SECOND RETURN OF THE ISRAELITES FROM CAPTIVITY UNDER EZRA.
1. DECREE OF ARTAXERXES, AND RETURN UNDER EZRA, WITH THE NUMBERS OF THOSE WHO RETURNED, AND THE NAMES OF THE CHIEF MEN.
FIFTY-SEVEN years after the completion of the temple and its dedication, when the long and eventful rein of Darius was over, and his son Xerxes, probably the Ahasuerus of Esther, had also lived and reigned and passed away, and the grandson of Darius, known generally as Artaxerxes Longimanus, occupied the Persian throne, a further return of Israelites from Babylon, on a tolerably large scale, took place. Ezra, a member of the high priest's family, a descendant of Seraiah, the "chief priest" at the time of the destruction of Jerusalem (2 Kings 25:18), and probably a third cousin of the existing high priest, Eliashib, having access to Artaxerxes, and, apparently, a certain influence with him, asked (Ezra 7:6) and obtained the royal permission to reinforce the colony in Judaea by a fresh body of emigrants, and at the same time to convey to Jerusalem a sum of money, which the Babylonian Jews had subscribed towards the temple service (ibid. verse 16). Artaxerxes appears to have had a high respect for Ezra; he recognised in him one possessed of wisdom from on high (verse 25), and readily granted him, not only the request that he had made, but an important commission, which was mainly one of inquiry (verse 14), but which made him for a time paramount civil ruler of the province, with power of life and death over its inhabitants (verse 26); and also conferred upon the Jewish people certain valuable gifts and privileges. The terms of the decree are set forth in Ezra 7:12-26, where the Chaldee version of the text, as published by Artaxerxes, is probably given verbatim et literatim. After reciting it, Ezra breaks out into a brief but earnest burst of thanksgiving and acknowledgment of God's goodness, which concludes Ezra 7:1-28; occupying the last two verses. He then proceeds, in Ezra 8:1-36; to give an account of the number of the Jews who returned with him, with the names of their leaders, whom he calls "chief of the fathers." Having completed his list in Ezra 8:14, he goes on (Ezra 8:15-31) to describe the circumstances of the journey from Babylon to Jerusalem, which occupied exactly four months, commencing on the first day of the first month and terminating on the first day of the fifth month (Ezra 7:9). In conclusion, he tells us how, after a rest of three days, he discharged himself of the most pressing of the commissions intrusted to him, delivering over to the priests in charge of the temple the gifts sent by Artaxerxes, and making known to the various Persian officials of the district the terms of the royal decree so far as they were affected by it (Ezra 8:32-36). This section may be subdivided into seven parts:—
1. The genealogy of Ezra (Ezra 7:1-5);
2. The fact of his journey, with its dates (Ezra 7:6-10);
3. The decree of Artaxerxes with respect to Ezra (Ezra 7:11-26);
4. The thanksgiving of Ezra (Ezra 7:27, Ezra 7:28);
5. The numbers of those who accompanied him to Jerusalem, with the names of the chiefs (Ezra 8:1-14);
6. The circumstances of the journey from Babylon to Jerusalem (Ezra 8:15-31); and
7. The three days' rest at Jerusalem and execution of the more pressing commissions (Ezra 8:32-36).
THE GENEALOGY OF EZRA (Ezra 7:1-5). It is plain that this genealogy is incomplete. It gives no more than sixteen generations between Ezra and Aaron, whereas the number of generations between Zerubbabel and Nashon, prince of Judah in Aaron's time (Numbers 1:7; Numbers 2:3), was twenty-six (1 Chronicles 2:10-15; 1 Chronicles 3:5-19), and that between Aaron himself and Eliashib at least as many (1 Chronicles 6:3-15; 1 Chronicles 9:11; Nehemiah 12:10). Six names are omitted between the Azariah and Memioth of verse 3, which will be found in 1 Chronicles 6:7-10; and at least three must be wanting between Ezra himself and Seraiah, who was the great-great-grandfather of Eliashib, Ezra's contemporary (Nehemiah 3:1; Nehemiah 13:4). The curtailment of genealogies by the omission of names was a common practice of the Jews. A notable instance is the omission of three royal names in St. Matthew's genealogy of our Lord (Matthew 1:8).
The writer makes a marked division between his first and second sections by means of the words, "Now after these things," which he uses in this place only. The actual interval seems to have been one of between fifty-seven and fifty-eight years, the sixth year of Darius being b.c. 516, and the seventh of Artaxerxes Longimanus b.c. 458. Artaxerxes is in the original "Artakhshata," which reproduces the Persian Artakhshatra with the change of only one letter. That Longimanus, the grandson of Darius, is meant seems to follow from the fact that Eliashib, the grandson of Jeshua is high priest under him (Nehemiah 3:1).
Darius, correspond to Jeshua,
Xerxes correspond to Joiakim
Artaxerxes correspond to Eliashib
But for this it would be possible to regard the Artaxerxes of Ezra (Ezra 7:1-28.) and Nehemiah as Mnemon. Ezra the son of Seraiah. Probably the great-great-grandson. In the language of the sacred writers, every descendant is a "son," and every ancestor a "father." Christ is "the son of David," and David "the son of Abraham" (Matthew 1:1). Joram "begat" Uzziah (Matthew 1:8), his great-great-grandson. Jochebed was "the daughter of Levi (Exodus 2:1). Ezra omits the names of his father, grandfather, and great-grandfather, who were undistinguished, and claims descent from Seraiah, the last high priest who had ministered in Solomon's temple (2 Kings 25:18). Azariah, the father of Seraiah, does not occur in either Kings or Chronicles; but Hilkiah, Azariah's father, is no doubt the high priest of Josiah's time (2 Kings 22:4-14; 2 Chronicles 34:14-22, etc.).
This portion of the genealogy agrees exactly with that of Jehozadak in 1 Chronicles 6:3-15, excepting in the omission, which has been already noticed, of six names between Azariah and Meraioth. We may gather from 1 Chronicles 9:11 that a Meraioth is also omitted between the Zadok and Ahitub of 1 Chronicles 9:2.
EZRA'S JOURNEY FROM BABYLON TO JERUSALEM, WITH DATES (Xerxes Ezra 7:6-10). In introducing himself, Ezra seems to regard it 25 of primary importance to state two things—
This Ezra went up. See comment on Ezra 2:1, where the same expression ― "went up"—is used. He was a ready scribe in the law of Moses. On the meaning of this phrase, and the new position occupied by "scribes" after the captivity, see 'Introduction to Ezra,' § 5. Which the Lord God of Israel had given. It is characteristic of Ezra's piety never to forget that the law was not a mere human code given by an earthly lawgiver, not even a national treasure, the accumulation of centuries, but a direct Divine gift "the law of the Lord" (verse 10), "the words of the commandments of the Lord, and of his statutes to Israel" (verse 11), "the law which the Lord had commanded by Moses" (Nehemiah 8:14). According to the hand of the Lord his God upon him. i.e. "by reason of God's favour to him." God, by reason of his favour to Ezra, inclined the heart of Artaxerxes towards him, so that he granted all his request. The nature of the "request" is not directly stated, but may be gathered from the "letter of Artaxerxes," especially verses 13, 14, 16.
The same six classes are here mentioned as furnishing colonists under Ezra which, according to the earlier narrative (Ezra 2:70), had accompanied Zerubbabel. The order in which the classes are mentioned is nearly, but not quite, the same. In the seventh year of Artaxerxes. This is the emphatic clause of the verse; Ezra's main object in the section being to give the exact date of his journey. As Artaxerxes began to reign in b.c. 464, his seventh year would be b.c. 458.
And he came to Jerusalem in the fifth month. From the ninth verse it appears that the first day of the first month—the opening day of the year—was selected for the commencement of the journey. This was no doubt viewed as an auspicious day for beginning an important undertaking. The time occupied on the way was exactly four months, which is longer than might have been supposed to be necessary. Herodotus reckoned it a three months journey from Sardis to Susa (verse 53), and the younger Cyrus conducted an army from Ephesus to Cunaxa, near Babylon, in ninety- three marching days (Xen, 'Anab' 2 1, § 6)—the distance in either case being considerably more than that from Babylon to Jerusalem, even supposing the route followed to have been by Balis and Aleppo. But a caravan, like an army, requires rests; and we hear of one such rest at Ahava (Ezra 8:15). Cyrus gave his troops more days of rest than of movement, and took half the year to reach Cunaxa from Ephesus. We need not be surprised, therefore, that Ezra's journey occupied four months. Some delay must almost certainly have been caused by the perils of the route (see Ezra 8:31).
According to the good hand of his God. For the meaning of this phrase, see comment on Ezra 7:6. The special favour of God here intended would seem to be deliverance from certain enemies who designed to attack the caravan on the way (see the next chapter, Ezra 7:21-23, 31).
For Ezra had prepared his heart, etc. God's favour towards Ezra, and the prosperous issue of his journey, were the consequences of his having set his heart on learning God's will, and doing it, and teaching it to others. To seek the law is to aim at obtaining a complete knowledge of it. To teach statutes and judgments is to inculcate both the ceremonial and the moral precepts. Ezra appears as a teacher of righteousness in Ezra 10:10, Ezra 10:11, and again in Nehemiah 8:2-18
"After these things"—nearly sixty years "after," as usually understood—certain other things came to pass. Things so far similar that they may be recorded in the same connection; things so far different as to open out to us quite a new part of this book. There is this similarity, for example—that we have the story here of another and supplementary pilgrimage of captive Israelites from Babylon to Jerusalem. On the other hand, there are these points of difference—that the new pilgrimage is on a much smaller scale; and that the story itself is rather biographical than historical, as before—all of it, in fact, centring closely round the doings of one man. Accordingly, it is with the portrait of this one man, Ezra, that this new portion begins. We can see at once, on looking at the portrait, that he is a zealous ecclesiastical reformer; and we can easily understand there being a great necessity at Jerusalem for such a man at that time. Of this, however, and of what he did there, we shall read by and by. At present we see chiefly his fitness for this difficult role; and that in connection—
1. with his ancestry;
2. his attainments; and
3. his ambition.
I. EZRA'S ANCESTRY. This, given us in verses 1-5, would be such as to fit him for the work of Church reformation in several ways.
1. As to office. By lineage we see that he was a priest; and therefore an authorised preacher (Le Ezra 10:11; 2 Chronicles 15:3; Malachi 2:5-7); and therefore a person who would have special facilities in reforming or setting things right, because such endeavours would, in his case, be only expected. How can any man teach truth and right without correcting error and wrong?
2. As to tradition. It may at least be noticed that, according to this lineage, very many of the traditions of his peculiar priestly ancestry would be specially in favour of reforming work. He belonged, e.g; to the better of the two principal priestly lines, viz; that of Eleazar as compared with Ithamar, to which Eli and his sons (1 Chronicles 24:3, 1 Chronicles 24:4; 1 Chronicles 6:8) belonged. Also, even in this very abridged form of his genealogy, how conspicuous are the individual names of Phinehas (Numbers 25:1-18.; Joshua 22:1-34.; Psalms 106:30) and Hilkiah (2 Kings 22:1-20.; 2 Chronicles 34:1-33.) in regard to this point! It could never, therefore, be said of him, in attempting similar work, as in 1 Samuel 10:12.
3. As to position. Being himself descended from Seraiah, the grandfather or great (or great-great) grandfather of the high priest of that time (1 Chronicles 6:14; Ezra 3:2; Nehemiah 3:1; Nehemiah 12:10), he would be not only a priest, but a priest with peculiar family advantages for exerting an influence for good, something as is the case with a "prince of the blood" among us. On the whole, while all these things by themselves would not necessarily dispose him to become a reformer, they would all help him, if so disposed.
II. EZRA'S SPECIAL ATTAINMENTS. These would also qualify him for such labours. For we find that he had learned—
1. How to listen to God. The man who would reform others must begin by reforming himself; and this he can only do effectually by means of an accurate knowledge of God's will, that one standard of perfect right (see Psalms 111:10, and end of Luke 11:2). This point secured in the present instance
(a) by Ezra's discrimination. He knew where to look for God's word, viz; in the "Scriptures" of truth, recognising clearly their double aspect, as at once human (the "law of Moses"), and also Divine (which "God had given"). Comp. 1 Thessalonians 2:13—"the word of God which ye heard of us." He recognised also their peculiar value (which the "God of Israel had given"), as God's special gift to his own people (Romans 3:1, Romans 3:2).
(b) By Ezra's diligence. Being thus valuable, he treated them accordingly. How much is implied in that expression, a "ready scribe"! "Reading," to know the letter. "Marking," to know the meaning. "Inwardly learning and digesting," to know the power. And all together, to acquire the right use—to be "ready" with them whenever called for. A man thus familiar with the "sword of the Spirit" might naturally be expected to further the Spirit's work.
2. How to speak to men. Many book-learned men are too bookish for this; and, therefore, not fit for reforming efforts. They can describe their weapons, but not employ them. Ezra, we find, on the contrary, was a man able to persuade men of all ranks and conditions, whether superiors, from whom he asked permission to go (end of verses 6 and 28), or equals and inferiors, both lay and clerical (verse 7), whom he persuaded to go with him. Note, however, that this second qualification or attainment was the result of the first, as implied in end of verse 6, and in what we afterwards read in Ezra 8:17, Ezra 8:18.
III. EZRA'S SPECIAL AMBITION. Unless a man desires an end—unless he strongly desires it, if difficult of attainment Ñ he is never likely to reach it. However favoured by circumstances, however qualified in itself, the locomotive will never go forward without the requisite moving power. This supplied here by Ezra's special ambition. We notice—
1. Its patience. What is said here (in verse 9) of the length of his journey from Babylon may help to illustrate this. Also what we read afterwards in the detailed account of that journey, his waiting for the Levites, in Ezra 8:15-20, and subsequent delay for fasting (Ezra 8:21-23). What is worth obtaining is worth waiting for. Perhaps this conviction is, of all necessities, the most necessary for success (James 5:7).
2. Its depth. "Ezra prepared his heart." He was deeply earnest as well as patient; could strike as well as endure; and not only bide his time, but use it too. This a rare combination, but most important, in doing good (see Galatians 6:9; also examples of Jacob, Moses, and Jehoiada, the high priest, in 2 Chronicles 22:12; 2 Chronicles 23:1-15).
3. Its direction. Those qualifying attainments we have spoken of were his because he had sought them—sought them not only as an end, but as a means also to other ends. How definite and complete the description. "Ezra had prepared his heart, to seek—to do—and to teach." "To teach in Israel statutes and judgments:" there was the summit of his ambition. First to know and "do" it himself: there was the path, in his judgment, that led to that summit. As the poet has written: "Allured to brighter worlds, and led the way."
Such is the opening portrait of the man whom God had called then to this special calling. We may gather from it some general considerations as to God's preparatory work in such cases. We see, e.g.—
1. How far back such work may begin. In this ease of Ezra, e.g; as far back (shall we say?) as Aaron. Certainly before his own birth (comp. Jeremiah 1:5; Galatians 1:15); and thenceforward, continually, in all his early training and studies, and in all the various hereditary and circumstantial influences that made him finally the man that he was. This especially illustrated in the case of the greatest of all these "sent forth" (Hebrews 3:1). As far back, at least, as the birth of Seth, God was preparing for that of Christ.
2. How far off such work may begin. Here, e.g; in Babylon for the benefit of those in Jerusalem. So afterwards at Joppa for Cornelius in Cesarea. So in Egypt in Pharaoh's bed-chamber (Genesis 41:1-57.) for the preservation of those then in Canaan. So in Troas for the benefit of Macedonia (Acts 16:8, Acts 16:9); and in Philippi for that of Thyatira (Acts 16:14; Revelation 2:18); and in Palestine for the salvation of Ethiopia (Acts 8:26-39); and, finally, in heaven itself for the good of earth (Luke 19:10; John 3:16 . 1 Timothy 1:15).
3. How far in both ways it extends. Here the good work afterwards done by Ezra at Jerusalem helped to preserve by purifying the nucleus of the whole Jewish dispersion then residing there; and so, afterwards still, the whole dispersion. The dispersion, thus preserved, prepared the way, as we saw before, for the preaching of the gospel to all nations in all parts of the world; which, again, is to prepare for the restoration of Israel to God's favour, and the consequent fulness of blessing to all mankind (Romans 11:12, Romans 11:15). What an extraordinary power and depth and stretch of influence for good is implied in these words—"Beloved for the fathers' sakes."! And how constantly we see similar influence telling on strange peoples and future generations in the history of the world!
HOMILIES BY J.A. MACDONALD
The exodus under Ezra.
"After these things," viz; the events which culminated in the dedication of the temple, and consequent ordering of the service of God. "In the reign of Artaxerxes king of Persia," after an interval of nearly sixty years, during which the house of the Lord had so fallen into disrepair as to need "beautifying," and the civil state of the children of the restoration had become disordered, and needed readjustment. With these purposes, and with a view to leading back to Judaea another detachment of Israelites, Ezra received a commission from the king. In the text—
I. HE AUTHENTICATES HIMSELF AS THE LEADER OF THIS EXODUS.
1. He evinces his social qualification.
2. He evinces his moral qualifications. "He was a ready scribe," etc.
(2) This is the law, therefore, to be studied. Its author, God. Its matter, truth the most sublime. Its spirit, holiness. Its end, heaven.
(3) A ready scribe (not a skilful penman only, but an able expounder also) of such a law has the noblest qualifications to be a leader of men.
3. He evinces his political qualification.
II. HE RELATES THE SUCCESS OF HIS UNDERTAKING.
1. In the muster.
2. In the journey.
3. In the blessing of God.
(a) With God.
(b) With the king.
(c) With the people.
HOMILIES BY W. CLARKSON
Ezra: his character and work.
The study of human character and of human life is not only an essential part of human knowledge, but of spiritual culture. Biography is a means of grace. We do well to follow in thought the lines along which the noblest of our race have moved: we are thereby attracted toward them, and grow up toward their spiritual stature. We may learn from the life and character of Ezra by considering—
I. WHAT WE KNOW HE WAS AND DID. He was—
1. A priest, claiming descent, as we see, from Aaron (verse 5); and we doubt not that he discharged, faithfully and conscientiously, the duties of the priesthood. He was, moreover, what came to be called—
2.A scribe (verse 6), i.e.
Ezra "prepared his heart to seek the law of the Lord, and to do it, and to teach," etc. (verse 10): These three functions of the scribe include the three most important duties a man can undertake: viz.,
3. Administrator and reformer. He conducted the party whom he headed to Jerusalem in peace and safety (verse 8); there he established himself as leader of the people, and set about the work of reforming abuses with a vigorous hand. His ardour led to a serviceable organisation and reform. He seems also to have been, as few strong-willed men are, a co-operator with others. He acted with Nehemiah, the governor, and it may well have been difficult to define strictly their respective offices.
4. Man of influence with his fellows. There was that about him, due to the elevation and disinterestedness of his character as well as to the vigour and robustness of his mind, which gave him strange influence with the king, so that he gave him leave to lead out a large return party, and also entrusted him with large powers in the commission. Men who, like Ezra, earnestly seek the will of God and do what they know to be right (verse 10), and lay themselves out for "doing good and communicating" (Hebrews 13:16), are likely to have power with men.
5. Man through whom God wrought. "The hand of the Lord his God was upon him" (verses 6, 9, etc.). His soul felt the quickening touch of the Divine finger, and it kindled with a sacred glow of piety and zeal. He was moved of God to attempt great things, and helped of God to achieve them. His life flowed on like a fertilising river, and did so because "all his springs were in God" (Psalms 87:7). Our character may contain much that is excellent, and our lives include much that is honourable, but except the "hand of the Lord our God be upon us," renewing our heart and blessing our life, we shall not be or do that which is pleasing to him or useful to our fellows.
II. GENERALLY RECEIVED TRADITION RESPECTING EZRA. It is commonly believed among the Jews that he instituted the Great Synagogue, that he settled the canon of Scripture, that he himself wrote the books of the Chronicles, Ezra, Nehemiah, and (perhaps) Esther, and that he established the system of synagogue worship. This last arose about his time, and, if indeed due to him, is a work which laid his countrymen, and indeed us all (for had not the forms of the synagogue something, if not much, to do with the forms of the early Church?), under a heavy debt of gratitude. Ezra was a holy and zealous man, with a strong mind and a firm will, exercising a commanding influence on his contemporaries, making the word of God the basis and mainspring of his action, seeking and striving for the purity of the people of God. Some things he did we know. Others we know not of. We may not be so great and distinguished as he was. It may not be in our power to render such signal services as he did, or to leave behind us such a reputation as he has left. Yet in the essentials of his character and work we may be like him. We also may—
HOMILIES BY J.S. EXELL
Ezra the type of as ideal minister.
I. THAT HE IS GENERALLY A MAN OF GOOD MORAL ANCESTRY. "The son of Aaron the chief priest" (verse 5). Ezra was in the line of a renowned and religious ancestry; the past history of Israel would be full of meaning to him; sacred traditions would inspire him in the present national crisis, It is well for a minister to have in his ancestry men whose lives and activities have been intimately associated with the Church; their holy example will animate him; natural sympathy will stimulate him; the sacred enterprise of his family will inspire him; a blessed heritage will be his. It is a privilege for a minister to be in the line of Aaron, if he continue faithfully in the work of Aaron. The inspiration and influence of a holy ancestry is a rich ministerial endowment.
II. THAT HE IS A MAN OF SELF-SACRIFICING SPIRIT. Ezra left Babylon for Jerusalem. He exchanged the comfort and influence which he enjoyed in the court of Artaxerxes for the hardships of a perilous journey, and for the broken fortunes of Israel. The true minister will ever be ready to leave Babylon for Jerusalem; he will esteem luxury, and even life itself, as subservient to the welfare of the people of God. Christ left a better court than Babylon, and allied himself with sinful men that he might restore their broken hopes. The early disciples left all and followed Christ; the carnal must be sacrificed to the spiritual.
III. THAT HE IS A MAN INTELLIGENTLY TAUGHT IN THE WORD OF GOD. "And he was a ready scribe in the law of Moses" (verse 6).
1. He intelligently understood the truth.
2. He carefully prepared his moral nature for the reception of the truth. "For Ezra had prepared his heart to seek the law of the Lord" (verse 10).
3. He constantly endeavoured to make his conduct an embodiment of the truth. "And to do it" (verse 10).
4. He wisely recognised the deeper meanings of the truth. "To seek the law of the Lord"
5. He earnestly sought to impart to others a knowledge of the truth. "And to teach in Israel." Thus the true minister will understand the gospel; will prepare his soul by repentance and prayer for the reception of the gospel in all its entirety; will exhibit the gospel in his daily conduct; will seek the hidden messages of the gospel; and will strive to bring mankind to a knowledge of the truth as it is in Jesus.
IV. THAT HE IS A MAN CAPABLE OF ATTACHING MEN TO HIMSELF (verse 7; compare Ezra 8:16, Ezra 8:18). Ezra went not alone to Jerusalem, but succeeded in getting many to accompany him.
1. He awakened sympathy in many of his comrades.
2. He awakened conscience in some of his comrades.
3. He employed appropriate agencies to induce others to join him in the journey (Ezra 8:18). The true minister will employ all rightful means to induce men to walk with him in the ways of a new life to heaven; he will not isolate himself from men, but take them with him by the force of sympathy.
V. THAT HE IS A MAN WHO ENDEAVOURS RIGHTLY TO INFLUENCE THE CIVIL AUTHORITIES. Ezra was evidently on the most friendly terms with Artaxerxes; magistrates and ministers should be in sympathy with each other. The sovereign and the scribe should be mutually helpful; there should be no antagonism between the Church and the state. The true minister will cultivate a judicious co-operation with the "powers that be." Ezra taught the king, hence his knowledge of the God of Israel (verse 15). It is the office of the minister to instruct men in lofty social station, when they have the opportunity, as well as to aid the poor Israelite. The Church is the best teacher of the state.—E.
HOMILIES BY A. MACKENNAL
Ezra 7:9, Ezra 7:10
Ezra and his mission.
Two generations had elapsed between the close of Ezra 6:1-22. and the events with which the final chapters of the book are concerned. The prophetic voice was silent; Haggai and Zechariah had long since passed away. Zerubbabel, the last representative of the house of David, in whose person some had looked for a restoration of the Jewish kingdom, was dead. The high priesthood, which had been filled by the saintly Jeshua, was occupied by Eliashib, who became connected by marriage with two conspicuous enemies of the faith of Israel. His grandson married a daughter of Sanballat the Horonite; he himself "was allied unto Tobiab," to whom he gave a residence "in the courts of the house of God" (Nehemiah 13:4-7, Nehemiah 13:28). Darius had been succeeded by Xerxes, the story of whose pride, lasciviousness, passion, and feebleness is one of the most ignoble of the records of classic history. He was the Ahasuerus of the book of Esther. We may judge from the book of Esther how unfavourable the times were for carrying on the national and spiritual restoration of Israel. The full extent of the debasement of the settlers in Palestine was not known in Babylon; it broke on both Ezra and Nehemiah with painful surprise (Ezra 9:1-15.; Nehemiah 13:1-31.). But enough was known to awaken concern; he desired "to teach in Israel statutes and judgments." Filled with this pious desire, he obtained permission to go up to Jerusalem.
I. THE CHARACTER OF EZRA. He was a priest, but he was still more a scribe; tradition assigns to him a leading part in the formation of the canon of Jewish Scriptures. The beginning of the study of Hebrew literature belongs to this period; the dignity of the pursuit invested the name "scribe" with honour, changed the mere registrar of documents and chronicler of events into the scholar and teacher. The change of language consequent on the deportation of the Hebrews into Babylon rendered it necessary that some should draw the inspiring record of the past from the obscurity of a dead or dying language, and make the people acquainted with their Divine- mission and the duties that mission imposed upon them. Above all, the law of the Lord was the object of Ezra's reverence; he was "a ready scribe in the law of Moses, which the Lord God of Israel had given;" he "had prepared his heart to seek the law of the Lord, and to do and teach it." The character of Ezra was intimately associated with his vocation: his were the habits of the student; his virtues were not those of the statesman, the warrior, or the priest, but the virtues of the scholar; it was his not to give, but to interpret, laws.
1. The profound piety of the man first strikes us. The precepts of the law were to him "the words of God;" behind the writings he saw the august personal authority of the ever-living Ruler of his people. He lived in awe of his will; he had a deep conviction of the evil of sin against him, so deep that it impressed itself on others; they who sympathised with his purpose were those who "trembled at the words of the God of Israel" (Ezra 9:4; Ezra 10:3). He had a vivid consciousness of his mission, and the nearness of God to him in its fulfilment; again and again he refers his success to "the good hand of his God upon him."
2. Ezra had courage, but it was the courage of the student; not impulsive, but meditative. He knew and feared the dangers of the way; but he knew how to conquer fear (Ezra 8:21-23). He needed to be aroused to effort, and when he was called to action he prepared himself for it by consecration (Ezra 10:4, Ezra 10:5). There is a physical, and there is also a moral, courage; that is the most enduring bravery which knowing of dangers, faces them, trembles but advances, which supplies the lack of impulse by resolve. The "fear of the Lord" casts out all other fear.
3. The sensitive conscience and tender sympathy of the recluse are also his. Contrast his manifestation of feeling with that of Nehemiah when confronted with glaring impiety (Nehemiah 9:1-38.; Nehemiah 13:1-31.). Nehemiah is indignant, Ezra is overwhelmed. Nehemiah "contends," Ezra weeps. Nehemiah curses the transgressors, and smites them, and plucks off their hair, and "makes them" amend; Ezra is prostrate from morning until evening, solemnly intercedes with God on their behalf, and wins the people to concern and repentance. This is the sacrificial spirit, feeling and confessing the sins of others as our own, bearing their transgressions, and recovering them by suffering; it is the lesson of the cross, the Christian spirit.
4. The firmness, even ruthlessness, with which he commands the separation of the husbands from their wives and children also bespeak the man of the study. None have shewn themselves more able to rise above family ties, none have more imperiously demanded this sacrifice from others, than those whose lofty ideal, cherished in the cell, has known none of the abatement which we learn to make in social intercourse. There is room for such men in history, and a work sometimes which none can do so well as they. Here are, unquestionably, the elements of a noble character. Not the only noble type, nor need we inquire if the noblest; enough that his was the character required for the reforms he inaugurated. Nehemiah was not called to do over again the work Ezra did. The style of Nehemiah's record (Nehemiah 13:23-28) indicates a very different state of things from that which Ezra found. This is the true test of the value of a man's character, that he is fit for the work he has to do; the test of his worth is that he does it effectually.
II. THE REFORMATION EZRA WROUGHT. He went up on a twofold errand. His own object was to teach the people "the words of the commandment of the Lord, and of his statutes to Israel." Disobedience of these had always been the crying sin of the nation, and had entailed on it its woes (Ezra 9:7); the new favour God had extended to them would be forfeited if they disregarded his laws (Ezra 9:14). And the disobedience that would provoke God might be through ignorance as well as through presumption. A nation perishes through ignorance; the violation of the Divine order brings social disorganisation and rain, it needs not that the violation be wilful. In the sacrifice offered on his arrival, together with the renewal of consecration—the burnt offering, and the feast of thanksgiving—the peace-offering, there occurs again the touching sin-offering, twelve he-goats are sacrificed to acknowledge and ask pardon for sins of ignorance. In the disordered state of the times it was certain there must have been many defects in the people's service, many errors, many transgressions of which they were not conscious, and these must be confessed. Then he was charged with a double mission from Artaxerxes, the gentle prince at that time reigning over Persia. The furnishing of the temple was to be proceeded with; he was laden with gifts for this purpose (Ezra 8:25-27); he was charged to attend to its service, and empowered to draw from the royal revenues what was needed for a stately ritual (Ezra 7:16, Ezra 7:17, Ezra 7:22). He was also commissioned to set magistrates and judges over the people charged with the administration of Jewish law, and he was empowered to execute it (Ezra 7:25, Ezra 7:26). Artaxerxes knew that the law of the Lord was more than a mere ritual, that it prescribed social customs and regulated the life of the people, and he sympathised with Nehemiah's desire to re-establish its rule. One great reform, however, overshadows all other works of Ezra; when this is-recorded the book abruptly closes, as if Ezra's work was done. The story of Ezra's dismay at hearing of the marriages of the Jews with the heathen, and his prompt dissolution of the marriages, is so far removed from the tolerant spirit of modern Christendom that it needs some special observations.
1. These were idolatrous heathen, not monotheistic heathen like the Persians; they were the heathen of Syria, whose worship was fouled with lust and blood. The term "abominations," as applied to their customs, is no mere outburst of Jewish arrogance; the tolerant modern spirit is revolted by the record. Intermarriage with them meant sharing in their festivals, and exposed the Jews to the utmost peril (cf. Nehemiah 13:26). The past sufferings of the people should have warned them against this new folly; it seemed like provoking God, so soon to forget the past (Ezra 9:6-15). The inter- marriage of the people, and especially of the priests, with idolatrous women was unfaithfulness to the purpose for which they had been restored from Babylon; a betrayal of the confidence reposed in them by Cyrus and his successors; a denial of the testimony of Zerubbabel and Jeshua (Ezra 4:3); it argued indifference to their national position, contempt of their Divine calling.
2. The demand for divorce seems inconsistent with Paul's counsel (1 Corinthians 7:14), and the hopeful charity on which it is based; with many of Christ's words, and the spirit of Christ's life; it seems to argue the terror of the separatist rather than the confidence of the strong believer. We must not, however, argue the question from a Christian, but from a Jewish, stand- point; it is as foolish to look into the Old Testament for modern ethics as for modern science. The immense moral force of the gospel renders possible a genial and tolerant spirit which was not possible to an earnest Jew. As a matter of fact, the seductions of idolatry had always proved stronger than the attraction of Judaism; the heathen corrupted the Hebrew, the Hebrew did not convert the heathen. Judaism, with all its signal merits, was not a missionary faith; its office was protest, not evangelisation; the spiritual power of the gospel was not in it—the cross, and resurrection, and the gift of the Holy Spirit. The presence of these forces in Christianity is the reason of its tolerant spirit; it moves freely in a world which it has power to change and sanctify; its work is not to protest, but to reclaim; the Son of man came not to judge the world, but to save the world. Some practical lessons:—
1. A lesson of wisdom. Force of character is needed as well as a pure religious faith to render Christian intercourse with the world a safe thing. The stronger will draw the weaker; and it is not always the Christian who is the stronger. "All things are lawful for me, but all things are not expedient. All things are lawful, but all things edify not. All things are lawful, but I will not be brought under the power of any."
2. No sacrifice is too great which is needed that we may preserve our spiritual integrity. Natural tastes and faculties—the eye, and hand, and foot; the tenderest ties—father and mother, sister and brother, wife and husband.
3. The true object of toleration. It is that the noblest, holiest influence may prevail. Christian tolerance is not indifference to truth and falsehood, evil and good; it is not a passive grace, a mere easy disposition; it is an intensely active, a missionary grace. It is bent on overcoming evil with good. If it were otherwise, it would neither be fidelity to God nor charity to man.—M.
THE DECREE OF ARTAXERXES WITH RESPECT TO EZRA (Ezra 7:11-26). The present decree was of the nature of a firman granted to an individual. It embodied, in the first place, a certain number of provisions which were temporary. Of this character were—
1. the permission accorded to all Persian subjects of Israelite descent to accompany Ezra to Jerusalem (verse 13);
2. the commission to Ezra to convey to Jerusalem certain offerings made by the king and his chief courtiers to the God of Israel (verses 15, 19);
3. the permission given him to convey to Jerusalem the free-will offerings of Jews and others resident in Babylonia (verse 16);
4. permission to Ezra to draw on the royal treasury to the amount of a hundred talents of silver, a hundred measures of wheat, a hundred "baths" of wine, a hundred "baths" of oil, and salt to any amount (verse 22); and,
5. an indefinite commission to "inquire" (verse 14).
Besides these temporary enactments, the decree contained certain provisions of a more permanent nature.
1. Ezra was invested with the chief authority over the whole district "beyond the river," and was commissioned to appoint all the subordinate "magistrates and judges" (verse 25).
2. He was authorised to enforce his decisions by the penalties of imprisonment, confiscation of goods, banishment, and even death itself (verse 26).
3. An exemption from taxation of every kind was granted to all grades of the sacerdotal order—to the priests, the Levites, the singers, the porters, the Nethinim, and the lowest grade of "ministers"—to all, in fact, who were engaged in the performance of any sacred function connected with the temple (verse 24). This last provision was absolutely permanent, and probably continued in force down to the close of the empire.
The copy of the letter that the king … gave to Ezra. This decree, as already observed, was a private firman, one copy of which only was made, which was presented to Ezra, and was his authority for doing certain things himself, and for requiring certain acts of others. The priest. This is implied in the genealogy (verses 1-5), but not directly stated elsewhere by Ezra himself. Nehemiah, however, designates him similarly (Ezra 8:2, Ezra 8:9). His most usual title is the "scribe." A scribe of the words of the commandments of the Lord. Not so much a writer as an expounder (see above, verse 10).
Artaxerxes, king of kings. "King of kings, kkshayathiya khshaya-thiyanam," an equivalent of the modern shahinshah, was a recognised title of the Persian monarchs, and is found in every Persian inscription of any considerable length. It was a title that had been used occasionally, though not at all frequently, by the Assyrian monarchs, and naturally expressed the fact that those monarchs for the most part maintained the native princes on the thrones of the countries which they conquered (see Isaiah 10:8). It was less appropriate to the Persians, whose empire was in the main satrapial, but still had a basis of truth to rest upon, since the Persian monarch had always a certain number of tributary kings under him. The Parthian kings took the title from the time of Mithridates I.; and from them it passed to the Sassanians, who style themselves malkan malka, from first to last, upon their coins. The God of heaven. On this favourite Persian expression see comment on Ezra 1:2. Perfect peace. There is nothing in the Chaldee original in any way corresponding to "peace;" and the participle passage being translated as in the margin of the A. V.—"to Ezra the priest, a perfect scribe of the law of the God of heaven." And at such a time. Rather, "and so forth," as in Ezra 4:10, Ezra 4:11, Ezra 4:17.
All they of the people of Israel. The decree of Artaxerxes is as wide in its terms as the proclamation of Cyrus (Ezra 1:3), and gives permission not to the Jews only, but to all Israelites of whatever tribe, to accompany Ezra to Jerusalem. That Israelites of all the tribes actually went up to Jerusalem on the occasion seems indicated by the "twelve bullocks for all Israel," which those who returned with Ezra offered on their arrival to the "God of Israel" (see Ezra 8:35).
Ezra received his commission from the king, and from his seven counsellors, who thus seem to occupy an important position in the Persian state. They are commonly identified with the "seven princes of Persia and Media," mentioned in Esther (Esther 1:14), "which saw the king's face," and "sate first in the kingdom." A conjecture, which, though not unreasonable, cannot be said to be substantiated, connects the "seven counsellors" with the seven great Persian septs, or families, which had privileges beyond the rest, and among them the right of unrestricted access to the royal presence ('Herod.,' 3.84). The commission which Ezra received is described in this verse as one to inquire concerning Judah and Jerusalem; but the subject-matter of the inquiry is not mentioned. He can scarcely have been sent to make inquiry whether the law of Moses was observed or no, since that was certainly not a matter with which the Persian government would concern itself. Probably he was to inquire generally into the material prosperity of the province, and to report thereon.
And to carry the silver and gold, which the king and his counsellors have freely offered. Large sums in specie had in ancient times to be remitted from one country to another under escort. The roads were never safe from robbers; and the more considerable the remittance, the greater the danger of its being intercepted. We hear of its being usual to protect the treasure annually remitted to Jerusalem from Babylon in Roman times by an escort of above 20,000 men (see Joseph; 'Ant. Jud.,' 18:9, § 1). The God of Israel, whose habitation is in Jerusalem. No more seems to be meant by "habitation" here than by "house" in Ezra 1:2, Ezra 1:3. Artaxerxes does not regard Jehovah as a local God.
All the silver and gold that thou canst find. Rather, "that thou canst obtain"—"all that thou canst get my other subjects to give thee." Compare the proclamation of Cyrus (Ezra 1:4, Ezra 1:6).
That thou mayest buy speedily with this money bullocks, etc. The primary application of the money sent by Ezra was to be the maintenance of the Jewish ritual in its full splendour. The residue was, however, to be employed in any way that Ezra, acting under Divine guidance, might direct (see below, verse 18). Apparently, this residue was actually employed on beautifying the temple (see verse 27).
The vessels also. It does not appear that these were sacred vessels belonging to the temple, like those which Cyrus had intrusted to Zerubbabel for restoration to the house of God. Rather, it would seem, they were a part of the voluntary "offering" mentioned in Ezra 7:15, in which they are distinctly included (Ezra 8:25-28). We may perhaps conclude that the vessels sent with Zerubbabel had proved insufficient in number for the great festivals.
Whatever more shall be needful. Here the terms of the firman are very wide indeed, and authorise apparently an unlimited application of the royal revenue, or, at any rate, of the revenue of the province, to any purpose in any way connected with the temple. Probably it was expected that Ezra's own discretion would act as a restraint. If this failed, the royal treasurers would see that the amounts specified in verse 22 were not exceeded. The king's treasure-house is not the royal treasury at Susa, to which the tribute went up from the various provinces, but the local treasury of Judaea or Syria, to which the Jews made their remittances, and on which Ezra was now authorised to draw. Such local treasuries existed of necessity under a satrapial system.
Unto a hundred talents of silver. At the lowest estimate of the Jewish silver talent, this would be a permission to draw on the royal treasury to the amount of £24,000 sterling. If we adopt the views of Mr. R.S. Peele ('Dict. of the Bible, Articles, MONEY and WEIGHTS AND MEASURES), it would authorise drawing to the amount of £40,000. A hundred measures of wheat. Literally, "a hundred cors of wheat," as given in the margin. The cor is variously estimated, at 44.25 gallons and at 86.67 gallons. It contained ten baths. Orders on the treasury for so much wheat, wine, oil, and salt sound strangely in modern ears; but were natural enough in the Persian system, where taxation was partly in kind, and every province had to remit to the court the choicest portion of its produce. Wine, corn, oil, and salt were all of them produced abundantly in Palestine, which was "a land of corn and wine, a land of bread and vineyards, a land of off olive, and of honey" (2 Kings 18:32), and which, in the region about the Dead Sea, abounded with salt.
Why should there be wrath against the realm? In the seventh year of Artaxerxes Longimanns there was "wrath against the realm" of Persia in a very dangerous quarter, viz; Egypt. Egypt had revolted from the Persians in b.c. 460, and in the following year, with the assistance of the Athenians, had driven the last Persian out of the country. A vain attempt was made by an embassy to Sparta, towards the close of b.c. 459, to force Athens to recall her troops. In b.c. 458, Artaxerxes' seventh year, it was resolved that a Persian force should attempt the recovery of the revolted country. Artaxerxes gives his firman to Ezra when this expedition is preparing to start, and partly alludes to the past "wrath," shown in the success of the rebels, partly deprecates any further visitation. Without pretending to penetrate the Divine counsels, it may be noticed that from the year b.c. 458 things went well for the Persians in Egypt. Memphis was recovered in that year or the next; and in b.c. 455 the Athenians were finally defeated, and the province recovered. The king and his sons. This mention of the "sons" of Artaxerxes has been regarded as a proof that the Artaxerxes of Esther was Mnemon, and not Longimanus (Patrick). But it is quite a gratuitous supposition that Longimanus, who had attained to manhood before he ascended the throne, had no sons in the seventh year of his reign. Ultimately he left behind him eighteen sons (Ctesias, 'Exc. Pers.,' § 44).
We certify you. The use of the plural is curious. Hitherto the king has made every permission and command to rest on his own sole authority (see Ezra 7:12, Ezra 7:13, Ezra 7:21). Now that he reaches the most important point in the whole of his decree—the permanent exemption of a large part of the people from liability to taxation of any kind, his style changes, and he says, "We certify you." Perhaps he speaks in the name of himself and his successors; or possibly he means to say that in this matter he has asked and obtained the assent and consent of his council (compare Ezra 7:28). Or ministers. Rather, "and ministers." It is generally allowed that the word here translated "ministers" is not applied to the Nethinim, but to that still lower grade of attendants in the sanctuary called "Solomon's servants" in Ezra 2:55-58, and Nehemiah 7:57-60. It shall not be lawful to impose toll, tribute, or custom upon them It may be suspected from this proviso that the Persians exempted from taxation their own (Magian) priests, though of this there is no other evidence. But they would scarcely have placed a foreign priesthood on a higher level of favour than their own.
And thou, Ezra. This conclusion would be by itself sufficient to remove the document out of the ordinary category of "decrees" or "edicts," and to render it, what it is called in verse 11, nishtevan, "a letter." After the wisdom of thy God, that is in thy hand. i.e. "that is in thy possession." Set magistrates and judges. Both the words used are derived from roots signifying "to judge," and it is difficult to draw any distinction between them. The one translated "magistrates" is that which gives its title to the Book of "Judges." Which may judge all the people that are beyond the river, all such as know the laws of thy God. The latter clause is probably intended to be limitative of the former, and to consign to Ezra's government only the Jewish portion of the population, in which, however, are to be reckoned the proselytes (see comment on Ezra 6:21). And teach ye them that know them not. As the other inhabitants of Syria were not Zoroastrians, but idolaters, Ezra was given free permission to spread his religion among them.
Finally, to Ezra is intrusted distinctly the civil government of the Jewish people, with power to fine, imprison, banish, or put to death offenders, as he may think right. These powers were always intrusted by the Persians to the civil administrators of provinces, who were autocrats within their respective territories, and responsible to the king alone for the exercise of their authority.
EZRA'S THANKSGIVING ON RECEIPT OF ARTAXERXES' LETTER (Ezra 7:27, Ezra 7:28). With an abruptness that may appear strange, but which has many parallels in the works of Oriental writers, Ezra passes without a word of explanation from Artaxerxes' letter to his own thanksgiving upon the receipt of it. Compare the interjectional prayers of Nehemiah (Nehemiah 4:4; Nehemiah 5:19; Nehemiah 6:9, Nehemiah 6:14, etc.).
Having concluded the important document, which he has transcribed, and not translated, and which is consequently in the Chaldee dialect, Ezra now resumes the use of the more sacred Hebrew, and henceforth employs it uninterruptedly to the close of his narrative. The form of his thanksgiving a little resembles that of David in 1 Chronicles 29:10. The Lord God of our fathers is an unusual phrase, only elsewhere employed by David (1 Chronicles 29:18) and Jehoshaphat (2 Chronicles 20:6). "God of our fathers" is more common, being found in Deuteronomy (Deuteronomy 26:7) and Acts (Acts 3:13; Acts 5:30), as well as in Chronicles frequently. Which hath put such a thought as this in the king's heart. Compare Acts 1:1. and 6:22. All thoughts favorable to the Jews are regarded by Ezra as impressed upon the hearts of heathen kings by the direct action of God. To beautify. Or "adorn." Ezra gathers from the general tenor of the king's letter that the adornment of the temple is his main object (see comment on verse 17).
Hath extended mercy unto me before the king. i.e. "hath given me favour in the king's sight"—"hath made him graciously disposed towards me" (see Ezra 7:6). And his counsellors and … princes. Compare the comment on Ezra 7:14. The "counsellors" and "princes" are the same persons.
The reformer's commission.
The insertion here of this decree of Artaxerxes at length, and in its original Chaldee form, is in more or less close keeping with the earlier parts of this book (Ezra 1:2-4; Ezra 4:11-16, Ezra 4:17-22; Ezra 5:6-17; Ezra 6:3-12); and furnishes an argument, therefore, strongly in favour of the unity of authorship of the whole book. It is also in keeping with the character of Ezra himself. As a special student of God's written law, he would naturally think much and make much of the very letter of the written decree of those who ruled in God's name (John 19:22; Romans 13:1, Romans 13:2). Turning now to our special subject here, viz; the contents of this document itself, we find them such as to present Ezra to us yet further as the central figure of this last part of the book; and that under two principal aspects, viz.,
I. BEFORE THE KING. It is evident, from the nature of the case, as also from a comparison of the end of verse 23 with 27, that this decree was not wholly spontaneous on the part of the king. We also gather from verses 14 and 28, that when Ezra preferred the "request" spoken of, it was in a special audience of state. There are several things, therefore, under this aspect that we may note of Ezra at this time.
1. His courage. It was never a light thing, and not always a safe thing, for any man, and especially for one of a nation of captives, to stand and speak there (comp. Proverbs 16:14; Nehemiah 2:2; Esther 4:11, end of Esther 4:16, etc.). Also,
2. His faithfulness. Whence that acknowledgment on the part of this king and his council verse 25) of the "wisdom" of Ezra's God; that special respect for the "law" of the same God (verses 11, 14, 21, 25, 26); also, perhaps, that special acquaintance, as in the case of Darius in Ezra 6:9, of what was required for Jehovah's sacrifices (Ezra 6:22); and that notable fear of his judgments (verse 23; comp. Ezra 6:10)—except in part, at least, from Ezra's previous words on these points (see also what is said afterwards in Ezra 8:22). These many widely-scattered points of reflected light argue some common source of light of much size and potency. Not a little light had there been from him to them, before so much in so public a manner from them to him.
3. His patriotism. Why was all this said and asked? Why so much as this so freely risked? For Jerusalem's and Israel's sake. It was in going to Judah and Jerusalem (verse 14), and in the welfare of God's people (verse 25), that he was known to be interested. All that is offered him turns upon this, because all that he requested, and all the arguments by which he had supported his request, had previously turned on it too. It is thus, therefore, that we must think of this Ezra pleading at this time, before those who then ruled the world, on behalf of a captive people, and in the name (to his hearers) of a strange divinity. The history is silent as to what particular occasion led to his doing so (contrast case of Nehemiah 1:2, Nehemiah 1:3; Nehemiah 2:2-5); but the characteristics which enabled him to do so are patent enough. How bold a man, how faithful a witness, how true an Israelite he appears!
II. BEFORE THE WORLD. How great was Ezra's success in thus pleading before Artaxerxes, the decree before us informs us next. That decree was the king's reply to his pleadings. It was the "commission" which he received in consequence. Observe, as such—
1. How exclusive its application. It is a commission to Ezra in person (see "Artaxerxes unto Ezra" in verse 12; also beginning' of verse 25; also the repetition of "thee," "thou," and "thy" all throughout). It is addressed, in fact, almost to Ezra alone; certainly to no one else beside him, except as being either appointed by him (verse 25), or commanded to assist him (verse 21), or associated with him (verse 18). It says to him throughout, "Thou art the man."
2. How weighty its character. Ezra being, so to speak, its terminus ad quem, where, on the other hand, was its terminus a quo. Not from any subordinate, but the king (king of kings he calls himself, verse 12); not even from the king alone, and therefore, possibly, only as an individual and in a private manner, but from "the king and his seven counsellors" (verse 14)—the "queen in council," as we should say—and therefore, in fact, from all the authority of the Persian empire as represented by such. "All the empire to Ezra." That is the virtual heading of this decree.
3. How ample its provisions. Whoever Ezra wished for as a companion (verse 13), whatever Ezra could find to take before starting (verse 16), whatever Ezra wished to do (verse 18), whatever more he might find afterwards to be needful (verse 20), whatever even, within certain most liberal limits (verse 22), he might think fit to require (verse 21)—there was the same injunction about all. Just so he might have, or take, or do, or ordain on his part; and just so others were to do for him upon theirs.
4. How cordial its spirit. How was this shown'? By the magnitude, cheerfulness, and thoughtfulness of the presents made him (verses 15, 20); by the "speediness" and "diligence" enjoined both on Ezra himself (verse 17) and on those who help him (verse 21), and on all concerned in doing anything for the good of God's house (verse 23); by the special and, up till then, unexampled exemption from any description of tax secured for every minister of that house, down to the lowest (verse 24, where observe the "also as though the king had been thinking how else he could show his good will); by the intelligent sympathy shown in verse 25 with Ezra's special anxiety to teach all Israel the law of his God; and, finally, by the thorough determination shown in verse 26 to regard and "speedily" punish all who opposed Ezra in that matter as offenders against the king himself. (Note—"The law of thy God, and the law of the king.") In all these ways does this whole document present Ezra to the world as "the man whom the king," as the king, "delighted to honour" and help at that time (see Esther 6:11).
May we not, therefore, learn here—
1. The noblest use of worldly advantages, viz; to help, either directly or indirectly, in the great work of acquainting men with God and his will, under which we include, of course, his way of salvation, his way of love. Of all the things the various kings of Persia ever did with their wealth and power, what was really wiser and more illustrious than to use them as we read of here? Are not those three names, therefore, in the end of Ezra 6:14 the three greatest of all? Compared to such uses, also, what were Ahab's "ivory house" (1 Kings 22:39), and Nebuchadnezzar's "great Babylon" (Daniel 4:30), or Solomon's "apes and peacocks" (1 Kings 10:22), or all his royal luxuries (Ecclesiastes 2:1-26.), or even his deserved reputation for wisdom (ibid. end Ezra 6:9), if regarded as anything more than means to a better end. but vanity and vexation? It is one principal part of God's will that his will (i.e. his "way," Psalms 67:2) should be "known upon earth." All else in the world is but transient; but he that helps in making this known doeth that which, like God himself, "abideth for ever "(1 John 2:17; also Daniel 12:3). To this, perhaps, may be applied the language of 1 Corinthians 3:9-13. How great a mercy that it is possible for us thus to build for eternity with the things of time! How great an insanity, that being so, to neglect to do it! (See Luke 12:21; Luke 16:9; 1 Timothy 6:17-19, etc.)
2. The noblest ideal of human life, viz; like Ezra here, to devote oneself and all one's days to this "use". Who is the true "king" in this passage? Not Artaxerxes, whatever he calls himself (verse 12); not Artaxerxes, with all his court, nor even with all he does here for God's service through the instrumentality of Ezra; but Ezra himself, as the man whom Artaxerxes and his seven counsellors and his mighty princes are proud to honour and help. What, in fact, is this whole decree, thus regarded, but their homage to him? So true is that ancient saying, "Whose service is perfect freedom;" or, still stronger and truer and more to our present purpose, as we read it in the original Latin—"Cui servire regnare est."
The reformer's psalm.
Very abruptly, even in our translation, does this short psalm of praise come in. Still more so in the original, where the writer here passes suddenly from Chaldee to Hebrew; that being, in his case, the natural language of such praise (Psalms 137:3). This makes the psalm all the more valuable to us as an index of inward feeling. Carefully studied forms of expression may or may not be the language of the heart. Sudden and unpremeditated expressions, words that escape from the lips before the speaker has had time to attend to their appearance, cannot be anything else. We may take these words, therefore, as giving us a peculiarly life-like picture of Ezra's feelings, both when first receiving this decree of the king, and also when afterwards committing it to writing. Thus seen they teach us specially—
1. His true piety; and,
2. His sincere humility
I. EZRA'S TRUE PIETY. The fact, to begin, of his offering and also recording any such sudden praise to God under the circumstances is some distinction in this direction. Not every one would have done so. "Were there not ten cleansed? But where are the nine.?" His piety is shown, however, still more—
1. By the subject of his thoughts, viz; Jehovah himself (6, Blessed be the Lord"). Also, Jehovah alone in this sense, others being only referred to either as helping to describe him more accurately (the God of our fathers), or else as being influenced by him for good (the king, etc.), or else as having received blessings from him (Ezra himself). This is a great characteristic of true piety (Psalms 16:8, contrasted with Psalms 10:4; Psalms 14:1). God has far the first place in a really good man's thoughts, both in order of time and also in that of importance (Psalms 73:25; Philippians 3:8). This also is specially exemplified on all occasions where the heart is much stirred, such as here, e.g. in very great joy, or in great temptation (Genesis 39:1-23. end Genesis 39:9), or in deep sorrow for sin (Psalms 51:4), or in very extreme danger (2 Chronicles 18:31). In a heart fully under the influence of God's grace (Acts 6:5; Acts 11:24), the more deeply that heart is penetrated, the more you discover this to be true.
2. By the subject of his praise, viz; first and foremost, that the result of God's special interference in this instance should be for the "beautifying" of God's own house; and next, that "mercies" and help should have been extended to Ezra himself as concerned in bringing about this result. This again, this love for God's house, this joy in all that tends to its prosperity, a great mark of true piety. Observe on this point, in Psalms 26:1-12; the connection between the declaration of Psalms 26:8 and the prayer and hope of Psalms 26:9. Also the connection, in Hebrews 10:1-39; between the neglect of God's worship or house in Hebrews 10:25 and the total forsaking of God himself in Hebrews 10:26, etc. In the eyes of God's true servants, every blessing to God's house and people (God's house in the highest sense, 1 Peter 2:5) is a blessing to themselves. This feature, also, is the more noticeable here, because in that decree which led to this praise nothing is said, except most indirectly, as to the beautifying of God's house. But Ezra, with his great desire for the good of that house, and his zealous intentions in that direction, perceived with admiration and praise how all the provisions of that decree could and would be used in that manner. To have God worshipped in the proper way was the great desire of his heart. Whatever, therefore, promised to help this on was to him a great, joy. So with all who truly love God (see Psalms 122:1-9, almost throughout, etc; etc.).
II. EZRA'S SINCERE HUMILITY. This also shown here in two ways.
1. In what he says here of the king. What Artaxerxes had done was undoubtedly due, under God, in great measure, to Ezra himself. Not every man in the same position would have shown the same happy combination of courage, faithfulness, patriotism, perseverance, patience, and tact. Not every man, having displayed such qualities, and done so much by them, would have passed them all by so completely. Even as the instrument employed for doing so much, Ezra entirely passes himself by. "Blessed be the Lord, who by my instrumentality," etc. We cannot find even such words in the text. We cannot read them even between the lines. It is the characteristic of pride to search out the highest seats (Matthew 23:6). In this case the highest seat stands empty and ready, and yet is passed by without thought. Of all humility this is, perhaps, the rarest, not even thinking of self.
2. In what he says of himself. True humility, for all we have said, is never, however, unnatural. It does not make an effort to forget self; an effort which necessarily fails the more it succeeds. Where it is necessary for any purpose intrusted to us that we should mention ourselves, purposely to avoid doing so is of all ostentation the worst. It is saying, in effect, "Please admire my great humility. Observe how very lowly I am." How different, in this instance, Ezra's mention of himself in verse 28. There is no pretence of having had nothing to do with the result he joys over. He had been "before the king," etc.; and his being there had been overruled to procure help in this matter; and this was one part, therefore, of the present call on his gratitude; and so, in offering his praise, it could not be omitted. At the same time, it is only mentioned as such—as a reason for praise. "HE hath extended mercy to me before the king. He enabled me to do what I did. Mine the advantage: be his the praise." So in what Ezra says afterwards as to being strengthened by God's hand (comp. the parallel case of St. Paul, 1 Corinthians 15:10; Ephesians 3:8; 1 Timothy 1:12; and perhaps Jacob, Genesis 32:10). Doubtless there is much humility sometimes in not thinking at all about self. There is equal humility sometimes in simply thinking of oneself as one is (Romans 12:3). Why should not the mirror shine when it is shone upon by the sun?
In connection with these characteristics of Ezra we may also observe, in conclusion—
1. The steadiness of his purpose. With all his spirit of praise, with all his constant reference to God s hand, and constant dependence on God s power, his was no indolent soul. Rather, by this "good hand" of God upon him, he was the more stirred up in work and encouraged. This is just the spirit of true faith. Does God really "work in me both to will and to do"? Then I will seek myself to work all the more (Philippians 2:12, Philippians 2:13). Are none of those With me to perish? I will exert myself all the more to save them (Acts 27:24, Acts 27:31 44). Men reasoning in this way are the kind of men to depend on. None so truly trusty as those who truly trust Christ.
2. The consequent greatness of his influence. What a natural issue to all that we have read before is that which we read in the last words of verse 28 1 How likely such a man to gather others about him. How likely to gather "chief men," men of character and position like himself. How likely, when gathered, to retain them, so that they should join him in going up. How especially likely, how certain, all this, with the "good hand" of God still on him.
HOMILIES BY J.S. EXELL
The royal and the religious.
I. THE ESTEEM WHICH THE ROYAL HAD FOR THE RELIGIOUS. "Artaxerxes, king of kings, unto Ezra the priest, a scribe of the law of the God of heaven, perfect peace" (verse 12). Ezra had so conducted himself as to win the regard of the king; the king admitted the moral character of Ezra in all its grandeur. The minister must gain the esteem of his comrades before he can influence them for good; piety is attractive, and when rightly manifested will win the esteem even of a heathen king. The enemies of Christ cannot but admire the devout scribe. The Christian is the light of the world, and as such will attract by his moral loveliness.
II. THE INQUIRY WHICH THE ROYAL MADE THROUGH THE RELIGIOUS. "To inquire concerning Judah and Jerusalem" (verse 14). The king sends Ezra on an important commission.
1. Authoritative. "Thou art sent of the king and of his seven counsellors." The true minister is sent of God to his work. The moral often requires the authority of the civil and political.
2. Interrogative. "To inquire." The true minister has many inquiries to make concerning the moral condition of men.
3. Religious. The mission of Ezra had chiefly a moral purpose; he was sent to Judah and Jerusalem. Ministerial inquiries must be of a religious character; concerning the work of God.
4. Regulative. "According to the law of thy God." Man must measure life by God's law; how Ezra's teaching appears in this decree of the king. It is the duty of the Church to watch over the welfare of the state; this is part of its commission.
III. THE RESOURCE WHICH THE ROYAL INTRUSTED TO THE RELIGIOUS. "And to carry the silver and gold, which the king and his counsellors have freely offered unto the God of Israel, whose habitation is in Jerusalem" (verse 15). The king intrusts Ezra with great treasure; religion conduces to honesty and awakens confidence. The true minister will always be faithful to the treasures and trusts of men—monetary, experimental, and moral. The state may safely commit its most sacred interests to the care of the Church.
IV. THE DISCRETION WHICH THE ROYAL PERMITTED TO THE RELIGIOUS.
1. As to amplitude of resource (verses 18-20).
2. As to judicial arrangements (verse 25).
3. As to the requirements of God's house (verse 23).
4. As to exemption from civil duty (verse 24).
The true minister requires and must be allowed full discretionary powers; always subservient to the Divine law. God places great resources at the command of his servants, greater than Artaxerxes had to give.
V. THE PROPITIATION WHICH THE ROYAL SOUGHT FROM THE RELIGIOUS. "For why should there be wrath against the realm of the king" (verse 23)? The king sought the aid of the scribe in Order that he might propitiate an offended Deity. Men seek the spiritual from varied motives; often animated by fear; they little know that God's way is merciful to them. The spiritual often remove national calamity; the true minister will be glad to do all he can to remove the wrath of God from men.—E.
HOMILIES BY W. CLARKSON
It is certainly a striking fact that a second Persian monarch should have shown so right a feeling toward the people and the cause of God. We have in this Artaxerxes another illustration of pagan piety. We see—
I. ITS FAITH. "Whatsoever is commanded by the God of heaven, let it be diligently done," etc. (Ezra 7:23). Evidently Artaxerxes thoroughly believed in the existence and the power of Jehovah. It is noteworthy that he speaks of him not as the God of Judaea or of the Jews, but as "the God of heaven" (Ezra 7:12, Ezra 7:23). Whence this? Chiefly, if not wholly, from what he saw of the Jews about his court; of their strength of conviction, refusing, as they did, to accommodate themselves to the evil ways of the land they lived in—to "do at Rome as Rome did;" of their purity of life; of their probity; of their diligence. Probably Ezra's own character and demeanour exerted a powerful influence on his mind. The captives lived the truth, and the monarch became its subject.
II. ITS FEAR. "Why should there be wrath against the realm of the king," etc. (verse 23)? Artaxerxes had at least so much fear of the living God that he desired to propitiate him and to avert his wrath. This is, as it ever was, the chief note of pagan piety. It is a system of propitiating power and averting its anger rather than reverencing goodness and rejoicing in its love. "I will let you go," said the Persian king; "take money, vessels, etc.; levy tributes at the expense of my people, etc.; sacrifice, pray; for 'why should there be wrath against the realm of the king and his sons?'" Our missionaries continually witness the prevalence of this feeling of dread of the wrath of a higher power and attempts to divert it, as the sum total of pagan piety. Fear is not a false or wrong principle in religion. "Noah, moved with fear, prepared an ark," etc. (Hebrews 11:7). "Thou, even thou, art to be feared: and who may stand in thy sight when once thou art angry" (Psalms 76:7)? But, good so far as it goes, it does not suffice; it must pass on into that which is higher—into reverence, trust, love, obedience.
III. ITS OCCASIONAL EXCELLENCY OF BEHAVIOUR (verses 13-18; 21, 22, 25). Hardly anything could have been better—indeed, considering the light and the shade in which he lived, we may say nothing could have been better—than the king's conduct toward the people of God. He freely gave them up as his subjects (and they were valuable ones) to return to their own land (verse 13); gave freely himself, and invited his courtiers to give also of their possessions towards the expenses of the exodus (verses 14, 15); gave full permission to Ezra to get all he could from his own compatriots (verse 16); gave wise directions as to the use of the treasure, with leave to regulate all things according to the "will of their God" (verses 17, 18); took measures for the same succours to be granted beyond the river (verses 21, 22), and charged Ezra with the exercise of political powers, bidding him also discharge his functions as a teacher of the law of God (verse 25). Thus the pagan king did his best to serve the cause he espoused. "What his hand found to do he did with his might" (Ecclesiastes 9:10). Much more incumbent is it on us, who live in such brighter light than he, with whom so many shadows have flown away, to work with our whole strength, putting not only our hand, but also our mind and our heart, into any task we undertake for God and for his people. But of this pagan piety we must see—
IV. ITS INSUFFICIENCY. Artaxerxes did well so far as he went; but he did not go far enough. He had faith enough in God to fear him; and fear enough to take some considerable trouble, on one occasion, to avert his displeasure. But he did not yield to him the chief place in his heart. He had not such regard and reverence for God as to put away his superstitions and malpractices. We dare not inquire further into the particulars of his life. True piety is in giving to God, to the Lord Jesus Christ, the supreme place in our hearts; making him, not ourselves, the King of kings and Lord of lords (verse 12), Sovereign of our soul, Lord of our life. Not one fine spurt of zeal, like this of the Persian monarch, but a continuous regal force, uplifting our spirit day by day to heaven, regulating our feelings, controlling our will, shaping and guiding our words and deeds, in all relations and in every sphere—that is the piety which pleases God.—C.
HOMILIES BY J.A. MACDONALD
Ezra's commission from Artaxerxes.
After giving a general account of the exodus of Israel from Babylon under his leadership, Ezra transcribes the letter of the king of Persia containing his commission. In considering this very remarkable document, we notice—
I. THE GREETING.
1. The monarch announces himself. "Artaxerxes king of kings."
2. He addresses his letter:
II. THE FAVOURS. Verse 13, etc. The particulars are—
1. Permission to go up to Jerusalem.
2. Permission to the Jews to go up with him.
3. Authority to set things in order in Judaea.
4. Authority over the Persian deputies beyond the river.
5. Commission to carry offerings to God.
1. The wonderful accuracy of the knowledge of this heathen king of the religion of the Jews.
2. The largeness of his liberality in the service of the God of heaven.
3. The enlightened judgment which he formed of the true principles of civil government. In these things he is not an unworthy pattern even to Christians.—J.A.M.
The decree of Artaxerxes to the treasurers.
Embodied in the letter of the Persian king to Ezra we have certain directions addressed through him to the treasurers beyond the river. These directions, though emanating from a heathen source, suggest the principles which should guide liberality in the cause of God, as to its measure, its spirit, and its reasons.
I. THE MEASURE.
1. This should be generous. "Whatsoever Ezra the priest," etc.
2. It should not be reckless.
(a) The necessity of the case.
(b) Our ability. If we give what is not ours we act fraudulently.
3. It should be religious. "Whatsoever is commanded by the God of heaven," etc. (verse 23).
II. THE SPIRIT.
1. It should be diligent. "Let it be diligently done for the house of the God of heaven" (verse 23).
2. It should be prompt. "Let it be done speedily" (verse 21).
III. THE REASONS.
1. It should be done unto God.
2. The prosperity of the realm required it. "For why should wrath be against the realm?" The history of nations shows that as they became haughty against God they suffered adversity. Egypt. Old Canaan. Nineveh. Babylon.
3. The happiness of the royal family is concerned.
Ezra 7:27, Ezra 7:28
The extension of the mercy of the covenant.
After recounting the wonderful success of his enterprise, Ezra breaks out into a rapture of gratitude to God. "Blessed be the Lord God," etc. Here—
I. HE ACKNOWLEDGES GOD IN HIS COVENANT CAPACITY.
1. This is expressed in the terms "God of."
2. Covenant relationship subsists in Christ.
3. The promise of the Christ was the establishment of the covenant with the "fathers."
II. HE ASCRIBES HIS SUCCESS TO THE EXTENSION TO HIM OF THE MERCY OF THE COVENANT.
1. The covenant was not established with Ezra.
2. The mercy of the God of his fathers was extended to him.
3. To this extension of the mercy of the God of the covenant to him he attributes his influence.
III. HE RECOGNISES THE INTERESTS OF THE COVENANT AS THE TRUE REASON FOR THE PERSIAN FAVOUR.
1. The covenant God put it into the heart of the king.
2. How the covenant has moulded history.
HOMILIES BY J.s. EXELL
Ezra 7:27, Ezra 7:28
Aspects of the Divine and human.
I. Aspects of GOD. "Blessed be the Lord God" (Ezra 7:27).
1. He is blessed by devout men.
2. He is the God of our fathers.
3. He puts good things into the hearts of men.
II. Aspects of MANHOOD (Ezra 7:28).
1. Mercy extended. "And hath extended mercy unto me."
2. Influence augmented. "Before the king and his counsellors."
3. Encouragement imparted. "I was strengthened."
4. Enterprise undertaken. "And I gathered together out of Israel," etc.—E.
HOMILIES BY W. CLARKSON
Ezra 7:27, Ezra 7:28; Ezra 8:1-20
These verses give us the idea of Ezra as a man of great influence over his fellows; one of those men that lead others, that inspire them with confidence and regard; one of those who can make their thoughts and their desires tell powerfully on the mind and the will of others. We see his influence—
I. OVER THE KING AND HIS COURT (verse 27). He puts it modestly, as becomes a devout man accustomed to refer everything to the Divine hand that governs everywhere, and says that God "extended mercy to him before the king and his counsellors, and all his mighty princes." Putting it into everyday language, we should say that he gained a commanding influence over the minds of these courtly men, and over this great sovereign.
II. OVER THE CHIEFS AND THE MULTITUDE OF THE JEWISH PEOPLE (verse 28). In the same modest and unassuming strain he speaks of being "strengthened as the hand of the Lord was upon him," and he "gathered out of Israel chief men" to avail themselves of the royal decree and go up with him to their own land. In other and more familiar words, he succeeded in winning the confidence and prevailing on the minds of the leading men of his own nation to such an extent that they were willing to forsake their homes and seek their fortune in Judaea. And not only the leaders, but also a large company of the "rank and file" among his compatriots responded to his call; there were "the people" as well as "the priests" (Ezra 8:15).
III. OVER THE UNRESPONSIVE LEVITES (Ezra 8:16-20). When it was found that, for some reason, no Levites had joined the party of the exodus, Ezra picked out "men of understanding" (verse 16), the right men for the task, and told them what to say, giving them the right message for the purpose (verse 17), and he thus succeeded in attaching to their company many who had meant to stand aloof, thus completing the number that should go up to Jerusalem (verses 18-20). Only a man of commanding influence, a man of firm conviction who knew well his own mind, and a man of persuasive force who could impress his will on others, could possibly have accomplished this. On the great and important subject of influence there are two truths we shall do well to learn—
1. That those who find themselves possessed of it bear a weighty responsibility. in many cases influence comes to a man unsought.
may confer influence on a man or woman, without any effort on their part to acquire it. It is a very great possession. A grave thing it is to be insensibly drawing many souls either along the path of virtue, holiness, and life, or along the path of sin, and shame, and death. unconscious influence is very far from being irresponsible for what it does. We are most solemnly bound to see to it that such is the spirit of our life, such the colour and complexion of our words and deeds, such the tendency of our conduct, that, without any direct endeavour to do so, we shall be influencing our fellows towards truth, wisdom, God, heaven. Those whom God has made markedly influential are specially bound to consider what they are doing. "They know not what they do" may be a palliation, but it is not a justification, when they might know by thinking.
2. That those who would cherish the highest aspiration should strive to win it. To win wealth or fame or office for the sake of these things themselves is a comparatively mean thing; it does not rise higher than a refined gratification. But to win influence with the view of leading human souls in the path of heavenly wisdom, this is a noble aspiration, worthy of a child of God, of a follower of Jesus Christ. It may be acquired as well as inherited. It is the outcome of excellency of character, of strenuousness of soul, of kindness of heart, of likeness to Jesus Christ.—C.
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Exell, Joseph S; Spence-Jones, Henry Donald Maurice. "Commentary on Ezra 7". The Pulpit Commentary. https://www.studylight.org/
the Third Week after Epiphany