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1:1 Not surprisingly, the beginning of Ezra commences with the beginning of Cyrus, whose arrival in Babylon in 539 BCE and proclamation in 538 offered both powers and pretenders conclusive evidence of his meteoric rise from the provinces of Media. While the first verse of Ezra begins and ends with Cyrus, the syntactical heart of 1:1 is profoundly theological: “YHWH moved.” […]
1:2 While the tradition strongly associates Israel’s God with sovereignty over the heavens (e.g., Genesis, Deuteronomy, Psalms), it is suggested that the use of the specific title “the God of heaven” within the edict of Cyrus reflects Persian usage. […] The use of this terminology among the returnees (cf. Ezra 5:12; 6:9–10; Neh 1:4–5; 2:4, 20 etc.) may then reflect an accommodation to imperial expectation, rather than a novel and original use of the title by the exiles. That YHWH has given Cyrus “all the kingdoms,” however, confirms that this heavenly God has earthly interests and intentions, while his charge to build YHWH a house in Jerusalem illustrates the conviction of the returnees, not only that their God has the power to move the “powers that be,” but also that his own worship is his chief priority.
1:3–4 […] for Jews about to embark upon a journey to a land that was once promised, this invocation of their God’s presence “with them” might find a resonance rather in the exodus generation’s hope that their God would go with them on their own journey out of a foreign land (cf. Exod 34:9; Num 14:8–9). The edict’s suggestion that their God might be both “with them” and “in Jerusalem” poses no difficulty for those who conceived of their God in incorporeal terms in any case, though the association of the divine presence with Jerusalem will be expressed regularly in the early chapters of Ezra (e.g., 4:24; 5:2). That the Jews should return with more than “their God” is made explicit in 1:4, which encourages material support for the returnees and especially the temple, even if it is unclear whether such support should be expected from those Jews who were not willing or able to make the journey or from Gentile neighbors, on the pattern of the despoiling of the Egyptians found in the exodus tradition.
1:5–6 While in the prayer of Neh 9, it is the divine spirit’s tutelage of the exodus generation (Exod 9:20) that is remembered, here special note is made of the power of God’s spirit to stir up the people to embrace the opportunity to return to Jerusalem. That this spiritual encouragement was necessary may suggest that the journey was perceived to be a daunting one and may also imply that not all of the “heads of Benjamin and Judah, priests and Levites” were willing to make the trip. However, the emphasis here is laid very much on the receptivity and spiritual sensitivity of those who did so and the divine initiative of YHWH, who stirs up or rouses, not only the “powers that be” like Cyrus (1:1) but also the people themselves. […]
1:7–11 That it is the Persian king himself who brings out the temple vessels (1:7) and then releases them into the charge of a royal treasurer, Mithredath (1:8), is further confirmation of the divine Spirit’s stirring of Cyrus, while the mention of Nebuchadnezzar’s plundering of the temple (2 Kgs 24:13; 25:13–16; 2 Chr 36:10) invites the reader to reflect on the ultimate sovereignty of the God of heaven over even the greatest sovereigns of the earth. The writer’s attention to the facts and figures (Ezra 1:9–10) of the temple vessels reflects the importance of the return of what was taken and the notion of careful (ac)counting reflected also in 1 Chr 9:28, which relates the practice of counting the vessels when they were brought into the temple for use and again when they were taken out. Having been taken out of the temple by Nebuchadnezzar in the most traumatic of circumstances, this precious paraphernalia is now “counted” out of the house of Cyrus’s gods to ensure that all that should return to the temple does so. […] 
 Sherpherd, David J. and Christopher J.H. Wright, Ezra and Nehemiah, The Two Horizons Old Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2018) 13-14.
1 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, so that he made a proclamation throughout all his kingdom and also put it in writing:
2 “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. 3 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. 4 And let each survivor, in whatever place he sojourns, be assisted by the men of his place with silver and gold, with goods and with beasts, besides freewill offerings for the house of God that is in Jerusalem.”
5 Then rose up the heads of the fathers’ houses of Judah and Benjamin, and the priests and the Levites, everyone whose spirit God had stirred to go up to rebuild the house of the Lord that is in Jerusalem. 6 And all who were about them aided them with vessels of silver, with gold, with goods, with beasts, and with costly wares, besides all that was freely offered. 7 Cyrus the king also brought out the vessels of the house of the Lord that Nebuchadnezzar had carried away from Jerusalem and placed in the house of his gods. 8 Cyrus king of Persia brought these out in the charge of Mithredath the treasurer, who counted them out to Sheshbazzar the prince of Judah. 9 And this was the number of them: 30 basins of gold, 1,000 basins of silver, 29 censers, 10 30 bowls of gold, 410 bowls of silver, and 1,000 other vessels; 11 all the vessels of gold and of silver were 5,400. All these did Sheshbazzar bring up, when the exiles were brought up from Babylonia to Jerusalem.
Questions to help us go deeper
- What can I learn about how God works from the fact that “the Lord stirred up the spirit of Cyrus king of Persia, so that he made a proclamation”?
- Given Cyrus’s high position and power, why is it amazing that he says that God “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”?
- How does Cyrus’s view of his personal accomplishments and blessings contrast with mine?