Ezra | Nehemiah | Haggai | Zechariah | Malachi
The books written in Jerusalem after the return from the exile, now commonly called post-exilic, are five in number: Ezra, Nehemiah, Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi. We shall speak of them in this order.
This book begins, as Chronicles left off, with the decree of Cyrus for the release of the captives and their return to their native land.1 It gives a little fuller account of this decree, and also an account of the return of the first caravan of Jews under the command of Zerubbabel, called also "Sheshbazzar the prince of Judah." He was the prince of Judah, in the sense that being a grandson of Jehoiachin, the last king, he would have been entitled to the throne if Israel had been an independent nation (I Chron. 3: 17-19). The reader will be surprised to find, from this account, how small a number of the Jews saw fit to take advantage of the offer made to them by Cyrus. The rest had become satisfied to remain in foreign lands, where they were doubtless prosperous in the main, rather than return to a depopulated country, and go through the hardship of rebuilding their cities and homes. This reflects the more credit on the zeal and faith of those who did enter into this hard undertaking. The joy with which they made the journey had been depicted in the most glowing and hyperbolical imagery. Read in this connection chapters xl-lii of the book of Isaiah, and see in what rapturous strains the writer dwells upon this theme, returning to it again and again amid other topics of which he writes.
All went well with the people in their efforts to rebuild the temple during the rest of the reign of Cyrus; but in subsequent reigns the Samaritans, as the mixed races were then called that inhabited the territory of the northern tribes, obtained a royal decree for the suspension of the work, and it was not till the second year of the reign of Darius that the work was renewed. Then the two prophets Haggai and Zechariah encouraged the people to renew the work, and they did so without waiting to hear from the king. Another effort was made to stop them, but when the king was heard from it was with a decree that the work should not be hindered. The account of these proceedings in chapters 1-4, is full of interest and instruction. The time from the return till the completion of the temple was twenty-one years, as is known from the intervening reigns of Persian kings.
Between the sixth and seventh chapters of Ezra, there is a gap of time of fifty-seven years, extending from the sixth year of Darius to the seventh year of Artaxerxes (Ezra 6:15, 7:8). In this interval, Xerxes had reigned, and made his famous expedition into Greece, and the events of the book of Esther had taken place. Why Ezra leaves it blank is not known, but perhaps, on account of the troublous character of the times he had nothing special to record that was not already written in Esther. This book marks the division between the very distinct parts of the book of Ezra, the first six chapters giving the history of the caravan which returned under Zerubbabel until they had completed the temple, while the second part gives the personal labors of Ezra. He came to Jerusalem with a letter from the king and authorizing him to establish the law of God as the law of the land, and to enforce it if need be, by all the usual penalties of violated law (vii: 25, 26). This was a matter of supreme importance to the Jews; for hitherto they had been governed in civil matters only by the laws of Persia. Ezra, being a priest and a scribe, had by hard study specially qualified himself for this important task, and he proved himself eminently worthy of the confidence which the king reposed in him. He preserves a list of those who reformed under his entreaties so that their sons and daughters after them might know that their fathers were among the true-hearted who turned back to the Lord when rebuked for their sins.
In the ancient Hebrew manuscripts the books of Ezra and Nehemiah were written as if they were one; but the title, "The Words of Nehemiah, the son of Hachaliah" (i: 1) clearly indicate the beginning of another book, and justify the separation which was made in the Greek translation at an early period. While the temple was rebuilt by Zerubbabel, it was the work of Nehemiah to rebuild the city walls. He went from Babylon for this purpose, thirteen years after Ezra went there to establish the law. That which moved him to the undertaking is set forth in the first chapter. The distress there depicted, which overwhelmed him on hearing that "the city, the place of his father's sepulchres," was lying waste and its gates burned with fire. Is accounting for if he had previously thought that since the return of so many captives the walls had been rebuilt; though it is supposed by some scholars that they had been rebuilt and had been again thrown down within the thirteen years just mentioned.
It will be seen by reading these six chapters, that Nehemiah was equally zealous and self-sacrificing with Ezra, but quite different in his way. While the latter was a priest by descent, and a scribe by profession, Nehemiah held a civil office, being cup-bearer to the king; and he had no scruple, therefore, about asking the king for a military escort when he obtained permission to go to Jerusalem (Nehemiah 2:9). He acted as governor of the land for twelve years, yet he received no salary; he made no purchase of lands, though doubtless there was a tempting opportunity for speculation in them; he made his own servants work on the wall; and he fed at his table a daily average of one hundred and fifty men, Jews and visitors from other lands (v :14-17). His expenditure must have amounted to a very considerable fortune.
The other seven chapters of the book are occupied with some details of Nehemiah's government of the people after the completion of the walls.
At the end of his leave of absence from the king he came back to Babylon, and "after certain days" he came again to Jerusalem (Nehemiah 2:6, 13:6, 7). During his absence intermarriages with the heathen had again sprung up, and other abuses crept in.
The narrative closes without a hint as to the subsequent life or death of either Nehemiah or Ezra; and thus ends the history contained in the Old Testament.
In this little book, we are taken back in time to the second year of Darius, and the first day of the sixth month of that year (Haggai 1:1). There had been a failure of crops in the land, and the prophet came to Zerubbabel and Joshua the priest with "the word of the Lord," telling them that it was because the people had been building good houses for themselves, and neglecting to build the Lord's house. The result was, that these men and the people were aroused, and began the work anew on the twenty-fourth day of the same month. This was before the issuing of the decree of Darius, giving them permission to renew the building (Haggai 6:1-5). Having the Lord's permission and command, they went to work without waiting for that of the king. This much is set forth in the first chapter.
About a month later, as we read in the second chapter, the word of the Lord came again to the prophet, promising that, although this house that they were building seemed to the old people as nothing when compared with Solomon's. I t should at a future day be filled with glory, and the latter glory of it should be greater than the former; "and in this place I will give peace, saith Jehovah of Hosts." This prediction had evident reference to the connection between Jesus and his apostles with that house; for by this, its greatest glory was attained.
About two months later, on the 24th of the ninth month of the same year, two other messages were brought by Haggai, the first reminding the people again that the crop failure was a punishment sent by the Lord, but promising that from that day forth he would bless them. The second was a personal message to Zerubbabel, promising him that while Jehovah was going to overthrow all the nations and kingdoms, he would take him and make him "a signet." As Zerubbabel was a lineal ancestor of our Lord Jesus Christ, this seems to be an allusion to the high honor conferred on him in making him such.
From this, we see that the five brief messages which were sent by God through this prophet were all delivered within the space of three months, and were all intended to encourage the people in the arduous labor of rebuilding the temple.
While Haggai began his prophesying in the sixth month of the second year of Darius and closed it in the ninth month, Zechariah began in the eighth month of the same year. His first message was a very brief one, exhorting the people not be as the fathers had been, to whom the former prophets had spoken, but to take warning from the fate that befell them. Here is found that well known and beautiful passage, "Your fathers, where are they? and the prophets, do they live forever?" (Zechariah 1:1-6).
About three months later, on the 24th day of the eleventh month, in the same year of Darius, he brought his second message, consisting of eight symbolical and very curious visions, all of which, interpreted to him by an angel, gave encouragement to the people with respect to the temple (Zechariah 1:1-6, 15). Thus we see that the first work of Zechariah, like all the work of Haggai, was to co-operate with each other and with Zerubbabel and Joshua the priest, in pushing forward the reconstruction of the temple. This was necessary to the fulfillment of God's purposes and promises respecting Israel and the coming kingdom of Christ.
From the beginning of the seventh chapter to the close of the book the prophet is occupied with other themes, and his style rises at times to the grandeur which characterizes the finest passages in Isaiah.2 He rebukes all manner of sins, and calls powerfully to righteous living. He predicts the gathering of the ten tribes, and the downfall of those nations which oppressed Israel. He foresees calamities yet to befall Jerusalem, more disastrous than those of her recent experiences; but these are to be followed by a time of peace and holiness. In the midst of these predictions we find several passages which are quoted in the New Testament as being fulfilled in connection with the life of Jesus (Zechariah 11:12, 13; 13:1-7).
As Nehemiah was the last of the Old Testament historians, Malachi was the last of the prophets; and they co-operated with each other. For while Malachi, unlike Haggai and Zechariah, does not give the date of his message, the contents of it show clearly that he spoke after the temple had been completed and the regular service therein had been renewed. As he makes no allusion to the troubles about rebuilding the walls, this work also seems to have been completed. And as he rebukes the people for intermarriage with the heathen, this agrees with the state of things when Nehemiah came the second time to Jerusalem, and broke up that practice.
The book has the form of a single discourse by the prophet. He begins with the fact that God had loved Jacob and hated Esau, where the two brothers are put for the nations that sprang from them; and he predicts disaster yet to befall the latter (Malachi 1:1-5).
He then rebukes the priests for treating with contempt the law of sacrifices, a corruption which grew out of their avarice (Malachi 1:6-11, 14). He next predicts the coming of the Messiah to the temple, and the work of purification and separation which he will execute (Malachi 2:17-3:6). Turning back to his own time he rebukes the people severely for withholding their tithes and offerings, and for pretending that there was no profit in serving the Lord (Malachi 3:7-15). He predicts the final blessedness of those that feared the Lord, and the destruction of those who feared him not (Malachi 3:16-4:3).
As a most fitting close of the Old Testament, he looks back and says to the people, "Remember ye the law of Moses my servant, which I commanded unto him in Horeb for all Israel, even statutes and judgments." And then he looks forward to the work of John the Baptist, and says, "Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and terrible day of the Lord come. And he shall turn the heart of the fathers to the children, and the heart of the children to their fathers; lest I come and smite the earth with a curse."
We have now given a brief introduction to every one of the thirty-nine books of the Old Testament, and we have come down to within about four and a half centuries of the birth of Christ, with which the New Testament begins. Of that interval, we have no inspired history, and of much of it we have no history at all. The most than can now be known of it is derived from the books called The Apocrypha, some of which are edifying, some historical, and some fabulous. It would be well for the student to read them after becoming reasonably familiar with the Old Testament. Josephus gives a history of this period as he derived it from these sources. Some portions of it are thrillingly interesting, and a knowledge of it enables one to better understand the views and practices of the Jews in the days of Christ and the apostles.
Questions on Chapter 12
1. Of what is this book the continuation?
2. What events does it record?
3. What great enterprise engaged the people after the return from exile?
4. What hindrances arose?
5. Under whose direction was the Temple completed?
6. How was the law enforced?
1. With what other writing was the book originally connected?
2. What were Nehemiah's office and experience in Persia?
3. What did he do after arrival in Jerusalem?
4. Describe his visit to Babylon and return.
1. What were the date and duration of this prophet's work?
2. To what enterprise did he encourage the people?
3. What did he say were the results of their failure in this duty?
1. How was the work of this prophet related to that of Haggai?
2. With what other themes than the rebuilding of the Temple is the book concerned?
1. What is the date of this prophet?
2. What sins does he rebuke?
3. What promises and predictions does he make?