We soon find, however, that we have more to say, but if we be instructed and encouraged by the returned captives, so surely may we be warned by them. They need a revival, though now returned to Jerusalem, as they needed it, when they were still in Babylon.
The decree of Artaxerxes had stopped the building of the Temple. Nature, or the flesh, takes advantage of this: and the captives begin to adorn their own houses, as soon as they get leisure, and are free of their labour in building the Lord's house.
What a warning this is! It has been said, that it is easier to gain a victory than to use it. We may conquer in the fight, but be defeated by the victory. The returned Jews had gained a victory, when they refused the offers and the alliance of the Samaritans. They were right to resent any help which would have compromised their holiness. But they now abuse the victory. The Samaritans had got a decree from the Persian king to stop the building of the Temple; and the leisure thus generated becomes a snare to the remnant. They use it in ceiling and adorning their own houses: very natural; but very humbling to think of it. Abraham had done far better than this. With his trained servants he gains the day in his encounter with the confederated kings; but then one victory leads to another, for he refuses the offers of the king of Sodom immediately afterwards. But here leisure conquers those who had but lately conquered the Samaritans. This was more like David, if unlike Abraham. David fought his way nobly from the day of the lion and the bear to the day of the throne; but he betrays relaxation, carelessness of heart, on the very first occasion which occupies him as a king. David puts the ark of God on a new cart drawn by oxen!
"Is it time for you, O ye, to dwell in your ceiled houses, and this house lie waste?" says the convicting, rebuking Spirit by the prophet Haggai.
This is humbling and yet a healthful warning. Our hearts well understand this--how nature takes quick and earnest advantage of these its opportunities. But though the captives be led under Persian rule, yet the Spirit of God is unbound, and can revive His ancient grace in sending His prophets to them. For this was His ancient grace. This had been His well-known way all along, from before the day of king Saul, till after the day of king Zedekiah, i.e., from the first of the kings of Israel to the last, from 1 Sam. 1 to 2 Chr. 36. All along that course of time, generation after generation, prophets had been sent again and again to rebuke, to instruct, or to encourage kings and their people. Samuel, and Nathan, and Gad, Shemaiah, Jahaziah, and Azariah, Elijah and Elisha, with others, had thus ministered while Israel was a nation; and now Haggai and Zechariah are sent, as kindred prophets with them, to the returned captives: the sweet witness that the old form of the grace of God towards His people was still to be in use, that they might know, in every age and in all conditions, that they were not straitened in Him.
God did not come forward to establish them on the original footing. To do so would not have been morally suitable, either with respect to the position in which the people stood with God, or with regard to a power which He had established among the Gentiles, or with a view to the instruction of His own people in all ages, as to the government of God. This is very just. Things are left, as the hand of God in government had put them. The Gentile is still supreme in the earth; nor does the glory return to Israel. The throne of David is not raised up from the dust, nor is Urim and Thummim given again, nor the ark of the covenant; but the Spirit is not gone from His place of service. He raises up prophets, as in other days when the throne of David was in Jerusalem, and the temple and its priesthood in their glory and beauty.
It would be profitable to mark the way in which these prophets conducted their ministry in reviving the returned captives; but this I do not here. The house, however, is again attended to under their word; the zeal of the people revives; their faith and service live again; and in about four years, from the second year of Darius, when Haggai and Zechariah began to prophesy, to the sixth, when the house was finished, they work with renewed earnestness.
The dedication of the house then takes place. And this is a beautiful witness of the moral state of the remnant. It is but little they can do--little indeed--but they do it. Solomon had slain 22,000 oxen and 124,000 sheep at the dedication of the first house, while the returned captives can only render a few hundred bullocks and rams and lambs. But they do what they can; and who will say, that the mite of that earlier widow was not more than all the offerings of their richer forefathers? They did what they could, without blushing for their poverty. "Silver and gold have I none, but such as I have give I thee." There is preciousness in such feebleness, something specially acceptable in such sacrifices--when "in a time of affliction, the abundance of joy and deep poverty abound unto the riches of liberality."
And then they keep their passover; they can do this, and they will do it. The house they can dedicate, and the feast they can keep, and they will; and priests and Levites are alike purified now, as they had not been in the royal time of Hezekiah (2 Chr. 29: 34; Ezra 6: 20). So that indeed we may say, though the want of all manifested glory, such as shone in the days of Solomon, may be marked here, yet is there more attractive moral grace and power; just as the exodus from Babylon, some twenty years before, had been marked in contrast with the exodus from Egypt. There are features in the second exodus and in the dedication, features of personal beauty, which had not so appeared in the brighter, far brighter, days of Egypt and of Solomon.