Sunday, October 6
Ezra 3: The seventh month (verse 1) is September, the time of the Feast of Tabernacles. Accordingly, when an outdoor altar was set up 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 templeŐs 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 SolomonŐs temple (cf. 1 Kings 6:1; 2 Chronicles 3:2). 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 (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 SolomonŐs 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 SolomonŐs (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.
Monday, October 7
Ezra 4: At JudahŐs 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 blood lines. If the lessons of the recent Captivity had taught these exiles anything, it was the necessity of avoiding contact, and especially intermarriage, with those who professed to be Israelites but whose identity as Israelites was deeply compromised. In spite of overtures from these Samaritans (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 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 JerusalemŐs downfall. In fact, however, as we shall see, many of the other returning Jews, 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. The latter part of the present chapter (verses 6-23), which clearly interrupts the chronological sequence, 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 Samaritans.
Tuesday, October 8
Ezra 5: Haggai began preaching in Jerusalem in August of 520 (Haggai 1:1) and was joined by Zechariah, whose ministry spanned 520-518. The returned refugees, because of their poverty and hard life, had delayed the completion of the temple for nearly two decades (Haggai 1:2-10). As the result of this prophetic intervention, 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 EmpireŐs 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.
Wednesday, October 9
Ezra 6: In his response Darius refers to the empire as Babylon, a name that was retained even after its conquest by the Persians. The emperorŐs 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 GodŐs inspired Word. In spite of CyrusŐs 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). It took five years 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 SolomonŐs 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 Christians, surely, to remember that in the Gospel of John Jesus is identified both as the New Temple and as the Lamb of God. We may also note at this point that we hear no more of Zerubbabel, who is not mentioned at all in regard to the templeŐs completion. One suspects that he returned to Babylon to live out his remaining years. In the chapterŐs final verse the Persian Empire is referred to as Assyria, so persistently do territories tend to retain their more ancient names.
Thursday, October 10
Ezra 7: Now we come to the ministry of the man for whom this book is named. 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. 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 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 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. 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.
Friday, October 11
Ezra 8: Now we come 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). Verses 35-36 shift to a writer other than Ezra.
Saturday, 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 :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 pertains 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.
Sunday, September 29
Job 40: This chapter, unlike the two preceding, permits Job to put in a word of his own, but he uses the occasion simply to confess his vileness and to state his resolve to remain silent before the Lord (verses 3-5). His earlier aspirations have really been answered, after all, because God is now speaking, and this is essentially what Job had sought. God continues, then. As the two preceding chapters dealt with the mysteries of GodŐs activity in the realm of nature, the first part of this chapter turns to GodŐs presence in the order of conscience (verses 8-14). If Job understood next to nothing about the first, he knows even less about the second. Job is queried about who, on the evidence, is more just, himself or God. Does Job really want a forensic setting to determine this question. Is Job capable of dealing with the myriad moral dilemmas involved in every manŐs life, as God must do? Then, dramatically, GodŐs discourse goes from the realm of ethics and conscience to a consideration of two symbols of chaos, fearsome and incomprehensible: Behemoth and Leviathan. Although "Behemoth" is simply the plural of the Hebrew word for "beast" or "animal," its description seems largely to be drawn from the hippopotamus (hippos="horse" and potamos="river" Ń so "river horse"), huge, strong, invincible, even unchallenged, rightly afraid of nothing (verses 15-24).
Monday, September 30
Job 41: The second beast, the Leviathan, is a water monster, the description of which is drawn largely from the crocodile. The latter animal obviously served as a chief model for the classical picture of the fearsome dragon, because of its very large mouth (resembling, in this respect, the hippopotamus), many sharp teeth, impregnable hide, and powerful tail that can knock down the very stars in heaven (Revelation 12:4). It takes only a little imagination to think of this creature as breathing fire (verses 19-21). In short, the Leviathan makes a rather unsatisfactory pet (verses 4-5) and an even worse conversationalist (verse 3). The Leviathan, that is to say, cannot be domesticated by man. He is resistant to all human efforts to control him and thus remains, in this world, the symbol of all in existence that is recalcitrant to manŐs ability, especially his rational ability, to take it in hand. What does this say to Job? Well, Job has been treading on some very dangerous ground of late, and he had best manifest a bit more deference before things he does not understand. But there is another consideration as well. Both Behemoth and Leviathan are GodŐs household pets, creatures that He cares for with gentle concern. Moreover, God is pleased with them. Do not these truths hold a lesson for Job? It is remarkable that GodŐs last narrative to Job resembles nothing so much as a fairy tale, or at least that darker part of a fairy tale which concerns the dragon. This dragon, nonetheless, is only a pet to God.
Tuesday, October 1
Job 42: The last chapter of this book contains (1) a statement of repentance by Job (verses 1-6), (2) the LordŐs reprimand of Eliphaz and his companions (verses 7-8), and (3) a narrative section, at the end of which Job begins the second half of his life (verses 9-17). First, one observes in JobŐs repentance that he arrives at this state of humility, not by a consideration of his own sins, but by an experience of GodŐs power and glory. (Compare Luke 5:1-8.) When God finally reveals Himself to Job, the revelation is different from what he either sought or expected, but he is clearly not disappointed. All through this book, Job has been proclaiming his personal integrity, but now it is not even in the picture; he has forgotten all about it. It is no longer pertinent to his relationship to God (verse 6). Job is justified by faith, not by his personal integrity. Second, God turns and deals with the three comforters who have failed so miserably in their task, and Job is appointed to be the intercessor on their behalf. Ironically, the offering prescribed to be made for them (verse 8) is identical to that which Job had offered for his children out of fear that they might have cursed God (1:5). This divine reprimand of JobŐs counselors also implies that their many accusations against Job were groundless. Indeed, Job had earlier warned them of GodŐs impending anger with them in this matter (13:7-11), and now that warning is proved accurate (verse 7). In just two verses (7-8) God four times speaks of "My servant Job," exactly as He had spoken of Job to Satan. But Job, for his part, must bear no grudge against his friends, and he is blessed by the Lord in the very act of his praying for them (verse 10). The Book of Job both begins and ends, then, with Job and worship and intercession. Ezechiel, remembering JobŐs prayer more than his patience, listed him with Noah and Daniel, all three of whom he took to be men endowed with singular powers of intercession before the Most High (Ezechiel 14:14-20). Also ironically, whereas JobŐs friends fail utterly in their efforts to comfort him throughout almost the entire book, they succeed at the end (verse 11). Third, in the closing narrative we learn that Job lives one-hundred and forty years, exactly twice the normal span of a manŐs life (Cf. Psalm 89 :10). Each of his first seven sons and three daughters is replaced at the end of the story, and all of his original livestock is exactly doubled (Job 1:3; 42:12).
Wednesday, October 2
Psalm 109 (Greek 108): The true meaning of our present psalm was one of the subjects that explicitly preoccupied the Apostles during those ten days that they spent in prayer in the upper room awaiting the coming of the Holy Spirit. Indeed, in our limited record of those ten days, this psalm is the only passage of Holy Scripture actually quoted on their lips. We recall that the sole task appointed to the Church during that brief period of preparation was the choice of a successor to Judas Iscariot (Acts 1:15-26), and Simon Peter, as he summoned his fellow Apostles to that task, announced that they were, in fact, fulfilling a prophecy, in proof whereof he quoted our present psalm with reference to the fallen Judas: "For it is written in the Book of Psalms: ÔLet his dwelling place be desolate, and let no one live in itŐ; and ÔLet another take his office.Ő" In the calamitous career of Judas Iscariot, then, we have the interpretive key and context to this very disturbing psalm. It is a sustained reference to that most unfortunate man of whom Truth himself said: "It would have been good for that man if he had never been born" (Mark 14:21). It is no wonder that this psalm is unsettling, for it is concerned with the danger of damnation. During the several minutes that it takes to pray through this psalm, we are brought face to face with the real possibility of eternal loss and reminded that "it is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living GodŐ (Hebrews 10:31). No one enjoys being warned that the apostasy of Judas could be chosen by one any of us. Yet, the story pointedly appears in all four Gospels. Over and over, eight times, the New Testament stresses that the betrayer arose from among the chosen, "one of the Twelve." Such too is the distressing, but very necessary, sane and, sobering thought raised in this important psalm.
Thursday, October 3
Haggai 2: The first oracle in this chapter was given on October 5, 520 B.C. (verse 1) The twentieth day of the month Tishri was the fifth day of the week called the Feast of Tabernacles (cf. Leviticus 23:34), an autumnal harvest celebration (cf. Deuteronomy 16:13) that paralleled our own Thanksgiving Day. In the year 520 that festival was especially significant, because GodŐs people had begun to rebuild the temple in Jerusalem, a replacement for the temple destroyed by the Babylonians sixty-six years earlier. As they rebuilt it, however, a very disappointing fact was becoming clear to the people Ń namely, that this new structure, when finally completed, was going to be pretty small, because the people had nowhere near the financial resources available to Solomon when he had constructed the first temple four centuries earlier. Like the men who were building it, this new temple would be poor (verse 3; cf. Ezra 3:12-13). Nonetheless, said Haggai, this new house of God would be adorned, in due course, with silver and riches from around the world (verses 7-9). A literal translation of verse 7 from the Hebrew ("I will shake all nations, so that the treasures of the nations will come in") makes perfect sense, meaning that Jews from all over the world, coming to the new temple on pilgrimage, would continue to adorn and expand it until "the glory of the latter house would outshine that of the former." However, the ancient Christian Latin translation of this verse (reflected, curiously, in the King James Version), reads, et veniet Desideratus cunctis gentibus, which means, "and He who is desired by the nations will come." This translation is echoed, of course, in the final verse of the old Veni Emmanuel hymn adapted from the "O Antiphons" of Advent, "O Come, Desire of nations, bind/ in one the hearts of all mankind." That is to say, the new temple of HaggaiŐs era was the very temple into which Jesus, the One desired by the nations, would enter.
Friday, October 4
Ezra 1: Since the first verse of this chapter is identical with 2 Chronicles 36:22, there may be some merit in the suggestion that there was originally no break between these two books. That is to say, it may well be the case that at one time the books of Chronicles, Ezra, and Nehemiah were all one work. Interpreters have long observed that all these books are united by a common theological perspective, dominated by concerns of proper worship. Cyrus, who had ruled the Persians since 557, began to reign over what had been the Babylonian Empire in October of 539, but the Bible "rounds out" that reign to the beginning of its first full year (verse 1), the "new yearŐs day" of which was in March of 538. This is the year, then, that the Babylonian Captivity came to an end. CyrusŐs decree, of which this chapter contains a Hebrew paraphrase (verses 2-4), indicates the relatively enlightened policy of the Persians toward those who had been conquered and deported by the Babylonians. Unlike the Assyrians and Babylonians, the more liberal Persians sought to inspire loyalty among subject peoples by respecting their local religions ("which is in Jerusalem," specifies verse 3) and, where possible, safeguarding their local and ethnic traditions. From an inscription on a clay barrel known as "CyrusŐs Cylinder," we know of that emperorŐs general policy of repatriating deported peoples and restoring deported gods back to the places of their traditional temples. That documented policy of Cyrus is obviously consonant with the biblical account. If we examine the wording of Chapter 1 carefully, moreover, we observe that the interest of the author is not in the ending of the Captivity per se (because very few Jews actually returned from Babylon, after all, having established nice homes and lucrative businesses there during two generations), but in the restoration of proper worship in the temple. (Bear in mind that in 538 the ink was barely dry on those final chapters of Ezechiel, describing the glory of this new temple!) The authorŐs real interest in the Book of Ezra is not geopolitical, but theological and liturgical (as also in the Books of Chronicles). The "seventy years" prophecy of Jeremiah 29:10 was not fulfilled until the temple was completed in 516, exactly seventy years after its destruction in 586. When that temple is eventually finished, it will house the confiscated sacred vessels that Cyrus now restores to the Jews (verse 7-10). Sheshbazzar (verse 11), incidentally, is the Persian way of referring to Zerubbabel, about whom more will be said in the following chapters.
Saturday, October 5
Ezra 2: This chapter, which is repeated verbatim in Nehemiah 7, accounts for 49,897 people who returned from Babylon to the Holy Land. This very high figure surely indicates, however, not those who were immediately repatriated in the year 518, but includes, rather, those who came in the ensuing years. That is to say, it includes those who arrived by the time of Nehemiah nearly a century later. Those listed in verses 2-20 are named according to their families, those in verses 21-35 according to their towns (which list, curiously, does not mention Jerusalem). This chapter lists a disproportionate number of priests (verses 36-39), which is exactly what we would expect. Since all the sacrificial worship of the Jewish religion, following the Deuteronomic reform of 622, was limited to Jerusalem, there was certainly no reason for priests to remain in Babylon. The number of Levites (verse 40), on the other hand, seems disproportionately small, which disproportion will require the adjustments described in Ezra 8:15-20. Nehemiah 7 will list an additional forty-five singers. These lists of names throughout Chronicles, Ezra, and Nehemiah are theologically important. This is the People of God, not an amorphous mass of nondescript ciphers. No one remains nameless in some anonymous flock, because the Good Shepherd knows each of His sheep and calls them all by name. Such lists, therefore, of which Romans 16 is a later example, are precious in the sight of the Lord and deserve to be held precious in our eyes as well. Ultimately the Book of Life itself is just a list of names.