SCRIPTURE COVERED: Ezra, Esther, and Nehemiah
TIME COVERED: ca. 539-425 B.C.
Little is known about the conditions of the Jewish people who were taken into Babylonian exile. In the Biblical narrative, the period from the destruction of Jerusalem in 586 B.C. to the return of the exiles beginning in 538 B.C. is passed in silence. The books of Ezra, Esther, and Nehemiah provide some insight into the activities of God's chosen people from the time of their return to the end of the Old Testament era, the days of Nehemiah and Malachi (ca. 450-400 B.C.).
Chronologically this material may be conveniently divided into four periods:
|I. Jerusalem Reestablished, ca. 539-515 B.C||Ezra 1—6|
|II. Esther the Queen, ca. 483 B.C.||Esther 1—10|
|III. Ezra the Reformer, ca. 457 B.C.||Ezra 7—10|
|IV. Nehemiah the Governor, ca. 444 B.C.||Nehemiah I—13|
Isaiah, Micah, Jeremiah, and other prophets had foretold Jewish captivity for many generations. The exiles, who were conscious of the fact that their captivity came as God's judgment upon a sinful nation, experienced a deep sense of humiliation and anguish of soul' The prophets likewise held out the promise of restoration. Noteworthy among the predictions were the messages by Jeremiah (25:11, 12; 29:10) that the captivity would be terminated in seventy years and the designation by Isaiah that Cyrus would be the shepherd used by God to allow the Jews to return (Isa. 44:28).
The first six chapters of Ezra provide a brief account of the developments associated with the experiences of the exiles who return to rebuild the temple. Almost twenty-five years passed before they realized their hopes.
A. The return, Ezra 1 —2
When Cyrus as king of Persia conquered Babylon, he issued a decree that allowed the Jews to return. This was a reversal of the policy initiated by Tiglath-pileser of Assyria in 745 B.C. to deport conquered people. Cyrus permitted displaced persons to return to their homelands.
Thousands of Jewish exiles prepared to leave Babylon loaded with vessels that Nebuchadnezzar had taken from the temple. With the approval and official support of King Cyrus, approximately 50,000 exiles successfully made the long trek to Jerusalem in 538 B.C.. Outstanding among the eleven leaders mentioned were Zerubbabel, a grandson of Jehoiachin of the royal Davidic line, and Joshua (Jeshua) who served as the high priest officiating in religious matters.
B. Settlement at Jerusalem, 3—4
Upon arrival, the Jews immediately erected an altar and instituted worship, offering burnt offerings as prescribed by Moses (Ex. 29:38 ff.). On the fifteenth day of the seventh month they observed the Feast of Tabernacles (Lev. 23:34 ff.). In the atmosphere of these celebrations and festivities, plans were made for the people to provide money and produce for the masons and carpenters who negotiated with the Phoenicians for materials to build the temple.
Construction was begun in the second month of the next year. Antiphonal singing and triumphant praise by the new generation accompanied the ceremony of laying the foundation of the temple. The older people who remembered the glory and beauty of the Solomonic temple wept bitterly and unashamedly. Before long, the people from Samaria expressed their interest in this building program. Being denied participation, they responded with hostility and successfully hindered the work on the temple until 520 B.C.
C. The new temple, 5—6
In the second year of Darius, the new ruler in Persia, the Jews were able to resume their building project. The prophets Haggai and Zechariah were instrumental in stirring up the people to a renewed effort. This time Tattenai and his associates were not only forbidden to interfere, but were under orders of Darius to allot royal revenue from the province of Syria to the Jews for the temple.
The temple was completed in five years (520-515 B.C. The events of the book of Haggai also took place during this time.). After the impressive dedication ceremonies, the priests and Levites instituted their regular services in the sanctuary as prescribed for them in the Law of Moses. Thus the hopes of the returning exiles were realized.
The book of Esther relates the experiences of some of the Jews who remained in the land of their exile instead of returning to Jerusalem. Historically, Esther is identified with the reign of Xerxes or Ahasuerus, king of Persia (485-465 B.C.). Although the name of God is not mentioned in this book, divine providence and supernatural care are apparent throughout.
A. Jews at the Persian court, Esther 1 —2
When Xerxes suddenly ostracized Queen Vashti by his royal decree, a young Jewish orphan named Esther was crowned queen of Persia. Mordecai, a cousin who had formerly adopted Esther, was subsequently instrumental in uncovering a plot in which two guards conspired to take the king's life. Through Esther these plans were reported and the culprits were hanged. In the official chronicle Mordecai was credited with saving the Persian ruler's life.
B. Threat to the Jewish people, 3—5
When Haman, a Persian official, was advanced in rank by the king, everyone except Mordecai, who as a Jew refused to do obeisance, duly honored him. In revenge Haman planned the execution of the Jews with the endorsement of the king.
Mordecai in the meantime alerted his people who responded with fasting and mourning. Warning Esther that she possibly had come to the kingdom for such a time as this (Esther 4:14), Mordecai prevailed upon Esther to intercede before the king in behalf of the Jewish people. Consequently, she invited the king and Haman for dinner on two successive days, making her request known on the second engagement.
C. Triumph of the Jews, 6—10
The night after the first dinner the king could not sleep. To pass the time he requested to have the royal chronicles read to him through which he learned that Mordecai had never been honored for saving the king's life. Upon inquiry by the king, Haman outlined the procedure for honoring a man whom the king wanted to honor, anticipating that he would be the recipient. Haman was shocked when he was ordered to honor Mordecai for whom he had in the meantime erected gallows of execution to be used on the day set for the fate of the Jews.
At the second banquet Esther forthrightly identified Haman as the culprit. In consequence, Haman was hanged on the gallows he had prepared for Mordecai. The command to execute the Jews was reversed. In the fighting that broke out, thousands of non-Jews were slain. Peace was restored as the Jews celebrated their deliverance. In commemoration of this deliverance, the Feast of Purim was observed annually.
The activities of Ezra himself are given in the last four chapters in the book bearing his name. He returned to Jerusalem in 457 B.C.
A. From Babylonia to Jerusalem, Ezra 7—8
Ezra was a ready scribe and student of the Law of Moses. In response to his appeal to Artaxerxes, Ezra was commissioned by this Persian king to lead a movement of Jews back to the province of Judah.
Elaborate preparation was made for this venture. Generous royal contributions, freewill offerings contributed by the exiles, and vessels for sacred use were given to Ezra for the Jerusalem temple. Provincial rulers beyond the Euphrates were ordered to supply Ezra with food and money lest the royal family incur the wrath of Israel's God. Ashamed to ask the king for police protection, Ezra assembled his people for prayer and fasting to appeal to God for divine aid as they embarked on the long and treacherous trek of nearly a thousand miles to Jerusalem. Three and a half months later they arrived in Jerusalem.
B. Reformation, 9-10
When Ezra learned that many of the Israelites were guilty of intermarriage with heathen inhabitants—even civil and religious leaders in Judah—he immediately took steps to correct these social evils. He called for a public assembly in the temple square and faced the congregation with the seriousness of their offense. After a three-month examination of the guilty parties, a sacrifice was made for a guilt offering with a solemn pledge by the offenders to annul their marriages.
Emerging as one of the most colorful figures in the postexilic era was Nehemiah who came to Jerusalem in 444 B.C. He forfeited his own position in the Persian court to serve his people in rebuilding Jerusalem. The book bearing his name may be conveniently considered under the headings given below.
A. Commissioned by Artaxerxes, Nehemiah 1:1—2:8
Serving as cupbearer to the Persian king, Nehemiah was greatly concerned about helping his people. After prayer and confession of the sins of his people, Nehemiah was able to make his request known when the king enquired about his personal welfare. In response, the king commissioned him to go to Jerusalem and serve as governor.
B. The Jerusalem mission, 2:9—6:19
Upon arrival, Nehemiah immediately made a tour of Jerusalem by night .to inspect and appraise the conditions. Immediately he organized the people who responded enthusiastically in rebuilding the walls of the city. This sudden and intense activity aroused the opposition of the Arabs, the Ammonites, and the Ashdodites led by Geshem, Tobiah, and Sanballat. Nehemiah and his people not only prayed but by an intensive organized effort they guarded against attack and worked from dawn to dark to complete the walls.
Economically the people were hard pressed in paying their taxes, interest, and in support of their families. Calling a public assembly, Nehemiah announced an economic policy canceling interest payments. Nehemiah himself set the example by not taking any governmental allowance in food and money during his twelve years of service. Although the enemies of Nehemiah tried devious ways to ensnare Nehemiah, they failed repeatedly. Praying that God might strengthen him to withstand these efforts and keeping constant vigil, he was able to counter every advance successfully. When the wall was completed in fifty-two days, the enemies lost face and surrounding nations were duly impressed, realizing that God had favored Nehemiah. Thus the prestige of the Jewish state was duly established.
C. Reformation under Ezra, 7—10
Nehemiah next turned his attention to setting up an organized guard system for the entire city. Some parts of Jerusalem were too sparsely settled to have enough people at all points on the wall. Consequently, he called for a registration of all the citizens in the province and recruited some for settlement inside the city.
Before Nehemiah had opportunity to complete his plans, the people gathered in Jerusalem for the religious festivities of the seventh month. Nehemiah gave precedence to the reading of the Law, the observance of the Feast of Trumpets, the Day of Atonement, and the Feast of Tabernacles under the leadership of Ezra the renowned teacher of the Law. After all these festivities and the repeated reading of the Law, the people responded with a pledge to keep the Law as given by Moses. Two laws were singled out for emphasis—intermarriage with the heathen and the keeping of the Sabbath. In a realistic and practical commitment supported by Nehemiah and led by Ezra, the temple ministry was restored.
D. Nehemiah's program and policies, 11—13
Nehemiah now resumed his registration and provided for adequate defense of the city wall by bringing more residents to Jerusalem. The dedication of the walls involved the entire province. Civil and religious leaders and all other participants were organized into two processions. Headed by Ezra and Nehemiah, one proceeded to the right and the other to the left as they marched on the walls of the city. When the two companies met at the temple, a great service of thanksgiving was conducted with music furnished by an orchestra and choirs. With everyone participating, this extensive and joyous celebration and triumphant noise was heard afar.
In 432 B.C., Nehemiah made a trip back to Persia but returned again to Jerusalem. Upon his return, he learned that numerous irregularities had prevailed in allowing strangers into the city and neglecting temple service. Boldly Nehemiah dealt with the offenders, expelling Tobiah the Ammonite and restoring the temple services with a prayer that God might remember his good deeds toward the temple and its staff.
Sabbath observance was next on the reform list. Warning the nobles that this was the sin that had precipitated Judah's captivity and the destruction of Jerusalem, Nehemiah ordered the gates of Jerusalem closed on the Sabbath, even forbidding the arrival of merchants on that day.
Nehemiah also dealt with the problem of mixed marriages. He warned the people that even Solomon had been led into sin through the foreign wives that were brought to Jerusalem. When the grandson of Eliashib the high priest married the daughter of Sanballat the governor of Samaria, Nehemiah immediately expelled him from Judah. The account of Nehemiah concludes with the fitting words of his prayer, "Remember me, 0 my God, for good."
The reforms of Nehemiah and Ezra are also reflected in the book of Malachi whose ministry is usually dated during this period (ca. 450-400 B.C.). According to tradition preserved by Josephus, this prophet was the last of God's messengers before the long period of silence, lasting approximately 400 years. The Messianic expectation is once more projected as the hope for those who fear God. Beginning with the assurance of ultimate victory through the seed of the woman in Genesis 3:15, the Messianic promise had been unfolded in subsequent generations (cf. Gen. 12:3; 49:10; Ex. 3:15; Num. 24:17; II Sam. 7:16; I Chron. 17:14; Isa. 7:14; 9:6, 7; 28:16; Micah 5:2, and others). Malachi points to the terrible day of judgment which will be preceded by mercy in the coming of Elijah (3:1—4:5). In this message of predictive import, the name "Elijah" suggested a time of revival through a God-sent individual who appeared four centuries later as John the Baptist to prepare the way for the Messiah.
In this vivid way, Malachi reminds the godless that they should be afraid of the day of judgment. Those who revere God, however, are assured of God's eternal favor. God's curse rests upon the wicked, while God's blessing is bestowed upon the righteous.
These three books, which are the main sources of information about the Jews after the destruction of Jerusalem in 586 B.C., conclude the biblical record of Old Testament times, leaving a long period of silence. Approximately four centuries later the New Testament opens with the birth of Christ.