The People of the Bible—Part XXI
The Books of Ezra and Nehemiah

Cyrus, Zerubbabel, Ezra, and Nehemiah

THESE are the men who were in strategic positions of authority and influence when the Lord’s time came for the Hebrew people to be released from their captivity, which began under Nebuchadnezzar and had continued through the fall of Babylon into the ascendancy of the Medo-Persian Empire. It had been prophesied that this captivity was to last for seventy years. (Jer. 25:9-11; II Chron. 36:22,23) Now these years had passed, and “the Lord stirred up the spirit of Cyrus, king of Persia,” to make a proclamation throughout the land, granting liberty to the captives.

Cyrus’s proclamation read: “The Lord God of heaven hath given me all the kingdoms of the earth; and he hath charged me to build him an house at Jerusalem, which is in Judah. Who is there among you of all his people? his God be with him, and let him go up to Jerusalem, which is in Judah, and build the house of the Lord God of Israel, (he is the God) which is in Jerusalem.” (Ezra 1:2,3) There were further details in the proclamation, making provision to cover the cost of the return and the erection of the temple; and all the Hebrews were called upon to contribute what they could toward this undertaking.—vss. 4-6

One wonders just how the Lord may have stirred up the spirit of Cyrus to issue this proclamation. The question naturally arises also as to how Cyrus knew that the “Lord God of Heaven” had given him all the kingdoms of the earth. The answer to both these questions seems to be in the fact that the Prophet Daniel had for a short time been in very close contact with Cyrus and was probably used by the Lord to direct the king in what he was to do.

As we learned in our previous study, Daniel was a young man when the captivity began and, together with three other young Hebrews, was drafted into the service of King Nebuchadnezzar. Through his brilliance and integrity and the overruling providence of God, he was promoted to the position of prime minister, which he held until the overthrow of Babylon.

His ability to interpret the handwriting on the wall at once brought him into favor with Darius, the new ruler, who set him over the whole realm.” We read that “this Daniel prospered in the reign of Darius, and in the reign of Cyrus the Persian,” who succeeded Darius. (Dan. 6:28) Apparently, however, Daniel was not long in the court of Cyrus. Chapter 1:21 of his book informs us that he continued to the first year of Cyrus, and Ezra 1:1 states that it was in the “first year of Cyrus” that he issued his proclamation of liberty to the Hebrew captives, and no mention is made of Daniel in connection with the return of his people to the Holy Land.

By this time Daniel would have been an old man, and he apparently lived into the reign of Cyrus for only a few months. And it seems reasonable to conclude that it was during these few months that this faithful servant of the Lord bore testimony to his new king concerning the role the Lord had designed for him in the outworking of his purpose for Israel’s return from captivity.

Daniel was a student of the Lord’s prophecies. We know this from chapter 9:2, which reveals his thorough acquaintance with the prophecy of Jeremiah concerning the seventy years of captivity. He would certainly also know of the prophecy of Isaiah concerning the Lord’s use of Cyrus. (Isa. 44:28; 45:1) Here the Lord refers to Cyrus as his “anointed,” that is, the one he had appointed to proclaim liberty to the Hebrews; and also as his “shepherd,” the one who would and did make every provision for the care and protection of the Hebrews in connection with their return and the rebuilding of the temple. It is reasonable to conclude that Daniel called Cyrus’s attention to this prophecy and that this had much to do with stirring up his spirit to take action in the matter.

A part of this “stirring up” effort by Daniel may also have been in calling Cyrus’s attention to the information revealed in Nebuchadnezzar’s dream in which he saw four world powers depicted by gold, silver, brass, and iron of a human-like image. (Dan. 2:36-38) Here Nebuchadnezzar, head of the Babylonian Empire, had been given dominion by God, and Daniel explained that after him would arise another; that is, a second world power, of which the same thing would be true; namely, that the authority to rule would be given by the God of heaven. If Daniel related this to Cyrus—and it seems reasonable to suppose that he did—it would explain the Persian king’s statement that God had given him all the kingdoms of the world.

One cannot but reflect upon the faithfulness of Daniel in giving this testimony to Cyrus and upon how the Lord uses his people in connection with the outworking of his purposes. Doubtless Cyrus possessed a large degree of nobility. However, if Daniel called his attention to the prophecy of Isaiah 45:1-4, he would know that it would be to his great advantage as ruler of the empire to do the bidding of Israel’s God. He could also have learned from Daniel something of the ability of Jehovah, such as in the deliverance of the three Hebrews from the fiery furnace, and of Daniel himself from the mouths of the lions.


The name Zerubbabel means “born at Babel, that is Babylon.” While among the Hebrews who took advantage of Cyrus’s decree to return to Palestine there were many of the original captives, Zerubbabel was not one of them. Born in Babylon, he would be a younger man, although old enough to be the head of the tribe of Judah. Later he was called the prince of the captivity.

The fact that Zerubbabel had been given the Persian name Sheshbazzar might indicate that he was in the king’s service even during the captivity. When Cyrus issued his decree of liberty, and authorization for rebuilding the temple in Jerusalem, Zerubbabel was charged with the responsibility of leadership in the undertaking. The golden vessels of the temple, which Nebuchadnezzar had taken to Babylon, were placed in the custody of Zerubbabel, to be returned to Jerusalem for use in the rebuilt temple. (Ezra 1:7-11; 2:1,2) Cyrus also appointed Zerubbabel governor of Judea.

Zerubbabel was an ardent servant of the Lord, and under his leadership the work of rebuilding the temple was soon started. In the seventh month after the captives had arrived safely in their own land, the priests, together with Zerubbabel, “builded the altar of the Lord God of Israel, to offer burnt offerings thereon, as it is written in the law of Moses the man of God.” (Ezra 3:1,2) They also “kept the feast of tabernacles as it is written, and offered the daily burnt offerings by number, according to the custom, as the duty of every day required.”—Ezra 3:4

“But the foundation of the temple of the Lord was not yet laid,” although much had been contributed for this purpose. (Ezra 3:5-7) It was in the second year after the return from captivity that Zerubbabel, with the assistance of Jeshua and “the remnant of their brethren the priests and the Levites” and all they that came out of captivity unto Jerusalem “appointed the Levites, from twenty years old and upward, to set forward the work of the house of the Lord.”—Ezra 3:8

“And when the builders laid the foundation of the temple of the Lord, they set the priests in their apparel with trumpets, and the Levites the sons of Asaph with cymbals, to praise the Lord, after the ordinance of David king of Israel.” (vs. 10) It was a time of great rejoicing, although on the part of the original captives who remembered the former temple, there was a heart pang and they “wept with a loud voice; … [but others] shouted aloud for joy.”—vss. 12,13


“When the adversaries of Judah and Benjamin heard that the children of the captivity builded the temple unto the Lord God of Israel; then they came to Zerubbabel, and to the chief of the fathers, and said unto them, Let us build with you: for we seek your God, as ye do.” (ch. 4:1,2) Zerubbabel recognized this as a ruse to provide an opportunity to sabotage the work; so, together with the other leaders of the people, he said to them, “Ye have nothing to do with us to build an house unto our God.”—vs. 3

Their hypocritical offer of help rejected, “the people of the land weakened the hands of the people of Judah, and troubled them in building.” They hired lawyers to seek legal means of interfering with the work. Finally, after the death of Cyrus, they sent a message to King Ahasuerus, accusing the Israelites of wrongdoing in building the temple. Still later a letter was sent to King Artaxerxes, explaining that the Jews were rebuilding the “rebellious and the bad city,” and demanding that a search be made “in the book of the records of thy fathers” for the purpose of proving that Jerusalem had been a rebellious city.—ch. 4:6-16

Actually, the Israelites had not at this time started to build the walls of the city. It was the temple that was being rebuilt. But these shrewd enemies of God’s people led the king to believe that it was the city and its walls that were being built. Naturally the “records” of the “fathers” would prove that the Israelites had never been too cooperative with their heathen neighbors, so the reply came back from the king that the work of building was to cease. And it was stopped.—vss. 17-24

God’s Prophets Speak

Years passed with no further work being done to rebuild the temple. Then the Lord raised up two prophets—Haggai and Zechariah—and through them “stirred up the spirit of Zerubbabel the son of Shealtiel, governor of Judah, and the spirit of Joshua, the son of Josedech, the high priest, and the spirit of all the remnant of the people; and they came and did work in the house of the Lord of hosts, their God.”—Hag. 1:14

Just as before, however, the enemies of Israel endeavored to hinder the work. Now, however, Zerubbabel and the people were more determined than in the beginning. Their zeal for the Lord and their courage to do his bidding strengthened them to defy their enemies. Asked by whose authority they were resuming the building of the temple, they replied that it was by the authority of their God. Added to this was the information that years before a decree had been issued by King Cyrus that the temple should be built.—Ezra 5:3-16

Again a letter was sent to the king of Persia, the overlord of Palestine, explaining the situation, and asking that a search be made to discover whether or not such a decree had been issued by Cyrus. Darius was now king of the empire which overthrew and succeeded Babylon, not, however, the Darius who became king when Babylon first fell and who exalted Daniel to such a high position in his government.

The search of the records was made, and Cyrus’s decree was found. Darius was governed by it and sent back word: “Let the work of this house of God alone; let the governor of the Jews and the elders of the Jews build this house of God in his place.” (Ezra 6:7) Besides, Darius commanded that his non-Jewish representatives in Palestine should use “the king’s goods, even of the tribute beyond the river,” to help pay the expenses of building the temple. Darius also commanded that “young bullocks, and rams, and lambs, for the burnt offerings of the God of heaven,” and also “wheat, salt, wine, and oil, according to the appointment of the priests which are at Jerusalem,” be supplied “day by day without fail: that they may offer sacrifices of sweet savors unto the God of heaven, and pray for the life of the king, and of his sons.”—vss. 8-10

As a result of this favorable decree from Darius to the “elders of the Jews” and “the prophesying of Haggai the prophet and Zechariah the son of Iddo,” “they builded, and finished it, according to the commandment of the God of Israel, and according to the commandment of Cyrus, and Darius, and Artaxerxes king of Persia. And this house was finished on the third day of the month Adar, which was in the sixth year of the reign of Darius the king.”—vss. 14,15

There was great rejoicing when the temple was finally completed, and it was dedicated with a great deal of ceremony. Haggai, one of the prophets used by the Lord to stir up the spirit of Zerubbabel to resume the work of rebuilding the temple, also prophesied concerning a still greater temple. We read: “For thus saith the Lord of hosts; Yet once, it is a little while, and I will shake the heavens, and the earth, and the sea, and the dry land; and I will shake all nations and the desire of all nations shall come: and I will fill this house with glory, saith the Lord of hosts.”—Hag. 2:6,7

In Hebrews 12:26,27, Paul quotes from Haggai 2:6 and applies it to the “great time of trouble” which prepares the world for the Messiah’s kingdom. The “house,” therefore, which Haggai said the Lord would fill with his glory, is the antitypical temple of God—Christ and his church in glory, the spiritual phase of the kingdom.

Ezra the Scribe

With the building of the temple completed, no more mention is made of Zerubbabel. Instead, attention is focused on Ezra. This was in the reign of Artaxerxes, king of Persia—the second king by this name. By way of introduction the record reads: “This Ezra went up from Babylon: and he was a ready scribe in the law of Moses, which the Lord God of Israel had given: and the king granted him all his request, according to the hand of the Lord his God upon him.”—ch. 7:6

With Ezra on this journey to Jerusalem from Babylon were “some of the children of Israel, and the priests, and the Levites, and the singers, and the porters, and the Nethinims.” (vs. 7) Nethinims were men who assisted the Levites in their more laborious tasks.

We are told that “Ezra had prepared his heart to seek the law of the Lord, and to do it, and to teach in Israel statutes and judgments.” (vs. 10) He went to Jerusalem with the authority and full support of King Artaxerxes. The king granted liberty to as many of the Israelites remaining in Babylon as desired to go with Ezra. He also supplied silver and gold to purchase “bullocks, rams, lambs” to be offered upon the altar in the newly constructed temple in Jerusalem.

But more money was provided by the king and his counselors than would be needed to get the sacrificial services of the temple established, and Ezra was told that the additional funds could be used in whatever way might seem good to him and to his brethren. (vss. 16-18) Vessels were also provided for the temple services, “And whatsoever more shall be needful for the house of thy God, which thou shalt have occasion to bestow, bestow it out of the king’s treasure house,” the king commanded.—vs. 20

Seemingly, Cyrus, Darius, and now Artaxerxes, were not entirely unselfish in their generosity toward the Lord’s people. They had been keen observers of events and had learned that the God of Israel was to be respected, that he had power to either prosper or thwart the plans of any or all nations on earth as he might choose. Verse 23 reveals Artaxerxes’ reasoning in the matter. It reads: “Whatsoever is commanded by the God of heaven, let it be diligently done for the house of the God of heaven: for why should there be wrath against the realm of the king and his sons?”

The king’s further instructions to Ezra were: And thou, Ezra, after the wisdom of thy God, that is in thine hand, set magistrates and judges, which may judge all the people that are beyond the river, all such as know the laws of thy God; and teach ye them that know them not. (vs. 25) Artaxerxes also commanded concerning any who would not obey the laws of the God of heaven as administered by Ezra, that judgment be “executed speedily upon him, whether it be unto death, or to banishment, or to confiscation of goods, or to imprisonment.”—vss. 25,26

Ezra greatly appreciated the cooperation of the king and gave credit to his God for it, saying: “Blessed be the Lord God of our fathers, which hath put such a thing as this in the king’s heart. … And I was strengthened as the hand of the Lord my God was upon me, and I gathered together out of Israel chief men to go up with me.”—vss. 27,28

Ezra was indeed a faithful servant of the Lord, courageous in doing that which he recognized to be right. A problem confronted him in connection with the journey from Babylon to Jerusalem. There was a large company of them, and they would attract the attention of unfriendly people in the country through which they passed and would be the easy prey of those who “lay in wait by the way.”—ch. 8:31

Ezra said: “I was ashamed to require of the king a band of soldiers and horsemen to help us against the enemy in the way: because we had spoken unto the king, saying, The hand of our God is upon all them for good that seek him; but his power and his wrath is against all them that forsake him.” (vs. 22) Ezra had testified boldly to the king as to the ability of God to care for his own, and now it would seem inconsistent to ask for soldiers to protect them.

Ezra and his company carried much silver and gold with them, and this made the journey even more dangerous. But he arranged a day of fasting and prayer before they started. Then, placing the treasures in the custody of twelve priests and their brethren, he said unto them: “Ye are holy unto the Lord; the vessels are holy also; and the silver and the gold are a freewill offering unto the Lord God of your fathers. Watch ye, and keep them, until ye weigh them before the chief of the priests and the Levites, and chief of the fathers of Israel, at Jerusalem, in the chambers of the house of the Lord.”—vss. 28,29

Ezra’s faith and courage were rewarded by the Lord, and the company got through to Jerusalem unharmed, with their treasures intact. Then followed the offering of sacrifices and the delivering of “the king’s commissions unto the king’s lieutenants, and to the governors on this side the river: and they furthered the people, and the house of God.”—vss. 33-36

Ezra proved to be a courageous reformer in Israel. During the years that followed Cyrus’s decree authorizing the return of the Israelites to Palestine, many of those who did return had intermarried with non-Hebrew people of the land. This was contrary to the law of God, and Ezra knew that as long as this condition existed the Lord’s blessing would not be upon them as richly as would otherwise be the case. Ezra took this matter very seriously to heart, and in chapter 9, verses 5-15, we find his eloquent prayer of confession and appeal to the Lord for guidance and blessing in righting this wrong. Chapter 10 records the action taken by Ezra and reveals the effectiveness of his work.


Ezra’s faithful service to his God comes again into the narrative in association with another stalwart in Israel—Nehemiah. Nehemiah was a cupbearer in the court of Artaxerxes, and when we first learn of him he had not yet gone to Palestine. He was residing in the winter palace of the kings of Persia in Shushan.

Hanani, one of his brethren, together with other men of Judah, returned from Jerusalem and visited Nehemiah. From them he learned of the deplorable state of his people in Judea, the “great affliction” through which they were passing, and that the walls of Jerusalem were still broken down, not having been rebuilt since their destruction when the nation had been taken into captivity in Babylon. When Nehemiah learned this he “wept, and mourned certain days, and fasted, and prayed before the God of heaven.” (Neh. 1:1-4) Nehemiah’s prayer was one in which he confessed the sins of Israel and pleaded for the prosperity of his people, based not upon merit but upon divine mercy.—1:4-11

Nehemiah decided that he would, if possible, secure the king’s cooperation in a proposed visit to Judea on behalf of God’s people. He said to the king: “Let letters be given me to the governors beyond the river, that they may convey me over till I come into Judah: and a letter unto Asaph the keeper of the king’s forest, that he may give me timber to make beams for the gates of the palace which appertained to the house, and for the wall of the city, and for the house that I shall enter into.” Nehemiah testifies that “the king granted me, according to the good hand of my God upon me.”—ch. 2:1-8

The story of Nehemiah’s success, against great odds, in rebuilding the walls of Jerusalem is well known to most students of the Bible. It is recorded for the most part in chapters three and four of the book which bears his name. Israel’s enemies sought to hinder the work, as they did the rebuilding of the temple. First, they hypocritically offered cooperation. Nehemiah sensed their insincerity and, instead of leaving his work to interview them, sent word, saying: “I am doing a great work, so that I cannot come down: why should the work cease, whilst I leave it, and come down to you?”—ch. 6:3

Then these enemies endeavored to frighten Nehemiah with a story that the king had been informed that the Israelites were planning a rebellion and would make Nehemiah king. Nehemiah knew that this also was merely a trick and told them so. But the impact of these efforts was discouraging. Nehemiah said: “They all made us afraid, saying, Their hands shall be weakened from the work, that it be not done. Now therefore, O God, strengthen my hands.” The success of this great man was his utter dependence upon God.

His Work As Governor

Nehemiah was not only a great builder, but, being appointed by the king to be governor of Judea, he ruled wisely and with equity. This is shown particularly in chapter five. It seems that the Israelites themselves were oppressing one another as opportunity afforded. Nehemiah was angry over this. He consulted with “himself,” the narrative states, and then “rebuked the nobles and the rulers, and said unto them, Ye exact usury, every one of his brother.”—vs. 7

He instituted a reform which did away with this evil, calling attention to his own example, in that as governor he had not accepted the remuneration that ordinarily went with that office. He realized that he would be taking money which really belonged to his brethren, for his salary would not be sent from Persia but would be from funds raised by taxation in Judea. Furthermore, at his own table he fed “an hundred and fifty of the Jews and rulers,” besides those who came to Judea “from among the heathen.” (vs. 17) These sidelights reveal the true character of Nehemiah.

The Law Restored

After the walls of Jerusalem had been rebuilt, Nehemiah had the inhabitants registered. After this, Ezra enters into the narrative again. He and Nehemiah and the Levites called for an assembly of the Hebrews and read the Law of God to them. “And Nehemiah, … and Ezra the priest the scribe, and the Levites that taught the people, said unto all the people, This day is holy unto the Lord your God; mourn not, nor weep. For all the people wept, when they heard the words of the Law.”—ch. 8:9

Still later than this, and evidently also under direction of Nehemiah, a group of the leaders in Israel drew up a special covenant outlining various obligations to the Lord. The points mentioned in this covenant were not new, being included in the Law Covenant mediated by Moses. Perhaps the makers of this covenant concluded that these points called for special emphasis. Nehemiah was the first signer of the auxiliary covenant, and tradition has it that the signers as a group formed the basis for what later developed into the Jewish Sanhedrin.—chapters 9,10

Nehemiah’s last work of reformation was a cleansing of the temple from occupation by non-Jews and by priests who had married heathen wives, and by seeing to it that the services of the temple were properly conducted. There was in Judea also a habitual pollution of the sabbath, and this, too, was corrected by Nehemiah. Through all his faithful service Nehemiah sought nothing for himself except the favor and blessing of the Lord. In connection with several of his courageous acts he uttered a simple prayer to his God. It appears in the last verse of his book—“Remember me, O my God, for good.”

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Dawn Bible Students Association
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