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Lesson 4: Spiritual Setbacks (Ezra 4:1-24)

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Chuck Swindoll has a book titled, Three Steps Forward, Two Steps Back [Thomas Nelson, 1980]. That title fits Ezra 4. God had stirred up the heart of the pagan King Cyrus to issue a decree for the Jews to return to their land and rebuild His temple. Hurrah, one step forward! Fifty thousand Jews responded by giving up their lives in Babylon and making the long, dangerous trek back to the land. Two steps forward! They rebuilt the altar, gathered in Jerusalem, celebrated the Feast of Booths, and laid the foundation for the new temple. Three steps forward!

Then the enemy hit and the work on the temple stopped. One step back. The work ceased for 16 long years. Two steps back. They were still in the land (one step ahead), but there was no center for worship in Jerusalem. The people, intimidated by their enemies, settled into a routine of life that got along without temple worship until God stirred up the prophets Haggai and Zechariah (5:1), who got the rebuilding of the temple moving again.

Last week we looked at a new beginning with God. New beginnings are exciting and filled with hope. Things don’t have to be as they have been during our time in Babylon. By His abundant grace, we can turn back to the Lord and start afresh. But no sooner have we turned back than the enemy hits and we suffer a spiritual setback. The spiritual high that we have enjoyed is followed by a deep spiritual low. We’re not sure that we want to ride the roller coaster back up only to face another sickening drop. So we settle into spiritual mediocrity. That’s what happened in Ezra 4. The lesson for us is…

Whenever you make a commitment to the Lord, be prepared to face the enemy’s unrelenting attempt to set you back.

Verse 1 says that the enemies of Judah and Benjamin heard that they were building a temple to the God of Israel. We cannot build, whether a church building to further the ministry or building our own spiritual lives, without the enemy hearing about it. He will come prowling, subtly at first, but more aggressively if we resist his first attempts. To be forewarned is to be forearmed:

1. Our spiritual enemy will vigorously oppose every attempt at spiritual advance.

It is crucial to remember this! What often happens is, a person makes a new beginning with God, either at conversion or after a time of captivity in Babylon (the world). He naively assumes that since he has now turned to the Lord, everything will go well from here on out. Finally, God is now on his side. His hopes have never been higher. Just then—wham! The enemy hits, he goes down, and he feels lower than he did before he turned back to the Lord.

Satan has a number of tricks or tools in his bag:

(1) The enemy’s most dangerous trick is to lure us into compromise under the guise of cooperation.

Their first ploy was, “Let us build with you, for we, like you, seek your God; and we have been sacrificing to Him since the days of Esarhaddon king of Assyria” (4:2). If that day was like our day, Zerubbabel and Jeshua probably didn’t have a waiting list of those who wanted to help, but couldn’t because there were so many workers. Along come some locals who offer to work with them. It could have been a bridge of outreach, to build relationships while they worked together. It was an opportunity to befriend their neighbors.

In light of that, their answer hits us in the face like a wet dishrag: “You have nothing in common with us in building a house to our God; but we ourselves will together build to the Lord God of Israel, as King Cyrus, the king of Persia has commanded us” (4:3). How rude can you get! That’s no way to win friends!

But they were right. To find out why they were right, you have to understand 2 Kings 17:24-41. These people had been brought from Babylon and its surrounding areas into the Northern Kingdom after its fall in 722 B.C. At the beginning of their living there, they did not fear the Lord, and He sent lions that killed some of them. They assumed that their problems stemmed from not knowing the custom of the god of the land. So they called in a priest from Israel who taught them about the Lord. They began sacrificing to the Lord, but they also continued worshipping their own gods from Babylon. As 2 Kings 17:41 sums up, “So while these nations feared the Lord, they also served their idols; their children likewise and their grandchildren, as their fathers did, so they do to this day.”

The problem of these people (who were the forefathers of the New Testament Samaritans) was syncretism. They blended false religions with the worship of the one true God. They added God to their pantheon, but they never dropped their idols. If they had worked together with the returned exiles, the Lord’s people would have fallen into spiritual compromise, mingling idolatry with the worship of God.

The danger of the appeal of these enemies was that their words were not absolute lies. They were partially true. They did worship God and sacrifice to Him. The problem was, they did not worship God alone! Some of the returned remnant could have accused Zerubbabel and Jeshua of being too hard on these men: “They believe in God, just as we do. Why not make peace with them and let them work together with us?” The answer is, for the same reason that you don’t drink water that is only a little bit polluted. It will poison you!

There are great pressures today to compromise the gospel by joining with those who claim to believe it, but who add things to it that totally destroy the grace of God. The Roman Catholic Church believes that Jesus is God and that He died on the cross to save us from our sins. They believe that we are saved by grace through faith in Christ. The only “little” problem is, they believe that we are not saved by faith in Christ alone. They believe that to be saved we must add our works to what Christ did on the cross. Evangelical pastors are under immense pressure to work with the Catholic Church in the cause of Christ. Many influential evangelical leaders have signed two documents urging us to bridge the gap with Rome. But if we do, we compromise the pure gospel of God’s grace and mingle it with the idols of worldly religion.

If we resist the enemy’s subtle approach, he will show his true colors by a more aggressive opposition.

(2) The enemy often uses the tool of discouragement.

“Then the people of the land discouraged the people of Judah” (4:3). We are not told specifically how they did this. Maybe they said, “If you rebuild this temple, it’s just going to get torn down again.” Maybe they knew that thousands would flock to Jerusalem to worship at the temple, and said, “We don’t want this kind of traffic in our backyard! Build your temple somewhere else.” If it were our day, they would be down at city hall, protesting the zoning laws or environmental impact!

Satan often uses the tool of discouragement. He whispers to us, “What you’re doing won’t make any difference in this world or in eternity. Those kids you teach don’t appreciate your efforts. Why bother? Just quit and enjoy yourself.” He tries to discourage pastors when people we have worked with turn against us, spread unjustified criticism, and lead others out of the church. “You see! You’re just laboring in vain!”

(3) The enemy often uses fear to follow discouragement.

After discouraging the people, “they frightened them from building” (4:4). When you’re discouraged, fear can easily creep in. Many a pastor has wrestled with thoughts like, “What if your critics get you fired? How are you going to make a living and support your family? What if the critics lead away the big givers? How is your church going to make its budget?” Discouragement quickly turns into many fears about the future.

(4) The enemy uses misinformation and false accusations to oppose and undermine godly leaders.

They “hired counselors against them to frustrate their counsel all the days of Cyrus king of Persia” (4:5). Whether these hired counselors operated at the royal court or whether they circulated among the Jews, or both, they spread half-truths and misinformation to undermine the leadership of Zerubbabel and Jeshua. “These men are just out to build a kingdom for themselves. They’re going to rebel against the king. They’re lining their own pockets with the construction money.” The rumors started flying to frustrate the counsel of these godly leaders.

In 4:6-23, we have a long parenthesis where Ezra shares examples of the opposition that came later. He carefully names the different kings that he is referring to so that his readers would not misunderstand. These later examples did not concern the rebuilding of the temple, but of the city and the walls during the reign of King Artaxerxes (4:12), whom Nehemiah served. Israel’s enemies wrote this letter to Artaxerxes that was filled with false accusations and half-truths. They said that if the city were rebuilt, the Jews would stop paying taxes (4:13). That will get any king’s attention!

The critics also claimed to be loyal to the king. The literal phrase is, “we eat the salt of the palace” (4:14). The Egyptian kings had made salt a royal monopoly, and perhaps the Persians had also. Our English word salary comes from the Latin salarium, which was the ration of salt given to soldiers. Thus we have the expression, “a man is not worth his salt” (Edwin Yamauchi, Expositor’s Bible Commentary [Zondervan], 4:632). But, being loyal to the palace, the critics claimed that they did not want to see the king dishonored by these rebellious Jews. Thus they advised him to look it up in his record books and he would find that Jerusalem had a record of being a rebellious and evil city (4:12, 15). If he didn’t stop them, they would be true to their past and rebel again.

Again, these were half-truths and misinformation. True, Israel had rebelled in the past against tyrants who had forced them into subjection. But to smear the city with such broad strokes was both unfair and untrue. The Lord had told Jeremiah to tell the people to seek the welfare of Babylon and pray to the Lord on its behalf while they were there (Jer. 29:7). No mention is made about that here. Satan uses the same trick to smear God’s servants today. He takes a partial truth and paints it with broad strokes to make a man of God look extreme or unstable.

(5) If need be, the enemy will form coalitions to overwhelm the godly by sheer force of numbers.

Scholars think that verse 7 may constitute a letter that we do not have a copy of, whereas the following verses describe another letter that is quoted. But in both cases, the letters came from multiple parties joined together against the Jews. The ploy behind such tactics is to imply, “Everyone is against these people.” Just look at the names and different backgrounds. If all of these men from such different backgrounds and places can agree together against these Jews, the Jews must be the problem! The majority must be right; these Jews are the source of the trouble!

Even so today, the enemy operates by appealing to popular opinion against the Lord’s people: “These narrow-minded, intolerant, Bible-believing Christians are the problem. They’re like the Taliban, trying to impose their views on everyone else! The majority of Americans believe in God, but we don’t believe in such an intolerant, unloving God as these people do. We believe in the basic teachings of the Bible, but we aren’t so narrow or old fashioned as to think that it is literally true.” So they claim to believe in God, but support “reproduction rights,” which means killing babies; and “celebrating diversity,” which means promoting homosexuality.

(6) At times, the enemy will use government edicts and sheer force to block our spiritual advance.

King Artaxerxes issued a decree to stop the work, providentially adding, “until a decree is issued by me” (4:21). Thankfully, that decree was issued after Nehemiah tactfully sought the king’s permission to return and rebuild the walls of Jerusalem. But on this occasion, king’s decree in hand, Israel’s enemies went quickly and stopped the Jews by force of arms (4:23). Verse 24 goes back chronologically to verse 5, not to verse 23. The result of the opposition was that the work on God’s house ceased for 16 years.

Even so, the enemy today works through government channels and judicial cases to enact laws that oppose Christianity and to prohibit Christians from living as God would have us to live. We now have no-fault divorce laws that undermine the lifelong commitment of marriage and enable couples to split up for any reason. Laws protect mothers from killing unwanted children, right up to the point of birth. The day is not very far away in which it will be illegal to spank your child without being charged with child abuse. A final tactic of Satan is,

(7) The enemy does not give up in his opposition to our spiritual progress.

Verses 6-23 chronicle events that happened up to 80 years after the events of verses 1-5 & 24. Ezra may have included these later events not only to give examples of opposition, but also to prove that the decision to reject the help of the enemies (4:1) was right. Also, these verses show that Ezra’s later strong contention against the mixed marriages of the returned exiles was well-founded (Derek Kidner, Ezra & Nehemiah, Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries [IVP], p. 48). They also show the unrelenting nature of Satan’s opposition. He does not give up after one setback. He keeps on countering whatever the Lord’s people try to do to move ahead spiritually. If he can get you to kick back and give up, he has achieved his objective. That leads to…

2. There are many wrong ways to respond to the enemy’s attacks.

(1) Give up on your spiritual goals and go back to your old way of life.

The prophet Haggai shows that many of the Jews had gotten distracted with building their own homes and thus had neglected building the Lord’s house (Hag. 1:4). I’ve seen this happen over and over. Someone gets excited about serving the Lord. They jump into their new ministry with enthusiasm. But the enemy hits them, often with criticism from fellow believers. They get hurt, drop out, and think, “If that’s the thanks I get for trying to serve, forget it.” They may still attend church occasionally, but they never will get involved in serving again.

(2) Settle for second best spiritually.

Some of the Jews may have thought, “Well, at least we’re out of Babylon and back in the land. If we can’t have a temple, we’ll have to do without.” But without the temple, the Jews couldn’t worship God as they should have. They wouldn’t have had the spiritual center for the nation. Some Christians try to make a new beginning with the Lord, but the enemy attacks. They back off and decide to settle into a mediocre spiritual existence.

(3) Blame God or God’s leaders for not doing what you think they should have done.

Perhaps some of the people grumbled against Zerubbabel and Jeshua for their scheme of rebuilding the temple: “Things were going okay before we started this project. Why did our leaders ever get us into this battle? Maybe it wasn’t God’s will.”

We need to keep in mind that we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against the unseen spiritual forces of wickedness in the heavenly places (Eph. 6:12). Otherwise, when things go wrong at church or in your relationships with other Christians, it’s easy to grumble against God or against the leaders God has put over you. Instead of working together, praying together, and moving ahead with what the Lord wants done, the church can fragment into angry factions, each blaming the other for problems that really are coming from the enemy.

(4) Conclude that it must not be God’s time and that when He wants it done, it will get done.

I realize that God does have His timetable, and that often it does not coincide with my timetable! But through Haggai (1:2), the Lord quotes this people as saying, “The time has not come, even the time for the house of the Lord to be rebuilt.” So they focused on building their own homes and 16 years after the temple foundation had been laid, there was no further progress.

It’s easy to spiritualize our laziness by saying that it must not be the Lord’s will or His timing for something to happen that He wants us to take the initiative to do. We mistakenly assume that if the Lord is in it, we won’t have hassles, setbacks, and frustrations trying to get it done.

Reading Christian biographies can help here. You hear about a man like Hudson Taylor and wrongly assume that he started the China Inland Mission and (presto!) thousands came to Christ. He did start the mission and eventually thousands did come to Christ, but not without innumerable problems and setbacks that had to be overcome. Reading the story of what he went through can give you the perspective and strength to endure when you face strong opposition in whatever God calls you to do.

Thus our spiritual enemy will vigorously oppose every attempt at spiritual advance. There are some wrong ways to respond to his attacks. Finally,

3. There are some biblical strategies for overcoming the enemy’s tactics.

There are many more strategies than I can list here but, for sake of time, I will mention four:

(1) Know the enemy.

In 2 Corinthians 2:11, Paul has just told the church to forgive the man who had sinned, but repented. Then he explains, “so that no advantage would be taken of us by Satan, for we are not ignorant of his schemes.” From the Garden of Eden on (including our text), the Bible shows us how craftily Satan works to tempt and deceive God’s people. To know his schemes arms you to stand and fight when he strikes.

(2) Resist the enemy.

James 4:7 tells us, “Resist the devil and he will flee from you.” You don’t have to memorize seven steps or special prayers to overcome the devil. Just say no! Put your spiritual armor in place (Eph. 6:10-20) and resist!

(3) Submit and draw near to God.

Before telling us to resist the devil, James 4:7 says, “Submit therefore to God.” He goes on to say, “Draw near to God and He will draw near to you” (4:8). If God allows the enemy to cause you trials, your responsibility is to submit to God, knowing that He can lift the trials the minute He sees that it is for your good. Rather than pull away from God in the trial, draw near to Him, knowing that He cares for you (1 Pet. 5:7-11).

(4) Persevere in the face of opposition.

It’s a lifelong battle. If we try to do anything significant for the Lord, the enemy will hear that we’re building and will stir up opposition. If we give up, he wins and God’s kingdom suffers. If we persevere, His kingdom advances.


When he was seven years old, his family was forced out of their home and he had to work to help support them. When he was nine, his mother died. At 22, he lost his job as a store clerk. He wanted to go to law school, but lacked the education. At 23, he went into debt to become a partner in a small store. At 26, his business partner died, leaving him a huge debt that took years to repay.

At 28, after courting a girl for four years, he asked her to marry him. She said no. At 37, on his third try, he was elected to Congress, but two years later, he failed to be reelected. At 41, his four-year-old son died. At 45, he ran for the Senate and lost. At 47, he failed as the vice-presidential candidate. At 49, he again ran for the Senate and lost. At 51, he was elected president of the United States. Many consider that man, Abraham Lincoln, the greatest leader our country has ever had (Leadership, Winter, 1983). Lincoln suffered numerous setbacks in his personal life and career, but he persevered and eventually succeeded.

You will suffer numerous setbacks if you commit yourself to the Lord and try to follow Him. Be prepared for the enemy’s attacks and don’t give up!

Discussion Questions

  1. How can we know when cooperation with unsaved religious people crosses the line into spiritual compromise?
  2. If Satan is going to oppose any attempts at spiritual advance that we make, why should we try?
  3. Someone shares something that you think may be a half-truth or false accusation against someone else. What should you say? How should you respond?
  4. How can we know whether a hindrance to a spiritual advance is due to the enemy or to it not being God’s timing right now?

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2002, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

Related Topics: Discipleship, Satanology, Spiritual Life

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