Friday, October 3

Ezra 3: The seventh month (verse 1) roughly corresponds to our September, the time of the Feast of Tabernacles. Accordingly, when an outdoor altar was erected so that the sacrificial worship can be resumed, the first feast day to be celebrated was Tabernacles (verse 4). This seems to be a feast very appropriate to the actual living conditions of the returned exiles, who were still obliged to live in tents, lean-tos, and other makeshift dwellings.

Some preparatory work for the construction of the temple began in the spring of the following year (verses 7-8), and there follows an account of the liturgical dedication of the new temple’s foundations, which may have included the floor (verses 10-13). With a lively sense of history the returned exiles dedicated these foundations at the same time of the year when construction had begun on Solomon’s temple (cf. 1 Kings 6:1; 2 Chronicles 3:2).

In verse 7 we find several other points of correspondence that tie the construction of the second temple to Solomon’s construction of the first: the “cedar logs from Lebanon, to the sea, to Joppa”; the skilled workers from Tyre and Sidon; the provision of food and oil (1 Chronicles 22:4; 2 Chronicles 2:8,10).

Verse 11 gives the refrain of the psalm chanted during the laying of the foundation stone, evidently indicating that the psalm employed on this occasion was Psalm 136 (Greek 135). This makes perfect sense and serves to illustrate the context of certain lines in that psalm. For example, the end of the Babylonian Captivity and the return to the Holy Land are indicated in the lines that read, "who remembered us in our low estate . . . and redeemed us from our enemies." The older members among the returned exiles, who still remembered vividly the splendors of Solomon’s temple, wept on this occasion, overcome by emotion (verse 12). They could also see, by examining the dimensions of its foundation, that this next temple will be appreciably smaller than Solomon’s (cf. Haggai 2:3; Zechariah 4:10). Eventually the new temple would prove satisfactory only to those who had never laid eyes of the old one.

Saturday, October 4

Ezra 4: At Judah’s deportation back in 586, the Holy Land was left rather much at the disposition of those people who would, in due course, be called the Samaritans. (And, purely for shorthand, that is what we will call them here.) They were a hybrid race from the miscegenation of native Israelites and those Gentiles who had been imported into the region by the Assyrians after the fall of Samaria in 722.

In the eyes of those Jews who were now returning home from Babylon, the religion of the Samaritans seemed as compromised as the purity of their bloodlines. If the lessons of the recent Captivity had taught these exiles anything, it was the necessity of avoiding contact—to say nothing of intermarriage–with those who professed to be Israelites but whose identity as Israelites was deeply compromised. In spite of overtures from these native inhabitants (verse 2), therefore, the Jewish leadership steadfastly insisted on a policy of separation from them.

This decision of Zerubbabel and Jeshua (verse 3) commenced an important new development in the history of Judaism (cf. Haggai 2:12; Zechariah 3:9; John 4:9; 4:48). This new attitude contrasted sharply with that of King Josiah a century earlier, for he had invited these same people into the fullness of the Israelite worship and religion. The new policy, however, took into consideration the fact that the religion practiced in the Holy Land had been for a long time contaminated by idolatry and syncretism. The purity of the Jewish faith had been purchased at the great price of the Babylonian Captivity, and the Jewish leadership was not about to risk its corruption once again, thereby creating those same conditions that had led to Jerusalem’s downfall.

As we shall see, nonetheless, relatively few women were among the returning exiles. Consequently, many of the latter, who were young, unmarried men, would in due course take wives from the local population, in quiet defiance of their leaders. This defiance would lead to new problems that we will meet in the rest of Ezra and Nehemiah.

As we would expect, the local inhabitants, resentful of their exclusion from the company of the returning Jews, began to resist and confront them. Three stages are discernable in their animosity: their conspiracy to prevent the rebuilding of the temple (verses 1-5), their sustained effort to oppose that project, and their success in the opposition (verse 24).

Several other features of this chapter are worth observation:

First, we note the growing importance of the high priest, who in this book seems to enjoy a political authority nearly equal to the governor. In this book (as in Haggai and Zechariah), the two of them are often mentioned together. Perhaps the roots of this near parity should be sought in the Exile, when the Jews, who no longer had their own king, turned to the priestly families for leadership.

Second, we observe that the extensive Persian Empire (which would soon stretch from the Indus River to the Danube!) was blessed with a remarkably efficient postal system (verses 6-7). This gave cohesion to its political and economic institutions.

Third, our attention is drawn to Persia’s system of chancellors, or regional secretaries, who were directly responsible to the capital (verse 17). This institution, which clearly limited the power of the satraps themselves, demonstrated the empire’s mistrust of local governments that might become too powerful.

Fourth, we observe that the long final part of this chapter (verses 6-9) interrupts the chronological sequence. It is concerned with a later period of the general story, for it takes place during the reigns of Darius I (Ahasuerus), 485-465, and Artaxerxes I, 465-424. This narrative is inserted into this place, apparently as a further example of ill will on the part of the native population.

Sunday, October 5

Ezra 5: As we have just seen, there was a delay in the completion of the temple. It is worth observing that Holy Scripture has two interpretations of that delay:

First, the more obvious approach takes account of the historical circumstances, as they were observed at the time. This was the interpretation of  Haggai, who began preaching in Jerusalem in August of 520 (Haggai 1:1), and Zechariah, whose ministry spanned the years 520-518. These prophets blamed the delay on a lack of resolve on the part of the returning exiles, who  had lost their vision and become discouraged. Instead of building God’s house, they had spent nearly two decades building their own. They had failed to seek first the king of heaven and its righteousness (Haggai 1:2-10).

As the result of this prophetic intervention, which was implicitly critical of both Zerubbabel and Jeshua, the work on the construction of the temple resumed, somewhat to the suspicion and chagrin of the officers of the Persian Empire’s fifth satrapy, the region that included Jerusalem. After all, eighteen years had elapsed since Cyrus had authorized the construction, and there had been two changes of emperors since then. Naturally, no one around seemed to have a copy of that original authorization.

Meanwhile there had been quite a bit of political unrest in the empire, including a rebellion or two and the suicide of an emperor, the sort of unrest that might make anything new look suspicious (verses 2-4). In short, a new building permit was needed, or at least a clarification from the capital. The correspondence involved in obtaining this permit or clarification occupies verses 7-17 of this chapter, and the reply of Emperor Darius will be in the following chapter.

Second, the author of the present book adopts a larger and more theological perspective, less interested in the immediate moral concerns of Haggai and Zechariah. He has not a word of blame for the failure of the returning exiles with respect to the delay. He regards the postponement of the temple’s rebuilding, rather, from a more providential perspective. After all, the rebuilding of the temple could not be simply the execution of the will of Cyrus, any more than the building of the first temple could be simply a project executed by David. Neither king was really authorized to build a house for the Lord. The Lord would authorize the building of His own house when He saw fit. Like David, Cyrus would have to wait!

In the case of David, the Lord’s will in the matter of the temple was revealed through the word of His prophet, Nathan. In the case of Cyrus, the Lord’s will about the rebuilding of the temple was revealed through two prophets, Haggai and Zechariah. The correspondence between these two narratives is consistent with our author’s concern to frame his historical survey from a theological perspective.

Monday, October 6

Ezra 6: In his response to the inquiry Darius refers to his empire as “Babylon,” a name that was retained even after its conquest by the Persians.

The emperor’s letter (verses 3-12) reports on the search in the imperial archives (verse 2) and contains the earlier decree of Cyrus, authorizing the rebuilding of the temple nearly two decades earlier. These pagan documents are incorporated into the narrative here and become, thus, integral to God’s inspired Word.

In spite of Cyrus’s requirement that the temple be completed at royal expense (verses 4,8), we know that it was the Jews themselves who paid for the work and supplies (2:68).

Five years were required to finish this work, and the temple was completed on March 12, 515, which was a Sabbath day that year. It was solemnly dedicated that same spring, on Friday, April 1 (cf. 1 Esdras 7:5; Josephus, Antiquities 11.4.7 §107). There seems to have prevailed the idea, already clear in Solomon’s dedication of the first temple (cf. 1 Kings 6:1; 2 Chronicles 3:2), that such a dedication was appropriately associated with the Passover (verses 19-22). This association will prompt Christian readers, surely, to remember that in the Gospel of John Jesus is identified both as the New Temple and as the Lamb of God.

The second temple was a humble structure, as we have seen, because the circumstances of the people were humble. Whereas Solomon had offered a thousand bulls at the dedication of the first temple, these returned exiles could afford only a hundred (verse 17).

We may also note at this point that we hear no more of Zerubbabel, who is not mentioned at all in regard to the temple’s completion. One suspects that he returned to Babylon to live out his remaining years.

In the chapter’s final verse the Persian Empire is referred to as Assyria, so persistently do conquered territories tend to retain their more ancient names.

Tuesday, October 7

Ezra 7: Now we come to the ministry of the man for whom this book is named. There are two parts to this chapter. The first (verses 1-10) is a summary of Ezra’s journey, and the second (verses 11-26) the original letter of authorization for his mission.

Our treatment of this section will follow the traditional view that Ezra arrived at Jerusalem in 458, thirteen years before Nehemiah. Those historians who date his arrival thirty or even sixty years later are obliged to presume that there are mistakes in the transmission of the text, along with other hypotheses that seem improbable to me. I believe that the traditional date, 458, is the safest and most likely date for the events narrated in the present chapter. Accordingly, we are going to presume that the Artaxerxes in these texts is Artaxerxes I (465-425), not Artaxerxes II (404-358). Thus, the "seventh years of Artaxerxes" was 458. Thus, there is a lapse of 57 years between chapter 6 and chapter 7.

Ezra, raised in a priestly family in Babylon (verses 1-5), had evidently never before been to Jerusalem. We shall see him to be a resolute sort of person, the confident and forceful leader who sees things in black and white, a man little given to carefully nuanced views, a person who inspires trust because he conveys a sense of certainty. It may be reasonably argued that Ezra would not have made a good discussion leader or talk-show host.

He surely was, however, a persuasive and decisive speaker. He is called a scribe (sopher, perhaps more accurately translated as "bookman") in the law of Moses (verse 6).Indeed, there is a fairly strong tradition, which includes the scholarly Saint Jerome, that Ezra was an important editor of the Pentateuch (and author of the closing chapter of Deuteronomy, which records the death of Moses) while he was still living in Babylon.

Ezra came to Jerusalem with a retinue of clergy for the temple worship (verse 7), authorized by a letter from the emperor (verses 11-28), as well as arrangements for finances and appointments for the temple. Ezra was not the high priest, but he was of a priestly family. He was, in fact, a descendent of Seriah (verse 1), the last high priest to die at Jerusalem prior to the Captivity. His own son, Jehozadak, was deported to Babylon 120 years before Ezra’s journey to Jerusalem (1 Chronicles 6:14).

It is clear from this letter of Artaxerxes that the Persian government expected Judea to be ruled according to the law of Moses (verses 25-26). An important and explicit item in that authorization exempted the temple and its clergy from royal taxation (verse 24). This should not surprise us, because we know that Darius made a similar exemption for the priests of Apollo at the temple in Magnesia.

Throughout the present chapter Ezra acts alone. In the next chapter he will be joined by other leaders, who will accompany him.

Wednesday, October 8

Ezra 8: We come now to what appear to be the memoirs of Ezra himself, beginning with a list of the companions who accompanied him from Babylon to Jerusalem (verses 2-14). They are listed according to twelve families, a number reminiscent of the original twelve tribes of Israel. He lists his own family first (verse 2, compared with 7:5). We observe that the total number (1151) includes only men, but we are justified in thinking that at least some women and children accompanied them, perhaps to a number equal to the men themselves. Ezra, when he gathered this assembly together for the trip to Jerusalem, was disappointed that no Levites had joined them, so he immediately took steps to remedy that shortage (verses 15-20).

A time of prayer and fasting would prepare them for the journey (verses 21-23). The sacred vessels, destined for the service of the temple, were handed over to the priests for safe-keeping (verses 24-30).

With so large a retinue, the journey to Jerusalem required a hundred days (verse 31, compared with 7:8) and was followed by a respite of three days (verse 32). This rest by the waterside puts the reader in mind of the three days Israel spent beside the Jordan prior to the entrance into the Holy Land (Joshua 3:2).

Verses 35-36 shift the account to a writer other than Ezra.

Thursday, October 9

Ezra 9: In this chapter Ezra has been living in Jerusalem for four months, during which time he had been busy in a variety of pressing matters. He had conveyed a great deal of wealth to Jerusalem and had done so, in fact, without armed guard. Along the way he had recruited more Levites to augment the Levitical staff at the temple, which at this time was fifty-seven years old. The journey itself had lasted from April 8 to August 4 of the year 458 (7:9).

Therefore, the events of this chapter, four months later, occurred in late December of that year; it was a dreary rainy season (10:9), the sort of atmosphere that might depress the human spirit anyway.

This was not a good time for bad news, but bad news is just what Ezra received. He learned of a serious spiritual problem in Jerusalem, the widespread intermarriage of priests with non-Jews, a thing unthinkable among the Jews back in Babylon.

Ezra did not take the news calmly (verse 3). He prepared himself to deal with the problem, but he would not address the people about it until he had taken it up with the Lord. He made his prayer with uplifted hands at the time of the vesperal sacrifice (verse 5), at which it was usual to pray with uplifted hands (cf. Psalms 141 [140]:2).

We should especially note in his prayer that he did not separate himself from this sin of the people, even though he himself had not committed it; the sin pertained to "us" (verses 6,7,10,13,15). Ezra was an effective intercessor, in part because of this solidarity he maintained with those for whom he prayed.

Friday, October 10

Ezra 10: Word got out, evidently, that Ezra’s spirit was disturbed, because he found quite a crowd of distressed people waiting for him when his prayer was over (verse 1). What ensues in this chapter is best ascribed to what must have been the singular moral stature and authority of Ezra. It was surely not the "mob psychosis" that one modern commentator ascribes to the scene. The dynamics had to do, rather, with the towering moral presence of Ezra himself, standing forth among the people, fortified by his fasting and his prayer on their behalf.

He was thus able to persuade them to take steps deeply repugnant to very deep instincts and warmly cherished preferences. From a concern for the purity of Israel’s faith, he was able to convince them to relinquish their wives and children. He did not do this, moreover, in an impassioned or imperious tone. On the contrary, his words to the people were more restrained than the words he used when speaking to God.

All the returned exiles were gathered at Jerusalem for a "command appearance" (verses 7-9), assembling in the rain, cold, wet, and doubtless a bit discouraged. Ezra then read them the riot act. Under this barrage of rain and prophetic invective, the men became cooperative. Understandably, nonetheless, their moral situation, their "case of conscience," was more than slightly complicated, involving many details that could not be settled immediately (verse 13). Consequently, a commission was established to work out the particulars associated with the dissolution of all those marriages.

It is reasonable to assume that the work of the commission had to do with the disposition of property claims and rights of inheritance. In those days, after all, couples did not simply fall in love and get married. Pre-nuptial agreements, in the form of inter-family contracts, were the rule, not the exception. Virtually all of those marriages, therefore, involved complex financial arrangements, in the form of dowries and transferred inheritances. If the people were to conform to the strict rules laid down by Ezra, all such matters had to be adjusted. In the lengthy list of the offenders (verses 18-44), we observe many family names that we saw in the census record in the second chapter.