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Discouragement is a powerful tool of Satan. God’s people had returned from exile – excited about their commission to rebuild the house of God. But after repeated opposition and defeat, they had been diverted to less important priorities (like home improvement projects) for the past 16 years. Discouragement and acceptance of the status quo had set in. The prophets powerfully delivered God’s Word of exhortation to motivate the people to restart the temple building project and to persevere and remain on task despite further opposition. Their conviction regarding the significance and legitimacy of their mission helped them in their interactions with the government officials that were raising critical questions.

Williamson: (Chaps 5-6) — Although this section is longer than most, it has a transparent unity not only in the fact that it all deals with the rebuilding of the second temple, but also in the fact that, apart from the introduction and conclusion, it centers entirely on Tattenai’s inquiry and its outcome. To attempt a division into smaller independent units would thus be a quite arbitrary procedure. Of course, the narrative is made up of a number of easily recognizable paragraphs, but these relate closely to one another and so cannot be treated exegetically in isolation.

The work of building comes to its conclusion by 6:15. The reference in v 14 to the prophesying of Haggai and Zechariah and the command of the God of Israel forms a clear narrative inclusio with the start of the section in 5:1, while the allusion to the decrees of the Persian kings acts as a summary recapitulation of the section as a whole. In terms of content, however, this can hardly be separated from the next paragraph, which describes the dedication of the temple (6:16–18), so that appropriately enough the author continues here in Aramaic, the language he has used throughout the account of the rebuilding.

Only 6:19–22 may thus be recognized as somewhat less closely attached. It describes the first Passover immediately following the dedication of the temple. The reference to the Lord’s changing the attitude of the ruling king toward the Jews so that he supported them manifests exactly the same theological outlook as seen already at 1:1, while others have noted the similarities with the end of chap. 3. This little paragraph thus serves as a most appropriate conclusion to the whole of Ezra 1–6. Consciousness of this fact, we may suggest, caused the author to revert to Hebrew. He thereby drew attention to the nature of this paragraph as a conclusion to his whole account and not just that of the events of 520–515 b.c. He may have also considered it more fitting to round off his narrative in Hebrew, it being the traditional language of his people and the language in which he had presented most of his material.

Gary Smith: This change [from negative events of chap. 4 to positive in chap. 5] came about because God sovereignly worked in the hearts of everyone; and in particular, his word through the prophets changed the hearts of the Jewish people in Jerusalem. As a result, they saw themselves as sinful but dedicated servants of God and developed a new attitude of cooperation and submission to government officials. The broadest theological theme that encompasses and explains everything that takes place on earth is the sovereign work of God. The prophets spoke because God sent them at just this time to deliver his message (5:1). The people’s attitude changed because of God’s sovereign work of stirring up the hearts of the people to fear and obey God (Hag 1:12–14). The Persians did not stop the work on the Temple because “God was watching over” everything (5:5). God’s powerful working in the history of the nations was confessed when the leaders recognized that God’s anger caused him to abandon them and let Nebuchadnezzar exile them to Babylon (5:12). In Ezra’s eyes, God was the main power directing history (Breneman 1993:108). His anger can bring disaster and destruction, but at other times he marvelously intervenes to allow people to succeed in very surprising ways. God worked with enemies, armies, and his own stubborn, sinful people, and no matter how powerful or sinful these human beings were, he was always in charge of each step along the way.

When things do not go well because of opposition, sinfulness, or the laziness of his people, God can direct history by changing people’s attitudes so they repent (Zech 1:1–6), fear God (Hag 1:12), and become his servants (5:11). God empowers people to change their theological perspective toward himself and their enemies by revealing his will through chosen prophets who boldly confront the false ideas that derail godly action (Hag 1). Haggai and Zechariah’s prophetic words challenged the status quo and showed the inconsistencies in the people’s perverted theological paradigms. When the Spirit anointed God’s prophetic word, people’s hearts were stirred. The word of God encouraged those who were weak and afraid to act in spite of opposition (Hag 1:14). Without God’s words of guidance, correction, and instruction, people tend to wander around in self-pity and hopelessness, not knowing what to do.

Once they have the word of God, people change their view of themselves and others. The Jewish leaders confessed that they had failed their God and that he was just in punishing them (5:11–12). They did not hide their faults and did not blame others for their difficult situation. But they did not see themselves as rebels, but as servants of the living God of heaven and earth (Holmgren 1987:43). As servants, they submitted their will to God’s instructions and his plans for their lives. They understood it was their responsibility to construct a Temple for worship of this God of heaven and earth. Their attitude toward their Persian overlords also changed: The people did not view them as the enemy and were not antagonistic or defiant toward them. They saw themselves as cooperative (Williamson 1985:87) and as obedient to the instructions in Cyrus’s decree (5:13; cf. Rom 13:1–5), and they wanted the new king, Darius I, to check the government records for this decree that Cyrus gave them. They did not try an end run around anyone or try to pervert the decree to make it say more than it actually said. Tattenai and Darius I were not demonized as the enemies of the people but viewed as the means God would use to grant approval for the rebuilding of the Temple. As long as the people were faithful servants of God and the king, God could work out the political details to finish the Temple according to his own timing.


A. (:1-2) Prophetic Support for the Rebuilding of the Temple

1. (:1) Exhortation of God’s Word Re-Commissioning the Project

“When the prophets, Haggai the prophet and Zechariah the son of Iddo, prophesied to the Jews who were in Judah and Jerusalem, in the name of the God of Israel, who was over them,”

MacArthur: The book of Haggai is styled as a royal administrative correspondence (cf. Hag 1:13) sent from the Sovereign King of the Universe through the “messenger of the Lord,” Haggai (Hag 1:13). Part of its message is addressed specifically to Zerubbabel, the political leader, and Joshua, the religious leader, telling them to “take courage . . . and work” on the temple because God was with them (Hag 2:4). These two prophets gave severe reproaches and threats if the people did not return to the building and promised national prosperity if they did. Not long after the exiles heard this message, the temple work began afresh after a 16 year hiatus.

McConville: There is always an effective answer to discouragement in the bold proclamation of the word of God.

2. (:2a) Leadership of Zerubbabel and Jeshua Restarting the Project

“then Zerubbabel the son of Shealtiel and Jeshua the son of Jozadak arose and began to rebuild the house of God which is in Jerusalem;”

Fensham: These verses set the scene in the second year of Darius, viz., the beginning of 519 b.c. At this time everything was still uncertain. From a political viewpoint this would have been the right time to restart building activities on the temple. Strict supervision in the Persian provinces was not possible. Nobody was certain who would be the next king. Accompanied by the political insight in the situation was the religious zeal of the prophets Haggai and Zechariah (Hag. 1:2, 12; 2: 1ff.; Zech. 3:1, 6). From their prophecies it is clear that the rebuilding of the temple was regarded as the only priority for the Jews. Haggai castigated the Jews for living in well-built houses and pursuing prosperous economic and agricultural activities while the temple was still in ruins (Hag. 1:2ff.).

3. (:2b) Partnership with the Prophets Re-Invigorating the Project

“and the prophets of God were with them supporting them.”

Rata: After sixteen years of the reconstruction work being at a standstill, it is the Word of the Lord that jumpstarts the process anew. The prophetic office did not die during the Babylonian exile and God’s prophets did not become extinct. A prophet was an intermediary who communicated God’s message to His people, and during this time of crisis God uses Haggai and Zechariah to reinvigorate His people. The book of Haggai focuses on the necessity of rebuilding the temple while Zechariah focuses on God’s sovereignty and human responsibility. Both Haggai and Zechariah speak “in the name of the God of Israel” who was “over them.” God was over both the prophets and the people, and believing that He is sovereignly in control gives the leaders incentive to resume the work of rebuilding. Zerubbabel is identified as “governor of Judah” by Haggai, and he plays an important role both in Ezra and Nehemiah. Jeshua (Joshua) is identified by Haggai as a high priest, so Zerubbabel and Jeshua served both as civic and spiritual leaders. The prophets continue to offer support to the leaders and the people as the rebuilding continues—both spiritual and material help—illustrating the concept of teamwork being characteristic of doing God’s work.

B. (:3-5) Governmental Oversight Investigating the Rebuilding of the Temple

1. (:3) Legitimacy of the Project Questioned by Tattenai

“At that time Tattenai, the governor of the province beyond the River, and Shethar-bozenai and their colleagues came to them and spoke to them thus, ‘Who issued you a decree to rebuild this temple and to finish this structure?’”

Loken: Immediately upon hearing the news that the Jews have resumed work on the temple, the governor of the province of Trans-Euphrates approached the remnant and questioned it regarding the project. His chief concern was assuredly whether or not these actions involved subversion. The Persian Empire had been teeming with revolts since the death of Cyrus, and the political situation became even worse at the time Darius took the throne. Since Darius was not an obvious heir, revolts erupted throughout the Persian Empire. It took nineteen different battles and a little more than a year, but Darius finally succeeded in solidifying his throne. These types of revolts were common in ancient times. There was always a period of uncertainty whenever a change in the monarchy occurred, especially when the new monarch was not a natural heir. Vassal nations frequently used opportunities like this to rebel against their suzerain. . .

It was the provincial governor’s duty to question the activity of the Jews. His responsibilities included the protection of the interests of the Persian king. From his point of view, it was entirely possible that the Jews were rebuilding portions of their city as part of a subversive plot to rebel against the Persians. As detailed in the previous section, the Jews had a history of rebelling against their suzerains. While Tattenai himself should not be regarded as an enemy of the Jews, he was likely informed of their efforts by those who were.

2. (:4) Leaders of the Project Documented for Tattenai

“Then we told them accordingly what the names of the men were who were reconstructing this building.”

Fensham: Tattenai arrived in Jerusalem and did two things expected of an able official: first, he asked the Jews who gave them permission for the rebuilding of the temple, and second, he took down the names of those responsible for it.

3. (:5) Labor Continued During the Investigative Process

“But the eye of their God was on the elders of the Jews, and they did not stop them until a report should come to Darius, and then a written reply be returned concerning it.”

Williamson: “The eye of God” is certainly a somewhat unusual expression (cf. Ps 33:18; 34:16 [15]; Job 36:7) that speaks of his caring watchfulness over his people. It may be contrasted with the more common “hand of God” which occurs frequently in the narratives of both Ezra and Nehemiah. There may be a hint in this difference of usage that the narrator of Ezra 1–6 is to be distinguished from the one who gave the remainder of the books their present shape.

Perhaps the expression was intended to suggest a contrast with the Persian inspectors. These were known popularly as “the king’s eye,” and must have been regarded as somewhat threatening and sinister. The biblical author knows, however of One whose care overrides even their potential menace.

Breneman: The Jews continued the work even though there was a possibility the king would stop the project and thus nullify all their efforts. This persistence and perseverance indicates the people’s faith that God would continue to keep the door open for continuing the work. It also shows the influence of the prophets Haggai and Zechariah.


A. (:6-7) Letter Sent from Tattenai to King Darius Investigating the Project

1. (:6) Political Authors of the Report

“This is the copy of the letter which Tattenai, the governor of the province beyond the River, and Shethar-bozenai and his colleagues the officials, who were beyond the River, sent to Darius the king.”

2. (:7) Personal Address to the King

“They sent a report to him in which it was written thus:

‘To Darius the king, all peace.’”

Constable: In contrast to Rehum and Shimshai’s letter to Artaxerxes (4:11-16), Tattenai’s letter to Darius was fair and objective. He gave no indication of wanting to stop the Jews’ project. He only wanted to know if Cyrus had really given permission for the Jews to rebuild the temple and if Darius wanted that edict to stand.

B. (:8-10) Listing of the Major Questions Requiring Investigation

1. (:8) What is the Objective? – Significant Building Project

“Let it be known to the king, that we have gone to the province of Judah, to the house of the great God, which is being built with huge stones, and beams are being laid in the walls; and this work is going on with great care and is succeeding in their hands.”

Gary Smith: The Persian word ʾasparnaʾ (in full measure, thoroughly) describes more the care and quality of the work than the energy expended by the workers (although great care does require great energy). It was a positive commendation on the progress being made on the Temple. No negative comments or prejudicial statements were made against the Jews in this letter.

2. (:9) Who Authorized It?

“Then we asked those elders and said to them thus, ‘Who issued you a decree to rebuild this temple and to finish this structure?’”

3. (:10) Who is Leading the Effort?

“We also asked them their names so as to inform you, and that we might write down the names of the men who were at their head.”

C. (:11-16) Legitimacy and Significance of the Project Attested to by the Jews

1. (:11) Significance of the Project to Rebuild the Temple

a. Significance Tied to the Greatness of God

“And thus they answered us, saying,

‘We are the servants of the God of heaven and earth”

b. Significance Tied to Historical Precedent and Continuity

“and are rebuilding the temple that was built many years ago,”

c. Significance Tied to the Reputation of King Solomon

“which a great king of Israel built and finished.’”

Williamson: In their reply to Tattenai’s inquiry the Jews were anxious to emphasize the continuity of their project, both with the existence of the first temple and with the authorization of Cyrus to rebuild which had been granted quite a number of years previously. These two considerations were not unnaturally considered to be most likely to secure Tattenai’s approval, and they account for most of the features of this paragraph.

Rata: The Jews introduce themselves as “the servants of the God of heaven and earth,” thus exalting God as the Creator God, a notion that was novel to the Persians who worshipped Zarathustra. The Jews give Tattenai a compressed history lesson dating back to Solomon, who is declared “a great king of Israel.” Their historical account is complete in the sense that it does not omit the sins of the people which caused their loss of country and temple. Breneman correctly points out that “the Jews, understanding the theological reasons for their calamity, did not hesitate to tell their neighbors why they had suffered that exile.”

2. (:12) Sinfulness that Led to the Destruction of the Temple and Deportation

“But because our fathers had provoked the God of heaven to wrath, He gave them into the hand of Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon, the Chaldean, who destroyed this temple and deported the people to Babylon.”

Williamson: In their reply to Tattenai’s inquiry the Jews were anxious to emphasize the continuity of their project, both with the existence of the first temple and with the authorization of Cyrus to rebuild which had been granted quite a number of years previously. These two considerations were not unnaturally considered to be most likely to secure Tattenai’s approval, and they account for most of the features of this paragraph.

Breneman: The returned exiles saw the relation between history and theology. What their ancestors did determined their history. The Christian faith is tied to the fact that God made promises and fulfilled them in history, exemplified by Jesus, who actually came, died, and rose again. Although God is sovereign, decisions we make do affect history. History is a dialogue between God and humankind.

3. (:13-15) Seal of Cyrus Authorizing this Project

a. (:13) Issuing the Royal Decree

“However, in the first year of Cyrus king of Babylon, King Cyrus issued a decree to rebuild this house of God.”

Fensham: The reference to Cyrus as king of Babylon was made in order to connect him to his predecessor Nebuchadnezzar, who destroyed the temple, whereas Cyrus commanded the rebuilding of it.

Gary Smith: The temporal marker (“during the first year”) helped authenticate the decree and caused the Persians to associate it with the general decree in the Cyrus Cylinder that allowed all the exiled people to return to their homelands and build their temples. The claim that it was a “decree” gave them official permission from the king. This idea was not hearsay or a suggestion by a lower-level official, but a decree that carried the signature of the king himself. This was the heart of their defense; everything was legal. Of course, appealing to a decree gave the Persians a means of checking the authenticity of the Jewish leaders’ claim. They could look up the various decrees Cyrus issued in his first year and see if he gave permission to rebuild this Temple as the Jewish people were claiming.

b. (:14-15) Verifying the Royal Decree

1) (:14) Origin of the Gold and Silver Utensils

“And also the gold and silver utensils of the house of God which Nebuchadnezzar had taken from the temple in Jerusalem, and brought them to the temple of Babylon, these King Cyrus took from the temple of Babylon, and they were given to one whose name was Sheshbazzar, whom he had appointed governor.”

Gary Smith: The importance of mentioning the gold and silver utensils at this point was to verify the royal decree: Since everyone knew that the Babylonians stripped temples of their valuable objects and took them to Babylon, the presence of these objects in Judah at this time had to be due to a royal decree releasing them. Their presence in Jerusalem was a silent witness to the truthfulness of the claim that Cyrus had decreed that the Jews should go back home and rebuild their Temple in Jerusalem. If there were no decree, the utensils would not be in Jerusalem.

2) (:15) Order to Return the Utensils to the New Temple

“And he said to him, ‘Take these utensils, go and deposit them in the temple in Jerusalem, and let the house of God be rebuilt in its place.’”

4. (:16) Summary of the Persevering Construction Efforts

a. Open Initiation of the Construction

“Then that Sheshbazzar came and laid the foundations

of the house of God in Jerusalem;”

Nothing hidden or secretive about the project

b. Ongoing Construction on a Consistent Basis

“and from then until now it has been under construction,”

Nothing new or unusual to report – project has been going on in the same manner and with the same objective as when it began

c. Objective of Construction Not Yet Completed

“and it is not yet completed.”

Loken: In accordance with the decree of Cyrus, Sheshbazzar led a return to Jerusalem and laid the foundations of the temple. The governor is clearly given credit in this verse for the initial stage of the rebuilding project. As mentioned earlier, Sheshbazzar’s part in the project may have involved the securing of the funds necessary to do the work (cf. 1:5–11). Since the project could not have been started without the necessary financing, Sheshbazzar is given full credit in this letter. However, from other passages we see that it was actually Zerubbabel and Jeshua who were primarily responsible for the success of the project (cf. 3:8–11). It is also possible that Sheshbazzar is identified because he would have been the individual named in the Persian records.

D. (:17) Lawfulness of the Project Investigated by King Darius

1. Search the Records

“And now, if it pleases the king let a search be conducted in the king’s treasure house, which is there in Babylon, if it be that a decree was issued by King Cyrus to rebuild this house of God at Jerusalem;”

2. Send Back Your Decision

“and let the king send to us his decision concerning this matter.”

Andrew Swango: Up to this point, Tattenai proves himself to be a very smart and fair governor. He didn’t come to the Jews in hate, but asked them questions. He listened to them and decided to investigate their claims. He sends his letter to king Darius to look into their claim. And we will see in the next chapter that Tattenai accepts the truth. He certainly was a very smart and fair governor.

Loken: Tattenai expected that the matter would be resolved with a search of the king’s records in the treasure house located in Babylon. Time will show that the supporting documents would actually be found at a remote fortress in Media called Ecbatana (6:2). The final line of the letter is a request for the king’s instructions concerning the entire matter. Tattenai wanted to know if the claims of the Jews were accurate and, if so, whether or not Darius wanted to allow the project to continue. Note the difference between this letter by Tattenai and the letter penned by Rehum in 4:11–16. Rehum’s letter was obviously biased and full of false accusations while Tattenai’s letter fairly and accurately described the events as they had occurred.