Old Testament Passages Good for Every Christian to Know, Part 19
Old Testament Passages Good for Everyone to Know, Part 19 by Doug Jacoby
It's the 6th century BC. The northern kingdom of Israel had been exiled back in the late 8th century, and the southern kingdom of Judah beginning in the late 7th century. Outsiders have settled in the land. Returnees from the exile are beginning to rebuild the temple, completely destroyed by the Babylonians in 587 BC.
The heterodox (deviating from orthodoxy / correct teaching) inhabitants of the land offer to lend a hand—yet their assistance is roundly rejected. The question for the ancient Jews, as for us, might be framed: "How ecumenical should we be? To what degree should we cooperate with other groups claiming to follow God?" After all, Jesus warned us of wolves in sheep's clothing (Matt 7:15). How safe is it to link with outsiders? (Jesus' disciples had a similar concern (Mark 9:38-41).
When the enemies of Judah and Benjamin heard that the exiles were building a temple for Yahweh, the God of Israel, they... said, “Let us help you build because, like you, we seek your God and have been sacrificing to him since the time of Esarhaddon king of Assyria, who brought us here.” But Zerubbabel, Joshua and the rest of the heads of the families of Israel answered, “You have no part with us in building a temple to our God. We alone will build it for Yahweh, the God of Israel, as King Cyrus, the king of Persia, commanded us.”
- The Judeans receive an offer of assistance as they begin to rebuild the temple. Their would-be helpers claim to be devotees of the true God.
- Yet the Jewish leaders refuse, sensing this is not an offer in good faith.
- If the Jews' rejection of the offer strikes us as ungracious, observe how these people worshipped multiple gods—Yahweh was but one of many (2 Kings 17:24-41). There we see idolatry, disdain for Yahweh's covenant, and patterning of worship and sacrifice on the norms of the world. Yes, the population who had settled within geographical Israel worshipped Yahweh, but they also worshipped many other gods.
- The Persian king Cyrus's decree (539 BC), well known from archaeology, authorized and even funded the restoration of the temple. Yet he did not feign allegiance to Yahweh. (He was a Zoroastrian—supreme god: Ahura Mazda.)
Then the peoples around them set out to discourage the people of Judah and make them afraid to go on building. They bribed officials to work against them and frustrate their plans... (Ezra 4:1-5).
- Their refusal to affiliate was well grounded for another reason: active opposition. Persecution doesn't always prove we're doing right, of course, but when we are opposed for following God, it may be a sign we're on the right track. (See Luke 6:22-23, 26; Phil 1:27-28; 2 Thess 1:4-5; 2 Tim 3:12.)
- The Jews' opponents had no qualms about collaborating with corrupt officials in order to get their way. So it seems the Jews were right to decline the offer of collaboration. (For a similar dynamic, take a look at Neh 6.)
What about us?
We don't live in the 6th century BC, but we do have to make decisions about which groups to cooperate with.
- Now if we insisted that everyone hold to our every teaching, minutiae included, we'd end up in a club of one. Not all doctrines and practices are equally important, after all (Matt 23:23). True unity consists not in total agreement, but in staying connected even when we may not see eye to eye. Further, your church is hardly the only one teaching the gospel message and striving to live it out.
- Yet if we throw open the doors to every group claiming to be spiritual, we might destroy the work of Christ (Rom 16:17-18). What if a Muslim claimed to worship the same God as us, or someone else who denied the deity of Christ (perhaps a Jehovah's Witness)? Should we join forces? (See 2 John 7 for the answer.) The New Testament frequently warns us to be alert to the dangers of false teaching (Acts 20:30; 1 John 4:1).
- So we need to seek wisdom (Matt 10:16). In Ezra 4, there is little doubt that the locals respected neither them nor Yahweh's law. When the religious blatantly reject the Word of the Lord and imitate the customs of the world, God's people should keep their distance.
Next week: The final scripture in the 20-part series, from Nehemiah.