Ezra 5-6 forms a cohesive unit that concludes the first part of the book of Ezra. Chapter 4, after the recitation of various kinds of opposition, ended with the observation “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.
In the second year of Darius, God raised up the prophets Haggai and Zechariah to stir up the people to begin work on the temple once more. The prophets exercised divine authority because they speak “in the name of the God of Israel who was over them” (5:1).
The pronoun in the phrase “over them” could refer to either the prophets or the people. Brenneman notes, “it would seem best to apply the phrase to the Jews because the whole community was subject to God’s will” (Breneman 1993: 107), but whatever the referent, the phrase communicates God’s authority is conveyed in the prophetic message (Shepherd and Wright 2018: 24-25; Kidner 1979: 60).
Ezra does not reveal in his narrative that part of the problem lay with the people themselves. But the book of Haggai reveals that the people had developed excuses for avoiding continued work on the temple. They had even come under the curses of the Mosaic covenant (cf. Hag. 1:5-11 and Deut. 28:16-18, 22-24). Both Joshua and Zerubbabel seemed to need prophetic encouragement that God was with them in the rebuilding endeavor (see Hag. 2 and Zech. 4:11-14; 6:11-15). Furthermore, they all needed to be encouraged to not despise the day of small things (Zech. 4:10; cf. Hag. 2:1-9).
Zerubbabel and Joshua were responsive to the prophets’ preaching, and they lead the people in beginning again to rebuild the temple.
However, as soon as the building project was restarted, the people encountered another challenge. Tattenai, the governor of the province Beyond the River, Shethar-bozenai (presumably Tattenai’s secretary or assistant), and others with them came to investigate. While Zerubbabel was governor over the region of Judah, Tattenai was governor over the larger province Beyond the River, and thus held a higher position than Zerubbabel.
Tattenai did not seem to be fundamentally opposed to the rebuilding of the temple, as the peoples of the land were (Williamson 1985: 76; Steinmann 2010: 263; Steveson 2011: 53). But he did believe that it was his responsibility to confirm that the Jews did have permission to rebuild the temple. The fact that Persian officials had put a stop to the rebuilding during the reign of Cyrus at least cast some uncertainty about whether the project would be permitted to go forward. The request for names may also have struck the Jews as ominous. If the Persian response was unfavorable, what would be done with the names (Kidner 1979: 61)?
While the Jews would have remained in suspense during the months in which Tattenai’s inquiry took place, Ezra records a fact that signals the outcome and which should have encouraged the Jews. Tattenai did not prevent the Jews from continuing to rebuild the temple while he waited for a response from Darius (KD, 49; Breneman 1993: 109).
Ezra’s explanation is that “the eye of their God was on the elders of the Jews” (5:4). Notably, when Solomon dedicated the first temple, God told Solomon, “My eyes and my heart will be there for all time” (2 Chron. 7:16; cf. Shepherd and Wright 2018: 25). However, if the people turned away from God’s commandments, God said, “this house that I have consecrated for my name, I will cast out of my sight, and I will make it a proverb and a byword among all peoples” (2 Chron. 7:20). That judgment had happened, but it could not be the final word because of the previous promise that God’s eyes would be on the temple for all time. So God’s eye on the Jewish leaders who were rebuilding the temple was a sign that they were moving out of judgment and being restored to blessing. This is precisely what Jeremiah prophesied: “Thus says Yhwh, the God of Israel: Like these good figs, so I will regard as good the exiles from Judah…. I will set my eyes on them for good, and I will bring them back to this land” (Jer. 24:5-6; cf. Shepherd and Wright 2018: 25).