Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers
(1-24) The opposition of the Samaritans and its temporary success.
Now when the adversaries of Judah and Benjamin heard that the children of the captivity builded the temple unto the LORD God of Israel;(1) The adversaries.—The Samaritans, so termed by Nehemiah (Ezra 4:11). These were a mixed race, the original Israelite element of which was nearly lost in the tribes imported into the northern part of the land by Sargon, Sennacherib, and Esar-haddon. (See 2Kings 17:24-34.)
Then they came to Zerubbabel, and to the chief of the fathers, and said unto them, Let us build with you: for we seek your God, as ye do; and we do sacrifice unto him since the days of Esarhaddon king of Assur, which brought us up hither.(2) As ye do.—“They feared the Lord, and worshipped their own gods” (2Kings 17:33): thus they came either in the spirit of hypocrites or with an intention to unite their own idolatries with the pure worship of Jehovah. In any case, they are counted enemies of the God of Israel.
We do sacrifice unto Him since the days of Esar-haddon.—He ended his reign B.C. 668, and therefore the Samaritans speak from a tradition extending backwards a century and a half.
Which brought us up hither.—Thus they entirely leave out of consideration what residue of Israel was yet to be found among them.
But Zerubbabel, and Jeshua, and the rest of the chief of the fathers of Israel, said unto them, Ye have nothing to do with us to build an house unto our God; but we ourselves together will build unto the LORD God of Israel, as king Cyrus the king of Persia hath commanded us.(3) Ye have nothing to do with us.—The account in 2 Kings 17 carefully studied will show that the stern refusal of the leaders was precisely ill harmony with the will of God; there was nothing in it of that intolerant spirit which is sometimes imagined. The whole design of the Great Restoration would have been defeated by a concession at this point. The reference to the command of Cyrus is another and really subordinate kind of justification, pleaded as subjects of the King of Persia, whose decree was absolute and exclusive.
And hired counsellers against them, to frustrate their purpose, all the days of Cyrus king of Persia, even until the reign of Darius king of Persia.(5) And hired counsellors against them.—They adopted a systematic course of employing paid agents at the court: continued for eight years, till B.C. 529. Cambyses, his son, succeeded Cyrus; he died B.C. 522; then followed the pseudo-Smerdis, a usurper, whose short reign Darius did not reckon, but dated his own reign from B.C. 522. A comparison of dates shows that this was the first Darius, the son of Hystaspes.
And in the reign of Ahasuerus, in the beginning of his reign, wrote they unto him an accusation against the inhabitants of Judah and Jerusalem.(6) In the beginning of his reign.—This Ahasuerus, another name for Cambyses, reigned seven years; and his accession to the throne was the time seized by the Samaritans for their “accusation,” of which we hear nothing more; suffice that the building languished.
And in the days of Artaxerxes wrote Bishlam, Mithredath, Tabeel, and the rest of their companions, unto Artaxerxes king of Persia; and the writing of the letter was written in the Syrian tongue, and interpreted in the Syrian tongue.(7) In the days of Artaxerxes.—This must be Gomates, the Magian priest who personated Smerdis, the dead son of Cyrus, and reigned only seven months: note that the expression used is “days,” and not “reign” as in the previous verse. This Artaxerxes has been thought by many commentators to be the Longimanus of the sequel of this book and of Nehemiah, and they have identified the Ahasuerus of Ezra and Esther with Xerxes. This would explain the reference to “the walls” in Ezra 4:12; but in Ezra 4:23-24 the sequence of events is strict, and the word “ceased” links the parts of the narrative into unity. Moreover, the Persian princes had often more than one name. At the same time, there is nothing to make such an anticipatory and parenthetical insertion impossible.
In the Syrian tongue.—The characters and the words were Syrian or Aramaic; this explains the transition to another language at this point,
Rehum the chancellor and Shimshai the scribe wrote a letter against Jerusalem to Artaxerxes the king in this sort:(8) Rehum the chancellor.—The lord of judgment, the counsellor of the Persian king, a conventional title of the civil governor.
Shimshai the scribe—The royal secretary.
Then wrote Rehum the chancellor, and Shimshai the scribe, and the rest of their companions; the Dinaites, the Apharsathchites, the Tarpelites, the Apharsites, the Archevites, the Babylonians, the Susanchites, the Dehavites, and the Elamites,(9) Then wrote . . .—This verse and the following give the general superscription of the letter which the Persian officials wrote for the Samaritans: introduced, however, in a very peculiar manner, and to be followed by another introduction in Ezra 4:11. Of the names by which the Samaritans think fit to distinguish themselves the Apharsites and Dehavites are Persians; the Babylonians the original races of Babylon, Cuthah and Ava (2Kings 17:24); the Susanchites are from Susa; the Apharsathchites, probably the Pharathia-kites, a predatory people of Media; the Archevites, inhabitants of Erech (Genesis 10:10). The Dinaites and Tarpelites can be only conjecturally identified.
And the rest of the nations whom the great and noble Asnappar brought over, and set in the cities of Samaria, and the rest that are on this side the river, and at such a time.(10) Asnapper cannot be Esar-haddon, but was probably his chief officer.
And at such a time.—And so forth.
This is the copy of the letter that they sent unto him, even unto Artaxerxes the king; Thy servants the men on this side the river, and at such a time.(11) On this side the river.—Literally, beyond the river Euphrates, as written for the Persian court.
And at such a time.—Rather, and so forth; meaning, “Thy servants, as aforesaid,” alluding to the superscription.
Be it known unto the king, that the Jews which came up from thee to us are come unto Jerusalem, building the rebellious and the bad city, and have set up the walls thereof, and joined the foundations.(12) Virulence and craft and exaggeration are stamped on every sentence of the letter. It only says, however, that “they are preparing the walls thereof, and joining the foundations.” Afterwards, however, the charge is modified in Ezra 4:13; Ezra 4:16.
Be it known now unto the king, that, if this city be builded, and the walls set up again, then will they not pay toll, tribute, and custom, and so thou shalt endamage the revenue of the kings.(13) Toll, tribute, and custom.—Toll for the highways; custom, a provision in kind; tribute, the money tax.
The revenue.—Rather, at length; literally and at length damage will be done to the kings.
Now because we have maintenance from the king's palace, and it was not meet for us to see the king's dishonour, therefore have we sent and certified the king;(14) Maintenance.—more exactly, we eat the salt of the palace. This seems to be a general expression for dependence on the king, whose dishonour or loss they profess themselves unwilling to behold.
That search may be made in the book of the records of thy fathers: so shalt thou find in the book of the records, and know that this city is a rebellious city, and hurtful unto kings and provinces, and that they have moved sedition within the same of old time: for which cause was this city destroyed.(15) The book of the records of thy fathers.—“The book of the records of the Chronicles” which in Esther 6:1 is “read before the king.” This extended beyond his own fathers back to the times of the predecessors of the Median dynasty.
Of old time.—From the days of eternity, or time immemorial. The spirit of exaggeration if not of falsehood appears in every word here.
We certify the king that, if this city be builded again, and the walls thereof set up, by this means thou shalt have no portion on this side the river.(16) No portion on this side the river.—The same unscrupulous use of language: that is, if the river Euphrates is meant. In the days of Solomon, and once or twice subsequently, the Israelites had advanced towards the river, but it was not likely that they would ever do so again. The letter may, however, have been intended to suggest loosely that Jerusalem might become a centre of general disaffection.
Then sent the king an answer unto Rehum the chancellor, and to Shimshai the scribe, and to the rest of their companions that dwell in Samaria, and unto the rest beyond the river, Peace, and at such a time.(17) Peace, and at such a time.—Salutation, and so forth. The account of the reply and the beginning of it are strangely blended, as before.
And I commanded, and search hath been made, and it is found that this city of old time hath made insurrection against kings, and that rebellion and sedition have been made therein.(19) Insurrection.—Never against Persia; but such as are alluded to in 2 Kings 24
There have been mighty kings also over Jerusalem, which have ruled over all countries beyond the river; and toll, tribute, and custom, was paid unto them.(20) Mighty kings.—David and Solomon, and some few kings down to Josiah, had extended their sway and made nations tributary (2 Samuel 8; 1 Kings 10). The earlier kings’ names would perhaps be referred to historically, though not immediately connected with Persian annals.
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.(24) The second year.—The record here returns to Ezra 4:5, with more specific indication of time. The suspension of the general enterprise—called “the work of the house of God which is at Jerusalem”—lasted nearly two years. But it must be remembered that the altar was still the centre of a certain amount of worship.