O.T. Handout #47: Ezra the prophet, Nehemiah, return to Jerusalem, Cyrus, Darius, Artaxerxes, Zerubbabel, Second Temple, Shekinah, Darius, Jeremiah prophecy , Purim December 2014
The books of the Bible do not fall into chronological order. Their position is determined usually by whether they are historical or prophetic books. The books of Ezra and Nehemiah were originally part of a compilation that included 1 and 2 Chronicles. Ezra 1:1–3 and 2 Chronicles 36:22–23 and are almost identical.
The books of Ezra and Nehemiah are actually the last two historical books of the Old Testament. Zechariah and Haggai were prophets during this same period. Malachi is the only prophet known to have served in Israel between the time of Ezra and Nehemiah and the beginning of the New Testament.
The books of Ezra and Nehemiah tell the story of Israel’s history from the first return to Jerusalem until the end of Nehemiah’s second term as governor of Judah (538 B.C. to shortly before 400 B.C.). The first part is the telling of the first return of exiles in the first year of Cyrus the Great(538 BC) and the completion and dedication of the new Temple in Jerusalem in the sixth year of Darius (515 BC). The second part is the telling of the subsequent mission of Ezra to Jerusalem and his struggle to purify the Jews from what the book calls the sin of marriage with non-Jews.
Ezra is written to fit a schematic pattern in which the God of Israel inspires a king of Persia to commission a leader from the Jewish community to carry out a mission; three successive leaders carry out three such missions, (1 rebuilding the Temple(2 purifying the Jewish community, (3 sealing of the holy city itself behind a wall. (This last mission, that of Nehemiah, is not part of the Book of Ezra.) The book probably appeared in its earliest version around 400 BC, and continued to be revised and edited for several centuries after before being accepted as scriptural in the early Christian era.
Basic Structure of Book of Ezra:
1. Decree of Cyrus, first version: Cyrus, inspired by God, returns the Temple vessels to Sheshbazzar, “prince of Judah”, and directs the Israelites to return to Jerusalem with him and rebuild the Temple.
2. 42,360 exiles, with men servants, women servants and “singing men and women”, return from Babylon to Jerusalem and Judah under the leadership of Zerubbabel and Jeshua the High Priest.
3. Jeshua the High Priest and Zerubbabel build the altar and celebrate the Feast of Tabernacles. In the second year the foundations of the Temple are laid and the dedication takes place with great rejoicing.
4. Letter of the Samaritans to Artaxerxes, and reply of Artaxerxes: The “enemies of Judah and Benjamin” offer to help with the rebuilding, but are rebuffed; they then work to
frustrate the builders “down to the reign of Darius.” The officials of Samaria write to king Artaxerxes warning him that Jerusalem is being rebuilt, and the king orders the work to stop. “Thus the work on the house of God in Jerusalem came to a standstill until the second year of the reign of Darius king of Persia.”
5. Tattenai’s letter to Darius: Through the exhortations of the prophets Haggai and Zechariah, Zerubbabel and Joshua recommence the building of the Temple. Tattenai, satrap over both Judah and Samaria, writes to Darius warning him that Jerusalem is being rebuilt and advising that the archives be searched to discover the decree of Cyrus.
6. Decree of Cyrus, second version, and decree of Darius: Darius finds the decree, directs Tattenai not to disturb the Jews in their work, and exempts them from tribute and supplies everything necessary for the offerings. The Temple is finished in the month of Adar in the sixth year of Darius, and the Israelites assemble to celebrate its completion.
7. Letter of Artaxerxes to Ezra (Artaxerxes’ rescript): King Artaxerxes is moved by God to commission Ezra “to inquire about Judah and Jerusalem with regard to the Law of your God” and to “appoint magistrates and judges to administer justice to all the people of Trans-Euphrates—all who know the laws of your God.” Artaxerxes gives Ezra much gold and directs all Persian officials to aid him.
8. Ezra gathers a large body of returnees and much gold and silver and precious vessels for the Temple and camps by a canal outside Babylon. There he discovers he has no Levites, and so sends messengers to gather some. The exiles then return to Jerusalem, where they distribute the gold and silver and offer sacrifices to God.
9. Ezra is informed that some of the Jews already in Jerusalem have married non-Jewish women. Ezra is appalled at this proof of sin, and prays to God: “O God of Israel, you are righteous! We are left this day as a remnant. Here we are before you in our guilt, though because of it not one of us can stand in your presence.”
10. Despite the opposition of some of their number, the Israelites assemble and send away their foreign wives and children.
The contents of Ezra-Nehemiah are structured in a theological rather than chronological order: The Temple must come first, then the purifying of the community, then the building of the outer walls of the city, and so finally all could reach a grand climax in the reading of the law.
Ezra 2:64–65 indicates that approximately fifty thousand people made the first trip back to Jerusalem. Ezra 1:4 tells of the responsibilities of the Jews who remained in Babylonia. By far, most of the expatriated Jews chose not to return to Jerusalem at this time, a decision that indicates how well they had been absorbed into the Babylonian way of life.
Zerubbabel was a descendant of Jehoiachin, the king who was carried away captive into Babylon, which descent means he was of the royal Davidic line. Zerubbabel was also an ancestor of Jesus Christ (see Matthew 1:12; Zorobabel is the Greek form). Zerubbabel was governor of Judah (see Haggai 2:2). The second temple in Jerusalem is often called the temple of Zerubbabel. Haggai and Zechariah prophesied favorably about the role and trustworthiness of Zerubbabel (see Haggai 2:4, 21–23; Zechariah 4:6–9).
Jeshua, the high priest, and Zerubbabel, the governor, cooperated to direct the rebuilding of the temple. The reconstruction began with the very heart of Israel’s religious facilities, the altar of the temple, which was placed on the very site where the temple formerly had stood. The altar was necessary so that worship and sacrifice could begin again according to the pattern laid down by Moses (see Leviticus 1–7). The altar was made ready for the sacrifices of the week of Succoth (feast of Tabernacles) and for other high holy days.
At the final captivity of Israel by Shalmaneser, the cities of Samaria were depopulated of their inhabitants in B.C. 721, and they remained in this desolated state until, in the words of 2 Kings 17:24, ‘the king of Assyria brought men from Babylon, and from Cuthah, and from Ava (Ivah, 2 Kings 18:34), and from Hamath, and from Sepharvaim, and placed them in the cities of Samaria instead of the children of Israel: and they possessed Samaria, and dwelt in the cities thereof.’ Thus the new Samaritans were Assyrians by birth or subjugation.
The Assyrian foreigners were idolaters and had no desire to serve Jehovah or worship rightfully in the temple. Later when these foreign Samaritans intermarried with some of the Israelites, both a mixed race of Samaritans and a variant form of the worship of Jehovah developed. Such were the circumstances in the New Testament times. This variant religion was heavily intermingled with pagan and other unauthorized religious practices, which the Jews saw as highly offensive. When Zerubbabel refused their help, the Samaritans were understandably angry and sought revenge by writing to the king of Persia and accusing the Jews of rebellion.
The Hand of the Lord Intervened in the Building of the Temple. After many years, prophets of God appeared in Jerusalem to provide the inspired direction and incentive to continue the temple building. In the first year of the reign of King Darius, the prophet Daniel petitioned the Lord about Jeremiah’s prophecy of the seventy years (see Daniel 9:1–2).
Zerubbabel had returned to Jerusalem about sixteen years previously and had been frustrated in his temple building project. Daniel 9:17–19 shows Daniel’s prayerful concern for the sanctuary (temple) and the city Jerusalem. The Lord answered Daniel and raised up two prophets in Jerusalem: Haggai and Zechariah. Haggai 1:1–5, 12–14; Zechariah 4:9; and Ezra 6:14 show how these two prophets inspired Zerubbabel, Jeshua, and the people to complete the holy temple in spite of persecution, hard times, and governmental red tape, much as prophets in this dispensation have inspired the Saints to sacrifice much to build temples.
“The second temple in Jerusalem was completed in 516 B.C., exactly seventy years after the temple was destroyed by Nebuchadnezzar in 586 B.C. Thus, Jeremiah’s prophecy was fulfilled (see Jeremiah 29:10–14).
“It is known in history as the Temple of Zerubbabel. In general plan it was patterned after the Temple of Solomon, though in many of its dimensions it exceeded its prototype. The court was divided into a section for priests only and another for the public; according to Josephus the division was effected by a wooden railing.
“An altar of unhewn stone was erected in place of the great brazen altar of old. The Holy Place was graced by but one candlestick instead of ten; and by a single table for the shew-bread instead of the ten tables overlaid with gold which stood in the first Temple. We read also of a golden altar of incense, and of some minor appurtenances. The Most Holy Place was empty, for the Ark of the Covenant had not been known after the people had gone into captivity.
“In many respects the Temple of Zerubbabel appeared poor in comparison with its splendid predecessor and in certain particulars, indeed, it ranked lower than the ancient Tabernacle of the Congregation—the sanctuary of the nomadic tribes. Critical scholars specify the following features characteristic of the Temple of Solomon and lacking in the Temple of Zerubbabel:
(1) the Ark of the Covenant; (2) the sacred fire; (3) the Shekinah, or glory of the Lord, manifested of old as the Divine Presence; (4) the Urim and Thummim, by which Jehovah made plain His will to the priests of the Aaronic order; (5) the genius or spirit of prophecy, indicative of the closest communion between mortals and their God. Notwithstanding these differences the Temple of Zerubbabel was recognized of God and was undoubtedly the site or seat of Divine revelation to duly constituted prophets.” (Talmage, House of the Lord, pp. 42–43.)
It was the temple of Zerubbabel that King Herod refurbished and made very beautiful. He added many courtyards and surrounding buildings that made it one of the wonders of the world at the time of Jesus.
Book of Nehemiah – Told largely in the form of a first-person memoir, it concerns the rebuilding of the walls of Jerusalem by Nehemiah, a Jew who is a high official at the Persian court, and the dedication of the city and its people to God’s laws (Torah).The events take place in the second half of the 5th century BC, and together with the Book of Ezra, it represents the final chapter in the historical narrative of the Hebrew Bible.
The book tells how Nehemiah, at the court of the king in Susa, is informed that Jerusalem is without walls and resolves to restore them. The king appoints him as governor of Judah and he travels to Jerusalem. There he rebuilds the walls, despite the opposition of Israel’s enemies, and reforms the community in conformity with the law of Moses. After 12 years in Jerusalem, he returns to Susabut subsequently revisits Jerusalem. He finds that the Israelites have been backsliding and taking non-Jewish wives, and he stays in Jerusalem to enforce the Law.
Little is known about the background of Nehemiah except that he was a Jew born while the Jews were in exile. His age is not given, but it is likely that he was born after Cyrus had decreed the Jews could return to their homeland. Only a small number of the Jews in exile chose to return. Nehemiah’s family must have been one of those that did not. They were probably of some influence, since Nehemiah was the cupbearer to King Artaxerxes ( Nehemiah 2:1). Assassination was a constant threat to a king, and poisoned food or drink was one of the most effective ways to accomplish it. The cupbearer, the one who ensured that the king’s food and drink were safe, was in a position of great trust and responsibility. Even though he was in Persia enjoying power and importance, Nehemiah had not forgotten his people and homeland. When he heard of their sad condition, he fasted and prayed for his people.
Nehemiah 2:1–11. The King Sent Nehemiah to Jerusalem The favor in which Nehemiah was held by King Artaxerxes is evident not only in that he granted him permission to return but also in that he gave him guards, an escort, and a safe conduct through the lands on his return to Judah “beyond the river,” or west of the Euphrates. The king also granted him permission to use timber from the royal forests to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem as well as the gates and his own house.
The names of the families assigned to repair the walls and gates are given in Nehemiah 3. But the leaders of the surrounding communities were angry that the Jews were fortifying Jerusalem and resuming their former religious practices. Sanballat, the governor of Samaria, was especially angry. But the plan they laid to attack and prevent the repair of the walls, now about halfway up (see Nehemiah 4:6), was frustrated by Nehemiah, who had those who guarded and
those who labored arm themselves by day and by night (see vv. 21–22). Nehemiah’s encouragement to the Jews to defend their families and homes (v. 14) is similar to the charge Moroni gave in the Book of Mormon (see Alma 43:46–47; 46:12).
Nehemiah’s true greatness shines forth in these verses. One of the reasons the Jews were still in great poverty was the unrighteous oppression of the people by their previous rulers. Nehemiah could have glutted himself in the same manner, but instead he became angry about the over taxation (the king’s tribute), usury (interest), slavery, and the confiscation of private property.
Although his predecessors “were chargeable unto the people” (Nehemiah 5:15) or, in other words, laid a heavy burden upon the people, Nehemiah showed his greatness as the governor by not accepting a salary from the taxes of the people. He was wealthy and chose to serve without remuneration.
The righteous kings in the Book of Mormon had the same sense of public morality and worked for their livelihood rather than burdening their people (see Mosiah 2:14; 29:40).
Nehemiah 6. What Was the Importance of the Wall? Sanballat tried to lure Nehemiah into some “mischief” (Nehemiah 6:2) through an invitation for negotiations, but Nehemiah was not deceived. In fact, he was not even intimidated by Sanballat’s threat to report a Jewish rebellion to King Artaxerxes.
The wall was finished in fifty-two days (see v. 15), and watches were set to protect those who lived in the city. The walls were a protection, but they were also an important physical symbol of the establishment of the Jews as a people. The holy city became a unifying force as families were chosen by lot to come live in it (see Nehemiah 11:1–2). Sanballat and the other enemies of Judah fully understood the significance of the walls and of Nehemiah’s unifying leadership. That is why their opposition was so persistent.
Nehemiah 7:63–65. What Did It Mean to Be “Put from the Priesthood”? Those who could not trace their genealogy, or who tried to hide it, were denied the priesthood. The same situation was reported in Ezra 2:62. “The Tirshatha” is a title for the governor (see Nehemiah 7:65, 70).
Nehemiah 8:1–12. Establishing the Synagogue and the Feast The reading of the law to the people by Ezra the scribe is of particular importance because it appears to have been the first time a synagogue, or a place to read and expound the scriptures, was established in Jerusalem after the return from Babylon. One Bible scholar commented on verse 8 as follows: “The Israelites, having been lately brought out of the Babylonish captivity, in which they had continued seventy years, according to the prediction of Jeremiah, [25:11], were not only extremely corrupt, but it appears that they had in general lost the knowledge of the ancient Hebrew to such a degree, that when the book of the law was read, they did not understand it: but certain Levites stood by, and gave the sense, i. e., translated into the Chaldee dialect. . . . It appears that the people were not only ignorant of their ancient language, but also of the rites and ceremonies of their religion, having been so long in Babylon, where they were not permitted to observe them. This being the case, not only the language must be interpreted, but the meaning of the rites and ceremonies must also be explained; for we find from ver. 13, &c., of this chapter, that they had even forgotten the feast of tabernacles, and every thing relative to that ceremony.”
Nehemiah 8:10. Care for the Poor Once again, Nehemiah’s great goodness was demonstrated. He did not call for religious observance alone. He called on the people not only to join in a religious feast but to remember the poor, to share their joy in God’s goodness by charitable service.
Nehemiah 8:13–18. Why Did Nehemiah Reestablish the Feast of Tabernacles? Unless one understands the significance of the feast of Tabernacles, it may seem peculiar that Ezra chose this feast as so important. The commandments for its observance are found in Leviticus 23:34–44. Elder Bruce R. McConkie explained its peculiar significance:
“One of the three great feasts at which the attendance of all male Israelites was compulsory, the Feast of Tabernacles, was by all odds Israel’s greatest feast. Coming five days after the Day of Atonement, it was thus celebrated when the sins of the chosen people had been removed and when their special covenant relation to Jehovah had been renewed and restored. Above all other occasions it was one for rejoicing, bearing testimony, and praising the Lord.
In the full sense, it is the Feast of Jehovah, the one Mosaic celebration which, as part of the restitution of all things, shall be restored when Jehovah comes to reign personally upon the earth for a thousand years. Even now we perform one of its chief rituals in our solemn assemblies, the giving of the Hosanna Shout, and the worshipers of Jehovah shall yet be privileged to exult in other of its sacred rituals.
“Also known as the Feast of Booths, because Israel dwelt in booths while in the wilderness, and as the Feast of Ingathering, because it came after the completion of the full harvest, it was a time of gladsome rejoicing and the extensive offering of sacrifices. More sacrifices were offered during the Feast of the Passover than at any other time because a lamb was slain for and eaten by each family or group, but at the Feast of Tabernacles more sacrifices of bullocks, rams, lambs, and goats were offered by the priests for the nation as a whole than at all the other Israelite feasts combined. The fact that it celebrated the completion of the full harvest symbolizes the gospel reality that it is the mission of the house of Israel to gather all nations to Jehovah, a process that is now going forward, but will not be completed until that millennial day when ‘the Lord shall be king over all the earth,’ and shall reign personally thereon. Then shall be fulfilled that which is written: [Zechariah 14:9–21]. That will be the day when the law shall go forth from Zion and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem. Manifestly when the Feast of Tabernacles is kept in that day, its ritualistic performances will conform to the new gospel order and not include the Mosaic order of the past.” (The Promised Messiah, pp. 432–33.)
In their new spirit of unity and national pride, the Jews made covenants to marry within Israel (see Nehemiah 10:30); keep the Sabbath (see v. 31); pay the “temple tax” instituted by Moses (see v. 32); make offerings (see vv. 33–35); dedicate the firstborn to the Lord (see v. 36); support the Levites and priests with their tithes (see vv. 37–38); and do all things necessary to sustain the temple (see v. 39). In other words, they covenanted to reestablish obedience to the law of Moses.
Nehemiah 10:38 mentions “the tithes of the tithes.” The Levites were to tithe their own support money for the priests. Originally the temple tax was half a shekel for everyone over twenty years of age (see Exodus 30:13). This amount was reduced to a “third part,” or one third of a shekel. Such offerings were still a practice in the days of Jesus (see Luke 21:1–4).
Nehemiah cleared the synagogues of foreigners (see Nehemiah 13:1–3) and then cleansed the temple of a resident apostate (seevv. 4–9). He enforced controls on buying and selling on the Sabbath (see vv. 14–21) and further advised all Israel to marry wives from among their own people. Here was a man who left a position of great wealth and influence and out of love for God and his people dedicated his life to righteous purposes. Surely Nehemiah will be counted as one of God’s chosen servants.
Nehemiah 13:28–31. What Event Was Recorded in These Verses, and Why Is It Significant? In later times the Samaritans viewed Mount Gerizim as the holy mountain in opposition to the Jews who saw Jerusalem as the sacred place (see John 4:19–22). Although it is not specifically stated, the conflict mentioned here in Nehemiah was what led to the establishment of Mount Gerizim as the holy place of the Samaritans.
“After the return from the Babylonian captivity Gerizim again became a place of importance, as the center of the Samaritan worship. A certain Manasseh, son or grandson of Joiada, a priest in Jerusalem (Neh. 13:28), had married the daughter of Sanballat the Horonite. Refusing to put her away, he was expelled from the priesthood, and took refuge with the Samaritans, among whom, as a member of the high priestly family, he set up upon Mount Gerizim a rival temple and priesthood (John 4:20).”