Ezra 1:1 masterfully opens the book of Ezra by revealing the time period being covered (Cyrus’s first year as king, 538 BC), the fact that Yhwh stood behind the proclamation of return (“stirred up the spirit of Cyrus king of Persia”), and God’s purpose in returning the people to the land (“that the word of Yhwh by the mouth of Jeremiah might be fulfilled”).
The first year of Cyrus is reckoned from when he began to reign over Babylon (KD 3:15; Steinmann 2010: 134). This was the first year that he began to reign over the Jews, who had until that time been ruled by the Babylonians.
The prophecy most directly alluded to is found in Jeremiah 29:1-23, a letter from Jeremiah to the exiles who were taken to Babylon in 597 BC (Longman 2008: 192). False prophets predicted that the exiles would be back in Israel with their king and the temple vessels within two years (Jer. 28:2-4). But in Jeremiah’s letter, Yhwh declares that the exiles should prepare for an extended stay in Babylon. They were to be build houses, marry, and have children (they are to be fruitful and multiply, Genesis 1:28). They were to seek Babylon’s welfare and to pray for Babylon. Verse 10 then specifies the length of their captivity: “When seventy years are completed for Babylon, I will visit you, and I will fulfill to you my promise and bring you back to this place [that is, Jerusalem, from which the letter was sent].” God made it clear that the exile did not put an end to his purposes for Israel: “I know the plans I have for you, declares Yhwh, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope” (29:10).
The first wave of exiles went into captivity in 605 BC. The first year of Cyrus (Ezr. 1:1) is 538 BC, which is 67 years after the first wave of captivity. Sixty-seven years is very close to seventy. If the decree from Cyrus was actually made in 539 BC, as some think, and if it took some time for the return trip to be organized, some of the people may have returned exactly seventy years from the first wave of captivity (Talbert 2003: 6; Steveson 2011: 18).
Notably, God had called on the people to pray to him and to seek him in the context of restoration from exile (Jer. 29:12-14). Those who read Ezra within its canonical context should expect the books to be concerned not only with the physical return of the people to the land but also with the return of their hearts to God.
Jeremiah’s letter closed with a condemnation of two false prophets who also “committed adultery with their neighbors’ wives” (Jer. 29:23). If the original readers of Ezra noticed that Ezra 1:1 directed them to Jeremiah’s letter, they would have seen a warning against sexual sin. Thus the book, in a way, opens and closes on a similar note.
Though Jeremiah 29 is likely the passage that Ezra is alluding to most directly, there are several more passages that are relevant. Second Chronicles 36:17-23 parallels Ezra 1:1-4, with verses 22-23 being an almost verbatim quotation of Ezra 1:1-4. The preceding verses in Chronicles provide some additional information. They specify that the seventy years of exile were prophesied so that the land could enjoy its Sabbaths (36:21).
Jeremiah 25:8-12 is a similar prophecy that also mentions a seventy-year time frame. This prophecy is somewhat different from the one in Jeremiah 29. Instead of the seventy years marking the return of the people, God said that after seventy years Babylon will be judged. In addition, this passage mentions not only Nebuchadnezzar’s conquest of Judah but also of the surrounding lands. It may be, then, that a slightly different seventy-year period is in view in Jeremiah 25. Nineveh fell to the Babylonians in 612 BC, and Babylon fell to the Persians in 539 BC, a span of 73 years. Another decisive battle against the Assyrians occurred in 609 BC, which if taken as the terminus a quo, would lead to a span of exactly 70 years (Talbert 2003: 5; Fensham 1982: 43).
There may be one more seventy-year period to consider. In Zechariah 1:12, the angel of Yhwh asks Yhwh of hosts, “How long will you have no mercy on Jerusalem and the cities of Judah, against which you have been angry these seventy years?” Zechariah, along with Haggai, were prophets in Jerusalem after the return from exile under Cyrus (Ezr. 5:1; 6:14). They encouraged the rebuilding of the temple. This seems to indicate that there was a seventy-year period still in effect while the temple as being rebuilt (cf. Zech. 7:4-5). The book of Zechariah was likely written in 520 BC (McComiskey 1998: 1039). Nebuchadnezzar destroyed the temple around 586 BC. Thus these words were written some 66 years after the destruction of the temple. The Second Temple was dedicated in 516 BC, 70 years after its destruction. (I am indebted to Layton Talbert for observations on the significance of these Zechariah texts.)
Isaiah 44:22-45:13 does not mention the seventy-year time frame, but it clearly predicts the events of Ezra 1. Well over 150 years before Cyrus conquered Babylon, Yhwh, through Isaiah, called Cyrus by name and said: “He is my shepherd, and he shall fulfill my purpose” (44:28). The purpose being that Jerusalem will be built and the foundations of the temple would be laid (44:28). Specifically, Yhwh said, “I have stirred him up in righteousness, and I will make all his ways level; he shall build my city and set my exiles free, not for price or reward” (45:13).
The prophecies surrounding the return from exile are startlingly specific. Cyrus is mentioned by name, and a specific span of time is designated. Surely these prophecies should have given the Israelites hope while in exile, but the purpose of the specificity was much greater. It was so that “people may know, from the rising of the sun and from the west, that there is none besides me; I am Yhwh, and there is no other” (Isa. 45:6).
Several of these prophecies are clearly fulfilled in Ezra, but Ezra does not explicitly make the connections laid out above. McConville suggests that the reason that Ezra alludes to these prophecies but does not explicitly identify how they were fulfilled is that he wished both to affirm the reality of the fulfilled prophecies and avoid giving “the impression that the return from exile is God’s final act, ushering in a Messianic age in which the people of Judah enjoy pre-eminence in the world and even the servitude of the nations (Isa. 60:10)” (McConville 1985: 9).
Scripture quotations are from the ESV, with Yhwh substituted for the LORD.