Scriptures

Ezra 1

INTRODUCTION

The seventy years of Israel’s captivity had now come to an end, exactly as Jeremiah said it would, Jeremiah 29:1-14, and so, the Book of Ezra covers the events of the Jews returning from their Babylonian captivity. In the year 538 B.C. the Medes and Persians took over from the Babylonians and became the ruling power of the world.

All the prisoners, including those from Israel, who were formally under the subjection of Nebuchadnezzar the Babylonian king were now under the control of Cyrus, the Medo-Persian king.

Isaiah also prophesied the end of Israel’s captivity, he even names Cyrus and tells us that he would be the king who would help Israel rebuild the temple and Jerusalem, Isaiah 44:28-45:7.

Cyrus was a different kind of king, as he believed that all his prisoners would be more loyal to him if they were free, rather than being slaves. He and the other kings who followed, helped the people to return home and rebuild their temples. Because the people were free to practice their religion, this is turn promoted loyalty to the kings.

AUTHOR

It’s generally agreed that Ezra, who was a scribe and priest, wrote the Book of Ezra and many commentators also believe that Ezra wrote 1 and 2 Chronicles and Psalm 119. We know that the first Jewish synagogue begun when the Jews were in captivity, and we know that the Sanhedrin court begun in captivity and Jewish tradition suggests that these were established by Ezra.

The name Ezra means ‘help’ and he was born among the Babylonian exiles and raised in Babylon, Ezra 7:6. He was the great grandson of Hilkiah who was the high priest during the reign of Josiah, Ezra 7:1-5. He was also a descendant of Aaron because he was a Levitical priest.

Because he was a scribe, he was held in high esteem among the Medo-Persian officials. He was a highly educated man, especially in regards to God’s laws and teaching God’s laws, Ezra 7:6. He loved God and His Word and knew what obedience to God was all about, Ezra 7:10. He taught God’s Word not only to those who were in captivity, but also to those who had returned from captivity, Nehemiah 8:1-8.

THE STAGES OF THE RETURN

The return of Judah took place in three stages and may be summarised as follows.

STAGE 1

This first stage was by the decree of Cyrus for the Jews to return to their homeland and rebuild their temple to God in 538 B.C. Ezra 1-6. The political leader of the Jews who returned at this time was an individual named Zerubbabel, while the Levitical religious leader who returned with him was an individual name Joshua.

Approximately 50,000 people returned at this time, 42,360 Jews plus 8,000 servants and 200 singing men. The purpose of this return was to rebuild the temple, which was completed in 516 B.C. It was during this time that the prophets Haggai and Zechariah ministered.

The work of temple rebuilding was well begun under Zerubbabel and Joshua, the altar was established on October 5th 537 B.C., and the foundations of the second temple were completed in May/June of 536 B.C.

However the people grew selfish and careless and the work lay dormant for several years. God raised up two prophets, Haggai and Zechariah to rebuke and encourage the people, and the temple was finally completed in February/March of 516 B.C.

STAGE 2

The religious leader of this return was Ezra the scribe, 458 B.C. Ezra 7-10. This was a much smaller return as only about 2,000 Jews returned at this time. The purpose of this return was to purify the worship services. Pagan wives had been taken and squatters were in the temple.

STAGE 3

It was at this time that Nehemiah was allowed to return to the land in order to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem and enable the people to re-inhabit the city, 445/444 B.C. Nehemiah 1:1-13. The Old Testament prophet that ministered at this time was Malachi.

Meanwhile in the year 479 B.C. Esther, married King Ahasuerus and became queen of the Medo-Persian Empire, Esther 2:17. It was during this period that the remaining Jews who hadn’t returned to Palestine but remained on the outside of Persian territory were protected from the murderous scheme of Haman.

LIFE DURING THE RETURN

Very little had changed from the time of the exile. The Jews were living previously in Babylon, modern day Iraq, during the exile. But, we find them in the land of Persia, modern day Iran, and returning to their homeland of Israel during the period of the return.

The land of Persia or modern day Iran is a large plateau between the plain of the Tigris on the west and the Indus River valley to the east. On the south it is bordered by the Persian Gulf leading to the Indian Ocean. To the north of the plateau is the Caspian Sea and the chains of mountains that extend from the south end of the Caspian Sea.

Cyrus conquered territories he emphasized winning the favour of the gods, the priesthoods and their followers in those lands. Thus he would reverse the deportation policies of Assyria and Babylon, allowing people to return to their homelands and thus gaining their loyalty.

The Persian people were polytheistic, but at this time there seems to have been the beginnings of Zoroastrianism. To be sure, Darius and Xerxes exalted Ahuramazda, the god Zoraster preached, but they do not mention Zoraster. Cyrus, however, comes across very tolerant of various religions, making him simply a typical Persian polytheist.

Zoroastrianism contains a dualism, a contradiction of good and evil, a Good Spirit and an Evil Spirit with his demon henchmen. The Good Spirit represents light, fire, summer, fertile land, and health. While the Evil Spirit represents darkness, winter, drought, sickness, and death.

In later Zoroastrianism, individuals were judged by whether their good deeds, outweighed their evil deeds. Fire was used as a symbol of the god Ahuramazda, the god worshipped in Zoroastrianism.

All other aspects of life, dress, diet, etc, was the same as the period of the exile. Obviously those who stayed in Persia lived a wealthier lifestyle than those who returned to the land. Those that returned would have a more basic lifestyle for a while until houses were rebuilt, city walls put up and crops re-grown.

DATE

If Ezra was the writer of the book, it was probably written sometime between 440 B.C. and 400 B.C.

OUTLINE

The Exiles Return From Babylon. Ezra 1:1-2:70
The Ordination of Cyrus. Ezra 1:1-4
Preparations for the journey. Ezra 1:5-11
Those who returned. Ezra 2:1-70
Temple Building Began. Ezra 3:1-4:24
The altar and the foundations. Ezra 3:1-13
Opposition to the work. Ezra 4:1-24
The Building Completed. Ezra 5:1-6:22
Work resumed. Ezra 5:1-5
Tattenai’s letter to Darius. Ezra 5:6-17
The Ordinations of Cyrus and Darius. Ezra 6:1-12
The temple finished. Ezra 6:13-22
Ezra’s Journey To Jerusalem. Ezra 7:1-8:36
Ezra introduced. Ezra 7:1-10
Letter of Artaxerxes to Ezra. Ezra 7:11-28
The journey to Jerusalem. Ezra 8:1-36
The Great Reformation. Ezra 9:1-10:44
The tragic report and Ezra’s prayer. Ezra 9:1-15
The abandonment of mixed marriages. Ezra 10:1-17
List of those with foreign wives. Ezra 10:18-44

The Text

Before we get into the text, I think it would be useful to break the book down into two sections. In Ezra 1-6 we read about those who were first to return to Palestine under the rulership of Zerubbabel, they were the ones who rebuilt the temple.

In Ezra 7-10 we read about those who were second to return to Palestine under the leadership of Ezra. Ezra’s main purpose is to restore worship according to the law of Moses, along with teaching God’s people God’s Word.

Cyrus Helps The Exiles To Return

‘In the first year of Cyrus king of Persia, in order to fulfil the word of the LORD spoken by Jeremiah, the LORD moved the heart of Cyrus king of Persia to make a proclamation throughout his realm and also to put it in writing: ‘This is what Cyrus king of Persia says: ‘The LORD, the God of heaven, has given me all the kingdoms of the earth and he has appointed me to build a temple for him at Jerusalem in Judah. Any of his people among you may go up to Jerusalem in Judah and build the temple of the LORD, the God of Israel, the God who is in Jerusalem, and may their God be with them. And in any locality where survivors may now be living, the people are to provide them with silver and gold, with goods and livestock, and with freewill offerings for the temple of God in Jerusalem.’ Ezra 1:1-4

The first year of Cyrus king of Persia is referring to the first year of his reign over the Babylonian lands in 538/537 B.C. His actual reign over the Medes and Persians began earlier in 557 B.C. He was known as Cyrus the Great, and he is the very person whom Isaiah names in his prophecy, Isaiah 45:1, who would help Israel rebuild the temple and Jerusalem, Isaiah 44:28-45:7.

The seventy years of captivity were coming to an end just as Jeremiah had said, Jeremiah 15:12-14 / Jeremiah 29:10-12. The seventy years is calculated from the first captivity during the days of Daniel and his friends, Daniel 1:1, to the first return of the captives in 536 B.C. There is no doubt that the Jews saw what was happening as a fulfilment of the prophecies.

It would be easy for God to move the heart of Cyrus, especially if someone pointed out to Cyrus that his name actually appears in the prophecies of Isaiah, which were written many years before Isaiah 44:28 / Isaiah 45:1-4 / Isaiah 24:13.

Cyrus then goes on to make a proclamation not only verbally but also in writing, 2 Kings 19:9-14. The accounts of this proclamation here and in 2 Chronicles 36:22-23 were the public proclamations of the decree. The quotation of the proclamation in Ezra 6:3-5 was the official recording of the decree. It’s possible that each group would receive a different letter with the same thing written on them.

Cyrus gives credit to God and proclaims that he will build a temple for God in Jerusalem, 1 Chronicles 17:11-12 / 1 Chronicles 22:10 / 1 Chronicles 28:6 / 2 Chronicles 6:9-10. He then proclaims that God’s people may return home to help with the building work. Sadly, only a small number of Jews decided to return home from exile, as Isaiah had prophesied, Isaiah 10:22.

The Cyrus Cylinder

If you visit the British Museum in London, you will see on display an original pair of cufflinks based on the Cyrus Cylinder. The cufflinks are made from 24k plated bronze and are supplied in a presentation box.

The Cyrus Cylinder is one of the most famous objects to have survived from the ancient world. The cylinder was inscribed in Babylonian cuneiform, cuneiform is the earliest form of writing, on the orders of the Persian King Cyrus the Great, 559-530 B.C. after he captured Babylon in 539 B.C.

It is often referred to as the first bill of human rights as it appears to encourage freedom of worship throughout the Persian Empire and to allow deported people to return to their homelands. The cylinder was found in Babylon, modern Iraq, in 1879 during a British Museum excavation.

After the deportations only the poor of the land, the vine-growers and farmers were left, 2 Kings 25:12 / Jeremiah 39:10 / Jeremiah 40:7 / Jeremiah 52:16. Notice that Cyrus also proclaims freewill offerings, this tell us that it wasn’t just about the remnant returning to Jerusalem to live but they were to return to also rebuild the temple.

‘Then the family heads of Judah and Benjamin, and the priests and Levites—everyone whose heart God had moved—prepared to go up and build the house of the LORD in Jerusalem. All their neighbours assisted them with articles of silver and gold, with goods and livestock, and with valuable gifts, in addition to all the freewill offerings.’ Ezra 1:5-6

Some commentators suggest that is was around 50,000 from the tribes of Judah and Benjamin who to took part in this first return. It’s possible that because this number was so high, others, who didn’t want to return home were asked to contribute towards those who were making the journey to Jerusalem and to the building work for the temple.

Notice that ‘all their neighbours assisted them’, it appears that some Gentiles contributed towards their journey too.

‘Moreover, King Cyrus brought out the articles belonging to the temple of the LORD, which Nebuchadnezzar had carried away from Jerusalem and had placed in the temple of his god. Cyrus king of Persia had them brought by Mithredath the treasurer, who counted them out to Sheshbazzar the prince of Judah. This was the inventory: gold dishes 30 silver dishes 1,000 silver pans 29 gold bowls 30 matching silver bowls 410 other articles 1,000. In all, there were 5,400 articles of gold and of silver. Sheshbazzar brought all these along with the exiles when they came up from Babylon to Jerusalem.’ Ezra 1:7-11

These articles which Cyrus brought out were the articles which Nebuchadnezzar had removed from the temple during the destruction of Jerusalem in 586 B.C. 2 Kings 25:14-16 / 2 Chronicles 36:10 / 2 Chronicles 36:18 / Daniel 1:2.

Some believe that Sheshbazzar worked in partnership with Zerubbabel, Ezra 2:2 / Ezra 3:2, and others believe that these were simply two names for the same person, Haggai 1:1 / Haggai 1:14 / Zechariah 4:9 / Ezra 3:8-11.

All of these articles given by Cyrus, not only shows us how rich he was but also how generous and genuine he was in regards to sending some of God’s people home to rebuild the temple.

Go To Ezra 2

DAILY BIBLE VERSE

"All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness."

2 Timothy 3:16

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