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Ezra iv. 6-23.

The fourth chapter of the Book of Ezra contains an account of a correspondence between the Samaritan colonists and two kings of Persia, which follows sharply on the first mention of the intrigues of "the enemies of Judah and Benjamin" at the Persian court in the later days of Cyrus, and which precedes the description of the fortunes of the Jews in the reign of Darius. If this has its right chronological position in the narrative, it must relate to the interval during which temple-building was in abeyance. In that case the two kings of Persia would be Cambyses, the son and successor of Cyrus, and Pseudo-Bardes. But the names in the text are Ahasuerus (Ahashverosh) and Artaxerxes (Artahshashta). It has been suggested that these are second names for the predecessors of Darius. Undoubtedly it was customary for Persian monarchs to have more than one name. But elsewhere in the Biblical narratives these two names are invariably applied to the successors of Darius—the first standing for the well-known Xerxes and the second for Artaxerxes Longimanus. The presumption therefore is that the same kings are designated by them here. Moreover, when we examine the account of the correspondence154 with the Persian court, we find that this agrees best with the later period. The opening verses of the fourth chapter of Ezra deal with the building of the temple; the last verse of that chapter and the succeeding narrative of the fifth chapter resume the same topic. But the correspondence relates to the building of the walls of the city. There is not a word about any such work in the context. Then in the letter addressed to Artaxerxes the writers describe the builders of the walls as "the Jews which came up from thee."118118   Ezra iv. 12. This description would not fit Zerubbabel and his followers, who migrated under Cyrus. But it would apply to those who accompanied Ezra to Jerusalem in the reign of Artaxerxes. Lastly, the reign of Pseudo-Bardes is too brief for all that would have to be crowded into it. It only occupied seven months. Yet a letter is sent up from the enemies of the Jews; inquiry is made into the history of Jerusalem by Persian officials at the court; a reply based on this inquiry is transmitted to Palestine; in consequence of this reply an expedition is organised which effectually stops the works at Jerusalem, but only after the exercise of force on the spot. It is nearly impossible for all this to have happened in so short a time as seven months. All the indications therefore concur to assign the correspondence to the later period.

The chronicler must have inserted this section out of its order for some reason of his own. Probably he desired to accentuate the impression of the malignant and persistent enmity of the colonists, and with this end in view described the later acts of antagonism directly after mentioning the first outbreak of opposition. It155 is just possible that he perceived the unfavourable character of his picture of the Jews in their curt refusal of assistance from their neighbours, and that he desired to balance this by an accumulation of weighty indictments against the people whom the Jews had treated so ungraciously.

In his account of the correspondence with the Persian court the chronicler seems to have taken note of three separate letters from the unfriendly colonists. First, he tells us that in the beginning of the reign of Ahasuerus they wrote an accusation against the Jews.119119   Ezra iv. 6. This was before the mission of Ezra; therefore it was a continuance of the old opposition that had been seen in the intrigues that preceded the reign of Darius; it shows that after the death of that friendly monarch the slumbering fires broke out afresh. Next, he names certain men who wrote to Artaxerxes, and he adds that their letter was translated and written in the Aramaic language—the language which was the common medium of intercourse in trade and official affairs among the mixed races inhabiting Syria and all the regions west of the Euphrates.120120   Ezra iv. 7. The reference to this language probably arises from the fact that the chronicler had seen a copy of the translation. He does not tell us anything either of the nationality of the writers or of the subject of their letter. It has been suggested that they were Jews in Jerusalem who wrote to plead their cause with the Persian king. The fact that two of them bore Persian names—viz., Bishlam and Mithredath—does not present a serious difficulty to this view, as we know that some Jews received such names, Zerubbabel, for example, being named Sheshbazzar. But as156 the previous passage refers to an accusation against the Jews, and as the following sentences give an account of a letter also written by the inimical colonists, it is scarcely likely that the intermediate colourless verse which mentions the letter of Bishlam and his companions is of a different character. We should expect some more explicit statement if that were the case. Moreover, it is most improbable that the passage which follows would begin abruptly without an adversative conjunction—as is the case—if it proceeded to describe a letter provoked by opposition to another letter just mentioned. Therefore we must regard Bishlam and his companions as enemies of the Jews. Now some who have accepted this view have maintained that the letter of Bishlam and his friends is no other than the letter ascribed to Rehum and Shimshai in the following verses. It is stated that the former letter was in the Aramaic language, and the letter which is ascribed to the two great officials is in that language. But the distinct statement that each group of men wrote a letter seems to imply that there were two letters written in the reign of Artaxerxes, or three in all.

The third letter is the only one that the chronicler has preserved. He gives it in the Aramaic language, and from Ezra iv. 8, where this is introduced, to vi. 18, his narrative proceeds in that language, probably because he found his materials in some Aramaic document.

Some have assigned this letter to the period of the reign of Artaxerxes prior to the mission of Ezra. But there are two reasons for thinking it must have been written after that mission. The first has been already referred to—viz., that the complaint about "the Jews which came up from thee" points to some large migration157 during the reign of Artaxerxes, which must be Ezra's expedition. The second reason arises from a comparison of the results of the correspondence with the description of Jerusalem in the opening of the Book of Nehemiah. The violence of the Samaritans recorded in Ezra iv. 23 will account for the deplorable state of Jerusalem mentioned in Nehemiah i. 3, the effects of the invasion referred to in the former passage agreeing well with the condition of the dismantled city reported to Nehemiah. But in the history of Ezra's expedition no reference is made to any such miserable state of affairs. Thus the correspondence must be assigned to the time between the close of "Ezra" and the beginning of "Nehemiah."

It is to Ezra's company, then, that the correspondence with Artaxerxes refers. There were two parties in Jerusalem, and the opposition was against the active reforming party, which now had the upper hand in the city. Immediately we consider this, the cause of the continuance and increase of the antagonism of the colonists becomes apparent. Ezra's harsh reformation in the expulsion of foreign wives must have struck the divorced women as a cruel and insulting outrage. Driven back to their paternal homes with their burning wrongs, these poor women must have roused the utmost indignation among their people. Thus the reformer had stirred up a hornets' nest. The legislator who ventures to interfere with the sacred privacy of domestic life excites the deepest passions, and a wise man will think twice before he meddles in so dangerous a business. Only the most imperative requirements of religion and righteousness can justify such a course, and even when it is justified nobody can foresee how far the trouble it brings may spread.

158The letter which the chronicler transcribes seems to have been the most important of the three. It was written by two great Persian officials. In our English versions the first of these is called "the chancellor," and the second "the scribe". "The chancellor" was probably the governor of a large district, of which Palestine was but a provincial section; and "the scribe" his secretary. Accordingly it is apparent that the persistent enmity of the colonists, their misrepresentations, and perhaps their bribes, had resulted in instigating opposition to the Jews in very high places. The action of the Jews themselves may have excited suspicion in the mind of the Persian Satrap, for it would seem from his letter that they had just commenced to fortify their city. The names of the various peoples who are associated with these two great men in the title of the letter also show how far the opposition to the Jews had spread. They are given as the peoples whom Osnappar (Esar-bani-pal) had brought over and set in the city of Samaria, "and in the rest of the country beyond the river."121121   Ezra iv. 10. That is to say, the settlers in the vast district west of the Euphrates are included. Here were Apharsathchites—who cannot be the Persians, as some have thought, because no Assyrian king ever seems to have penetrated to Persia, but may be the Parætaceni of Herodotus,122122   Herodotus, i. 101. a Median people; Tarpelites—probably the people named among the Hebrews after Tubal;123123   Gen. x. 2. Apharsites—also wrongly identified by some with the Persians, but probably another Median people; Archevites, from the ancient Erech (Uruk);124124   Gen. x. 10. Babylonians, not only from the city of Babylon, but also from its neighbourhood;159 Shushanchites, from Shusan (Susa), the capital of Susiana; Dehaites—possibly the Dai of Herodotus,125125   Herodotus, i. 125. because, though these were Persians, they were nomads who may have wandered far; Elamites, from the country of which Susa was capital. A terrific array! The very names would be imposing. All these people were now united in a common bond of enmity to the Jews of Jerusalem. Anticipating the fate of the Christians in the Roman Empire, though on very different grounds, the Jews seem to have been regarded by the peoples of Western Asia with positive antipathy as enemies of the human race. Their anti-social conduct had alienated all who knew them. But the letter of indictment brought a false charge against them. The opponents of the Jews could not formulate any charge out of their real grievances sufficiently grave to secure an adverse verdict from the supreme authority. They therefore trumped up an accusation of treason. It was untrue, for the Jews at Jerusalem had always been the most peaceable and loyal subjects of the Great King. The search which was made into the previous history of the city could only have brought to light any evidence of a spirit of independence as far back as the time of the Babylonian invasions. Still this was enough to supplement the calumnies of the irritated opponents which the Satrap and his secretary had been persuaded to echo with all the authority of their high position. Moreover, Egypt was now in revolt, and the king may have been persuaded to suspect the Jews of sympathy with the rebels. So Jerusalem was condemned as a "bad city"; the Persian officials went up and forcibly stopped the building of the walls,160 and the Jews were reduced to a condition of helpless misery.

This was the issue of Ezra's reformation. Can we call it a success? The answer to such a question will depend on what kind of success we may be looking for. Politically, socially, regarded from the standpoint of material profit and loss, there was nothing but the most dismal failure. But Ezra was not a statesman; he did not aim at national greatness, nor did he aim even at social amelioration. In our own day, when social improvements are regarded by many as the chief ends of government and philanthropy, it is difficult to sympathise with conduct which ran counter to the home comforts and commercial prosperity of the people. A policy which deliberately wrecked these obviously attractive objects of life in pursuit of entirely different aims is so completely remote from modern habits of thought and conduct that we have to make a considerable effort of imagination if we would understand the man who promoted it. How are we to picture him?

Ezra was an idealist. Now the success of an idealist is not to be sought for in material prosperity. He lives for his idea. If this idea triumphs he is satisfied, because he has attained the one kind of success he aimed at. He is not rich; but he never sowed the seed of wealth. He may never be honoured: he has determined to set himself against the current of popular fashion; how then can he expect popular favour? Possibly he may meet with misapprehension, contempt, hatred, death. The greatest Idealist the world ever saw was excommunicated as a heretic; insulted by His opponents, and deserted by most of His friends; tortured and crucified. The best of His disciples, those who had caught the enthusiasm of His idea, were161 treated as the offscouring of the earth. Yet we now recognise that the grandest victory ever achieved was won at Calvary; and we now regard the travels of St. Paul through stoning and scourging, through Jewish hatred and Christian jealousy, on to the block, as nothing less than a magnificent triumphant march. The idealist succeeds when his idea is established.

Judged by this standard—the only fair standard—Ezra's work cannot be pronounced a failure. On the contrary, he accomplished just what he aimed at. He established the separateness of the Jews. Among ourselves, more than two thousand years after his time, his great idea is still the most marked feature of his people. All along the ages it has provoked jealousy and suspicion; and often it has been met by cruel persecution. The separate people have been treated as only too separate from the rest of mankind. Thus the history of the Jews has become one long tragedy. It is infinitely sad. Yet it is incomparably more noble than the hollow comedy of existence to which the absence of all aims apart from personal pleasure reduces the story of those people who have sunk so low that they have no ideas. Moreover, with Ezra the racial idea was really subordinate to the religious idea. To secure the worship of God, free from all contamination—this was his ultimate purpose. In accomplishing it he must have a devoted people also free from contamination, a priesthood still more separate and consecrated, and a ritual carefully guarded and protected from defilement. Hence arose his great work in publishing the authoritative codified scriptures of the Jews. To a Christian all this has its defects—formalism, externalism, needless narrowness. Yet it succeeded in saving the religion of the Jews, and in transmitting that religion to future162 ages as a precious casket containing the seed of the great spiritual faith for which the world was waiting. There is something of the schoolmaster in Ezra; but he is like the law he loved so devoutly—a schoolmaster who brings us to Christ. He was needed both for his times and also in order to lay the foundation of coming ages. Who shall say that such a man was not sent of God? How can we deny to his unique work the inspiration of the Holy Spirit? The harshness of its outward features must not blind us to the sublimity of its inner thought or the beneficence of its ultimate purpose.

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