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Bible Commentaries

Expositor's Bible Commentary

Ezra 5

 

 

Verse 1

-6

ZECHARIAH THE PROPHET

Zechariah 1:1-6; Ezra 5:1;, Ezra 6:14

ZECHARIAH is one of the prophets whose personality as distinguished from their message exerts some degree of fascination on the student. This is not due, however, as in the case of Hosea or Jeremiah, to the facts of his life, for of these we know extremely little; but to certain conflicting symptoms of character which appear through his prophecies.

His name was a very common one in Israel, Zekher-Yah, "Jehovah remembers." In his own book he is described as "the son of Berekh-Yah, the son of Iddo," and in the Aramaic document of the Book of Ezra as "the son of Iddo." Some have explained this difference by supposing that Berekhyah was the actual father of the prophet, but that either he died early, leaving Zechariah to the care of the grandfather, or else that he was a man of no note, and Iddo was more naturally mentioned as the head of the family. There are several instances in the Old Testament of men being called the sons of their grandfathers; [Genesis 24:47, cf. 1 Kings 19:16, cf. 2 Kings 9:14; 2 Kings 9:20] as in these cases the grandfather was the reputed founder of the house, so in that of Zechariah Iddo was the head of his family when it came out of Babylon and was anew planted in Jerusalem. Others, however, have contested the genuineness of the words "son of Berekh-Yah," and have traced their insertion to a confusion of the prophet with Zechariah son of Yebherekh-Yahu, the contemporary of Isaiah. This is precarious, while the other hypothesis is a very natural one. Whichever be correct, the prophet Zechariah was a member of the priestly family of Iddo, that came up to Jerusalem from Babylon under Cyrus. [Nehemiah 12:4] The Book of Nehemiah adds that in the high-priesthood of Yoyakim, the son of Joshua, the head of the house of Iddo was a Zechariah. If this be our prophet, then he was probably a young man in 520, and had come up as a child in the caravans from Babylon. The Aramaic document of the Book of Ezra [Ezra 5:1;, Ezra 6:14] assigns to Zechariah a share with Haggai in the work of instigating Zerubbabel and Jeshua to begin the Temple. None of his oracles is dated previous to the beginning of the work in August, 520, but we have seen that among those undated there are one or two which by referring to the building of the Temple as still future may contain some relics of that first stage of his ministry. From November, 520, we have the first of his dated oracles; his Visions followed in January, 519, and his last recorded prophesying in December, 518.

These are all the certain events of Zechariah’s history. But in the well-attested prophecies he has left we discover, besides some obvious traits of character, certain problems of style and expression which suggest a personality of more than usual interest. Loyalty to the great voices of old, the temper which appeals to the experience, rather than to the dogmas, of the past, the gift of plain speech to his own times, a wistful anxiety about his reception as a prophet, [Zechariah 2:13;, Zechariah 4:9;, Zechariah 6:15] combined with the absence of all ambition to be original or anything but the clear voice of the lessons of the past and of the conscience of today these are the qualities which characterize Zechariah’s orations to the people. But how to reconcile them with the strained art and obscure truths of the Visions-it is this which invests with interest the study of his personality. We have proved that the obscurity and redundancy of the Visions cannot all have been due to himself. Later hands have exaggerated the repetitions and raveled the processes of the original. But these gradual blemishes have not grown from nothing: the original style must have been sufficiently involved to provoke the interpolations of the scribes, and it certainly contained all the weird and shifting apparitions which we find so hard to make clear to ourselves. The problem, therefore, remains-how one who had gift of speech, so straight and clear, came to torture and tangle his style; how one who presented with all plainness the main issues of his people’s history found it laid upon him to invent, for the further expression of these, symbols so labored and intricate.

We begin with the oracle which opens his book and illustrates those simple characteristics of the man that contrast so sharply with the temper of his Visions.

"In the eighth month, in the second year of Darius, the word of Jehovah came to the prophet Zechariah, son of Berekhyah, son of Iddo, saying: Jehovah was very wroth with your fathers."

"And thou shalt say unto them: Thus saith Jehovah of Hosts: Turn ye to Me-oracle of Jehovah of Hosts-that I may turn to you, saith Jehovah of Hosts! Be not like your fathers, to whom the former prophets preached, saying: ‘Thus saith Jehovah of Hosts, Turn now from your evil ways and from your evil deeds,’ but they hearkened not, and paid no attention to Me-oracle of Jehovah. Your fathers, where are they? And the prophets, do they live for ever? But, My words and My statutes, with which I charged My servants the prophets, did they not overtake your fathers? till these turned and said, As Jehovah of Hosts did purpose to do unto us, according to our deeds and according to our ways, so hath He dealt with us."

It is a sign of the new age which we have reached, that its prophet should appeal to the older prophets with as much solemnity as they did to Moses himself. The history which led to the Exile has become to Israel as classic and sacred as her great days of deliverance from Egypt and of conquest in Canaan. But still more significant is what Zechariah seeks from that past; this we must carefully discover, if we would appreciate with exactness his rank as a prophet.

The development of religion may be said to consist of a struggle between two tempers, both of which indeed appeal to the past, but from very opposite motives. The one proves its devotion to the older prophets by adopting the exact formulas of their doctrine, counts these sacred to the letter, and would enforce them in detail upon the minds and circumstances of the new generation. It conceives that truth has been promulgated once for all in forms as enduring, as the principles they contain. It fences ancient rites, cherishes old customs and institutions, and when these are questioned it becomes alarmed and even savage. The other temper is no whit behind this one in its devotion to the past, but it seeks the ancient prophets not so much for what they have said as for what they have been, not for what they enforced but for what they encountered, suffered, and confessed. It asks not for dogmas, but for experience and testimony. He who can thus read the past and interpret it to his own day-he is the prophet. In his reading he finds nothing so clear, nothing so tragic, nothing so convincing as the working of the Word of God. He beholds how this came to men, haunted them and was entreated by them. He sees that it was their great opportunity, which being rejected became their judgment. He finds abused justice vindicated, proud wrong punished, and all God’s neglected commonplaces achieving in time their triumph. He reads how men came to see this, and to confess their guilt. He is haunted by the remorse of generations who know how they might have obeyed the Divine call, but willfully did not. And though they have perished, and the prophets have died and their formulas are no more applicable, the victorious Word itself still lives and cries to men with the terrible emphasis of their fathers’ experience. All this is the vision of the true prophet, and it was the vision of Zechariah.

His generation was one whose chief temptation was to adopt towards the past the other attitude we have described. In their feebleness what could the poor remnant of Israel do but cling servilely to the former greatness? The vindication of the Exile had stamped the Divine authority of the earlier prophets. The habits, which the life in Babylon had perfected, of arranging and codifying the literature of the past, and of employing it, in place of altar and ritual, in the stated service of God, had canonized Scripture and provoked men to the worship of its very letter. Had the real prophet not again been raised, these habits might have too early produced the belief that the Word of God was exhausted, and must have fastened upon the feeble life of Israel that mass of stiff and stark dogmas, the literal application of which Christ afterwards found crushing the liberty and the force of religion. Zechariah prevented this-for a time. He himself was mighty in the Scriptures of the past: no man in Israel makes larger use of them. But he employs them as witnesses, not as dogmas; he finds in them not authority, but experience. He reads their testimony to the ever-living presence of God’s Word with men. And seeing that, though the old forms and figures have perished with the hearts which shaped them, the Word itself in its bare truth has vindicated its life by fulfillment in history, he knows that it lives still, and hurls it upon his people, not in the forms published by this or that prophet of long ago, but in its essence and direct from God Himself, as His Word for today and now. "The fathers, where are they? And the prophets, do they live forever? But My words and My statutes, with which I charged My servants the prophets, have they not overtaken your fathers? Thus saith Jehovah of Hosts, Be ye not like your fathers, but turn ye to Me that I may turn to you."

The argument of this oracle might very naturally have been narrowed into a credential for the prophet himself as sent from God. About his reception as Jehovah’s messenger Zechariah shows a repeated anxiety. Four times he concludes a prediction with the words. "And ye shall know that Jehovah hath sent me," as if after his first utterances he had encountered that suspicion and unbelief which a prophet never failed to suffer from his contemporaries. But in this oracle there is no trace of such personal anxiety. The oracle is pervaded only with the desire to prove the ancient Word of God as still alive, and to drive it home in its own sheer force. Like the greatest of his order Zechariah appears with the call to repent: "Turn ye to Me-oracle of Jehovah of Hosts-that I may turn to you." This is the pivot on which history has turned, the one condition on which God has been able to help men. Wherever it is read as the conclusion of all the past, wherever it is proclaimed as the conscience of the present, there the true prophet is found and the Word of God has been spoken.

This same possession by the ethical spirit reappears, as we shall see, in Zechariah’s orations to the people after the anxieties of building are over and the completion of the Temple is in sight. In these he affirms again that the whole essence of God’s Word by the older prophets has been moral-to judge true judgment, to practice mercy, to defend the widow and orphan, the stranger and poor, and to think no evil of one another. For the sad fasts of the Exile Zechariah enjoins gladness, with the duty of truth and the hope of peace. Again and again he enforces sincerity and the love without dissimulation. His ideals for Jerusalem are very high, including the conversion of the nations to her God. But warlike ambitions have vanished from them, and his pictures of her future condition are homely and practical. Jerusalem shall be no more a fortress, but spread village-wise without walls. Full families, unlike the present colony with its few children and its men worn out in middle life by harassing warfare with enemies and a sullen nature; streets rife with children playing and old folk sitting in the sun; the return of the exiles; happy harvests and spring-times of peace; solid gain of labor for every man, with no raiding neighbors to harass, nor the mutual envies of peasants in their selfish struggle with famine.

It is a simple, hearty, practical man whom such prophesying reveals, the spirit of him bent on justice and love, and yearning for the un-harassed labor of the field and for happy homes. No prophet has more beautiful sympathies, a more direct word of righteousness, or a braver heart.

"Fast not, but love truth and peace. Truth and wholesome justice set ye up in your gates. Be not afraid; strengthen your hands! Old men and women-shall yet sit in the streets of Jerusalem, each with staff in hand for the fullness of their years; the city’s streets shall be rife with boys and girls at play."


Verse 1-2

THE MISSION OF PROPHECY

Ezra 5:1-2

THE work of building the temple at Jerusalem, which had been but nominally commenced in the reign of Cyrus, when it was suddenly arrested before the death of that king, and which had not been touched throughout the reigns of the two succeeding kings, Cambyses and Pseudo-Bardes, was taken up in earnest in the second year of Darius, the son of Hystaspes (B.C. 521). The disorders of the empire were then favourable to local liberty. Cambyses committed suicide during a revolt of his army on the march to meet the Pretender who had assumed the name of his murdered brother, Bardes. Seven months later the usurper was assassinated in his palace by some of the Persian nobles. Darius, who was one of the conspirators, ascended the throne in the midst of confusion and while the empire seemed to be falling to pieces. Elam, the old home of the house of Cyrus, revolted; Syria revolted; Babylon revolted twice, and was twice taken by siege. For a time the king’s writ could not run in Palestine. But it was not on account of these political changes that the Jews returned to their work. The relaxing of the supreme authority had left them more than ever at the mercy of their unfriendly neighbours. The generous disposition of Darius might have led them to regard him as a second Cyrus, and his religion might have encouraged them to hope that he would be favourable to them, for Darius was a monotheist, a worshipper of Ormazd. But they recommenced their work without making any appeal to the Great King and without receiving any permission from him, and they did this when he was far too busy fighting for his throne to attend to the troubles of a small, distant city.

We must look in another direction for the impetus which started the Jews again upon their work. Here we come upon one of the most striking facts in the history of Israel, nay, one of the greatest phenomena in the spiritual experience. of mankind. The voice of prophecy was heard among the ruins of Jerusalem. The Cassandra-like notes of Jeremiah had died away more than half a century before. Then Ezekiel had seen his fantastic visions, "a captive by the river of Chebar," and the Second Isaiah had sounded his trumpet-blast in the East, summoning the exiles to a great hope; but as yet no prophet had appeared among the pilgrims on their return to Jerusalem. We cannot account for the sudden outburst of prophecy. It is a work of the Spirit that breathes like the wind, coming we know not how. We can hear its sound; we can perceive the fact. But we cannot trace its origin, or determine its issues. It is born in mystery and it passes into mystery. If it is true that "poeta nascitur, non fit," much more must we affirm that the prophet is no creature of human culture. He may be cultivated after God has made him; he cannot be manufactured by any human machinery. No "School of the Prophets" ever made a true prophet. Many of the prophets never came near any such institution; some of them distinctly repudiated the professional "order." The lower prophets with which the Northern Kingdom once swarmed were just dervishes who sang and danced and worked themselves into a frenzy before the altars on the high places; these men were quite different from the truly inspired messengers of God. Their craft could be taught, and their sacred colleges recruited to any extent from the ranks of fanaticism. But the rare, austere souls that spoke with the authority of the Most High came in a totally different manner. When there was no prophet and when visions were rare men could only wait for God to send the hoped-for guide; they could not call him into existence. The appearance of an inspired soul is always one of the marvels of history. Great men of the second rank may be the features of their age. But it is given to the few of the very first order to be independent of their age, to confront it and oppose it if need be, perhaps to turn its current and shape its course.

The two prophets who now proclaimed their message in Jerusalem appeared at a time of deep depression. They were not borne on the crest of a wave of a religious revival, as its spokesmen to give it utterance. Pagan orators and artists flourished in an Augustan age. The Hebrew prophets came when the circumstances of society were least favourable. Like painters arising to adorn a dingy city, like poets singing of summer in the winter of discontent, like flowers in the wilderness, like wells in the desert, they brought life and strength and gladness to the helpless and despondent, because they came from God. The literary form of their work reflected the civilisation of their day, but there was on it a light that never shone on sea or shore, and this they knew to be the light of God. We never find a true religious revival springing from the spirit of the age. Such a revival always begins in one or two choice souls-in a Moses, a Samuel, a John the Baptist, a St. Bernard, a Jonathan Edwards, a Wesley, a Newman. Therefore it is vain for weary watchers to scan the horizon for signs of the times in the hope that some general improvement of society or some widespread awakening of the Church will usher in a better future. This is no reason for discouragement, however. It rather warns us not to despise the day of small things. When once the spring of living water breaks out, though it flows at first in a little brook, there is hope that it may swell into a great river.

The situation is the more remarkable since the first of the two prophets was an old man, who even seems to have known the first temple before its destruction by Nebuchadnezzar. [Haggai 1:10; Haggai 2:9] Haggai is called simply "the prophet," perhaps because his father’s name was not known, but more likely because he himself had attained so much eminence that the title was given to him par excellence. Still this may only apply to the descriptions of him in the age of the chronicler. There is no indication that he prophesied in his earlier days. He was probably one of the captives who had been carried away to Babylon in his childhood, and who had returned with Zerubbabel to Jerusalem. Yet all this time and during the first year of his return, as far as we know, he was silent. At length, in extreme old age, he burst out into inspired utterance-one of Joel’s old men who were to dream dreams, [Joel 2:28] like John the Evangelist, whose greatest work dates from his last years, and Milton, who wrote his great epic when affliction seemed to have ended his lifework. He must have been brooding over the bitter disappointment in which the enthusiasm of the returned captives had been quenched. It could not be God’s will that they should be thus mocked and deceived in their best hopes. True faith is not a will-o’-the-wisp that lands its followers in a dreary swamp. The hope of Israel is no mirage. For God is faithful. Therefore the despair of the Jews must be wrong.

We have a few fragments of the utterances of Haggai preserved for us in the Old Testament Canon. They are so brief and bald and abrupt as to suggest the opinion that they are but notes of his discourses, mere outlines of what he really said. As they are preserved for us they certainly convey no idea of wealth of poetic imagination or richness of oratorical colouring. But Haggai may have possessed none of these qualities, and yet his words may have had a peculiar force of their own. He is a reflective man. The long meditation of years has taught him the value of thoughtfulness. The burden of his message is "Consider your ways." [Haggai 1:5; Haggai 1:7] In short, incisive utterances he arrests attention and urges consideration. But the outcome of all he has to say is to cheer the drooping spirits of his fellow-citizens, and urge on the rebuilding of the temple with confident promises of its great future. For the most part his inspiration is simple, but it is searching, and we perceive the triumphant hopefulness of the true prophet in the promise that the latter glory of the house of God shall be greater than the former. [Haggai 2:9]

Haggai began to prophesy on the first day of the sixth month of the second year of Darius. [Haggai 1:1] So effective were his words that Zerubbabel and his companions were at once roused from the lethargy of despair, and within three weeks the masons and carpenters were again at work on the temple. {Haggai 2:1. seq.} Two months after Haggai had broken the long silence of prophecy in Jerusalem Zechariah appeared. He was of a very different stamp; he was one of the young men who see visions. Familiar with the imagery of Babylonian art, he wove its symbols into the pictures of his own exuberant fancy. Moreover, Zechariah was a priest. Thus, like Jeremiah and Ezekiel, he united the two rival tendencies which had confronted one another in marked antagonism during the earlier periods of the history of Israel. Henceforth the brief return of prophetism, its soft after-glow among the restored people, is in peaceable alliance with priestism. The last prophet, Malachi, even exhorts the Jews to pay the priests their dues of tithe. Zechariah, like Haggai, urges on the work of building the temple.

Thus the chronicler’s brief note on the appearance of two prophets at Jerusalem, and the electrical effect of their message, is a striking illustration of the mission of prophecy. That mission has been strangely misapprehended by succeeding ages. Prophets have been treated as miraculous conjurers, whose principal business consisted in putting together elaborate puzzles, perfectly unintelligible to their contemporaries, which the curious of later times were to decipher by the light of events. The prophets themselves formed no such idle estimate of their work, nor did their contemporaries assign to them this quaint and useless role. Though these men were not the creatures of their times, they lived for their times. Haggai and Zechariah, as the chronicler emphatically puts it, "prophesied to the Jews that were in Jerusalem even unto them." The object of their message was immediate and quite practical-to stir up the despondent people and urge them to build the temple-and it was successful in accomplishing that end. As prophets of God they necessarily touched on eternal truths. They were not mere opportunists; their strength lay in the grasp of fundamental principles. This is why their teaching still lives, and is of lasting use for the Church in all ages. But in order to understand that teaching we must first of all read it in its original historical setting, and discover its direct bearing on contemporary needs.

Now the question arises, In what way did these prophets of God help the temple-builders? The fragments of their utterances which we possess enable us to answer this question. Zerubbabel was a disappointing leader. Such a man was far below the expected Messiah, although high hopes may have been set upon him when he started at the head of the caravan of pilgrims from Babylon. Cyrus may have known him better, and with the instinct of a king in reading men may have entrusted the lead to the heir of the Jewish throne, because he saw there would be no possibility of a dangerous rebellion resulting from the act of confidence. Haggai’s encouragement to Zerubbabel to "be strong" is in a tone that suggests some weakness on the part of the Jewish leader. Both the prophets thought that he and his people were too easily discouraged. It was a part of the prophetic insight to look below the surface and discover the real secret of failure. The Jews set down their failure to adverse circumstances; the prophets attributed it to the character and conduct of the people and their leaders. Weak men commonly exercise their inactivity by reciting their difficulties, when stronger men would only regard those difficulties as furnishing an occasion for extra exertion. That is a most superficial view of history which regards it as wholly determined by circumstances. No great nation ever arose on such a principle. The Greeks who perished at Thermopylae within a few years of the times we are now considering are honoured by all the ages as heroes of patriotism just because they refused to bow to circumstances. Now the courage which patriots practised in pagan hands is urged upon the Jews by their prophets from higher considerations. They are to see that they are weak and cowardly when they sit in dumb despair, crushed by the weight of external opposition. They have made a mistake in putting their trust in princes. [Psalms 118:8-9] They have relied too much on Zerubbabel and too little on God. The failure of the arm of flesh should send them back to the never-failing outstretched arm of the Almighty.

Have we not met with the same mistaken discouragement and the same deceptive excuses for it in the work of the church, in missionary enterprises, in personal lives? Every door is shut against the servant of God but one, the door of prayer. Forgetting this, and losing sight of the key of faith that would unlock it, he sits, like Elijah by Kerith, the picture of abject wretchedness. His great enterprises are abandoned because he thinks the opposition to them is insuperable. He forgets that, though his own forces are small, he is the envoy of the King of kings, who will not suffer him to be worsted if only he appeals to Heaven for fresh supplies. A dead materialism lies like a leaden weight on the heart of the Church, and she has not faith enough to shake it off and claim her great inheritance in all the spiritual wealth of the unseen. Many a man cries, like Jacob, "All these things are against me," not perceiving that, even if they are, no number of "things" should be permitted to check the course of one who looks above and beyond what is seen, and therefore only temporal, to the eternal resources of God.

This was the message of Zechariah to Zerubbabel;

"Not by might, nor by power, but by My spirit, saith the Lord of hosts. Who art thou, O great mountain? before Zerubbabel thou shalt become a plain; and he shall bring forth the head stone with shoutings of Grace, grace unto it!" [Zechariah 4:6-7]

Here, then, is the secret of the sudden revival of activity on the part of the Jews after they had been sitting for years in dumb apathy, gazing hopelessly on the few stones that had been laid among the ruins of the old temple. It was not the returning favour of the court under Darius, it was not the fame of the house of David, it was not the priestly dignity of the family of Zadok that awakened the slumbering zeal of the Jews; the movement began in an unofficial source, and it passed to the people through unofficial channels. It commenced in the meditations of a cairn thinker; it was furthered by the visions of a rapt seer. This is a clear indication of the fact that the world is ruled by mind and spirit, not merely by force and authority. Thought and imagination lie at the springs of action. In the heart of it history is moulded by ideas. "Big battalions," "the sinews of war," "blood and iron," are phrases that suggest only the most external and therefore the most superficial causes. Beneath them are the ideas that govern all they represent.

Further, the influence of the prophets shows that the ideas which have most vitality and vigor are moral and spiritual in character. All thoughts are influential in proportion as they take possession of the minds and hearts of men and women. There is power in conceptions of science, philosophy, politics, sociology. But the ideas that touch people to the quick, the ideas that stir the hidden depths of consciousness and rouse the slumbering energies of life, are those that make straight for the conscience. Thus the two prophets exposed the shame of indolence; they rallied their gloomy fellow-citizens by high appeals to the sense of right.

Again, this influence was immensely strengthened by its relation to God. The prophets were more than moralists. The meditations of Marcus Aurelius could not touch any people as the considerations of the calm Haggai touched the Jews, for the older prophet, as well as the more rousing Zechariah, found the spell of his message in its revelation of God. He made the Jews perceive that they were not deserted by Jehovah; and directly they felt that God was with them in. their work the weak and timid citizens were able to quit them like men. The irresistible might of Cromwell’s Ironsides at Marston Moor came from the unwavering faith in their battle-cry, "The Lord of Hosts is with us!" General Gordon’s immeasurable courage is explained when we read his letters and diaries, and see how he regarded himself as simply an instrument through whom God wrought. Here, too, is the strong side of Calvinism.

Then this impression of the power and presence of God in their destinies was deepened in the Jews by the manifest Divine authority with which the prophets spake. They prophesied "in the name of the God of Israel"-the one God of the people of both kingdoms now united in their representatives. Their "Thus saith the Lord" was the powder that drove the shot of their message through the toughest hide of apathy. Except to a Platonist, ideas are impossible apart from the mind that thinks them. Now the Jews, as well as their prophets, felt that the great ideas of prophecy could not be the products of pure human thinking. The sublime character, the moral force, the superb hopefulness of these ideas proclaimed their Divine origin. As it is the mission of the prophet to speak for God, so it is the voice of God in His inspired messenger that awakes the dead and gives strength to the weak.

This ultimate source of prophecy accounts for its unique character of hopefulness, and that in turn makes it a powerful encouragement for the weak and depressed people to whom it is sent. Wordsworth tells us that we live by "admiration, love, and hope." If one of these three sources of vitality is lost, life itself shrinks and fades. The man whose hope has fled has no lustre in his eye, no accent in his voice, no elasticity in his tread; by his dull and listless attitude he declares that the life has gone out of him. But the ultimate end of prophecy is to lead up to a gospel, and the meaning of the word "gospel" is just that there is a message from God bringing hope to the despairing. By inspiring a new hope this message kindles a new life.


Verses 3-17

NEW DIFFICULTIES MET IN A NEW SPIRIT

Ezra 5:3-17; Ezra 6:1-5

IT is in keeping with the character of his story of the returned Jews throughout, that no sooner has the chronicler let a ray of sunshine fall on his page-in his brief notice of the inspiriting mission of the two prophets-than he is compelled to plunge his narrative again into gloom. But he shows that there was now a new spirit in the Jews, so that they were prepared to meet opposition in a more manly fashion. If their jealous neighbours had been able to paralyse their efforts for years, it was only to be expected that a revival of energy in Jerusalem should provoke an increase of antagonism abroad, and doubtless the Jews were prepared for this. Still it was not a little alarming to learn that the infection of the anti-Jewish temper had spread over a wide area. The original opposition had come from the Samaritans. But in this later time the Jews were questioned by the Satrap of the whole district east of the Euphrates-"the governor beyond the river," [Ezra 5:3] as the chronicler styles him, describing his territory as it would be regarded officially from the standpoint of Babylon. His Aramaic name, Tattenai, shows that he was not a Persian, but a native Syrian, appointed to his own province, according to the Persian custom. This man and one Shethar-bozenai, whom we may assume to be his secretary, must have been approached by the colonists in such a way that their suspicions were roused. Their action was at first only just and reasonable. They asked the Jews to state on what authority they were rebuilding the temple with its massive walls. In the Hebrew Bible the answer of the Jews is so peculiar as to suggest a corruption of the text. It is in the first person plural-"Then said we unto them," etc. [Ezra 5:4] In the Septuagint the third person is substituted" Then said they," etc., and this rendering is followed in the Syriac and Arabic versions. It would require a very slight alteration in the Hebrew text. The Old Testament Revisers have retained the first person-setting the alternative reading in the margin. If we keep to the Hebrew text as it stands, we must conclude that we have here a fragment from some contemporary writer which the chronicler has transcribed literally. But then it seems confusing. Some have shaped the sentence into a direct statement, so that in reply to the inquiry for their authority the Jews give the names of the builders. How is this an answer? Possibly the name of Zerubbabel, who had been appointed governor of Jerusalem by Cyrus, could be quoted as an authority. And yet the weakness of his position was so evident that very little would be gained in this way, for it would be the right of the Satrap to inquire into the conduct of the local governor. If, however, we read the sentence in the third person, it will contain a further question from the Satrap and his secretary, inquiring for the names of the leaders in the work at Jerusalem. Such an inquiry threatened danger to the feeble Zerubbabel.

The seriousness of the situation is recognised by the grateful comment of the chronicler, who here remarks that "the eye of their God was upon the elders of the Jews." [Ezra 5:5] It is the peculiarity of even the driest records of Scripture that the writers are always ready to detect the presence of God in history. This justifies us in describing the Biblical narratives as "sacred history," in contrast to the so-called "secular history" of such authors as Herodotus and Livy. The narrow conception of the difference is to think that God was with the Jews, while He left the Greeks and Romans and the whole Gentile world to their fate without any recognition or interference on His part. Such a view is most dishonouring to God, who is thus regarded as no better than a tribal divinity, and not as the Lord of heaven and earth. It is directly contradicted by the Old Testament historians, for they repeatedly refer to the influence of God on great world monarchies. No doubt a claim to the Divine graciousness as the peculiar privilege of Israel is to be seen in the Old Testament. As far as this was perverted into a selfish desire to confine the blessings of God to the Jews, it was vigorously rebuked in the Book of Jonah. Still it is indisputable that those who truly sought God’s grace, acknowledged His authority, and obeyed His will, must have enjoyed privileges which such of the heathen as St. Paul describes in the first chapter of his Epistle to the Romans could not share. Thus the chronicler writes as though the leaders of the Jews in their difficulties were the special objects of the Divine notice. The eye of God was on them, distinctively. God is spoken of as their God. They were men who knew, trusted, and honoured God, and at the present moment they were loyally carrying out the direction of God’s prophets. All this is special. Nevertheless, it remains true that the chief characteristic of Biblical history is its recognition of the presence of God in the affairs of mankind generally, and this applies to all nations, although it is most marked among those nations in which God is known and obeyed.

The peculiar form of Providence which is brought before us in the present instance is the Divine observation. It is difficult to believe that, just as the earth is visible to the stars throughout the day while the stars are invisible to the earth, we are always seen by God although we never see Him. When circumstances are adverse-and these circumstances are only too visible - it is hard not to doubt that God is still watching all that happens to us, because although we cry out in our agony no answer breaks the awful silence and no hand comes out of the clouds to hold us up. It seems as though our words were lost in the void. But that is only the impression of the moment. If we read history with the large vision of the Hebrew chronicler, can we fail to perceive that this is not a God-deserted world? In the details His presence may not be discerned, but when we stand back from the canvas and survey the whole picture, it flashes upon us like a sunbeam spread over the whole landscape. Many a man can recognise the same happy truth in the course of his own life as he looks back over a wide stretch of it, although while he was passing through his perplexing experience the thicket of difficulties intercepted his vision of the heavenly light.

Now it is a most painful result of unbelief and cowardice working on the consciousness of guilt lurking in the breast of every sinful man, that the "eye of God" has become an object of terror to the imagination of to many people. Poor Hagar’s exclamation of joy and gratitude has been sadly misapprehended. Discovering to her amazement that she is not alone in the wilderness, the friendless, heart-broken slave-girl looks up through her tears with a smile of sudden joy on her face, and exclaims, "Thou God seest me!" [Genesis 16:13] And yet her happy words have been held over terrified children as a menace! That is a false thought of God which makes any of His children shrink from His presence, except they are foul and leprous with sin, and even then their only refuge is, as St. Augustine found, to come to the very God against whom they have sinned. We need not fear lest some day God may make a miserable discovery about us. He knows the worst, already. Then it is a ground of hope that while He sees all the evil in us God still loves His children-that He does not love us, as it were, under a misapprehension. Our Lord’s teaching on the subject of the Divine observation is wholly reassuring. Not a sparrow falls to the ground without our Father’s notice, the very hairs of our head are all numbered, and the exhortation based on these facts is not "Beware of the all-seeing Eye!" but "Fear not." [Luke 12:7]

The limitation of the chronicler’s remark is significant. He speaks of the eye of God, not of God’s mighty hand, nor of His outstretched arm. It was not yet the time for action; but God was watching the course of events. Or if God was acting, His procedure was so secret that no one could perceive it. Meanwhile it was enough to know that God was observing everything that was transpiring. He could not be thought of as an Epicurean divinity, surveying the agony and tragedy of human life with a stony gaze of supercilious indifference, as the proud patrician looks down on the misery of the dim multitude. For God to see is for God to care; and for God to care is for God to help. But this simple statement of the Divine observation maintains a reserve as to the method of the action of God, and it is perhaps the best way of describing Providence so that it shall not appear to come into collision with the free will of man.

The chronicler distinctly associates the Divine observation with the continuance of the Jews in their work. Because the eye of God was on them their enemies could not cause them to cease until the matter had been referred to Darius and his answer received. This may be explained by some unrecorded juncture of circumstances which arrested the action of the enemies of Israel; by the overruling Providence according to which the Satrap was led to perceive that it would not be wise or just for him to act until he had orders from the king; or by the new zeal with which the two prophets had inspired the Jews, so that they took up a bold position in the calm confidence that God was with them. Account for it as we may, we see that in the present case the Jews were not hindered in their work. It is enough for faith to perceive the result of the Divine care without discovering the process.

The letter of the Satrap and his secretary embodies the reply of the Jews to the official inquiries, and that reply clearly and boldly sets forth their position. One or two points in it call for passing notice.

In the first place, the Jews describe themselves as "servants of the God of heaven and earth." Thus they start by mentioning their religious status, and not any facts about their race or nation. This was wise, and calculated to disarm suspicion as to their motives; and it was strictly true, for the Jews were engaged in a distinctly religious work. Then the way in which they describe their God is significant. They do not use the national name "Jehovah." That would serve no good purpose with men who did not know or acknowledge their special faith. They say nothing to localise and limit their idea of God. To build the temple of a tribal god would be to further the ends of the tribe, and this the jealous neighbours of the Jews supposed they were doing. By the larger title the Jews lift their work out of all connection with petty personal ends. In doing so they confess their true faith. These Jews of the return were pure monotheists. They believed that there was one God who ruled over heaven and earth.

In the second place, with just a touch of national pride, pathetic under the circumstances, they remind the Persians that their nation has seen better days, and that they are rebuilding the temple which a great king has set up. Thus, while they would appeal to the generosity of the authorities, they would claim their respect, with the dignity of men who know they have a great history. In view of this the next statement is most striking. Reciting the piteous story of the overthrow of their nation, the destruction of their temple, and the captivity of their fathers, the Jews ascribe it all to their national sins. The prophets had long ago discerned the connection of cause and effect in these matters. But while it was only the subject of prediction, the proud people indignantly rejected the prophetic view. Since then their eyes had been opened by the painful purging of dire national calamities. One great proof that the nation had profited by the fiery ordeal of the captivity is that it now humbly acknowledged the sins which had brought it into the furnace. Trouble is illuminating. While it humbles men, it opens their eyes. It is better to see clearly in a lowly place than to walk blindfold on perilous heights.

After this explanatory preamble, the Jews appeal to the edict of Cyrus, and describe their subsequent conduct as a direct act of obedience to that edict. Thus they plead their cause as loyal subjects of the Persian empire. In consequence of this appeal the Satrap and his secretary request the king to order a search to be made for the edict, and to reply according to his pleasure.

The chronicler then proceeds to relate how the search was prosecuted, first among the royal archives at Babylon-in "the house of books." [Ezra 6:1] One of Mr. Layard’s most valuable discoveries was that of a set of chambers in a palace at Koyunjik, the whole of the floor of which was covered more than a foot deep with terra-cotta tablets inscribed with public records. A similar collection has been recently found in the neighbourhood of Babylon. In some such record-house the search for the edict of Cyrus was made. But the cylinder or tablet on which it was written could not be found. The searchers then turned their attention to the roll-chamber at the winter palace of Ecbatana, and there a parchment or papyrus copy of the edict was discovered.

One of the items of this edict as it is now given is somewhat surprising, for it was not named in the earlier account in the first chapter of the Book of Ezra. This is a description of the dimensions of the temple which was to be built at Jerusalem. It must have been not a little humiliating to the Jews to have to take these measurements from a foreign sovereign, a heathen, a polytheist. Possibly, however, they had been first supplied to the king by the Jews, so that the builders might have the more explicit permission for what they were about to undertake. On the other hand, it may be that we have here the outside dimensions, beyond which the Jews were not permitted to go, and that the figures represent a limit for their ambitions. In either case the appearance of the details in the decree at all gives us a vivid conception of the thoroughness of the Persian autocracy, and of the perfect subjection of the Jews to Cyrus.

Some difficulty has been felt in interpreting the figures because they seem to point to a larger building than Solomon’s temple. The height is given at sixty cubits, and the breadth at the same measurement. But Solomon’s temple was only thirty cubits high, and its total breadth, with its side-chambers, was not more than forty cubits. [1 Kings 6:2] When we consider the comparative poverty of the returned Jews, the difficulties under which they laboured, the disappointment of the old men who had seen the former building, and the short time within which the work was finished-only four years-[Ezra 4:24; Ezra 5:15] it is difficult to believe that it was more than double the size of the glorious fabric for which David collected materials, on which Solomon lavished the best resources of his kingdom, and which even then took many more years in building. Perhaps the height includes the terrace on which the temple was built, and the breadth of the temple adjuncts. Perhaps the temple never attained the dimensions authorised by the edict. But even if the full size were reached, the building would not have approached the size of the stupendous temples of the great ancient empires. Apart from its courts Solomon’s temple was certainly a small building. It was not the size, but the splendour of that famous fabric that led to its being regarded with so much admiration and pride.

The most remarkable architectural feature of all these ancient temples was the enormous magnitude of the stones with which they were built. At the present day the visitor to Jerusalem gazes with wonder at huge blocks, all carefully chiselled and accurately fitted together, where parts of the old foundations may still be discerned. The narrative in Ezra makes several references to the great stones-"stones of rolling" [Ezra 5:8] it calls them, because they could only be moved on rollers. Even the edict mentions "three rows of great stones," together with "a row of new timber," [Ezra 6:4] -an obscure phrase, which perhaps means that the walls were to be of the thickness of three stones, while the timber formed an inner pannelling; or that there were to be three storeys of stone and one of wood; or yet another possibility, that on three tiers of stone a tier of wood was to be laid. In the construction of the inner court of Solomon’s temple this third method seems to have been followed, for we read, "And he built the. inner court with three rows of hewn stone and a row of cedar beams." [1 Kings 6:36] However we regard it-and the plan is confusing and a matter of much discussion-the impression is one of massive strength. The jealous observers noted especially the building of "the wall" of the temple. [Ezra 5:9] So solid a piece of work might be turned into a fortification. But no such end seems to have been contemplated by the Jews. They built solidly because they wished their work to stand. It was to be no temporary tabernacle, but a permanent temple designed to endure to posterity. We are struck with the massive character of the Roman remains in Britain, which show that when the great world conquerors took possession of our island they settled down in it and regarded it as a permanent property. The same grand consciousness of permanence must have been in the minds of the brave builders who planted this solid structure at Jerusalem in the midst of troubles and threatenings of disaster. Today, when we look at the stupendous Phoenician and Jewish architecture of Syria, we are, struck with admiration at the patience, the perseverance, the industry, the thoroughness, the largeness of idea that characterised the work of these old-world builders. Surely it must have been the outcome of a similar tone and temper of mind. The modern mind may be more nimble, as the modern work is more expeditious. But for steadfastness of purpose the races that wrought so patiently at great enduring works seem to have excelled anything we can attain. And yet here and there a similar characteristic is observable-as, for example, in the self-restraint and continuous toil of Charles Darwin, when he collected facts for twenty years before he published the book which embodied the conclusion he had drawn from his wide induction.

The solid character of the temple-building is further suggestive, because the work was all done for the service of God. Such work should never be hasty, because God has the leisure of eternity in which to inspect it. It is labour lost to make it superficial and showy without any real strength, because God sees behind all pretences. Moreover, the fire will try every man’s work of what sort it is. We grow impatient of toil; we weary for quick results; we forget that in building the spiritual temple strength to endure the shocks of temptation and to outlast the decay of time is more valued by God than the gourd-like display which is the sensation of the hour, only to perish as quickly as it has sprung up.

 


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Bibliography Information
Nicoll, William R. "Commentary on Ezra 5:4". "Expositor's Bible Commentary". http://odl.studylight.org/commentaries/teb/ezra-5.html.

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