Ezra: A Ready Scribe (Part 1)

 

589BC? Born 0 yrs
588BC Seraiah, his father, dies 1
585BC Jerusalem destroyed

Taken captive to Babylon

4
570BC Death of Ezekiel 19
539BC Decree of Cyrus

First return under Zerubbabel

50
533BC? Death of Daniel 56
525BC? Birth of Nehemiah 63
522BC Darius the Great becomes king 68
516BC Temple completed

Esther marries the king

Ezra travels to Jerusalem

 

 

74

515BC Alien relationships annulled 75
511BC Decree of Haman

Esther and Mordecai save the Jews

79
502BC Wall built

Jerusalem Bible School

88
500BC? Wall dedicated

Death

 

90

Determining dates for this period in Israel’s history is not without difficulty. In particular, the births and deaths of some of the people shown here are not recorded and are estimates only. This timeline is based on the assumption that Ahasuerus and Artaxerxes were titles of Darius I, for which there is some evidence. But it is also acknowledged there are other equally valid views.

 

Ready: it’s not a word generally associated with people over 75. It has a sense of activity about it that doesn’t really fit with that age group. But Ezra was ready. In fact, all the major events in his spiritual life (and there were plenty) took place after he had turned 75. His first 74 years had been spent preparing for the great work he was about to do, so when his time came, Ezra was ready.

Ezra was born during the chaotic last days of the kingdom of Judah. His father, Seraiah, died when he was just a baby. Seraiah was high priest in Jerusalem at the time and was summoned, along with a number of other temple officials, to appear before Nebuchadnezzar in Riblah in northern Lebanon, whereupon they were all promptly executed by the Babylonian king. Jerusalem was finally destroyed soon after and baby Ezra, presumably with his mother, was taken to far-off Babylon without any memory of his father or of the place of his birth. He was Jewish by birth—but raised in Babylon.

History records virtually nothing of the first 74 years of his life. There is no record of any family of his own—no wife or children—so in all probability he had none. There is just one tiny snippet of information about his life during all those decades, but its very brevity speaks clarity and gravity (Ezra 7:10): “Ezra had prepared his heart to seek the law of Yahweh, and to do it, and to teach in Israel statutes and judgments.” What a life! To Seek, to Do, to Teach. By those three things he became a captive at court in colossal Babylon—a trusted adviser to one of history’s great kings, a man of integrity, who changed the course and character of Jewish history.

There were many faithful men and women during this age of ecclesial exile who did many great things, but perhaps three stand out amongst them for the nature of their particular work:

Jeremiah – for Preparation

Daniel – for Continuation

Ezra – for Reformation

Moreover, three great leaders carried out three great missions in Jerusalem, each armed with a letter of authority from the king of Persia:

Zerubbabel – to rebuild the Temple

Ezra – to rebuild the People

Nehemiah – to rebuild the Walls

Ezra may have felt he had drawn the short straw, especially since one of his main tasks was to deal with the problem of mixed relationships amongst the Jewish population in Jerusalem—a challenging question for the ecclesia in every age.

Everything that Bible history records about Ezra is found in the books of Ezra and Nehemiah. He is mentioned nowhere else. The book that bears his name starts with a record of the Decree of Cyrus, when Ezra was around 50 years old. As a result of this decree, almost 50,000 Jews, with women and children, decided to take up the offer and returned to Jerusalem under the leadership of Zerubbabel. Joshua, Ezra’s nephew, went along and became high priest. The majority of Jews chose to stay in Babylon, but those who went were a brave community, faithful enough to risk whatever they had built up in Babylon for the chance to build a temple in far off Jerusalem and worship Yahweh again, as their fathers had done, in that special place. Ezra was not among them. No reason is given why he didn’t choose to go, but it cannot have been lack of faith or courage. More likely he felt there was more important work for him still to do in Babylon, building up the ecclesia there, and representing his people in the court of the king.

Ezra wasn’t the only scribe in the Persian empire.

In Jerusalem, another scribe is mentioned: Shimshai (Ezra 4:8). He was doubtless loyal to his master, Rehum, and not so well disposed towards the Jews who had come to Jerusalem. He was suspicious of their motives and keen to retain his own influence. The lifestyle of a provincial governor in Persia was very nice indeed, and with mail delivery taking some 3-4 months each way, not overly accountable either. Something to be preserved at all costs. So Rehum and Shimshai began the exchange of a series of letters between the king, and his governors in the province known locally as “this side the river” (4:11) or “beyond the river” (4:17) if you lived in Babylon.

Ezra’s record of these letters, the last of which was addressed to him by the king, has the hallmarks of a diligent civic servant sending, receiving and recording official correspondence. If so, Ezra advanced in the king’s court to become a trusted adviser and in the end someone in whom his master had total confidence. Such people were rarely found and greatly valued by the absolute monarchs of that era. Such was the position of Ezra for a time and his complete consistency served him well.

Here is a summary of the letters he recorded, at least some of which he would have discussed personally with the king of the day:

 

No. From *To When Ref Summary
1 Samaritans King

(Ahasuerus)

Early in reign 4:6 Jews accused of insurrection in building the temple
2 Shimshai King

(Artaxerxes)

Early in reign 4:7 Samaritans warn that if Jews are allowed to complete the re-building of Jerusalem, they will no longer pay tribute to the king
3 King

(Artaxerxes)

Shimshai Early in reign 4:17 Any further re-building of the city banned until further notice
4 Tatnai King

(Darius)

2nd year of reign 5:7 Tatnai, the governor, informs the king that the Jews have re-commenced building the temple; he cites the Jews’ claim that Cyrus had decreed they could do so; Tatnai seeks a further ruling
5 King

(Darius)

Tatnai 2nd year of reign 6:6 Jews are granted permission to complete the temple and are given financial assistance to do so
6 King

(Artaxerxes)

Ezra 7th year of reign 7:12 Ezra granted permission to travel to Jerusalem with a company of Jews to worship at the temple; substantial financial support is also granted

* The names of the king shown are as recorded in Ezra. They are generally Persian titles and may refer to the same king, or different kings, depending on context, etc. It is suggested letters 4-6 all involved King Darius. Refer note under previous Table above.

Ezra’s autobiography begins at the start of Ezra 7. It starts impressively enough with a genealogy that extends unbroken right back to Aaron, brother of Moses and Israel’s first high priest: very imposing. He was as noble as any Jew in Babylon, given that there was no longer a king in Jerusalem. But he describes himself not as a priest (though he was one) but as “a ready scribe” (7:6), diligent and skilful in the Word of God. It was the most important qualification for the work he had to do. It was a significant year too. The 70th since Jerusalem was destroyed; since Zedekiah was killed. Seventy years: the significance did not escape him. For those who look, there are always signs.

Word had reached Babylon that the temple in Jerusalem was now completed. For Ezra, in his 75th year, it was a call to action. It was an empty building and it need to be filled—with workers, singers, teachers, furniture and equipment, sacrifices and whatever other commodities were required to enable the Jews to worship Yahweh. In summary, the king of Persia, at the time the most powerful man in the world, in response to a request from Ezra, decreed he could take with him (or appropriate when he arrived):

  • As many priests, Levites and other Israelites as were prepared to go
  • Millions of dollars’ worth of gold and silver, either obtained from donations, or from the king’s treasury—Ezra had complete authority over the distribution of this money
  • Over 2000 litres each of oil and wine
  • Over 2000 kilograms of wheat
  • Salt without measure

Upon arrival, all of the temple workers were to live tax-free. Ezra himself was given the authority to make all the necessary judicial appointments, both secular and religious. In matters of law, he was granted power over prison sentencing, deportation, fines, impounding of goods, over life and death itself.

What on earth was going on? Not just the king, but also his closest seven advisers, had basically signed the Persian province “beyond the river” into the hands of a captive foreign public servant somewhere in his mid-70s. Why would they do such a thing?

The king’s letter in Ezra 7 actually makes it quite obvious. There were two basic reasons. The first was that Ezra was a trusted scribe with a lifetime of education and experience in a law that was clearly the equal of any on earth, the Law of the God of Israel. The second was that the king believed in Ezra’s God. Exactly what he believed is not recorded, but believe, he did. He describes Ezra’s God as:

  • “the God of heaven” (4 times)
  • “the God of Israel”
  • “the God of Jerusalem” (3 times)

He also understood something of the “house of God,” the “law of God” and the “will of God.”

The king’s summation of the integrity of Ezra was an open cheque book and almost unlimited authority. That’s trust of the highest order. Of course, Ezra saw it slightly differently, and understood what was going on better than even the king himself. In his own inspired words (7:27): “Blessed be Yahweh, God of our fathers, which hath put such a thing as this in the king’s heart, to beautify the house of Yahweh which is in Jerusalem: And hath extended mercy unto me before the king, and his counsellors, and before all the king’s mighty princes.”

If Ezra was excited about leading a second return from Babylon to Jerusalem, then his excitement was short-lived. If the first aliyah under Zerubbabel had been a bit light on at just under 50,000, the second was little short of an embarrassment. The king had decreed that all the Israelites who were of a mind to go with Ezra were free to do so, under royal patronage.When the travelling party assembled at the River Ahava to prepare for the journey, a grand total of just 1496 put their hands up. Priests aside, the number of workers volunteering from Ezra’s own tribe, the Levites, was zero! A hastily arranged door knock finally produced 38 Levites. It was a poor response all round, but Ezra was not deterred, focussing on what he had and not what he didn’t, and seeing in it all (8:18) “the good hand of our God upon us,” a favourite phrase of his later borrowed by Nehemiah.