The Lord's Day Evening
May 25, 2008
“A Letter from Artaxerxes”
Dr. Derek W. H. Thomas
Now turn with me once again to the book of Ezra…the book of Ezra. We’re in the seventh chapter. We began last Lord's Day evening to look at the opening section of chapter 7, where we were introduced for the very first time to Ezra himself. We’re half way through the book, and so far we hadn't even met this man — this civil servant, priest, social reformer-cum-governor, Ezra the scribe. And we were introduced to him in the opening ten verses describing him in terms of his character, describing him in terms of his lineage that goes all the way back through the Levitical line all the way to Aaron, the chief priest. He comes then with these impressive credentials as to his priestly line, and since most of what he is going to do is going to take place within the context of Jerusalem and within the context of the temple in Jerusalem, enforcing the laws of Moses within the temple in Jerusalem, those credentials are going to be hugely significant and important.
But he also comes with other credentials. He comes with a letter in his hand, a letter from no less a personage than the King of Persia himself, Artaxerxes I. It ought to bring a gasp, I think, of wonder that God would have one of the greatest men of the Old Testament…Ezra…he's a second Moses figure after the exile. We’ll try to make that point this evening, that in some ways after the exile he's another Moses coming to introduce and impose and teach the law of God to the people of God, and that God would have such a figure as Ezra that close to the king of Persia is an extraordinary and wonderful providence.
Now we're going to read this letter. It's from verse 11 of chapter seven all the way through to the end of the chapter. Before we read this section of God's word, let's look to Him in prayer.
Lord our God, we thank You again this evening for the Bible. We sometimes take it for granted that we have a copy, and indeed multiple copies, of the Scriptures in our home and in our car, and in our office, and sometimes about our person; and we have it in page form, and book form, and electronic form; that there isn't any aspect of the day or night in which we don't have access to the Scriptures. And we want to recognize this evening that in Your providence we live in a unique moment in history when that is possible. We pray, Lord, that You would help us love Your word more than we do. And we pray this evening especially for the help of Your Spirit, that as we read it now that You would enable us to read, and mark, and learn, and inwardly digest, and that what we read with our eyes we might also, as it were, take into the very core of our hearts. Help us to love Your word more than our necessary food. We ask it in Jesus' name. Amen.
This is God's holy and inerrant word:
“This is a copy of the letter that King Artaxerxes gave to Ezra the priest, the scribe, a man learned in matters of the commandments of the Lord and His statutes for Israel:
‘Artaxerxes, king of kings, to Ezra the priest, the scribe of the Law of the God of heaven. Peace. And now I make a decree that anyone of the people of Israel or their priests or Levites in my kingdom, who freely offers to go to Jerusalem, may go with you. For you are sent by the king and his seven counselors to make inquiries about Judah and Jerusalem according to the Law of your God, which is in your hand, and also to carry the silver and gold that the king and his counselors have freely offered to the God of Israel, whose dwelling is in Jerusalem, with all the silver and gold that you shall find in the whole province of Babylonia, and with the freewill offerings of the people and the priests, vowed willingly for the house of their God that is in Jerusalem. With this money, then, you shall with all diligence buy bulls, rams, and lambs, with their grain offerings and their drink offerings, and you shall offer them on the altar of the house of your God that is in Jerusalem. Whatever seems good to you and your brothers to do with the rest of the silver and gold, you may do, according to the will of your God. The vessels that have been given you for the service of the house of your God, you shall deliver before the God of Jerusalem. And whatever else is required for the house of your God, which it falls to you to provide, you may provide it out of the kings’ treasure.
“‘And I, Artaxerxes the king, make a decree to all the treasurers in the province Beyond the River: Whatever Ezra the priest, the scribe of the Law of the God of heaven, requires of you, let it be done with all diligence, up to 100 talents of silver, 100 cors of wheat, 100 baths of wine, 100 baths of oil, and salt without prescribing how much. Whatever is decreed by the God of heaven, let it be done in full for the house of the God of heaven, lest His wrath be against the realm of the king and his sons. We also notify you that it shall not be lawful to impose tribute, custom, or toll on anyone of the priests, the Levites, the singers, the doorkeepers, the temple servants, or other servants of this house of God.
“‘And you, Ezra, according to the wisdom of your God that is in your hand, appoint magistrates and judges who may judge all the people in the province Beyond the River, all such as know the laws of your God. And those who do not know them, you shall teach. Whoever will not obey the law of your God and the law of the king, let judgment be strictly executed on him, whether for death or for banishment or for confiscation of his goods or for imprisonment.’
“Blessed be the Lord, the God of our fathers, who put such a thing as this into the heart of the king, to beautify the house of the Lord that is in Jerusalem, and who extended to me His steadfast love before the king and his counselors, and before all the king's mighty officers. I took courage, for the hand of the Lord my God was on me, and I gathered leading men from Israel to go up with me.”
So far God's holy and inerrant word. May He add His blessing to the reading of it.
This is a letter from Artaxerxes, the King of Persia. Artaxerxes the Long-armed, he was known as. His nickname was Artaxerxes the Long-armed. Plutarch, the historian, describes how Artaxerxes apparently had one arm…his right arm was longer than his left arm. He is the fifth monarch of the so-called Achaemenid Dynasty1 that stretches from about 550 B.C. down to about 330 B.C. It's a line, a very impressive line, of Persian kings. You can go to museums in London and Philadelphia and elsewhere, and you can see and spend a great deal of time examining (probably behind glass and from a distance) tablets of stone and bits of pottery and bits of silverware that date from this period, all of them bearing the name of Artaxerxes I. We know a lot about Artaxerxes, and we know a lot about the Persian Empire over which he ruled.
In these various bits of archeological artifacts there is lots of interesting information about the Jews in Persia at this period. We learn, for example, that many of the Jews were bankers and brokers. They loaned money for almost anything that moved or didn't move. They were businessmen. They had solid, substantial livings in the Persian Empire. It helps to explain a little why many of the Jews didn't return to Jerusalem, and probably the relative poverty of Jerusalem in comparison with life in Persia.
We think of the exile as a troubled existence, and no doubt it was for the first generation. But for the third, fourth, fifth, sixth generation in Babylonia this now was their home. And some of the prophets, I think, are fairly critical of the Jews for not returning to Jerusalem along with Zerubbabel and so on, and now with Ezra and the men that go up round about 445-450 B.C.
Almost as soon as Artaxerxes came to power, about two or three years prior to the events that we are reading about here in chapter seven, the Persian Empire for the first time was troubled by an act of rebellion. It took place in Egypt. It was helped by some Athenians from Greece, something in the order of 100-150 ships full of sailors and soldiers from Athens came to help the Egyptians, especially in the region of Memphis (not that Memphis, but the original Memphis in Egypt) to rebel against the Persian Empire, and they were successful for a short period of time.
And we think that around the time of this chapter, chapter seven, there is this rebellious state of Memphis in Egypt. It helps us understand a little why Artaxerxes is so keen to have a Jewish scribe and legal scholar impose the rule of law (albeit Jewish law) in Jerusalem. The last thing Artaxerxes needed was a spirit of rebellion to spread from Egypt up into Judea. To have a strong base of law-abiding citizens in Jerusalem was of course greatly to his advantage, and that in part — not in full, but in part — helps explain why Artaxerxes was doing what he's doing in Jerusalem.
The other thing about Artaxerxes, as was true of his predecessors and successors, was that they were pluralists. They were quite content with their conquered peoples worshiping their deities, so long as those deities were favorable to the Persian king and his sons. You've seen as we read this evening how Artaxerxes desires sacrifices to be offered in the temple, prayers to be made therefore on behalf of the Persian king that the wrath of God might be abated and that this God (albeit the God of the Jews, but one of many gods as far as Artaxerxes is concerned) would be favorable to him and his sons.
Now, last time, we were introduced to Ezra — a priest, a scribe, a scholar of the Torah [of the first five books of the Old Testament…literally the Law of Moses]. He's a civil servant; he's an ambassador; he's a social reformer. And he has made this four-month trek along with others in a Near-eastern, Middle-eastern summer from Babylonia to Jerusalem. And he's come, then, bearing this letter–this letter written by none other than King Artaxerxes himself.
The letter, as we saw, contains many things. It contains, for example, news of much needed aid — aid that has come from the king himself, and from the treasury, the personal treasury, of the king, but also help from exiled Jews in Babylon. We learn in this letter that there is some good news for the clergy and all of the temple officials in Jerusalem. We’ll come to that in a moment.
And then, also — and perhaps there's the carrot and the stick, and the first two-thirds of this letter was the carrot — but you heard at the end of the letter there is “if you don't obey.” Ezra has come to impose the rule of law, but if he doesn't obey the rule of law, if the Jews don't obey the rule of law, then there are sanctions, and strict and severe sanctions.
Now, five things I want us to see this evening from this letter. What do we learn from this letter?
I. Ezra had permission for his work.
First of all, Permission. It was written to give permission: permission to Ezra to give him authority for what he had come to do. His Aaronic descent in the priestly line of Aaron gave him much-needed credentials, but the letter from the Persian king gave him all the clout that he would ever need in Jerusalem. Now remember… I imagine (and at this point it's mere imagination)…but I imagine that for Ezra to suddenly impose himself on a fairly tight-knit community of priests, priests who had access to the temple that others did not have access to…it was a select … I won't call it a club, but it was a difficult group of people to get into, I think. And for Ezra to come out of nowhere suddenly to have rule and authority in Jerusalem, it would take a letter from the Persian king to do that.
Ezra knows the law. He has been studying the Law of Moses. It looks as though the Law of Moses has not been taught in the decades from the building of the temple now to this point some sixty — at least 58 — years later. It looks as though the Law has been neglected. Ezra knows the Law. He tells us, for example, that during the exile the scrolls, the Law of the Old Testament — that part of Old Testament canon which was available at that point in time — was safely kept by the providence of God in the exile…not so much in Jerusalem, but in the exile. Ezra and people like him in generations before had made sure that these manuscripts, these scrolls, were carefully copied and carefully kept and carefully studied. Just as we have a Bible in our own hands that our Westminster Confession says about it that “in the singular care and providence of God” we can hold a Bible in our hands and say, “This is God's infallible, inerrant word,” so in 450 B.C. the faithful in Jerusalem and in Judea could bless God that He had kept alive and kept pure, and kept intact, the sacred Scriptures that God had so carefully inspired of old.
What you see here as Ezra comes…and he's been teaching the Law in exile in a context apart from the temple and apart from the sacrifices of the temple…and what you see is the embryo of what eventually will become the synagogue, that institution for reading the Law and learning the Law, and where they would meet for prayer, for example. In the time between this point here in 450 BC and, say, the time of Jesus, you have this institution known as the synagogue, and here in chapter seven you see something of the roots and the genesis of the synagogue that began no doubt in the exile itself, but now is beginning to form in some form or fashion even in Jerusalem and in Judea, as the Torah, the Law, the scrolls, will be taught and studied.
Well, Permission. The letter was written to give Ezra permission to do what we shall see in coming weeks he did.
II. Ezra had power to investigate.
Secondly, Investigation. Investigation…Ezra is given investigative powers. Now he comes with a privy council. We know from outside of Scripture, from our studies of the Persian Empire, that Persian kings had a habit of sending seven counselors — seven civil servants, if you like — to various cities. It was like a privy council, and Ezra came with these seven official (and no doubt Persian) counselors to investigate what's going on in Jerusalem, to investigate what's going on in the lower parts, perhaps, of Judea…those parts of Judea heading in the direction of Egypt, no doubt.
What's going on not so much from a religious point of view, although I think Artaxerxes was in favor of the Jews complying with every command that their God had given to them, but from a civil point of view. Was there civil disobedience? Was there civil unrest? Were there signs perhaps of rebellion? Were there signs of disorder and anarchy within the society? And they’re given powers now to investigate, and investigate they will.
In the coming few weeks we’ll see the results of that investigation and one of the troubling features of Jerusalem. Only sixty years after the erection of the second temple and the celebration of Passover that followed it…within sixty years, there's intermarriage. The Jews have married Gentiles. Believers no doubt are marrying unbelief, and there are all kinds of problems in marriage and in adultery and in fornication and other things, and we’ll see that. The investigation turns up, brings to the surface, that things are not well in Jerusalem.
III. The king is attempting to appease any god that might have been offended.
Well, the third thing that we see is appeasement. Appeasement…this is the bulk of the letter. This Persian king… We read in verse 15, for example, that he gives financial provision to Ezra to take to the temple (silver and gold), and in verse 17, it's to be used to purchase bulls and rams and lambs, and the attendant grain and drink offerings. No doubt Ezra had informed the king. Perhaps the king had asked, ‘What do I need to do in order to secure favor from the God of Israel?’ and Ezra had informed him of the Law, of the requirements, what the offerings might be: how many bulls; how many lambs; what the grain and what the drink offering might be. And the king is anxious to ensure that that provision is being met by purchasing these things from the money that is being sent to Jerusalem.
It is I think in part an Old Testament glimpse of what in the New Testament will become even more apparent: that when you live under a civil government — and let's call the Persian Empire a civil government just for the sake of argument — when you live under a civil government, a civil government that doesn't respect your religion, a hostile civil government — you’re to pray for them. Paul says in I Timothy 2:1,
“I urge that prayer and intercessions and thanksgivings be made for all the people, kings and all in high positions,
that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life, godly and dignified in every way,”
And we see the roots of that here as these offerings are now being offered in the temple on behalf of King Artaxerxes and his sons.
There's also financial provision in the form of silver and gold, but also utensils from exiled Jews still in Babylon. You may question the motive. Why are they sending money and utensils to the temple in Jerusalem and not coming themselves? And you might question the motive. I'm sure Ezra asked no questions for conscience sake.
The temple required all kinds of utensils — pots and pans, and spoons and ladles. All of the offerings that needed to be burnt, and some of them were cooked by the priests and cooked within the premises of the temple. They were holy vessels. They couldn't be taken out of the temple, and there was need for all kinds of utensils and they are now being sent. Perhaps some of them might at one time have belonged to the temple. We don't know whether that's true or not, but here are exiled Jews still in Babylon sending money and utensils back to the temple.
And Artaxerxes instructs the Persian treasurers to provide silver and wheat and wine and oil, and salt, and (verse 22) whatever was needed was to be taken out of the local treasury. Not the federal treasury, as it were, now, but the local treasury; and the local Persian officials in Judea under the governance of the Persian satrap of the region were now to provide for whatever was needed. Artaxerxes is bending over backwards.
Why? Well, you see in verse 23: in order that he might find favor with the God of the Jews…with the God of heaven…in order that the wrath of God might be turned away from him. We have no idea how genuine that desire was. Artaxerxes was a pluralist. He believed that there was truth to be found in many religions. All forms of religion, even if they contradicted one another there was still truth to be found there, and better to “bet” on the safe side than to find oneself incurring the wrath of a god who might just be a true god.
He's no different from most people that we know in modern society. We think postmodernity is such a modern thing, as though suddenly we're in an age that no one has ever lived in before. And there are gazillions of books emerging, helping us now to work and witness and speak and relate to postmodernity–and, my friends! There's postmodernity right here in Ezra 7 in the Persian Empire, in the pluralism that went along with it.
IV. The king's letter provides incentive.
Fourthly, it was written to provide incentive – incentive for compliance from the most important order within Jerusalem, that is to say, the temple; and that is to say all who worked in the temple. That is to say the priests and the Levites, and the singers and the doorkeepers, and all and everyone who worked in any capacity whatsoever, from the lowest to the greatest in the temple, they are given an incentive. And what is that incentive? Artaxerxes instructs his local treasurers not to impose tax on the clergy. [Now there are one, two, three, four, five, six, seven…at least seven…maybe eight here who think that's a wonderful idea! That that is an enormously good idea! Having just paid Uncle Sam my IRS dues, I read this passage with a great deal of warmth.] But you understand the politics behind it. How best to gain the support and compliance of a group of people who could make life very difficult for the king than to give a tax break to a “faith-based initiative” in Jerusalem! It's a brilliant…you have to put it to the king, this Persian king. That was one stroke of genius!
V. Ezra has power to enforce the law.
And, fifthly, enforcement…because Ezra has come to enforce Judaic law, Bible law, and Persian law. He's come to impose the rule of law within Jerusalem and within Judea, and Ezra is a faithful, loyal, civil servant, like Joseph in Egypt. Like Joseph working for Pharaoh, Ezra is working for King Artaxerxes.
Now several things come to the surface of enormous interest to some (granted, to some perhaps more than others here). At least… [Let me do a “Ligon” here! At least five, with two minutes to go!] Let me just mention them.
Theonomists, for example (and by theonomy I mean those who argue for the imposition of Old Testament civil law in a state other than Israel). Theonomists have often argued from this passage that here's an example of Persia imposing God's law. Well, yes and no. They’re imposing God's law on God's people. They’re imposing God's law on Jerusalem and Judea. Granted, they’re under the dominion of Persia, but it's hardly the equivalent. The sanctions, however…and we read of sanctions of banishment, death penalty, but also imprisonment. Imprisonment was not part of the Jewish civil code. There was no sanction of imprisonment in the Jewish civil code. That's a Persian sanction.
So Ezra is imposing the law of God, but he's also imposing Persian sanctions. He's bringing respect for civil law and civil government.
I think we can step back and see what Paul says in Romans 13 under a Roman Empire, that Christians are to give respect to the powers that be, to be submissive to them. Insofar as they don't ask you to do what God forbids, you are to respect them and you are to be submissive to them. Romans 13 speaks directly to that, and I think fits very nicely here in what Ezra is doing in Jerusalem.
He appoints civil magistrates. In order to impose the rule of law, he's going to need judges, judges who respect the law, who are going to uphold the law, who are going to impose the sanctions for infringement of the law. The office of a civil magistrate in a Persian Empire (albeit in Jerusalem, but it's still a Persian Empire)…the office of a civil magistrate was a lawful office, just as it is today. It's a lawful office for a Christian to hold, to be a judge. And, oh, that there were more of them! We see here that Christians should, I think, accept that office. Believers should accept that office.
But let me add this, and it becomes obvious as the history unfolds: that although you can impose the rule of law, and although you can introduce civil order within the society, and although you can impose that law according to its strictest interpretation —something which Ezra will do…and Ezra reminds me very much of what Calvin did in Geneva, especially when he came back from Strasbourg in 1541, to reform not just the church, but to reform society. Calvin spoke about the office of the magistrate in particular. The Westminster divines spoke about the rule of law; not the Old Testament civil law, not the imposition of Old Testament civil law in our modern society, only “whatever the general equity thereof may require,” our Westminster Confession says. It's probably the best way to handle that in just one sentence, because it's one of those things that you need to put the lid down on the box as soon as you've opened it, because it's a massive topic.
But for all that, as you were singing Give Me Jesus, I was thinking of this passage. Ezra doesn't come — at least not at this point — with a cordial of the gospel. He comes with the bitter dregs of the Law. Before they are ready to hear about Jesus, there is so much wrong in Jerusalem and in Judea that first of all they need the sharp end of the Law's whip, so that they might feel in their own souls that they are sinners And they desperately need a Savior…a Savior who is being typified every day in the sacrifices that were being offered in the temple.
“Not the labor of my hands
Can fulfill Thy law's demands.
Could my zeal no respite know,
Could my tears forever flow,
All for sin could not atone;
Thou must save, and Thou alone.”
And it will take until the time of Nehemiah for the cordial of the gospel to be heard in Jerusalem, while God does — yes — law work, to bring them to a consciousness of their sin and need.
Thank God for Ezra, a tough civil servant and a strong-willed judge. And, oh! that we would see them today in this city and this state, and even in the White House.
Let's pray together.
Father, we have been thinking of a period in history long, long ago and far away from here. But so much of what we have been thinking about has application to the very time in which we live. Have mercy, we pray, upon the President, upon Congress, upon state and city officials here; on judges; upon police officers and those who rule over them and administrate the rule of law. Grant, we pray, that we might live in a society that allows the gospel to flourish and godliness to grow. And have mercy on us, we pray, for Jesus’ sake. Amen.
Please stand. Receive the Lord's benediction.
Grace, mercy, and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ be with you all.
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This transcribed message has been lightly edited and formatted for the Web site. No attempt has been made, however, to alter the basic extemporaneous delivery style, or to produce a grammatically accurate, publication-ready manuscript conforming to an established style template.
Should there be questions regarding grammar or theological content, the reader should presume any website error to be with the webmaster/transcriber/editor rather than with the original speaker. For full copyright, reproduction and permission information, please visit the First Presbyterian Church Copyright, Reproduction & Permission statement.