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Bible Commentaries

Whedon's Commentary on the Bible

Ezra 4

Verse 1


1. The adversaries of Judah and Benjamin The foreign population, who had been transported from various cities of Chaldaea and settled in the depopulated towns of Israel, especially the cities of Samaria. Compare Ezra 4:2; Ezra 4:9-10; Ezra 4:17 with 2 Kings 17:24. The names of their principal leaders and counsellors are given in Ezra 4:7-8.

The children of the captivity Those who had gone into exile, and had returned again. Most of the returned had been born in exile.

Verse 2

2. Let us build with you Did they honestly desire to unite with the Jews in rebuilding the temple, or was this proposition made with evil design to provoke a quarrel, and find an occasion of hindering the work of the exiles? The context implies the latter. Already the hostile attitude of this foreign population had caused them fear, (Ezra 3:3,) and their subsequent opposition shows that they had no real friendship toward the Jews, and apparently only sought occasion to trouble and perplex them in their attempts to rebuild the temple of Jehovah. It is possible that some of the hostility was prompted by lingering elements of the old Israelitish enmity toward Judah, which may have been still represented by Israelites dwelling among these heathen colonists in the cities of Samaria. Such priests as had taught them to worship Jehovah (2 Kings 17:28; 2 Kings 17:32) may also have inspired them with sentiments of hostility toward the kingdom of Judah.

We seek your God They had been taught by Israelitish priests to fear Jehovah, but they also served their own idol gods. See note, 2 Kings 17:33.

Since the days of Esar-haddon The first colonists of the depopulated towns of Samaria were settled there by Sargon, (see note on 2 Kings 17:24,) but other colonists were also transported thither by later kings, as this verse shows. Esar-haddon was the son and successor of Sennacherib. On his accession to the throne of Assyria see note on 2 Kings 19:37. He was the last Assyrian monarch whose name occurs in the Scriptures, and it was doubtless his captains who captured King Manasseh, and carried him to Babylon. 2 Chronicles 33:11-13. It is suggested by Rawlinson ( Ancient Mon., vol. ii, page 194) that this planting of foreign colonists in Samaria, in addition to what Sargon had previously done, was done in connexion with the restoration of Manasseh to his kingdom. He hoped by that measure to strengthen the hold of Assyria upon Palestine. Esar-haddon reigned thirteen years, and was one of the most enterprising and powerful of the Assyrian kings.

Assur An incorrect form of anglicising the Hebrew word אשׁור , Asshur, or Assyria.

Verse 3

3. Ye have nothing to do with us Literally, It is not to you and to us to build, etc., that is, ye have no proper right or claim to be associated with us in rebuilding the temple, for, as 2 Kings 17:41 shows, while these nations feared Jehovah, they still worshipped the graven images of their false gods, and so were really idolaters. The true Hebrew could not fellowship such worshippers of God.

Verse 4

4. Weakened the hands of the people By throwing all possible difficulties in their way. We have no mention of the particular measures they took to weaken and trouble the Jews, except what is related in the sequel of their accusation against them before successive Persian kings.

Verse 5

5. Hired counsellors against them This is to be understood of such men as Bishlam and his companions, (Ezra 4:7,) who were commissioned and employed by the enemies of Judah to work with the officers of the Persian empire, and obtain their help to hinder the building of the temple.

To frustrate their purpose Namely, the purpose of the Jews to rebuild the house of God at Jerusalem. These counsellors probably prevailed on the governors of the neighbouring provinces to hinder the Jews from obtaining the material necessary for their work. This would greatly weaken and trouble the returned exiles, especially if the governor of Phoenicia had been prevailed on to oppose their obtaining cedar wood from Lebanon.

All the days of Cyrus Who reigned, according to Herodotus, twenty-nine years. During his reign they obtained no reversal of his edict to have the temple rebuilt, but he was probably so much engaged in wars that the matter was left largely in the hands of the governors of the neighbouring provinces.

Until the reign of Darius In his second year, Ezra 4:24. This Darius was the son of Hystaspes, famous in Persian history for his assassination of Smerdis the Magian, who had usurped the throne of Cyrus, assuming to be Cyrus’s son. See note on Ezra 4:24. Between Cyrus and this Darius two other kings reigned over Persia. The first was Cambyses, Cyrus’s son, (the Ahasuerus of the next verse,) who succeeded his father, and reigned seven years. The other was Gomates, one of the Magi, who took advantage of Cambyses’s absence to usurp the throne, and reigned seven months. So from the first year of Cyrus to the second of Darius was a period of thirty-eight years, during which hardly any thing was done towards rebuilding the temple except the laying of its foundation.

Ezra 4:6-23 . These verses are regarded by a number of recent critics as an interpolation, consisting of a document belonging to the times of Nehemiah and Artaxerxes Longimanus, when, it is assumed, the Jews made an attempt to rebuild the walls and city of Jerusalem, but were made to cease, as herein described. The arguments by which this position is maintained are ingenious and plausible, but by no means conclusive. 1. It is said that Ahasuerus (Ezra 4:6) is the Scripture name of Xerxes, who was the son and successor of Darius Hystaspes; and that Artaxerxes (Ezra 4:7) is in this same book (Ezra 7:1) the name of Artaxerxes Longimanus, the son and successor of Xerxes. But it does not follow from this that Cambyses, and Smerdis the Magian, may not also have been known to the Jews under the names, respectively, of Ahasuerus and Artaxerxes. 2. It is urged that nothing is said in this document about the temple, but the Jews are charged with rebuilding the walls of the city. Comp. Ezra 4:12-13; Ezra 4:16. Now, as Nehemiah, in the twentieth year of Artaxerxes Longimanus, is informed that the walls of Jerusalem are broken down, and the gates burned with fire, (Nehemiah 1:3,) it is assumed that in the earlier part of the reign of that king the Jews were rebuilding the city of Jerusalem, and were complained of in this letter to the king, and by his decree, as given in Ezra 4:21-22, the work was forcibly stopped, and the walls and gates, newly built, were again demolished. So this section, Ezra 4:6-23, belongs, chronologically, at the beginning of the Book of Nehemiah. But all this is at best a very doubtful hypothesis, and too easily set aside to be of any force. The fact that in this letter the enemies of the Jews do not mention the temple, but represent that the walls of the city are being rebuilt, is in perfect keeping with the inimical and crafty designs of those enemies. We naturally expect them to misrepresent the Jews before the king, and their letter contains just truth enough to blind the king, and prevent him from understanding all the facts in the case, for he would not be likely to inquire whether the Jews were building the foundations and walls of the city, or only of the temple. Further, it is hardly supposable that if Artaxerxes Longimanus had written the letter in Ezra 4:17-22, he would so soon afterwards have shown Ezra such favours and such authority as is recorded in chapter vii, favours of such a character as caused Ezra to class him among those who even helped to complete the temple. See note on Ezra 6:14. Nor would the same king have been likely, a few years later, to have commissioned Nehemiah to go and rebuild the walls of Jerusalem. 3. It is also claimed by some that after the mention of Darius in Ezra 4:5, the writer goes forward to record the success of these enemies of Judah, subsequent to the times of Darius. But, on the contrary, it is much more evident, both from the words of Ezra 4:5 and Ezra 4:24, that in Ezra 4:6-23 the writer describes what took place between the time of Cyrus and the second year of Darius. The emphatic statement of Ezra 4:24, “ Then ceased the work of the house of God,” can only refer to the statement immediately preceding, that upon receiving the king’s letter the enemies of Judah “went up in haste to Jerusalem… and made them to cease by force and power.”

Verse 6

6. Ahasuerus It is quite generally allowed that by this king we are to understand Cambyses, the son and successor of Cyrus. Some, indeed, have sought to identify him with Xerxes, the Ahasuerus of the Book of Esther, but that hypothesis is utterly incompatible with the order of time evidently followed in this book. How Cambyses came to be called Ahasuerus by our author may not be now decided, but the difference in the names is not in itself sufficient to disprove the identity of the persons, and the son of Cyrus may have borne both these names. It appears that Smerdis was known by various names. See note on Ezra 4:7. And the writer of Esther (Ezra 1:1) is careful to define the Ahasuerus of his book, assuming that there was more than one Ahasuerus known to his readers. Cambyses is represented in all accounts that remain of him as one of the most passionate and tyrannical of kings. He early assassinated his brother Smerdis, being jealous of him as a rival. He is said to have married his own sisters, and to have brutally killed one of them in a fit of madness. He invaded and conquered Egypt, and this was the great deed of his reign. While absent upon this expedition he learned, according to Herodotus, that Smerdis the Magian had usurped his throne, and in his haste to mount his horse and return home to punish the impious pretender his sword accidentally struck his thigh, and he died soon after from the wound. So the Magian continued for a time in peaceable possession of the empire.

An accusation שׂשׂנה . This Hebrew word is the feminine form of the name of Satan, ( שׂשׂן ,) the arch-adversary and accuser of mankind. This accusation against the Jews seems not to have accomplished any thing of note with this king of Persia, at least no result of it is recorded.

Verse 7

7. Artaxerxes This king is to be identified with Smerdis the Magian, who, in the absence of Cambyses from the capital, and perhaps instigated by the reports of the king’s many tyrannical and brutal deeds, gave out that he was Smerdis the son of Cyrus, and took possession of the kingdom. He is called Gaumata in the Behistun inscription; Tanyoxares by Xenophon and Ctesias; and Oropastes by Justinus. Ewald thinks this latter name should be written Ortosastes, which would closely resemble Artaxerxes. This variety of names shows that no conclusive argument can be made against identifying Ahasuerus with Cambyses, (Ezra 4:6,) or Artaxerxes with Smerdis, solely from the difference in their names. The usurpation of the Magian seems to have been connected with an effort to overthrow the Zoroastrian religion in the Persian empire, and establish Magianism in its place. The Behistun inscription says that Smerdis destroyed the temples of worship in the land. But the usurper was assassinated after a reign of seven months, and Darius Hystaspes gained the throne, and restored the ancient religion of Ormazd. Rawlinson calls attention to the fact “that the only Persian king who is said to have interrupted the building of the temple is that Magian monarch, the pseudo-Smerdis, who was opposed to the pure Persian religion, and would therefore have been likely to reverse the religious policy of his predecessors. The Samaritans weakened the hands of Judah, and troubled them during the reigns of Cyrus and Cambyses; but it was not till the letter of the pseudo-Smerdis was received that the work of the house of God ceased. The same prince, that is, who is stated in the inscriptions to have changed the religion of Persia, appears in Ezra as the opponent of a religious work which Cyrus had encouraged, and Cambyses had allowed to be carried on.” Hist. Ev., p. 148.

Bishlam, Mithredath, Tabeel These, with the rest of their companions, were the “counsellors” (Ezra 4:5) whom the Samaritans hired to work with the Persian officers named in the next verse. They were probably persons that stood high in the community, possibly holding offices of some kind among the nations mentioned in Ezra 4:9. These counsellors wrote the document which follows, (Ezra 4:8-16,) that is, they drew up or prepared the letter for the Persian officers to sign and send unto Artaxerxes king of Persia. From the statement which follows, that the epistle was written in the Syrian tongue, and interpreted in the Syrian tongue, we may infer that these counsellors first prepared it in a Palestinean dialect, that was commonly spoken among the colonists of Samaria, and the Persian officers mentioned in the next verse translated it into Syriac or Aramaean. The Syrian tongue here mentioned, and of which the following letter is a specimen, was the language current at the time of this writing in Syria, Mesopotamia, and Chaldea, and is more properly called Aramaean, ( ארמית ). It is commonly called Chaldee, and often distinguished from the Western-Aramaean, or more modern Syriac, and was the language of Babylonia at the time of the exile. During their exile the Jews acquired this language, and gradually lost the use of the ancient Hebrew, so that upon their return they transplanted this language to Palestine, and subsequently used it as their common tongue. The mass of the people who returned from exile were not able to understand the language in which the law was written, but required to have it explained to them, Nehemiah 8:8; and for the same reason the Targums, or Chaldee paraphrases of the Hebrew Scriptures, were written. There seems to be a sort of confusion and tautology in the statement that it was “written… and interpreted” in this Aramaean language. The words are usually explained as meaning that the writing was both in the Aramaean characters and also in the Aramaean language. But the Hebrew word for interpreted is מתרגם , and properly means translated. From the same root comes the word Targum, the common name of the Chaldee translations of the Old Testament. So the apparently superfluous addition, translated into Aramaean, is, perhaps, best explained as a repetition designed to emphasize the fact that the epistle was not originally drawn up in Aramaean, but translated into that language before it was sent to the king. Hence it is seen how Bishlam and his companions wrote the letter which it seems the chancellor and scribe also wrote. The former wrote it in their common dialect, the latter translated it into Aramaean.

Verse 8

8. The chancellor Hebrew, Lord of counsel, that is, a royal counsellor. He seems to have been the Persian governor and judge of the district of Samaria, and of the colonists mentioned in the next verse. The Sept. and Vulg. take the word as a proper name Baaltam.

The scribe Probably the secretary of the governor, or chancellor, and the one who translated this letter against Jerusalem into the Aramaean language.

In this sort The two following verses (9-10) are to be regarded, not as an exact transcript, but a running paraphrase, giving the sentiment and general form of expression at the beginning of the letter. The introduction to the letter was in this sort, or after this manner. Hence the repetition in Ezra 4:11, after which follows what we may regard as an exact copy.

Verse 9

9. Of the names here given to the colonists according to the various cities or provinces of the Assyrian empire, the Dinaites, Apharsathchites, Tarpelites, and Apharsites are otherwise unknown. The various conjectures as to their origin are not worth recording. The Archevites were, perhaps, from the Babylonian city Erech. Genesis 10:10. The Babylonians were undoubtedly either from the city or province of Babylon. Compare 2 Kings 17:24. The Susanchites were evidently from Susa or Shushan, which became the metropolis of the Persian empire, (Nehemiah 1:1; Esther 1:2,) but was originally the capital of the land of Elam. The Dehavites are generally thought to be identical with the Davi or Dahi of Herodotus, Strabo, and other classic writers, a Persian nomadic tribe, “whose name,” says Rawlinson, ( Herod., i, p. 338,) “is equivalent to the Latin ‘Rustici,’ and who were spread over the whole country from the Caspian to the Persian Gulf and the Tigris.” The Elamites were natives of the province of which Shushan was the capital, (Daniel 8:2,) and which was originally settled by the descendants of Shem. Genesis 10:22.

Verse 10

10. The great and noble Asnapper Some have supposed that Asnapper is another name, or another form of the name, of Shalmanezer, or of Esar-haddon, and such a supposition is especially plausible here, as the name occurs in a document written in a different language, in which the form of the name might suffer change. But it is, perhaps, better to understand the name as the title of the Assyrian general or satrap by whom these nations were brought over and settled in Samaria. Thus it was Esar-haddon’s “captains” that carried Manasseh to Babylon. 2 Chronicles 33:11. To such an officer these nations would naturally apply the epithets great and noble.

On this side the river Better, beyond the river, that is Euphrates. The writer employs the usus loquendi of the Persians, who would speak of the country west of the Euphrates as beyond the river. Furst renders it, the (western) bank district of the river. Syria and Palestine probably formed one satrapy under the Persian kings, and was under the charge of one governor. Compare Ezra 5:3, note.

And at such a time Chald. וכענת , and so forth; compare Ezra 4:11; Ezra 4:17; Ezra 7:12: a sort of abbreviation where certain items or forms of statement are assumed to be understood, and, therefore, not expressed, but simply indicated. Hence it indicates not the date of the letter, but the omission of certain formularies of introduction, and is equivalent to our et cetera and so forth.

Verse 11

11. This is the copy After this verse (Ezra 4:12-16) we seem to have an exact transcript of the substance of the letter that they sent. What precedes in Ezra 4:9-10 was a sort of paraphrase of the introduction to the letter. See note on Ezra 4:8.

Verse 12

12. The Jews This name came to be the common appellation of all Israelites after the exile. It was, doubtless, due to the permanence of the kingdom of Judah long after the northern kingdom of Israel had ceased, and to the fact that by far the greater portion of the exiles who returned were of the tribe and kingdom of Judah.

The rebellious and the bad city “In their craftiness they do not mention the temple which the Jews were building, and which Cyrus had encouraged them to build, but they mention the city, which they were not building.” Wordsworth.

Set up the walls It was perfectly in keeping with the character of these enemies of the Jews to misrepresent their work in this way. The exiles had received a royal charter permitting them to rebuild the temple, but not to rebuild the walls of the city. By confounding the two things these crafty Samaritans make out a damaging case against the Jews.

Verse 13

13. Toll, tribute, and custom Comprising all kinds of revenue. It is difficult to decide the precise import of each term. Following the etymology of the original words used, we may say that toll ( מנדה ) denotes some tax or portion measured out, an assessment; probably a poll tax. Tribute ( בלו ) comes from a root which signifies to consume, to use up. Hence Furst defines it as a tax on articles consumed; excise. Custom ( הלךְ ) from the root which means to walk, or travel, may denote a sort of road tax or toll levied on travellers or caravans who passed over the public roads.

Verse 14

14. We have maintenance from the king’s palace Omit the interpolation, kings, of the translators. This version gives the sense, but the margin gives the Chaldee more correctly: We are salted with the salt of the palace. To take or eat one’s salt is a common saying among many nations for receiving one’s living from another. Our word salary comes from the Latin word for salt, ( sal,) and arose from the custom of paying Roman soldiers in salt. These Samaritans profess great zeal for the king, inasmuch as they obtained their living from him.

Verse 15

15. Book of the records Public and official annals of the kingdom, and of the acts of its kings, prepared by the scribes and recorders, and deposited for reference and use among the archives of the nation. See Introduction to the Books of Kings, (chapter on the sources.)

Of thy fathers This word is here used of the king’s predecessors on the throne records of previous kings and dynasties that had held dominion over all Western Asia. These records contained accounts of the rebellions in different provinces of the empire, and of the efforts that had been made to suppress them; and prominent among them must have been the rebellions and wars of Judah and Jerusalem the causes of their exile.

Verse 17

17. An answer The original word ( פתגם ) conveys the idea not only of an answer, but also of a decree: an edict.

Peace, and at such a time Rather, peace, and so forth. This expression denotes that the customary formularies of introduction are omitted. See note on Ezra 4:11.

Verse 20

20. Mighty kings also over Jerusalem Reference is especially to Solomon, who reigned over all kingdoms between Egypt and the Euphrates, and received tribute from them. 1 Kings 4:21. David’s conquests had also extended to the Euphrates. 2 Samuel 8:3.

Toll, tribute, and custom See on Ezra 4:13.

Verse 23

23. Went up in haste The haste was the more necessary that the Jews might have no opportunity to learn and expose their misrepresentations of their work. Had they had an opportunity to show that they were building not the city but the temple, the Samaritans might not have been so successful with the king.

By force and power Literally, by arm and might, that is, by sheer violence. They forced them to cease work.

Verse 24

24. Then ceased That is, as the evident connexion with the preceding section shows, when these enemies, by authority from the king, forcibly obliged them to stop work on the temple. This verse shows that the Artaxerxes of Ezra 4:23 cannot be the same as the one mentioned Ezra 6:14; Ezra 7:1, but is a king who preceded Darius.

Unto the second year of… Darius Artaxerxes, the pseudo-Smerdis, who issued the edict for the work to cease, was assassinated in less than a year after he began to reign, and Darius Hystaspes immediately took the kingdom, so that the work of rebuilding was not made to cease for more than two years, probably not much more than one. See on Ezra 5:16. This Darius was the son of Hystaspes, and a descendant of the ancient Achaemenian kings. On the death of Cambyses, who died without issue; he was probably the hereditary heir to the throne, and this fact may have had much to do with his daring efforts to slay the Magian usurper. Having obtained the kingdom he instituted a general slaughter of the Magi, apparently aiming at their extermination. He restored the Zoroastrian temples and worship, which the Magian had attempted to destroy, and it was therefore very natural that he should revoke the edict which had caused the rebuilding of the Jewish temple to cease. His genealogy, and the principal acts of the first four years of his reign, are recorded in the celebrated Behistun inscription on the rocks of western Persia. Under him began those great struggles with the West which finally ended in the fall of the Persian empire before the arms of Alexander. “Darius Hystaspes was, next to Cyrus, the greatest of the Persian kings, and he was even superior to Cyrus in some particulars. To him, and him alone, the empire owed its organization. He was a skillful administrator, a good financier, and a wise and far-seeking ruler. Of all the Persian princes he is the only one who can be called ‘many sided.’ He was organizer, general, statesman, administrator, builder, patron of art and literature, all in one. Without him Persia would probably have sunk as rapidly as she rose, and would be known to us only as one of the many meteor powers which have shot athwart the horizon of the East.” RAWLINSON, Ancient Monarchies, vol. iii, p. 445.

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Whedon, Daniel. "Commentary on Ezra 4". "Whedon's Commentary on the Bible". 1874-1909.