Today’s reading is short 🙂 and pretty straight forward. So I would like to look at the lives of a couple people. First off there is Artaxerxes I the king of Persia. He was also called Longimanus. He was the son of Xerxes and the grandson of Darius. Artaxerxes ruled in Persia for 40 years, 464-424 B.C. His domain covered most of the civilized world, extending from Egypt to the western edge of India. He came to power after his father was executed. But as was often the case, Artaxerxes then killed his older brother and then his other brother. It is thought this second killing came amid hand to hand combat between the two men. Like many of the Persian rulers, Artaxerxes struggled to maintain the empire. The most significant war during his reign involved an Egyptian rebellion against Persian authority that was complicated by Athenian support for the Egyptians. This war lasted for six years, 460-454 B.C. Ultimately the Persians prevailed. Artaxerxes played a prominent role in the postexilic Jewish community. But the chronology of events is somewhat difficult to unravel.
Sometime prior to 445 B.C. Jews in Jerusalem began rebuilding the cities defenses, but adversaries informed the king and work was halted. We read that yesterday. But, in 458 B.C. Artaxerxes I allowed Ezra, who was in exile in Babylon, to return to Judah as a spiritual leader of the Jewish people. We see this in chapter seven. Meanwhile, Nehemiah served as the kings cupbearer in Sousa, the administrative capital of the empire. In 465 B.C. Artaxerxes commissioned Nehemiah as governor of Judah, a position he held for twelve years. The king gave Nehemiah permission to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem, a feat the Jewish people accomplished in 52 days. Archeological evidence indicates that Ezra and Nehemiah established Judah as an economically viable province. Prior to their arrival Judah had been in a poor and ruinous state as a continuing result of the Babylonian conquest. Artaxerxes I was buried in an elaborate tomb cut into the face of a cliff three miles north of Persepolis, the religious capital of the Persian empire. In the process of re establishing His people, God continued to use many different people to accomplish His tasks.
We do not know if Ezra was a common name but the genealogical description of him at the beginning of chapter seven is fascinating. After a long list of names going all the way back to Aaron, the brother of Moses, we find out the Ezra who has come to Jerusalem is THAT Ezra. The power that the king gave Ezra is somewhat staggering. In effect he received a blank check to do whatever was needed to rebuild Jerusalem and the temple so God’s people could worship Him as they were supposed to. Ezra’s authority extended to secular fields as well, with grave consequences for disobedience. The only authority Ezra didn’t have was the authority to impose taxes, tribute or duty on any of those who worked in the house of the Lord. The Zadok listed here was a priest under King David. Solomon appointed Zadok as his high priest in place of Abiathar, who supported the rebel Adonijah. The Zadokites, who were regarded as free from idolatry, held the office of high priest until 171 B.C. The Sadducees may have been named after Zadok and the Qumran community looked for the restoration of the Zadokite priesthood.
The other person I want to write about is Ezra. He was a scribe, and scribes occupied an important position as a professional class in the society of the ancient world. The scribal arts of reading, writing, and interpreting written documents assured them a vital role in the affairs of person, state, and sanctuary. Writing was typically performed as a dictation, using a stylus reed pen that was sharpened frequently with a ‘scribes knife’. Scribal training was acquired in schools and was at times viewed as a family trade. Several important people in scripture were scribes. There was Shaphan, who read the book of the law to King Josiah. Baruch recorded the words of Jeremiah the prophet, not once but twice. Ezra copied and read the decrees of Persian kings and the law of Moses. And, the evangelist Matthew applied his scribal training toward the composition of the first gospel in the New Testament. Scripture presents scribes accurately as royal recorders who preserved the will of kings. They occupied important posts within the military and they are often depicted with the high priest as close advisors of kings. Many scribes were priests themselves and they were trusted with the preservation, interpretation, and exposition of scripture. Scribes became widely regarded as men of great wisdom and learning. All of these ideals became focused in the person of Ezra. He was an important figure in traditional Judaism who represented the ideal model for the rabbinic sage as a faithful man of learning, scholarship, counsel, and service. Due to their importance and responsibility as preservers of tradition, scribes were also subjected to the scrutiny of prophetic critique.
As Ezra prepared to return to Jerusalem and he looked over the list of those who were returning with him, he noticed there were no sons of Levi among the returnees. Zerubbabel had faced a similar problem. Over 4,000 priests returned with him but only 74 Levites. Ezra would need more servants to work in the temple. The location and significance of Casiphia is uncertain. It has been suggested that it might be Ctesipon on the Tigris River, near modern day Baghdad. There may have been as Jewish sanctuary located there. God provided Ezra with a number of Levites from Casiphia because of Iddo, the chief man there. Once the Jews were on the road to Jerusalem, this large caravan would have been an easy target for robbers. Knowing the returnees needed help, Ezra proclaimed a fast as a symbol of their submission to God. To persuade the king to let him return to Jerusalem, Ezra had told the king about the power and wrath of the Lord. When Ezra received the king’s permission to return, he was ashamed to ask for an armed army escort, hence the fast asking the Lord for protection. It took four months for the Jews to return to Jerusalem. The journey was slowed down because of the presence of the youth and the elders.
God’s handiwork can be seen all over the end of the Jewish exile, their rebuilding, and their travel through hostile territory. God is not any less present in our lives today. Whether the Old Testament or the New we are reminded that the Lord will never leave us or forsake us.
In His Grip
Pastor Matt W