Ezra-Nehemiah

Ezra 1:1-11

  1. The People Return to Jerusalem to Rebuild the Temple (Ezra 1:1-6:22)
    1. God Returns the Exiles to Jerusalem (Ezra 1:1-2:70)
      1. God stirs people to go to Jerusalem to rebuild the Temple (Ezra 1:1-11)

In the first year of King Cyrus of Persia, 1:1a The first year of Cyrus's reign over Babylon was 538 B.C. the LORD fulfilled the prophecy he had given through Jeremiah. He stirred the heart of Cyrus to put this proclamation in writing and to send it throughout his kingdom:

2 "This is what King Cyrus of Persia says:

"The Lord, the God of heaven, has given me all the kingdoms of the earth. He has appointed me to build him a Temple at Jerusalem, which is in Judah. 3 Any of you who are his people may go to Jerusalem in Judah to rebuild this Temple of the Lord, the God of Israel, who lives in Jerusalem. And may your God be with you! 4 Wherever this Jewish remnant is found, let their neighbors contribute toward their expenses by giving them silver and gold, supplies for the journey, and livestock, as well as a voluntary offering for the Temple of God in Jerusalem."

5 Then God stirred the hearts of the priests and Levites and the leaders of the tribes of Judah and Benjamin to go to Jerusalem to rebuild the Temple of the Lord. 6 And all their neighbors assisted by giving them articles of silver and gold, supplies for the journey, and livestock. They gave them many valuable gifts in addition to all the voluntary offerings.

7 King Cyrus himself brought out the articles that King Nebuchadnezzar had taken from the Lord's Temple in Jerusalem and had placed in the temple of his own gods. 8 Cyrus directed Mithredath, the treasurer of Persia, to count these items and present them to Sheshbazzar, the leader of the exiles returning to Judah. 9 This is a list of the items that were returned:

gold basins..............................................30

silver basins.......................................1,000

silver incense burners..........................29

10 gold bowls...............................................30

silver bowls...........................................410

other items........................................1,000

11 In all, there were 5,400 articles of gold and silver. Sheshbazzar brought all of these along when the exiles went from Babylon to Jerusalem.

Notes

1:1 the Lord fulfilled the prophecy. Lit., "in order to complete the word of the Lord." The infinitive construct keloth [TH3615, ZH3983] (complete, fulfill) indicates purpose. The text does not just assure the reader that God fulfilled his promise through Jeremiah; it makes it clear that God acted with the purpose of completing what he said he would do. This fine distinction highlights God's faithfulness to his foreordained plans. The "word of the Lord" refers to Jeremiah's prophecy of 70 years of exile (Jer 25:11-12; 29:10), as well as to key passages in Isaiah (Coggins 1976:11). The 70 years of exile began in 605 b.c. when the first groups of Hebrews were brought to Babylon (Dan 1:1-3), and came to an end following Cyrus's decree that allowed the people to return to Jerusalem in 538 b.c.. If it took around a year for people in exile to get ready to return (to sell their homes and businesses) and then walk the 800 miles back to Jerusalem, then the people should have arrived in Jerusalem no later than 536 b.c.. See G. Larsson 1967:417-423 and C. F. Whiteley 1954:60-72 for further discussion. Allen (2003:16) points out that there is no evidence that Jews from the northern nation of Israel who were taken captive by the Assyrians in 721 b.c. returned to Yehud (Judah) at this time.

He stirred the heart of Cyrus. Lit., "The Lord stirred the spirit of Cyrus." The reason for Cyrus's proclamation was God's persuasive movement in his life. The Hebrew word he'ir [TH5782, ZH6424] (arouse, stir, move) refers to actions that enliven a person to do something. When the heart is stirred, it is motivated to respond and cannot sit passively. The prophecies about God's stirring up Cyrus's spirit are found in Jer 51:1 (see also Isa 13:17; 45:13; Jer 50:9). Information about the timing of God's fulfillment was derived from Jeremiah's prophecy concerning the 70 years of captivity, but the idea of God's stirring up Cyrus's heart is common to both Isaiah and Jeremiah. Ezra 1:1 and the other references to Cyrus emphasize that this king would not act on his own accord but was stirred or aroused to act by God. Not even the Persian Empire or its powerful king controls the future—God does (for a word study of this key concept of he'ir, see NIDOTTE 3.357-360).

1:2 This is what King Cyrus of Persia says. This standard formula for introducing messages in the ancient Near East is found often in the Bible and is sometimes called a "messenger formula."

The Lord, the God of heaven. "God of heaven" ('elohe hashamayim [TH430/8064, ZH466/9028]) is a typical title in the postexilic books (17 times in Ezra, Nehemiah, and Daniel) to identify the God of the Hebrews as a high god rather than a local deity connected to a specific city or part of nature. It is quite unexpected that the pagan king Cyrus would use the Hebrew divine name Yahweh (cf. NLT, "Lord"), for even the Hebrews tended not to speak this name for fear of taking God's name in vain. It is possible that Cyrus knew this name because of Daniel (Dan 6). On the other hand, this statement may actually be the author's interpretation of the essence of what Cyrus said; thus, it would not be an exact quote, but would capture the spirit of what Cyrus said from a Hebrew theological perspective.

1:4 let their neighbors contribute toward their expenses. It is unclear if "their neighbors" (lit., "the men of his place") just referred to Jewish neighbors, as the use of sha'ar [TH7604, ZH8636] (cf. 1 Chr 13:2; 2 Chr 30:6; 36:20) might suggest (Bickerman 1946:258-260), or if this means that both Jews and Babylonians (Brockington 1969:49) helped the returnees with their financial or travel needs. The suggestion that Babylonians gave assistance proposes an unusual situation in which pagans were helping provide sacrifices for Israel's God. One should not read into this verse a parallel to the Israelites' spoiling the Egyptians as some do (see Blenkinsopp 1988:75; Allen 2003:17; see Exod 3:21-22; 12:35-36). In this case, fellow Hebrews who stayed in Babylon provided financial aid and animals for sacrifices to their Hebrew brothers who returned to Jerusalem. There was no "spoiling" when the Hebrew people left Babylon, God did not defeat the Babylonians with plagues, and there was no second Passover or anything similar to the Red Sea crossing. The only thing that is somewhat similar to the Exodus is that in both cases Hebrew people left a foreign land to return to Israel.

1:5 God stirred the hearts of the priests and Levites and the leaders of the tribes of Judah and Benjamin. God sovereignly moved spiritual leaders (priests and Levites) who were needed to renew worship in Jerusalem, as well as the sociopolitical heads of key family units. Important leaders, who could secure the unified effort of an extended family toward a common goal, headed up the ancestral houses (ra'she ha'aboth [TH218/1, ZH8031/3], "heads/ chief of the fathers"), the basic social unit in the postexilic era. Living on the ancestral land would be difficult at best, so survival in a hostile economic and political setting like Yehud was next to impossible for a single family. These extended family units provided the necessary numbers and skills to form a self-sufficient group, so they would immigrate as a unit. This verse suggests that no members of the other 10 tribes of Israel returned at this point. One of the reasons for this is that they were exiled by Assyria about 140 years before the people of Judah came to Babylon. This verse, however, does not address what happened in other parts of the empire, so one should not argue from its silence that no one from the other tribes returned.

1:6 all their neighbors assisted. Like the admonition in 1:4, this phrase (kol-sebibothehem [TH3605/5439, ZH3972/6017], "all those surrounding them") is vague and includes the possibility of both Jewish and Babylonian help (Williamson 1985:16). Some find an Exodus motif behind this statement and try to make this act comparable with the plundering of the Egyptians in Exod 12:35-36, but there is no slavery in this context or plundering of anyone here (contra Breneman 1993:71; Van Wijk-Bos 1998:18, 20). This association with the Exodus reads too much into the text and inserts a parallelism that was not clearly expressed by the writer. Although a comparison of the return of the exiles from Babylon with the Exodus is present in other texts, that association was not clearly made here.

1:7 articles that King Nebuchadnezzar had taken from the Lord's Temple. These "articles" (keli [TH3627, ZH3998], "vessels") were the gold and silver basins, incense burners, and bowls used in the sacrificial system at the Temple in Jerusalem (listed in 1:9-11). Nebuchadnezzar may have taken these in the 586 or 605 b.c. captivities of Judah (see 2 Kgs 25:13-14; Jer 52:17; Dan 1:1-2) and put them in Marduk's temple in Babylon. These were the same vessels that Belshazzar drank from the night Babylon was captured (Dan 5:23). The act of putting the vessels in Marduk's temple symbolized Marduk's power over Israel's God. There is some confusion about whether all the utensils were returned at this time because 7:19 refers to additional utensils being returned to the Temple in 458 b.c.. Presumably, these new cultic utensils in 7:19 are gifts from the Persian authorities and not part of the original vessels taken from the Temple in Jerusalem by Nebuchadnezzar.

1:8 Mithredath, the treasurer. It is unclear why the "treasurer" (gizbar [TH1489, ZH1601], a Persian loan word) would be in charge of these items unless these valuable items of gold and silver were being stored in the treasury instead of in the temple of Marduk.

Sheshbazzar, the leader of the exiles. Lit., "Sheshbazzar, the prince of Judah." Later in 5:14-16 Sheshbazzar is called the appointed "governor" who laid the foundations of the Temple. Other biblical texts state that Zerubbabel was involved with laying the foundation (3:2-10) and was governor (Hag 1:1), but totally ignore Sheshbazzar. One solution to this problem is to hypothesize that these two names refer to the same person. First Esdras 6:18 and Josephus (Antiquities 11.13-14) indicate that these were Babylonian and Hebrew names for the same person, similar to Daniel's having a Hebrew and a Babylonian name (Belteshazzar in Dan 1:7). Unfortunately, the Bible never makes this identification, and most commentaries conclude that both names are Babylonian. Some suggest that Sheshbazzar is Jehoiachin's fourth son Shenazzar (1 Chr 3:17-18), who died shortly after arriving back with the exiles (Clines 1984:41). Others believe the title "prince of Judah" was added by a later, ill-informed editor (Williamson 1985:18), while a few link this prince with the one mentioned in Ezek 45:7, 9, 17, 22 (Levenson 1976:57-73). None of these options are as attractive as concluding that Cyrus gave Sheshbazzar official responsibilities for the return from Babylon and that Zerubbabel was a high Jewish official who worked with Sheshbazzar and took over his responsibilities when he died. There are no records to indicate when this happened, but it probably took place fairly soon (within two years) after the people returned to Jerusalem. Thus, both were governors (Zerubbabel was later), and both had been involved in laying the foundation of the Temple.

1:9-10 basins... incense burners... bowls. It is difficult to identify what these utensils were. The "basin" ('agartal [TH105, ZH113]) was some kind of dish, the "incense burner" (makhalap [TH4252, ZH4709]) was some kind of pan that was used for burning incense (though the Hebrew text does not say it was silver, it is likely they were made of silver), and the kepor [TH3713, ZH4094] was some kind of bowl. They were all used in the Temple to hold blood, incense, or other kinds of offerings.

1:11 In all, there were 5,400 articles of gold and silver. The total number of items listed equals 2,499, not 5,400. First Esdras 2:13-15 has a longer list adding up to 5,469, but this does not represent the sum of the items listed. Josephus did not total his list, but his items come to 5,400 (Antiquities 11.15). Williamson observed an irregularity in the order of the usual listing of items (object, metal, number) in 1:10 and concluded that a large number has dropped out by a scribal error (1985:5). It was probably not necessary to exhaustively list all the objects given to Sheshbazzar (for example, no knives were included in the list), so it is best to accept the final figure in 1:11 as an approximate, round number of the items returned and to understand the list in 1:9-10 as partial.

Commentary

This narrative describes one of the great miraculous events in the history of Israel. This return to Jerusalem was not accompanied with plagues, the dividing of the Red Sea, or the defeat of Israel's oppressors, but it was seen as the process that led to the rebirth of the nation in its native land, the Promised Land of Israel. This was not a second "exodus" event (though Isaiah pictured Israel's future in those terms) but a unique "return" to the land by people who were not oppressed in harsh slavery. Although the secular mind might look at these events as a natural outworking of wise political decisions by the Persians and find no miraculous work by God, Ezra 1 emphasizes that God made all this happen when he stirred up the spirit of Cyrus and the hearts of many of the exiles (1:1-2, 5).

It is surprising to have a pagan king claim that the Hebrew God, Yahweh ("the Lord"), moved him to do these things and that this God gave him all the kingdoms of the earth. What is the reader to think of this? Was Cyrus a Jewish convert or did the Jewish author of Ezra put words in his mouth based on his own Hebrew theology? When this decree is compared to the original Aramaic copy of Cyrus's decree in 6:3-5, the content and theology are quite different. Were there two decrees? Some conclude that this proclamation was not Cyrus's actual decree but a Jewish version (Myers 1965:5) or that this was a summary of Cyrus's statement in the Cyrus Cylinder. This clay cylinder reveals that Cyrus "returned to [these] sacred cities on the other side of the Tigris... and established for them permanent sanctuaries. I [also] gathered all their [former] inhabitants and returned [to them] their habitations" (ANET 316). Although this contains a similar idea to 1:1-4, the two are different enough to conclude that Cyrus made a separate decree for the Jewish people (and probably for other ethnic or religious groups too). Cyrus was a Zoroastrian who followed the Persian god Ahura Mazda, but he was very tolerant of other religious systems. (See Boyce 1982 for more information on the theology and growth of Zoroastrianism.) For political reasons, when he wrote to the Babylonians, he acknowledged that the Babylonian god Marduk chose him and gave him military victories (ANET 315-316). It appears that Cyrus's proclamation in 1:2-4 was also a politically designed proclamation using conventional terminology (possibly with the help of Jewish officials to get the name of their God right) to gain the support of his Jewish audience. This document had a different purpose from the building permit in 6:3-5; it simply grants permission to return rather than spelling out details such as how big the Temple should be.

Whatever motivations Cyrus had, the fundamental testimony of Scripture is that God acts powerfully to cause people to do his will. This conclusion is based on the evidence that God had developed a plan that he partially revealed to his people many years earlier (Isa 45:1; Jer 29:10). In this predetermined plan, God indicated what he would do (send the people back to rebuild Jerusalem), who would be involved (Cyrus would send Israel home), and when it would happen (in 70 years). Such precision is exceptional, for most prophecies do not include a specific time of fulfillment in years or the names of specific individuals in the future. But in other ways this prophecy is like most other prophecies. In all cases God reveals a portion of his determined will to people so that they will know that they can trust him for their future. He rules over the affairs of men and nations and knows how things will turn out. This foreknowledge is predicated on his ability to control what people will do. If he could not rule over human existence, then uncontrollable forces would eventually interfere with what he planned to accomplish. Ezra 1 assures the reader that God caused pagan kings to fit into his preannounced plans (1:1), caused them to be unusually generous (1:2-4), appointed them to do his will to fulfill his plan (1:2), and revived his people's desire to worship him (1:5). God's sovereign rule explains why things happen as they do.

This implies that everything that happens has theological significance because it is a part of God's plan. Although most people today do not read the newspaper through the lens of God's sovereign plan, God is still actively involved in the details of his master plan for this earth. God has not forgotten what to do next, and he knows the timing for each point in the plan. He will complete that plan by moving people's hearts and minds to do amazing things to accomplish his will. As in the time of Ezra, people need to be ready to act in obedience when God stirs their hearts to follow his plan.

To the Israelites, as well as to God, the continuation of a worshiping community of believers in Jerusalem was of utmost importance. By releasing the precious Temple utensils, Cyrus affirmed the legitimacy of Israel's God and his right to have worship at his own Temple in Judah. Possession of these valuable items created continuity between the ancient past and the new worship activities in Jerusalem. These utensils also gave legitimacy to this new worship. The returnees would worship at the same place using the same Temple utensils as their forefathers.

God had totally rejected the sinful Israelite nation in the past because of their worship of pagan gods. If God's name was to be praised, certain things must be done. The holy God must have a certain kind of altar and a prescribed Temple with appropriate sacrifices offered by pure Levitical priests. The only way for this to happen was for God to establish a new community of believers who knew what would please him from his instructions in the Torah. So God brought his own people back to Jerusalem, not some new group of people. This continuity with the past would assure that the people would return to God's chosen place in Jerusalem (not to some other Temple site), that they would want to rebuild the Temple to worship him (not just rebuild their businesses), and that appropriate priests would use holy utensils to worship God (pagan worship must be excluded). Revival needed to happen among God's own people first if any of this was ever going to take place. Afterwards it would be possible for these people to reach out to others and invite them to observe the wonderful things that God was doing.

This theme of reviving the old community suggests that God will probably work this way in the future. Continuity with the past assures purity and the legitimacy of the new community. Although many look at the Old Testament, the Reformation, or even the old songs and behavioral requirements of their grandparents as outmoded, God connects his present work with his past revelation, his past works of redemption with his future acts of salvation, his past community of believers with his new followers, and his past worship with new ways to praise him. Continuity with the past gives believers the assurance that they are on the right track. The old-time religion is the true faith that is good enough for everyone today, even when it looks or sounds a little different in its modern dress. The same God who guided Israel in the past is in charge of world events today. Our faith does not need to be revised by modern philosophical concepts that destroy the simple truth that we can trust and worship God because he loves us and still rules over everything in our world.