Sunday School Lessons

Not the Letter You Want

Have you ever had a teacher, manager, or other authority figure threaten to write you up?  Maybe they had caught you doing something wrong, or maybe they were just out to get you.  I don’t know about today (where some people readily post incriminating content to the Internet that will live on indefinitely), but there was a day when putting something in one’s “permanent record” was a major threat!

In Ezra 4:1-11, people around Jerusalem have been causing problems for the Jewish people who are rebuilding.  The last of these examples results in a letter to King Artaxerxes of Persia, which (after a greeting) starts in verse 12.

The king should know that the people who came up to us from you have gone to Jerusalem and are rebuilding that rebellious and wicked city. They are restoring the walls and repairing the foundations.
Ezra 4:12 NIV

Now, I’m not sure about you, but I think that being the king of an empire in those days would require keeping track of a lot of things.  There would be lots of nations and peoples around: some native to the kingdom, some having been conquered, and some – perhaps from both groups – wanting to make war.  Exactly what this group had done, or how that group had gotten here or there, could get pretty complicated, especially in an era before cell phones and the Internet.

So, this introduction is almost an “FYI”, informing the king about what is going on “out there” by the Mediterranean Sea.  To give some perspective, while my research wasn’t clear exactly where Artaxerxes lived at this time, Jerusalem appears to be about 900 miles from ancient Susa, and about 1300 miles from ancient Persepolis.  Consider how far that would be from where you live!  As a result of the distance and ancient logistics, these were not places in his kingdom that the king would necessarily have immediate knowledge of.

Note also that the authors refer to Jerusalem as a “rebellious and wicked city”.  They are setting up the king with a biased view of the city from the start.  Continuing in verses 13-16, the writers of this letter want the king to think about a particular problem: they hit him right in his wallet, as they suggest that losing Jerusalem will result in the king losing an entire region’s worth of income.  Various other writers suggest that this risk is exaggerated, but that’s how the letter went.

Just as Tattenai will ask for a “records search” in the next chapter (Ezra 5), the writers of the letter here ask the king to have the records checked, to confirm the history of this city.

They cite a history of Jerusalem causing trouble (whether Jerusalem as a city, a capital, or a metaphor for the people group).  And, they’re not entirely wrong, since Jerusalem used to rule over a pretty significant region during the time of King Solomon (a powerful nation that would be a threat to adjoining empires), and – even after coming apart – Judah had irritated King Nebuchadnezzar enough to get Jerusalem sacked.

So, from an Israelite perspective, this doesn’t sound like a good note to have sent (on their behalf) to the king.  The authors know what they are doing, and they know how to get the king’s attention.  It was kind of like getting “written up’ as a nation”.

If the Israelites were on their own, things would not be looking good for them.   Let’s take a look at the king’s reply and others’ resulting actions (Ezra 4:17-22) in the next article.

From Sunday School lesson prepared for January 15, 2023


  • The Lookout, January 15, 2023, © 2022 Christian Standard Media.
  • Scripture taken from the Holy Bible, NEW INTERNATIONAL VERSION®, NIV® Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.® Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.
  • The College Press NIV Commentary – Ezra-Nehemiah, by Keith Schoville.  © 2001 College Press Publishing Co.

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