Friday, October 8

Ezra 5: By separating its Wisdom literature from its prophetic books, the Bible also hints at a distinction between the vocations of the prophet and the sage. Without exaggerating this distinction—because in principle both callings may be found in a single person—it is worth inquiring, I think, in what way the prophet and the sage are different.

Let me suggest that at least part of the difference between them is the way they handle time and the events that take place within time.

Generally speaking, the prophet must deal with time on the move—as it approaches, so to speak. His hands touch time in the present and at those points where the future promises to become present. His words are burdened with the moral imperative of the instant, the kairos, where a decision is required. Events are taking place, or at least about to take place, which require the prophet to proclaim God's understanding of them. Normally, the mind of the prophet is seized and preoccupied by the dynamisms of the active moment.

It is different with the sage. Not usually caught up in time as it passes, the sage enjoys the leisure to reflect on time that has elapsed and to ponder things that have already come to pass. For this reason, one does not expect to find in Wisdom literature the pressing energy and sense of immediacy that are normal in the prophetic books. Although the sage may counsel some moral decision on the part of the reader, it is not customary for him to demand it with the urgency of the prophet.

As an event in biblical history that illustrates this difference, let me suggest the 18 years’ delay in the construction of the second temple.

When Israel's exiles returned from Babylon in 538 B.C., they carried an official decree—issued by Cyrus himself—that their ancient temple should be rebuilt. Indeed, the materials necessary for that rebuilding were quickly procured. For various reasons, nonetheless, chiefly opposition from local folks inimical to the returning exiles, the reconstruction was delayed until 520. Five years were required to finish it, and the temple was at last completed on March 12, 515.

Now it happens that that recorded delay receives two different interpretations in Holy Scripture, one in the Book of Ezra and the other in two prophetic books: Haggai and Zechariah.

Let us start with the prophets, the two men alive and active in 520, the very ones who inspired the resumption of the project. The preoccupation of Haggai and Zechariah was immediate, determined, and of an entirely moral impulse. Those prophets blamed the prolonged delay on a lack of resolve on the part of the returning exiles, whom they accused of losing their vision. Instead of building God's house, they had spent nearly two decades building their own houses. They were reprimanded, therefore, for failing to seek first the kingdom of heaven. Thus, Haggai and Zechariah took charge of the "moment" and required the proper moral resolve from their countrymen. This is the sort of thing prophets do.

When we turn to the Book of Ezra, on the other hand, the outlook is completely different. Here we find the approach of the sage, the man of cultivated pondering, who sets his sights from a larger and more reflective angle. His is a perspective almost completely uninterested in an immediate moral concern. Thus, the author of Ezra utters not a word of reproach for the failure of the returning exiles with respect to the delay in the temple's reconstruction.

He endeavors, rather, to examine that 18 years’ postponement from the viewpoint of divine providence. After all, the sage reflects, no more could the building of the second temple be just the execution of a decree of Cyrus, than the building of the first temple was simply a project mandated by David. It was significant that both these kings died before construction was even begun. Truly, who among kings is authorized to build a house for the Lord? The Lord will see to the building of His own house at such time as He sees fit!

Consequently, our sage perceives another correspondence in the two cases: Each construction project had to await the Lord's command, conveyed in the prophetic word—that of Nathan in the case of David, that of Haggai and Zechariah in the case of Cyrus.

The approach to time and events in the Book of Ezra, then, is very different from that of the prophets. It is the perspective of the theological sage, who surveys with serenity what great works the wise Lord of history has caused to come about.

Saturday, October 9

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.

Sunday, October 10

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). The "seventh year 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.

Monday, October 11

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 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 safekeeping (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.

Psalm 2: Already in the most primitive period of Christian history—indeed, in Jerusalem itself and prior to the conversion of Saint Paul—we have our first extant example of the use of a psalm in Christian worship. The relevant text is Acts 4:24–30, where we find Christians, evidently within the first months of Christian history, praying a section from Psalm 2.

Moreover, there is something beyond mere history to be learned from this passage in Acts; it also addresses the essentially theological question of why Christians pray the Psalter. This apostolic prayer quotes the first line of the second psalm: “Why have the gentiles raged, and the people imagined vain things? The kings of the earth rose up, and the rulers have conspired together against the Lord, and against his Anointed One.” Then the prayer paraphrases that line of the psalm by pointing to its properly Christian meaning: “For of a truth, against Your holy child Jesus, whom You have anointed, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, together with the gentiles and the people of Israel, are gathered together.” It is clear in this apostolic text that the psalm is being used in Christian prayer because of its reference to Christ Himself. In fact the prayer ends “through (dia) the name of Your holy child Jesus” (Acts 4:30).

By the way, one may observe that virtually all modern translations of Acts 4:30 miss this important point, by making “through the name” refer to the “signs and wonders.” “Through the name of Your holy child [pais] Jesus” refers, rather, to the prayer itself and is an extremely primitive formula often found at the end of early Christian prayers. The “through the name of Your holy child Jesus” in Acts 4:30 refers to the prayer itself; the Christians were asking that the prayer be heard in Jesus’ name. They were doing exactly what Jesus commanded—praying to the Father, asking the Father, in Jesus’ name.

Tuesday, October 12

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.

Psalm 5: This morning psalm is a reminder that the context for Christian worship in this world is the life of struggle with evil. When the Christian rises each day, it is always on the battlefield. Thus, most verses of this psalm explicitly refer to the workers of iniquity, and the psalmist prays fervently against them: “Destroy them, O God; let them fall by their own counsels; cast them out in the multitude of their transgressions, for they have rebelled against You.”

“They have rebelled against You,” the psalm says. Sin is abhorrent to God. He not only loves justice; he also hates iniquity. “Fools shall not stand in Your presence,” our psalm goes on, “You hate all workers of iniquity.” When the psalmist prays for the destruction of the wicked, this is not his personal sentiment, so to speak. It is not a prayer of private vindictiveness but of foundational justice. It is a plea that God vindicate His own moral order. When Jesus refused to “pray for the world” (John 17:9), He was recognizing the existence of those who, willfully unrepentant and deliberately hard of heart, have placed themselves beyond hope. Inveterate sinning against the light—unrepented evil—does exist in human hearts, and God hates it. He hates it vehemently. Jesus on the Cross had not one word to say to the blasphemous, unrepentant thief.

Some modern Christians are tempted to see in such sentiments only a lamentable vestige of Old Testament negativity and judgmentalism, now appropriately surpassed by a New Testament emphasis on God’s mercy and compassion. The idea is abroad these days that, whereas the Old Testament God was a no-nonsense Divinity, the God of the New Testament is quite a bit more tolerant.

Such an idea would have surprised the Apostles. Romans 3:10–18, for instance, which is a mélange of various psalm verses describing the evil of sin, cites a rather violent line from our present psalm with reference to evildoers: “Their throat is an open sepulcher.” Indeed, the descriptions of sin in Romans 1 and 3 make a good commentary on many verses of Psalm 5.

Wednesday, October 13

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.

Thursday, October 14

Nehemiah 1: Nehemiah’s mission is easy to date. It began in the twentieth year of the Persian emperor, Artaxerxes I (465-425), therefore 445 (verse 1). The month was December. This book is mainly a collection of Nehemiah’s own memoirs.

Nehemiah is called the royal cup-bearer, but this term should not make us think of a simple domestic servant. That bearing of the cup at the king’s table was but the symbolic function of an individual of great importance in the realm. The term "royal chamberlain" comes closer to the more recent idiom, for this was no menial position. In the Persian art of the period the cup-bearer ranked second, right after the crown prince, in the gradations of the royal court. Archeology demonstrates that sometimes cup-bearers were buried in the same crypts as the emperor’s own family. Nehemiah the Jew, then, was a high official of the realm, the ancient equivalent to our "prime minister" or "secretary of state." All important business with the crown passed through his hands.

One day some fellow Jews came to see Nehemiah (verses 2-3) with the sad news that local opposition, evidently implementing an official decree, had put a stop to the construction of the walls around the city of Jerusalem. It is impossible that the highly placed Nehemiah did not know this already, but the first-hand report gave him a strong new impression of the full tragedy of the situation. It threw him into a depression for days, a depression accompanied by fasting and prayer (verse 4).

The lengthy confession that follows is our first example of Nehemiah in prayer; we will have frequent occasion to observe this recourse to prayer as an habitual and sustained practice on his part. Nehemiah’s prayer in the present case (verses 5-11) is full of Deuteronomic vocabulary, a characteristic shared with other late books of the Old Testament, such as Ezra and Daniel. Nehemiah based all his hope on God’s fidelity to Israel, manifested during the Babylonian Captivity. Such prayers may be described as doxologies of judgment. As in the prayer in Ezra 9 (and later on in Nehemiah 9 and in Daniel 9:4-19), this prayer identified Nehemiah with the people for whom it was offered.

Friday, October 15

Nehemiah 2: Fortified by prayer and fasting, Nehemiah prepared to argue his case before the king. He bided his time until the following spring, during Nisan, the month of the Passover. Doubtless Nehemiah was waiting for the most opportune and advantageous moment, watching the movement of government, carefully observing the emperor’s moods and attitudes.

He resolved finally to display his feelings; it was not an inadvertent dropping of his guard, but a calculated move (verse 1), and the emperor, as expected, noticed (verse 2). There was a sudden tense moment, because Persian emperors liked to be surrounded by happy, healthy faces (cf. Daniel 1:10-13!). Nehemiah stated the matter quickly and succinctly, for Persian emperors were also efficient men, not famous for their patience. In addition, they were notoriously fickle and capricious (cf. Esther 4:11).

Nehemiah knew all this, and even while he spoke to Artaxerxes, he continued to speak to God in his heart (verse 4). As always, his brief prayer was efficacious, because he managed to make his complaint without criticizing either the emperor or anyone in the Persian government.

Nehemiah was ever the consummate diplomat, schooled in all the arts of a large, international court. Throughout this book we shall find him playing a cool, deft hand, maintaining strict control over the cards held close to his chest. In every instance we shall see him disclosing only as much information as was needed to accomplish what he had in mind. If anyone wants to witness what it means to be as cunning as a serpent (which Jesus our Lord commands us to be), he will discover no better example than Nehemiah.

For example, we readers of this memoir will know that everything Nehemiah did was done on the authority of a private imperial edict that was handed to him, but we will also observe that he never permitted his enemies to know this. That is to say, he did not show his cards. His opponents would always be obliged to guess what hand he was holding, so they would be ever acting in the dark. Nehemiah knew very well that a privately issued instruction could always be privately withdrawn, so he was extremely careful not to let that happen. His opponents could never challenge something which they were not even sure existed! Nehemiah preferred to bluff his way through, laying down a card here and there, taking up another, never showing his hand. He kept his winning hand intact. Thus, we will observe that he never spent all his force on a single confrontation. There was ever more in reserve.

In the present scene, for example, Nehemiah only answered the emperor’s question. He made no request until the king explicitly asked for one, and we observe that the request, made at precisely the moment when it should have been made, was immediately granted. Similarly, Nehemiah did not disclose, even in this memoir, how much time he had at his disposal to complete the project (verse 6). Armed with papers of authorization, he crossed the Euphrates and cleared his mission with the satrapy authorities in the area (verses 7-10). When he arrived at Jerusalem, no public information was available to his opponents. Hearsay, of course, would reveal that he came from the capital. Certainly everyone knew his high standing in the Persian Empire. He lay low, nonetheless, for three days (verse 11), keeping the opposition off-guard, letting their discomfort mount, but without saying anything. Their growing curiosity and impatience would work to his advantage, and he knew it. Then, in the deepest secrecy, he made a quiet, nocturnal inspection of the city, riding on a sure-footed donkey around the ruins of the walls, an inspection recorded in this memoir in minute detail. We may call it The Midnight Ride of Nehemiah (verses 12-16).

Encouraged by this inspection, he summoned the proper people to promote public interest in the project (verses 17-18), while his opponents, learning of it only by rumor, were reduced to mere reaction (verses 19-20). Questioned on the matter, Nehemiah spoke only of trust in God. He breathed not a word about the papers in his breast pocket, leaving his opposition to guess and blunder.