After several people send a letter to King Artaxerxes of Persia, sharing concerns about Jewish exiles who were rebuilding in Jerusalem, the king sends them a reply.
The king sent this reply:
To Rehum the commanding officer, Shimshai the secretary and the rest of their associates living in Samaria and elsewhere in Trans-Euphrates:
Ezra 4:17 NIV
While the NIV says “Greetings” here, the NASB says “Peace”. Either one is a good thing to hear from a king whose armies could probably replace you at his command. However, some translations suggest that “Peace” here is actually shalom, which could be a whole lesson in itself.
As the letter continues in verses 18-22, we learn that records about the history of Jerusalem had been found. However, like many “facts” that we hear, their interpretation is a matter of perspective.
For instance, when the united kingdom of Israel was ruled by Saul, David, and Solomon, it became powerful (before it fractured later on). So, it makes sense that Israel collected tribute from conquered people when it ruled over the region. The statement that Jerusalem had been paid “taxes, tribute and duty” (verse 20) was a matter of fact, and this was probably to be expected, given its political power during that time. This wasn’t the same as the present, when Persia ruled over that region and exiles had returned from Babylon to Jerusalem, but forgetting that things haven’t always been the same as they are today is a common mistake.
So, in the days of Artaxerxes, If you were from the nation of Israel, you probably remembered that Israel was a sovereign and powerful nation, which stood on its own and had been politically successful for a while. From that perspective, rebuilding God’s temple and the city of Zion would seem like the right thing to do, especially when God said that this would happen.
On the other hand, if you were a conquering empire like Persia, the present behavior in Jerusalem (i.e., rebuilding) would be a red flag in light of past events, and might justify shutting down projects that could lead to rebellion. In fact, given the earlier letter sent to the king by Israel’s enemies, he (the king) chose to interpret the history of Jerusalem in a negative light, and called for the rebuilding in Jerusalem to be stopped.
There’s more that went on here after the king’s letter was sent (to be discussed in upcoming articles), but let’s pause here and consider how the same facts about Jerusalem’s history could be interpreted in different ways, depending on one’s perspective.
A simple statement (even if technically true), can become a weapon when taken out of context, especially when shared by someone with an agenda. This isn’t a new problem (given the example we have here from the book of Ezra), but it is one that we can work together to address.
This is why – as a pastor at our church said – we should avoid studying a single verse from the Bible at a time. The Bible was written at a larger scale, and while the verse divisions (added later in history) make it easy to find a particular passage by book, chapter and verse, we must look at the larger context to understand what a particular statement means.
In the same way, it’s probably good for us to put ourselves in other people’s shoes from time to time, so that we can understand them better. Even when we disagree with someone else about a particular topic, considering why they have come to a different conclusion can help us empathize with them, and maybe even help them see our point of view as well.
And finally, let us now weaponize facts ourselves. When we take a truth and distort it to our own selfish means, not only are we are being dishonest, but we are also disrespecting what that truth – in its proper context – has to teach us.
Now, there are a couple of options to interpret when the preceding events took place, but verse 24 confirms that (in the context of previous chapters) the altar and foundation of the temple had been reconstructed, but – at some point after that – things got put on hold.
That’s not the end of the story, though. Let’s continue in the next article with the first couple verses of Ezra chapter 5 (or, just read them here: Ezra 5:1-2).
From Sunday School lesson prepared for January 15, 2023
- The Lookout, January 15, 2023, © 2022 Christian Standard Media.
- Scripture taken from the Holy Bible, NEW INTERNATIONAL VERSION®, NIV® Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.® Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.
- Scripture quotations taken from the NASB. Copyright by The Lockman Foundation.
- The College Press NIV Commentary – Ezra-Nehemiah, by Keith Schoville. © 2001 College Press Publishing Co.