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119

CHAPTER XI.

EZRA'S EXPEDITION.

Ezra vii. 11-viii.

Like the earlier pilgrimage of Zerubbabel and his companions, Ezra's great expedition was carried out under a commission from the Persian monarch of his day. The chronicler simply calls this king "Artaxerxes" (Artahshashta), a name borne by three kings of Persia; but there can be no reasonable doubt that his reference is to the son and successor of Xerxes—known by the Greeks as "Macrocheir," and by the Romans as "Longimanus"—Artaxerxes "of the long hand," for this Artaxerxes alone enjoyed a sufficiently extended reign to include both the commencement of Ezra's public work and the later scenes in the life of Nehemiah which the chronicler associates with the same king. Artaxerxes was but a boy when he ascended the throne, and the mission of Ezra took place in his earlier years, while the generous enthusiasm of the kindly sovereign—whose gentleness has become historic—had not yet been crushed by the cares of empire. In accordance with the usual style of our narrative, we have his decree concerning the Jews preserved and transcribed in full; and yet here, as in other cases, we must make some allowance either for the literary freedom of the chronicler, or for the Jewish sympathies of the120 translator; for it cannot be supposed that a heathen, such as Artaxerxes undoubtedly was, would have shown the knowledge of the Hebrew religion, or have owned the faith in it, which the edict as we now have it suggests. Nevertheless, here again, there is no reason to doubt the substantial accuracy of the document, for it is quite in accord with the policy of the previous kings Cyrus and Darius, and in its special features it entirely agrees with the circumstances of the history.

This edict of Longimanus goes beyond any of its predecessors in favoring the Jews, especially with regard to their religion. It is directly and personally addressed to Ezra, whom the king may have known as an earnest, zealous leader of the Hebrew community at Babylon, and through him it grants to all Jewish exiles who wish to go up to Jerusalem liberty to return to the home of their fathers. It may be objected that after the decree of Cyrus any such fresh sanction should not have been needed. But two generations had passed away since the pilgrimage of the first body of returning captives, and during this long time many things had happened to check the free action of the Jews and to cast reproach upon their movements. For a great expedition to start now without any orders from the reigning monarch might excite his displeasure, and a subject people who were dependent for their very existence on the good-will of an absolute sovereign would naturally hesitate before they ventured to rouse his suspicions by undertaking any considerable migration on their own account.

But Artaxerxes does much more than sanction the journey to Jerusalem; he furthers the object of this journey with royal bounty, and he lays a very important commission on Ezra, a commission which carries with121 it the power, if not the name, of a provincial magistrate. In the first place, the edict authorises a state endowment of the Jewish religion. Ezra is to carry great stores to the poverty-stricken community at Jerusalem. These are made up in part of contributions from the Babylonian Jews, in part of generous gifts from their friendly neighbours, and in part of grants from the royal treasury. The temple has been rebuilt, and the funds now accumulated are not like the bulk of those collected in the reign of Cyrus for a definite object, the cost of which might be set down to the "Capital Account" in the restoration of the Jews; they are destined in some measure for improvements to the structure, but they are also to be employed in maintenance charges, especially in supporting the costly services of the temple. Thus the actual performance of the daily ritual at the Jerusalem sanctuary is to be kept up by means of the revenues of the Persian Empire. Then, the edict proceeds to favour the priesthood by freeing that order from the burden of taxation. This "clerical immunity," which suggests an analogy with the privileges the Christian clergy prized so highly in the Middle Ages, is an indirect form of increased endowment, but the manner in which the endowment is granted calls especial attention to the privileged status of the order that enjoys it. Thus the growing importance of the Jerusalem hierarchy is openly fostered by the Persian king. Still further, Artaxerxes adds to his endowment of the Jewish religion a direct legal establishment. Ezra is charged to see that the law of his God is observed throughout the whole region extending up from the Euphrates to Jerusalem. This can only be meant to apply to the Jews who were scattered over the wide area, especially those of Syria. Still the mandate122 is startling enough, especially when we take into account the heavy sanctions with which it is weighted, for Ezra has authority given him to enforce obedience by excommunication, by fine, by imprisonment, and even by the death-penalty. "The law of his God" is named side by side with "the law of the king."8181   Ezra vii. 26. and the two are to be obeyed equally. Fortunately, owing to the unsettled condition of the country as well as to Ezra's own somewhat unpractical disposition, the reformer never seems to have put his great powers fully to the test.

Now, as in the previous cases of Cyrus and Darius, we are confronted with the question, How came the Persian king to issue such a decree? It has been suggested that as Egypt was in revolt at the time, he desired to strengthen the friendly colony at Jerusalem as a western bulwark. But, as we have seen in the case of Cyrus, the Jews were too few and feeble to be taken much account of among the gigantic forces of the vast empire; and, moreover, it was not the military fortification of Jerusalem—certainly a valuable stronghold when well maintained—but the religious services of the temple and the observance of The Law that this edict aimed at aiding and encouraging. No doubt in times of unsettlement the king would behave most favourably towards a loyal section of his people. Still, more must be assigned as an adequate motive for his action. Ezra is charged as a special commissioner to investigate the condition of the Jews in Palestine. He is to "inquire concerning Judah and Jerusalem."8282   Ezra vii. 14. Inasmuch as it was customary for the Persian monarchs to send out inspectors from time to time to examine123 and report on the condition of the more remote districts of their extensive empire, it has been plausibly suggested that Ezra may have been similarly employed. But in the chronicler's report of the edict we read, immediately after the injunction to make the investigation, an important addition describing how this was to be done, viz., "According to the law of thy God which is in thine hand,"8383   Ezra. vii. 14. which shows that Ezra's inquiry was to be of a religious character, and as a preliminary to the exaction of obedience to the Jewish law. It may be said that this clause was not a part of the original decree; but the drift of the edict is religious throughout rather than political, and therefore the clause in question is fully in harmony with its character. There is one sentence which is of the deepest significance, if only we can believe that it embodies an original utterance of the king himself—"Whatsoever is commanded by the God of heaven, let it be done exactly for the house of the God of heaven; for why should there be wrath against the realm of the king and his sons?"8484   Ezra vii. 23. While his empire was threatened by dangerous revolts, Artaxerxes seems to have desired to conciliate the God whom the most devout of his people regarded with supreme awe.

What is more clear and at the same time more important is the great truth detected by Ezra and recorded by him in a grateful burst of praise. Without any warning the chronicler suddenly breaks off his own narrative, written in the third person, to insert a narrative written by Ezra himself in the first person—beginning at Ezra vii. 27 and continued down to Ezra x. The scribe opens by blessing God—"the Lord God of our fathers," who had "put such a thing in the king's124 heart as to beautify the house of the Lord which is in Jerusalem."8585   Ezra vii. 27. This, then, was a Divine movement. It can only be accounted for by ascribing the original impulse to God. Natural motives of policy or of superstition may have been providentially manipulated, but the hand that used them was the hand of God. The man who can perceive this immense fact at the very outset of his career is fit for any enterprise. His transcendent faith will carry him through difficulties that would be insuperable to the worldly schemer.

Passing from the thought of the Divine influence on Artaxerxes, Ezra further praises God because he has himself received "mercy ... before the king and his counsellors, and before all the king's mighty princes."8686   Ezra vii. 28. This personal thanksgiving is evidently called forth by the scribe's consideration of the part assigned to him in the royal edict. There was enough in that edict to make the head of a self-seeking, ambitious man swim with vanity. But we can see from the first that Ezra is of a higher character. The burning passion that consumes him has not a particle of hunger for self-aggrandisement; it is wholly generated by devotion to the law of his God. In the narrowness and bigotry that characterise his later conduct as a reformer, some may suspect the action of that subtle self-will which creeps unawares into the conduct of some of the noblest men. Still the last thing that Ezra seeks, and the last thing that he cares for when it is thrust upon him, is the glory of earthly greatness.

Ezra's aim in leading the expedition may be gathered from the reflection of it in the royal edict, since that edict was doubtless drawn up with the express purpose125 of furthering the project of the favoured Jew. Ezra puts the beautifying of the temple in the front of his grateful words of praise to God. But the personal commission entrusted to Ezra goes much further. The decree significantly recognises the fact that he is to carry up to Jerusalem a copy of the Sacred Law. It refers to "the law of thy God which is in thine hand."8787   Ezra vii. 14. We shall hear more of this hereafter. Meanwhile it is important to see that the law, obedience to which Ezra is empowered to exact, is to be conveyed by him to Jerusalem. Thus he is both to introduce it to the notice of the people, and to see that it does not remain a dead letter among them. He is to teach it to those who do not know it.8888   Ezra vii. 25. At the same time these people are distinctly separated from others, who are expressly described as "all such as know the laws of thy God."8989   Ibid. This plainly implies that both the Jerusalem Jews, and those west of the Euphrates generally, were not all of them ignorant of the Divine Torah. Some of them, at all events, knew the laws they were to be made to obey. Still they may not have possessed them in any written form. The plural term "laws" is here used, while the written compilation which Ezra carried up with him is described in the singular as "The Law." Ezra, then, having searched out The Law and tested it in his own experience, is now eager to take it up to Jerusalem, and get it executed among his fellow-countrymen at the religious metropolis as well as among the scattered Jews of the provincial districts. His great purpose is to make what he believes to be the will of God known, and to see that it is obeyed.126 The very idea of a Torah implies a Divine will in religion. It presses upon our notice the often-forgotten fact that God has something to say to us about our conduct, that when we are serving Him it is not enough to be zealous, that we must also be obedient. Obedience is the keynote of Judaism. It is not less prominent in Christianity. The only difference is that Christians are freed from the shackles of a literal law in order that they may carry out "the law of liberty," by doing the will of God from the heart as loyal disciples of Jesus Christ, so that for us, as for the Jews, obedience is the most fundamental fact of religion. We can walk by faith in the freedom of sons; but that implies that we have "the obedience of faith." The ruling principle of our Lord's life is expressed in the words "I delight to do Thy will, O My God," and this must be the ruling principle in the life of every true Christian.

Equipped with a royal edict, provided with rich contributions, inspired with a great religious purpose, confident that the hand of his God was upon him, Ezra collected his volunteers, and proceeded to carry out his commission with all practicable speed. In his record of the journey, he first sets down a list of the families that accompanied him. It is interesting to notice names that had occurred in the earlier list of the followers of Zerubbabel, showing that some of the descendants of those who refused to go on the first expedition took part in the second. They remind us of Christiana and her children, who would not join the Pilgrim when he set out from the City of Destruction, but who subsequently followed in his footsteps.

But there was little at Jerusalem to attract a new expedition; for the glamour which had surrounded the127 first return, with a son of David at its head, had faded in grievous disappointments; and the second series of pilgrims had to carry with them the torch with which to rekindle the flames of devotion.

Ezra states that when he had marshalled his forces he spent three days with them by a river called the "Ahava," apparently because it flowed by a town of that name. The exact site of the camp cannot be determined, although it could not have been far from Babylon, and the river must have been either one of the tributaries of the Euphrates or a canal cut through its alluvial plain. The only plausible conjecture of a definite site settles upon a place now known as Hit, in the neighbourhood of some bitumen springs; and the interest of this place may be found in the fact that here the usual caravan route leaves the fertile Valley of the Euphrates and plunges into the waterless desert. Even if Ezra decided to avoid the difficult desert track, and to take his heavy caravan round through Northern Syria by way of Aleppo and the Valley of the Orontes—an extended journey which would account for the three months spent on the road—it would still be natural for him to pause at the parting of the ways and review the gathered host. One result of this review was the startling discovery that there were no Levites in the whole company. We were struck with the fact that but a very small and disproportionate number of these officials accompanied the earlier pilgrimage of Zerubbabel, and we saw the probable explanation in the disappointment if not the disaffection of the Levites at their degradation by Ezekiel. The more rigid arrangement of Ezra's edition of The Law, which gave them a definite and permanent place in a second rank, below the priesthood, was not likely to encourage them to volunteer for128 the new expedition. Nothing is more difficult than self-effacement even in the service of God.

There was a community of Levites at a place called Casiphia,9090   The site of this town has not been identified. It could not have been far from Ahava. under the direction of a leader named Iddo. It would be interesting to think that this community was really a sort of Levitical college, a school of students of the Torah; but we have no data to go upon in forming an opinion. One thing is certain. We cannot suppose that the new edition of The Law had been drawn up in this community of the Levites, because Ezra had started with it in his hand as the charter of his great enterprise; nor, indeed, in any other Levitical college, because it was not at all according to the mind of the Levites.

After completing his company by the addition of the Levites, Ezra made a solemn religious preparation for his journey. Like the Israelites after the defeat at Gibeah in their retributive war with Benjamin;9191   Judges xx. 26. like the penitent people at Mizpeh, in the days of Samuel, when they put away their idols;9292   1 Sam. vii. 6. like Jehoshaphat and his subjects when rumours of a threatened invasion filled them with apprehension,9393   2 Chron. xx. 3.—Ezra and his followers fasted and humbled themselves before God in view of their hazardous undertaking. The fasting was a natural sign of the humiliation, and this prostration before God was at once a confession of sin and an admission of absolute dependence on His mercy. Thus the people reveal themselves as the "poor in spirit" to whom our Lord directs his first beatitude. They are those who129 humble themselves, and therefore those whom God will exalt.

We must not confound this state of self-humiliation before God with the totally different condition of abject fear which shrinks from danger in contemptible cowardice. The very opposite to that is the attitude of these humble pilgrims. Like the Puritan soldiers who became bold as lions before man in the day of battle, just because they had spent the night in fasting and tears and self-abasement before God, Ezra and his people rose from their penitential fast, calmly prepared to face all dangers in the invincible might of God. There seems to have been some enemy whom Ezra knew to be threatening his path, for when he got safely to the end of his journey he gave thanks for God's protection from this foe;9494   Ezra viii. 31. and, in any case, so wealthy a caravan as his was would provoke the cupidity of the roving hordes of Bedouin that infested the Syrian wastes. Ezra's first thought was to ask for an escort; but he tells us that he was ashamed to do so, as this would imply distrust in God.9595   Ezra viii. 22. Whatever we may think of his logic, we must be struck by his splendid faith, and the loyalty which would run a great risk rather than suffer what might seem like dishonour to his God. Here was one of God's heroes. We cannot but connect the preliminary fast with this courageous attitude of Ezra's. So in tales of chivalry we read how knights were braced by prayer and fast and vigil to enter the most terrible conflicts with talismans of victory. In an age of rushing activity it is hard to find the hidden springs of strength in their calm retreats. The glare of publicity starts us on the130 wrong track, by tempting us to advertise our own excellences, instead of abasing ourselves in the dust before God. Yet is it not now as true as ever that no boasted might of man can be in any way comparable to the Divine strength which takes possession of those who completely surrender their wills to God? Happy are they who have the grace to walk in the valley of humiliation, for this leads to the armoury of supernatural power!


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