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Bible Commentaries

The Expositor's Bible CommentaryThe Expositor's Bible Commentary

- Ezra

by Editor - William Robertson Nicoll



THOUGH in close contact with the most perplexing problems of Old Testament literature, the main history recorded in the books of Ezra and Nehemiah is fixed securely above the reach of adverse criticism. Here the most cautious reader may take his stand with the utmost confidence, knowing that his feet rest on a solid rock. The curiously inartistic process adopted by the writer is in itself some guarantee of authenticity. Ambitious authors who set out with the design of creating literature-and perhaps building up a reputation for themselves by the way-may be very conscientious in their search for truth; but we cannot help suspecting that the method of melting down their materials and recasting them in the mould of their own style which they usually adopt must gravely endanger their accuracy. Nothing of the kind is attempted in this narrative. In considerable portions of it the primitive records are simply copied word for word, without the least pretense at original writing on the part of the historian. Elsewhere he has evidently kept as near as possible to the form of his materials, even when the plan of his work has necessitated some condensation or readjustment. The crudity of this procedure must be annoying to literary epicures who prefer flavour to substance, but it should be an occasion of thankfulness on the part of those of us who wish to trace the revelation of God in the life of Israel, because it shows that we are brought as nearly as possible face to face with the facts in which that revelation was clothed.

In the first place, we have some of the very writings of Ezra and Nehemiah, the leading actors in the great drama of real life that is here set forth. We cannot doubt the genuineness of these writings. They are each of them composed in the first person singular, and they may be sharply distinguished from the remainder of the narrative, inasmuch as that is in the third person-not to mention other and finer marks of difference. Of course this implies that the whole of Ezra and Nehemiah should not be ascribed to the two men whose names the books bear in our English Bibles. The books themselves do not make any claim to be written throughout by these great men. On the contrary, they clearly hint the opposite, by the transition to the third person in those sections which are not extracted verbatim from one or other of the two authorities.

It is most probable that the Scripture books now known as Ezra and Nehemiah were compiled by one and the same person, that, in fact, they originally constituted a single work. This view was held by the scribes who arranged the Hebrew Canon, for there they appear as one book. In the Talmud they are treated as one. So they are among the early Christian writers. As late as the fifth century of our era Jerome gives the name of "Esdras" to both, describing "Nehemiah" as "The Second Book of Esdras."

Further, there seem to be good reasons for believing that the compiler of our Ezra-Nehemiah was no other than the author of Chronicles. The repetition of the concluding passage of 2 Chronicles as the introduction to Ezra is an indication that the latter was intended to be a continuation of the chronicler’s version of the History of Israel. When we compare the two works together, we come across many indications of their agreement in spirit and style. In both we discover a disposition to hurry over secular affairs in order to dilate on the religious aspects of history. In both we meet with the same exalted estimation of The Law, the same unwearied interest in the details of temple ritual, and especially in the musical arrangements of the Levites, and the same singular fascination for long lists of names, which are inserted wherever an opportunity for letting them in can be found.

Now, there are several things in our narrative that tend to show that the chronicler belongs to a comparatively late period. Thus in Nehemiah 12:22 he mentions the succession of priests down "to the reign of Darius the Persian." The position of this phrase in connection with the previous lists of names makes it clear that the sovereign here referred to must be Darius III, surnamed Codommanus, the last king of Persia, who reigned from B.C. 336 to B.C. 332. Then the title "the Persian" suggests the conclusion that the dynasty of Persia had passed away: so does the phrase "king of Persia," which we meet with in the chronicler’s portion of the narrative. The simple expression "the king," without any descriptive addition, would be sufficient on the lips of a contemporary. Accordingly we find that it is used in the first-person sections of Ezra-Nehemiah, and in those royal edicts that are cited in full. Again, Nehemiah 12:11; Nehemiah 12:22 give us the name of Jaddua in the series of high-priests. But Jaddua lived as late as the time of Alexander; his date must be about B.C. 331. This lands us in the Grecian period. Lastly, the references to "the days of Nehemiah" {Nehemiah 12:26; Nehemiah 12:47} clearly point to a writer in some subsequent age. Though it is justly urged that it was quite in accordance with custom for later scribes to work over an old book, inserting a phrase here and there to bring it up to date, the indications of the later date are too closely interwoven with the main structure of the composition to admit this hypothesis here.

Nevertheless, though we seem to be shut up to the view that the Grecian era had been reached before our book was put together, this is really only a matter of literary interest, seeing that it is agreed on all sides that the history is authentic, and that the constituent parts of it are contemporary with the events they record. The function of the compiler of such a book as this is not much more than that of an editor. It must be admitted that the date of the final editor is as late as the Macedonian Empire. The only question is whether this man was the sole editor and compiler of the narrative. We may let that point of purely literary criticism be settled in favour of the later date for the original compilation, and yet rest satisfied that we have all we want-a thoroughly genuine history in which to study the ways of God with man during the days of Ezra and Nehemiah.

This narrative is occupied with the Persian period of the History of Israel. It shows us points of contact between the Jews and a great Oriental Empire; but, unlike the history in the dismal Babylonian age, the course of events now moves forward among scenes of hopeful progress. The new dominion is of an Aryan stock-intelligent, appreciative, generous. Like the Christians in the time of the Apostles, the Jews now find the supreme government friendly to them, even ready to protect them from the assaults of their hostile neighbours. It is in this political relationship, and scarcely, if at all, by means of the intercommunication of ideas affecting religion, that the Persians take an important place in the story of Ezra and Nehemiah. We shall see much of their official action; we can but grope about vaguely in search of the few hints of their influence on the theology of Israel that may be looked for on the pages of the sacred narrative. Still a remarkable characteristic of the leading religious movement of this time is the Oriental and foreign locality of its source. It springs up in the breasts of Jews who are most stern in their racial exclusiveness, most relentless in their scornful rejection of any Gentile alliance. But this is on a foreign soil. It comes from Babylon, not Jerusalem. Again and again, fresh impulses and new resources are brought up to the sacred city, and always from the far-off colony in the land of exile. Here the money for the cost of the rebuilding of the temple was collected; here The Law was studied and edited; here means were found for restoring the fortifications of Jerusalem. Not only did the first company of pilgrims go up from Babylon to begin a new life among the tombs of their fathers, but one after another fresh bands of emigrants, borne on new waves of enthusiasm, swept up from the apparently inexhaustible centres of Judaism in the East to rally the flagging energies of the citizens of Jerusalem. For a long while this city was only maintained with the greatest difficulty as a sort of outpost from Babylon; it was little better than a pilgrim’s camp; often it was in danger of destruction from the uncongenial character of its surroundings. Therefore it is Babylonian Judaism that here claims our attention. The mission of this great religious movement is to found and cultivate an offshoot of itself in the old country. Its beginning is at Babylon; its end is to shape the destinies of Jerusalem.

Three successive embassies from the living heart of Judaism in Babylon go up to Jerusalem, each with its own distinctive function in the promotion of the purposes of the mission. The first is led by Zerubbabel and Jeshua in the year B.C. 537. The second is conducted by Ezra eighty years later. The third follows shortly after this with Nehemiah as its central figure. Each of the two first-named expeditions is a great popular migration of men, women, and children returning home from exile; Nehemiah’s journey is more personal-the travelling of an officer of state with his escort. The principal events of the history spring out of these three expeditions. Zerubbabel and Jeshua are commissioned to restore the sacrifices and rebuild the temple at Jerusalem. Ezra sets forth with the visible object of further ministering to the resources of the sacred shrine: but the real end that he is inwardly aiming at is the introduction of The Law to the people of Jerusalem. Nehemiah’s main purpose is to rebuild the city walls, and so restore the civic character of Jerusalem and enable her to maintain her independence in spite of the opposition of neighbouring foes. In all three cases a strong religious motive lies at the root of the public action. To Ezra the priest and scribe religion was everything. He might almost have taken as his motto, "Perish the State, if the Church may be saved." He desired to absorb the State into the Church: he would permit the former to exist, indeed, as the visible vehicle of the religious life of the community; but to sacrifice the religious ideal in deference to political exigencies was a policy against which he set his face like flint when it was advocated by a latitudinarian party among the priests. The conflict which was brought about by this clash of opposing principles was the great battle of his life. Nehemiah was a statesman, a practical man, a courtier who knew the world. Outwardly his aims and methods were very different from those of the unpractical scholar. Yet the two men thoroughly understood one another. Nehemiah caught the spirit of Ezra’s ideas: and Ezra, whose work came to a standstill while he was left to his own resources, was afterwards able to carry through his great religious reformation on the basis of the younger man’s military and political renovation of Jerusalem.

In all this the central figure is Ezra. We are able to see the most marked results in the improved condition of the city after his capable, and vigorous colleague has taken up the reins of government. But though the hand is then the hand of Nehemiah, the voice is still the voice of Ezra. Later times have exalted the figure of the famous scribe into gigantic proportions. Even as he appears on the page of history he is sufficiently great to stand out as the maker of his age.

For the Jews in all ages, and for the world at large, the great event of this period is the adoption of The Law by the citizens of Jerusalem. Recent investigations and discussions have directed renewed attention to the publication of The Law by Ezra, and the acceptance of it on the part of Israel. It will be especially important, therefore, for us to study these things in the calm and ingenuous record of the ancient historian, where they are treated without the slightest anticipation of modern controversies. We shall have to see what hints this record affords concerning the history of The Law in the days of Ezra and Nehemiah.

One broad fact will grow upon us with increasing clearness as we proceed. Evidently we have here come to the watershed of Hebrew History. Up to this point all the better teachers of Israel had been toiling painfully in their almost hopeless efforts to induce the Jews to accept the unique faith of Jehovah, with its lofty claims and its rigorous restraints. That faith itself however had appeared in three forms, -as a popular cult, often degraded to the level of the local religion of heathen neighbours; as a priestly tradition, exact and minute in its performances, but the secret of a caste: and as a subject of prophetic instruction, instinct with moral principles of righteousness and spiritual conceptions of God, but too large and free to be reached by a people of narrow views and low attainments. With the publication of The Law by Ezra the threefold condition ceased, and henceforth there was but one type of religion for the Jews.

The question when The Law was moulded into its present shape introduces a delicate point of criticism. But the consideration of its popular reception is more within the reach of observation. In the solemn sealing of the covenant the citizens of Jerusalem-laity as well as priests-men, women, and children-all deliberately pledged themselves to worship Jehovah according to The Law. There is no evidence to show that they had ever done so before. The narrative bears every indication of novelty. The Law is received with curiosity; it is only understood after being carefully explained by experts: when its meaning is taken in, the effect is a shock of amazement bordering on despair. Clearly this is no collection of trite precepts known and practised by the people from antiquity.

It must be remembered, on the other hand, that an analogous effect was produced by the spread of the Scriptures at the Reformation. It does not fall within the scope of our present task to pursue the inquiry whether, like the Bible in Christendom, the entire law had been in existence in an earlier age, though then neglected and forgotten. Yet even our limited period contains evidence that The Law had its roots in the past. The venerated name of Moses is repeatedly appealed to when The Law is to be enforced. Ezra never appears as a solon legislating for his people. Still neither is he a Justinian codifying a system of legislation already recognised and adopted. He stands between the two, as the introducer of a law hitherto unpractised and even unknown. These facts will come before us more in detail as we proceed.

The period now brought before our notice is to some extent one of national revival; but it is much more important as an age of religious construction. The Jews now constitute themselves into a Church; the chief concern of their leaders is to develop their religious life and character. The charm of these times is to be found in the great spiritual awakening that inspires and shapes their history. Here we approach very near to the Holy Presence of the Spirit of God in His glorious activity as the Lord and Giver of Life. This epoch was to Israel what Pentecost became to the Christians. Pentecost!-We have only to face the comparison to see how far the later covenant exceeded the earlier covenant in glory. To us Christians there is a hardness, a narrowness, a painful externalism in the whole of this religious movement. We cannot say that it lacks soul; but we feel that it has not the liberty of the highest spiritual vitality. It is cramped in the fetters of legal ordinances. We shall come across evidences of the existence of a liberal party that shrank from the rigour of The Law. But this party gave no signs of religious life; the freedom it claimed was not the glorious liberty of the sons of God. There is no reason to believe that the more devout people anticipated the standpoint of St. Paul and saw any imperfection in their law. To them it presented a lofty scheme of life, worthy of the highest aspiration. And there is much in their spirit that commands our admiration and even our emulation. The most obnoxious feature of their zeal is its pitiless exclusiveness. But without this quality Judaism would have been lost in the cross-currents of life among the mixed populations of Palestine.

The policy of exclusiveness saved Judaism. At heart this is just an application-though a very harsh and formal application-of the principle of separation from the world which Christ and His Apostles enjoined on the Church, and the neglect of which has sometimes nearly resulted in the disappearance of any distinctive Christian truth and life, like the disappearance of a river that breaking through its banks spreads itself out in lagoons and morasses, and ends by being swallowed up in the sands of the desert.

The exterior aspect of the stern, strict Judaism of these days is by no means attractive. But the interior life of it is simply superb. It recognises the absolute supremacy of God. In the will of God it acknowledges the one unquestionable authority before which all who accept His covenant must bow: in the revealed truth of God it perceives an inflexible rule for the conduct of His people. To be pledged to allegiance to the will and law of God is to be truly consecrated to God. That is the condition voluntarily entered into by the citizens of Jerusalem in this epoch of religious awakening. A few centuries later their example was followed by the primitive Christians, who, according to the testimony of the two Bithynian handmaidens tortured by Pliny, solemnly pledged themselves to lives of purity and righteousness: again, it was imitated, though in strangely perverted guise, by anchorites and monks, by the great founders of monastic orders and their loyal disciples, and by mediaeval reformers of Church discipline such as St. Bernard: still later it was followed more closely by the Protestant inhabitants of Swiss cities at the Reformation, by the early Independents at home and the Pilgrim Fathers in New England, by the Covenanters in Scotland, by the first Methodists. It is the model of Church order, and the ideal of the religious organisation of civic life. But it awaits the adequate fulfilment of its promise in the establishment of the Heavenly City, the New Jerusalem.

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