Making Sense of History: Zerubbabel and Ezra
In the writings of Jeremiah, God had promised that His people would return home after 70 years of Babylonian exile. King Cyrus was God’s instrument to allow this return to happen. Anointed by God (Isa. 45:1), Cyrus issued a decree about 538 b.c., freeing up God’s people to return to their country and to rebuild the temple.
It was God (not Cyrus) who spoke regarding Jerusalem” “ ‘Let it be rebuilt,’ and of the temple, ‘Let its foundations be laid’ ” (Isa. 44:28, NIV). God was the guarantor that Jerusalem would be rebuilt, and He stirred the heart of Cyrus to grant permission to build the temple.
It is always encouraging, too, to see God’s people respond positively to the Lord’s actions: “Then the family heads of Judah and Benjamin, and the priests and Levites—everyone whose heart God had moved— prepared to go up and build the house of the Lord in Jerusalem” (Ezra 1:5, NIV).
Here we see an example of people responding positively to God’s mighty and gracious acts. Our best performance comes from a realization of who God is and what He has done, and from knowing how He lovingly intervenes on behalf of His people.
* Study this week’s lesson to prepare for Sabbath, October 5.
The Lord influenced Cyrus to allow the first return, in fulfillment of Jeremiah’s 70-year prophecy. Jeremiah had written that the land of Judah would lie desolate for 70 years under Babylon (this happened from 606/605 b.c. to 537/536 b.c.), but then God would open the doors for the captives’ return. As Daniel studied the writings of Jeremiah, he realized that the time had come for that promised return. In Daniel 9, Daniel is distraught because the 70 years were nearly up with no apparent change, and the new Persian Empire had now risen to power. He mourned and turned to God, pleading for mercy and the fulfillment of His promises. In the same chapter (Dan. 9:24– 27), God assured Daniel that He watches over everything and has a future planned, with a Deliverer who will die for the people to atone for their sins, bring righteousness, and fulfill the sacrificial system. In effect, God was saying, “Daniel, don’t worry. Since the true Deliverer [Jesus] will surely come, I also will send a deliverer for you now.” Shortly afterward, God moved Cyrus, the king of Persia, to give the command to release the captives. God is always true to His promises (See Daniel 10 for how God intervened in order to secure the prosperity of His people in their homeland.)
Ezra 1 records King Cyrus’s proclamation that the nation of Israel was free to return to Jerusalem and to build the house of the Lord. The command was given sometime between the years 539 and 537 b.c. Not only does Cyrus let them go, but he also makes sure that they return with gifts and offerings, including the original vessels from the temple, which had been stolen by Nebuchadnezzar. This event reminds us of the Israelites leaving Egypt many years before, when God also moved the hearts of the people to present them with parting gifts. This first group to return to Judah was composed of about 50,000 people, which most likely included women and children from other territories.
The first group of returnees received the task of rebuilding the temple of God. We will study about the opposition to the building of the temple in a later lesson. Now, we will discuss the succession of Persian kings during the temple’s prolonged construction and the rebuilding of Jerusalem. It is important to know the history behind the stories of Ezra and Nehemiah, as it provides a deeper insight into their messages.
Here is the list of Persian kings, in their chronological order, who are connected with the books of Ezra and Nehemiah. It begins with Cyrus, who established the Persian Empire and conquered Babylon in 539 b.c.:
Cyrus II “the Great” (559–530 b.c.)
Cambyses II (530–522 b.c.)
Darius I (522–486 b.c.)
Xerxes I (485–465 b.c.) (Also known from the book of Esther as Ahasuerus.)
Artaxerxes I (465–424 b.c.)
As we study these books, it’s very important to know that the appearance of these kings is not mentioned in Ezra in chronological order. For example, Ezra 4:6–24 is inserted before chapter 5, which continues the story of the opposition to the building of the temple. Consequently, the letters involving Xerxes I (Ahasuerus) and Artaxerxes I described in Ezra 4 occurred after the events recorded in chapters 5 and 6, dealing with Darius I. This sequence can seem perplexing to readers, and it may account for some of the confusion that people have had over the centuries regarding the books. As we go through the quarter, knowing the order of events will help us better understand the messages of Ezra and Nehemiah.
In Ezra 7:1–10 and 8:1–14, we see that King Artaxerxes I allows Ezra to return to Jerusalem (the year is 457 b.c.) and to take with him anyone who would like to return. Not much is known about the relationship between the king and Ezra, or whether Ezra worked for the court. Ezra 8 lists the heads of the families of those who returned, starting with the priestly returnees, followed by the royal line, and ending with the general Jewish population. Twelve families are named specifically, giving the impression that this is a deliberate reminder of the 12 tribes of Israel.
The passage lists about 1,500 men, which would approximate 5,000 to 6,000 total, counting women and children. This was a much smaller group than the first group that had returned with Zerubbabel and Joshua.
Ezra is a scribe with a priestly legacy. As a priest, he is a descendant of Aaron (the brother of Moses), who was the first priest of the nation of Israel. Because of the accounts recorded in Ezra, as well as in Jewish tradition, Ezra’s name stands very high even today. Whether Ezra served as a scribe in the court of King Artaxerxes is not known; thus, this description of Ezra as a scribe refers either to his previous responsibilities or to his abilities, which he begins to use after his arrival in Judah. However, Ezra must have worked for Artaxerxes in some close capacity in order for the king to send him out as the leader of the expedition.
In Ezra 7:6 and 10, Ezra is labeled as a “skilled” and “devoted” scribe or teacher. The word “skilled” literally means “rapid,” connoting someone who is quick in comprehension and mental maneuvering of information. Ezra had a quick mind—he was known for his knowledge and mental astuteness regarding the law of God. Moreover, the fact that the king chose Ezra to bring a group of Israelites to Judah is a testament to Ezra’s courage and leadership abilities.
The decree of Artaxerxes resembles Cyrus’s first decree. The king counsels everyone who is willing, especially from the priestly lines, to make the journey to Jerusalem. Although according to the Murashu historical documents, the majority of the Jews ultimately remained in Persia (as demonstrated in the story of Esther), there were those who had waited for the opportunity to start a new life in the homeland of their ancestors. The king directed most of his comments to the treasurers of the Trans-Euphrates territory. The treasurers were to provide Ezra with whatever he needed to restore the city and “to beautify the house of the Lord” (Ezra 7:27, NKJV). Ultimately, the king commissioned Ezra to ensure the proper observance of the law of God, as well as the law of the land, by setting up the judicial system. The order and organization that this command would produce are important aspects of any society. Moreover, the king made it easier for Ezra and the Israelites to restore their homeland.
Does the king’s concern for the rebuilding of the city and the temple indicate that he had become a believer in Ezra’s God? Artaxerxes calls God the “God of Israel, whose dwelling is in Jerusalem” (Ezra 7:15, NKJV). The terminology the king uses about the God of Israel implies that he saw the Lord as just another local deity who needed to be appeased by gifts. He didn’t want this local god to be angry with him and his sons (Ezra 7:23). Additionally, we should note that 457 b.c. also is the year of an Egyptian revolt against the Persian government; thus, it is likely that the amenable actions of the king were designed to gain loyalty from the province of Judah.
Unfortunately, despite the interaction the king had with both Ezra and Nehemiah, it didn’t make him a believer in God. At least nothing in the texts indicates that he had become one, which means that the Lord can use even unconverted people to do His will on earth.
Ezra’s wholehearted devotion to God and his decision to study, practice, and teach the Word of God (Ezra 7:6, 10) prepared him for greater ministry in Israel. The biblical text literally states that he devoted himself to the studying, doing or making, and teaching of the law of the Lord.
Ellen G. White provides an important insight: “Born of the sons of Aaron, Ezra had been given a priestly training; and in addition to this he had acquired a familiarity with the writings of the magicians, the astrologers, and the wise men of the Medo-Persian realm. But he was not satisfied with his spiritual condition. He longed to be in full harmony with God; he longed for wisdom to carry out the divine will. And so he ‘prepared his heart to seek the law of the Lord, and to do it.’ Ezra 7:10. This led him to apply himself diligently to a study of the history of God’s people, as recorded in the writings of prophets and kings. He searched the historical and poetical books of the Bible to learn why the Lord had permitted Jerusalem to be destroyed and His people carried captive into a heathen land.”—Prophets and Kings, p. 608.
“The efforts of Ezra to revive an interest in the study of the Scriptures were given permanency by his painstaking, lifelong work of preserving and multiplying the Sacred Writings. He gathered all the copies of the law that he could find and had these transcribed and distributed. The pure word, thus multiplied and placed in the hands of many people, gave knowledge that was of inestimable value.”—Page 609.
Notice that though Ezra had learned of the ways of the pagans, he saw that they were not correct; thus, he sought to know the truth from the source of truth, which was the Word of God and the “law of the Lord.” He had to unlearn a great deal of what he learned at the worldly universities, because, no doubt, much of what they taught was wrong. After all, how much good were “the writings of the magicians and the astrologers” going to do him?
Further Thought: Read Ellen G. White, “Ezra, the Priest and Scribe,” pp. 607–617, in Prophets and Kings.
Consider Ezra’s diligent work: “Ezra became a mouthpiece for God, educating those about him in the principles that govern heaven. During the remaining years of his life, whether near the court of the king of Medo-Persia or at Jerusalem, his principal work was that of a teacher. As he communicated to others the truths he learned, his capacity for labor increased. He became a man of piety and zeal. He was the Lord’s witness to the world of the power of Bible truth to ennoble the daily life.”—Ellen G. White, Prophets and Kings, p. 609.
“In the work of reform to be carried forward today, there is need of men who, like Ezra and Nehemiah, will not palliate or excuse sin, nor shrink from vindicating the honor of God. Those upon whom rests the burden of this work will not hold their peace when wrong is done, neither will they cover evil with a cloak of false charity. They will remember that God is no respecter of persons, and that severity to a few may prove mercy to many. They will remember also that in the one who rebukes evil the spirit of Christ should ever be revealed.”—Page 675.