“Now after these things, in the reign of Artaxerxes king of Persia, Ezra the son of Seraiah . . . This Ezra went up from Babylon; and he was a ready scribe in the law of Moses, which YHWH God of Israel had given: and the king granted him all his request, according to the hand of YHWH his God upon him.”
During the Second Temple period, few Old Testament characters hold a more prominent position than Ezra. The Bible identifies him as a priest and scribe. It is believed that he was the author of the book of Ezra as well as Chronicles. Both of these accounts provide valuable insights into the triumphs and tragedies of the Judean captives’ efforts in rebuilding the Second Temple and Jerusalem.
As we learned in the previous chapter, after the completion of the temple in the sixth year of Darius, Ezra in the seventh year of the reign of a Persian “Artaxerxes” desired to return to Jerusalem and teach the people the law of YHWH. What is unclear from the text is the precise identity of this Persian Artaxerxes. For well over two centuries, biblical scholars have identified this Artaxerxes as the Persian king Longimanus, circa 464–424 BC. It’s a handy identification, allowing Daniel’s 70 sevens, interpreted as 490 years, to take us straight to the life of Yeshua. Considering the importance of Ezra’s history to our understanding of Daniel 9, you might assume this Old Testament chronology would be well established upon a reasonable biblical basis. Surprisingly, this is not the case. If you find that hard to believe, all you have to do is pick up any commentary on the prophecy of Daniel 9 or the Second Temple era. You’ll be hard-pressed to find a single biblical chronological reference for Ezra or Nehemiah’s place in that time period.
To me the most disconcerting fact about this is that the Bible is rich in chronological details concerning Ezra and Nehemiah. If in fact the 70 sevens countdown to the Messiah begins with a decree given to Ezra or Nehemiah during the reign of a Persian Artaxerxes, then it is only reasonable to establish Ezra’s and Nehemiah’s place in the Second Temple era relative to secular Persian chronology so that we can date the decree of this unnamed Persian Artaxerxes. That is the purpose of this chapter. So let’s see just how much biblical evidence there is for the life and times of Ezra the priest and scribe.
Son of the High Priest
What does the Bible say about Ezra? Who was this mysterious teacher of the Torah who was compelled to return to Jerusalem and teach his people the law of YHWH?
One of the best ways to learn about someone is by meeting his or her parents. In Ezra’s case, you’ll not find a more influential father than the last high priest of Solomon’s temple. Let me introduce you:
Now after these things, in the reign of Artaxerxes king of Persia, Ezra the son of Seraiah, the son of Azariah, the son of Hilkiah, the son of Shallum, the son of Zadok, the son of Ahitub, the son of Amariah, the son of Azariah, the son of Meraioth, the son of Zerahiah, the son of Uzzi, the son of Bukki, the son of Abishua, the son of Phinehas, the son of Eleazar, the son of Aaron the chief priest . . . (Ezra 7:1–5)
The verse above says that Ezra was the son of Seraiah. What’s fascinating about this statement is that Seraiah, son of Azariah, was the last high priest of Solomon’s temple. Second Kings 25:8–21 tells us that Seraiah was taken by Nebuzaradan to Riblah in the nineteenth year of Nebuchadnezzar and was killed there.
And in the fifth month, on the seventh day of the month, which is the nineteenth year of king Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon, came Nebuzaradan, captain of the guard, a servant of the king of Babylon, unto Jerusalem: and he burnt the house of YHWH, and the king’s house, and all the houses of Jerusalem, and every great man’s house burnt he with fire. And all the army of the Chaldees, that were with the captain of the guard, brake down the walls of Jerusalem round about.
Now the rest of the people that were left in the city, and the fugitives that fell away to the king of Babylon, with the remnant of the multitude, did Nebuzaradan the captain of the guard carry away . . . And the captain of the guard took Seraiah the chief priest, and Zephaniah the second priest, and the three keepers of the door . . . And Nebuzaradan captain of the guard took these, and brought them to the king of Babylon to Riblah:
And the king of Babylon smote them, and slew them at Riblah in the land of Hamath. So Judah was carried away out of their land. (2 Kings 25:1–21)
I think most everyone would agree that it’s reasonable to assume Ezra could not have been conceived after the death of his father, Seraiah. Let’s further assume, for the sake of argument, that Ezra was born the year his father was killed. (Not really a reasonable assumption considering the events that took place in Jerusalem, but it’s the latest he could have been born, so let’s go with it—we’ll need this to determine a reasonable age for him relative to the events of the Second Temple era.) The nineteenth year of Nebuchadnezzar by many accounts was 584 BC, so we will take that as Ezra’s year of birth.
The following verse places Ezra in the seventh year of a Persian Artaxerxes.
Now after these things . . . This Ezra went up from Babylon . . . unto Jerusalem, in the seventh year of Artaxerxes the king. And he came to Jerusalem in the fifth month, which was in the seventh year of the king. (Ezra 7:1–8)
In order to establish Ezra’s place in the chronology of the Second Temple era, all we now need to do is determine the date for the seventh year of Artaxerxes. Again, the term “Artaxerxes” is simply a title which was applied to several Persian kings. For the sake of brevity, I will not list all the bearers of this title, only those relevant to this period of the Second Temple era and whose reign lasted at least thirty-two years, as required by Nehemiah 5:14. Remember, Ezra and Nehemiah were contemporaries, so the “thirty-second year of Artaxerxes” below gives us a minimum criteria when searching for the identity of our biblical Artaxerxes.
Moreover from the time that I was appointed to be their governor in the land of Judah, from the twentieth year even unto the two and thirtieth year of Artaxerxes the king, that is, twelve years, I and my brethren have not eaten the bread of the governor. (Nehemiah 5:14)
Those Persian kings who qualify with reigns of thirty-two years or more are Darius ‘the Great’ Artaxerxes, Artaxerxes Longimanus, and Artaxerxes Memnon. With the above information, it is a simple matter to calculate Ezra’s minimum age during the reign of his “Artaxerxes.” In the table below, you will see the youngest Ezra could have been in the seventh year of each Artaxerxes known to Second Temple history. That bears repeating: the dates below are the absolutele youngest Ezra could have been during the reign of each potential ruler. Keep in mind that Ezra was also alive fourteen years later at the dedication of the wall in Jerusalem and took an active part in those ceremonies.
The question is simple and the answer obvious: which of the above Persian kings most reasonably qualifies as a contemporary of Ezra? For those who follow the dictum “when the plain sense of the text makes sense, seek no other sense” but still wish to claim (as most do) that Ezra and Artaxerxes Longimanus were contemporaries, Ezra’s age creates an interpretational problem. By no reasonable comparative measure can it be said that Ezra was a contemporary of the Persian king Longimanus, nor is there any credibility to the claim that he lived to be, at the very least, two whole decades older than Moses!
What the above chronology reasonably demonstrates is that Ezra was in fact a contemporary of Darius ‘the Great’. For those who would see Ezra as being over two times the age of any of his biblical or secular contemporaries, I remind you of the words of King David, who lived five hundred years before Ezra:
For all our days are passed away in thy wrath: we spend our years as a tale that is told. The days of our years are threescore years and ten; and if by reason of strength they be fourscore years, yet is their strength labour and sorrow; for it is soon cut off, and we fly away. (Psalm 90:9–10)
Cyrus to Artaxerxes
If indeed the life and times of Ezra took place during the reign of Darius ‘the Great’ Artaxerxes, what other evidence might there be to support this straightforward reading of Ezra’s chronology? Again, biblical scholarship for centuries has placed Ezra some time later, making this a question worth considering.
To keep us on point, let me recap the chronology of the Second Temple era to really nail down the context. In 536 BC, Cyrus gave a decree which allowed the Judean captives to return and build the temple in Jerusalem. Ezra 1:1–3 tells of these events:
Now in the first year of Cyrus king of Persia, that the word of YHWH by the mouth of Jeremiah might be fulfilled, YHWH stirred up the spirit of Cyrus king of Persia . . . Thus saith Cyrus king of Persia, YHWH God of heaven . . . he hath charged me to build him an house at Jerusalem . . . Who is there among you of all his people? his God be with him, and let him go up to Jerusalem, which is in Judah, and build the house of YHWH God of Israel, (he is the God,) which is in Jerusalem. (Ezra 1:1–3)
As I explained in a previous chapter, for the next sixteen years the enemies of the Jewish people harassed them in their efforts to build the temple. In fact, the Jewish people did not get much further than laying the altar and the foundation of the temple during that time. Ezra 4:7 then tells us construction was stopped by the decree of an Artaxerxes of Persia between the reigns of Cyrus and Darius.
In 520 BC, the second year of Darius, YHWH, through the prophets Haggai and Zechariah, told the people to restart construction. Joshua the high priest, Zerubbabel the governor, and the people of Judea listened to the words of YHWH through the prophets, and construction on the temple resumed (Ezra 6:14). Four years later, the temple was finished in the sixth year of Darius, and in answer to Daniel’s prayer, YHWH, the living God of the Bible, once more had a dwelling place to meet with mankind.
The Persian Chronology
The chart below is a summary of Persian rulers from Cyrus to Artaxerxes II. Going forward, it will provide a handy reference for those trying to figure out how the Persian kings we know from secular history relate to the Second Temple era chronology we see in the Bible.
The Seventh Year of Artaxerxes
The next stop in our search for Ezra’s place in the Second Temple era leads us to Ezra 7 and “the seventh year of Artaxerxes.” Once again, I remind you of the curious way many well-meaning biblical scholars take the most natural reading of the text and make it more complicated. I’ll try to explain the problem. Ezra 6 ends with the completion of the Second Temple in the sixth year of Darius (516 BC). Ezra 7 starts with Ezra, the priest and scribe, setting off on his journey to Jerusalem in the seventh year of Artaxerxes. Most biblical scholars have assumed that this “Artaxerxes” is a reference to Artaxerxes I (Longimanus). But this requires them to insert a gap of about fifty-eight years between Ezra 6 and Ezra 7. They do this despite the fact that the Bible identifies the Persian king Darius ‘the Great’ as an Artaxerxes:
And the elders of the Jews builded, and they prospered through the prophesying of Haggai the prophet and Zechariah the son of Iddo. And they builded, and finished it, according to the commandment of the God of Israel, and according to the commandment of Cyrus, and Darius, and Artaxerxes king of Persia. And this house was finished on the third day of the month Adar, which was in the sixth year of the reign of Darius the king. (Ezra 6:14–15)
It is imperative to note that the verses above clearly state that the Jewish people “builded and finished” the temple according to the “commandments” of the God of Israel, Cyrus, Darius, and Artaxerxes king of Persia. Yet, notice that it also states unequivocally that the temple was finished by the sixth year of Darius, and it lists those responsible for completing it by that sixth year. That means, according to the most natural and plain reading of Ezra 6:14, that all the secular rulers mentioned in the text must have ruled at some point previous to the sixth year of Darius.
Who then is the “and Artaxerxes” mentioned in Ezra 6:14? It’s unlikely to be the Artaxerxes of Ezra 4:7, because that Artaxerxes stopped construction of the temple. Who then could it be? Many biblical scholars have assumed, contrary to the clear context of the verse, that this is a reference to Artaxerxes I—Longimanus, who reigned almost sixty years after the temple was completed. What is going on here?
The error is actually found in the English translation of the passage. It stems from presuppositional bias and the erroneous use of the Hebrew letter waw. In order to show that Ezra lived during the reign of Artaxerxes Longimanus, as they presupposed, the translators used the letter waw to form a conjunction instead of a hendiadys (two words with one meaning), as the context would dictate. In Hebrew, the letter waw is often used as a regular conjunction, but as most Hebrew lexicons explain, it also has a much wider, though less common, use as well. Below is the TWOT Hebrew lexicon explaining the use of waw:
519.0 – w (wa) . . . and, so, then, when, now, or, but, that and many others.
(ASV and RSV similar.) The vocalization varies.
This is an inseparable prefix which is used as a conjunction or introductory particle which can usually be translated “and.”
The fundamental use of the prefix is that of a simple conjunction “and,” connecting words (“days and years,” Gen. 1:14), phrases (“and to divide” Gen. 1:18) and complete sentences (connecting Gen. 2:11 with verse 12). However it is used more often and for a greater variety of construction than is the English connector “and.”
It is often used at the beginning of sentences, for which reason the KJV begins many sentences with an unexplained “and.” This use may be explained as a mild introductory particle and is often translated “now” as in Exo 1:1 where it begins the book (KJV, ASV; the RSV ignores it completely; cf. Gen 3:1; Gen 4:1).
The item following the prefix is not always an additional item, different from that which preceded: “Judah and Jerusalem” (Isa. 1:1), pointing out Jerusalem especially as an important and representative part of Judah; “in Ramah, and his own city” (1 Sam 28:3), the two being the same place, hence the translation “even” as explanatory.
When the second word specifies the first the construction is called a “hendiadys,” i.e., two words with one meaning. For example, “a tent and dwelling” in 2 Sam 7:6 means “a dwelling tent.”
(TWOT 519.0, emphasis mine)
Considering that use of waw to form a hendiadys, take a look at the little chart below. It shows waw as it appears in the Hebrew text of Ezra 6:14:
And the elders of the Jews builded, and they prospered through the prophesying of Haggai the prophet and Zechariah the son of Iddo. And they builded, and finished it, according to the commandment of the God of Israel, and according to the commandment of Cyrus, and Darius, [even] Artaxerxes king of Persia. (Ezra 6:14–15)
Since there is no reasonable contextual basis to assume that the Artaxerxes of Ezra 6:14 was another Persian king who helped finish the temple by the sixth year of Darius—especially a future one!—the translators should have used waw to form a hendiadys, not to denote two different people. Their decision to use the waw in this way was premised upon the necessity to show that Ezra was a contemporary of Artaxerxes Longimanus so that their messianic expectations concerning Daniel 9 could be satisfied. There is simply no other reason to add another Persian king to the chronology of Ezra 6:14–15, especially one who lived nearly sixty years after the events described were completed.
Darius, Even Artaxerxes
Now take a look at the Ezra 6 and 7 in this context. In the sixth year of Darius “even” Artaxerxes, the Second Temple is completed. Just a few verses later in chapter 7, Ezra the priest and scribe requests permission to go up to Jerusalem and teach the people the Torah. Ezra 7 explains that Darius, aka Artaxerxes, granted Ezra his request, and thus begins Ezra’s journey to Jerusalem in the seventh year of king Darius ‘the Great’ Artaxerxes of Persia.
In summary, by every reasonable measure of biblical interpretation, Ezra was a contemporary of Darius ‘the Great’, and in fact the most reasonable reading of Ezra 6:13–15 supports this. Trying to stretch Ezra’s chronology to the reign of Artaxerxes Longimanus hopelessly tortures the text and creates numerous interpretational inconsistencies which cannot be overcome with any reasonable rendering of the Bible’s chronological record.
With this chronology established, we are now able to look again at the decree to beautify the temple found in Ezra 7—our third option for a prophetic fulfillment of Daniel 9:25.
Testing the Third Decree
How does this commandment or decree given by Artaxerxes to Ezra stand in light of our four questions?
- Could this decree be considered a dabar or word to return and build Jerusalem?
- Did this decree cause the Jewish people to shuwb (return or turn back) and build Jerusalem?
- Was this building event of enough relevance to constitute building Jerusalem?
- Can the date of this decree be firmly established in the biblical and secular record?
- Hard-pressed to find any, as the list of negatives will demonstrate.
- It is difficult to see this permission granted to Ezra as a word or even a “commandment” to return and build Jerusalem.
- Ezra’s building efforts were limited to beautifying the temple. This is hardly a defining moment in the Second Temple era and certainly does not constitute building Jerusalem.
- The text does not provide us the ability to date Artaxerxes’s decree, even though we are able to establish Ezra’s place in the chronology.
- While the date of this decree can be fixed in the biblical record, this is ultimately still a negative because it leaves us considerably short of the arrival of Yeshua. Most scholars have argued that the countdown should begin in the days of Longimanus, but by all reasonable biblical evidence, Ezra was not a contemporary of Artaxerxes Longimanus.
Our look at the third decree regarding the restoration of Jerusalem and the temple has provided us with very little biblical evidence to confidently claim it is the “commandment” of Daniel 9:25 and thus the starting point of our messianic countdown—even though many scholars have claimed it is. In fact, by looking closely at the Bible’s chronological evidence, we can reasonably say that Ezra has been misplaced in the Second Temple era! This startling fact has major repercussions for our view of not only the Second Temple era but of the prophecy of 70 sevens itself. With this new perspective, let’s now investigate the fourth and final Persian commandment to restore and build Jerusalem.
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