The remainder of Ezra 1 flows from Cyrus’s decree. Just as Yhwh “stirred up the spirit of Cyrus king of Persia” (1:1), so he also “stirred” up the Jews to return (1:6). Just as Cyrus decreed that that Jews could return to Jerusalem to “rebuild the house of Yhwh, the God of Israel” (1:3), so God stirred up the returnees “to go up to rebuild the house of Yhwh that is in Jerusalem” (1:5). And just as Cyrus decreed that the returning sojourners “be assisted by the men of his place with silver and gold, with goods and with beasts, besides freewill offerings” (1:4), so “all who were about them aided them with vessels of silver, with gold, with goods, with beasts, and with costly wars, besides all that was freely offered” (1:6) (Steinmann 2010: 141-42).
Thus the themes of the first four verses continue throughout the chapter. Yhwh was clearly at work in the returnees just as he was at work in Cyrus to permit the return (Breneman 1993: 71-72). Cyrus’s return of the vessels that Nebuchadnezzar had taken from the temple also shows Yhwh’s providential working (Breneman 1993: 72). Even the passive in verse 11—the exiles were brought up from Babylonia to Jerusalem—points to God’s providence. Who brought the exiles up from Babylonia to Jerusalem? Yhwh (Williamson 1985: 19).
This is all in fulfillment of Jeremiah’s prophecy. His prophecy of return in seventy years does not specifically mention the return of the temple vessels, but it occurs in a context in which the return of those vessels was under discussion (Jer. 28:3, 6). Further, the return of the people was specifically in view in Jeremiah 29. Jonathan Edwards proposed that a fulfillment of Jeremiah 51:44 was also in view: “And I will punish Bel in Babylon, and take out of his mouth what he has swallowed.” Edwards suggested that the temple vessels were what Bel had swallowed because they were carried to his temple (Edwards 2006: 418). This is possible, but the context points to the return of the people as a result of the Medes conquering Babylon.
The same Hebrew word is used to refer to Cyrus bringing out the temple vessels and Nebuchadnezzar carrying them away from Jerusalem. This wordplay highlights that Cyrus’s action is a reversal of the exile. The Babylonian kings took the idols from the temples of the conquered peoples to Babylon; Cryus restored these images to their temples (COS 2.314-16). The Israelite temple had no images; the temple vessels would have been the equivalent in the eyes of the Babylonians and Persians (Kidner 1979: 37; Williamson 1985: 16-17; Yamauchi 1988: 604; Breneman 1993: 72).
This section emphasizes that the return was for the rebuilding of the temple. Verse 6 specifies that God stirred up the returnees “to rebuild the house of Yhwh that is in Jerusalem.” The catalog of temple vessels that were being returned also served to emphasize the temple-focused nature of the return (Breneman 1993: 71).
The enumeration of the vessels totals 2,499, but Ezra 1:11 gives a total of 5,400. An ancient suggestion is that only the major vessels were enumerated but that all the vessels, including minor vessels, were included in the total. Some modern interpreters accept this suggestion, while others suggest that the discrepancy is due to scribal error (KD 4:18-19; Yamauchi 1988: 604; Steinmann 2010: 144-45).
The emphasis on the temple is related to the portrayal of the return as a second exodus. The book of Exodus gives a great deal of space to the tabernacle (Breneman 1993: 71). The gifts of silver and gold from the Jews Gentile neighbors also recalls the spoiling of the Egyptians by Israel in the first exodus (Ex. 3:22; 11:2; 12:35; Ps 105:37) (Williamson 1985: 16; 1996: 85; Breneman 1993: 72; Steinmann 2010: 139). Even the reference to Sheshbazzar as “prince of Judah” may allude to the princes of the tribes in Numbers (Num 2:3-31; 7:1-83; 34:18-28), who brought the tabernacle vessels as part of a dedication offering of the altar (Num. 7:84-86) (Williamson 1985: 17-18).
The identity of Sheshbazzar is a matter of debate. Because both Sheshbazzar and Zerubbabel are said to have laid the foundation of the temple (Ezra 3:8; 5:2, 16), some claim that these are two names for the same man (KD 4:17). However, others note that Ezra 5:14-16 seems to be an explanation to Tattenai, the governor of the Province Beyond the River, of Sheshbazzar’s identity. Tattenai would have known Zerubbabel, the present governor of Judah (Ezra 5:2) (Williamson 1985: 17; Howard 193: 303). In addition, while people in this period could have more than one name, it is more likely for a Jewish person to have a Jewish name and a Babylonian name. But if Sheshbazzar and Zerubbabel are identified, this individual would, oddly, have two Babylonian names (Williamson 1985: 17). It is most likely that both men returned to the land under Cyrus, that Sheshbazzar was the first governor of over the returned exiles, and that he was succeeded by Zerubbabel. On this view, both men could have been involved in laying the foundation of the temple (Steinmann 2010: 33-34).
Scripture quotations are from the ESV, with Yhwh substituted for the LORD.