“By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down, yea, we wept, when we remembered Zion.
“How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?
“If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget her cunning.
“If I do not remember thee, let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth; if I prefer not Jerusalem above my chief joy.” (Psalm 137:1, 4–6.)
While in captivity the faithful Jews wept by the rivers of Babylon. Because of sorrow, they could not bear to sing the songs of Zion, for their hearts yearned to be back in their land of promise and in their holy city.
But how could they go back? They were captive to the powerful nation of Babylon. Yet the Lord rules in the heavens and watches over His chosen people. He would provide a way for the faithful of Judah to return to Jerusalem and rebuild the temple and the city.
The Lord had foreordained a person to make possible the return of the Jews. This person was not of the house of Israel, but the Lord nonetheless had chosen him before he was born to bless the house of Israel. His name was Cyrus, known in history as Cyrus the Great.
How would you feel if you were reading the scriptures and suddenly read your own name, and not only that, but you also noticed that a prophet had prophesied that you were going to do a remarkable thing for someone? What would be your reaction? Read Isaiah 44:28–45:1. How do you think Cyrus felt? How did he react?
Try to see the motivation and feelings of Cyrus toward this prophecy and the freeing of the Jews. (See also Elder Ezra Taft Benson’s comments about the greatness of Cyrus in Conference Report, Apr. 1972, pp. 48–49; or Ensign, July 1972, pp. 59–60.)
The books of the Bible do not fall into chronological order. Their position is determined usually by whether they are historical or prophetic books. The books of Ezra and Nehemiah were originally part of a compilation that included 1 and 2 Chronicles. Ezra 1:1–3and 2 Chronicles 36:22–23and are almost identical.
The books of Ezra and Nehemiah are actually the last two historical books of the Old Testament.
Zechariah and Haggai were prophets during this same period. Malachi is the only prophet known to have served in Israel between the time of Ezra and Nehemiah and the beginning of the New Testament.
The books of Ezra and Nehemiah tell the story of Israel’s history from the first return to Jerusalem until the end of Nehemiah’s second term as governor of Judah (538 B.C. to shortly before 400 B.C.; see Enrichment J).
Esther’s sojourn in Persia belongs to the time between the rebuilding of the temple at Jerusalem and Ezra’s return (beginning in Ezra 7:1).
In Jeremiah 25:11–12and 29:10 the prophet Jeremiah spoke of seventy years of Babylonian captivity. (See Enrichment J for biographical data on Cyrus the Great, the first king of the Persian Empire, and how the prophecy of Isaiah concerning Cyrus in Isaiah 44:28; 45likely influenced his actions toward the Jews.)
Ezra 2:64–65indicates that approximately fifty thousand people made the first trip back to Jerusalem. Ezra 1:4tells of the responsibilities of the Jews who remained in Babylonia. By far, most of the expatriated Jews chose not to return to Jerusalem at this time, a decision that indicates how well they had been absorbed into the Babylonian way of life.
The Lord saw to it that the exiles did not return empty handed; neither did the children of Israel at the time of the Exodus from Egypt (see Exodus 12:35–36). 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.
Sheshbazzar is identified in Ezra 1:8as the prince of Judah. Ezra 5:14indicates that Cyrus made Sheshbazzar the governor, but his name is not mentioned in the list of the returning Jews. Haggai 2:2identifies Zerubbabel as the governor of Judah (see Ezra 3:8). Many scholars have therefore identified Sheshbazzar and Zerubbabel as the same person. The book of 1 Esdras 6:18 in the Apocrypha and other authorities say they are two people. The evidence seems to favor the idea of two separate persons. Both were of the royal line of Judah, and both were probably appointed by Cyrus. Zerubbabel has become the more famous in history because he outlived the older Sheshbazzar.
Zerubbabel was a descendant of Jehoiachin, the king who was carried away captive into Babylon (see Enrichments A and G), which descent means he was of the royal Davidic line. Zerubbabel was also an ancestor of Jesus Christ (see Matthew 1:12; Zorobabel is the Greek form). Zerubbabel was the governor of Judah (see Haggai 2:2). The second temple in Jerusalem is often called the temple of Zerubbabel. Haggai and Zechariah prophesied favorably about the role and trustworthiness of Zerubbabel (see Haggai 2:4, 21–23; Zechariah 4:6–9).
The name Jeshua appears in the book of Ezra but is also spelled Joshua in Haggai. This man, Jeshua, was the high priest (see Haggai 1:1). Zerubbabel and Jeshua, being motivated by the prophetic inspiration of Haggai and Zechariah, together directed the rebuilding of the temple (see Ezra 6:14; Haggai 1:12–14; Zechariah 4:9).
Nethinims, meaning “given” or “appointed” in Hebrew, was the name given the servants in the temple who attended the Levites in their sacred services (see Nehemiah 7:60).
“This passage (Ezra 2:62–63) has reference to those who returned from the captivity who had intermarried among peoples who were not entitled to the blessings of the priesthood” (Joseph Fielding Smith, Answers to Gospel Questions, 4:165). By marrying out of the covenant, some Israelites lost the right to have their descendants officiate in the priesthood. This experience of old was referred to directly in the Doctrine and Covenants as a warning to modern priesthood bearers who take it upon themselves to set aside the decreed order of God (see D&C 85:11–12; 121:16–22).
Jeshua, the high priest, and Zerubbabel, the governor, cooperated to direct the rebuilding of the temple. The reconstruction began with the very heart of Israel’s religious facilities, the altar of the temple, which was placed on the very site where the temple formerly had stood. The altar was necessary so that worship and sacrifice could begin again according to the pattern laid down by Moses (see Leviticus 1–7). The altar was made ready for the sacrifices of the week of Succoth (feast of Tabernacles) and for other high holy days.
The shouting and singing in praise of the Lord that accompanied the laying of the foundation of the temple was performed according to the custom established by David (see 1 Chronicles 25). Two choirs, or a choir and soloist, sang alternately. It is likely that the shout was similar to the Hosanna Shout used in connection with modern solemn assemblies. (See Bruce R. McConkie, The Promised Messiah, pp. 433–34.)
Josephus explained that the remembrance of the former temple caused the old priests to weep. The temple of Solomon had been beautiful and sumptuously adorned. Now, because of the extreme poverty of the returning exiles, the second temple was greatly inferior to the first. “Hereupon they were disconsolate, and not able to contain their grief, and proceeded so far as to lament and shed tears on those accounts” (Antiquities of the Jews, bk. 11, chap. 4, par. 2).
“At the final captivity of Israel by Shalmaneser, … the cities of Samaria were … depopulated of their inhabitants in B.C. 721, and … they remained in this desolated state until, in the words of 2 Kings 17:24, ‘the king of Assyria brought men from Babylon, and from Cuthah, and from Ava (Ivah, 2 Kings 18:34), and from Hamath, and from Sepharvaim, and placed them in the cities of Samaria instead of the children of Israel: and they possessed Samaria, and dwelt in the cities thereof.’ Thus the new Samaritans were Assyrians by birth or subjugation.” (William Smith, A Dictionary of the Bible, s.v. “Samaritans.”)
The Assyrian foreigners were idolaters and had no desire to serve Jehovah or worship rightfully in the temple. Later when these foreign Samaritans intermarried with some of the Israelites, both a mixed race of Samaritans and a variant form of the worship of Jehovah developed. Such were the circumstances in the New Testament times. This variant religion was heavily intermingled with pagan and other unauthorized religious practices, which the Jews saw as highly offensive. When Zerubbabel refused their help, the Samaritans were understandably angry and sought revenge by writing to the king of Persia and accusing the Jews of rebellion.
Elder James E. Talmage explained: “The claim was made that of old the people of Judah had been a trouble to other nations, and that with the restoration of their Temple they would again become seditious” (The House of the Lord, p. 41; see also Ezra 4:19).
Eventually the Jews proved that they had received permission to rebuild the temple and the problem was resolved, but this incident reveals the foundations of the tremendous bitterness between the Samaritans and the Jews so evident in Christ’s time.
Aramaic is the language referred to as “the Syrian tongue” in Ezra 4:7. It was the international diplomatic language of the Persian Empire.
The text in Ezra 4:13would read more clearly if “will they not” were rendered “they will not.”
The work on the temple ceased for fifteen to seventeen years because of the interference of the Samaritans (see Enrichment J).
After many years, prophets of God appeared in Jerusalem to provide the inspired direction and incentive to continue the temple building. In the first year of the reign of King Darius, the prophet Daniel petitioned the Lord about Jeremiah’s prophecy of the seventy years (see Daniel 9:1–2). Zerubbabel had returned to Jerusalem about sixteen years previously and had been frustrated in his temple building project. Daniel 9:17–19shows Daniel’s prayerful concern for the sanctuary (temple) and the city Jerusalem. The Lord answered Daniel and raised up two prophets in Jerusalem: Haggai and Zechariah. Haggai 1:1–5, 12–14; Zechariah 4:9; and Ezra 6:14show how these two prophets inspired Zerubbabel, Jeshua, and the people to complete the holy temple in spite of persecution, hard times, and governmental red tape, much as prophets in this dispensation have inspired the Saints to sacrifice much to build temples.
Darius recognized the role of God in human affairs. During his reign, Darius adopted the religion of Zoroastrianism for the Persian Empire. Darius probably thought that the god he worshiped also wanted the temple of Judah rebuilt. And, the decrees of one king were often honored by his successors.
The second temple in Jerusalem was completed in 516 B.C., exactly seventy years after the temple was destroyed by Nebuchadnezzar in 586 B.C. Thus, Jeremiah’s prophecy was fulfilled (see Jeremiah 29:10–14).
“It is known in history as the Temple of Zerubbabel. In general plan it was patterned after the Temple of Solomon, though in many of its dimensions it exceeded its prototype. The court was divided into a section for priests only and another for the public; according to Josephus the division was effected by a wooden railing. An altar of unhewn stone was erected in place of the great brazen altar of old. The Holy Place was graced by but one candlestick instead of ten; and by a single table for the shew-bread instead of the ten tables overlaid with gold which stood in the first Temple. We read also of a golden altar of incense, and of some minor appurtenances. The Most Holy Place was empty, for the Ark of the Covenant had not been known after the people had gone into captivity.
“In many respects the Temple of Zerubbabel appeared poor in comparison with its splendid predecessor and in certain particulars, indeed, it ranked lower than the ancient Tabernacle of the Congregation—the sanctuary of the nomadic tribes. Critical scholars specify the following features characteristic of the Temple of Solomon and lacking in the Temple of Zerubbabel: (1) the Ark of the Covenant; (2) the sacred fire; (3) the Shekinah, or glory of the Lord, manifested of old as the Divine Presence; (4) the Urim and Thummim, by which Jehovah made plain His will to the priests of the Aaronic order; (5) the genius or spirit of prophecy, indicative of the closest communion between mortals and their God. Notwithstanding these differences the Temple of Zerubbabel was recognized of God and was undoubtedly the site or seat of Divine revelation to duly constituted prophets.” (Talmage, House of the Lord, pp. 42–43.)
It was the temple of Zerubbabel that King Herod refurbished and made very beautiful. He added many courtyards and surrounding buildings that made it one of the wonders of the world at the time of Jesus. (See Notes and Commentary on Haggai 2:3–9.)
The king of Assyria was the Persian monarch, the king of what was once Assyrian territory.
“Nearly 60 years separate 7:1 from 6:22, during which time Esther is able to avert a complete massacre of the Jewish people and, indirectly, to save the lives of Ezra and Nehemiah [see Notes and Commentary on Esther]. Artaxerxes is favourably disposed towards the Jews, and Ezra the scholar and teacher (direct descendant of the high priests) is given official sanction to teach the law and appoint magistrates in his homeland, to offer sacrifices and beautify the temple. (Ezra’s own memoirs, written in Hebrew, begin at verse 27.)” (David Alexander and Pat Alexander, eds., Eerdmans’ Handbook to the Bible, pp. 307–8.)
Josephus spoke of the circumstances in Jerusalem at the time of Ezra and how he was assigned to correct the situation (Ezra is known as Esdras in the Josephus account). Ezra was a man of great faith, and one moved by the Spirit of the Lord. He petitioned King Xerxes for permission to return with more Jews. Xerxes agreed and wrote a letter to the governors of Judah. Josephus wrote:
“When Esdras had received this epistle, he was very joyful, and began to worship God, and confessed that he had been the cause of the king’s great favour to him, and that for the same reason he gave all the thanks to God. … So he gathered those that were in the captivity together beyond Euphrates, and staid there three days, and ordained a fast for them, that they might make their prayers to God for their preservation, that they might suffer no misfortunes by the way, either from their enemies, or from any other ill accident; for Esdras had said beforehand, that he had told the king how God would preserve them. …
“Now these things were truly done under the conduct of Esdras; and he succeeded in them, because God esteemed him worthy of the success of his conduct, on account of his goodness and righteousness.” (Antiquities, bk. 11, chap. 5, par. 3.)
In addition to being a priest, Ezra was “a scribe of the words of the commandments of the Lord, and of his statutes to Israel” (Ezra 7:11). Ezra, the scribe of the law, was charged by the Persian king to teach the people in Jerusalem of the law and then set up a judgment system for the lawbreakers (see Ezra 7:25–26).
Elder James E. Talmage explained the system of scribes set up by Ezra and the consequences of that system in future generations: “As early as four score years after the return from the Babylonian exile, and we know not with accuracy how much earlier, there had come to be recognized, as men having authority, certain scholars afterward known as scribes, and honored as rabbis or teachers. In the days of Ezra and Nehemiah these specialists in the law constituted a titled class, to whom deference and honor were paid. Ezra is designated ‘the priest, the scribe, even a scribe of the words of the commandments of the Lord, and of his statutes to Israel.’ The scribes of those days did valuable service under Ezra, and later under Nehemiah, in compiling the sacred writings then extant; and in Jewish usage those appointed as guardians and expounders of the law came to be known as members of the Great Synagog, or Great Assembly, concerning which we have little information through canonical channels. According to Talmudic record, the organization consisted of one hundred and twenty eminent scholars. The scope of their labors, according to the admonition traditionally perpetuated by themselves, is thus expressed: Be careful in judgment; set up many scholars, and make a hedge about the law. They followed this behest by much study and careful consideration of all traditional details in administration; by multiplying scribes and rabbis unto themselves; and, as some of them interpreted the requirement of setting up many scholars, by writing many books and tractates; moreover, they made a fence or hedge about the law by adding numerous rules, which prescribed with great exactness the officially established proprieties for every occasion.” (Jesus the Christ, pp. 63–64.)
“Ezra’s party of over 1700 includes priests, people and, somewhat reluctantly, Levites. With them they take gifts valuing more than £1,000,000 [about $2,225,000]. Ezra is faced with a long and dangerous journey at a time of great unrest. And having boasted his confidence in God, he can hardly now apply to the king for an escort! His prayer is heartfelt, and his faith rewarded by God’s own safe-conduct.” (Alexander and Alexander, Eerdmans’ Handbook, p. 308.)
Any male member of the tribe of Levi was a Levite, but a priest had to be a descendant of Aaron, who was also of the tribe of Levi. Priests were thus a subgroup of the Levites. The sons referred to in Ezra 8:15are those of the Levites who were not priests, that is, those Levites who were not descendants of Aaron.
Shortly after Ezra arrived in Jerusalem, he commenced his priestly duties of putting affairs in order. The priests and Levites in Jerusalem had allowed the temple service to seriously deteriorate. Many of them had gone out to make a living because the temple was not supported sufficiently to allow them to serve full time. Some of them had even taken wives of the pagan nations, as had many other Jewish citizens. All of this horrified Ezra and many of the faithful who had told him of the problem (see Ezra 9:1–4). Intermarriage with people from some of the surrounding nations was expressly forbidden by the Lord because it led to idolatry (see Deuteronomy 7:1–5). Idolatry had led to the downfall of the Israelite nation, but even the horrors of defeat and exile had not taught the people their lesson.
Ezra 10:3, 7, 10–12shows how Ezra successfully called the people to Jerusalem to confess their transgressions and to covenant to put away their heathen wives. It was an important step for the people of Judah in preparing themselves to be worthy of the temple and the sacred land to which the Lord had prophesied they would return.
It appears that the covenant renewal led by Ezra and described in Nehemiah 8–10occurred at about this same time (see Notes and Commentary on Nehemiah 8–10). Compare Ezra’s concern for the Jews’ unrighteous intermarrying recorded in Ezra 9:1–15with that of Nehemiah, the governor, recorded in Nehemiah 13:23–27.
Ezra’s instructions about the strange wives occurred at the time of heavy December rains in Jerusalem. It was cold and wet, and these conditions, along with the people’s sorrow for their apostasy, caused them to tremble.
“According to a passage in Justin Martyr’s dialogue with Trypho, a Jew, Ezra offered a paschal lamb on this occasion, and addressed the people thus: ‘And Ezra said to the people, This passover is our Saviour and our Refuge; and if ye will be persuaded of it, and let it enter into your hearts, that we are to humble ourselves to him in a sign, and afterwards shall believe in him, this place shall not be destroyed for ever, saith the Lord of Hosts: but if ye will not believe in him, nor hearken to his preaching, ye shall be a laughing-stock to the Gentiles.’ —Dial. cum Tryphone, sec. 72.
“This passage, Justin says, the Jews, through their enmity to Christ, blotted out of the book of Ezra. He charges them with cancelling several other places through the same spirit of enmity and opposition.” (Adam Clarke, The Holy Bible … with a Commentary and Critical Notes, 2:752.)
One of the most often repeated lessons of the scriptures is that Jehovah is actively engaged in the affairs of all nations, not just in the affairs of the chosen people of Israel, as Ezra clearly showed. Israel’s predicament described in the books of Ezra and Nehemiah seemed impossible. They were a tiny nation in bondage, surrounded by nations stronger than they were. How could they be preserved? Only by the divine intervention of a Supreme Deity who watches over the present while He plans for ages to come. This time in Jewish history was the low ebb in the life of a nation destined yet to become a giant in the earth.
What is true for nations is true for individuals. Do you rest tranquilly in your own trust in the Lord? You should appreciate the following remarks of President Brigham Young:
“The mysterious and invisible hand (so called) of Providence is manifested in all the works of God. Who of this congregation can realise for one moment, that the Lord would notice so trifling an affair as the hairs you have combed from your heads this morning? Yet it is so, not one hair has fallen to the ground without the notice of our Father in heaven. To convince the ancient Apostles of His care over them, Jesus selected the most trifling things, in their estimation, to illustrate to their minds that the least thing escaped not His notice. Said he—’Fear not them which kill the body, but are not able to kill the soul; but rather fear him which is able to destroy both soul and body in hell. Are not two sparrows sold for a farthing? and one of them shall not fall on the ground without the knowledge of your Father. But the very hairs of your head are numbered.’
“Can we realize how this Providence governs and controls the nations of the earth, and marks out the destinies of individual man? If we have not learned these lessons they are before us, and we have them yet to learn. If we have not yet learned that poverty, sickness, pain, want, disappointment, losses, crosses, or even death, should not move us one hair’s breadth from the service of God, or separate us from the principles of eternal life, it is a lesson we have to learn. If we have not learned how to handle the things of this world in the light of salvation, we have it yet to learn. Though we have mountains of gold and silver, and stores of precious things heaped up, and could control the elements, and command the cattle on a thousand hills, if we have not learned that every iota of it should be devoted to the building up of the kingdom of God on earth, it is a lesson yet to learn.” (In Journal of Discourses, 1:336.)
When Ezra approached the Persian monarch for permission to lead a colony to Judah, “the king granted him all his request, according to the hand of the Lord his God upon him” (Ezra 7:6). “Ezra had prepared his heart to seek the law of the Lord, and to do it, and to teach in Israel statutes and judgments” (Ezra 7:10). Truly, Ezra was an inspired instrument in the hands of the Lord!
Ezra took with his colony millions of dollars (at today’s values) worth of gold, silver, and other precious items. Seemingly, this treasure could reach Jerusalem only if it had a large military guard. The route he had to take was infested with bands of robbers.
But Ezra could not ask the king for an army guard to protect him. Adam Clarke commented on Ezra’s dilemma: “He had represented God, the object of his worship, as supremely powerful, and as having the strongest affection for his true followers: he could not, therefore, consistently with his declarations, ask a band of soldiers from the king to protect them on the way, when they were going expressly to rebuild the temple of Jehovah, and restore his worship. He therefore found it necessary to seek the Lord by fasting and prayer, that they might have from Him those succours without which they might become a prey to their enemies; and then the religion which they professed would be considered by the heathen as false and vain. Thus we see that this good man had more anxiety for the glory of God than for his own personal safety.” (Commentary, 2:746.)