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Cyrus was far off, neither lived he long after that gracious commission, and, besides, was so taken up the while with his wars, that he could not have leisure to sift those querulous accusations. Now, therefore, during the last years of Cyrus, and the reign of his son Cambyses, and the long government of Darius Hystaspides, and of his son Xerxes, or Ahasuerus, and lastly, of his son Artaxerxes, until the days of Darius Nothus, (which was no less than five successions of kings besides Cyrus), do the walls of the temples stand still, yea, lie waste, subject to the wrongs of time and weather, the fit matter of sorrow to the Jews, insultation to the enemies, derision to passengers.
What a wide gap of time was here, betwixt the foundation of God's house and the battlements ! how large a trial doth God now secondly take of the faith, of the patience of bis people! how large a proof doth he give of his own longsuffering! O God, when thou hadst but one house upon earth, thou wert content to put up delays, yea, affronts, in the building of it: now thou hast many, it is no marvel if thy longanimity and justice abide some of them to lie desolate! They are not stones, or metals, or men, that can make thee more glorious; thou best knowest when to serve thyself of all these, when to honour these with thy service.
A small matter hinders the worthiest action; as a little fish, they say, stays the greatest ship. Before the Jews were disconraged with words, but now they are stopped with commands.
These envious Samaritans have corrupted the governors which the Persian kings set over those parts, and from their hands have obtained letters of deep calumniation, to Abasuerus the king, and after him to his son Artaxerxes, wherein Jerusalem is charged with old rebellion to kings, and for proof, appellation is made to the records ; from which evidence is spitefully inferred, that if these walls be once built
, the king shall receive no tribute on this side the river. Never was God's church but subject to reproaches.
Princes have reason to be jealous of their rights. The records are searched; it soon appears, that, within one century of years, Jerusalem had rebelled against Nebuchadnezzar, and held out two years' siege of that great Babylonian. The scandal of disloyalty is perpetual : although indeed they held him rather a prevailing enemy, than a lawful sovereign; one act disparages either place or person, to all posterities. There
fore shall the walls of Jerusalem lie waste, because it had once been treacherous ; after an hundred years doth that city rue one perfidious act of Zedekiah. Fidelity to our governors is ever both safe and honourable.
Command is now sent out from Artaxerxes, even the son of queen Esther, to restrain the work. All respects must cease with carnal minds, when their honours and profits are in question. Rehum the chancellor, and Shimshai the scribe, come now armed with authority: the sword hath easily prevailed against the trowel. Still do the Jews find themselves, as it were, captives at home; and in silence, and sorrow, cease from their labours, until the days of the next succcessor, Darius Nothus.
As those that had learned to sow after a bad crop; these Jews, upon the change of the prince, by the encouragement of the prophets of God, Haggai and Zechariah, take new heart to build again. If others' power hinder us in the work of God, our will may not be guilty.
Their new governors come, as before, to expostulate: “Who hath commanded you to build this house, and to make up this wall ? and what are your names?” They wisely and modestly plead the service of the God of heaven, the decree of Cyrus; still persisting to build, as if the prohibition of Artaxerxes had died with the author.
The impartial governors do neither claw nor exasperate, but, relating the humble and just answer of the Jews, move the king, that search
may be made in the rolls of Babylon, whether such an edict were made by Cyrus, and require his royal pleasure, concerning the validity of such a pretended decree. Darius searches, finds, ratifies, enlargeth it, not only charging his officers not to hinder the work, but commanding to levy sums of his own tribute, beyond the river, for the expenses of the building, for the furnishing of sacrifices, threatening utter ruin to the house of that man, and death to his person, who should offer to impeach this bounty; and shutting up with a zealous imprecation,“- The God of heaven, that hath caused his name to dwell there, destroy all kings and people that shall put to their hand to alter, and to destroy this house of God which is at Jerusalem : I Darius have made a decree, let it be done
Who could have looked for such an edict from a Persian? No Solomon, no David could have said more.
The ruler of all hearts makes choice of his own instruments, and, when he pleaseth, can glorify himself by those means which are least expected. That sacred work, which the husband and son of an Esther crossed, shall be happily accomplished by a Darius. In the sixth year of his reign is the temple of God fully finished ; and now the dedication of it is celebrated by a joyful feast: an hundred bullocks, two hundred rams, four hundred lambs, in a meet proportion, smoke upon their altars. And now the children of the captivity think this day a sufficient payment for all their sorrows: we have reason to think it the fairest day that ever shone forth to us, wherein the spiritual building of God's house is raised up in our souls. How should we shout at the laying of this foundation, and feast at the laying on of the roof!
What other, what better sacrifice can we offer up to God in the sense of our joy, than ourselves ? Let our hearts be at once the temple, the altar, the sacrifice. O God, be thou glorified in all these, who hast graciously honoured all these with thyself.
Every holy feast is now duly kept, the priests know their divisions, the Levites their courses, and the whole service of God is put into a settled order ; but, as there can be no new beginnings without imperfection, nor long continuance without corruption, reformation is no less necessary than good institutions. Artaxerxes Memnon had learned of his father. Darius to befriend God's people, and strives to inherit his beneficence : under his government is Ezra the priest, and learned scribe, sent with a large comission from Babylon to Jerusalem, to enquire into the wants, and redress the disorders of the Jews, with full power, not only to carry with him all the voluntaries of his nation, and the treasures contributed in all the province of Babylon, but to raise such sums out of the king's revenues, as should be found requisite; and, withal, to ordain magistrates and judges, and to crown the laws with due execution, whether to death or banishment, or to confiscation; and, lastly, with a large exemption of the priests and Levites, and all the inferior officers of the temple, from all tolls, tributes, customs. Nothing wanted here, whether for direction or encouragement. It is a sign of God's great favour to any nation, when the hearts of sovereign governors are raised up, both to the choice of worthy agents, and to the commanding of pious and restorative actions.
Holy and careful Ezra gathers a new colony of Jews, takes view of them at the river of Ahava; and finding a miss of the sons of Levi, (without whom no company, no plantation can be complete) sends for their supply, and, now fully furnished, be proclaims a fast in the way.
I do not hear him say, The journey is long and dangerous ; the people have need of all their strength. I could well wish us all afflicted with a religious fast, were it not that the abatement of the courage, and vigour of the multitude, may endanger our success; but, without all these carnal consulta tions, he begins with this solemn act of humiliation. It is better to have God strong in our weakness, than to have flesh and blood strong in his neglect.
Artaxerxes was a patron of the Jews, yet a Pagan by profession; wise Ezra was afraid of quenching those sparks of piety, which he descried in this semi-proselyte. Rather therefore than he will seem to imply a distrust in the providence of that God, in whose service he went, by seeking a convoy of soldiers from the king, Ezra chooses to put himself upon the hazard of the way, and the immediate protection of the Almighty. Any death were better than to hear Artaxerxes say, Is this the man that so confidently told me, “ The hand of our God is upon all them for good that seek him; but his power and his wrath is against all them that forsake him?" Doth he believe himself, that he thus doubts ere he begin? Dare he not trust his God with his own businesses ?
The resolutions of faithful hearts are heroical. No heathen man shall stumble at Ezra's fear: he can find no more assurance in his fast, than in a Persian band : with a courageous reliance upon the hand of bis God, he puts himself into the journey, and finds nothing but safety and success. The fidelity of the Almighty never disappointed the confidence of his servants.
All the army of Artaxerxes could not have been so strong a guard to the Jews, as their invisible protection.
In the space of four months is Ezra and his company happily arrived at Jerusalem, where he joys to see the new temple, and his old colleagues : and now, having delivered up the charge of his treasure, by weight, in the chambers of the house of the Lord, he applies himself to his work, and delivers the king's commissions to the lieutenants and governors, for their utmost assistance.
The princes of Judah do not, for ought I hear, repine at
the large patent granted to this priest, nor say, What doth a man of this robe meddle with placing, or displacing magistrates, with executions of judgments to death, bonds, banishments ! but rather, as congratulating this power to sacred hands, gladly present unto him all their grievances. Truly religious i hearts cannot grudge any honour to their spiritual guides.
This holy commissioner is soon welcomed with a sad bill of complaint, from some good peers of Israel; wherein they charge divers of the priests, Levites, people, not to have separated themselves from the idolatrous inhabitants of the lands, nor therefore froin their abominations, even from Canaanites, Hittites, Perizzites, and the rest of those branded nations ; that they have taken of their daughters for themselves, and for their sons, so that the holy seed have mingled themselves with those forbidden people; and, which made the matter so much more heinous, less remediable, that the "hand of the princes and rulers hath been chief in this trespass. O hypocritical Jews! did
refuse to suffer your Samaritan neighbours to join with you in building a lifeless house unto God, and do ye now join affinity with a more accursed generation for the building of living houses unto posterity, for the pulling down of the lively house of God?
How could Ezra bear this with his clothes, his hair, his beard untorn! What grief, what astonishinent must this news needs bring to a zealous heart! And, were it not that the conscience of his sincere respect of God's glory relieved him, how could Ezra choose but repent him of his journey, and say, Ain I come from Babylon to find Paganism in Judah? did I leave Persians to meet with Canaanites? what do I hear, if Jerusalem be renoved ? how much better were a clear captivity, than an idolatrous freedom? Woe is me, that having left many Jewish hearts in Babylon, I now am forced to find heathen blood in Jerusalem !
As a man distracted with sorrow, Ezra sits down upon the earth with his garments rent, with the hair of his head and beard pluckt off
, wringing his hands, knocking his breast, not moving from his place until the evening sacrifice. It is hard to be too much affected with the public sins of God's people. Those who find themselves in the ship of God's church, cannot but be much troubled with every dangerous leak that it takes. Common cases are not more neglected by the careless, than taken to beart by the wise and godly.