An amazing turn around

The book of Ezra contains two parts of the amazing story about the Jews return to the Promised Land after 70 years of exile in Babylon. Their initial return started in 538 B.C. when Cyrus declared that the LORD God of heaven had given him all the kingdoms of the earth and charged him to build him a house in Jerusalem (Ezra 1:2). After 80 years of start and stop activity directed at rebuilding the once great city of Jerusalem, a second wave of Jewish settlers returned to the Promised Land. This time, God’s people were led by Ezra, a priest that was a direct descendant of Aaron, the brother of Moses. It says in Ezra 7:6, “This Ezra went up from Babylon; and he was a ready scribe in the law of Moses, which the LORD God of Israel had given: and the king granted him all his request, according to the hand of the LORD his God upon him.”

The king referred to in Ezra 7:6 was Artaxerxes king of Persia, the son of Ahasuerus, the Persian king that was married to Esther. At the beginning of his reign, Artaxerxes had ordered God’s people to stop rebuilding the walls of Jerusalem (Ezra 4:23). In the seventh year of his reign, Artaxerxes wrote a letter to Ezra stating:

I make a decree, that all they of the people of Israel, and of his priests and Levites, in my realm, which are minded of their own freewill to go up to Jerusalem, go with thee. Forasmuch as thou art sent of the king, and of his seven counsellers, to inquire concerning Judah and Jerusalem, according to the law of thy God which is in thine hand; and to carry the silver and gold, which the king and his counsellers have freely offered unto the God of Israel, whose habitation is in Jerusalem. (Ezra 7:13-15)

According to Artaxerxes decree, any Jew that wanted to leave Persia and return to Israel was free to do so. Artaxerxes and his counsellers gave of their own wealth a freewill offering to God and supplied everything that was needed for the people’s journey back to Jerusalem. This amazing turn around might best be described as an act of divine intervention because no reason was given in Ezra’s book to explain why Artaxerxes was compelled to go to such great lengths to ensure the Jews were able to return to Jerusalem after having put a stop to their rebuilding effort only a few years earlier. Perhaps, God touched the heart of Artaxerxes or the king saw the benefit of having God on his side. Unlike his predecessor Cyrus, Artaxerxes didn’t claim the LORD had given him his kingdom (Ezra 1:2). Therefore, Artaxerxes motivation may have been to gain favor with God. If so, it appears he was successful because his 40+ year reign was the longest of all the kings of Persia.

Advertisements

No turning back

The Persian Empire stretched from Ethiopia to India and consisted of one hundred twenty seven provinces with varied languages and customs. One of the ways the king of Persia managed communication in his kingdom was to make his laws irrevocable. Once a decree was sent out, there was no turning back. In order to avoid any confusion or mistrust among his magistrates, the king could not repeal a law once it was established. This meant that Haman the Agagites’s order to kill all the Jews would still be carried out even though he had been hanged on the gallows he had built for Esther’s uncle, Mordecai.

King Ahasuerus’ remedy for the situation was to allow the Jews to defend themselves.  It says in Esther 8:11, “Whereas the king granted the Jews which were in every city to gather themselves together, and to stand for their life, to destroy, to slay, and to cause to perish, all the power of the people and providence that would assault them, both the little ones and women, and to take the spoil of them for a prey.” It might seem like self-defense was a natural solution to their problem, but the Jews status (exiled) in the kingdom of Persia prevented them from fighting against their captors.

An unintended, but advantageous outcome of the Jews obtaining permission to fight against the people that wanted to kill them was the destruction of the Amalekites. God had commanded Israel’s king, Saul to utterly destroy the people of Amalek hundreds of years earlier (1 Samuel 15:3), but Saul disobeyed and let some of the household of Agag, the king of Amalek, escape. Due to his mistake, Haman the Agagite was able to threaten the Jews existence. But, after the tables were turned, the Jews finally accomplished a long overdue objective, the elimination of their fiercest enemy.

 

Obedience

While the Jews were in captivity in Babylon, they were expected to conform to the laws and customs of the kingdom in which they lived. The book of Daniel records two incidents where disobedience was punished by death. The first was Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-nego who were thrown into a fiery furnace for not worshipping a golden image made by the king Nebuchadnezzar (Daniel 3:21) and the second was Daniel who was thrown into a lion’s den because he prayed to his God instead of King Darius (Daniel 6:16). When it was discovered that Esther’s uncle Mordecai would not bow or worship Haman the Agagite, it was not enough for him to just kill Mordecai, Haman decided to have all the Jews exterminated and he was able to obtain permission from the king Ahasuerus to do so (Esther 3:11).

Mordecai’s response to the king’s commandment showed that he was devastated by what was going to happen to God’s people (Esther 4:1) and so, he went to Queen Esther to ask for her help. Esther’s initial reaction indicated that she was more concerned about being killed for breaking the law than she was saving her people. Esther sent a message to Mordecai saying, “All the king’s servants, and the people of the king’s provinces, do know, that whosoever, whether man or woman, shall come unto the king into the inner court, who is not called, there is one law of his to put him to death, except such to whom the king shall hold out the golden scepter, that he may live: but I have not been called to come into the king these thirty days” (Esther 4:11). The picture Esther painted of her husband, King Ahasuerus was a tyrant that would kill his own wife simply because she dared approach him without his permission. Esther may have been justified in her opinion of her husband, but it also revealed her attitude toward God. Esther didn’t believe God would deliver her, even though he had delivered Shadrach, Meshach, Abed-nego, and Daniel when they were going to be killed.

Esther’s insecurity may have been due to her awareness that she was out of the will of God. Although Esther didn’t choose to marry Ahasuerus, she was benefitting from her position as queen of Persia. Mordecai’s argument was that it might actually have been God’s will for her to marry Ahasuerus so that she could use her position to intervene with her husband on behalf of her people, the Jews. Mordecai told Esther, “For if thou altogether holdest thy peace at this time, then shall there enlargement and deliverance arise to the Jews from another place; but thou and thy father’s house shall be destroyed: and who knows that whether thou art come to the kingdom for such a time as this” (Esther 4:14). In other words, what Mordecai wanted Esther to know was that God would hold her accountable for her intention rather than her action with regards to her obedience to the Persian law. Mordecai believed God would save his people, including Esther, if she chose to put her trust in him instead of her husband, King Ahasuerus.

Before Esther went in to speak to her husband, she asked Mordecai to have all the Jews observe a fast on her behalf. Esther indicated that she and her servants would fast also. Esther most likely viewed this action as a way of purifying herself. Although the fast may have had some effect in the mind of Esther, it is unlikely God paid any more or less attention to what Esther was doing as a result of their fast. What was important to him was that Esther cared enough to risk her own life to stop what was going to happen to God’s people. It says in Esther 5:2, “And so it was, when the king saw Esther the queen standing in the court, that she obtained favour in his sight: and the king held out to Esther the golden scepter that was in his hand. So Esther drew near, and touched the top of the scepter.” This illustration of Ahasuerus’ mercy toward Esther was meant to display God’s pleasure with her self-sacrifice. Although it was true that the king could have killed Esther for her disobedience, God protected her because she was willing to risk her life to save his people.

Revenge

Esther’s marriage to the king of Persia placed her in a position of influence during a time when God’s plan of salvation for his people was at a critical juncture. Several thousand Jews had already returned to the Promised Land after their seventy years of captivity was completed, but there was little accomplished in the way of rebuilding and strengthening the infrastructure of God’s kingdom. Many Jews were still scattered throughout the Persian Empire and had been integrated into the culture of the Gentiles. The fact that a Jew ended up married to the king of Persia was actually not that surprising considering the degree to which the two cultures were blended. The Jews no longer spoke their native language and were forced to respect the authority of kings that had no allegiance to God. When Esther was taken along with all the other beautiful, young virgins into Ahasuerus’ palace, there was nothing anyone could do to stop it.

Four years after Esther became queen, a plot of revenge began to unfold, beginning with the promotion of a man referred to as Haman the son of Hammedatha the Agagite. It says in Esther 3:1, “After these things did king Ahasuerus promote Haman the son of Hammedatha the Agagite, and advanced him, and set his seat above all the princes that were with him.” In other words, Haman was given a position similar to a Vice President. Whereas, previously Haman had been a member of the kings cabinet or counsel, he took on a new role in which he would oversee the activities of all the princes of the Persian Empire. As a result of his promotion, Haman was treated with dignity and perceived to be of equal status with the king. It says in Esther 3:2, “And all the king’s servants, that were in the king’s gate, bowed and reverenced Haman: for the king had so commanded concerning him. But Mordecai bowed not, nor did him reverence.”

Esther’s uncle Mordecai came from the family of Saul, the first king of Israel. During Saul’s reign, God commanded him to destroy the Amalekites. It says in 1 Samuel 15:7-8, “And Saul smote the Amalekites from Havilah until thou cometh to Shur, that is over against Egypt. And he took Agag the king of the Amalekites alive, and utterly destroyed all the people with the edge of the sword.” Agag the king of the Amalekites was later killed by the prophet Samuel, but most likely, the rest of his household was spared from death. It appears that Haman was a descendant of this king, due to his identification as an Agagite. Because Mordecai refused to bow before him, Haman planned to have him, and all the other Jews in the Persian Empire, killed (Esther 3:6). Haman used his promotion as a means of access to Ahasuerus and his influence to convince the king that the Jews should be eliminated (Esther 3:8-9). The king’s response is recorded in Esther 3:10-11:

And the king took his ring from his hand, and gave it to Haman the son of Hammedatha the Agagite, the Jews’ enemy. And the king said unto Haman, The silver is given to thee, the people also, to do with them as it seemeth good to thee.

Providence

The book of Esther is so much like a fairy tale that it might be hard for some people to take it seriously. The events recorded in the book occurred at a time in history that was actually very well documented, so there is little doubt that it is a true and correct account of what happened to Esther, but how the story may be interpreted varies greatly. In order to understand the details, a context has to be established, and I believe the best way to do that is to look at the accomplishments of the first Persian Empire. It was the first kingdom to establish a centralized bureaucratic administration system that included people of different origins and faith. The Persian Empire had an official language that was used across all its territories which spanned 5.5 million square kilometers, approximately the size of the United States. After its conquest of the Babylonian Empire, a series of kings, beginning with Cyrus the Great, identified themselves as world leaders and attempted to unite all people into a single culture. Ahasuerus reigned “from India to Ethiopia, over an hundred and seven and twenty provinces” (Esther 1:1).

It could be said that the first Persian Empire was similar to the United States during the 1950’s after its victory in World War II. The economy was booming and expansion was taking place throughout the country. A key characteristic that I think is similar between these two cultures is male dominance in the home and sexual pleasure being considered a necessary requirement for a successful marriage. Queen Vashti, Ahasuerus’ first wife, was deposed, which means she was removed from her office suddenly and forcefully, because she refused to appear immediately in his court at his command during a festival the king was hosting. It says in Esther 1:12, “But the queen Vashti refused to come at the king’s commandment by his chamberlains: therefore was the king very wroth, and his anger burned in him.” It is likely Vashti was pregnant with her third child at the time this incident took place. Using Vashti’s disobedience as justification for her dismissal, Ahasuerus launched a search for a suitable replacement that included all the good looking virgins in his kingdom (Esther 2:2).

It is clear from the description of what happened that every virgin that was selected was expected to have sex with the king. It says in Esther 2:14, “In the evening she went, and on the morrow she returned into a second house of the women, to the custody of Shaashgaz, the king’s chamberlain, which kept the concubines: she came into the king no more, except the king delighted in her, and that she were called by name.” A concubine or paramour in today’s language is a lover, especially the illicit partner of a married person. When it was Esther’s turn to sleep with the king, he fell in love with her. It says in Esther 2:17, “And the king loved Esther above all the other women, and she obtained grace and favour in his sight more than all the virgins; so that he set the royal crown upon her head, and made her queen instead of Vashti.” The king’s emotional decision to marry Esther was most likely a result of God’s providence over her life. Even though Esther was out of the will of God, he did not allow her life to be ruined by her circumstances.

God’s time-table

The reconstructed temple in Jerusalem was finished on March 12, 586 B.C., almost 70 years after its destruction (note on Ezra 6:15). Darius the king of Persia was primarily responsible for this accomplishment because of a decree he made to help the Jews.  He said to Tatnai, governor beyond the river, Shethar-boznai, and his companions  the Apharsachites, who were making trouble for the Jews, “Moreover I make a decree what ye shall do to the elders of these Jews for the building of this house of God: that of the king’s goods, even of the tribute beyond the river, forthwith expences be given unto these men, that they be not hindered” (Ezra 6:8). The Aramaic word translated hindered, betel (bet – ale´) means to stop (989). This word corresponds to the Hebrew word batel (baw – tale´)  which means to desist from labor (988). Basically, Darius was commanding that resources be given to the Jews so that their work could be continuous until the temple was completed. In other words, he expected the men to work night and day or around the clock until they were finished.

God’s time-table for the Jews’ captivity appears to have been based on the destruction of his temple in 586 B.C. and the finish of the temple’s reconstruction in 516 B.C., seventy years later. These events were probably meant to be noticeable milestones that would alert the Jews to their status with respect to God’s predetermined period for their captivity. The reason God chose to use the temple’s destruction and rebuilding as markers on his time-table was most likely its connection to his presence among his people. An interesting thing to note about the second temple was the most holy place remained empty after its reconstruction “because the ark of the covenant had been lost through the Babylonian conquest” (note on Ezra 6:15). Although the absence of the ark didn’t seem to keep the Jews from conducting their normal worship services, they may have wondered if God really was there with them because there is no indication that God’s glory ever returned to the temple after it departed during Ezekiel’s ministry (Ezekiel 10:19).

According to Ezekiel’s prophecy, the glory of the Lord would return at a future date (Ezekiel 43:4). It can only be assumed that God’s time-table for complete restoration of his relationship with his people still included future events. After the Jews returned from their captivity, there was evidently a lack of interaction between God and his people. Unlike the first dedication, when Solomon brought the ark into the temple and offered a prayer to God and blessed the people (1 Kings 8), it says in Ezra 6:17 that the children of Israel merely made an offering to God and set the priests in their positions. The only positive outcome as a result of the temple’s completion seemed to be a joyfulness that the Jews were able to celebrate their feasts again (Ezra 6:22).

A mixed reaction

The first wave of exiles from Judah left Jerusalem in 597 B.C. when “Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon came against the city, and his servants did besiege it” (2 Kings 24:11). At that time, Nebuchadnezzar “carried away all Jerusalem, and all the princes, and all the mighty men of valour, even ten thousand captives, and all the craftsmen and smiths: none remained, save the poorest sort of the people of the land” (2 Kings 24:14). Even though Nebuchadnezzar took away what could be considered the heart and soul of Jerusalem in 597 B.C., the city remained in tact for another 11 years while king Zedekiah reigned. Zedekiah was what might be called a puppet king. Zedekiah was placed on the throne by Nebuchadnezzar and was expected to follow his commands, but eventually, Zedekiah rebelled against Nebuchadnezzar and was also taken into captivity (2 Kings 24:7) along with the remainder of his kingdom (2 Kings 25:11). It is believed that on August 14, 586 B.C., Judah’s 70 years of captivity officially began.

A final wave of exiles was taken from Jerusalem in 581 B.C. that consisted of people who had returned or migrated back to the city after Nebuchanezzar’s conquest in 586 B.C. After that, the city lay desolate, completely empty, until Ezra returned with 42,360 people in 538 B.C. to rebuild God’s temple (Ezra 2:65). Some of the people that came back with Ezra had actually been taken from Jerusalem, had survived their period of captivity, and were there to see the temple structure rebuilt. It says in Ezra 3:12, “but many of the priests and Levites and chief of the fathers, who were ancient men that had seen the first house, when the foundation of this house was laid before their eyes, wept with a loud voice; and many shouted aloud for joy.” Their mixed reaction to completing the laying of the foundation of the second temple may have been due to these older mens’ memory of their former life. No doubt some of them suffered from a type of post-traumatic stress syndrome that brought flashbacks to them of the violence they suffered when the temple was destroyed by Nebuchadnezzar’s army.

“The people of Israel were accustomed to showing their emotions in visible and audible ways” (Note on Ezra 3:13). The psalms of David are filled with heartfelt pleas and agonizing cries for mercy that were sung to God for many generations after David died. While they were in exile, it appears that God’s people continued to praise him and were at times even forced to sing the songs that meant so much to them. Psalm 137 is believed to be “A plaintive song of the exile – of one who has recently returned from Babylon but in whose soul there lingers the bitter memory of the years in a foreign land and of the cruel events that led to that enforced stay” (Note on Psalm 137). Contained within Psalm 137’s nine verses are: the remembered sorrow and torment (vv. 1-3), an oath of total commitment to Jerusalem (vv. 4-6), and a call for retribution on Edom and Babylon (vv. 7-9). The notable first verse of the Psalm recalls, “By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down, yea, we wept, when we remembered Zion.”

Among the men that returned to Jerusalem were descendants of the king of Judah, Jehoiachin, who was taken into captivity in 597 B.C. at the age of 18 (2 Kings 24:12). Jehoiachin, his son Shealtiel, and grandson Zerubbabel are listed in the genealogy of Jesus (Matthew 1:12). Although Zerubbabel never sat on the throne as king of Judah, he played a prominent role in the reestablishment of the city of Jerusalem and was present at the dedication of the altar. It says of Zerubbabel and his counterpart Jeshua, son of the high priest Jozadak in Ezra 3:2-3, “Then stood up Jeshua the son of Jozadak, and his brethren the priest, and Zerubbabel the son of Shealtiel, and his brethren, and builded the altar of the God of Israel, too offer burnt offerings thereon, as it is written in the law of Moses the man of God. And they set the altar upon his bases, for fear was upon them because of the people of those countries: and they offered burnt offerings thereon unto the LORD, even burnt offerings morning and evening.”