Ecumenism – Part I – Ezra 4

If you don’t know what ecumenism is, maybe you clicked on this blog just to find out! defines it as: “A movement promoting cooperation and better understanding among different religious groups or denominations.” That sounds good, doesn’t it? To an extent it is, but in my next two blogs I’d like to look at a couple of Old Testament (OT) examples of bad ecumenism:

  1. The first deals with the Jews in Ezra 4
  2. The second deals with Amaziah King of Judah in 2 Chronicles 25

First let me provide a couple reminders from Paul about the purpose of the OT:

  • 1 Corinthians 10:6 Now these things (the events in the OT) became our examples, to the intent that we should not lust after evil things as they also lusted.
  • 1 Corinthians 10:1 Now all these things (again, the OT) happened to them as examples, and they were written for our admonition, upon whom the ends of the ages have come.
  • Romans 15:4 For whatever things were written before (again, the OT) were written for our learning, that we through the patience and comfort of the Scriptures might have hope.

So according to Paul the OT contains examples for us and was written for our admonition and learning. In other words, even though it discusses events from thousands of years ago, we can find plenty of application for today.

Before we look at the passage, I need to provide a little background information to help the story make sense…

The united nation of Israel consisting of twelve tribes, split into a northern and southern kingdom in 931 BC. The northern kingdom consisted of ten of the original twelve tribes and kept the name Israel. The southern kingdom became known as Judah after the larger of the two tribes (the other being Benjamin). The people from Judah were called Jews.

The Assyrians in 722BC (thank you for the correction Mary!) conquered the northern kingdom of Israel. Their practice involved deporting conquered people and importing previously conquered people to resettle the land, spreading out the conquered nation and preventing the people from reuniting and revolting. When Assyria resettled the land of Israel and imported foreigners, they came with their own religions and intermarried with the Israelites who remained. The capital of Israel was Samaria, and the newly established people consisting of half-Israelites and half-foreigners or Gentiles became known as Samaritans.

The religion of the Samaritans was very much like their race: half-Israelite and half-pagan. 2 Kings 17:33 says, “They (the Samaritans) feared the LORD, but they continued to follow their own gods according to the religious customs of the nations they came from.

In 586 BC the Babylonians conquered the southern kingdom of Judah, but their practice was different than the Assyrians: they brought people into their land and hoped to prevent them from revolting by providing them with a somewhat comfortable existence. You can read all about this in the two books discussing the exile: Daniel and Ezekiel. The Jews were in exile in Babylon for around seventy years, and then they were allowed to return to their land. You can read all about this in Ezra.

Since the Babylonians provided such a comfortable environment for the Jews, and since most of them had established roots in the land after being there for seventy years, many of them chose to stay in Babylon as opposed to making the 900-mile, 4-month trek back to Jerusalem. Although we can’t say for sure, most scholars guess around only ten percent of the Jews actually returned. That’s not a lot of people for the monumental building project they had before them. Their city was destroyed and had been desolated for seventy years. They had to rebuild the city, the walls (which you can read about in Nehemiah), and their lives in general.

The main point is this: if there’s ever been a group that had a lot of work to do and could have used the help, it was this group of Jews.

With all that in mind, let’s look at Ezra 4. The verses are in bold with my thoughts in regular font…

Ezra 4:1 Now when the adversaries of Judah and Benjamin heard that the descendants of the captivity (the Jews who returned from exile) were building the temple of the LORD God of Israel, 2 they came to Zerubbabel (the leader of the Jews at the time) and the heads of the fathers’ houses, and said to them, “Let us build with you, for we seek your God as you do; and we have sacrificed to Him since the days of Esarhaddon king of Assyria, who brought us here.”

The people who wanted to help the Jews were the Samaritans we discussed earlier. Notice they said, “we seek your God as you; and we have sacrificed to Him since the days of Esarhaddon king of Assyria, who brought us here.” This is referring to when the king of Assyria conquered Israel and resettled the land. The really important point though is they didn’t really sacrifice to God even if they thought they did. They had a religion that was as much pagan as it was genuine. If they were sacrificing to God, it meant they were doing it without a temple, because the temple had been destroyed, and without a legitimate priesthood. In a way, it was almost like their own made-up religion with some elements of truth mixed in.

Remember when Jesus spoke to the Samaritan woman at the well? She thought she was worshiping correctly, evidenced by her words, “Our fathers worshiped God on this mountain…” and Jesus said, “You Samaritans worship what you don’t know (in other words, you don’t really know God…you think you’re worshipping God, but you’re not…just like the Samaritans in Ezra’s day)…true believers worship the Father in spirit and truth…God is Spirit and He must be worshiped in spirit and truth.”

You almost have to understand all this about the Samaritans to really appreciate the Gospels. The Jews in Jesus’ day hated the Samaritans because the Jews:

  • Viewed them as half-breeds and not true Israelites
  • Believed they betrayed their nation and their God by marrying foreigners
  • Hated their religion

Now interestingly, Jesus came along and completely ignored the long-standing prejudice between the Jews and Samaritans and told the story of the Good Samaritan. Of course this contributed to the Jews’ hatred of Jesus.

3 But Zerubbabel and Jeshua and the rest of the heads of the fathers’ houses of Israel said to them, “You may do nothing with us to build a house for our God; but we alone will build to the LORD God of Israel, as King Cyrus the king of Persia has commanded us.”

Even though they had a tremendous amount of work to do, very clearly they said, “You will have nothing to do with our work for God!” This was a very courageous and uncompromising move on the part of Zerubbabel, Jeshua and the Jewish leaders.

God exiled the Jews in Babylon in the first place because of their idolatry. Fortunately they were wise enough to recognize the Samaritans’ idolatry represented a grave danger. This was a terrible partnership that could have gotten them into a lot of trouble, so to their credit they rejected the help.

I’m sure most people would have looked at them and said they were being intolerant, judgmental, maybe even unloving. I’m sure there were probably a lot of people who wanted to say, “What are you doing? We need all the help we can get!” or “Wait, wait…if they join us, we can witness to them!” or “With their help think of all the work we can get done!” Zerubbabel and Jeshua knew the Samaritans would have had some influence on the Jews as well as the work that was done.

4 Then the people of the land (the Samaritans who offered their help) tried to discourage the people of Judah. They troubled them in building, 5 and hired counselors against them to frustrate their purpose all the days of Cyrus king of Persia, even until the reign of Darius king of Persia.

Now you can see one of the reasons it was a good idea for the Jews not to work with these people: they were bad! As soon as they were rejected, their true colors came out. They got angry and started causing the Jews as many problems as possible. You can read all about this in the subsequent verses.

There are some great lessons for us here:

  • One other reason God might not have wanted the Samaritans to help, is so He’d be seen as the One who helped the Jews. There might be some things God wants you to do so He’s shown to be the One who helped you.
  • Sometimes it’s better to have less and do things right with God’s help, then have more, but not do things the way God would have them done.
  • If you’ve got the opportunity to accomplish something involving some ungodly people or involving some form of compromise, it might look like you’d be increasing your chances of success that way, but it’s better to do things right and trust God.

In my next blog we’ll look at another example of ecumenism from the OT in the life of Amaziah, King of Judah.

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