For those of us who feel jaded by government and the course of public events, the story told in the first six chapters of Ezra teaches an important lesson. Here in brief is that story, which is recounted in this summer’s Adult Bible Study, “God’s People Worship” (Menno Media 2013).
After defeating the Babylonian army and absorbing that nation into the Persian Empire, King Cyrus authorized captive Judeans to return to their homeland around the city of Jerusalem and rebuild the temple. Some of the captives (along with their descendants) took him up on his offer and made the nearly 1,000 mile trek. Work on the foundation for the new temple, which had been destroyed nearly 50 years earlier, began soon after their return.
Many of the people who had been living in Judea before the return of the exiles were unhappy with this turn of events. We’re not told why. Perhaps they did not want Jerusalem re-established as the regional center of power as it had been under kings David and Solomon; stopping construction on the temple was their way of making sure Jerusalem remained unimportant.
And so they refused to support the building effort. Through bribes, they secured the opposition of the Persian officials who governed Palestine. They intimidated the newly returned exiles, making them afraid. And through diplomatic channels, they secured an order from a successor to Cyrus, King Artaxerxes, directing the Judeans to stop all construction activity.
The exiles complied with the empire’s new policy and all building stopped for 15 years.
Then in 522, during the first year of yet another Persian king, Darius, an elderly former exile named Haggai raised his voice in Jerusalem. He said, “Let’s resume rebuilding the temple, even though the law says we cannot. It is what God wants us to do. So do not be afraid of what the government will do to you.” The Judeans listened to Haggai, called him a prophet of God, and together resumed construction of the temple.
The empire responded immediately. The local governor visited Jerusalem, asked to see a building permit, and demanded the names of every man at the construction site. It was plain he was preparing to punish individual workers. The Judeans claimed long-dead Cyrus as their authority to build. That was enough to give the governor pause and he sent a letter back to Persia to confirm the falsity of their claim. Instead, the royal researchers confirmed that Cyrus had indeed given the Judeans authority to build. So Darius issued the building permit, and for good measure ordered the governor to contribute to the building effort by paying for materials.
Thus, over the next 5-6 years, the construction of the temple was completed and a risky and illegal course of action was vindicated. The people of Jerusalem praised God for the turn of events.
Recently, a friend and I talked about the bleak course of contemporary public events. The U.S. Congress shows little concern about pervasive government surveillance, persistent high unemployment, or the centralization of economic power in a few big banks. “Our government no longer serves the interests of the people,” I said; “the system is rigged.”
“Nothing new about that,” my friend replied. “What you’re complaining about is usually the case.”
I bristled, thinking his rejoinder was an excuse for apathy. But of course, there is truth in what he said. Controlling the power of government always has been a tempting target for those lusting after power and wealth. Once they seize the levers of power, they don’t easily let go.
But the story of Haggai doesn’t stop there; instead, it encourages us to grasp a still deeper truth. Public life can break out of old, entrenched channels when a group of people makes a commitment, steps out of line and gets in serious trouble. Then new possibilities emerge, positive possibilities that are unthinkable so long as everyone toes the line.
Putting ourselves at risk is the catalyst. It is what prompts other people to pay attention and begins to open their hearts, preparing the way for God to bring surprising things to pass.
When we say we are people of faith, we are affirming that – thanks be to God – this is how the world works.