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THE LORD MOVED TO FULFIL HIS PROMISE OF ENDING THE EXILE
The seventy years of Israel's captivity had expired, exactly as Jeremiah had prophesied; and one of the most unbelievable events in human history promptly occurred, when, during the very first year of Cyrus' authority over the Chaldean kingdom (which at that time included Israel), the great ruler of Persia not only granted Israel permission to return to Palestine, but aided them very substantially in other ways also. There was no precedent whatever for such a thing. Where, in all the wretched history of the human race, was there ever anything that could be compared with a development like this? The very uniqueness of this return of Israel to their homeland is the only proof needed that it was accomplished by the direct intervention of God Himself in the sordid affairs of sinful men.
Isaiah had prophesied the end of Israel's captivity, even foretelling the very name of the key instrument of God in the accomplishment of it, declaring emphatically that Cyrus would accomplish the rebuilding of Jerusalem and the temple (Isaiah 44:28-45:7). Only those who are blinded by the false axiom of radical critics who deny the possibility of predictive prophecy can accept their unfounded, passionate, and vehement denials of this passage in Isaiah. There it stands! And here in Ezra, as well as in the final verses of Second Chronicles, we have the record of God's fulfillment of his sacred word. (See my discussion of Isaiah's prophecy on pp. 421-423 in my commentary at that place.)
CYRUS' DECREE AUTHORIZING THE RETURN OF ISRAEL TO PALESTINE
"Now in the first year of Cyrus king of Persia, that the word of Jehovah by the mouth of Jeremiah might be accomplished, Jehovah stirred up the spirit of Cyrus king of Persia, so that he made a proclamation throughout all his kingdom, and put it also in writing, saying, Thus saith Cyrus king of Persia, All the kingdoms of the earth hath Jehovah, the God of heaven, given me; and he hath charged me to build him a house in Jerusalem, which is in Judah. Whosoever there is among you of all his people, his God be with him, and let him go up to Jerusalem, which is in Judah, and build the house of Jehovah, the God of Israel (he is God), which is in Jerusalem. And whosoever is left, in any place where he sojourneth, let the men of his place help him with silver, and with gold, and with goods, and with beasts, besides the freewill-offering for the house of God which is in Jerusalem."
"In the first year of Cyrus king of Persia" (Ezra 1:1). A number of scholars place this date at 538 B.C., but Darius was ruler of Persia (as Cyrus' deputy) for a couple of years; and Keil's placement of this date at 536 B.C. is a more accurate discernment, as that was Cyrus' first year of sole sovereignty over Babylon.
"That the word of Jehovah by the mouth of Jeremiah might be accomplished" (1). This is a reference to Jeremiah 15:12-14 which records that prophet's announcement of the seventy-year duration of the exile. (See our extensive comments on that in the Commentary on Jeremiah, pp. 279-290.)
Oesterley asserts that, "The seventy years is a designation for a long period of time, and is not to be taken in a literal sense." However, this comment, in spite of its being echoed by a number of scholars, is simply not true. The captivity began in 606 B.C. and lasted until 536 B.C., a period of exactly seventy years, as Keil has fully explained. The point which many scholars overlook is that from the very first day of the accession of Jehoiakim, Israel was no longer an independent nation. That the seventy years was indeed a precise and exact prophecy, and not a mere idiom for "a long time," is proved by the fact that God designed it to give the land its sabbaths, which Israel had totally neglected during the 490 years from the accession of Saul to the Captivity. It required exactly seventy years to accomplish that. This fact is stressed by the sacred author in 2 Chronicles 36:21.
"Cyrus ... made a proclamation throughout his kingdom, and put it also in writing" (Ezra 1:1). This statement that the proclamation was made both orally and written, "Should not be surprising; it was quite usual in the ancient world for oral messages to be backed up by written documents, as in 2 Kings 19:9-14."
Many critics have challenged the authenticity of Cyrus' edict; but, "Archaeology has demonstrated that Cyrus' concession to Jewish exiles was not an isolated act, but the general policy of a remarkably humane leader of conciliating his new subjects by showing favor to their religions." Some have pointed out that Cyrus' knowledge of the true God Jehovah was by no means perfect and that in a similar way he honored the pagan deity Marduk and the Moon god, Sin. Still, the honors and guidance of his successes which Cyrus mentioned in the particular proclamations mentioned here as pertaining to Jehovah, the God of Israel, are certainly included in those inscriptions found upon the bricks in one of the gates of Babylon, namely, "The great gods have delivered all lands into my hands; the land I have caused to dwell in a peaceful habitation."
The objection may then be raised that Cyrus's knowledge of Jehovah was far from perfect. So what? Did not Isaiah's prophecy indicate that very fact regarding Cyrus? "I have called thee by thy name; I have surnamed thee, though thou hast not known me" (Isaiah 45:4). It was altogether natural, therefore, that the author of Ezra should have stressed Jehovah alone, and not the pagan deities, in his report of the decree.
"All the kingdoms of the earth hath Jehovah, the God of heaven, given me" (Ezra 1:2). Williamson and others have repeated the inaccurate declaration found frequently in the writings of early 20th-century critics that, "The God of heaven makes its first appearance here as a description of the God of the Bible." There is only one thing wrong with such a comment; it is simply not true! In the eighth century B.C., Jonah told the mariners on their storm-threatened ship that, "I am a Hebrew; and I fear the God of heaven who hath made the sea and the dry land" (Jonah 1:9). For any who may doubt the date of Jonah, we have thoroughly explored this in our introduction to that prophecy in Vol. 1 of our Minor Prophets Series. Furthermore, the very first book in the Bible, namely, Genesis, refers to the God of heaven twice (Genesis 24:3,7)!
The absolute historicity and validity of this great decree of Cyrus is impossible of any intelligent denial. Furthermore, the Biblical narrative of how it came about that Israel was delivered from Babylonian captivity must be accepted as the only logical explanation of it. Unbelievers may scoff at the pertinent prophecies God gave through Jeremiah and Isaiah; but what else could have led to that remarkable deliverance? If God Himself did not indeed "stir up the spirit of Cyrus," as related in Ezra 1:1, then who did? The entire operation that brought Israel back to Palestine, rebuilt Jerusalem, and the Second Temple, and reestablished a nation that had languished in slavery for seventy years - that whole operation, first and last, was an act of Almighty God.
"Let the men of his place help him with silver and gold" (Ezra 1:4). It is disputed as to whether or not the helpers here were Israelites only, or if they also included their neighboring Babylonians. There is more than a hint of the Exodus here; for it will be remembered that the Egyptians enriched the children of Israel on the occasion of their leaving Egypt. Something of that same Divine Providence might have been effective upon this occasion also.
One might wish that all Israel had heeded the edict of Cyrus and made their way back to Palestine; but it was not to be. Isaiah's great prophecy of "The Remnant" would be literally fulfilled. Only a relative handful of the captives, considerably less than 50,000, ever made their way back to Judah and Jerusalem. The vast majority had accommodated themselves to the lifestyle, the riches, and the religion of the Babylonians.
CYRUS RETURNS TO ISRAEL THE SACRED VESSELS LOOTED FROM THE TEMPLE BY NEBUCHADNEZZAR
"Then rose up the heads of the fathers' houses of Judah and Benjamin, and the priests, and the Levites, even all whose spirit God had stirred up to go up to build the house of God which is in Jerusalem. And all they that were round about them strengthened their hand with vessels of silver, with gold, with goods, and with beasts, and with precious things, besides all that was willingly offered. Also Cyrus the king brought for the vessels of the house of Jehovah, which Nebuchadnezzar had brought forth out of Jerusalem, and put in the house of his gods; even these did Cyrus king of Persia bring forth by the hand of Mithredath the treasurer, and numbered them unto Sheshbazzar, the prince of Judah. And this is the number of them: thirty platters of gold, a thousand platters of silver, nine and twenty knives, thirty bowls of gold, silver bowls of a second sort four hundred and ten, and other vessels a thousand. All the vessels of gold and of silver were five thousand and four hundred. All these did Sheshbazzar bring up, when they of the captivity were brought up from Babylon unto Jerusalem."
"The heads of the fathers' houses of Judah and Benjamin" (Ezra 1:5). Although Cyrus' decree was broad enough to have included any of the northern tribes who might have survived the Assyrian captivity (Ezra 1:3), this mention of those who responded makes it clear that there was no significant response from any of the tribes except that of Judah and Benjamin.
"And all that were about them strengthened their hand" (Ezra 1:6). "This is usually held to include Babylonians." And why not? The generous example set by the king himself would have prompted many others to follow his lead; and, as the text stands, it could hardly fail to include all the neighbors, even the Babylonians.
"Even these did Cyrus king of Persia bring forth ... and numbered them unto Sheshbazzar, the prince of Judah" (Ezra 1:8). "This is a reference to Nebuchadnezzar's looting of the Temple of Solomon on both of those occasions when he captured Jerusalem in 597 B.C. and in 587 B.C. These sacred vessels he had laid up as trophies in the house of his gods; and upon the night when Babylon fell, the drunken king Belshazzar was having a great feast for his lords and concubines, when he sent for the sacred vessels of the Jewish Temple to drink from them. That was the occasion (Daniel 5) when the fingers of a man's hand wrote the doom of Babylon on the wall, and the city fell that night.
"All these did Sheshbazzar bring up when they of the captivity were brought up from Babylon to Jerusalem" (Ezra 1:11). Two things of importance should be noted here. Sheshbazzar who here is seen to have led the first emigration to Jerusalem disappears from the Biblical narrative after this brief mention; but as Williamson noted, "This should not surprise us, because no first hand account (of all that happened) has survived."
Also, "The passive verb `were brought up' is deliberately chosen here to imply divine activity. The narrative thus echoes the description of the Exodus (Exodus 33:1). `Brought up' from Babylon to Jerusalem thus becomes the counterpart of `brought up' out of the land of Egypt."
Coffman's Commentaries reproduced by permission of Abilene Christian University Press, Abilene, Texas, USA. All other rights reserved.
Coffman, James Burton. "Commentary on Ezra 1". "Coffman's Commentaries on the Bible". https://www.studylight.org/
the Fifth Sunday after Epiphany