The leaders of the returned exiles wished to provide them with a temple-centered theological vision. For Ezra, rebuilding of the temple so naturally accorded with rebuilding the whole of Jerusalem that he could write about the latter and the former without pausing to dip his pen. But Ezra recorded that those rebuilding faced sharp political opposition.
The non-Jewish inhabitants around Jerusalem opposed temple construction (Ezra 4:1-5:5). Initially “the enemies of Judah and Benjamin” (Ezra 4:1) proposed to join in the work; what better way to defile the construction than from within? Yet Zerubbabel and company saw through the scheme of their opponents, answering with devotion both to the Lord and to the Persian king who had authorized their work. The early opposition described here anticipated the difficulty Ezra and Nehemiah would later endure while building the wall around Jerusalem (Ezra 4:6-23). Re-establishing Israel’s system of worship at the temple in Jerusalem would not be for the fainthearted. The prophets Haggai and Zechariah “prophesied to the Jews who were in Judah and Jerusalem, in the name of the God of Israel who was over them” (Ezra 5:1) and the people continued the work.
Those who initially opposed construction, seeing that their attempts to frustrate construction of the temple had failed, took their case to Tattenai, the governor of the region. He in turn inquired as to who gave the Jews the authority to rebuild their temple. In Tattenai’s mind, if the Jews were slowly working toward a theocracy independent of, and potentially in rebellion to, Persia, then the project demanded his closest attention.
Ezra recorded that the Jewish elders were forced to appeal to Darius (Ezra 5:6-6:13). He was the Persian ruler after Cyrus, the king who had originally commanded the Jews to return and build the temple (Ezra 1:1-4). Darius searched the records of the Persian kings and ruled in favor of Zerubbabel and his cohort (Ezra 6:1-12). Darius went a step further than Cyrus. He decreed, “The cost is to be paid in full to these men out of the royal revenues from the taxes of the region west of the Euphrates River, so that the work will not stop” (Ezra 6:8). Darius declared that the people should continue to make sacrifices, even praying for him and his sons (Ezra 6:9-10), and threatened execution upon any who interfered with the work (Ezra 6:11-12)!
With the seal of the king to back their work, the returned exiles completed the work and dedicated their new temple to the Lord (Ezra 6:14-22). They were yet encouraged in the work by the work of the prophets Haggai and Zechariah. When the temple was completed, “the Israelites, including the priests, the Levites, and the rest of the exiles, celebrated the dedication of this house of God with joy” (Ezra 6:16).
Ezra noted that the returned exiles celebrated by sacrificing an abundance of animals and by separating themselves “from the uncleanness of the Gentiles of the land” (Ezra 6:21). Ezra’s statement provides a window for observing Scripture’s storyline. Ezra knew that if the nations were allowed to co-habit with Israel, Israel would be polluted and turned away from worshipping the Lord from a pure heart. Unfortunately, Israel failed just as Moses predicted (Deut 30:1-6). The New Testament records that purity before God is found only in Jesus Christ and is available to all peoples.
(1) Even at the outset of Jesus’ ministry, He challenged those who complained about His hospitable association with the unclean. After Matthew was converted, he gave a banquet for his friends. When the Pharisees observed Jesus eating with tax collectors and sinners, they were infuriated that He—a religious leader—had not followed the pattern that Ezra and the ancestors had established (Matt 9:9-13//Mark 2:15-17//Luke 5:29-32). “The healthy don’t need a doctor,” Jesus retorted, “but the sick do. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance” (Luke 5:31-32).
(2) At the outset of Paul’s ministry, he confronted those who argued that Jews should separate from Gentiles, even those in Christ. Paul wanted the Galatians to understand that Christian spirituality is not based on adherence to laws of separation but the outworking of love and truth by the Spirit for those who belong to Christ. So when Peter came from Jerusalem and led Barnabas to separate from the Gentiles at meals, Paul opposed him publicly saying, “If you, who are a Jew, live like a Gentile and not like a Jew, how can you compel Gentiles to live like Jews?” (Gal 2:14).