This section of the book is about God’s providential work of returning additional Jews to Jerusalem. The opposition to the temple and to the true worship of God recounted in the previous chapters has given way to strong Persian support for the temple and for the worship of God according to his Law. The combination of strong providential support from the Persian king and the emphasis on the law of God transitions the reader’s focus from the external threats to the internal threats to true worship.
God’s Providential Working
The letter from Artaxerxes to Ezra stands in contrast with the opposition recounted in chapter 4. T In that chapter the opponents of the Jews had told Artaxerxes that Jerusalem was a rebellious city and that the fortification of Jerusalem would lead to lost revenue (because Judah would no longer pay tribute) and to loss of control over the province Beyond the River (4:12-13, 16). Artaxerxes believed these claims and ordered that Jerusalem not be rebuilt, even telling the Jewish opponents to “take care not to be slack in this matter” (4:21-22).
The timing of this opposition within the reign of Artaxerxes is unknown since the correspondence between Artaxerxes and the opponents of the Jews, Rehum and Shimshai, is not dated. However, it is possible that it occurred subsequent to the return that Ezra is narrating in chapters 7-8.
The Egyptians rebelled against Artaxerxes in 461 BC and were not subdued for another decade. Ezra, returning in 458 BC would have come to Jerusalem toward the beginning of this period. This may provide the context for Artaxerxes generosity toward the beautification of the temple. He may have wanted the subjects of that region to be pleased with the Persians. He also wanted the Jewish God, whom he probably thought of as a regional god, to not be angry with him (7:23). However, the building of the city walls during the Egyptian rebellion, the war with the Greeks that followed (the Athenians had fought alongside the Egyptians in their rebellion), or later rebellion of Megabyzus would not have been viewed favorably by Artaxerxes. (On the historical background, see Yamauchi 1984:570-71; Steinmann, 2910: 27-29.)
Nehemiah 1:3-4 likely implies that Nehemiah heard fresh news about the breaking down of Jerusalem’s walls and the burning of its gates (Steinmann 2010: 388-39). It may be that Nehemiah 1 records his reaction to the forceful end of the wall-building described in Ezra 4:23. If that is the case, then the favorable letter Ezra received from Artaxerxes (Ezra 7:12-26) preceded the opposition recorded in chapter 4 by thirteen years.
The literary effect is to move the reader’s focus from opposition to favor. This should not be seen as in any way deceptive on Ezra’s part. It may be that the book was written under the shadow of opposition and that by condensing the description of opposition into a single thematic section of the book followed by accounts of God’s providential work in the Persian leaders, Ezra was directing his original readers to hope for God future providential working in their present situation.
In any event, the generosity of Artaxerxes in this letter is notable. Any Israelite who wished to return to the land with Ezekiel was permitted to do so (7:14). The king and court provided Ezra with silver and gold for the temple and its worship (7:15-17). The wealth provided is portrayed as being more abundant than actually needed (7:18). In addition, the province Beyond the River was to provide additional funds (7:22). Herodotus records that the tribute taken in by the provincial government was 350 talents, so to allow Ezra up to 100 talents along with wheat, wine, oil, and salt is exceedingly generous (Herodotus, The Histories, 3.91; Shepherd 2018: 33). In addition, Ezra is given several blank checks: “whatever else is required for the house of your God, which it falls to you to provide, you may provide it out of the kings treasury” (7:20); “whatever is decreed by the God of heaven, let it be done in full for the house of the God of heaven” (7:23).
Not only did Darius lavish gifts on Ezra and the temple, he also prohibited levying tribute on anyone who served in the temple worship—from priests to servants (7:24).
This was not a special exemption for the Jewish temple alone but a Persian policy. “Darius I made specific mention of a long-standing royal policy in these matters in the course of a rebuke to one of his officials in Asia Minor” (Kidner 1979: 22). In that case, Darius corrected officials who imposed tribute on those who officially served in the worship of Apollo (Kidner 1979: 72; Breneman 1993: 135). However, the fact that this policy was not uniquely aimed at Israel does not diminish in the least the idea that God was providentially showing special favor on Israel through Artaxerxes’s decree. God uses empire-wide policies to benefit his people.
Artaxerxes had both political and religious motives for his generosity. As Kidner observes, “religion and politics were inseparable” at this period (Kidner 1979: 71). A king under pressure may have truly desired all of the gods of his empire to favor him (cf. Breneman 1993: 135).
Ezra, however, saw the hand of God behind the actions of the king. He responded to the letter of Artaxerxes with praise to Yhwh for moving the king’s heart to beautify the temple.
A final example of God’s providence in these chapters is the safe transport of all of this wealth from Babylonia to Jerusalem without military protection (8:31). Ezra specifically did not request an escort because he was concerned that doing so would communicate to the king that God could not protect them—as they had clearly communicated to the king (8:22; Steinmann 2010: 312).
Ezra 8:22 does not imply that it would always be wrong for God’s people to accept a military escort when traveling. God uses means, and his people are right to avail themselves of those means, as Nehemiah did when he accepted military protection (2:9; Steinmann 2010: 313). However, God’s people often give up what they could rightfully claim to promote the name of God and his interests in the world (1 Cor. 9:1-12).
God’s providential work on behalf of his people is emphasized in Ezra 7-8 by the repeated use of the phrase “for the hand of Yhwh his God was on him” (with variants). The phrase is first used in the introductory verses of chapter 7 with the summary statement: “the king granted [Ezra] all that he asked, for the hand of Yhwh his God was on him” (7:6). This was something that Ezra had told Artaxerxes: “The hand of our God is for good on all who seek him and the power of his wrath is against all who forsake him” (8:22). In his response to Artaxerxes’s letter, Ezra said, “I took courage, for the hand of Yhwh my God was on me” (7:28). In response to finding Levites to accompany them back to Jerusalem, Ezra wrote, “by the good hand of our God on us, they brought us a man of discretion” (8:18). In describing the journey, Ezra wrote, “The hand of our God was on us, and he delivered us from the and of the enemy and from ambushes on the way” (8:31). Ezra’s safe arrival in Jerusalem, which is recorded at the beginning of this section to emphasize God’s faithfulness, is noted with the observation “he came to Jerusalem, for the good hand of his God was on him” (7:9).
The repetition is meant to drive home that Yhwh was providentially at work in Ezra’s return.
For Continued Return from Exile (Second Exodus)
The return to the land from captivity continues to be portrayed as a second exodus. The great wealth that the king of Persia provides for Ezra recalls the spoiling of the Egyptians (Throntveit 1992: 45).
Artaxerxes also commissioned Ezra to “appoint magistrates and judges who may judge all the people in the province Beyond the River” (7:25). This also puts Ezra in the role of a second Moses, for Moses did this task in the first exodus (Ex. 18:13-27) (Throntveit 1992: 45). This harmonizes with the emphasis in these chapters on Ezra teaching the law of Moses to the people.
The fact that Ezra was returning to the land to further the worship of God (an emphasis in Artaxerxes’s letter, 7:15-20) also points back to the original exodus (Throntveit 1992:45-46). God wanted Pharaoh to let the people go so that they could properly worship God. In this, and in the provision of wealth, Artaxerxes acted as a kind of anti-Pharaoh. God used a “strong hand” with Pharaoh (Ex. 6:1; 13:3, 9, 14) by hardening his heart so that God could display his power to the nations. With Artaxerxes the hand of God is still the decisive factor, but it is used to soften the heart of the king, not harden it.
The fact that Ezra took courage to lead the people to go up to the land (7:28) may be an allusion to Joshua 1, in which God told Joshua to “Be strong and courageous” (the word translated strong in Joshua 1:6, 7, 9 being the same word translated courage in Ezra 7:28). The three days camped beside the river of Ahava as well as a three-day pause after arriving is also thought by some to evoke Joshua’s camping three days by the Jordan before entering the land (7:15, 32; Shepherd and Wright 2018: 36-37, 39). This is possible, but less clear than some of the other parallels.
The returnees themselves are once again described in such a way as to represent the return of the whole nation. After noting representatives from two priestly families and a Davidic descendant, Ezra lists twelve families, which mirror the number of the tribes of Israel (Throntviet 1992: 45; Steinmann 2010: 281).
Ezra contains numerous allusions back to the book of Numbers. The word for camping occurs repeatedly in that book, and its mention in Ezra 8:15 may be a subtle allusion (Shepherd and Wright 2018: 36-37).
The need for Levites on the journey back may have also been necessitated by Ezra’s purposeful attempt to evoke the exodus journey since there were already Levites in Jerusalem serving in the temple (Williamson 1985: 116). In Numbers the Levites, along with the priests, had the responsibility of caring for the transport of temple things, as they do also in Ezra’s return journey (8:30) (Williamson 1985: 118).
The date on which Ezra led the people to depart, the twelfth day of the first month, also bears exodus symbolism. Passover was on the tenth day of the month. The Israelites left Egypt on the eleventh day. Ezra leaves for Israel on the twelfth day (Levering 2007: 95).
Also closely connected with the exodus was the giving of the Law. If Israel lived according to the Law, God promised that it would dwell in the land. Now as the people return to the land, adherence to the Law is again emphasized.
For Life under God’s Law
These chapters in Ezra stress that the point of return is not merely the physical return of the people to the land or the physical building and beautifying of the temple. The point of returning to the land is to live under God’s Law.
Ezra 7:1-10 emphasize Ezra’s role as a “scribe skilled in the Law of Moses” and committed to “study,” “do,” and “teach” the law. Verse 11 reinforces this characterization. Ezra is “the priest, the scribe, a man learned in matters of the commandments Yhwh and his statutes for Israel.” Whenever Artaxerxes refers to Ezra by name in the letter that he gave him, Ezra is identified as “the priest, the scribe of the Law of the God of heaven” (7:12, 21). (Recall that priests had the duty of teaching the Law of God.) When Artaxerxes directly addresses Ezra in the letter, he does so in relation to Ezra’s possession of the wisdom of God (found in the Law).
These descriptions are not mere formalities. They describe the traits necessary for Ezra to be able to carry out the mission that Artaxerxes has in mind for Ezra. The king wanted Ezra to “make inquiries about Judah and Jerusalem according the Law of your God, which is in your hand” (7:14). This could possibly be translated “to be superintended over Judah and Jerusalem according to the Law of your God, which is in your hand (cf. Steinmann 2010: 293).
According to Steinmann, “Steiner makes a strong case that the Pael (D) of בָּקַר with the preposition עַל in the sense of “over” means “to exercise the office of overseer over” people (here, those in Yehud). The Aramaic expression is analogous to the Greek office of ἐπίσκοπος, ‘overseer, superintendent’” (Steinmann 2010: 293).
In either case, Artaxerxes wanted Ezra to align Judah and Jerusalem with the law of God. He closed the letter by telling Ezra to appoint magistrates and judges who knew the law of God, to teach the law of God to those magistrates and judges who did not know it (7:25). Ezra was then authorized to bring punishment on those Jews who did not obey God’s laws (or the king’s): death, banishment, confiscation of property, and imprisonment are all mentioned as possible punishments (7:27).
Note that there is a parallel between the wisdom of God and the law of God in 7:14, 24 (Kidner 1979: 72). Shepherd notes, “Such an equation is anticipated already in Deut 4:6, which also provides a precedent (1:16–17; 17:8–13) for the appointing of judges (שָׁפְטִין/šāpəṭîn; Ezra 7:25; cf. Deut 16:18)” (Shepherd and Wright 2018: 34
The emphasis on the law in these chapters is tied to Ezra’s interest in moral purity. It may be that the mention of Phinehas should evoke the actions of Phinehas, the grandson of Aaron who averted God’s wrath by killing and Israelite man and Moabite woman in the act of intercourse. The context for Phineas’s actions were the efforts of Moabite women to lead the Israelite men into idolatry—a foreshadowing of the problem of intermarriage in chapters 9-10 (Levering 2007: 89-90).
Likewise the presence of the Levites traveling back with the temple vessels may have evoked the responsibility of the Levites to guard the purity of the tabernacle and its furniture (Levering 2007: 92). The holiness of the vessels, the silver and gold dedicated to the temple, and the priests who are transporting it is emphasized by Ezra (8:28). Indeed, Ezra’s confidence that the Lord’s hand was on them for good was tied to the fact they sought the Lord and did not forsake him (8:22). Though Ezra did not make the link with obedience to the law versus forsaking God’s law explicit, it is implicit.
Praise and Prayer
Ezra sought God in his Word, but the Word and prayer are closely linked in Scripture. After Artaxerxes’s letter, Ezra prayed a prayer of praise to God for his providential work on their behalf. Before setting out on the journey Ezra proclaimed a fast and prayed for a safe journey. When the people arrived, they offered sacrifices to God.