Introduction to Ezra and Nehemiah
We come now to the conclusion of Chronicles and the beginning of the book of Ezra, named after the priest and scribe who, as described in the book, led the second return of the Jewish exiles from Babylon. Just as the Jews had been taken into Babylonian exile in three stages, those who later returned to Judah under the Persians did so in three stages. The first group, under the governor Zerubbabel, returned when Cyrus issued his decree in 538 B.C. The second group returned with Ezra in 457 B.C. And the third group later returned in 444 B.C. under the leadership of Nehemiah, a Jewish official in the court of the Persian emperor Artaxerxes I. Nehemiah is the principal character in the biblical book bearing his name.
"The Book of Ezra does not name its author, but Jewish tradition ascribes the book to Ezra along with the books of Chronicles and Nehemiah. Modern scholars generally agree with this tradition. Despite some dissimilarities, Chronicles, Ezra, and Nehemiah form a connected work. The themes of the temple and the Levites, and the focus on lists, appear in all three books. In the Hebrew Bible, Ezra and Nehemiah are together as one book. Thus it seems that one author compiled all three books" (Nelson Study Bible, introductory notes on Ezra). "With such priestly interests, the one who masterminded this long document [with God's inspiration] may well have been a priest--like Ezra" (introductory notes on Nehemiah).
Ezra is the main character of major sections of the book of Ezra, yet he does not appear until the latter part of the book (chapters 7-10). He also appears in chapters 8-10 of Nehemiah. "Both passages are written in the first person and provide detailed descriptions. Such vivid descriptions point to an eyewitness as the author. It is generally agreed that these chapters at least were drawn directly from Ezra's memoirs" (introductory notes on Ezra).
The rest of the material is evidently a compilation from other sources--as Chronicles is. "The first half of Ezra records events that occurred nearly sixty years before Ezra returned to Judah. If Ezra compiled the book, he had to consult other sources for those passages. In fact, much of the Book of Ezra consists of information obtained from other official sources: (1) the decree of Cyrus (Ezra 1:2-4 Ezra 1:2-4  Thus said Cyrus king of Persia, The LORD God of heaven has given me all the kingdoms of the earth; and he has charged me to build him an house at Jerusalem, which is in Judah.
 Who is there 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 the LORD God of Israel, (he is the God,) which is in Jerusalem.
 And whoever remains in any place where he sojournes, let the men of his place help him with silver, and with gold, and with goods, and with beasts, beside the freewill offering for the house of God that is in Jerusalem.
American King James Version×), (2) the list of the articles of the temple (Ezra 1:9-11 Ezra 1:9-11  And this is the number of them: thirty chargers of gold, a thousand chargers of silver, nine and twenty knives,  Thirty basins of gold, silver basins of a second sort four hundred and ten, and other vessels a thousand.  All the vessels of gold and of silver were five thousand and four hundred. All these did Sheshbazzar bring up with them of the captivity that were brought up from Babylon to Jerusalem.
American King James Version×), (3) the list of those who returned to Jerusalem (Ezra 2:2-58 Ezra 2:2-58  Which came with Zerubbabel: Jeshua, Nehemiah, Seraiah, Reelaiah, Mordecai, Bilshan, Mizpar, Bigvai, Rehum, Baanah. The number of the men of the people of Israel:  The children of Parosh, two thousand an hundred seventy and two.  The children of Shephatiah, three hundred seventy and two.  The children of Arah, seven hundred seventy and five.  The children of Pahathmoab, of the children of Jeshua and Joab, two thousand eight hundred and twelve.  The children of Elam, a thousand two hundred fifty and four.  The children of Zattu, nine hundred forty and five.  The children of Zaccai, seven hundred and three score.  The children of Bani, six hundred forty and two.  The children of Bebai, six hundred twenty and three.  The children of Azgad, a thousand two hundred twenty and two.  The children of Adonikam, six hundred sixty and six.  The children of Bigvai, two thousand fifty and six.  The children of Adin, four hundred fifty and four.  The children of Ater of Hezekiah, ninety and eight.  The children of Bezai, three hundred twenty and three.  The children of Jorah, an hundred and twelve.  The children of Hashum, two hundred twenty and three.  The children of Gibbar, ninety and five.  The children of Bethlehem, an hundred twenty and three.  The men of Netophah, fifty and six.  The men of Anathoth, an hundred twenty and eight.  The children of Azmaveth, forty and two.  The children of Kirjatharim, Chephirah, and Beeroth, seven hundred and forty and three.  The children of Ramah and Gaba, six hundred twenty and one.  The men of Michmas, an hundred twenty and two.  The men of Bethel and Ai, two hundred twenty and three.  The children of Nebo, fifty and two.  The children of Magbish, an hundred fifty and six.  The children of the other Elam, a thousand two hundred fifty and four.  The children of Harim, three hundred and twenty.  The children of Lod, Hadid, and Ono, seven hundred twenty and five.  The children of Jericho, three hundred forty and five.  The children of Senaah, three thousand and six hundred and thirty.  The priests: the children of Jedaiah, of the house of Jeshua, nine hundred seventy and three.  The children of Immer, a thousand fifty and two.  The children of Pashur, a thousand two hundred forty and seven.  The children of Harim, a thousand and seventeen.  The Levites: the children of Jeshua and Kadmiel, of the children of Hodaviah, seventy and four.  The singers: the children of Asaph, an hundred twenty and eight.  The children of the porters: the children of Shallum, the children of Ater, the children of Talmon, the children of Akkub, the children of Hatita, the children of Shobai, in all an hundred thirty and nine.  The Nethinims: the children of Ziha, the children of Hasupha, the children of Tabbaoth,  The children of Keros, the children of Siaha, the children of Padon,  The children of Lebanah, the children of Hagabah, the children of Akkub,  The children of Hagab, the children of Shalmai, the children of Hanan,  The children of Giddel, the children of Gahar, the children of Reaiah,  The children of Rezin, the children of Nekoda, the children of Gazzam,  The children of Uzza, the children of Paseah, the children of Besai,  The children of Asnah, the children of Mehunim, the children of Nephusim,  The children of Bakbuk, the children of Hakupha, the children of Harhur,  The children of Bazluth, the children of Mehida, the children of Harsha,  The children of Barkos, the children of Sisera, the children of Thamah,  The children of Neziah, the children of Hatipha.  The children of Solomon's servants: the children of Sotai, the children of Sophereth, the children of Peruda,  The children of Jaalah, the children of Darkon, the children of Giddel,  The children of Shephatiah, the children of Hattil, the children of Pochereth of Zebaim, the children of Ami.  All the Nethinims, and the children of Solomon's servants, were three hundred ninety and two.
American King James Version×), (4) the letter to Artaxerxes (Ezra 4:11-16 Ezra 4:11-16  This is the copy of the letter that they sent to him, even to Artaxerxes the king; Your servants the men on this side the river, and at such a time.  Be it known to the king, that the Jews which came up from you to us are come to Jerusalem, building the rebellious and the bad city, and have set up the walls thereof, and joined the foundations.  Be it known now to the king, that, if this city be built, and the walls set up again, then will they not pay toll, tribute, and custom, and so you shall damage the revenue of the kings.  Now because we have maintenance from the king's palace, and it was not meet for us to see the king's dishonor, therefore have we sent and certified the king;  That search may be made in the book of the records of your fathers: so shall you find in the book of the records, and know that this city is a rebellious city, and hurtful to kings and provinces, and that they have moved sedition within the same of old time: for which cause was this city destroyed.  We certify the king that, if this city be built again, and the walls thereof set up, by this means you shall have no portion on this side the river.
American King James Version×), (5) the reply of Artaxerxes (Ezra 4:17-22 Ezra 4:17-22  Then sent the king an answer to Rehum the chancellor, and to Shimshai the scribe, and to the rest of their companions that dwell in Samaria, and to the rest beyond the river, Peace, and at such a time.  The letter which you sent to us has been plainly read before me.  And I commanded, and search has been made, and it is found that this city of old time has made insurrection against kings, and that rebellion and sedition have been made therein.  There have been mighty kings also over Jerusalem, which have ruled over all countries beyond the river; and toll, tribute, and custom, was paid to them.  Give you now commandment to cause these men to cease, and that this city be not built, until another commandment shall be given from me.  Take heed now that you fail not to do this: why should damage grow to the hurt of the kings?
American King James Version×), (6) the report of Tattenai (Ezra 5:7-17 Ezra 5:7-17  They sent a letter to him, wherein was written thus; To Darius the king, all peace.  Be it known to the king, that we went into the province of Judea, to the house of the great God, which is built with great stones, and timber is laid in the walls, and this work goes fast on, and prospers in their hands.  Then asked we those elders, and said to them thus, Who commanded you to build this house, and to make up these walls?  We asked their names also, to certify you, that we might write the names of the men that were the chief of them.  And thus they returned us answer, saying, We are the servants of the God of heaven and earth, and build the house that was built these many years ago, which a great king of Israel built and set up.  But after that our fathers had provoked the God of heaven to wrath, he gave them into the hand of Nebuchadnezzar the king of Babylon, the Chaldean, who destroyed this house, and carried the people away into Babylon.  But in the first year of Cyrus the king of Babylon the same king Cyrus made a decree to build this house of God.  And the vessels also of gold and silver of the house of God, which Nebuchadnezzar took out of the temple that was in Jerusalem, and brought them into the temple of Babylon, those did Cyrus the king take out of the temple of Babylon, and they were delivered to one, whose name was Sheshbazzar, whom he had made governor;  And said to him, Take these vessels, go, carry them into the temple that is in Jerusalem, and let the house of God be built in his place.  Then came the same Sheshbazzar, and laid the foundation of the house of God which is in Jerusalem: and since that time even until now has it been in building, and yet it is not finished.  Now therefore, if it seem good to the king, let there be search made in the king's treasure house, which is there at Babylon, whether it be so, that a decree was made of Cyrus the king to build this house of God at Jerusalem, and let the king send his pleasure to us concerning this matter.
American King James Version×), (7) the decree of Cyrus (Ezra 6:2-5 Ezra 6:2-5  And there was found at Achmetha, in the palace that is in the province of the Medes, a roll, and therein was a record thus written:  In the first year of Cyrus the king the same Cyrus the king made a decree concerning the house of God at Jerusalem, Let the house be built, the place where they offered sacrifices, and let the foundations thereof be strongly laid; the height thereof three score cubits, and the breadth thereof three score cubits;  With three rows of great stones, and a row of new timber: and let the expenses be given out of the king's house:  And also let the golden and silver vessels of the house of God, which Nebuchadnezzar took forth out of the temple which is at Jerusalem, and brought to Babylon, be restored, and brought again to the temple which is at Jerusalem, every one to his place, and place them in the house of God.
American King James Version×), (8) the reply of Darius (Ezra 6:6-8 Ezra 6:6-8  Now therefore, Tatnai, governor beyond the river, Shetharboznai, and your companions the Apharsachites, which are beyond the river, be you far from there:  Let the work of this house of God alone; let the governor of the Jews and the elders of the Jews build this house of God in his place.  Moreover I make a decree what you shall do to the elders of these Jews for the building of this house of God: that of the king's goods, even of the tribute beyond the river, immediately expenses be given to these men, that they be not hindered.
American King James Version×), (9) the genealogy of Ezra (Ezra 7:1-5 Ezra 7:1-5  Now after these things, in the reign of Artaxerxes king of Persia, Ezra the son of Seraiah, the son of Azariah, the son of Hilkiah,  The son of Shallum, the son of Zadok, the son of Ahitub,  The son of Amariah, the son of Azariah, the son of Meraioth,  The son of Zerahiah, the son of Uzzi, the son of Bukki,  The son of Abishua, the son of Phinehas, the son of Eleazar, the son of Aaron the chief priest:
American King James Version×), (10) the authorization of Artaxerxes (Ezra 7:12-26 Ezra 7:12-26  Artaxerxes, king of kings, to Ezra the priest, a scribe of the law of the God of heaven, perfect peace, and at such a time.  I make a decree, that all they of the people of Israel, and of his priests and Levites, in my realm, which are minded of their own freewill to go up to Jerusalem, go with you.  For as much as you are sent of the king, and of his seven counsellors, to inquire concerning Judah and Jerusalem, according to the law of your God which is in your hand;  And to carry the silver and gold, which the king and his counsellors have freely offered to the God of Israel, whose habitation is in Jerusalem,  And all the silver and gold that you can find in all the province of Babylon, with the freewill offering of the people, and of the priests, offering willingly for the house of their God which is in Jerusalem:  That you may buy speedily with this money bullocks, rams, lambs, with their meat offerings and their drink offerings, and offer them on the altar of the house of your God which is in Jerusalem.  And whatever shall seem good to you, and to your brothers, to do with the rest of the silver and the gold, that do after the will of your God.  The vessels also that are given you for the service of the house of your God, those deliver you before the God of Jerusalem.  And whatever more shall be needful for the house of your God, which you shall have occasion to bestow, bestow it out of the king's treasure house.  And I, even I Artaxerxes the king, do make a decree to all the treasurers which are beyond the river, that whatever Ezra the priest, the scribe of the law of the God of heaven, shall require of you, it be done speedily,  To an hundred talents of silver, and to an hundred measures of wheat, and to an hundred baths of wine, and to an hundred baths of oil, and salt without prescribing how much.  Whatever is commanded by the God of heaven, let it be diligently done for the house of the God of heaven: for why should there be wrath against the realm of the king and his sons?  Also we certify you, that touching any of the priests and Levites, singers, porters, Nethinims, or ministers of this house of God, it shall not be lawful to impose toll, tribute, or custom, on them.  And you, Ezra, after the wisdom of your God, that is in your hand, set magistrates and judges, which may judge all the people that are beyond the river, all such as know the laws of your God; and teach you them that know them not.  And whoever will not do the law of your God, and the law of the king, let judgment be executed speedily on him, whether it be to death, or to banishment, or to confiscation of goods, or to imprisonment.
American King James Version×), (11) the list of the heads of the clans (Ezra 8:1-14 Ezra 8:1-14  These are now the chief of their fathers, and this is the genealogy of them that went up with me from Babylon, in the reign of Artaxerxes the king.  Of the sons of Phinehas; Gershom: of the sons of Ithamar; Daniel: of the sons of David; Hattush.  Of the sons of Shechaniah, of the sons of Pharosh; Zechariah: and with him were reckoned by genealogy of the males an hundred and fifty.  Of the sons of Pahathmoab; Elihoenai the son of Zerahiah, and with him two hundred males.  Of the sons of Shechaniah; the son of Jahaziel, and with him three hundred males.  Of the sons also of Adin; Ebed the son of Jonathan, and with him fifty males.  And of the sons of Elam; Jeshaiah the son of Athaliah, and with him seventy males.  And of the sons of Shephatiah; Zebadiah the son of Michael, and with him fourscore males.  Of the sons of Joab; Obadiah the son of Jehiel, and with him two hundred and eighteen males.  And of the sons of Shelomith; the son of Josiphiah, and with him an hundred and three score males.  And of the sons of Bebai; Zechariah the son of Bebai, and with him twenty and eight males.  And of the sons of Azgad; Johanan the son of Hakkatan, and with him an hundred and ten males.  And of the last sons of Adonikam, whose names are these, Eliphelet, Jeiel, and Shemaiah, and with them three score males.  Of the sons also of Bigvai; Uthai, and Zabbud, and with them seventy males.
American King James Version×), and (12) the list of those involved in mixed marriages. Over half the book of Ezra consists of official documents and lists. Moreover, the book is written in two languages. Most of the royal correspondence in the book is written in Aramaic, the international language of the Persian world, while the narrative sections are in Hebrew" (same notes). The Hebrew sections of Ezra are: 1:1-4:7; 6:19-7:11; 7:27-10:44. The Aramaic sections are: 4:8-6:18 and 7:12-26.
The compilation of various documentary sources helps to demonstrate that this is the recording of genuine history rather than folkloric storytelling.
Concerning Nehemiah, "many readers naturally conclude that the book was written by Nehemiah because of the words of the first verse, 'The words of Nehemiah the son of Hachaliah.' It is widely believed that Nehemiah originated the following passages: 1:1-7:5; 12:27-43; 13:4-31" (introductory notes on Nehemiah). Ezra probably compiled Nehemiah's memoirs along with his own and other sources into his historical account.
Yet Ezra-Nehemiah "is not simply a string of historical facts about the returning exiles. Instead, the narrative shows how God fulfilled His promises announced by the prophets. He brought His people back from Babylon, rebuilt the temple at Jerusalem, restored the patterns of true worship, and even preserved the reassembled community from fresh relapses into heathen customs and idolatrous worship. Through the prophets and leaders He had called, the Lord had preserved and cultivated a small group of returning exiles, the remnant of Israel" (introductory notes on Ezra).
The Bible Reader's Companion puts it this way: "The Book of Ezra, and then of Nehemiah, tells what happens when a small contingent of Jews returns to resettle the Promised Land. Despite opposition from neighboring peoples, discouragement, and even lapses into sin, a Jewish presence is restored in the Holy Land and another temple erected on the site of Solomon's earlier edifice. There, in a tiny district of what was once its own land, the little Jewish community struggles to survive and awaits God's promise of a coming Messiah, God's agent, who will see that all the ancient promises made to Abraham are fulfilled" (Lawrence Richards, 1991, introductory notes on Ezra). Indeed, the Jewish nation had to be restored to set the stage for the first coming of the Messiah, Jesus Christ. Yet the restoration described in Ezra and Nehemiah was but a small foretaste of the great return and restoration of all Israel that will take place under Jesus Christ at His second coming.
The books of Ezra and Nehemiah also provide inspiring lessons and parallels with the end-time work of building the New Testament spiritual "temple" of God, the Church, in preparation for Christ's return.
The book of Chronicles closes with the same wording that opens the book of Ezra--describing a remarkable proclamation by Cyrus that allows the Jewish captives to return to their homeland from Babylon, grants them religious freedom, encourages them to rebuild the Jerusalem temple and provides for funding of the move and reconstruction. Cyrus issued this decree in his first year (2 Chronicles 36:22 2 Chronicles 36:22Now in the first year of Cyrus king of Persia, that the word of the LORD spoken by the mouth of Jeremiah might be accomplished, the LORD stirred up the spirit of Cyrus king of Persia, that he made a proclamation throughout all his kingdom, and put it also in writing, saying,
American King James Version×; Ezra 1:1 Ezra 1:1Now in the first year of Cyrus king of Persia, that the word of the LORD by the mouth of Jeremiah might be fulfilled, the LORD stirred up the spirit of Cyrus king of Persia, that he made a proclamation throughout all his kingdom, and put it also in writing, saying,
American King James Version×; 6:3). "As Cyrus entered Babylon on 29 October 539 B.C., this was counted as his accession year. Babylonian and Persian scribes hold that his first regnal year over the Babylonians began on New Year's Day, 1 Nisan (24 Mar.) 538" (The Expositor's Bible Commentary, introductory notes on Ezra).
We are told that God stirred Cyrus to issue this decree "that the word of the LORD by the mouth of Jeremiah might be fulfilled" (Ezra 1:1 Ezra 1:1Now in the first year of Cyrus king of Persia, that the word of the LORD by the mouth of Jeremiah might be fulfilled, the LORD stirred up the spirit of Cyrus king of Persia, that he made a proclamation throughout all his kingdom, and put it also in writing, saying,
American King James Version×; 2 Chronicles 36:22 2 Chronicles 36:22Now in the first year of Cyrus king of Persia, that the word of the LORD spoken by the mouth of Jeremiah might be accomplished, the LORD stirred up the spirit of Cyrus king of Persia, that he made a proclamation throughout all his kingdom, and put it also in writing, saying,
American King James Version×). This has caused some confusion. God had foretold through Jeremiah that the Babylonian captivity and desolation of Jerusalem would last 70 years (Jeremiah 25:11 Jeremiah 25:11And this whole land shall be a desolation, and an astonishment; and these nations shall serve the king of Babylon seventy years.
American King James Version×; 29:10). Based on that, many assume that this decree must exactly mark the end of the 70-year period. Yet as explained in the Beyond Today Bible Commentary on Jeremiah 25, the 70-year desolation of Jerusalem extended from the fall of Jerusalem and destruction of the temple in 586 B.C. to the rebuilding of the temple in 516 B.C. There was also a 70-year subservience of nations to Babylon prophesied there--the length of the Babylonian Empire, from 609 B.C. to its fall to Cyrus in 539 B.C. Jeremiah 29:10 Jeremiah 29:10For thus said the LORD, That after seventy years be accomplished at Babylon I will visit you, and perform my good word toward you, in causing you to return to this place.
American King James Version×states that "after seventy years are completed at Babylon" God would cause the people to return. This seventy could be the length of the Babylonian Empire--after which God would cause people to return. Yet notice that the prophecy did not specify immediately after. Given all this, to fulfill Jeremiah's prophecies, a way for the Jews to return had to come sometime after the fall of Babylon in 539 B.C. and yet soon enough after to give ample time for the rebuilding of the temple by 516. Cyrus' decree in 538 is what began the process.
Moreover, Jeremiah's was not the only prophecy that Cyrus' decree fulfilled. For God specifically prophesied through Isaiah: "I am the LORD...who says of Cyrus, 'He is My shepherd, and he shall perform all My pleasure, saying to Jerusalem, 'You shall be built,' and to the temple, 'Your foundation shall be laid'" (Isaiah 44:24 Isaiah 44:24Thus said the LORD, your redeemer, and he that formed you from the womb, I am the LORD that makes all things; that stretches forth the heavens alone; that spreads abroad the earth by myself;
American King James Version×, 28). God had also foretold Cyrus' overthrow of Babylon (45:1-5).
This particular decree of Cyrus is not attested to in any contemporary Persian or Greek documents. Archaeology has not as yet uncovered inscription evidence of it. That, however, should not surprise us, as hard evidence regarding vast numbers of ancient decrees--the overwhelming majority, in fact--has never been found. Most of the documents of antiquity were destroyed or lost over the centuries. Interestingly, this very decree had been forgotten within decades of its being issued. It was sought out and rediscovered around 520 B.C., as related in Ezra 6.
Nevertheless, historical factors attest to its genuineness. As The Expositor's Bible Commentarynotes on Ezra 1:2 Ezra 1:2Thus said Cyrus king of Persia, The LORD God of heaven has given me all the kingdoms of the earth; and he has charged me to build him an house at Jerusalem, which is in Judah.
American King James Version×, "The formulation 'Jerusalem that is in Judah' is characteristic of Persian bureaucratic style." Moreover, the decree is consistent with what we do know of Cyrus and his policies as attested to in ancient sources. For on one level, Cyrus' decree reflected his patronage of religion and cultural pluralism in general. Biblical historian Eugene Merrill explains: "In the nineteenth century a barrel-shaped inscription which records Cyrus the Great's decree authorizing captive peoples in Babylonia to return to their places of origin was discovered. This inscription [known as the Cyrus Cylinder, currently housed in the British Museum] was primarily a propaganda piece designed to demonstrate that Cyrus had been called by Marduk, god of Babylon, and that his rule there and over all the earth was at the behest of the gods" (Kingdom of Priests: A History of Old Testament Israel, 1987, p. 491).
Indeed, as Merrill also relates, "one reason for the ready capitulation of Babylon to Cyrus was the bitter antagonism that the Babylonians felt toward Nabonidus and his son [Belshazzar] for their anti-Marduk religious posture. Cyrus had already gained a reputation as an enlightened ruler who was extremely lenient and eclectic in his viewpoint. He maintained the status quo in lands which fell to his control, at least as much as he could without jeopardizing his sovereignty. One feature of his policy was to recognize the claims of native gods over their followers and to make no effort to supplant them with gods of his own. In fact, he [supposedly] came to Babylon at the express wishes of Marduk himself, since Marduk had become angry at Nabonidus's irreverence and wished to replace him with another king, a shepherd who would more faithfully tend Marduk's human flock. That shepherd, of course, was Cyrus" (p. 480). "One cannot deny the political and psychological genius of the man; indeed, his policy of permitting aliens to return to their homelands and to establish self-rule within the larger structure of the empire was nothing short of brilliant" (p. 491).
"Cyrus's enlightened policy also had direct bearing on the plight of the exilic Jewish community in Babylonia, for Cyrus accorded to Yahweh, their God, the same deference he paid to Marduk and all other deities. A logical outgrowth of this policy was his decree that the Jews be allowed to return to their homeland. Only in a restored temple in Jerusalem could Yahweh function effectively as the God of Judah. And so, in eager solicitation of the favor of Yahweh, Cyrus repatriated the Jewish people and provided them with the authorization and wherewithal to rebuild their city and temple as a fitting place for their God" (p. 480).
The Nelson Study Bible further suggests that "Cyrus's decrees might have been part of a clever military strategy. At this point, he had not yet conquered Egypt. A strong settlement of loyal people between him and the Egyptians would have been wise. This was a novel political policy; for the first time in hundreds of years, a king permitted a subjected people to return to their homeland" ("INDepth: Cyrus, the King of Persia," comments on Ezra 1).
Of course, there was more to it than all that. The same source goes on to say, "But the point of [the] Scriptures is to assert that God was at work through this powerful ruler of the ancient world." The Bible, in fact, explicitly states that God stirred Cyrus' spirit to issue the proclamation (2 Chronicles 36:22 2 Chronicles 36:22Now in the first year of Cyrus king of Persia, that the word of the LORD spoken by the mouth of Jeremiah might be accomplished, the LORD stirred up the spirit of Cyrus king of Persia, that he made a proclamation throughout all his kingdom, and put it also in writing, saying,
American King James Version×; Ezra 1:1 Ezra 1:1Now in the first year of Cyrus king of Persia, that the word of the LORD by the mouth of Jeremiah might be fulfilled, the LORD stirred up the spirit of Cyrus king of Persia, that he made a proclamation throughout all his kingdom, and put it also in writing, saying,
American King James Version×). While this could mean that God simply gave Cyrus a nudge to do what he was already likely to do anyway, it may well indicate--especially given the specific prophecies of Cyrus--that God had been working behind the scenes in Cyrus' life and in Medo-Persian politics in such a way that caused the king to adopt the outlook he had.
Moreover, it appears that Cyrus' proclamation regarding the Jews was specially inspired. The first-century Jewish historian Josephus says that God's command regarding Cyrus' rebuilding of the temple "was known to Cyrus by his reading the book which Isaiah left behind him of his prophecies.... Accordingly, when Cyrus read this, and admired the Divine power, an earnest desire and ambition seized upon him to fulfill what was so written" (Antiquities of the Jews, Book 11, chap. 1, sec. 2). Indeed, it seems that Cyrus would have to have seen these prophecies in order to fulfill God's words in Isaiah. Speaking directly to Cyrus (45:1), God says He will give the king victory and treasures "that you may know that I, the LORD, who call you by your name [long before your birth], am the God of Israel" (verse 3). For this to make sense-for Cyrus to know from these words in the book of Isaiah that he was personally named in advance and for this to serve as a proof to him of God's divinity-the king must have personally read these words or listened to someone reading them to him.
"What role Daniel may have played in all this is unclear, but one cannot help feeling that it was major" (Merrill, p. 492). Daniel was now the prime minister of Babylonia serving under Cyrus' deputy king and governor Darius. There is no question that Daniel would have had contact with Cyrus. Indeed, it is almost certain that Cyrus had heard all about the recent episode with the lions' den. Would not Cyrus have inquired of Daniel regarding his religion? It seems rather likely that Daniel would then have shown the king that he was directly foretold in Scripture. Indeed, Daniel may have gone further and pointed out the prophecies of Jeremiah regarding the Jewish return and the return of the temple vessels and utensils.
"We know that the Persian kings paid close heed to prophecies: Cambyses to Egyptian oracles, Darius and Xerxes to Greek oracles (Herodotus 8.133; 9.42, 151)" (Expositor's, note on Ezra 1:1 Ezra 1:1Now in the first year of Cyrus king of Persia, that the word of the LORD by the mouth of Jeremiah might be fulfilled, the LORD stirred up the spirit of Cyrus king of Persia, that he made a proclamation throughout all his kingdom, and put it also in writing, saying,
American King James Version×). How much more closely would Cyrus have paid heed after staring at his own name in a prophecy written down about 150 years earlier--part of which had already been fulfilled? He would have been utterly astounded. And it seems most likely that he would have been motivated to act accordingly--"stirred" in his spirit by the Word of God.
Still, "no one should read into the accounts that Cyrus had become a worshiper of Yahweh; he was no more a worshiper of Yahweh than Nebuchadnezzar had been when he extolled Yahweh before Daniel. Both were syncretists who were willing for reasons of politics [and lack of full biblical and spiritual understanding] to welcome any new god into their respective pantheons. One cannot deny, however, that both were under the control of the sovereign God of heaven and earth who used them, witting or not, to achieve his holy purposes" (Merrill, p. 492).
First Return Under Sheshbazzar
God stirred the spirits of others too--causing a number of the Jews to enlist in the return to Judah (verse 5). Notice that the returning captives are described as being "of Judah and Benjamin, and the priests and the Levites" (same verse). The return from captivity was not a return of all 12 tribes of Israel, as many today maintain. Rather, it was simply of those of the nation of Judah who had been taken captive by the Babylonians. In fact, we see in Ezra and Nehemiah that only a small portion of the Jewish people returned-those specially stirred by God. This parallels the experience of Christians, who must be specially drawn by God (see John 6:44 John 6:44No man can come to me, except the Father which has sent me draw him: and I will raise him up at the last day.
American King James Version×).
Why would the vast majority of Jews choose to remain in Babylon? Josephus remarks: "Yet did many of them stay at Babylon, as not willing to leave their possessions" (sec. 3). Expositor'scomments: "A fascinating light on the Jews in Mesopotamia is shed by the Murashu tablets. In 1893, 730 inscribed clay tablets were found at Nippur.... The archive dates from the reigns of Artaxerxes I (464-424) and Darius II (423-404). Murashu and sons were wealthy bankers and brokers who loaned out almost any thing for a price. Among their customers are listed about sixty Jewish names from the time of Artaxerxes I and forty from the time of Darius II. These appear as contracting parties, agents, witnesses, collectors of taxes, and royal officials. There seems to have been no social or commercial barriers between the Jews and the Babylonians. Their prosperous situation may explain why some chose to remain in Mesopotamia. With the birth of a second and a third generation, many Jews established roots in Mesopotamia" (introductory notes on Ezra).
However, we should not be quick to fault everyone who remained. God did not stir them up as He did the others. It was evidently in His ultimate purpose that most not return to the Promised Land at that time. The Jewish Diaspora (Dispersion) through other countries caused by the exile provided the basis for a widespread Judaism-which would later provide a foundation for a widespread Christianity. We should also note that many of those who did not return at that time nevertheless supported those returning with gifts (1:4).
In Ezra 1:8 Ezra 1:8Even those did Cyrus king of Persia bring forth by the hand of Mithredath the treasurer, and numbered them to Sheshbazzar, the prince of Judah.
American King James Version×, Cyrus commits the Jerusalem temple articles to "Sheshbazzar the prince of Judah." And in verse 11 we see that this Sheshbazzar takes them with the captives in the return to Jerusalem. In an official letter to a later Persian emperor, Sheshbazzar is named as the governor of Judah and the one who lays the foundation of the Jerusalem temple (5:14, 16). Yet earlier in the same chapter, the one who, along with the priest Jeshua or Joshua, "began to build the house of God" is Zerubbabel (verse 2; see 3:8-11). Zerubbabel and Jeshua had earlier been the ones to build the altar to God upon first arriving in the Promised Land (3:2). Zerubbabel is shown to be the leader of the first return in Ezra 2:2 Ezra 2:2Which came with Zerubbabel: Jeshua, Nehemiah, Seraiah, Reelaiah, Mordecai, Bilshan, Mizpar, Bigvai, Rehum, Baanah. The number of the men of the people of Israel:
American King James Version×. As the grandson of the former Jewish king Jeconiah (see 1 Chronicles 3:17-19 1 Chronicles 3:17-19  And the sons of Jeconiah; Assir, Salathiel his son,  Malchiram also, and Pedaiah, and Shenazar, Jecamiah, Hoshama, and Nedabiah.  And the sons of Pedaiah were, Zerubbabel, and Shimei: and the sons of Zerubbabel; Meshullam, and Hananiah, and Shelomith their sister:
American King James Version×), Zerubbabel could properly be referred to as the prince of Judah.
Given all this, Sheshbazzar seems to be one and the same with Zerubbabel. While other possibilities are offered, this one seems to make the most sense: "The name Sheshbazzar occurs only in two passages...both related to official Persian actions. On the other hand, the name Zerubbabel is used in passages related to Jewish activity.... It is possible that Sheshbazzar was a name by which Zerubbabel was known in Persian circles" (Nelson Study Bible, note on verse 8).
Regarding the returned temple articles, "the separate items listed in vv. 9, 10 total 2,499. However, the total for all the articles given in v. 11 is 5,400. Probably vv. 9, 10 list only the larger and more important items that were transported back to Jerusalem" (note on verses 9-11).
Note the detailed cataloging and careful preservation of these items. As suggested earlier in the Beyond Today Bible Commentary, it seems likely that Daniel had a hand in this--as a high official of both Babylon and Persia. Yet of course the one mainly responsible was God. He was bringing to pass what He had foretold in Jeremiah 27:22 Jeremiah 27:22They shall be carried to Babylon, and there shall they be until the day that I visit them, said the LORD; then will I bring them up, and restore them to this place.
American King James Version×--that the temple articles would be returned after Babylon's fall.
In the next chapter we will see a listing of the nearly 50,000 people who returned to Judea at this time. The journey probably took about three and a half to four months, as this is how long Ezra's group would later take (compare Ezra 7:9 Ezra 7:9For on the first day of the first month began he to go up from Babylon, and on the first day of the fifth month came he to Jerusalem, according to the good hand of his God on him.
American King James Version×; 8:31). Historian Werner Keller writes in his book The Bible as History (1981, p. 302): "We can vividly imagine their journey into the land west of the Jordan. Almost 800 miles have to be covered between Babylon and distant Jerusalem, with the clouds of dust churned up by the caravan as a faithful companion throughout the whole journey. One day they would pass the site of old Mari. They would reach the spot where, on the opposite side of the river, the Balikh, on whose lower reaches Haran was situated, enters the Euphrates. From then on the returning exiles were following the same track which had been taken by Abraham 1,400 years earlier, when he left the land of his fathers to go to Canaan, via Damascus and along the foot of Hermon to the Lake of Galilee. Then came the day when from among the brown peaks of the mountains of Judah the desolate ruins of the city of Zion rose before their eyes-it was Jerusalem. What fateful significance this journey had for the generations that were still to come!"