When the Enemy Wins the Battle (Part 1 – Ezra 4)

FPCNorwayEzra: Building the House of God, Sermons

When the enemy wins the battle, they successfully frustrate the work of God’s people. Ezra 4 shows us how to understand the nature and extent of their success. We will find that our enemies can achieve significant degrees of success, but their efforts will ultimately fail. They may win occasional battles, but they will never win the war. 

When the Enemy Wins the Battle

Rev. Matthew J. Stanghelle
January 19, 2020

This morning we return to the book of Ezra with the question, what happens when the enemy wins the battle? That is, what are we supposed to think when the enemies of God’s people appear to win? But before we answer that question, our interlude in this series requires a brief reminder of all that has taken place up to this point. 

God’s people are experiencing unparalleled success. In chapter one, we saw them delivered for a purpose. God delivered them out of seventy-years of captivity in a foreign land—not just to bring them home to the promised land, but in order to rebuild the temple, restoring proper worship and his dwelling place in their midst. 

In chapter two, we saw that God’s people have names that matter. God gives his inheritance to chosen people. They are chosen to be generous, freely giving their resources to complete the temple construction. And we saw that the temple building and worship is undertaken by chosen leaders. God preserves the integrity of his covenant through specific people, with specific names.

Finally, in chapter three we saw that God’s people long for something greater than the reconstructed temple. The foundation is restored, but it pales so far in comparison to Solomon’s temple that many weep at the sight of it. This second temple is not the ultimate destination for God’s people. They must fix their eyes on future grace rather than former glories.

Nevertheless, out of the ashes of exile, God’s people experience unparalleled success—everything is going their way. But it all comes to a halt in chapter four. The work on God’s house, so zealously undertaken, suddenly stops for an entire generation. What happened? How did the enemy gain such a swift and devastating victory?

When the enemy wins the battle, they successfully frustrate the work of God’s people. Ezra 4 shows us how to understand the nature and extent of their success. We will find that our enemies can achieve significant degrees of success, but their efforts will ultimately fail. They may win occasional battles, but they will never win the war. 

Enemy-occupied territory—that’s what C.S. Lewis calls this present world. Christ’s church inhabits the territory of the enemy. Satan and his children have persecuted and frustrated the work of God’s people from the beginning. And they will continue to do so until Christ returns and brings their ruin. 

Ezra 4 is an illustration of the Christian’s spiritual war. The New Testament tells us that our battle is not against flesh and blood but against the devil and his forces (cf. Eph. 6:10-20). We are charged to stand firm. Furthermore, we are told that these Old Testament experiences are written down for our instruction, and they point to the greater spiritual realities of Christ and his church (1 Cor. 10:1-11).

Thus, Ezra 4 demonstrates that we are in a fight. It’s a fight of faith—a fight for the kingdom of God and the souls of his people. It’s about the mission and persevering to the end. Ezra 4 gives us a window into the enemy’s tactics. And if we pay attention, we will earn knowledge to gain the upper hand. We will unpack Ezra 4 by looking at the nature and extent of the enemy’s success.

I. The Nature of the Enemy’s Success (Ezra 4:1-23)

We have the opportunity to take a look at three specific tactics that Satan uses to gain victory over God’s people. 

1. Religious Perversion (Ezra 4:1-3)

Apostasy is the abandonment or renunciation of a religious or political belief. And now that the success of God’s people begins to spread, the adversaries of God’s people make an attempt at corrupting the work and turning God’s people away from faithfulness to his charge. The whole project of building God’s house and restoring biblical worship are at stake.

Now when the adversaries of Judah and Benjamin heard that the returned exiles were building a temple to the Lord, the God of Israel, they approached Zerubbabel and the heads of fathers’ houses and said to them, “Let us build with you, for we worship your God as you do, and we have been sacrificing to him ever since the days of Esarhaddon king of Assyria who brought us here.” —Ezra 4:1-2

The adversaries in question are the Samaritans. They are a mixed people, some from the Northern ten tribes that broke away from the monarchy in Jeroboam’s rebellion, as well as other foreign peoples who settled in the land after God’s people were deported to Assyria. They claim to worship the Lord though their worship is perverted and pluralistic. 

Perverted religion is the chief reason that God drove his people from the land (cf. 2 Kings 17:18-23). God’s worship is holy. He will not tolerate perversion. Such religion has plagued God’s people from the beginning—the Fall of Adam, the Golden Calf, Korah’s Rebellion, Nadab and Abihu’s foreign fire, the repeated cycles of apostasy in the period of the Judges and the divided monarchy.

Now is another opportunity to fall into the same pit. Think about the temptation. The Samaritans are the dominant people in the land. They have money, power, connections and networks. We just saw in chapter three how disappointing the new temple was in comparison to former days. Now they have the tempting opportunity to build something greater! But to bite would be spiritual suicide.

The cost would be their souls. But the world would rejoice at their choice. In every age, the church faces the choice between worldly favor and godly fidelity. But worldly favor is a sweet treat that carries a bitter worm. Like a parasite, liberalism can only live off what is healthy. And like a parasite, it gnaws away, twisting and perverting doctrine until its victim dies the slow death of spiritual decay. 

Satan uses this strategy whenever he can. It is low-hanging fruit. Lull the victim into the drift from sound doctrine and you have any easy victim. He tried it on Jesus in the desert—twisting Scripture. Likewise, he worked his cunning in the Garden—“Did God really say…” (Gen. 3:1). To the present day, apostate Christians and churches turn away from listening to the truth and follow teachers to suit their own passions (2 Tim. 4:4).

Spiritual suicide is real. It is biting on the Tempter’s words when he says, ‘All this will be yours if you only worship me’ (Matt. 4:9). It is following Paul’s associates, Hymenaeus and Alexander, who make shipwreck of their faith and are handed over to Satan (1 Tim. 1:19-20). It is the greedy Demas who abandons the faith because he is in love with the world (2 Tim. 4:10). It is the many false teachers who distort the one true gospel and who are summarily condemned (Gal. 1:8-9).

Remarkably, Zerubbabel and the other leaders do not yield to their seducers. They flatly refuse the help—“You have nothing to do with us!” They guard the faith. They hold fast the king’s verdict. Resolute, they stand firm in faith and purpose. But fidelity to God comes at a steep price when you live in the land of your enemy. 

2. Discouragement and Fear (Ezra 4:4-5)

“Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned,” and no fury surpasses that of the world’s wrath when her wiles are rejected. No sooner are the Samaritan’s spurned than they turn that rejection into vengeance. In verse 4, we see Satan at work employing his second favorite tactic—the production of discouragement and fear. 

Then the people of the land discouraged the people of Judah and made them afraid to build. —Ezra 4:4

Fear paralyses. There is nothing quite so effective at stopping the work of God’s people as producing the ever-present feeling that something is about to go wrong. The twin-sister of fear is discouragement. Discouragement is that looming sense that whatever you are doing is bound to fail. Put fear and discouragement together and you have a recipe for total inaction.

Economic and political pressures are applied. Building God’s house becomes increasingly dangerous and costly. Compounded by the bribery of public officials, the Samaritans find overwhelming success in stopping the work of God’s people. In fact, they are so successful that the work is halted for almost an entire generation—almost 16 years. Derek Kidner describes their success.

The resulting campaign of harassment by the local people had the double force of persistence (the Heb. has a string of participles: they kept doing these things) and of variety. Discouragement (4a) relies on the subtle weapons of suggestion and sneers; intimidation (4b) and threats. Not content with these, they must get their victims discredited and on the wrong side of the authorities—and they were prepared to buy professional help (5) to achieve this. It is small wonder that they succeeded. The supply-lines from Lebanon (3:7) were long and vulnerable, the new community felt exposed and surrounded; besides, as Haggai’s preaching was to reveal, the excuse to postpone something as expensive and burdensome as building the house of God was rather tempting (cf. Hag. 1:2ff.). For about sixteen years, to 520 bc, the pressure against them was kept up, and as verse 24 will show, it was wholly effective. —Derek Kidner, Ezra and Nehemiah[1]

The world will do anything to discredit and discourage God’s people. Every day the name of Christ is slandered by the world. Churches and Christians find themselves increasingly marginalized in society. The cultural ambivalence to the gospel and the loss of power and influence that one faces as a Christian are powerful temptations to cool your zeal for the work of God.

3. Political Manipulation (Ezra 4:6, 7-23)

Economic pressures and local discouragements are not enough. The Samaritans continue persecuting God’s people for over a century. Long after the temple is rebuilt in the years to come, they continue to do everything in their power to politically manipulate the situation. They began with local politics. But they now bring it to the national stage.

The narrator tells us of two separate waves of oppression brought about by the Samaritans appealing to the Persian king to bring national policy against the work of God’s people. Mentioned here are letters to kings Ahasuerus and Artexerxes. These schemes actually take place over the reigns of six Persian kings, from Cyrus to Artaxerxes almost a hundred years later.

The list of eleven leaders and groups cited in verses 7-11 remind us that the entire world is set against the prosperity of God’s people—a military commander, a scribe, associates, judges, governors, officials, the Persians, the men of Erech, the Babylonians, the men of Susa and the rest of the nations deported and settled in the cities of Samaria. The whole world is slandering God’s people and his holy city, calling it, “that rebellious, treacherous city.”

Backed by the witness of all these groups, the enemy’s calumny plays on the king’s fears—the loss of political and economic control of the province known as the land Beyond the River (4:13). Knowing that the king will always favor policies that maintain his control and secure his wealth, the Samaritans succeed in ordering the work on the city walls to be stopped (4:21-23).

In chapter four, the policy of hell finds great success in bringing the work of God’s people to a stop by force and fraud. We must remember that above all things, Satan’s work is to stop us from fulfilling our mission. The abandonment of the gospel and biblical faithfulness to God’s Word is the goal. He will use the alluring desire to conform to the world or the fear of the world’s wrath to accomplish his plan.

The Puritan, John Owen, writes,

The gates of hell, as all agree, are the power and policy of it, or the actings of Satan, both as a lion and as a serpent, by rage and by subtlety. But whereas in these things he acts not visibly in his own person, but by his agents, he hath always had two sorts of them employed in his service. By the one he executes his rage, and by the other his craft; he animates the one as a lion, the other as a serpent. In the one he acts as the dragon, in the other as the beast that had two horns like the lamb, but spake like the dragon. The first is the unbelieving world; the other, apostates and, seducers of all sorts. Wherefore, this work in this kind is of a double nature;—the one, an effect of his power and rage, acted by the world in persecution—the other, of his policy and craft, acted by heretics in seduction. In both he designs to separate the church from its foundation. —John Owen, The Person of Christ [2]

In short, the devil will do anything he can to stop us from advancing the mission. He will use any means necessary to prevent the Christ’s Church from growing and expanding. His one-two punch is force and fraud. He corrupts the mission by perverting the faith whenever possible. And when that fails, he uses persecution or political force to bring it to a stop. 

But to what end?

II. The Extent of the Enemy’s Success (Ezra 4:24)

What is the extent of the enemy’s success? 

1. Temporary Success

It is a biblical and historical fact that Satan has won many battles against God’s people. The persecution against God’s people continues into the days leading up to Christ. The Greek king Antiochus IV Epiphanes successfully sacks Jerusalem and desecrates the temple by burning a pig on the altar and erecting a statue of Zeus. 

The gospels show how the Jewish campaign to crucify their own messiah was successfully achieved. The crowds and Jewish leaders persuaded Pilot to crucify our Lord. Persecution continues against the early church. Before his own conversion, the apostle Paul was a zealous leader in the effort to persecute, imprison and murder Christians (cf. Acts 8:3; 9:1-2; 26:9-11).

The pages of church history are filled with the tales of persecutions, imprisonments and martyrdom. Christians continued to face waves of bitter persecution in the Roman empire. The Roman Catholic church persecuted Protestants far and wide before and after the Reformation. Recall Bloody Mary’s reign of terror against the Puritans in England. The slaughter of 70,00 Calvinist Huguenots in France. 

Remember Hans Neilson Hauge, the great Norwegian evangelist. Religious authorities had him arrested for preaching without a license and he was sent to prison, without a trial, for seven years. He was not permitted to read or write, receive any visitors, or even exercise in fresh air. He left prison a broken man and died shortly thereafter.[3]

Heavy religious persecution continues today. It is estimated that more Christians died for their faith in the 20th century than all other centuries combined. The U. S. State Department reports that Christians have become the most persecuted group in the world. Over 250 million Christians have been attacked, threatened or murdered for their faith.[4]

What should we make of this? Will Satan defeat the Church? Will our efforts for the mission and our faith in God come to nothing? 

2. Ultimate Failure (Ezra 4:24)

God’s people in Ezra 4 are completely stifled. Building God’s house stops for almost 16 years. And yet, that was not the last word. We see the glimmer of hope in verse 24.

Then the work on the house of God that is in Jerusalem stopped, and it ceased until the second year of the reign of Darius king of Persia. —Ezra 4:24

The enemy won the battle. The work stopped. But, in the days of king Darius, it would begin again. Like the green shoot from a fallen stump. A new day will arise for the people of God and the work will go on.

Beloved, it is vital that we remember that while the enemy may win temporary battles over God’s people, he will never win the war. Satan and his children will meet their ruin. And the harder they squeeze, the more the faith of God’s people endures. Tertullian, the church father, famously writes, “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church,”. 

Persecution spreads the gospel. In the book of Acts, the great wave of persecution in Jerusalem spread the gospel throughout the Roman Empire. The witness of the saints in those brutal days was so powerful that it eventually led to the conversion of the Empire to the Christian faith. Did Christians fight back with physical violence? No. It was their gospel witness, receiving the blows of the enemy in the gladiatorial arena and the martyr’s stake, that turned the whole world upside down.

While governments crack down on Christianity in places like China, Iran and the global South, the faith spreads far and wide. Desiring God recently highlighted the remarkable rise of Iranian Christians in an article entitled, “Worth a Thousand Years of Waiting: The Staggering Rise of the Church in Iran.” Upwards of one million Iranian Christians worship the risen Savior in a country that brutally persecutes the faith and was known to only have 500 Christians in the late 1970s.[5] This same boom continues throughout the non-Western world. 

Satan may win battles, but he won’t win the war. He will continue his reign of terror and oppression on the church until the end, but the gates of hell will not prevail (Matt. 16:19). We are a blood-bought people. And Jesus will not leave his bride to the ruin of his enemy. Our Lord will return inflicting vengeance on those who afflict us. Recall our gospel hope in 2 Thessalonians:

God considers it just to repay with affliction those who afflict you, and to grant relief to you who are afflicted as well as to us, when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven with his mighty angels in flaming fire, inflicting vengeance on those who do not know God and on those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. They will suffer the punishment of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might, when he comes on that day to be glorified in his saints, and to be marveled at among all who have believed, because our testimony to you was believed. —2 Thessalonians 1:6-10

Our only hope from the same terrible fate as our enemies is to place our faith in Jesus Christ. Anyone who claims to be a Christian, but who doesn’t believe in the risen Christ will face the same doom. 

Beloved, cling to Christ. Stand firm in the faith. Press on in the work. With all the grace that Christ supplies, press on in building Christ’s church whether the seas be rough or fair. Let us now bow our heads and receive these words from Paul—that once great persecutor of the faith who was powerfully converted to the work of building Christ’s church,

To this end we always pray for you, that our God may make you worthy of his calling and may fulfill every resolve for good and every work of faith by his power, so that the name of our Lord Jesus may be glorified in you, and you in him, according to the grace of our God and the Lord Jesus Christ. —2 Thessalonians 1:11-12


[1] Derek Kidner, Ezra and Nehemiah: An Introduction and Commentary (vol. 12; Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries; Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1979), 55–56.

[2] John Owen, The Works of John Owen (ed. William H. Goold; vol. 1; Edinburgh: T&T Clark, n.d.), 35–36.

[3] John A. Yilek, History of Norway (Shelbyville, KY: Wasteland Press, 2018), 109-110.

[4] Mark Water, The New Encyclopedia of Christian Martyrs (Alresford, Hampshire: John Hunt Publishers Ltd, 2001), 848.

[5] Afshin Ziafat, “Worth a Thousand Years of Waiting: The Staggering Rise of the Church in Iran,” 11 May, 2019. https://www.desiringgod.org/articles/worth-a-thousand-years-of-waiting.