RESTORATION OF THE TEMPLE INITIATED BY THE SOVEREIGN INTERVENTION OF THE DECREE OF CYRUS TO FULFIL COVENANTAL PROMISES
What’s so important about bringing captive Israel back to her homeland and rebuilding the temple to reinstitute the sacrificial worship system of God’s covenant people? How is God able to direct the heart of a pagan world leader and his people to support such a movement? Why is it so important that the covenantal promises to Israel be fulfilled in explicit detail? What type of hope and encouragement did this decree of Cyrus provide to the beleaguered nation of Israel? All of these questions must be considered in studying this initial chapter of the Book of Ezra.
Israel Loken: In this passage, those who chose to return to the land of Judah took a significant leap of faith. The journey was perilous, and they had no idea what awaited them in the promised land. In a sense, their act of faith was similar to those of Abraham and the exodus generation. In each case, the people of God knew that they were acting according to the Lord’s will. What about your own circumstances? Is there something in your life that God is calling you to do or somewhere that He is sending you? Follow the example of the faithful remnant and take that leap of faith. The Lord will provide for your needs, and the spiritual reward will be well worth the effort.
Breneman: Throughout chap. 1 the author’s purpose was clearly to show the small postexilic Jewish community their legitimate continuity with the pre-exilic community and with God’s plan of redemption. Therefore he used motifs from the exodus; he emphasized God’s providence; he mentioned Judah, Benjamin, priests, and Levites; and he explained that even the former articles from the temple had been returned. How thrilling this climax must have been to his readers, “when the exiles came up from Babylon to Jerusalem” (v. 11). In light of subsequent history God’s continuing work in that community, which culminated in providing the Messiah and the promised salvation, demonstrates that this was one of the most important events in history.
I. (:1-4) DECREE BY CYRUS TO RETURN AND REBUILD THE LORD’S HOUSE IN JERUSALEM
A. (:1) Decree Initiated by the Sovereignty of God to Fulfil Covenantal Promise
1. Historical Timestamp – The Bible Records Historical Events
“Now in the first year of Cyrus king of Persia,”
Fensham: This book starts with a connecting waw exactly like I Kings. Some scholars are of the opinion that this waw proves that Chronicles and Ezra-Nehemiah were written by the same person. Other scholars do not attach too much significance to this phenomenon. It is not strange according to the semitic style to start a book with a waw, especially when the author intended to write a continuation of the history of his people. He connects the history which he wants to write with the already-written history of his people by using the conjunction “and.”
Rata: 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. The first year here refers “to the first year of the conquering of Babylon when he became king of Mesopotamia.” 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.
2. Prophetic Promise – God is Faithful to His Word
“in order to fulfill the word of the LORD by the mouth of Jeremiah,”
MacArthur: Jeremiah had prophesied the return of the exiles after a 70-year captivity in Babylon (Jer 25:11; 29:10-14; cf. Dan 9:2). This was no isolated event, but rather an outworking of the covenant promises made to Abraham in Ge 12:1-3.
Or cf. Is. 45:13 (Williamson)
3. Sovereign Intervention – God is Sovereign Over Kings and Nations
“the LORD stirred up the spirit of Cyrus king of Persia,”
MacArthur: A strong expression of the fact that God sovereignly works in the lives of kings to effect His purposes (Pr 21:1; Da 2:21; 4:17).
4. Public Proclamation – Both Heralded and Recorded
“so that he sent a proclamation throughout all his kingdom, and also put it in writing, saying,”
MacArthur: vv. 1-3da – These verses are almost identical to 2 Chron. 36:22-23. The pre-Exilic history of 1 and 2 Chronicles gave the post-Exilic returnees direction regarding the Davidic kingship, the Aaronic priesthood, and temple worship. This book continues the story.
Fensham: In accordance with the spirit of the decree of Cyrus in which special attention was given to minority groups, a proclamation by heralds was sent out to be communicated orally to the various Jewish communities. The official written document was then given to the communities as proof of the proclamation. It is quite probable that this document was written in Aramaic, the language of diplomacy in the Persian empire (cf. also 6:3–5).
B. (:2) Decree Issued by the Persian Sovereign Cyrus as Divinely Commissioned
“Thus says Cyrus king of Persia,”
1. Delegated Authority and Dominion
“The LORD, the God of heaven,
has given me all the kingdoms of the earth,”
John Martin: “God of heaven” – points to God’s sovereignty. He is the One who made heaven (Gen. 14:19, 22; 2 Chron. 2:12; Ps. 115:15), who is in heaven (Deut. 4:39; 1 Kings 8:30, 39, 43, 49; Ecc. 5:2), and who reigns from His throne in heaven (Isa. 66:1). Though Cyrus was a monarch over an extensive empire, Yahweh is far greater for He rules from heaven.
2. Divine Commission
“and He has appointed me to build Him a house in Jerusalem,
which is in Judah.”
Whitcomb: It is not necessary to assume that the liberator was a true believer (cf. Isa 45:4 – “I have surnamed thee though thou hast not known me”). The famous cuneiform Cyrus Cylinder records this prayer of the Persian king: “May all the gods whom I have resettled in their sacred cities ask daily Bel and Nebo for a long life for me . . .” Cyrus probably recognized the God of Israel as one of the most important deities, especially if Daniel showed him the prophecies of Isaiah (Josephus, Antiq. 11.1.1). This decree was filed in Ecbatana, where Darius I discovered it twenty years later (Ezr 6:2).
John Martin: Cyrus’ concern was to establish strong buffer states around his empire which would be loyal to him. Also by having his subject peoples resettled in their own countries he hoped to have the gods in various parts of his empire praying for him to his gods Bel and Nebo.
C. (:3) Decree Instructs the Jews to Return and Rebuild the House of God in Jerusalem
1. Release with the King’s Blessing
“Whoever there is among you of all His people,
may his God be with him!”
Rata: 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” whose view of Yahweh is limited even though he knows Him by the divine name (1:1).
2. Return and Rebuild = the Specific Mission
“Let him go up to Jerusalem which is in Judah,
and rebuild the house of the LORD, the God of Israel;”
Williamson: The jussives may express permission rather than a strict command.
3. Reputation of the God of Israel — Amazing Testimony of Cyrus
“He is the God who is in Jerusalem.”
D. (:4) Decree Invites Valuable Resources to be Donated Towards the Project
“And every survivor, at whatever place he may live, let the men of that place support him with silver and gold, with goods and cattle, together with a freewill offering for the house of God which is in Jerusalem.”
II. (:5-11) DEDICATION OF PEOPLE AND RESOURCES TO THE MISSION
A. (:5) Dedication of Jews to Participate in the Mission
“Then the heads of fathers’ households of Judah and Benjamin and the priests and the Levites arose, even everyone whose spirit God had stirred to go up and rebuild the house of the LORD which is in Jerusalem.”
Rata: 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.
Derek Kidner: Nearly two hundred years after the kingdom of Israel had disintegrated, the remains of the little kingdom of Judah, which had always included some members of the other tribes, still had some cohesion and could rightly bear the name of Israel (cf. 1:3b; 2:2b).
Gary Smith: 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, . . . 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.
Breneman: The author emphasized the rebuilding of the temple and the vessels that belonged in it. From the beginning he made clear that he considered the restoration and rebuilding of the worshiping community as the most significant event in this history. Here is a parallel with the exodus. The large section of the Book of Exodus dedicated to the construction of the tabernacle and the establishment of worship (chaps. 25–40) is often given little attention by the modern reader. Perhaps Ezra-Nehemiah is often neglected because it deals with the same theme. However, “It must not be overlooked that revelatory events only continue to be revelatory through the formation of some kind of community structure which ‘remembers’ the event and reflects on its implications for life.” Religious traditions and “institutionalization” may sometimes become obstacles to true faith if they become the objects of faith, but they are also necessary to the survival of faith and faithfulness to God’s word. . .
God’s work requires decision and faith, but it also calls for planning and preparation and demands a specific goal. The establishment of the Jewish community in their land was important; but here the immediate, realizable goal was the construction of the temple. We can imagine the intense discussion in the villages where Jews lived, the difficulty of making such a momentous decision, and the packing of clothes and household essentials. No doubt those who were leaving had to sell or give away some of their possessions.
B. (:6) Dedication of Resources Donated from Their Neighbors
“And all those about them encouraged them with articles of silver, with gold, with goods, with cattle, and with valuables, aside from all that was given as a freewill offering.”
Commentators debate whether this is a reference to Gentile neighbors in parallel fashion to the Egyptian Exodus, or whether these were largely fellow Jews who chose to stay behind. I tend to see some parallels to the Exodus here.
Whitcomb: Only about 50,000 Jews returned (cf. 2:64-65). The majority decided to remain in Babylonia, where many were well settled (Jer 29:4-7). Thus, they were in a position to help those who did return. Gentiles, too, probably gave gifts (cf. Ex. 12:35, 36).
C. (:7-11) Dedication of Resources Formerly Plundered from the Jews by Nebuchadnezzar
1. (:7) Significance of These Resources
“Also King Cyrus brought out the articles of the house of the LORD, which Nebuchadnezzar had carried away from Jerusalem and put in the house of his gods;”
Israel Loken: The return of the temple articles served several purposes. First, it vindicated Yahweh and showed His power over patron gods. In a sense, the return of the temple vessels corresponded to the return of the ark of the covenant by the Philistines. Second, it fulfilled prophecy. The return of the temple vessels had been predicted in Isa 52:11, a prediction fulfilled by Cyrus. Third, it made the worship of the returning remnant more authentic. Not only was the temple to be rebuilt, but worship was to be restored. Fourth, it demonstrated the continuity of this generation with previous ones.
Breneman: The fact that “King Cyrus brought out the articles” is significant. When a king captured a nation, he would take that nation’s gods (images) and cult objects to his own capital. This symbolized the victory of his gods over the gods of the subject peoples. So in addition to their great value as beautiful and costly objects, they symbolized religious values. In 587 Nebuchadnezzar had carried these objects to Babylon. Cyrus’s decision to return the objects used in Israelite worship (of course there were no images of God) shows his seriousness in respecting his subjects’ religion and customs. The memorandum of Cyrus’s decree in Ezra 6:5 specifically mentions that these objects were to be returned to the temple in Jerusalem.
2. (:8-10) Stewardship of These Resources
a. (:8) Stewardship Administered by Key Leaders
1) Role of Mithredath the Treasurer
“and Cyrus, king of Persia, had them brought out
by the hand of Mithredath the treasurer,”
2) Role of Sheshbazzar the Prince of Judah
“and he counted them out to Sheshbazzar,
the prince of Judah.”
Gary Smith: 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.
b. (:9-10) Stewardship Accounted for by Categories
“Now this was their number:”
1) “30 gold dishes,”
2) “1,000 silver dishes,”
3) “29 duplicates;”
4) “30 gold bowls,”
5) “410 silver bowls of a second kind,”
6) “and 1,000 other articles.”
3. (:11) Summary of These Resources
“All the articles of gold and silver numbered 5,400. Sheshbazzar brought them all up with the exiles who went up from Babylon to Jerusalem.”
MacArthur: The 2,499 articles counted in vv. 9, 10 are only representative of the total of 5,400 mentioned in v. 11. . . journey took 3 to 5 months (cf. Ezr 7: 8, 9).
Whitcomb: The 2,499 vessels listed in 1:9, 10 may have been the largest or most important ones.