Beware so-called friends

Ray Stedman on Ezra 4-5 (from a sermon “Ezra: The Way Back”)

rebuild wallThe third factor in this return under Zerubbabel is the opposition that immediately develops, as we read in chapters 4 through 6. A force is at work in every human heart, as in world affairs, that immediately rises up to oppose everything that God attempts to do. A force is found in every human individual that resists with enmity and hatred the work of the Spirit of God. This force immediately manifests itself here, and there is a great lesson in how it does so. This opposition first appears as friendly solicitude. Chapter 4, verses 1 and 2:

Now when the adversaries of Judah and Benjamin heard that the returned exiles were building a temple to the Lord, the God of Israel, they approached Zerubbabel and the heads of fathers’ houses and said to them, “Let us build with you; for we worship your God as you do, and we have been sacrificing to him ever since the days of Esarhaddon king of Assyria who brought us here.” {Ezra 4:1-2 RSV}

Incidentally, this is the beginning of the Samaritans, who frequently appear in the New Testament. These Samaritans, worshipping the same God said, “Let us help you. We would like to join with you in this enterprise. You are rebuilding the temple. Fine. We would be glad to help.” They come with an earnest, openhearted, friendly wish to participate in the work. A very subtle request, isn’t it? It is not very difficult to say no to an enemy who breathes fiery threats of slaughter. But when he comes dripping with solicitude and offers to help in your projects, it is very difficult to say no. The only way you can do it is with a heart that is willing to be obedient to the word of God, as these people were. We read in verse 3:

But Zerubbabel, Jeshua, and the rest of the heads of fathers’ houses in Israel said to them, “You have nothing to do with us in building a house to our God; but we alone will build to the Lord, the God of Israel, as King Cyrus the king of Persia has commanded us.” {Ezra 4:3 RSV}

That may have seemed a bit churlish, but it was not mere capriciousness that made them reply that way. God had commanded that Israel was not to fellowship with other nations, or to engage with them in enterprises that concerned the faith. What does this mean? That it was wrong for one nation to intermingle with another? No, this has been twisted and distorted, and applied today to situations in which it has no application. It means simply that God rejects utterly the philosophy of the world in carrying out his work in the world. There is a worldly religion. There is a philosophy that tries to interject worldly concepts, worldly philosophies, and worldly methods into the lives of God’s people. God has simply made it clear that these are to be rejected. The philosophy with which the world would defend its actions and its attitudes is quite contrary to the work of the Spirit of God. The world reflects the spirit of the devil, who is the god of this age, in the philosophy, “Advance yourself. Do this for your own glory. Use religious ways to advance your purposes and win admiration, power, fame, or whatever your heart desires. Use religious ways to achieve self-satisfaction.” God rejects this principle here.

The veil of friendship that was offered quickly turns to hatred. In verses 4 and 5:

Then the people of the land discouraged the people of Judah, and made them afraid to build, and hired counselors against them to frustrate their purpose, all the days of Cyrus king of Persia, even until the reign of Darius king of Persia. {Ezra 4:4-5 RSV}

And in the next two chapters is the story of how successful they were in stopping the work of rebuilding the temple. By deliberately attempting to frustrate these people, by mocking them and taunting them, they discouraged Israel from doing work that God had commanded. These so-called friends even used legal means to undermine Israel’s authority and right to build. This is what goes on any time anybody wants to stand for God. As Paul wrote to the Galatians, “The desires of the flesh are against the Spirit.” (Gal. 5:17) This is the picture that we have here, and the principle was quite successful. The work was stopped for sixteen years and the temple lay half-completed, overrun with weeds and grass. Again, worship ceased.

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