THE FIRST STEPS TOWARD ISRAEL’S RETURN from exile and their rebuilding of the temple (Ezra 1) are full of interest:
(1) A person without much knowledge of history might be forgiven for thinking that Israel was the only national group released from the bondage of exile. Historically, that is not true. When the Persians took over from the Babylonians (who had sent Judah into exile), King Cyrus of Persia reversed the Babylonian policy. The Babylonians (and the Assyrians before them) transported the aristocracy and leading citizens of subjugated territories. Rebellion in the ancient world was often suspended on the threefold cord of people, land, and religion. If one of these three strands could be removed, there was less likelihood of revolt. By transporting all the leaders of every branch of a culture to some new territory far removed from their own land (thereby disconnecting people and land), these empires secured a kind of peace. Obviously they also introduced enormous dislocation, which must have had many negative effects, not least economic. Whatever the reasons, Cyrus not only stopped this policy, but permitted exiles—including the Jews—to return home.
(2) But Ezra is right in understanding this to be the work of God: “The LORD moved the heart of Cyrus king of Persia” (Ezra 1:1). At another time, the Lord would cause a census to be taken of the entire Roman world, to bring a pregnant woman to Bethlehem—once again to fulfill an ancient Scripture (Luke 2).
(3) The prophecy in this case, according to Ezra, is that of Jeremiah (Ezra 1:1), probably referring to Jeremiah 25:11-12; 29:10-14; 51. It would be a mistake to read Ezra 1:1 as if God were somehow bound by Jeremiah’s word, instead of the other way around. The point is that the prophecy of Jeremiah is nothing other than the word of God. God is bound by his own word. When Daniel understood that the prescribed time of exile was coming to an end, he set himself to seek the face of God for his people (Dan. 9)—which of course was exactly the right thing to do. And here we find the answers both to Daniel’s prayers and to God’s promises.
(4) As usual, when God works decisively, there are no loose ends. On the one hand, he moves Cyrus the King to make his proclamation; on the other hand, he moves in the hearts of many Jews to return home (1:5). After all, we are dealing now with a generation that had grown up entirely in the Tigris-Euphrates valleys. It would be like asking the second or third generation of immigrants to the United States from, say, Japan or Germany, to return “home.” But God’s people become willing in the day of his power.