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Bible Commentaries
Ezra 5

Pett's Commentary on the BiblePett's Commentary

Verses 1-5

After A Period Of Stagnation Work Begins On The Rebuilding Of The House of God, Which Causes Some Concern To The Persian Governor (Ezra 4:24 to Ezra 5:5 ).

Revealing that the work on the house of God ceased as a result of the activities of their adversaries the writer now describes how, as a result of the prophesying of Haggai and Zechariah, the work on the Temple recommences, something which disturbs the Persian governor of the area because he is concerned about their use of valuable materials which could be being used for warlike purposes.

Ezra 4:24

‘Then the work of the house of God which is at Jerusalem ceased, and it ceased until the second year of the reign of Darius king of Persia.”

The repetition of phrases makes clear that this verse is resuming what has been spoken of in Ezra 4:5. It is a technical device found often in the Old Testament where it is necessary to indicate that what lies in between is a parenthesis. Thus Ezra 4:6-23 are such a parenthesis.

Attention is now drawn to the fact that as a result of the widespread local opposition of their enemies, the work that had begun on the Temple by laying foundations (Ezra 3:8 to Ezra 4:1) had come to a full stop. From the indications given we can probably understand why:

1) Part of the problem probably lay in acts of violence perpetrated on the new community in order to distract them (Ezra 4:4). This might have included threats, and even attacks, on their houses and families if they left them unprotected; their enemies setting fire to fields of grain, as Samson did in the times of the judges; and even vindictive attacks on the persons of the returnees themselves. All this would involve the returnees in having to take protective measures which could only prevent them from concentrating on building the Temple.

2) Furthermore, as we know, much of the timber had to be obtained from Sidon and Tyre (Ezra 3:7). This in itself would mean the work coming to a halt for a time, and with everyone against them we can imagine the difficulties that there would be in getting the supplies through. And once the work had halted for a time the initial enthusiasm would inevitably wane, especially as there were more immediate problems to be dealt with

3) The machination of counsellors who were hired to present a case against them, may well have made them afraid of what the consequences might be of continuing, with the threat of Persian interference hanging over their heads (Ezra 4:5; Ezra 5:3).

4) There were also the problems of erecting a Temple in the face of continual opposition, violently expressed against those who sought to build (Ezra 4:4).

5) Added to all this would be their own need to build their own homes and ensure the welfare of their families (Haggai 1:4).

6) Later this situation would be further exacerbated by the local famines which meant that their time was directed elsewhere as they struggled to survive (Haggai 1:6; Haggai 1:9-11).

Taken together these things would have been sufficient to deter them from making the effort to build the Temple, which in itself was a difficult enough task. It thus took the activity of two prophets, Haggai and Zechariah, to stir them into action so that they recommenced the work.

Ezra 5:1

‘Now the prophets, Haggai the prophet, and Zechariah the son of Iddo, prophesied to the Jews who were in Judah and Jerusalem, in the name of the God of Israel (who was) over them (or ‘to them’).

Things came to a head when two prophets arose and prophesied to them in the Name of the God of Israel. Their names were Haggai and Zechariah, and their prophecies were to all those who were in Judah and Jerusalem, that is to the returnees and those who supported them. Haggai is always called ‘Haggai the prophet’ (compare Ezra 6:14) even in his own writings. This may well be because his antecedents were unimportant. Zechariah’s family was clearly more distinguished. He was the ‘son of Iddo’, a well known priestly ancestor. We have here a reminder that God takes people from all backgrounds for the carrying out of His purposes. It was Haggai who was the more direct, speaking with great bluntness (see his prophecy), whilst Zechariah was more visionary, although nevertheless at times speaking equally directly. We have a record of both their messages in the books of Haggai and Zechariah.

‘The God of Israel (Who was) over them.’ This may indicate ‘over the prophets’ or it may signify ‘over the people’. In the first case it would emphasise the position of the prophets as servants of YHWH. In the second it would be a reminder of what the people owed to their God as their Sovereign Lord.

Ezra 5:2

‘Then rose up Zerubbabel the son of Shealtiel, and Jeshua the son of Jozadak, and began to build the house of God which is at Jerusalem; and with them were the prophets of God, helping them.’

The consequence of the preaching of the prophets was that the Jewish leaders, Zerubbabel the governor, and Jeshua the High Priest, spurred on the people to recommence the building of ‘the house of God which was at Jerusalem’, whilst the two prophets continued with their urging, stirring them up and encouraging them to carry on, giving them every assistance by their words. The fact that this continued activity of the prophets had to be mentioned brings out the strength of the opposition to the project. It took all the authority of Zerubbabel and Jeshua, both political and religious, together with all the urgings of the prophets, to ensure that the work carried on. And the problems were exacerbated when the opposition dropped a word in the ear of the Persian the Governor of the Province of Beyond the River, no doubt with deceptive inferences, in order to force him to look into what they were doing. A report of people who were building with ‘massive stones’ would be enough in itself to force him to take an interest.

Ezra 5:3

‘At the same time came to them Tattenai, the governor of Beyond the River, and Shethar-bozenai, and their companions, and said thus to them, Who gave you a decree to build this house, and to shape and fashion for use (literally ‘finish’) this material?’

We can well imagine the consternation of the returnees when no less a person than Tattenai, Governor of the Province of Beyond the River, arrived, supported by a group of Persian inspectors, enquiring as to who had given them the order to commence this work and what were the names of the persons involved. It appears to have been a genuine enquiry rather than an accusation, as is evidenced by the fact that the work was allowed to continue while a decision was reached. He could see that they were building a Temple. The ‘material’ was probably the cedar wood from Sidon and Tyre which had presumably arrived a considerable time before, together with timber from the local forests (Ezra 3:7; Haggai 1:8). This would have been piled up in readiness for use, although there may also be in it a reference to the blocks of stone which would also have been needed. The word used for ‘material’ is used in Scripture only here and in Ezra 4:9, (translated in LXX as material) and earlier guesses were that it meant ‘wall’, but external Aramaic sources have confirmed that it in fact indicates ‘building materials’.

A similar name to Tattenai (Tattani), together with his designation as ‘Governor of Eber-nari (Beyond the River), has been found in a Babylonian record dated 502 BC. He was under-governor to Ushtani the satrap of Babylon. Shethar-bozenai has been demonstrated from Aramaic papyri to be a good Persian name. The companions were probably Persian inspectors (OP frasarka). This may suggest that tight control was kept by the Persians over the use of valuable building materials. It was with such that prospective rebels made strong fortifications.

Ezra 5:4

‘Then we said to them in this way, what the names of the men were who were making this building.’

The change to ‘we’ is unexpected. It may well suggest a personal reminiscence of the writer as one who was present at the scene, either asserting boldly that ‘we were not afraid to identify ourselves’, or possibly indicating apprehension at having to provide names to the Persian authorities, or both. It would be in answer to a question posed to them as described in Ezra 4:10. The ‘we’ may also be emphasising that ‘all of us’ were involved in the reply, not just the elders. It was thus a declaration of faith, for giving their names might easily have turned against them. But their confidence was in God, and so they were not afraid. The idea would appear to be that in response to the question in Ezra 4:3 the whole party of builders attempted to hide nothing, but boldly and personally took responsibility for what they were doing.

Alternately it may be a direct reflection of Ezra 4:10, while taking up the reference to Tattenai and his inspectors in Ezra 4:3, it being stated in the first person with the purpose of making the background to the question ‘what are the names of the men who are making this building?’ more vivid. Indeed, if Ezra 4:3-4 were being constructed by the writer on the basis of the letter sent to Darius, he may well have been so involved in the spirit of the letter that he utilised the same ‘person’ in relation to the question as was used in Ezra 4:10.

Ezra 5:5

‘And the eye of their God was on the elders of the Jews, and they did not make them cease, till the matter should come to Darius, and then answer should be returned by letter concerning it.’

The writer then returns to the third person and gives credit to the God of the elders of the Jews for the fact that they were not made to stop working while the matter was being referred to Darius. While the eye of Persia may have been upon them in the person of the inspectors, the eye of God was also upon them too, overruling the eye of the inspectors. And the consequence was that the inspectors did not interfere with the work, but allowed them to continue their work until they had received a reply from Darius. For as Zechariah had made clear, ‘the eyes of YHWH run to and fro throughout the whole earth’ (Zechariah 4:10) ensuring the fulfilling of His purposes, and this in the direct context of the completing of the building of the Temple.

This reference to the eye of God being on them may be seen as supporting the idea that Ezra 4:4 was meant to be seen as a bold reply to the question posed in Ezra 4:3, put in such a way as to impress the Persian governor.

Verses 1-17

The Eventual Building Of The Temple And The Observance Of The Passover (Ezra 4:24 to Ezra 6:22 ).

This passage now returns to take up the account of the building of the Temple from Ezra 4:5 where reference was made to the hired counsellors who sought to frustrate the building of the Temple ‘all the days of Cyrus, king of Persia, even unto the reign of Darius, king of Persia’ It commences in Ezra 4:24 by indicating that their attempts were successful to the extent that work on the Temple ceased ‘until the second year of the reign of Darius king of Persia.’ Then from Ezra 5:1 inwards we are told of how the work on the Temple once more began, finally being confirmed by a decree of Darius in which he commanded that all assistance be given for that rebuilding from the revenues of the Province of Beyond The River. In consequence the House was finally built and the Passover observed. The verses in Ezra 4:6-23 are to be seen as a parenthesis, dealing with later matters concerning the building of the defensive walls of Jerusalem.

Verses 6-17

The Persian Governor Writes To King Darius Concerning The Building Of The Temple And The Statement Of The Elders Concerning Their Case (Ezra 5:6-17 ).

It should be noted how deliberately the writer gives an exact record of the correspondence which took place to and fro. He was a careful historian. He first records the letter which Tattenai sent to King Darius in Aramaic. It is probable that a copy of this letter (Ezra 5:6) was given to the Jewish elders so that they would know what was said. This would serve to confirm the impartiality of Tattenai who appears only to have been doing his duty as he saw it.

Ezra 5:6-7

‘The copy of the letter that Tattenai, the governor of Beyond the River, and Shethar-bozenai, and his companions the Inspectors (Apharsachites), who were of Beyond the River, sent to Darius the king. They sent a letter to him, in which was written thus:’

This would appear to summarise the preamble with which a letter would normally commence, which would be something like, ‘Tattenai, the governor of Beyond the River, and Shethar-bozenai, and his companions the Apharsachites, to Darius the King’. The Apharsachites are again referred to in Ezra 6:6. The word is derived from the Old Persian (OP) word frasarka meaning inspectors. They are to be distinguished from the Apharsathchites of Ezra 4:9, where the word probably signifies ‘envoys’ (OP fraistarka). We are then given the contents of the letter. We again note the Persian style, both of the preamble and of the letter, confirming its authenticity.

‘In which was written thus. The word for ‘thus’ (signifying ‘in the body of the letter’) is typical of Aramaic legal documents

Ezra 5:7

‘Unto Darius the king, all peace.’

The name of the addressee is given with a wish for his total wellbeing, something typical of such letters.

Ezra 5:8

‘Be it known to the king, that we went into the district of Judah, to the house of the great God, which is being built with massive stones, and timber is laid in the walls, and this work goes on with thoroughness and prospers in their hands.’

The reason for writing is now given. They wish to make known to the king that they have been fulfilling their responsibilities of being the eye of the king, in this case by going into the district of Judah to check out a report that the Jews were engaged in building something with massive stones. The first years of Darius, as so often when kings first came to the throne, had been a signal to disaffected factions to rebel against him. The report that they had received of the use of ‘massive stones’, very naturally therefore had aroused their suspicions.

No doubt the report, suitably embellished, had come from Judah’s enemies (Ezra 4:1). But when the Persian representatives had arrived they had discovered that what was being built was a Temple to ‘the great God’ (the same description of God is used in Persepolis fortification tablets). It was being built with massive stones, and with timber laid in the walls (as with Solomon’s Temple - 1 Kings 6:36). These courses of timber would provide the flexibility needed if an earthquake struck. Here was the explanation for the massive stones. And the work was going on with thoroughness, and was prospering. In other words they were making a good job of it, and making proper use of the materials. These words confirm that Tattenai was seeking to be fair to the builders, and did not see them as a threat. But the question then was, did they have proper authorisation?

Ezra 5:9

‘Then we asked those elders, and said to them thus, “Who gave you a decree to build this house, and to make use of and fashion this material?”

So the writer of the letter then made clear to the king that they had asked the Jewish elders who it was who had given the authorisation for the building of the house, and the use and shaping of this expensive building material. They wanted the king to recognise that they had done their own job thoroughly as well.

Ezra 5:10

‘We asked them their names also, to certify to you, that we might write the names of the men who were at the head of them.’

They also confirmed that they had demanded the names of those who were responsible for the work, so that they could report them to Darius. This may have been in order that, if he felt it necessary, he could take suitable action against them, or it may have been so that he would know that the men doing the work were not subversive, but reliable. He was no doubt confident that Darius’ system of spies would have provided him with the names of any who appeared to be subversive. The kings of Persia had an efficient spy system which reported back directly to him. Thus a quick check of the list would confirm whether or not there was anything reported against these men.

Ezra 5:11

‘And thus they returned us answer, saying, “We are the servants of the God of heaven and earth, and are rebuilding the house which was built these many years ago, which a great king of Israel built and finished.”

The writer then reported on the answer that they had received. The Jewish elders had declared that they were the servants of the God of heaven and earth. We have seen previously that the ‘God of Heaven’ was the Name by which YHWH was known outside Palestine, and which Cyrus had used in his decree (see Ezra 1:2). Here the elders were also emphasising another relevant fact about Him. He was not only concerned with heaven but also with earth. And it was as His servants that they were rebuilding the house, a house which had been built many years before by a great king of Israel. It was thus not something new, but the establishing of something which had existed for centuries. There was nothing subversive about it.

‘A great king of Israel.’ The elders would have known the name of the great king of Israel but they recognised that Tattenai would not, and they wanted to get over the idea of how great he was.

Ezra 5:12

“But after that our fathers had provoked the God of heaven to wrath, he gave them into the hand of Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon, the Chaldean, who destroyed this house, and carried the people away into Babylon.”

And the elders had explained that the reason why the Temple had needed rebuilding was not because of the powerlessness of their God, the God of Heaven. It was because their fathers had provoked the God of Heaven to anger. As a consequence He had given them into the hands of Nebuchadnezzar, the king of Babylon, the Chaldean, who had destroyed the house and carried the people away to Babylon. The reference to Nebuchadnezzar as ‘the Chaldean’ distinguishes him from the current King of Babylon, who was a Persian. It was making clear that this destruction had not been the work of a Persian.

Ezra 5:13

“But in the first year of Cyrus king of Babylon, Cyrus the king made a decree to build this house of God.”

But then had come a new change in the situation, for on Cyrus the Persian becoming king of Babylon he had made a decree that the house of God on which they were now working should be rebuilt. (They did not need to spell out that Cyrus was a Persian, for it was something that everyone knew, most of all Darius). Thus what they were doing was actually at the command of the king of Persia.

This is an almost unique reference to Cyrus as king of Babylon outside records which relate to Babylon (where it is used regularly), but the reason for it is clear. He was being seen as having taken over the reins from the Chaldean kings of Babylon. Cyrus was in fact seen as king of Persia, king of Babylon, king of Egypt, as well as many other titles, depending on who was in mind in the record being made (compare ‘king of Assyria’ in Ezra 6:22).

Ezra 5:14

“And the gold and silver vessels also of the house of God, which Nebuchadnezzar took out of the temple which was in Jerusalem, and brought into the temple of Babylon, those did Cyrus the king take out of the temple of Babylon, and they were delivered to one whose name was Sheshbazzar, whom he had made governor,”

Furthermore as proof of his generosity, and his reverence for the God of the Jews, Cyrus had taken out of the temple of Babylon the gold and silver vessels which Nebuchadnazzar had taken from the house of God in Jerusalem, and had delivered them to Sheshbazzar, whom he had appointed as governor over the returnees, so that they might eventually be restored to their rightful place, the house of God in Jerusalem.

Ezra 5:15

“And he said to him, ‘Take these vessels, go, put them in the temple which is in Jerusalem, and let the house of God be built in its place.’ ”

And what was more it was his command that the house of God be rebuilt in Jerusalem, and that those vessels then be put within it. This command envisaged both the rebuilding of the Temple, the task that the elders were now engaged in, and the restoration to that Temple of the gold and silver vessels which had been stolen from the previous Temple. Cyrus was concerned to get all the gods in his empire on his side, as indeed Darius would be too (Ezra 6:7-12).

Ezra 5:16

“Then came the same Sheshbazzar, and laid the foundations of the house of God which is in Jerusalem, and since that time even until now has it been in building, and yet it is not completed.”

The elders had then explained that this same Sheshbazzar had obeyed the king’s command, and had laid the foundations of the house of God which is in Jerusalem, and since then it had been in process of being built, but was not yet completed, which was why they were now working on it.

This was a slightly artificial description of what had happened, for as we know after the foundations were laid, the work had ceased for a good number of years, until recently recommenced. But the Jews would have been well aware that they might well be asked why they had not carried out Cyrus’ decree immediately. They thus tried to give the impression of a long process which had not yet been completed. So while what they said was not untrue, it was certainly deceptive. But they would not have dared to say otherwise. To suggest that they had deliberately not obeyed the king’s command could have been seen as gross disobedience.

This is the only mention of the fact that Sheshbazzar laid the foundations of the Temple. In Ezra 3:10 we were informed that it was Zerubbabel and Jeshua who had caused the foundations of the Temple to be laid. Can they both be correct? There are a number of possible explanations:

1) That Sheshbazzar commenced laying foundation stones in obedience to the charge given him by Cyrus, but that this was interrupted by his early death so that the final completion of the laying of the foundations was carried out by his successor. It must be recognised that the laying of the foundations of so large a project would necessarily take a good amount of time. The ground had to be levelled, the correct material had to be obtained from sources outside Jerusalem, and it then had to be conveyed to the site and shaped so as to be suitable for their purpose, and whilst some suitable stones might be found from the previously destroyed Temple, even they would have required to be dressed ready for the project in hand. The initial laying of some foundation stones may have been achieved easily by utilising material available on the site, but the returnees would not have had the resources immediately available which would have enabled the rest of the work to be done quickly. Building so large a building was a huge project. So laying the whole foundations would necessarily therefore have been a lengthy task, easily commenced but not so easily finished.

The Jews would mention Sheshbazzar because his was the name linked with Cyrus’ decree, but it would not necessarily indicate that he had completed the task. In our view this must be seen as a very probable explanation. It is difficult to see how, having received the king’s command, Sheshbazzar would have dared not to have commenced the work as soon as practicable, even if only in a very limited fashion. He would want to report back to the king that the work had begun. But we can easily see how his early death might have devolved the work on Zerubbabel and Jeshua, so that it was they who really completed the task of laying the foundations. Nor would they have delayed too long. Whilst not as conscious of the king’s command as Sheshbazzar, he would have instilled into them the necessity of carrying out the work, and besides this was one of the main reasons for their return. Jeshua especially, as High Priest designate, would have been keen for the work to continue, to say nothing of the fact that the valuable gold and silver vessels that they had brought with them were for use in the Temple, and would meanwhile have to be kept safe. All this would have increased the sense of urgency.

But equally we can see how the delay necessary for the gathering of the materials, the problems of actually obtaining those materials and conveying them to the site, and the continuing hostility of those round about them which would often erupt into violence, would over time have weakened their resolve, and especially so because the task was so enormous, whilst they had their own livelihoods to consider in very difficult circumstances. It would have been so easy to find excuses for delaying the work until ‘a more suitable time’.

2) That Sheshbazzar’s name was connected with the work by the elders because they knew that it was his name that would be in the decree, but that the work had really been begun by Zerubbabel soon after his early death. Thus it was Sheshbazzar’s representatives who had laid the foundations, and not Sheshbazzar himself, although that was not something that had to be particularised in such a brief statement. They had acted in Sheshbazzar’s name.

3) That Sheshbazzar was mentioned because his was the name connected with the decree, but that the work had actually not been commenced until the initiative brought about by Haggai and Zechariah nearly twenty years afterwards, and that the statement that the work had commenced ‘in the second year of their coming to the house of God in Jerusalem’ (Ezra 3:8) did not indicate the second year of their return, but the second year of their eventually taking an interest in building that house of God in Jerusalem. In my view, however, this is to ignore the plain meaning of the words (their very reason for returning was so that they might come to that holy site), and overlooks the fact that the king’s command to build the Temple would have been seen as urgent, and this especially so in view of the valuable artefacts which they had brought with them whose purpose was to be used in the Temple. The presence of those artefacts would have made the building of the Temple an urgent priority to the one into whose charge they had been committed.

Verse 17

Tattenai Advises The King On What He Might Do Next, If It Was His Good Pleasure To Do So (Ezra 5:17 ). ,

Ezra 5:17

‘Now therefore, if it seem good to the king, let a search be made in the king’s treasure-house, which is there at Babylon, whether it was so, that a decree was made of Cyrus the king to build this house of God at Jerusalem, and let the king send his pleasure to us concerning this matter.’

Having outlined what the elders of the Jews had told him Tattenai suggested to the king that if he wished to confirm that such a decree had been issued by Cyrus he should initiate a search in the king’s treasure house in Babylon, the place where such a decree, if it existed, was most likely to be found. He then asked for instructions as to how he should proceed.

As it would turn out the decree would not be found in the king’s treasure house in Babylon. Rather it was discovered at Achmetha, in a palace in the province of Media (Ezra 6:2). Cyrus had in fact spent some time in Achmetha after the conquest of Babylon, and therefore at the time of his decree. There is a touch of authenticity about this. Those charged with discovering the decree would not want to return empty handed

‘If it seems good to the king.’ This phrase is typical of official Aramaic letters at this time, as is evidenced by papyri. Clearly Tattenai did not dare to tell king Darius what to do, but could only make a helpful suggestion as one of his advisers, leaving the decision in the king’s hands.

Bibliographical Information
Pett, Peter. "Commentary on Ezra 5". "Pett's Commentary on the Bible ". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/pet/ezra-5.html. 2013.
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