Scripture Reading: Ezra 1
Background reading: Jeremiah 28; 29:1–14
1. In the opening verse of Ezra, what is the primary fact or detail that the author wants the reader to acknowledge? What is the significance of that detail? Why is that important? (See note 3:1.a and read Jeremiah 28.)
2. What is the primary activity that is being recorded for us in verse 1? What reason is given as to why that action had to occur? What motivated the mover? (See note 3:1.b.)
3. How does the action recorded in verse 1 compare with that recorded for us in verse 5? What is God, the primary actor? What are you and I, the secondary actors? How does God move us to act? (See note 3:5.)
4. In what language was the proclamation of Cyrus written? For whom was that proclamation intended? What was the purpose of that proclamation? (See note 3:2.a.)
5. Can we conclude from the above that the Book of Ezra was written in that same language, or was it written in Hebrew, the language of God’s special people? What arguments can be advanced for that conclusion? (See note 3:2.b.)
6. What specific commands (or requests) did Cyrus make of the people in the Persian Empire via his proclamation? Was that request intended for all of the citizens, or just for those Jews who chose not to go back to Jerusalem? (See note 3:4.)
7. What was the nature of the response to Cyrus’s request? How would you explain such generosity? (See note 3:6.)
8. What explanation might be given for Cyrus’s willingness to give away the tremendous wealth embodied in the large collection of gold and silver objects that he sent along to Jerusalem? Was Cyrus a true worshipper of God? (See note 3:7.)
Note: The numbering for the text notes corresponds to the number of the lesson. Thus, 3:1a corresponds to lesson 3, question 1, part a.
Text Notes on Discussion Starters
3:1.a. As we open the book of Ezra, the first thing we notice is that “In the first year of Cyrus, king of Persia, . . . the Lord moved the heart of Cyrus.” By starting out in this fashion, Ezra is calling to the attention of his readers another of the promises that God had made to His people. God is faithful to His Word and to His prophet Jeremiah. We saw in previous lessons that God had made explicit promises to His people through the mouth of Jeremiah, the prophet, that they would have to remain in captivity in Babylon for seventy years. During the first year of the reign of Nebuchadnezzar (Jer. 25:1), Jeremiah had warned the people that they would be captured by Nebuchadnezzar and that the temple as well as the city of Jerusalem would be destroyed. But God had also assured them that “when the seventy years are fulfilled, I will punish the king of Babylon and his nation” (Jer. 25:12). Hananiah, one of the false prophets operating within the church, insisted that the captivity would last only two years (Jer. 28:1–4). In order to counter the lies of Hananiah, God sent Jeremiah again to assure them, “When seventy years are completed . . . , I will come to you . . . and bring you back to this place” (Jer. 29:10). As a means of verifying His Word, God told Hananiah, “This year you shall die, because you have taught rebellion against the Lord” (Jer. 28:16). Hananiah died, but Jeremiah lived. Now, in order “that the word of the Lord by the mouth of Jeremiah might be fulfilled,” God brings to fulfillment His promises and vindicates His prophet. The first and most obvious message we should get from the Book of Ezra is that God is faithful to His promises. When God says that He will do something, it will happen exactly as He says, on His schedule. God demonstrates that He can be trusted and that all of His promises will come true.
3:1.b. If we read the text of Ezra 1 carefully, we will note that Cyrus did not do anything by himself but acted on the instigation of the Lord. If you look at the opening verse in a grammatical fashion, you will notice that the subject of the sentence, the person performing all of the action, is “the Lord” (v. 1). “The Lord moved the heart of Cyrus king of Persia to make a proclamation.” The Lord is the mover and the shaker, while Cyrus is the one being moved and shaken. Just a reminder, but we always need to ask, “What is God doing in this chapter?”
3:2.a. The proclamation is “made . . . throughout all his kingdom,” suggesting that it and the official correspondence contained in the book were written in Aramaic, the language of international diplomacy at the time. It is possible that the proclamation was written with the help of Jewish advisors, since it seems to be intended primarily for the Jewish people.
3:2.b. The combined books of Ezra and Nehemiah were included in the Hebrew Old Testament and then later translated out of that into the Greek Septuagint. Since Ezra was not written until after the second wave of returnees, at least eighty years after the original proclamation and the initial wave of migrants had gone back, it is probable that the book was written in the Hebrew language, with the official documents translated from the Aramaic into the Hebrew for the Jewish audience. The primary audience for the book was the Jews who had resettled in Judah and Jerusalem.
3:4 The proclamation is made “throughout all his kingdom,” but the language seems to suggest that it was intended primarily for those Jews who might consider going back to Jerusalem. “Who is among you of all His people?” suggests that the primary audience for whom the proclamation is intended is the Jewish exiles. The exiles had with them in Babylon the writings of the prophets and were allowed to read and study them, so they knew the promises that had been made. Jeremiah 29 also reminds us that God had made provision for His people to live in peace, to marry, to worship, and to serve Him while being held captive in Babylon. If the people of Israel truly repented of their sins, turned away from their idolatry, and turned back to God, then we can assume that they also read from the prophets and must have been familiar with the writings of both Jeremiah and Isaiah. We know from the Book of Esther that many Jews chose not to return to Jerusalem but continued to live in the borders of the Persian Empire. We can assume, therefore, that many of these gifts to those choosing to return came from fellow Jews who had prospered and now chose to remain.
3:5 God moves in marvelous, mysterious ways His wonders to perform. Here, as in verse 1, we see God working in the hearts of His people so that they perform the exact work He has planned for them. God not only moved the heart of Cyrus but also moved the hearts of all the thousands of people who were willing to respond to Cyrus’s proclamation and to return to Jerusalem and Judah. Some of that awesome power is also described for us in Exodus 31:3, where God filled Bezalel “with the Spirit of God, in wisdom, in understanding, in knowledge, and in all manner of workmanship.” The same concept is expressed in Proverbs 21:1: “The king’s heart is in the hand of the Lord, like the rivers of water; He turns it wherever He wishes.” In 2 Chronicles 36:22 and in Ezra 1:1 we are told that “the Lord moved the heart of Cyrus . . . to make a proclamation.” When it came time for the people to be released, God simply, powerfully, and effectively “moved the heart of Cyrus” to do exactly what God wanted him to do. In Isaiah’s prophecy, the language is that of “whose right hand I take hold of.” Cyrus rules by divine authority and not by his own power. Nations and kings will bow before God and will do whatever God directs them to do. Cyrus will prosper in all his undertakings, for he shall carry on war under God’s direction. For the sake of the church and for the sake of God’s kingdom, Cyrus will enjoy tremendous success.
There is a strong probability that Daniel showed to Cyrus the prophecies from the Book of Isaiah and acquainted him with the fact that Cyrus’s name was there, written down some 150 years before he came on the scene. Somehow, not magically or mystically, Cyrus came to know that the God of Israel “has appointed me to build a temple for Him at Jerusalem” (v. 2). There exists also, then, the possibility that Daniel may have influenced Cyrus’s decision and even helped him to write the proclamation, since we are told that “Daniel prospered during the reign of Darius and the reign of Cyrus the Persian” (Dan. 6:28).
God is Spirit. We are made in His own image, so we, too, are spirit. While we are living on this earth, we think primarily in terms of our physical bodies and our genetic makeup, but that is not the picture portrayed for us in Scripture. God works with our spirits, His wonders to perform (cf. 1 Cor. 2:6–16). When we die, our bodies return to dust, while we, who are spiritual, go on to glory with God.
3:6 God has also been at work in the lives of family heads and priests and Levites. God’s sovereign control and direction are not limited to the heart of Cyrus but extend far beyond that. God is also working His sovereign will in the hearts of “the family heads of Judah and Benjamin, and the priests and Levites . . . to go up and build the house of the Lord in Jerusalem” (Ezra 1:5). God is going to restore His people to Jerusalem and to the towns of Judah, and He is going to rebuild the temple in His holy city, but He is not going to do it in the way that He made the world (Gen. 1). God is going to use responsible human agents to do His work for Him.
3:7 God promised Cyrus a rich reward for being the shepherd and anointed one who would release the captives and return the Israelites to their own land. God promised him: “I will go before you and will level the mountains; I will break down gates of bronze and cut through bars of iron. I will give you the treasures of darkness, riches stored in secret places” (Isa. 45:2–3). These promises came true for Cyrus in concrete form already in 546 b.c. when he plundered the fabulous wealth of Lydia and in 537 b.c. when he was able to enter the city of Babylon with his entire army and overthrow the Babylonian Empire in one night. From the testimony of Scripture itself there is reason to believe, though, that Cyrus was not a chosen child of God and did not become a saint. Isaiah had prophesied that even though God had called him by name and had named Cyrus to do His work for Him, “you have not known Me” (Isa. 45:4). The evidence seems to suggest that Cyrus remained an unbeliever, even though he made some wonderful, encouraging statements about God in his proclamation. Secular historical information from the cylinder of Cyrus suggests that Cyrus used the same kind of language to describe other religions and other gods. It seems as though he was being political and trying to enlist the gods of all his captured people for his own political ends. He said wonderful-sounding statements about “the Lord, the God of heaven, . . . the God who is in Jerusalem” (Ezra 1:2–3), but he was trying to build his own empire and to get the newly conquered peoples on his side. Babylon and the newly formed Median-Persian Empires are still godless, pagan places. They have their own explanations for what is happening and attribute it to the planets and stars. They trusted in diviners and in astrologers, who looked to the stars and to their horoscopes for explanations of what would happen. The Chaldeans held that the lives of men are governed by the influence of the stars and the planets, and not by the power of God. Through the prophet Isaiah, we learn that God “foils the signs of false prophets and makes fools of diviners, overthrows the learning of the wise and turns it into nonsense” (Isa. 44:25).
John Calvin says that we all need to be reminded that sometimes the church of God is preserved in the midst of dangers by strange and unusual methods. This time at the end of the Babylonian activity was a troublesome time, with scarcely a corner of the earth at rest. But the Lord reminds us here that He is in control and that He will protect us even while nations are being destroyed around us. “The Lord moved the heart of Cyrus” is the simple expression of the dominant theme in the book, namely, that God works in sovereign ways through responsible human agents in order to accomplish His redemptive plan. God had said already in Isaiah that He would do what He planned, and that He would use Cyrus as “His shepherd” and “His anointed one,” not only to bring about the restoration of His temple and the city of Jerusalem but also “so that you may know that I am the Lord, the God of Israel, who calls you by name” (Isa. 45:3).