Ezra 1:1-4 God moves the heart of Cyrus

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:[1]

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.[2] The first year here refers “to the first year of the conquering of Babylon when he became king of Mesopotamia.”[3] Through the 8th 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.”[4] 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)[5], or it can describe the time lapsed from the destruction of Assyria (609 BC) to the edict of Cyrus (539 BC).[6] 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.”[7]

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.”[8] 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.”[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 10 other times in Ezra,[10] and points to Cyrus’ practice of viewing deities in relation to a place. Cyrus was “an Iranian polytheist”[11] 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,[12] 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.[13] 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[14] as its focus.

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