Sunday, January 20, 2013

Ezra 4.1-5 (Going for Win/Win)

In the book, The 7 Habits of High Effective People by Stephen R. Covey, the fourth habit is titled, “Think Win/Win.” He writes,

“Win/Win is a frame of mind and heart that constantly seeks mutual benefit in all human interactions. Win/Win means that agreements or solutions are mutually beneficial, mutually satisfying. With a Win/Win solution, all parties feel good about the decision and feel committed to the action plan,”

This book is not the Bible, but there’s truth there that’s important for us. Win/Win is never always possible, nor is it always the best solution, but if it can be achieved, then it just feels right, and we usually find God's grace smiling down at us.

And with that in mind, I turn to Ezra 4:1-5.

1 When the enemies of Judah and Benjamin heard that the exiles were building a temple for the LORD, the God of Israel, 2 they came to Zerubbabel and to the heads of the families and said, “Let us help you build because, like you, we seek your God and have been sacrificing to him since the time of Esarhaddon king of Assyria, who brought us here.”

3 But Zerubbabel, Joshua and the rest of the heads of the families of Israel answered, “You have no part with us in building a temple to our God. We alone will build it for the LORD, the God of Israel, as King Cyrus, the king of Persia, commanded us.”

4 Then the peoples around them set out to discourage the people of Judah and make them afraid to go on building. 5 They bribed officials to work against them and frustrate their plans during the entire reign of Cyrus king of Persia and down to the reign of Darius king of Persia.

Ezra comes from the period of the return of the exiles from the land of Babylon. The Jews have been away for 50 years and now, by God’s grace, they have been given permission to return to their homeland with the task of restoring their temple in Jerusalem. And so with their governor Zerubbabel leading them, they entered Jerusalem. But when they arrived, rather than finding an empty and desolate land, they found that people, foreigners and mixed races were living in the land, for the last 50 years!

They are labeled as “enemies of Judah” (v.1), but I think that’s harsh. They approach these outsiders who have come to take away their land and their request is simply, “We see that you guys are here to restore your religion. Great! Let us help you build.” The locals have been interested in the Jewish religion and in their own way, have been worshiping the Jewish God with sacrifices (v.2)! And rather than opposing these legal invaders to their land (they are carrying the king’s edict to legally confiscate the land), they decided that they would extend a hand of friendship along with a gracious plea to allow them to join in the worship of the God of heaven and earth. They sought a Win/Win. And if the returning Jews had agreed, this could have been a great example of a Win/Win situation told and preached many times over. But that wasn’t what happened. Governor Zerubbabel and the Jews felt that they had the legal right and so had the upper hand. And they didn’t want a Win/Win.

There is obvious tension between the two sides and, I think, a legitimate claims to ownership by both. The locals have been living in the land for several generations. The new people have come with claims backed by the official letter. And in this situation, I think some compromise was needed – this could surely have been a Win/Win with many Win/Wins to come!

But the returning Jews reply negatively, “you have no part with us in building a temple to our God. We alone will build it for the Lord.” He is OUR God.

It’s true that the returning Jews were adamant in their desire for purity and separation. Priest Ezra demanded it forcefully. And so there was pretention of spirituality and seeking God’s will, but in this case, I think they were wrong. I believe deep down, they were masking their hatred of other races and people, and declaring on their own that God only loves them. Only they can worship God! They must win; others must lose.

The locals were humiliated in their offer of peace and goodwill. In their anger, they opposed the building of the temple (vv.4-23) so that at v.24, “Thus the work on the house of God in Jerusalem came to a standstill” for 14 long years. It resulted in a Lose/Lose. No one won in the end – and worship of God was ruined in the process.

And how many times have we seen this played out in our own lives – in politics, in churches, in our homes? In the end, the worship of God is ruined for all sides.