Building in peace
“Then work on the house of the God in Jerusalem ceased, and it was stopped until the second year of the reign of Darius king of Persia.” Ezra 4.24
This sentence is full of lessons for us as Christians today. It seems quite straight forward. They took a break from working on the temple and after a few years, they began to build it again. The story of Ezra is about the rebuilding of the temple after the Israelites’ exile in Babylon. As we read the story of Ezra and chapter 4 in particular, there is strong opposition to the building of the temple. This opposition isn’t just harassment of the Jews. Instead, the inhabitants of the land found political means to undermine the work that they were doing. They wrote a letter to the emperor spinning the truth and calling their works evil and revolutionary. ‘Once they finish building their city, they will rebel against you, O Artaxerxes!’ Artaxerxes in response searched the Persian history books to see what kind of people the Jews were. His archives said that they were prone to rebellion, and that they were once a great kingdom receiving tribute. So Artaxerxes put an end to the building of the temple to protect his rule.
The interesting thing for us to note today is the condemnation the Jews received for stopping the work on the temple. The contemporary prophets Haggai and Zechariah prophesied against the Jews because they stopped building. To us it is quite reasonable not to put up a fuss if the emperor puts a stop to your work. But listen to what Haggai says to the Jews: ‘Is it time for you yourselves to dwell in your paneled houses while this house (the temple) lies desolate?’ So from God’s point of view neglecting what God wants (rebuilding the temple) is not excusable if the government forbids it (Artaxerxes’ letter).
But this isn’t the complete story. As an American, it would be easy to say that we then ought to revolt because of these unjust laws and decrees. The Jews don’t do this. Once the Jews realized their fault, they sent a letter to Artaxerxes showing that they were in the right. They took care in this instance not to provoke their overlords. This principal is carried over into the New Testament in 1 Peter 2 where he encourages his hearers to submit themselves to every human institution and in doing right, you may silence the ignorance of foolish men. In the same section, he encourages his hearers not to use their freedom as a covering for evil, but use it as bondslaves of God.
So in considering these three passages, the principal comes out that we Christians, who live as foreigners in this land whose home is not of this world, ought to live in a non-provoking way so much as we can. We ought to seek to live faithfully as Christians in the place God has put us. Our hope is in Christ and the salvation he bought us as we anticipate his return. We are witnesses of the redemption brought to us by Christ, and our desire as we live on this earth is that others might come to know this redemption as well. We ought to cultivate within ourselves humility as we respond to everything, and we ought to consider how we can best use the political process to promote the good that we can whether that is writing a letter to the emperor, voting, or even running for public office as the opportunity arises so long as our Christian convictions are not compromised. We live this way because our desire is to serve God and not man. He alone is worthy of our devotion, and our conduct ought to be in accord with this devotion. What a glorious God we serve.