We have before us the books of Ezra and Nehemiah, which were probably one book originally. Moreover, it is also quite possible that Chronicles/Ezra/Nehemiah was originally one book. As we consider this, it would obviously be helpful for you not only to read through these books, but also through the book of Esther, as well as the books of Zechariah and Haggai. In order to get the blessing from these books that we would like to get, one of our first responsibilities is that of getting oriented. That will include the surrounding territory.
Now in the first year of Cyrus king of Persia, that the word of the Lord by the mouth of Jeremiah might be fulfilled, the Lord stirred up the spirit of Cyrus king of Persia, that he made a proclamation throughout all his kingdom, and put it also in writing, saying . . . (Ezra 1:1).
So let us stop at the first verse and ask the questions we need to ask to keep from getting disoriented. It is also necessary to explain that on matters of biblical chronology, there is almost always considerable disagreement, and so it is necessary for me to explain what chronology I am following—even if I do not take the time to try to prove it in exhaustive detail. And so we begin with Cyrus. Who is he?
The modern Iranians are descended from the Persians, and we will begin by getting straight on their kings from this period. We will start by using the Greek names for them, which are the most common.
Cyrus reigned from 539 to 530.
Cambyses II reigned from 530 to 522.
Darius I reigned from 522 to 487.
Xerxes I reigned from 487 to 466.
Artaxerxes Longimanus reigned from 465 to 425.
The period stretches from 539 B.C. to 425 B.C. During this time, the Greeks defeated the Persians at Marathon and Salamis, Pericles reigned in Athens, the Greek tragedians flourished, Socrates taught, Cincinnatus was dictator in Rome, and the Buddha and Confucius both lived and died.
We have the difficulty of identifying persons who sit on thrones when we have to take account of the fact these rulers often used throne names. We know this readily in other circumstances. If someone today were to refer to “Caesar,” a natural question would be “which one?” The same is true of “Pharaoh.” One of the things we have to deal with is the very real possibility that Darius and Artaxerxes were throne names. Other throne names in the Bible would be Ben-Hadad (Jer. 49:27; Amos 1:4) or Abimelech (Gen. 20, 26, Ps. 34). So the assumption here is that the shift from Darius to Artaxerxes in Ezra 7 does not represent the reign of a different king, but rather a change in the name used for him.
The Operating Assumption:
My operating assumption here as I deal with the chronology of these books is that the Persian kings named “Darius, Ahasuerus, and Artaxerxes in the books of Ezra, Nehemiah and Esther” are all the same man. In doing this, I am following James Jordan in his monograph on the subject. I am not following the chronologies of the standard evangelical world here because there seems to be too great a willingness to make biblical statements conform to what we (think we) know about secular history instead of the other way around. And in my mind, this has ramifications for the doctrine of biblical inspiration and infallibility.
Most Bible commentaries assume that the Artaxerxes found in Ezra 7 and following, and in Nehemiah, is Longimanus. This dates the latter part of Ezra between 465-25. But since the book opens with Cyrus, the beginning of the book is many years before this (539). If Ezra 1-6 occurs in the early years of Darius, this brings us down to 516. Then at Ezra 7, we have to skip 57 years, coming down to 459, the seventh year of Artaxerxes. Then Nehemiah takes us even further down to the 33rd year of Artaxerxes, 433 B.B. The standard view stretches the events of these two books over the better part of a century. What I am assuming here is that we need to telescope them, and that it all pretty much happened in the reign of Darius. This makes Ezra and Nehemiah contemporaries.
But most Bible chronologies take Artaxerxes (of Ezra) to be Darius. As we study this, remember that Christians of good will differ, and the confusion about these identifications is ancient, even going back to Josephus and apocryphal books.
Just a Few Examples:
I said earlier that the matter of biblical infallibility and sufficiency is really at stake, and wanted to give just a couple examples of this sort of thing.
Ezra: “And his brethren, Shemaiah, and Azarael, Milalai, Gilalai, Maai, Nethaneel, and Judah, Hanani, with the musical instruments of David the man of God, and Ezra the scribe before them. And at the fountain gate, which was over against them, they went up by the stairs of the city of David, at the going up of the wall, above the house of David, even unto the water gate eastward” (Neh. 12: 36-37).
Nehemiah: “Now these are the children of the province that went up out of the captivity, of those which had been carried away, whom Nebuchadnezzar the king of Babylon had carried away unto Babylon, and came again unto Jerusalem and Judah, every one unto his city; Which came with Zerubbabel: Jeshua, Nehemiah, Seraiah, Reelaiah, Mordecai, Bilshan, Mispar, Bigvai, Rehum, Baanah” (Ezra 2:1-2; cf. Neh. 7:7). Unless the writer is trying to confuse us, we should assume that a different Nehemiah would be identified as such (as is done in Neh. 3:16).
Mordecai: In the verse quoted above, look at the third name after Nehemiah—Mordecai. Why would this not be the great Mordecai of Esther 10:3? How many Jews would have this Persian name (which meant “man of Marduk”)?
All this leads us to a short chronology for these books instead of a long chronology. But far more is at stake than simply dates. What matters most is whether we really trust the Word of God in all details.
Assuming them to be (roughly) contemporary, let us consider the task of Ezra (perhaps the first Pharisee) to be the rebuilding of the altar and the Temple. The task of Nehemiah was the rebuilding of the city walls and gates. Both of them had to do what they did against great opposition, and formidable challenges. Why would God do it this way? Because we tend to think that Ezra and Nehemiah were building something for God, when it was God that was building something for God. He was building Ezra and Nehemiah. He is doing the same thing today.