Opposition to Jewish Rebuilding in Jerusalem (Ezra 4:7-23) December 23
We read this passage earlier in following the arrangement order of the book of Ezra because of a widespread belief that the book is written entirely in chronological order—making the Artaxerxes mentioned in this passage the same as the ruler known to history as the imposter king Gaumata (also known as pseudo-Smerdis), who preceded Darius the Great. However, as explained in the prior Bible Reading Program comments on this passage, the majority view sees the Artaxerxes in this passage as the Persian emperor known to history as Artaxerxes I Longimanus—the king who issued the decree allowing Ezra to lead a group of Jewish exiles to Jerusalem. This seems more likely (see earlier comments from June 16-18), which is why we are reviewing this section here and considering some other reasons for this conclusion.
The Samaritans resisting the Jews of Judea write to Artaxerxes (verses 7-16), complaining about the building up of the city walls and foundations of Jerusalem (verse 12). There is no corroborating reason to believe the city fortifications were built up under those of the first Jewish return from Babylon under Zerubbabel. Cyrus' decree had permitted them to rebuild the temple, not the city. Again, it seems more likely that the rebuilding referred to in the letter was done by those who returned with Ezra in the days of Artaxerxes I.
Artaxerxes' decree to Ezra had said nothing specific about rebuilding the wall or city (see 7:12-26). However, beyond the provision for religious offerings and temple refurbishment, the emperor did say, "And whatever seems good to you and your brethren to do with the rest of the silver and the gold, do it according to the will of your God" (verse 18). Not long after arriving in Judea, Ezra says of God, "He extended mercy to us in the sight of the kings of Persia, to revive us, to repair the house of our God, to rebuild its ruins, and to give us a wall in Judah and Jerusalem" (9:9). Most people see this last phrase as a figurative expression of God's protection, as no literal wall had yet been built. But neither was the temple refurbishment complete in so short a time. This must all speak of what God had allowed the Jewish exiles to come to do—not of what they had already accomplished.
Consider also that Artaxerxes' decree of 457 B.C. appears to be the starting point of the 70-weeks prophecy of Daniel 9, the fulfillment of which was to commence with the command to rebuild not merely the temple but Jerusalem itself (verse 25; see the Bible Reading Program comments on Daniel 9). Moreover, as we will soon read, Nehemiah is not long afterward grieved over Jerusalem's wall being broken down and the city gates burned (Nehemiah 1:3)—these developments seeming to concern recent events rather than the Babylonian destruction more than 140 years before. Given all this, it appears that Ezra must have interpreted Artaxerxes' decree as allowing for the refortification of the city—as indeed it implicitly had. And so at some point it seems likely that Ezra and the returned exiles began on that project.
Yet perhaps the fact that Artaxerxes' decree had not explicitly mentioned the rebuilding of the city defenses gave the Samaritan resistance what they saw as a window of opportunity to bring an accusation against the Jews. Reminiscent of a modern legal challenge, the Samaritans saw and exploited a loophole in the initial decree. The result was a legal injunction that stopped the reconstruction project. And there were other factors at work that could explain why Artaxerxes, who had himself decreed the Jewish return and entrusted great authority to Ezra, would now heed such accusations and order the rebuilding stopped (see Ezra 4:17-22).
Recall from the Bible Reading Program comments on Ezra 7 that Egypt had rebelled against Persian authority by allying with the Greeks. Artaxerxes had sent his brother-in-law Megabyzus, governor of Syria and Palestine, to wage war against Egypt to bring it back into submission to Persia—which was accomplished in 456 B.C. It seems likely that the sending of Ezra and his company to Judea the year before this was intended to strengthen loyalty to Persia in that region prior to the attack on Egypt.
But a few years later things changed dramatically in the region. "After Megabyzus, the Syrian governor, had subdued Egypt, he took the Greek and Egyptian commanders with him to Susa [the Persian capital called Shushan in Scripture] under promise of protection there. For several years the promise was kept, but in 449 Amestris, the widow of Xerxes and queen mother [who was possibly the Vashti of the book of Esther], demanded their execution. The fulfillment of her demands so infuriated Megabyzus that he fled Susa, returned to Syria, and from there declared the independence of the trans-Euphratean satrapy [of which Judea was part]. He had sufficient following to repel at least two campaigns against him" (Eugene Merrill, Kingdom of Priests, p. 508).
This could well explain why Artaxerxes would now be suspicious of Judean loyalty to Persia. It was now part of a rebellious satrapy, and the refortification of Jerusalem could have played into the emperor's fears. He orders the Samaritans, who have professed loyalty to him by their letter, to see to it that the refortification is halted. And this they do—by military force (verse 23). Yet the king leaves open the possibility of future rebuilding (4:21), helping to set the stage for the book of Nehemiah.