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Bible Commentaries

The Expositor's Bible Commentary

Ezra 1

Verse 1

CYRUS

Ezra 1:1

THE remarkable words with which the Second Book of Chronicles closes, and which are repeated in the opening verses of the Book of Ezra, afford the most striking instance on record of that peculiar connection between the destinies of the little Hebrew nation and the movements of great World Empires which frequently emerges in history. We cannot altogether set it down to the vanity of their writers, or to the lack of perspective accompanying a contracted, provincial education, that the Jews are represented in the Old Testament as playing a more prominent part on the world’s stage than one to which the size of their territory-little bigger than Wales-or their military prowess would, entitle them. The fact is indisputable. No doubt it is to be attributed in part to the geographical position of Palestine on the highway of the march of armies to and fro between Asia and Africa; but it must spring also in some measure from the unique qualities of the strange people who have given their religion to the most civilised societies of mankind.

In the case before us the greatest man of his age, one of the half-dozen Founders of Empires, who constitute a lofty aristocracy even among sovereigns, is manifestly concerning himself very specially with the restoration of one of the smallest of the many subject races that fell into his hands when he seized the garnered spoils of previous conquerors. Whatever we may think of the precise words of his decree as this is now reported to us by a Hebrew scribe, it is unquestionable that he issued some such orders as are contained in it. Cyrus, as it now appears, was originally king of Elam, the modern Khuzistan, not of Persia, although the royal family from which he sprang was of Persian extraction. After making himself master of Persia and building up an empire in Asia Minor and the north, he swept down on to the plains of Chaldaea and captured Babylon in the year B.C. 538. To the Jews this would be the first year of his reign, because it was the first year of his rule over them, just as the year A.D. 1603 is reckoned by Englishmen as the first year of James I, because the king of Scotland then inherited the English throne. In this year the new sovereign, of his own initiative, released the Hebrew exiles, and even assisted them to return to Jerusalem and rebuild their ruined temple. Such an astounding act of generosity was contrary to the precedent of other conquerors, who accepted as a matter of course the arrangement of subject races left by their predecessors; and we are naturally curious to discover the motives that prompted it.

Like our mythical King Arthur, the Cyrus of legend is credited with a singularly attractive disposition. Herodotus says the Persians regarded him as their "father" and their "shepherd." In Xenophon’s romance he appears as a very kindly character. Cicero calls him the most just, wise, and amiable of rulers. Although it cannot be dignified with the name of history, this universally accepted tradition seems to point to some foundation in fact. It is entirely in accord with the Jewish picture of the Great King. There is some reason for believing that the privilege Cyrus offered to the Jews was one in which other nations shared. On a small, broken clay cylinder, some four inches in diameter, discovered quite recently and now deposited in the British Museum, Cyrus is represented as saying, "I assembled all those nations, and I caused them to go back to their countries." Thus the return of the Jews may be regarded as a part of a general centrifugal movement in the new Empire.

Nevertheless, the peculiar favour indicated by the decree issued to the Jews suggests something special in their case, and this must be accounted for before the action of Cyrus can be well understood.

Little or no weight can be attached to the statement of Josephus, who inserts in the very language of the decree a reference to the foretelling of the name of Cyrus by "the prophets," as a prime motive for issuing it, and adds that this was known to Cyrus by his reading the Book of Isaiah. Always more or less untrustworthy whenever he touches the relations between his people and foreigners, the Jewish historian is even exceptionally unsatisfactory in his treatment of the Persian Period. It may be, as Ewald asserts, that Josephus is here following some Hellenistic writer; but we know nothing of his authority. There is no reference to this in our one authority, the Book of Ezra; and if it had been true there would have been every reason to publish it. Some Jews at court may have shown Cyrus the prophecies in question; indeed it is most probable that men who wished to please him would have done so. Plato in the "Laws" represents Cyrus as honouring those who knew how to give good advice. But it is scarcely reasonable to suppose, without a particle of evidence, that a great monarch, flushed with victory, would set himself to carry out a prediction purporting to emanate from the Deity of one of the conquered peoples, when that prediction was distinctly in their interests, unless he was first actuated by some other considerations.

Until a few years ago it was commonly supposed that Cyrus was a Zoroastrian, who was disgusted at the cruel and lustful idolatry of the Babylonians, and that when he discovered a monotheistic people oppressed by vicious heathen polytheists, he claimed religious brotherhood with them, and so came to show them singular favour. Unfortunately for his fame, this fascinating theory has been recently shattered by the discovery of the little cylinder already referred to. Here Cyrus is represented as saying that "the gods" have deserted Nabonidas-the last king of Babylon-because he has neglected their service; and that Merodach, the national divinity of Babylon, has transferred his favour to Cyrus; who now honours him with many praises. An attempt has been made to refute the evidence of this ancient record by attributing the cylinder to some priest of Bel, who, it is said, may have drawn up the inscription without the knowledge of the king, and even in direct opposition to his religious views. A most improbable hypothesis! especially as we have absolutely no grounds for the opinion that Cyrus was a Zoroastrian. The Avesta, the sacred collection of hymns which forms the basis of the Parsee scriptures, came from the far East, close to India, and it was written in a language almost identical with Sanscrit and quite different from the Old Persian of Western Persia. We have no ground for supposing that as yet it had been adopted in the remote southwestern region of Elam, where Cyrus was brought up. That monarch, it would seem, was a liberal-minded syncretist, as ready to make himself at home with the gods of the peoples he conquered as with their territories. Such a man would be astute enough to represent the indigenous divinities as diverting their favour from the fallen and therefore discredited kings he had overthrown, and transferring it to the new victor. We must therefore descend from the highlands of theology in our search for an explanation of the conduct of Cyrus. Can we find this in some department of state policy?

We learn from the latter portion of our Book of Isaiah that the Jewish captives suffered persecution under Nabonidas. It is not difficult to guess the cause of the embitterment of this king against them after they had been allowed to live in peace and prosperity under his predecessors. Evidently the policy of Nebuchadnezzar, which may have succeeded with some other races, had broken down in its application to a people with such tough national vitality as that of the Jews. It was found to be impossible to eradicate their patriotism-or rather the patriotism of the faithful nucleus of the nation-impossible to make Jerusalem forgotten by the waters of Babylon. This ancient "Semitic question" was the very reverse of that which now vexes Eastern Europe, because in the case of the Jews at Babylon the troublesome aliens were only desirous of liberty to depart: but it sprang from the same essential cause-the separateness of the Hebrew race.

Now things often present themselves in a true light to a newcomer who approaches them with a certain mental detachment, although they may have been grievously misapprehended by those people among whom they have slowly shaped themselves. Cyrus was a man of real genres: and immediately he came upon the scene he must have perceived the mistake of retaining a restless, disaffected population, like a foreign body rankling in the very heart of his empire. Moreover, to allow the Jews to return home would serve a double purpose. While it would free the Euphrates Valley from a constant source of distress, it would plant a grateful, and therefore loyal, people on the western confines of the empire-perhaps, as some have thought, to be used as outworks and a basis of operations in a projected campaign against Egypt. Thus a far-sighted statesman might regard the liberation of the Jews as a stroke of wise policy. But we must not make too much of this. The restored Jews were a mere handful of religious devotees, scarcely able to hold their own against the attacks of neighbouring villages; and while they were permitted to build their temple, nothing was said in the royal rescript about fortifying their city. So feeble a colony could not have been accounted of much strategic importance by such a master of armies as Cyrus. Again, we know from the "Second Isaiah" that, when the Persian war-cloud was hovering on the horizon, the Jewish exiles hailed it as the sign of deliverance from persecution. The invader who brought destruction to Babylon promised relief to her victims; and the lofty strains of the prophet bespeak an inspired perception of the situation which encouraged higher hopes. A second discovery in the buried library of bricks is that of a small flat tablet, also recently unearthed like the cylinder of Cyrus, which records this very section of the history of Babylon. Here it is stated that Cyrus intrigued with a disaffected party within the city. Who would be so likely as the persecuted Jews to play this part? Further, the newly found Babylonian record makes it clear that Herodotus was mistaken in his famous account of the siege of Babylon where he connected it with the coming of Cyrus. He must have misapprehended a report of one of the two sieges under Darius, when the city had revolted and was recaptured by force, for we now know that after a battle fought in the open country Cyrus was received into the city without striking another blow. He would be likely to be in a gracious mood then, and if he knew there were exiles, languishing in captivity, who hailed his advent as that of a deliverer, even apart from the question whether they had previously opened up negotiations with him, he could not but look favourably upon them: so that generosity and perhaps gratitude combined with good policy to govern his conduct. Lastly, although he was not a theological reformer, he seems to have been of a religious character, according to his light, and therefore it is not unnatural to suppose that he may have heartily thrown himself into a movement of which his wisdom approved, and with which all his generous instincts sympathised. Thus, after all, there may be something in the old view, if only we combine it with our newer information. Under the peculiar political circumstances of his day, Cyrus may have been prepared to welcome the prophetic assurance that he was a heaven-sent shepherd, if some of the Jews had shown it him. Even without any such assurance, other conquerors have been only too ready to flatter themselves that they were executing a sacred mission.

These considerations do not in the least degree limit the Divine element of the narrative as that is brought forward by the Hebrew historian. On the contrary, they give additional importance to it. The chronicler sees in the decree of Cyrus and its issues an accomplishment of the word of the Lord by the mouth of Jeremiah. Literally he says that what happens is in order that the word of the Lord may be brought to an end. It is in the "fulness of the time," as the advent of Christ was later in another relation, {Galatians 4:4} The writer seems to have in mind the passage-"And this whole land shall be a desolation, and an astonishment: and these nations shall serve the king of Babylon seventy years. And it shall come to pass, when seventy years are accomplished, that I will punish the king of Babylon, and that nation, saith the Lord, for their iniquity, and the land of the Chaldeans: and I will make it desolate forever" {Jeremiah 25:11-12} as well as another prophecy-"For thus saith the Lord, After seventy years be accomplished for Babylon, I will visit you, and perform My good word toward you, in causing you to return to this place." (Jeremiah 29:10) Now if we do not accept the notion of Josephus that Cyrus was consciously and purposely fulfilling these predictions, we do not in any way diminish the fact that the deliverance came from God. If we are driven to the conclusion that Cyrus was not solely or chiefly actuated by religious motives, or even if we take his action to be purely one of state policy, the ascription of this inferior position to Cyrus only heightens the wonderful glory of God’s overruling providence. Nebuchadnezzar was described as God’s "servant" {Jeremiah 27:6} because, although he was a bad man, only pursuing his own wicked way, yet, all unknown to him, that way was made to serve God’s purposes. Similarly Cyrus, who is not a bad man, is God’s "Shepherd," when he delivers the suffering flock from the wolf and sends it back to the fold, whether he aims at obeying the will of God or not. It is part of the great revelation of God in history, that He is seen working out His supreme purposes in spite of the ignorance and sometimes even by means of the malice of men. Was not this the case in the supreme event of history, the crucifixion of our Lord? If the cruelty of Nebuchadnezzar and the feebleness of Pilate could serve God, so could the generosity of Cyrus.

The question of the chronological exactness of this fulfilment of prophecy troubles some minds that are anxious about Biblical arithmetic. The difficulty is to arrive at the period of seventy years. It would seem that this could only be done by some stretching at both ends of the exile. We must begin with Nebuchadnezzar’s first capture of Jerusalem and the first carrying away of a small body of royal hostages to Babylon in the year B.C. 606. Even then we have only sixty-eight years to the capture of Babylon by Cyrus, which happened in B.C. 538. Therefore to get the full seventy years it is proposed to extend the exile till the year B.C. 536, which is the date of the commencement of Cyrus’s sole rule. But there are serious difficulties in these suggestions. In his prediction of the seventy years Jeremiah plainly refers to the complete overthrow of the nation with the strong words, "This whole land shall be a desolation and an astonishment." As a matter of fact, the exile only began in earnest with the final siege of Jerusalem, which took place in B.C. 588. Then Cyrus actually began his reign over the Jews in B.C. 538, when he took Babylon, and he issued his edict in his first year. Thus the real exile as a national trouble seems to have occupied fifty years, or, reckoning a year for the issuing and execution of the edict, fifty-one years. Instead of straining at dates, is it not more simple and natural to suppose that Jeremiah gave a round figure to signify a period which would cover the lifetime of his contemporaries, at all events? However this may be, nobody can make a grievance out of the fact that the captivity may not have been quite so lengthy as the previous warnings of it foreshadowed. Tillotson wisely remarked that there is this difference between the Divine promises and the Divine threatenings, that while God pledges His faithfulness to the full extent of the former, He is not equally bound to the perfect accomplishment of the latter. If the question of dates shows a little discrepancy, what does this mean but that God is so merciful as not always to exact the last farthing? Moreover it should be remarked that the point of Jeremiah’s prophecy is not the exact length of the captivity, but the certain termination of it after a long while. The time is fulfilled when the end has come.

But the action of Cyrus is not only regarded as the accomplishment of prophecy; it is also attributed to the direct influence of God exercised on the Great King, for we read "the Lord stirred up the spirit of Cyrus king of Persia," etc. It would indicate the radical scepticism which is too often hidden under the guise of a rigorous regard for correct belief, to maintain that because we now know Cyrus to have been a polytheist his spirit could not have been stirred up by the true God. It is not the teaching of the Bible that God confines His influence on the hearts of men to Jews and Christians. Surely we cannot suppose that the Father of all mankind rigidly refuses to hold any intercourse with the great majority of His children-never whispers them a guiding word in their anxiety and perplexity, never breathes into them a helpful impulse, even in their best moments, when they are earnestly striving to do right. In writing to the Romans St. Paul distinctly argues on the ground that God has revealed Himself to the heathen world, {Romans 1:19} and in the presence of Cornelius St. Peter as distinctly asserts that God accepts the devout and upright of all nations. {Acts 10:34-35} Here even in the Old Testament it is recognised that God moves the king of Persia. This affords a singular encouragement for prayer, because it suggests that God has access to those who are far out of our reach; that He quite sets aside the obstruction of intermediaries-secretaries, chamberlains, grand-viziers, and all the entourage of a court; that He goes straight into the audience chamber, making direct for the inmost thoughts and feelings of the man whom He would influence. The wonder of it is that God condescends to do this even with men who know little of Him: but it should be remembered that though He is strange to many men, none of them are strange to Him. The Father knows the children who do not know Him. It may be remarked, finally, on this point, that the special Divine influence now referred to is dynamic rather than illuminating. To stir up the spirit is to move to activity. God not only teaches; He quickens. In the case of Cyrus, the king used his own judgment and acted on his own opinions: yet the impulse which drove him was from God. That was everything. We live in a God-haunted world; why then are we slow to take the first article of our creed in its full meaning? Is it so difficult to believe in God when all history is alive with His presence?

Verses 2-4

THE ROYAL EDICT

Ezra 1:2-4; Ezra 1:7-11

IT has been asserted that the Scripture version of the edict of Cyrus cannot be an exact rendering of the original, because it ascribes to the Great King some knowledge of the God of the Jews, and even some faith in Him. For this reason it has been suggested that either the chronicler or some previous writer who translated the decree out of the Persian language, in which of course it must have been first issued, inserted the word Jehovah in place of the name of Ormazd or some other god worshipped by Cyrus, and shaped the phrases generally so as to commend them to Jewish sympathies. Are we driven to this position? We have seen that when Cyrus got possession of Babylon he had no scruple in claiming the indigenous divinity Merodach as his god. Is it not then entirely in accordance with his eclectic habit of mind-not to mention his diplomatic art in humouring the prejudices of his subjects-that he should draw up a decree in which he designed to show favour to an exceptionally religious people in language that would be congenial to them? Like most men of higher intelligence even among polytheistic races, Cyrus may have believed in one supreme Deity, who, he may have supposed, was worshipped under different names by different nations. The final clause of Ezra 1:3 is misleading, as it stands in the Authorised Version; and the Revisers, with their habitual caution, have only so far improved upon it as to permit the preferable rendering to appear in the margin, where we have generally to look for the opinions of the more scholarly as well as the more courageous critics. Yet even the Authorised Version renders the same words correctly in the very next verse. There is no occasion to print the clause, "He is the God," as a parenthesis, so as to make Cyrus inform the world that Jehovah is the one real divinity. The more probable rendering in idea is also the more simple one in construction. Removing the superfluous brackets, we read right on: "He is the God which is in Jerusalem"-i.e., we have an indication who "Jehovah" is for the information of strangers to the Jews who may read the edict. With this understanding let us examine the leading items of the decree. It was proclaimed by the mouth of king’s messengers, and it was also preserved in writing, so that possibly the original inscription may be recovered from among the burnt clay records that lie buried in the ruins of Persian cities. The edict is addressed to the whole empire. Cyrus announces to all his subjects his intention to rebuild the temple at Jerusalem. Then he specialises the aim of the decree by granting a license to the Jews to go up to Jerusalem and undertake this work. It is a perfectly free offer to all Jews in exile without exception. "Who is there among you" - i.e., among all the subjects of the empire-"of all His" (Jehovah’s) "people, his God be with him, and let him go up to Jerusalem," etc. In particular we may observe the following points:-

First, Cyrus begins by acknowledging that "the God of Heaven"-whom he identifies with the Hebrew "Jehovah," in our version of the edict-has given him his dominions. It is possible to treat this introductory sentence as a superficial formula; but there is no reason for so ungenerous an estimate of it. If we accept the words in their honest intention, we must see in them a recognition of the hand of God in the setting up of kingdoms. Two opposite kinds of experience awaken in men a conviction of God’s presence in their lives-great calamities and great successes. The influence of the latter experience is not so often acknowledged as that of the former, but probably it is equally effective, at least in extreme instances. There is something awful in the success of a world-conqueror. When the man is a destroyer, spreading havoc and misery, like Attila, he regards himself as a "Scourge of God"; and when he is a vulgar impersonation of selfish greed like Napoleon, he thinks he is swept on by a mighty tide of destiny. In both instances the results are too stupendous to be attributed to purely human energy. But in the case of Cyrus, an enlightened and noble-minded hero is bringing liberty and favour to the victims of a degraded tyranny, so that he is hailed by some of them as the Anointed King raised up by their God, and therefore it is not unnatural that he should ascribe his brilliant destiny to a Divine influence.

Secondly, Cyrus actually asserts that God has charged him to build Him a temple at Jerusalem. Again, this may be the language of princely courtesy; but the noble spirit which breathes through the decree encourages us to take a higher view of it, and to refrain from reading minimising comments between the lines. It is probable that those eager, patriotic Jews who had got the ear of Cyrus-or he would never have issued such a decree as this - may have urged their suit by showing him predictions like that of Isaiah 44:28, in which God describes Himself as One "that saith of Cyrus, He is My shepherd, and shall perform all My pleasure; even saying of Jerusalem, Let her be built; and, Let the foundations of the temple be laid." Possibly Cyrus is here alluding to that very utterance, although, as we have seen, Josephus is incorrect in inserting a reference to Hebrew prophecy in the very words of the decree, and in suggesting that the fulfilment of prophecy was the chief end Cyrus had in view.

It is a historical fact that Cyrus did help to build the temple; he supplied funds from the public treasury for that object. We can understand his motives for doing so. If he desired the favour of the God of the Jews, he would naturally aid in restoring His shrine. Nabonidas had fallen, it was thought, through neglecting the worship of the gods. Cyrus seems to have been anxious to avoid this mistake, and to have given attention to the cultivation of their favour. If, as seems likely, some of the Jews had impressed his mind with the greatness of Jehovah, he might have desired to promote the building of the temple at Jerusalem with exceptional assiduity.

In the next place, Cyrus gives the captive Jews leave to go up to Jerusalem. The edict is purely permissive. There is to be no expulsion of Jews from Babylon. Those exiles who did not choose to avail themselves of the boon so eagerly coveted by the patriotic few were allowed to remain unmolested in peace and prosperity. The restoration was voluntary. This free character of the movement would give it a vigour quite out of proportion to the numbers of those who took part in it, and would, at the same time, ensure a certain elevation of tone and spirit. It is an image of the Divine restoration of souls, which is confined to those who accept it of their own free will.

Further, the object of the return, as it is distinctly specified, is simply to rebuild the temple, not-at all events in the first instance-to build up and fortify a city on the ruins of Jerusalem; much less does it imply a complete restoration of Palestine to the Jews, with a wholesale expulsion of its present inhabitants from their farms and vineyards. Cyrus does not seem to have contemplated any such revolution. The end in view was neither social nor political, but purely religious. That more would come out of it, that the returning exiles must have houses to live in and must protect those houses from the brigandage of the Bedouin, and that they must have fields producing food to support them and their families, are inevitable consequences. Here is the germ and nucleus of a national restoration. Still it remains true that the immediate object-the only object named in the decree-is the rebuilding of the temple. Thus we see from the first that the idea which characterises the restoration is religious. The exiles return as a Church. The goal of their pilgrimage is a holy site. The one work they are to aim at achieving is to further the worship of their God.

Lastly, the inhabitants of the towns in which the Jews have been settled are directed to make contributions towards the work. It is not quite clear whether these "Benevolences" are to be entirely voluntary. A royal exhortation generally assumes something of the character of a command. Probably rich men were requisitioned to assist in providing the gold and silver and other stores, together with the beasts of burden which would be needed for the great expedition. This was to supplement what Cyrus calls "the free-will offering for the house of God that is in Jerusalem"-i.e., either the gifts of the Jews who remained in Babylon, or possibly his own contribution from the funds of the state. We are reminded of the Hebrews spoiling the Egyptians at the Exodus. The prophet Haggai saw in this a promise of future supplies, when the wealth of foreign nations would be poured into the temple treasury in donations of larger dimensions from the heathen. "For thus saith the Lord of hosts," he writes, "Yet once, it is a little while, and I will shake the heavens, and the earth, and the sea, and the dry land; and the desirable things of all nations shall come, and I will fill this house with glory, saith the Lord of hosts. The silver is mine, and the gold is mine, saith the Lord of hosts." {Haggai 2:6-8}

The assumed willingness of their neighbours to contribute at a hint from the king suggests that the exiles were not altogether unpopular. On the other hand, it is quite possible that, under the oppression of Nabonidas, they had suffered much wrong from these neighbours. A public persecution always entails a large amount of private cruelty, because the victims are not protected by the law from the greed and petty spite of those who are mean enough to take advantage of their helpless condition. Thus it may be that Cyrus was aiming at a just return in his recommendation to his subjects to aid the Jews.

Such was the decree. Now let us look at the execution of it.

In the first place, there was a ready response on the part of some of the Jews, seen especially in the conduct of their leaders, who "rose up," bestirring themselves to prepare for the expedition, like expectant watchers released from their weary waiting and set free for action. The social leaders are mentioned first, which is a clear indication that the theocracy, so characteristic of the coming age, was not yet the recognised order. A little later the clergy will be placed before the laity, but at present the laity are still named before the clergy. The order is domestic. The leaders are the heads of great families-"the chief of the fathers." For such people to be named first is also an indication that the movement did not originate in the humbler classes. Evidently a certain aristocratic spirit permeated it. The wealthy merchants may have been loath to leave their centres of commerce, but the nobility of blood and family were at the head of the crusade. We have not yet reached the age of the democracy. It is clear, further, that there was some organisation among the exiles. They were not a mere crowd of refugees. The leaders were of the tribes of Judah and Benjamin. We shall have to consider the relation of the Ten Tribes to the restoration later on; here it may be enough to observe in passing that representatives of the Southern Kingdom take the lead in a return to Jerusalem, the capital of that kingdom. Next come the ecclesiastical leaders, the priests and Levites. Already we find these two orders named separately-an important fact in relation to the development of Judaism that will meet us again, with some hints here and there to throw light upon the meaning of it.

There is another side to this response. It was by no means the case that the whole of the exiles rose up in answer to the edict of Cyrus; only those leaders and only those people responded "whose spirit God had raised." The privilege was offered to all the Jews, but it was not accepted by all. We cannot but be impressed by the religious faith and the inspired insight of our historian in this matter. He saw that Cyrus issued his edict because the Lord had stirred up his spirit; now he attributes the prompting to make use of the proffered liberty to a similar Divine influence. Thus the return was a movement of heaven-sent impulses throughout. Ezekiel’s vision of the dry bones showed the deplorable condition of the Northern Kingdom in his day-stripped bare, shattered to fragments, scattered abroad. The condition of Judah was only second to this ghastly national ruin. But now to Judah there had come the breath of the Divine Spirit which Ezekiel saw promised for Israel, and a living army was rising up in new energy. Here we may discover the deeper, the more vital source of the return. Without this the edict of Cyrus would have perished as a dead letter. Even as it was, only those people who felt the breath of the Divine afflatus rose up for the arduous undertaking. So today there is no return to the heavenly Jerusalem and no rebuilding the fallen temple of human nature except in the power of the Spirit of God. Regeneration always goes hand in hand with redemption-the work of the Spirit with the work of the Christ. In the particular case before us, the special effect of the Divine influence is "to raise the spirit"-i.e., to infuse life, to rouse to activity and hope and high endeavour. A people thus equipped is fit for any expedition of toil or peril. Like Gideon’s little, sifted army, the small band of inspired men who rose up to accept the decree of Cyrus carried within their breasts a superhuman power, and therefore a promise of ultimate success. The aim with which they set out confirmed the religious character of the whole enterprise. They accepted the limitation and they gladly adopted the one definite purpose suggested in the edict of Cyrus. They proceeded "to build the house of the Lord which is in Jerusalem." This was their only confessed aim. It would have been impossible for patriots such as these Jews were not to feel some national hopes and dreams stirring within them; still we have no reason to believe that the returning exiles were not loyal to the spirit of the decree of the Great King. The religious aim was the real occasion of the expedition. So much the more need was there to go in the Spirit and strength of God. Only they whose spirit God has raised are fit to build God’s temple, because work for God must be done in the Spirit of God.

Secondly, the resident neighbours fell in with the recommendation of the king ungrudgingly, and gave rich contributions for the expedition. They could not go themselves, but they could have a share in the work by means of their gifts-as the home church can share in the foreign mission she supports. The acceptance of these bounties by the Jews does not well accord with their subsequent conduct when they refused the aid of their Samaritan neighbours in the actual work of building the temple. It has an ugly look, as though they were willing to take help from all sources excepting where any concessions in return would be expected on the part of those who were befriending them. However, it is just to remember that the aid was invited and offered by Cyrus, not solicited by the Jews.

Thirdly, the execution of the decree appears to have been honestly and effectively promoted by its author. In accordance with his generous encouragement of the Jews to rebuild their temple, Cyrus restored the sacred vessels that had been carried off by Nebuchadnezzar on the occasion of the first Chaldaean raid on Jerusalem, and deposited in a temple at Babylon nearly seventy years before the time of the return. No doubt these things were regarded as of more importance than other spoils of war. It would be supposed that the patron god of the conquered people was humiliated when the instruments of his worship were offered to Bel or Nebo. Perhaps it was thought that some charm attaching to them would bring luck to the city in which they were guarded. When Nabonidas was seized with frantic terror at the approach of the Persian hosts, he brought the idols of the surrounding nations to Babylon for his protection. The reference to the temple vessels, and the careful and detailed enumeration of them, without the mention of any image, is a clear proof that, although before the captivity the majority of the Jews may have consisted of idolaters, there was no idol in the temple at Jerusalem. Had there been one there Nebuchadnezzar would most certainly have carried it off as the greatest trophy of victory. In default of images, he had to make the most of the gold and silver plate used in the sacrificial ceremonies.

Viewed in this connection, the restitution of the stolen vessels by Cyrus appears to be more than an act of generosity or justice. A certain religious import belongs to it. It put an end to an ancient insult offered by Babylon to the God of Israel; and it might be taken as an act of homage offered to Jehovah by Cyrus. Yet it was only a restitution, a return of what was God’s before, and so a type of every gift man makes to God.

It has been noticed that the total number of the vessels restored does not agree with the sum of the numbers of the several kinds of vessels. The total is 5400; but an addition of the list of the vessels only amounts to 2499. Perhaps the less valuable articles are omitted from the detailed account; or possibly there is some error of transcription, and if so the question is, in which direction shall we find it? It may be that the total was too large. On the other hand, in 1 Esdras nearly the same high total is given-viz., 5469 - and there the details are made to agree with it by an evidently artificial manipulation of the numbers. {RAPC 1 Esdras 2:14} This gives some probability to the view that the total is correct, and that the error must be in the numbers of the several items. The practical importance of these considerations is that they lead us to a high estimate of the immense wealth of the Old Temple treasures. Thus they suggest the reflection that much devotion and generosity had been shown in collecting such stores of gold and silver in previous ages. They help us to picture the sumptuous ritual of the first temple, with the "barbaric splendour" of a rich display of the precious metals. Therefore they show that the generosity of Cyrus in restoring so great a hoard was genuine and considerable. It might have been urged that after the treasures had been lying for two generations in a heathen temple the original owners had lost all claim upon them. It might have been said that they had been contaminated by this long residence among the abominations of Babylonian idolatry. The restoration of them swept away all such ideas. What was once God’s belongs to Him by right forever. His property is inalienable; His claims never lapse with time, never fail through change.

It is not without significance that the treasurer who handed over their temple-property to the Jews was named "Mithredath"-a word that means "given by Mithra," or "devoted to Mithra." This suggests that the Persian sun-god was honoured among the servants of Cyrus, and yet that one who by name at least was especially associated with this divinity was constrained to honour the God of Israel. Next to Judaism and Christianity, the worship of Mithra showed the greatest vitality of all religions in Western Asia, and later even in Europe. So vigorous was it as recently as the commencement of the Christian era, that M. Renan has remarked, that if the Roman world had not become Christian it would have become Mithrastic. In those regions where the dazzling radiance and burning heat of the sun are felt as they are not even imagined in our chill, gloomy climate, it was naturally supposed that if any visible God existed He must be found in the great fiery centre of the world’s light and life. Our own day has seen the scientific development of the idea that the sun’s force is the source of all the energy of nature. In the homage paid by one of the ancient followers of Mithra, the sun-god, to the God of Israel, may we not see an image of the recognition of the claims of the Supreme by our priests of the sun-Kepler, Newton, Faraday? Men must be more blind than the slaves of Mithra if they cannot recognise an awful, invisible energy behind and above the forces of the solar system-nay more, a living Spirit-God!

Verses 7-11

THE ROYAL EDICT

Ezra 1:2-4; Ezra 1:7-11

IT has been asserted that the Scripture version of the edict of Cyrus cannot be an exact rendering of the original, because it ascribes to the Great King some knowledge of the God of the Jews, and even some faith in Him. For this reason it has been suggested that either the chronicler or some previous writer who translated the decree out of the Persian language, in which of course it must have been first issued, inserted the word Jehovah in place of the name of Ormazd or some other god worshipped by Cyrus, and shaped the phrases generally so as to commend them to Jewish sympathies. Are we driven to this position? We have seen that when Cyrus got possession of Babylon he had no scruple in claiming the indigenous divinity Merodach as his god. Is it not then entirely in accordance with his eclectic habit of mind-not to mention his diplomatic art in humouring the prejudices of his subjects-that he should draw up a decree in which he designed to show favour to an exceptionally religious people in language that would be congenial to them? Like most men of higher intelligence even among polytheistic races, Cyrus may have believed in one supreme Deity, who, he may have supposed, was worshipped under different names by different nations. The final clause of Ezra 1:3 is misleading, as it stands in the Authorised Version; and the Revisers, with their habitual caution, have only so far improved upon it as to permit the preferable rendering to appear in the margin, where we have generally to look for the opinions of the more scholarly as well as the more courageous critics. Yet even the Authorised Version renders the same words correctly in the very next verse. There is no occasion to print the clause, "He is the God," as a parenthesis, so as to make Cyrus inform the world that Jehovah is the one real divinity. The more probable rendering in idea is also the more simple one in construction. Removing the superfluous brackets, we read right on: "He is the God which is in Jerusalem"-i.e., we have an indication who "Jehovah" is for the information of strangers to the Jews who may read the edict. With this understanding let us examine the leading items of the decree. It was proclaimed by the mouth of king’s messengers, and it was also preserved in writing, so that possibly the original inscription may be recovered from among the burnt clay records that lie buried in the ruins of Persian cities. The edict is addressed to the whole empire. Cyrus announces to all his subjects his intention to rebuild the temple at Jerusalem. Then he specialises the aim of the decree by granting a license to the Jews to go up to Jerusalem and undertake this work. It is a perfectly free offer to all Jews in exile without exception. "Who is there among you" - i.e., among all the subjects of the empire-"of all His" (Jehovah’s) "people, his God be with him, and let him go up to Jerusalem," etc. In particular we may observe the following points:-

First, Cyrus begins by acknowledging that "the God of Heaven"-whom he identifies with the Hebrew "Jehovah," in our version of the edict-has given him his dominions. It is possible to treat this introductory sentence as a superficial formula; but there is no reason for so ungenerous an estimate of it. If we accept the words in their honest intention, we must see in them a recognition of the hand of God in the setting up of kingdoms. Two opposite kinds of experience awaken in men a conviction of God’s presence in their lives-great calamities and great successes. The influence of the latter experience is not so often acknowledged as that of the former, but probably it is equally effective, at least in extreme instances. There is something awful in the success of a world-conqueror. When the man is a destroyer, spreading havoc and misery, like Attila, he regards himself as a "Scourge of God"; and when he is a vulgar impersonation of selfish greed like Napoleon, he thinks he is swept on by a mighty tide of destiny. In both instances the results are too stupendous to be attributed to purely human energy. But in the case of Cyrus, an enlightened and noble-minded hero is bringing liberty and favour to the victims of a degraded tyranny, so that he is hailed by some of them as the Anointed King raised up by their God, and therefore it is not unnatural that he should ascribe his brilliant destiny to a Divine influence.

Secondly, Cyrus actually asserts that God has charged him to build Him a temple at Jerusalem. Again, this may be the language of princely courtesy; but the noble spirit which breathes through the decree encourages us to take a higher view of it, and to refrain from reading minimising comments between the lines. It is probable that those eager, patriotic Jews who had got the ear of Cyrus-or he would never have issued such a decree as this - may have urged their suit by showing him predictions like that of Isaiah 44:28, in which God describes Himself as One "that saith of Cyrus, He is My shepherd, and shall perform all My pleasure; even saying of Jerusalem, Let her be built; and, Let the foundations of the temple be laid." Possibly Cyrus is here alluding to that very utterance, although, as we have seen, Josephus is incorrect in inserting a reference to Hebrew prophecy in the very words of the decree, and in suggesting that the fulfilment of prophecy was the chief end Cyrus had in view.

It is a historical fact that Cyrus did help to build the temple; he supplied funds from the public treasury for that object. We can understand his motives for doing so. If he desired the favour of the God of the Jews, he would naturally aid in restoring His shrine. Nabonidas had fallen, it was thought, through neglecting the worship of the gods. Cyrus seems to have been anxious to avoid this mistake, and to have given attention to the cultivation of their favour. If, as seems likely, some of the Jews had impressed his mind with the greatness of Jehovah, he might have desired to promote the building of the temple at Jerusalem with exceptional assiduity.

In the next place, Cyrus gives the captive Jews leave to go up to Jerusalem. The edict is purely permissive. There is to be no expulsion of Jews from Babylon. Those exiles who did not choose to avail themselves of the boon so eagerly coveted by the patriotic few were allowed to remain unmolested in peace and prosperity. The restoration was voluntary. This free character of the movement would give it a vigour quite out of proportion to the numbers of those who took part in it, and would, at the same time, ensure a certain elevation of tone and spirit. It is an image of the Divine restoration of souls, which is confined to those who accept it of their own free will.

Further, the object of the return, as it is distinctly specified, is simply to rebuild the temple, not-at all events in the first instance-to build up and fortify a city on the ruins of Jerusalem; much less does it imply a complete restoration of Palestine to the Jews, with a wholesale expulsion of its present inhabitants from their farms and vineyards. Cyrus does not seem to have contemplated any such revolution. The end in view was neither social nor political, but purely religious. That more would come out of it, that the returning exiles must have houses to live in and must protect those houses from the brigandage of the Bedouin, and that they must have fields producing food to support them and their families, are inevitable consequences. Here is the germ and nucleus of a national restoration. Still it remains true that the immediate object-the only object named in the decree-is the rebuilding of the temple. Thus we see from the first that the idea which characterises the restoration is religious. The exiles return as a Church. The goal of their pilgrimage is a holy site. The one work they are to aim at achieving is to further the worship of their God.

Lastly, the inhabitants of the towns in which the Jews have been settled are directed to make contributions towards the work. It is not quite clear whether these "Benevolences" are to be entirely voluntary. A royal exhortation generally assumes something of the character of a command. Probably rich men were requisitioned to assist in providing the gold and silver and other stores, together with the beasts of burden which would be needed for the great expedition. This was to supplement what Cyrus calls "the free-will offering for the house of God that is in Jerusalem"-i.e., either the gifts of the Jews who remained in Babylon, or possibly his own contribution from the funds of the state. We are reminded of the Hebrews spoiling the Egyptians at the Exodus. The prophet Haggai saw in this a promise of future supplies, when the wealth of foreign nations would be poured into the temple treasury in donations of larger dimensions from the heathen. "For thus saith the Lord of hosts," he writes, "Yet once, it is a little while, and I will shake the heavens, and the earth, and the sea, and the dry land; and the desirable things of all nations shall come, and I will fill this house with glory, saith the Lord of hosts. The silver is mine, and the gold is mine, saith the Lord of hosts." {Haggai 2:6-8}

The assumed willingness of their neighbours to contribute at a hint from the king suggests that the exiles were not altogether unpopular. On the other hand, it is quite possible that, under the oppression of Nabonidas, they had suffered much wrong from these neighbours. A public persecution always entails a large amount of private cruelty, because the victims are not protected by the law from the greed and petty spite of those who are mean enough to take advantage of their helpless condition. Thus it may be that Cyrus was aiming at a just return in his recommendation to his subjects to aid the Jews.

Such was the decree. Now let us look at the execution of it.

In the first place, there was a ready response on the part of some of the Jews, seen especially in the conduct of their leaders, who "rose up," bestirring themselves to prepare for the expedition, like expectant watchers released from their weary waiting and set free for action. The social leaders are mentioned first, which is a clear indication that the theocracy, so characteristic of the coming age, was not yet the recognised order. A little later the clergy will be placed before the laity, but at present the laity are still named before the clergy. The order is domestic. The leaders are the heads of great families-"the chief of the fathers." For such people to be named first is also an indication that the movement did not originate in the humbler classes. Evidently a certain aristocratic spirit permeated it. The wealthy merchants may have been loath to leave their centres of commerce, but the nobility of blood and family were at the head of the crusade. We have not yet reached the age of the democracy. It is clear, further, that there was some organisation among the exiles. They were not a mere crowd of refugees. The leaders were of the tribes of Judah and Benjamin. We shall have to consider the relation of the Ten Tribes to the restoration later on; here it may be enough to observe in passing that representatives of the Southern Kingdom take the lead in a return to Jerusalem, the capital of that kingdom. Next come the ecclesiastical leaders, the priests and Levites. Already we find these two orders named separately-an important fact in relation to the development of Judaism that will meet us again, with some hints here and there to throw light upon the meaning of it.

There is another side to this response. It was by no means the case that the whole of the exiles rose up in answer to the edict of Cyrus; only those leaders and only those people responded "whose spirit God had raised." The privilege was offered to all the Jews, but it was not accepted by all. We cannot but be impressed by the religious faith and the inspired insight of our historian in this matter. He saw that Cyrus issued his edict because the Lord had stirred up his spirit; now he attributes the prompting to make use of the proffered liberty to a similar Divine influence. Thus the return was a movement of heaven-sent impulses throughout. Ezekiel’s vision of the dry bones showed the deplorable condition of the Northern Kingdom in his day-stripped bare, shattered to fragments, scattered abroad. The condition of Judah was only second to this ghastly national ruin. But now to Judah there had come the breath of the Divine Spirit which Ezekiel saw promised for Israel, and a living army was rising up in new energy. Here we may discover the deeper, the more vital source of the return. Without this the edict of Cyrus would have perished as a dead letter. Even as it was, only those people who felt the breath of the Divine afflatus rose up for the arduous undertaking. So today there is no return to the heavenly Jerusalem and no rebuilding the fallen temple of human nature except in the power of the Spirit of God. Regeneration always goes hand in hand with redemption-the work of the Spirit with the work of the Christ. In the particular case before us, the special effect of the Divine influence is "to raise the spirit"-i.e., to infuse life, to rouse to activity and hope and high endeavour. A people thus equipped is fit for any expedition of toil or peril. Like Gideon’s little, sifted army, the small band of inspired men who rose up to accept the decree of Cyrus carried within their breasts a superhuman power, and therefore a promise of ultimate success. The aim with which they set out confirmed the religious character of the whole enterprise. They accepted the limitation and they gladly adopted the one definite purpose suggested in the edict of Cyrus. They proceeded "to build the house of the Lord which is in Jerusalem." This was their only confessed aim. It would have been impossible for patriots such as these Jews were not to feel some national hopes and dreams stirring within them; still we have no reason to believe that the returning exiles were not loyal to the spirit of the decree of the Great King. The religious aim was the real occasion of the expedition. So much the more need was there to go in the Spirit and strength of God. Only they whose spirit God has raised are fit to build God’s temple, because work for God must be done in the Spirit of God.

Secondly, the resident neighbours fell in with the recommendation of the king ungrudgingly, and gave rich contributions for the expedition. They could not go themselves, but they could have a share in the work by means of their gifts-as the home church can share in the foreign mission she supports. The acceptance of these bounties by the Jews does not well accord with their subsequent conduct when they refused the aid of their Samaritan neighbours in the actual work of building the temple. It has an ugly look, as though they were willing to take help from all sources excepting where any concessions in return would be expected on the part of those who were befriending them. However, it is just to remember that the aid was invited and offered by Cyrus, not solicited by the Jews.

Thirdly, the execution of the decree appears to have been honestly and effectively promoted by its author. In accordance with his generous encouragement of the Jews to rebuild their temple, Cyrus restored the sacred vessels that had been carried off by Nebuchadnezzar on the occasion of the first Chaldaean raid on Jerusalem, and deposited in a temple at Babylon nearly seventy years before the time of the return. No doubt these things were regarded as of more importance than other spoils of war. It would be supposed that the patron god of the conquered people was humiliated when the instruments of his worship were offered to Bel or Nebo. Perhaps it was thought that some charm attaching to them would bring luck to the city in which they were guarded. When Nabonidas was seized with frantic terror at the approach of the Persian hosts, he brought the idols of the surrounding nations to Babylon for his protection. The reference to the temple vessels, and the careful and detailed enumeration of them, without the mention of any image, is a clear proof that, although before the captivity the majority of the Jews may have consisted of idolaters, there was no idol in the temple at Jerusalem. Had there been one there Nebuchadnezzar would most certainly have carried it off as the greatest trophy of victory. In default of images, he had to make the most of the gold and silver plate used in the sacrificial ceremonies.

Viewed in this connection, the restitution of the stolen vessels by Cyrus appears to be more than an act of generosity or justice. A certain religious import belongs to it. It put an end to an ancient insult offered by Babylon to the God of Israel; and it might be taken as an act of homage offered to Jehovah by Cyrus. Yet it was only a restitution, a return of what was God’s before, and so a type of every gift man makes to God.

It has been noticed that the total number of the vessels restored does not agree with the sum of the numbers of the several kinds of vessels. The total is 5400; but an addition of the list of the vessels only amounts to 2499. Perhaps the less valuable articles are omitted from the detailed account; or possibly there is some error of transcription, and if so the question is, in which direction shall we find it? It may be that the total was too large. On the other hand, in 1 Esdras nearly the same high total is given-viz., 5469 - and there the details are made to agree with it by an evidently artificial manipulation of the numbers. {RAPC 1 Esdras 2:14} This gives some probability to the view that the total is correct, and that the error must be in the numbers of the several items. The practical importance of these considerations is that they lead us to a high estimate of the immense wealth of the Old Temple treasures. Thus they suggest the reflection that much devotion and generosity had been shown in collecting such stores of gold and silver in previous ages. They help us to picture the sumptuous ritual of the first temple, with the "barbaric splendour" of a rich display of the precious metals. Therefore they show that the generosity of Cyrus in restoring so great a hoard was genuine and considerable. It might have been urged that after the treasures had been lying for two generations in a heathen temple the original owners had lost all claim upon them. It might have been said that they had been contaminated by this long residence among the abominations of Babylonian idolatry. The restoration of them swept away all such ideas. What was once God’s belongs to Him by right forever. His property is inalienable; His claims never lapse with time, never fail through change.

It is not without significance that the treasurer who handed over their temple-property to the Jews was named "Mithredath"-a word that means "given by Mithra," or "devoted to Mithra." This suggests that the Persian sun-god was honoured among the servants of Cyrus, and yet that one who by name at least was especially associated with this divinity was constrained to honour the God of Israel. Next to Judaism and Christianity, the worship of Mithra showed the greatest vitality of all religions in Western Asia, and later even in Europe. So vigorous was it as recently as the commencement of the Christian era, that M. Renan has remarked, that if the Roman world had not become Christian it would have become Mithrastic. In those regions where the dazzling radiance and burning heat of the sun are felt as they are not even imagined in our chill, gloomy climate, it was naturally supposed that if any visible God existed He must be found in the great fiery centre of the world’s light and life. Our own day has seen the scientific development of the idea that the sun’s force is the source of all the energy of nature. In the homage paid by one of the ancient followers of Mithra, the sun-god, to the God of Israel, may we not see an image of the recognition of the claims of the Supreme by our priests of the sun-Kepler, Newton, Faraday? Men must be more blind than the slaves of Mithra if they cannot recognise an awful, invisible energy behind and above the forces of the solar system-nay more, a living Spirit-God!

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Bibliographical Information
Nicoll, William R. "Commentary on Ezra 1". "The Expositor's Bible Commentary". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/teb/ezra-1.html.