But there never is a blessing of God upon the earth without drawing out the wiles and enmity of the devil; and so we find on this occasion. There were persons who "came to Zerubbabel, and to the chief of the fathers, and said unto them, Let us build with you: for we seek your God, as ye do; and we do sacrifice unto him since the days of Esar-haddon king of Assur, which brought us up hither" (Ezr_4:2). How kind it seemed I how fair, that now at least, instead of the old antagonism, their neighbours were going to be so friendly - to help them to build and to worship and to serve the same Lord as they!
Surely Israel ought to rejoice! Nay, beloved brethren, in this world we have always to judge. We must take care how we judge, but nevertheless, we have to judge. We have to prove all things and hold fast that which is good; and so they did on this occasion. Zerubbabel and Jeshua were not taken in in these later days, as were Joshua and the princes on a somewhat similar occasion long before, when the Gibeonites came up in their pilgrim guise. "Zerubbabel and Jeshua, and the rest of the chief of the fathers of Israel, said unto them, Ye have nothing to do with us to build an house unto our God; but we ourselves together will build unto Jehovah God of Israel, as king Cyrus, the king of Persia, hath commanded us." No doubt it was a state of weakness, a state of humiliation, for why mention king Cyrus? What had he to do? What a strange position that he should be commanding Israel! But so it was. They were really humbled, and humbled publicly in the earth, and they were not taken out of that state of humiliation. But while indebted to the powers that then were for their protection and that measure of good government which they enjoyed, still they maintained rigorously the word of God for the special place of Israel. They are as distinct at least, if not more so, than they were in the days of Moses, or David, or any other. Never was there a deeper sense in Israel of the special place of Israel than when they were thus low and feeble.
What a lesson for us! We are not to give up the peculiar place of the church of God because we are only a remnant. We are not to give up the principle that none but those who are members of that body - accepted as such - have their place of responsibility in the work of the Lord. We are not to yield to the spirit of the times that is around us. So, at any rate, Zerubbabel and Jeshua decided, and they were right. Then the people of the land weakened their hands. Now they showed what they really were - not friends, but adversaries. And mark, beloved friends, they were adversaries, though they were worshipping the Lord God of Israel - adversaries, though they were not idolaters, as far as we know, at this time. That is not what is said, but they were not Israel. That was enough. The adversaries of Judah and Benjamin heard that the children of Israel were building the temple, and therefore it was that they came. They came under the garb of Israel; but it was really to hinder. Such was Satan's object; but he was foiled. Nevertheless, it is said that they "weakened the hands of the people of Judah, and troubled them in building; and hired counsellors against them, to frustrate their purpose, all the days of Cyrus king of Persia, even unto the reign of Darius king of Persia" (vers. 4, 5).
Here there is a considerable lapse. Several kings reigned between these two, and they are given in the rest of the chapter which is a parenthesis (vers. 6-23) to explain what took place between those two points. "And in the reign of Ahasuerus, in the beginning of his reign, wrote they unto him an accusation against the inhabitants of Judah and Jerusalem. And in the days of Artaxerxes wrote Bishlam, Mithredath, etc." All this took place, and the consequence was that their pretentious opposition at least did take effect and troubled the Israelites, and they ceased from the work. But mark this - and it is a very important thing - God does not attribute the ceasing of the work to the command of the king, although the king did give in at last, and did yield to their importunate begging of him to stop the Israelites; but the Israelites began to stop before the authority of the king. It was want of faith, and not the king's authority that stopped the work; and, beloved friends, as a rule, is it not always so? The cessation of blessing among God's people is really never the work of the enemy without, but want of faith, and, consequently, of faithfulness within.
This is all-important for us to bear in mind, because we are so apt to lay the blame on circumstances. They might well do it here. They were wrong. God would have been with them had their faith looked up to Him, and He would have preserved them from ceasing that work. But inasmuch as they were too much occupied with what people said and did, outside them, instead of looking to God according to that good beginning when they set the altar upon its base - instead of crying to Him they listened to the adversary, and stopped their work, and the adversary managed to get the king's authority to seal what they had already done.