Cyrus stedfastly adhered to the Jews’ interest, and supported his own grant. It was to no purpose to offer any thing to him in prejudice of it. What he did was from a good principle, and in the fear of God, and therefore he adhered to it. But, though his reign in all was thirty years, yet after the conquest of Babylon, and his decree for the release of the Jews, some think that he reigned but three years, others seven, and then either died or gave up that part of his government, in which his successor was Ahasuerus (Ezra 4:6), called also Artaxerxes (Ezra 4:7), supposed to be the same that in heathen authors is called Cambyses, who had never taken such cognizance of the despised Jews as to concern himself for them, nor had he that knowledge of the God of Israel which his predecessor had. To him these Samaritans applied by letter for an order to stop the building of the temple; and they did it in the beginning of his reign, being resolved to lose no time when they thought they had a king for their purpose. See how watchful the church’s enemies are to take the first opportunity of doing it a mischief; let not its friends be less careful to do it a kindness. Here is,
I. The general purport of the letter which they sent to the king, to inform him of this matter. It is called (Ezra 4:6) an accusation against the inhabitants of Judah and Jerusalem. The devil is the accuser of the brethren (Rev. 12:10), and he carries on his malicious designs against them, not only by accusing them himself before God, as he did Job, but by acting as a lying spirit in the mouths of his instruments, whom he employs to accuse them before magistrates and kings and to make them odious to the many and obnoxious to the mighty. Marvel not if the same arts be still used to depreciate serious godliness.
II. The persons concerned in writing this letter. The contrivers are named (Ezra 4:7) that plotted the thing, the writers (Ezra 4:8) that put it into form, and the subscribers (Ezra 4:9) that concurred in it and joined with them in this representation, this misrepresentation I should call it. Now see here, 1. How the rulers take counsel together against the Lord and his temple, with their companions. The building of the temple would do them no harm, yet they appear against it with the utmost concern and virulence, perhaps because the prophets of the God of Israel had foretold the famishing and perishing of all the gods of the heathen, Zeph. 2:11; Jer. 10:11. 2. How the people concurred with them in imagining this vain thing. They followed the cry, though ignorant of the merits of the cause. All the several colonies of that plantation (nine are here mentioned), who had their denomination from the cities or countries of Assyria, Chaldea, Persia, etc., whence they came, set their hands, by their representatives, to this letter. Perhaps they were incensed against these returned Jews because many of the ten tribes were among them, whose estates they had got into their possession, and of whom they were therefore jealous, lest they should attempt the recovery of them hereafter.
III. A copy of the letter itself, which Ezra inserts here out of the records of the kingdom of Persia, into which it had been entered; and it is well we have it, that we may see whence the like methods, still taken to expose good people and baffle good designs, are copied.
1. They represent themselves as very loyal to the government, and greatly concerned for the honour and interest of it, and would have it thought that the king had no such loving faithful subjects in all his dominions as they were, none so sensible of their obligations to him, Ezra 4:14. Because we are salted with the salt of the palace (so it is in the margin), “we have our salary from the court, and could no more live without it than flesh could be preserved without salt;” or, as some think, their pay or pension was sent them in salt; or “Because we had our education in the palace, and were brought up at the king’s table,” as we find, Dan. 1:5. These were those whom he intended to prefer; they did eat their portion of the king’s meat. “Now, in consideration of this, it is not meet for us to see the king’s dishonour;” and therefore they urge him to stop the building of the temple, which would certainly be the king’s dishonour more than any thing else. Note, A secret enmity to Christ and his gospel is often gilded over with a pretended affection to Caesar and his power. The Jews hated the Roman government, and yet, to serve a turn, could cry, We have no king but Caesar. But (to allude to this), if those that lived upon the crown thought themselves bound in gratitude thus to support the interest of it, much more reason have we thus to argue ourselves into a pious concern for God’s honour; we have our maintenance from the God of heaven and are salted with his salt, live upon his bounty and are the care of his providence; and therefore it is not meet for us to see his dishonour without resenting it and doing what we can to prevent it.
2. They represent the Jews as disloyal, and dangerous to the government, that Jerusalem was the rebellious and bad city (Ezra 4:12), hurtful to kings and provinces, Ezra 4:15. See how Jerusalem, the joy of the whole earth (Ps. 48:2), is here reproached as the scandal of the whole earth. The enemies of the church could not do the bad things they design against it if they did not first give it a bad name. Jerusalem had been a loyal city to its rightful princes, and its present inhabitants were as well affected to the king and his government as any of his provinces whatsoever. Daniel, who was a Jew, had lately approved himself so faithful to his prince that his worst enemies could find no fault in his management, Dan. 6:4. But thus was Elijah most unjustly charged with troubling Israel, the apostles with turning the world upside down, and Christ himself with perverting the nation and forbidding to give tribute to Caesar; and we must not think it strange if the same game be still played. Now here,
(1.) Their history of what was past was invidious, that within this city sedition had been moved of old time, and, for that cause, it was destroyed, Ezra 4:15. It cannot be denied but that there was some colour given for this suggestion by the attempts of Jehoiakim and Zedekiah to shake off the yoke of the king of Babylon, which, if they had kept close to their religion and the temple they were now rebuilding, they would never have come under. But it must be considered, [1.] That they were themselves, and their ancestors, sovereign princes, and their efforts to recover their rights, if there had not been in them the violation of an oath, for aught I know, would have been justifiable, and successful too, had they taken the right method and made their peace with God first. [2.] Though these Jews, and their princes, had been guilty of rebellion, yet it was unjust therefore to fasten this as an indelible brand upon this city, as if that must for ever after go under the name of the rebellious and bad city. The Jews, in their captivity, had given such specimens of good behaviour as were sufficient, with any reasonable men, to roll away that one reproach; for they were instructed (and we have reason to hope that they observed their instructions) to seek the peace of the city where they were captives and pray to the Lord for it, Jer. 29:7. It was therefore very unfair, though not uncommon, thus to impute the iniquity of the fathers to the children.
(2.) Their information concerning what was now doing was grossly false in matter of fact. Very careful they were to inform the king that the Jews had set up the walls of this city, nay, had finished them (so it is in the margin) and joined the foundations (Ezra 4:12), when this was far from being the case. They had only begun to build the temple, which Cyrus commanded them to do, but, as for the walls, there was nothing done nor designed towards the repair of them, as appears by the condition they were in many years after (Neh. 1:3), all in ruins. What shall be given, and what done, to these false tongues, nay, which is worse, these false pens? sharp arrows, doubtless, of the mighty, and coals of juniper, Ps. 120:3, 4. If they had not been perfectly lost to all virtue and honour they would not, and if they had not been very secure of the king’s countenance they durst not, have written that to the king which all their neighbours knew to be a notorious lie. See Prov. 29:12.
(3.) Their prognostics of the consequences were altogether groundless and absurd. They were very confident, and would have the king believe it upon their word, that if this city should be built, not only the Jews would pay no toll, tribute, or custom (Ezra 4:13), but (since a great lie is as soon spoken as a little one) that the king would have no portion at all on this side the river (Ezra 4:16), that all the countries on this side Euphrates would instantly revolt, drawn in to do so by their example; and, if the prince in possession should connive at this, he would wrong, not only himself, but his successors: Thou shalt endamage the revenue of the kings. See how every line in this letter breathes both the subtlety and malice of the old serpent.