The rise of the Persian Empire will prove to be a real blessing to the exiled nation of Israel. Unlike the Assyrians and the Babylonians, who believed in the uprooting of their captives, Persia’s policy is one of repatriation and maintaining the status quo of the political, social and religious situation to the extent possible. For this reason (as well as for the fulfillment of God’s promised restoration), a very important step is taken by Cyrus the Great in 539-538 BC. He issues the following decree encouraging volunteers among the Hebrews to Jerusalem and rebuild the temple . . .
1 In the first year of Cyrus king of Persia, in order to fulfill the word of the Lord spoken by Jeremiah, the Lord moved the heart of Cyrus king of Persia to make a proclamation throughout his realm and also to put it in writing:
2 “This is what Cyrus king of Persia says:
“‘The Lord, the God of heaven, has given me all the kingdoms of the earth and he has appointed me to build a temple for him at Jerusalem in Judah. 3 Any of his people among you may go up to Jerusalem in Judah and build the temple of the Lord, the God of Israel, the God who is in Jerusalem, and may their God be with them. 4 And in any locality where survivors may now be living, the people are to provide them with silver and gold, with goods and livestock, and with freewill offerings for the temple of God in Jerusalem.’”
Imagine the excitement and celebration! But also the dilemma: after over 60 years away from the homeland, the people of Israel are assimilated into Babylonian-turned-Persian society. Those who took Jeremiah’s advice have bought or built homes. Begun businesses, learned a new language and a new way of life. There is also a whole new generation of Jews (as they are now called), who have never even set foot in Palestine. It is going to take a real pioneering spirit to leave prosperous situation for the desolation of a ruined, burned out, brush-covered ghost town (Jerusalem).
But they didn’t forget their spiritual heritage. Over 42,000 decide to return under the leadership of Sheshbazzar, who is appointed governor. Relatives and neighbors give what they can to support the resettlement and reconstruction programs. King Cyrus assists by returning the temple articles which Nebuchadnezzar had looted decades earlier.