synagogue” (as Ezra and his companions were afterwards called) to the study of the sacred writings, that they even counted the words and letters of the law, while a great body of expository literature was produced, most of it pedantic and imaginative in the extreme, but all testifying to the veneration in which the Scriptures were held. Yet when He who is Himself the Spirit of the entire Old Testament, and of whom Moses and all the prophets wrote, appeared in their midst, He was not discerned by faith and was rejected and crucified by the descendants of the very remnant whose zeal for God is commended in the book of Ezra. Though He came in fulfilment of the very writings they read every Sabbath in public, and often in private, as the Babe of Bethlehem Ephrata, the Light of Galilee of the nations, and the lowly Prince of Peace riding upon an ass, they fulfilled other prophecies in rejecting Him and spurning His claims.

As a result of this stupendous blunder, in a day yet to come and now undoubtedly drawn very near, the mass of the Jews are to sink to a lower form of idolatry than ever, when they receive and own the Antichrist of the future as Messiah of Israel and minister of “a god whom their fathers knew not,” the Roman Beast who will be worshiped by the apostate Jews and Christendom alike as “the god of forces “(Dan. 11:36 to end; Rev. 13).

This perversion of the word of God and insensibility to the Spirit’s work is exceedingly solemn, and may well have a voice for saints of God in this last end of the present dispensation of His grace, who have been largely delivered from Romish abominations and Protestant misconceptions of Scripture, and brought again to own in simplicity the headship of Christ, the presidency of the Holy Spirit in the Church, and the authority of the written Word over the consciences of all who call upon the name of the Lord. Here also there is grave danger of holding fast the letter, while losing sight of the tremendous importance of walking in the Spirit in living, realized fellowship with the Lord Jesus Christ, to whose peerless name God would gather all His own. Already a declension of no slight character has come in, and against those who seek to hold fast the Word and not deny the one only Name, the world, the flesh and the devil have combined to render powerless the testimony to the failure of the Church at large, and the abiding unity of the body of Christ.

It cannot therefore be other than salutary to prayerfully trace again some of God’s dealings with a remnant of old, that we may learn afresh His mind for His people to-day. In this spirit we would turn to the record of Ezra the scribe, a portion of Holy Scripture of intensely practical character, and abounding with suggestive teaching for believers in all ages.

The first two and a half verses of chapter one are quoted from the ending of 2 Chron., thus suggesting that Ezra was, perhaps, the chosen instrument to complete the earlier record, and which God would not have concluded without a pledge of restoration.

But these first verses of Ezra are not really the beginning of the work of God of which he treats. The true starting point will be found in the 9th of Daniel. There we find a man of God on his knees over the word of God—a lovely sight and one that ever foretells coming blessing. There are three 9th chapters in this series of books that are in large measure of the same character, namely, the 9th of Ezra, of Nehemiah and of Daniel. In all three alike we have men, each one whose heart is under the power of the truth for his times, in the place of confession before God. Such an attitude of soul well becomes all who recognize in any degree the advancing apostasy and the growth of the spirit of insubjection to the Holy Scriptures now so prevalent.

In Daniel’s case, “he understood by books” that the seventy years of affliction were very nearly run. He was a student of prophecy, and as he pored over Jeremiah’s serious messages, he recognized that the time for their fulfilment of the Word as to the restoration had drawn near. What is the result? It drives him to his knees. He was no mere intellectual Bible student like so many to-day. The Scriptures had power over his soul and brought him to prayer and confession. He made the approaching deliverance a matter of earnest supplication coupled with a self-judgment that was the outcome of being in the realized presence of God. He confessed his own sin and the sin of his people. There was no harsh criticism of others while congratulating himself on his own faithfulness. He had been faithful, no doubt, but he does not claim anything on that ground. He confesses the failure of the nation to which he belongs and acknowledges their sin as his own. “We have sinned” is his cry, not “they have sinned.”

And what is the happy outcome of all this? We get it in the beginning of Ezra. “Now in the first year of Cyrus, king of Persia, that the word of the Lord by the mouth of Jeremiah might be fulfilled, the Lord stirred up the spirit of Cyrus, king of Persia” (ver. 1). Thus had God begun to hear and answer His servant’s prayer, in fulfilment of His own word given through Jeremiah.

People are often stumbled as to the relations of prayer and the purpose of God. If God has counseled, shall He not bring it to pass, whether we pray or not? The answer is that prayer is a part of God’s purpose He has willed to act when His people pray; and one of the first evidences that He is about to perform a certain thing is that the spirit of prayer and supplication is poured out upon His people in regard to that particular work. Here He moves the heart of a king in his palace to accomplish His word, after Daniel has made it a matter of prayer.

Cyrus issues a decree saying, “The Lord God of heaven hath given me all the kingdoms of the earth; and He hath charged me to build Him a house at Jerusalem, which is in Judah. Who is there among you of all His people? His God be with him, and let him go up to Jerusalem, which is in Judah, and build the house of the Lord God of Israel (He is the God), which is in Jerusalem. And whosoever remaineth in any place where he sojourneth, let the men of his place help him with silver, and with gold, and with goods, and with beasts, beside the freewill offering for the house of God which is in Jerusalem” (vers. 2-4).

In the beginning of this proclamation we see how evidently Cyrus was inspired of the Lord in the very title given to Jehovah. He is the “God of heaven.” This is the name by which He is largely known in the series of books indicated above. It was a title He took when His throne was removed from the earth, and He gave His people into the hands of the Gentiles. He went add “returned to His

place,” as Hosea puts it. He Forsook the temple at Jerusalem, dissolved the theocracy and became “the God of heaven.” Such He is still to His ancient people, and so He will remain till He returns to Jerusalem to establish His throne again as “the Lord of the whole earth.”

It is likewise of note that Cyrus issues no command for any one to return to Jerusalem. There is to be nothing legal in this movement. It must be the result of grace working in the soul. So the king gives permission, and all who have heart for it are free to go up to the place where of old the Lord had set His name.

For nature there was little indeed to attract any one to Jerusalem. It lay a burned, ruined heap in the midst of a land of desolation. But for faith there was an attraction which nature could not understand. It was the city of God, the place of the Name,—the only place on, earth to which a grateful people could scripturally bring their offerings and where the guilty could bring a sacrifice for sin.

For believers now there is no such hallowed spot in this scene; “Neither in Jerusalem, nor at this mountain” is our place of worship. But our Lord has said: “Where two or three are gathered together unto My name, there am I in the midst.” Where He is acknowledged as sole Head and Lord and His redeemed are gathered to Himself, is what answers to the place where He set His name of old. As so gathered He leads His saints into the heavenly sanctuary, and there draws out their hearts to offer the sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving. To get back to this simplicity, as it was at the beginning, may well be the desire of our hearts. Ever since the rising light of the Reformation there have been such stirrings of heart and conscience among the children of God;— yearnings after more of the simplicity of early days, with a larger appreciation of Christ, a separation from the unholy and profane.

It would be a grave blunder to make the scenes of Ezra typical of any one movement in Christendom. It rather has suggestive lessons by which saints may profit when any special work of gathering back to Christ in the Spirit’s power is going on. And this is one of the first and most important lessons. Such a movement must be of the working of grace. It cannot be a legal thing or all its freshness and power are lost. Hence the unwisdom of trying to force people into a position where grace has not been drawing them.

It is customary in some quarters to rail against human systems and to put the leaving them on people’s consciences as a matter of duty. By this means many take an outward place of separation who are not really drawn to Christ. It follows that such are very likely to be hard and legal in their ways and words, and will know little of that stirring of heart and attraction to the Lord Himself that we have pictured here in Ezra. The 5th verse tells us that certain of the chief of the fathers of Judah and Benjamin, together with priests and Levites, and “all them whose spirit God had awakened,” arose “to go up to build the house of the Lord which is in Jerusalem.” This was most precious to God. The voluntariness was a lovely evidence of grace working in their souls.

Some there were, perhaps the majority, who did not go up, and it is not for us to judge them as to this; for we cannot tell what natural hindrances there may have been. But the book of Esther is witness that God did not take the same pleasure in those who remained as in the company who “for the Name’s sake” ascended to Jerusalem. He watched over them still, but He did not link His name openly with them as He did with the rest.

There was no enmity or spirit of judgment between the two classes. Those who remained helped their brethren who went up “with vessels of silver, with gold, with goods, and with beasts, and with precious things beside all that was willingly offered” (ver. 6).

The action of Cyrus to which our attention is next directed, in separating the vessels that had of old belonged to Jehovah’s temple, from the treasure of the kings devoted to the heathen deities, is most suggestive, reminding us of the word of the Lord in 2 Tim. as to separating between vessels to honor and vessels to dishonor. What was of and for God must be purged out from the mixture. And this remains true for to-day.

The separated vessels are all numbered and committed to Sheshbazzar, called generally Zerubbabel (a stranger in Babel) the prince of Judah. It is noteworthy that this prince of David’s line claims no honors by virtue of his illustrious descent. It was a day of weakness and of small things. Zerubbabel therefore takes his place as one whose faith others can follow, but he claims nothing- as David’s son and heir.

This may speak to the hearts of those who today are exercised as to the lack of sign-gifts and who desire something great that the eye may see. The time for great things is over, the dispensation is closing in failure on man’s part as to all committed to him. It becomes those who really “have understanding of the times” to be through with pretension, and in simplicity to go along with the lowly. “The meek will He guide in judgment; the meek will He teach His way.”

Chapter 2:
Back To The Place Of The Name

It is to a sample-page from the books of eternity that we are next introduced. A leaf out of God’s memorial record is spread before us for our inspection. Similar specimen lists are given us in other parts of the book of God. Gen. 49 is one. The two accounts of David’s mighty men, as set forth in 2 Sam. and in 1 Chron., are of the same character. In Neh. 3 (and also in 7, where this 2nd of Ezra is duplicated), God shows how carefully He was taking note of each individual, each family, and the work they accomplished for Him. Rom. 16 is much on the same line, though at first sight only a chapter of apostolic greetings, and in Heb. 11 we have an honor-roll that shall yet be consulted at the judgment-seat of Christ. There is something peculiarly solemn about records such as these. Many, yea, most of the names in them are for us only names, but God has not forgotten one of the persons once called by these names on earth, and “in that day” He will reward according to the work of each. Some too must “suffer loss” for opportunities neglected, or half-hearted service. Nothing of good or ill shall be overlooked by Him who seeth not as man seeth, who looks not on the outward appearance but on the heart. How little did any of these devoted Jews of Ezra’s day think that God would preserve a registry of their names and families for future generations to read, and thus to learn how highly He values all that is done from devotion of heart to Himself and for the glory of His name!

“Now these are the children of the province that went up out of the captivity, of those which had been carried away, whom Nebuchadnezzar the king of Babylon had carried away unto Babylon, and came again unto Jerusalem and Judah, every one unto his city” (ver. 1). And then follows the long list of forty-two thousand three hundred and sixty, besides their servants and two hundred choristers (vers. 64, 65). Even the number of their beasts of burden is recorded, for God takes note of all that may be connected with His people, if only in a temporal way (vers. 66, 67).

As one’s eye runs down the list of Hebrew names, there are many that stand out in a special way, and some have most suggestive comments attached.

In verse 2 we read both of a Nehemiah and a Mordecai: but the first must not be confounded with the writer of the next book, who came up later, after the re-building of the temple, and in accordance with the “commandment to restore and build Jerusalem,” mentioned as the starting point of the seventy heptads of Dan. 9: 24. Nor should the record be identified with the aged consin of Queen Esther, who remained in the city of Shushan, and so far as we know, never went up to Jerusalem after being carried away as a child (Esther 2:5, 6).

“The men of Anathoth,” of verse 23, recalls Jeremiah’s purchase of the field of Anathoth, so long before, and the sealed title-deeds awaiting their lawful claimant. It looked, like the height of folly to purchase a field in a doomed district; but faith looked on to the restoration, and now the long-expected day had come when the sealed scroll would prove of real value (Jer. 32).

It is noticeable that so few Levites went up at this time (ver. 40). Only seventy-four! A small company indeed, and what wonder if we look only at the human side of it. They were to have no inheritance save in the Lord. He alone must be their portion. But it took genuine faith to enable these dear servants of God to count upon His abundant resources at a time when neither wealth nor prestige were found among His remnant people. That a time of testing had soon to be faced we may see by consulting Neh. 13:10. If God’s people are going on with Him His servants will not be neglected, however little there may seem to be for sight to look upon. And on the other hand, if the people of the Lord do prove forgetful, it is for the servant to realize the more his dependence on God Himself—not on saints, however amiable and benevolent.

There were more of the children of Asaph, the temple singers, than of the Levites in Zerubbabel’s company (ver. 41). Of them one hundred and twenty-eight went up. The spirit of praise supports the soul and easily passes over rough ways.

Some there were who could not show their genealogy. “These were they that went up from Tel-melah, Tel-harsa, Cherub, Addan and Immer: but they could not show their father’s house and their seed, whether they were of Israel: the children of Delaiah, the children of Tobiah, the children of Nekoda, six hundred fifty and two” (vers. 59, 60). They formed a large company, but there was an uncertainty about their origin which was perplexing indeed. And, alas, of how many in Christendom to-day is this the case! Characterized by zeal and earnestness often, they are yet quite unable to give a clear, scriptural answer for the hope that is in them. We .need to beware of passing hasty judgment on such people; but, on the other hand, a degree of care and caution is needed, that is often resented, but which godly concern for what is dear to Christ demands.

Even of the priests, of whom more than a thousand went up (vers. 36-39), were there found some who could not fully establish their title to serve in Jehovah’s temple. “Of the children of the priests: the children of Habaiah, the children of Koz, the children of Barzillai, who took a wife of the daughters of Barzillai the Gileadite, and was called after their name: these sought their register among those that were recorded by genealogy, but they were not found: therefore were they, as polluted, put from the priesthood, and the Tirshatha (Governor) said unto them, that they should not eat of the most holy things, till there stood up a priest with Urim and with Thummim” (vers. 61-63). These were not declared positively to be laying false claim to the priestly title; they were simply set to one side because they could not prove it, until an inspired priest should rise up who could speak with authority.

So we may well treat some now, who cannot trace their genealogy, but nevertheless insist on the Christian place as rightfully theirs. We dare not say they are not born of God—and those who do so essay to speak are guilty, of gross presumption; but we cannot own them as such till they can give clear evidence of being indeed of the priestly company and partakers of the divine nature. We can in such case but fall back upon the word, “The Lord knoweth them that are His,” and wait until our Great Priest shall Himself pronounce authoritatively as regards them. Till then, we dare not give them the full Christian place; and if they resent the seeming discourtesy, it but indicates a state of soul that calls for self-judgment and repentance.

The 68th and 69th verses show that God was taking note of what was given with a willing heart “for the house of God to set it up in its place.” And when the journey was ended, and the returned company stood upon the site of the ruined city where the Lord had set His name, the desolation did not lead to despair, but stirred afresh the hearts of “some of the chief of the fathers,” who “gave after their ability” of both silver and gold and garments for the priests. And all this ere even the altar had been set upon its base. It was a gracious work, surely, and evidenced the healthful spiritual state of these aged men, who longed to see the temple rise from its ashes ere being called hence.

It is to be feared that very few Christians are faithful in giving after their ability. The rule laid down in 1 Cor. 16:2, “Upon the first day of the week, let each one of you lay by him in store as God hath prospered him,” is one that seldom claims a second thought with many. At the weekly gathering a coin is dropped in the box, often with no previous forethought, and certainly not as a result of a prayerful laying by at home according as God has prospered the giver during the past week. Were this generally acted upon, there would be no dearth of means to carry on the work of the Lord in the home and foreign fields, nor any lack of provision for the poor among the saints. God will never forget that these fathers of old gave according to their ability. Will He forget that many have done nothing of the kind?

Verse 70 closes the chapter with the statement that the priests and Levites, the singers and porters, and the Nethinims2 dwelt in their cities, “and all Israel in their cities.” Who would have expected to read of “all Israel” at such a time as this! Yet God sees in this weak and feeble remnant a company occupying the ground of all Israel, and He refuses to consider the nation other than in its unity.

So to-day, it is not possible to re-gather the whole Church of God in one outward visible unity. But it is possible for a feeble few to meet on the ground of the Church of God, refusing all sectarian names and ways, “endeavoring to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.” The last phrase must never be forgotten. When strife and discord come in the unity of the Spirit is at once violated. It can never be forced. It is a practical thing, maintained alone as believers walk in the Spirit and recognize in each other all that is of God, while each one individually seeks to “follow peace with all men, and holiness, without which no man shall see the Lord.”

In no other way can the unity of the Spirit be truly kept. The unity of the body of Christ is in no sense in our keeping. “There is one body”—only one; and no failure on man’s part can alter that. But we are responsible to act on the ground of that one body, in accordance with the Word, “The loaf which we break is it not the communion of the body of Christ?” (1 Cor. 10:16.) Thus in the very act of breaking bread at the table of the Lord, we set forth our unity as members of the one body. Why should we then recognize any other body—any narrower circle?

In principle, christian fellowship, to be scriptural, must embrace all believers; but just as of old there were those whose register could not be found, so now there are many whom one dare not say are not believers, with whom those who would maintain the truth of God cannot have fellowship, because of their doctrine or manner of life. And under this latter heading must be included the being partakers of other men’s sins, by associating with what is unholy and defiling. It is here that faith is tested; for only godly discernment can enable saints to act consistently without human rules and regulations, owning all fellow-members of Christ’s body, but walking only with those who, following “righteousness, faith, love, peace, call on the Lord out of a pure heart” (2 Tim. 2:19-22).

Chapter 3
The Altar And The House

There is an evident hiatus to be understood between chapter 2 and 3; but of how long a time we have no record. Doubtless there were weeks, or possibly months, of earnest labor, in which the returned remnant builded homes for themselves, and made preparations for the re-building of the desolated temple by clearing away the rubbish and debris that marked the impiety of the Babylonian conqueror.

At last the seventh month, the month in which the Feast of Tabernacles was celebrated of old, had been reached, and it was decided to set up the altar of Jehovah at once, and with the word of God as their only guide to seek to carry out the instructions as to its observance. There could be nothing so grand nor so stable as of old, but it would be of the same order; and the Word was as truly sufficient for direction and “instruction in righteousness” as in the palmiest days of the fathers.

There was no thought of substituting human expediency for what God had spoken through Moses in the distant past. No one was called on for ideas or suggestions as to the most suitable way to act in these their adverse circumstances, and under such different conditions to those of old. They simply searched the Scriptures, and when “they found it written,” that was an end of controversy. The Bible was their, authority; expediency was barred out.

This is a principle of all importance to any who to-day value the divine approbation above the approval of carnal men. The Scriptures are (alp sufficient still. They contain all the instruction needed for the guidance of those who would be faithful to God in any particular period of the Church’s history. The moment expediency usurps the place of subjection to the revealed will of the Lord, the whole principle of faith is given up, and a walk by sight takes its place. For we cannot walk by faith except as we yield unhesitating obedience to the word of God, which leaves no place for human will or human arrangements.

In the first verse of this lovely chapter we have a beautiful picture of that unity which should ever characterize the children of God. “And when the seventh month was come, and the children of Israel were in their cities, the people gathered themselves together “as one man to Jerusalem.” This, is, indeed blessed. “Behold how good and how pleasant a thing it is for brethren to dwell together in unity! … There the Lord commanded the blessing, even life for evermore” (Ps. 133). It is of this we have an example, delightful to contemplate, in the case before us. The people were gathered together as one man to the place of the Name; and in full accordance with the psalm just quoted from, “The Lord commanded the blessing.” Of this the balance of the chapter affords ample proof. It was fulfilled again in wondrous measure at the beginning of the Church’s history: “When the day of Pentecost was fully come, they were all with one accord in one place.” (Acts 2:1). And what was the happy result? Nothing less than the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, the baptism whereby the one body was formed, the conversion of three thousand persons, and the edification of the whole company, while the name of the crucified Jesus was with great power magnified and lauded.

When we look back to the Church’s natal day, and contrast the sweet and holy unity then manifested, with the heart-breaking divisions and cruel separations now seen among Christians, we may well weep and cry, “O Lord, how long?”

Heal all these schisms we cannot; but we can judge the whole thing as of the flesh, and, turning from all we learn to be contrary to the mind of God, cease to own any narrower body than the body of Christ; refuse allegiance to any other head than Him who sits at God’s right hand; and, while gathering back to the one only Name—turning away from all that bears the Babylonian trade mark—open our hearts, “to all who call upon the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, both theirs and ours,” and thus, in obedience to the word of God, we may yet “endeavor to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.”

So stirring a theme tempts us to wander from our subject, but space and time alike forbid; so we turn back to consider what is further presented for our learning and admonition in the verses that follow.

The altar of the God of Israel (not of the few re-gathered ones, be it noted—but of the whole nation which, though scattered and peeled, is seen by faith in its integrity), was rebuilt by Jeshua the son of Jozadak and his brethren the priests, together with Zerubbabel and his brethren of the Davidic line. The testimony is both priestly and royal, even as Christians, whatever their weakness, are called of God a holy and royal priesthood, to worship in reverence and to show forth the praises of Him who has called us by His glories and virtue.

The rebuilding of the altar answers to the establishment of believers in the fundamental truths connected with the person and work of the Son of God. “We have an altar whereof they have no right to eat who serve the tabernacle” (Heb. 13:10). Christ Himself is our altar, for as of old it was the altar that sanctified the gift, so was it the perfection of Christ personally that gave all the value to His work. Therefore, in any true recovery of the Spirit’s inditing, it will always be found that Christ Jesus and His atonement are magnified. True revival there cannot be if He is not the soul’s object.

The altar established upon its basis—answering to the truth as to Christ and His work, set forth in accordance with the Word of God—the morning and evening sacrifices or burnt offerings were, without any delay, reinstituted. Now the burnt offering- speaks of Christ offering Himself without spot unto God, an offering and sacrifice of a sweet-smelling savor, as contrasted with the sin and trespass offering, wherein Christ made sins is set forth. As the highest offering, it speaks of the believer’s heart-felt appreciation of what Christ and His work were and are to God, leading to worship in spirit and in truth. Surely all is here in perfect and lovely accord. If the Lord Jesus be Himself before the soul, and His work be rested in, there can but be unceasing worship and adoration ascending in His name to the Father.

For the Christian, the Lord’s table should ever be linked with thoughts such as these. It is in a most distinctive way the eucharistic feast—a festival of thanksgiving in grateful acknowledgment of what our Lord in infinite grace has accomplished, and of the Spirit’s delight in contemplating the excellencies of His glorious person. Where this is indeed the case, participation in the Lord’s supper can never be a matter of legal, ritual, or lifeless form. It will be with a holy, chastened joy that the redeemed of the Lord will be found gathered by the Spirit to the precious name of Jesus, now made Lord and Christ, to remember Him.

The alacrity with which the remnant of Judah set about re-establishing the daily offerings and the set feasts is most refreshing to contemplate. There was a holy eagerness, a godly enthusiasm, to walk in the old paths which is delightful to dwell upon.

The feast of tabernacles was kept “as it is written,” and all the appointed burnt offerings made “according to the custom, as the duty of every day required” (ver. 4). There were apparently none to object that it was folly at so late a day to attempt to pattern all “according to the custom” of the early days of their glorious history. Had there been such an one, he would have been met by the firm, decided answer and rebuke, “It is written.” And for each believer this should ever be enough, outweighing all carnal suggestions, modern notions and unscriptural innovations.

The continual burnt offering, the special sacrifices of the new moons, and all the set feasts were properly provided for; and when willing hearts suggested at any time special thank offerings to the Lord, priestly hands were ever ready to attend to the temple requirements as Moses in the book of the law had given commandment.

And all this before the house itself was built, even as there must first be. true appreciation of Christ Himself and delight in His work ere there can be any proper entering into the truth of the house of God. The offerings began on the first day of the seventh month, but the work had not yet progressed far enough for the laying of the foundation of the house of the Lord. Indeed some nine months must have elapsed ere this house was properly begun (see ver. 8). But conjointly, we judge, with the setting up of the altar on its bases, money was given to the masons and carpenters, and full provision made to care for the temporal needs of those who were to bring cedar trees and rebuild the house, “according to the grant that they had of Cyrus, king of Persia” (ver. 7).

In the 8th verse, the date of the laying the foundation is given. It is said to be “in the second year of their coming to the house of God at Jerusalem, in the second month,” that the work of setting forward the house of the Lord began. They had come “to the house of God,” though to sense and sight there was only a blackened ruin before them! What a withering rebuke is this to man’s unbelief. All that is of God abides, however we may fail in maintaining it.

We often speak, and rightly, of the truth as to the Church being lost for over a thousand years after Romish usurpation and Judaistic legality had made the special ministry of Paul to be all but forgotten. But though the truth might be lost, so far as man’s apprehension of it was concerned, the fact of the Church—both as the, body of Christ, and the, house of God—remained, though only to be recovered to the knowledge and heart of God’s people when faithful men turned from human traditionalism to Christ Himself, and from human authorization to the Word alone. Then how soon did the Spirit begin to work in revealing the long-lost truth as to God’s habitation, “The house of God, which is the Church of the living God, the pillar and ground of the truth.”

The truth as to all this can never be known in power in one’s soul so long as practices and systems contrary to God’s revealed will are tolerated or endorsed. Hence is it true that the best view of all ecclesiastical systems is to be had outside of them, when the believer can take his stand in simplicity with God’s Word open in his hand and discern what is according to His mind, and what is but the product of the human will and fleshly energy. Then also can the outlines of the foundations of the house of God be discerned, and grace found to act in accordance with the truth now learned.

For we are not called to rebuild the Church. Such has been the vain dream of more than one great mind, only to result in a rude awakening as the ruin became worse than ever. We are simply called to get back to what is written, and act on the truth as though the ruin had never come in, while yet recognizing our feebleness and dependence.

Where there is fellowship in this, it is most blessed; and this leads us to notice a word for our times, found in this and the next chapter. I refer to the fellowship-word “together,” which we have already noticed in verse 1. In verse 9 we read: “Then stood Jeshua with his sons and his brethren, Kadmiel and his sons, the sons of Judah, together, to set forward the workmen in the house of God.” Here are “laborers together.” Then in verses 10 and 11, after telling of the priests, Levites, and the sons of Asaph standing in rank in their apparel, “when the builders laid the foundation of the temple of the Lord,” we learn that “they sang together by course in praising and giving thanks unto the Lord; because He is good, for His mercy endureth forever toward Israel.” Here they are praising together, each heart as one with every other, employed in exalting the loving-kindness of the Lord.

In the next chapter, verse 3, Zerubbabel and the rest, in answer to the Samaritans’ offer of assistance, say: “We ourselves together will build unto the Lord.” Thus they are builders together, raising the walls of the temple in holy, happy fellowship, and in separation from the unclean. And so would God ever have His people going on together, remembering that they have been “called unto the fellowship of His Son, Jesus Christ our Lord” (1 Cor. 1:9).

Turning again to verse 11, we note how the people were stirred when at last the foundation of the house of the Lord was laid. In their godly-exaltation at this slight measure of recovery, they “shouted with a great shout.”

But all were not so exuberant, for “many of the priests and Levites and chief of the fathers, who were ancient men, that had seen the first house, when the foundation of this house was laid before their eyes, wept with a loud voice; and many shouted aloud for joy: so that the people could not discern the noise of the shout of joy from the noise of the weeping of the people: for the people shouted with a loud shout, and the noise was heard afar off” (vers. 12, 13).

Youth is the period of enthusiasm and exuberance of spirit, while age is the time of sobriety and serious contemplation. Young men are apt to be over-sanguine looking on to the future; aged men, on the other hand, are likely to be reminiscent and unduly occupied with the past. It is often difficult for youth to comprehend the fears of the old and experienced regarding any new work in which they are involved. It is equally hard, frequently, for the elder men to recognize any special work of God entrusted chiefly to the young and in which they cannot share for long. They are too apt to forget their own youth; and as they think of ruined hopes would put the “brake on any who do not now occupy their standpoint. Hence much patience is ever needed in a movement such as we have been tracing. The young need grace, to profit by the godly, sober counsels the fathers, who, in their turn, need grace to rejoice in what God is doing through those as yet immature.

Critical, fault-finding old men, even though devoted saints, may be a great hindrance to young brethren, ardent in faith and love till chilled by continual carping or objecting on the part of their elders. On the other hand, cheery, fatherly brethren, who are ever ready to see God’s leading in any fresh work of His Spirit, who have grown old gracefully, and are “mellowing for heaven,” as one has put it, can be both helpers and counsellors of great value to their younger brethren.

There is room both for the weeping and the shouting. As we think of the failure of man to carry out, and hold fast, the truth committed to him, we may well shed tears. As we note the matchless grace of God, rising above all failure, and ever raising up a fresh testimony to His truth in times of declension, we may well shout aloud for joy. The two are not discordant, but blend in one majestic strain, of which the treble is carried by the joyous, youthful shouters, and the bass by the weeping patriarchs—all alike to the praise and glory of the God of all grace, who is also the God of infinite holiness and intrinsic righteousness.

Chapter 4
The Adversaries

The first discordant note in connection with this gracious symphony is struck in the chapter we are now to be occupied with, not however, at first from within, but from without; then affection those within so that the song of joy is silenced and a brief season of apathy supervenes.

There were those who, all along, had watched with a jealous eye the work of restoration going on at Jerusalem. They were the Samaritans, the descendants of the mixed races settled in the land by heathen kings after the capture of the ten tribes, who had long ago been carried away to Assyria, and have since been lost so far as positive identification by man is concerned.

We learn something of these conscienceless people by turning back a few pages in our Bibles, to 2 Kings, chap. 17; from ver. 24 to the end we have the record of these men who were brought from the various parts of the Assyrian dominions and settled in the land. At first they made no pretence at being anything but idolaters; but upon becoming alarmed by wild beasts increasing among them, they concluded they needed to know “the manner of the God of the land.” Entreating the king of Assyria for help, he sent unto them some of the captive priests of Jeroboam’s order, who “taught them how they should fear the Lord.” But the unreality of it all is seen in verses 32 and 33: “So they feared the Lord, and made unto themselves of the lowest of them, priests of the high places, who sacrificed for them in the houses of the high places. They feared the Lord, and served their own gods after the manner of the nations whence they had been carried away.” And their subsequent degraded state is depicted in the closing verse, in contrast to what God required of His people Israel.

These Samaritans were largely of the same character as thousands in this day of grace who make a profession of Christianity but have never even pretended to own Christ as Lord, and who know nothing of the saving value of His blood. They, too, fear the Lord, but serve their own gods; and it is a sad mistake for the believer to be linked up with such in Church fellowship. Such “Christians” as these will ever prove a snare and a hindrance, like “the mixed multitude” who came up with the children of Israel out of Egypt.

In the case before us, we learn that “when the adversaries of Judah and Benjamin heard that the children of the captivity builded the temple unto the Lord God of Israel, then they came to Zerubbabel, and to the chief of the fathers, and said unto them, Let us build with you: for we seek your God, as ye do; and we do sacrifice unto Him since the days of Esar-haddon, king of Assur, who brought us up hither” (vers. 1, 2). Their words sounded friendly, but their true character is given in the opening clause— they were adversaries. They sought the ruin of the little company to whom they made such fair protestations. These were indeed “the wiles of the devil.” Had they once gotten a foothold in the city of God they would have destroyed everything that bore the sign of His approval. To have received and encouraged them would have made the remnant company numerically stronger, but actually much weaker. It would have been admitting the enemy within the fortress. The safety of the people of God was in separation. They were set apart to Him whose name they bore. To mingle with the nations could but insure ruin and disaster.

Note the profession of these Samaritans. They declared that they too served the God of Israel,—but they could not go back far enough. They knew nothing of redemption by blood, nothing of Jehovah’s covenant-sign; they had not known God’s mighty works. What they knew was mere hearsay, and based on that was an empty acknowledgment of His power, while ignorant of His grace, and no subjection of heart to His will. How like the empty professions one so frequently hears. Men talk glibly of serving the Lord and having made a start for the kingdom, who know nothing of repentance toward God, and faith in our Lord Jesus Christ. Till such are brought to self-judgment before God, and heart-confidence in Christ as Saviour, they are only a hindrance to any Christian company, and will be adversaries to everything that is really of the Holy Spirit.

Yet the flesh hates to be accounted unfit to take part in what is of God. Natural men, however little place they have for the truth in their souls, resent being given the place the truth puts them in. So here, when Zerubbabel and Jeshua and the ancient men of Judah refused the help of these unholy Samaritans, great indignation was aroused. The leaders in Israel said: “Ye have nothing to do with us to build a house unto our God; but we ourselves together will build unto the Lord God of Israel, as king Cyrus, the king of Persia, hath commanded us” (ver. 3). The last words show how plainly they recognized their servitude, and felt the difference of present conditions from those of old. But withal there is a splendid boldness, an unequivocal declaration of adherence to the principle of separation, the neglect of which in the past had been responsible for all their troubles. It is the spirit of the 50th psalm—taking sides with God, who says to the wicked, “What hast thou to do to declare My statutes, or that thou shouldst take My covenant in thy mouth?”

This is divine independence; and only as believers learn to take this attitude toward the Christless profession around them, will they be maintained in integrity and uprightness before God. As a testimony for Him in the world, amalgamation with the ungodly cannot help them, and will only hinder saints. “Wherefore come out from among them, and be ye separate, saith the Lord; touch not the unclean, and I will receive you, and will be a Father unto you, and ye shall be My sons and daughters, saith the Lord Almighty” (2 Cor. 6:17, 18).

But this always provokes the ire of the wicked, who will ever be ready to make unsubstantiated charges of pride and pharisaism against those who would be faithful to God at whatever cost. So we read: “The people of the land weakened the hands of the people of Judah, and troubled them in building, and hired counsellors against them, to frustrate their purpose”—and this not for a brief season, but persistently, “all the days of Cyrus … even until the reign of Darius,” including the years of Ahasuerus (probably Xerxes). Thus their real nature is made manifest. If they cannot have a hand in the work, they will do their best (or, their worst) to ruin it. They cannot brook the refusal of their offer of fellowship; so, by spreading evil reports and misrepresenting the motives and actions of the separated company, they will hinder all they can. A letter is even drawn up and dispatched to the king, who is here called Artaxerxes, in which there is just enough truth to make it likely to accomplish its purpose, while the question at issue is not touched upon at all.

From chap. 4:6 to chap. 6:18 the language used is Chaldean, or Aramaic; so we have here undoubtedly transcripts of the actual letters that passed between the kings and their subjects.

It is significant that the first letter proceeds not exactly from the “nations” but from the societies settled in Canaan. (See vers. 9, 10.) The various names used are rather the names of clans, or guilds, than national designations. The little Jewish company’s exclusiveness drew out their hatred.

In their epistle they profess great concern for the king’s interests, and grave fears lest his revenues or honor be touched. They charge the Jews with rebuilding Jerusalem, with having set up its walls and joined the foundation (ver. 12). Now all this was flagrantly false, as Nehemiah’s record proves. No permission had yet been granted “to restore and build Jerusalem;” and this was not the work in which the remnant were engaged. They were rebuilding the house, or temple—not the city—of God; and their work is wilfully misrepresented.

The past history of Jerusalem is briefly reviewed, at least such part of it as would serve their purpose, and the charge is confidently made that the restoration of “the rebellious city” will mean the destruction of Persian power “on this side the river” (ver. 16).

The cunningly worded document accomplished its purpose, and a messenger soon returned with an imperial mandate declaring that search had been made, and all the evil accusations against Jerusalem as a centre of rebellion and sedition established. Then an order is given to “cause these men to cease, and that this city be not builded until another commandment shall be given from me” (vers. 17-21).

With this official communication in their hands, Rehum and Shimshai and their companions made a hasty visit to Jerusalem and caused the work to cease by force and power. Yet, clearly they acted with no real authority whatever, inasmuch as the matter of carrying out the decree of Cyrus as to the building of the temple had not been touched at all. That edict remained unrepealed, and had there been the energy of faith the work of restoring the house of God would have gone on despite the wrath of Rehum and his allies.

But already, first love had begun to wane, and we are told, “Then ceased the work of the house of God which is at Jerusalem. So it ceased unto the second year of the reign of Darius king of Persia” (ver. 24).

During the interval a period of apathy came in, so that the first energy, for what was of God declined, and each one began to think rather of his own comfort and the comforts of his family. They turned to building their own ceiled houses, to storing up goods, and to attending carefully to their own interests. Of this the prophet Haggai accuses them. For, it should be noted, the ministry of both Haggai and Zechariah comes in here. The reader might with profit turn from the present account and read thoughtfully the two books bearing their names, ere going on with Ezra’s record.

There is no hint of any suffering inflicted by the adversaries of the Jews while they were attending to their own interests. It was what was of God these wicked workers hated. To behold those gathered to His name devoting their time and strength to building for themselves excited no enmity, and the enemies’ purpose to stop the building of the house of God succeeded.

So it ever is, the world and the world-church are quite content to see Christians prospering in temporal ways. The line of demarkation soon goes down when riches increase and self-interest prevails. It is the spiritual prosperity, the energy of faith that offends the world; for when the light shines brightly, it exposes the selfishness, the pride, the hypocrisy of those who have a name to live but are dead.

Chapter 5
Prophetic Ministry

It has often been said, and truly, that it is one thing to occupy a right position, and quite another to be in a right condition. The remnant of Judah were in the right position when gathered back to the place of the Name. But we have just seen that they had dropped from the happy state in which they were when they first returned to Jerusalem, and had lapsed into a condition that made them easily disheartened.

What then was the remedy? Give up all and go back to the place they had left? Not at all; for they had God’s word for remaining where they were, and He could be depended on to send them suited ministry to arouse and revive that they might thus reach a healthier state.

Yet how often do we see the opposite of this. People learn certain lines of truth from the Word of God, and seek grace to walk in them. To do so involves a special position as gathering-alone to the name of the Lord Jesus in separation from what is unholy. But by and by the freshness of early days passes away, and a period of lethargy and apathy succeeds. The love of many waxes cold, and the dew of their youth is gone. What should those do who would be right with God? Forsake the position and go back to what they once left for Christ’s sake?

Surely not; but in the position cry to God for the Spirit’s ministry that there may be revival and blessing. Maintain the right position at all costs and cease not looking up to the Head for what each member needs.

But God’s eye was on His discouraged people, and in gracious concern for their state, He raised up among them Haggai and Zechariah, both “the Lord’s messengers in the Lord’s message” (Hag. 1:13). In the name of the God of Israel these two devoted servants exhorted the remnant to consider their ways, and be strong, or courageous, for they were directly under Jehovah’s care as brands plucked from the fire. Haggai dealt more especially with the consciences of the people. His are stirring, cutting words. Zechariah was commissioned to speak more to their hearts, enthusing them to holy boldness in view of the coming glory. Both lines of ministry were needed; for God’s people are possessed of conscience and hearty and each must be appealed to.

The immediate result was the stirring of spirit among the leaders. “Then rose up Zerubbabel the son of Shealtiel, and Jeshua the son of Jozadak, and began to build the house of God which is at Jerusalem: and with them were the prophets of God helping them” (ver. 2). Such was the happy effect of this Spirit-given ministry.

And, as might have been expected, their insolent adversaries are once more immediately active. Hardly have trowel and hammer begun to be used in the work of rebuilding or completing the house, when Tatnai, the Samaritan governor, and Shethar-boznai (new names to us), and their companions appear, and indignantly enquire, “Who hath commanded you to build this house?” (ver. 3.) To explain to men like these would have been useless, and would have been but casting pearls before swine. “The secret of the Lord is with them that fear Him,” and with no one else. Natural men could not understand a divine call and divine authorization. Therefore Zerubbabel and his helpers made no reference to the prophetic messages which had so stirred their own souls, but simply answered those fools according to their folly. “What are the names of the men that make this building?” they asked in their reply. This was but another way of saying that the business they were concerned in was one in which their questioners had no part or responsibility.

And though persuasion and threats were evidently used, “the eye of their God was upon the elders of the Jews, that they could not cause them to cease, till the matter came to Darius;” and then God so directed the king’s heart that he gave an answer of peace and encouragement.

The Darius here mentioned should not be con- founded with the king of the same name in Daniel 6. This was evidently the successor to Xerxes the Great, while the other was but a vice-king under Cyrus. The splendid reign of Artaxerxes, as he is called in this record, had come to an end, and Darius ascended the throne. To him therefore the enemies of the Jews addressed themselves in a lengthy epistle which, at first sight, is of a much more straightforward character than the one drawn up by Rehum and Shimshai. No false evidence as to rebuilding the city is manufactured, but the simple facts stated that “the house of the great God” was in process of construction, and “the work goeth fast on and prospereth.” One point is probably a falsification, in that they say, “We went into the province of Judea,” and beheld these things, as though their going there was only casual, without malice aforethought; whereas, as we know, it was deliberate hostility to the Jews that led them to thus trespass in a district where they had no authority; they were but evil-minded busy-bodies. This they skilfully endeavor to cover, and write as though a mere accident had given them to see what made them fear for the king’s honor.

It is a question whether in the light of verse 4, already noted, they are not drawing on a previous knowledge in putting the lengthy answer into the mouths of the elders which is given in verses 11 to 16. All this was actually done, but it hardly seems likely that it was made known to Tatnai and his friends at this particular time. It was, rather, what they had heard when the work first began—the very thing that had rankled in their minds for so long.

They tell how they had questioned these elders as to who had commanded them to build these walls; and then, for very shame, in place of the abrupt and contemptuous reply of the Jews, they tell that (which Zerubbabel apparently did not say) which would have a great effect upon Darius, in throwing him back upon the unalterable decrees of the Persian king.

They declare that an answer was given to this effect: That these builders were the servants of the God of heaven and earth3 and were restoring the house which a great king of Israel (whose name is evidently unknown to these plotters) had set up. But after their fathers had provoked the God of heaven unto wrath, He had permitted the Babylonian captivity, under Nebuchadnezzar, by whom the house was destroyed and the people carried away. But declaration had been made of what, to their minds, was evidently a most unheard of and preposterous thing: namely, that in the first year of Cyrus a decree had been given to rebuild this house of God; and that the vessels of that old and destroyed temple had been restored to these Jews with a command given to Sheshbazzar (the Persian name of Zerubbabel), who was reported to have been made governor, to take these vessels and carry them to the temple that is in Jerusalem, and “let the house of God be builded in his place.” Accordingly the said Sheshbazzar had come to Jerusalem and laid the foundation, and (here followed clear prevarication) “since that time even until now hath it been in building” (as though in contravention of the decree of Artaxerxes, which they supposed fully covered the case), “and yet it is not finished.”

These busy-bodies evidently felt sure that this entire report was without authentic foundation, so they urged that search be made to see if such a decree had ever been issued by king Cyrus, and loyally concluded, “Let the king send his pleasure to us concerning this matter” (ver. 17).

And so their letter was drawn up and despatched; and doubtless they felt assured that the king’s reply would put an effectual quietus upon the work of these obnoxious Jews, and forever stop the erection of a building which was as a sermon directed against their evil and idolatrous ways.

Meantime the work went right on, “for the people had a mind to build,” as we elsewhere read and the prophets of the Lord encouraged them in carrying out His revealed will, in holy independence of their active and crafty adversaries.

The result could not be in doubt, for God never fails faith. He always makes bare His arm on behalf of those who acknowledge the authority of His Word. He has said, “Them that honor Me I will honor, and they that despise Me shall be lightly esteemed.”

All that is needed is the faith that fears not the face of man, because the fear of the Lord which is the beginning of wisdom is upon the soul.

1 I have previously sent forth a little book called “Notes on the Book of Esther,”and have published a volume of “Lectures on the Book of Daniel.”The three post-captivity prophets are in measure expounded in my “Notes on the Minor Prophets.”If God will, a volume on “Nehemiah”will follow the present work.

2 A word of uncertain meaning; they are supposed by many to be the descendants of the wily Gibeonites.

3 Their addition of the words “and earth”shows their ignorance of God’s relation with Israel at that time.