Book of Ezra Chapter Seven Commentary by
Pastor Ron Beckham
The Edict Of Artaxerxes
58 years passed between the end of Ezra Chapter 6 and the beginning of Chapter 7. Previously, out of a population of 2 or 3 million Jews, 49,897 left the area of Babylon in the first return to Jerusalem. Here we have an additional, smaller exodus of 1,754 people who were willing to go back to the land of promise. This return, dated in 457 BC, was led by the scribe, Ezra, a man who had faith in the Lord. He was a direct descendant of Aaron, Moses' brother, the first high priest of Israel, as seen here in Verses 1-5: "Now after these things, in the reign of Artaxerxes king of Persia, there went up Ezra son of Seraiah, son of Azariah, son of Hilkiah, 2 son of Shallum, son of Zadok, son of Ahitub, 3 son of Amariah, son of Azariah, son of Meraioth, 4 son of Zerahiah, son of Uzzi, son of Bukki, 5 son of Abishua, son of Phinehas, son of Eleazar, son of Aaron the chief priest." This is an abbreviated genealogy, listing highlights of Ezra's ancestry, his credentials, and in actuality a total of 26 generations passed between Aaron and Ezra. Something similar is seen in the Book written by Matthew, who gave us an abbreviated version of the Messiah's ancestry. Such abbreviations were a common practice of ancient writers.
Verse 6: "This Ezra went up from Babylon, and he was a scribe skilled in the law of Moses, which the Lord God of Israel had given; and the king granted him all he requested because the hand of the Lord his God was upon him." You are what you are because God has deliberately and with careful planning, made you that way. Even the most beautiful, intelligent, strong and skilled among us secretly resent something they think is "defective" about themselves, but God has a purpose even in our shortcomings. Ezra was simply a man like you and me who was gifted in order to help other people and bring glory to God. "The hand of the Lord" is upon everyone, but only some, like Ezra, say "yes" to God's call.
The Jerusalem temple was built and functioning, but there was a shortage of priests and other temple workers, which was partially remedied by Verse 7: "Some of the sons of Israel and some of the priests, the Levites, the singers, the gatekeepers and the temple servants went up to Jerusalem in the seventh year of King Artaxerxes." This king began his reign in 464 BC. It was now 458. The trip from the area of the ruined city of Babylon took several months, which was not unusual when you consider that the group included the elderly and children, necessitating periodic rests, and many of the people were on foot. The journey lasted four months, as seen in Verses 8-9: "He came to Jerusalem in the fifth month, which was in the seventh year of the king. 9 For on the first of the first month he began to go up from Babylon; and on the first of the fifth month he came to Jerusalem, because the good hand of his God was upon him."
Ezra was a scholar, a student of the Torah, God's Law, and was accepted as a skilled teacher. He had been enabled by God, prepared by Him, and the man delighted in what God had called him to do. Verse 10: "For Ezra had set his heart to study the law of the Lord and to practice it, and to teach His statutes and ordinances in Israel." Wouldn't you like to be taught by someone like Ezra? One of my professors in college taught theology in a way that made me love the homework and delight in his classes. He was a homespun character, but also a doctor of theology who reminded me of one of the great teachers of this past generation: Dr. J. Vernon McGee. Ezra was that kind of teacher, who learned and taught because he loved the Lord.
In Verses 11-27, we will read a word-for-word copy of the actual decree of a Persian king from 2,500 years ago. This decree, like the ones issued previously by Kings Cyrus and Darius, was a miracle that demonstrated the truth of a Scripture seen in Proverbs 21:1—"The king's heart is in the hand of the Lord. Like the rivers of water, He turns it werever He wishes." Here are Verses 11-13 of this chapter: "Now this is the copy of the decree which King Artaxerxes gave to Ezra the priest, the scribe, learned in the words of the commandments of the Lord and His statutes to Israel: 12 Artaxerxes, king of kings, to Ezra the priest, the scribe of the law of the God of heaven, perfect peace. And now 13 I have issued a decree that any of the people of Israel and their priests and the Levites in my kingdom who are willing to go to Jerusalem, may go with you." God wanted his nation, the Jews, to return to the land, and many would return through the edict of a gentile king.
Like so many others, King Artaxerxes was curious about the Jehovah-Yahweh God of Israel. Many nations in the region, including its empires, had been defeated by the relatively small nation called Israel, as everybody knew. Artaxerxes wanted to please God, if not because of faith, then out of fear, as his scribes wrote for him in Verses 14-17: "Forasmuch as you are sent by the king and his seven counselors to inquire concerning Judah and Jerusalem according to the law of your God which is in your hand, 15 and to bring the silver and gold, which the king and his counselors have freely offered to the God of Israel, whose dwelling is in Jerusalem, 16 with all the silver and gold which you find in the whole province of Babylon, along with the freewill offering of the people and of the priests, who offered willingly for the house of their God which is in Jerusalem; 17 with this money, therefore, you shall diligently buy bulls, rams and lambs, with their grain offerings and their drink offerings and offer them on the altar of the house of your God which is in Jerusalem." The "seven counselors" were the "seven princes" named in Esther 1:14. You can view the monetary gifts of this king as a form of praise, a recognition of God's sovereignty, and if you are favored in life as this king was, consider that all you have been given is so you will praise God and help His people.
Ezra's relationship with this Persian king, his ability in teaching and his willingness to lead people as God led Him, was his ministry. God had banished the people into slavery, using His corrective hand to heal them of unbelief, and they became missionaries in a foreign land, even reaching Persia's leadership which was otherwise untouchable. And God blessed Ezra's faithfulness. Verses 18-20: "Whatever seems good to you and to your brothers to do with the rest of the silver and gold, you may do according to the will of your God. 19 Also the utensils which are given to you for the service of the house of your God, deliver in full before the God of Jerusalem. 20 The rest of the needs for the house of your God, for which you may have occasion to provide, provide for it from the royal treasury." King Artaxerxes carefuly observed Ezra and came to TRUST this man who truly represented our Creator. If I had to pick out someone in my generation who was such a man, it would be the Rev. Billy Graham. He and Ezra are just people like the rest of us, but there is a quality of God in him that says I could leave my valuables on his kitchen table and all would be safely there for me when I returned.
Verses 21-23: "I, even I, King Artaxerxes, issue a decree to all the treasurers who are in the provinces beyond the River, that whatever Ezra the priest, the scribe of the law of the God of heaven, may require of you, it shall be done diligently, 22 even up to 100 talents of silver, 100 kors of wheat, 100 baths of wine, 100 baths of oil, and salt as needed. 23 Whatever is commanded by the God of heaven, let it be done with zeal for the house of the God of heaven, so that there will not be wrath against the kingdom of the king and his sons." Ezra and his compatriots were not only given riches from the Persian national treasury, but also funding and supplies from local Persian provinces west of the Euphrates River. Ezra could walk right into the palace of a local governor, read aloud his copy of the kings' decree and get what was needed at any time. And note here that this king was acting for the Jews out of fear of God, which is not bad when you consider that "the fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge," as Solomon observed in Proverbs 1:7.
And it was all to be tax free, which was unprecedented for that time or any time. Governments depend on taxation for their survival, and so in Verse 24 we are witnessing yet another miracle sent from God through this king: "We also inform you that it is not allowed to impose tax, tribute or toll on any of the priests, Levites, singers, doorkeepers, Nethinim or servants of this house of God." It's like winning the lottery and learning that your winnings are tax free. It would not happen, but the events of these verses DID happen because God made it so. As you read Scripture, take note of the "impossible" events in its pages. Our Lord makes the impossible happen because He is God.
Very carefully note Verse 25 as the king's words continue: "You, Ezra, according to the wisdom of your God which is in your hand, appoint magistrates and judges that they may judge all the people who are in the province beyond the River, even all those who know the laws of your God; and you may teach anyone who is ignorant of them." Ezra was now effectively the governor of all local officials in the province that surrounded Jerusalem. If you are placed into a position of authority like he was, let the words addressed to Ezra be yours: Act "according to the wisdom of your God." And he was blessedly given permission to teach the Word of God to all who would hear.
When Ezra showed his copy of Artaxerxes' edict to the local Canaanite officials, their attention must have have been fixed in open-mouthed fear upon the words of Verse 26: "Whoever will not observe the law of your God and the law of the king, let judgment be executed upon him strictly, whether for death or for banishment or for confiscation of goods or for imprisonment." If they did not do what Ezra told them on a continuing basis, they would be horribly killed, or at best banished from the extensive Persian Empire; all they owned would be taken from them, and a dark prison might await them. As to what form their possible deaths might take, it was the Persians who invented death by crucifixion, long before it was discovered by the later-in-time Roman Empire.
We will do well to live each day in praise to God, as we see Ezra's praise in Verses 27-28: "Blessed be the Lord, the God of our fathers, who has put such a thing as this in the king’s heart, to adorn the house of the Lord which is in Jerusalem, 28 and has extended lovingkindness to me before the king and his counselors and before all the king’s mighty princes. Thus I was strengthened according to the hand of the Lord my God upon me, and I gathered leading men from Israel to go up with me." Every breath we take is a gift from God, to have faith is His gift, and the end of our last breath is also His gift because for the faithful to leave this place, this life, is to go and be with Him—forever. To lose is to gain. In eternity, we will never lack love, be bored, have cause for anger or suffer loss. And right now, like Ezra, God is arranging our circumstances toward a beautiful outcome. He strengthens us for the task and others will be blessed by what we are called to do.
Lord, whatever I am to do, help me and enable me to act in the loving wisdom given by and through Your Holy Spirit. Create in me a heart that does all in the love, strength and joy of the Lord. I am Yours. In Jesus Name. Amen.