By Shelley Neese

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Ezra begins, In the first year of King Cyrus of Persia, to fulfill the word of the Lord from the mouth of Jeremiah, the Lord stirred up the spirit of King Cyrus of Persia so that he made a proclamation throughout all his kingdom and also in writing” (1:1).

The Prophecy of Jeremiah

Unlike the common preface to the prophetic books, Ezra’s author did not claim “thus says the Lord” and jump into his own oracle. Instead, he pointed to an earlier prophecy and offered his interpretation based on contemporary events. According to his stunning claim, the edict of King Cyrus fulfilled Jeremiah’s prophecy.

Barely a generation had passed since Jeremiah had first uttered the prophecy in Jerusalem. So how was the author of Ezra, from Babylon, referencing Jeremiah’s oracles as if his audience had access to the complete collection of oracles? The claim suggests that by Ezra’s time, the exiles already possessed the recorded products of earlier revelation. The power those prophecies transferred to the remnant must have been critical, as they were the key to communicating God’s plan and objective for the remnant.

Jeremiah was a highly unpopular prophet before the exile, making this assumption in Ezra even more profound. Jeremiah’s contemporaries interpreted his predictions of the fall of Jerusalem and the people’s captivity as unpatriotic and fatalistic. However, the events of history validated Jeremiah’s predictions. Like an artist, he was best understood postmortem.

Jeremiah warned the Judahites of his day that because of their unrepentant hearts, God would permit King Nebuchadnezzar to destroy Jerusalem and exile her inhabitants to Babylon. The land would lie desolate for seventy years, but God would not abandon his people forever. After the time of punishment was over, God would retaliate against Babylon, destroying the once mighty empire, and restore the exiles to the covenanted land (Jer. 25:11-12; 29:10-11).

Ezra’s introduction declared Jeremiah’s seventy-year prophecy fulfilled. Yet, the actual period of exile in Babylon fell short of seventy years. If Jerusalem fell in 587 BCE, and Cyrus issued the edict in 539 BCE, it had been only fifty years. There are many possible explanations for the discrepancy. The simplest is that Jeremiah’s prophecy only approximated the length of the exile. He predicted that the exile would be the length of one generation, anywhere between 40 and 70 years. Another possibility is that God, in his mercy, heard the cries of his people and ended the exile before the seventy-year mark.

Alternatively, interpreters often assign various start and end dates to the prophecy. Without going too deep into the commentary weeds, my preferred theory is that the seventy-year prediction reflected the span of time that the Jerusalem temple sat in ruins. The Babylonians destroyed the temple in 586 BCE, and it took twenty years after Cyrus’s edict for the returnees to build the Second Temple. In the Jewish mindset, the fulfillment of Jeremiah’s oracle required the reconstruction of a temple in Jerusalem.

The Edict of Cyrus

After the Persian army brought much of the ancient Near East under its control, King Cyrus proclaimed the right to return for all peoples uprooted from their national homelands by the defeated Babylonian empire. The Cyrus Cylinder, one of the most important artifacts from the sixth century BCE, corroborates the biblical depiction of Persian imperial benevolence. Cyrus’s declaration, preserved in the clay cylinder’s inscription, allowed all the deportees and their gods to return to their native lands. The edict represented a reversal of both the Assyrian and Babylonian policies of division and dispersion of conquered peoples (1 Kings 17; 2 Kings 24-25).

At the time of the edict, Persia was comfortably in control of the extended empire. A quick succession of military campaigns had brought Media, Lydia, Elam, and Babylon under Cyrus’s rule. According to the Cyrus Cylinder, by the time the Persian army advanced on Babylon, the Babylonians put up no resistance. Granted, the Persian witness may have intentionally painted a rosy picture for propaganda. However, historians agree that the last Babylonian King, Nabonidus, was very unpopular. Nabonidus irritated his people by elevating the moon god Sin over the chief god in the Babylonian pantheon, Marduk. When Cyrus conquered Babylon, he restored the worship of Marduk to his correct place. The Babylonians, fed up with Nabonidus, responded kindly to Cyrus’s gambit.

While there is no extra-biblical evidence of a royal edict issued specifically for the Jewish people, the idea is consistent with Persian policy. Likely, Cyrus submitted individual proclamations for each subjected nation, customizing his decrees to acknowledge their gods in his success. While the Cyrus Cylinder is evidence of the general decree for all foreign captives to return to their homelands, the book of Ezra captures the unique impact of this crucial decision on the Jewish exiles.

Besides Jeremiah’s seventy-year prophecy, the edict of Cyrus also fulfilled several prophecies from Isaiah. Two centuries before the edict, Isaiah foretold God would “stir up” a foreign leader from the north to defeat Judah’s captors (Isa. 41:25). Isaiah named King Cyrus God’s “anointed,” the one he would lead by the hand to defeat Babylon (Isa. 45:1). At no other point in the Hebrew bible was a gentile king called God’s anointed.

Despite Cyrus’s lack of acknowledging Yahweh, God used the Persian king and his army “for the sake of Jacob, my servant, of Israel, my chosen” (Isa. 45:4-6). How sovereign is God that he used a pagan conqueror as an instrument to execute his divine will? Not only that, but he sent his promise of deliverance to the covenant people years before through the mouth of Isaiah.

Cyrus was “aroused in righteousness” to rebuild Jerusalem and set the exiles free (Isa. 45:13). In his decree, Cyrus attributed his military victory over Babylon to “the Lord, the God of heaven” (1:2). The flexibility of his polytheism was on full display in this statement. Cyrus was not particular to Judaism but open to all the native religions of his land. In the Cyrus Cylinder, he credited the Babylonian god Marduk for his success. Though most likely Cyrus was a devotee of Ahura Mazda, he appealed to all the gods of all his conquered peoples, a courtesy that served him well as a savvy diplomatic strategy. Still, it is an unusual sign of reverence that, according to Ezra, Cyrus called Yahweh “the God of heaven.” If Yahweh was nothing more than the patron deity of the Jews, he would probably have been called the “God of Jerusalem.”

Cyrus decreed that Yahweh “has charged me to build him a house at Jerusalem, which is in Judah” (1:2). Four times in the edict of Cyrus, he repeated that the house of Yahweh was to be rebuilt in Jerusalem. In the Persian period, there was at least one other temple dedicated to Yahweh that rivaled the temple in Jerusalem. There was a temple in Elephantine, Egypt built by the Jewish evacuees who fled to Egypt after the Babylonian attack. Cyrus may have repeated Jerusalem as a way of clarifying which Yahweh temple he meant to endorse.

Collection of Offerings

Cyrus’s edict permitted every willing Judean and Israelite to return to their homeland, “any of those among you who are of his people” (1:3). Although Persia imposed almost zero restrictions on who they allowed to return, many Jewish exiles remained in Babylon. The edict invited those who decided not to emigrate to at least contribute financially to the volunteer returnees. Their donations would ease the heavy costs of the four-month journey from Babylon to Jerusalem and rebuilding the temple. The exiles who stayed behind contributed generously, as did non-Judean subjects. They offered the returnees “silver, gold, with goods, and with livestock” (1:4). They sent freewill offerings to be sacrificed on their behalf once the returnees had restored the altar in Jerusalem.

In describing the gentile donations to the Jewish exiles, the narrative evoked the memory of when Israel’s Egyptian neighbors aided their journey with valuable gifts (Ez. 1:6; Ex. 3:21-22). By using the motif of a Second Exodus, the narrator intentionally drew a parallel between the exodus from Babylon and the journey exodus from Egypt. The exodus from Egypt was the only other time in the Hebrew scriptures that a pagan king freed God’s people so they could reclaim the land promised to them. The God who stretched out his arm and delivered them from Egypt was also involved in restoring the remnant to Jerusalem. Over and over, the Ezra narrator reminds the reader that Israel had a divinely orchestrated shot at a new beginning.

Return of Temple Treasures

Remarkably, “King Cyrus himself 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” (1:5). The enormity of this act cemented the high status of Cyrus in Jewish memory for all time. The Bible and the Rabbinic texts never speak ill of Cyrus and the prophets never predicted judgement on Persia. How could they, after Cyrus freely returned the holy vessels that Nebuchadnezzar’s army had stolen?

2 Kings attest that when the Babylonians overtook the temple in 586 BCE, Nebuchadnezzar had all the gold removed from the temple and “cut up” (2 Kings 24:13). If the Babylonian army cut up and melted down all the vessels, the temple vessels that Cyrus restored to the Jewish exiles may have been items stored in the treasury from earlier Babylonian raids. In 597 BCE, Nebuchadnezzar raided the temple and carted off into exile the whole royal household and the Jerusalem elite. Either way, placing Jerusalem’s treasures in Babylonian storage houses accords with the story in the book of Daniel. The debauched Babylonian King Belshazzar once brought out goblets stolen from the Jerusalem temple to parade at his dinner party. The guests even drank from the sacred vessels. According to Daniel, the very next day the Persian army overtook Babylon (Dan. 5).

What Cyrus did for the Jerusalem temple was not an isolated incident. Tolerance of native religions was characteristic of the Persian empire. With other conquered people groups in his empire, Cyrus returned stolen idols back to their local sanctuaries. All he asked in return was that they say a prayer to their patron gods on his behalf. Persian administrative records from the period known as the Persepolis Fortification Tablets reveal a consistent Persian policy of aiding local religions with imperial funds.

With the Jewish returnees, there was no carved idol to return to the Jerusalem temple. The temple vessels were sacred only for their use in the worship of the invisible and unrepresentable Yahweh. Also, the vessels provided a special continuous link from Solomon’s temple to the Second temple. Yet, they were not objects of adoration themselves.

In total, the Persian treasurer brought out over 5,000 vessels. The return of so many sacred vessels surely gave courage to exiles eager to rebuild their destroyed temple. Mysteriously, the Ark of the Covenant is missing from the inventory, but Ezra does acknwoledge its omission or ponder its fate.

Stirring Up

The theme of God’s sovereignty dominates Ezra’s narrative of the return. Only God deserves credit for the miraculous restoration of the people to their homeland. Nothing that happened in the restoration movement was happenstance; it all played out according to God’s design. God first “stirred up” the heart of Cyrus to proclaim the release and restoration of the Jewish people to their ancestral land (1:1). Then God “stirred up” the spirit of a remnant, exiles willing to return to Jerusalem despite the inevitable hardships (1:5). Within this first chapter, the narrator established that God alone provided the people with all they needed to launch the process of restoration. Cyrus is a standup guy in the story, but God shines brightly as the actual hero.

The remnant had the imperial coverage of the Persian empire. They had the finances based on the contributions of their neighbors, the imperial treasury, and the Jews content to remain in Babylon. Ezra 2 illustrates how God also provided them with the community leadership they required.