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Bible Commentaries

Dr. Constable's Expository Notes

Ezra 1

I. THE FIRST RETURN UNDER SHESHBAZZAR CHS. 1-6

"This whole section (Ezra 1-6) emphasizes God’s sovereignty and his providence; God works in history to fulfill his will." [Note: Breneman, p. 66.]

A. The Return from Babylon chs. 1-2

The writer began his narrative by relating Cyrus’ edict that allowed the Jews in Babylonian exile to return to their land, and its consequences (ch. 1), and by recording the names of the exiles who returned initially (ch. 2).

1. The edict of Cyrus and its consequences ch. 1

God had warned His people Israel that disobedience to the Mosaic Covenant might result in exile from the Promised Land, if that disobedience was widespread and prolonged (cf. Leviticus 26:14; Leviticus 26:33; Deuteronomy 28:36; Deuteronomy 28:48; Deuteronomy 28:63). This was what actually happened. The Assyrians under Shalmaneser V took over the Northern Kingdom of Israel (2 Kings 17:1-6; cf. 2 Kings 15:29) and deported the people to Assyria (2 Kings 17:6) in 722 B.C. The Neo-Babylonian Empire replaced Assyria as the major political force in the ancient Near East in 605 B.C. following the battle of Carchemish. Later that same year, the Babylonian army under Nebuchadnezzar invaded the Southern Kingdom of Judah and took some of the Jews captive to Babylon (2 Kings 24:1-4). Two more invasions and deportations by Nebuchadnezzar followed in 597 and 586 B.C. (2 Kings 24:10-17; 2 Kings 25:1-7). However, God had also promised that if His people in exile repented and returned to Him, He would restore them to the Promised Land (Leviticus 26:40-45; Deuteronomy 30:1-5).

Over a century before the exile began, Isaiah not only prophesied that Israel would experience exile, but that she would eventually return to the land. Isaiah revealed that the name of the king who would allow Israel to return would be Cyrus (Isaiah 44:28; Isaiah 45:1). Cyrus inherited the throne of Anshan, a small state near the Persian Gulf, in 559 B.C. Due to his great leadership ability, he was able to unite the Persian people. He then attacked the neighboring Medes and took their capital city, Ecbatana, without a battle. The Median soldiers abandoned their king to side with Cyrus. He then welded these two great peoples into the Medo-Persian Empire. He next conquered Lydia and Anatolia (in the western part of modern Turkey) in 547-546 B.C. The Babylonian Empire was then in a weakened condition. Cyrus invaded its capital, Babylon, by diverting the waters of the Euphrates River that ran through the city, and marching under the city wall on the riverbed. This took place in 539 B.C. This victory enabled Cyrus to establish Medo-Persia as the major political power in the ancient Near East. [Note: For more detail, see Eugene H. Merrill, Kingdom of Priests, pp. 478-80.]

"From east to west, it [the Persian Empire] was as wide as the continental United States." [Note: Howard F. Vos, Ezra, Nehemiah, and Esther, p. 16. This was a much larger area than what the Babylonian Empire occupied. For maps of these areas see Merrill, Kingdom of . . ., pp. 434 and 472; or The Bible Knowledge Commentary: Old Testament, p. 1352.]

Cyrus adopted a policy toward conquered peoples within his empire that was opposite to that of his Assyrian and Babylonian predecessors. They had deported defeated people from their homelands to minimize the threat of revolution. Cyrus, on the other hand, decided to allow these people to return to their former homes, believing that this would please them and would discourage them from rebelling.

"Cyrus was one of the truly enlightened rulers of ancient times. Instead of crushing national sentiment by brutality and deportation as the Assyrians had, it was his aim to allow subject peoples as far as possible to enjoy cultural autonomy within the framework of the empire. Though he and his successors kept firm control through a complex bureaucracy-most of the high officials of which were Persians or Medes-through their army, and through an efficient system of communications, their rule was not harsh. Rather, they preferred to respect the customs of their subjects, to protect and foster their established cults and, where they could, to entrust responsibility to native princes." [Note: Bright, p. 344.]

Verses 1-4

Cyrus’ edict 1:1-4

"It is not strange according to the Semitic style to start a book with a waw ["And" or "Now"], especially when the author intended to write a continuation of the history of his people. He connects the history which he wants to write with the already-written history of his people by using the conjunction ’and.’" [Note: Fensham, p. 42. Cf. Exodus 1:1; Joshua 1:1; Judges 1:1; et al.]

One of Cyrus’ first official acts after capturing Babylon was to allow the Jews to return to their land. This took place in his "first year" (Ezra 1:1), that is, as king over all Medo-Persia including Babylonia (i.e., 538 B.C.). The writer of Ezra regarded 539 B.C. as the beginning of Cyrus’ reign probably because when Cyrus defeated Babylonia he gained authority over Palestine that had until then been under Babylonian sovereignty.

Chronology of Ezra 1-6
539Cyrus conquered Babylon and took over the Babylonian Empire.
538Cyrus’ first year. He issued his decree (Ezra 1:1).
537Sheshbazzar returned with almost 50,000 Jews (Ezra 2).
The returnees rebuilt the altar in Jerusalem, offered sacrifices, and celebrated the Feast of Tabernacles (Ezra 3:2). [Note: Andrew E. Steinmann, "A Chronological Note: The Return of the Exiles under Sheshbazzar and Zerubbabel (Ezra 1-2)," Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 51:3 (September 2008):513-22, argued that Sheshbazzar arrived in Jerusalem in 533 B.C., and in the same year the Jews completed the altar in Jerusalem and offered the first sacrifices on it. He believed the Jews began rebuilding the temple the following year, 532 B.C., and that work on the temple halted in 531 B.C.]
536The returnees laid the temple foundation (Ezra 3:8-10).
Reconstruction ceased due to opposition (Ezra 4:1-5; Ezra 4:24).
535
534
533
532
531
530Cyrus died and Cambyses II began reigning.
529
528
527
526
525Cambyses conquered Egypt.
524
523
522Cambyses died and Darius I (Hystaspes) began reigning.
521
520Haggai urged the people to resume temple construction, and they did so.
Darius confirmed Cyrus’ decree.
Zechariah began ministering.
519
518
517
516
515The people completed temple construction and celebrated the feasts of Passover and Unleavened Bread (Ezra 6:15).

About 150 years earlier, Jeremiah had prophesied that the Babylonian captivity would last 70 years (Jeremiah 25:12; Jeremiah 29:10). Cyrus proclaimed his edict 67 years after the first Babylonian deportation from Judah (605 B.C.). Important matters were put in writing in the ancient Near East. [Note: Breneman, p. 68.]

Ezra 1:2 reads as though Cyrus was a believer in Yahweh. However, Isaiah presented him as an unbeliever (Isaiah 45:4-5). Evidently he was a polytheist and worshipped several gods. [Note: See Edwin M. Yamauchi, "The Archaeological Background of Ezra," Bibliotheca Sacra 137:547 (July-September 1980):200.] On the "Cyrus Cylinder," the clay cylinder on which Cyrus recorded his capture of Babylon, the king gave credit to Marduk for his success. He said he hoped the people under his authority would pray for him to Bel and Nebo. [Note: James B. Pritchard, ed., The Ancient Near East, pp. 206-8. Cf. Amelie Kuhrt, "The Cyrus Cylinder and Achaemenid Imperial Policy," Journal for the Study of the Old Testament 25 (1983):83-97.] Probably Cyrus gave lip service to all the gods his people worshipped, but the evidence suggests that he did not believe that Yahweh was the only true God.

Apparently Cyrus knew about Isaiah’s prophecies concerning himself (Ezra 1:2; cf. Isaiah 41:2; Isaiah 44:28; Isaiah 45:1; Isaiah 45:4-5; Isaiah 45:12-13).

He ". . . read this, and . . . an earnest desire and ambition seized upon him to fulfill what was so written." [Note: Flavius Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, 11:1:2.]

The "house in Jerusalem" (Ezra 1:2) was, of course, the house of Yahweh, the temple. Cyrus not only gave permission for the Jews to return to Jerusalem (Ezra 1:3), but he encouraged them to rebuild the temple (Ezra 1:3). He also urged their neighbors to support this project financially (Ezra 1:4).

"The Holy City and the house of God are both prominent subjects in Ezra-Nehemiah. Jerusalem occurs eighty-six times, and the phrases ’temple,’ ’house of the Lord,’ and ’house of God’ appear fifty-three times." [Note: Yamauchi, "Ezra-Nehemiah," p. 602.]

"Although they are neither great literature nor important historical sources, the Murashu documents do provide a significant glimpse into the social and commercial life of a Babylonian city [i.e., Nippur] under Persian rule, and thus help to augment our knowledge of the onomastic practices, occupations and circumstances of the Diaspora. Like their contemporaries at Elephantine [in Egypt], by the fifth century B.C. the exiles at Nippur had become fully integrated into the economic life of their society, fulfilling the injunctions of Jeremiah 29:5 ff. Perhaps even more thoroughly than the prophet had intended!" [Note: Michael D. Coogan, "Life in the Diaspora," Biblical Archaeologist 37:1 (1974):12.]

"Onomastic" means relating to, connected with, or explaining names.

Verses 5-6

The people’s response 1:5-6

Judah and Benjamin were the only tribes the writer mentioned, because these were the tribes that made up the Southern Kingdom, which had suffered exile in Babylon. Those who gave to the reconstruction project evidently included Jews who decided to remain in Babylon, as well as Babylonian Gentiles. Many Jews chose not to return because they did not want to leave their possessions. [Note: Josephus, 11:1:3.] This was contrary to the will of God (Isaiah 48:20; Jeremiah 50:8; Jeremiah 51:6; cf. Jeremiah 29:10; Deuteronomy 30:1-5). They should have returned.

Verses 7-11

Preparations for the return 1:7-11

Sometimes warring armies in the ancient Near East carried images of their gods into battle to help secure victory (cf. 2 Samuel 5:21; 1 Chronicles 14:12). When one army defeated the other, the victors would take the images of their defeated foes captive, and lock them up, to testify to the impotence of those gods.

"To displace the authority of a city, it was normal practice for a conquering power to carry off the emblems of deity (cf. Jeremiah 48:7)." [Note: William J. Dumbrell, "The Theological Intention of Ezra-Nehemiah," Reformed Theological Review 45:3 (September-December 1986):65.]

Since the Israelites had no images of Yahweh, Nebuchadnezzar took the temple utensils in their place. [Note: Kidner, p. 34.] Cyrus released these utensils so the returning Jews could take them back to Jerusalem (cf. Daniel 5:1-4).

"The return of the temple vessels (Ezra 1:7) reverses this and empowers Jerusalem once more in Persian eyes to become the city of Yahweh. Doubtless in this task Cyrus saw himself in typical Achaemenid fashion, as the representative and thus the ’servant’ of Yahweh." [Note: Dumbrell, p. 65.]

"Achaemenid" refers to the dynasty of Persian rulers who were in power from the seventh through the fourth centuries B.C. Achaemenes, who ruled from about 700 to 675 B.C., founded this royal dynasty.

There is no evidence that the Babylonians took the ark of the covenant to Babylon, or that the returning Jews brought it with them back to the Promised Land. Most scholars speculate that the Babylonians broke it up when they sacked the temple. Josephus wrote that the ark was not in the holy of holies in the second temple. [Note: Flavius Josephus, Wars of the Jews, 5:5:5.] Edersheim wrote that it was empty except for a rock, called the Foundation Stone, that, according to tradition, previously covered the mouth of the pit on which the world was founded. [Note: Alfred Edersheim, The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah, 1:245-46.]

Sheshbazzar was evidently the uncle of Zerubbabel (1 Chronicles 3:17-19). Another less likely view is that Sheshbazzar and Zerubbabel were the same individual (cf. Ezra 1:8; Ezra 3:8-10; Ezra 5:14). [Note: See John C. Whitcomb, "Ezra," in The Wycliffe Bible Commentary, p. 428.] He seems to have been the leader and governor when the first group of captives returned. [Note: Breneman, p. 47; David J. A. Clines, Ezra, Nehemiah, Esther, p. 41.] Shenazzar was a variation of the name Sheshbazzar. [Note: Bright, p. 343.] The writer named both Sheshbazzar and Zerubbabel as having had a part in the rebuilding of the temple (Ezra 5:16; Haggai 1:1; Haggai 1:12; Zechariah 4:9). It seems most probable that Zerubbabel succeeded his uncle as the chief man in the restoration leadership, since Zerubbabel became the governor of Judah (Haggai 1:1; Haggai 1:14; Haggai 2:2; Haggai 2:21). These were, therefore, not two names for the same man (cf. 1 Esdras 6:18).

The inventory of temple articles here (Ezra 1:9-11) poses a problem. Ezra 1:9-10 give the following quantities.

Gold dishes30
Silver dishes1,000
Others29
Gold bowls30
Silver bowls410
Other articles1,000
Total2,499

However, Ezra 1:11 says the total was 5,400. Perhaps the writer counted only the larger [Note: Yamauchi, "Ezra-Nehemiah," p. 604.] or most important [Note: Breneman, p. 73.] vessels, and the 5,400 figure represents the grand total including many lesser vessels.

"The closing words of the chapter, from Babylon to Jerusalem, mark one of the turning points of history." [Note: Kidner, p. 35.]

"Throughout chap. 1 the author’s purpose was clearly to show the small postexilic Jewish community their legitimate continuity with the preexilic community and with God’s plan of redemption. Therefore he used motifs from the exodus; he emphasized God’s providence; he mentioned Judah, Benjamin, priests, and Levites; and he explained that even the former articles from the temple had been returned." [Note: Breneman, p. 73. See also P. R. Ackroyd, "The Temple Vessels-A Continuity Theme," Vetus Testamentum Supplement 23 (1972):166-81.]

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Bibliographical Information
Constable, Thomas. DD. "Commentary on Ezra 1". "Dr. Constable's Expository Notes". https://studylight.org/commentaries/eng/dcc/ezra-1.html. 2012.