Ezra 1

Outline

  1. 1:1-4 God moves the heart of Cyrus
  2. 1:5-11 God moves the heart of His people

I. God moves the heart of Cyrus (1:1-4)

1:1 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:

Cyrus the Great was the dominant king of the Achaemenid dynasty and is credited with being the founder of the Persian Empire. He reigned from 559 to 530 bc, and under his rule Persia enjoyed great military expansion through dominance of Media, Lydia, Ionia, and even Babylonia. (Downers Grove, Il., IVP, 2005), 286. The earliest mention of “Cyrus the king of Persia” occurs in the Nabonidus Chronicle (ANET, 306). The first year here refers “to the first year of the conquering of Babylon when he became king of Mesopotamia.” NICOT (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1982), 42. Through the eighth century prophet Isaiah, God calls Cyrus “my shepherd” (Isa. 44:28) and “the Lord’s anointed” (Isa. 45:1), pointing to God’s sovereign control of both history and Cyrus’ heart. Williamson correctly points out that “the biblical writer, however, is concerned not merely with the external facts of history, which he may have derived from the heading or other note of identification on the copy of the decree itself...; rather he is concerned with their divine ordering and purpose.” WBC vol. 16 (Waco, Texas: Word, 1985), 9. Through the prophet Jeremiah God revealed that the exile would last 70 years. Jeremiah 25:11 says, “This whole land shall become a ruin and a waste, and these nations shall serve the king of Babylon seventy years.” The 70 years can refer to the period between the destruction of the temple (586 bc) and the time it was rebuilt (516 bc) AB (Garden City, New York: Doubleday, 1965), 6., or it can describe the time lapsed from the destruction of Assyria (609 bc) to the edict of Cyrus (539 bc). 116 (4:2004): 595-601. The Hebrew text is clear that the proclamation was put “in writing,” an expression that “occurs only seven times in the Old Testament and is a technical term meaning “inscription” or “official document.” 116 (4:2004): 4.

1:2 Thus says Cyrus king of Persia: “The Lord, the God of heaven, has given me all the kingdoms of the earth, and he has charged me to build him a house at Jerusalem, which is in Judah.

The fact that Cyrus recognizes God as Yahweh is consistent with Achaemenid policy, that of using “the title of the god or gods recognized by the local population, but that this does not imply that they themselves were ‘converted’ to these religions from their own worship of Ahura Mazda.” The expression “God of heaven” occurs nine times in the Old Testament and each reference refers to Yahweh. Breneman suggests that “the phrase ‘God of heaven’ was commonly used in the Persian Empire even by the Persians in speaking of their god.” NAC, vol. 10 (Nashville: Broadman and Holman, 1993), 171. The expression also occurs in Genesis 24:3; 24:7; 2 Chron. 36:23; Ezr. 1:2; Neh. 1:4; 1:5; 2:4; 2:20; Jonah 1:9. However, this God is not only the Creator God, but also the God who directs Cyrus to rebuild the temple in Jerusalem. Through the prophet Isaiah God “says of Cyrus, ‘He is my shepherd, and he shall fulfill all my purpose’; saying of Jerusalem, ‘She shall be built,’ and of the temple, ‘Your foundation shall be laid’” (Isa. 44:28).

Cyrus cylinder – Inscribed in Babylonian cuneiform with an account by Cyrus of his conquest of Babylon in 539 bc and capture of Nabonidus, the last Babylonian king.

1:3 Whoever 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 rebuild the house of the Lord, the God of Israel—he is the God who is in Jerusalem.

The word “all” used here points to a total repatriation wherein all Jews from both the Assyrian and Babylonian exile are invited to return to their homeland. The permissive “let him go up” indicates that Cyrus does not command the Jews to return, but rather he allows them to return. While the Babylonians ruled with an iron fist, forcing their subjects to worship their gods, Cyrus allowed those whom he conquered to worship their own gods. The expression “the God who is in Jerusalem” appears ten other times in Ezra, and points to Cyrus’ practice of viewing deities in relation to a place. Cyrus was “an Iranian polytheist” 137/547 (1980), 200. whose view of Yahweh is limited even though he knows Him by the divine name (1:1).

1:4 And let each survivor, in whatever place he sojourns, be assisted by the men of his place with silver and gold, with goods and with beasts, besides freewill offerings for the house of God that is in Jerusalem.

Although not all those who were free to return wanted to return, they were to assist those who wanted to do so. It is also very plausible that, just as the Egyptians gave the Jews material possessions when they left Egypt in the time of Moses, so did the Persians during this return. The parallels between Cyrus and Moses as deliverers were meant to encourage the people of God. Freewill offerings were also brought by the Israelites during the building of the tabernacle in the wilderness. This time the freewill offerings were meant to finance the rebuilding of the temple in Jerusalem which had been destroyed by Nebuchadnezzar’s army in 587/6 bc. This “second Exodus” represents the rebirth of the nation of Israel after the exile. The freewill offerings identify the Jewish community as a worshipping community that is meant to have Jerusalem and the temple as its focus.

II. God moves the hearts of His people (1:5-11)

1:5-6 Then rose up the heads of the fathers’ houses of Judah and Benjamin, and the priests and the Levites, everyone whose spirit God had stirred to go up to rebuild the house of the Lord that is in Jerusalem. 6 And all who were about them aided them with vessels of silver, with gold, with goods, with beasts, and with costly wares, besides all that was freely offered.

The writer is clear that God is in control of both history and people’s hearts. It is He who stirs up the spirit of the people to take action. Judah and Benjamin are singled out because the Southern Kingdom was mainly made up of those two tribes, along with the tribe of Simeon which had been assimilated into the tribe of Judah. The term “Judah and Benjamin” appears frequently in Chronicles, as well as Ezra–Nehemiah, and it does not imply a denial of the descendants of the other ten tribes. The remnant returning is divided into three classes: priests, Levites, and laity. Verse 6 suggests a reversal of fortunes for the Jews who were in exile. Now, the people of God who are returning to their homeland do so enhanced not only by golden and silver vessels, but also by animals to help with transportation.

1:7 Cyrus the king also brought out the vessels of the house of the Lord that Nebuchadnezzar had carried away from Jerusalem and placed in the house of his gods.

The Chronicler depicts Nebuchadnezzar BHQ 20 (Stuttgart: Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft, 2006), 39. as the one who destroyed Jerusalem, burned the temple, and stole goods from it (2 Chron. 36:18). Yamauchi explains that “conquerors customarily carried off the statues of the gods of conquered cities. The Hittites took the statue of Marduk when they conquered the city of Babylon. The Philistines took the ark of the Jews and placed it in the temple of Dagon (1 Sam. 5:2). As the Jews did not have a statue of the Lord, Nebuchadnezzar carried off the temple goods instead.”, EBC, 4:604.

1:8 Cyrus king of Persia brought these out in charge of Mithredath the treasurer, who counted them out to Sheshbazzar the prince of Judah.

The name “Sheshbazzar” occurs four times in Ezra, later revealing that he was made governor by Cyrus (5:14) and that he laid the foundation of the temple (5:16). While some try to identify Sheshbazzar with Zerubabbel, that “is an improbable hypothesis.” 11.13-14). Some rabbis suggested that “Sheshbazzar is identical with Daniel...because he endured six troubles.” (New York: Judaica, 2000), 117. The title “prince” is the Hebrew word hannasi which can be translated “prince,” or “chief.” Here it is probably just a synonym for “governor”.

1:9-11 And this was the number of them: 30 basins of gold, 1,000 basins of silver, 29 censers, 1030 bowls of gold, 410 bowls of silver, and 1,000 other vessels; all the vessels of gold and of silver were 5,400. 11 All these did Sheshbazzar bring up, when the exiles were brought up from Babylonia to Jerusalem.

The numbers do not add up: 30 + 1000 + 29 + 30 + 410 + 1,000 equals 2,499, and verse 11 mentions 5,400. Fensham suggests that “The transmission from Aramaic to Hebrew might have caused many of the problems in these verses.” Rabbi Rashi proposes that only important vessels were counted, while Segal suggests that the list was compiled using symbols, accounting for the discrepancy in numbers. Segal cites Allrik who proposed that the numbers found in Ezra “were composed using symbols to represent the numbers, and not words... Such a system helps to explain the discrepancies between those two lists.”

Table 3: The Chronology of Ezra 162/2 (2005), 37.

Date Events Chapter Reference
538 The first return under Cyrus 1-2
538-536 The rebuilding of the altar and foundation of the temple 3
Post 538 The refused offer of help and ensuing opposition 4:1-5
520-515 Temple reconstruction hindered until Darius’s second year, work revived under Haggai and Zechariah, Tattenai’s investigation, Darius’s support, and rebuilding of the temple 4:24-6:22
486 Opposition during the reign of Xerxes 4:6
465 Opposition during the reign of Artaxerxes 4:7
458 Return of Ezra with imperial grant 7-8
458 Problem of mixed marriages exposed and resolved 9-10
Post 458 Successful opposition to rebuilding of Jerusalem and its walls during the reign of Artaxerxes 4:8-23

Today’s Christian leader can rest secure in the thought that the same God who directed history during the time of Ezra is the same God who directs our history. Despite economic uncertainties or corrupt government leadership at the local, nation, or global level, God is the One who is in charge of history. God can overcome any human obstacles to accomplish His will and plan, but just like in time of Ezra, He uses godly and committed men and women who are ready to submit to His Word and will.