Ezra 1:1-11 – Cyrus’s Decree
SummaryThe decree of Cyrus the Great permitted the people to return to their homes in Jerusalem, thus ending the Babylonian exile and fulfilling Jeremiah's prophecy.
AnalysisThe Babylonians dealt with conquered peoples by deporting them to Babylon where they could live in relative freedom and prosperity, perhaps accounting for the meager numbers of exiles who wished to return to Jerusalem with Ezra and Nehemiah. When the Persians defeated the Babylonians in 539 B.C.E., the policy of deportation as a means of dealing with conquered peoples changed. The Persians preferred that conquered peoples stay in their own lands (but pay tribute) worshiping their own gods (and praying for the Persians). This tolerant religious policy signaled the end of the exile for the people of Israel and led to Isaiah's description of Cyrus as God's "anointed" (messiah) in Isaiah 45:1, even though Cyrus was not a follower of Israel's God.
While they were in Babylon, Jeremiah had urged the exiles to accept their lot (Jeremiah 29:4-9). But he also announced that the exile would last only seventy years (Jeremiah 25:11, 12; 29:10), after which time the people would return to Jerusalem and rebuild the temple. These first verses of Ezra see the decree of Cyrus as the fulfillment of Jeremiah's words. Notice that Cyrus's apparently magnanimous offer is somewhat self-serving and that it is "the Lord" who "stirred up" Cyrus's spirit to make the proclamation, just as it was the Lord who "stirred up" the Assyrian and Babylonian kings who brought God's judgment upon Israel (1 Chronicles 5:26; 2 Chronicles 21:16) and who "stirred up" those exiles who returned to Jerusalem (Ezra 1:5). The majority of those people who returned at the stirring of God were members of the tribes of Judah and Benjamin, the priests, and the Levites. But the text understands Cyrus's decree to mean that, though not all the exiles need return to Jerusalem, they all need to support the rebuilding of the temple (vv. 3-4).
The returning exiles bring with them the temple vessels that Nebuchadnezzar had removed when he destroyed Jerusalem (vv. 7-8). The return of these vessels serves to strengthen the continuity between pre- and postexilic Israel. The discrepancy between the list of the vessels (2,499; vv. 9-10) and the stated total of 5,400 vessels (v. 11) is due to the author's utilization of differing sources.