By Josiah Blake Tidwell
Ezra, Neh., Esth., Hag., Zech.
Scripture Analysis. The books of Ezra and Nehemiah furnish the outline of the period and its achievements. The two books were formerly counted one book and a continuous outline of the two is best suited to the proper emphasis of the various events of the period. The following outline will appear simple and yet sufficient for our purpose. (1) The rebuilding of the temple (Ezra, chs. 1-6). (2) The reforms of Ezra (Ezra, chs. 7-10). (3) The rebuilding of the walls (Neh. chs. 1-7). (4) The covenant to keep the law (Neh. chs. 8-10). (5) The inhabitants of Jerusalem (Neh. 11:1-12:26). (6) The dedication of the wall and the reform of Nehemiah (Neh. 12:27-13-end).
Predictions of the Return. The return from captivity had been prophesied long before the fall of Jerusalem. Several prophets had foretold the captivity and in connection with it had told of the destruction of Babylon and Judah's restoration. Even the length of their stay in exile was announced. While they were in exile they were constantly encouraged by the promised return foretold to them by Ezekiel, Jeremiah and others. (1) Restoration at the end of seventy years is predicted. (Jer. 25:12; 29:10; Dan. 9:2). (2) Other Scriptures that foretell the overthrow of Babylon or the return to Jerusalem or both may be found in Is. chs. 13, 14, 21, 44-47; Jer. 28:4-11; chs. 50-52; Ez. ch. 27, etc.
The Rise of Persian Power. This was a period of world change. Great empires in rapid succession fell under the power of new and rising kingdoms. (1) The Assyrian Empire, which superseded the Chaldean Empire about 1500 B. C., and now loomed so large in the eyes of the world, fell, when the combined forces of the Medes and Babylonians captured Ninevah her capital (B. C. 607) and was numbered among the dead nations. (2) The Babylonian Empire rose to supremacy and was the dominating power when Judah went into captivity. She was the most splendid kingdom the world had ever seen. (3) The Persian power conquered Media and the greater part of Assyria and the Medo-Persian Empire under Cyrus conquered Babylon and held almost universal sway at the time of the restoration.
The Decree of Cyrus. It is now about 150 years since Isaiah in his prophesies called Cyrus by name and predicted that he should restore God's captive people to their own land and now in fulfillment of that prophecy God stirred up the spirit of Cyrus and caused him to issue a proclamation for the return of the Jews and the rebuilding of the temple. He gave orders that his people should give the Jews silver, gold and beasts. He also restored to them the vessels of the house of the Lord (Ezra. 1:1-3) and instructed the governors along the way to assist him.
Three Expeditions to Jerusalem. The return from Babylon covered a long period of time and consisted of three separate detachments under as many different leaders. There were important intervening events and contributory causes. (1) The first colony to return was under Zerubhabel (536 B. C.) and consisted of about fifty thousand. Ezra chs. 1-6. We have given us the records of activities of this colony for a period of about twenty-one years, during which time the temple was rebuilt and dedicated. Much opposition was encountered in the matter of rebuilding the temple and the work was finally stopped. It is here that Haggai and Zechariah delivered their stirring prophesies which together with the influence of Jerubbabel and Jeshua, the priest, stimulated the people to renew their building operations and complete the temple (B. C. 515). In the course of history, Haggai and Zechariah would come in between the fourth and fifth chapters of Ezra. (2) The second colony returned to Jerusalem under the leadership of Ezra (Ezra chs. 7-10) and consisted of about 1800 males with their families. There is here a lapse of about fifty-seven years from the completion and dedication of the temple to the time of Ezra's going to Jerusalem-the last thirty years of the reign of Darius, the twenty years of the reign of Xerxes and seven years of the reign of Artaxerses. Ezra obtained permission from Artaxerxes to return and also letters of instruction to the rulers to give him assistance. He was a scribe of the law of Moses and his mission was primarily a religious one. He was a descendant from the house of Aaron and as such he assumed the office of priest when he reached Jerusalem. Upon his arrival he found that the first colony had fallen into gross immoralities and into unsound religious practices. He rebuke He rebuke all these sins and brought about a great reform. It is not certain that he remained in Jerusalem. His leave from the king may have been only temporary and he may have gone back to Babylon and returned again to Jerusalem in the time of Nehemiah. (3) The third colony was led to Jerusalem by Nehemiah (the book of Nehemiah). The number returning is not given. Nehemiah was the cupbearer to the Persian king and upon hearing of the distress of his people at Jerusalem secured permission from him to go to Jerusalem as the governor. In spite of very determined opposition he was enabled to repair the wall of the city and dedicate it with great ceremony (Neh. chs. 6 and 12). Nehemiah is counted as one of the greatest reformers. He corrected many abuses such as those of usury and restored the national life of the Jews based upon the written law. Together with Ezra he restored the priests to their positions and renewed the temple worship. He went back to the Persian court where he remained several years and then returned to Jerusalem and continued his reforms. This ends the Old Testament history.
The Prophecy of Hagai and Zechariah. The task of these prophets was the same and was by no means an easy one. The work of rebuilding the temple, which had been begun when Jerubbabel and his colony came to Jerusalem, had been stopped by the opposition which they met. Along with this laxity of effort to build the temple the Jews were busy building houses for themselves (1:4) and had become very negligent of all duty. They had begun to despair of seeing their people and the beloved city and temple restored to the glory pictured by the prophets and were rapidly becoming reconciled to the situation. These two prophets succeeded in arousing interest and confidence in the people and through their appeals secured the finishing of the temple.
The Prophecy of Malachi. This prophecy condemns the same sins as those mentioned in the last chapters of Ezra and Nehemiah. He denounced their impure marriages, their lack of personal godliness, their failure to pay tithes and their skepticism. The special occasion for the discourses was the discontent which arose because their expectation of the glorious Messianic Kingdom had not been realized. They had also had unfavorable harvests. It is thought by many that the time of the prophecy is between the first and second visit of Nehemiah to Jerusalem. The purpose seems to be: (1) to rebuke them for departing from the law; (2) to call them back to Jehovah; (3) to revive the national spirit.
The Story of Esther. King Ahasuerus of the book of Esther is thought to be Xerxes the Great. On this view the events narrated occurred some time before the second colony came to Jerusalem and the story would fall between chapters 6 and 7 of the book of Ezra. The book throws much light on the condition of the Jews in captivity and also upon the social and political conditions existing in the Persian Empire at this period. While the name of God does not occur in the book, his providential care over his people is everywhere manifested. The deliverance of the Jews from death by the intercessions of Esther became the occasion of the establishment of the feast of Purim which ever after commemorated it in Jewish history. These four books should be read following the outline given in "The Bible Book by Book."
Synagogues and Synagogue Worship. The emphasis which Ezra gave to the study of the Book of the Law no doubt did much to destroy idolatry and led to a new devotion to the word of God, at least to the letter of the law. This led to the institution or the re-establishment of the Synagogue. There had no doubt been from the early times local gatherings for worship, but the Synagogue worship does not seem to have been in use before the captivity, After the captivity, however, they built many of them, in every direction. They were places of worship where they engaged in reading the law, in exhortation and in prayer. The reading and expounding of the law became a profession, those following this calling being designated "lawyers."
The Significance of the Period, In all the annals of national life there is probably not a more significant sweep of history than that of the Jews during the restoration which covers a little more than ninety years. With the captivity their national life had ceased and now that they are back in their own land they do not seem to make any attempt to reestablish the nation. Stress is now put upon the true worship of God and it is beginning to dawn upon them that the glory of God will be manifested in some higher spiritual sense than had been expected. They had seen the decay of the mightiest material kingdoms, while spiritual Israel lived on, and were seeing how God and his cause and those whom he saves can not die. The Old Testament, therefore, closes with the Jews back at their old home, with the temple restored, with the sacred writings gathered together, with the word of God being taught and with the voice of the living prophet still in the land. After this followed a somewhat varied history of about 400 years through all of which the light of the hope of the coming Messiah never died out.
Lessons of the Period. The discussions of the previous sections have brought out some of the significant teachings of this period, but the following statement of lessons will probably serve to stimulate thought. (1) God will use as his instruments others than his own people. See Cyrus and Artaxerxes. (2) God's work is both (a) constructive, as when he builds up, inspires, edicts and qualifies workers, and (b) destructive, as when he overcomes opposition. (3) A consecrated man is courageous and uncompromising, but none the less cautious. See Nehemiah. (4) There is a wise providence of God that includes all nations and displays perfect righteousness, perfect knowledge and perfect power. See the book of Esther, also the others. (5) Contentment may be false and harmful. See Hag. and Zech. (6) The comparative strength of the friends and enemies of a proposition does not determine the results. God must also be considered. (7) It pays to serve God. the Moral Governor of the world. See Mal. (8) The safety of a people demands that the marriage relation shall be sacredly regarded. (9) A rigid observance of the Sabbath is vital to the growth and well-being of a nation. (10) Mere forms of religion are displeasing to God unless accompanied by ethical lives. (11) Rules that oppress the poor court the Divine disfavor.
For Study and Discussion. (1) The lessons given in the last paragraph. (2) The decree of Cyrus. (3) The adversaries of Judah (Ezr. ch. 4; Neh. ch. 4), who they were and what they did. (4) The reforms of Ezra. (5) The reforms of Nehemiah. Compare them one by one with those of Ezra. (6) The traits of character of Ezra and Nehemiah. (7) Nehemiah's plan of work in rebuilding the temple. (8) The traits of character displayed by Vashti, Mordecai, Esther and Haman. (9) The Spirit of the return. Compare with the story of Ezra. Is. ch. 40, 48:20-21; Dan. 9:20; Ps. 137. Point out (a) the religious impulse, (b) the national pride, (c) the local attractions. (10) The rebuilding of the temple and of the wall. (11) The different sins rebuked by Malachi. (12) The kings of Babylon since Nebuchadnezzar, (b) [sic] The feast of Belshazzar, Dan. ch. 5, (c) The conquering of Babylon, (d) Organization of the kingdom under Darius, Dan. ch. 6, and of Ahasuerus, Esth.