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Bible Commentaries

Layman's Bible Commentary

Ezra 1

Verses 1-4

THE RETURN UNDER SHESHBAZZAR

Ezra 1:1 to Ezra 2:70

The Decree (1:1-4)

Already in the first chapter there appear clearly the themes which will mark the entire history of the Ezra-Nehemiah books, and which make this history, for all its multiple details and prosaic character, great religious writing. From the beginning the whole is set against the background of a mighty act of God, which is the working out of his creative and efficient word. Historically the date is the "first year of Cyrus king of Persia," that is, the first year when he became king of Babylon (538 B.C.) ; and the occasion is the pronouncement of a decree of this king, encouraging the Jewish exiles to return to the land from which they had been driven by Nebuchadnezzar a half century before. But historical date and political occasion are secondary to the important fact that behind the king’s action was the activity of God himself, who "stirred up the spirit of Cyrus." Thus the occasion was a time of fulfillment and accomplishment. The word of God spoken through Jeremiah long ago was now becoming a full deed; the promise of ultimate return from exile was becoming a saving fact. Although the name of the king of Persia stands at the head of the story, we do not read far before we discover that the real actor is not Cyrus but the Lord. Similarly we soon come to understand that the event which is to be described in this historical book is not simply a happening in a great empire, nor even the beginning again of a nation, significant as these are in themselves, but this is a new exodus, an event worthy to be placed alongside that earlier memorable event as a testimony to the saving power of God and to his Covenant fidelity to his people.

The decree (vss. 2-4) has certain parallels to other proclamations and inscriptions of the time, and there is nothing in it to suggest that it does not represent substantially the sense of the actual proclamation by Cyrus. It is repeated in (Ezra 6:3-5) in different form, but this may reflect the difference between original oral and written forms.

It is known from contemporary sources outside the Bible that Cyrus showed interest in the various deities worshiped in his empire. His acknowledgment that "the Lord" had given him victory over all the kingdoms of the earth is not to be understood as the confession of saving faith, for it is later balanced by the expression "may his God be with him" (vs. 3), which indicates that he actually regarded each god as local and national.

Another dominant motif of the entire Ezra-Nehemiah story appears in the reference to "the house of the Lord," which is to be rebuilt. Thus, at the center of the undertaking of the returning Jewish exiles there was to be placed, not a national recrudescence or a restoration of a ruined city, but a religious revival, symbolized always by the rebuilding of the Temple.

The decree, moreover, represents the undertaking as one in which the entire exilic community is to join. Not only will there be some who return ("each survivor"), but those who choose to remain in Babylon will give the material assistance which the returnees will need, and especially will contribute to the central business of rebuilding the house of God (vs. 4).

Verses 5-11

The Response (1:5-11)

The constitution of the community of restoration is indicated when the response to the proclamation is described among the Jewish leaders in Babylon. These are specified as the family heads of the tribes of "Judah and Benjamin" and "the priests and the Levites." Thus, essentially, the undertaking is interpreted as one that centers in the Davidic tribes and in those persons associated with the worship of the Temple. The decree itself, of course, made no such limitations, but the story does, and the actual endeavor probably did. Thus again it is emphasized that this is a new and a true beginning, an act of God to which the people respond, and those who represent the ancient Messianic hope and the religious faith of the nation are especially designated as the ones who hear and obey the word of promise as it is fulfilled.

In harmony with the original decree, which had stipulated that the returning Jews were to be aided by others (Ezra 1:4), the account of the response among the exiles includes not only the decision of some but the help which others gave in money and goods (Ezra 1:6; compare Exodus 3:22). The last part of verse 6 is difl5cult, but it may refer to the extraordinary volume of gifts.

Paralleling the general support, the king also further encourages the returnees by placing in the charge of their leader "the vessels of the house of the Lord which Nebuchadnezzar had carried away from Jerusalem." The following detailed list is extremely uncertain, as the marginal notes indicate. The exact meaning of some of the names of the vessels escapes us. In the original Hebrew text, moreover, the numbers of the separate items and the total do not agree. The Revised Standard Version has utilized the alternate numbering found in the Greek Bible (see also the list of objects taken from the Temple, in 2 Kings 25:13-17).

The undertaking is described as having been committed by Cyrus to one "Shesh-bazzar the prince of Judah" (vs. 8). In view of the fact that such a person plays no further part in the story (but see 5:16), and that on the contrary the figure of Zerubbabel assumes greater and greater importance (Ezra 2:2; Ezra 3:2; Ezra 3:8; Ezra 4:3; Ezra 5:2; see also Haggai 1:1; Zechariah 4:6-10), it appears that Sheshbazzar was influential only in the very early stages of the return. On the other hand, it is possible that either the historian confused the two and thought of them as one, or that they were actually two names for one man (see, for example, Daniel 1:6-7, although "Shesh-bazzar" and "Zerubbabel" are both Babylonian in form).

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Bibliographical Information
"Commentary on Ezra 1". "Layman's Bible Commentary". https://studylight.org/commentaries/eng/lbc/ezra-1.html.