Old Testament Lesson 47 (Ezra 1-8; Nehemiah 1-2; 4; 6; 8)
This week’s lesson deals with the return of the Jews to Jerusalem and the rebuilding of the temple. This occurred in three phases:
— Phase 1: Cyrus sets Judah free and Zerubabbel leads a group back to Jerusalem, where, after many years of struggle, they rebuild the temple.
— Phase 2: 50 years later Ezra the scribe leads another group back to Jerusalem when he hears that the Jews there had become unfaithful.
— Phase 3: Nehemiah goes to Jerusalem to rebuild the city’s walls and restore order and faithfulness. Ezra read the law to the people and guided their reform.
The story of these journeys and reforms is long and complicated. The teacher of this lesson should seek the guidance of the Spirit in determining which aspects to emphasize, though at least some portions of each phase should be covered.
PHASE 1: CYRUS SETS JUDAH FREE
● Cyrus the Great of Persia was predicted by Isaiah 350 years earlier (Isaiah 44:28; 45:1).
● Cyrus came to power as leader of the Medo-Persian empire in 539 BC when he defeated the Assyrians.
● “The Lord stirred up the spirit of Cyrus king of Persia” (2 Chron 36:22). He restored certain political and social rights to the captive Hebrews, gave them permission to return to Jerusalem, and directed that Jehovah’s temple should be rebuilt.
● Daniel was probably the one who brought these prophecies to Cyrus’ attention, though the record does not specifically say so.
— Adam Clarke said: “It is very probable that when Cyrus took Babylon he found Daniel there, who had been long famed as one of the wisest ministers of state in all the East; and it is most likely that it was this person who pointed out to him the prophecy of Isaiah, and gave him those farther intimations relative to the Divine will which were revealed to himself.”1
● Cyrus acknowledged God’s hand in bringing him to power, and said “he hath charged me to build him an house at Jerusalem” (Ezra 1:1–3).
● The king invited Jews from all regions to contribute to the temple fund and also to the financial support of the temple builders (Ezra 1:4).
● Vessels of silver and gold (Ezra 1:6). The Lord saw to it that the exiles did not return empty handed. Precious items were collected to be used to adorn the temple as the Lord had specified. That Cyrus would allow such wealth to be gathered for the temple is an indication of how seriously he viewed the prophecy of Isaiah concerning him.
— Cyrus himself brought forth 5,400 vessels of gold and silver which were captured during the earlier conquests of Judah, and turned them over to the Jewish leaders in charge of the expedition to Jerusalem
— The cost of the restoration of the temple was to be paid from his personal account (Ezra 6:4; 1:11; 5:14).
Zerubbabel Is Appointed Governor of Judah
● Zerubbabel (“born in Babylon”), is referred to twice in the scriptures as Sheshbazzar, which is probably Persian name (Ezra 1:11; 5:14–16).
● Zerubbabel (536 BC) was of the royal Davidic line (Ezra 2:1–2).
— He was the grandson of Jehoiachin (598 BC), boy-king at the time of captivity.
— He was also an ancestor of Jesus Christ (Matthew 1:12)
— He was the last person of any prominence in Old Testament history who was a descendant of David.
— After Zerubbabel the Davidic line goes into complete obscurity and remains there until the birth of the Savior.
— He brought the first group of 50,000 people from Babylon to Jerusalem.
— The second temple in Jerusalem is often called the temple of Zerubbabel.
— Haggai and Zechariah both spoke favorably of Zerubbabel (Haggai 2:4, 21–23; Zechariah 4:6–9).
● Cyrus made Zerubbabel “governor of Judah” but not a king (Haggai 1:1).
● Judah remained a vassal of Persia (Haggai 2:2).
— The Jews were never again independent during Old Testament times, other than for a brief interval during the Maccabean revolt.
— They remained permanent vassals to each of the great powers as they came along—Persia, Greece, Syria and Rome.
— Then in 70 AD they were extinguished as a people for the next 1900 years.
Priesthood Officers Reinstated
● Jeshua was the Levitical high priest (Ezra 2:2). His name is spelled Joshua in Haggai 1:1.
— He was a direct descendant of Aaron.
● Of the twenty-four Aaronic priesthood “courses” which David had set up, only four were still represented; but these totaled over 4,000 men (Ezra 2:36–39).
— In contrast, the Levites which greatly outnumbered the priests earlier, now sent back only 74 men who could prove they were Levites from their genealogical records.
— Nethinims (meaning “given” or “appointed” in Hebrew), was the name given the servants in the temple who assisted the Levites in their sacred services (Ezra 2:43; Nehemiah 7:60).
● They carefully reckoned their genealogy (Ezra 2:62–63).
— There was a large group who claimed priesthood rights but couldn’t prove it.
— They were denied priesthood rights “till there stood up a priest with Urim and with Thummim ” [to verify their true lineage].
— Unfortunately, the Urim and Thummim, like the Ark of the Covenant, were never heard of again following the destruction of Jerusalem.
— Elder Joseph Fielding Smith said: “This passage has reference to those who returned from the captivity who had intermarried among peoples who were not entitled to the blessings of the priesthood.”2
— By marrying out of the covenant, some Israelites lost the right to have their descendants officiate in the priesthood.
— This was referred to in the Doctrine and Covenants as a warning to modern priesthood bearers who set aside the order of God (D&C 85:11–12; 121:16–22).
● Tirshatha was the title of the Persian governor of Judea (Ezra 2:63). This title was perhaps derived from the Persian root meaning “stern” or “severe.” (Nehemiah 7:65; 8:9; 10:1).
The Return to Jerusalem
● Approximately 50,000 people made the first trip back to Jerusalem (Ezra 2:64–67).
— Those who returned had with them 736 horses, 235 mules, 435 camels, 6,720 asses.
— Scholars estimate that such a trek probably took four months.
● Most of the Jews chose not to return to Jerusalem at this time.
— Among those who remained behind were Daniel and Esther.
● They took back a considerable treasure of donations for the temple (Ezra 2:68–69).
— They also took back 5,400 gold and silver vessels—chargers, knives, basins, tankards, salvers, cups, fire pans, dishes, spoons, etc.—which belonged to the temple (Ezra 1:11).
— These had been seized by Nebuchadnezzar in his raids on the temple in 606 and 509 BC (Ezra 6:5).
● What the pilgrims found when they returned to Judah was discouraging:
— The Babylonians practically leveled this once proud capital of Judah to the ground.
— The former fortress and palace of David and the temple of the Lord both lay ruins.
— The high walls which had protected the city were all pulled down.
— The former homes of the people lay strewn about in heaps of fire-gutted rubble.
— What had once been a large territory of Judah now was restricted to a small region around Jerusalem—Bethlehem (7 miles south) to the northern border of Benjamin (7 miles north).
REBUILDING THE TEMPLE
The Altar and Sacrifices
● The altar was rebuilt first (Ezra 3:1–6).
— The temple block was cleared of the wreckage which lay upon it.
— An altar was built exactly where its predecessor had stood (vv. 2–3).
— All of this occurred during the season for the Feast of the Tabernacles, so the people celebrated that great festival (v. 4).
The Temple Foundation
● The foundation of the temple was laid months later with great effort and expense (Ezra 3:7–9).
● They praised the Lord after the manner of King David (Ezra 3:10–11).
— Shouting and singing accompanied the laying of the foundation
— Two choirs, or a choir and soloist, sang alternately.
— The shout was similar to the hosanna shout used in our solemn assemblies.
● The older priests wept (Ezra 3:12–13).
— The temple of Solomon had been beautiful and sumptuously adorned.
— Because of extreme poverty, this temple was greatly inferior to Solomon’s.
Serious Delays in Construction
● Samaritans offered to help build the temple but were refused (Ezra 4:1–5, 24).
— Offended, they obstructed the work for the next 17 years (536–516 BC)
— Hostile skirmishes by day and night and political pressure from unsympathetic officers of the king kept them preoccupied with survival rather than temple-building.
— Cyrus was deeply involved in continuous warfare himself.
— He was killed while fighting the Scythians in 529 BC, and his son, Cambyses II continued these military campaigns until his death in 522 BC.
— Eventually, Darius, a true, though distant relative of Cyrus and Cambyses, became king.
● During the reigns of Ahasuerus and Artaxerxes, opposition caused the building of the walls of Jerusalem to be stopped (Ezra 4:6–23).
— A difficult problem of chronology is raised by the material in these verses.
— These events took place after the building of the temple, as is indicated by the reference to Ahasuerus and Artaxerxes (vv. 6–7).
● Aramaic is “the Syrian tongue (Ezra 4:7).” It was the international diplomatic language of the Persian empire.
● “They will not pay to” (Ezra 4:13). This would read more clearly if “will they not” were rendered “they will not.”
NEW PROPHETS ARE RAISED UP
Daniel Intervenes Again
● Jeremiah’s prophesied that the length of Judah’s captivity would be 70 years (Jeremiah 25:10–12; 29:10).
● Daniel determined that 70 years had now passed (Daniel 9:1–3).
● Daniel undertook through prayer to obtain a commitment from the Lord during the first year of the reign of Darius (522 BC) (Daniel 9:17–19).
● Gabriel (Noah) answered and assured Daniel that the time was correct, and that the promises of the Lord would all be fulfilled (Daniel 9:24).
Haggai and Zechariah
● At almost exactly the same time Daniel was receiving this revelation in Babylon (520 BC), the Lord was raising up two inspired prophets in Jerusalem—Haggai and Zechariah.
● Haggai and Zechariah inspired the people to complete the temple (Ezra 4:24–5:5; Haggai 1:1–5, 12–14; Zechariah 4:9).
The Teachings of Haggai
● Haggai said their hardships were caused by their neglect in building the temple (Haggai 1:1–6).
● “Consider your ways” (Haggai 1:9–11). The consequences of disobedience: The Lord directly tied the poverty of the people and the sterility of the land to their failure to heed the commandment to rebuild the Lord’s house
● Haggai promised blessings if they would continue the reconstruction (Haggai 1:7–8, 12–15).
● The Lord spoke of His coming and of the temple’s future glory (Haggai 2:1–9).
— The Lord will shake “the heavens, and the earth, and the sea, and the dry land . . . and . . . all nations” when he comes in glory to usher in the Millennium (vv. 6–7).
— The “desire of all nations shall come” is a messianic prophecy of Christ ( v. 7). His house will be filled with glory and peace will be established.
— “The glory of this latter house shall be greater than of the former” (v. 9). Haggai prophesied of a future temple that would surpass Solomon’s in glory and splendor and would be the place where the Lord would give his people peace. This prophecy will have fulfillment in the promised latter-day temple that will yet be built on the same site.
● “Holy flesh” and being “unclean by a dead body” (Haggai 2:10–19). Israel is utterly unclean on account of its neglect of the house of Jehovah, like a man who has become unclean through touching a corpse. Everything that Israel takes hold of, or upon which it lays its hand, everything that it plants and cultivates, is from the very first affected with the curse of uncleanness; and consequently even the sacrifices which it offers there upon the altar of Jehovah are unclean.3
— The uncleanness was the reason the land was so unproductive (vv. 15–17), but when the Jews had repented and begun the work on the temple (v. 18), the curse was to be lifted and the Lord promised his blessing (v. 19).
● The Lord affirmed Zerubbabel’s position as governor of Judah (Haggai 2:20–23).
Darius Reiterates the Decree of Cyrus
● Renewed energy in building the temple attracted the attention of their old enemies (Ezra 5:3).
● The Persian governor of all Syro-Palestine challenged Zerubbabel’s authority to use all these resources and manpower to construct this temple (Ezra 5:9–10).
● When Zerubbabel claimed they had authority from King Cyrus, the Persian governor wrote a letter to King Darius asking if there was any such decree (Ezra 5:17).
● No such edict could be found in Babylon, but an exhaustive search located it in a royal palace in one of the provinces of the Medes. It had been lost and forgotten (Ezra 6:4).
● Darius honored the decree of Cyrus (Ezra 6:7–12).
— He recognized the role of God in the affairs of men.
— He had adopted the religion of Zorastrianism for the Persian empire.
— He believed the God he worshiped also wanted the temple rebuilt.
— He ended by saying that any man or woman who failed to carry out this decree would have a scaffold built from the boards of his own home and be hanged thereon (v. 11).
● When the governor of Syro-Palestine received this letter he rallied his officers around him and whatever King Darius had told them to do, “so they did speedily” (Ezra 6:13).
The Temple Is Finished and Dedicated
● The temple was finished in time for the Passover (Ezra 6:13–22).
— In the sixth year of Darius (516 BC), after a lapse of only four years, the temple was completed.
— It lacked the embellishments of Solomon’s temple.
— It also lacked the Ark of the Covenant.
— The Holy of Holies was empty except for the outcropping of natural rock.
● A palace was built in the northwest part of the temple block for the governor (Nehemiah 2:8; 7:2). This was the same building as that which was known during the Roman domination as the Fortress Antonia.
● There is no mention of Zerubbabel after the temple was completed.
● After his time, the leadership of the community was held by the priests. This theocratic government was permitted by the Persians and for a time by Alexander the Great.
● There is a gap in this history during which Esther became Queen of Persia.
— Nearly 60 years separate Ezra 6:22 from Ezra 7:1
— During this time Esther became queen and averted a complete massacre of the Jewish people.
— This saved the lives of Ezra and Nehemiah
PHASE 2: EZRA THE SCRIBE
Ezra’s Role in Judah
● Ezra was a priest of the tribe of Levi and a “Scribe” (Ezra 7:6, 11–12).
— This is the first use of the title “scribe” in the Bible for a scholar of the scriptures.
— Note that “the hand of the Lord his God [was] upon him.”
● Scribes: Were men having authority and honored as rabbis or teachers.
— They were a titled class (in the days of Ezra and Nehemiah).
— They did valuable service in compiling the sacred writings.
— They became members of the Great Synagog, or Great Assembly.
● The Great Synagog: According to the Talmud, it consisted of 120 eminent scholars who were careful in judgment and protecting the law.
— They studied carefully all traditional details in administration.
— They wrote many books and tracts concerning the law.
— They made a fence or hedge about the law by adding numerous rules, which prescribed with exactness what was appropriate on every occasion.
Ezra’s Long Journey to Jerusalem
● When Ezra became aware of the decadent conditions in Jerusalem, Artaxerxes permitted Ezra to lead a group of Jews to Jerusalem (Ezra 7).
— He went to the Persian king, asking for the privilege of returning with another group to Jerusalem.
— Artaxerxes agreed with Ezra’s plan to use gold and silver from the empire treasures to go with a group to Jerusalem to start some reforms there.
— Artaxerxes also wrote a letter to the governors of Judah.
● Ezra took a party of over 1700 priests, people and Levites (Ezra 8).
— They took gifts with them valued at more than $2,225,000.
— Ezra was faced with a long and dangerous journey at a time of great unrest.
— Ezra put his trust in God to protect them on their journey (Ezra 8:21–23, 31). With millions of dollars worth of gold, silver, and other treasures, this would require a large military guard because the route he had to take was infested with bands of robbers.
PHASE 3: NEHEMIAH
The Historical Setting of Nehemiah
● Nehemiah appeared at Jerusalem around 445 BC.
— Not much is known about the 70–year history of Jerusalem between the completion of the temple in 515 BC and the appearance in Jerusalem of Ezra and Nehemiah and those that came with them.
● The book of Nehemiah continues the account begun in the book of Ezra about the return of the Jews from Babylon.
● Judging from the reforms started by Ezra and Nehemiah, the people in Jerusalem were not faithfully living the law of Moses.
● Nehemiah is written in first person and autobiographical style, indicating that it may have come from Nehemiah’s own writings.
Nehemiah’s Integrity and Influence
● This particular Nehemiah is mentioned only in this book. Other persons named Nehemiah are mentioned in Ezra 2:2, Nehemiah 7:7, Nehemiah 3:16.
● His name, Nehemiah, means “God has consoled”.
● He was reared in Persia (Nehemiah 1:1).
● His record begins about 445 BC, 20 years after the accession of Artaxerxes (Nehemiah 1:1) and 90 years after the first return of Jews to Jerusalem.
● He is never mentioned as a prophet nor a priest.
● He was a royal cupbearer in the Persian court (Nehemiah 2:1).
— Cupbearers protected kings from assassination by making sure their food was safe.
● He became the second governor of Judah (Nehemiah 5:14).
Nehemiah’s Charity and Humility
● This loyal and altruistic man was full of faith, resourcefulness, capability, and persistence to take constructive action, counter opposition, and improve the condition of his people.
● One project, undertaken along with that “ready scribe” Ezra, was to collect and preserve scrolls that became the Holy Scriptures of Judaism—our Old Testament.
● In moments of stress, both Ezra and Nehemiah recorded beautiful prayers filled with pathos and intensity of human emotion. (Ezra 9:6–15; Nehemiah 1:4–11). Here they offered prayers for the forgiveness and for the restoration of the Lord’s people.
● Nehemiah’s character is perhaps best revealed by his closing prayer at the end of his book: “Remember me, O my God, for good.” (Nehemiah 13:31).
● The beginning of this book reads as though it were taken from his personal diary (Nehemiah 1:1).
● He heard from fellow Jews about the sad conditions in Jerusalem—that its walls were broken down and its gates been burned (Nehemiah 1:2–3).
● He wanted to do something about it, fasted, and asked God for directions and help (Nehemiah 1:4–11).
● He was in such distress for his countrymen that the king perceived it (Nehemiah 2:1–2).
— Though he was a man of great influence and power, he was humble and faithful and trusted in God.
● Nehemiah desired to rebuild the city walls of Jerusalem. Artaxerxes gave him guards, an escort, and safe conduct for the journey. The king also gave him letters to “the governors beyond the river.” He also allowed him to use timber from royal forests to rebuild the walls Nehemiah’s requests show that he was a practical and knowledgeable administrator, fully prepared to go to Jerusalem and accomplish all the needed reconstruction work (Nehemiah 2:3–11).
Rebuilding Jerusalem’s Walls
● Nehemiah’s night journey around the walls was not inclined to immediately publicize or display his authority as a newly appointed governor (Nehemiah 2:12–16). He secretly surveyed the ruined walls of Jerusalem on a nighttime tour of inspection. Nehemiah realized that without city walls they could not survive. He wrote such detail about his observations and later reconstruction of the walls that we know today how the city looked in his day.
● He inspired the rebuilding of Jerusalem’s city walls (Nehemiah 2:17–20). This increased the resentment of the Samaritans who had opposed Zerubbabel (v. 19).
● He gave assignments for reconstruction of gates and portions of the walls (Nehemiah 3). His leadership qualities are apparent; he was inspiring and organized. Nehemiah’s record concisely reports what each of the groups did. Some were identified by their family, some by their city of origin, some by their Levite affiliation, and some by crafts or professions.
● Nehemiah’s enemies (Nehemiah 2:10, 19–20; 4:1–3). Sanballat was the governor of Samaria, and he and his people were enemies of the Jews. He, with an “Ammonite,” certain “Arabians,” and others, opposed Nehemiah’s work; they scoffed at it, belittled it, and later (Neh. 6) engaged in intrigue to stop it.
● Apparently the Jews did not have a reputation among their neighbors as being great artisans or builders. The scorn of the non-Israelitish opponents is reflected in Sanballat’s referral to “these feeble Jews” and Tobiah’s deprecating appraisal, “Even that which they build, if a fox go up, he shall even break down their stone wall.”
● The work proceeded despite great opposition (Nehemiah 4:14–18).
— As enemies conspired against the building program, some Jews were critical, made excuses & wanted to give up (v. 13).
— Nehemiah called on the Jews to defend their families and homes (v. 14).
— His call is similar to the charge Moroni gave in the Book of Mormon (Alma 43:46–47; 46:12).
— Nehemiah had his people pray, post a guard, remember the Lord, and prepare to defend themselves.
— The workers responded by working long days even sleeping in their clothes “saving that every one put them off for washing” (Nehemiah 4:19–23).
— They worked with one hand and held a weapon in the other “from the rising of the sun till the stars appeared.”
Continuing Harassment from Enemies
● Enemies tried to get rid of Nehemiah by: (Nehemiah 6)
— An attempted assassination plot (v. 2)
— False accusations (vv. 6–7)
— Intimidation (v. 10).
● Sanballat tried to lure Nehemiah into “mischief” but he was not deceived (Nehemiah 6:1–4).
EZRA TEACHES THE LAW TO THE PEOPLE
● Ezra publicly read and expounded the law of Moses (Nehemiah 8:1–6).
● As he read, those on the stand with him “caused the people to understand” (Nehemiah 8:7–8).
— It is possible that the explaining and paraphrasing was done in Aramaic.
— This is how the Targums, or translations in Aramaic, originated.
— Aramaic, which is closely related to Hebrew, was learned by the Jews in exile in Babylon.
● The people wept when they heard the law (Nehemiah 8:9–12).
— He called on the people to remember the poor and share their joy in God’s goodness by charitable service (v. 10).
● Ezra also taught concerning the feasts and festivals (Nehemiah 8:13–18). The Jews learned again of the Feast of Sukkoth, “Booths,” or “Tabernacles” and celebrated their own exodus and return from bondage. This feast had been observed in the first year of the return of Zerubabbel’s group (Ezra 3:4–5). But never since Joshua had it been so fully kept as it was on this occasion (Neh. 8:17).
1. The Holy Bible . . . with a Commentary and Critical Notes, 2:730.
2. Answers to Gospel Questions, comp. Elder Joseph Fielding Smith Jr., 5 vols. [1957–66], 4:165.
3. Keil Delitzsch, Commentary on the Old Testament, 10 vols. , 10:2:204–205.