Sunday, 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 B.C., thirteen years before Nehemiah. Those historians who date Ezra’s 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 year of Artaxerxes” was 458, which is the more traditional view.
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 while he was still living in Babylon. This tradition also ascribes to Ezra the authorship of the closing chapter of Deuteronomy, which records the death of Moses.
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.
Monday, 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). These are listed according to twelve families, a number reminiscent of the original twelve tribes of Israel. Ezra lists his own family first (verse 2, compared with 7:5).
We observe that the total number listed (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 come from a writer other than Ezra.
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 new 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 Ezra 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.
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 of the scene 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 the offenders 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.
Ezra 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 angry. Ezra then read them the riot act. Under this barrage of rain and prophetic invective, the audience became cooperative.
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 irregular 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.
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 important in the realm. The term “royal chamberlain” comes closer to the modern 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 in the Holy Land, evidently implementing an official decree, had put a stop to the construction of the walls around the city of Jerusalem. It is impossible that Nehemiah, as one of the highest officials in the vast Persian realm, 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).
This 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.
His 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. 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 is offered. 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.
Friday, October 15
Nehemiah 2: Fortified by prayer and fasting, Nehemiah prepared his case to argue before the king. He bided his time until the following spring, 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.
Nehemiah 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 Nehemiah 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 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 Nehemiah never permitted his enemies to know this. That is to say, he did not show his cards. Thus, 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 royal flush intact. Thus, we will observe that Nehemiah never spent all his force on a single confrontation. There was ever more in his 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 Nehemiah 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. Nehemiah 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 Nehemiah knew it.
Then, in the deepest secrecy, Nehemiah 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, Nehemiah 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 official papers concealed in his breast pocket, leaving his opposition to guess and blunder.
Saturday, October 16
Nehemiah 3: This chapter describes the organized building of the wall, a task that could only be undertaken while the opposing party was caught off-guard, uncertain of its authorization. Nehemiah had already arranged for the building material in 2:8; by late summer they were ready to start.
For a man accustomed to dealing with the administration of an empire that stretched from the Khyber Pass to the Danube River, the modest organization required for this work was hardly much of a challenge. Sections of the wall were apportioned to various families, villages, and professions. His distribution of the work was not only an efficient use of the labor force, it also subtly encouraged rivalry among the builders, each team endeavoring to surpass the efforts of the others. (Some commentators have also observed the curious similarities of this description to the wall construction of Themistocles in Thucydides, History 1:89.)
Five of the building groups were composed of families listed in Ezra 2, while several other groups were arranged on various localities in the region. Merchant groups (verse 32) and certain guilds were also represented, such as apothecaries and goldsmiths (verse 8). The entire organization bore no slight resemblance to an urban softball league. The various teams appear to be listed counterclockwise around the city wall. The priestly team, not unexpectedly, consecrated the sundry parts of their section as they were finished.