(2) Returning Home with Ezra, Part 1: The First Return
The book of Ezra was written in two languages: Hebrew and Chaldee, the Persian language. This tends to legitimize Ezra’s claim that his account was written during a time when the Persian Empire greatly influenced the culture and language of the nations under its rule. The events that occur in Ezra begin with a small group of people who want to return to their holy city, Jerusalem, and reestablish their nation and their faith in God. But they need power and protection to do this. God provides both through the decrees of world emperors, one being Cyrus II. Persian emperors were polytheistic kings. Yet, some of them showed respect for the gods of other nations as a political move. Cyrus II, or Cyrus the Great, empowers the Israelites who wish to return to Jerusalem and provides them with the protection to cross the land and inhabit their holy city. This royal favor from an earthly “god” of nations gives us a glimpse of the methods Jehovah God uses to empower and protect His beloved sons and daughters of Abraham.
Ezra 1 begins:
“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, 2 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.” – Ezra 1:1-2
Cyrus reigned circa 539-530 BCE. In 539 BCE when the Neo-Babylonian Empire under Belshazzar fell, Cyrus controlled no less than four great kingdoms. The Babylonian method for recording a king’s reign, which carried over into Persian tradition, makes the timeline difficult to pin down. The Babylonians considered the point at which the king took the throne the accession year, and the year after was the king’s first year of reign. So, Cyrus made the decree in 539 or 538 BCE. That the decree was made in his first year as emperor is confirmed in 2 Chronicles 36:22-23.
Ezra (c. 480-440) alludes to Jeremiah’s (c. 626-587) prophecy in which God told him the captives of Israel would return (Jeremiah 29:10-14) and the city would be rebuilt “on its mound” (Jeremiah 30:18). Like Ezra, many Israelites had waited for this day. To hear the Persian emperor Cyrus make this decree was to know their God had not forgotten His promises to them nor His covenant with them.
Cyrus II of Persia was known for being lenient toward the religious beliefs of the peoples ruled by his empire. The Cyrus Cylinder in the British Museum in London gives insight into his way of thinking.
“May all the gods whom I settled in their sacred centers ask daily…that my days be long and may they intercede for my welfare.” 1
Cyrus’ ruling strategy was to appease the gods of the lands he ruled in order to seek their blessing by returning the properties of these gods and their people to the land.2
The decree of Cyrus the Great to the children of Israel included the invitation to return to Jerusalem:
“2Thus 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. 3Whosoever 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. 4And 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 (Ezra 1:2-4).”
The call to build the temple was open to all Israelites, but it was not a mandatory command to go to Jerusalem. Cyrus gave the invitation to God’s people, and he provided financially for those who wanted to rebuild the governmental and spiritual hub of their culture and lives. Beyond the gifts that were given to aid them, the returning Hebrews were to be assisted by their local neighbors with the funds, tools, and livestock they needed to carry out the work. This was a massive construction project, and Cyrus opened a door for them with his decree. Through this emperor, God paved the way for those who longed to return home. Plus, He supplied the relief funds to restore their temple. And all this was accomplished before they had begun their journey.
Restoring relationship begins with an invitation. In a healthy relationship, no one is forced into it. God provides an invitation to all to come into His presence by supplying the relief fund when He set up the freewill offering of His Son, Jesus, to cover the massive cost of death. He does not force anyone to accept.
Just as God promised Israel that they would return, He promised that all nations would come into His house. Micah 1:2 prophesied, “And many nations shall go and say, Come ye, and let us go up to the mountain of Jehovah, and to the house of the God of Jacob; and he will teach us of his ways, and we will walk in his paths…”
The relationships we make in this life are fallible. We forget. We don’t always look for ways to bring us closer to those we love. Let’s face it; we’re a bit neglectful at times. God never forgets His promises. He will always keep His covenant with His people. Circumstances happen that cause us to think God has abandoned us. It isn’t true. His invitation is always open, and He will provide what you need to return home… to Him.
- English translation of the Cyrus Cylinder, Section 35 Cyrus’ Prayer, http://www.livius.org/ct-cz/cyrus_I/cyrus_cylinder2.html, Accessed 2020/03/30
- Ibid, Section 32 Religious Measures, Accessed 2020/03/30