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Bible Commentaries

Peter Pett's Commentary on the Bible

Ezra 4

 

 

Verses 1-5

The Enemies Of The Returnees Of Judah And Benjamin Seek To Hijack The Building Of The Temple (Ezra 4:1-5).

When they learned that work was beginning on the building of the Temple, the syncretistic Yahwists round about, who worshipped Baal and Asherah, and other gods alongside YHWH, sought to become a part of the enterprise. Had they been permitted to do so they would no doubt have taken it over and the result would have been a syncretistic Yahwism which included all the elements which were displeasing to God, and which would have included the introduction of priests who were not of the line of Aaron. The question was not a race one, but a religious one. And it was vital. The future of Yahwism was at stake. It is a reminder to us that we should beware of whom we align ourselves with.

Ezra 4:1

‘Now when the adversaries of Judah and Benjamin heard that the children of the captivity were building a temple to YHWH, the God of Israel,’

Those who approached with the request to have a part in the building of the Temple would not have appeared to be enemies, and would probably not have seen themselves as enemies. Their offer was no doubt genuine, although it unquestionably had a hidden agenda. They did not want to become Yahwists of a type represented by the returnees. They wanted a comfortable Yahwism of the kind that they had long enjoyed, one that made few demands and that allowed them their pagan festivities and their revels in the mountains. It was only when their offer was rejected that they outwardly became enemies. But the writer discerned things clearly when he recognised that from the start their position was one of opposition to all that the returnees now held dear, the uniqueness of YHWH, and the importance of eschewing idolatry. For these were the two things that they would have undermined.

Some explanation has to be found for the bitter enmity that then ensued, for the writer goes on to demonstrate how bitter that enmity was, and how long it lasted, and how great the steps were that they were prepared to take in order to undermine the returnees. And this can only lie in the fact that they saw the purity of the faith of the returnees as a constant rebuke to their own ways. Had they been able to bring the returnees down to their level they would have been happy. But the constancy of the returnees was a continuing rebuke to them, and it brought home to them shallowness of what they themselves believed in. And that they could not stomach.

Ezra 4:2

‘Then they drew near to Zerubbabel, and to the heads of fathers’ houses, and said to them, “Let us build with you; for we seek your God, as you do; and we sacrifice to him since the days of Esar-haddon king of Assyria, who brought us up here.”

The opposition was mainly headed up by the leaders of the region of Samaria, as their argument reveals. Politically it was therefore powerful opposition, for up to this point of time they had had responsibility for Judah in its position within the governorship of Samaria, and possibly did still have such a responsibility, although having to defer to the leaders of Judah in local matters to do with the returnees, something which probably irked them. As appointed rulers they would also have had great influence with the kings of Persia on local matters. So it must have been tempting to yield to their request and curry their favour.

The argument seemed reasonable enough, but, of course, veiled the truth. They claimed to seek God as the returnees did. But it was not so. Alongside YHWH they worshipped other gods, and the priests were illegitimate from a covenant point of view, and were undoubtedly syncretistic (see 2 Kings 17:24-41). Furthermore their move may well have been a political one. Partial control of the Temple and its worship would have ensured their supremacy in local matters.

‘We sacrifice to him.’ Literally, ‘to Him we sacrifice’. Lo’ (to him) is a variant form of low (to him), a variant which is also found elsewhere. It can, however, also signify ‘not’, and some would argue that they are saying that ‘we have not sacrificed (i.e. legitimately) since the days of Esarhaddon’, hoping thereby to appeal to the orthodoxy of the returnees. But the position of lo’ in the sentence points to the meaning ‘to him’, which makes the better sense, for they would certainly have offered sacrifices during the period.

‘Since the days of Esar-haddon king of Assyria, who brought us up here.” The original settlers had been settled in the days of Sargon II, not long after the destruction of Samaria in 722 BC.. It may therefore simply be that ‘the adversaries’ had their history wrong. But the transportation of peoples was a major Assyrian policy, no doubt continued by Esarhaddon (681-669 BC), so that it is quite likely that some of the inhabitants of Samaria had been transported there by Esarhaddon, whilst others were transported out. We do know from historical texts that he was active in the area. The general picture was therefore probably a true one, with the population of Samaria being supplemented by transportees in the days of Esarhaddon, with other elements removed and transported elsewhere.

Ezra 4:3

‘But Zerubbabel, and Jeshua, and the rest of the heads of fathers’ (houses) of Israel, said to them, “You have nothing to do with us in building a house to our God; but we ourselves together will build to YHWH, the God of Israel, as king Cyrus the king of Persia has commanded us.’

The reply of the leadership of the returnees (Zerubbabel, Jeshua and the rest of the heads of the fathers) was straight and direct, and theologically necessary. To have acceded would have destroyed all that they were seeking to do in re-establishing the true covenant of YHWH. Note that the decision was a cumulative one. It was made by Zerubbabel and Jeshua in consultation with ‘the heads of the fathers’, that is with those who had authority among the different families represented among the returnees. And it was decisive. It pointed out they it was the returnees who had been given authority by Cyrus to build the Temple of ‘the God of Israel’, an important political point, for to have ignored it could have put them in the wrong with the Persian authorities. After all Cyrus had laid down strict regulations about its building (Ezra 6:3-5) and had given to them the Temple vessels in recognition of what they were to do. Politically therefore it was their responsibility. It had nothing to do with anyone else. They had been given the responsibility, and they, and they alone would ensure its fulfilment. However, there can be no question but that they also recognised the dangers involved in including outsiders in the project, outsiders whose ideas of Yahwism were very different from their own. Had they acceded the Temple and its worship would once again have become things of compromise.

We have a good example of what might have happened if we compare the situation with the worshippers at the Jewish Temple built at Elephantine (in Egypt), which we know about from papyri coming from 5th century BC. There Yahu (YHWH) was worshipped, but it was alongside Ishum-bethel, Anath-bethel, Anath-yahu, and Herem-bethel. Anath was a well known Canaanite goddess and was probably here seen as, among other things, the consort of Yahu. The Temple was destroyed by the Egyptians in 410 BC, and an appeal was made to the Persian representative in Jerusalem, and to the Temple authorities (in which only Yahu’s name was used), seeking their assistance in obtaining permission to rebuild it. When there was no reply a further appeal was made to the Persian governors of Jerusalem and Samaria. We do not know if the Temple was ever rebuilt, but it was certainly syncretistic.

Ezra 4:4-5

‘Then the people of the land weakened the hands of the people of Judah, and troubled them in building, and hired counsellors against them, to frustrate their purpose, all the days of Cyrus king of Persia, even until the reign of Darius king of Persia.’

This refusal to allow their participation in the building of the Temple did not please ‘the people of the land’ that is those people who had been in Samaria and Judah before the arrival of the returnees, thus a wider group than just the people of Samaria. No doubt stirred up by the people of Samaria they all recognised that the attitude of the returnees excluded them from Temple worship on their own terms. It was not that they were totally excluded. The returnees would unquestionably not have refused to acknowledge those who truly sought YHWH in accordance with the Law of Moses, as is made clear in Ezra 6:21. What they refused was those who sought to worship Him outside that Law, in accordance with their own ideas. It was not only the people of Samaria who were syncretistic. Such syncretism was widespread, as it had been in the days of Jeremiah (e.g. Jeremiah 7:30-31; Jeremiah 19:4-5; Jeremiah 32:34-35). The purity of the Temple and its worship was therefore the first concern of the returnees.

Thus the people of the land began to ‘weaken the hands’ of those who sought to build. They used all means. They combined the use of violence against them with political trickery. They not only made life difficult for them by direct means such as keeping them in constant fear of attack, and causing trouble for them wherever they could (a few burned fields and attacks on their properties would soon turn their minds to other things), but also hired experts to act with the Persian authorities in order to block the work that was going on. Details of some of these attempts will shortly be outlined, attempts which went far beyond just the question of the Temple, and which continued on until the days of Nehemiah, but they clearly commenced quite early on, although as the writer had no direct information concerning the earliest attempts he does not provide any details of them. What he does seek to demonstrate is that opposition to the returnees was so long lasting, that he was justified in calling them ‘enemies’, and that the returnees were therefore justified in rejecting their offer.

We note that these attempts commenced in the days of Cyrus, ‘all the days of Cyrus’ clearly covering a good part of his reign, and thus initially that we are dealing with a fairly long period before the recommencement of the work on the Temple in the days of Haggai and Zechariah, which occurred in the reign of Darius I. For they went on until that reign. Here we have an explanation of why the work on the Temple ceased for so long. It was largely due to the activities of these adversaries. In the days of Darius, however, the plan of the adversaries backfired, for it resulted in new authorisation for the building of the Temple, and financial provision for the purpose (Ezra 6:6-12).


Verses 6-23

The Subsequent History Of The Enmity Revealed Against The Returnees Up To The Time Of Nehemiah (Ezra 4:6-23).

What follows up to Ezra 4:23 goes beyond the question of building the Temple. The writer now wishes to bring out precisely how dangerous these adversaries would in the future prove to be, and how long lasting was their enmity. Their attitude was to be seen as not just a temporary one, but as a constant one, which would grow ever more belligerent, would seek to frustrate all that the returnees tried to do, and would finally result in the intervention of the King of Persia himself. So he takes up the question of their continuing opposition, and ignoring chronology as being of secondary importance (he will turn back to the question of the building of the Temple in Ezra 4:24), he deals with the question of how their opposition would continue long after the building of the Temple.

What he is here dealing with and explaining is the continuing work of the hired experts who would go on with their activities for a long time, a work which had in view getting the returnees into trouble with the Persian authorities. This process would continue long after the building of the Temple. God’s people were to be allowed no rest. And the writer uses these examples because they were ones of which he had written details. We may presume hat he had no written evidence of earlier attempts. It is an indication of the hand of God at work that these attempts did not frustrate His purposes, although they did no doubt frustrate His suffering people. But one good thing it did do. It kept the returnees firmly to their purpose. There is nothing like opposition for the stiffening of resolve. Tribulation works patient endurance, and patient endurance produces expectancy, and that expectancy will not fail if it causes us to look truly to God (compare Romans 5:2-5).

Ezra 4:6

‘And in the reign of Ahasuerus, in the beginning of his reign, wrote they an accusation against the inhabitants of Judah and Jerusalem.’

The opposition continued on over a long period. One major attempt to put the returnees in the wrong was made in the reign of Ahasuerus, that is of Xerxes I (486-465 BC), who took Esther as one of his wives. This was at least thirty years after the building of the Temple had been completed. And at that time an accusation was written against the returnees. But it clearly came to nothing.

Ezra 4:7

‘And in the days of Artaxerxes (Hebrew: Artachshasta) wrote Bishlam, Mithredath, Tabeel, and the rest of his companions, to Artaxerxes king of Persia, and the writing of the letter was written in Aramaic (characters), and set forth in the Aramaic (language)’

Another attack was made in the days of Artaxerxes, the king of Persia (old Persian arta-zxa-ra) (464-423 BC), who followed Xerxes I and was in the end the king who sent Nehemiah to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem. It is clear that the writer had obtained full details of what had occurred. He even knew the names of the experts responsible. He describes them as ‘Bishlam, Mithredath, Tabeel, and the rest of his companions’. Mithredath is a Persian name (see Ezra 1:8) while Tabeel is an Aramaic name (compare Isaiah 7:6).

Alternatively the word Bishlam, if repointed can signify ‘in peace’ (be shalom), and it is so translated in LXX. Thus we could render ‘in the days of Artaxerxes, with the agreement of Mithredath, Tabeel and the rest of his companions wrote to Artaxerxes --’.

These ‘wrote to Artaxerxes in Aramaic script using the Aramaic language’. But this information is rather superfluous. It would have been sufficient to say that it was written in Aramaic. Naturally someone using Aramaic would write in the Aramaic script. So alternately this may be translated as, ‘the writing of the letter was written in the Aramaic script but translated’, in other words it was translated into Hebrew using the Aramaic script. The change to using the Aramaic script for Hebrew records occurs around this time. It may be that it was because the copy he had was in Hebrew but in Aramaic script that he did not include its contents, not wanting to confuse his readers.

The second ‘Aramaic’ will then be a signpost standing on its own and indicating that what follows is in Aramaic, and is so until Ezra 6:18. This continued use of Aramaic may well have been because he wanted to present the original records which he will now call on, in the original Aramaic, but did not want to cause unnecessary confusion by switching to Hebrew for the explanatory verses. This would tie in with what we have suggested above about why the previous letter was not cited because it was a document translated into Hebrew but written in Aramaic script. We must remember that both he and his anticipated readers were equally fluent in Aramaic. In this regard we should note that the Aramaic section is in a Hebrew envelope. Ezra 4:1-7 is in Hebrew, as is Ezra 6:19-22. What comes in between is in Aramaic. This was much more tidy than a constant switching between Hebrew and Aramaic, and especially so if we see chapters 1-6 as the work of one writer, possibly even Ezra himself, with chapters 7-10 dealing with the work of Ezra, and including the Ezra first person memoirs (Ezra 7:27 to Ezra 9:15).

Furthermore there may be the intention of indicating that all that occurs in Ezra 4:8 to Ezra 6:18 does so at the behest of the Persian Empire. It is outside the control of the returnees. But in the end it is an indication that God controls the Persian Empire.

Once again nothing appears to have come of the accusation against the returnees, which appears to have petered out without any repercussions.

Written In Aramaic: Ezra 4:8 to Ezra 6:18.

Ezra 4:8

‘Rehum the chancellor and Shimshai the scribe wrote a letter against Jerusalem to Artaxerxes the king in this manner,’

The third attack was made by Rehum the chancellor (literally ‘lord commander’, high government official) and Shimshai the scribe (secretary). Rehum was probably a high official of a type typical of Persian rule, whose responsibility was to write directly to the king concerning matters that occurred in his area. He now wrote to Artaxerxes laying accusations against Jerusalem, no doubt stirred on by the adversaries spoken of earlier (Ezra 4:1), who had manufactured a case against the returnees. Artaxerxes was the king who sent Ezra the Scribe to the assistance of the returnees, and later Nehemiah himself, so he was not anti-Jewish.

Ezra 4:9-10

‘Then (wrote) Rehum the chancellor, and Shimshai the scribe, and the rest of their companions (colleagues), the Dinaites, and the Apharsathchites, the Tarpelites, the Apharsites, the Archevites, the Babylonians, the Shushanchites, the Dehaites, the Elamites, and the rest of the nations whom the great and noble Osnappar brought over, and set in the city of Samaria, and in the rest of the country beyond the River.’

This would appear to be the preamble to the letter, a kind of official heading describing who were responsible for its contents. It would head up the letter, and is typical of Aramaic correspondence at the time.

‘Then.’ The word stands on its own and we might expect it to be followed by a verb like ‘wrote’. It may here, however, simply stand on its own and signify ‘this is the result’ or ‘as follows’.

Those responsible for the letter are then described. The names that follow Rehum and Shimshai are those of peoples who had been transported to the area by the Assyrians. They are here represented as having been transported by ‘the great and noble Os-napper’, (As-nipal as an abbreviation of Ashur-bani-pal, which is then revocalised, with r becoming l under Persian influence), but reference to such a transportation may have been a simplification (compare Ezra 4:2 where Esar-haddon was cited, presumably because those who led that deputation had been transported by Esar-haddon). A first transportation had taken place under Sargon II when the Israelites were replaced by peoples from Babylon, Cuthah, Avar, Hamath and Sepharvaim (2 Kings 17:24), and a further transportation both in and out had occurred under Esarhaddon (see Ezra 4:2). The Assyrians believed that by moving people around they could stop them from establishing roots, and thus becoming a danger. But we certainly do know that Ashur-bani-pal campaigned in this area in 640-639 BC, against a rebellion that had broken out, and at such a time transportations, both in and out, were likely. It was continuing Assyrian policy. Thus the peoples described were what remained in the area after these different transportations, presented succintly as being transported by Ashur-bani-pal (they would not want to go into full detail).

‘The Dinaites.’ This can be repointed as meaning ‘the judges’ (there was no pointing in the ancient texts, only the consonants, so that it is not altering the original text). That would serve to bring out that the opposition was clearly high-powered. ‘And the Apharsathchites’. This may signify ‘the envoys’ or ‘the inspectors’. Thus two important groups of officials would be seen as adding their weight to the letter. It is an indication of how deep and widespread was the opposition to the Jews.

The names that follow are then listed without conjunctions, and are the names of peoples. Note among them the ‘Babylonians’ and ‘Elamites’, both well known from elsewhere. The aim is to bring out the widespread nature of the complainants. This was to be seen as no petty quarrel. All were to be seen as in agreement, and concerned for the welfare of the king as his noble subjects. Then comes the sweeping up statement, ‘and the rest of the nations’. By this time those ‘nations’ were a real mixture.

‘The great and noble Os-napper’. Os-napper is the Hebrew rendering of Ashur-bani-pal, and consists of As-nipal as an abbreviation of the name, which is then revocalised, with r becoming l under Persian influence. They wanted the king of Persia to know that they had never borne any grudge against their overlords, but rather respected and admired them, as, of course, they did him. They wanted him to think that they saw Ashur-bani-pal (Os-napper) as ‘great and noble’, implying by that, that that was also how as they saw the present king of Persia.

‘And set in the city of Samaria, and in the rest (of the land) beyond the River.’ These peoples had been set in Samaria and in the land west and south of the Euphrates. ‘Beyond the River’ was the name given to these lands which included Syria and Palestine. They were controlled by a Persian satrap, who was also at one stage satrap of Babylon, to whom the various ‘governors’ were responsible.

Ezra 4:11

‘And now this is the copy of the letter which they sent to Artaxerxes the king.’

These word introduce the main body of the letter. It is by these words written here in Ezra 4:11 a that the main body of the letter is distinguished from the preamble.

Ezra 4:11

“Your servants the men beyond the River.”

The preamble having provided the full details the opening address can be made in a few words. All the kings subjects were seen as his ‘servants’ from the greatest to the least, and they want him to know that it is as his ‘servants’ that they are writing. The aim will now be to demonstrate to the king how dangerous the returnees are. We must recognise that the details that we know would not be known to the king. All he would have to go on was past records and the advice passed on to him by these officials who represented a seemingly formidable group.

Ezra 4:12

“And now be it known to the king, that the Jews who came up from you are come to us to Jerusalem. They are building the rebellious and the bad city, and have finished the walls, and repaired the foundations.”

They want the king to realise what ‘the Jews who came up from you’ are doing. ‘The Jews who came up from you’ probably refers to the group who had come with Ezra which would still be at the back of his memory. They wanted him to see this group as a group of rebels who, as soon as they were out of the king’s sight, determined on rebellion. It would not have been so convincing to represent as rebels people who had already been there for over fifty years without causing any trouble, but a people stirred up to religious zeal by a formidable person like Ezra was a different matter. The point being made is that these newcomers have immediately set about building and fortifying Jerusalem. (Their charge would have had no teeth if it was the building of the Temple that was in mind).

Note their description of Jerusalem as ‘the rebellious and the bad city’. They wanted it immediately to have a tainted reputation. ‘And have finished the walls and repaired the foundation.’ This was no doubt an exaggeration. The reference to the repair of the foundations, would appear to indicate that the work on the walls was still going on, but they were far from finished, and it was, of course, due to behaviour like theirs that the walls were needed. It was they and their associates who threatened the peace of the people of Judah, not the other way round. We can compare with this the dangers from outside attack that Nehemiah would have to face when he rebuilt the walls, even though that was specifically under the authorisation of the king.

Their accusations would have been reinforced by the fact that the Persians had been experiencing trouble from the region. Ezra and his party had arrived in 458 BC. In 448 BC Megabyzus, the satrap of the province Beyond The River, raised up a revolt against Persia. If these people who were writing the letter, who may not have been involved in that rebellion, could give the impression that Jerusalem was intending to join in this revolt, it would clearly add emphasis to their letter. There was also trouble in Egypt which had been going on for some years, and was not finally put down until 454 B, four years after the arrival of Ezra. Jerusalem would be known from Babylonian records as often causing trouble in collusion with Egypt. In both cases tribute would have been withheld. Thus to a king ruling far away in Persia, who was uneasy about the region, any seemingly warlike act could have been seen as a danger.

Ezra 4:13

“Be it known now to the king, that, if this city is built, and the walls finished, they will not pay tribute, custom, or rent, and in the end it will be hurtful to the kings.”

They fed the king’s fears by pointing out that if the people of Jerusalem were allowed to make themselves secure by completing the defences, (thereby giving a clear indication that the walls were not yet finished), their next step would be to withhold ‘tribute, customs duties and rent’ (these are loan words from Akkadian and their exact equivalent is not known). And this would obviously be hurtful to the wellbeing and wealth of all future kings. The accumulation of wealth was one of the reasons for establishing an empire.

Ezra 4:14

“Now because we eat the salt of the palace (literally ‘because we have salted the salt of the palace’), and it is not fitting for us to see the king’s dishonour, therefore have we sent and certified the king,”

They wanted the king to recognise that they had no ulterior motive for their actions, and that they were writing solely due to their deep sense of loyalty to the king because having partaken of the royal benefits, they had a deep sense of what was owed to the king. To eat of someone’s salt, that is to receive their hospitality, was in ancient times to seal friendship, and give an assurance of peaceful intent. To act dishonourably after partaking of hospitality was deeply frowned on. Thus the king could be sure that their friendship and loyal support was genuine. Indeed, they wanted him to know, that it was precisely because they had such a deep sense of loyalty to him, that they had written to the king and certified what was going on. This does not necessarily signify that they had actually enjoyed hospitality at the king’s palace, although some of the leaders may well have done so when taking tribute, but simply to give that impression and indicate that they saw the benefits that they received from the king as putting them in the same position. Their words were enough to warm the heart. Who could refuse to be grateful for such touching loyalty? It was, of course, mainly pure pretence, but if they had in fact refrained from taking part in a rebellion (see above), it would have added emphasis to their claim.

In MT the words are ‘since we have salted the salt of the palace’, and this, repointed without altering the consonants, could be translated, ‘since our salt is the salt of the palace’. Solemn pledges were often linked with salt (Leviticus 2:13; Numbers 18:19; 2 Chronicles 13:5), thus alternatively they may be saying, ‘because we have made a solemn covenant with you’.

Ezra 4:15

“That search may be made in the book of the records of your fathers. So will you find in the book of the records, and know, that this city is a rebellious city, and hurtful to kings and provinces, and that they have moved sedition within the same of old time, which was the reason why this city was laid waste.”

They then unleashed their masterstroke. Let the king examine the ancient records (the records of the kings of Babylon. The Persians saw themselves as continuing the Babylonian empire). He would soon discover that Jerusalem had constantly been a rebellious city, and had caused damage to kings and provinces by their activity (especially in association with Egypt), and had been constantly involved in seditious activity. Indeed, that was the very reason why the walls of Jerusalem had been destroyed in the first place. And certainly history would have added some weight to their accusations, as three investments of Jerusalem would prove, but there was a huge difference between an established kingdom with its own army and a fierce sense of independence, and the motley group of returnees who were now in Jerusalem and rather had cause to be grateful to the kings of Persia, and were desperately seeking to protect themselves from the violent behaviour of the very people who had written the letter. The king, however, was not to know this. All he had to go on was past records, and a recognition of the instability of the region.

Ezra 4:16

“We certify to the king that, if this city be built, and the walls finished, by this means you will have no portion beyond the River.”

The writers then underlined their point with a grim (and ridiculous) warning. If the city was built no one who lived in Beyond The River would be safe. With mighty Jerusalem established the Persian empire might well find itself bereft of the province of Beyond The River. To any who know the facts such an idea was, of course, absurd. It was true that Egypt might well be a threat to the Empire with its struggle for independence. The rebellion of Megabyzus might also have been a potential danger. But little Jerusalem with its struggling immigrants was hardly in a position to affect either. They had no army, no chariots and no trained fighting men. That was why they wanted walls. The king, however, was not to know this.

The king could, of course have discovered all this by extensive enquiry, and perhaps he later did so. But for the present it was a simple matter just to make a quick check of the records and then to forbid the carrying on of the work. And that was what he did. Indeed, the fact that he stopped at that is evidence that he was not over duly concerned, simply being cautious lest there be any truth in it (it will be noted that he did not demand the dismantling of what had already been built).

Ezra 4:17

‘Then sent the king an answer to Rehum the chancellor, and to Shimshai the scribe, and to the rest of their companions who dwell in Samaria, and in the rest of Beyond the River:’

We are now given a copy of the king’s reply. This would, of course, have been produced by the recipients as evidence that they were acting on behalf of the king. The reply is addressed to those who had sent the previous letter.

Ezra 4:17

“Peace.”

A recognised form of greeting.

Ezra 4:17-19

“And now, the letter which you sent to us has been read before me word by word, and I decreed, and search has been made, and it is found that this city of old time has made insurrection against kings, and that rebellion and sedition have been made in it.”

The king confirmed that the letter had been read to him in full and that he had accordingly initiated a search of the records. And he agreed that what they had claimed had been confirmed. Jerusalem had in the past been rebellious, and had been involved in sedition against its overlords.

Ezra 4:20

“There have been mighty kings also over Jerusalem, who have ruled over all of Beyond the River, and tribute, customs duties, and rent, was paid to them.”

This picture of a mighty kingdom receiving tribute, customs duties and rent may suggest that in the records was some memory of the great days of David and Solomon, for they alone could have been described as ‘ruling over all of Beyond the River’, and indeed such a memory may have been conveyed by such men as Daniel who were high in the Babylonian, and then the Persian, hierarchy. But it might equally have been a rather exaggerated picture of the reign of kings like Hezekiah and Josiah. Either way the one time greatness of Jerusalem is brought out. The point behind the statement is that past kings of Jerusalem have indeed been mighty enough to trouble empires, reinforcing the idea of the danger that Jerusalem presented.

Alternately some see ‘the mighty kings’ as referring to the Babylonian and Persian kings, and suggest that by it the king is demonstrating that he has the same rights as his predecessor.

Ezra 4:21

“Now give an order to cause these men to cease, and that this city be not built, until a decree shall be made by me.”

So the king called on them to give an order (command) that the builders should cease work so that the city would not be fortified unless and until a decree came from him. It is not necessary to see this instruction to give an order as indicating an official decree (contrast Ezra 6:12). It is simply an instruction as to how to proceed. The word ‘order’, while of the same root as the one translated ‘decree’ in the latter half of the verse, is different from it. It is true that it is elsewhere used to indicate decrees, but that is when the orders are specifically made by the king. It is, however, also used of God ‘commanding’ where it is in contrast with the making of a decree (Ezra 6:14), whilst the same word is used of Rehum (Ezra 4:17) when he is called ‘lord commander’.

Note that there is no suggestion by the king that what had been built should be pulled down, and fortunately, in view of later events, the order was specifically described as only temporary, with a possibility of it being rescinded by a decree from the king. This may suggest that he was not altogether happy with the story that he had been told and intended that the matter should be looked into further, but, as Ezra 4:22 makes clear, he nevertheless wanted his instruction to be carried out swiftly so as to ensure there was no possibility of the king’s revenues being affected.

Ezra 4:22

“And take heed that you be not slack in this. Why should damage grow to the hurt of the kings?”

So the king then called on them not to be slack in carrying out his instructions lest damage be caused both to his own treasury, and the treasury of his successors. They were to issue the decree immediately so as to ensure the prevention of what they feared. It will be noted that he made no reference to the use of force, although, of course, he would have expected the decree to be enforced if it was necessary. Thus they went beyond their remit in using force.

Ezra 4:23

‘Then when the copy of king Artaxerxes’ letter was read before Rehum, and Shimshai the scribe, and their companions, they went in haste to Jerusalem to the Jews, and made them to cease by force and power.’

It would appear that the recipients of the letter went beyond the king’s command, for as soon as they had heard what the king had instructed they raced to Jerusalem and used violence in order to prevent the work continuing. The impression given is that, rather than issuing an order and seeing if it was carried out, they acted precipitously, probably in great glee. It was clearly a vindictive action. Nehemiah 1:3 may well be seen as indicating that it was at this time that they demolished the wall and burned the gates.

Thus the writer ends the survey of history, the aim of which was to bring out how dangerous the adversaries would turn out to be.


Verse 24

After A Period Of Stagnation Work Begins On The Rebuilding Of The House of God, Which Causes Some Concern To The Persian Governor (Ezra 4:24 to Ezra 5:5).

Revealing that the work on the house of God ceased as a result of the activities of their adversaries the writer now describes how, as a result of the prophesying of Haggai and Zechariah, the work on the Temple recommences, something which disturbs the Persian governor of the area because he is concerned about their use of valuable materials which could be being used for warlike purposes.

Ezra 4:24

‘Then the work of the house of God which is at Jerusalem ceased, and it ceased until the second year of the reign of Darius king of Persia.”

The repetition of phrases makes clear that this verse is resuming what has been spoken of in Ezra 4:5. It is a technical device found often in the Old Testament where it is necessary to indicate that what lies in between is a parenthesis. Thus Ezra 4:6-23 are such a parenthesis.

Attention is now drawn to the fact that as a result of the widespread local opposition of their enemies, the work that had begun on the Temple by laying foundations (Ezra 3:8 to Ezra 4:1) had come to a full stop. From the indications given we can probably understand why:

1) Part of the problem probably lay in acts of violence perpetrated on the new community in order to distract them (Ezra 4:4). This might have included threats, and even attacks, on their houses and families if they left them unprotected; their enemies setting fire to fields of grain, as Samson did in the times of the judges; and even vindictive attacks on the persons of the returnees themselves. All this would involve the returnees in having to take protective measures which could only prevent them from concentrating on building the Temple.

2) Furthermore, as we know, much of the timber had to be obtained from Sidon and Tyre (Ezra 3:7). This in itself would mean the work coming to a halt for a time, and with everyone against them we can imagine the difficulties that there would be in getting the supplies through. And once the work had halted for a time the initial enthusiasm would inevitably wane, especially as there were more immediate problems to be dealt with

3) The machination of counsellors who were hired to present a case against them, may well have made them afraid of what the consequences might be of continuing, with the threat of Persian interference hanging over their heads (Ezra 4:5; Ezra 5:3).

4) There were also the problems of erecting a Temple in the face of continual opposition, violently expressed against those who sought to build (Ezra 4:4).

5) Added to all this would be their own need to build their own homes and ensure the welfare of their families (Haggai 1:4).

6) Later this situation would be further exacerbated by the local famines which meant that their time was directed elsewhere as they struggled to survive (Haggai 1:6; Haggai 1:9-11).

Taken together these things would have been sufficient to deter them from making the effort to build the Temple, which in itself was a difficult enough task. It thus took the activity of two prophets, Haggai and Zechariah, to stir them into action so that they recommenced the work.

Ezra 5:1

‘Now the prophets, Haggai the prophet, and Zechariah the son of Iddo, prophesied to the Jews who were in Judah and Jerusalem, in the name of the God of Israel (who was) over them (or ‘to them’).

Things came to a head when two prophets arose and prophesied to them in the Name of the God of Israel. Their names were Haggai and Zechariah, and their prophecies were to all those who were in Judah and Jerusalem, that is to the returnees and those who supported them. Haggai is always called ‘Haggai the prophet’ (compare Ezra 6:14) even in his own writings. This may well be because his antecedents were unimportant. Zechariah’s family was clearly more distinguished. He was the ‘son of Iddo’, a well known priestly ancestor. We have here a reminder that God takes people from all backgrounds for the carrying out of His purposes. It was Haggai who was the more direct, speaking with great bluntness (see his prophecy), whilst Zechariah was more visionary, although nevertheless at times speaking equally directly. We have a record of both their messages in the books of Haggai and Zechariah.

‘The God of Israel (Who was) over them.’ This may indicate ‘over the prophets’ or it may signify ‘over the people’. In the first case it would emphasise the position of the prophets as servants of YHWH. In the second it would be a reminder of what the people owed to their God as their Sovereign Lord.

Ezra 5:2

‘Then rose up Zerubbabel the son of Shealtiel, and Jeshua the son of Jozadak, and began to build the house of God which is at Jerusalem; and with them were the prophets of God, helping them.’

The consequence of the preaching of the prophets was that the Jewish leaders, Zerubbabel the governor, and Jeshua the High Priest, spurred on the people to recommence the building of ‘the house of God which was at Jerusalem’, whilst the two prophets continued with their urging, stirring them up and encouraging them to carry on, giving them every assistance by their words. The fact that this continued activity of the prophets had to be mentioned brings out the strength of the opposition to the project. It took all the authority of Zerubbabel and Jeshua, both political and religious, together with all the urgings of the prophets, to ensure that the work carried on. And the problems were exacerbated when the opposition dropped a word in the ear of the Persian the Governor of the Province of Beyond the River, no doubt with deceptive inferences, in order to force him to look into what they were doing. A report of people who were building with ‘massive stones’ would be enough in itself to force him to take an interest.

Ezra 5:3

‘At the same time came to them Tattenai, the governor of Beyond the River, and Shethar-bozenai, and their companions, and said thus to them, Who gave you a decree to build this house, and to shape and fashion for use (literally ‘finish’) this material?’

We can well imagine the consternation of the returnees when no less a person than Tattenai, Governor of the Province of Beyond the River, arrived, supported by a group of Persian inspectors, enquiring as to who had given them the order to commence this work and what were the names of the persons involved. It appears to have been a genuine enquiry rather than an accusation, as is evidenced by the fact that the work was allowed to continue while a decision was reached. He could see that they were building a Temple. The ‘material’ was probably the cedar wood from Sidon and Tyre which had presumably arrived a considerable time before, together with timber from the local forests (Ezra 3:7; Haggai 1:8). This would have been piled up in readiness for use, although there may also be in it a reference to the blocks of stone which would also have been needed. The word used for ‘material’ is used in Scripture only here and in Ezra 4:9, (translated in LXX as material) and earlier guesses were that it meant ‘wall’, but external Aramaic sources have confirmed that it in fact indicates ‘building materials’.

A similar name to Tattenai (Tattani), together with his designation as ‘Governor of Eber-nari (Beyond the River), has been found in a Babylonian record dated 502 BC. He was under-governor to Ushtani the satrap of Babylon. Shethar-bozenai has been demonstrated from Aramaic papyri to be a good Persian name. The companions were probably Persian inspectors (OP frasarka). This may suggest that tight control was kept by the Persians over the use of valuable building materials. It was with such that prospective rebels made strong fortifications.

Ezra 5:4

‘Then we said to them in this way, what the names of the men were who were making this building.’

The change to ‘we’ is unexpected. It may well suggest a personal reminiscence of the writer as one who was present at the scene, either asserting boldly that ‘we were not afraid to identify ourselves’, or possibly indicating apprehension at having to provide names to the Persian authorities, or both. It would be in answer to a question posed to them as described in Ezra 4:10. The ‘we’ may also be emphasising that ‘all of us’ were involved in the reply, not just the elders. It was thus a declaration of faith, for giving their names might easily have turned against them. But their confidence was in God, and so they were not afraid. The idea would appear to be that in response to the question in Ezra 4:3 the whole party of builders attempted to hide nothing, but boldly and personally took responsibility for what they were doing.

Alternately it may be a direct reflection of Ezra 4:10, while taking up the reference to Tattenai and his inspectors in Ezra 4:3, it being stated in the first person with the purpose of making the background to the question ‘what are the names of the men who are making this building?’ more vivid. Indeed, if Ezra 4:3-4 were being constructed by the writer on the basis of the letter sent to Darius, he may well have been so involved in the spirit of the letter that he utilised the same ‘person’ in relation to the question as was used in Ezra 4:10.

Ezra 5:5

‘And the eye of their God was on the elders of the Jews, and they did not make them cease, till the matter should come to Darius, and then answer should be returned by letter concerning it.’

The writer then returns to the third person and gives credit to the God of the elders of the Jews for the fact that they were not made to stop working while the matter was being referred to Darius. While the eye of Persia may have been upon them in the person of the inspectors, the eye of God was also upon them too, overruling the eye of the inspectors. And the consequence was that the inspectors did not interfere with the work, but allowed them to continue their work until they had received a reply from Darius. For as Zechariah had made clear, ‘the eyes of YHWH run to and fro throughout the whole earth’ (Zechariah 4:10) ensuring the fulfilling of His purposes, and this in the direct context of the completing of the building of the Temple.

This reference to the eye of God being on them may be seen as supporting the idea that Ezra 4:4 was meant to be seen as a bold reply to the question posed in Ezra 4:3, put in such a way as to impress the Persian governor.


Verse 24

The Eventual Building Of The Temple And The Observance Of The Passover (Ezra 4:24 to Ezra 6:22).

This passage now returns to take up the account of the building of the Temple from Ezra 4:5 where reference was made to the hired counsellors who sought to frustrate the building of the Temple ‘all the days of Cyrus, king of Persia, even unto the reign of Darius, king of Persia’ It commences in Ezra 4:24 by indicating that their attempts were successful to the extent that work on the Temple ceased ‘until the second year of the reign of Darius king of Persia.’ Then from Ezra 5:1 inwards we are told of how the work on the Temple once more began, finally being confirmed by a decree of Darius in which he commanded that all assistance be given for that rebuilding from the revenues of the Province of Beyond The River. In consequence the House was finally built and the Passover observed. The verses in Ezra 4:6-23 are to be seen as a parenthesis, dealing with later matters concerning the building of the defensive walls of Jerusalem.

 


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Bibliography Information
Pett, Peter. "Commentary on Ezra 4:4". "Peter Pett's Commentary on the Bible ". http://odl.studylight.org/commentaries/pet/ezra-4.html. 2013.

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