Ezra

Ezra 7-10

One would hardly expect, from the zeal with which the work of rebuilding the temple was commenced, that nearly twenty years passed before it was completed. Various circumstances co-operated to produce this slowness. First, the opposition of the people around, and particularly of the Samaritans, who at first wished to be allowed to take part in the great work, but finding themselves repelled somewhat roughly by the Jews, became the most inveterate opponents of the undertaking, and eventually succeeded in procuring an order for its suspension from the Persian court. The discouragements, indeed, were such, that the people began to regard them as a sign that the time for the restoration of the temple was not yet come, and that the commencement period of seventy years should be computed from the destruction of the former temple, and not from the first captivity under Jehoiachin. Thus for some time the work was altogether abandoned, and the people employed themselves in building comfortable dwellings at Jerusalem for themselves. For thus building for themselves “ceiled houses,” while the Lord’s house lay waste and open, they were severely rebuked by the prophet Haggai, and were at length stimulated to resume their labor, which an encouraging firman from the Persian court enabled then to bring it to a successful close.
Few readers of Scripture history look to dates so much as they ought to do; and it will surprise many to learn the simple fact that, when Ezra made up his second great caravan of pilgrims for Jerusalem, the new temple had been  completed nearly sixty years, and it was nearly eighty years since the first caravan of pilgrims set out under Zerubbabel, who, with all that generation, had assuredly been long since dead.

Ezra was a learned man and a priest; and came not only with a plenary commission from the crown to rectify the disorders which had crept into his orphan state, but with an important auxiliary force of people and of treasure.

He found the religious and social disorders of the state such as required the exercise of all the powers vested in him; but there was a willing mind in the people, which rendered his task easier than it might else have been. Ezra may be regarded as the legist of the restoration; and the task which devolved upon him, and which he zealously executed, embraced nothing less than the reorganization of the nation according to the law of Moses and the institutes of David. All that belonged to the order of worship, to the rites and festivals, to the classification of families, to the levy of imposts, to the franchises of the Levitical tribe, to the administration of justice—in a word, all the immense details, the complete re-establishment, of the internal organization of the Mosaical state, belonged to the office he had undertaken, and must be regarded as the work of this man, whom the Jews have always regarded as a second Moses. The particulars of his proceedings are not supplied in the book which bears his name—except as regards his zealous labors in abolishing the intermarriages between the Jews and their pagan neighbors, into which dangerous offence even the nobles and the priests had to a large extent fallen, in apparent ignorance that they were transgressing the law. A curious effect resulted—that the young children spoke a mixed tongue, made up out of the languages of both parents—a case analogous to that which occurs at this day in the families of American missionaries in the Levant, where the children, picking up words all around them, will often make up their sentences with words from three or four different languages—English, Arabic Greek, and Italian. 
When the fact of these intermarriages was disclosed to Ezra, he rent his mantle and tore his hair, and sat at the temple gates, as one desolate and absorbed in grief. But, at the hour of evening-sacrifice, he rose, and poured forth to the Lord, in the presence of the assembled citizens, a confession on the part of the people, and a prayer on their behalf, well calculated to move the sternest heart. After this, all the people were summoned to Jerusalem; and, alarmed and convinced of the sin into which they had fallen, and the danger they had incurred, they voluntarily offered to leave the matter entirely in the hands of Ezra, promising to obey his orders. These were, that all their foreign wives should be straightway divorced; and zealous commissioners were sent through the country to see the order duly carried out.

There can be no question that such a wholesale divorce throughout the land is repugnant to our notions, and appears to us as awfully, if not needlessly, severe. But we are to recollect that Ezra was there to enforce and re-establish the law of Moses, and that he had hence to decide the matter, in view of the precedent which would thus be established for the generations to come. Such marriages seemed to be forbidden by the law, Note: Exo_34:16; Deu_7:3. and were hence sacrilegious in the eyes of all true Israelites. There can be no doubt that such connections had in former times been one of the principal causes of the ruin of the two kingdoms and their dynasties—idolatry having most generally found entrance into Israel by this road. In the present state of the people the danger was still greater, and the evil less to be endured; and, if the practice were really to be stopped, and such marriages to be discouraged, this was the time for the evil to be cut off at the root. We are not, however, bound to consider that, because this was done by Ezra, it was absolutely right. There may have been something in it of that over-straining of the law, to which the Jews after the captivity became prone; and it may be that this example, under the authority of a personage so deservedly venerable as  Ezra, tended to furnish a precedent for that readiness in divorcing their wives, for which the Jews were in our Lord’s time notorious. It is clear to us that Moses only meant to interdict intermarriages with the devoted nations of Canaan; and, in extending it to signify all foreigners, a step was taken towards that rigorous interpretation of the law, which began from this time to prevail, and which can only be explained by the aversion and profound dread with which idolatry was regarded by the Jewish people after the captivity.