the Fourth Week of Lent
Whedon's Commentary on the Bible Whedon's Commentary
by Daniel Whedon
THE Book of Ezra is a continuation of the Chronicles, and the two closing verses of the latter are the same as the first three of the former. See Introduction to Chronicles, page 324. It takes its name from the celebrated priest and scribe who is commonly supposed to have been the author, and of whose acts the last four chapters contain our main account. It covers a period of about eighty years, and affords us our principal information respecting the return of the Jews from the Babylonish exile, the rebuilding of the temple, and the various difficulties encountered in the re-establishing of the Jewish State.
A noticeable feature of the book is its diversity of language. It is written partly in Hebrew and partly in Chaldee. When the writer comes, in Ezra 4:8, to give a copy of the letter of the Samaritans to Artaxerxes, he gives it in the language in which it was written to the Persian monarch, and the narrative from that point to Ezra 6:18, which is largely taken up with copies of letters to and from Artaxerxes and Darius, is in the Chaldee or Aramaean language, or, as the English version has it, “the Syrian tongue.” See note on Ezra 4:7. The copy of Artaxerxes’ letter and decree, given in Ezra 7:12-26, is also written in the same language. The same diversity of language appears in the Book of Daniel, the Chaldee portion extending from Ezra 2:4 to the end of chap. 7. The fact is perfectly in keeping with the age and circumstances of both these writers, who were equally familiar with both languages; and probably most Jews of their time, who were able to read at all, were also equally familiar with both languages, so that when these authors came to use documents written in Aramaean they found it needless to translate them into Hebrew; and so familiar were they with the Aramaean that, having quoted a document in that language, they sometimes passed on to narrate in the same tongue any incident that belonged essentially to the same connexion, or the same occasion. Thus Ezra, in giving the historical connexion between the different letters, (Ezra 4:17; Ezra 4:23-24; Ezra 5:1-7,) and in recording the events that immediately followed Darius’ decree, (Ezra 6:13-18,) uses the Chaldee language. We need not, however, regard Ezra as the author of any part of the sections written in Chaldee. He may have found them already prepared by an older writer in the very form in which he has transferred them to his own pages. With our modern notions, this mixing up of different dialects in one book would be very open to criticism, but with an historian of more than two thousand years ago, and in the peculiar circumstances of Ezra, it is rather an evidence of unconscious simplicity.
Author and Date.
There is no good reason to dispute or doubt that Ezra himself was the author of this book. In the last four chapters he speaks in the first person, so that those chapters may properly be called Ezra’s autobiography. The previous six chapters he doubtless compiled largely from documents made ready for his use. The attempts of some critics to decide the origin and authorship of all the documents thus used are too purely conjectural to be of any value.
The book seems to have been written soon after Ezra’s successful measures to reform the new State in the matter of intermarriages with the heathen; hence, apparently, the abrupt termination of the work.
The prophecies of Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi, and the books of Nehemiah and Esther, belong to about the same period and class of Hebrew literature. Haggai and Zechariah prophesied in the reign of Darius Hystaspes, and their words were largely instrumental in encouraging the people, and urging on to completion the rebuilding of the temple. The Book of Esther falls, chronologically, between the sixth and seventh chapters of Ezra, for its incidents occurred during the reign of Xerxes, (Ahasuerus,) who succeeded Darius, and reigned about twenty years. Nehemiah and Malachi were contemporaries, and their books are, probably, to be assigned to about the same date. All these books shed light upon the history of the Jews, both in their exile and at the time of their return, and, among other things, show especially how the years and trials of their captivity had thoroughly subdued their spirit, checked their former tendencies to idolatry, and spiritualized their hopes and their thoughts. “Many and great,” says Wordsworth, “were the benefits which, under God’s good providence, the Hebrew Church derived from the seventy years’ captivity. They had learned there, by a severe and holy discipline, that the God of Israel was not a mere local deity, like those of the heathen. They had felt his presence cheering them as they hung their harps on the willows of the waters of Babylon, and in their wanderings through the more than a hundred and twenty provinces of the Persian empire, and they had thus been rescued from the sensuous slavery of mere external forms; they had been purified from idolatry, and had been elevated to a more spiritual communing with God. The open windows of Daniel, looking toward Jerusalem, were, indeed, an evidence of love for the land of his forefathers, and for the appointed ministers of the temple; but they were like the door opened in heaven in the Apocalypse, (iv, 1;) they were an avenue to a holier vista, which opens upward even to the inner sanctuary of the heavenly Zion, and by which the devout soul communes in prayer with the Invisible, who is enshrined in glory there.”
The history of the Persian empire during the period covered by the Book of Ezra is full of great events. The chapter on “Synchronistic World-history,” in our Introduction to the Books of Kings, closed with the fall of Babylon and the ascendency of the Persian dominion in the East. Darius the Mede thereupon took the kingdom of Babylon (Daniel 5:31; Daniel 9:1) and reigned about two years. Meantime Cyrus continued his work of conquest, and upon the death of Darius took the entire control of the vast empire that had fallen into his hands. See note on Ezra 1:1. He was succeeded by his son Cambyses, who for years carried on a successful war with Egypt, and subjected that ancient land to the sway of Persia. He is called Ahasuerus in Ezra 4:6, where see note on his name and character. While Cambyses was in Egypt the Magian Smerdis usurped the throne, and sought to change the religion of the empire and establish Magianism. He is called in this book Artaxerxes, and it is noticeable that under his short reign the enemies of Israel succeeded in putting a stop to the rebuilding of the temple. See note on Ezra 4:7. After a short reign of less than a year he was slain, and Darius Hystaspes became king of Persia. See note on Ezra 4:24. This enterprising monarch, having put down various rebellions, and having established his power in all parts of his empire, began the great campaigns against Greece which are so celebrated in classic history. His were the forces which were destroyed by a tempest off the coast of Mount Athos, and subsequently were so terribly defeated at Marathon. Darius died while engaged in extensive preparations to renew the war with Greece, and his son Xerxes succeeded him, and proceeded to carry out his father’s purposes. It was Xerxes who led the all but innumerable army across the Hellespont, and fought the far-famed battles of Thermopylae and Salamis. After his defeat at the latter place, and his consequent retreat into Asia, he sent his general, Mardonius, with three hundred thousand soldiers, to try once more the fortunes of battle with the Greeks, but only to suffer the defeat at Plataea, and to find that Persian magnificence was incompetent to cope with Grecian skill. Xerxes was the Ahasuerus of the Book of Esther, and it confirms the narrative of that Book that Xerxes is known, after his wars with Greece, to have lost all military ambition, and to have given himself over to the utmost indulgence of sensual passion among the women of his court and harem. He was followed in the kingdom by his son Artaxerxes Longimanus, of whom an account is given in the note on Ezra 7:1. During the forty years’ reign of this monarch the principal incidents in the lives of Ezra and Nehemiah took place. He was succeeded by his son, Xerxes II., who was assassinated only forty-five days afterward by his half-brother Sogdianus. The assassin reigned for a year and a half, when he in turn was murdered by another brother, Ochus, who reigned nineteen years, and is known in history as Darius Nothus. This monarch is supposed by most expositors to be “Darius the Persian,” mentioned in Nehemiah 12:22. After him reigned Artaxerxes Mnemon, who fought the famous battle of Cunaxa with his younger brother Cyrus, and who has been made famous in Grecian history by the brilliant narrative of Xenophon. He is said to have reigned forty-six years. Next came Ochus, reigning twenty-one years, followed by Arses, who reigned about two years, when Darius Codomannus, not a direct descendant of the royal family, attained the throne. He fought the great battles at the Granicus, Issus, and Arbela, with Alexander the Great, but was defeated on every field, and with his fall the Persian empire ended.
The Book of Ezra consists of two parts: the first embracing chapters 1-6, and devoted mainly to the account of the rebuilding the temple; the second embracing chapters 7-10, and being substantially an autobiography of Ezra for the space of, perhaps, a year. The following table of contents will furnish an index to the Book:
The Rebuilding of the Temple. Chaps. 1-6.
Cyrus’s Proclamation to Rebuild the Temple Ezra 1:1
Preparations to Return from Exile Ezra 1:5 -
List of Exiles who Returned with Zerubbabel Ezra 2:1 -
The Feast of Tabernacles kept in the Seventh Month Ezra 3:1
The Foundation of the Second Temple Laid Ezra 3:8 -
The Rebuilding of Temple Suspended Ezra 4:1 -
The Building of the Temple Resumed Ezra 5:1
Interference of Tatnai, the Governor Ezra 5:3 -
Darius’s Letter and Decree Ezra 6:1 -
The Temple Finished and Dedicated Ezra 6:13 -
The Passover Observed Ezra 6:19 -
The Acts of Ezra. Chaps. 7-10.
Ezra’s going up to Jerusalem Ezra 7:1 -
Artaxerxes’ Letter and Decree Ezra 7:11 -
Ezra’s Thanksgiving Ezra 7:27,
Genealogy of Ezra’s Companions from Babylon Ezra 8:1 -
The Gathering and Preparations by the River of Ahava Ezra 8:15 -
The Journey to and Arrival at Jerusalem Ezra 8:31 -
Israel’s Sin of Heathen Intermarriage made known to Ezra 9:1-2
Ezra’s Grief and Prayer Ezra 9:3 -
Putting away the Strange Wives Ezra 10:1 -
List of those that had taken Strange Wives Ezra 10:18 -