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he had brought with him to the officials of the Temple, and delivered the king's commands to the Persian satraps and governors, who readily afforded the Jews all necessary aid and support.
Ezra's first and principal care was to examine how far the Jews of Palestine lived in accordance with the Mosaic precepts, and to secure the purity of their faith. He found that they had flagrantly violated one of their most important laws; they had largely intermarried with surrounding nations; they had taken as wives maidens of the Canaanites and Amorites, of Ammon, Moab, and Egypt; and
those who had thus sinned were even priests, Levites, and chiefs. When Ezra learnt the extent of the offence, he was seized with violent grief. At the time of the evening sacrifice, he went to the Temple, and falling upon his knees, he implored the Lord most devoutly with tears and lamentations to pardon the trespasses of His people, concluding with these words: O Lord God of Israel, Thou art righteous; for we are preserved and have escaped as it is this day: behold, we are before Thee in our trespasses; for no one can stand before Thee because of this. Soon a large concourse of men and women were gathered around him; all felt shame, and one among them, Sechaniah, the son of Elam, gave expression to the common feeling: We have tres passed against our God, and have taken strange wives of the people of the land; yet there is still hope for Israel in this thing. Let us make a covenant with our God, to put away all the strange wives and such as are born of them, according to the council of my lord (Ezra), and of those that fear the commandments of our God; and let it be done according to the Law. Arise! for this matter belongs to thee; we also will be with thee: be of good courage and do it.'
Ezra caused at once the chiefs of the priests and of the
people to swear that they would act in accordance with the words just heard, while he himself continued his acts of penance and self-castigation. A decree was then sent out through the land, commanding the Jews, under heavy penalties and expulsion from the Jewish community, to assemble within three days at Jerusalem. The people obeyed, and a vast crowd filled the open place before the Temple. It was in the latter part of the ninth month (Kislev), in the inclement season of the year, and the rain streamed down continually. Then Ezra stood up, pointed out once more the guilt of the people, and repeated his warning and admonition. The community promised again obedience. And now the task was earnestly begun, and in three months it was completed : all the foreign wives were dismissed, and the holy community was purified—the most striking exanıple of the change wrought in them, of the strong, stern passion that their religion had become; the great measure which drew the iron line of separation between the Jews and the rest of the world.'
If we except a few later allusions, we have no other Biblical accounts concerning Ezra and his work; it is not even recorded where and when he died. Tradition, as may be expected, busily filled up the gap. According to some, he died and was buried in Jerusalem ; according to others, he returned to Persia, where he died 120 years old, and where his tomb was shown many centuries later near the river Flamura. A grateful posterity credited him with the most varied and most important services done to the sacred literature of the Jews. He may indeed be the author of most of the portions of the Biblical Book which bears his name; but he was supposed to have been the first who prepared accurate copies of the Law, and to
1 Milman, loc. cit.
have written down from memory all the Books of the Old Testament that had been lost or destroyed during the siege and capture of Jerusalem; nay, to him, as the chief of the great Sanhedrin, were attributed the final compilation and revision of the Hebrew Canon—a tradition refuted by the date of a considerable number of Books written after his time. He is said, moreover, to have introduced the Assyrian or Chaldee square letters instead of the older Phænician characters. So much at least we may safely affirm, that Ezra’s zeal, patriotism, and ability were of decided influence in familiarising the Jewish people with the Mosaic ordinances, and in creating that peculiar nationality which has withstood the persecutions and trials of thousands of years.
156. NEHEMIAH (444).
[NEHEM. I. 899.]
Ezra was more active as a religious than as a political or civil leader. His attention was directed to the theocracy rather than to the commonwealth, more to the Temple than to the capital or the country. Indeed the powers with which he had been invested by the Persian king, seem to have been circumscribed in that sense ; he never attempted to carry forward the building of the walls and the city of Jerusalem. But soon a favourable change took place in this respect also. The man who effected it was Nehemiah, the son of Hachaliah, probably of priestly descent. By fidelity and intelligence he gained the entire confidence of the Persian king Artaxerxes, who appointed him his cupbearer in the palace of Susa. But in the midst of his honours, the destinies of his distant brethren who lived on the soil of their ancestors, were constantly before his mind.
It was in the twentieth year of the king's reign (445), that some men who had visited Jerusalem returned to Susa. Nehemiah questioned them anxiously about the welfare of the colony and the state of Jerusalem ; and he received this reply : “The remnant that are left of the captivity there in the province are in great affliction and reproach; the wall of Jerusalem also is broken down, and the gates thereof are burnt with fire. Nehemiah was overwhelmed with grief; he pictured to himself how defenceless the position of the Jews must be, how open to hostile attacks, how utterly helpless in times of danger. He wept and fasted and sought relief in ardent prayer:
O Lord God of heaven, the great and terrible God, . let Thy ear now be attentive and Thy eyes open that Thou mayest hear the prayer of Thy servant, which I pray before Thee day and night for the children of Israel. . . . We have acted very wickedly against Thee, and have not kept the commandments, nor the statutes, nor the judgments, which Thou hast commanded Thy servant Moses. Prosper, I pray Thee, Thy servant this day, and grant him mercy. Thus strengthened, Nehemiah devised means for helping his brethren, and determined to appeal to his royal master. He was pouring out the wine as usual, when the king noticed that he had lost his customary cheerfulness, and asked him with kindly interest, Why is thy countenance sad ? art thou not ill ?' Then Nehemiah answered, “Why should not my countenance be sad, when the city, the place of my fathers' sepulchres, lies waste, and the gates thereof are consumed with fire?' The king asked what it was he desired; and now Nehemiah told him his plan. He begged of the king to send him to Jerusalem, that he might rebuild it; to give him letters to the governors and satraps in the west of the Jordan, ordering them to protect bim in his journey; and to command the keeper of the royal forests to supply him
with whatever timber he might require for the Temple and the city. The king granted his requests, merely stipulating that he should return to Susa within a fixed time.
So Nehemiah went forth, the appointed governor of Judea, accompanied by a royal guard. He performed his journey in safety. When the Samaritans, whose animosity against the Jews had not abated, heard that he had arrived in Palestine, invested with important powers and privileges, they were unable to restrain expressions of bitterness and envy. Conspicuous for his hostility was Sanballat the Horonite. After resting three days in Jerusalem, Nehemiah rose in the night, and with a few chosen friends he rode unobserved round the silent and mournful city, whose ruin and sad decay he witnessed in that lonely hour. There stood the remnants of the walls, broken and battered, defenceless indeed, for the strong watch-towers had disappeared, and the gates had been burnt by fire, while many streets were so choked with rubbish and rotten timber, that there was no room for a mule to pass.
When the morning dawned, Nehemiah assembled the priests, rulers, and nobles, and said to them, “You see the distress that we are in. . . Come, let us build up the wall of Jerusalem, that we may be no more a reproach.' Then he told them that God had been merciful to him in the land of the Persians, and that Artaxerxes had granted permission and aid to carry out the work. Incited by his enthusiasm, they cried, 'Let us rise up and build!' When Sanballat and many others equally ill disposed against the Jews heard of this enterprise, they laughed it to scorn, and said, “What is this thing that you will do? will you rebel against the king?' Nehemiah answered firmly, The God of heaven will prosper us, and we, His servants, will arise and build ; but you have no portion, nor right, nor memorial in Jerusalem.'