Artaxerxes, also known as Artaxerxes I Longimanus, was the King of Persia from 465 BC to 424 BC. He commissioned both Ezra and Nehemiah to return to Jerusalem and is spoken of in the biblical books of Ezra and Nehemiah. His father was King Xerxes (also called Ahasuerus) from the account of Esther, but his mother was Amestris, a wife from one of Xerxes' many political marriages. Due to his tolerance of differing people groups and diverse religions, Artaxerxes ruled over a relatively peaceful time of the Persian Empire and is remembered as a fairly good king.
The Israelites had been conquered by the Babylonians and carried into captivity there around the year 589 BC. However, the Babylonians were then conquered by the Persians under Cyrus the Great in 539 BC. Cyrus soon allowed the Israelites who so desired to return to Jerusalem and begin rebuilding. Under the leadership of Zerubbabel, over 42,000 Jews returned to Jerusalem and began the restoration project. After a brief pause due to political opposition, the temple in Jerusalem was completed in 516 BC under the Persian King Darius.
It was about fifty years after the completion of the temple that Ezra was commissioned by King Artaxerxes, during his seventh year of reign around 456 BC, to return to the temple in Jerusalem. Artaxerxes commissioned Ezra to reinstate sacrificial worship and other biblical teaching and practices (Ezra 7:12–26). Ezra led the religious community of priests, Levites, temple workers, and scribes on a four-month journey from Babylon to Jerusalem (Ezra 7:8–9). Once there, Ezra led the Israelites in repentance and restored biblical teaching and practices to the temple in Jerusalem (Ezra 9:5—10:17).
Twelve or thirteen years after Ezra returned to Jerusalem (during Artaxerxes' twentieth year of reign), Nehemiah received word in Babylon that the outer walls of Jerusalem that would have protected the city and the temple were still in ruins. King Artaxerxes noticed Nehemiah's devastation in reaction to this news and gave him permission to return to Jerusalem and rebuild the protective walls (Nehemiah 2:1–8). Artaxerxes effectively appointed Nehemiah as a governor in the land of Judah for twelve years (Nehemiah 5:14). Nehemiah successfully oversaw the rebuilding of the walls in only fifty-two days (Nehemiah 6:15). He then governed in Judah before returning to Artaxerxes in the king's thirty-second year of reigning (Nehemiah 13:6). Due to Nehemiah's loyalty and faithful rule in Judah, Artaxerxes allowed him to return to Jerusalem and continue as governor (Nehemiah 13:6–7).
Thus, Artaxerxes was a Persian king who allowed the Israelites to reinstate biblical practices in their rebuilt temple under the leadership of Ezra and then allowed them some political autonomy as well under the leadership of Nehemiah. Both accounts in Ezra and Nehemiah highlight the fact that it was God working in King Artaxerxes' heart that inspired him to show such favor to God's people. Ezra 7:27 states, "Blessed be the LORD, the God of our fathers, who put such a thing as this into the heart of the king, to beautify the house of the LORD that is in Jerusalem." So Ezra believed that the idea to restore biblical worship in the temple was God's and that God put that idea into King Artaxerxes' heart. Nehemiah wrote, "And the king granted me what I asked, for the good hand of my God was upon me" (Nehemiah 2:8). So Nehemiah believed it was not King Artaxerxes' good graces, but the good hand of God that gave him permission to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem.
Artaxerxes was a Persian king remembered for allowing God to work in his heart to show favor to the Israelites by appointing godly leaders to restore biblical teaching and practices, as well as independent governance to Jerusalem while under Persian rule.
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