The Return To Palestine
1. The Rebuilding of the Temple.
The first task of the exiles when they arrived at Jerusalem was to set about the rebuilding of the temple. The ruins were cleared away, and early in the second year of their return, amid great rejoicings, the foundation-stone of the second temple was laid. There were some very old people in the crowd, who had worshipped in the first beautiful temple, and to them the scene could not have been one of unmixed joy. The Bible says, ‘The old men wept.’ But men old enough to remember and to weep over their memories could not have been many, and hope and rejoicing were the chief feelings on the occasion.
2. The Samaritans.
Very soon the work, so gladly begun, was interrupted, and by home foes instead of foreign ones. Shalmaneser, king of Assyria, nearly two hundred years before, had conquered Hoshea, the last king of Israel, and had carried off many of Hoshea’s subjects into captivity. Samaria had fallen after a three years’ siege, and in place of those Israelites who had been killed, and of those who had been made prisoners of war, the king of Assyria brought some of his own subjects from Babylon and Cuthea, into the desolated land of Israel. These new settlers were, of course, heathens, but they adopted, after a time, some of the rites of the Israelites among whom they lived. The old inhabitants who had been left in Samaria, and the new who had been brought thither, all came to be called Samaritans.
Their religious belief was naturally a little mixed. There was much that was heathen and idolatrous, but a great deal, too, of what was distinctly Jewish in their thoughts and practice. When Jerusalem was again in the hands of Jews, and the temple about to be rebuilt, the Samaritans, at any rate, thought themselves quite Jewish enough to offer to help in the work. The exiles did not agree with them. The fifty years’ captivity had made a great change in their way of looking at things. Their Judaism was of a stronger and a sterner sort than it used to be. They meant the service in their new temple to be purely Jewish, and it seemed to them that if they let the Samaritans help in the building of the temple, it would lead to the introduction of idolatrous rites into Divine worship.
Perhaps they felt, in an illogical sort of way, that the building itself would be profaned if any part of the work was done by such half-and-half Jews as were the Samaritans. No one likes to be pronounced not good enough for any work he himself proposes to do, and the Samaritans were extremely indignant at the rejection of their offer. They were mean enough to take revenge by speaking against the Jews at the Persian court. They were so far successful, that the work in which they were not allowed to share was presently put a stop to by order of Cyrus. But some fifteen years later his successor Darius, the Darius who was defeated at Marathon, gave permission and help too, and, in spite of the Samaritans, the temple was finished and dedicated, twenty years after the foundation-stone had been laid. The Samaritans, partly in imitation, partly in anger, and partly, it may be hoped, from religious feeling, later on built a little temple for themselves on Mount Gerizim.
3. The Feast of Purim.
The next great event comes with an interval of nearly fifty years. The meek Jewish maiden who, to serve her people, became a queen, and who, in her palace, ‘did the commandment of Mordecai, like as when she was brought up with him,’ is believed to have married king Xerxes, the Xerxes who, at Thermopylæ, desired the Spartans to give up their arms, and to whom Leonidas sent back the famous retort to ‘come and take them,’ All the romantic facts, which are told in the Book of Esther, and which led to the institution of Purim, history seems to show, took place during that monarch’s reign.
4. Ezra the Scribe.
The influence of good Jews remained strong at the Persian court and among the Persian people. The next king, Artaxerxes, had a Jew for his cup-bearer, and showed himself, throughout his reign, most kindly disposed towards his Jewish subjects. He let them appoint their own judges, and readily gave permission to Ezra to lead another colony from Babylon to join the settlement in Judea; and he made Nehemiah, who was his cup-bearer, governor of Palestine. Ezra—the Scribe, as he is called—was a fine character, strong-handed and strong-hearted too, a many-sided man. He seems to have got his name of scribe (סוֹפֵר) from his literary powers, which he chiefly used in transcribing the Pentateuch from old Hebrew characters to those in use at the present day. The name became by degrees applied to a whole class.
The Sopherim, or scribes, were in turn skilful writers and careful expounders and patient students of the law. They were the ‘men of the Book,’1 the lawyers of the Pentateuch. Malachi, the last of the prophets, lived at this period, and the scribes to some extent grew, in time, to take the place of the prophets in the religious life of the Jewish nation. The נָבִיא, the servant of the Most High, had spoken His message—the סוֹפֵר, with patient enthusiasm, was at hand to transcribe it. Their love for the Law and their knowledge of the Law gave the scribes spiritual power, and by-and-by political power also. For as the Law became by degrees the only national possession left to the Jews, those most learned in it naturally came to the front. The wisest and most skilled in interpreting the Law were called on to administer it, and to take part in the government of the dispossessed people. Ezra the Scribe was the first, chief and representative of the great body of students and teachers who, successively under the names of Sopherim, Tanaim, and Amoraim, became a power in Palestine.
5. The Work of Ezra and Nehemiah.
Both Ezra and Nehemiah were men of the best type of Jewish character. They loved the Lord ‘with all their heart and soul and might,’ which may be taken to mean using brain and heart and hands in the service. They willingly left the ease and comfort of court life for rough work of all kinds in Palestine. They desired to help their brethren in every possible way. They found plenty of preaching to be needed, and plenty, too, of work of a more practical sort. With equal energy they set about both. The walls of Jerusalem were in ruins. These, they wisely thought, ought to be repaired and rebuilt, for a people whose defences are weak are at the mercy of all. It was no light task; for the Samaritans, led by Sanballat, harassed and hindered the workers by every means in their power. They spoke against them and insulted them, and when they found evil words fail, they tried fighting. The Jewish leaders were equal to the occasion; they gave their men weapons as well as tools, and in the end courage and patience won. The walls were rebuilt and the governor’s house was fortified, and Nehemiah was able to go back for a while to his court duties.
Meanwhile Ezra had been busy in another way. The defences of the religion as well as of the city had breaches and gaps in it. Many had married among the heathen, and were bringing up their children to a weak and most hurtful mixed belief. With a three days’ notice Ezra called the congregation together. Then, without any roundabout talk, he said to them, ‘You have sinned; put away your strange wives; do God’s pleasure.’ It was a hard bidding. God’s pleasure and man’s pleasure are often one and the same, but not always. To be good and to be happy is not uncommon, but occasionally if one wants to be good one has to be unhappy.
There comes a conscious choosing between the doing of God’s pleasure and of our own pleasure, as to these Jews of old. They made the higher and the harder choice. From love of God, and in obedience to His law, they gave up their ‘strange,’ sweet, unlawful loves. With people in such a mood the rest of Ezra’s and Nehemiah’s reforms were comparatively easy. It was grand material to work upon.
There was some resistance on the part of the more well-off families, who liked to be left alone, but the efforts of Ezra and Nehemiah for the good of the nation were not relaxed nor weakened thereby. They insisted on the proper observance of the Sabbath, they resettled the rights of property, and they restored the law of Moses to its place as an inspired code for constant reading and reference. Ezra has been called the second Moses, and the work he did was certainly of the same sort. Moses the lawgiver, with direct Divine help, made a tribe into a nation. Ezra the Scribe, with indirect Divine help, made of a dispossessed nation an undying people. The means employed was the same in both cases—God’s Law.