Scripture Reading: Ezra 7
Background Reading: Esther 1:1–8; 2:5–7; 5:9–14; 7; 9:1–4; 26–27
1. When do the events of chapter 7 occur? How much time has elapsed since the end of chapter 6? (See Notes 7:1 and 7:8.)
2. Who was Ezra? Why is such a long genealogy given? To whom does he trace his origins? Why is this important? (See Note 7:2.)
3. What was the greatest desire of Ezra’s heart? What was his highest goal or ambition? (See Note 7:10.)
4. What is the attitude of the Persian king Artaxerxes toward the worship of Jehovah? How does he respond to the requests with which Ezra had presented him? (See Note 7:12.)
5. What does King Artaxerxes offer to Ezra? Is there some explanation for his amazing generosity? (Read the background passages from Esther; see Note 7:13.2.)
6. Is King Artaxerxes acting alone, or on the advice of his advisors and cabinet officials? Are they simply granting Ezra’s request, or are they sending him on official government business? (See Note 7:14.)
7. What limits did the king place on the discretionary spending activities of Ezra and those who accompanied him? Did the king specify any spending priorities or restrictions? (See Note 7:18.)
8. Why did Haman and his co-conspirators demonstrate such hatred toward Mordecai and the Jews? Was it only because of Mordecai’s refusal to bow down to him, or were there other possible reasons? (Read Esther 3:1–10.)
9. Were there any provisions in the king’s decree that might have been particularly offensive to Haman and the other high officials in the Persian government? (See Note 7:24.)
10. How does Ezra respond to the decree that was issued by King Artaxerxes? Is this an appropriate reaction to the amazing provisions contained in that decree? (See Note 7:27.)
Text Notes on Discussion Starters
[7:1] From the end of chapter 6 to the beginning of chapter 7, there is a gap of fifty-seven years. Chapter 6 ends with the celebration of the dedication of the temple in the year 515 b.c., while the beginning of chapter 7 finds us in the seventh year of the reign of King Artaxerxes (v. 7), which would put us in the year 458 b.c. Almost six decades have passed, with no hint in the book of Ezra of what happened during that time. But we do find some fascinating connections if we study the book of Esther, which tells us some very significant events in the lives of God’s people, as they continued to live in the midst of the Persian Empire. If we look ahead to the book of Nehemiah, we also pick up information about later events during the reign of Artaxerxes, when he allows Nehemiah to go to Jerusalem. The Holy Spirit obviously wants us to see the Bible as an interconnected whole, giving us parts of the story in the book of Ezra, parts in Nehemiah, parts in Chronicles, parts in Haggai, parts in Zechariah, and important parts in Esther. We need to be reminded, too, that this King Artaxerxes in chapter 7 is not the same one mentioned in 4:7. That king ruled for only seven months during the year 521 b.c., while the Artaxerxes of chapter 7 and the book of Esther ruled from 465 to 424 b.c. We would have similar confusion if we wrote about President Adams or President Roosevelt. Without specifying first names, we would not be able to distinguish between Theodore or Franklin Delano Roosevelt. But even first names would not be sufficient to distinguish between the two John Adamses. In this case, you need to go one step further and distinguish between John and John Quincy. Such is the situation in the time of Ezra.
[7:2] Zerubbabel and Jeshua are either too old to be of service, or they have died. Haggai and Zechariah, the prophets sent by God to minister to his people, are also probably dead by now. What shall become of the cause of God and of Israel if they have no one to lead them? All the people can do is trust that God will raise up new leaders to take their place. Ezra, who is considered to be the author of this book, now finds it necessary to write about himself, as he comes upon the scene. He describes himself in a somewhat unusual fashion, giving his pedigree or genealogy back through sixteen generations, back to no less than Aaron, the brother of Moses and the great-grandson of Levi. It is instructive to compare the genealogy of Ezra:
This Ezra, who came from Babylon, “was a teacher well versed in the Law of Moses, which the Lord, the God of Israel, had given” (v. 6). Here was a man who had a pedigree that was outstanding, whose favor with the king was beyond doubt, and who was obviously being blessed by God. He was a man of great learning, conversant with the Scriptures and thoroughly acquainted with the law of Moses. According to Jewish tradition, Ezra had collected and collated all the copies of the Law that he could find. In addition, he collected all the other parts of the Old Testament canon and made them available to the people. Here is an outstanding Old Testament scholar!
[7:8] Ezra tells us that he left the Persian capital on the first day of the first month of the seventh year of King Artaxerxes’s reign, arriving in Jerusalem in the fifth month of that same year. We learn from Esther that this same king had Queen Vashti deposed in “the third year of his reign” (Esther 1:3) and that Esther became queen in the “tenth month of the seventh year of his reign” (Esther 2:16). Esther and her adopted father, Mordecai, are both highly favored by the king, thus offering one explanation for the generosity of King Artaxerxes toward the Jews. Later, though, in the twelfth year of the king (Esther 3:7), the wicked Haman plots to have all the Jews annihilated (3:8–15).
[7:10] Notice the priority of God in this situation: the law of God must be brought to that far-off land, and the person who must do that must have the qualifications of an excellent teacher. If God’s people are to worship him aright, if they are to love and obey him as they ought, they must know the law of God. In order to know it, they must be taught. Ezra fits the bill, “for Ezra had devoted himself to the study and observance of the Law of the Lord, and to teaching its decrees and laws in Israel.”
[7:12] The history of Persia is well documented in the annals of what we call secular history. Ancient history books tell us that Darius, who helped Zerubbabel complete the temple in Jerusalem, was king from 521 to 486 b.c. During his reign he greatly expanded the empire and did much to conquer Asia Minor, Greece, and much of the Balkan states. He was followed to the throne by his son Xerxes, who ruled from 486 to 465 b.c. and who was noted for his continued subjugation of Greece and Asia Minor in what continued to be known as the Persian wars, conducted from 512 to 470 b.c. During this time in history Persia has expanded its empire all the way from the Indus River on the east, through Asia Minor to Greece on the west, and through Egypt into the Sudan and into North Africa on the south. No other empire in history has reached such proportions as this. Persia was noted for its toleration of local religions, allowing conquered peoples in various parts of the empire to practice their own religion. The empire is also known for its system of government administration, with governors and satraps over each of twenty-one districts or satrapies, and which were further subdivided into 127 provinces during the time of Xerxes (Esther 1:1). The system of roads and communications made it possible to send edicts and proclamations all over the empire in a relatively short time (Esther 3:12–15).
[7:13.1] The king shows nothing but the highest respect for the worship of God, even though the dominant religion in Persia is known as Zoroastrianism, after its founder Zoroaster. This religion had some basic similarities to Christianity and specifically to the battle between good and evil. According to Zoroaster, God had created the world for the purpose of providing human beings a stage on which the powers of good and evil would oppose each other. All the classic characteristics of the great antithesis between God and Satan are present in this Persian religion, including the rewards of eternal peace for the good and eternal damnation for the evil. Artaxerxes’s greeting of “perfect peace” to Ezra may reflect that dimension of the national religion. Because of this kind of religion, the kings of Persia tried to establish what we would call a moral monarchy. Kings Darius, Xerxes, and Artaxerxes are very public in their praise of the God of heaven and strive to do what is noble and honorable for the people of Israel. Apparently these kings were fearful of the consequences if they should offend the God of heaven (see 7:23). During the early history of the Christian church these teachings of Zoroaster resurfaced under the name of Manicheaism, which proved very troublesome to the early church and were held to for a time by Saint Augustine.
[7:13.2] From the book of Esther we know that Xerxes is king of Persia, that his capital is in Susa, and that his empire covered 127 provinces stretching from India to Cush (Egypt) (Esther 1:1). The book of Esther tells us how Xerxes put away his first queen because she refused for some unknown reason to appear before the king and all his guests, and then chose Esther to be queen in her place. We also gather numerous details about the way in which God protected his people while they were living under the rule of the Persians. Events in the Persian capital of Susa threatened the continuity of God’s purposes in redemptive history. If Haman’s murderous plans had been allowed to succeed, the future of God’s chosen people would have been in jeopardy, and even the appearance of the Messiah. God worked his will in the lives of King Xerxes, Queen Esther, Haman, and Mordecai so that the evil forces of Haman are defeated and the good forces of the Jews are protected and made to prosper. Haman wanted to destroy all the Jews, including all those in Jerusalem who had gone there with Zerubbabel and who had finished building the temple. God used Mordecai and Esther to prevent that from happening. According to Josephus, Xerxes had a son whom they named Cyrus, but whom the Greeks called Artaxerxes (Josephus, p. 334). Such an assertion would not be contrary to the book of Esther.
[7:14] The chief advisors and their role in government are named for us in Esther 1:13–15.
[7:24] Four elements in the decrees of Artaxerxes must have proven particularly offensive to Haman: 1) Take whatever you need out of the royal treasury for whatever need you might have. 2) No taxes, tributes, or duties are to be imposed on any of the priests, Levites, or temple workers. From the highest of the priests to the least of the temple workers, no one is to be taxed. 3) Ezra is empowered to appoint magistrates and judges and is told to teach the law of God to whoever does not know it. 4) All that knew the laws of Ezra’s God were to be under the jurisdiction of these judges, so the people would be judged according to God’s laws and not according to the laws of a pagan king in Persia. Haman’s complaint that “their laws are different from all other people’s, and they do not keep the king’s laws” has some validity in fact, but was done originally with the expressed intent of the king and his highest advisors.
[7:27] If Ezra had been a profane man, he might have surmised that the Jews had earned these blessings because the king loved Esther more than all the other women (Esther 2:17) or because of the way Mordecai had spared the king from assassination (Esther 2:19–23). Ezra knows that it was not the goodness of the Jewish people, not his sterling character or his knowledge of the law or his ability as a priest that brought about all these blessings on the people of God. Ezra knew, too, that it was not because of the good graces of King Artaxerxes that made him so kindly disposed toward God’s people and toward the worship of God at Jerusalem. Praise be to God! Ezra concludes this chapter with a proper recognition: “Blessed be the Lord God of our fathers, who has put such a thing as this in the king’s heart, to beautify the house of the Lord which is in Jerusalem.” God works his will, sometimes through dramatic miracles such as opening the Red Sea or making the sun stand still in the sky, but more often through the power of the Holy Spirit, who quietly and powerfully works in people’s hearts and minds so that they do the things that God wants them to do. The book of Ezra opens with the pronouncement that “the Lord moved the heart of Cyrus, king of Persia” (1:1). Now Ezra is acknowledging the same kind of action in the heart of Artaxerxes, so that he would make all these provisions for the trip of Ezra and for the worship of God in Jerusalem. “The hand of the Lord my God was upon me” is a theme that comes through powerfully and repeatedly (7:6, 9, 28; 8:18, 22, 31). God is sovereign, demonstrating that sovereignty through responsible agents. God used Esther and Mordecai to preserve his people, and he also used King Artaxerxes to provide provisions, protection, and tax relief for his church. Now God is using Ezra the priest and scribe to lead another wave of exiles back home to Jerusalem. Ezra is properly humble and never takes any credit for himself but always gives all the credit to God.
Dr. Norman De Jong is a semi-retired pastor in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church.