The Journey Ezra returned with a letter which said that taxes could not be imposed on the Jews, nor could tolls be collected from them by the nations through which they passed as they returned. The letter also provided that if anyone disobeyed its instructions, they would be either executed, banished, or have their goods confiscated. With that letter safely in hand, Ezra returned to Jerusalem with 1500 men, 38 Levites, and 220 helpers, for a grand total of 1,758 people. Ezra would not ask the king for troops to protect their small party from robbers lest he (Ezra) appeared to have no faith in his God. His explanation is in chapter 8:22-23:
I was ashamed to require of the king a band of soldiers and
horsemen to help us against the enemy in the way. because we
had spoken unto the king, saying, The hand of our God is upon
all them for good that seek him; but his power and his wrath is
against all them that forsake him. So we fasted and besought
our God for this: and he was entreated of us. Verse 31 sums up how God listened to their entreaty: “The hand of our God was upon us, and he delivered us from the hand of the enemy, and of such as lay in wait by the way.”
Ezra’s Reform Almost immediately after Ms arrival in Judah, Ezra learned that the sons of the Jews had taken the daughters of the
local people as wives and had intermingled themselves with
the people of the land, in opposition to what God had commanded.
Ezra 9:1 reports that the priests and the Levites, as well as the rank and file of the people, had married into the families of the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Jebusites, the Ammonites, the Moabites, the Egyptians, and the Amorites. Most of these were descendents of those whom Joshua was to have driven out a thousand years earlier, but they were still around. The warning given in Joshua’s time, that if they were not driven out they would infiltrate the people and cause them to sin, was still coming to pass a thousand years later. Through their own sin and lust, these exiles were reaping what their ancestors had sown almost
a millennium before.
When Ezra heard about it, he went into deep mourning,
tearing his garments and plucking out his hair and beard.
Then he sat down appalled at what was happening. He
could not believe what he was seeing. These people had been in bondage in Babylon because of their sins and now, by God’s grace and provision, they had been allowed to return to their homeland. They had been empowered to rebuild their temple with tax money; they had experienced God’s blessing and promises; now, despite all of this, they still disobeyed and intermarried with the daughters of the local pagan people. Verse 4 says that there gathered unto him “every one that trembled at the words of the God of Israel, because of the transgression of those that had been carried away; and I sat astonished until the evening sacrifice.”
Ezra’s prayer Finally (vs. 5) Ezra said, “I arose up from my heaviness; and having rent my garment and my mantle, I fell upon my knees, and spread out my hands unto the Lord my God.“ Ezra was both embarrassed and ashamed and in this way, he united himself with the exiles in their sins. Although personally innocent, he prayed in confession, “our iniquities are increased over our head, and our trespass is grown up unto the heavens.
Did you notice how Ezra assumed the role of intercessor and participant. As he pleaded on behalf of the people, he included himself so that somehow God might see his personal plea as indicative and substitutionary of a national plea. In his prayer, he reviewed some of the history of the nations of Judah and Israel, summing it all up in verse 10 by asking, “O our God, what shall we say after this? for we have forsaken thy commandments.
I want to ask as I read this, Will there ever be an end to the cycle
of sin that began so many hundreds of years before? There seemed to be a breath of hope as Ezra said in 9:8. In that moment of grace, it had been shown that perhaps the people would experience revival. But, Jeremiah 17:9 gives us a clear-cut reason for such failure: “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked, who can know it?” The people were back in their land with every reason to praise God, and once again, they sinned and acted in gross disobedience.
Ezra continued his prayer in verse 13ff:
And after all that is come upon us for our evil deeds, and for
our great trespass, seeing that thou our God hast punished us
less than our iniquities deserve, and hast given us such deliverance
as this; Should we again break thy commandments, and
join in affinity with the people of these abominations?
“Can there be any remnant to escape?” he asks. “Will you not
now be angry to the point of destruction? We are guilty and cannot
stand before You.”
As a result, while Ezra was praying, chapter 10 records that
the people began to come forward and weep and confess
their sins. As they came forward in repentance, Ezra instructed them to put away their foreign wives. Then, in an unusual turn of events, Ezra recorded the names of those who had sinned in this manner. Forever and eternally, their names are recorded in the last chapter of Ezra as those who had sinned and disobeyed God. They will be remembered throughout the ages as those who married
foreign women and almost brought disgrace and wrath upon the exiles who returned from Babylon.
LXV NEHEMIAH THE BUILDER
The book of Nehemiah continues the historical narrative which
began in Ezra. its opening events occurred in the twentieth year of King Artaxerxes, who came to the throne in 465 B.C. So, the year was 445 B.C. and Nehemiah, whose job was cup-bearer to the king, was in Susa, the summer capital of the Persian kings.
While there, he had some visitors who had been to Jerusalem.
Nehemiah asked them about conditions there and received this tragic
report (vs. 3): “The remnant ... in the provinces are in great affliction and
reproach: the wall of Jerusalem also is broken down, and the gates thereof are burned with fire.”
It had been 141 years since the gates were burned and the walls
torn down by Nebuchadnezzar in 586 B.C. We have already seen how the opposition had hindered those who first returned under Zerubbabel and then with Ezra, from making any repairs on the walls.
Nehemiah’s Concern Evidently, Nehemiah had an impeccable reputation with Artaxerxes and was known to usually be in good spirits. However, after receiving this news from his homeland, Nehemiah’s countenance had fallen. When he went in before the king, Artaxerxes looked at him and at once noticed a difference. “Are you sick?” he asked. “This is nothing else but sorrow of heart, “ Nehemiah responded (2:3).
At that point, said Nehemiah, “I was very sore afraid.“ It is no wonder
he was afraid, because there was no room for a sad heart, or a sad face, in the inner sanctuary of a Persian monarch. They hired people who were happy and could keep them happy. If one exhibited a sad face, the result was often instant execution.
However, Nehemiah explained to the king the reason for his sorrow,
and the monarch’s reply was, “For what dost thou make request? “
Those words indicated the royal intention was to provide the necessary help for Nehemiah’s concern. Before replying, Nehemiah said, “I prayed to the God of heaven,” Notice that he did not try to respond in his own wisdom. After praying, he asked for, and received, time off, a passport, building materials, and an armed escort.
The Wall Rebuilt Nehemiah returned to Jerusalem with some few men and almost immediately work was begun on the wall. But again, as with all of the previous endeavors, they were also opposed, mocked, and despised by the inhabitants of the land. Nehemiah 2:19 summarizes this. Chapter 4:6 gives the secret of success for the rebuilding of the wall. It was because “the people had a mind to work.“ They worked even while preparing for opposition. As we read in 4:18: “For the builders, every one had his sword girded by his side, and so builded.“ Nehemiah kept a trumpeter ready to sound the alarm in case the enemy approached. Chapter 5:14 lets us know that Nehemiah was the governor in Judah for twelve years, from 444 to 432 B.C. Chapter 6 describes the tactics used by the opposition. Nehemiah was also told of a threat to his life and was advised to seek safety in the temple. His reply was, “Should such a man as I flee? and who is there, that, being as I am, would go into the temple to save his life? I will not go in” (vs. 11). Verse 13 explains that the man who warned him had been hired to do so in order that Nehemiah might become frightened and flee for his life, so they might be able to make an evil report against him. But Nehemiah acted impeccably.
He responded spiritually and scripturally, because he knew that
God was protecting him. He did not fear when he heard about the
“trumped-up” assassination attempt.
Finally, in verse 15 we read that the wall was completed in just
fifty-two days. And verse 16 reports:
And it came to pass, that when all our enemies heard thereof,
and all the heathen that were about us saw these things, they
were much cast down in their own eyes: for they perceived that
this work was wrought of our God.
So, in spite of the opposition, God was glorified when the Walls
of Jerusalem were rebuilt in 444 B.C. after fifty-two days of consistent
effort because the people had a heart to work.
Further Reforms Continuing in chapter 8, we discover that Ezra was still in Jerusalem. You recall that he had made his return, which we know as the second return, in 458-457 B.C. We do not know how many returned with Nehemiah in 445-444 B.C., because the Bible simply says “some few men, “ but we can call this the third return. At that time, Ezra had been there for about thirteen years.
As described in chapter 8, Ezra and Nehemiah formed a team to
continue to reform the people. Verse 9 states that Nehemiah was the
governor and Ezra was the priest and scribe. Then follows an extensive description of the teaching, reforms, and organization, that were implemented in the post-exilic community.
Chapter 13 records the sinful alliance between the priesthood and
the opposition leader. This occurred after 432 B.C. when Nehemiah was not in Jerusalem. He reports in verse 6 that he had returned to Persia to take up Its responsibilities to the king, but after a suitable length of time, he once again obtained leave of absence from the king to return to Jerusalem.
When Nehemiah returned, he discovered that some of the priests
had left Jerusalem, and the temple service, and begun to work in their
own fields. He brought them back and made certain that the tithes were collected regularly to take care of them. He observed that the Sabbath was not being kept, and he set that matter in order. He also discovered that some of the Jews, including members of the high priest’s family, had married women from Ashdod, Ammon, and Moab. He contended with them, cursed them, and actually hit some of them, then pulled their hair out as he made them aware that they must not give their daughters, or their sons, to the inhabitants of the land. With that fury of reformation activity, Nehemiah’s ministry drew to a close.
With the completion of the events in the book of Nehemiah, we
have come to the end of the historical period of the nations of Israel
and Judah. Only Malachi lived after the time of Nehemiah, or at the
earliest during Nehemiah’s latter years. So, generally speaking, the inspired record of the history of Israel and Judah, came to an end with the time of Nehemiah and Malachi at about 400 B.C.
The Inter-Testament Years After Nehemiah’s activity, the period of silence began which lasted for approximately 430 years, beginning about 400 B.C. and terminating when the voice of John the Baptist was heard crying in the wilderness, in approximately 30 A.D.
The apocryphal books belong to that Inter-Testamental period.
Among these is the book of Maccabees which contains the statement, “The voice of the prophets has not been heard in the land. “ Much as Ezra had said, “What more can we say?” God in turn could reply, “What more can I do?” Everything possible had been done, but we see in the latter years of Nehemiah and the time of Malachi, that the people were still rebelling against God and were involved in a formalized, legalistic, outward worship system. God finally had no other response than either total destruction, or silence. Because of the Davidic Covenant, He could not destroy the nation of Judah, so He simply went away to His place as Hosea 5:15 prophesied. The result was the 400 silent years.
LXVI THE STORY OF ESTHER
We do have one more historical book to consider. Even though
Esther follows Nehemiah in the English structure of the Old Testament, the events in the book occurred prior to Nehemiah’s time, beginning in the third year of King Xerxes, which was approximately 483/482 B.C. So, historically the book of Esther occurs about twenty-five years prior to Ezra’s return to Jerusalem. The events which transpired must be considered in fight of Isaiah’s earlier prophetic command which said: Flee Babylon (48:20).
Isaiah had instructed the people to flee Babylon, when Cyrus defeated
the Babylonians. But, as he tried to obey, Zerubbabel was able to
round up fewer than 50,000 to return with Mm. Ezra, a little later, following the time of Esther, was able to put together about 1700 people to return with him. Finally, those who returned with Nehemiah were “some few men.” It can only be assumed that the people who had gone into exile to Babylon had become very comfortable in their situation by the time Cyrus captured the city in 539 B.C. Because of this, they remained there for years under the Persian monarchs. But, it was a comfort couched in disobedience because they had not obeyed the command of God through Isaiah to return to Judah when the seventy years of exile ended.
The events in Esther must be seen as having taken place in Persia,
involving a large number of Jews who had not followed the command
of God. They were living in disobedience away from Jerusalem
and apart from the worship system God had ordered through Moses;
under a foreign monarchy, rather than being in Judah under the priesthood and under God.
Dethronement of Vashti The book of Esther begins by introducing King Xerxes, also called Ahasuerus. We know from history that he had been involved in intense military activity and suffered defeat at the hands of the Greeks, at the battle of Marathon in 490, and very shortly would experience another defeat at Thermopolae, in 480, and again at Salamis in 479. Meanwhile, he had sought refuge and escape in banqueting, partying, and in his harem.
The story begins in his third year, at about 482 B.C. The party
described by the author lasted for 180 days. When the six month party ended, he gave a special seven-day banquet and sent a command to Queen Vashti, who was evidently very beautiful, to come out and expose herself to his drunken friends. She refused with dignity, and the king became very angry. Verse 12 sums up his reaction by saying: “his anger burned in him.”
King Xerxes was not a man who was accustomed to no for an
answer to his request. He ordered his wise men to check the law books and see what could be done to this queen who did not obey his command. The wise men informed Xerxes that Queen Vashti had not only wronged the king, but also all the princes and all the people in the provinces, because her conduct would become known. When the other women saw that Queen Vashti was not punished for saying “no” to the king, they would all have contempt for their husbands and refuse to do their bidding because their queen had refused. This event, they claimed, would have a domino effect which would end up with a Persianwomen’s liberation movement. They said (vs. 19):
If it please the king, let there go a royal commandment from
him, and let it be written among the laws of the Persians and
the Medes, that it be not altered, That Vashti come no more
before king Ahasuerus; and let the king give her royal estate
unto another that is better than she.
When the king’s edict became known, all the women would say; “Great is the king. “ They would give honor to their husbands and there would be no rebellion from the wives. The advice pleased the king and the princes. Implementing this advice, Xerxes sent letters to all his provinces so that every man should be master in his own house. Vashti was dethroned, and her crown was taken away.
Esther Chosen In chapter 2 the search for a replacement began. The king’s overseers went to all of the provinces in Persia seeking beautiful young virgins and taking them to the harem in Susa. There must have been many broken-hearted young men throughout the kingdom, because the king had first choice of the beautiful women in the land, and took whomever he pleased for himself. But they were powerless to stop him and the young lady who most pleased the king, would become queen in the place of Vashti.
In verse 5 we are introduced to Mordecai, a Jew of the tribe of
Benjamin. He was responsible to care for Esther, his uncle’s daughter, because she had neither father or mother. Although she was his cousin, he took her as Ms own daughter. When the command seeking beautiful young women was carried out, Esther, who must have been very beautiful, was taken into the palace. She so pleased the Chief Eunuch in the harem, that he provided her with the best cosmetics, the finest food, and gave her the choicest handmaidens. She did not tell anyone she was a Jewess, because Mordecai had instructed her earlier not to make that known.
Mordecai paced back and forth in front of the harem every day to
see if he could hear some news, or rumors, about how things were proceeding in the palace. Verse 12 says that each girl chosen was commanded to go in to the king after twelve months of preparation. The eunuchs and handmaidens spent twelve months preparing the women before they could spend the night with the king. For six months they rubbed them down with oil and myrrh and then for six months with spices and cosmetics. The girl would go in the evening and in the morning she would return to the second harem. After that night, she would live in the harem unless the king had been so pleased by her that he summoned her by name at a later time.
Finally, Esther’s turn came and she was taken to the king. Verse
16 says “he loved her more than all the women.“ He placed the royal crown on her head and made her his queen in the place of the deposed Vashti. Then he gave a great banquet, in Esther’s honor and summoned all the princes.
Mordecai Saves the King’s Life time passed, Mordecai became almost a permanent fixture at he king’s gate. He had probably been there for so long that the officials is regarded his presence. So it was that he overheard two of the king’s officials, who guarded the door, plotting to assassinate Xerxes as he passed by. He revealed the plan to Esther, who informed the king in Mordecai’s name. The king investigated and found that the plot was true and hanged both of the would be assassins. Then, as with all other official acts which took place in the Persian court, it was documented and filed away in the official archives.
Haman Plots Revenge Chapter 3 introduces Haman, the Agagite. He was a proud man with political aspirations. He advanced in the Persian bureaucracy until eventually, he had authority over all of the princes who served with him. All of the servants at the king’s gate would bow down to him when he went in to the palace because the king had commanded everyone to do so.
But Mordecai would never bow down. Finally, others asked him
(vs. 3) why he transgressed the king’s command and he told them he
could not because he was a Jew. When Haman became aware of
Mordecai’s defiance, he was filled with rage. When he learned that he
was a Jew, he was not content to take vengeance on Mordecai alone,
but determined to destroy all of the Jews in the Persian Empire.
Verse 7 gives us another piece of chronological information. The king
met Esther in the seventh year of his reign, which would have been after his defeat at Salamis in 479. Now, five years after his marriage to Esther, as recorded in 3:7, in the twelfth year of the king, lots were cast to decide when, using Haman’s plan, they would destroy all of the Jews. The lot fell on the month Adar. Haman cast lots until he could arrive at the most strategic month for the attack to take place. Then he said to the king (vss. 8-9): There is a certain people scattered abroad and dispersed among
the people in all the provinces of thy kingdom; and their laws
are diverse from all people; neither keep they the king’s laws:
therefore it is not for the king’s profit to suffer them. If it please
the king, let it be written that they may be destroyed: and I will pay
ten thousand talents of silver to the hands of those that have the
charge of the business, to bring it into the king’s treasures.
Evidently Haman was a very wealthy man and the king was intimidated because he was devastated psychologically. This was due in part to the military disasters which had befallen him and his drunken revelry which had debilitated him physically and mentally. He did not question Haman’s statement, but gave him his signet ring, saying, “do with them as it seemeth good to thee.
These plans to commit genocide against the Jews were written in
the laws of the Medes and the Persians, and sealed with the king’s signet ring. Letters were sent to all the provinces ordering them to annihilate the Jews, both young and old, women and children, in one day-the thirteenth day of the twelfth month, the month of Adar. In addition to destroying the Jews, they were to confiscate their possessions. Does this sound familiar? It is reminiscent of everything that has happened to the Jews from the earlier time period in the northern and southern kingdoms, until the atrocities by Hitler and his cohorts in World War II.
Verse 14 says that a copy of the edict was issued as law in every
province, and couriers ran throughout the entire land. Meanwhile, the
king and Haman sat down together to drink and to discuss matters of
state. At last, Haman thought, he was about to be recognized as a
When Mordecai heard about the edict (chapter 4), he rent his garment, put on sackcloth and ashes, and began to cry loudly throughout the streets of the city. He walked all the way to the king’s gate, but did not go inside because the kings of Persia did not allow any unhappiness inside the gate. No one was to enter clothed in sackcloth. The mourning spread throughout the land when the Jews in the provinces heard that they were to be annihilated in one day.
Esther Challenged Finally, Queen Esther’s maidens and the eunuchs told her about Mordecai’s behavior. Then she too was in great anguish. She sent him new garments, but he did not take off his sackcloth. She called her personal attendant, and sent him out to learn exactly what was wrong. Mordecai related to him all that had taken place and the exact amount of money Haman had promised to pay the king for the destruction of the Jews. (The king’s treasury must have been emptied by his military expenditures and losses on the battlefield.) He gave him a copy of the edict to show to Esther in hope that she would go in to the king and ask him to reverse it.
When Esther heard the story, she sent a message back to Mordecai
explaining that according to the law, anyone who went to the king without being summoned, was put to death unless he held out his golden scepter. Then she added that the king had not summoned her for thirty days. King Xerxes was a man of ultimate and absolute power. Drawings on the Persian walls show him sitting on the throne with his scepter at his side. His son Artaxerxes often stood behind him and in front of the throne was a censor of burning incense. No one was allowed to come close to him.
When Mordecai heard this, he said, “Think not ... that thou shalt
escape in the king’s house, more than all the Jews. For if thou altogether holdest thy peace ... then shall ... deliverance arise to the Jews from.” At that point we would expect to read “God.” But God’s name never appears in the book of Esther. Instead, the writer says, “from another place. “ Then he added, “Who knoweth whether thou art come to the kingdom for such a time as this?” Perhaps Esther, he was saying, God, knowing in advance what Haman would do, placed you in the kingdom to stand in the breach and save the lives of all the Jews.
Esther commanded Mordecai to assemble all of the Jews and hold
a three-day fast. She and her maidens would fast likewise and then she would go in to the king even though she had not been summoned, which was not allowed according to the Persian law. She closed by saying, “And if I perish, I perish.”