By 539 B.C., the Persian King Cyrus had conquered the Babylonians and, as God had promised, he permitted the Jews to return to their homeland. Ezra begins to chronicle that return, but he himself does not make an appearance until chapter 7.
When Cyrus began his rule, he issued a decree, much like the one recounted in Ezra 1. Evidently, this decree appeared in several forms. Among them one discovered in 1879 in the ruins of Babylon is known today as the “Cyrus Cylinder” (pictured here and now housed in the British Museum).
The Cyrus Cylinder inscription begins with a denouncing of the Babylonian king he conquered, moves to a genealogy of Cyrus himself, and exalts him as a popular and much beloved ruler. Then, more important for our text, he refers to the nations conquered by the Babylonians and writes: “I returned to [their] sanctuaries of which have been in ruins for a long time, the images which used to live therein and established for them permanent sanctuaries. I also gathered their former inhabitants and returned to them their habitations.”
It’s not exactly what is written in chapter one, but you would not expect the same decree for everyone. Each would have to be politically sensitive. The gist of the point remains the same.
While Ezra presents historical information, its purpose was not to simply present history. The writer has a point to make. Note that the first six chapters deal with six specific events over a 23 year period. Seventy-three years then lapse without a record between chapter six and chapter seven. The final four chapters deal with Ezra’s return and what he found.
One authority makes this point: “From the viewpoint of ordinary human beings, life appears governed by power and wealth, by international relationships built on confusing alliances of greed and self-interest, and by policies that come and go without enduring purpose. It probably seemed so to those who lived around the Mediterranean Sea and throughout Palestine after Nebuchadnezzar’s Babylonian Empire crumbled under the strength of Persia’s king Cyrus. One empire rose only to fall to another, ruthless men conquered and subdued smaller nations, and decrees were issued and withdrawn according to political advantage.
“But in the opening verses of the Book of Ezra, we are given a different perspective. We are taken from ground level, with its distortions and limited vision, and given a view from above. At this clarifying distance we see that life on earth is not directed by the whim of rulers or the might of armies but by the determination of God.
“Viewpoint makes all the difference in the world.”