Read Esther; Ezra 7-10; Nehemiah 1-7; Daniel 9
God protected His people, and the fulfilment of His word, through an orphaned young Jewish woman
One of Darius’ sons, Xerxes, succeeded him in 486 BCE. He had little talent for economics and revelled too much in court pleasures and in lavish building projects. His treatment of subjugated peoples was also brutal, contrary to the habits of his predecessors (1). In 483 BCE. Xerxes held a one hundred and eighty day feast for his officials, followed immediately by a seven day feast for all the people in the citadel of Susa (fortified part of the capitol city of Persia where his palace was located), at the end of which Queen Vashti refused to obey his command to come so he could show off her beauty. Her punishment was to be banished forever from Xerxes’ presence and stripped of her royal position (Esther 1).
Xerxes then went to quell rebellions in Egypt and Greece, initially accomplishing great exploits but suffered a humiliating naval defeat against the Greeks in 480 BCE. So he returned to his magnificent feasts and desired once again to have a queen. All the most beautiful virgins in the empire were brought together for six months of beauty treatments and preparations and from these Esther was chosen (Esther 2). She kept her Jewish identity secret and they were married at the end of 479 BCE.
Four decades after the temple was built the work of rebuilding Jerusalem hadn’t progressed much further than that and now all was under threat with Haman’s murderous plot to have all the Jews in all the provinces of Persia killed, destroyed and annihilated. This time their salvation came not from a mighty warrior or a foreign army, but from a young Jewish woman whom God had placed as queen for such a time as this.
Awareness of the plot, and fasting and prayers of the Jewish people to avert it, took place not in the temple in Jerusalem but in the Persian city of Susa (2). The Jewish diaspora was now large not only in Babylon but throughout the Persian empire, and particularly in the main centres of power like Susa. The Jewish people were saved and empowered to destroy their enemies (Esther 9:1-19). Mordecai then wrote letters to all the Jews in all the provinces of Persia to establish a new yearly celebration feast, Purim, commemorating their sorrow being turned to joy. This innovation did not come from the religious establishment in Jerusalem, but it was accepted and adopted throughout Judaism. Purim continues to be the most joyous Jewish celebration.
Each new generation needs to be led back to God
Xerxes was assassinated in 465 BC, and after the lead assassin was killed Artaxerxes succeeded to the Persian throne in 464 BC. In the seventh year of his reign, 457 BC, Artaxerxes permitted the Jewish scribe and priest, Ezra, to lead an expedition of about 5,000 Jews back to Jerusalem to settle there, teach the people the Law of Moses (Torah) and present offerings to God from Artaxerxes, and gifts for the temple (Ezra 7-8). What Ezra found when he arrived was that the initial fervour of the returned captives had faded, the work of rebuilding the city of Jerusalem had seen little progress since the temple was rebuilt, 60 years before, and this next generation, from the priests and leaders down, had forsaken much of the Torah.
The lessons of the Babylonian captivity appeared to have been so quickly lost, and Haman’s threat of annihilation the decade before left no positive effect in the Promised Land. While the Jews in Babylon had continued working hard to maintain their distinct identity as the people of God through observance of Torah and customs, the next generation of those who had returned to the land of Judah quickly became complacent with their identity secured in their land and temple.
Money so easily corrupts, and when that happens in the spiritual leaders…
The high priest, Eliashib, had himself become compromised so the priesthood was corrupted and the reading of the Torah to the people ceased. Eliashib was allied with Tobiah the Ammonite who, along with Sanballat the Horonite, sought to keep the children of Israel weak and the city of Jerusalem without a wall. Eliashib’s wealth suggests that it may have been some form of business partnership.
Without guidance from the Torah, many had taken foreign wives and started participating in the abominations of the Canaanites, Hittites, Perizzites, Jebusites, Ammonites, Moabites, Egyptians and Amorites. To Ezra’s horror, even some of the priests had taken foreign wives who continued living and raising their children as pagans with all the practises that God abhorred.
True Leadership Vs Self-Interested Leaders who Hinder God’s work
Ezra wept bitterly in identificational repentance before the house of God until the men, women and children of Israel gradually joined him in weeping and repentance prayer. What Haman’s attempt at annihilation failed to do, the priest’s tears accomplished – God’s people in Jerusalem repented and returned to Him (Ezra 10:1-6).
Ezra gathered some of the heads of households and together they questioned all the men who had taken pagan wives until each one promised they would put away those wives and bring a trespass offering to Yahweh (Ezra 10:16-44). However, this was only half the problem and the rebuilding of Jerusalem remained stalled because key leaders of the community such as Shechaniah, who had married his daughter to Tobiah, and Meshullam, who had married his daughter to Tobiah’s son, remained allied to their enemies even as the high priest was. One of the high priest’s grandsons had married the daughter of Sanballat.
Godly Leadership Needed in both Church and State
Ezra exemplified the Torah and prophets’ ideal of priest. He is credited with being the “Father of Judaism” and founder of the modern Jewish religion (3). Yet there was only so much he could accomplish with both the civic and religious leaders of the land aligned to their enemies. Ezra’s purity of life and teaching of the people appeared to have little impact on their leaders. But God heard his prayers. Thirteen years after Ezra’s arrival, in 444 BCE, Artaxerxes gave his Jewish cupbearer, Nehemiah, letters of authority to return to Jerusalem and rebuild the city. Under Nehemiah the walls of Jerusalem, which had remained desolate for the last 93 years of Jewish habitation, were repaired in just 52 days (Nehemiah 6:15).
Countdown to Messiah begins
Here Daniel’s fourth vision’s countdown of sevens to Messiah begins:
“Know and understand this: From the time the word goes out to restore and rebuild Jerusalem until the Anointed One, the ruler, comes, there will be seven ‘sevens,’ and sixty-two ‘sevens.’ It will be rebuilt with streets and a trench, but in times of trouble. After the sixty-two ‘sevens,’ the Anointed One will be put to death and will have nothing.” Daniel 9:25-26 NIV
Daniel was clearly told when the 69 sevens would begin their countdown until the Anointed One / Messiah would come, and be put to death. The first seven sevens would begin with a decree involving the rebuilding of the city of Jerusalem. So there was to be another ‘seven sevens’ (49 years) and then ‘sixty-two sevens’ (434 years) before the Anointed One was to come, and would be put to death, a total of 483 years – time for more kingdoms to rise and fall.
What it takes to Repair Spiritual Walls
As the physical walls of the city were repaired, so were the spiritual walls. Nehemiah gathered all the people together for Ezra to read the Scroll of the Law of Moses (Torah) to them. They listened intently and followed God’s directions for the Feast of Tabernacles with great joy. All the people came together again in response to the reading of the Law, this time with fasting confessing their sins and the iniquities of their fathers then uniting in a great prayer of worship, repentance and covenant commitment to walk in God’s law and obey everything in the Torah (Nehemiah 9&10). This has become known as “The Covenant of Faith”. (4) What Ezra had begun 13 years before was now coming to fulfilment.
Godly Leaders Care for the Poor
Nehemiah was a very rare and exceptional leader who walked in the fear of God, unlike the governors before or after him. He served as governor in the land of Judah for 12 years at his own expense because of his concern that the ordinary people were already too poor and heavily burdened even though there was a very wealthy upper class in Judea. He called a great assembly of the people to shame the wealthy into ceasing their unbiblical practises of charging their brothers interest, selling them and their families as slaves, and selling their land as repayment for debts (Nehemiah 5). He demonstrated a much greater commitment to both the Torah and the temple worship than the High Priest Eliashib, who served only his own interests.
When Nehemiah returned from his promised time back with the king of Persia he found this corruption had manifest itself again and took decisive action to set things back in order both in the temple and in the people’s obedience to Torah, removing Tobiah the Ammonite from his residence in the temple storeroom, re-instituting the Levitical worship and cleansing them of everything pagan (Neh. 13).
To the end of the OT Prophets
Malachi was also written during the first period of seven ‘sevens’ (49 years since the decree to rebuild the walls and city of Jerusalem). Like Ezra and Nehemiah, he rebukes corruption in the priesthood and the infidelity of the people, calling for repentance. Like Daniel, he elicits Messianic expectations:
“Behold, I am going to send My messenger, and he will clear the way before Me. And the Lord, whom you seek, will suddenly come to His temple; and the messenger of the covenant, in whom you delight, behold, He is coming,” says the LORD of hosts” Malachi 3:1
1. Stevenson, John T. Israel After The Exile. John Stevenson Bible Study Page. [Online] 2000. [Cited: 24th Aug 2016.] http://www.angelfire.com/nt/theology/14ezra.html.
2. Goldberg, G. J. Esther: Her Point of View Josephus’ Version with Commentary. Thematic Concerdance of the Works of Josephus. [Online] [Cited: 26th Aug 2016.] http://josephus.org/Esther.htm.
3. Carlson, Thomas. Exile to Babylon and Diaspora. Department of Religious Studies, University of California, Santa Barbara. [Online] [Cited: 27th Aug 2016.] http://www.religion.ucsb.edu/faculty/thomas/classes/rgst116b/JewishHistory.html.
4. Astor, Berel Wein adapted by Yaakov. Ezra and Nehemiah. Jewish History.org. [Online] [Cited: 28th Aug. 2016.] http://www.jewishhistory.org/ezra-and-nehemiah/.
In the comments section below share your thoughts on some of the following questions…
* What are some of the things we can learn from Esther’s story?
* How had the Jews in Israel, who could attend the Temple and participate in sacrifice and worship there, become less faithful to God than the Jews in the Persian cities?
* How can you help your people keep fervently focused on God and not backslide like the Jews in Israel had done?
* How are you reaching the next generation?
* What were the sins of the Jewish leaders and how can we avoid being seduced by such sins?
* What qualities did Ezra and Nehemiah have that made them good leaders?
* What have you seen happen in your nation when gifted leaders lack godly character?