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Verses 6-22


Ezra 6:6-22

THE chronicler’s version of the edict in which Darius replies to the application of the Satrap Tattenai is so very friendly to the Jews that questions have been raised as to its genuineness. We cannot but perceive that the language has been modified in its transition from the Persian terra-cotta cylinder to the roll of the Hebrew chronicler, because the Great King could not have spoken of the religion of Israel in the absolute phrases recorded in the Book of Ezra. But when all allowance has been made for verbal alterations in translation and transcription, the substance of the edict is still sufficiently remarkable. Darius fully endorses the decree of Cyrus, and even exceeds that gracious ordinance in generosity. He curtly bids Tattenai "let the work of the house of God alone." He even orders the Satrap to provide for this work out of the revenues of his district. The public revenues are also to be used in maintaining the Jewish priests and in providing them with sacrifices-"that they may offer sacrifices of sweet savour unto the God of heaven, and pray for the life of the king and of his sons." {Ezra 6:10}

On the other hand, it cannot be doubted that Darius sent a reply that was favourable to the Jews, for all opposition to their work was stopped, and means were found for completing the temple and maintaining the costly ritual. The Jews gratefully acknowledged the influence of God on the heart of Darius. Surely they were right in doing so. They were gifted with the true insight of faith. It is no contradiction to add that-in the earthly sphere and among the human motives through which God works by guiding them-what we know of Darius will account to some extent for his friendliness towards the Jews. He was a powerful ruler, and when he had quelled the serious rebellions that had broken out in several quarters of his kingdom, he organised his government in a masterly style with a new and thorough system of satrapies. Then he pushed his conquests farther afield, and subsequently came into contact with Europe, although ultimately to suffer a humiliating defeat in the famous battle of Marathon. In fact, we may regard him as the real founder of the Persian Empire. Cyrus, though his family was of Persian origin, was originally a king of Elam, and he had to conquer Persia before he could rule over it, but Darius was a prince of the Persian royal house. Unlike Cyrus, he was at least a monotheist, if not a thoroughgoing Zoroastrian. The inscription on his tomb at Naksh-i-Rustem attributes all that he has achieved to the favour of Ormazd.

"When Ormazd saw this earth filled with revolt and civil war, then did he entrust it to me. He made me king, and I am king. By the grace of Ormazd I have restored the earth."

"All that I have done I have done through the grace of Ormazd. Ormazd brought help to me until I had completed my work. May Ormazd protect from evil me and my house and this land. Therefore I pray unto Ormazd, May Ormazd grant this to me."

"O Man! May the command of Ormazd not be despised by thee, leave not the path of right, sin not"

Such language implies a high religious conception of life. Although it is a mistake to suppose that the Jews had borrowed anything of importance from Zoroastrianism during the captivity or in the time of Cyrus-inasmuch as that religion was then scarcely known in Babylon-when it began to make itself felt there, its similarity to Judaism could not fail to strike the attention of observant men. It taught the existence of one supreme God-though it coordinated the principles of good and evil in His being, as two subsidiary existences, in a manner not allowed by Judaism-and it encouraged prayer. It also insisted on the dreadful evil of sin and urged men to strive after purity, with an earnestness that witnessed to the blending of morality with religion to an extent unknown elsewhere except among the Jews. Thus, if Darius were a Zoroastrian, he would have two powerful links of sympathy with the Jews in opposition to the corrupt idolatry of the heathen-the spiritual monotheism and the earnest morality that were common to the two religions. And in any case it is not altogether surprising to learn that when he read the letter of the people who described themselves as "the servants of the God of heaven and earth," the worshipper of Ormazd should have sympathised with them rather than with their semi-pagan opponents. Moreover, Darius must have known something of Judaism from the Jews of Babylon. Then, he was restoring the temples of Ormazd which his predecessor had destroyed. But the Jews were engaged in a very similar work; therefore the king, in his antipathy to the idolaters, would give no sanction to a heathenish opposition to the building of the temple at Jerusalem by a people who believed in One Spiritual God.

Darius was credited with a generous disposition, which would incline him to a kindly treatment of his subjects. Of course we must interpret this according to the manners of the times. For example, in his edict about the temple-building he gives orders that any one of his subjects who hinders the work is to be impaled on a beam from his own house, the site of which is to be used for a refuse heap. {Ezra 6:11} Darius also invokes the God of the Jews to destroy any foreign king or people who should attempt to alter or destroy the temple at Jerusalem. The savagery of his menace is in harmony with his conduct when, according to Herodotus, he impaled three thousand men at Babylon after he had recaptured the city. Those were cruel times-Herodotus tells us that the besieged Babylonians had previously strangled their own wives when they were running short of provisions. The imprecation with which the edict closes may be matched by one on the inscription of Darius at Behistum, where the Great King invokes the curse of Ormazd on any persons who should injure the tablet. The ancient despotic world-rulers had no conception of the modern virtue of humanitarianism. It is sickening to picture to ourselves their methods of government. The enormous misery involved is beyond calculation. Still we may believe that the worst threats were not always carried out; we may make some allowance for Oriental extravagance of language. And yet, after all has been said, the conclusion of the edict of Darius presents to us a kind of state support for religion which no one would defend in the present day. In accepting the help of the Persian sovereign the Jews could not altogether dissociate themselves from his way of government. Nevertheless it is fair to remember that they had not asked for his support. They had simply desired to be left unmolested.

Tattenai loyally executed the decree of Darius; the temple-building proceeded without further hindrance, and the work was completed about four years after its recommencement at the instigation of the prophet Haggai. Then came the joyous ceremony of the dedication. All the returned exiles took part in it. They are named collectively "the children of Israel" - another indication that the restored Jews were regarded by the chronicler as the representatives of the whole united nation as this had existed under David and Solomon before the great schism. Similarly there are twelve he-goats for the sin-offering-for the twelve tribes. {Ezra 6:17} Several classes of Israelites are enumerated, -first the clergy in their two orders, the priests and the Levites, always kept distinct in Ezra; next the laity, who are described as "the children of the captivity." The limitation of this phrase is significant. In the dedication of the temple the Israelites of the land who were mixed up with the heathen people are not included. Only the returned exiles had built the temple; only they were associated in the dedication of it. Here is a strictly guarded Church. Access to it is through the one door of-an unimpeachable genealogical record. Happily the narrowness of this arrangement is soon to be broken through. In the meanwhile it is to be observed that it is just the people who have endured the hardship of separation from their beloved Jerusalem to whom the privilege of rejoicing in the completion of the new temple is given. The tame existence that cannot fathom the depths of misery is incapable of soaring to the heights of bliss. The joy of the harvest is for those who have sown in tears.

The work was finished, and yet its very completion was a new commencement. The temple was now dedicated-literally "initiated"-for the future service of God.

This dedication is an instance of the highest use of man’s work. The fruit of years of toil and sacrifice is given to God. Whatever theories we may have about the consecration of a building-and surely every building that is put to a sacred use is in a sense a sacred building-there can be no question as to the rightness of dedication. This is just the surrender to God of what was built for Him out of the resources that he had supplied. A dedication service is a solemn act of transfer by which a building is given over to the use of God. We may save it from narrowness if we do not limit it to places of public assembly. The home where the family altar is set up. where day by day prayer is offered, and where the common round of domestic duties is elevated and consecrated by being faithfully discharged as in the sight of God, is a true sanctuary; it too, like the Jerusalem temple, has its "Holy of Holies." Therefore when a family enters a new house, or when two young lives cross the threshold of what is to be henceforth their "home," there is as true a ground for a solemn act of dedication as in the opening of a great temple. A prophet declared that "Holiness to the Lord" was to characterise the very vessels of household use in Jerusalem. {Zechariah 14:21} It may lift some of the burden of drudgery which presses on people who are compelled to spend their time in common house-toil, for them to perceive that they may become priests and priestesses ministering at the altar even in their daily work. In the same spirit truly devout men of business will dedicate their shops, their factories, their offices, the tools of their work, and the enterprises in which they engage, so that all may be regarded as belonging to God, and only to be used as His will dictates. Behind every such act of dedication there must be a prior act of self-consecration, without which the gift of any mere thing to God is but an insult to the Father who only seeks the hearts of His children. Nay, without this a real gift of any kind is impossible. But the people who have first given their own selves to the Lord are prepared for all other acts of surrender.

According to the custom of their ritual, the Jews signalised the dedication of the temple by the offering of sacrifices. Even with the help of the king’s bounty these were few in number compared with the lavish holocausts that were offered in the ceremony of dedicating Solomon’s temple. {1 Kings 8:63} Here, in the external aspect of things, the melancholy archaeologists might have found another cause for lamentation. But we are not told that any such people appeared on the present occasion. The Jews were not so foolish as to believe that the value of a religious movement could be ascertained by the study of architectural dimensions. Is it less misleading to attempt to estimate the spiritual prosperity of a Church by casting up the items of its balance-sheet, or tabulating the numbers of its congregations?

Looking more closely into the chronicler’s description of the sacrifices, we see that these were principally of two distinct kinds. {Ezra 6:17} There were some animals for burnt-offerings, which signified complete dedication, and pledged their offerers to it. Then there were other animals for sin-offerings. Thus even in the joyous dedication of the temple the sin, of Israel could not be forgotten. The increasing importance of sacrifices for sin is one of the most marked features of the Hebrew ritual in its later stages of development. It shows that in the course of ages the national consciousness of sin was intensified. At the same time it makes it clear that the inexplicable conviction that without shedding of blood there could be no remission of sins was also deepened. Whether the sacrifice was regarded as a gift pleasing and propitiating an offended God, or as a substitute bearing the death-penalty of sin, or as a sacred life, bestowing, by means of its blood, new life on sinners who had forfeited their own lives, in any case, and however it was interpreted, it was felt that blood must be shed if the sinner was to be freed from guilt. Throughout the ages this awful thought was more and more vividly presented, and the mystery which the conscience of many refused to abandon continued, until there was a great revelation of the true meaning of sacrifice for sin in the one efficacious atonement of Christ.

A subsidiary point to be noticed here is that there were just twelve he-goats sacrificed for the twelve tribes of Israel. These were national sin-offerings, and not sacrifices for individual sinners. Under special circumstances the individual could bring his own private offering. But in this great temple function only national sins were considered. The nation had suffered as a whole for its collective sin; in a corresponding way it had its collective expiation of sin. There are always national sins which need a broad public treatment, apart from the particular acts of wickedness committed by separate men.

All this is said by the chronicler to have taken place in accordance with The Law-"As it is written in the book of Moses." {Ezra 6:18} Here, as in the case of the similar statement of the chronicler in connection with the sacrifices offered when the great altar of burnt-offerings was set up, {Ezra 3:2} we must remember, in the first place, that we have to do with the reflections of an author writing in a subsequent age, to whom the whole Pentateuch was a familiar book. But then it is also clear that before Ezra had startled the Jews by reading The Law in its later revelation there must have been some earlier form of it, not only in Deuteronomy, but also in a priestly collection of ordinances. It is a curious fact that no full directions on the division of the courses of the priests and Levites is now to be found in the Pentateuch. On this occasion the services must have been arranged on the model of the traditional priestly law. They were not left to the caprice of the hour. There was order; there was continuity; there was obedience.

The chronicler concludes this period of his history by adding a paragraph on the first observance of the Passover among the returned Jews. The national religion is now re-established, and therefore the greatest festival of the year can be enjoyed. One of the characteristics of this festival is made especially prominent in the present observance of it. The significance of the unleavened bread is pointedly noticed. All leaven is to be banished from the houses during the week of the Passover. All impurity must also be banished from the people. The priests and Levites perform the ceremonial purifications and get themselves legally clean. The franchise is enlarged, and the limitations of genealogy with which we started are dispensed with. A new class of Israelites receives a brotherly welcome in this time of general purification. In distinction from the returned captives, there are now the Israelites who "had separated themselves unto them from the filthiness of the heathen of the land, to seek the Lord." Jehovah is pointedly described as "the God of Israel"-i.e., the God of all sections of Israel. {Ezra 6:21} These people cannot be proselytes from heathenism-there could be few if any such in exclusive times. They might consist of Jews who had been living in Palestine all through the captivity, Israelites also left in the Northern Kingdom, and scattered members of the ten tribes from various regions. All such are welcome on condition of a severe process of social purging. They must break off from their heathen associations. We may suspect a spirit of Jewish animosity in the ugly phrase "the filthiness of the heathen." But it was only too true that both the Canaanite and the Babylonian habits of life were disgustingly immoral. The same horrible characteristic is found among most of the heathen today. These degraded people are not simply benighted in theological error, they are corrupted by horrible vices. Missionary work is more than the propagation of Christian theology, it is the purging of Augean stables. St. Paul reminds us that we must put away the old leaven of sinful habits in order to partake of the Christian Passover, {1 Corinthians 5:7} and St. James that one feature of the religious service which, is acceptable to God is to keep oneself unspotted from the world. {James 1:27} Though unfortunately with the externalism of the Jews their purification too often became a mere ceremony, and their separation an ungracious race exclusiveness, still, at the root of it, the Passover idea here brought before us is profoundly true. It is the thought that we cannot take part in a sacred feast of Divine gladness except on condition of renouncing sin. The joy of the Lord is the beatific vision of saints, the blessedness of the pure in heart who see God. On this condition, for the people who were thus separate, the festival was a scene of great gladness. The chronicler calls attention to three things that were in the mind of the Jews, inspiring their praises throughout. {Ezra 6:22} The first is that God was the source of their joy-"the Lord had made them joyful." There is joy in religion, and this joy springs from God. The second is that God had brought about the successful end of their labours by directly influencing the Great King. He had "turned the heart of the king of Assyria"-a title for Darius that speaks for the authenticity of the narrative, for it represents an old form of speech for the ruler of the districts that had once belonged to the king of Assyria. The third fact is that God had been the source of strength to the Jews, so that they had been able to complete their work. The result of the Divine aid was "to strengthen their hands in the work of the house of God, the God of Israel." Among His own people joy and strength from God, in the great world a providential direction of the mind of the king-this was what faith now perceived, and the perception of so wonderful a Divine activity made the Passover a festival of boundless gladness. Wherever that ancient Hebrew faith is experienced in conjunction with the Passover spirit of separation from the leaven of sin religion always is a well of joy.

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