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Israel’s Return

[Ezra, Esther, Nehemiah]

Ezra

The Decree of Cyrus and the first body of people to return to Jerusalem

[Ezra 1-2] In Cyrus’ first year of reign in Babylon, God stirs up his spirit in order that Jeremiah’s prophecy might be fulfilled [Jer 25:12 & 29:10]. (Although not explicitly stated, it seems probable that Cyrus was shown an excerpt from Isaiah (44:27–45:6) that mentions him by name and prophesies the manner of his taking of Babylon.) Consequently, he makes a proclamation to permit the Israelites to return to Jerusalem and rebuild the temple. Those choosing to return on this occasion with Zerubbabel, the head of Judah, are supplied with silver, gold, goods and beasts by those around them. Also, Cyrus gives them the treasures from the temple that Nebuchadnezzar had originally taken from them. Forty-two thousand three hundred and sixty people return to Jerusalem, along with seven thousand three hundred and thirty seven servants and maids. Amongst those who return is Ezra, a priest and descendant of Aaron [Neh 12:1].

The temple is rebuilt

[Ezra 3-6] Having now returned from their captivity, the first thing the Israelites do is to reinstate their sacrifices, offerings and festivals appropriate to the time of year. They then pay the workers for their labour and some of the materials required to build the temple. The foundations are laid to the joy of all the people, although the older men who remembered the beauty of the original temple weep. The Samaritans offer to help in building the temple, but their offer is refused, so they continually make trouble for the Israelites, hampering their building work. In time, the Samaritans send a letter to Artaxerxes, king of Persia, with all kinds of accusations against them. Consequently, Artaxerxes commands the Israelites to stop building the temple. In the second year of Darius’ reign (this is a later Darius than that of Daniel’s time) the prophets Haggai and Zechariah encourage the Israelites to resume building the temple, despite some questioning of their authority to do so. Their response to the questioning prompts a letter to Darius to confirm Cyrus’ decree. Darius searches for the decree, finds it and issues a fresh one confirming the authorisation to build the temple, ensuring expenses for the building. Offerings are provided, and a warning of punishment to those who oppose the decree. The building of the temple is consequently completed over the next four years, is solemnly dedicated to God and the Passover celebrated by all the people.

The Decree of Artaxerxes and the second body of people to return to Jerusalem

[Ezra 7-8] Having returned to Babylon at some point, Ezra now prepares to go to Jerusalem for a second time with an intent to teach and re-establish the priestly system of judges and God’s laws to the people of Israel. A decree is received from the king to this effect and to provide Ezra with the financial support he needs. Ezra travels around the land to encourage those who had not previously taken advantage of Cyrus’ decree to now consider returning to Jerusalem with him under the decree of Artaxerxes. When the people are gathered together, Ezra sends for the Levites; then fasting and prayer are proclaimed to seek God’s blessing for a safe journey. The journey (circa 458 B.C.) takes four months, during which confrontation with any enemy is avoided. They all arrive safely and offerings are made to God to give thanks for the journey. Then the king’s commissions are delivered to his lieutenants and governors, allowing Israel to return to their full way of spiritual life.

The problem of mixed marriages is resolved

[Ezra 9-10] Ezra is told by some of the princes of Israel that many of the Israelites have married foreign wives, expressly forbidden by their law [Deut 7:1]. Ezra is so grieved and distressed at hearing this that he sits astonished for most of the day. He then confesses their sins to God with shame and embarrassment. Such is the depth of Ezra’s remorse that many people hear of it and gather at the temple to weep with Ezra. Shechaniah, the son of Jeheil, proposes that those who have married foreign wives should divorce them and separate themselves from them and their children. This is agreed and people are appointed to oversee the separations, which take a full three months to complete. Those who separate from their foreign wives and children are recorded in the book of Ezra.

Esther

Esther becomes queen

[Esther 1-2] Sometime later, Ahasuerus, king of Persia, holds a great feast for all the dignitaries of his kingdom. This feast lasts for 180 days, after which a feast is then held for his people for seven days. At the same time a feast is held by Vashti, the queen, for the women. On the last day of the feast, Ahasuerus sends for Vashti to be brought before him unveiled so that he could show off her beauty, but she refuses. To appear before the men unveiled was not the done thing, but for Vashti to refuse her king was a problem in that she might be an example to other women. At the advice of his councillors, the king deposes his queen and publishes an order throughout his provinces that every man is ruler in his own house. Later, the king’s wrath is appeased and his thoughts return to Vashti, but his decree against her is irreversible. Consequently, the decision is made to bring many fair virgins from throughout his kingdom in order that he can select a new queen. Serving at court at this time is a Benjamite by the name of Mordecai. He had brought up a young woman by the name of Esther, also a Benjamite, because her parents had died. Mordecai ensures Esther is included in the virgins given into the custody of Hegai, the keeper of the women. Esther is told by Mordecai not to reveal she is a Jew. It is twelve months before Esther is taken to the king when she is then chosen by him to be his queen. Sometime later, while sitting at the king’s gate, Mordecai overhears a plot by two men against the king, which he relates to Esther that she might inform the king. The matter is investigated and the two are hanged for their treason.

Haman and the decree to destroy the Jews

[Esther 3] Ahasuerus later promotes the Agagite Haman above all other officials, and all other servants at court are now required to bow down before him. But Mordecai does not bow, and when pressed says it is because he is a Jew. Haman is so angered by Mordecai’s attitude that he seeks to destroy all the Jews throughout the whole of Ahasuerus’ kingdom. Haman persuades the king that the Jews are a problem because they obey their own laws and not his, adding that he would offer a large reward, which would eventually compensate for any loss of revenue to the king. Ahasuerus gives him the necessary authority and lots, called Par, are cast daily to establish when this should take place, with the date eventually determined to be twelve months later. It is about five years after the king’s marriage to Esther that the decree is sent out, not without causing some bewilderment and concern in the city.

Mordecai persuades Esther to help

[Esther 4-5] On hearing of the decree, Mordecai is naturally greatly distressed, as are all the Jews throughout the provinces, audibly expressing his grief in sackcloth and ashes outside the king’s gate. Esther hears of Mordecai’s distress, and through her chamberlain Hatach, whom she sends to enquire of Mordecai, the edict is discovered. Mordecai insists Esther should go to the king to plea for the Jews, but it is a law that none can enter the king’s chamber without being invited. If they do, and the king does not accept the uninvited intrusion, then the penalty is death. Esther had not been called before the king for thirty days, but Mordecai insists that she must approach him, for neither of them would escape the edict, so she would die anyway. He also suggests that she may well be in the position she is for such a time as this: to protect the Jews. Esther agrees and tells Mordecai to have all the Jews fast for three days, then she will go to the king and if she should perish, then she will perish. So Esther approaches the king who does indeed hold out his sceptre towards her, signalling his acceptance of her approach. He asks the nature of her petition, offering anything she wishes up to half of his kingdom. At this time, Esther simply invites the king and Haman to a banquet of wine she has prepared for them that day. This they do and the king asks again what it is that Esther wants of him. She requests that he and Haman attend another banquet the next day, then she will tell him her petition. Haman leaves the banquet full of joy because he is the only one next to the king whom the queen has invited to another banquet. As he leaves court, he again sees Mordecai who refuses to bow before him. Haman, full of his own importance, is in too much of a hurry to concern himself with Mordecai. He is too keen to get back to his family and relate the degree to which he is now considered above all others except the king, and what glory, riches and honour this has brought him. He then reflects on how this is all belittled by the behaviour of Mordecai. His wife and family encourage him to construct a high gallows on which to hang Mordecai, ready for the permission to do so, which will surely be granted to him at the banquet the next day. And so the gallows is built in preparation.

The plan to counter the decree

[Esther 6-8] During that night Ahasuerus is unable to sleep, so he calls for the book of records to be brought and read to him. During the reading, the act of Mordecai in bringing to light the plot against the king is read, and Ahasuerus asks what reward Mordecai has received, to which the answer is none. The king asks who is in court. Haman is there, waiting to speak to the king concerning the hanging of Mordecai, so he is asked to approach the king. Ahasuerus asks Haman what he considers he should do for a man he delights to honour. Thinking the king would not want to be honouring any other man above himself, Haman advises an elaborate display of honour, to which the king agrees and immediately orders Haman to do all that he said for Mordecai. This he does exactly as ordered, but then goes to his household to tell of all that had happened. His family come to realise that his downfall could be imminent. While they are talking, the king’s chamberlains arrive to hasten Haman to the banquet prepared by the queen. At the banquet Esther is again asked by the king what it is she desires of him. She replies that she simply wants her life and the lives of her people, for they have been sold for destruction. The king, amazed at her request, asks who would dare to initiate such a vile thing, to which Haman is named. Ahasuerus is so shocked he has to leave the room for a moment. While he is out, Haman, fearing for his life, falls before the couch on which the queen is reclining. At that moment, the king returns, misconstrues the situation and orders Haman to be hanged on the very gallows that had been prepared for Mordecai. Ahasuerus gives all Haman’s estate to Esther, and Mordecai is made steward over the estate. But the decree set in place to destroy the Jews, once made by the king, cannot be reversed in Persian law. To overcome this, a new decree is made giving the Jews authority to defend themselves and even to slay those who rise against them.

The Jews survive the decree

[Esther 9-10] On the day set for the decree to destroy the Jews, they gather together to defend themselves as authorised by the king. In that day they kill Haman’s ten sons and five hundred of his men, and in the provinces they kill 75,000. The next two days are kept as a festival and established as such by Esther and Mordecai, known today as Purim. Mordecai has now become second in the kingdom after the king and highly respected by the Jews, seeking their good welfare from his newly acquired position.

Nehemiah

Nehemiah obtains permission to go to Jerusalem to rebuild the city

[Neh 1:1-2:8] About eleven years after Ezra had gone to Jerusalem, Nehemiah, a cup bearer to the king at the palace, hears of the harassment and distress suffered by the Jews in Jerusalem, because their walls and gates are still in the same condition as when Nebuchadnezzar had left them, broken and ineffective. Nehemiah is distressed at this and takes to fasting and prayer. When he next serves the king in his role as cup bearer, his unusual state of melancholy is recognised by Artaxerxes who asks him what his problem is, and how he can help. Nehemiah tells of the plight of the Jews and requests permission to return to Jerusalem to rebuild it, and to be given letters of confirmation. He also requests that wood be provided for building the gates. All this is granted and Nehemiah sets off for Jerusalem with some of the king’s men to protect him.

The walls and doors are rebuilt

[Neh 2:9-7:73a] After being in Jerusalem for three days, Nehemiah secretly sets out to survey the city walls and gates. When his survey is complete, he tells the Jews of his mission and the support he has from Artaxerxes. The building work then begins, notwithstanding scoffs and threats from their enemies. The names of all those contributing to the work are recorded by Nehemiah. Their enemies continue to mock them, but no response is given to their mocking other than Nehemiah’s prayers. When the work is seen to continue, their enemies conspire to hinder their progress by force. Nehemiah provides for a defence, both spiritual in prayer and physical in arming one half of the builders to protect the other half if the need should arise, with a strategy to ensure their protection. Now the poorer Jews complain of the burden they are carrying in purchasing and supplying food for their families while the building work is continuing. Some are even having to mortgage their properties to richer Jews. Nehemiah is angry at this revelation and rebukes the rich for lending money and charging the borrowers. They are convicted before an assembly and agree to return all properties to their owners. Nehemiah sets an example by supporting himself and his family at his own expense. When the Jews’ enemies see the wall has been rebuilt (the gates are still to be completed at this time), they request a meeting with Nehemiah at a named place. He refuses, being suspicious of their motives. They write to Nehemiah four times, but each time he refuses. A fifth letter is sent suggesting Nehemiah and the Jews with him would be treated as rebels by his neighbours, since the building of walls and rumours going around that he would be made king imply such. This letter is also rejected. False prophets are then employed to advise Nehemiah to flee to the temple for safety, advice that is rejected. The work is completed after just fifty-two days, all the while there being secret correspondence between Nehemiah’s enemies and some dissenters from amongst the Jews. The wall and gates now being completed, Nehemiah appoints two people to take charge of the city, with instructions to take special care about opening and shutting the gates. The city is much larger than that needed for the current inhabitants, so Nehemiah prepares for population growth by providing the genealogy of all those now resettled there. Details are also given of freewill offerings made for the restoration of Jerusalem.

Ezra brings about a revival

[Neh 7:73b-11:36] All the people gather together asking Ezra to read the b ook of the law, which he does from a pulpit. He has thirteen Levites in the pulpit with him, and together they spend the morning reading and expounding the law. Learning of the degree of God’s standards required of them, they are overwhelmed with grief, but are encouraged to observe the Feast of Tabernacles, which is now due. This they do and observe it strictly, including the making of booths, which had not been done since Joshua’s time. The people’s repentance is then demonstrated in their fasting in sackclothes and earth upon them, their confession of sins, worship and prayer. The Levites then offer a long prayer in which they recall God’s acts in creation, and the time from the call of Abraham until the present day. They recognise the good things that God did, the transgressions of the people and the Lord’s correction of them. Because of all this they make a covenant, which is written down, signed and sealed by many. They covenanted to observe the law of God with specific mention of not to marry Gentiles, to keep the Sabbaths weekly and to make tithes and offerings for the service of the temple.

The dedication of the wall

[Neh 12] The people encompass Jerusalem with two processions on the wall, Nehemiah with one procession and Ezra with the other, making their way in opposite directions, each led by a choir. When they meet halfway round the wall, in the temple area, there is thanksgiving followed by sacrifices offered in the temple. The whole occasion is one of great joy.

Further abuses and reforms

[Neh 13] Nehemiah had been governing Jerusalem for about twelve years when he returned to the court of Artaxerxes in Babylon. Sometime later he comes back to Jerusalem to find certain abuses have arisen in his absence. Some temple quarters had been profaned and polluted by allocating them to Tobiah, an old enemy of Nehemiah’s and a non-Jew. Nehemiah has Tobiah and all the furnishings removed, and rooms returned to their former use. He restores the income due to the Levites, which had not been given to them. He puts a stop to the breaking of Sabbath laws by closing the city gates and preventing traders from entering on the Sabbath, threatening them should they attempt to trade on the Sabbath again. He also puts a stop to the taking of foreign wives, a practice that has again arisen to the extent that children have learned a foreign language rather than their own. In all these abuses, Nehemiah adopts strong measures against the offenders.

Hierarchical Précis