It will be proper for us here to consider, 1. What was the state of the captive Jews in Babylon. It was upon many accounts very deplorable; they were under the power of those that hated them, had nothing they could call their own; they had no temple, no altar; if they sang psalms, their enemies ridiculed them; and yet they had prophets among them. Ezekiel and Daniel were kept distinct from the heathen. Some of them were preferred at court, others had comfortable settlements in the country, and they were all borne up with hope that, in due time, they should return to their own land again, in expectation of which they preserved among them the distinction of their families, the knowledge of their religion, and an aversion to idolatry. 2. What was the state of the government under which they were. Nebuchadnezzar carried many of them into captivity in the first year of his reign, which was the fourth of Jehoiakim; he reigned forty-five years, his son Evil-merodach twenty-three, and his grandson Belshazzar three years, which make up the seventy years. So Dr. Lightfoot, It is charged upon Nebuchadnezzar that he opened not the house of his prisoners, Isa. 14:17. And, if he had shown mercy to the poor Jews, Daniel told him it would have been the lengthening of his tranquillity, Dan. 4:27. But the measure of the sins of Babylon was at length full, and then destruction was brought upon them by Darius the Mede and Cyrus the Persian, which we read of, Dan. 5:31 Darius, being old, left the government to Cyrus, and he was employed as the instrument of the Jews’ deliverance, which he gave orders for as soon as ever he was master of the kingdom of Babylon, perhaps in contradiction to Nebuchadnezzar, whose family he had cut off, and because he took a pleasure in undoing what he had done, or in policy, to recommend his newly-acquired dominion as merciful and gentle, or (as some think) in a pious regard to the prophecy of Isaiah, which had been published, and well known, above 150 years before, where he was expressly named as the man that should do this for God, and for whom God would do great things (Isa. 44:28; 45:1), and which perhaps was shown to him by those about him. His name (some say) in the Persian language signifies the sun, for he brought light and healing to the church of God, and was an eminent type of Christ the Sun of righteousness. Some was that his name signifies a father, and Christ is the everlasting Father. Now here we are told,
I. Whence this proclamation took its rise. The Lord stirred up the spirit of Cyrus. Note, The hearts of kings are in the hand of the Lord, and, like the rivulets of water, he turneth them which way soever he will. It is said of Cyrus that he knew not God, nor how to serve him; but God knew him, and how to serve himself by him, Isa. 45:4. God governs the world by his influence on the spirits of men, and, whatever good is done at any time, it is God that stirs up the spirit to do it, puts thoughts into the mind, gives to the understanding to form a right judgment, and directs the will which way he pleases. Whatever good offices therefore are, at any time, done for the church of God, he must have the glory of them.
II. The reference it had to the prophecy of Jeremiah, by whom God had not only promised that they should return, but had fixed the time, which set time to favour Sion had now come. Seventy years were determined (Jer. 25:12; 29:10); and he that kept the promise made concerning Israel’s deliverance out of Egypt to a day (Exod. 12:41) was doubtless as punctual to this. What Cyrus now did was long since said to be the confirming of the word of God’s servants, Isa. 44:26. Jeremiah, while he lived, was hated and despised; yet thus did Providence honour him long after, that a mighty monarch was influenced to act in pursuance of the word of the Lord by his mouth.
III. The date of this proclamation. It was in his first year, not the first of his reign over Persia, the kingdom he was born to, but the first of his reign over Babylon, the kingdom he had conquered. Those are much honoured whose spirits are stirred up to begin with God and to serve him in their first years.
IV. The publication of it, both by word of mouth (he caused a voice to pass throughout all his kingdom, like a jubilee-trumpet, a joyful sabbatical year after many melancholy ones, proclaiming liberty to the captives), and also in black and white: he put it in writing, that it might be the more satisfactory, and might be sent to those distant provinces where the ten tribes were scattered in Assyria and Media, 2 Kgs. 17:6.
V. The purport of this proclamation of liberty.
1. The preamble shows the causes and considerations by which he was influenced, Ezra 1:2. It should seem, his mind was enlightened with the knowledge of Jehovah (for so he calls him), the God of Israel, as the only living and true God, the God of heaven, who is the sovereign Lord and disposer of all the kingdoms of the earth; of him he says Ezra 1:3), He is the God, God alone, God above all. Though he had not known God by education, God made him so far to know him now as that he did this service with an eye to him. He professes that he does it, (1.) In gratitude to God for the favours he had bestowed upon him: The God of heaven has given me all the kingdoms of the earth. This sounds a little vain-glorious, for there were many kingdoms of the earth which he had nothing to do with; but he means that God had given him all that was given to Nebuchadnezzar, whose dominion, Daniel says, was to the end of the earth, Dan. 4:22; 5:19. Note, God is the fountain of power; the kingdoms of the earth are at his disposal; whatever share any have of them they have from him: and those whom God has entrusted with great power and large possessions should look upon themselves as obliged thereby to do much for him. (2.) In obedience to God. He hat charged me to build him a house at Jerusalem; probably by a dream or vision of the night, confirmed by comparing it with the prophecy of Isaiah, where his doing it was foretold. Israel’s disobedience to God’s charge, which they were often told of, is aggravated by the obedience of this heathen king.
2. He gives free leave to all the Jews that were in his dominions to go up to Jerusalem, and to build the temple of the Lord there, Ezra 1:3. His regard to God made him overlook, (1.) The secular interest of his government. It would have been his policy to keep so great a number of serviceable men in his dominions, and seemed impolitic to let them go and take root again in their own land; but piety is the best policy. (2.) The honour of the religion of his country. Why did he not order them to build a temple to the gods of Babylon or Persia? He believed the God of Israel to be the God of heaven, and therefore obliged his Israel to worship him only. Let them walk in the name of the Lord their God.
3. He subjoins a brief for a collection to bear the charges of such as were poor and not able to bear their own, Ezra 1:4. “Whosoever remaineth, because he has not the means to bear his charges to Jerusalem, let the men of his place help him.” Some take it as an order to the king’s officers to supply them out of his revenue, as Ezra 6:8. But it may mean a warrant to the captives to ask and receive the alms and charitable contributions of all the king’s loving subjects. And we may suppose the Jews had conducted themselves so well among their neighbours that they would be as forward to accommodate them because they loved them as the Egyptians were because they were weary of them. At least many would be kind to them because they saw the government would take it well. Cyrus not only gave his good wishes with those that went (Their God be with them, Ezra 1:3), but took care also to furnish them with such things as they needed. He took it for granted that those among them who were of ability would offer their free-will offerings for the house of God, to promote the rebuilding of it. But, besides that, he would have them supplied out of his kingdom. Well-wishers to the temple should be well-doers for it.