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Bible Commentaries

Expositor's Bible Commentary

Ezra 4

 

 

Verses 1-5

THE LIMITS OF COMPREHENSION

Ezra 4:1-5; Ezra 4:24

THE fourth chapter of the Book of Ezra introduces the vexed question of the limits of comprehension in religion by affording a concrete illustration of it in a very acute form. Communities, like individual organisms, can only live by means of a certain adjustment to their environment, in the settlement of which there necessarily arises a serious struggle to determine what shall be absorbed and what rejected, how far it is desirable to admit alien bodies and to what extent it is necessary to exclude them. The difficulty thus occasioned appeared in the company of returned exiles soon after they had begun to rebuild the temple at Jerusalem. It was the seed of many troubles. The anxieties and disappointments which overshadowed the subsequent history of nearly all of them sprang from this one source. Here we are brought to a very distinguishing characteristic of the Persian period. The idea of Jewish exclusiveness which has been so singular a feature in the whole course of Judaism right down to our own day was now in its birth-throes. Like a young Hercules, it had to fight for its life in its very cradle. It first appeared in the anxious compilation of genealogical registers and the careful sifting of the qualifications of the pilgrims before they left Babylon. In the events which followed the settlement at Jerusalem it came forward with determined insistence on its rights, in opposition to a very tempting offer which would have been fatal to its very existence.

The chronicler introduces the neighbouring people under the title "The adversaries of Judah and Benjamin"; but in doing so he is describing them according to their later actions; when they first appear on his pages their attitude is friendly, and there is no reason to suspect any hypocrisy in it. We cannot take them to be the remainder of the Israelite inhabitants of the Northern Kingdom who had been permitted to stay in their land when their brethren had been violently expelled by the Assyrians, and who were now either showing their old enmity to Judah and Benjamin by trying to pick a new quarrel, or, on the other hand, manifesting a better spirit and seeking reconciliation. No doubt such people existed, especially in the north, where they became, in part at least, the ancestors of the Galileans of New Testament times. But the men now referred to distinctly assert that they were brought up to Palestine by the Assyrian king Esarhaddon. Neither can they be the descendants of the Israelite priests who were sent at the request of the colonists to teach them the religion of the land when they were alarmed at an incursion of lions; [2 Kings 17:25-28] for only one priest is directly mentioned in the history, and though he may have had companions and assistants, the small college of missionaries could not be called "the people of the land" (Ezra 4:4). These people must be the foreign colonists. There were Chaldaeans from Babylon and the neighbouring cities of Cutha and Sepharvaim (the modern Mosaib), Elamites from Susa, Phoenicians from Sidon-if we may trust Josephus here (Ant., 12, v. 5) - and Arabs from Petra. These had been introduced on four successive occasions-first, as the Assyrian inscriptions show, by Sargon, who sent two sets of colonists; then by Esarhaddon; and, lastly, by Ashurbanipal. (The "Onsnappar" of Ezra 4:10) The various nationalities had had time to become well amalgamated together, for the first colonisation had happened a hundred and eighty years, and the latest colonisation a hundred and thirty Years, before the Jews returned from Babylon. As the successive exportations of Israelites went on side by side with the successive importations of foreigners, the two classes must have lived together for some time; and even after the last captivity of the Israelites had been effected, those who were still left in the land would have come into contact with the colonists. Thus, apart from the special mission of the priest whose business it was to introduce the rites of sacrificial worship, the popular religion of the Israelites would have become known to the mixed heathen people who were settled among them.

These neighbours assert that they worship the God whom the Jews at Jerusalem worship, and that they have sacrificed to Him since the days of Esarhaddon, the Assyrian king to whom, in particular, they attribute their being brought up to Palestine, possibly because the ancestors of the deputation to Jerusalem were among the colonists planted by that king. For a century and a half they have acknowledged the God of the Jews. They therefore request to be permitted to assist in rebuilding the temple at Jerusalem. At the first blush of it their petition looks reasonable and even generous. The Jews were poor; a great work lay before them; and the inadequacy of their means in view of what they aimed at had plunged the less enthusiastic among them into grief and despair. Here was an offer of assistance that might prove most efficacious. The idea of centralisation in worship of which Josiah had made so much would be furthered by this means, because instead of following the example of the Israelites before the exile who had their altar at Bethel, the colonists proposed to take part in the erection of the one Jewish temple at Jerusalem. If their previous habit of offering sacrifices in their own territory was offensive to rigorous Jews, although they might speak of it quite naively, because they were unconscious that there was anything objectionable in it and even regard it as meritorious, the very way to abolish this ancient custom was to give the colonists an interest in the central shrine. If their religion was defective, how could it be improved better than by bringing them into contact with the law-abiding Jews? While the offer of the colonists promised aid to the Jews in building the temple, it also afforded them a grand missionary opportunity for carrying out the broad programme of the Second Isaiah, who had promised the spread of the light of God’s grace among the Gentiles.

In view of these considerations we cannot but read the account of the absolute rejection of the offer by Zerubbabel, Jeshua, and the rest of the twelve leaders with a sense of painful disappointment. The less pleasing side of religious intensity here presents itself. Zeal seems to be passing into fanaticism. A selfish element mars the picture of whole-hearted devotion which was so delightfully portrayed in the history of the returned exiles up to this time. The leaders are cautious enough to couch their answer in terms that seem to hint at their inability to comply with the friendly request of their neighbours, however much they may wish to do so, because of the limitation imposed upon them in the edict of Cyrus which confined the command to build the temple at Jerusalem to the Jews. But it is evident that the secret of the refusal is in the mind and will of the Jews themselves. They absolutely decline any co-operation with the colonists. There is a sting in the carefully chosen language with which they define their work; they call it building a house "unto our God." Thus they not only accept the polite phrase "Your God" employed by the colonists in addressing them; but by markedly accentuating its limitation they disallow any right of the colonists to claim the same divinity.

Such a curt refusal of friendly overtures was naturally most offensive to the people who received it. But their subsequent conduct was so bitterly ill-natured that we are driven to think they must have had some selfish aims from the first. They at once set some paid agents to work at court to poison the mind of the government with calumnies about the Jews. It is scarcely likely that they were able to win Cyrus over to their side against his favourite proteges. The king may have been too absorbed with the great affairs of his vast dominions for any murmur of this business to reach him while it was being disposed of by some official. But perhaps the matter did not come up till after Cyrus had handed over the government to his son Cambyses, which he did in the year B.C. 532-three years before his death. At all events the calumnies were successful. The work of the temple building was arrested at its very commencement-for as yet little more had been done beyond collecting materials. The Jews were paying dearly for their exclusiveness.

All this looks very miserable. But let us examine the situation.

We should show a total lack of the historical spirit if we were to judge the conduct of Zerubbabel and his companions by the broad principles of Christian liberalism. We must take into account their religious training and the measure of light to which they had attained. We must also consider the singularly difficult position in which they were placed. They were not a nation; they were a Church. Their very existence, therefore, depended upon a certain ecclesiastical organisation. They must have shaped themselves according to some definite lines, or they would have melted away into the mass of mixed. nationalities and debased eclectic religions with which they were surrounded. Whether the course of personal exclusiveness which they chose was wisest and best may be fairly questioned. It has been the course followed by their children all through the centuries, and it has acquired this much of justification-it has succeeded. Judaism has been preserved by Jewish exclusiveness. We may think that the essential truths of Judaism might have been maintained by other means which would have allowed of a more gracious treatment of outsiders. Meanwhile, however, we must see that Zerubbabel and his companions were not simply indulging in churlish unsociability when they rejected the request of their neighbours. Rightly or wrongly, they took this disagreeable course with a great purpose in mind.

Then we must understand what the request of the colonists really involved. It is true they only asked to be allowed to assist in building the temple. But it would have been impossible to stay here. If they had taken an active share in the labour and sacrifice of the construction of the temple, they could not have been excluded afterwards from taking part in the temple worship. This is the more clear since the very grounds of their request were that they worshipped and sacrificed to the God of the Jews. Now a great prophet had predicted that God’s house was to be a house of prayer for all nations. [Isaiah 56:7] But the Jews at Jerusalem belonged to a very different school of thought. With them, as we have learnt from the genealogies, the racial idea was predominant. Judaism was for the Jews.

But let us understand what that religion was which the colonists asserted to be identical with the religion of the returned exiles. They said they worshipped the God of the Jews, but it was after the manner of the people of the Northern Kingdom. In the days of the Israelites that worship had been associated with the steer at Bethel, and the people of Jerusalem had condemned the degenerate religion of their northern brethren as sinful in the sight of God. But the colonists had not confined themselves to this. They had combined their old idolatrous religion with that of the newly adopted indigenous divinity of Palestine. "They feared the Lord, and served their own gods." [Isaiah 56:7] Between them, they adored a host of Pagan divinities, whose barbarous names are grimly noted by the Hebrew historian-Succoth-benoth, Nergal, Ashima, etc. [2 Kings 17:30-31] There is no evidence to show that this heathenism had become extinct by the time of the rebuilding of the Jerusalem temple. At all events, the bastard product of such a worship as that of the Bethel steer and the Babylonian and Phoenician divinities, even when purged of its most gross corruption, was not likely to be after the mind of the puritan pilgrims. The colonists did not offer to adopt the traditional Torah, which the returned exiles were sedulously observing.

Still it may be said, if the people were imperfect in knowledge and corrupt in practice, might not the Jews have enlightened and helped them? We are reminded of the reproach that Bede brings so sternly against the ancient British Christians when he blames them for not having taught the gospel to the Saxon heathen who had invaded their land. How far it would have been possible for a feeble people to evangelise their more powerful neighbours, in either case, it is impossible to say.

It cannot be denied, however, that in their refusal the Jews gave prominence to racial and not to religious distinctions. Yet even in this matter it would be unreasonable for us to expect them to have surpassed the early Christian Church at Jerusalem and to have anticipated the daring liberalism of St. Paul. The followers of St. James were reluctant to receive any converts into their communion except on condition of circumcision. This meant that Gentiles must become Jews before they could be recognised as Christians. Now there was no sign that the mixed race of colonists ever contemplated becoming Jews by humbling themselves to a rite of initiation. Even if most of them were already circumcised, as far as we know none of them gave an indication of willingness to subject themselves wholly to Jewish ordinances. To receive them, therefore, would be contrary to the root principle of Judaism. It is not fair to mete out a harsh condemnation to Jews who declined to do what was only allowed among Christians after a desperate struggle, which separated the leader of the liberal party from many of his brethren and left him for a long while under a cloud of suspicion.

Great confusion has been imported into the controversy on Church comprehension by not keeping it separate from the question of tolerance in religion. The two are distinct in many respects. Comprehension is an ecclesiastical matter; tolerance is primarily concerned with the policy of the state. Whilst it is admitted that nobody should be coerced in his religion by the state, it is not therefore to be assumed that everybody is to be received into the Church.

Nevertheless we feel that there is, a real and vital connection between the ideas of tolerance and Church comprehensiveness. A Church may become culpably intolerant, although she may not use the power of the state for the execution of her mandates; she may contrive many painful forms of persecution, without resorting to the rack and the thumb-screw. The question therefore arises, What are the limits to tolerance within a Church? The attempt to fix these limits by creeds and canons has not been wholly successful, either in excluding the unworthy or in including the most desirable members. The drift of thought in the present day being towards wider comprehensiveness, it becomes increasingly desirable to determine on what principles this may be attained. Good men are weary of the little garden walled around, and they doubt whether it is altogether the Lord’s peculiar ground; they have discovered that many of the flowers of the field are fair and fragrant, and they have a keen suspicion that not a few weeds may lurk even in the trim parterre; so they look over the wall and long for breath and brotherhood, in a large recognition of all that is good in the world. Now the dull religious lethargy of the eighteenth century is a warning against the chief danger that threatens those who yield themselves to this fascinating impulse. Latitudinarianism sought to widen the fold that had been narrowed on one side by sacerdotal pretensions and on the other side by puritan rigour. The result was that the fold almost disappeared. Then religion was nearly swallowed up in the swamps of indifference. This deplorable issue of a well-meant attempt to serve the cause of charity suggests that there is little good in breaking down the barriers of exclusiveness unless we have first established a potent centre of unity. If we have put an end to division simply by destroying the interests which once divided men, we have only attained the communion of death. In the graveyard friend and foe lie peaceably side by side, but only because both are dead. Wherever there is life two opposite influences are invariably at work. There is a force of attraction drawing in all that is congenial, and there is a force of a contrary character repelling everything that is uncongenial. Any attempt to tamper with either of these forces must result in disaster. A social or an ecclesiastical division that arbitrarily crosses the lines of natural affinity creates a schism in the body, and leads to a painful mutilation of fellowship. On the other hand, a forced comprehension of alien elements produces internal friction, which often leads to an explosion, shattering the whole fabric. But the common mistake has been in attending to the circumference and neglecting the centre, in beating the bounds of the parish instead of fortifying the citadel. The liberalism of St. Paul was not latitudinarian, because it was inspired by a vital principle which served as the centre of all his teaching. He preached liberty and comprehensiveness, because he had first preached Christ. In Christ he found at once a bond of union and an escape from narrowness. The middle wall of partition was broken down, not by a Vandal armed with nothing better than the besom of destruction, but by the Founder of a new kingdom, who could dispense with artificial restrictions because He could draw all men unto Himself.

Unfortunately the returned captives at Jerusalem did not feel conscious of any such spiritual centre of unity. They might have found it in their grandly simple creed, in their faith in God. But their absorption in sacrificial ritual and its adjuncts shows that they were too much under the influence of religious externalism. This being the case, they could only preserve the purity of their communion by carefully guarding its gates. It is pitiable to see that they could find no better means of doing this than the harsh test of racial integrity. Their action in this matter fostered a pride of birth which was as injurious to their own better lives as it was to the extension of their religion in the world. But so long as they were incapable of a larger method, if they had accepted counsels of liberalism they would have lost themselves and their mission. Looking at the positive side of their mission, we see how the Jews were called to bear witness to the great principle of separateness. This principle is as essential to Christianity as it was to Judaism. The only difference is that with the more spiritual faith it takes a more spiritual form. The people of God must ever be consecrated to God, and therefore separate from sin, separate from the world-separate unto God.

NOTE.-For the section Ezra 4:6-23 see Chapter 14. This section is marked by a change of language; the writer adopts Aramaic at Ezra 4:8, and he continues in that language down to Ezra 6:18. The decree of Artaxerxes in Ezra 7:12-26 is also in Aramaic.


Verses 6-23

THE COST OF AN IDEALIST’S SUCCESS

Ezra 4:6-23

THE fourth chapter of the Book of Ezra contains an account of a correspondence between the Samaritan colonists and two kings of Persia, which follows sharply on the first mention of the intrigues of the enemies of Judah and Benjamin at the Persian court in the later days of Cyrus, and which precedes the description of the fortunes of the Jews in the reign of Darius. If this has its right chronological position in the narrative, it must relate to the interval during which the temple-building was in abeyance. In that case the two kings of Persia would be Cambyses, the son and successor of Cyrus, and Pseudo-Bardes. But the names in the text are Ahasuerus (Ahashverosh) and Artaxerxes (Artahshashta). It has been suggested that these are second names for the predecessors of Darius. Undoubtedly it was customary for Persian monarchs to have more than one name. But elsewhere in the Biblical narratives these two names are invariably applied to the successors of Darius-the first standing for the welt-known Xerxes and the second for Artaxerxes Longimanus. The presumption therefore is that the same kings are designated by them here. Moreover, when we examine the account of the correspondence with the Persian court, we find that this agrees best with the later period. The opening verses of the fourth chapter of Ezra deal with the building of the temple; the last verse of that chapter and the succeeding narrative of the fifth chapter resume the same topic. But the correspondence relates to the building of the walls of the city. There is not a word about any such work in the context. Then in the letter addressed to Artaxerxes the writers describe the builders of the walls as "the Jews which came up from thee." [Ezra 4:12] This description would not fit Zerubbabel and his followers, who migrated under Cyrus. But it would apply to those who accompanied Ezra to Jerusalem in the reign of Artaxerxes. Lastly, the reign of Pseudo-Bardes is too brief for all that would have to be crowded into it. It only occupied seven months. Yet a letter is sent up from the enemies of the Jews; inquiry is made into the history of Jerusalem by Persian officials at the court; a reply based on this inquiry is transmitted to Palestine; in consequence of this reply an expedition is organised which effectually stops the works at Jerusalem, but only after the exercise of force on the spot. It is nearly impossible for all this to have happened in so short a time as seven months. All the indications therefore concur to assign the correspondence to the later period.

The chronicler must have inserted this section out of its order for some reason of his own. Probably he desired to accentuate the impression of the malignant and persistent enmity of the colonists, and with this end in view described the later acts of antagonism directly after mentioning the first outbreak of opposition. It is just possible that he perceived the unfavourable character of his picture of the Jews in their curt refusal of assistance from their neighbours, and that he desired to balance this by an accumulation of weighty indictments against the people whom the Jews had treated so ungraciously.

In his account of the correspondence with the Persian court the chronicler seems to have taken note of three separate letters from the unfriendly colonists. First, he tells us that in the beginning of the reign of Ahasuerus they wrote an accusation against the Jews. [Ezra 4:6] This was before the mission of Ezra, therefore it was a continuance of the old opposition that had been seen in the intrigues that preceded the reign of Darius; it shows that after the death of that friendly monarch the slumbering fires broke out afresh. Next, he names certain men who wrote to Artaxerxes, and he adds that their letter was translated and written in the Aramaic language-the language which was the common medium of intercourse in trade and official affairs among the mixed races inhabiting Syria and all the regions west of the Euphrates. [Ezra 4:7] The reference to this language probably arises from the fact that the chronicler had seen a copy of the translation. He does not tell us anything either of the nationality of the writers or of the subject of their letter. It has been suggested that they were Jews in Jerusalem who wrote to plead their cause with the Persian king. The fact that two of them bore Persian names-viz., Bishlam and Mithredath-does not present a serious difficulty to this view, as we know that some Jews received such names, Zerubbabel, for example, being named Sheshbazzar. But as the previous passage refers to an accusation against the Jews, and as the following sentences give an account of a letter also written by the inimical colonists, it is scarcely likely that the intermediate colourless verse which mentions the letter of Bishlam and his companions is of a different character. We should expect some more explicit statement if that were the case. Moreover, it is most improbable that the passage which follows would begin abruptly without an adversative conjunction as is the case if it proceeded to describe a letter provoked by opposition to another letter just mentioned. Therefore we must regard Bishlam and his companions as enemies of the Jews. Now some who have accepted this view have maintained that the letter of Bishlam and his friends is no other than the letter ascribed to Rehum and Shimshai in the following verses. It is stated that the former letter was in the Aramaic language, and the letter which is ascribed to the two great officials is in that language. But the distinct statement that each group of men wrote a letter seems to imply that there were two letters written in the reign of Artaxerxes, or three in all.

The third letter is the only one that the chronicler has preserved. He gives it in the Aramaic language, and from Ezra 4:8, where this is introduced, to Ezra 6:18, his narrative proceeds in that language, probably because he found his materials in some Aramaic document.

Some have assigned this letter to the period of the reign of Artaxerxes prior to the mission of Ezra. But there are two reasons for thinking it must have been written after that mission. The first has been already referred to-viz., that the complaint about "the Jews which came up from thee" points to some large migration during the reign of Artaxerxes, which must be Ezra’s expedition. The second reason arises from a comparison of the results of the correspondence with the description of Jerusalem in the opening of the Book of Nehemiah. The violence of the Samaritans recorded in Ezra 4:23 will account for the deplorable state of Jerusalem mentioned in Nehemiah 1:3, the effects of the invasion referred to in the former passage agreeing well with the condition of the dismantled city reported to Nehemiah. But in the history of Ezra’s expedition no reference is made to any such miserable state of affairs. Thus the correspondence must be assigned to the time between the close of Ezra and the beginning of Nehemiah.

It is to Ezra’s company, then, that the correspondence with Artaxerxes refers. There were two parties in Jerusalem, and the opposition was against the active reforming party, which now had the upper hand in the city. Immediately we consider this, the cause of the continuance and increase of the antagonism of the colonists becomes apparent. Ezra’s harsh reformation in the expulsion of foreign wives must have struck the divorced women as a cruel and insulting outrage. Driven back to their paternal homes with their burning wrongs, these poor women must have roused the utmost indignation among their people. Thus the reformer had stirred up a hornet’s nest. The legislator who ventures to interfere with the sacred privacy of domestic life excites the deepest passions, and a wise man will think twice before he meddles in so dangerous a business. Only the most imperative requirements of religion and righteousness can justify such a course, and even when it is justified nobody can foresee how far the trouble it brings may spread.

The letter which the chronicler transcribes seems to have been the most important of the three. It was written by two great Persian officials. In our English versions the first of these is called "the chancellor," and the second "the scribe." "The chancellor" was probably the governor of a large district, of which Palestine was but a provincial section, and "the scribe" his secretary. Accordingly it is apparent that the persistent enmity of the colonists, their misrepresentations, and perhaps their bribes, had resulted in instigating opposition to the Jews in very high places. The action of the Jews themselves may have excited suspicion in the mind of the Persian Satrap, for it would seem from his letter that they had just commenced to fortify their city. The names of the various peoples who are associated with these two great men in the title of the letter also show how far the opposition to the Jews had spread. They are given as the peoples whom Osnappar (Esar-bani-pal) had brought over and set in the city of Samaria, "and in the rest of the country beyond the river." [Ezra 4:10] That is to say, the settlers in the vast district west of the Euphrates are included. Here were Apharsathchites- who cannot be the Persians, as some have thought, because no Assyrian king ever seems to have penetrated to Persia, but may be the Paraetaceni of Herodotus, (1, 101), a Median people: Tarpelites- probably the people named among the Hebrews after Tubal: [Genesis 10:2] Apharsites- also wrongly identified by some with the Persians, but probably another Median people: Archeviles, from the ancient Erech (Uruk): [Genesis 10:10] Babylonians, not only from the city of Babylon, but also from its neighbourhood, Shushanchites, from Shusan (Susa), the capital of Susiana, Dehaites- possibly the Dai of Herodotus, (1, 125) because, though these were Persians, they were nomads who may have wandered far, Elamites, from the country of which Susa was capital. A terrific array! The very names would be imposing. All these people were now united in a common bond of enmity to the Jews of Jerusalem. Anticipating the fate of the Christians in the Roman Empire, though on very different grounds, the Jews seem to have been regarded by the peoples of Western Asia with positive antipathy as enemies of the human race. Their anti-social conduct had alienated all who knew them. But the letter of indictment brought a false charge against them. The opponents of the Jews could not formulate any charge out of their real grievances sufficiently grave to secure an adverse verdict from the supreme authority.

They therefore trumped up an accusation of treason. It was untrue, for the Jews at Jerusalem had always been the most peaceable and loyal subjects of the Great King. The search which was made into the previous history of the city could only have brought to light any evidence of a spirit of independence as far back as the time of the Babylonian invasions. Still this was enough to supplement the calumnies of the irritated opponents which the Satrap and his secretary had been persuaded to echo with all the authority of their high position. Moreover, Egypt was now in revolt, and the king may have been persuaded to suspect the Jews of sympathy with the rebels. So Jerusalem was condemned as a "bad city"; the Persian officials went up and forcibly stopped the building of the walls, and the Jews were reduced to a condition of helpless misery.

This was the issue of Ezra’s reformation. Can we call it a success? The answer to such a question will depend on what kind of success we may be looking for. Politically, socially, regarded from the standpoint of material profit and loss, there was nothing but the most dismal failure. But Ezra was not a statesman; he did not aim at national greatness, nor did he aim even at social amelioration. In our own day, when social improvements are regarded by many as the chief ends of government and philanthropy, it is difficult to sympathise with conduct which ran counter to the home comforts and commercial prosperity of the people. A policy which deliberately wrecked these obviously attractive objects of life in pursuit of entirely different aims is so completely remote from modern habits of thought and conduct that we have to make a considerable effort of imagination if we would understand the man who promoted it. How are we to picture him?

Ezra was an idealist. Now the success of an idealist is not to be sought for in material prosperity. He lives for his idea. If this idea triumphs he is satisfied, because he has attained the one kind of success he aimed at. He is not rich, but he never sowed the seed of wealth. He may never be honoured; he has determined to set himself against the current of popular fashion; how then can he expect popular favour? Possibly he may meet with misapprehension, contempt, hatred, death. The greatest Idealist the world ever saw was excommunicated as a heretic, insulted by His opponents, and deserted by most of His friends, tortured and crucified. The best of His disciples, those who had caught the enthusiasm of His idea, were treated as the offscouring of the earth. Yet we now recognise that the grandest victory ever achieved was won at Calvary, and we now regard the travels of St. Paul, through stoning and scourging, through Jewish hatred and Christian jealousy, on to the block, as nothing less than a magnificent triumphant march. The idealist succeeds when his idea is established.

Judged by this standard-the only fair standard-Ezra’s work cannot be pronounced a failure. On the contrary, he accomplished just what he aimed at. He established the separateness of the Jews. Among ourselves, more than two thousand years after his time, his great idea is still the most marked feature of his people. All along the ages it has provoked jealousy and suspicion, and often it has been met by cruel persecution. The separate people have been treated as only too separate from the rest of mankind. Thus the history of the Jews has become one long tragedy. It is infinitely sad. Yet it is incomparably more noble than the hollow comedy of existence to which the absence of all aims apart from personal pleasure reduces the story of those people who have sunk so low that they have no ideas. Moreover, with Ezra the racial idea was really subordinate to the religious idea. To secure the worship of God, free from all contamination-this was his ultimate purpose. In accomplishing it he must have a devoted people also free from contamination, a priesthood still more separate and consecrated, and a ritual carefully guarded and protected from defilement. Hence arose his great work in publishing the authoritative codified scriptures of the Jews. To a Christian all this has its defects-formalism, externalism, needless narrowness. Yet it succeeded in saving the religion of the Jews, and in transmitting that religion to future ages as a precious casket containing the seed of the great spiritual faith for which the world was waiting. There is something of the schoolmaster in Ezra, but he is like the law he loved so devoutly-a schoolmaster who brings us to Christ. He was needed both for his times and also in order to lay the foundation of coming ages. Who shall say that such a man was not sent of God? How can we deny to his unique work the inspiration of the Holy Spirit? The harshness of its outward features must not blind us to the sublimity of its inner thought or the beneficence of its ultimate purpose.


Verse 24

5

THE LIMITS OF COMPREHENSION

Ezra 4:1-5; Ezra 4:24

THE fourth chapter of the Book of Ezra introduces the vexed question of the limits of comprehension in religion by affording a concrete illustration of it in a very acute form. Communities, like individual organisms, can only live by means of a certain adjustment to their environment, in the settlement of which there necessarily arises a serious struggle to determine what shall be absorbed and what rejected, how far it is desirable to admit alien bodies and to what extent it is necessary to exclude them. The difficulty thus occasioned appeared in the company of returned exiles soon after they had begun to rebuild the temple at Jerusalem. It was the seed of many troubles. The anxieties and disappointments which overshadowed the subsequent history of nearly all of them sprang from this one source. Here we are brought to a very distinguishing characteristic of the Persian period. The idea of Jewish exclusiveness which has been so singular a feature in the whole course of Judaism right down to our own day was now in its birth-throes. Like a young Hercules, it had to fight for its life in its very cradle. It first appeared in the anxious compilation of genealogical registers and the careful sifting of the qualifications of the pilgrims before they left Babylon. In the events which followed the settlement at Jerusalem it came forward with determined insistence on its rights, in opposition to a very tempting offer which would have been fatal to its very existence.

The chronicler introduces the neighbouring people under the title "The adversaries of Judah and Benjamin"; but in doing so he is describing them according to their later actions; when they first appear on his pages their attitude is friendly, and there is no reason to suspect any hypocrisy in it. We cannot take them to be the remainder of the Israelite inhabitants of the Northern Kingdom who had been permitted to stay in their land when their brethren had been violently expelled by the Assyrians, and who were now either showing their old enmity to Judah and Benjamin by trying to pick a new quarrel, or, on the other hand, manifesting a better spirit and seeking reconciliation. No doubt such people existed, especially in the north, where they became, in part at least, the ancestors of the Galileans of New Testament times. But the men now referred to distinctly assert that they were brought up to Palestine by the Assyrian king Esarhaddon. Neither can they be the descendants of the Israelite priests who were sent at the request of the colonists to teach them the religion of the land when they were alarmed at an incursion of lions; [2 Kings 17:25-28] for only one priest is directly mentioned in the history, and though he may have had companions and assistants, the small college of missionaries could not be called "the people of the land" (Ezra 4:4). These people must be the foreign colonists. There were Chaldaeans from Babylon and the neighbouring cities of Cutha and Sepharvaim (the modern Mosaib), Elamites from Susa, Phoenicians from Sidon-if we may trust Josephus here (Ant., 12, v. 5) - and Arabs from Petra. These had been introduced on four successive occasions-first, as the Assyrian inscriptions show, by Sargon, who sent two sets of colonists; then by Esarhaddon; and, lastly, by Ashurbanipal. (The "Onsnappar" of Ezra 4:10) The various nationalities had had time to become well amalgamated together, for the first colonisation had happened a hundred and eighty years, and the latest colonisation a hundred and thirty Years, before the Jews returned from Babylon. As the successive exportations of Israelites went on side by side with the successive importations of foreigners, the two classes must have lived together for some time; and even after the last captivity of the Israelites had been effected, those who were still left in the land would have come into contact with the colonists. Thus, apart from the special mission of the priest whose business it was to introduce the rites of sacrificial worship, the popular religion of the Israelites would have become known to the mixed heathen people who were settled among them.

These neighbours assert that they worship the God whom the Jews at Jerusalem worship, and that they have sacrificed to Him since the days of Esarhaddon, the Assyrian king to whom, in particular, they attribute their being brought up to Palestine, possibly because the ancestors of the deputation to Jerusalem were among the colonists planted by that king. For a century and a half they have acknowledged the God of the Jews. They therefore request to be permitted to assist in rebuilding the temple at Jerusalem. At the first blush of it their petition looks reasonable and even generous. The Jews were poor; a great work lay before them; and the inadequacy of their means in view of what they aimed at had plunged the less enthusiastic among them into grief and despair. Here was an offer of assistance that might prove most efficacious. The idea of centralisation in worship of which Josiah had made so much would be furthered by this means, because instead of following the example of the Israelites before the exile who had their altar at Bethel, the colonists proposed to take part in the erection of the one Jewish temple at Jerusalem. If their previous habit of offering sacrifices in their own territory was offensive to rigorous Jews, although they might speak of it quite naively, because they were unconscious that there was anything objectionable in it and even regard it as meritorious, the very way to abolish this ancient custom was to give the colonists an interest in the central shrine. If their religion was defective, how could it be improved better than by bringing them into contact with the law-abiding Jews? While the offer of the colonists promised aid to the Jews in building the temple, it also afforded them a grand missionary opportunity for carrying out the broad programme of the Second Isaiah, who had promised the spread of the light of God’s grace among the Gentiles.

In view of these considerations we cannot but read the account of the absolute rejection of the offer by Zerubbabel, Jeshua, and the rest of the twelve leaders with a sense of painful disappointment. The less pleasing side of religious intensity here presents itself. Zeal seems to be passing into fanaticism. A selfish element mars the picture of whole-hearted devotion which was so delightfully portrayed in the history of the returned exiles up to this time. The leaders are cautious enough to couch their answer in terms that seem to hint at their inability to comply with the friendly request of their neighbours, however much they may wish to do so, because of the limitation imposed upon them in the edict of Cyrus which confined the command to build the temple at Jerusalem to the Jews. But it is evident that the secret of the refusal is in the mind and will of the Jews themselves. They absolutely decline any co-operation with the colonists. There is a sting in the carefully chosen language with which they define their work; they call it building a house "unto our God." Thus they not only accept the polite phrase "Your God" employed by the colonists in addressing them; but by markedly accentuating its limitation they disallow any right of the colonists to claim the same divinity.

Such a curt refusal of friendly overtures was naturally most offensive to the people who received it. But their subsequent conduct was so bitterly ill-natured that we are driven to think they must have had some selfish aims from the first. They at once set some paid agents to work at court to poison the mind of the government with calumnies about the Jews. It is scarcely likely that they were able to win Cyrus over to their side against his favourite proteges. The king may have been too absorbed with the great affairs of his vast dominions for any murmur of this business to reach him while it was being disposed of by some official. But perhaps the matter did not come up till after Cyrus had handed over the government to his son Cambyses, which he did in the year B.C. 532-three years before his death. At all events the calumnies were successful. The work of the temple building was arrested at its very commencement-for as yet little more had been done beyond collecting materials. The Jews were paying dearly for their exclusiveness.

All this looks very miserable. But let us examine the situation.

We should show a total lack of the historical spirit if we were to judge the conduct of Zerubbabel and his companions by the broad principles of Christian liberalism. We must take into account their religious training and the measure of light to which they had attained. We must also consider the singularly difficult position in which they were placed. They were not a nation; they were a Church. Their very existence, therefore, depended upon a certain ecclesiastical organisation. They must have shaped themselves according to some definite lines, or they would have melted away into the mass of mixed. nationalities and debased eclectic religions with which they were surrounded. Whether the course of personal exclusiveness which they chose was wisest and best may be fairly questioned. It has been the course followed by their children all through the centuries, and it has acquired this much of justification-it has succeeded. Judaism has been preserved by Jewish exclusiveness. We may think that the essential truths of Judaism might have been maintained by other means which would have allowed of a more gracious treatment of outsiders. Meanwhile, however, we must see that Zerubbabel and his companions were not simply indulging in churlish unsociability when they rejected the request of their neighbours. Rightly or wrongly, they took this disagreeable course with a great purpose in mind.

Then we must understand what the request of the colonists really involved. It is true they only asked to be allowed to assist in building the temple. But it would have been impossible to stay here. If they had taken an active share in the labour and sacrifice of the construction of the temple, they could not have been excluded afterwards from taking part in the temple worship. This is the more clear since the very grounds of their request were that they worshipped and sacrificed to the God of the Jews. Now a great prophet had predicted that God’s house was to be a house of prayer for all nations. [Isaiah 56:7] But the Jews at Jerusalem belonged to a very different school of thought. With them, as we have learnt from the genealogies, the racial idea was predominant. Judaism was for the Jews.

But let us understand what that religion was which the colonists asserted to be identical with the religion of the returned exiles. They said they worshipped the God of the Jews, but it was after the manner of the people of the Northern Kingdom. In the days of the Israelites that worship had been associated with the steer at Bethel, and the people of Jerusalem had condemned the degenerate religion of their northern brethren as sinful in the sight of God. But the colonists had not confined themselves to this. They had combined their old idolatrous religion with that of the newly adopted indigenous divinity of Palestine. "They feared the Lord, and served their own gods." [Isaiah 56:7] Between them, they adored a host of Pagan divinities, whose barbarous names are grimly noted by the Hebrew historian-Succoth-benoth, Nergal, Ashima, etc. [2 Kings 17:30-31] There is no evidence to show that this heathenism had become extinct by the time of the rebuilding of the Jerusalem temple. At all events, the bastard product of such a worship as that of the Bethel steer and the Babylonian and Phoenician divinities, even when purged of its most gross corruption, was not likely to be after the mind of the puritan pilgrims. The colonists did not offer to adopt the traditional Torah, which the returned exiles were sedulously observing.

Still it may be said, if the people were imperfect in knowledge and corrupt in practice, might not the Jews have enlightened and helped them? We are reminded of the reproach that Bede brings so sternly against the ancient British Christians when he blames them for not having taught the gospel to the Saxon heathen who had invaded their land. How far it would have been possible for a feeble people to evangelise their more powerful neighbours, in either case, it is impossible to say.

It cannot be denied, however, that in their refusal the Jews gave prominence to racial and not to religious distinctions. Yet even in this matter it would be unreasonable for us to expect them to have surpassed the early Christian Church at Jerusalem and to have anticipated the daring liberalism of St. Paul. The followers of St. James were reluctant to receive any converts into their communion except on condition of circumcision. This meant that Gentiles must become Jews before they could be recognised as Christians. Now there was no sign that the mixed race of colonists ever contemplated becoming Jews by humbling themselves to a rite of initiation. Even if most of them were already circumcised, as far as we know none of them gave an indication of willingness to subject themselves wholly to Jewish ordinances. To receive them, therefore, would be contrary to the root principle of Judaism. It is not fair to mete out a harsh condemnation to Jews who declined to do what was only allowed among Christians after a desperate struggle, which separated the leader of the liberal party from many of his brethren and left him for a long while under a cloud of suspicion.

Great confusion has been imported into the controversy on Church comprehension by not keeping it separate from the question of tolerance in religion. The two are distinct in many respects. Comprehension is an ecclesiastical matter; tolerance is primarily concerned with the policy of the state. Whilst it is admitted that nobody should be coerced in his religion by the state, it is not therefore to be assumed that everybody is to be received into the Church.

Nevertheless we feel that there is, a real and vital connection between the ideas of tolerance and Church comprehensiveness. A Church may become culpably intolerant, although she may not use the power of the state for the execution of her mandates; she may contrive many painful forms of persecution, without resorting to the rack and the thumb-screw. The question therefore arises, What are the limits to tolerance within a Church? The attempt to fix these limits by creeds and canons has not been wholly successful, either in excluding the unworthy or in including the most desirable members. The drift of thought in the present day being towards wider comprehensiveness, it becomes increasingly desirable to determine on what principles this may be attained. Good men are weary of the little garden walled around, and they doubt whether it is altogether the Lord’s peculiar ground; they have discovered that many of the flowers of the field are fair and fragrant, and they have a keen suspicion that not a few weeds may lurk even in the trim parterre; so they look over the wall and long for breath and brotherhood, in a large recognition of all that is good in the world. Now the dull religious lethargy of the eighteenth century is a warning against the chief danger that threatens those who yield themselves to this fascinating impulse. Latitudinarianism sought to widen the fold that had been narrowed on one side by sacerdotal pretensions and on the other side by puritan rigour. The result was that the fold almost disappeared. Then religion was nearly swallowed up in the swamps of indifference. This deplorable issue of a well-meant attempt to serve the cause of charity suggests that there is little good in breaking down the barriers of exclusiveness unless we have first established a potent centre of unity. If we have put an end to division simply by destroying the interests which once divided men, we have only attained the communion of death. In the graveyard friend and foe lie peaceably side by side, but only because both are dead. Wherever there is life two opposite influences are invariably at work. There is a force of attraction drawing in all that is congenial, and there is a force of a contrary character repelling everything that is uncongenial. Any attempt to tamper with either of these forces must result in disaster. A social or an ecclesiastical division that arbitrarily crosses the lines of natural affinity creates a schism in the body, and leads to a painful mutilation of fellowship. On the other hand, a forced comprehension of alien elements produces internal friction, which often leads to an explosion, shattering the whole fabric. But the common mistake has been in attending to the circumference and neglecting the centre, in beating the bounds of the parish instead of fortifying the citadel. The liberalism of St. Paul was not latitudinarian, because it was inspired by a vital principle which served as the centre of all his teaching. He preached liberty and comprehensiveness, because he had first preached Christ. In Christ he found at once a bond of union and an escape from narrowness. The middle wall of partition was broken down, not by a Vandal armed with nothing better than the besom of destruction, but by the Founder of a new kingdom, who could dispense with artificial restrictions because He could draw all men unto Himself.

Unfortunately the returned captives at Jerusalem did not feel conscious of any such spiritual centre of unity. They might have found it in their grandly simple creed, in their faith in God. But their absorption in sacrificial ritual and its adjuncts shows that they were too much under the influence of religious externalism. This being the case, they could only preserve the purity of their communion by carefully guarding its gates. It is pitiable to see that they could find no better means of doing this than the harsh test of racial integrity. Their action in this matter fostered a pride of birth which was as injurious to their own better lives as it was to the extension of their religion in the world. But so long as they were incapable of a larger method, if they had accepted counsels of liberalism they would have lost themselves and their mission. Looking at the positive side of their mission, we see how the Jews were called to bear witness to the great principle of separateness. This principle is as essential to Christianity as it was to Judaism. The only difference is that with the more spiritual faith it takes a more spiritual form. The people of God must ever be consecrated to God, and therefore separate from sin, separate from the world-separate unto God.

NOTE.-For the section Ezra 4:6-23 see Chapter 14. This section is marked by a change of language; the writer adopts Aramaic at Ezra 4:8, and he continues in that language down to Ezra 6:18. The decree of Artaxerxes in Ezra 7:12-26 is also in Aramaic.

 


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Bibliography Information
Nicoll, William R. "Commentary on Ezra 4:4". "Expositor's Bible Commentary". http://odl.studylight.org/commentaries/teb/ezra-4.html.

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