Sometimes the most challenging thing to face in life is the truth, but that won’t be the only obstacle we will find in front of us. One of those hard-to-face truths is that being on God’s side means being opposed by the world and, more to the point, the god of this world—Satan. Being a member of the Body of Christ means you have an adversary.
Theologian James Packer said, “Opposition is a fact: the Christian who is not conscious of being opposed had better watch himself for he is in danger.”
Our adversary has always been opposed to the people of God and every good work of God. One such example occurred over 2500 years ago when the Jews returned to Jerusalem from the Babylonian captivity to rebuild the temple.
“Now 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…” (Ezra 4:1,2).
In 538 BC, Cyrus, king of Persia, after defeating the Babylonians the year prior, allowed the Jews to return to Jerusalem to rebuild the temple (Ezra 1:1,2). In one of the most remarkable events of the Bible, God foretold all this long before it happened. While predicting the future is not unusual for the Bible, what sets this event apart is that God named Cyrus by name nearly two hundred years before his birth (one of eight people God named before their birth) and foretold that he would be the one who would cause the temple to be rebuilt (cf. Isa. 44:28; 45:1).
Keep in mind that this prophecy was before the temple was even destroyed and Judah was taken into captivity. A prophecy about rebuilding the temple not yet destroyed must have been a difficult truth to accept for Isaiah’s listeners.
And now, with God’s people back in Jerusalem and at work rebuilding the temple, doing what God wants and expects, what happens? An adversary arrives.
The timing should surprise no one and should serve as a lesson to us today! Satan always comes when God and His people are at work. Just as we see here in Ezra 4:1,2, “Now when the adversaries…heard that the children of the captivity builded….Then they came….”
This pattern of Satan is undoubtedly why demonic possession occurred as often as it did during Christ’s earthly ministry. With the Son of God on earth and at work in people’s lives, His adversary would also be.
It should be expected that when someone today comes to the saving knowledge of Jesus Christ, that person will quickly face opposition. We need to be in constant prayer for new believers, much like Paul and Timothy told the Colossians, “…praying always for you since we heard of your faith in Christ Jesus…” (Col. 1:3,4).
Who’s the Real Adversary?
The leaders of this return were Zerubbabel, the political leader from the line of David, and Jeshua, the High Priest (cf. Ezra 2:2; 5:2). They and the rest of those who came back to Jerusalem quickly found that despite having a commission from God, the work wouldn’t go unopposed. In this situation, Satan used the local population around Jerusalem to be his opposition. Does that sound like a familiar tactic?
“Then the people of the land weakened the hands of the people of Judah, and troubled them in building…” (Ezra 4:4).
Despite what our emotions or even our eyes and ears may tell us, it’s clear from Scripture that the true adversary isn’t other people, even unbelievers, but Satan and the rest of the fallen heavenly host. “For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places” (Eph. 6:12).
The name Satan means adversary. It is who he is and what he is. Thayer defines adversary as “an opponent in a suit of law.” Webster’s 1824 Dictionary likewise defines it as “an opponent, as in a suit at law.” Consider the prophet Zechariah’s vision about Jeshua, the High Priest, and Satan, Judah’s adversary.
“And He shewed me Joshua the high priest standing before the Angel of the Lord, and Satan standing at his right hand to resist him” (Zech. 3:1).
Zechariah is describing a vision of Jeshua (also called Joshua cf. Hag. 1:12,14) in a heavenly courtroom standing before the Angel of the Lord and representing the people of Judah. Standing opposed and accusing them was Satan.
Matthew 5:25, Luke 12:58, and Luke 18:3 (three of the five uses in the N.T.) all use adversary in relation to judges or magistrates. This is precisely how the “people of the land” troubled the people of Judah in rebuilding the temple. They “hired counsellors against them, to frustrate their purpose.…And…wrote they unto him [the king] an accusation against the inhabitants of Judah and Jerusalem” (Ezra 4:5,6).
These people will one day be called Samaritans, and their actions here are one of the reasons why there was so much hostility towards them during Christ’s day.
Much like Israel’s animosity toward the Samaritans described in the gospels, it would be easy for us to become frustrated with “the people of the land” around us and develop bitterness towards those who oppose what is good. We too, could rationalize our bad actions as being justified. Yet another one of those very challenging truths we face is that we are told, “Bless them which persecute you: bless, and curse not” (Rom. 12:14), “Recompense to no man evil for evil. Provide things honest in the sight of all men” (v. 17), and “Be not overcome of evil, but overcome evil with good” (v. 21).
The truth can be hard to accept at times, and it can also hurt when we learn that we’ve failed to live up to it. Or we can accept what’s true, make the necessary changes, and be better off for it. This is the same situation our returning exiles had to face.
A Tactical Approach
We should note well that the people of the land didn’t simply try to weaken the hands of the returning exiles, but verse four is clear that they did weaken them. Verse 24 confirms the situation: “Then ceased the work of the house of God which is at Jerusalem.”
Getting them to stop the work on the temple was a problem for multiple reasons. At that time, the temple was where man could approach God and worship Him. Not having the temple rebuilt wasn’t simply a matter of pride for the Jewish nation, but a necessity for them to fulfill many of the requirements of the Law (cf. Deut. 12:11,14; 16:16).
Hindering the work of the Lord by creating fear, confusion, despair, and frustration is just as common today and just as successful. The Apostle Paul often wrote of his adversaries, those committed to preventing the work he was given to do. He also warned those who come after him to expect our adversaries to come, and what we should do.
“Only let your conversation be as it becometh the gospel of Christ: that whether I come and see you, or else be absent, I may hear of your affairs, that ye stand fast…striving together for the faith of the gospel;
“And in nothing terrified by your adversaries….
“For unto you it is given in the behalf of Christ, not only to believe on Him, but also to suffer for His sake” (Phil. 1:27-29).
Perhaps the greatest of Paul’s examples for us today is that he never allowed Satan’s opposition to stop him from ministry. And thus, he could say, “I have fought a good fight, I have finished my course, I have kept the faith: Henceforth there is laid up for me a crown of righteousness…” (2 Tim. 4:7,8 cf. Acts 20:24; 1 Cor. 9:24-27; Phil. 1:20). Ministry is work, and ministry must continue.
Another reason this work of rebuilding the temple needed to continue is that Jeremiah and Isaiah prophesied that both Jerusalem and the temple would be rebuilt (cf. Isa. 44:28; Jer. 30:18; 31:38). Not being done was not an option; the work needed to continue.
Something else for us to consider from the actions of these adversaries is that “they came to Zerubbabel, and to the chief of the fathers” (Ezra 4:2). They came to the leaders. It’s easy for people to condemn the actions of leaders, but we should also recognize that they are often the ones sitting directly in the line of fire of those in opposition. Leaders, political and within the church, need our prayers more than our ridicule.
The Oppressed Are Strengthened
“Then the prophets, Haggai the prophet, and Zechariah the son of Iddo, prophesied unto the Jews that were in Judah and Jerusalem in the name of the God of Israel, even unto them” (Ezra 5:1).
As a result of the building process being stopped, God raised up and sent two prophets to reprimand them for stopping, and encourage them to start building again.
“Thus speaketh the Lord of hosts, saying, This people say, The time is not come, the time that the Lord’s house should be built.
“Then came the word of the Lord by Haggai the prophet, saying,
“Is it time for you, O ye, to dwell in your cieled houses, and this house lie waste?
“Now therefore thus saith the Lord of hosts; Consider your ways.
“Ye have sown much, and bring in little; ye eat, but ye have not enough; ye drink, but ye are not filled with drink; ye clothe you, but there is none warm; and he that earneth wages earneth wages to put it into a bag with holes.
“Thus saith the Lord of hosts; Consider your ways” (Hag. 1:2-7).
The people had not only stopped building God’s house and the city of Jerusalem, which was the very reason they were sent back (cf. Ezra 1:3), they instead had been building their own homes with extravagant features like wood paneled roofs (ceiled houses Hag. 1:4).
But God didn’t send His rebuke alone; He also sent the encouragement these people desperately needed.
“Yet now be strong, O Zerubbabel, saith the Lord; and be strong, O Joshua, son of Josedech, the high priest; and be strong, all ye people of the land, saith the Lord, and work: for I am with you, saith the Lord of hosts” (Hag. 2:4).
What a picture: when we feel ill-equipped for the work before us, or we’ve allowed fear and frustration to stop us in our tracks, even to get sidetracked to the point of being more concerned about our comfort than His glory, it is the Word of God that can strengthen and encourage us to get back on course—Like it caused twelve frightened apostles in hiding to come out from the shadows and boldly proclaim that they would not be stopped from the work that the Lord called them to do (cf. Acts 5:29).
Much like the time “there arose a great dissension” against Paul such that “the chief captain, fearing lest Paul should have been pulled in pieces of them, commanded the soldiers to go down, and to take him by force from among them, and to bring him into the castle” (Acts 23:10).
Was Paul struggling because of this? We don’t know; but we do know what Christ did: He spoke to him and encouraged him. “And the night following the Lord stood by him, and said, Be of good cheer, Paul…” (v. 11).
No wonder he could say at the close of his final epistle, “Notwithstanding the Lord stood with me, and strengthened me; that by me the preaching might be fully known, and that all the Gentiles might hear: and I was delivered out of the mouth of the lion” (2 Tim. 4:17).
Are we less equipped today because we don’t have a prophet declaring God’s Word? Must the Lord stand next to us to give us His Words to strengthen us? The Scriptures are just as capable of encouraging us today as God’s Word did at any other time.
And the Lord Will Stand Victorious
“The further the soul advances, the greater are the adversaries against which it must contend.” – Evagrius of Ponticus
The thing about God’s adversaries, they aren’t interested in what’s true or not. The “people of the land” used dishonest accusations against the Jews in the letter they wrote to the king to get the work stopped (cf. Ezra 4:16).
Another sure thing is that they will not stop—at least not until Christ Himself comes to put an end to it, which, praise God, He will do. Ezra and Nehemiah will lead two subsequent returns to Jerusalem, with Nehemiah facing much opposition. Whether it’s the 6th century BC, or today, the people of God must be ready to stand firm for the duration of the war and not simply a short-term battle. Zerubbabel, Jeshua, and the other 50,000 returning Jews successfully rebuilt the temple.
Call me rebellious, but in my way of thinking, the second temple should be referred to as Zerubbabel’s temple, not Herod’s. The Bible never calls it Herod’s temple, but God does give credit to a sometimes flawed yet faithful servant named Zerubbabel.
“…This is the word of the Lord unto Zerubbabel, saying, Not by might, nor by power, but by My Spirit, saith the Lord of hosts.
“Who art thou, O great mountain? before Zerubbabel thou shalt become a plain: and he shall bring forth the headstone thereof with shoutings, crying, Grace, grace unto it.
“Moreover the word of the Lord came unto me, saying,
“The hands of Zerubbabel have laid the foundation of this house; his hands shall also finish it; and thou shalt know that the Lord of hosts hath sent me unto you” (Zech. 4:6-9).