As we have already noted, the parallels between the post-exilic Jews in Jerusalem and our situation are many, and sometimes uncanny. And just like some of our tussles seem to go on and on, so did their legal wrangles go on and on.
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 5:1-17).
At the beginning of this chapter, the people are stirred up by the ministry of Haggai and Zechariah. They are then joined by the priesthood and the civil ruler (vv. 1-2). Then a new adversary, one Tatnai, came to them and challenged their work (vv. 3-4). But God was with the Jews and helped them to keep on working while the case was on appeal (v. 5). So Tatnai and the others sent off a letter to Darius (v. 6). The letter greeted him (v. 7), and then launched into their inquiry. They botched it, actually, thinking the facts were on their side, when they were not. They said the Jews are building rapidly (v. 8). They reported about their inquiry of the Jews, and they took down names (vv. 9-10). And then Tatnai reported the godly and accurate response of the Jews, concerning what they were rebuilding (v. 11). But the Jews’ fathers had angered God, and He gave them into the hand of Nebuchadnezzar (v. 12). Then Cyrus issued the decree to rebuild (v. 13), and on top of that, he gave back all the Temple vessels to Sheshbazzar (vv. 14-15). This same Sheshbazzar came to Jerusalem and laid the foundations of the Temple (v. 16). And that, oh king, is the cockamamie story the Jews told us. Could you please check it out (v. 17)?
Prophet, Priest and King:
In the New Covenant, the three great organizing branches of social order—prophet, priest, and king—are all combined in our Lord, the Lord Jesus. But in the time of the older covenant, the coming union of these three in Christ was typified by the three different groups. In the book of Zechariah, the union of priest and king is typified in the vision concerning Joshua and Zerubabbel. Here, we see the prophets explicitly included. Now that Christ has come, we still have civil government in the state, and prophetic and priestly ministry in the Church, but both of them are under Christ, the one in whom everything harmonizes. Without Christ the king, priest, and prophet, we have nothing but warring factions. If there is one idol that American Christians need to learn how to challenge, it is the notion that there can be such a thing as a secular state. There can (and should) be a non-ecclesiastical state, but this is very different from “secular.” Our current arrangement is nothing other than institutionalized confusion.
Tatnai the Officious:
So Tatnai, the governor on that side of the river, and Shetharboznai, and others, came bustling up. “What are you doing? Who told you that you could? And what are your names?” They got some information from the Jews, but the Jews did not abandon their work while the case was on appeal. When Tatnai and his friends got away, with their notebooks full, they sat down and composed their letter to Darius. In that letter, they recounted the Jews’ story of what they were doing with what appears to have been a serene confidence that this story couldn’t possibly be right. They ask the king to check his archives, knowing that nothing would be found there. This would come back to bite them later. This is a recurring scriptural theme—Hamaan being hanged on his own gallows, and industrious men with shovels falling into the pit they prepared for the godly. This is what happens to Tatnai, although you will have to wait for next week to hear him hit the bottom of that pit.
What the Builders Remembered:
The account of themselves that the builders gave, and which was recorded in the letter of their adversaries, was a full account in one important respect. They remember the glory days of Solomon (v. 11), which was fine, but the account had to be balanced. That accounts for why there was once a glorious Temple there, but what accounts for it needing to be rebuilt? The answer is given quite plainly in verse 12. Their fathers had not only built the Temple to the God of heaven, but their fathers had also provoked that God of heaven to wrath. Jehovah God was the one who ordered them into exile, which the great king Nebuchadnezzar acknowledged simply as an instrument. The implication is, in the next verse, that Cyrus was equally an instrument in the hands of a sovereign God. But here, recognize that the Jews confessed to their enemies that they were in the straits they were in because of the wrath of God. Judgment begins with the household of God.
The Application Today:
As we consider the relevance of this passage for us here today, we have to be careful not to simply treat it as an allegory—straight across—for our own time. A one-to-one allegory would go something like this: the Persian government is the federal government, the local intoleristas are Tatnai and company, the Jews are us, and so on. But we must be extremely cautious about this kind of thing, because in between this event in our text and our situation, something critical has happened, and we cannot interpret out lives correctly without taking it into account. What does this mean?
The government will be on His shoulder, Isaiah tells us. Jesus said, after His resurrection, that all authority in heaven and on earth had been given to Him. On that basis, He told us, we were to disciple the nations. Jesus, when He came to earth, arrived here preaching the coming of the Empire of God. So in this story, the Persians aren’t “the feds.” No human empire can ever be what human empires were before the coming of Jesus. This is because Christ is ruling here, now, and He is doing so through His appointed agents and means.
God, by definition, has always been sovereign. But this is a creational mystery. How can God steer every electron, and how can he decree the number of hairs on your head, or the behavior of sparrows in your back yard? But He does, and always has. He did this in the old covenant, and He does this in the new covenant. This is a necessary relation between Creator and created.
But when we talk about the kingdom of God, the empire of God, we are talking about something quite different. We are not talking about God’s decrees, how He rules creationally. We are talking about God’s salvation, and how He has determined to rule redemptively in Christ. In Christ, God’s grace and kindness have invaded, and God is now with us. Christ has taken on a form of a servant, a body which He will have forever and ever. Without surrendering His deity, He is fully man—the Incarnation was not temporary. Now Christ, as a man, has been made the mediatorial prince over the entire world. In the old covenant, principalities and powers were “behind the thrones” and pagan empires, like Persia, we held up and overseen by those spiritual forces. But now in Christ, this is all done away. Angels and various celestial beings no longer govern men as mediatorial princes, as they did in the Old Testament. But they were not removed so that autonomous man could try to govern instead—although some have tried it. Rather, now that Christ has come, man in Christ has dominion, and only man in Christ can have dominion. Everything else is just a futile attempt to escape, or a futile attempt to seize power. In Christ, God has made us kings and priests.
Now what does this mean? It means that we are not just Calvinists (although that is fine), resting in the final and ultimate decrees. We do not come to the Persians hat in hand, knowing that God will work it out for good at the last day. We live our lives knowing that Christ is the prince of this earth, that the empire is his, and that when our adversaries write their letters to the authorities, they are actually writing letters to Him.