John MacArthur – Ezra and Nehemiah

Book Review

– An Inspirational Read though Lacking a Solid Chronological Context –

Few periods in Biblical history offer more inspiring illustrations of YHWH’s love for the Jewish people than the 2nd temple era. Two of the most important books describing the triumph and tragedies of the repatriated Jewish people during this time are the books of Ezra and Nehemiah.

Taking you on a guided tour of this important era is the respected Biblical scholar John MacArthur. In twelve interesting chapters Mr. MacArthur walks you through the history of the 2nd temple era as described in the books of Ezra and Nehemiah. Along the way Mr. MacArthur skillfully draws you into the story of Ezra and Nehemiah and the people they led showing how the lessons these 2nd temple era people learned are just as important to you and I today. In the introduction Mr. Macarthur describes the book this way:

“In these twelve studies, we will examine the events that led to the people being allowed to return to their homeland and what took place during the first two waves of their return. We will see how God raised up leaders among the exiles to not only champion the rebuilding efforts but also to protect the people from outside attack and turn them back to the worship of the Lord. We will discover what it means to put God first and see that apart from the new covenant and the Messiah, none of us would be able to be righteous before the Lord.

Through it all, we will learn some precious truths about the character of God, and we will see His great faithfulness in keeping His promises. We will learn, in short, what it means to follow Him wholeheartedly, walk by faith, and remain committed to His Word.”

After reading this book I think you’ll agree that Mr. MacArthur’s achieved his goal. Ezra’s and Nehemiah’s stories are a testimony, first of all to Gods love for his people, and second how YHWH uses those who desire to serve Him in wonderful and unexpected ways. There are many valuable lessons to be learned from the people and events of this period in Biblical history and Mr. MacArthur does a great job of highlighting them.

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In the spirit of respectful criticism I am sorry to say that Mr. MacArthur did not provide a solid Biblical historical context for Ezra and Nehemiah’s place in the 2nd temple era. Many of the chronological statements and dates are provided without any real Biblical context. For example in the introduction Mr. MacArthur made the following statements:

“Ezra was most likely the author of both Ezra and Nehemiah, which might have originally been one book. After his arrival in Jerusalem in 458 BC, he changed from writing in the third perions (Ezra 1-6) to writing in the first perions (Ezra 7-10).”

Then a few paragraphs later Mr. MacArthur goes on to say:

“Zerubbabel led the first return in 538 BC. Ezra led the second return in 458 BC. Nehemiah led the third return thirteen years later in 445 BC.”

Considering that the entire chronological framework of this book rests upon these dates it is disappointing that Mr. MacArthur did not provide his reader with a solid Biblical foundation for them.

This neglect has at least two unintended negative consequences. First it presents a potential stumbling block to the reader who, inspired by Mr. MacArthur’s compelling exploration of this subject, seeks to better understand it in terms of the Bible’s own chronology only to find that the historical dates presented in this book rest upon several unreasonable assumptions. The 2nd unintended consequence is that Mr. MacArthur’s dating of Ezra and Nehemiah then require some rather incongruent chronological gymnastics regarding the Persian period which do not allow the reader to take the text at face value.

I’ll try to briefly explain.

Taking the Biblical record at face value we learn in 2 Kings 25 that Ezra’s father was killed in the 19th year of Nebuchadnezzar. Using the most optimistic assumptions this would then mean that Ezra was at his youngest only 1 year old in the 19th year of Nebuchadnezzar. By the reign of the Persian “Artaxerxes” Longimanus the absolute youngest Ezra could have been was nearly a quarter century older than Moses. As Thomas Ice and Ed Hindson explain in their recent book, Charting the Bible Chronologically: A Visual Guide to God’s Unfolding Plan, after the flood the lifespan of mankind experienced an exponential decay curve which resulted, by the time of King David, in the average life span of about 70-80 years. At the very least Mr. MacArthurs should have provided an explanation as to why he believes Ezra’s exceptional age is justified.

This dating of Ezra’s age and return to Jerusalem is further complicated by the fact that this then requires a similar age for the priests and Levites of Nehemiah 10 & 12. (Those who came up with Joshua and Zerubbabel and who still alive in the 20th year of “Artaxerxes”.) The bottom line is that Mr. MacArthurs dating of the events in the book of Ezra and Nehemiah is not justified by a reasonable reading of the Bible’s own chronology.
Let me give another example of why this is problematic for Mr. MacArthur. I quote from page 91:

“He [Nehemiah] was also going to ask to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem from the very king who had ordered that building to stop.”

You see by placing Ezra in the reign of Artaxerxes Logimanus (464-424 BC) Mr. MacArthur stretches the events of the 2nd temple era by nearly 60 years. This then causes him to confuse the different “Artaxerxes” of the Persian period.

It would have been helpful to the reader if Mr. MacArthur would have explained that the word “Artaxerxes” is not a proper name but rather a title give to several Persian kings during the 2nd temple era. It is also important to note that historically Artaxerxes and Ahasuerus were Persian titles that in some cases were used interchangeably. Using the most reasonable and defensible rendering of the 2nd temple era Persian period we have the following Persian kings:

  • Cyrus (536-530 BC as king of Babylon)
  • Cambyses (529-522 BC)
  • Bardis the Magian usurper (522)
  • Darius I ‘the Great’ Artaxerxes (521-484)
  • Xerxes 1 (485-465)
  • Artaxerxes I (Longimanus) (464-424)

Ezra 1 describes the decree of Cyrus which allows the Jewish people to return, thus ending the 70 years captivity prophesied by Jeremiah. After the Jewish people had returned and started construction on the temple their neighbors wrote to “Ahasuerus” in an effort to “frustrate” their temple building efforts. (Ezra 4:6) The text does not indicate that their efforts had any success during the reign of this Ahasuerus. But then “in the days of” Artaxerxes the enemies of the Jewish people found a willing ear. This Artaxerxes did indeed stop construction. (Ezra 4:7) A careful reader of Ezra 4 will notice that the Jewish enemies told the king Artaxerxes that the Jewish people were building walls and foundations as if they were fortifying the city. But in reality the Jewish people were only working on the temple. Notice in Ezra 4:24 after the enemies of the Jews had received “Artaxerxes” decree stopping construction it was the temple construction which was interrupted. This interruption lasted until the Darius the king of Persia.

“Then ceased the work of the house of God which is at Jerusalem. So it ceased unto the second year of the reign of Darius king of Persia.”

The most reasonable reading of these events shows that Cyrus allowed reconstruction of the temple. Then after Cyrus in the reign of his son Cambyses (Ahasuerus) the enemies of the Jewish people tried to stop the construction with no success. We know historically speaking that Cambyses mostly continued in his father’s footsteps in promoting the rebuilding of temples and monuments of those people they had conquered. After Cambyses’ untimely death there was a few month period when a Magian usurper (Bardis) took the Persian throne. This pretender did not share Cyrus and Cambyses world view. The most reasonable reading of the text then would have this Bardis as the “Arataxerxes” who stopped construction until the 2nd year of Darius. The simple fact of the matter is there are no other Persian kings between the reign of Cyrus and Darius. This means that Ezra’s description of evens is amazingly congruent with what we know from Persian history.

Ezra 6 further clarifies the events by telling us the construction on the temple did indeed begin again in the 2nd year of Darius (520 BC) and that the temple was completed four years later in the 6th year of Darius. You see by the 2nd year of Darius ‘the Great’ Artaxerxes, YHWH through the prophets Haggai and Zechariah commanded the Jewish people to return and building His house. When the enemies of the Jewish people saw that the temple construction was restarted they immediately petition Darius for it to be stopped. Ezra 6 records that Darius checked the Persian records and found that indeed Cyrus had given permission for the Jewish people to reconstruct the temple. Notice that Darius did not give any credence to the decree of the “Artaxerxes” of Ezra 4:7. This makes perfect sense in light of the fact that this “Artaxerxes” was an imposter to the throne of Persia. An imposter whom Darius himself had over thrown.

” 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, and Artaxerxes king of Persia. 15 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)

Notice in the passage above it names those who were responsible for giving commandments which brought about the completion of the temple by the 6th year of Darius. This is important, the passage qualifies these commandments as those which were responsible for completion of the temple by the 6th year of Darius. Who then is the “and Arataxerxes” of Ezra 6:14. What many overlook is that the letter vaw which proceeds the title “Arataxerxes” in the Hebrew text can be used as both a conjunction and as well as a hendiadys. Or in other words depending on context the word “Arataxerxes” can be a separate king or it can simply be another title for Darius. So instead of “and Artaxerxes” the text could read “even Artaxerxes”. Based upon the context of Ezra 6 the most reasonable reading of the text demands that it be used as a hendiadys. There is simply no other Persian king who gave a commandment to build the temple of Jerusalem before its completion in the 6th year of Darius ‘the Great’ Artaxerxes.

This then perfectly explains the events of Ezra 6 & 7. Ezra is still in exile in the 6th year of Darius ‘the great’ Artaxerxes. But when the temple was completed in the 6th year of Darius, Ezra was compelled to go up to Jerusalem and teach the people the Torah. (This then explains the 3rd person to 1st person perspective change between Ezra 6 & 7)

So in Ezra 7, in the 7th year of Darius ‘the Great’ Artaxerxes, just after the temple was completed we find Ezra on his way to Jerusalem. There is no need to insert a 60 year gap between Ezra 6 & 7. The most reasonable reading of the text does not support it. By the 7th year of Darius ‘the Great’ Artaxerxes, Ezra was of the ripe old age of 70-80 and so were the priest and Levites of Nehemiah 10 & 12. Ezra’s age at this point is perfectly congruent with what is described in Ezra, Nehemiah, Haggai, and Zechariah. There is no need to believe that Ezra confused the chronology of Persia nor that the book of Ezra is written in a convoluted chronological order. Ezra simply described the events exactly how they happened in chronological order.

Getting back to Mr. MacArthur’s statement that Nehemiah asked permission to build the walls of Jerusalem from the very person who stopped construction. It simple doesn’t make any sense chronologically. As Ezra 4 described it was the temple construction that was stopped. The enemies of the Jewish people in their exaggerated claim to Bardis (Artaxerxds) made it out as if the Jewish people were fortify the city when in fact they were only building the temple as allowed by the decree of Cyrus.

For two decades now I’ve tried to understand why wonderful Biblical scholars like Mr. MacArthur and many of his peers so confuse the chronology of the book of Ezra and Nehemiah and the only reason I can come up with is that their chronology of Ezra and Nehemiah is not a function of sound exegesis of the text but rather well-meaning eisegesis based in their understanding of the prophecy of Daniel 9.

In other words Mr. MacArthur’s understanding of Ezra and Nehemiah is not based upon the chronological facts found in the books of Chronicles, Kings, Ezra, Nehemiah, Haggai, and Zechariah but rather upon the assumption that the 70 Weeks of Daniel 9 must have begun during the reign of Artaxerxes Longimanus and thus the 2nd temple chronology must be arranged to accommodate that belief. Once the assumptive framework of Daniel 9 is removed from equation the chronological “difficulties” of Ezra and Nehemiah completely disappear.

My hope is that someday Mr. MacArthur will take another look at the chronology of Ezra and Nehemiah and rectify the contextual neglected that he has demonstrated in this present work.

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In closing, my criticisms notwithstanding, the story of Ezra and Nehemiah as explored by Mr. MacArthur is profoundly important to any student of the Bible. Though lacking in chronological context, this book provides a wealth of inspirational life lessons based upon the events and people in the books of Ezra and Nehemiah. Any serious student of the Bible will come away blessed and enriched after reading this book. After you’ve read the book I’d encourage you to open your own Bible’s and see if these things be so.

Maranatha!

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Book Reviewed by: William Struse

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