There is great difficulty as to what the Persian kings were called; their real names were very hard to pronounce, and they are commonly known by words that mean a king, instead of by their real names. This makes people uncertain whether the king who is called Ahasuerus in the Book of Esther be the same with him whom the Greeks call Xerxes, or with Artaxerxes the Long-armed, his son. It was one or other of these kings who made a great banquet at his palace at Shuahan or Susa, where the remains of the pillars that supported the many-coloured hangings of his palace are still to be seen. After seven days' feasting, he sent in his pride for Vashti, his queen, to show her beauty to his companions. It was, as it is still in Persia and most eastern countries, a shame and disgrace for a woman's face to be seen by any man save her husband; and Vashti refused this insulting command of the king. He was persuaded by the satraps that her example would teach all other ladies to think for themselves, which did not suit these selfish men, who did not care to have a wife for a help-meet, but only for a slave and toy; so that poor Vashti was set aside and degraded for being a modest woman; and the tyrant sent and swept away every beautiful girl from her home, to be brought to his palace on trial, and if she did not become queen, to be a slave for ever. Thus the young Benjamite orphan, Esther, whom her kinsman, Mordecai, had tenderly trained in the right way, was taken away, never to see his face again, but to live in the multitude of slavish heathen women, who were taught no kind of employment, and thought even spinning and embroidery unworthy of a queen. But even the king's passion was made to serve God's ends. It was for no vain purpose that the noble beauty of the family of Saul had come down to Esther, and though she alone demanded no ornaments to set her off to advantage, she was the only maiden who took the king's fancy. Mordecai, her cousin, soon after found out a plot against the king's life, and sending her warning, she told the king, and he was thus saved. Mordecai daily sat at the palace gate to hear of his beloved cousin, and there daily saw the king's new counsellor pass by -- Haman, an Agagite, descended from that hateful Amalekite nation, whom Saul ought to have totally destroyed. Mordecai would not bow before the man whom his law had taught him to loathe; and Haman, taking offence, and remembering the old enmity between the two nations, that had begun at the battle of Rephidim, promised the king 10,000 talents of silver for permission to let their enemies loose upon the Jews in their still unwalled city, and destroy them everywhere by a general slaughter. The king actually granted this horrible request, though without taking the bribe; and Haman, setting the royal seal to his decree, made it one of the unalterable Persian laws. The day was fixed for the massacre, and Haman prepared an enormous gallows on which to hang Mordecai, or as is supposed, to nail him up alive. But Mordecai contrived to warn Esther, and order her to persuade the king to save their lives. She was in a great strait, for it was death to enter the king's presence unbidden, unless he were in the mood to show mercy, and should hold out his golden sceptre; but in her extremity she took courage, arrayed herself royally, and came before him, fainting with fear. The Power above stirred his heart, and he held out the sceptre; but she dared not accuse his favourite, and only asked him and Haman together to a banquet in her apartments. Twice she received them before she took courage to speak; but at last she told the king that she and her people were sold to utter destruction. He demanded in anger who had dared to do this. "The adversary and enemy is this wicked Haman," she said: and when the king found how horrible a decree had been surprised from him, and that the gallows had been made ready for the queen's cousin, the man who had saved his life, he flew into such a rage, that he caused Haman to be hung on his own gallows at once, and all his sons to be slain with him. Still the order to destroy the Jews had gone forth, and could not be repealed, but Mordecai obtained that the Jews should be allowed to arm themselves; and having due notice, they defended themselves so well that they killed 800 of their enemies at Susa, and 75,000 of the spiteful Samaritans and other foes who had come upon them at Jerusalem.
Esther's power with the king seems to have done more for the Jews, and a new gift was sent from the treasury to Jerusalem, under the care of Ezra, a man of the seed of Aaron, and very learned in the Law. He gave himself up to the work, which had sadly languished since Zerubbabel's time; and he began in the right way, for ere entering the Glorious Land, he halted all the companions of his pilgrimage, and fasted three days, entreating the Lord for forgiveness, and protection from their enemies. It is from this time, about 458, that the seventy weeks of years, mentioned by Daniel, began to be counted, perhaps because till this time the work hardly proceeded in earnest. Another great helper soon followed Ezra, namely Nehemiah, one of the palace slaves, who, hearing of the miserable state of Jerusalem, prayed with all his heart, weeping so bitterly that when he went to wait upon the king and Queen Esther at their meal, they remarked his trouble; and on their asking the cause, he told them, with secret prayers, how his heart was grieved that his city and his fathers' sepulchres lay waste, and begged for permission to go with authority to Jerusalem, to assist in the rebuilding. His request was granted, authority was given to him, and he set off with a train of servants and guards, for he was a very rich man; but when he came near, he left them all, and rode on by night to examine the state of the city. Most sad was the sight; the gates broken and burnt, and the walls lying in ruins, the streets blocked up so that no one could pass! Nehemiah at once encouraged the Jews to set to work, and build up the breaches; and they heartily began, while he kept open house at his own expense for all his poor brethren. Down upon them came the Samaritans again, scoffing at those "feeble Jews," saying that a fox could break down their wall, and then attacking them; so that Nehemiah was forced to set a constant watch, and the workmen built with their swords ever ready for use. When the walls once more girded around the city built upon the hill, the inhabitants were no longer easily molested by their foes; and a great assembly was held, when Ezra read and explained the Law, for seven days, at the feast of the Tabernacles, after which there was a great fast and confession of sin, and the Covenant was solemnly renewed. Still a great purification was needed; the Sabbath had become ill observed, many of the people, even priests and Levites, had married heathen wives, and one of the sons of the High Priest was son-in-law to Sanballat, the worst enemy of the Jews. Ezra and Nehemiah brought many to a sense of their sin: no burdens were allowed to be touched on the Sabbath, and the heathen wives were put away; but this priest refusing to part with his wife, was thrust out from the priesthood, and was received by the Samaritans, who afterwards built a schismatical temple upon Gerizim, the Mount of Blessing.
At this time lived Malachi, the last of the prophets, who left the promise of the coming of the Prophet Elijah, as the forerunner of the Messiah, and of the rising of the Sun of Righteousness. Ezra is believed to have composed the Books of Kings from older writings, under the guidance of inspiration, to have collected the latter part of the book of Psalms, and to have been taught to discern which histories, and which books of the Prophets to keep, and which to cast aside. The Scriptures were all put under the keeping of scribes, who wrote the copies out with the utmost care, and were held guilty if the smallest point or mark failed; and a roll was placed under the care of the priests, besides many others which were dispersed through the country, that they might never be forgotten again. Ezra likewise arranged, that in places too far from Jerusalem for people to come weekly to worship at the Temple, there should be synagogues, or places of meeting for prayer, though of course not for sacrifice. There, every Sabbath day, eighteen prayers were appointed to be said, and lessons from the Scripture were read aloud and explained. In their exile, the Jews had forgotten their Hebrew tongue, and learnt to speak Chaldean, so that after the Law was read in their own language, a scribe stood up to translate and explain it, and thus they were saved from forgetting the Scripture, as they had done in the time of Josiah, and from resorting to groves and high places for worship. Idolatry was so thoroughly purged out of them, that they never returned to it; and their hope of the Messiah was kept alive, though they had no new prophets.
They enjoyed quiet and peace for many years; and most of the Jews who were settled in other countries -- in Persia, Babylon, and Egypt -- came from time to time to keep the feasts, and make offerings; while those settled near enough kept the three yearly pilgrimages to Jerusalem, singing, as it is believed, the beautiful psalms called in the Bible the Songs of Degrees, as the parties from towns and villages went up together in procession towards the Hill of Sion.
In the meantime, their masters, the Persian kings, grew worse and worse; brother killed brother, son rose against father, and the women even committed horrible crimes. They invented tortures too horrid to mention, and lived between savage cruelty and vain luxury, till there was no strength nor courage in them, and in less than 200 years from the time that Cyrus had conquered Babylon, their realm was rotten, and their time of ruin was come. All through this time, the Jews were chiefly ruled by the high priests, though paying tribute to the Persian king, and sometimes visited by the Satrap of the Province of Syria, to which Palestine belonged.