Cyrus’ decree allowing Jews to return to their homeland and rebuild the temple is found not only in Ezra 1 but also in 2 Chronicles 36:22-23.
In fact, according to the Jewish canon, the decree of Cyrus is the very last verse in the Bible. And this is in contrast to the Christian canon, which ends in Malachi 4, a text that expresses hope for Elijah’s return (Malachi 4:5-6). The decree of Cyrus is a deeply significant event in Persian period literature, because it signaled the restoration of God’s “house” (temple), which was the primary ritual means by which God was available to Israel. Divine demands and promises were attached to this institution, and its loss was nothing short of devastating.
But the book of Ezra’s accounting of this significant event is more than just the recounting of history. For Ezra, it is the fulfillment of prophecy, and in particular, the prophecy of Jeremiah: “In the first year of King Cyrus of Persia, in order that the word of the Lord by the mouth of Jeremiah might be accomplished, the Lord stirred up the spirit of King Cyrus of Persia … ” (Ezra 1:1). To what particular prophecy the verse refers is somewhat unclear. Jeremiah’s “seventy years” prophecy (Jeremiah 25:11-12; 29:4-10) is a likely candidate, especially given the fact that it is referenced in other late biblical books (Daniel 9:2). More important than determining the precise prophecy is recognizing the theological assumptions made by the text, namely that the general shape of Israel’s history, despite its many vagaries, is determined primarily by Yhwh’s judgments and promises. Judah was sent into exile because of sin, and Judah would return to its land because of Yhwh’s gracious work through the agency of Cyrus the Persian. Cyrus does not act independently of Yhwh’s will. The will of the emperor and the will of Yhwh are mysteriously intertwined: Yhwh hides behind the will, ambition, and power of Cyrus (cf. Isaiah 45:1-7).
In the seventh month, the returnees set out to build “the altar of the God of Israel”, and thereby restart the cult’s proper function as a place of ritual and sacrifice (Ezra 3:1-3). The book sees this event as a moment of restoration, when Israel’s cult would be set in place “as prescribed in the law of Moses the man of God” (Ezra 3:2). The restoration of the altar reaches back not only to Mosaic law given at Sinai but also to the time when Solomon first established the altar at Jerusalem. Strengthening this connection is the fact that the words of praise voiced in Ezra 3:11 (“For he is good, for his steadfast love endures forever toward Israel”) are the same words voiced at the dedication of Solomon’s temple in 2 Chronicles 5:13. The restored altar reaches back beyond the veil of 587 BCE and establishes a line of continuity between the exiles’ return to the land and the two most important, promise bearing institutions of monarchic Israel: the temple and the palace.
But other concerns were also present. According to the text, the returnees set up the altar “because they were in dread of the neighboring peoples” (Ezra 3:3). Although returning to their ancestral homeland, these returnees feared for their safety, and sought shelter and protection in God’s altar. What the text calls “neighboring peoples” almost certainly included Jews who were left behind in the exile to Babylon, which 2 Kings 25:11-12 understands to be the poor of the land. Understandably, tensions arose between returnees and inhabitants. Issues related to governance, land ownership, religious observance, and resource sharing no doubt contributed to the tensions felt in this text. Far from being a merely religious act, the restoration of the altar was a complicated event with intertwining legal, political, and historical interests.
After the establishment of the altar came the laying of the temple foundation (Ezra 3:8-13), which was followed by responsive singing: “For he is good, for his steadfast love endures forever toward Israel” and shouts (Ezra 3:11). Again, this was the same song sung at the dedication of Solomon’s temple (2 Chronicles 5:13). Unlike the dedication of Solomon’s temple, however, the glory of the Lord did not appear in dramatic form (2 Chronicles 5:13-14). In fact, the sounds of praise and shouting mingled with weeping from those who had seen the temple in its former glory. Those who had seen the temple in its former glory found it impossible to celebrate the new foundation, and indeed wept at the site of the diminished house of worship (Ezra 3:12). The book of Ezra acknowledges that this moment of fulfillment was also a moment of loss.
The Jews in Ezra are trying to determine what it means to live into a new future that God is creating in their midst. But what that future looks like is only beginning to emerge, and with mixed results. The former glory of God’s presence and of the temple is lacking in this new iteration of the temple. The new temple, moreover, was to be under the patronage of a foreign ruler (Cyrus), not an autochthonous ruler like Solomon or David. And finally, whereas Solomon’s temple was built while his kingdom was militarily strong (2 Chronicles 1:14-17), the new altar was established while this small band of Jews was still under threat (Ezra 3:3). The future, indeed, would not be the past. What gives continuity to the past, present, and future, however, is the faithfulness of God.
PRAYER OF THE DAYGod of restoration, you brought your people home from exile and in their joy they rebuilt your temple. Deliver us from our personal and communal exiles, and help us to build up your church. Amen.
HYMNS From heaven above ELW 268, H82 80, NCH 130 Awake, O sleeper, rise from death ELW 452, H82 547, UMH 551
CHORAL Lift up your heads, O ye gates, William Mathias