By Shelley Neese

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When the returnees laid the temple foundations in 535 BCE, during the reign of Cyrus, they attracted negative attention from their oppositional neighbors. All the plotting and scheming of their enemies halted further construction. For the next fifteen years, the remnant did nothing to move the Second Temple project forward.

On the surface, opposition from the people of the land and interference by Persian administrators was too much to overcome for the returnees. At least, that was the external reasoning for delaying the temple objective, as narrated in the book of Ezra. Internally, however, more was going on. The prophetic books of Haggai and Zechariah offer a peak behind the scenes, exposing the weakened spiritual condition of the restored community.

External reasons for the delay

Chapter 5 picks up the story where it left off in Ezra 4:4-5, before the parenthetical flash forward of events. After Zerubbabel rejected the locals’ offer to help with the rebuild, the people of the land shot back. They “discouraged the people of Judah and made them afraid to build” by bribing Persian officials “to frustrate their plan” (4:4-5). By falsely accusing the Judeans of sedition, they threw cold water on the returnees’ initial zeal. External setbacks gave the community an excuse to forego the very project that should have been their priority.

Internal reasons for the delay

In Ezra 5, we witness the convergence of biblical narrative with prophetic oracles. Ezra 5 introduces the prophets Haggai and Zechariah as contemporary messengers sent “in the name of the God of Israel who was over them” (5:1). This accords with Haggai and Zechariah’s own dating. According to their prophetic books, their ministries occurred in the second year of King Darius (Hag. 1:1; Zech. 1:1; 7:1) which means their oracles overlapped the historical events in the first half of Ezra.

While the texts of Ezra, Haggai, and Zechariah are intertwined, each of them prioritizes their own theological or historical themes. As a historical rather than prophetic text, the narrator of Ezra never gave way to messianic thoughts or eschatological predictions. We only know from Haggai and Zechariah that those ideas heavily affected the returnees of that era. The narrator of Ezra also held back details on the actual message of the prophets to the people. He only mentioned their historical proximity and acknowledged their effectiveness in motivating the remnant.

The placing of Haggai and Zechariah in Ezra’s historical narrative is one of those rare sightings of a prophet in the wild. Knowing the time of Haggai and Zechariah and the challenges faced by the returned remnant is critical in understanding their postexilic prophecies, particularly the more cryptic visions of Zechariah.

In the same way, the prophetic writings illuminate Ezra’s narrative. Haggai and Zechariah never mentioned how much trouble the locals contributed to delaying the temple project. The prophets’ job was to analyze what was going on in the hearts and minds of the community, not external threats. The intervention of neighbors and the empire may have caused the first delay. However, by the time Haggai ministered, the people were procrastinating out of sheer complacency. Haggai sarcastically noted, “These people say the time has not yet come to rebuild the Lord’s house” (Hag. 1:2).

Apparently, while God’s house remained a heaping ruin, the remnant busily constructed their own homes. Haggai asks, “Is it a time for you yourselves to live in your paneled houses, while this house lies in ruins?” (Hag. 1:4). Haggai pointed out all the goals they let take priority over the temple construction. How could they claim it was not yet time to build God’s house if they had built homes for themselves? Neglecting the building of the temple was not just the fault of Judah’s leaders, or the neighbors. It was a failure of the entire community. Their apathy about rebuilding the sanctuary reflected an apathy toward Yahweh. By design, the temple was an earthly reflection of the relationship between the returnees and Yahweh. Without a restored temple, they were prone to focus on the minutia of life and not the glory of God.

According to Haggai, the drought and crop failure of the restored community’s early years resulted from Yahweh’s judgement on them. Though they had planted and labored, they did so in vain because God was withholding the rains and the produce. They had not connected their agricultural hardship to their neglect of the sanctuary. Haggai twice warned them, “Consider your ways” (Hag. 1:5). Haggai gave the community exact instructions for how to move forward and right their wrongs.

The narrator of Ezra credited the prophets with stirring Zerubbabel and Jeshua to action. Haggai directly brought the word of the Lord. He commanded the people, “go up to the hills and bring wood and build the house, so that I may take pleasure in it and be honored” (Hag. 1:8). The community obeyed God’s word and overcame their fifteen-year hiatus. In short order, they “set out to rebuild the house of God in Jerusalem, and with them were the prophets of God, helping them” (5:2). Only by studying Ezra in conjunction with the two contemporary prophets can one appreciate the level of synchronicity between the three books. The reformer and prophets may have dealt with the same problems in the community, but their unique approach adhered to their own skills and divine calling.

Letter to Darius

News of the temple construction in Jerusalem made its way to Tattenai, a Persian provincial official overseeing affairs from Damascus. In fact, archaeologists have unearthed an artifact from 502 BCE, which includes the name Tattenai, governor Beyond the River.

The narrator did not say how Tattenai knew of the efforts in Jerusalem. Presumably, as soon as the temple work got going again, the upset locals appealed for imperial intervention. Tattenai and his officials visited Jerusalem in person to investigate the situation (5:3).

They spoke with the builders and the leaders of the community. They ask, “Who gave you a decree to build this house and to finish this structure?” (5:3). The size of the great stones for the building was suspicious. Without hostility in their tone, the dutiful bureaucrats double-checked who gave the Jews authority to build a monumental structure. This was an ancient version of authorities checking for building permits.

After speaking with the Judean leaders, Tattenai wrote a letter of inquiry to Darius. The letter differed from the manipulative and accusatory letters in Ezra 4 written by Judah’s neighboring enemies. Tattenai essentially asked King Darius if he would like his Persian leaders to investigate further the matter of temple building in Jerusalem.

Tattenai’s letter was complimentary of the temple’s craftmanship, which would allay any concerns about the building not being up to Persian code. He wrote, “may it be known to the king that….it is being built of hewn stone, and timber is laid in the walls; this work is being done diligently and prospers in their hands” (5:8). The remnant was building the Second Temple along the same guidelines as Solomon’s Temple, layering heavy stones with alternating rows of timber (1 Kings 6:7; 6:36). Considering the Jerusalem temple rested in an earthquake prone area, the building method made sense.

The letter to Darius relayed the questions and answers between the Persian administrators and Judean elders. The questions showed the Persians had no bias against the Judeans or their project. One can discern from the answers the topics that came up in the undocumented dialogue. For example, the Persians must have inquired who was backing the temple project financially because the elders mentioned Cyrus’s return of the stolen temple vessels from the imperial treasury (5:14).

Tattenai, as a provincial official, could not give a directive to the Persian king. Instead, he suggests, “If it seems good to the king, have a search made in the royal archives there in Babylon, to see whether a decree was issued by King Cyrus for the rebuilding of this house of God in Jerusalem” (5:17). If a search uncovered proof of Cyrus’s authorization of the Jerusalem temple, it would still be the prerogative of King Darius whether to honor the edict.

In 530 BCE, Cyrus died in the mountains of India after a 30-year reign. His son, Cambyses II (530-522 BCE) who lacked his father’s military and diplomatic genius, succeeded him. Cyrus’s legacy still loomed large when King Darius violently took the throne from Cyrus’s next legal heir. Darius I worked hard to secure his throne from rivals. We know much about the reign of Darius I because Greek historians recorded his legendary exploits. Knowing that revolts plagued the first two years of his reign, it makes sense why Persian bureaucrats were hyperalert to any potential stirrings of revolt in the empire.

With the appeal to Darius for an answer on the temple project, the Jewish community could not be sure of his response. Was Darius committed to honoring the goals and achievements of Cyrus as the founder of the Persian empire? Or was he ready to make a firm break with the dynasty and forge his own path for the empire?


At no point did Tattenai or his officials make the Jews stop their temple construction while they waited for Darius’s response or while a Persian court official conducted the search for the edict of Cyrus. The narrator made sure that only God received the credit for the favor shown to the remnant in Jerusalem.

He emphasized that the God of Israel “was over them” and “helping them” (5:1, 2). Even in the conversation between the provincial officials and the elders, the narrator wrote, “the eye of their God was upon the elders of the Jews” (5:5).

The Jewish leaders understood God was over them and carefully protecting them. As God guided their exchange, they answered Tattenai’s questions honestly and not defensively. They introduced themselves to the Persians officials as “the servants of the God of heaven and earth,” a humble reply that was true to their own monotheistic beliefs even if they did not correspond to the Persian religious system (5:11).

They were forthcoming in their recounting of their own sin and punishment. They tell Tattenai, “because our ancestors had angered the God of heaven, he gave them into the hand of King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon, the Chaldean, who destroyed this house and carried away the people to Babylonia” (5:12).

Their explanation was not only honest, and accepting of self-blame, but also careful to allay any Persian fears that the motivation for the reconstruction was political. They downplayed any notion that the temple project was a move toward independence. In the ancient world, the destruction of a holy temple often hinted at the powerlessness of a local deity. Because of the prophets, Jews saw the destruction of the Jerusalem temple in the opposite manner. It displayed the power of Yahweh. He allowed for the overthrow of his temple and city as punishment for their covenant unfaithfulness. Israel’s understanding of history took divine providence into account.

What strikes me most about the interconnections between Ezra, Haggai, and Zecharia is the paramount importance of reading scripture broadly, with a keen attention to the Bible as a cohesive narrative. While devotional study and verse memory are invaluable practices, they are enriched when coupled with thorough explorations of the Bible’s bigger story and broader context. The interplay between Ezra’s historical account and the postexilic prophetic messages serves as a poignant reminder of the interconnectedness of scripture.