Ezra 4:1 When the adversaries of Judah and Benjamin heard that the returned exiles were building a temple to the LORD, the God of Israel, 2 they approached Zerubbabel and the heads of families and said to them, “Let us build with you, for we worship your God as you do, and we have been sacrificing to him ever since the days of King Esar-haddon of Assyria who brought us here.” 3 But Zerubbabel, Jeshua, and the rest of the heads of families in Israel said to them, “You shall have no part with us in building a house to our God; but we alone will build to the LORD, the God of Israel, as King Cyrus of Persia has commanded us.” 4 Then the people of the land discouraged the people of Judah, and made them afraid to build, 5 and they bribed officials to frustrate their plan throughout the reign of King Cyrus of Persia and until the reign of King Darius of Persia.
You’ll recall that the Israelites, who had been unfaithful to God (Yahweh) for generations, were defeated in battle and occupied by the Assyrian army – with survivors being sent to Babylon to live as servants. Seventy years later King Cyrus of Persia gave the people permission to return to Jerusalem and rebuild the city, including the temple. That’s what had been going on at the time of our passage. Rebuilding was well underway when a problem emerged.
When the Israelites were sent off to Babylon their cities didn’t sit empty. Other peoples (non-Jews) occupied their cities including Jerusalem. In v.2 these Gentiles asked to participate in the rebuilding of the temple, saying they too worshipped Yahweh. The Jews said no. That was out of the question. The question is… why? Why not give others permission to build with them? Many hands makes light work, right? If they indeed worshipped Yahweh what was the problem?
We’re not told explicitly, but we can make an educated guess. While it may have been true the Gentile peoples living in Jerusalem worshipped Yahweh, it’s very likely they also worshipped other gods at the same time, which was a common practice in that time period. There is a name for that sort of thing. It’s called “syncretism” and it’s one of the practices that got the Israelites in trouble in the first place. Yahweh doesn’t ask to be one God among many, but the One true God. The Gentiles were offended when they were refused and stirred up trouble, but in the end refusing their offer was the right call.
That said, I can understand the temptation to receive the offer of help despite the potential pitfalls. One could easily have understood the offer as a gift rather than a trap. In fact I suspect there were Jews who argued to include the Gentiles in the workforce, though they were apparently overruled. Sometimes acting according to conviction makes a task more difficult, not less. This morning I’m wondering where I might be taking shortcuts that provide short-term relief while creating problems in the long-term.
Lord Jesus, give us wisdom to live according to your will and purposes rather than short-term expedience. Amen.