Module 20: The Failure of Human Kingship - God, The Only King
Module Guide: Ezra - A Returning Remnant; and Nehemiah - Consolidation; and Esther - God amid the Shaddows
This pre-read guide is taken from the public domain source "The Analysed Bible in 3 Volumes" by G. Campbell Morgan.
The book of Ezra contains an account of a most important epoch in the history of the people of God. After seventy years of captivity, through the decree of a Gentile king, a return was made possible. This book gives us the story of that return, and of the rebuilding of the Temple. It is not consecutive history, for, while in conjunction with the book of Nehemiah it covers a period of about one hundred years, there is in the midst of this book a gap of sixty years. There are two main divisions: first, the story of the return under Zerubbabel and the rebuilding of the Temple (1-6); then, after sixty years, that of the coming of Ezra, and the work he undertook (7-10). It may therefore be simply divided around the names of these two men.
The story which centres around Zerubbabel is that of the return of a remnant of the people to Jerusalem, and their reorganization.
The purposes of God may seem to tarry; they are never abandoned. Indeed, there is a very true sense in which they never even tarry for a moment. The chosen nation had become a people scattered and peeled, having lost national position and power, and to a large extent national consciousness. Through the seventy years God prepared a remnant, through processes of suffering, to return and rebuild, and hold the fort until He, the true Seed and Servant, should come. The history of the return sets forth clearly the truth concerning this overruling of God. Through a most unlikely instrument, Cyrus, the way was made plain.
The list of those returning is principally remarkable from the small number of the Levites it contains. Nearly ten times as many priests as Levites went back to the land. Another point is that of the Nethinim. They seem to have been prominent in these times, for they are only once mentioned elsewhere. It is almost impossible to determine their origin.
The leaders in this return were evidently conscious of the matters of real importance in the life of the people. Directly they were settled in their cities, the altar of God was established at Jerusalem. As far as possible they restored the Divinely appointed order of worship, and immediately commenced the work of rebuilding the Temple. The foundations were laid, and in the second year of the return, with fitting eeremonies of praise, they rejoiced.
This work stirred up the opposition of the Samaritans. This was first manifested in an attempt to induce Zerubbabel and those associated with him to admit into partnership such as were really enemies of the work. This being definitely refused, these enemies set themselves in every way to harass the work and hinder it, until at last they were successful in obtaining letters from the reigning monarch which interdicted the work. Thus for a long period the rebuilding of the house of God ceased, while the building of the houses of the people went forward unchecked.
A study of the prophecies of Haggai and Zechariah make it perfectly evident that the cessation of the work of building was unworthy of the men who had commenced. Judged by all human standards, they could fairly urge the difficulties of the situation, and the necessity for obedience to the edict of the reigning king. Judged by the Divine standard, as the burning words of the prophets made perfectly clear, they had no right to cease. Under the inspiration of these prophetic messages, governor and priest, Zerubbabel and Jeshua, commenced the work again. Again opposition was raised. To this they gave no heed, and Tattenai sent a letter to Darius concerning the edict of Cyrus.
There can be no doubt that Tattenai felt that the finding of such a decree was unlikely, if not impossible. That the search was a thorough one is indicated by the statement of where the roll was found. The searchers naturally commenced in the house of the archives in Babylon. It was not there, but at Achmetha, in the royal palace, that it was discovered. In consequence of this the edict of Darius not only gave them permission to carry forward their work, but compelled Tattenai to help them with great gifts. At last the Temple was finished, and solemnly dedicated to God with sacrificial offerings and songs of thanksgiving.
Between chapters 6 and 7 there was an interval of at least sixty years, uneventful in the history of the people settled in Jerusalem. That they had largely failed in the purposes of Zerubbabel is evident from the work done by Ezra, and subsequently by Nehemiah. Again the wonderful overruling of God is seen in the working of the minds of two men in Babylon. Ezra was stirred with desire to help his people in Jerusalem. Artaxerxes was moved with fear lest there should be "wrath against the realm of the king and his sons." It is perfectly evident that be bad some clear, consciousness of the power of God. Thus by the creation of different emotions in the hearts of two men, which brought them into co-operation with each other, and thus with His purpose, He moved forward.
Ezra gathered together members of the priestly and royal houses, and a further contingent of the people at Ahava, in order that be might review them, and prepare for the journey. Finding that there were no Levites in the company, he sent to Iddo, and in response to his appeal certain of their number joined him. The character of Ezra is remarkably revealed in his refusing to seek help from an earthly king. It is a fine illustration of the independence and dependence of such as follow the Lord. The king's voluntary gifts were gladly accepted; but to ask for soldiers would have been to make a tacit confession of questioning in his heart as to the ability or willingness of God to help. After a long journey they arrived in safety at Jerusalem, and made their offerings.
Ezra found a condition of affairs at Jerusalem which was a sad revelation of the deterioration of the people. There had been no return to idolatry, but there had been an intermixture with the people of the land, and the chief offenders had been the princes and the rulers. He was moved with righteous indignation, and sank into silent astonishment until the time of the evening oblation. Then before God he poured out his soul in prayer.
The sincerity of Ezra's vicarious repentance produced immediate result. The people who had gathered about him through the long hours of the day came to a consciousness of the enormity of their sin as they saw how he was affected thereby. At last one of their number spoke to him, acknowledging the sin, and suggesting a remedy. He at once became a man of action, first calling them to a sacred covenant that they would put away the evil thing from amongst them; and then leading them in the carrying out of their covenant.
Part A: ZERUBBABEL - Ezra 1:1-6:22
A.1. Return - Ezra 1:1-2:70
- The Edict of Cyrus - 1:1-1:11
- National Prosperity - 2:1-2:70
- The Small number of Levites
- The Nethinim
- The Totals
A.2. Reorganisation - Ezra 3:1-6:22
- Resumption of Worship - 3:1-3:13
- Opposition - 4:1-4:24
- General Statement - 4:1-4:6
- Particular Account - 4:7-4:24
- Resumption of Building - 5:1-5:17
- Darius - 6:1-6:22
Part B: EZRA - Ezra 7:1-10:44
B.1. Return (after an interval of Sixty Years) - Ezra 7:1-8:36
- The Coming of Ezra - 7:1-7:27
- The Returning Exiles - 8:1-8:14
- The Preliminary Convention - 8:15-8:30
- The Return - 8:31-8:36
B.2. Reformation - Ezra 9:1-10:14
- The Conditions in Jerusalem - 9:1-9:5
- Ezra's Intercession - 9:6-9:15
- The Reformation - 10:1-10:44
This is the last book of Old Testament history. An interval of about twelve years occurred between the reformation under Ezra and the coming of Nehemiah. The story is that of the continuation of the work commenced by Zerubbabel in the matter of the rebuilding of the wall. The book is intensely interesting, among other reasons because in large measure it is autobiographical. Nehemiah tells his own story, and with a freshness and vigour and transparent honesty which make it for evermore one full of interest. Beyond the account of the building of the wall we have that of a further reformation in which Nehemiah and Ezra were united as leaders, and finally an account of the settlement of the cities.
The book may therefore be divided broadly thus: The Building of the Wall (1-7:73a); The Reading of the Law (7:73b-10); The Settlement of the Cities (11-13).
The Building of the Wall
Nehemiah's position as cupbearer at the court of the Gentile king was one of honour, and admitted biin into relationship of some nearness and familiarity. In the midst of these circumstances he had not forgotten his relationship to the chosen people, but on the contrary was interested in them, and made inquiry of those who came to the court concerning Jerusalem. The news they brought was full of sadness, and grief possessed his heart. He carried his burden to God in prayer, asking that He would give him favour in the eyes of the king he served. There was thus evidently in his heart a resolution to do more than pity, if the door of opportunity offered.
The sadness in his heart could not wholly be hidden, and when the king detected it Nehemiah was filled with fear. Through the fear a splendid courage manifested itself, and he asked that he might be allowed to go and help his brethren. The request was granted, and he departed for Jerusalem. Having arrived, he carefully ascertained the true state of affairs, and then called the elders to arise and build. Opposition was at once manifested on the part of surrounding enemies, and with strong determination Nehemiah made it perfectly clear that no co-operation would be permitted with those who were derisive of the effort.
The account of the method of arrangement for the building of the wall shows how system characterized Nehemiah's procedure. The description given takes in the whole city's circumference. The arrangements made indicated the necessity for speedy work, and were characterized by a sense of the importance of division of labour, and a fitting apportionment thereof in the matter of persons and neighbourhoods.
As the work proceeded the opposition of outsiders turned from derision to anger, but rose no higher at the moment than that of contempt. An illuminative sentence, "the people had a mind to work," shows how completely Nehemiah had captured and inspired them, and we are not surprised when we read that the wall was half finished. At this point opposition became more severe, and a positive attempt was made by conspiracy to hinder the progress of the work. In Nehemiah's method there was neither foolish independence of God nor foolhardy neglect of human responsibility. "We made our prayer and set a watch."
A new difficulty arose among the people themselves. The rich had exacted usury from their poorer brethren to such an extent as to oppress and impoverish them. Nehemiah again acted with promptitude. There is a fine touch in his declaration, "I consulted with myself, and contended with the nobles." Setting an example of self-denial, in that he took no usury, nor even the things which were his right as the appointed governor of the people, he produced immediate results in that all the nobles did the same. Thus the people were relieved, and went forward with their work with new enthusiasm.
Opposition now moved on to a new plane. Having begun in contempt, and proceeded through conspiracy, it now adopted a method of cunning. Affecting friendship, the enemies of Nehemiah four times proposed conference with him, which he resolutely declined. This was followed by an open letter containing a slander. With singular directness he denied the slander, and carried on his building. Finding that he was not to be seduced, they attempted to fill him with fear. This attempt he scorned, and hastened the workers. Through the whole period he was harassed by the complicity of certain nobles with Tobiah.
At last the wall was finished by the setting up of the doors, and the placing in order of porters, singers, and Levites. Arrangements were made for the safety of the city in the presence of surrounding enemies by careful provision as to the hour for opening and closing the city gates, and by an arrangement of watchers.
The Reading of the Law
In this section of the book, Ezra appears upon the scene. A most remarkable religious convention was held. The first day witnessed the assembling of the people, and was given to the reading of the law. This was not merely the reading aloud of passages therefrom, but was reading accompanied by exposition undertaken by men specially appointed to act in conjunction with Ezra. It was a day of conviction, resulting in great sadness in the heart of the people. On the second day a smaller gathering of the rulers was held, who came in order more perfectly to understand the law of God. An immediate application was made by the observance of the feast of tabernacles.
Following the feast, after a brief interval, came the great day of humiliation. The people separated themselves entirely from all that were not actually within the covenant, and gave themselves to confession and humbling before God. In all this they were led by the Levites, and the great prayer they offered is given in full. Its first section was an ascription of praise; its second set forth Jehovah's grace in contrast with the repeated failure of the people; and the last movement was that of definite seeking for His continued goodness and help.
Following upon the humiliation of the people they entered into new covenant relationships with God. This covenant was sealed representatively by priests, Levites, and rulers. To its terms all the people agreed. They were set forth in general phrases and in particular application. Generally the people promised "to walk in God's law ... to observe and do all the commandments." Particularly the covenant referred to matters in which the people had been in danger of failure, those namely of intermarriage with the heathen, of neglect of the Sabbath, of Temple maintenance and arrangement, and of the offering of first-fruits and tithes.
The Settlement of the Cities
In this third and final division of the book the arrangements made for the settlement of the cities are given. In the first section we have the account particularly of the settlement of Jerusalem. Perhaps not more than fifty thousand had returned from captivity. By no means all of these had come to Jerusalem. Many of them were scattered through the surrounding cities. Jerusalem was peculiarly difficult of settlement, in that it was the centre of danger and of possible attack. It was therefore arranged that the princes should dwell in the city, and ten per cent, of the people, selected by lot, must take up their abode there. In addition to these there were certain who voluntarily came forward to dwell in the place of danger.
It would seem as though the dedication of the wall had been postponed for some considerable time. The actual time is of no moment. The ceremony of dedication proceeded in three stages - first, two processions of singers who chanted the praises of God; secondly, the reading of the law; and finally, the separation of the mixed multitude from the people of God.
After the building of the wall Nehemiah had evidently gone back to the court of the king. Twelve years later he returned, and the last deeds recorded were such as reveal the contiued strength and loyalty of the man. There were four abuses which confronted him. Eliashib the priest had given place within the very Temple of God to Tobiah. Nehemiah flung out occupant and furniture, and restored the chamber to its proper use. In the second place he found that the Levites, instead of being able to devote their whole time to the service of the Temple, had to earn their living, because the people neglected the bringing in of the tithe. He corrected this abuse. In the third place he found that the Sabbath was violated, and he restored the Divine order. Finally, the people had again made mixed marriages, and with characteristic roughness and force he dealt with the matter.
Part A: THE BUILDING OF THE WALL - Nehemiah 1:1-7:73a
A.1. Initiation - Neh. 1:1-2:20
- Nehemiah's Grief concerning Jerusalem - 1:1-1:11
- Nehemiah's Coming to Jerusalem - 2:1-2:20
A.2. Process - Neh. 3:1-5:19
- The Building of the Wall - 3:1-3:32
- Opposition and Persistence - 4:1-4:23
- Internal Difficulties - 5:1-5:19
A.3. Completion - Neh. 6:1-7:73a
- Opposition and Victory - 6:1-6:19
- The People - 7:1-7:73a
Part B: THE READING OF THE LAW - Nehemiah 7:73b-10:39
B.1. The Reading of the Law and Feast of Tabernacles - Neh. 7:73b-8:18
- The Reading of the Law - 7:73b-8:12
- The Feast of Tabernacles - 8:13-8:18
B.2. The Great Prayer of the Levites - Neh. 9:1-9:38
- The Day of Humiliation - 9:1-9:4
- The Offering of Praise - 9:5-9:29
- Prayer - 9:30-9:38
B.3. The Re-establishment of a Covenant - Neh. 10:1-10:39
- The Sealing - 10:1-10:28
- The Covenant - 10:29-10:39
Part C: THE SETTLEMENT OF THE CITIES - Nehemiah 11:1-13:31
C.1. The People in Jerusalem - Neh. 11:1-12:26
- The princes and 10% compulsorily and some voluntarily - 11:1-11:2
- Lists - 11:3-12:26
C.2. The Dedication of the Wall - Neh. 12:27-13:3
- Dating Difficult
- Two Processions of Singers - 12:27-12:47
- The Reading of the Law - 13:1-13:2
- Separation - 13:3
C.3. Nehemiah's final Reformation - Neh. 13:4-13:31
- Twelve Years Later
- Correction and four Abuses
- His Method - (13:25)
The events recorded in the book of Esther occurred between the completion of the Temple and the mission of Ezra (between Ezra 6 and 7). In all likelihood the narrative, as we have it, was taken directly from the Persian records. This would account for much that has created difficulty in the minds of some as to the presence of this book in the canon of Scripture. The fact that the name of God is not mentioned would be perfectly natural if the historian were a Persian. That many things are chronicled without apology, which are the customs of a godless nation, would also be explained thereby.
All this, however, makes the persons and teaching of the book more valuable. It is a fragment of profane history captured for sacred purposes. The story reveals, to such as have eyes to see, that same principle of the overruling of God on behalf of His people which marks all their history. Here, however, it is seen operating on their behalf in a foreign land.
The principal value of the book is not its revelation of His care for individuals, though, of course, that also is present. It is rather that of His preservation of the people as a whole, in an hour when they were threatened with wholesale slaughter; and moreover it emphasizes His care even for those who had not returned with Zerubbabel. The feast of Purim, observed even today, is the living link to the events recorded, and historically sets the seal upon the accuracy of the story. That feast celebrates, not so much the defeat of Haman, or the advancement of Mordecai, as the deliverance of the people. The book is pre-eminently dramatic, and is best analyzed around the scenes: The King's Court, Ahasuerus (1-3); the Country, Mordecai, and the Mourning Jews (4-4:3); the King's Court, the unnamed God (4:4-8); the Country, Purim, the Rejoicing Jews (9); Conclusion (10).
The King's Court, Ahasuerus
The first scene presented to us is that of a great feast in the palace of the king. In the midst of it the king commanded his queen, Vashti, to his presence. The one redeeming feature in the revelation of the conditions at the court of Ahasuerus was that of Vashti's refusal to obey the command of the king. She paid the price of her loyalty to her woman-hood in being deposed.
Mordecai's action in the case of Esther is open to question. His love for her was evident, and the picture of him walking before the court of the women's house into which she had been taken indicated his continued interest in her. His advice that she should not betray her nationality was questionable, as her position at the court of the king was one of peril for a daughter of the covenant. Her presence in the palace was part of that process by which the overruling of God preserved His people, and frustrated their foe.
Haman is now introduced, a man haughty and imperious, proud and cruel. His malice was stirred against Mordecai, and also, therefore, against all his people, and he made use of his influence with the king to obtain authority practically to exterminate the whole of them.
The Country, Mordecai, and the Mourning Jews
The intention of Haman became known to Mordecai, who at once took up his position outside the king's gate, and there raised a loud and bitter cry. The royal proclamation filled the people through the provinces with sorrow, and they mourned with fasting and weeping and wailing.
The King's Court, the Unnamed God
The news of this mourning reached Esther in the royal palace, and she sent to make inquiries. Thus between the extreme need of her people and the king she became a direct link. The custom and law of the court forbade her approach to her lord save at his command. The urgency of the case appealed to her, however, and with splendid heroism she ventured. Conscious of her need of moral support, she asked that the people would fast with her. There was a note of sacrifice and abandonment in her words, "If I perish, I perish."
Her venture was crowned with success. It might have been quite otherwise, and the graciousness of the king, notwithstanding Esther's violation of the law of the palace, was undoubtedly due to the disposition of that God in Whose hand are the ways of kings, whether they will or not. Her request was at first of the simplest. She invited the king and Haman to a banquet. The overwhelming pride of Haman was manifest in his gathering of his friends, to whom he boasted of his riches, of his advancement, and now of this last favour, that he alone was invited to accompany the king to the banquet of Esther. Acting upon the advice of wife and friends, he committed the folly of making the time of the banquet merry for himself by first erecting a gallows for Mordecai.
In the economy of God vast issues follow apparently trivial things. In the case of Ahasuerus a sleepless night was the means through which God moved forward for the preservation of His people. To while away its hours, the records were read to the king, and a deed of Mordecai therein recorded led to the hasty and strange happenings which filled the heart of Haman with anger and terror. Mordecai was lifted from obscurity to the most conspicuous position in the kingdom. Events moved rapidly forward. By the way of the banquet Haman passed the gallows. It was a fierce and terrible judgment, and yet characterized by poetic justice.
The Country, Purim, the Rejoicing Jews
The peril of the Hebrew people was not yet, however, averted. The royal proclamation had gone forth that on the thirteenth day of the twelfth month they should be exterminated. By the constitution no royal proclamation could be reversed. The king granted Mordecai to write and sign letters to his people, permitting them to arm and defend themselves. The fateful day arrived, but it was one on which the changed conditions in the case of Haman and Moredcai were repeated throughout the whole of the provinces.
In memory of the deliverance the feast of Purim was established. According to Jewish tradition "all the feasts shall cease in the days of the Messiah, except the feast of Purim." It is a remarkable thing that while there have been breaks in the observance of the other great feasts, and some of them have been practically discontinued, this has been maintained.
Whatever view we may hold of this book of Esther, it is certain that Jewish leaders have treated it as an exposition of the method by which God wrought deliverance for His people in a time of peril, even while they were in exile.
Part A: THE KING'S COURT - Esther 1:1-3:15
A.1. The Feast of Shushan - Est. 1:1-1:22
A.2. The New Queen - Est. 2:1-2:23
A.3. Haman - Est. 3:1-3:15
Part B: THE COUNTRY - Esther 4:1-4:3
B.1. Mordecai - Est. 4:1-4:2
B.2. The Jews - Est. 4:3
Part C: THE KING'S COURT - Esther 4:4-8:17
C.1. Esther and Mordecai - Est. 4:4-4:17
C.2. Esther and the King - Est. 5:1-5:8
C.3. Haman - Est. 5:9-5:14
C.4. The Sleepless King - Est. 6:1-6:14
C.5. The Queen's Banquet - Est. 7:1-7:9
C.6. Mordecai - Est. 8:1-8:17
Part D: THE COUNTRY - Esther 9:1-9:32
D.1. Poetic Retribution - Est. 9:1-9:19
D.2. The Feast of Purim - Est. 9:20-9:32
Part E: CONCLUSION - Esther 10:1-10:3
E.1. Ahasuerus and Mordecai
Note: To the best of our knowledge we are of the understanding that the above material, being published in 1907 and freely available elsewhere on the internet in various formats, is in the public domain.