Daniel’s 70 Weeks: The Twentieth Year of Artaxerxes – A Decree to Rebuild the Walls & Gates of Jerusalem


“Then I told them of the hand of my God which was good upon me; as also the king’s words [dabar] that he had spoken unto me. And they said, Let us rise up and build. So they strengthened their hands for this good work.”
Nehemiah 2:18

 Nearly thirteen years after Ezra went up to Jerusalem during the reign of Artaxerxes, we learn that Nehemiah, the cupbearer to that same Artaxerxes, received permission to travel to Jerusalem and rebuild the walls of the city, which were in disrepair. Here is the biblical account:

And it came to pass in the month Nisan, in the twentieth year of Artaxerxes the king, that wine was before him: and I took up the wine, and gave it unto the king. Now I had not been beforetime sad in his presence. (Nehemiah 2:1)

And I said unto the king, If it please the king, and if thy servant have found favour in thy sight, that thou wouldest send me unto Judah, unto the city of my fathers’ sepulchres, that I may build it. And the king said unto me, (the queen also sitting by him,) For how long shall thy journey be? and when wilt thou return?

So it pleased the king to send me; and I set him a time. Moreover I said unto the king, If it please the king, let letters be given me to the governors beyond the river, that they may convey me over till I come into Judah; and a letter unto Asaph the keeper of the king’s forest, that he may give me timber to make beams for the gates of the palace which appertained to the house, and for the wall of the city, and for the house that I shall enter into. And the king granted me, according to the good hand of my God upon me. (Nehemiah 2:5–8)

By far, the decree by this unnamed Persian Artaxerxes—once again presumed to be Longimanus, known to history as Artaxerxes I—is the most popular choice when scholars look for the commandment to restore and build Jerusalem prophesied by Daniel. Sir Robert Anderson, the great Christian writer, popularized this theory in his influential book The Coming Prince. Anderson does indeed make an impressive case, but surprisingly, he fails to address the scriptural basis for his belief that Ezra and Nehemiah were contemporaries of Longimanus. Instead, Anderson, in one of the most far-reaching eschatological errors of the past two centuries, simply defers to the judgment of the great historian Rawlinson. I quote Rawlinson as found on p. 71 of Anderson’s The Coming Prince:

“Artaxerxes I reigned forty years, from 465 to 425. He is mentioned by Herodotus once (6. 98), by Thucydides frequently. Both writers were his contemporaries. There is every reason to believe that he was the king who sent Ezra and Nehemiah to Jerusalem, and sanctioned the restoration of the fortifications.”—RAWLINSON, Herodotus, vol. 4, p. 217.

Did you catch that? “There is every reason to believe” is the sum of Rawlinson’s and Anderson’s evidence for Ezra and Nehemiah’s place in the Second Temple era! Not a single reference to Ezra’s age or the natural chronological flow of Ezra 6 and 7 is mentioned. Anderson, out of a well-intentioned necessity to prove his interpretation of Daniel 9, simply ignored the biblical evidence, instead relying on unsubstantiated claims by another respected historian.

Unfortunately, historians and Bible scholars of the past two centuries have followed in Anderson’s footsteps. I encourage you to see for yourself. Take any popular book on the Second Temple era or the prophecy of Daniel 9, and you’ll find virtually no biblical chronological evidence for Ezra and Nehemiah’s place in the Second Temple era. What you will find instead are various forms of what I call the “Artaxerxes assumption.”

Lest you think I overstate my case, let’s look closer at this decree given by Artaxerxes to Nehemiah and see what the Bible’s own internal chronological evidence can tell us about it.

The Twentieth Year
First let’s look at the starting point of the decree given to Nehemiah. The chronology for this decree begins in the ninth month (Chisleu) of the twentieth year of Artaxerxes, when Nehemiah learned of the terrible conditions in Jerusalem. Hanani, one of Nehemiah’s brethren, brought news that the repatriated Jews in Jerusalem were being harassed by their enemies, due in part to the fact that the walls and gates of Jerusalem were broken down.

Nehemiah then petitions YHWH in a prayer reminiscent of Daniel’s wonderful pleadings for YHWH’s mercy found in Daniel 9:1–23. After Nehemiah’s prayer, in the first month (Nisan) in the twentieth year of Artaxerxes, Nehemiah makes his case to the king. (If you’re noticing a date discrepancy there, bear with me—we’re getting to it.) The king allows Nehemiah to leave his service as a cupbearer and gives a decree that Nehemiah may return to Jerusalem and repair its breaches. This repair of the walls of Jerusalem is what Anderson and many others after him have claimed to be the “commandment to restore and build” prophesied by Daniel.

The first obvious problem with this is the fact that Nehemiah learns of the news in the ninth month of twentieth year of Artaxerxes, but then approaches the king in the first month of the same year. Obviously, it makes no sense for Nehemiah to approach the king eight months before he even learned of the plight of his brethren in Jerusalem.

The words of Nehemiah the son of Hachaliah. And it came to pass in the month Chisleu, in the twentieth year, as I was in Shushan the palace . . . (Nehemiah 1:1)

And it came to pass in the month Nisan, in the twentieth year of Artaxerxes the king, that wine was before him: and I took up the wine, and gave it unto the king. Now I had not been beforetime sad in his presence. (Nehemiah 2:1)

Anderson tries to deal with this chronological difficulty by saying the reference in Nehemiah 1 refers to the ascension year of Artaxerxes, while Nehemiah 2 refers to his first year of sole rule. This may be one way to explain it, but my question is, why would the only prophecy in the Bible that requires a specific secular date for its starting point be based upon a secular date that cannot be determined with any degree of certainty? I mean, we are talking about the countdown to the Messiah, and the best the Bible can do is give us a decree with a confusing starting point?

Personally, I don’t believe the Bible shows us that YHWH works that way. To my way of looking at the congruency of the biblical record, the most important prophecy in the Bible—a prophecy specifically given as a chronological countdown—must have a clearly definable starting point commensurate with its importance.

So what does that mean? If none of the four options before us can be held with any certainty, what are we to conclude? Simply put, there must be another decree we are missing.

But before we look for such a decree, let’s first ensure we understand Nehemiah’s place in the Second Temple era, independent of Ezra. After all, we’ve already learned the peril of making assumptions! Does the Bible provide us any evidence as to the identity of Nehemiah’s mysterious Persian king Artaxerxes and thus the starting point of our countdown to the Messiah? Let’s look and see.

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