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Bible Commentaries

The Expositor's Bible Commentary

Ezra 6

Verses 1-5

7

NEW DIFFICULTIES MET IN A NEW SPIRIT

Ezra 5:3-17; Ezra 6:1-5

IT is in keeping with the character of his story of the returned Jews throughout, that no sooner has the chronicler let a ray of sunshine fall on his page-in his brief notice of the inspiriting mission of the two prophets-than he is compelled to plunge his narrative again into gloom. But he shows that there was now a new spirit in the Jews, so that they were prepared to meet opposition in a more manly fashion. If their jealous neighbours had been able to paralyse their efforts for years, it was only to be expected that a revival of energy in Jerusalem should provoke an increase of antagonism abroad, and doubtless the Jews were prepared for this. Still it was not a little alarming to learn that the infection of the anti-Jewish temper had spread over a wide area. The original opposition had come from the Samaritans. But in this later time the Jews were questioned by the Satrap of the whole district east of the Euphrates-"the governor beyond the river," {Ezra 5:3} as the chronicler styles him, describing his territory as it would be regarded officially from the standpoint of Babylon. His Aramaic name, Tattenai, shows that he was not a Persian, but a native Syrian, appointed to his own province, according to the Persian custom. This man and one Shethar-bozenai, whom we may assume to be his secretary, must have been approached by the colonists in such a way that their suspicions were roused. Their action was at first only just and reasonable. They asked the Jews to state on what authority they were rebuilding the temple with its massive walls. In the Hebrew Bible the answer of the Jews is so peculiar as to suggest a corruption of the text. It is in the first person plural-"Then said we unto them," etc. {Ezra 5:4} In the Septuagint the third person is substituted" Then said they," etc., and this rendering is followed in the Syriac and Arabic versions. It would require a very slight alteration in the Hebrew text. The Old Testament Revisers have retained the first person-setting the alternative reading in the margin. If we keep to the Hebrew text as it stands, we must conclude that we have here a fragment from some contemporary writer which the chronicler has transcribed literally. But then it seems confusing. Some have shaped the sentence into a direct statement, so that in reply to the inquiry for their authority the Jews give the names of the builders. How is this an answer? Possibly the name of Zerubbabel, who had been appointed governor of Jerusalem by Cyrus, could be quoted as an authority. And yet the weakness of his position was so evident that very little would be gained in this way, for it would be the right of the Satrap to inquire into the conduct of the local governor. If, however, we read the sentence in the third person, it will contain a further question from the Satrap and his secretary, inquiring for the names of the leaders in the work at Jerusalem. Such an inquiry threatened danger to the feeble Zerubbabel.

The seriousness of the situation is recognised by the grateful comment of the chronicler, who here remarks that "the eye of their God was upon the elders of the Jews." {Ezra 5:5} It is the peculiarity of even the driest records of Scripture that the writers are always ready to detect the presence of God in history. This justifies us in describing the Biblical narratives as "sacred history," in contrast to the so-called "secular history" of such authors as Herodotus and Livy. The narrow conception of the difference is to think that God was with the Jews, while He left the Greeks and Romans and the whole Gentile world to their fate without any recognition or interference on His part. Such a view is most dishonouring to God, who is thus regarded as no better than a tribal divinity, and not as the Lord of heaven and earth. It is directly contradicted by the Old Testament historians, for they repeatedly refer to the influence of God on great world monarchies. No doubt a claim to the Divine graciousness as the peculiar privilege of Israel is to be seen in the Old Testament. As far as this was perverted into a selfish desire to confine the blessings of God to the Jews, it was vigorously rebuked in the Book of Jonah. Still it is indisputable that those who truly sought God’s grace, acknowledged His authority, and obeyed His will, must have enjoyed privileges which such of the heathen as St. Paul describes in the first chapter of his Epistle to the Romans could not share. Thus the chronicler writes as though the leaders of the Jews in their difficulties were the special objects of the Divine notice. The eye of God was on them, distinctively. God is spoken of as their God. They were men who knew, trusted, and honoured God, and at the present moment they were loyally carrying out the direction of God’s prophets. All this is special. Nevertheless, it remains true that the chief characteristic of Biblical history is its recognition of the presence of God in the affairs of mankind generally, and this applies to all nations, although it is most marked among those nations in which God is known and obeyed.

The peculiar form of Providence which is brought before us in the present instance is the Divine observation. It is difficult to believe that, just as the earth is visible to the stars throughout the day while the stars are invisible to the earth, we are always seen by God although we never see Him. When circumstances are adverse-and these circumstances are only too visible - it is hard not to doubt that God is still watching all that happens to us, because although we cry out in our agony no answer breaks the awful silence and no hand comes out of the clouds to hold us up. It seems as though our words were lost in the void. But that is only the impression of the moment. If we read history with the large vision of the Hebrew chronicler, can we fail to perceive that this is not a God-deserted world? In the details His presence may not be discerned, but when we stand back from the canvas and survey the whole picture, it flashes upon us like a sunbeam spread over the whole landscape. Many a man can recognise the same happy truth in the course of his own life as he looks back over a wide stretch of it, although while he was passing through his perplexing experience the thicket of difficulties intercepted his vision of the heavenly light.

Now it is a most painful result of unbelief and cowardice working on the consciousness of guilt lurking in the breast of every sinful man, that the "eye of God" has become an object of terror to the imagination of to many people. Poor Hagar’s exclamation of joy and gratitude has been sadly misapprehended. Discovering to her amazement that she is not alone in the wilderness, the friendless, heart-broken slave-girl looks up through her tears with a smile of sudden joy on her face, and exclaims, "Thou God seest me!" {Genesis 16:13} And yet her happy words have been held over terrified children as a menace! That is a false thought of God which makes any of His children shrink from His presence, except they are foul and leprous with sin, and even then their only refuge is, as St. Augustine found, to come to the very God against whom they have sinned. We need not fear lest some day God may make a miserable discovery about us. He knows the worst, already. Then it is a ground of hope that while He sees all the evil in us God still loves His children-that He does not love us, as it were, under a misapprehension. Our Lord’s teaching on the subject of the Divine observation is wholly reassuring. Not a sparrow falls to the ground without our Father’s notice, the very hairs of our head are all numbered, and the exhortation based on these facts is not "Beware of the all-seeing Eye!" but "Fear not." {Luke 12:7}

The limitation of the chronicler’s remark is significant. He speaks of the eye of God, not of God’s mighty hand, nor of His outstretched arm. It was not yet the time for action; but God was watching the course of events. Or if God was acting, His procedure was so secret that no one could perceive it. Meanwhile it was enough to know that God was observing everything that was transpiring. He could not be thought of as an Epicurean divinity, surveying the agony and tragedy of human life with a stony gaze of supercilious indifference, as the proud patrician looks down on the misery of the dim multitude. For God to see is for God to care; and for God to care is for God to help. But this simple statement of the Divine observation maintains a reserve as to the method of the action of God, and it is perhaps the best way of describing Providence so that it shall not appear to come into collision with the free will of man.

The chronicler distinctly associates the Divine observation with the continuance of the Jews in their work. Because the eye of God was on them their enemies could not cause them to cease until the matter had been referred to Darius and his answer received. This may be explained by some unrecorded juncture of circumstances which arrested the action of the enemies of Israel; by the overruling Providence according to which the Satrap was led to perceive that it would not be wise or just for him to act until he had orders from the king; or by the new zeal with which the two prophets had inspired the Jews, so that they took up a bold position in the calm confidence that God was with them. Account for it as we may, we see that in the present case the Jews were not hindered in their work. It is enough for faith to perceive the result of the Divine care without discovering the process.

The letter of the Satrap and his secretary embodies the reply of the Jews to the official inquiries, and that reply clearly and boldly sets forth their position. One or two points in it call for passing notice.

In the first place, the Jews describe themselves as "servants of the God of heaven and earth." Thus they start by mentioning their religious status, and not any facts about their race or nation. This was wise, and calculated to disarm suspicion as to their motives; and it was strictly true, for the Jews were engaged in a distinctly religious work. Then the way in which they describe their God is significant. They do not use the national name "Jehovah." That would serve no good purpose with men who did not know or acknowledge their special faith. They say nothing to localise and limit their idea of God. To build the temple of a tribal god would be to further the ends of the tribe, and this the jealous neighbours of the Jews supposed they were doing. By the larger title the Jews lift their work out of all connection with petty personal ends. In doing so they confess their true faith. These Jews of the return were pure monotheists. They believed that there was one God who ruled over heaven and earth.

In the second place, with just a touch of national pride, pathetic under the circumstances, they remind the Persians that their nation has seen better days, and that they are rebuilding the temple which a great king has set up. Thus, while they would appeal to the generosity of the authorities, they would claim their respect, with the dignity of men who know they have a great history. In view of this the next statement is most striking. Reciting the piteous story of the overthrow of their nation, the destruction of their temple, and the captivity of their fathers, the Jews ascribe it all to their national sins. The prophets had long ago discerned the connection of cause and effect in these matters. But while it was only the subject of prediction, the proud people indignantly rejected the prophetic view. Since then their eyes had been opened by the painful purging of dire national calamities. One great proof that the nation had profited by the fiery ordeal of the captivity is that it now humbly acknowledged the sins which had brought it into the furnace. Trouble is illuminating. While it humbles men, it opens their eyes. It is better to see clearly in a lowly place than to walk blindfold on perilous heights.

After this explanatory preamble, the Jews appeal to the edict of Cyrus, and describe their subsequent conduct as a direct act of obedience to that edict. Thus they plead their cause as loyal subjects of the Persian empire. In consequence of this appeal the Satrap and his secretary request the king to order a search to be made for the edict, and to reply according to his pleasure.

The chronicler then proceeds to relate how the search was prosecuted, first among the royal archives at Babylon-in "the house of books." {Ezra 6:1} One of Mr. Layard’s most valuable discoveries was that of a set of chambers in a palace at Koyunjik, the whole of the floor of which was covered more than a foot deep with terra-cotta tablets inscribed with public records. A similar collection has been recently found in the neighbourhood of Babylon. In some such record-house the search for the edict of Cyrus was made. But the cylinder or tablet on which it was written could not be found. The searchers then turned their attention to the roll-chamber at the winter palace of Ecbatana, and there a parchment or papyrus copy of the edict was discovered.

One of the items of this edict as it is now given is somewhat surprising, for it was not named in the earlier account in the first chapter of the Book of Ezra. This is a description of the dimensions of the temple which was to be built at Jerusalem. It must have been not a little humiliating to the Jews to have to take these measurements from a foreign sovereign, a heathen, a polytheist. Possibly, however, they had been first supplied to the king by the Jews, so that the builders might have the more explicit permission for what they were about to undertake. On the other hand, it may be that we have here the outside dimensions, beyond which the Jews were not permitted to go, and that the figures represent a limit for their ambitions. In either case the appearance of the details in the decree at all gives us a vivid conception of the thoroughness of the Persian autocracy, and of the perfect subjection of the Jews to Cyrus.

Some difficulty has been felt in interpreting the figures because they seem to point to a larger building than Solomon’s temple. The height is given at sixty cubits, and the breadth at the same measurement. But Solomon’s temple was only thirty cubits high, and its total breadth, with its side-chambers, was not more than forty cubits. {1 Kings 6:2} When we consider the comparative poverty of the returned Jews, the difficulties under which they laboured, the disappointment of the old men who had seen the former building, and the short time within which the work was finished-only four years-{Ezra 4:24; Ezra 5:15} it is difficult to believe that it was more than double the size of the glorious fabric for which David collected materials, on which Solomon lavished the best resources of his kingdom, and which even then took many more years in building. Perhaps the height includes the terrace on which the temple was built, and the breadth of the temple adjuncts. Perhaps the temple never attained the dimensions authorised by the edict. But even if the full size were reached, the building would not have approached the size of the stupendous temples of the great ancient empires. Apart from its courts Solomon’s temple was certainly a small building. It was not the size, but the splendour of that famous fabric that led to its being regarded with so much admiration and pride.

The most remarkable architectural feature of all these ancient temples was the enormous magnitude of the stones with which they were built. At the present day the visitor to Jerusalem gazes with wonder at huge blocks, all carefully chiselled and accurately fitted together, where parts of the old foundations may still be discerned. The narrative in Ezra makes several references to the great stones-"stones of rolling" {Ezra 5:8} it calls them, because they could only be moved on rollers. Even the edict mentions "three rows of great stones," together with "a row of new timber," {Ezra 6:4} -an obscure phrase, which perhaps means that the walls were to be of the thickness of three stones, while the timber formed an inner pannelling; or that there were to be three storeys of stone and one of wood; or yet another possibility, that on three tiers of stone a tier of wood was to be laid. In the construction of the inner court of Solomon’s temple this third method seems to have been followed, for we read, "And he built the. inner court with three rows of hewn stone and a row of cedar beams." {1 Kings 6:36} However we regard it-and the plan is confusing and a matter of much discussion-the impression is one of massive strength. The jealous observers noted especially the building of "the wall" of the temple. {Ezra 5:9} So solid a piece of work might be turned into a fortification. But no such end seems to have been contemplated by the Jews. They built solidly because they wished their work to stand. It was to be no temporary tabernacle, but a permanent temple designed to endure to posterity. We are struck with the massive character of the Roman remains in Britain, which show that when the great world conquerors took possession of our island they settled down in it and regarded it as a permanent property. The same grand consciousness of permanence must have been in the minds of the brave builders who planted this solid structure at Jerusalem in the midst of troubles and threatenings of disaster. Today, when we look at the stupendous Phoenician and Jewish architecture of Syria, we are, struck with admiration at the patience, the perseverance, the industry, the thoroughness, the largeness of idea that characterised the work of these old-world builders. Surely it must have been the outcome of a similar tone and temper of mind. The modern mind may be more nimble, as the modern work is more expeditious. But for steadfastness of purpose the races that wrought so patiently at great enduring works seem to have excelled anything we can attain. And yet here and there a similar characteristic is observable-as, for example, in the self-restraint and continuous toil of Charles Darwin, when he collected facts for twenty years before he published the book which embodied the conclusion he had drawn from his wide induction.

The solid character of the temple-building is further suggestive, because the work was all done for the service of God. Such work should never be hasty, because God has the leisure of eternity in which to inspect it. It is labour lost to make it superficial and showy without any real strength, because God sees behind all pretences. Moreover, the fire will try every man’s work of what sort it is. We grow impatient of toil; we weary for quick results; we forget that in building the spiritual temple strength to endure the shocks of temptation and to outlast the decay of time is more valued by God than the gourd-like display which is the sensation of the hour, only to perish as quickly as it has sprung up.

Verses 6-22

THE DEDICATION OF THE TEMPLE

Ezra 6:6-22

THE chronicler’s version of the edict in which Darius replies to the application of the Satrap Tattenai is so very friendly to the Jews that questions have been raised as to its genuineness. We cannot but perceive that the language has been modified in its transition from the Persian terra-cotta cylinder to the roll of the Hebrew chronicler, because the Great King could not have spoken of the religion of Israel in the absolute phrases recorded in the Book of Ezra. But when all allowance has been made for verbal alterations in translation and transcription, the substance of the edict is still sufficiently remarkable. Darius fully endorses the decree of Cyrus, and even exceeds that gracious ordinance in generosity. He curtly bids Tattenai "let the work of the house of God alone." He even orders the Satrap to provide for this work out of the revenues of his district. The public revenues are also to be used in maintaining the Jewish priests and in providing them with sacrifices-"that they may offer sacrifices of sweet savour unto the God of heaven, and pray for the life of the king and of his sons." {Ezra 6:10}

On the other hand, it cannot be doubted that Darius sent a reply that was favourable to the Jews, for all opposition to their work was stopped, and means were found for completing the temple and maintaining the costly ritual. The Jews gratefully acknowledged the influence of God on the heart of Darius. Surely they were right in doing so. They were gifted with the true insight of faith. It is no contradiction to add that-in the earthly sphere and among the human motives through which God works by guiding them-what we know of Darius will account to some extent for his friendliness towards the Jews. He was a powerful ruler, and when he had quelled the serious rebellions that had broken out in several quarters of his kingdom, he organised his government in a masterly style with a new and thorough system of satrapies. Then he pushed his conquests farther afield, and subsequently came into contact with Europe, although ultimately to suffer a humiliating defeat in the famous battle of Marathon. In fact, we may regard him as the real founder of the Persian Empire. Cyrus, though his family was of Persian origin, was originally a king of Elam, and he had to conquer Persia before he could rule over it, but Darius was a prince of the Persian royal house. Unlike Cyrus, he was at least a monotheist, if not a thoroughgoing Zoroastrian. The inscription on his tomb at Naksh-i-Rustem attributes all that he has achieved to the favour of Ormazd.

"When Ormazd saw this earth filled with revolt and civil war, then did he entrust it to me. He made me king, and I am king. By the grace of Ormazd I have restored the earth."

"All that I have done I have done through the grace of Ormazd. Ormazd brought help to me until I had completed my work. May Ormazd protect from evil me and my house and this land. Therefore I pray unto Ormazd, May Ormazd grant this to me."

"O Man! May the command of Ormazd not be despised by thee, leave not the path of right, sin not"

Such language implies a high religious conception of life. Although it is a mistake to suppose that the Jews had borrowed anything of importance from Zoroastrianism during the captivity or in the time of Cyrus-inasmuch as that religion was then scarcely known in Babylon-when it began to make itself felt there, its similarity to Judaism could not fail to strike the attention of observant men. It taught the existence of one supreme God-though it coordinated the principles of good and evil in His being, as two subsidiary existences, in a manner not allowed by Judaism-and it encouraged prayer. It also insisted on the dreadful evil of sin and urged men to strive after purity, with an earnestness that witnessed to the blending of morality with religion to an extent unknown elsewhere except among the Jews. Thus, if Darius were a Zoroastrian, he would have two powerful links of sympathy with the Jews in opposition to the corrupt idolatry of the heathen-the spiritual monotheism and the earnest morality that were common to the two religions. And in any case it is not altogether surprising to learn that when he read the letter of the people who described themselves as "the servants of the God of heaven and earth," the worshipper of Ormazd should have sympathised with them rather than with their semi-pagan opponents. Moreover, Darius must have known something of Judaism from the Jews of Babylon. Then, he was restoring the temples of Ormazd which his predecessor had destroyed. But the Jews were engaged in a very similar work; therefore the king, in his antipathy to the idolaters, would give no sanction to a heathenish opposition to the building of the temple at Jerusalem by a people who believed in One Spiritual God.

Darius was credited with a generous disposition, which would incline him to a kindly treatment of his subjects. Of course we must interpret this according to the manners of the times. For example, in his edict about the temple-building he gives orders that any one of his subjects who hinders the work is to be impaled on a beam from his own house, the site of which is to be used for a refuse heap. {Ezra 6:11} Darius also invokes the God of the Jews to destroy any foreign king or people who should attempt to alter or destroy the temple at Jerusalem. The savagery of his menace is in harmony with his conduct when, according to Herodotus, he impaled three thousand men at Babylon after he had recaptured the city. Those were cruel times-Herodotus tells us that the besieged Babylonians had previously strangled their own wives when they were running short of provisions. The imprecation with which the edict closes may be matched by one on the inscription of Darius at Behistum, where the Great King invokes the curse of Ormazd on any persons who should injure the tablet. The ancient despotic world-rulers had no conception of the modern virtue of humanitarianism. It is sickening to picture to ourselves their methods of government. The enormous misery involved is beyond calculation. Still we may believe that the worst threats were not always carried out; we may make some allowance for Oriental extravagance of language. And yet, after all has been said, the conclusion of the edict of Darius presents to us a kind of state support for religion which no one would defend in the present day. In accepting the help of the Persian sovereign the Jews could not altogether dissociate themselves from his way of government. Nevertheless it is fair to remember that they had not asked for his support. They had simply desired to be left unmolested.

Tattenai loyally executed the decree of Darius; the temple-building proceeded without further hindrance, and the work was completed about four years after its recommencement at the instigation of the prophet Haggai. Then came the joyous ceremony of the dedication. All the returned exiles took part in it. They are named collectively "the children of Israel" - another indication that the restored Jews were regarded by the chronicler as the representatives of the whole united nation as this had existed under David and Solomon before the great schism. Similarly there are twelve he-goats for the sin-offering-for the twelve tribes. {Ezra 6:17} Several classes of Israelites are enumerated, -first the clergy in their two orders, the priests and the Levites, always kept distinct in Ezra; next the laity, who are described as "the children of the captivity." The limitation of this phrase is significant. In the dedication of the temple the Israelites of the land who were mixed up with the heathen people are not included. Only the returned exiles had built the temple; only they were associated in the dedication of it. Here is a strictly guarded Church. Access to it is through the one door of-an unimpeachable genealogical record. Happily the narrowness of this arrangement is soon to be broken through. In the meanwhile it is to be observed that it is just the people who have endured the hardship of separation from their beloved Jerusalem to whom the privilege of rejoicing in the completion of the new temple is given. The tame existence that cannot fathom the depths of misery is incapable of soaring to the heights of bliss. The joy of the harvest is for those who have sown in tears.

The work was finished, and yet its very completion was a new commencement. The temple was now dedicated-literally "initiated"-for the future service of God.

This dedication is an instance of the highest use of man’s work. The fruit of years of toil and sacrifice is given to God. Whatever theories we may have about the consecration of a building-and surely every building that is put to a sacred use is in a sense a sacred building-there can be no question as to the rightness of dedication. This is just the surrender to God of what was built for Him out of the resources that he had supplied. A dedication service is a solemn act of transfer by which a building is given over to the use of God. We may save it from narrowness if we do not limit it to places of public assembly. The home where the family altar is set up. where day by day prayer is offered, and where the common round of domestic duties is elevated and consecrated by being faithfully discharged as in the sight of God, is a true sanctuary; it too, like the Jerusalem temple, has its "Holy of Holies." Therefore when a family enters a new house, or when two young lives cross the threshold of what is to be henceforth their "home," there is as true a ground for a solemn act of dedication as in the opening of a great temple. A prophet declared that "Holiness to the Lord" was to characterise the very vessels of household use in Jerusalem. {Zechariah 14:21} It may lift some of the burden of drudgery which presses on people who are compelled to spend their time in common house-toil, for them to perceive that they may become priests and priestesses ministering at the altar even in their daily work. In the same spirit truly devout men of business will dedicate their shops, their factories, their offices, the tools of their work, and the enterprises in which they engage, so that all may be regarded as belonging to God, and only to be used as His will dictates. Behind every such act of dedication there must be a prior act of self-consecration, without which the gift of any mere thing to God is but an insult to the Father who only seeks the hearts of His children. Nay, without this a real gift of any kind is impossible. But the people who have first given their own selves to the Lord are prepared for all other acts of surrender.

According to the custom of their ritual, the Jews signalised the dedication of the temple by the offering of sacrifices. Even with the help of the king’s bounty these were few in number compared with the lavish holocausts that were offered in the ceremony of dedicating Solomon’s temple. {1 Kings 8:63} Here, in the external aspect of things, the melancholy archaeologists might have found another cause for lamentation. But we are not told that any such people appeared on the present occasion. The Jews were not so foolish as to believe that the value of a religious movement could be ascertained by the study of architectural dimensions. Is it less misleading to attempt to estimate the spiritual prosperity of a Church by casting up the items of its balance-sheet, or tabulating the numbers of its congregations?

Looking more closely into the chronicler’s description of the sacrifices, we see that these were principally of two distinct kinds. {Ezra 6:17} There were some animals for burnt-offerings, which signified complete dedication, and pledged their offerers to it. Then there were other animals for sin-offerings. Thus even in the joyous dedication of the temple the sin, of Israel could not be forgotten. The increasing importance of sacrifices for sin is one of the most marked features of the Hebrew ritual in its later stages of development. It shows that in the course of ages the national consciousness of sin was intensified. At the same time it makes it clear that the inexplicable conviction that without shedding of blood there could be no remission of sins was also deepened. Whether the sacrifice was regarded as a gift pleasing and propitiating an offended God, or as a substitute bearing the death-penalty of sin, or as a sacred life, bestowing, by means of its blood, new life on sinners who had forfeited their own lives, in any case, and however it was interpreted, it was felt that blood must be shed if the sinner was to be freed from guilt. Throughout the ages this awful thought was more and more vividly presented, and the mystery which the conscience of many refused to abandon continued, until there was a great revelation of the true meaning of sacrifice for sin in the one efficacious atonement of Christ.

A subsidiary point to be noticed here is that there were just twelve he-goats sacrificed for the twelve tribes of Israel. These were national sin-offerings, and not sacrifices for individual sinners. Under special circumstances the individual could bring his own private offering. But in this great temple function only national sins were considered. The nation had suffered as a whole for its collective sin; in a corresponding way it had its collective expiation of sin. There are always national sins which need a broad public treatment, apart from the particular acts of wickedness committed by separate men.

All this is said by the chronicler to have taken place in accordance with The Law-"As it is written in the book of Moses." {Ezra 6:18} Here, as in the case of the similar statement of the chronicler in connection with the sacrifices offered when the great altar of burnt-offerings was set up, {Ezra 3:2} we must remember, in the first place, that we have to do with the reflections of an author writing in a subsequent age, to whom the whole Pentateuch was a familiar book. But then it is also clear that before Ezra had startled the Jews by reading The Law in its later revelation there must have been some earlier form of it, not only in Deuteronomy, but also in a priestly collection of ordinances. It is a curious fact that no full directions on the division of the courses of the priests and Levites is now to be found in the Pentateuch. On this occasion the services must have been arranged on the model of the traditional priestly law. They were not left to the caprice of the hour. There was order; there was continuity; there was obedience.

The chronicler concludes this period of his history by adding a paragraph on the first observance of the Passover among the returned Jews. The national religion is now re-established, and therefore the greatest festival of the year can be enjoyed. One of the characteristics of this festival is made especially prominent in the present observance of it. The significance of the unleavened bread is pointedly noticed. All leaven is to be banished from the houses during the week of the Passover. All impurity must also be banished from the people. The priests and Levites perform the ceremonial purifications and get themselves legally clean. The franchise is enlarged, and the limitations of genealogy with which we started are dispensed with. A new class of Israelites receives a brotherly welcome in this time of general purification. In distinction from the returned captives, there are now the Israelites who "had separated themselves unto them from the filthiness of the heathen of the land, to seek the Lord." Jehovah is pointedly described as "the God of Israel"-i.e., the God of all sections of Israel. {Ezra 6:21} These people cannot be proselytes from heathenism-there could be few if any such in exclusive times. They might consist of Jews who had been living in Palestine all through the captivity, Israelites also left in the Northern Kingdom, and scattered members of the ten tribes from various regions. All such are welcome on condition of a severe process of social purging. They must break off from their heathen associations. We may suspect a spirit of Jewish animosity in the ugly phrase "the filthiness of the heathen." But it was only too true that both the Canaanite and the Babylonian habits of life were disgustingly immoral. The same horrible characteristic is found among most of the heathen today. These degraded people are not simply benighted in theological error, they are corrupted by horrible vices. Missionary work is more than the propagation of Christian theology, it is the purging of Augean stables. St. Paul reminds us that we must put away the old leaven of sinful habits in order to partake of the Christian Passover, {1 Corinthians 5:7} and St. James that one feature of the religious service which, is acceptable to God is to keep oneself unspotted from the world. {James 1:27} Though unfortunately with the externalism of the Jews their purification too often became a mere ceremony, and their separation an ungracious race exclusiveness, still, at the root of it, the Passover idea here brought before us is profoundly true. It is the thought that we cannot take part in a sacred feast of Divine gladness except on condition of renouncing sin. The joy of the Lord is the beatific vision of saints, the blessedness of the pure in heart who see God. On this condition, for the people who were thus separate, the festival was a scene of great gladness. The chronicler calls attention to three things that were in the mind of the Jews, inspiring their praises throughout. {Ezra 6:22} The first is that God was the source of their joy-"the Lord had made them joyful." There is joy in religion, and this joy springs from God. The second is that God had brought about the successful end of their labours by directly influencing the Great King. He had "turned the heart of the king of Assyria"-a title for Darius that speaks for the authenticity of the narrative, for it represents an old form of speech for the ruler of the districts that had once belonged to the king of Assyria. The third fact is that God had been the source of strength to the Jews, so that they had been able to complete their work. The result of the Divine aid was "to strengthen their hands in the work of the house of God, the God of Israel." Among His own people joy and strength from God, in the great world a providential direction of the mind of the king-this was what faith now perceived, and the perception of so wonderful a Divine activity made the Passover a festival of boundless gladness. Wherever that ancient Hebrew faith is experienced in conjunction with the Passover spirit of separation from the leaven of sin religion always is a well of joy.

Verse 14

6

ZECHARIAH THE PROPHET

Zechariah 1:1-6; Ezra 5:1; Ezra 6:14

ZECHARIAH is one of the prophets whose personality as distinguished from their message exerts some degree of fascination on the student. This is not due, however, as in the case of Hosea or Jeremiah, to the facts of his life, for of these we know extremely little; but to certain conflicting symptoms of character which appear through his prophecies.

His name was a very common one in Israel, Zekher-Yah, "Jehovah remembers." In his own book he is described as "the son of Berekh-Yah, the son of Iddo," and in the Aramaic document of the Book of Ezra as "the son of Iddo." Some have explained this difference by supposing that Berekhyah was the actual father of the prophet, but that either he died early, leaving Zechariah to the care of the grandfather, or else that he was a man of no note, and Iddo was more naturally mentioned as the head of the family. There are several instances in the Old Testament of men being called the sons of their grandfathers; {Genesis 24:47, cf. 1 Kings 19:16, cf. 2 Kings 9:14; 2 Kings 9:20} as in these cases the grandfather was the reputed founder of the house, so in that of Zechariah Iddo was the head of his family when it came out of Babylon and was anew planted in Jerusalem. Others, however, have contested the genuineness of the words "son of Berekh-Yah," and have traced their insertion to a confusion of the prophet with Zechariah son of Yebherekh-Yahu, the contemporary of Isaiah. This is precarious, while the other hypothesis is a very natural one. Whichever be correct, the prophet Zechariah was a member of the priestly family of Iddo, that came up to Jerusalem from Babylon under Cyrus. {Nehemiah 12:4} The Book of Nehemiah adds that in the high-priesthood of Yoyakim, the son of Joshua, the head of the house of Iddo was a Zechariah. If this be our prophet, then he was probably a young man in 520, and had come up as a child in the caravans from Babylon. The Aramaic document of the Book of Ezra {Ezra 5:1; Ezra 6:14} assigns to Zechariah a share with Haggai in the work of instigating Zerubbabel and Jeshua to begin the Temple. None of his oracles is dated previous to the beginning of the work in August, 520, but we have seen that among those undated there are one or two which by referring to the building of the Temple as still future may contain some relics of that first stage of his ministry. From November, 520, we have the first of his dated oracles; his Visions followed in January, 519, and his last recorded prophesying in December, 518.

These are all the certain events of Zechariah’s history. But in the well-attested prophecies he has left we discover, besides some obvious traits of character, certain problems of style and expression which suggest a personality of more than usual interest. Loyalty to the great voices of old, the temper which appeals to the experience, rather than to the dogmas, of the past, the gift of plain speech to his own times, a wistful anxiety about his reception as a prophet, {Zechariah 2:13; Zechariah 4:9; Zechariah 6:15} combined with the absence of all ambition to be original or anything but the clear voice of the lessons of the past and of the conscience of today these are the qualities which characterize Zechariah’s orations to the people. But how to reconcile them with the strained art and obscure truths of the Visions-it is this which invests with interest the study of his personality. We have proved that the obscurity and redundancy of the Visions cannot all have been due to himself. Later hands have exaggerated the repetitions and raveled the processes of the original. But these gradual blemishes have not grown from nothing: the original style must have been sufficiently involved to provoke the interpolations of the scribes, and it certainly contained all the weird and shifting apparitions which we find so hard to make clear to ourselves. The problem, therefore, remains-how one who had gift of speech, so straight and clear, came to torture and tangle his style; how one who presented with all plainness the main issues of his people’s history found it laid upon him to invent, for the further expression of these, symbols so labored and intricate.

We begin with the oracle which opens his book and illustrates those simple characteristics of the man that contrast so sharply with the temper of his Visions.

"In the eighth month, in the second year of Darius, the word of Jehovah came to the prophet Zechariah, son of Berekhyah, son of Iddo, saying: Jehovah was very wroth with your fathers."

"And thou shalt say unto them: Thus saith Jehovah of Hosts: Turn ye to Me-oracle of Jehovah of Hosts-that I may turn to you, saith Jehovah of Hosts! Be not like your fathers, to whom the former prophets preached, saying: ‘Thus saith Jehovah of Hosts, Turn now from your evil ways and from your evil deeds,’ but they hearkened not, and paid no attention to Me-oracle of Jehovah. Your fathers, where are they? And the prophets, do they live for ever? But, My words and My statutes, with which I charged My servants the prophets, did they not overtake your fathers? till these turned and said, As Jehovah of Hosts did purpose to do unto us, according to our deeds and according to our ways, so hath He dealt with us."

It is a sign of the new age which we have reached, that its prophet should appeal to the older prophets with as much solemnity as they did to Moses himself. The history which led to the Exile has become to Israel as classic and sacred as her great days of deliverance from Egypt and of conquest in Canaan. But still more significant is what Zechariah seeks from that past; this we must carefully discover, if we would appreciate with exactness his rank as a prophet.

The development of religion may be said to consist of a struggle between two tempers, both of which indeed appeal to the past, but from very opposite motives. The one proves its devotion to the older prophets by adopting the exact formulas of their doctrine, counts these sacred to the letter, and would enforce them in detail upon the minds and circumstances of the new generation. It conceives that truth has been promulgated once for all in forms as enduring, as the principles they contain. It fences ancient rites, cherishes old customs and institutions, and when these are questioned it becomes alarmed and even savage. The other temper is no whit behind this one in its devotion to the past, but it seeks the ancient prophets not so much for what they have said as for what they have been, not for what they enforced but for what they encountered, suffered, and confessed. It asks not for dogmas, but for experience and testimony. He who can thus read the past and interpret it to his own day-he is the prophet. In his reading he finds nothing so clear, nothing so tragic, nothing so convincing as the working of the Word of God. He beholds how this came to men, haunted them and was entreated by them. He sees that it was their great opportunity, which being rejected became their judgment. He finds abused justice vindicated, proud wrong punished, and all God’s neglected commonplaces achieving in time their triumph. He reads how men came to see this, and to confess their guilt. He is haunted by the remorse of generations who know how they might have obeyed the Divine call, but willfully did not. And though they have perished, and the prophets have died and their formulas are no more applicable, the victorious Word itself still lives and cries to men with the terrible emphasis of their fathers’ experience. All this is the vision of the true prophet, and it was the vision of Zechariah.

His generation was one whose chief temptation was to adopt towards the past the other attitude we have described. In their feebleness what could the poor remnant of Israel do but cling servilely to the former greatness? The vindication of the Exile had stamped the Divine authority of the earlier prophets. The habits, which the life in Babylon had perfected, of arranging and codifying the literature of the past, and of employing it, in place of altar and ritual, in the stated service of God, had canonized Scripture and provoked men to the worship of its very letter. Had the real prophet not again been raised, these habits might have too early produced the belief that the Word of God was exhausted, and must have fastened upon the feeble life of Israel that mass of stiff and stark dogmas, the literal application of which Christ afterwards found crushing the liberty and the force of religion. Zechariah prevented this-for a time. He himself was mighty in the Scriptures of the past: no man in Israel makes larger use of them. But he employs them as witnesses, not as dogmas; he finds in them not authority, but experience. He reads their testimony to the ever-living presence of God’s Word with men. And seeing that, though the old forms and figures have perished with the hearts which shaped them, the Word itself in its bare truth has vindicated its life by fulfillment in history, he knows that it lives still, and hurls it upon his people, not in the forms published by this or that prophet of long ago, but in its essence and direct from God Himself, as His Word for today and now. "The fathers, where are they? And the prophets, do they live forever? But My words and My statutes, with which I charged My servants the prophets, have they not overtaken your fathers? Thus saith Jehovah of Hosts, Be ye not like your fathers, but turn ye to Me that I may turn to you."

The argument of this oracle might very naturally have been narrowed into a credential for the prophet himself as sent from God. About his reception as Jehovah’s messenger Zechariah shows a repeated anxiety. Four times he concludes a prediction with the words. "And ye shall know that Jehovah hath sent me," as if after his first utterances he had encountered that suspicion and unbelief which a prophet never failed to suffer from his contemporaries. But in this oracle there is no trace of such personal anxiety. The oracle is pervaded only with the desire to prove the ancient Word of God as still alive, and to drive it home in its own sheer force. Like the greatest of his order Zechariah appears with the call to repent: "Turn ye to Me-oracle of Jehovah of Hosts-that I may turn to you." This is the pivot on which history has turned, the one condition on which God has been able to help men. Wherever it is read as the conclusion of all the past, wherever it is proclaimed as the conscience of the present, there the true prophet is found and the Word of God has been spoken.

This same possession by the ethical spirit reappears, as we shall see, in Zechariah’s orations to the people after the anxieties of building are over and the completion of the Temple is in sight. In these he affirms again that the whole essence of God’s Word by the older prophets has been moral-to judge true judgment, to practice mercy, to defend the widow and orphan, the stranger and poor, and to think no evil of one another. For the sad fasts of the Exile Zechariah enjoins gladness, with the duty of truth and the hope of peace. Again and again he enforces sincerity and the love without dissimulation. His ideals for Jerusalem are very high, including the conversion of the nations to her God. But warlike ambitions have vanished from them, and his pictures of her future condition are homely and practical. Jerusalem shall be no more a fortress, but spread village-wise without walls. Full families, unlike the present colony with its few children and its men worn out in middle life by harassing warfare with enemies and a sullen nature; streets rife with children playing and old folk sitting in the sun; the return of the exiles; happy harvests and spring-times of peace; solid gain of labor for every man, with no raiding neighbors to harass, nor the mutual envies of peasants in their selfish struggle with famine.

It is a simple, hearty, practical man whom such prophesying reveals, the spirit of him bent on justice and love, and yearning for the un-harassed labor of the field and for happy homes. No prophet has more beautiful sympathies, a more direct word of righteousness, or a braver heart.

"Fast not, but love truth and peace. Truth and wholesome justice set ye up in your gates. Be not afraid; strengthen your hands! Old men and women-shall yet sit in the streets of Jerusalem, each with staff in hand for the fullness of their years; the city’s streets shall be rife with boys and girls at play."

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Bibliographical Information
Nicoll, William R. "Commentary on Ezra 6". "The Expositor's Bible Commentary". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/teb/ezra-6.html.