Facing Opposition

When discussing the adverse effect that opposition has to the plans of the people of God it is natural to lay the blame for any damage that is done upon those that oppose the work. However the net result of any battle is usually determined by the difference in strength, ability and application between the two sides. If you wish to become more effective then it is your responsibility to grow and become stronger; it cannot reasonably be viewed that it is the responsibility of the opposition to grow weaker.

The efforts of the Jewish remnant to rebuild the temple after the return from captivity illustrate this point beautifully. Whilst it is recorded that they were skillfully, if deceitfully, opposed by Rehum and Shimshai in Ezra 4[1] I believe that the two chapters leading to the event suggest that they had already sown the seeds of defeat themselves. In fact from my reading of the passage they made no attempt to defend whatsoever. It may even be that some of them were relieved for an excuse to cease their labors.

The first problem facing the remnant was not really their fault but it was an inherent part of their constitution. It stems from the numbers that are buried within Ezra 2 and which we usually skip over. In total 42,360 people were numbered in the congregation although only 29,818 are itemized separately. This may be due to the fact that primarily the tribes of Judah and Benjamin were itemized[2] or that there was a difference in the age ranges counted[3]. However of those 29,818 itemized people 4,289 were priests and 341 were Levites.

Now whilst the Levites were allocated land they could till the priests expected to live from the temple offerings. When this system was inaugurated in Exodus it was not a particular burden to the Israelites. One twelfth of the population was Levite and one family within that were priests. Given that the Jews were expected to give one tenth of their income the 'ministerial' burden could be carried with resource left over. The situation here is very different. Almost 15% of the people were priests. Thus assuming the population was living barely above subsistence then everyone would have to give one and a half times their normal tithe just to support the ministry. This disparity between the size of the priesthood and the population's ability to support it is shown by the fact that they had over four thousand priests but only one hundred robes for them to wear[4].

The next problem they faced was certainly their own doing. In fairness their decision may have been entirely the correct decision. But there can be no doubt that they took upon themselves a burden that must have been significant. They inaugurated and maintained the full sacrificial schedule of the old covenant[5]. Even just including the feasts explicitly mentioned this required 730 lambs per year for the daily burnt offering[6], 24 bullocks, 12 rams and 84 lambs per year for the new moon offering[7] and 71 bullocks, 15 rams, 105 lambs and 8 goats for the feast of tabernacles. This is close to a thousand sheep and a hundred bulls per year. Further the majority of these were burnt offerings; none of the food was eaten. Thus this requirement was in addition to the support of the priesthood.

We don't know exactly what proportion of their livestock this constituted but we do know that their other animals, except asses, were measured in hundreds[8] and can therefore assume that this was a significant drain on resources. It should be remembered that the original sacrificial system was designed to be supported by a population of over half a million; here less than one tenth were attempting to support the same system.

Again we are not explicitly told if God approved of their decision but we do know that it was led by the priests[9] and the Spirit does comment[10] that the foundation of the temple had not been laid. Given that the rest of the narrative makes that clear I wonder if the Bible is suggesting that they had done things in the wrong sequence. The Lord had brought them back without the sacrificial system and yet they had restarted it before even beginning to create a location for God to dwell in their midst. One may even ponder if the priests wanted the system in place to give themselves something to do and perhaps even raise funds.

The account given of the commencement of building also takes a different slant once the numbers from Ezra two are taken into account. Israel had thousands of priests and a choir of three hundred and twenty eight[11] but they only had seventy four Levites[12] that could actually focus upon the work of building the temple. Ezra 3:10 then becomes extremely poignant; there were seventy four people laying the foundation of the temple and almost four and a half thousand people watching and celebrating the fact.

However I believe the most disturbing incident of the prelude chapters comes in Ezra 3:12-13. We are told that many of the priests, Levites and older men wept at the laying of the foundation. Whilst this may perhaps be understandable my own experience tells me that it can have a devastating effect on the younger population. The majority of the workers and those giving very sacrificially to maintain this religious hierarchy had not seen the previous Temple; of any Temple to the true God. They finally had achieved something that could inspire and encourage them to still greater labors. And a whole group of respected leaders and mentors decided to spoil the occasion by bewailing that the current temple was not as good as the previous.

This would have been a good time for someone to take control. Someone could have pointed out that the previous temple may have been a glorious piece of architecture but spiritually the Lord had left and the temple attendants had been taken into exile for seventy years. The priests could have reminded the people of the promises and assurances that the pre-exilic prophets had given. Instead the wailing, singing and shouting was allowed to continue so that no-one for miles around really had a clear idea what was going on. We already know that fear of the local population had grown upon the people[13] and now we must assume they went home confused as well.

With this back drop that was entirely a function of the Jews themselves we have an ideal opportunity for the adversaries to attack; which of course they did. The first wave of attack was an offer of assistance; let the Jews compromise and the population would co-operate. This attack was rebuffed[14] by the leaders of Israel. What we don't hear is that the congregation was a part of this conversation; we don't even know if they knew. What we do know is that adversaries were able to weaken the people of Judah[15]. This is easy to understand. The people were confused and struggling and an offer of assistance had been rebuffed: moral would naturally drop in that situation.

The adversaries however had another plan; they wrote to Artaxerxes. The key to this letter is Ezra 4:12. The writers of the epistle actually lied: the lie was blatant and provably false. Yet we don't hear of any attempt to rebut the lie. They claimed that it was the city and the walls that were being rebuilt. Yet it was simply the Temple itself that was being labored upon. The writers also failed to mention that the rebuilding of the Temple had been fully authorized by Cyrus. In some very real sense the attackers were fully responsible for what they did which was a direct assault upon the purposes of God.

The King had only received one side of the story and therefore he acted upon what he knew; he sent back authorization to stop the work. We are told that the adversaries then went to stop the Jews by force of arms[16]. We do not however hear of any casualties. We don't hear of any underground movement forming. We don't hear of work continuing secretly by night. We also don't hear of any letter being written to Artaxerxes in appeal. Vitally we don't hear of the congregation going before God and pleading in prayer. It would appear that the work simply ceased and remained stationary for over a decade. My impression, although I cannot really substantiate it biblically, is that the people were probably glad to have an excuse to stop.

That said, the rebuilding of the temple documented in Ezra 5&6 does add some support to this argument. The Jews again start building and the adversary again comes to investigate. But there are two significant differences. Firstly in Ezra 5:5 we are told the eye of God was upon the elders of Israel that the work should keep going. This time the people didn't want to stop, they wanted to keep going. Secondly Tatnai appears to have written a far fairer letter than his predecessor. Clearly this was the hand of God but we also have reason to believe that the Jews handled the opposition far better than previously. In Ezra 4:3 the inquirers we essentially told: "We are allowed to do this and want to do it ourselves - go away". The letter of Tatnai however reveals that he had been given a lot of information about the situation some of which must have been fairly humiliating for the Israelis to recount[17]. We perhaps see therefore that whilst we must do certain things entirely ourselves as believers our handling of outsiders and particularly those in authority can significantly alter our ability to function.

I have deliberately not drawn any parallels between this passage and the modern church. Anyone with experience in this area will almost certainly have been able to draw the points out without assistance. There are churches that struggle to support a staff that is larger than the congregation justifies. There are churches that struggle to maintain a program that was initiated under a much larger congregation. There are regrettably many older folk who appear to deem it their mission to inform the young just how inadequate their current results are compared to 'their day'. There is often a lack of firm leadership and clear explanations that would allow the laity to understand the issue involved. Many important and potentially controversial decisions are made behind closed doors and those affected are left to speculate upon the reasoning. And finally there is an adversary who will lie, cheat and simply not play fair.

It could be argued that this essay has not fulfilled the mandate of its title. It is supposed to be about facing opposition and yet the opposition has constituted by far the smallest portion of the essay. This is deliberate. We cannot control who attacks us, how they attack us or whether they play fair. We are in a war and must presume that the adversary will do whatever it takes to try and win. We have only two things to remember. Firstly we have God on our side which ultimately guarantees us victory[18]. Secondly we can control and improve our function as a body of believers, and it is our responsibility to do so.


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