May 28, 2017

Ezra, Part 2

Layton Talbert

FrontLine • March/April 2007

At A Glance – Ezra Part 1

 

All history is theological. Human history is the illustrated encyclopedia of the acts of God—a branch of general revelation and applied theology whereby God makes Himself known to any man who has eyes to see it and a Bible by which to interpret it. Biblical prophecy testifies to God’s activity in the affairs of human history. And Scripture calls on His people to encourage themselves by remembering and meditating on God’s role on the stage of human history (Pss. 77:11, 12; 105:1, 2, 5, 7). The story of Ezra is loaded with lessons about divine activity and human responsibility. Some of it gets very personal.

Outline

As the previous column pointed out, Ezra is part historical, part autobiographical. In the first six chapters of the book that bears his name, Ezra records events that precede him by eighty years. He does not come into the story until chapter 7. Ezra divides into two major segments:

  • Ezra 1–6: The First Return under Zerubbabel (538–516 b.c.)
  • Ezra 7–10: The Second Return under Ezra (458–424 b.c.)

The events of Nehemiah, Ezra’s contemporary who returns in 445 b.c., also occur within the time frame of the last segment of the Book of Ezra. This column surveys the second segment of Ezra.

Historical Context

Ezra 1–6 covers the period from 538–516 b.c. Ezra 7 opens in the year 458 b.c. That means there is a gap of nearly sixty years between the end of Ezra 6 and the beginning of Ezra 7. What happened during that time that Ezra doesn’t tell us? The Biblical record is silent for the first thirty-five years after the end of Ezra 6 (516–481 b.c.). The book that breaks that silence is the story of Esther, which takes place from 482 to 473.

What else happened during those sixty years between Ezra 6 and 7? As we saw in the previous column, Ezra 4:6 and 4:7–23 telescope ahead to give us brief glimpses into the second half of that timeframe (ca. 485–460 b.c.). From these glimpses it is apparent that they began trying to rebuild the rest of the city and the walls and were repeatedly resisted by those around them. We know, for instance, of a letter of complaint sent to Ahasuerus (Xerxes) in “the beginning of his reign” (ca. 485–482) mentioned in Ezra 4:6. Then come the events of the story of Esther (482–473). We also know that the opposition to the rebuilding of Jerusalem continued into the reign of Artaxerxes I, for we have another letter of complaint to him (ca. 464–460) along with his reply commanding the Jews to cease rebuilding the city until further word from him—all recorded in Ezra 4:7–23.

But something, or Someone, changed Artaxerxes’ heart. Because it was Artaxerxes who commissioned a Jewish priest and scribe named Ezra (458) to return and supervise the rebuilding of Jerusalem. And it was Artaxerxes who later commissioned his personal cupbearer and confidant, another Jew named Nehemiah (445), to return to Jerusalem as the Jews’ governor. The explanation is ultimately providential; but God providentially employs common and natural means to accomplish His purposes. Other historical records help us fill in the gaps.

Persian King Xerxes’ defeat in the West by the Greeks (which occurred in 480 b.c., between Esther chapters 1 and 2) led him to a self-indulgent neglect of the welfare of his more immediate empire. Remember the assassination plot that Mordecai discovered in Esther 2? Apparently Bigthan and Teresh weren’t the only ones upset with Xerxes. He was later successfully assassinated.

Xerxes’ son, Darius, should have succeeded him. But the general of Xerxes’ military persuaded a younger son, Artaxerxes, to murder his brother Darius. Under these inauspicious circumstances Artaxerxes became king in 464 b.c. King Artaxerxes tried to restore the damage to the stability of the empire done by the neglect of his father, but there was widespread unrest and even revolt, especially in the more remote provinces. By 460, Egypt refused to pay tribute, allying itself with the Delian League (formed among the Greek city-states that had defeated Xerxes back in 480 b.c.). Persia managed to undercut this threat by bribing Sparta to go to war with Athens. By 458, the Greek commander Pericles was leading Athens to predominance in Greece, resulting in civil wars and unrest there—and freeing Artaxerxes to focus on matters closer to home.

Given the tenuous situation with Egypt, Artaxerxes saw the necessity of establishing a stable and loyal government in neighboring and strategically located Judea. We know he sent Megabyzus (the Persian governor of Syria and the agent who negotiated Sparta to go to war against Athens) to lead Persian troops against Greek and Egyptian troops in Egypt, finally bringing them into subjection in 456. The creation of a buffer state—a loyal, secure, and contented Judean province—would have been crucial for controlling Egypt. That is the providentially orchestrated historical background to the decision of Artaxerxes to send Ezra (and later Nehemiah) to Judea with both religious and governmental authority. That is where Ezra 7 picks up the story.

Survey

Artaxerxes’ Decree and Ezra’s Return (Ezra 7–8)

In 458 b.c., Artaxerxes commissioned Ezra the priestscribe to travel to Jerusalem. Ezra 7:12–26 (written in Aramaic, not Hebrew) details the decree of Artaxerxes to Ezra:

  • Take everyone who wants to go with you (v. 13).
  • Investigate the situation there (v. 14).
  • Carry our offering to the temple and use it for your worship (vv. 15–17).
  • Use the rest of the money for whatever you think you should (v. 18).
  • Collect from any of the treasurers across the river whatever you need for the house of God (with certain limits) (vv. 21–23).
  • Those involved in the temple ministry are tax exempt (v. 24).
  • Govern and administrate Judea according to God’s law and mine (vv. 25, 26).

The text has one explanation for the remarkable authority and latitude the king granted to Ezra and the Jews: it was all done “according to the hand of the Lord” upon them (7:6, 9, 28; cf. 8:18, 22, 31).

I indicated above that something, or Someone, changed Artaxerxes’ heart between Ezra 4:7–23 and 7:11–26. Political developments and historical circumstances certainly played their part, but Someone orchestrated and used those developments and circumstances. Ezra understands that ultimately it was not something but Someone who changed Artaxerxes’ heart: “Blessed be the Lord God of our fathers, which hath put such a thing as this in the king’s heart . . . and hath extended mercy unto me before the king, and his counsellors, and before all the king’s mighty princes” (7:27, 28).

Ezra 8 recounts the details of who returned, the names of 1760 Jews (8:1–20), and how they fasted and prayed for God’s protection (8:21–23). Why were they so concerned to have God’s protection? Because of what they were carrying with them (8:24–30). The journey to Jerusalem was safe and successful, thanks once more to “the hand of God” upon them (8:31–36).

Internal Threats to the Welfare of God’s People (Ezra 9–10)

Ezra 4–6 dealt with external threats to Judah’s security: harassment, opposition, persecution. Ezra 9–10 details the internal problem Ezra had to battle upon his arrival: intermarriage, leading to compromised values, practices, and identity. Internal threats are much more subtle, complicated, and difficult to address. The central issue was not simply intermarriage among the people, but intermarriage among the leaders, and intermarriage with the very kinds of unbelievers in the land that had corrupted their right relationship with Jehovah in the first place and finally led to their decimation and captivity only four generations earlier.

Ezra’s reaction (9:1–4) was so severe because he understood the broad historical perspective. He realized that all that was lost in the captivity and regained in God’s gracious restoration was now suddenly at risk again. You hear this in his prayer of humiliation and confession (9:5–15, especially vv. 13–15).

Applications

A closer look reveals a number of strikingly modern applications. This should neither surprise us nor arouse suspicions. The Bible is a timeless book designed and preserved for the instruction and equipping of believers in any age (Rom. 15:4; 1 Cor. 10:11; 1 Tim. 3:16, 17).

First, 9:1 indicates that we can safely extend the application beyond the explicit danger of marrying unbelievers (“the people of Israel, and the priests, and the Levites, have not separated themselves from the people of the lands, doing according to their abominations”). The marriages themselves functioned merely as the means of introducing pagan elements into the pure worship of Jehovah.

Second, that being the case, the issue verbalized in 9:2a (“the holy seed have mingled themselves with the people of those lands”) has much to say about the effects of marrying the church to the culture and means and methods of the world around us.

Third, both 9:1 (“the priests, and the Levites”) and the end of 9:2 (“the hand of the princes and rulers have been chief in this trespass”) have compelling implications for the unique responsibility and culpability of leadership in the area of separation.

Fourth, there is also a humbling lesson here for separatists themselves. It is easy for separatists to cultivate the attitude that we are not the problem and have nothing to confess; our job is to point fingers and identify the problem people and offending ministries. But this is not the whole Biblical pattern. Ezra 9—and Nehemiah 9 and Daniel 9—consistently confront the reader with a stunning example of the separatist’s solidarity with the people of God. It is the separatists who take the lead in confessing the sins of the community of God’s people and interceding for God’s people. If anyone could have pointed fingers, it was men such as Ezra, Nehemiah, and Daniel; they were the separatists of their generation. Yet these godly and obedient men prayed and confessed as though they too were the guilty ones; listen to the pronouns they use when they pray. Evil practices and compromising brethren need to be identified, but it is not just their problem. It is our problem because it is the Church’s problem. It is our problem because God’s honor and cause and people are at stake. The Church is not about us and them; it is about us—all of us—and God. Our attitude both in censure and in prayer should reflect that awareness. If the separatists do not pray for compromised ministers and ministries, who will?

Finally, as Ezra 10 demonstrates (see 10:1, 3, 7–14, 17, 18, 24, 44), the only solution to the failure of separation and its effects is a simple one, but not an easy one: sacrificial abandonment of the sins that lead to it and single-eyed obedience to God. Ezra 10 does not paint a pretty picture. Men had to be willing to put God’s Word above their own desires and affections and loves, even to the point of painfully (but “according to the law,” 10:3) tearing apart the emotional ties with which they had bound themselves.

There are two options for putting God’s Word above your own desires and affections: before you make a choice or after you make it. It is much easier and less complicated to do it before. It is costly and painful to do it after. But it is the only right solution; and as Ezra 10 proves, it can be done.


Ezra, Part 1 here.


Dr. Layton Talbert teaches theology and apologetics at Bob Jones Seminary, Greenville, SC and is a Frontline Contributing Editor.

(Originally published in FrontLine • March/April 2007. Click here to subscribe to the magazine.)

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