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Bible Commentaries

Pett's Commentary on the Bible

Ezra 1

Verses 1-4

The Edict Of Cyrus (Ezra 1:1-4 ).

Ezra 1:1

‘Now in the first year of Cyrus king of Persia, that the word of YHWH by the mouth of Jeremiah might be accomplished, YHWH 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,’

The first year of Cyrus II referred to was 538 BC, the dating being from his capture of Babylon, this being the date when control of Palestine passed into his hands. The title King of Persia was one proudly used by him and his successors, along with the titles the King, the Great King, King of kings, King of the lands, etc. The writer no doubt saw these other titles as impinging on the sovereignty of YHWH and thus spoke of him as the ‘king of Persia’, an exalted title, but also (to Jews) a reminder that only YHWH was King over the whole earth. An inscription dated about 600 BC spoke of Ariyaramna, the brother of Cyrus I, as ‘the great King, King of kings, King of Persia’, and indeed the title King of Persia occurs regularly in records during the period of the Persian Empire. It has been said that ‘eighteen different authors in nineteen different documents from Persian times use this title altogether thirty eight different times, and of at least six different Persian kings’. It is found on the inscriptions at Behistun of Darius I. Thus objections to its use in Ezra are invalid.

In Babylonia, and only in Babylonia (that is, outside of Scripture where it is used in Ezra 5:13 in a place where Cyrus is seen as successor to Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon; and in Nehemiah 13:6), the kings of Persia used the title ‘king of Babylon’. In Egypt they used the title ‘king of Egypt’ or equivalent. Compare also ‘king of the Medes’ and ‘king of Anshan’. The use of titles by Persian kings was thus very fluid and often depended on who was being addressed. But ‘king of Persia’ was widely used and aptly described Cyrus.

‘That the word of YHWH by the mouth of Jeremiah might be accomplished.’ The writer sees what follows as resulting from ‘the word of YHWH’. His word is going forth and accomplishing His purpose (compare Isaiah 55:11). The particular word of YHWH is described as that spoken by Jeremiah the prophet. This is probably a reference to Jeremiah 51:1 where we read, ‘Behold I will stir up against Babylon -- the spirit of a destroyer.’ This can be read in parallel with Jeremiah 25:12 ff; Jeremiah 29:10 ff).

‘YHWH stirred up the spirit of Cyrus king of Persia.’ Whatever Cyrus might say, and whatever other people might believe, the writer knew that it was YHWH who had brought about what would now happen. It was He Who had ‘stirred up the spirit of Cyrus king of Persia’, with the result that Cyrus had issued an edict and made a public proclamation to the effect that the Jews could return to Jerusalem and there build a Temple to YHWH in accordance with the king’s command.

This was fully in accordance with Cyrus’ policy of restoring native communities and their gods. Thus in what we call ‘the Cyrus cylinder’ Cyrus wrote, “the holy cities beyond the Tigris, whose settlements had been in ruins over a long period, the gods whose abode is in the midst of them, I returned to their places and housed them in lasting abodes. I gathered together all their inhabitants, and restored (to them) their dwellings.” Judah were not unique in this regard.

‘So that he made a proclamation throughout all his kingdom, and put it also in writing, saying ---.’ The proclamation made ‘throughout all his kingdom’ may well have been in more general terms, with the writer only being interested in what was put into writing concerning Judah. On the other hand it may be that Cyrus had all his edicts read out in popular form in each place in order to impress both his subject people and their gods. Alternately ‘throughout all his kingdom’ may simply be intended by the writer to signify all places where Jews might be present, and they were pretty widespread.

‘Put it also in writing.’ It was common for important oral edicts to also be put in writing. Compare 2 Kings 19:9-14; 2 Chronicles 17:9; 2 Chronicles 30:1.

Ezra 1:2

“Thus says Cyrus king of Persia, All the kingdoms of the earth has YHWH, the God of heaven, given me, and he has charged me to build him a house in Jerusalem, which is in Judah.”

Similar wording to this, in the form of a proclamation and altered to suit the particular situation, was probably used by Cyrus in many parts of his kingdom as he caused permanent sanctuaries to be rebuilt in many major religious centres and restored to people their gods which had been plundered by Babylon. He wanted full credit for what was happening so as to gain the support of the people, and what was equally important in his eyes, the support of their gods. Here the wording of his decree is particularised, presumably by Jewish advisers, in order to apply to the situation of the Jews, possibly as influenced by Isaiah 44:28 to Isaiah 45:1. Cyrus was unconsciously fulfilling Isaiah’s prophecy, something which the Jews may well have brought to his attention (something which Josephus claims, for, although he is not reliable for this period, it is not unlikely).

‘All the kingdoms of the earth.’ A slight exaggeration. But the idea was of those kingdoms within his purview. He did not in fact conquer Egypt, that would be left to his son Cambyses after his death. For an example of such an exaggerated description compare 1 Kings 4:34.

‘Has YHWH the God of heaven given me.’ Cyrus saw all the gods as on his side. After all had they not given him control over his world? And thus he did genuinely believe that ‘YHWH, the God of Heaven’ had given to him all the kingdoms of the world (as had Marduk also, see citation above) and that YHWH had charged him to build him a house in Jerusalem (just as other gods had charged him to rebuild their sanctuaries). That the edict was not too personal to him comes out in that he made no effort to ensure that the building of the Jerusalem Temple actually took place. For whilst an initial foundation was laid early on, it would not be until after his death that the Temple was actually built. Thus he left the actual fulfilment of the charge to the initiative of the local communities. We must not, however, underestimate the value of the decree. It gave official permission, from the highest possible earthly source, to erect the Temple.

The title ‘the God of Heaven’ and its equivalents was one used to describe YHWH to outsiders, and was therefore the one used by those who were living outside Palestine. Thus it was used by Jonah to foreign seamen (Jonah 1:9), and by Daniel in exile (Daniel 2:18-19; Daniel 2:37; Daniel 2:44; compare also Daniel 4:37; Daniel 5:23). See also Nehemiah 1:4-5; Nehemiah 2:4; Nehemiah 2:20. Compare its use in the Elephantine papyri addressed to the Persian governor in Judea.

Ezra 1:3

“Whoever 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 YHWH, the God of Israel, he is God, which is in Jerusalem.”

Permission was also given for all exiles who wished to do so to return to their native land. This was important. Prior to this they had had a certain level of freedom, but they did not have permission to leave the place where they were. Had they attempted to leave the Babylonians would immediately have stepped in to prevent it. Now, however, Cyrus was giving official permission for them to return home. The permission was voluntary. There was no compulsion. But it was valid for all who wanted to return. Note Cyrus’ plea that in the case of each who wanted to return his God would be with him, and it was with a view to YHWH’s house being rebuilt in Jerusalem. Cyrus was concerned to keep YHWH on his side.

‘Which is in Judah.’ The Jewish advisers, and no doubt the Persian officials, would be concerned to ensure that all recognised where the Jerusalem in mind was. This is a touch of authenticity.

Ezra 1:4

“And whoever is left, in any place where he sojourns, let the men of his place help him with silver, and with gold, and with goods, and with domestic animals, besides the freewill-offering for the house of God which is in Jerusalem.”

Those Jews who did not want to return were nevertheless called on to give material assistance towards the project. They were to provide silver, gold, materials and provisions, and domestic animals. This would include horses, camels and asses for travelling, and cattle, sheep and goats which would supply provisions. The reference to the freewill offering for the house of God may have in mind that it was a freely given contribution towards the building fund, or it may have been a regular amount given freely by many Jews towards the upkeep of worship in Jerusalem.

It must be considered unlikely that the intention was that non-Jews should also contribute towards their welfare, although of course some might, even though some see it that way. There was no reason why they should, unless out of pure friendliness. They probably had no great desire to see the Jews depart.

Verses 1-11

The Edict Of Cyrus And Its Result (Ezra 1:1-11 ).

In 538 BC Cyrus issued an edict allowing Jews to return to their homeland, and authorising the rebuilding of the Temple with state help. The wording of the edict given here is in terms that would be appreciated by the Jews. It was a ‘popular’ version, to be proclaimed to the outside world, and was no doubt worded by a ‘secretary of state for Jewish affairs’ who preceded the time of Ezra, or by officials given responsibility for Jewish affairs. We should not see it as unique, except in its detail. In basic idea it would have been similar to other edicts promulgated concerning the gods of other nations. For Cyrus was concerned to claim the personal support of the gods of all the nations of his empire, whom he saw as having helped him to where he was. They had, after all, proved their support by the fact that the empire was now his. For example, he could claim of Marduk, the chief god of Babylon, that ‘the entirety of all the lands he (Marduk) surveyed and examined. He sought out a righteous prince, the desire of his heart, who would grasp his hand. Cyrus the king of Anshan, whose name he uttered, he called for kingship over all’. An official version of the Ezra 1:0 edict in a different format, written in Aramaic, giving practical details concerning the building of the Temple, and promise of state funding, was, according to Ezra 6:3-5, at the same time lodged among the state records held in Achmetha (Ecbatana).

Verses 5-10

The Return From Exile Of A Portion Of The Babylonian Exiles Together With The Temple Vessels (Ezra 1:5-10 ). .

We are informed of the return of the Babylonian exiles mainly because it was with them that the Temple vessels were restored to Jerusalem, but they were probably not the only exiles who returned. It must be considered questionable whether, in view of the widespread nature of the proclamation, there would have been no other returnees from among the large number who had been carried into exile over the previous two hundred years. But such probably returned in small numbers. Nor did all the returnees from Babylon necessarily return as one party.

Ezra 1:5

‘Then rose up the heads of fathers (houses) of Judah and Benjamin, and the priests, and the Levites, even all whose spirit God had stirred to go up to build the house of YHWH which is in Jerusalem.’

Once again, as with Cyrus in Ezra 1:2, God ‘stirs up the spirit’ of men in the carrying forward of His purposes, in this case the building of the house of YHWH in Jerusalem. This need not mean that all who were stirred went at one time. In view of the widespread nature of the proclamation (see Ezra 1:1-3) we can be sure that there were a series of groups which made their way to Jerusalem over a period from different parts. But the concentration here is on those who were entrusted with the Temple vessels. They consisted of priests, Levites, and members of the tribes of Judah and Benjamin, whose leaders were stirred in their spirits to respond to the call of God, presumably from among the exiles settled in Babylonia, some of whom had been ministered to by Ezekiel.

Ezra 1:6

‘And all those who were round about them strengthened their hands with vessels of silver, with gold, with goods, and with domestic animals, and with precious things, besides all which was willingly offered.’

‘All those round about’ probably signifies Jews who were remaining, those whose spirits had not been stirred up. Many would have settled and become prosperous, and would have no desire to return. Compare in this respect Ezra 1:4 where, among other gifts, the freewill offering to the Temple is mentioned, something which would be given by Jews.

But it is probably worded in this way in order to indicate a deliberate parallel with Exodus 11:2-3; Exodus 12:35-36, the writer seeing this as a new Exodus. (There is, however, in this case no reason why non-Jews should have given financial support, unless they did so in response to Cyrus’ decree). Note how the list of things also largely parallels Ezra 1:4, although here there is a mention of ‘vessels of silver’. This may suggest the memory of an eyewitness, for while the parallels in Exodus 3:22; Exodus 11:2-3; Exodus 12:35-36 may be in mind, if that were the case we would expect here ‘vessels of gold’ as well as ‘vessels of silver’. ‘Precious things’ are introduced additionally, whilst ‘the freewill offering for the house of God’ are rather expressed as ‘all which was willingly offered’. The differences are against the idea that this verse was simply the composition made by a later writer based on Cyrus’ decree. They rather indicate a contemporary writer who remembers the excitement of the occasion as wealth poured in.

Ezra 1:7-8

‘Also Cyrus the king brought forth the vessels of the house of YHWH, which Nebuchadnezzar had brought forth out of Jerusalem, and had put in the house of his gods, even those did Cyrus king of Persia bring forth by the hand of Mithredath the treasurer, and numbered them to Sheshbazzar, the prince of Judah.’

In the case of the Jews Cyrus was unable to return their gods to them, for they had no images of gods. He therefore rather bestowed on them the vessels of the house of YHWH that Nebuchadnezzar had appropriated from Jerusalem in order to place them in the house of his gods. He would have seen them as evidence that his gods had triumphed. These were produced ‘by the hand of Mithredath the treasurer’, who counted them out to Sheshbazzar, the ‘prince’ (recognised tribal head) of Judah. Mithredath (‘given by Mithra’) is a good Persian name, being connected with Mithra, the Persian god of light. The term ‘treasurer’ is a Persian one.

‘Numbered them to Sheshbazzar.’ The Persian treasurer counted out the Temple vessels to Sheshbazzar, the leader of the returning party, no doubt on the basis of an inventory, a copy of which was probably given to Sheshbazzar, who would no doubt have added his seal to both copies as evidence of having received them. They were valuable items and strict account would be kept.

The use of the title ‘prince of Judah’ here (compare Numbers 1:14, ‘the princes of the tribes of their fathers’; Numbers 2:3 ‘prince of the children of Judah’) indicates Sheshbazzar’s position before he was appointed ‘governor’ (Ezra 5:14) and probably Tirshatha (Ezra 2:63; Nehemiah 7:65; Nehemiah 7:70; compare Nehemiah 8:9; Nehemiah 10:1 where it is used of Nehemiah). He was appointed as ‘governor’ because he was the recognised tribal leader of the main secular tribe who made up the number of the returnees. This description again hints at the reminiscence of a contemporary. Sheshbazzar (like Zerubbabel) is a good Babylonian name (Sassu-aba-usur - ‘may Sassu protect the father’). Many Jews had taken Babylonian names, especially if they had gained positions of authority.

Ezra 1:9-10

‘And this is the number of them: thirty platters of gold, a thousand platters of silver, nine and twenty censers, thirty bowls of gold, silver bowls of a second sort four hundred and ten, and other vessels a thousand.’

The details of the Temple vessels are now given. The terms used would appear to be technical ones, with some unknown to us, but there is no good reason for doubting that these details were taken from an official inventory, something which the use of loan words confirms. The word translated ‘platters’ is a unique one, and with its five root consonants would appear to be a loan-word. There is no certainty as to its meaning. ‘Platters’ is simply a guess. It could equally be another type of vessel.

The word translated ‘censers’ (macalaphim) appears to be derived from the root ‘to change’, or alternatively, ‘to pierce’. LXX translates ‘changes’. It may indicate ‘varieties’. 1EEsther 2:13 suggests ‘censers’. It will be noted that there is no indication of them being made of metal, e.g. gold or silver, which counts against a type of vessel, even though it is strange as to why knives should be introduced among the vessels. On the other hand it may be that the intention was that ‘silver’ should also apply to these. If these were a special type of type of silver vessel or bowl (seen as of the first sort) it would explain the use of ‘a second sort’ in relation to the silver bowls in contrast. The phrase ‘of a second sort’ translates misnim, which means ‘double’ or ‘second’. Some, however, see this word as indicating that something has dropped out of the text (reading it, for example, as ‘two thousand’). What is apparent is that there were ‘vessels’ of various kinds which were on the whole strictly enumerated.

Ezra 1:11

‘All the vessels of gold and of silver were five thousand and four hundred.’

It is immediately apparent that this total is far higher than the sum of the figures give. But this is not unusual in such ancient lists where the important items are enumerated with the remainder not being mentioned although included in the total (compare the Alalakh texts). Furthermore we must bear in mind that the use of ‘a thousand’ (occurring twice) may simply indicate ‘a large number’, the common significance of ‘a thousand’ when standing by itself in the Scriptures. Compare ‘the cattle on a thousand hills’ (Psalms 50:10); ‘to a thousand generations’ (Deuteronomy 7:9; 1 Chronicles 16:15; Psalms 105:8); ‘a thousand years’ (Psalms 90:4; Ecclesiastes 6:6; 2 Peter 3:8; Revelation 20:2-7). This being so we do not necessarily have to look for scribal errors, although such may have occurred.

Ezra 1:11

‘All these did Sheshbazzar bring up, when they of the captivity were brought up from Babylon to Jerusalem.’

The chapter ends triumphantly. All these vessels were brought up to Jerusalem by Sheshbazzar at the same time as the exiles returning from Babylon were brought up. ‘From Babylon to Jerusalem.’ It was the reversal of the exile. It may be that it was because Sheshbazzar was the one who ‘brought up’ the exiles to Jerusalem that he is not mentioned in the list of those who were so brought up in chapter 2.

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Bibliographical Information
Pett, Peter. "Commentary on Ezra 1". "Pett's Commentary on the Bible ". https://studylight.org/commentaries/eng/pet/ezra-1.html. 2013.