Ezra 1 – Cyrus Allows the Exiles to Return
A. The decree of Cyrus the Persian.
1. (1) God stirs Cyrus to make a decree.
Now in the first year of Cyrus king of Persia, that the word of the LORD by the mouth of Jeremiah might be fulfilled, the LORD stirred up the spirit of Cyrus king of Persia, so that he made a proclamation throughout all his kingdom, and also put it in writing, saying,
a. Now in the first year of Cyrus king of Persia: God gave the Persian king a sense of urgency about this, and the relief from exile was granted the very first year of his reign as the LORD stirred up his spirit.
i. Cyrus made a decree giving the Jewish exiles in his empire the right to return to Jerusalem and rebuild the temple in 538 b.c. (Ezra 1:1-4 and Ezra 5:13-17). “The greater part of this book, though it bears the name of Ezra, tells of the pioneers who came back from exile to Jerusalem a whole lifetime before him. We shall not meet Ezra till chapter 7.” (Kidner)
ii. It is quite possible that the Prophet Daniel was instrumental in this stirring of Cyrus. He may have showed the king the prophecies of Jeremiah 25:8-13 and Jeremiah 29:10-14, which refer to the punishment of Babylon and the end of Israel’s exile. And if he showed Cyrus such prophecies, he almost certainly would have included Isaiah 44:28-45:5, which mentions Cyrus by name some 150 years before he was born.
iii. “Josephus accounts for his partiality to the Jews from this circumstance; that he was shown the places in Isaiah the prophet where he is mentioned by name, and his exploits and conquests foretold.” (Clarke)
iv. “We know that Persian kings paid close heed to prophecies: Cambyses to Egyptian oracles, Darius and Xerxes to Greek oracles (Herodotus 8.133; 9.42, 151).” (Yamauchi)
vi. “The difference between ‘sacred’ and ‘profane’ history is not that one is under His direct control, and the other is not. What was true of Cyrus and his policy is as true of England. Would that politicians and all men recognized the fact as clearly as this historian did!” (Maclaren)
b. And also put it in writing: This writing was also recorded in 2 Chronicles 36:22-23 but existed in contemporary documents that have been discovered by archaeologists.
i. “Cyrus’s policy of cooperating with local religions and of encouraging the return of exiles has received explicit archaeological confirmation from the inscriptions of the king himself (cf. especially the famous ‘Cyrus Cylinder’).” (Payne)
2. (2-4) The decree Cyrus made.
Thus says Cyrus king of Persia: All the kingdoms of the earth the LORD God of heaven has given me. And He has commanded me to build Him a house at Jerusalem which is in Judah. Who is among you of all His people? May his God be with him, and let him go up to Jerusalem which is in Judah, and build the house of the LORD God of Israel (He is God), which is in Jerusalem. And whoever is left in any place where he dwells, let the men of his place help him with silver and gold, with goods and livestock, besides the freewill offerings for the house of God which is in Jerusalem.
a. All the kingdoms of the earth the LORD God of heaven has given me: This remarkable recognition of God’s hand upon his life may be connected with the remarkable prophecies regarding Cyrus in Isaiah 44:28-45:4.
i. Yet it was also according to the general policy of the Persians. “A notable feature of the Persian empire was its integration of a great diversity of peoples into a single administrative system, while maintaining at the same time a tradition of respect for their local customs and beliefs… they were encouraged to seek the king’s welfare by observing the proper forms of their own religions” (Kidner).
ii. “The so-called Cyrus Cylinder, from which the following is an extract, gives his own account of this: ‘I return to these sacred cities…, the sanctuaries of which have been in ruins for a long time, the images which (used) to live therein and established for them permanent sanctuaries. I (also) gathered all their (former) inhabitants and returned (to them) their habitations… May all the gods whom I have resettled in their sacred cities ask daily Bel and Nebo for a long life for me…; to Marduk, my lord, may they say this: ‘Cyrus, the king who worships you, and Cambyses, his son…’” (Kidner)
b. He has commanded me to build Him a house at Jerusalem: The command of Cyrus not only allowed the return of the exiled people, but also a rebuilding of the destroyed temple.
i. “‘To build him a house’ is a deliberate echo of the central promise of the Davidic covenant (cf. 1 Chronicles 17:11-12; 22:10; 28:6; 2 Chronicles 6:9-10). Cyrus of course is thinking only of the house in Jerusalem, but in the Chronicler’s thought this phrase is inevitably connected with both houses of the Davidic covenant, the dynasty as well as the temple.” (Selman)
c. Who is among you of all His people? May the LORD his God be with him, and let him go up to Jerusalem: The Books of 1 and 2 Chronicles end with this wonderful and remarkable encouragement to return and rebuild Jerusalem. This was the necessary and helpful encouragement to the first readers of Chronicles, letting them see their connection with God’s broader plan of the ages.
i. Sadly, only a small percentage decided to return from exile; but those who did needed the encouragement to know they were making a valuable contribution to God’s work. In passages such as Isaiah 10:22, God promised that a remnant would return from exile – and only a remnant.
ii. “After the deportations only the poor of the land – the vine-growers and farmers – were left (2 Kings 25:12; Jeremiah 39:10; 40:7; 52:16). They occupied the vacant lands (Jeremiah 6:12). A few refugees who fled to different areas drifted back (Jeremiah 40:11-12). For the next fifty years those left behind eked out a precarious existence under the Babylonian yoke (Lamentations 5:2-5), subjected to ill treatment and forced labor (Lamentations 5:11-13).” (Yamauchi)
d. Besides the freewill offerings for the house of God which is in Jerusalem: This introduces a central theme for the Book of Ezra – the rebuilding of the temple. Beginning with the decree of Cyrus, the intention was not merely to return and reoccupy Jerusalem but to also rebuild the temple.
i. “Thus we see from the first that the idea which characterizes the restoration is religious. The exiles return as a Church. The goal of their pilgrimage is a holy site. The one work they are to aim at achieving is to further the worship of their God.” (Adeney)
B. The response of the people to the invitation to go back to Jerusalem.
1. (5-6) Those returning to Jerusalem are encouraged.
Then the heads of the fathers’ houses of Judah and Benjamin, and the priests and the Levites, with all whose spirits God had moved, arose to go up and build the house of the LORD which is in Jerusalem. And all those who were around them encouraged them with articles of silver and gold, with goods and livestock, and with precious things, besides all that was willingly offered.
a. With all whose spirits God had moved: Though the returning exiles were a minority, they were a spirit-stirred minority. They were dedicated to the difficult and discouraging task of returning to a ruined city and once there to build the house of the LORD which is in Jerusalem.
i. It was essential that God move the spirits of these returning exiles, because they faced many difficulties.
· The journey itself was long, dangerous, and expensive.
· They returned to a city in ruins with no proper homes, roads, or city institutions.
· They didn’t have all the material resources they needed.
· They didn’t all return to Jerusalem but spread out over the province of Judea.
· They had many enemies.
· Their land was actually the possession of another empire.
ii. “The chief of the fathers of Judah and Benjamin; and with them some of the other tribes, as appears from 1 Chronicles 9:3; but these only are named, because they were most considerable for number and quality.” (Poole)
b. Arose to go up and build the house of the LORD: So, a good number of the descendants of those exiled some two generations before decided to return to their ancestral land. These went; substantially more stayed behind in the land of their exile.
c. And all those who were around them encouraged them: This encouragement was more than verbal; it was tangible encouragement of financial and practical backing for the work. We can imagine that many of those who decided to stay in their lands of exile still were happy that others were going to build the house of the LORD and wanted to support that work.
i. “An important difference between the deportations by the Babylonians and by the Assyrians is that the Babylonians did not replace the deportees with pagan newcomers. Thus Judah, though devastated, was not contaminated with polytheism to the same degree as Israel.” (Yamauchi)
ii. Yamauchi mentions a cave inscription from this period, found at Khirbet Beit Lei, five miles east of Lachish. The inscription reads, “I am Yahweh thy God: I will accept the cities of Judah and will redeem Jerusalem.” It has been suggested that this may reflect the mind of a returning exile, expressing his trust in God’s faithfulness to restore despite the desolation of Jerusalem.
2. (7-11) The return of the articles of the house of the LORD.
King Cyrus also brought out the articles of the house of the LORD, which Nebuchadnezzar had taken from Jerusalem and put in the temple of his gods; and Cyrus king of Persia brought them out by the hand of Mithredath the treasurer, and counted them out to Sheshbazzar the prince of Judah. This is the number of them: thirty gold platters, one thousand silver platters, twenty-nine knives, thirty gold basins, four hundred and ten silver basins of a similar kind, and one thousand other articles. All the articles of gold and silver were five thousand four hundred. All these Sheshbazzar took with the captives who were brought from Babylon to Jerusalem.
a. King Cyrus also brought out the articles of the house of the LORD: When Jerusalem was conquered the remaining treasures of the temple were taken to Babylon (2 Chronicles 36:18). Now, after conquering the Babylonians, Cyrus adopted a much more generous policy towards their subject peoples, including the Jewish people.
i. “Objection. These are said to have been cut in pieces, 2 Kings 24:13; how then are the here returned? Answer. That Hebrew word used 2 Kings 24:13, signifies not so properly to cut in pieces as to cut off, as from the use of the word, Deuteronomy 25:12; 2 Samuel 4:12; 2 Kings 18:16; Jeremiah 9:26. And these vessels, when they were taken away from it, because they had for so long been so constantly, and as it were inseparably, united to it, and kept in it.” (Poole)
b. Sheshbazzar the prince of Judah: This man was an important leader of this first part of the resettlement of Judah. Some believe that he was a partner to Zerubbabel (Ezra 2:2, 3:2), and others believe that these were simply two names for the same person.
i. “There is a view that Sheshbazzar was a second name for Zerubbabel, used in all transactions with the ruling power… Alternatively Sheshbazzar and Zerubbabel may have been, respectively, the official and unofficial leaders of the enterprise. Neither view is without its difficulties.” (Kidner)
ii. “This was probably the Chaldean name of him who was originally called Zerubbabel: the former signifies joy in affliction; the latter, astranger in Babylon. The latter may be designed to refer to his captive state; the former to the prospect of release.” (Clarke)
c. This is the number of them: The careful reckoning of the returned articles shows how valued they were and how carefully they were treated.
i. What is conspicuously missing from the list is any mention of the more significant articles of the temple – the altar of incense, the table of showbread, the brazen altar, the golden lampstand, and especially the ark of the covenant. These articles were presumably lost to history at the destruction of the temple by the Babylonians.
ii. “The businesslike transfer of articles, ‘counted out’ from one custodian to another, may have been outwardly undramatic, but it was momentous. The closing words of the chapter, from Babylonia to Jerusalem, mark one of the turning points of history.” (Kidner)
iii. “We might have expected some kind of production of the enthusiasm of the returning exiles, some account of how they were sent on their journey, something which we should have felt worthier of the occasion than a list of bowls and nine-and-twenty knives… The list here indicates the pride and joy with which the long hidden and often desecrated vessels were received.” (Maclaren)
iv. “Had they not been things of great price and use, they would not have been numbered… Men use not count how many pebbles they have in their yard, or piles of grass in their field, as they do how many pence in their purse or sheep in their fold.” (Trapp)
v. “They show that the generosity of Cyrus in restoring so great a hoard was genuine and considerable. It might have been urged that after the treasures had been lying for two generations in a heathen temple the original owners had lost all claim upon them. It might have been said that they had been contaminated by this long residence among the abominations of Babylonian idolatry. The restoration of them swept away all such ideas.” (Adeney)
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