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Bible Commentaries
Ezra 4

Dr. Constable's Expository NotesConstable's Expository Notes


2. The opposition to construction ch. 4

No project that seeks to honor God and advance His will in the world will go unopposed by Satan and his agents. This chapter reveals that Israel’s enemies opposed temple reconstruction energetically and for many years.

"From this point onward right to the end of Nehemiah there is conflict." [Note: Kidner, p. 48.]

"The peoples of the land wished the exiles to be entirely like them. But these were people whose allegiance was fundamentally not to Yahweh." [Note: McConville, p. 27.]

Verses 1-5

Opposition during Cyrus’ reign 4:1-5

The Assyrian government encouraged its residents to move to Israel and to settle there after the fall of the Northern Kingdom in 722 B.C. This was official government policy during the reigns of the Assyrian kings Esarhaddon (680-669 B.C.; 2 Kings 17:24) and Ashurbanipal (668-ca. 630 B.C.; Ezra 4:10). These immigrant people worshipped pagan idols (2 Kings 17:30-31), but also started worshipping Yahweh, whom they regarded as the god of the land in which they now lived (2 Kings 17:32-33). Eventually they intermarried with the Jews who had remained in the land. Their descendants became the Samaritans, a mixed breed racially and religiously. The exiles who returned from Babylon and their descendants despised them (cf. John 4:9). It was these people of the land who approached Zerubbabel and offered to help the Jews rebuild their temple (Ezra 4:2).

"But ’people of the land’ is a vague term being attached to different groups during different phases of the historical period and having no inner continuity to the term itself. Chronologically, it cannot refer to Samaritan opposition, since the Samaritan sect is a much later emergence." [Note: Dumbrell, p. 67. Cf. R. J. Coggins, "The Interpretations of Ezra IV. 4," Journal of Theological Studies 16 (1965):124-27.]

Zerubbabel refused their offer because, even though they worshipped Yahweh, they did not worship Him exclusively, as the Mosaic Law specified (Exodus 20:3). Zerubbabel realized that if their commitment to God did not include a commitment to obey His revealed will, the Jewish remnant could only anticipate endless disagreement, conflict, and frustration with them.

"This attitude of exclusiveness displayed by the Jews . . . is troublesome to our modern society, where perhaps the highest virtue is the willingness to accept and cooperate with persons whose beliefs and practices differ from one’s own. If we are tempted to think that Zerubbabel and the other leaders were sinfully separatistic or mistaken in their evaluation of those who offered their assistance, we must observe that these outsiders are identified as ’enemies.’ Their motives were clearly subversive." [Note: Breneman, p. 97.]

"The leaders in the province of Samaria may well have seen the emergence of a new, aggressive presence in Judah, and one which enjoyed the favor of the imperial government, as threatening. . . . An offer to share the labor, and presumably also the expense, of rebuilding the sanctuary would have been taken to entail, and would in fact have entailed, a share in controlling the temple itself with all that implied." [Note: Joseph Blenkinsopp, Ezra-Nehemiah, p. 107.]

The fact that these neighbors had no sincere interest in helping the Jews became obvious very quickly (Ezra 4:4-5). Their persistent opposition continued into the reign of Darius I (Hystaspes) of Persia (521-486 B.C.).

"The Persian officials were bribed to frustrate the plans of the returnees. Bribery as a practice was well known in Persian times." [Note: Fensham, The Books . . ., p. 68.]

Persian Kings of the Restoration Period
Cyrus II (the Great)559-530Ezra 1:1; Ezra 4:5
Darius I521-486Ezra 5-6; Haggai; Zechariah
Xerxes (Ahasuerus)486-464Ezra 4:6; Esther
Artaxerxes I (Artashasta)464-424Ezra 4:7-23; chs. 7-10; Nehemiah; Malachi
Darius II423-404Nehemiah 12:22

Opposition during Ahasuerus’ reign 4:6

"When he [the writer] discussed the problems of the building of the temple in Ezra 4:1-5, it reminded him of later similar troubles with the rebuilding of the wall of Jerusalem, and Song of Solomon 4:6-16 has been inserted, almost parenthetically, before the argument of the building of the temple has again been taken up in Ezra 4:24 ff. (already noted by C. F. Keil in the last [nineteenth] century)." [Note: Ibid., p. 70. See C. F. Keil, The Books of Ezra, Nehemiah, and Esther, pp. 62-65.]

This king of Persia, whose Greek name was Xerxes, was the man Esther married. He ruled from 486 to 464 B.C. Since the restoration Jews completed the temple in 515 B.C. (Ezra 6:15), this verse shows that the neighbors of the returned exiles continued to oppose them long after they had finished rebuilding the temple.

"Without this foretaste of history to reveal the full seriousness of the opposition, we would not properly appreciate the achievements recorded in the next two chapters (5 and 6) nor the dangers hidden in the mixed marriages which Ezra would set himself to stamp out (chaps. 7-10)." [Note: Kidner, p. 48.]

Verses 7-23

Opposition during Artaxerxes’ reign 4:7-23

Artaxerxes was the successor of Ahasuerus (Xerxes), who ruled the Persian Empire from 464 to 424 B.C. [Note: See William H. Shea, "Who Succeeded Xerxes on the Throne of Persia?" Journal of the Adventist Theological Society 12:1 (Spring 2001):83-88, who argued that Darius succeeded Xerxes.] Clearly the incident reported in these verses took place long after the temple was complete. It really involved the attempt by Israel’s enemies to halt the rebuilding of Jerusalem’s wall in the days of Nehemiah. It evidently took place about 446 B.C. (cf. Ezra 4:21-23; Nehemiah 1:1-3). The writer’s purpose in inserting this incident in the text was evidently to show the continued antagonism of Israel’s enemies and the faithfulness of God in giving the Jews victory over them.

"Near Eastern kings used an elaborate system of informers and spies. Egyptian sources speak of the ’ears and eyes’ of the Pharaoh. Sargon II of Assyria had agents in Urartu whom he ordered, ’Write me whatever you see and hear.’ The efficient Persian intelligence system is described by Xenophon. [Note: Xenophon, Cyropaedia, 8:2:10-12.] The King’s Eye and the King’s Ear were two distinct officials who reported to the monarch. [Note: Cf. J. Balcer, "The Athenian Apiskopos and the Achaemenid ’King’s Eye,’" American Journal of Philology 98 (1977):252-63.] But God’s people could take assurance in their conviction that God’s intelligence system is not only more efficient than any king’s espionage network but is omniscient (cf. 2 Chronicles 16:9; Zechariah 4:10)." [Note: Yamauchi, "Ezra-Nehemiah," p. 629. Cf. A. L. Oppenheim, "The Eyes of the Lord," Journal of the American Oriental Society 88 (1968):173-79.]

The antagonists enlisted the help of local Persian officials, including Rehum and Shimshai (Ezra 4:8), to appeal to Artaxerxes to issue an order stopping work on the walls. The letter was in Aramaic, the common language of the Persian Empire. This is the language in which it appears in the oldest Hebrew texts of Ezra. The writer evidently wrote all of Ezra 4:8 to Ezra 6:18 as well as Ezra 7:12-26 in Aramaic originally. The other Aramaic portions of the Old Testament are two words in Genesis 31:47 (translated "the heap of witness"), Jeremiah 10:11 (a divine announcement of the destruction of idols), and Daniel 2:4 b to Daniel 7:28 (which reports the words of Babylonian astrologers and following words addressed to the kings of the earth). Aramaic was a language well known to all the Jews living in the empire, as well as Gentiles. The writer may have written this entire section of the book in Aramaic to avoid changing back and forth from Hebrew to Aramaic so many times. [Note: Kidner, p. 136.]

"The end of Ezra 4:7 is literally ’and he wrote the letter written in Aramaic and translated in Aramaic.’ . . . This could mean that while the letter had been written in Aramaic, the author’s copy had been translated into Hebrew. [Note: Blenkinsopp, p. 112.] Since the actual letter is not given, however, it more likely would mean that although the letter had been written in Aramaic it was translated into Persian when it was read to the king." [Note: Breneman, p. 101.]

Osnappar (Ezra 4:10) is evidently an Aramaic form of Ashurbanipal (669-ca. 660 B.C.), the Assyrian king who succeeded Esarhaddon. [Note: A. R. Millard, "Assyrian Royal Names in Biblical Hebrew," Journal of Semitic Studies 21:1&2 (1976):11.] The phrase "beyond the river" (Ezra 4:10-11; Ezra 4:16-17; Ezra 4:20) refers to the Persian province that lay to the southwest of the upper Euphrates, namely, the one that encompassed Syria and Palestine.

The Jews mentioned in this letter (Ezra 4:12) would have been those who returned with Ezra in 458 B.C., the second group of Jews to leave Babylon. That group attempted to rebuild the walls of the city, having received permission from Artaxerxes in 458 B.C. to do so (Ezra 7:21).

Israel’s enemies presented three reasons Artaxerxes should withdraw the Jews’ building permit. They warned that the Jews would stop paying taxes when their fortifications were complete (Ezra 4:13), and the consequent decline in revenue would hurt the king’s reputation (Ezra 4:14). Moreover, if the Jews continued to rebuild a city that had a reputation for rebellion, their actions might encourage other peoples in other parts of the empire to revolt (Ezra 4:15-16).

"The historical justification for the claim that Jerusalem is a chronically rebellious city will have consisted in such events as Hezekiah’s withholding of tribute from Assyria (2 Kings 18:7, ca. 724 B.C.) and Zedekiah’s abortive bid for freedom from the Babylonians, which led to the cataclysm of 587 (2 Kings 24:20 ff.). The Assyrian and Babylonian annals were evidently available to the Persian kings. And it is clear that a nerve is touched." [Note: McConville, pp. 28-29.]

In his reply Artaxerxes explained that, having done some research, he had concluded that it seemed to be in his best interests to halt work temporarily. He put an order to stop work into effect only until he could determine a permanent solution to the problem (Ezra 4:21, "until . . ."). About two years later (444 B.C.), Artaxerxes released Nehemiah to go to Jerusalem to finish rebuilding the wall (Nehemiah 2:8). Evidently the king had concluded that, all things considered, it was better to have Jerusalem defended than undefended.

When the Samaritans received Artaxerxes’ reply, they immediately forced the Jews to stop building the wall. They may even have destroyed part of the rebuilt wall and burned the gates (cf. Nehemiah 1:3).

"This was a day of great shame to the Jewish population because their honest endeavor was thwarted by their archenemies, the Samaritans, and it was forced on them by Samaritan soldiers." [Note: Fensham, The Books . . ., p. 76.]

Bibliographical Information
Constable, Thomas. DD. "Commentary on Ezra 4". "Dr. Constable's Expository Notes". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/dcc/ezra-4.html. 2012.
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