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by Peter Pett
Commentary On The Book Of Ezra
By Dr Peter Pett BA BD (Hons-London) DD
While it is true that in the Hebrew texts prior to the time of Christ the books of Ezra and Nehemiah were treated as one book, this was probably in order artificially to make the number of the books in the Old Testament come to 22 the same number as the letters in the Hebrew alphabet. But the differences between the two books are quite clear, and it impossible to see how almost identical lists of returnees would have been used, once in Ezra 2:0 and then in Nehemiah 7:0 had it been the work of the same writer. We intend therefore to treat them as two separate books.
After the destruction of the Temple in 587 BC, when the cream of the people who remained from the slaughter had been carried off to Babylon (according to Jeremiah 52:29 this included eight hundred and thirty two men with their families, who were presumably those from Jerusalem at the time of its destruction), many of the people left in Judah fled to Egypt, fearing Nebuchadrezzar’s wrath as a consequence of the assassination of his appointed governor Gedaliah along with those Babylonians who had been left in order to give him support (2 Kings 25:25-26). They ignored the pleas of Jeremiah for them to remain, and his assurance that if they did so it would go well with them (Jeremiah 42:7 ff.).
Judah, however, still remained fairly well populated by the common people (‘the poorest of the land’ - 2 Kings 25:12), although lacking in experienced leadership. This was the situation when a further invasion by Nebuchadrezzar occurred in c. 582 BC, in which a further seven hundred and forty five men with their families were carried away into exile (Jeremiah 52:30). We have no knowledge of the reason for this latest reprisal, although it may partly have been a belated response to the assassination of Gedaliah, and the slaughter of the Babylonian contingent who had been left there to support him and keep an eye on things. It would, however, have resulted in the people being even more bereft of leadership.
Those who now remained in Judah were left to struggle on, bereft of leadership, enjoying limited cohesion, and with limited religious guidance, still no doubt involved in the worship of gods on every high hill and under every green three. Yahwism was at a low ebb, the Temple was in ruins, Jerusalem was devastated, their other main cities had been destroyed, and the land was still recovering from the depredations that it had experienced. Their situation was dark indeed.
They were no doubt at some stage joined by some who had fled to neighbouring countries, who would by then have felt it safe to return, and this would increase their numbers. And judging from what we know of them their religion would be syncretistic, combining the worship of YHWH with the worship of Baal and Asherah (Jeremiah 19:5; 2 Chronicles 36:14). By this time much of the province of Judah had probably been incorporated into the province of Samaria, whilst Southern Judah was being gradually taken over by the Edomites (who were themselves seeking refuge), and would remain lost to Judah for centuries.
Some kind of Jerusalem cultus does appear to have remained, with an altar set up amidst the ruins of the Temple (see Jeremiah 41:4). Note in this regard how in Ezekiel (Ezekiel 43:18) it was only the altar, not the Temple, which was commanded to be rebuilt. This was in order to service the ‘heavenly Temple’ which he describes, which was invisibly situated on a high mountain away from Jerusalem (where it would be away from the impurity of that city). This indicated that God was still invisibly but remotely dwelling among His people in a splendid, albeit invisible, heavenly Temple (compare the invisible hosts of YHWH which Elisha saw as surrounding His people - 2 Kings 6:17). It was this assurance that Ezekiel wanted to give to Israel.
But suddenly there was a change in the situation that must have appeared miraculous. The defeat of Babylon by Cyrus the Persian, a king who followed enlightened policies, resulted in a limited return of exiles from Babylon under Sheshbazzar in 538 BC, with the Temple vessels being returned to them, and with authority being granted to them to rebuild the Temple with assistance from the Persian treasury (Ezra 5:16). For this period see Ezra 1:1 to Ezra 4:24. This was in accordance with general Persian policy to encourage local deities, and establish semi-independent communities under their own native rulers, overseen of course by leading Persian officials. Other nations benefited in a similar way, notably Babylon itself. There were influential Jews in high places who would encourage Cyrus in this (consider e.g. Daniel, Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, and the later status of Nehemiah). How far Sheshbazzar was an independent governor we do not know. He may only have had authority over the new community, he may well have had to answer to the governor of Samaria, and both were seemingly answerable to a leading Persian official in ‘Beyond the River’, a wider province which included Syrian and Palestine.
No doubt the returnees were filled with high hopes of what God was about to do (consider the words of Haggai 2:6-9; Haggai 2:21-22, the latter spoken later to Zerubbabel), and arrived full of vision. But the community that was established was small and spread out around what remained of Judah (‘they returned every one to his own city’ - Ezra 2:1; Ezra 2:70), whilst Jerusalem itself was still in ruins and sparsely inhabited. Thus although the foundations of the Temple were laid, fierce local opposition and general dilatoriness (life was tough and demanding), to say nothing of the actual limitations of the returnees, soon brought the work to a halt (Ezra 4:3-5; Ezra 4:24), and it was not until 520 BC, as a result of the urgings of Haggai and Zechariah, that the work was recommenced, and finally carried through to completion in 516 BC, by which time Sheshbazzar was presumably dead and Zerubbabel (of the Davidic house) was prince over a Judah very limited in size, along with Joshua as its High Priest (Ezra 5:1 to Ezra 6:22).
The years that followed these events are lost to sight, but at some stage the Davidic house appears to have lost its position of authority, which must have been a great blow to the hopes of the community that the Davidic house would be restored, hopes no doubt fostered, not only by the appointment of Zerubbabel as their prince, but by the kindly treatment which had previously been shown to their King Jehoiachin in Babylon (2 Kings 25:27-30). Meanwhile Judah was being overseen by a governor of ‘Beyond The River’ (looking at it from Persia’s point of view and therefore a governor south of the Euphrates), while the local leadership of the returned community, who would have joined up with those in Judah who had remained faithful to YHWH, had now seemingly been transferred into the hands of the High Priest, again under the aegis of Samaria. They had little protection from the machinations of their enemies, both official and unofficial, and no doubt suffered continual harassment, to say nothing of experiencing local famines (Haggai 1:6). Ezra gives us hints of such official opposition (Ezra 4:6-23).
The religious situation was equally parlous:
1) There were the more or less orthodox returnees who strove to maintain the purity of Yahwism, and whose hopes had been raised by the building of the Temple and the establishment of a Davidic ruler. But it was only to see these hopes all dissipating in front of their eyes. They faced a situation in which they found that, instead of God acting in some wonderful way, they were experiencing continual animosity from those among whom they had taken up residence (apart from those who had remained faithful to YHWH who would not be a large number), and from those who lived in the surrounding area. They also found themselves suffering from famine and hardship, to say nothing of their having lost their Davidic hope. Their confidence must thus have been at a low ebb.
2) There were also the previous dwellers in the land, among whom they lived, the remnants of Judah, whose religion as far as the majority were concerned would, to put it mildly, have been mainly somewhat syncretistic (note the criticisms of Jeremiah concerning their fathers, e.g. Jeremiah 2:27-28; Jeremiah 25:2-7; etc). Without any guidance from the Temple they would no doubt have continued in the ways of their fathers, offering incense and sacrifices to false gods. They would also no doubt have resented the arrival of the returning exiles who would have laid claim to ancestral land, land which up to this time they had seen as theirs by right of possession.
3) There were the people who had been established by the Assyrians in the old kingdom of Israel, who had been converted to a Yahwism of a kind, but a Yahwism which was totally debased (2 Kings 17:24-34). They initially sought to participate in the building of the Temple, only to find themselves rebuffed (Ezra 4:2-3), no doubt because of their idolatrous connections, and because of the influence they could then have claimed over Temple worship. (It is doubtful if we are to equate these with the later ‘Samaritans’ who were not idolatrous, and of whose origin we know nothing. The later ‘Samaritans’ were situated in and around Shechem).
4) On top of this there was the animosity of those who were in positions of authority around them, some of whom would be syncretistic Yahwists, whilst others would be worshippers of false gods. They would not be happy to see a separatist, exclusive community being established among them.
Thus the hopes that had been raised that God was about to act in some miraculous way had been largely dashed, and although two generations had passed all that they had to show for it was the restoration of Temple worship, and a patched up, sparsely populated, Jerusalem, the latter mainly arising from the need to service the Temple. No Davidic kingdom was in sight. Things had failed to come up to their expectations. It may well have been this sense of religious failure, and their recognition of their own inadequacy in the face of it, that caused the leaders of the people to make known to the prominent Jews in Persia their need for some authoritative figure to be sent to them who could help to establish their understanding of the covenant in a way that was applicable to their situation. Or it may be that their letters to their brethren in Babylon and Persia had made such inadequacy clear. It is quite likely that it was some such situation which resulted in an approach being made to Artaxerxes, an approach which resulted in Ezra the Scribe being sent to them for this purpose, arriving along with another large group of returning exiles (in the same way as the Assyrians had earlier sent a priest to those whom they had settled in and around Samaria, in order to teach them the ways of YHWH -2 Kings 17:24-28)). It is possibly to be seen as significant that hope was no longer being placed in God raising up a prophet among them. Rather the emphasis was on someone who could teach them the Law. Their faith had become more prosaic.
It was thus in 458 BC (in the seventh year of Artaxerxes I - Ezra 7:7) that Ezra, ‘the scribe of the Law of the God of Heaven’, possibly, but not necessarily, the secretary of state for Jewish affairs in Persia (‘the God of Heaven’ and its equivalents was one of the titles by which Judah’s God was made known outside Judah/Israel, see Jonah 1:9; Daniel 2:18-19; Daniel 2:37; Daniel 2:44; Daniel 4:37; Daniel 5:23; Nehemiah 1:4-5; Nehemiah 2:4; Nehemiah 2:20), was sent to the people of Judah with the responsibility of teaching them the Law. It is very probable that Persia had a secretary of state overseeing Jewish affairs as they no doubt had secretaries of state for other national religions. The Persian policy of religious appeasement would require the appointment to similar positions of experts in all national religions, and besides Jews held prominent positions in Babylon and Persia with the result that their views would not be overlooked.
This was later followed in 445 BC by the arrival in Jerusalem of Nehemiah, a Jew and a trusted high official of the Great King, the king of Persia, who as a consequence of his own intercession, had been despatched to Jerusalem for the purpose of rebuilding its walls, and establishing Judah as a semi-independent state, a state over which for a period he would act as governor. Judah was on the way up.
SUMMARY OF THE BOOK.
The Initial Return Of The Exiles And The Building Of The Temple - 538 BC to 516 BC (chapters 1-6).
1) As a result of the decree of Cyrus a group of returnees under the leadership of Sheshbazzar make for Jerusalem bearing with them the Temple vessels previously appropriated from the Temple by Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon (chapter 1).
2) A list of the returnees who accompanied Sheshbazzar and of the treasures they brought with them (chapter 2).
3) An altar is built in Jerusalem, sacrifices are offered, and the foundations are laid for a new Temple (chapter 3).
4) Local adversaries prevent the continuation of the Temple, and later prevent the building of the walls of Jerusalem (chapter 4).
5) Renewed attempts are made to build the Temple which are looked into by Tattenai, governor of Beyond the River who sends a letter to King Darius seeking instructions. Darius finds the decree of Cyrus and commands that the Temple be built with state aid (chapters 5-6).
The Arrival Of Ezra Along With A Further Batch Of Returnees, And What He Accomplished - 458 BC onwards (chapters 7-10).
1) Ezra, a skilled scribe in the Law of Moses sets off for, and arrives at, Jerusalem with another group of returnees, carrying a letter from Artaxerxes authorising his activities, such as the teaching of the Law and the setting up of judges (chapter 7).
2) Ezra gathers the returnees together, and they are listed, but there are no Levites. Levites and Nethinim are encouraged to join the party which makes for Jerusalem along with the treasures that they have accumulated. They have a safe journey and arrive in Jerusalem, delivering the treasures to the Temple and Artaxerxes letter to the Persian officials (chapter 8).
3) Ezra deals with the problem of idolatry creeping into Judah through marriage with foreign women and thus saves Judah from the wrath of God (chapters 9-10).
The book can be seen as divided up into two sections:
· The Initial Return Of The Exiles And The Building Of The Temple - 538 BC to 516 BC (chapters 1-6).
· The Arrival Of Ezra Along With A Further Batch Of Returnees, And What He Accomplished - 458 BC onwards (chapters 7-10).
It will be noted from this that there is a gap between 516 BC and 458 BC of which we know almost nothing apart from the fact that during that period Zerubbabel appears either to have died, or to have been replaced by a non-Davidide, and that there was continual opposition from officials round about against attempts to restore Jerusalem (Ezra 4:6-23). While the Book of Esther also refers to this period, that book deals solely with the position of Jews in Persia.
Restoration From Exile - The Return Of The Exiles And The Restoration Of The Temple (chapters 1-6).
What was now to occur must have seemed at the time a wonder to the remnant of Judah in exile. Babylon their great enemy, who had been the cause of their exile and had destroyed Jerusalem and its Temple, had been crushed, and Cyrus, an enlightened King of Persia, had taken over their empire. And he had decreed that the Judean exiles could return to their native land and there build a Temple to YHWH. This magnanimity was in fact his general policy with regard to all peoples and their gods, as he sought to cement his new empire together, and obtain the help of their gods, and there is therefore nothing surprising in it historically speaking. But to the Judean exiles it must have seemed like a miracle, as indeed in some ways it was. It would appear to them that Cyrus had been appointed by YHWH for this very purpose (compare Isaiah 44:28 to Isaiah 5:4).
But all this would not occur without problems, for as it would turn out, there would be a delay in building the Temple, and there was much opposition. It is quite clear that, having given his permission and having intended to supply building materials (Ezra 6:3-5), Cyrus took no further interest in the proceedings. The initiative was left in the hands of the returnees.
However, the consequence of the Edict of Cyrus was that a group of exiles returned to Judah under the leadership of Sheshbazzar, who is spoken of as ‘governor’, but was presumably an under-governor. These bore with them the Temple vessels that had been appropriated by Nebuchadrezzar (Ezra 1:7-11). This occurred in 538 BC, forty nine years after the destruction of the Temple. These settled in the areas around Judah which related to their family land holdings, with Jerusalem remaining only partially occupied, and a start was made on the foundations of the Temple. But the difficulties that they encountered, which included local famine and local opposition, prevented the work from progressing, and the result was that they concentrated their attention on improving their own homes rather than on building the Temple.
It was the rise of the prophets Haggai, and his younger contemporary Zechariah, that stirred Zerubbabel, the new governor, who came from the Davidic house, and Joshua (Jeshua), the High Priest, to recommence work on the foundations of the Temple in 520 BC, and within four years the Temple was completed. It was but a shadow of Solomon’s Temple, but it was nevertheless an important achievement. We must now consider this in more detail.
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