A New Day for God’s People
“Thus says Cyrus king of Persia: The LORD, the God of heaven, has given me all the kingdoms of the earth, and he has charged me to build him a house at Jerusalem, which is in Judah. Whoever is among you of all his people, may his God be with him, and let him go up to Jerusalem, which is in Judah, and rebuild the house of the LORD, the God of Israel—he is the God who is in Jerusalem” (vv. 2–3).- Ezra 1
Today we return to our study of the Old Testament Historical Books. Second Kings 25 concluded with the fall of Jerusalem in 586 BC and the exaltation of Judah’s King Jehoiachin in Babylon a few decades later, sometime during the 560s (see also 2 Chron. 36). That brings us to the book of Ezra, which opens in 538 BC and the beginning of a period that is critical in the history of redemption but that is unfamiliar to many people in the church.
Although Babylon was the most powerful empire in the ancient Near East in 586 BC, things dramatically changed only fifty years later. In Persia (modern-day Iran), Cyrus the Great rose to power, conquering territory held by the Medes (another people group in the area) and establishing an empire that stretched from the Aegean Sea in the west to the Indus River in the east. In 539 BC, Cyrus conquered Babylon, incorporating its territories and peoples into his empire, and that meant a new day for the people of God, the Judahites who had been taken into exile several decades earlier.
Centuries before Cyrus was born, the prophet Isaiah named him as the one who would release God’s people from Babylon and send them back to the promised land (Isa. 45:1–13). Cyrus released the Jews as part of the broader Persian policy of letting captured peoples go back to their lands and live by their religious customs. Today’s passage features the decree that Cyrus issued in 538 BC that allowed the people of Judah to return. In the decree, Cyrus even claims that the Lord—namely, the God of Judah—commissioned him directly to send the people back to rebuild the temple (Ezra 1:1–3). It is doubtful that Cyrus had actually heard from God directly, for his release of the Judahites, his return of their temple utensils, and his provision of funds and goods to help reconstruct their temple (vv. 4–10) was in keeping with his policy regarding many other peoples. But for those who know that the sovereign God of the universe works through all things to bring about His purposes, Cyrus’ statement is no lie. He was speaking more truth than he probably knew, for God was at work fulfilling His purpose to return His people to the promised land after the exile (Lev. 26:44–45; Jer. 25:1–14).
God used a foreign ruler who did not worship Him to liberate His people. He works in unexpected ways to accomplish His purposes, none of which can ever be thwarted (Job 42:2).
The Lord is not bound to act in ways that we might expect, but in His sovereignty He is free to use whatever tool He chooses—even unbelievers—to accomplish His purposes. When God does this, He does not necessarily approve of all that the instruments He is using are doing, so we are not required to approve of everything a person does even if we are grateful for the good things he may do for God’s people. Let us be careful to make this distinction.
Passages for Further Study
2 Chronicles 36:22–23
1 Timothy 2:1–2