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Ezra 6 begins with a letter from King Darius concerning the temple of God in Jerusalem that whatever materials or resources are needed for its completion be given, even if it means being paid out of the royal treasury. The rest of the chapter records the completion of that temple and the celebration of it, with verse 22 stating:

For seven days they celebrated with joy the Festival of Unleavened Bread, because the Lord had filled them with joy by changing the attitude of the king of Assyria so that he assisted them in the work on the house of God, the God of Israel. (NIV empahsis mine)

This is confusing to me since I thought Darius was king of Persia (as in 4:5). Why then call him king of Assyria here in 6:22? Am I mistaken in thinking this verse refers to Darius? Was there some other king who also helped? Or is there a theological point being made on the basis that presumably Persia extended over formerly Assyrian territories? Or some other reason?

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A bit a historical perspective on this. Joseph Fleishman of Bar-Ilan University concludes his article, "On the Meaning of the Term מלך אשור 'The King of Assyria' in Ezra 6:22," JANES 26 (1998): 37-45, this way (emphasis mine):

Therefore, one can say that the metonymic phrase “King of Assyria” in Ezra 6:22 is a coded term. It is a literary didactic ploy by which the narrator wished to make the reader think and contemplate the history of Israel from the days of the kings of Assyria until the days of their heir, Darius I, as well as to examine the contrary policy of the rulers of the Persian Empire and, even more, the Lord God of Israel who motivated these kings.

And according to Jim Hamilton's blog article, "Ezra 6:22, Darius King of Assyria? Error or Typological Biblical Theology?" (2010), the reason could be that

It’s possible that calling Darius the king of Assyria in 6:22 is merely an incidental way of referring to the territory or realm that was first ruled by Assyria, then Babylon, then Persia.

Or that it

represents a profound, yet subtle, biblical theological move that reflects the typological identification of Assyria, Babylon, and Persia. The enemies of God and his people are distinguished from one another, but at the same time they are identified with one another because they are, in a sense, all the same.

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H.G.M. Williamson once wrote of this problem:1

No fully satisfactory explanation has been offered as to why [Darius] is called 'the king of Assyria'.

That hasn't stopped people trying, of course.2 Certain possibilities come to the fore:

  • It's fairly clear that the succession of empires that is so clear to us had its hazy edges in antiquity.3
  • There is another instance of this kind of error in Judith 2:1 of the Babylonian king, Nebuchadnezzar:4

    ...there was talk in the house of Nebuchadnezzar, king of the Assyrians, that he should be avenged on all the land...

Joseph Blenkinsopp has a brief but helpful summary of other suggestions:5

  • scribal error [although the textual evidence for this is lacking];
  • the supposition that "the Persian kings were, in a certain sense, the successors of the Assyrians";
  • or "perhaps 'Assyria' could simply stand for Mesopotamia";
  • or this was a function of later usage [like the "historical confusion" noted above].

To these Blenkinsopp adds his own suggestion -- which may count in some sense as "theological" -- that the account here is echoing "the account of Hezekiah's passover":

the allusion in the latter to the remnant which has escaped from the ahnd of the king of Assyria (2 Chron. 30:6) may well have been in the writer's mind as he brought his story of the return and restoration to a close.

Blenkinsopp doesn't note here that this little passage (Ezra 6:19-22) comes at the very point at which the book of Ezra switches back to Hebrew after a lengthy stretch in Aramaic (runs from 4:7 to 6:18). Fleishman (see note 2) does note this, and develops Blenkinsopp's view.

Summary - there's no certain explanation, then, but some very good educated guesses.


Notes

  1. In his article, "The Composition of Ezra i-vi", Journal of Theological Studies 34 (1983): 1-30 (quote from p. 22 n. 54).
  2. There's a nice little catalogue of earlier solutions listed by Joseph Fleishman, "An Echo of Optimism in Ezra 6:19-22", Hebrew Union College Annual 69 (1998): 15-20 (see pp. 21-22).
  3. Nicely illustrated by L.L. Grabbe, "Josephus and the Reconstruction of the Judean Restoration", Journal of Biblical Literature 106 (1987): 231-246.
  4. This reference, along with some less striking but related ones, is noted by L.W. Batten, A critical and exegetical commentary on the Books of Ezra and Nehemiah (ICC; Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1913), pp. 153-4.
  5. In his Ezra-Nehemiah: A Commentary (Westminster/John Knox, 1988), pp. 133
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To complement the answer from user3376.

Firstly, in Ezra 7, Ezra himself enters the story, and chooses to call the king, Artaxerxes, 'he who reigns in truth'. And just before the memoed Aramaic script (Ezra 4:8-Ezra 6:18) a king called Xerxes, 'king of kings'.

[Elsewhere, in Daniel 9:1, the title Xerxes, possibly referring to Astyages, is used - 'Darius, son of Xerxes']

This title 'king of kings' is reserved for Jesus himself (not a pretender), so in effect Ezra is showing us an image of the true king:

On his robe and on his thigh he has this name written: king of kings and lord of lords. Revelation 19:16

My answer therefore assumes that the answer to the question 'Who is the Artaxerxes of Ezra 7?' is Darius I - my rationale is given here.

Just before Ezra reveals just why he uses this title, by calling Darius by another curious title - king of Assyria.

For seven days they celebrated with joy the Festival of Unleavened Bread, because the Lord had filled them with joy by changing the attitude of the king of Assyria so that he assisted them in the work on the house of God, the God of Israel. Ezra 6:22

You need only look back as far as the decisive events that brought about the exile to Babylon to see how Ezra might have understood the turn around where they were now greeted with ‘a changing attitude’ in the reign of Darius I.

The ‘king of Assyria’ describes the battle for the centre or high ground by the contending empires. One could consider it to be a more serious form of the childrens’ game ‘King of the castle’ throughout time.

The centre ground is the around the middle of the fertile crescent, here the battles of the empires meet. It is in the prophetic words of Ezekiel that we see Assyria allegorically placed in Lebanon.

Like an actual cedar called something like Assyria, 'teasshur', (a play on words I presume), Assyria’s pride was brought down by God (cedars once covered a larger are in antiquity):

I gave it into the hands of the ruler of the nations, for him to deal with according to its wickedness. I cast it aside, and the most ruthless of foreign nations cut it down and left it. Its boughs fell on the mountains and in all the valleys; its branches lay broken in all the ravines of the land. Ezekiel 31:11-12

At this time was the Battle of Megiddo where Judah’s king Josiah died in 609 BC at the hands of the Egyptians as they went on to join the fading Assyrian empire – where they were defeated at the Battle of Carchemish (northern Syria) by the Babylonians.

Ezekiel 31 was written to show how Egypt also would be brought down (Ezekiel 31:18).

Ezekiel 17 too, plays an allegory of a cedar. Focusing on events around the same time; when Judah’s last king is captured, and a small remnant is taken of to Babylon. But ends with the flourishing returnees under the Persian protection.

This is what the Sovereign Lord says: I myself will take a shoot from the very top of a cedar and plant it; I will break off a tender sprig from its topmost shoots and plant it on a high and lofty mountain. On the mountain heights of Israel, I will plant it; it will produce branches and bear fruit and become a splendid cedar. Birds of every kind will nest in it; they will find shelter in the shade of its branches. All the trees of the forest will know that I the Lord bring down the tall tree and make the low tree grow tall. I dry up the green tree and make the dry tree flourish. Ezekiel 17:22-24

In this sense Ezra is indeed seeing the low ‘Assyria’ tree grow tall, giving the assistance build the temple.

For seven days they celebrated with joy the Festival of Unleavened Bread, because the Lord had filled them with joy by changing the attitude of the king of Assyria so that he assisted them in the work on the house of God, the God of Israel. Ezra 6:22

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