Cyrus Helps the Exiles to Return (1:1–11)
(2 Chronicles 36:22–23)
1–4 These first few verses of Ezra are identical with 2 Chronicles 36:22–23. However, Cyrus’ statement in 2 Chronicles seems to be cut off: . . .and let him go up. Here in verse 3, the statement is completed: . . . let him go up to Jerusalem . . . and build the temple of the LORD.2
Cyrus’ proclamation to the Israelites was made in the first year of his reign—that is, the first year after his capture of Babylon.3 The Lord moved the heart of Cyrus to allow the Israelites to return to Judah after seventy years of exile in Babylon (verse 1). This was in order to fulfill the PROPHECY made by Jeremiah before the Exile had even begun (Jeremiah 25:11–12; 29:10). Thus we can understand that Cyrus was God’s instrument both for showing mercy to the Israelites and also for furthering His plan to bring redemption to the world through a Descendant of David who was yet to come.4
Unlike the kings of Assyria and Babylon, Cyrus treated his subjugated people with respect; in particular, he did not seek to change their religious beliefs or their forms of worship. Thus it was quite in keeping with Cyrus’ overall policy that he should encourage the Israelites to return to their land and rebuild their temple.
In our day also, the Lord “moves the hearts of kings,” the hearts of presidents and dictators and generals. Powerful men think that it is they who determine events, but they are mistaken: it is God who does so.5 The remnant of Jewish6 exiles may have felt powerless, felt beset on every side by strong opponents; but they only needed to remind themselves that their God was greater than all other powers put together.
We, too, may feel powerless; we too may feel that our daily toil will have little lasting significance. But we, too, need to remember that it is God who will determine the significance of our labor. We should also remember that God usually chooses to work through those who do not have power, fame and influence of their own. Rather, He chooses ordinary people—like those Jewish exiles—to accomplish His greatest purposes (see 1 Corinthians 1:25–29).
The Jewish exiles in Babylon surely felt their lives had been disrupted forever. Yet through the prophetic words of fellow exiles Daniel and Ezekiel, many of them came to realize that God’s plans had not been disrupted. To the contrary, the exiles saw great new opportunities open up before them.7
It is the same with us: whenever we pass through a period of disruption and upheaval, let us not despair; God is opening up to us new opportunities for service and for personal growth. The day of calamity is also a day of new beginnings for all those who love God and are called according to his purpose (Romans 8:28).
5–11 Here Ezra describes how the exiles prepared to return to Judah; it was a journey that would take four months (see Ezra 7:8–9). The family heads of Judah and Benjamin8 led in the preparations (verse 5). Those who decided to return were given much assistance by those who chose to stay in Babylon. Cyrus himself gave them the temple treasures that Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon had plundered (verse 7). These were handed over to Sheshbazzar, the first prince (governor) of the province of Judah9 (verse 8).
Notice in verse 5 that everyone whose heart God had moved—fifty thousand people (Ezra 2:64–65)—prepared to return. But many more than that decided to stay in Babylon. Seventy years had passed; most of the exiles had been born in Babylon. Many had become settled and comfortable; why leave a life of relative ease and return to a life of hardship and uncertainty in Judah?
But just as God had moved the heart of Cyrus, so He also moved the hearts of the exiles. And fifty thousand of them responded and returned to build God’s temple and reestablish themselves as God’s holy nation (Exodus 19:6).